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Faith and Film


“Melissa is a verb.”

That’s the way Terry Dodd puts it. He knows because he’s seen the inexhaustive sprite in action. She’s a dervish; tireless, energized and ebullient. And smart. And beautiful.

But she’s also always in motion; whether it’s schlepping her husband’s keyboards around to his countless gigs, pounding out a screenplay in 11 days or pasting pictures on postcards to mail to her friends.

Mail. Not email. She still writes letters, for God’s sake, and she puts them in envelopes with adorable stamps on them and sends them to people.

Terry Dodd knows all about Mel (she goes by the shorter moniker, perhaps just because she really doesn’t have time to spit out the whole thing). Dodd wrote the play that Mel Alman turned into a screenplay that’s going to be the indie film that should help put Colorado on the indie film map. It’s called “Stealing Baby Jesus.”

It’s about a rash of thefts of baby Jesuses (Jesi?) from manger scenes all over Denver during the holidays. As Denver DJ Warren John Narrates from atop a billboard in an encroaching blizzard, the city is whipped into a frenzy over the rash of disappearances. Throughout the ensuing hullaballoo, the interpersonal relationships between characters are explored against the backdrop of faith tested; parent to child, husband to wife, friend to friend. It’s “Love Actually” meets “Miracle on 34th Street;” a holiday piece that connects seemingly unrelated dots to a conclusion both touching and funny.

And Mel wants Colorado to star in it. And we’re not talking about the Colorado in Stallone’s “Cliffhanger,” where packs of wild wolves apparently still roam through the Rockies a century after they disappeared. We’re not talking about the hyper surreal Metro Area of “Things to do in Denver When You’re Dead,” where they took Detroit and dumped it at the base of the foothills. We’re talking about the real Mile High, filled with people who secretly know they’re living in a place where God would chill out with friends for a weekend and then decide to move here on a whim. Like everyone else did.

“We’re going to capture all the great things about living here,” she says, eyes flashing, a wide grin jumping off of her face. She’s leaned forward in her chair, hands clasped in front of her, rocking ever so slightly. She’s almost blurry, the movement inside her just bursting to escape. A physics study in potential energy.

She’s called a group of people together in her west Denver home on a cloudless Sunday afternoon to read Dodd’s tome. Actors, musicians and writers number among the group. A few of them are people Mel and Dodd envision actually playing the roles, like James Nantz, who reads for the part of Warren John, the Deejay who narrates the film; or Marian Rowan who reads for the part of Julia, an elderly woman fighting off loneliness by smothering her only son. Others include Heather Larrabee, a local singer with the Byron Shaw Projex (one of the bands Mel’s husband Chad plays for), one of Chad’s piano students named Anthony Arge, and Deb Flomberg, a member of The “E” Project Theatre Company.

“We’ve got some beautiful sites for the shoot,” Mel says. “The city and county building at Christmas time, the Gothic Theater, The Mayan Theatre, and then the ending will be shot at Red Rocks. We’ll have the entire stage filled with local bands and musicians playing the theme that Chad writes. It’ll be AH-mazing.”

By the time she’s done explaining her vision for the shoot, the assembled group has completely bought in. Heads are nodding in agreement, smiles are flashing. Mel is a battery and everyone in the room is plugged in and turned on. We’re all drinking the Kool-aid, and it tastes great. Almost as great as the heaping piles of lasagna and salad, and sweetly addictive oatmeal-chocolate-chip cookies Mel “whipped up” for the reading.

The house that she shares with Chad is like a conduit for positive energy. The unusual layout has a wide open kitchen/living room; the hallway to the bedrooms is plastered with press clippings about Chad’s bands, pictures and CDs. There’s a porch overlooking a wildly overgrown yard with a tiny little house sequestered away in the corner—it’s the inspiration for the name of Mel’s production company, From the Little House LLC. The porch wraps around over the garage like a veranda and opens into the house from the master bedroom and living room. It’s one big circle. Everything here is simply alive.

It’s all AH-mazing.

It’s weeks later. The Westword local music showcase is underway, and Mel is here volunteering as the beverage manager and coordinating the efforts of all the non-profit booths. She’s been here since before 8 a.m. and is operating on about three hours of sleep. The night before, Chad played a show with the Byron Shaw Projex at the Foundry in Boulder, and Mel was there, unloading his equipment and loading it back up for the long drive home to Lakewood at 2:30 in the morning.

Chad has Crohn’s disease, and the illness and the drugs he’s taking to fight it leave him too weak and his bones too brittle to wrangle the heavy equipment. It’s been a long, protracted battle that has seen him knocking at death’s door more often than either of them care to admit.

Chad’s one of the kindest guys you’ll meet. His short, perpetually mussed, spiky blonde hair and extremely slight frame are dwarfed by his wide smile. If Bill Watterson had let Calvin and Hobbes grow up, Calvin would look like Chad. Except, where Calvin was often lost in a world of imaginary monsters and space aliens, Chad’s world of long nights spent doubled over in pain, followed by days of exhaustion and frustration are very real.

“It’s been a tough week for him,” Mel says, leaving off the obvious suffix to that sentence: “and me.” She’s not given to self pity at all. Other than the occasional bout of frustration and anger at the helplessness she’s felt since Chad contracted Crohn’s, Mel has been an ardent soldier and angel at his side. Chad calls Crohn’s “Arthritis in your guts.”

It’s an inflammatory bowel disease that usually attacks the lower intestine. The saga they relate about the battle with his disease is nothing short of epic.

She summed it up in a letter in February 2006 to her friends and family when they were finally out of the woods:

“We made it home this past Sunday night, finally, after 32 extremely long days and nights in rooms 241, 245, 246, 247 and room 2 in PCU at Saint Anthony’s Central Hospital. We are exhausted.

It all seemed to be a numbers game…before the surgery the Doc said 3-7 days in moderate pain, max blood loss of 2-3 tablespoons, fully recovered in about 4 weeks.

This turned into 32 days in the most excruciating pain imaginable, blood loss of 5 filled bedpans, a 4-unit blood infusion, a massive infection, a giant abscess, a hole in the colon and a recovery time estimated at 3 months.

Like I said, we are exhausted.”

It wasn’t always like this. When they first met, Mel was on a brief trip to Denver from her adopted home in New York, far away from the struggles she endured in her high school years in the Metro Area.

“I knew after spending a couple hours with her that I had to spend the rest of my life with her,” Chad says. The whirlwind romance and ensuing engagement was a matter of weeks—and something neither of them saw coming. Mel was just in town for a quick vacation, remember. But they hadn’t been together very long when Chad was diagnosed with the same disease his sister had battled for years. Nonetheless, they’ve persevered, even drawn closer to each other as they’ve struggled through the countless doctor visits, different drug cocktails—each with their own set of side effects—and sleepless nights. Granted, it’s not like struggle’s anything new for Mel.

Mel attended East High School on Colfax in the heart of Capitol Hill, when her family broke apart. The resulting conflict found Mel, her mother and younger sister literally homeless. “She was using food stamps,” Chad says over dinner in their home in mid-August. Mel nods in agreement. “We had nothing, and we were living at Warren Village,” she says.

Warren Village, established in 1974, was created to help low-income, single-parent families “achieve sustainable personal and economic self-sufficiency,” according to its website, by providing housing and family services to those in need. Mel has pledged a portion of any proceeds raised by “Stealing Baby Jesus” to the organization. She ended up at Warren Village after her mother and father split—he hit the road and left a trail of victims in his wake. While they were better off without him, Mel says, they were in dire straights. Warren helped them get back on their feet.

From there, and after finishing high school at East, Mel floated around a bit, took some classes at Metro State College and CU Denver and worked as a manager at the Mayan Theater on Broadway in Denver. That’s where she met and befriended Terry Dodd.

“We saw kindred spirits in each other,” Dodd says. “We both love film, and are really students of the genre.” Dodd’s resume sparkles with highlights, including this year’s award from Westword for “Best Season for a Director.” He’s written and directed plays all over the Front Range, sold screenplays to Hollywood and won a slew of awards for direction and writing over a career spanning a few decades.

“When I shared the idea (for the movie) with Mel, she was enamored with it, and made me swear to let her make this film whenever I got it written,” Dodd says.

“It was more than 10 years ago,” Mel echoes. “I was still working at the Mayan, and I just knew I had to do this film. I’ve only had that feeling twice in my life; with (this movie) and when I met my husband. I made him pinky-swear he’d let me be the one to make this movie.”

And 10 years was exactly what the recipe called for. “Sometimes it takes life happening to simply write the story for you,” Dodd says. “My mother passing away four years ago was a big part of that.”

A central theme of the movie follows the relationship of a single, 40-something character and his elderly mother that Dodd says is heavily autobiographical. “It was always there, kind of on the back burner, and finally, I locked myself away for six weeks and just wrote it. Then, I emailed Mel with one sentence: ‘Have finished ‘Stealing Baby Jesus.’ Must get you a copy.’”

“It was so much a bit of fate,” Mel says. “It was an old email address I hadn’t checked in ages, and only just happened to the day he sent the email. We hadn’t really even talked in a couple years.”

They met at Charlie Brown’s on Capitol Hill where Dodd delivered the script. By then, Mel had already made a name for herself as a film producer, most notably (and recently) “The Hip Hop Project,” a documentary about a group of New York City teens who weave powerful stories about their lives through music. The other producers on that film include Queen Latifah and Bruce Willis (Mel is credited under her maiden name, Melissa Van Allen). Mel was already a pro story teller. With Dodd’s tome, she now has a new story to tell, and it’s one she’s keeping in Colorado.

“I love that Mel has made this an homage to Denver,” Dodd says, talking about Mel’s screenplay adaptation. “And it’s so much fun to talk story with her.” He likens the creative process between them to a director and his director of photography. “We see the world through the same lens.” Which makes it easier for Dodd to let Mel run with his script.

And run she has, although as of press time, she’s still seeking funding. Mel has secured the coveted Colorado Film Production Incentive, a program that rebates 10 percent of the below-the-line costs of production when it meets local spending and hiring requirements.

“It’s kind of maddening that Colorado doesn’t even have the kind of draw that, say, New Mexico has,” Dodd says. “The remake of the film “3:10 to Yuma” saved millions by shooting in New Mexico rather than Colorado, for instance.” When it comes to film production, Vancouver, often referred to as the L.A. of the north, has nothing on Colorado in terms of backdrop—the main difference is the cost to film there. “The only thing Denver’s missing is shoreline,” Dodd says.

And the numbers bear him out. The Colorado Film Commission lists 26 films or television shows from 10 different studios slated for production in Colorado in 2007; the BC Film Commission website lists 100 projects from 71 different studios. Meanwhile, the Greater Vancouver Regional District population estimate in 2006 was 2,180,737; in Denver, it was 2,408,750. That means that while the Metro Area is 10 percent bigger, it’s only drawing about a quarter of the amount of film projects that Vancouver is. Both Vancouver and New Mexico offer myriad incentives for film crews to shoot in their locales.

But film in Colorado is growing. Paramount and Warner Bros both have feature films in production this year; an Eddie Murphy vehicle called “Nowhereland,” and a Rob Reiner film called “The Bucket List” starring Jack Nicholson. Another Colorado indie flick featuring local music mainstay Elizabeth Rose called “Suburban” is generating buzz. The incentive is one reason why hopefully, as these projects generate more buzz, more incentives will come and film crews will swarm. And Mel has plenty of buzz already.

Mel and the project have already been featured on 103.5 The Fox’s morning show with Lewis and Floorwax as well as an in-depth feature segment on CBS 4 local news by Greg Moody in the last few months; and she’s also locked in agreements from Lewis and Floorwax and local FOX31 TV personalities Libby Weaver and Tammy Vigil all to appear in the film. It was an easy decision to be involved, relates Rick Lewis, one half of the team that is consistently ranked among the top morning radio shows in Denver.

“Mel and I have been trading emails about the project and her enthusiasm is infectious,” Lewis says. “I was very impressed with the marketing package; it was very creative and well-thought out.” Plus, he adds, the possibility of entertaining certain “perks” is also enticing. “The concept and premise seem like an interesting one. It sounded like fun, and she promised she would try to write in a semi-nude love scene for me.”

(“Well, he and ’Wax in a semi-nude love scene together may not be appropriate for this particular project,” Mel jokes.)

Mel is reportedly in discussion with David Ogden Stiers of “M*A*S*H” fame, or more recently, Rev. Gene Purdy on the USA network’s “The Dead Zone” series to appear in the film. And Julie Adams, former scream queen best known for her role in the original “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” in addition to recurring characters on TV shows across the last half-century like “Murder She Wrote,” “Perry Mason” and “Lost,” has verbally committed. Dodd has worked on plays in the past with Stiers and Adams, and the connection brought the two into the fold, thanks to some gentle encouragement from Mel.

“It’s wonderful having a fan of my writing in Mel,” Dodd says. “It’s wonderful that we both inhabit the same world in the way we see this piece. And I think that’s very important—stories don’t always know the tone they want, but a true work of art knows the animal it wants to be. When you both envision it the same way, it helps.” Meanwhile, though the story reads well on the page, seeing it make its transition to the Silver Screen takes a whole cast and crew, a budget of a little more than $2 million and one tireless, impassioned, driven woman who won’t let anything slow her down.

“Mel is a verb,” Dodd says. “And I’m an adverb—we need to be around a verb to get kicked into gear.”

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