By Nancy Price
As children, we often spend time dreaming about what we’ll be when we grow up. We watch our heroes on TV save more lives in an episode than one can imagine (I want to be a doctor!), win a case during a nail-biting trial (a lawyer, for sure!), or write the next Great American Novel.
After some time, we may forget about those dreams. At some point, we faint after seeing blood, discover that we freeze when speaking in public or learn that the odds of becoming a successful author is about as likely as being struck by lightning. We focus on the “realistic” careers that our parents, not wanting to support us indefinitely after college, encourage us to pursue.
A lucky few have turned their dreams into reality. Like Mike James, a writer, director and resident of the Bates-Hendricks neighborhood. James won an award for Besting Writing in a Short and was a nominee for Best Overall Short from the Nightmares Film Festival for his 2018 comedy-thriller, Smiley’s.
“I think it first dawned on me that being a filmmaker was a job someone did when I was 9 or 10,” James said. “I saw the movie, The Nightmare Before Christmas on VHS, watched past all the credits and after the credits, it showed the set and puppets and how the movie was made. It blew my mind that there was someone responsible for making the movie.”
About 10 years later, James was attending Franklin College when he, along with his classmate and friend from Whiteland, Wilson Mack, began hearing of local urban legends. The long-abandoned home occupied by a reclusive witch, cults practicing in the woods and a road built over gravesites, with ghosts still roaming the area. Oh, and a creepy soda machine – stocked by the witch – that delivers haunting surprises.
The soda machine is actually inspired by reality … for the most part.
A pop machine once housed on East Greensburg Road in Franklin that was stocked by a local convenience store owner used to serve college students in need of a caffeine or sugar jolt while studying for an exam. Students pressed a button on the machine labeled “pot luck.” The flavor of the can tumbling out was anyone’s guess. Cream soda? Root beer? Or a generic red or cola?
“All these people heard was that it was the best soda in the world,” said Mack, the film’s coproducer, also playing the role of a character named Mitch.
Sometimes, something completely unexpected shot out. “When I got it, it came out with pencils,” James said. “I talked to other people about the pencils, and another person said, ‘I got erasers!’ Just to mess with them, the owner put random items in.”
James began to weave a story that never quite left him, even after graduating and leaving Indiana.
“When Mike moved out to L.A., the idea was still stuck in his mind,” Mack said. “He thought, ‘Maybe I’ll make a documentary.’ He came back to Indiana and the pop machine was out of order. There’s something quirky about this machine, it’s out of order, dejected. Maybe this is a fun zany (story).
“We like blending comedy (in a film) and having views wonder, ‘Am I supposed to laugh or am I supposed to be scared? We both grew up in the boonies in Indiana with urban legend ideas of a witch house, the person who wants to be left alone.”
The movie, which filmed in 2017 and lasts 17 minutes, took about a week to film. “Once we found the location (Franklin), it was a boiling strew of rural legends right up until we shot the film,” James said. “Smiley’s lived with me than any other ideas that I had. It was a golden goose for me; once I decided to go for it, I went all out.”
Smiley’s is available for viewing on Amazon Prime. “If people dig (Smiley’s), if they want to help the Indy film community, the best way to help us is by reviewing it on Amazon.”