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Garden of the grassroots

Local filmmakers hope to unite Tulsa’s film fiefdoms



The newly-formed Tulsa Film Collective hopes to keep filmmakers here.

Jeremy Luther

Our first few minutes under the crimson shadows of the Cellar Dweller are spent shooting the shit. Because, if you know anything about Charles Elmore and Sterlin Harjo, you know they’re hilarious.

The conversation turns from what molester haircuts look like to the new season of “Twin Peaks,” then to a performance of a script Sterlin wrote, which was read at a Sundance party by Kyle MacLachlan, Ed Harris, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. In this Lynchian bar, it’s a meta-story that illustrates that old Woody Allen adage, “80% of success is showing up.”

Harjo, who co-founded the local Emmy-winning Firethief Productions, and Elmore who co-founded Roughhouse Creative, are two passionate, talented, highly-experienced filmmakers. Now, along with partners Jessica McEver and Jeremy Charles, they’re attempting to sow a future with a new venture: Tulsa Film Collective.

Over some cold ones, enthusiasm is high.

There have been grassroots efforts over the years to unify Tulsa’s artist communities in general—and filmmakers, in particular. That landscape of production houses, craftspeople, up-and-coming actors, directors, writers, film festivals such as Tulsa Overground and Tulsa American, and the philanthropic groups and businesses that have taken interest in them—along with the Tulsa Office of Film, Music, Arts & Culture and The Oklahoma Film and Music office—comprises a byzantine tableau of possibilities. Pools of equally integral resources and ideas in search of a high tide.

But generally, our best talent winds up leaving—even if temporarily—for more hospitable waters (an unfortunate common thread in vocations across Oklahoma). That’s one of the issues Harjo and Elmore hope to address.

“We were always like, ‘Why can’t we build something here that supports people like us?’” Harjo said. “There’s so many moving pieces in this town. I think we can be the nucleus that helps to bring them all together.”

“We all kind of sprung out of the same Petri dish,” Elmore continued. “And now that we’ve been here so long we all want to see this dream we have making films, and marry it to this idea that you can do it in your own backyard.”

The three-pronged approach of the Collective includes education, funding, and programming.

Ranking at the top, Harjo and Elmore hope to promote a range of educational opportunities, from TU’s film program to imparting practical advice from their own experiences (i.e.: “You have a short film that’s twenty-five pages? Bullshit. Cut out twelve.”) to mentoring through hands-on experience with bonafide film productions. The idea is to grow and shepherd young filmmakers and technicians who might find the purely academic route less than ideal. Some people learn in school, others are better off just doing it. And once they get those skills, hopefully they’ll stick around to make films with local artists instead of heading out West.

“Making [Harjo’s 2015 film] ‘Mekko’ was an eye-opener in that regard” Elmore said. “There aren’t a lot of ably skilled technicians and crew members that can come out of Tulsa. So when an outside production comes to Tulsa and they say ‘We need all the grips, and electricians, camera and sound people,’ they’d be lucky to get half those positions filled.”

On the funding front, so far, they are working with the Tulsa Community Foundation, establishing the Collective as a non-profit so that interested partners can write off donations on their taxes.

“We want to start out slow, and allocate some of that money and say ‘let’s do a short film competition’.” Harjo said. “Say you live in Iowa and you want to enter a completion here, we’ll fund three short films. The only thing is you gotta shoot it in Tulsa with a Tulsa crew. Personal short films aren’t being made here. Everybody wants to do features. Everyone wants to be on the top, and we’re saying let’s start at the bottom. It’s easy to fuck up a short film. It’s fun to fuck up a short film. That’s where you learn. Quit being precious. Let’s shoot films.”

And for programming, while bigger cities have more retrospective theaters, making their role in a town’s film literacy acutely important—Tulsa is lucky to have that niche filled by Circle Cinema, which is helping grow a base of literate cineastes.   

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel or anything” Elmore said. “Or even trying to say ‘We’re better at this than anyone else.’ Just that we’ve been in the trenches, and we see a need, and want to help fill it to see Tulsa grow.”

Harjo and Elmore’s yearning for the Golden Age of Linklater and the Austin film scene of the ‘90s is tangible—they’re inspired to strengthen and build upon the interconnectedness of industry and creativity, establishing Tulsa as an independent film hub with an influence befitting its already rich film and musical past.

And they’d really like to hire from within.


For more information, visit tulsafilmcollective.org.

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