Zac Thomas and a wandering band of gypsy artists find extraordinary generosity in unlikely places
Zac Thomas hails from Butte, MT. He figured out how to restore the historic Covellite Theater in Butte, MT and has been active in independent film for years including The Orphan Girl, Love Like Gold, and The Triangle, which premiered at The Montana Film Festival. Zac Thomas makes puppets out of reclaimed materials in Austin, TX where he currently makes his home.
This episode of Tell Us Something was recorded in front of a live audience on October 1st, 2015, at The Roxy Theater in Missoula, MT at the opening event of the first annual Montana Film Festival. 6 storytellers shared their story based upon the theme “Reel Stories”.
Today’s story comes to us from Zac Thomas and is titled “Gratitude”. Thank you for listening.
Transcript : Gratitude
Since the day my professional career began, I have been in debt. We walked out of the University of Montana and we walked into Butte this gaggle, this rabble of gypsy artists and decided to produce original theater in that town. We had nothing. We had no money. We just had this vision of street theater, which quickly became a vision of our own place, and we went out looking for just a little spot. A little hole in the wall. Within a month, we had multiple locations.
My entire family had stepped up to the plate and offered money, and then the city of Butte came forward and gave us a five story red-brick church for a grand total of one dollar. And my family came forward with another $250,000 for renovations and they told us that that was not nearly enough. That it would take $3,000,000 over the course of two years to renovate this building into a functional theater. And with the work of my father and my mother and my counterparts and Bob Lackala and Big Chief we grinded out $3,000,000 worth of renovation in seven months.
And that is my family giving up every single solitary second of their free time to paint this building. My mother to design the layout. She sewed every single curtain in the building by hand. My father was up on extension ladders 45-50 feet high in the air painting single pipes, re-plastering the ceiling, building in the stages. They drove to Southern California to a Baptist church and picked up 229 used lime green theater seats and drove them all the way back to Montana. We buckled them down to the floor and we rushed and we scrambled and we cut corners and the city came out and they gave us grants. And the population came out and they gave us money to fund everything and the thing about our group was we were writing all original, but we were also writing things that were multi-disciplined.
We mixed film with live theater with live music with recorded music but the film meant that we had to be out in the community. And again, we are flat broke and so the community donated every single location. Every single property came out of the Butte Thrift Store, or a Butte antique store. Our meals were provided by our family, and over the course of four years, it came to the point where my parents actually evacuated their own home and allowed–and slept in the basement for four months so my rabble of friends could overtake their house and live in it and create insane theater.
And over the course of those four years, I mean the amount that were offered for was truly unbelievable and it ended up eventually crashing in a bad way and we kept on moving right through into the film Seven Eves, Mark Nordhagen’s film which was primarily shot in Butte, Montana. And the city of Butte, Montana came forward, they did road closures for us, they offered us money and incentives, and every single location that that film was set in was provided freely to us. My uncle pulled out his vintage cars, Mick O’Brien used car dealer offered us up a white Cadillac. We burned and shot the hell out of another used car that we got for $150. We were offered literally 16 full giant boxes of hardback books for $100 from the St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, which should have really cost us like thousands of dollars, but they were like, “Please get them the hell out of my face.” And they offered that up. And then the local talent that comes in works for free, and offers their bodies, the Cavalier Lounge, the Finland Hotel, the Silver Dollar Bar. Over the course of four months, we shot in every single beautiful place that we could think of in Butte, Montana. We were never charged a single dime for any of it.
Skip forward to–to The Triangle. And we go out into the middle of nowhere, and again there is very little budget for something like this. This endeavor is psychotic and we are in very real need of a friend and Gabe Clark’s aunt and uncle step up to the plate and provide us land. And they provide us time and they provide us resources and the bus that so many people have come to love and work on. That comes forward, and that’s offered up and our community of gypsies comes out and offers their time basically freely, and the town of Winnett, Montana offers us this backdrop and all of these people come out and they give testimonials. And the bartenders are just welcoming to us and they throw parties and we have it out, and we don’t have a dime.
We move out of that story and into The Orphan Girl last year, where the city of Butte comes out for this major production as far as the town is concerned and we are offered up locations that are so unique that they could never be duplicated anywhere else. Giant freestanding galas frames that over the course of the last 80 years have been restored and reclaimed and kept beautiful. And architecture that you couldn’t possibly duplicate and it is offered up to this band of people that no one really knows, save for four or five local artists that are affiliated with the film. People bring us into their homes, they offer us meals, and these are local working families with five children of five different age ranges that are mixing in – creating this huge meal for 40 people in their house while shuffling their children off to soccer practice and Taekwondo and they are embracing to us and they push us through this insane process that was actually very costly, but still it wasn’t costly in terms of what the community received.
We move forward into Love Like Gold, and I show up into Eureka, Montana –- which I had never been. And the people are instantly warm, and every craftsman, fine craftsman in this community step up and they are making knives and they are making space for us to sleep and they are providing us with food, and they are bringing us into their homes where we are shooting the film while someone is actually cooking the meal. And we are sitting with their children and we have nested in with them and they are welcoming us into their homes and into their hearts and it is amazing.
And I wonder you know, why? Why do these people in our communities step up to the plate to gift us these things? To offer this stuff forward and you know, is it that there’s this, this hope for economic boons, or that they’re -– you know, are they bored out of their minds and here, this is going on. Or are they interested in the film industry? Or is it just in, simply in their nature to give to something that needs? And I think that that’s true, but I think that the heart of the reason is that they hope so genuinely that one of these young people in their community might just crawl out and find some poor in this insane industry and break through and become something successful. Something grand, that they might just do it. And through that they would well up with pride and that pride would just impregnate the entirety of their community and it would drive the next generation of artists, it might inspire them in some way and they would know that they had a hand in fostering that thing.
And we look at these communities sometimes as something outside of the project. It is where we are doing it but they’re surrounding it, not immersed into it and that is just not the case. I feel like when we are immersed in these communities and they’re giving over to us that they are as much a part of our team. As much a part of the company as anyone else is, and they deserve to share in the congratulations and in the glory of that project. And I’m not sure that I have ever offered that up, and so I want to, I want to, I want to shout that from the rooftops. I want to say Butte, Montana look at the team we are! Missoula, Montana man, it is a hell of a thing to have you at my hip! Hey, Winnett, Montana, my god! Look at what we’ve done together! Eureka, stand up look out, congratulations, we’ve done it! We’ve freakin’ done it!
And I hope they feel that, I want them to and that congratulations is just a petty thing. It’s a beginning of a greater conversation that we need to have as an industry. I think that we need to make it an industry standard that we are giving back to these communities as much as they are giving us and we need to begin that conversation from a place of sincerest gratitude.