By Kelsey Ronan
While it may seem an unlikely Muse, Flint, Michigan has become an inspiration for writer and filmmaker Charles Shaver. His film company, Atomic Swan Films, has just launched its web series, Rats, on Vimeo. In the first episode, Merle loses his job at the factory, the heat is shut off, and the snow falls over the rail yards and smokestacks of Flint. Shaver calls Rats "a sitcom about people living hard lives in a factory town." The series is as much a sitcom as it is a study of the beauty of rust belt desolation.
Frustrated with publishing his writing, Shaver decided to expand his storytelling skills into filmmaking. He took a class at Kettering University through the Michigan Small Business Technology Development Center. He walked out with a 30 page business plan to start a film company in Flint. Atomic Swan Films was born—"about making films in Michigan, about Michigan, for the people of Michigan."
The name came from Shaver's body of writing. In 2007 he published a zine, Bleeding from the Nose, Twisting in the Wind, under the pseudonym Black Swans With Atomic Bombs. "I wanted something graceful and beautiful, yet aggressive and violent," he explained. The name was later shortened to Atomic Swan for Shaver’s blog. When he began the film company, the name was begging to be used.
The company's first endeavor was Project Swan, a grindhouse-inspired trilogy of short films. Shaver wrote all three scripts. Two, "$400 Kiss" and "Sugar Plum" were filmed in California, and "Among Thieves" was shot in Caro and Mt. Morris, Michigan. The film is currently being edited and Atomic Swan is seeking distributors.
Finding talent has been no problem, Shaver said. Like his Rats characters, Flint is teeming with the underpaid and unemployed with talents to use and time on their hands. Atomic Swans’ actors have a variety of day jobs: firefighters, retail workers, students.
Shaver went to school for filmmaking and painting at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and then at Orange Coast College. Shaver looked at the Hollywood world of 16 hour work days and decided he wanted “a slower, easier pace.” He and girlfriend Johannah Tan moved to Maui where Shaver became a television producer for Akaku Community Television-- an experience that proved formative when Shaver and Tan moved to Flint.
"I grew up with a sense of community spirit, but that job definitely changed me. I gave people a forum to voice their opinions. I brought that to Flint and built it into Atomic Swan. The film industry has been bringing jobs and money to Flint," Shaver said, referring to recent films like Semi-Pro that have taken advantage of state tax credits, "but they’re not making films about Michigan—they’re not using the natural resources."
Shaver’s education in high art has nurtured his visual aesthetic. He admires the paintings of de la Tour and Caarvaggio for their dramatic lighting. His taste in films includes John Ford, Francois Truffaut and Andrei Tarkovsky, and he cites Charles Bukowski, Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as his literary influences.
Shaver’s eclectic interests and influences are being channeled into the creativity of Atomic Swan.
As well as films and the Rats series, Atomic Swan is launching Hillbilly Dynamite, a web series Shaver describes as a "cross between Jack Ass, Wipe Out and Hee-Haw." The series comprises a mix of challenges, skits and musical performances. Atomic Swan was a sponsor for the 2010 Flint Zombie Walk, and it’s hard to gauge whether Shaver is joking when he says he’s hoping for an Atomic Swan float in the 2011 holiday parade downtown.
"So we have '$400 Kiss,' a pulp noir romance, and then hillbillies drinking straight vinegar," Shaver said, laughing. "We’re open to anything alive and vital." Atomic Swan is making itself known through a "heavy web presence," with a blog, Facebook, Myspace, YouTube, Vimeo and Twitter accounts.
For 2011, Shaver is working on the Tarot Manifesto. Inspired by Stephen King's 1981 study of horror, Danse Macabre, which broke down the five horror archetypes of American culture from radio days onward. Shaver’s manifesto concerns five potential horror movies drawn from the archetypes and specifically applied to Michigan. The first archetype Shaver explores is the werewolf. He has been researching the loup garou (dog man) from French fur traders and the dog-man spirit Wendigo from Chippewa lore.
Shaver is open to looking at the scripts of others. "It’s an open-door policy. I want people coming to me. I want to do the kind of movies people in Michigan want to see. If I’m open and honest and someone comes to me, I can present it with honesty and integrity."
Shaver is excited for the coming year. "The company is only six months old and already it's a success because of the people I've met through it and through Flint. There’s a huge film subculture in Flint we’re tapping into."
Visit Atomic Swan Films here:
© Kelsey Ronan, 2010