Filmmakers have been turning their cameras on Kern County landscapes practically since moving pictures first existed.
John Wayne dealt with Apaches and whiny passengers all across the east Kern desert in 1939's "Stagecoach." Cary Grant ran from a homicidal crop duster pilot near Wasco in 1959's "North by Northwest." Starship crew members have beamed up from the same rugged Kern vistas that saw Jurassic-era reptiles terrorize theme park paleontologists.
The latest is "Oildale," the work of a Southern California-based producer-director-writing team, David Mueller and Lynn Salt. It was filmed almost entirely in that distinctive enclave just across the Kern River from Bakersfield with a cast that included several local actors.
The film, which debuts March 30 at the Bakersfield Fox Theater, tells the story of a group of homeless combat veterans who find "family" while renting rooms from a struggling 18-year-old girl and her 13-year-old brother. It ends with a climactic "can she win the singing contest and take home the prize money that will help save her family" scene.
Proceeds from the screening will go the Wounded Heroes Fund.
Mueller is a veteran filmmaker who has worked for Universal Pictures, among other recognizable film companies. He joined the Directors Guild of America in 1996 and has directed, written and produced dozens of documentaries, national commercials and feature films.
He co-produced "Dalai Lama Renaissance" (2007, Horizon) narrated by Harrison Ford, winner of 12 best-documentary awards; produced and co-directed "A Good Day to Die" (2010 Kino Lorber) with Dennis Banks, winner of six best documentary awards; and has degrees in Anthropology, International Education and Film from UCLA and NYU.
In other words, he is completely overqualified for a movie called "Oildale."
His presence for this month's film premiere made me wonder if we're growing our own cinema professionals around here. The answer: yes. And the good news is, they're committed to sharing what they're learned, good and bad, with young student filmmakers.
The Beacon Studios is doing national projects to go with steady local work. Hectic Films is staying busy with avant-garde films and small documentaries. Finesse Entertainment is churning out sketch comedy for live and YouTube audiences. And then there are the others — lord, there are others, more than I can name. Several will be calling to ask why I couldn't have tried harder.
Jason Cummings, Jason Mitchell and John Merlo are the guys behind the Beacon Studios. About four years ago Cummings opened a cafe, Rio Acai Bowls, which in the beginning wasn’t doing very well. To make extra cash he began filming weddings.
"I was always a movie buff, but not much interested in the actual art of filmmaking," says Cummings, who grew up in Wasco.
Then, two years ago, he met Rusty Rhodes of the Olive Knolls Christian School, who asked him to be the director of photography and a mentor for the Bakersfield Christian Film Festival. The young filmmakers shot "Treasure Hunt" over 12 days. He was hooked.
Mitchell, from Bakersfield, is also a self-taught filmmaker.
"I graduated from Youtube University," he says. "I was an MTV baby, grew up watching music videos."
After his 2000 high school graduation he went to work in the Kern County oilfields. "I got laid off in 2016," he says. "That's when we said, 'Well, let's do this.' We opened our first studio off Easton Drive. It just scaled from there. This is going to be our biggest year."
Ricky Marsel, from Delano, is an independent writer-director who often works closely with the Beacon Studios. His RMars Creative Group has made dozens of films, many for clients, many for love of craft. He produced what he calls a mini comedy series, "Addicted to Triangles," a music video for local band Mento Buru, and several short documentaries.
"Everyone has a story," he says. "My strength is to bring it to life."
He, too, is self-taught, with a business degree from the University of Phoenix and a mostly unrelated love of film.
Rickey Bird started Hectic Films in 2004 with Jason Sanders. Their first film studio was in the back of a cell phone store in the East Hills Mall. A lot has changed.
They've shot several feature films, hundreds of short films, documentaries, music videos, and commercials. Two of their feature films are currently on Amazon Prime: "The Lackey" and "Border Brothers," which hit the streaming service just prime last week. Both were shot completely in Bakersfield on a shoestring budget. Their newest feature, "Booze, Broads, and BlackJack" is based on a book by local writer Carl Nicita and stars Vincent Pastore ("The Sopranos") and James Duval ("Independence Day"). It's in its final stages of post-production and should be out later this year.
Whether any ever live up to the glory of their short film, "Naked Zombie Girl," winner of 25 international awards, remains to be seen. The film, free on Youtube, was also shot entirely in Bakersfield.
Bird teamed up with a writer friend and wrote his own book, "Cheap Movie Tricks: How to Shoot a Short Film for Under $2,000," to help jump start the careers of up-and-coming filmmakers.
Finesse Entertainment is a group of three writer-comedians, two of whom are self-taught. The third, Keith Fingers, actually studied film and animation — and the story of how he fell into it as a career is pretty good comedy fodder.
Fingers, a 2010 Bakersfield High graduate, played cornerback for the Drillers football team, and he wanted to play Division I ball while he studied architecture.
"I knew New Mexico had architecture," he says, "so I applied as 'undecided.' But I when got to New Mexico I realized I had mixed up the University of New Mexico, which is in Albuquerque, with New Mexico State, which is in Las Cruces, and there was no architecture program there. That's when I found the animation program. Then I started taking more film stuff."
Fingers never did get around to playing college football.
He met D'Maurier "DJ" Johnson and Christopher Hunt (aka Kyrei Kennedy), who had already launched Finesse Entertainment, through a mutual friend.
"I brought the knowledge that I learned from school and they brought their raw creativity," Fingers says.
Johnson and Kennedy launched Finesse in 2016, producing short sketches for Youtube as way to learn the craft.
"Now in the past nine months, we’ve grown to be able to write full scripts, and produce our first written short films, 'The Kickback' and 'Confessions,' which have gotten over 13,000 views on social media," Johnson says.
Who needs Hollywood? All of these Bakersfield filmmakers, whether they specialize in writing, directing, cinematography or something else, believe they can do it all right here.
"I would like to try directing on a bigger scale," Fingers says. "But with the internet today, it kinda brings everyone to your laptop, so I don't need to move to L.A."
The others agree: Bakersfield has the talent and the resources to make it happen here.
"Our goal is to just bring awareness that there is a community of creative people here," Mitchell says. "So people don't think they have to go over the hill."