Summer, 1997, downtown Indianapolis. The hottest party in the city was happening — the grand opening of Planet Hollywood. Local filmmaker Ryan Penington was just a teenager, totally awestruck by the stars surrounding him.
Penington got the daunting task of bussing Bruce Willis' table. In the flurry of fame, he bumped into comedian Chris Farley, who was posing for a picture with a group of Colts cheerleaders. After smacking one on the ass, Farley put the blame on Penington, who was standing timidly behind the towering icon of comedy. Penington could hardly recognize Farley behind the haze of sweaty, alcohol-induced excess in which the star was swirling.
"It was sad and weird and something I'll never forget," Penington says.
Farley died of a drug overdose that winter. And his spirit now looms over Penington's latest film.
Funny Fat Guy revolves around a stand-up comedian struggling to make his big breakthrough in Hollywood — "the only place where you can die from hope," he says.
Played by IU alumnus and comedian Sandy Danto, Charlie McStean is a comic with all the problems of John Belushi and Chris Farley but with only a fraction of the talent. After binging on pizza, booze and cocaine, he stumbles into The Ha-Ha Hole and dies a little bit every night on stage. As a wise waitress there tells him, he's much funnier when he outruns his demons and reveals his true self. Written by Nick Snowden, it's a biting satire that digs into the dark heart of Hollywood.
The film is shot entirely in Los Angeles, but it's imbued with the spirit that Penington formed as a filmmaker in Indianapolis in the early 2000s. In 2001, Penington co-founded the Film Commune, a collective of five indie filmmakers, which the prestigious publication MovieMaker Magazine described as a key reason Indianapolis received an honorable mention on its list of the top 10 cities for independent film.
Penington brought the same "punk-rock approach" to Funny Fat Guy that he brought to his projects in Indy. After going through casting changes, losing producing partners and jumping through financial hoops, he went back to basics — directing, shooting and editing the film himself. And when he couldn't book a comedy club for the film's central scenes, he built one himself. Penington befriended the owner of a bar near his apartment, convinced the guy to let him shoot at the place, put up a sign for The Ha-Ha Hole on the wall and let the makeshift movie magic unfold.
"I was determined, man. I wasn't going to give up," Penington says. "For a long time, things were going wrong with this project. People dropped out. Unfortunately, one of the original actors died. It was really rough. But I just had to keep going."
Penington's persistence paid off. After filming and a year-and-a-half of editing, the finished product found a great deal of success. Just last month, it won Best Feature at the Diamond in the Rough Film Festival. The festival's co-founder and artistic director, Mark Schwab, praised the film's timeless quality.
"This could've come out of 1977. It's gritty looking, there's grain in it," Schwab said in an episode of the podcast “Celluloid Dreams.” As he says, the film fittingly looks washed-up and faded, mirroring the condition of its titular character.
"The whole thing takes place in this strange sort of time bubble," Penington says. "Charlie wants to live in another era. He wants to be a Belushi or a Farley. He wants to exist in the golden age of comedy. So the whole film feels like a surreal dream of a time gone by. It’s bathed in a druggy haze of nostalgia."
The film brings back Penington's own memories of seeking success in Los Angeles and drowning in desperate dreams. But now that this deeply personal passion project is done, it's pushing him toward a brighter future.
Before it hits the festival circuit across the country in the months to come, Funny Fat Guy is playing at Flix Brewhouse on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. (A Q&A with Penington will take place after the screening.)
After years of hard work and guerrilla filmmaking, everything is coming full circle back to Indy, where Penington bumped into those big stars when he was just a teen dreaming of making a splash on the big screen.
"This is a story I've wanted to tell for so many years. It's a labor of love," Penington says. "And I'm eager to get it out into the world."