Ann Arbor filmmaker Christina Morales Hemenway premieres "Get Real" comedy at the Michigan Theater
Christina Morales Hemenway got the idea for her new film, Tommy Hollywood and Katie Encino Move to the Midwest to Get Real, in 2005, after she moved back to Michigan following 17 years in Los Angeles.
The Ann Arbor-raised Morales Hemenway—her parents own Elmo's T-Shirts on East Liberty Street—found so much humor in the expansive cultural gap between Left Coast glamor and Midwestern modesty that she wrote a script that ends up lovingly skewering both sides. (The ad line for the film is, "Think Clueless meets Fargo. A mutually offensive comedy.")
Now, nearly 20 years after the initial inspiration, the comedy more commonly called Get Real has its premiere at the Michigan Theatre on Friday, January 5—which is only fitting.
"Russ Collins [executive director] of the Michigan Theater plays the mayor of the small Midwestern town [the characters] end up in," Morales Hemenway says. (Her 2005 film, Dreammaker, also premiered at the Michigan Theater.)
Filmed in Milan, Ann Arbor, and Brighton, the fish-out-of-water comedy pokes fun at our celebrity-obsessed culture. Get Real is Morales' fifth feature outing as a writer-director and it shifts the focus from the romance of her last film, 2019's Bride +1, to satire and tells the tale of two disillusioned "L.A. airheads" who move to a small Michigna town in a last-ditch bid to save their relationship. Actors Chris Daftsios and Joni Allen play the lead roles, and a large part of the rest of the cast is Ann Arbor-area actors—most of whom have never acted before.
Get Real finds Morales Hemenway and her Dancingstar Productions entering a new phase that aims to nurture upcoming talent while turning out the kind of uplifting, character-based stories that have been crowded off multiplex screens by legions of comic book superheroes.
The freedom to tell the stories you want to is appealing, but being an indie director comes with challenges.
"I joke that I direct and the universe redirects," Morales Hemenway quips while recalling the many obstacles that arise during productions.
But those obstacles often represent opportunities to make the project even better than envisioned, and it's this kind of on-the-fly problem-solving that Morales Hemenway aims to instill in her students through her Ann Arbor-based Dancingstar Creative Academy.
"It's a great time and opportunity for filmmakers right now, but they have to be very smart. That's why I've started an academy for people who want to learn how to make their own films," Morales Hemenway says. "It's online and we're also going to have in-person sessions as well. It's not just learning about what to do, but how to do it by working on an actual film to apply their skills."
The students work their way up through various positions on the crew, gaining functional knowledge about each position as they advance so they understand the totality of movie-making.
Morales Hemenway's decision to start Dancingstar Creative Academy came after years of observing the state of the industry from the inside and discovering how disastrous a good-faith gesture can be when you're young, hungry, and eager for exposure.
"My very first feature will never be seen because I trusted somebody from one of the studios to look at it and I never got it back," laments Morales Hemenway, a graduate of Community High School.
The aspiring filmmaker was working as a temp at a well-known studio when a higher-up discovered she made a feature and expressed interest in screening it. But the only copy Morales Hemenway had was her master—"This was back in the day," she laughs, "think Betamax." Though her fears about lending out the film were eased by reassurances from the studio's courier that everything was insured and the master would be back in her hands by lunchtime, the tape was never seen again.
Morales Hemenway was 22 years old then and felt like she had little recourse. (She moved to Los Angeles at 18 to attend the California Institute of the Arts.)
While Morales Hemenway doesn't have to worry about lending out a single master and having it disappear, the struggle to get an independent film into the hands of important people hasn't changed. In most cases, ambitious up-and-comers turn to the film festival circuit, but even that can prove foreboding to young filmmakers with limited resources.
"Festivals are not good deals for filmmakers anymore because what happens is you pay them—whether or not you get into the actual festival. Then, if you get in, they play your film and they get that money. The only thing you get is the possibility of recognition," Morales Hemenway says. "So, I feel like it's better for filmmakers to take it into their own hands. The internet has leveled the playing field, but it also leaves the market saturated. So I think the best-case scenario is to find your niche and your tribe that will support you."
Bride +1 did premiere at a festival, however, and it caught the eye of a distributor, which led to a streaming deal. By releasing the film directly to streaming, independent filmmakers don't have to sweat the stratospheric costs of promotion. After Get Real premieres in Ann Arbor and Hollywood, the film is headed to streaming platforms, too.
Dancingstar Productions' next films are Jesus on 34th Street, a mystical drama centering on a Mexican orphan who has a spiritual awakening, and the holiday-themed romantic comedy A Very Mary Holiday, which tells the story of a free-spirited American girl who is shocked to discover that her fiancé is an English lord.
Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.
The red-carpet premiere of "Tommy Hollywood and Katie Encino Move to the Midwest to Get Real" happens Friday, January 5, 6 pm-10 pm, at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor. Tickets and more information is available at dancingstarproductions.com.