First take 

Local startup Pen Pictures LLC aims for the silver screen

In a swank South Hills mansion overlooking Missoula, five dolled-up women watch with amazement as a male stripper swaggers into the room wearing nothing but assless chaps and some very skimpy tuxedo-styled underwear. He starts up his disco music on a hand-carried iPod with speakers, and sassily cracks a whip from side to side. Private party, or the intro to a porno? Well, neither. In this case it’s just one of the more outrageous scenes of Bridesmaid, a new comedy by local upstart Pen Pictures, LLC.

Bridesmaid began as the thesis project of University of Montana MFA film student Jennifer Sanderson, but has now become one of the cornerstones of a new production company with admittedly ambitious aspirations. Sanderson and co-director Paige Williams are starting Pen Pictures in hopes of producing feature films and to help support underutilized local filmmaking talent. While starting small, their goal is to eventually work on projects with budgets in the $5 to $10 million range—and they hope to get to that point sooner rather than later.

“There’s no overnight success in this, so this is in the land of, ‘We’ll see,’” says Williams, who, like Sanderson, got her MFA in film from UM. “There’s a lot of Montana film promise, and we want to be right in the center of it, making it happen.”

It may sound like a pipe dream for a couple of recent graduate students, but Williams and Sanderson already have three films in different stages of production, a business plan, and support—some of it tentative—from high-profile Hollywood veterans who live in the state.

The company’s first project, a documentary called Mississippi Queen, is in the final stages of editing. The film tracks Williams’ journey back home to where her parents run Mississippi’s only ex-gay ministry.

“It’s two-fold,” says Williams of the intensely personal project. “They have a group of Christian parents and friends who have gay children…and they don’t want them to be gay anymore. And they also run a group of people who are gay but [who] don’t want to be gay.”

The twist, of course, is that Williams herself is gay. With a mix of present-day interviews and archival family videos, Williams explores her complex family relationships. An interview with her mother broaches the topic of accepting a gay daughter. Footage from an old movie shows her awkwardly walking down the staircase in a pink dress, ready for prom.

“I knew I was gay at that point,” Williams says of the prom footage.

But in addition to covering the family dynamics, Mississippi Queen also takes into account the broader context of the Southern ex-gay and gay cultures. In addition to shooting her family in Mississippi, Williams and two other crew members traveled through Louisiana, Tennessee and Alabama for research.

“It’s a look into the South’s love-hate relationship with gay people,” she says. “There’s so much culture and so much flamboyancy and so many gays. And then there’s so much Jesus.”

Williams, who was pregnant with her first child during the filming, says the making of Mississippi Queen was even more intense than she initially imagined.

“There were a lot of expectations I had,” Williams says, “and those expectations were either crushed or exceeded. But nothing happened on that journey the way I thought it was going to happen.”

While Mississippi Queen was an emotionally risky subject for Williams—she’s employed someone else to edit the footage so she can have some distance—it was a perfect low-risk first project for Pen Pictures. In fact, both Mississippi Queen and Bridesmaid are written, directed, produced and mostly edited by Sanderson and Williams, with the help of underpaid or often unpaid actors and crew. The mansion location for Bridesmaid (which was co-written by Ken White, who plays the stripper), for instance, was donated for free.

While Mississippi Queen and Bridesmaid are close to completed, Sanderson and Williams are also concurrently working on what would be the company’s biggest project. Pen Pictures currently owns a $1 option on The Man of Steele, a semi-autobiographical script by Los Angeles screenwriter Nate Adams, who happens to be Sanderson’s cousin. The feature is loosely based on Adams’ life as a three-time Montana state champion wrestler whose mother dies in a car wreck.

“His father chose to save his son instead of his wife,” says Williams. “And his father is abusive. So when the wrestler is on the mat—J.T. Steele is his name—he transforms almost into this animal. So the question is, ‘Am I inherently a son-of-a-bitch like my father or am I inherently a good man?’”

Though Sanderson got to option the script from her cousin for a bargain price, it’s only a temporary deal.

“Just because he’s my cousin he’s not going to just give it to us,” says Sanderson. “I love him to death but it is a business transaction.

“Basically,” adds Williams, “we need to find $3 million in three months.”

There’s already been some progress. Missoula resident Christopher Cronyn, the son of actress Jessica Tandy, has worked on several high profile films like Raging Bull, Heat and the Montana-made The Slaughter Rule, and has signed on as line producer for The Man of Steele.

“We just called him up,” says Sanderson, smiling. “That’s the other beautiful thing about Montana—you can just call people [like him] up.”

In addition, Cronyn sent Sanderson and Williams to Louise Levinson, author of Filmmakers and Financing: Business Plans for Independents, who is credited with the strategy behind launching The Blair Witch Project.

“She does this for a living,” says Sanderson. “The Blair Witch Project had a huge [profit] margin. Huge. A lot of people think that film was completely guerrilla. But they had a business plan for it, the whole bit.”

It’s a large leap from two low-budget short films to a multi-million dollar project like The Man of Steele, but Williams and Sanderson are confident in their business plan. If things work the way they’ve designed, The Man of Steele will be the first in a series of projects that will keep established in-state filmmaking talent and new graduates from both the UM and Montana State University programs working in Montana.

“Bozeman and UM are producing some high caliber artists who need experience,” says Williams, “[but] they’re basically training people for L.A…This is a way to hopefully keep them in Montana.”

Pen Pictures hosts a benefit party and preview screening of Mississippi Queen Saturday, May 23, at the Downtown Dance Collective, 121 W. Main St., at 7 PM. $25 suggested donation.

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