Aug. 15--"Breaking Bad" junkies fiending for more drug-fueled crime drama can trade meth for bath salts when the Memphis-made miniseries "Headshop" makes its online debut Thursday.
Coincidentally arriving just as the epochal cable television series is nearing its conclusion, "Headshop" is an extremely ambitious project that marks the filmmaking debut of Dr. Giri Swamy, a physician whose desire to express himself creatively found inspiration in the city's emergency rooms, where he saw increasing numbers of patients admitted for seizures, panic attacks, hallucinations and other problems caused by synthetic drugs, often deceptively sold as "bath salts."
Consisting of five hourlong episodes, "Headshop" can be found on the video-sharing websites YouTube and Vimeo. The first two episodes are free. The final three chapters can be viewed for a $5 fee.
The episodes will be screened Thursday during a launch party at 7 p.m. at the Five in One Social Club, 2435 Broad. Much of the cast and crew is expected to be present for this public celebration of Swamy's commitment -- financial and otherwise -- to his art.
Shot mostly on location over 37 days in early 2011, "Headshop" takes place in the bars, stores, strip clubs, back alleys,
police interrogation rooms and palatial McMansions of Memphis and its suburbs.
Much of the action centers on the title emporium, a head shop called Glass Rootz (a built set), where a new synthetic drug known as "Tesserack" is a hit with local thrill-seekers and a problem with the city's drug kingpins, who don't appreciate the competition from legal "bath salts."
The name "Tesserack" is borrowed from the "tesseract," a mysterious device in Madeleine L'Engel's classic science-fiction novel "A Wrinkle in Time." Swamy calls his production company Shock Collar Studio. (The beautifully designed website, loaded with "Headshop" content, is shockcollarstudio.com.) That name, too, has significance. Said Swamy: "I figure that, like the shock collar (on a dog), we alert you suddenly and violently to the fact that reality isn't quite what you thought."
A second-generation Indian-American physician who specializes in internal medicine and hospice care, Swamy, 39, was born in Philadelphia, Pa., but has lived in Memphis most of his life since age 7. The Memphis University School graduate dreamed of being a professional writer but ultimately followed in his father's footsteps and became a doctor.
His artistic impulses never disappeared, however. In the summer of 2010, "I was sort of going through a crisis in terms of, 'What am I doing?,' " Swamy said. " 'What kind of outlet can I come up with for whatever creative urges I have?' "
Inspired by his love of quality series television ("Mad Men," "The Sopranos") and by the dangerous fad for synthetic drugs (most of which have since become illegal) that was making his hospital work even busier than it had been, Swamy developed a complex storyline with a large cast of interconnecting characters, from the poor and needy to the wealthy and dangerous.
More important, "He put his money where his mouth was," said Memphis actor Marcus Santi, who has the key "Headshop" role of hard-partying, womanizing Caleb, a character as devilish as his satanic goatee. "He stuck his neck out."
His parents and a few others contributed some money, but Swamy primarily funded most of the $400,000-plus budget of "Headshop" himself, he said.
"This is my first project," Swamy said. "I'm a doctor. How can I ask people to give me money? I knew I had to pay for it myself, and I did."
The expense is an investment in the future, Swamy said. Although the miniseries, shot on digital video, may not recoup its cost online, it provides a foundation for what Swamy hopes eventually will be a new career.
"This is not a short-term thing for me," he said. "This is a long-term thing. I intend to keep doing this. Thirty years from now, I don't want to be judged for 'Headshop' but for all the other films I've made."
"It is kind of a crazy way to do a first project," said Swamy's wife, Melissa Azzi, an art dealer who is the miniseries' credited producer.
"This is something he was almost compelled to do, something he needed to do," she said. "I find that most interesting, when artists are making their art or working out their creative process, and it isn't really a choice. Diving into the deep end, it has its drawbacks, but it also can have its benefits, as long as you survive the dive."
If nothing else, "Headshop" netted Swamy a wife and Azzi a husband. The couple had been friends since their days as undergraduates at the University of Chicago, but they didn't marry until December, after Swamy become reacquainted with Azzi and recruited her to work on the miniseries, which required months of editing, sound design, scoring and other postproduction needs.
The relatively large budget of "Headshop" is evident on the screen. The miniseries has a large cast that includes such well-known local actors as Dennis Phillippi and John Still; a wide variety of locations; and a first-rate music score by Lucero band members Rick Steff and Roy Berry. The Memphis & Shelby County Film and Television Commission assisted the novice filmmaker.
The opening credits feature wonderful puppet caricatures of the cast members, created by Memphis artists Alice Laskey-Castle and Michael Andrews. This was not just an indulgence.
"Thematically, it makes sense," Swamy said. "I wrote the characters to be on the stage, so to speak. They're playing out their lives for an audience."
The project recruited non-Memphians, too. Azzi enlisted professional artists to create tarot card portraits of several cast members. The card for "Caleb the Devil," for example, features the distinctive rustic/realistic art style of Jon Langford, a Chicago-based Welshman perhaps best-known as a rock-and-roller, especially in the influential progressive punk-folk band The Mekons.
In addition to drawing on his own ER experiences, Swamy said he researched "Headshop" with visits to area tobacco shops and convenience stores, to ask clerks about their experiences with "bath salt" customers. "They said police officers came in, pilots in uniform," he said. "I incorporated a lot of this into the show."
Swamy calls "Headshop" a "crime thriller that is highly naturalistic," as opposed to the "tightly scripted" quality of "Breaking Bad" and "The Sopranos." He said actors -- including nine main and multiple secondary characters -- largely improvised their lines, based on the situations in his script.
Sometimes the loose approach caused delays, as when he and director of photography John Paul Clark were at the Pony, a Winchester Avenue adult nightclub.
"Wrangling strippers is hard to do," Swamy said. "Those girls will bargain. You really got to pay 'em."
"I got a phone number," said Santi, 41. "Caleb the Devil was out in full force that night."
Although Swamy was a novice director, "he felt really confident about his story," said Memphis actress Shannon Walton, 21, who plays a young police detective. The confidence helped her find her character. "I loved playing someone who was so young yet had so much authority."
Despite his creative urges, Swamy said he never would have invested his own money into such a project if not for the existence of video-sharing websites, which enable an entirely independent production like "Headshop" to be found by anybody who wants to see it.
In the traditional movie and television marketplace, he said, "There was always some kind of barrier to distribution. In movies, to get into theaters, you have to get picked up by a distribution company. In television, you have to get on a network.
"With the Internet, there is no barrier. That is the disruptive element of the Internet to the old-fashioned model. You can get your product to the people. It's just as easy for somebody to come to my website as it is for them to visit ABC or NBC; it just takes a few more keystrokes. The browser will take you anywhere you want to go."
Available starting Thursday night at YouTube.com and Vimeo.com. Premiere party 7 p.m., Five in One Social Club, 2535 Broad. Free admission. Visit shockcollarstudio.com.
(c)2013 The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tenn.)
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