“Hey Josh, everybody’s got a past. There’s nothing you can do about it. It just is what it is.” This key line from upcoming feature film It Is What It Is has become something of a mantra for producers Mike Cunliffe and Ryan Welch.
Cunliffe and Welch formed film production company FUA Productions (which, they joke, will have to be a working title), and their first venture is the full-length film It Is What It Is.
The romantic comedy is set — and filmed — in Birmingham. Cunliffe and Welch want to produce a movie authentic to this area. The characters are natives who reference places and events in the city. The actors are Alabamians, as are the lighting and camera crews.
Even the music is local, featuring the Southern rock of the Delicate Cutters and the blues of Gabriel Tajeu. The title song is by Dave Anderson, who performs locally with Black Jacket Symphony. Cunliffe has worked with Dave Anderson in Black Jacket Symphony’s Pink Floyd performances, and when Anderson saw the movie trailer, he immediately called Cunliffe to say that he had just finished writing a song of the same title.
FUA’s serendipitous fortune occurred with Tajeu as well, when Cunliffe and Welch saw him perform a song that completely expressed the emotional complexity of their movie.
Cunliffe and Welch want to capture Birmingham’s “local flavor” as they describe it. They also want to show the film community at large what a perfect spot Birmingham is for shooting movies. Many films have been shot in town, but until now, they have been mainly short films. Feature-length films are more often shot in Mobile or Montgomery, if in Alabama at all.
In fact, Welch and Cunliffe met on the set of a movie filmed in Montgomery: Tim Burton’s 2003 Big Fish. Cunliffe left for Los Angeles after Big Fish, working there on several films such as Georgia Rules, Mr. Woodcock and The Aviator. Of his experience as location manager and production assistant, Cunliffe says, “My job is primarily logistics, so if I’ve done it well, then everything is working as it should, and I’m left with time to watch and learn from directors like Garry Marshall, Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese.”
While studying theatre and mass communications at Auburn University’s Montgomery campus, Mike Cunliffe wrote his share of screenplays. So when he and Ryan Welch met in 2003, Welch naturally wanted to read them. He was impressed, so when Cunliffe returned from L.A. in 2010, Welch contacted him to pursue a filmmaking partnership.
Welch’s path to movie production was much different. He received a finance degree from Auburn Montgomery, having had little interest in theatre or film until introduced to it by friends who were theatre majors. Once he experienced acting, he was fascinated by the business. His role in Big Fish was twofold: stunt man and stand-in for Ewan MacGregor. Both roles allowed him to observe direction and production, as well as acting.
Since then, Welch has acquired an agent and appeared in various commercials and short films. He has always wanted to appear in a full-length film, and It Is What It Is gives him that chance. In addition to producing the film, Welch plays the main character, Josh.
It Is What It Is tells the story of Josh and Lara (played by UAB and Samford instructor Callie Mauldin) on the night before their wedding. When Lara and the friends who join her on “bachelorette night” happen upon Josh and his friends at a club, Lara makes a startling discovery about Josh’s long-lost college roommate, and, as FUA Productions puts it, “Chaos ensues.”
Other notable characters are Josh’s friends Terry (played by Jeff Hallman, stunt man on The Walking Dead) and Rodney (played by local comic Nick Crawford), as well as Lara’s friends Rachel and Nicki (played by local actresses Sara James and Amanda Maddox).
Cunliffe says, “We’ve tried to avoid the clichés of romantic comedies,” such as stereotypical characters and a predictable ending. Welch notes that the film appeals to men as much as to women. The comedic writing is constantly evolving by the natural quick wit of actors like Crawford and Mauldin, who sometimes improvise lines as they go. Cunliffe, too, has worked in improv. Welch and Cunliffe “never want the dialogue to feel like it’s scripted” and value actors’ input over the precise wording of their screenplay.
Filming has taken place in local sidewalks, alleys, apartments, bars and even Vulcan Park. Welch and Cunliffe praise the city’s ability to partner with filmmakers, as well as the generosity of local proprietors (such as the owners of clubs 26 and Innisfree) in allowing the crew to film on location. Shooting is expected to wrap up next month, and Cunliffe will edit footage in the remainder of the summer.
FUA Productions plans to submit the movie to a wide range of film festivals this fall, from international festivals such as Sundance, Tribeca and Cannes to regional ones such as South by Southwest in Austin and the Sidewalk Film Festival here in Birmingham. Their hope is that screenings of the film will create opportunities for larger studios to show and distribute the film to a wider audience. FUA also plans to distribute it digitally through streaming sites such as Hulu.
If It Is What It Is achieves success, Cunliffe and Welch hope the film will be “a springboard to future projects.” Cunliffe has two other scripts already written: a horror film and a comedy about mistaken identity.
It Is What It Is has been a labor of love for FUA. While they have some sponsors and obtained support on IndiGoGo, funding has fallen a bit short. Cunliffe and Welch never gave up; they have made up the difference from their personal income. (Cunliffe edits films for Southern Progress Corporation, and Welch also works in medical sales.) So checking off each item on their “To Film” and “To Do” lists and seeing the finished product come together is rewarding and a dream come true.
Next month, FUA will shoot a large wedding scene, so they need extras as guests at the reception. To be an extra in a movie, to receive more information (production timeline, viewing opportunities, etc.), or to contact Ryan Welch and Mike Cunliffe about future projects, email Ryan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or check out It Is What It Is on Facebook.