Former child actor Rick Schroder may never completely shake off his history. (Five years on a successful '80s sitcom will do that to a fellow.) Still, he has yet to rob any banks (which places him above many of his peers). And he did get good critical notice for turning serious on "NYPD Blue" (before dropping out to devote more time to his growing family). Most recently, Schroder took his biggest step toward breaking away from the "child actor" label by writing and directing his own independent feature. The film, Black Cloud, opened in theaters last month.
Black Cloud tells the story of a young Navajo boxer (Eddie Spears), who overcomes assorted obstacles, including his own anger over mixed heritage, to earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic boxing team.
In addition to writing and directing the indie drama (not to mention acting in it), Schroder is releasing the film under his own distribution label—all of which makes Schroder something of a one-man band. The actor/filmmaker recently called the Alibi to talk about his adventurous new enterprise.
Schroder says he chose this film's inspirational story because, “It combined two genres I really loved: the sports movie and the western.”
Schroder, who got his acting start in a sentimental boxing film called The Champ, says he got the idea for this screenplay from the story of a boxing coach who taught young kids on a Native American reservation in Arizona. “[The film] isn't about him, but it was inspired by him.”
“I didn't know anything about Native American culture,” admits Schroder, who now lives in Arizona, “But I wrote a script about people. This could have been about Hispanic people, or African-American people. We all have stories and dreams.”
Unable to secure financing through his Hollywood connections, Schroder chose an interesting route: He went to the pueblos themselves and asked if they would be interested in bankrolling a film with a contemporary Native American hero.
“We went to the Acoma pueblo in New Mexico and they were the first to get on board,” recalls Schroder. Initially, however, the tribe was skeptical. “They said, ’Why should we trust you to tell our story.' I said, ’Read the script.'”
Obviously Schroder's words were enough to win over hearts and minds. In the end, the film was "about 90 percent" financed by nine Native American tribes from California to Minnesota.
“Whenever you have a producer, they always want to contribute something,” says Schroder, speaking from 25 years of industry experience. In the end, though, Schroder's new partners added a certain veracity to the production. “They kept me from making some major faux pas.”
Schroder originally fell in love with the American Southwest as a child. “I dreamed about making a movie in Monument Valley and Canyon De Chelly ever since I was a 6-year-old kid,” he admits. “I went to southwestern New Mexico when I was 15 on vacation.” Schroder returned to New Mexico three years later to shoot the popular mini-series Lonesome Dove. “I saw Northern New Mexico then,” recalls Schroder. “That's when I got to see how diverse the state is.”
Black Cloud shot for a single day in Gallup, New Mexico. “The rest of the time we shot over the border in the Navajo nation. They didn't give us money, but they gave us support. People opened their homes to us.”
Much of the casting was done out on the reservation as well. “Russell Means, Peter Greene, Eddie Spears: the major roles we got through a casting agent in L.A. She specializes in Native American roles.” The rest of the cast was filled by casting calls on the reservation. “Response was great. We had eight roles to fill and 150 people showed up,” says Schroder. When the film finally premiered in Gallup earlier this summer, the theater faced a similar situation, running out of seats for eager audience members.
Making his first film was easy, however, compared to getting it into theaters. “It's kind of a David and Goliath situation," admits Schroder. “There are about 20 major distributors, maybe a dozen smaller companies. That's a pool of about 30 people you've got to deal with.” Crowded out of the major distributors, Schroder simply started his own company. “In addition to writing and directing, I'm also distributing. We've got 38 prints out there right now.”
Currently, the film is playing mostly in the Southwest. “Phoenix, Albuquerque: Those have been our strongest markets.”
Although the film will take a break from theaters during the busy holiday season, Schroder expects a big push in January. “We'll expand into New York and L.A. then.” In the meantime, though, Schroder is busy making phone calls and booking theaters. “I haven't had a lot of sleep lately,” admits the busy filmmaker.