When Utah-based brothers Bryan and Adrian Lefler set out to make a feature-length film on a tiny production budget, their inspiration was literature’s most indelible daydream believer, would-be knight in shining armor Don Quixote. Driven by his love of chivalry, Miguel de Cervantes’s indefatigable Spaniard leaves home, dresses up as a knight and seeks adventure.
Adrian Lefler began working on a script about a contemporary Quixote and showed it to Bryan Lefler. The brothers asked themselves what kind of person today follows the Quixotic principle that “you are who you pretend to be.” “Who would Don Quixote be in 2012?” Adrian Lefler said. “He’d either be playing a ton of ‘World of Warcraft,’ or he’d be live-action role playing.”
That’s the basic blueprint for the locally filmed and independently produced gamer comedy “Unicorn City,” which opens Friday at theaters in Utah. The main character, Voss, is a slacker in the real world, but an orc-vanquishing “bardladin” (a combination bard and paladin, or heroic champion) in the realm of his imagination. The two worlds collide after he decides to impress a potential employer by creating Unicorn City, a sort of backwoods retreat and utopian collective for serious tabletop gamers.
(Tabletop games are dice-based heroic role-playing games, such as “Dungeons & Dragons,” that rely heavily on players’ imaginations.)
Most people probably envision serious nerds and geeks when they think of gaming in general, but Bryan Lefler, 36, said that the computer and tabletop gamers he knows personally are nice, normal people with a mildly quirky hobby. And when the brothers visited Hastur Games & Comics in Midvale to get a feel for gamers in action, they didn’t meet anyone who fit the stereotype in their heads.
“You’ve got people who are cool, who are good looking, some who are weird,” Bryan Lefler said, adding that gamers do tend to obsess about the characters they invent. On the other hand, he said, most people have at least one hobby that takes up a great deal of time and attention.
Adrian Lefler, 37, said that he remembers being obsessed with the arcade game “Pac-Man,” but the Leflers themselves, oddly enough, aren’t really gamers at all. “The reason that we go into this wasn’t because we’re geeks,” Adrian Lefler said. “We just found a story line we thought we could really do something with.”
The plot of “Unicorn City” is not the first idea that the Leflers have ever had for a film, but it’s the first one to come along that felt like something they could do relatively inexpensively. Something that would prove that they knew how to make a film. “Nobody in their right mind is going to give somebody who is untested a million dollars to make a film,” Bryan Lefler said.
Maybe not a million dollars. But Lindon resident and film producer Ken Bretschneider, 45, decided to gamble several hundred-thousand dollars on the Leflers’ vision.
Bretschneider, CEO of Lindon-based tech company DigiCert, an Internet security firm, initially hoped to break into film production with his own script for a movie about online computer games.
After deciding that his own project would require a significant visual effects budget, however, he followed the recommendation of a family member and flipped through a copy of the “Unicorn City” script.
“I laughed out loud reading the script, which is very rare for me,” Bretschneider said. “I just thought it was a fantastic idea for a movie and it needed to be done.”
One of the lead roles in the movie went to actress Jaclyn Hales, who said that, except for a brief brush with the deep-space computer game “Starcraft,” she hasn’t really played any kind of games since she was into “good, old-fashioned Nintendo and Sega Genesis” as a 10-year-old.
Hales, who has family in Utah but lives in Los Angeles, said that she tried to dress the part for her audition. “I had very little makeup, a Pink Floyd T-shirt, baggy brown pants, my hair was messed up and I wore glasses,” she said. The glasses ended up sticking, but meek Marsha, Hales’s “Unicorn City” alter ego — who has a not-so-secret crush on mostly oblivious Voss — is more of a sweetheart than a nerd.
She was the first person cast, and had a copy of the script for more than a year before filming actually started. “I was cast at 22, I shot it at 23, it was being edited while I was 24, and now I’m 25 and it’s finally hitting theaters,” she said. “That’s just the independent film world.”
Something for everyone
The Leflers saved money by filming in Utah and enlisting the aid of student filmmakers. (Their father, Tom Lefler, an executive producer on the film, is a film professor at Brigham Young University.) “Basically, the heads of all the departments were professionals and we put film students under them,” said Bryan Lefler, who directed the film.
The Leflers recruited a handful of established actors, including Jon Gries (Uncle Rico in “Napoleon Dynamite”) and Kevin Weisman (tech whiz Marshall Flinkman during the entire run of TV’s “Alias”), but relied on the established Utah film scene to provide the bulk of their cast and crew.
For first-timers, they didn’t run into much trouble, something that both brothers credit largely to their talented crew of Utah-based filmmmaking professionals. “Our whole production was smooth as silk,” Adrian Lefler said. “The sense on the set was just really easygoing.”
For the past year or so, “Unicorn City” has made the rounds of film festivals (including the 2012 LDS Film Festival in Orem) and comic and gaming conventions. Bretschneider said that the response to the film has been unanimously positive, with numerous raves from audience members. Well, almost unanimously positive.
One viewer at the LDS Film Festival interrupted a post-screening interview, Bretschneider said, to give the filmmakers a piece of her mind. “She said that our film should have been R-rated, and it was worse than trash,” Bretschneider said.
The negative reaction hints at what may be a challenge for the film, at least in the minds of some: It’s not so many years ago that tabletop games were regarded as being a frivolous time-waster at best, and something considerably darker at worst. “There is a joke in the movie that the camp [where the gamers gather] is Satanic,” Bryan Lefler said. Does he worry that people still feel that way?
Not so much. “Every person who may be saying that probably has an Xbox in the house,” Bryan Lefler said, “and their kids are playing ‘God of War.’ ”
Bretschneider said that “Unicorn City” has a relatively mild PG rating (for language) and ended up being “a very clean film” even without the filmmakers trying to emphasize that during production. The film, he said, “appeals to everyone from hard-core gamers to families. Even people in their 60s and 70s have loved it. They all kind of get something different out of it.”