AT THE TURN OF THE 21 ST CENTURY five kids met while students of film, theater and creative writing classes at Georgia State. They found themselves to be similar pieces on the same game board — five cinenthusiasts who wanted, more than sleep or square meals, to make films of their own. They shared a taste for on-the-run tacos and off-kilter movies, many of the films laced with dark humor like arsenic. Think Kubrick. Antonioni. David Lynch. The Coen brothers.
Still, in some ways their story reads less like a movie, more like a sitcom. Five college buddies, four guys and a girl, start writing, acting, producing, casting, editing — and living — together. (Imagine “Friends” mating with “Seinfeld.”) One of the guys marries the girl, and pretty babies come along, and the rest seek sweethearts, too. Some of the cast and crew scatter to Los Angeles and Chicago, trying young wings, learning the craft and craftiness of filmmaking.Then their home city, to everyone’s surprise, takes a star turn as Hollywood’s brawny little brother. The film industry explodes in Atlanta the way the city did in “Gone with the Wind.” Friends return to the nest, and — all film professionals now — pick up where they never left off … writing, acting, producing, casting, editing … and living close together again.
They name their collective “Fake Wood Wallpaper Films.” Magnifying one another’s talents and energies, they have a knack for making things happen. Scripts move to screens. Pipe dreams get real enough to enter the dream factory. The collective somehow bootstraps into existence a series of shorts and low-budget indie films. And then this past March, preposterously, wins all the marbles at South by Southwest with “The Arbalest,” their latest full-length film effort.
The movie? Think metaphor for one thing — it’s a cinematic symbol of what kids in love with their art and with no fear of busting their humps can conjure from thin air. Adam Pinney (B.A. ‘02) wrote and directed “The Arbalest.” Alex Orr (no degree, but five years of classes) produced it. Mike Brune (rhymes with “Rooney” – B.A. ‘02) stars in it. Hugh Braselton (B.A. ’03) filmed it. And Katie Orr, née Rowlett (B.A. ‘03) worked as prop master while teeming with life, carrying her and Alex’s second baby.
In “The Arbalest,” the Fake Wood Wallpaper band of brothers-and-sister created a 76-minute period film (1968–1978) about an intellectual property thief named Foster Kalt. Fate taps Kalt (played with great range by Brune) to savor credit, fame and wealth from a Rubik’s Cube invention (the Kalt Cube in the movie) filched at a toy convention from an anonymous dead man in a hotel room. Kalt falls in love with a lovely lass named Sylvia who conspires to steal the cube concept, and he then obsessively woos her for years, in a creepier and creepier unrequited effort to win her love in return.
Pinney wrote and directed a Kalt Cube of a movie, twisting and turning time and characters. Brune slips effortlessly from one Foster Kalt downgrade into another, morphing from a dreamy schlemiel of a young wannabe toy inventor to a bilebitter mogul. All of Fake Wood Wallpaper’s fantastic “Arbalest” accomplishments, from big idea to big award, find their roots at Georgia State.
Once upon a time, back in their student years, Berlin-born army brat (Atlantan from age 10) Adam Pinney directed a one-act play he wrote about a kid taking part in a Rubik’s Cube competition on the day of a family funeral. Pinney called the play “L’algorithme de Dieu” (God’s Algorithm), which refers to the algorithm for solving Rubik’s Cube — or the shortest number of moves to solve any puzzle. Pinney cast a spindly, charismatic classmate, Mike Brune, as the lead.
“Mike was Kramer, on ‘Seinfeld,’” Pinney recalls. “He used to have hair like Kramer in college, spiky, and he looked like a Slim Jim. He’s always been sort of the cartoon character in our group, the comedian, the improviser.”
Literally. Brune practiced improvisational comedy locally for 10 years, applying the tricks of that trade to acting.
“I feel very at home improvising on a stage — it’s very second nature,” Brune says. “On-camera has always been the hardest type of acting to me. When you have a script and have to hit marks and hit beats, build a character, it makes it more onerous than having no time to build a character and doing it instantaneously.”
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Brune improvised the Fake Wood Wallpaper name straight from an episode of “Seinfeld.” (“I love ‘Seinfeld,’” he says, “it never gets old.”) Kramer decides to decorate his New York apartment with … wait for it now … fake wood wallpaper for a ski-lodge effect.
The cross-pollination proved serendipitous to all. In her theatre class, Katie Rowlett cast a restless, good-looking kid named Alex Orr as the lead in her original play, “Finger Food.” They would later fall in love and marry.
“Georgia State did what college is supposed to do,” Katie Orr says. “It developed me in a creative sense, and it gave me the great friends that I still have.”
Says Pinney, “Georgia State’s a real place not just to learn, but to meet other people, interact, be inspired. That happened to all of us.”
Alex Orr brought his friend Tony Holley into Fake Wood Wallpaper. They met working at an Outback Steakhouse, Alex just 16 and unable to comprehend that certain things in life just weren’t possible. Tony, seven years older, was newly returned from vagabonding in Europe, where he “enjoyed myself to destitution,” as he says. The pair bonded over cinema, then teamed up to create a TV show on the local public access channel. Film would be their next horizon.
“I’m not one to make declarative statements that film makes the world change, but I really love the fact that film gives you the ability to escape from everything,” Holley says. “I’ve always thought that the magic of the movies was what it let you escape.”
Alex Orr would eventually discover more magic in moving and shaking — producing, in other words — than in acting and shooting.
“I don’t love being on set when the cameras are rolling,” Orr says. “I like when someone else has an idea and something on the page. I just have a good time making that into something we can actually see on a screen.”
Orr shared a $600 a month starter apartment on Myrtle Avenue in midtown Atlanta with Hugh Braselton. Hugh got turned on to movies at age 13 by a sneak preview screening of “Jurassic Park” he saw with his dad.
“When we left seeing that movie,” Hugh says, “I told my dad I was going to make movies when I grew up. I was going to fight my way in, no matter what. I had a real drive for it.”
The Wallpaper Collective hung out between classes, made short films, kicked around ideas. Everyone wrote scripts, shared them with the group, suffered slings and arrows of feedback, and got better. They developed a sort of shorthand for communication based on intimate understandings of one another’s lives and personalities. A revelation came when Georgia State showed a night of student films, and Atlanta alternative newspaper Creative Loafing chose only the ones created by the five Wallpaper members worthy of review.
They all took day jobs but, more and more, found satisfaction and signs of success in dreaming, and working, as an ensemble. In 2007, Fake Wood Wallpaper teamed up on its first feature-length film, “Blood Car.” Its cult-classic premise: A car runs on blood instead of gasoline. (Refueling at the pump takes on a whole new meaning.)
The Georgia State five, with co-producer Holley, applied the tried-and-true Wallpaper formula. Alex Orr directed (and scared up funding). Alex and Pinney scripted. Brune and Katie starred. Braselton manned the camera. The movie pinned Fake Wood Wallpaper Films onto the late-night movie radar.
They followed with “Congratulations,” a comedy/drama about a kid who goes missing in his own house. Brune wrote and directed this one, and the ensemble once again puzzled together its time and talents to make the film.
More creations came. The Wallpapers branched into shows for Adult Swim on the Cartoon Network. They placed a short in the Rotterdam Film Festival. They honed their craft individually, too. Their personal stars rose alongside the reputation of the collective.
A short list of individual credits: At this writing, Brune shoots as an assistant director for an Atlanta-area production that he can’t name for legal reasons. He continues to act and write as well, but says, “I’m a little more at home behind the camera than in front. I love seeing things come together from behind the camera — the prep and planning and shot listing and figuring out the best way to tell the story in a visual way.”
Alex Orr works as executive producer for two television series: “Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell” (Season 3) on Adult Swim and Joe Swanberg’s eight-part Netflix anthology, “Easy.” He’s line producer for FX’s “Atlanta” and producer of a Swanberg movie, “Win It All.” And, maybe best of all, he’s producer for Katie Orr’s upcoming feature, “Poor Jane” — the next full-length feature film by Fake Wood Wallpaper.
“A housewife stops loving her husband, and her life falls apart,” Katie describes it. “I’m hoping to ride the coattails of ‘The Arbalest’ and do some good festivals.”
It looks promising. Like “The Arbalest” last year, Katie’s film won acceptance into the notoriously competitive Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP) Labs. (Only 10 films make the IFP cut annually.) Pinney edited, plus “Mike and Hugh sort of helped when they could,” Katie says.
In addition to editing “Poor Jane,” Pinney has two new scripts under construction. (Why two? “In case I have to throw them both away,” he wryly answers.) All snark aside, with the South by Southwest award in hand, Pinney and his Wallpaper friends have a rising star to hitch to.
If the Fake Wood Wallpaper gang of five re-enrolled at Georgia State to study film production in the fall, they’d find things have changed pretty dramatically.
First off, there are three times the number of entry-level production classes offered, and there are new, advanced post-production and documentary film courses, as well as seminars that teach production for new web-based and shorter-format distribution.
Second, they’d discover a new facility in the new Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII) that could help them develop and leverage their films in ways they couldn’t have imagined 15 years ago.
David Cheshier, director of the CMII, says student “media makers” will soon have access to an arts entrepreneurship center where they can find mentorship and access to new technologies.
“The continued growth of the media and art sector [will come] from a group of grads from various backgrounds and academic disciplines who get together to form startups,” says Cheshier.
Construction is underway on the facility — at the corner of Park Place and Edgewood Avenue — that will house new media and creative industry labs.
“The award’s amazing, very exciting,” Pinney marvels. “We made this strange thing, and it’s out in the world with a much bigger audience than any of us ever expected. It’s put more eyes on us and put our feet in doors we didn’t get in before.”
And Braselton? The others mention him with a kind of awe: “Hugh’s working on these giant movies,” says Katie. Giant. Big-time, big budget, big exposure. Braselton helped shoot the last two “Fast and Furious” flicks, and he starts “Fast and Furious 8” soon. He recently wrapped an assistant cinematographer assignment on “Captain America: Civil War.” He worked on “The Hunger Games.”
Georgia State, he says, focused his future.
“The film biz is all about meeting the right guys who see something in you that makes them reach out to help,” Braselton says. “At Georgia State, I met the teachers and people who are still my filmmaking compadres.
“Evan Lieberman (producer, director, cinematographer and former professor in the Georgia State film department) gave me my first job. Eddy Von Mueller (also a professor) gave me another. Bill Burton (B.I.S. ’90, M.A. ’00, cinematographer) is one of my most significant friends. He taught me so much.”
Kay Beck, professor of communication and director of the Digital Arts and Entertainment Lab at Georgia State, taught members of the Wallpaper crew in a producing for film and TV class. She spotted something special.
“I recall thinking then that these guys have what it takes,” Beck says. “I thought that I would hear some day about their success.”
Charles McNair publishes nationally and internationally. He is the author of two novels, “Pickett’s Charge” and “Land O’ Goshen.” He was books editor at Paste Magazine from 2005– 2015. McNair lives in Bogota, Colombia
Photos by Ben Rollins