By Heidi Simmons
This week, as the Palm Springs International Film Festival was revving up, the community driven and supported movie, Do It Or Die held its World Premiere. There was a buzz of excitement and camaraderie as the audience filled the sold-out Annenberg Theater to enjoy a locally made movie about a mostly unknown Palm Springs’ crime.
“Our film is a little indie movie that features many of the sights, sounds and businesses of the desert, as well as many of our terrific local production talent,” said producer and co-star Denise DuBarry.
Based on a true story, Do It Or Die tells the harrowing 1979 episode of the kidnapping of 65-year-old Palm Springs socialite and philanthropist Elaine Chaddick who was taken from her home at gunpoint and held for a $1 million ransom.
As the film begins, familiar desert locations filled the big screen, and a murmur and giddiness moved through the auditorium. When television personality, man-about-town and bon vivant Patrick Evens appeared on screen playing the part of Palm Springs Police Chief Tom Kendall, there were audible trills of delight. The beloved Patty Daly Caruso also makes an appearance that surprised audience fans.
Beside festival attendees, most of the cast and crew were seeing Do It Or Die for the first time.
Just eight months ago, the production was in the Indian Canyons of Palm Springs shooting the film in triple digit temperatures. The cast and crew were minimal; there were no craft services or a security detail. Everyone on the set was friendly and welcoming — and they were all working for free!
Do It Or Die was made without a formal budget or any funding in place! The production company called itself “Made For Nothing Films, LLC”. Principals, cast and crew all gave of their time and talent. Locations and props were loaned or donated. Community businesses provided food and services. Students interned.
“When I first heard about the story I was fascinated by the strength of Chaddick’s character,” said Executive Producer and Director Jorn Winther. “It’s about survival, overcoming fear and finding compassion. I knew it could be an exciting movie because it’s a thrilling story.”
The feature length screenplay was adapted from Herbert Clough’s book Night of the Full Moon. Clough was the FBI special agent assigned to find Chaddick and brought her kidnapper, Bobby Ray Robbins, to justice.
Winther had been trying for years to get the film made. There had been a multi-million dollar budget with production start dates. At one point, he was preparing to film Do It Or Die in Minnesota. It never came to fruition, but Winther refused to let the project go.
“FBI Agent Herb Clough and I had many discussions,” said Winther. “I watched him fighting cancer with dignity and courage and the last thing he asked me to do was to make the movie.”
Contacting studios and distributors, Winther asked what they would pay for a completed feature film that was considered “a terrible, terrible movie.” He thought if he could make Do It Or Die it certainly would not be “terrible.” And it’s not!
Do It Or Die is definitely an entertaining story, looks terrific, has standout performances, brief nudity and an action sequence with a low-flying helicopter! The beautiful desertscapes and out-lying locations become an important character in the film.
After some research, Winther discovered that the baseline net return even of a “terrible film” could potentially generate revenue and be divided with those involved. All he had to do was find the people who shared his passion for the script and the joy of filmmaking. So Winther turned to his Palm Springs friends and former colleagues. Before long, the project quickly gained momentum.
Producer and actress Denise DuBarry who is a member of Palm Springs Women in Film and Television — and the organization’s former President — got involved to help her long-time friend Jørn. She admits that she had doubts and that every day brought surprises. But finally, DuBarry said, “It all fell into place like magic.”
The film was quickly supported by the City of Palm Springs Bureau of Tourism, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians and Palm Springs Women in Film and Television.
Local businesses like the Riviera Hotel in Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs’ Windmill Market and Traders of the Lost Surplus fit the film’s 1979-time period. Friends and neighbors supplied vintage cars – a Corvette, Rolls Royce and 1967 Coronet.
With respect and great appreciation, Winther says about his actors and production team: “If I had $5 million I’d hire the same cast and crew. Everyone is exactly right. I can’t imagine anyone better.” Winther celebrated his 86th birthday during the filming. With a long list of creative credits, this is Winther’s first time directing a feature film.
There is a palpable energy and anticipation that fills the theater as Do It Or Die screens. It’s exciting. Everyone loves Palm Springs and they are in a Palm Springs theater, attending the PSIFF because they love to discover and connect with movies.
After the screening, a Q&A with the cast highlighted the joy of participating in such a provocative film experiment.
“It is a huge honor to be a part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival,” said DuBarry. “I very much appreciate Harold Matzner and his team. We were hopeful when we submitted the film, but you never know. It’s extremely gratifying to have our film associated with such a quality festival and to have the opportunity to showcase Do It Or Die.”
It is not only apropos, but a celebration of local filmmaking talent that Do It Or Die has its World Premiere at the PSIFF. It is an exciting finish – and beginning – to an ambitious and inspired project unique to Palm Springs.
“Our movie is a salute to the area. The Elaine Chaddick kidnapping back in 1979 is a remarkable piece of local lore we’ve brought to life on the screen,” said DuBarry.
Do It Or Die cast: Denise DuBarry (Being There, Black Sheep Squadron, Charlie’s Angels); David Naughton (American Werewolf in London); John Callahan (Santa Barbara); Viktoria Stamm (Dead on Arrival) and Andrew McGuinness (The Window).
Look for another local Do It Or Die screening later this month.
Excerpts from CV Weekly Vol. 5 No. 6 – “Community and Collaboration: Making a Feature Film For Free” by Heidi Simmons.