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‘Frank & Lola’s’ long, strange trip to Vegas, Sundance and back

“Frank & Lola” is good enough to have played at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where Universal purchased it for a planned fall release.

But the tale behind the making of the dark Las Vegas love story that will screen Friday as part of the Las Vegas Film Festival? That’s the stuff of greatness.

For New York-based writer-director Matthew Ross, it was the end of an eight-year struggle that left him financially and emotionally drained.

And for Chris Ramirez, the Bishop Gorman graduate who produced it and convinced Ross to relocate the story from Brooklyn to downtown Vegas, it was the culmination of a 15-year odyssey that began with a quickie marriage, an exotic dancer, her sugar daddy and a friend who knew how to get rid of stuff.

‘TRYING TO GATHER ANTS WITH A SPOON’

“I like to call it a psychosexual noir love story,” Ross says of his movie, which focuses on the relationship between a chef (Oscar nominee Michael Shannon) and a much younger clothing designer (Imogen Poots). “It’s sort of two people who are very flawed but have good hearts and are trying their best. And they make some pretty big mistakes and go down some bad paths.”

Ross had been on the verge of directing “Frank & Lola” numerous times in the seven years before the script made its way to Ramirez. The financing would be in place and a bankable actor would drop out. Or the talent would be lined up and the economy would collapse. The many pieces to the puzzle of independent filmmaking just never fit.

“It’s like trying to gather ants with a spoon, you know?” Ross says.

On the surface, he and Ramirez’s Vegas-based Lola Pictures were a terrible match. Ramirez told the filmmaker he didn’t want to step on his artistic vision, but he was only interested in making movies set in Las Vegas, with an emphasis on downtown.

“I was intrigued, of course. I wanted to get my film made,” Ross says. “But it’s very important to me as a director to really be able to visualize a world and make it feel right and authentic. My experiences with Vegas were typical of most people’s experiences who don’t live there.”

Then Ross made a couple of trips to the valley and fell in with the local arts scene. “He really got a feel,” Ramirez says, “for, OK, this isn’t the Vegas that everybody knows. There’s a community here, and this could actually work.”

The next year was spent retooling the script for its new home.

‘A CRAZY LITTLE RELATIONSHIP’

The thing about Ramirez is, he’s an original. A maverick even.

The 43-year-old is passionate about what he does, and he speaks with the sort of reckless abandon generally reserved for billionaires and death row inmates.

“I’m good at pissing people off,” the Vegas native admits at one point. Before taking “Frank & Lola” to Sundance this year, Ramirez had been going to the Utah festival for about 10 years, he says, “really just to party. I don’t really even see movies when I go up there.”

“Chris is a character, man,” Ross says, choosing his words with the sort of caution you would invoke with a hyper-intelligent grizzly bear. “Hey, look. Chris is a very specific person. I’ve never met anyone like him.”

Ramirez’s stories often go sideways like a latter-day “Lost” episode and involve more detours than Project Neon. He knows this and apologizes for it. But the good stuff — the very best stuff — is in those detours. Take this off-road trip that begins when you ask how he got his start in movies.

“Mine was a process of elimination,” Ramirez says. “I had done everything.”

He’d been a lifeguard at the Golden Nugget in the ’80s and owned a valet and security company in the late ’90s. He’d consulted for an Indian gaming company and managed a sushi restaurant. Nothing felt right, and he had no idea what he’d do next.

Then, in 2001, Ramirez’s life turned into an Elmore Leonard novel when he married a girl he met at the Crazy Horse Too. They’d known each other for about a week.

“We had a crazy little relationship. … She was always, like, leaving, and we were always breaking up. And she had some sugar daddy somewhere.”

After two or three years of this, Ramirez says, she came back hauling a bounty of jewelry and purses lavished on her by her benefactor.

“I met with my buddy who knows how to get rid of (expletive), and he just gave me, like, 20 grand cash for everything. I got us an apartment in the Las Vegas Country Club, put her in hair school, bought a computer and weed and just started a new course.”

Through the dispersal of that weed, Ramirez made plenty of connections in the music scene and, in 2004, he ended up making a music video for local rockers Slow to Surface.

“My parents had this old Sony camera, and I borrowed it — or I took it,” Ramirez says. He taught himself how to edit for that video. “The next year, when I was just sick of everything, I just went back to that. I really loved that, so I enrolled at UNLV film school for half a semester.”

His career in location work, which would go on to include MTV’s Video Music Awards and two of the “Hangover” movies, was launched after serving as a production assistant on the comedy “Bachelor Party Vegas.” Trent Othick, one of its producers, hired him as a location manager on the locally shot “Yonkers Joe” despite his having zero experience.

“But he knew I knew the city,” Ramirez explains. “I just fell in love with that. I loved locations. So that became my bread and butter, because I didn’t know how to work a camera. I didn’t know anything about movies. But I knew Las Vegas really well. … And I knew how to get (expletive) done.”

PUSHED TO THE LIMIT

Getting (expletive) done would become Ramirez’s calling card.

In the movie, Frank drives Ramirez’s Ford Bronco, and that’s his tattoo artist in a scene inking Lola.

Drawing upon his days in location work, Ramirez lined up the El Cortez, Juhl, Stitch Factory, Huntridge Pharmacy, Downtown Tattoo and Carson Kitchen, which shut down for three days to accommodate the shoot.

“He’s got the relationships,” Ross says, “and he’s got his own sort of brand of relentlessness where he will just go for it.”

Ramirez’s biggest get, though, was Wynn Las Vegas and Encore, which prior to “Frank & Lola” had only been used by “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2” and the little-seen golf caper “The Squeeze.” The resorts appear throughout the movie, and Frank’s big break comes with the chance to open a restaurant there.

“The difference in that production value of getting the Wynn and using the real Wynn name and all that made that movie what it deserves,” Ramirez says. “It just makes it so much bigger and so much (more) real.”

His skills as a fledgling film producer were pushed to the limit, though, when “Frank & Lola” began ramping up production over Thanksgiving weekend in 2014. Once again, there was a problem with the financing.

“We brought the whole team out from New York. We put ’em all up at Downtown Grand … and we were paying the crew and the travel out of our own dime,” Ramirez recalls. “ ’Cause it was all just comin’ together too good.”

With roles ranging from his Oscar-nominated turn alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in “Revolutionary Road” to “Boardwalk Empire’s” Nelson Van Alden to “Man of Steel’s” General Zod, Shannon is nearly as busy as he is acclaimed. “Working on a window of his availability with his agents was just a nightmare,” Ramirez says. Any delay in filming would have cost “Frank & Lola” its leading man, and it would have been back to square one.

“So I started pounding the pavement, and I went all over Vegas to some rich people in this city that should get behind this (expletive), and nobody did,” he laments. “We’re now, like, six figures almost into funding this ourselves. And it’s about to fall apart.”

Within hours of Ramirez seeing his producing career end before it had really even begun — a shutdown probably would have left his industry prospects below the Mel Gibson Line — TV mogul Robert Halmi Jr. came through with the money.

‘A GAMBLER’S MENTALITY’

Ross still sounds scarred by just how close “Frank & Lola” came to suffering yet another near miss.

“It’s hard to get these movies made, man,” he says with a touch of weariness. “It requires a certain level of a gambler’s mentality and sort of a gambler’s kind of recklessness. I gave up everything to make this film.

“To sort of be potentially two months away from making a film for eight years, it definitely messes with your financial plans. Because it’s not like you can go take a full-time job and then have to fly out to L.A. a week later to go meet with an actor or actress or take a meeting about financing your film. And, psychologically and emotionally, it takes a real toll on you.”

While Universal is finalizing plans for a fall release, Ross is taking “Frank & Lola” out on the festival circuit, including this week’s stop at the Las Vegas Film Festival. Locals will have their first chance to see it during a 6:30 p.m. Friday screening at Inspire Theater, 107 Las Vegas Blvd. South.

“I wanted to make a movie that local Las Vegans could watch and feel like we were doing their city right,” Ross says. “It’s a Vegas movie. It feels so perfectly Vegas to me now.”

MOVING ON

While Ross is waiting to hear back on a number of deals, Ramirez is still working on “Viena and the Fantomes,” the 1980s punk-rock road trip film starring Dakota Fanning and Zoe Kravitz that wrapped before “Frank & Lola” started filming.

He’s also working on a horror movie and a TV project. But the brass ring is the film he’s developing about legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.

“We’re supposed to have a draft (of the script) by the end of the year,” Ramirez says. “You know, that’s something we don’t wanna do independent. We’d love to do that with a studio. And we’re starting to get some interest.”

For now, Ramirez is still beating the drum for “Frank & Lola.”

“People don’t expect, I think, this level of filmmaking coming from a little office downtown,” he says. “It’s so nice, even for my own family, for them to be, like, ‘Oh, what you do is real.’ ”

A true downtown success story, “Frank & Lola” is most definitely real. Even though, on more than a few occasions, it very nearly wasn’t.

“We spent a long time trying to get the movie made, and sort of everything that possibly could have gone wrong along the way did,” Ross acknowledges. “But then when it came together, it sort of came together just in the best possible way across the board.”

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com. On Twitter: @life_onthecouch

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