Lester Leaps In is eye candy with an almost Wes Anderson flair. The 30-minute local film, written and directed by Mike Steinberg, includes props and set pieces that evoke another time, but also a magical parallel universe. In the first scene we see Lester, played by Jeff Medley, wearing a powder blue suit and sitting in front of a typewriter while staring at a blank sheet of paper. Eventually, he journeys outside, through a lumber mill full of stacked planks and into the office of the mill's owner, a woman played by Steinberg's wife, Lulu Delphine. The room's adorned with colorful fake flowers that appear to be sprouting en masse from the wall like 3D wallpaper. Lester, a middle manager, explains to the owner that he's making the lumber company's safety video. She's not impressed. But to Lester, it's a film of the highest art and import.
"Imagine a snow globe, but instead of snow, those little flakes of snow are replaced by construction equipment ... And those little construction men can pick up the pieces and build a structure before it gets shaken up again," says Lester to the woman.
"I don't understand what any of this means," she says.
And neither do we, as the viewers. But it doesn't matter because Lester knows what he means. He has a vision and he's going to make it happen. Our hero's journey takes him through dreams, encounters with rival filmmakers, played with precise comedy by Aaron Roos and Angelo Rizzo, and culminates in a Bollywood number.
The film includes cinematographers Kier Atherton and Tessla Hastings, producer Skye Grace Bennett, choreographer Joy French, musicians Travis Yost and Ryan "Shmed" Maynes, among other Missoula notables. The crew transformed The Hive on Third Street for interior scenes and took advantage of location shots at the Western Montana Fair, Orange Street Food Farm and Pyramid Lumber.
Lester Leaps In (the title is a nod to the jazz standard) is an apt story for Steinberg, a longtime filmmaker and executive director at Missoula's Roxy Theater. The first movie he ever made was called Joe Gets Stretched, about a guy kidnapped by his neighbor and stretched into an artist's canvas.
"The films I've made have always been about where creativity sits in people's lives and how impossible it can sometimes be," Steinberg says.
Lester Leaps In is also a little bit autobiographical. In the past, Steinberg worked as part of a film crew hired to shoot industrial footage, including at a plastics manufacturing plant in St. Louis and at a drill bit company in Polson. Lester was inspired from a novel Steinberg started but abandoned, which was about an industrial film crew that comes to shoot a video at a plastics plant.
But Lester himself, who is played by Medley in a combination of maniacal and sweet, delusional and driven, also shares some characteristics with Steinberg.
"Lulu thinks the whole film is allegorical for me," Steinberg says. "I think it's a very personal film, for sure. There's a lot of the fetishistic analog elements and the fact that Lester gets inspired, finally, at the movie theater—those things are my weaknesses."
Like Lester, Steinberg had to make his own leap. He's shot several documentaries, mostly shorts, but it's been 20 years since he's worked on a fictional film that required creating characters and sets. He felt uncertain at first, he says, but he didn't want to let the chance slip away.
"I think [making films] is about trying to make sense of the world," he says. "Why would you spend a week with people putting on funny costumes if you weren't trying to make sense of something?"
Lester Leaps In screens at the Roxy Fri., April 1, at 8 PM, followed by a Q&A with the director and cast. $8/$7 seniors and students.