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Travel Guy'd : The road to acclaim for 'Ocean Tribe' was a trip. OCC graduate Will Geiger of Seal Beach made the male-bonding surf movie.

May 13, 1997|SHEARLEAN DUKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The only temperamental actor on the set was the film's aging star: a 30-year-old ambulance with a psychedelic paint job and a broken transmission.

This star has no lines but is nonetheless essential to the story. After all, what is a road picture without a car?

Besides, the 1966 Oldsmobile ambulance is more recognizable than the five unknown lead actors in Will Geiger's award-winning movie "Ocean Tribe," a male camaraderie picture in which the ambulance serves as surf wagon for five beach-bound buddies, one of whom is terminally ill.

The story, although fictional, was inspired by Balboa Island resident Bob Cook, who died in 1991. After chemotherapy for cancer caused Cook to lose his hair, his buddies who worked with him on the Balboa Ferry shaved their heads in a show of support.

"When I heard that story, I called and asked if I could interview them," Geiger said. "I spent the day with Bob Cook, who was a very special and strong person."

Geiger, a Seal Beach resident and recent graduate of the film-video department of Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, wrote, directed and produced the 102-minute film.

When "Ocean Tribe" had its world premiere in April at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, it beat more than 1,000 other entries to earn Geiger, 34, a prestigious directing award and a $2,500 prize from the Director's Guild of America.

That quickly got Geiger a six-figure advance for foreign distribution rights. Negotiations for a domestic deal could net the fledgling filmmaker even more. Plus there's talk of an offer for Geiger to direct a film for a Hollywood studio.

That places Geiger at the foot of a path taken by such writer-directors as Steven Soderbergh ("sex, lies, and videotape") and Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Chasing Amy"), who parlayed inexpensive, self-financed features into assignments for multimillion-dollar productions.

"Will is an incredibly talented filmmaker who has offered us an extraordinary first film," said Robert Faust, founder and director of the L.A. film festival. "We were proud to be able to debut it."

The festival is well-attended by members of the Hollywood film industry, and Faust said that several previous winners have been acquired by major studios.

Chuck Warn, a DGA spokesman, said the guild's policy is not to offer critical assessments of such films. But he said that the directing award Geiger received indicated how important independent films are to the DGA.

"Independent films are really the life's blood of the future of Hollywood filmmaking," he said.

Geiger's shot "Ocean Tribe" in 24 days in September on location in Huntington Beach, Mexico, Florida and Northern California. Friends reunite seven years after high school to take a terminally ill pal on one final surfing trip to Mexico.

It received favorable reviews from Filmmaker magazine, the Hollywood Reporter and Variety, which called it a "visually striking feature debut . . . uplifting and exhilarating."

Geiger said his phone has not stopped ringing.

"I was getting calls from agents and studio people because the news had gotten out," he said. "The Hollywood Reporter review came out the next day. So my phone went crazy for a week. I ended up doing a lot of lunches."

Those lunches led to a deal with J&M Entertainment, a leading international film distributor that has bought foreign distribution rights.

"We hope to place it in each and every territory," said J&M vice president Karen Roberts. "We have gotten a lot of interest from Asia and Australia."

While arranging the domestic release of "Ocean Tribe," Geiger continues to screen it at film festivals across the country. Next up is the Seattle International Film Festival, which runs Thursday through June 8.

Because so many Orange County friends are interested in seeing it, Geiger said he's also trying to set up a local benefit screening.

Not bad for a former Bolsa Chica park ranger who a year ago couldn't get Hollywood executives to return his calls--or got a brusque "forget it" from those who did.

After all, Geiger was a first-time director; his actors were unknowns, and he was breaking the cardinal rule of independent filmmaking by working on location. Not only that--he would be shooting scenes on the water, which can be risky even for a major studio with a big budget.

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Yet Geiger planned to do it on a low six-figure budget that would barely buy lodging and food for the crew of most Hollywood productions.

"Nobody wanted to chance trying to make this kind of film with a director his first time out," said Geiger, who also studied at UC Irvine and spent a year at London's Royal Academy of the Dramatic Arts. "They thought there were too many things that could go wrong."

Geiger and associate producer Andrew Matosich formed Sea Reel Productions. After raising about half of the minimum he had hoped for, Geiger began making the movie.

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