The Story of One

Cleveland nuked! Dick Goddard rules! Hollywood notices a local filmmaker's digital sci-fi breakthrough!

The Tight Bros. From Way Back When, with Season to Risk, the Chargers, and Cherry Vallance Euclid Tavern, 11629 Euclid Avenue 9 p.m., Friday, July 28, $6, 216-229-778
The montage of images opens with a pristine Cleveland skyline glistening in the sunshine. In the next instant, as a low, audible rumble builds to a thunderous roar, a giant wave of fire rolls across the city, destroying everything in its path. Small pockets of humanity survive, only to become warring factions. Eventually, with time-lapse swiftness, the devastated landscape becomes dotted with space-age cities, utopian in appearance but ruled by a New World Order. Huge video screens impart instructions via a massive talking head, which looks eerily familiar.

Northeast Ohio viewers will recognize that face. It belongs to Dick Goddard.

How the Channel 8 meteorologist came to be Big Brother to the masses could be a movie in itself. The plot would go something like this: Young filmmaker from an obscure town in Ohio thinks big, raises some cash, and creates a film on a par with what Hollywood has to offer. Industry types take notice and set up a meeting, and the young guy becomes rich and famous.

Well, the last part has yet to be realized. But 24-year-old Jason Tomaric of Chardon has caused a stir in filmmaking circles, inspiring both awe and ire that he used a digital camera to make his futuristic epic One.

Filmed on a shoestring budget of $20,000 but sporting a multimillion-dollar look, One was shot at 48 Cleveland locations and features nine local celebrities and 3,000 extras. A cast and crew of about 60 worked on the movie, much of which was masterminded in Tomaric's family's basement.

Director Francis Ford Coppola has said this about independent filmmaking: "Some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart and make a beautiful film with her father's camcorder." He got the Ohio part right. As the tall and lean Tomaric sequesters himself in his Chardon studio, tweaking the audio and synchronizing the original score, major distribution companies on both coasts are vying for his attention. In mid-August, Tomaric and the movie's producer, Stephen R. Campanella, will be flown to New York to discuss a contract with studio executives.

"It's not a question if One will sell," Tomaric says confidently. "It's a matter of when and for how much."

In the field of digital filmmaking, Tomaric is becoming a leader, even beating George Lucas in creating an all-digital epic. Lucas intends to make the next two Star Wars sequels completely digital.

Ed Knuth, founder of the Digital Film Expo, which held its first event in Cleveland in January, calls Tomaric a pioneer in feature filmmaking. "One defies the old ways people thought of movies," he says. "People who shoot on digital usually choose to make small, dramatic pieces. But Jason decided to make a huge digital movie, gigantic in scope. No one in the industry is even trying to accomplish what Jason has done on his budget."

One was shot with a Sony VX-1000 camcorder. Michael Schwartz, former coordinator of special projects at Sony Studio's High Definition Transfers Center in Los Angeles, told producer Campanella that Tomaric's film was the best digital movie he had seen to date, in terms of lighting and production values.

Last summer, Tomaric was interviewed by the Viewfinder Documentary Project for a documentary about digital filmmakers. The project's director, David Anolik, remembers him well. "I thought One was a wonderfully aggressive project, with a really high production value for such a low budget," he says. "Great things are coming out of Cleveland."

Campanella expects Tomaric's movie to have an impact on the industry. "We are actually going to create a controversy in Hollywood, because One is sending a statement that with creativity and ingenuity, you can produce a high-quality film without spending a lot of money. The digital age has opened up making movies to a broader audience."

But not everyone shares an enthusiasm for the digital process. Many purists refuse to take a project seriously unless it is shot on 35mm film. And some lash out at those who make movies using camcorders.

"I had an area filmmaker really admire my work until he found out it was shot on digital. Then he started ripping into me," Tomaric says. "He said I was the biggest downfall to filmmaking in Cleveland. He said my stuff was shit because it was shot on digital."

That wasn't an isolated sentiment. At the Midwest Filmmakers Conference in March, "I was on a panel about filmmaking," Tomaric says. "When it came time for me to show the trailer for One, some of my fellow panelists got up and walked out."

Knuth is confounded by the reaction of some independent filmmakers. "You wouldn't belittle a painter for choosing watercolors over oils. Jason is a visual storyteller, and digital is the medium he chose to use."

Tomaric refuses to be swayed by criticism. "I'm interested in telling a good story. Digital is the medium I had to use in order to tell the story I wanted to tell on my limited budget," he says. But "We treated One like we were shooting on film. We crafted it. We lit and shot it like a film. On the set, people might not have taken us seriously at first, because they saw the small camera. That would immediately change when we showed them some footage of what we've done."

When Tomaric started his project nearly two and a half years ago, he had no plans to incorporate Cleveland celebrities into his vision of a post-World War III future. All he wanted from a local weatherman was a high-resolution image of the earth.

"I called up Brad Sussman at Channel 5," Tomaric says. "He invited me out to the station. We hit it off, and I thought he'd be really cool to play one of the bit parts. I asked him, and he said he'd love to. Then I thought, there's definitely a part where I could use Ted Henry, as a newscaster who announces there has been a nuclear attack launched on Washington."

Sussman introduced Tomaric to Henry. "Ted Henry agreed to do it, and then I said, 'I wonder if [news anchor] Lorna Barrett would do it?'" And so it went. But when it came time to cast the part of Big Brother, Tomaric was stumped. "The character is always spouting communist propaganda. I was wondering who would be a good person for the part. Then I saw Dick Goddard on TV, and I thought, 'He's it. I have to ask him.'"

Not only did Goddard agree to do it, "He was totally up for it," says Tomaric. "He did a brilliant job and is a huge supporter of the film."

Goddard was impressed by Tomaric's professionalism. "It's a neat setup he's got there," he says. "It's a mini-production studio. He showed me some footage, and I thought, 'This is no home movie.'"

Channel 8 anchor Wilma Smith also agreed to do a cameo, portraying an evil administrator berating an underling. "I'm a newscaster, I'm not an actor," she says. "I was a little nervous, but Jason coached me through it and managed to pull out of me the performance he wanted."

Originally, Sussman's scene was to be a short clip of him as a shuttle pilot, in front of a simple backdrop. "Then [special effects designer] Greg McDougall and I started building the set for the shuttle cockpit, and it turned out to be awesome," says Tomaric. "And there was room for more people. Brad needed a navigator and a helmsman, so we asked [Channel 8 movie critic] David Moss and [radio personality] John Lanigan."

"One afternoon, he called me up and asked me if he could show me some footage," WMJI's Lanigan recalls. "What he showed me was amazing. I thought, 'Wow, that's good stuff!' Then he said my friend David Moss was going to be in it, and I thought, I want to be a part of this. The setup looked pretty flimsy, but on film it looks real. It was terrific. I really admire what Jason is doing."

Toward the end of shooting, as the cast prepared to film a battle scene at Perry High School in Perry Township, Tomaric wasn't quite through with his celebrity roll call. "I wanted a field commander, and I thought, Who's left? So we called up Mark Johnson."

Johnson, the morning weatherman for Channel 5, plays the role of a rebel commander who leads an attack on the stronghold of the establishment ultimately ruled by Goddard's character. While Goddard had played his part in the comfort of the studio, Johnson "was on the ground, lying in poison ivy, in a creek bed, in the mud, with ants crawling all over me," he says. "Jason really wanted me to get a feel for the role. I didn't mind, because I'm a blue-collar-type guy. But you could not put Dick Goddard in poison ivy -- that would be career suicide."

Channel 8 anchorman Tim Taylor missed out on a shoot that was scrapped last August because of 97-degree weather, but he can be heard as the voice of a mission control leader, giving commands over an intercom. "My son is an actor in New York," says Taylor. "He would be really mad at me if I didn't take the opportunity to be involved with a movie that will be released nationally."

Tomaric's filmmaking career began in earnest at Chardon High School, where he regularly borrowed the video camera from the AV department. "I would use any excuse to get my hands on that camcorder. Classes, French projects -- you name it, we made a video."

By the time Tomaric was a junior, his parents had bought a video camera. "At first, my parents said, 'Now, we bought this for your father, to record birthdays and vacations and stuff. You're not allowed to use it.' Sure enough, a week later, it was mine," Tomaric says. "I was just in seventh heaven. It's all I ever did."

For his senior-year English project, Tomaric decided to make a two-hour version of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians. At first, two-thirds of the class wanted to be part of the film, but soon they began to drop out. "I was Mr. Meanie," Tomaric confesses. "I'd get really upset when the other students wanted to go to the football game on Friday night instead of doing their job, which was to be in the movie. I managed to lose just about every friend I had during the course of the project. I needed that. I think that's what taught me how to deal with people. It has never been an issue since."

During the making of Ten Little Indians, Tomaric met Dennis Killeen, who quickly became the young filmmaker's mentor. "Dennis was very instrumental in my career. He used to be the VP of marketing at CBS Records and moved out here after he retired. He had a little studio uptown and literally let us take the place over for 10 months while we shot the movie."

"I left town a lot," Killeen dryly comments about that time. More important than providing studio space, Killeen taught Tomaric how to think big about a project and then just do it. Tomaric was looking for a way to show his appreciation to the people in the area who supported the movie, which had evolved into a community project. Killeen recalls his advice: "I told him, 'Jason, you're making a movie. You have got to have a premiere. Call the local cinema and see what they say. Just ask them.'"

"To this day, I don't know if he made a phone call beforehand," Tomaric admits, "but I called Geauga Theater, and they said yes." Ten Little Indians had two sold-out showings, with the proceeds going to United Way.

After high school, Tomaric headed to Ohio University to study film. "I was excited, because OU was the Holy Grail. Up to that point, I never knew anyone that was into film like I was. I thought I could go down there and find fellow movie nuts like me. I thought I could make friends, and we could get together and do these huge, epic, colossal productions."

Tomaric was accepted into the Honors Tutorial Program, which allowed him to design his own curriculum. But even with an open format for study, Tomaric felt reined in. While other students were learning how to use a camera, Tomaric was running his own production company back in Chardon.

"It got to the point where I would make up a company that I was doing an internship with, then come home and do real work," he says. "Even though I would be directing this real work, I'd still have to make an alternate list of credits, with a fake director, and list myself as an intern. That's what I would turn in down at school."

The limits imposed on him in college had a reverse effect: He ended up writing a script that was enormous in scope. "I wrote One with the thought that it would be the film of all films I ever wanted to make. It represents every vision, every dream I ever had as a kid."

Tomaric knew that, without a gigantic Hollywood budget, his sci-fi movie would be impossible to make. Shortly after graduating from college, he decided to go ahead and make it anyway.

Getting started was the hardest part. Tomaric had a script and some video equipment, but little else. "The first four months I worked on the movie, all I heard was no," he says. "I started to look at it as a positive. My attitude was that every 'no' was one step closer to a 'yes.' So I'd ask, 'Can I shoot at your location?' and they'd say no. I'd say, 'Ha! Yes! I heard no!' And I used to love hearing no. As weird as it sounds, it used to energize me. It made me absolutely relentless."

Tomaric doesn't mind that people didn't have faith in him. "I'm glad they said no. Had they said yes, I wouldn't have found what I have now. It's a hundred times more spectacular than what I would have settled for back then."

Challenges kept presenting themselves, especially in the beginning. The first day of shooting was to be a massive ballroom scene. Tomaric was convinced that the rotunda at the Cuyahoga County Courthouse on Lakeside Avenue was the only acceptable location, but renting it was expensive. He was undeterred. "I started a campaign. I wrote letters and made pitches. I begged and pleaded. I tried everything to get them to give it to us for free. And eventually, they let us have it for eight hours."

To lend authenticity to the extravagant party, Tomaric needed someone to cater it. So he picked up the phone book and started with A. "It wasn't until I reached W that I found a caterer who was willing to sponsor the film for free. Washington Place Party Center agreed to provide the linens, tables, food, wine, cheeses, shrimp, and caviar. The whole nine yards -- even an ice sculpture."

Next, he needed extras. "I started going around to high schools. There was this one high school -- which I won't mention, because I am still mad at them -- but they committed their entire drama department and band. We got Tuxedo Warehouse to donate the men's formal attire, and the ladies already had evening gowns. Transportation was arranged, and we had parents sign contracts. Everything was all set, with 300 extras."

The Thursday before the shoot, Tomaric called the school's drama department to confirm the details. "The drama teacher got on the phone and said, 'I'm not convinced of the legitimacy of your project. I told all the kids that there is no such movie, and everything is canceled.'"

The shoot was to be on Sunday. "That Friday, we mobilized this massive, movie-extra force. We worked our way through every high school in Northeast Ohio. I went to every band, every choir, every drama department and begged them to come and be extras in this movie."

The day of the shoot arrived. Tomaric and his crew set up at the courthouse, but were uncertain whether there would be any crowd for the crowd scene. "Eleven-thirty rolled around, and one person showed up. I said, 'Yes! We have a person!' Then, a couple of minutes later, a second person arrived. I was thinking, 'Can we cheat the shot with these two people?' I looked at the crew and said, 'All right, if we're stuck, you guys can wear the tuxes, and we'll cheat the shot. We'll make it look like there are hundreds of people, even though there are only 20.' Then five people arrived. Then 10."

By 12:30, there were 350 costumed extras, 150 spectators, and 25 crew members ready to take the first shot of One.

Tomaric has been passionate about moviemaking for as long as he can remember. When he was in the fourth grade, he built a sci-fi set in the barn, put his sisters and 20 kids from the neighborhood into costumes, had his dad load up the family's Super 8 video camera, and shot a four-minute movie. "It was an absolute riot," recalls Tomaric. "I had all these special effects, where I'd draw on the film and add little laser guns and stuff. It was a very, very heavy-effects picture."

Now, a decade and a half later, he's still into special effects. He worked with a dozen Cleveland-area 3-D animators to create more than 450 digitally animated effects, such as monorail trains, hovercrafts, and whole cities.

"I did a 3-D shuttle that flies around throughout the entire movie," says Jeff McCormack, a One animator. "Jason would give me what he shot through the camera for backplate, and we'd composite that in. He filmed a lot at Perry High School. In one scene, the shuttle is landing. It disappears behind some architecture. We had to composite it so it actually looks like this imaginary shuttle is going behind this real building."

Tomaric paid attention to even the smallest details. "We shot the outdoor opening sequence at several different times during the year," he says. "We used digital animation to make sure the colors and lights were consistent. Sometimes, we would even do sky replacement. If we were shooting outside and the sky was boring that day, we would replace it with something more interesting."

One of Tomaric's biggest challenges was in finding the right sites for filming. Settling on a place was only part of the process; it would sometimes take him months of cajoling and paperwork to get the OK to shoot there.

"A landfill in Lake County was the most difficult location to secure," says Tomaric. "The Perry Nuclear Power Plant was the easiest. Perry has a simulation room, which is the exact copy of the main control room. It looked like a million bucks. So I walked right into the vice president's office, introduced myself, and said, 'Sir, I'm shooting a movie and would like to use the simulator room.' He was just tickled about it. I walked out of there 15 minutes later with a signed contract."

By contrast, NASA took more doing. But once they got the OK, Tomaric and his crew were able to pick and choose their spots. "We shot in a wind tunnel. We shot in the bottom of a quarter-mile-deep, zero-gravity pit. We shot in an equipment room," Tomaric says. His choices bemused Lori Rachul, news chief of the Community and Media Relations Office at NASA's Glenn Research Center. "We offered him all these great locations, and he wanted a maintenance closet. Some of the strangest places caught his eye."

But "It had millions of pipes everywhere in there," Tomaric says. "It looked great. I was going nuts about it."

As filming went on, locations were easier to come by. "It got to the point where it was a piece of cake," Tomaric says. "I'd walk into a place and say, 'I want to shoot here.' They'd say no. Then I'd say, 'Well, NASA let us do it, and the Perry Nuclear Power Plant.' Of course, they'd let us shoot. In the thick of production, we never heard no."

Jeff St. Clair, who plays the movie's lead villain, recalls filming a scene at the Crooked River Brewing Company. "Jason is very good at picking locations. The brewery was sterile, and there were these big, shiny beer tanks, so it really did look like it could be some kind of cloning lab."

Fellow actor Nick Zelletz acknowledges that "there were a lot of cool locations" in One. "But my character never needed to be at any of them. I got to shoot in Jason's garage and in Jason's basement."

At least Zelletz didn't have to contend with the weather. Bill Caco, the movie's leading man, recalls with a laugh, "We always seemed to be filming in the dead of winter or the middle of summer. We'd either be sweating or freezing, or underground somewhere downtown."

The cast and crew agree that the worst day of shooting had to be the one spent under a popcorn shop in Chagrin Falls. "It looked like someplace Anne Frank would have hid from the Germans," production designer Greg McDougall recalls ruefully. "It was the most horrible experience of the film. We had to go down there and clean out all the garbage and filth. We had to bleach the entire place and put down mulch on the floor because it was so nasty. We had stifling weather, and everything had to be lowered through a little trap door in the back of the popcorn shop and carried down three flights of rickety stairs. I asked Jason how he knew the room was down there. He said, 'Oh, just looking around.'"

McDougall, a special effects artist, had become intrigued by One when he read about it in a local newspaper. The movie was just a few months into production, and McDougall knew he'd have something to offer. "It said all this stuff about mutants and frozen bodies and science fiction. I thought, Whoa, I have got to get on this film."

When McDougall tracked down Tomaric, "Jason was really polite, but said he pretty much had everybody he needed for effects. I knew that was BS."

McDougall persisted. "I admired Jason for having a big-budget vision on very limited funds. I knew I could bring a lot to his film, but he just wasn't giving me a chance. So I kept calling him and calling him."

It got to the point where Tomaric had his family screen his calls. Still, McDougall would not relent. Unable to shake him, Tomaric finally gave McDougall the number of Michelle Gellar, the movie's assistant director, in the hope that she'd get rid of him. Instead, his work impressed her enough that she invited him to the next crew meeting.

Tomaric's displeasure at seeing him turned to incredulity when he saw McDougall's portfolio. "My jaw hit the ground," Tomaric says. "I was so impressed, because he did this amazing, Hollywood-quality work."

The production crew had a battle scene planned for the next day. There were existing props, but McDougall knew he could do better. "They had bought these plastic rifles from Wal-Mart and had spray-painted them black. I said, 'Give them to me, and let me fix them up and make them look like original props.'"

McDougall stayed up all night, revamping a half-dozen weapons. He had sworn that he would deliver them to the Tomaric house first thing the next morning. The early visit startled Tomaric's mother, Mimi. "I had no idea he was coming over," she says. "I opened the door, and he said, 'Hi, I'm Greg McDougall. I'm here to give these to Jason.' I said thank you very much, took the box, and closed the door. I am never rude to anyone, except that one time with poor Greg. I've been trying to make it up to him ever since."

The redone weapons "were beautifully crafted pieces," Tomaric says. "From that point on, he started doing more and more for the movie. Before we knew it, he was doing all the makeup prosthetics, all the pyrotechnics, all the art design, all the costumes -- everything. His impact on the film was so great that we opted to go back and reshoot a significant portion of the film, because it didn't have the Greg McDougall look."

Reshooting became the norm. As other talented people began contributing to the movie, the older footage didn't have the same polished look. "We ended up restaging whole battle scenes, making them 10 times bigger," Tomaric says. "We had 35 extras for the first time; we had 350 for the second time."

And people kept offering to help. "Extras would come up to me after a day's shoot and say things like 'I work with metal. If you need anything done in that area, let me know,'" he says. Others even contributed money. David Gellar, Michelle's husband, who later became the movie's associate producer, took Tomaric up in a private airplane so he could get aerial photographs of some of the locations. Production houses lent the crew giant camera cranes and other equipment that was beyond the budget.

Consistency became a problem during the reshooting of scenes that were originally done a year earlier. When Gary Skiba, who plays a resistance leader, learned that one of his scenes had to be reshot, "I had to grow my hair back. I had to grow the beard again. We were redoing a battle scene, and we were ready to shoot. Somebody looked at me and said that something didn't look right. I had a full beard. I didn't realize it, but during the first shoot, I had a goatee. We ran to a nearby hair-styling salon, and they lent me some clippers. I had to shave on the spot."

As the reshooting dragged on, the cast grew reluctant to continue. Jeff St. Clair admits, "I was skeptical at times. I would say to Jason, 'Next month you have to be done with this movie. I'm shaving my beard. I'm growing my hair out. I'm moving to France.' And Jason would say, 'Absolutely.' Of course, a few months later, he would call me up to redo a scene. Jason was smart; he would always show me the film first. I would think, This is good, I want to do this. I would bitch the entire time, but I am proud of the results."

McDougall and his assistant, Cari Finken, worked with Tomaric long after the movie had officially wrapped, tweaking smaller scenes and adding major special effects. "I had this little black Styrofoam box that we used for a lot of shots," McDougall says. "I used it to hide stuff that looked out of place, like signs or light switches. I brought it with me all the time. It became kind of a joke on the set. While we were filming an explosion for one of the final scenes, the box caught on fire and burned down to just a glob. I said to Jason, 'This is an omen. I think we're done filming.' And he agreed."

With the movie finally complete, Tomaric is looking forward to its premiere in Cleveland. He has rented the Palace Theatre, which he will decorate with the movie's props, costumes, and stills, for the invitation-only, black-tie event in early September. Closer at hand is the meeting with studio executives in New York, whom he's reluctant to identify for fear of jeopardizing the deal. He anticipates signing a distribution contract for One and having preliminary discussions about financing for his next movie.

As Tomaric and his crew wait to see what will happen with One, it is difficult to decide which will prove to be the bigger story. Is it the movie itself, with its vision of a post-apocalyptic, utopian society festering from within? Or will it be the tale of how a guy in his early 20s managed to mastermind a Hollywood-quality movie out of his basement? No matter what else happens, Tomaric knows what the real story's about. He clasps his hands, leans forward, and with a steady gaze, says, "Persistence."

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