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Behind the Scenes: Bellingham couple launch new endeavor with short film inspired by Grateful Dead

Bellingham’s Gary McKinney is a man of many talents: He fronts the band Fritz and the Freeloaders, works as a technical writer at Western Washington University, and he’s the founder of a small publishing company, Kearney Street Books.

I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of his latest endeavor – as the producer of a new short film, “Living with the Dead” - during a special showing at Limelight Cinema.

The film was the project of his wife, Karen Parker, who wrote the screenplay adapted from a short story, “The Undead” by Vincent Louis Carrella. Parker, a graphic artist, also directed and edited the film.

The short story was one that Kearney Street Books included in its 2010 collection “The Storyteller Speaks: Rare & Different Fictions of the Grateful Dead,” with all of the stories in one way or another connected to the famous rock band of the 1960s and ’70s.

In the film, Grateful Dead music plays throughout, all of it is from a concert known by Deadheads as “Sunshine Daydream.” McKinney produced and arranged the music, and played keyboards. The other musicians were Max Mendizabal, drums; Craig Ostrom, lead guitar; Howard Muhlberg, rhythm guitar; and Richard Roberts, bass.

Parker said that as a graphic artist she pretty much works alone, but the film was a collaborative project. But, she says, graphic art deals with visual communication, so filmmaking is another extension of that.

She says she chose the story because of an idea Carrella wove throughout it - that the old can see the end of the road while the young cannot yet fathom it. Yet all of us, young and old, are heading down the road together, and what we learn along the way stays with us. The idea resonated with Parker, and she hopes it will with others.

Making the film took two years, between day jobs, family, McKinney’s band, and publishing novels.

The journey started with the screenplay. Once Parker finished the first draft, it was sent to Carrella and to Bellingham thespians Kathy Murray and Deb Courier, who know available actors in town, so Parker and McKinney could start the casting process.

Bellingham Theatre Guild veteran Ken Gunning has the lead role as a spiritual geezer and die-hard Dead fan. Former WWU students Zach Wymore and Mike Tilton play two travelers on their way to a Dead concert. The three meet and have a deep discussion about life.

Once the casting was done, Parker began rehearsals. Parker says she didn’t over-rehearse the cast. It’s a movie, not a play, and freshness and spontaneity are important, she says.

The movie is set somewhere between New York City and Maine, so they were a bit worried about whether the location would look realistic. When they visited Beau Lodge in Skagit County, they knew they had the right place.

Because of their limited budget, (the movie cost them $3,700), they knew they needed to get most of the shooting done in one day. They hooked up with cinematographer Bob Ridgely of Binary Studios, north of Bellingham. After reading the script, Ridgely agreed to do it.

Parker and McKinney had the publishing rights to use Grateful Dead songs, but Rhino Records, which manages Dead recordings, wouldn’t give them the rights to use those. McKinney booked some time with sound engineer Paul Turpin and the two of them co-produced the music, had a rehearsal with the local musicians, then went into the studio and recorded it.

McKinney says his wife’s editing is one of the main reasons the film looks so professional. She created a color-light template, then made sure that from scene-to-scene, cut-to-cut, the color palate was consistent. There’s an amazing amount of attention to detail to make that happen, he says.

A few side notes on making the film: Parker used both individual mics on the actors as well as a boom, but filming outside was still a challenge. There was not only noise from nearby cars and the wind, but there were also pesky blue jays. (McKinney tried to solve that problem by throwing rocks at them – “I hit only one,” he says).

The “Sunshine Daydream” music is from a 1972 concert held at what is now known as the Oregon Country Fair. Back in 1972 it was just a wide-open space where the Dead played a benefit for Ken Kesey’s brother’s dairy business. And the cosmic connection here - McKinney says he was at the concert.

Parker and McKinney plan to submit the 18-minute result to film festivals. McKinney is also entering two of his novels, “Choosing” and “Slipknot,” as screenplays, and is entering them in contests and festivals.

Being ones for not letting moss grow under their feet, McKinney says they’ve already written their second short film, “What Goes Around.” Parker has started the storyboards, and McKinney has started the casting process.