After 20 years, local film hits the big screen

Making a movie was an itch Matt Aird always wanted to scratch.

So in 1998, the Buckley resident pulled together a small group of local talent — Kris Hallesy, Verne Graham, Dawn Swanson, Nevada Williams, and a few other extras — to put together the feature-length film, “Big Blue: A Fishy Tale.”

But the film was never released; transferring their film to VHS dropped the quality of the movie to such abysmal levels, Aird even went around rounding up the advance copies he handed out to his friends, family, and co-stars, and the original reels were stored away.

But after two decades, and in no small part thanks to the magic of modern digitization, “Big Blue” is finally hitting the big screen as the directors intended.

“It was like, wow! We can do this!” said Aird, recalling when he and Hallesy brought a sample of the film to the Chalet Theatre, just to “make sure that we’re not crazy, that this is going to look good up there.”

The first-ever public showing of “Big Blue” is being hosted at The Chalet on Saturday, Sept. 1 at 8 p.m.

Along with the much-awaited viewing, Aird’s band, “Vicious Kitty,” will be performing some of the music in the film (which was originally performed by Aird) as well as music from the band’s first-ever EP after the movie.

And finally, attendees — who can buy tickets at the door for $10 — may even land a quick cameo in an upcoming documentary, but more on that later.

Making of buddy movie

Despite its small cast and (at least compared to modern films) short length, it took Aird and his crew nearly two years to finish filming the movie.

“We would just block out a weekend, buy enough film, just enough film, to get what we were going to shoot that weekend,” he said.

Originally, Aird had huge ideas — gun fights, plane crashes, you name it — but when it came down to it, “we had three guys and an old beat-up truck. What can you do with that?”

Turns out, not a lot, but Hallesy suggested a fishing trip, and the idea stuck.

Think along the lines of “Wayne’s World” (including some of the hair) or “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle” (not including the marijuana): “Big Blue” is about two friends, Jesse (played by Aird) and Billy (played by Graham), trying to win a local fishing competition and the $1,000 cash prize by hooking Billy’s family’s long-time nemesis, Big Blue.

But as they say, men plan, and God laughs (and hopefully, the audience along with Him).

Even though Aird and Hallesy had a good part of the script ready to go before filming started, vast amounts of the movie evolved organically on set.

“We did a three-day shoot at Dash Point State Park for the whole camping scene… there were people camping all around us, and we were stealing power from all their campsites, stringing cords and popping breakers and shooting, and this little kid wanders over and says, ‘You’re movie a movie! Wow, that’s so cool!” Aird recollected. “And so, he saw the fish, and he goes, ‘Well, does the fish talk?’ We went, ‘Absolutely, he does now!’”

Aird also pulled from some of his real-life experiences for the film.

One instance of this is the scene with the Cheese Man. Without spoilers, it should be enough to say that scene was lifted, practically verbatim, from an interaction Aird had with a man in Burien, completely unrelated to the movie.

“The funny thing is, that has become an icon for the movie. Everybody who watches the movie, they all asked about the Cheese Man,” Aird said. “That’s what it was. It really happened. We went, ‘Reality is stranger than fiction. We got to put it in the movie.’”

Aird, Hallesy and Graham went all around Washington to film the movie, from local areas in Black Diamond, Maple Valley and Renton to more recognizable locations like Paradise, Mount Rainier; Moses Lake in Eastern Washington; and even SeaTac, back when strangers with cameras and other electronic gear could get near the inner-workings of an airport without buying a ticket.

Big Blue II: ‘The Search for the Cheese Man’

No, this isn’t a sequel Aird and Hallesy are currently working on.

But someone is, in a fashion.

When Aird and Hallesy realized their 20-year dream was about to come true, they put out an ad on Craigslist looking for a documentary filmmaker to follow their progress on getting “Big Blue” on the big screen.

Tacoma resident Alex Wekell answered their call, and has been working with the filmmakers for the last year as final preparations for the showing started to come together.

Wekell himself is an aspiring film maker, but “wanted to show the world something other than cheesy commercials or Instagram videos,” he said. “I wanted a story I could tell.”

And there have been plenty of stories to tell while documenting this screening, Wekell added. “Part of any good movie or documentary is the conflict, so it’s sometimes kind of hard with anybody to be like, ‘Hey, I know you’re going through some rough times right now, but the cameras need to be on for this.”

Some of the conflict has been going back to find everyone who starred in the film and getting them to sign official release forms, something Aird and Hallesy didn’t do 20 years ago.

Most folks were easy to find — both Graham and Swanson moved to Los Angeles, but while Graham still lives down south, the leading lady has since moved back to Enumclaw (though she’ll be out of town for the screening).

The one person they haven’t met up with as of print deadline is the Cheese Man.

However, Aird, Hallesy, and Wekell believe they’ve finally tracked him down and plan to meet with him a week or two before the showing.

The planned finale of “The Search For the Cheese Man” is going to be the “Big Blue” showing, which is a risk, Wekell said, but that’s what signing on to a documentary means.

“It very well might be like, everybody thinks this is super kitsch and super fun, like a Tommy Wiseau “The Room” situation, or it might just be a couple people show up,” Wekell said. “This is the culmination of 20-plus years of work, and now it’s finally happening. We want to be there when it happens, when — as terrible as it sounds — reality sets in. This is it.”

Wekkel said “The Search For the Cheese Man” has been getting attention from several film festivals, even over on the East coast.

“Big Blue” will first be made available to the general public online through multiple media platforms, likely by the end of the year, before it’s sold on DVD.

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