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Going off the Rails
Local film The Passenger evokes atomic age paranoia
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Robert Davis is a troubled man. Despised by his wife and harangued by his boss, Davis is on his daily train commute when he loses his briefcase full of documents concerning the merger of his contracting firm. A stress-induced panic attack leaves him unconscious on the platform, and when he wakes up, he’s all alone, the station deserted and a disembodied voice on the PA speakers announcing the arrival and departure of trains that don’t seem to exist.
That’s the set-up for The Passenger, a 35-minute film set in 1945 on the day of the first atom bomb tests. Produced and directed by local film-maker Kelly Lynch and collaborators Andrew Helmkamp and Mike Bove, The Passenger plays like a classic Twilight Zone episode where the viewer wonders if they’re witnessing a stress-induced fantasy of Robert’s, or if something truly catastrophic has happened.
Produced for under $1,000 and shot in Fort Wayne; Auburn; Buffalo, New York; and Monticello, Illinois, The Passenger has already been selected for showing at two Indiana film festivals: The Really Big Short Film Festival in Indianapolis at the Indiana State Museum on February 22nd and 23rd, and The Windsong Pictures Film Festival in Fort Wayne on March 10th-16th at IPFW.
For Lynch, the story began with a single iconic image he created several years ago while still in high school. A lifelong train buff — his grandfather was a railroader, and his father, illustrator Dan Lynch, was involved with the Fort Wayne Railroad Historical Society — Lynch took a photo of himself in a suit and fedora standing on one of the dilapidated platforms at the old Baker Street station in Fort Wayne. Lynch thought the image of a man waiting for a train that was obviously never going to arrive was pretty interesting. “The platforms looked like they had been hit by a bomb,” Lynch says. “Being a huge fan of old TV shows like The Twilight Zone and The Untouchables, I set about writing this script about this guy on the platform.”
Lynch and a few of his high school friends tried to shoot some footage of this character wandering around the desolate station, but the drive from Spencerville, where Lynch went to school, meant the project never really congealed. It wasn’t until he was a film student at Columbia College in Illinois that Lynch revisited the idea. In 2005 he shot a 12-minute version of the story and cast his friends from high school. “It was okay, but it was clearly ‘this is a kid making a movie with his friends’ kind of thing,” Lynch says. “I was okay with what we had done given the circumstances, but I thought it could be better. I wanted to make the real deal, like a real film.”
Lynch expanded on the story and characters. The story follows Robert Davis through his day; the viewer meets his wife and boss, and the extraordinary circumstances that eventually leave him wandering a deserted train station, beset by disturbing visions. “We were able to give a lot more gravitas to the story,” Lynch says. “There are Twilight Zone episodes that play with these archetypical characters.”
“I’ll be pretentious and say the train station reflects what Robert is and what his life is all about,” Lynch adds, laughing.
The expanded version of The Passenger not only had a new cast, but Lynch enlisted the help of assistant director Andrew Helkamp, a long-time friend of Lynch’s now studying film and media at IU, and Mike Bove, a cinematographer Lynch had met at Columbia. Among other projects they’ve worked on, Helmkamp and Lynch had made an eight-minute short called Common Ground, set during the Battle of the Bulge, but Helkamp says his role in The Passenger was strictly support. “Kelly really has a specific way he wanted to do this,” Helmkamp says. “To him, this is a homage to Twilight Zone episodes, so I was kind of wary of suggesting any major changes. I’d offer some camera angle ideas or production ideas, but I didn’t mess with the construction of the story.”
Robert Davis is played by Jason Kistler from Indianapolis, while local actors Bill Piercy and Ashley Petry portray Davis’ boss and wife, respectively. The original score was composed by Rich Douglas.
Lynch, Helmkamp and Bove traveled to Buffalo, New York and shot some of the scenes in the abandoned Buffalo Central terminal. “It’s this great art deco passenger terminal that was built in 1925,” Lynch says. Securing permission from the restoration corporation that manages the building proved no problem. In fact, Lynch found that many people were pretty happy to work with the film during production. “I think the project was blessed the whole way through. We didn’t have to pay to use any of these locations and everybody we worked with that was in charge of these locations was excited and supportive. We were lucky.”
Unfortunately, the Baker Street Station platforms that initially inspired the project were torn down just a week after Lynch shot the original 12-minute version of the film. The scenes in the expanded version were shot on the Baker Street Station concourse. About 20 extras showed up in period attire (some costumes were rented from Retroactive on North Anthony) for the shoot. “It was just amazing to be at Baker Street and have 20 people milling around and acting like they were train passengers from 1945,” Lynch says. “They were checking their baggage, getting their tickets, fanning themselves on the benches because it was so hot, calling taxis… the whole station just came alive.”
The Passenger debuts at The Really Big Short Film Festival at the IMAX theater in Indianapolis February 22 and 23, and then at the Windsong Film Festival at IPFW March 10 – 16. Though new projects are already under way, the film-makers are excited to see what the audience makes of The Passenger. “Up until now, we’ve had complete control over who is going to see it,” says Helmkamp. “It’s been close friends and family. Now, there’s a whole new audience. It’ll be really, really interesting.”