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Independent romantic drama Stalemate makes its moves in Winston-Salem

by Mark Burger

Independent romantic drama Stalemate makes its moves in Winston-Salem

Only a month into the new year, and already a feature film has been shot in Winston- Salem.

Principal photography was completed last week on StaleMate, a romantic drama inspired by Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1962 classic L’Eclisse, which starred Monica Vitti and Alain Delon.

StaleMate is a romantic drama starring Sheetal Sheth (Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World) as Kayleigh, a young woman at a crossroads in her life. She’s been in a three-year relationship with Rich (Burgess Jenkins) but it’s make-or-break time for them as a couple.

Into Kayleigh’s life comes Art (Josh Randall), a co-worker who is nothing at all like Rich, and he hardly seems like Kayleigh’s type. At least not at first.

According to writer/producer/director Lovinder Gill, the story is a variation on that timeless theme: How do you know?

Gill’s original script for StaleMate was, in fact, his graduate school thesis (he got an A, by the way), “and it’s nice to finally see these people I‘ve had in my head for the last 10 years,” he says with a smile.

Pre-production on StaleMate began shortly after Gill returned from Nepal, having shot a documentary at the base of Mount Everest for Hanes Brands (see climbwithus.com for details). Having made a romantic comedy with Chicks 101 (2004), Gill wanted to try his hand at drama. He dusted off StaleMate, gave it a rewrite, rounded up his team, including producing partner Geoff Thompson, and readied to roll.

“We are an elite military tactical unit,” quips Gill, but he’s not entirely joking: StaleMate was shot in less than three weeks, in wintry weather that was unseasonably cold but also pictorially appealing.

“The first day of shooting, it was snowing outside,” says Gill. “It was perfect!”

Gill has known most of the crew since his student days at the UNCSA School of Filmmaking, and many of the actors are also local, including Jenkins, with whom Gill previously worked on Wesley, in which Jenkins played the title role of John Wesley, the 18 th century religious reformer, and on which Gill served as a producer.

The role of Art, the third corner of the romantic triangle, was the most problematic. Gill and Thompson “scoured IMDB [the Internet Movie Database],” quips Thompson, but they couldn’t quite find their man.

Then they thought of Randall, whose small-screen work (“Ed”, “Scrubs,” “Pushing Daisies”) they had both enjoyed. He was adroit at comedy, but hadn’t always had the opportunity to tackle a more dramatic role. The more they thought about him, the more he seemed right for it.

They got in touch with the actor’s agent to discuss the project, then sent a script and an offer — hoping that the former was more enticing than the latter. (StaleMate’s budget — less than $1 million — doesn’t even qualify it for the state’s tax incentives for filmmaking.)

“We made the offer at 5 p.m. on a Thursday,” Gill recalls, “and Sunday we were picking Josh up at the airport.”

“We have been blessed with a lot of serendipity on this project,” Thompson said. “The serendipity’s been off the chart.”

That serendipity continued when it came to filming in and around local landmarks and businesses throughout the city. Duke’s Restaurant, Golden India, Meridian, 6 th & Vine and other popular Winston-Salem spots opened their doors to the production — and the filmmakers repaid such generosity the best way they know how: “When we’re finished,“ Thompson says, “you wouldn’t know we were there.”

He recalls observing crew members on Wesley (on which he also served as a producer) setting up a scene with particular care, making absolutely certain not to leave so much as a mark or a smudge. “That made me happy,” he says. “We do not take that kind of generosity for granted. We’ve been very protective of every place we’ve been in.”

Furthering the local tie, Kayleigh works for the Winston-Salem Dash, which is in the process of building a new stadium.

How did the filmmakers obtain permission? Quite simple: They asked.

“We appreciate how accommodating Samet Construction and the Dash have been… and the Downtown Partnership,” Thompson says. “This city is truly a proponent of the arts.” That sentiment is roundly echoed by both Jenkins and Gill.

“Winston-Salem is very much a character in the film,” says Gill. “In a way, it’s integral to the story.”

Even on a tight schedule, Gill had enough faith in his actors (“That’s what it takes — faith,” he emphasizes), to encourage some spontaneous creativity on the set.

“Honor what’s on the page, explore the moment,” says Jenkins.

That kind of creativity came in very handy for one scene. “I had written it, but it just wasn’t working and I knew it — we all knew it,” admits Gill with a laugh. “I said to the cast: ‘I’m sorry, but the dialogue I wrote sucks.’ Basically, I just handed the characters over.”

“When a director gives you that much trust, it really motivates you,” says Jenkins.

“And the nice thing is that I get credit for writing it,” Gill adds with a smile.

There has been a significant rise in independent feature filmmaking in the Piedmont Triad in recent years, even before the state’s tax-incentive program was in place, and although there is the expected competition among the filmmakers, there’s also a palpable spirit of camaraderie.

“In trying to foster collaboration, it doesn’t do us any good to fight,” Gill says. “We’re pushing for the indigenous filmmakers. We have it all here — the crews and the casts. This is where we want to make movies.”

Having long wanted to officially establish a filmmaking headquarters in Winston-Salem, Gill and Thompson have opened the eight-office Gillder Frontier downtown, replete with editing and post-production facilities on premises.

In fact, that’s probably where they are right now, putting the pieces of StaleMate together — the first in what they hope to be a long line of film and TV projects here in Winston-Salem.

For more information about StaleMate and the Gillder Frontier’s other projects, see www.gillder.com.

(left to right): actor/co-producer Burgess Jenkins, writer/producer/director Lovinder S. Gill and actor Josh Randall during the filming of “StaleMate,” a romantic drama shot in Winston-Salem

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