The making of a Berkeley feature film: high aims and rubber duckies

The making of “Bullish,” a feature-film-in-the-works by a Berkeley student and a recent grad, could be fodder for a screenplay itself:

Scene one: Thrown together as roommates on their first day at Berkeley, two teenagers from the San Fernando Valley — an aspiring writer and a student with a penchant for theater  — become the best of friends. Scene two: Four (or so) years later, still roommates, they write and begin making a very-very-very-low-budget movie about five Berkeley students who “journey from rent-pressed college poverty to stock market fortune” (as a recent casting call tells it) and then real estate mogulhood — and along the way get an education in life. Scene three: The film, a satire about the “absurdity of the capitalist system,” hits a sweet spot melding “Risky Business” and “The Social Network” and is accepted at small film festivals, including South by Southwest’s and San Francisco’s; two stars are born.

Jasen Talise, Adam Leotta, Brain Follmer

Adam Leotta, center, an NYU student, auditions for a part in 'Bullish' with co-producers Jasen Talise, left, and Brian Follmer, right.

In reality, the first two scenes come straight from the lives of Jasen Talise, a senior studying rhetoric and Theater, Dance and Performance Studies, and Brian Follmer, who graduated in December with a B.A. in English lit. Scene three is their dream as they are weeks into cast auditions and fundraising. As of Monday, their Kickstarter campaign was $669 toward its goal of $2,500, with 19 days to go.

“Bullish” is a first film for both of them, and they’re trying to pull it off against pretty high odds — Talise is a fulltime student and interns at the Brower Center, and Follmer holds down a parttime job at the Kaplan test center downtown. In a schedule unknown to Hollywood, they plan a two-month production run starting in mid-February.

“Most student films are shorts,” Talise says. “Brian and I are probably crazy.”

The idea got its start, like many, at a rooftop party. “I had auditioned for a fall theater production, and I wasn’t feeling too good about it,” Talise recounts. By then, Follmer was deep into writing screenplays — he’d turned out four in under a year.

“I said to Brian, if I don’t get the part, we should make a movie!” Talise continues. “We got really excited.”

A romantic comedy was already taking shape in Follmer’s mind, he says, “but I wanted it to be more.” The more turns out to be the satire, set in Berkeley’s real estate market, which “attacks capitalism and shows that the 99 percent can prevail,” as he puts it their Kickstarter video. Money is made, but friendships are lost.

“I started trading stocks with extra money I had from grants,” says Follmer. “I’ve been fooling around in the market and seeing its evil ways. It’s chaos.”

The pair wrote the screenplay together at top speed, sitting down together but at separate computers to work on the same Google doc.

The screwball plot careens along through many twists, some predictable (lots of drinking) and some not (a high-powered meeting at a camp-out in Tilden).

“What makes it a satire is that theoretically it could happen,” says Talise. “But it’s kind of out there,” adds Follmer.

Major influences on the screenplay, according to its authors, are George Saunders, whose satirical essays and fiction often amuse, uncomfortably, in The New Yorker, and Paddy Chayefsky’s 1975 film “Network,” a satire about television best known for its protagonist’s cri de guerre: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

They envision a Dogme 95-style aesthetic (think Lars van Trier), using natural light and a handheld camera — a friend’s high-end Canon. A boom mike will be rented from the Giant Film Club on campus. “We want the characters and acting to drive it,” says Talise.

Brian Follmer and Jasen Talise pitch their film in a shot from their Kickstarter video.

The five main characters are all 21 years old. Where Jack, the group’s leader, is “charming, charismatic, collected,” Calvin is “sexy, suave,” and Thomas, to be played by Talise, the antagonist, is “idiosyncratic, stern, paranoid.”

This being a film, there are love/lust interests,  embodied in Tammy and Eve, both in their 20s and problematic, and Gladys, 50, a cougar operating as a real estate powerhouse.

Berkeley, the campus, is but a bit player.

Locations for the film start in the South of Campus neighborhood, where one of the objects of the real-estate machinations is a big Victorian with a copper-roofed turret. Much of the action is to take place in a typical Berkeley venue, a 17-student house on College Avenue, but it also veers to Oakland and San Francisco.

“We’re going to be doing guerilla filmmaking,” says Talise. They’re hoping to hit the high caliber of filmmaking of the 1998 Danish film “The Celebration,” a searing family drama in the Dogme 95 style

“The Celebration” cost an estimated $1.3 million to make, according to IMDB. “Bullish” has a more modest budget — just enough to cover BART fare to location shoots, food for the otherwise uncompensated actors, festival entry fees, equipment and props, including cigars, rubber duckies and lots of wine bottles.

For Talise, the film is his first writing effort, a new step in his development as a dramatist. Follmer wants to be a novelist but doesn’t “think you can write a good novel ‘til you’re in your 40s;” for now, he hopes to develop his screenwriting into a livelihood, “but not for Hollywood.”

As far as their friendship goes, they have no fears about working together on “Bullish,” no matter the film’s message.

“We’re not making money,” adds Talise. “First and foremost, we’re making art.”