Vegas-born buzz

Lady in the Box rating: Better than average

Content written by Tony Macklin. Originally published on May 17, 2001 in Las Vegas CityLife.

Lady in the Box debuted at CineVegas last December, then became a hit on the festival circuit

When a film has its world premiere in Las Vegas, what then happens to it?

If the film is the independent Lady in the Box, it goes from Las Vegas to San Jose, Calif., to Los Angeles to Florida to Cannes and beyond, in its search for distribution and success -- a bumpy, exhilarating journey for its director/writer Chris Otjen and producer Holly Mosher.

The film debuted last December at the CineVegas International Film Festival, but its time slot was rescheduled to the ungodly hour of 1 a.m. in the vast, mostly empty Theatre des Arts at the Paris Hotel. The CineVegas Marquee Awards Ceremony had run over its allotted time, and right after the ceremony, the Korean epic Chunhyang was shown. So at 1 a.m. only the heartiest film fans were left. But the 50 who stayed around for the delayed screening were given a late-night noir treat.

Lady in the Box is a film noir thriller which packs a potent punch. It has a gimmicky surprise ending, but its greatest strength is its atmosphere. With water slapping the dock at night, or a mysterious box tossing in the ebony water, it creates a palpable feeling -- images full of foreboding and dark deception. Most films are just immediate, but Lady in the Box lingers like a black jewel.

Fortunately, one of the attendees at the CineVegas premiere was Mike Rabehl from Cinequest, and he requested the movie for his film festival in San Jose, where it was a hit. "We had three sold-out screenings at Cinequest, and they added a fourth which also reached capacity," says Mosher.

For 35-year-old director Otjen, the evening of the CineVegas premiere was the end of an imperfect day. He spent the afternoon trying to deal with hotel problems. ("Every time I've had friends stay at the Paris Hotel, there's been some kind of problem," he says.) By the time the screening finally went off, he was frazzled and upset. The delay didn't help. "He was definitely a bit peeved," says Mosher.

The director and producer met for the first time when she went for an interview in Milwaukee: The film was shot on a lake there. "Chris and I lived eight blocks from each other, but we had never met until the interview," says Mosher, who started as office coordinator.

"I had two producers and after pre-production they had the option to leave," says Otjen. "They both took it. They said they didn't like the casting -- they wanted bigger names -- but they hadn't done all the pre-production work they were supposed to."

After the producers left, there was chaos. Enter 29-year-old Mosher. A graduate of New York University and a Milwaukee native, she had spent two years in Brazil working as assistant picture-and-sound editor on four feature films. Given the opportunity in Milwaukee, she moved from office coordinator to unit production manager to post-production supervisor on the film in Los Angeles. Because of her work, Otjen rewarded her with a producer credit.

His father, Carl, was the executive producer, raising money for the low-budget project. He and Mosher also both played minor roles of bar patrons; Carl is "Dead Dad's Hand," and Otjen cast his female producer as Holly Golightly. Despite the gentle barbs they direct at one another, they have respect for each other. But familiarity, especially making a movie, does not breed contentment. "We did share a car in L.A. during post-production. But after a month we decided to spend for separate cars," says Mosher.

The cast the initial producers were so opposed to, works well. Although Darren Burrows is the "name" in the film -- he was Ed on TV's "Northern Exposure" -- Mark Sheppard gives the movie's most compelling performance. Otjen talks about how Sheppard tested him: "He sees how far he can go -- like a dog seeing where he can piss -- very assertive, saying things like 'I don't like your A.D. [assistant director]'." But Otjen and his movie won him over. "Two weeks into the film he came to me and said, 'Mr. O., I get it! Whatever you need I'll do', recalls Otjen. "I don't think Darren or Robert (Knepper) ever really got it -- they both were very surprised at the final film -- but Mark got it. He understood the vision." Six months after shooting the film, Sheppard was celebrated nationally when he gave another very compelling performance as a killer on "The Practice."

Otjen and Mosher have somewhat differing views of CineVegas. He says, "They're a little disorganized. They don't have enough people working. The fest's Artistic Director Amie Williams, who was a friend of his sister and went to school with her in Milwaukee, granted him the opportunity to show his film at CineVegas. But when she wrote him asking for his signed acceptance papers, he had never received them and didn't know his film had been chosen. Such is the nature of a new film festival. But they have ample time to iron out the kinks -- because the next CineVegas isn't scheduled until June 2002.

Mosher is more positive. "I've been going to other festivals and Vegas really has more excellent movies, they're well chosen, great international movies," she enthuses, before the Holly Golightly comes out. "And at CineVegas I got to dress up!"

Otjen, despite frustrations, retains a positive view of Sin City. "Getting me to go to Vegas is not hard," he laughs. "I love the town. It's a playground."

Last weekend, Lady in the Box began a six-theater run in the largest chain in Milwaukee. Next month, it's scheduled for a festival in Florida. And before then, there's Cannes. But whatever the fate of the film, there were 50 intrepid moviegoers in Las Vegas who saw it first.


You might be interested in reading my most recent reviews, all of my reviews from this year, or all of my reviews from last year.

For a change of pace, you might want to listen to interviews that I conducted in the 70s and 80s, some of which were published in my book Voices from the Set: The Film Heritage Interviews (2000).


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