Mid-Career Change: Making a Movie

James’ award-winning debut, "Elder Island," is steeped in Michigan
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Darrin James went all in for his first movie; he wrote, directed and acted in Elder Island. (David Lewinski Photography)

The lobby at the Main Art Theatre in Royal Oak, Mich., is abuzz. People, many of them dressed to the nines, fill the funky, 1940s space, making small safaris between the concession stand and an eight-foot-high poster featuring an illustration of an evil-looking man holding a huge, blood-soaked ax. 

Printed next to this figure are the words, “Some men are so evil….even death rejects them….ELDER ISLAND.”

This crowd is here to see the first showing of the first feature film, Elder Island, ever made by Darrin James (BS92). And he is one busy guy right now. One minute, he’s at the door as he spots the arrival of another crew member, the next he’s chatting with a small knot of actors, and, every few minutes, he’s pulled over by various guests for photographs with that spooky poster.

What a night. If you had asked James a decade ago—or even five years back—if he ever thought he would be kibitzing with folks who have come to see a horror movie he wrote, directed, acted in and pretty much navigated from point A to point Z, funding included, he would have laughed. Hard.elder island movie poster

A former musician, James, 50, who lives in Huntington Beach, Calif., with his wife and two daughters, best describes the long and winding road that got him to this theater lobby.

It all began, he says, when he was visiting friends in 2010 on Beaver Island, located in the middle of the northern tip of Lake Michigan. These friends happened to be hosting Dennis Banks, founder of the American Indian Movement and a living legend. 

Somehow, James and a couple of others on the island hatched the idea of making a short documentary about Banks and the history of Indians on the seven islands that comprise the Beaver Island archipelago. 

James was not otherwise committed that summer, so he jumped into the project with both feet, his total lack of filmmaking skills notwithstanding. “As we were working on this short documentary,” he says, “I was told the story of the Reverend James Jesse Strang.”

The movie that finally resulted is based on that bizarre chapter in Michigan history. Strang established his own sect of the Mormon religion, known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Strangite), in Wisconsin in 1844 and anointed himself its king. In 1848, he moved the church’s headquarters to Beaver Island (Elder Island in the film), where he was murdered eight years later by a group of men that included former followers.

Written and directed by James and Fabricio Cerioni, the film fictionalizes this story to show the murderers killing Strang at his home, and then burying his body and swearing secrecy. But, as the film’s promotional material puts it, “for every end, there is always a new beginning, for an evil was born that night. Five families have always controlled the Island. Five families share the Island’s fortune; five families share its curse.” 

The bloody ax on the film poster’s tells you what happens to these families.

The movie took several years to complete. James’ lack of experience didn’t stop him. In fact, he emphasizes, “One of the main reasons was because we (the film production team he eventually assembled) had no choice if we wanted to have careers in the film industry. This film is an example of, ‘If you want it, you have to do it all yourself.’ So that’s what we did. ‘We’ is a big group of people, by the way.” 

“I also learned,” he adds, “that there are so many frustrating things that happen when making a movie that you just can’t control, like lost days of shooting due to weather. Or the fact that your lead actor was hospitalized for a week in the middle of shooting. Idea, script, executive summary, funding, pre-production, production, post-production, distribution—films can fall apart at any of these steps, and often do.”

Elder Island has a genuine made-in-Michigan pedigree. Most of it was filmed in Michigan, was funded in part by Michigan’s now shrunken film industry incentive, and had a nearly all-Michigander crew. 

Even better, this is an EMU film—featuring not just James, but two other alums. “We were fortunate to have on this crew Katie Rick (08-13), in charge of wardrobe, and Matthew Rumer (BA14) as set designer,” James says. “Both are Eastern Eagles and are pursuing careers in the film industry.” 

The night after the successful Royal Oak screening, the film was shown in the Motor City Nightmares Horror Expo and Film Festival in Novi, where it won the award for best made-in-Michigan film.

“Winning an award of any kind was a big surprise for our first film,” James says. “It’s a credit to everyone in the cast and crew.”

So what’s next for this new filmmaker? First, Elder Island goes to more film festivals, then into distribution, first in Europe and then in the U.S.

Meanwhile, James is already on to his next projects: another supernatural horror film and two documentaries. As he says, with the insight of a now-experienced filmmaker, “Whichever film comes together first is next.”

Contact Darcy Gifford, dgiffor2@emich.edu, 734.487.5375

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