JC native making his mark in movie business

Sharing his vision with others

Above is a graphic promoting the film "Rich Hill," a documentary about three young boys living in a small, struggling southwest Missouri town.

Above is a graphic promoting the film "Rich Hill," a documentary about three young boys living in a small, struggling southwest Missouri town.

His belongings sit in a storage facility here in his hometown, but Jefferson City native Andrew Droz Palermo has been on the move. A graphic designer, photographer and cinematographer, the 29-year-old’s career has taken off this past year in a big way.

Named one of the 25 New Faces of 2013 by Filmmaker Magazine, Palermo was described as “the best cinematographer you’ve never heard of.”

Until now that is.

photo

Submitted photo

Filmmaker Andrew Droz Palermo sits in the back of a truck with his equipment while filming "Rich Hill."

His work on the smart horror comedy “You’re Next” has received some great notices. It was shot in Columbia in 2011 and released at theaters across the United States in August, including at the Goodrich Capital 8 Theater where he used to see many movies growing up.

New York Times critic Jeannette Catsoulis wrote, “The pleasure (of the film) lies in Andrew Droz Palermo’s unusually tactile photography — we can almost feel the viscosity of a stream of orange juice.”

Heady stuff for Palermo since “You’re Next” was the first feature he shot. Another is “A Teacher,” which was featured in the Sundance Film Festival in January and will screen as part of the Citizen Jane Film Festival this Friday through Sunday in Columbia. He has also been shooting and co-directing a documentary for the past three years, and the rough cut is winning raves at screenings in New York and at Harvard, and the project was part of the prestigious Sundance Institute, too.

“The last year has been a bit of a whirlwind in so many ways: exciting, humbling, exhausting,” he said on the phone from Los Angeles. “Being seen and appreciated by a larger community is not to be underestimated for the confidence and self-esteem of an artist.

“In addition to getting a lot of positive press for extremely hard work, I also realize just how lucky I’ve been. Not just career wise, but for being raised, supported and loved by special people throughout my life.”

He attended Belair Elementary School, where his mother, Janie, was a third-grade teacher and spent 30 years in the public school system here. His stepfather, David Nunn, runs The Nunn Company, a commercial appraiser business.

As a child, he loved movies like “Robocop” and “Predator,” anything starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

“I watched the same movies over and over and memorized their construction but I never thought of it as something I would do,” he said. “In high school, I decided to study graphic design,” he said.

He singles out Brent Whelan, his teacher in a digital video class, at Jefferson City High School as someone who “pushed” and influenced him.

“In his class, I became aware of the artistry of filmmaking,” he said. “While most of my classmates were more interested in the technical aspects, I was really interested in the human element and the emotional power of film.”

Whelan, a business education instructor at Nichols Career Center, remembers Palermo and isn’t surprised that he has succeeded in a very hard and competitive business.

“Andrew was good natured and very creative,” he said. “Usually, it’s about 10 percent of students who come through these classes that might actually pursue graphic arts and video professionally, and I knew that he would be one of them. He had that intuitive sense of what looked good, and he was very motivated.”

Palermo studied fine art at Columbia College in Chicago, but after receiving his degree in 2007, he moved to New York and lived with friend and fellow JCHS graduate Alex Even. By then, Even’s high school band had morphed into The White Rabbits, which played “The Late Show with David Letterman” for the first time that year. The band went on tour, and Palermo went on the road with them to document that experience.

“I’m very camera shy, and Andrew is the only person who made me comfortable enough to create a song and come up with lyrics in front of him,” said Stephen Patterson, the lead singer for the White Rabbits. “He was very calm, and for us being in a stressful situation that was important.”

Early footage lost in burglary

All of Palermo’s footage from those sessions though was lost when his apartment in Brooklyn was robbed and his computer was stolen. In 2009, Palermo moved to Columbia to start again and benefited from a solid support system, including the Modern Litho-Print Company where he worked the summer between his freshman and sophomore year of college.

“My former employer at Modern Litho-Print Company and in particular Darla Porter have been so generous,” he said.

“When I was robbed in Brooklyn, the Modern Litho-Print family was there for me like my own, and helped me get back on my feet. They really taught me a lot about what community can do to help those in need.”

The band ended up traveling to Columbia and singing their new song “Percussion Gun” as Palermo shot the video in a warehouse. He remained in Columbia, and wrote and directed a short film called “A Face Fixed,” which was shot in Jefferson City at the Farmer’s Capital Sand Company and the Missouri River Bridge and other local sites.

While making that short, he met Adam Winard, who was then directing “A Horrible Way to Die” released in 2010.

They decided to work together on “You’re Next,” written by Columbia native Simon Barrett and eventually filmed at a mansion near the Columbia Country Club. While the film was in preproduction, he watched classic horror and Chinese action movies and the films of Academy Award winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, including “Skyfall” and many of the Coen Brothers’ films such as “Fargo” and “No Country for Old Men.”

The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2011, and Lionsgate bought it and finally released the film, which Palermo describes as “Home Alone” meets “Scream” but more funny than scary.

Documentary in works, but still needs backing

While that film definitely put him on the map, his passion project is “Rich Hill,” a documentary about three young boys living in the small, struggling southwest Missouri town. Both his mother and the father of co-director and cousin Tracy Droz Trago were born and raised there. His grandmother and great-grandmother also taught at the local school.

Video

Rich Hill film trailer

“I loved going there as a child, we would go fishing and do all kinds of outdoor activities,” he said.

When he’s there, he spends 12-hour days behind the camera interviewing his subjects, along with town leaders, teachers and other residents there. So far, he’s shot more than 350 hours of footage for the film that covers 18 months of the lives of these boys.

He and Trago have funded the film themselves, along with donations from friends and family members. They’ve also received grants from MacArthur Foundation, Pacific Pioneer Fund and the Sundance Institute, where he attended the Film Independent Documentary Lab.

In-kind services, such as microphones donated by Chimaeric, a boutique production house in Columbia, and printing for promotional materials for “Rich Hill” by Modern Litho have helped, too.

Still, they need $60,000 to finish the film and currently are almost finished with their Kickstarter campaign in hopes of raising enough money to finish the film and enter it in the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Kickstarter.com is a fundraising platform that allows people to donate money to creative projects. As of Friday, almost $45,000 has been raised toward their $60,000 goal. The campaign has five days to go from today.

“With Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing,” he said. “We either raise $60,000 or we get nothing. We’ve stretched ourselves as thin as we can, so realistically we may not be able to finish the film.”

Old friends maintain ties

Alex Even saw a rough cut of the film in New York recently.

“Andrew’s such a talented photographer and cinematographer, and the film is very impactful and beautifully shot,” he said. “We’re always bouncing ideas around, and we’ve continued to watch and support each other’s growth over the years, but his workload has really picked up.”

While The White Rabbits performed last year on “Saturday Night Live” when another Missouri native, Jon Hamm, hosted, they’re not touring now and the members are in transition.

“Life circumstances take precedence right now but we’re all still in each other’s lives,” said Even, whose girlfriend, Kristen Vogel, is the daughter of former Jefferson City state senator Carl Vogel.

Even recently visited his family in Jefferson City, and jammed at Patterson’s music studio here. In a weird twist of fate, Patterson recently moved here with his girlfriend Susannah Sodergren, the daughter of Circuit Judge Tom Sodergren. The couple met as freshman at the University of Missouri and lived in Brooklyn, where she worked at the Mother New York advertising agency. She came home to be with her mother, who died recently, and the couple then decided to stay.

“Stephen is definitely lobbying for me to move back to my hometown,” Even said.

Palermo lives in Los Angeles now, and his girlfriend is a fellow filmmaker. But with the holidays looming, a reunion with Even and Patterson in Jefferson City seems imminent.

“I have often lived elsewhere, but for me, home will always be Missouri. My family, memories, and the state are inextricably linked to who I am as an artist, but also as an individual,” he said.

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