Local boy makes good

UH grad Tom Vaughan & alumni are Playing House in erotic thriller at WorldFest

UH grad Tom Vaughan & alumni are Playing House in erotic thriller at WorldFest

News_WorldFest 2011_Playing House_movie poster
News_WorldFest 2011_Playing House_movie photo
Houston's own Mayra Leal plays a sexy temptress in "Playing House", a movie full of Houston ties. Courtesy of WorldFest
News_WorldFest 2011_Playing House_movie photo
A scene from "Playing House" Courtesy of WorldFest
News_WorldFest 2011_Playing House_movie poster
News_WorldFest 2011_Playing House_movie photo
News_WorldFest 2011_Playing House_movie photo

Playing House likely is the closest thing to a class reunion that you’ll encounter at the 2011 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival.

Produced, directed and (with Kristy Dobkin) co-written by Tom Vaughan – a University of Houston grad with a respectable number of film and TV screenwriting credits on his resume – it’s a slick, steamy erotic thriller that showcases no fewer than seven UH grads in its cast. (An eighth key player, Sarah Prikryl, is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas and a veteran of H-Town’s Alley Theatre.)

But don’t misunderstand: This isn’t some sort of post-grad student project. Rather, it’s a small-budget, high-concept production of UV Pictures, an outfit formed in 2005 by Vaughan and Chris Uettwiller to develop and produce feature films and television both inside and outside the studio system. With offices in Los Angeles and Houston, the company is committed to Texas productions whenever possible.

And with the release of Playing House, Vaughan and his associates hope to demonstrate that they’re playing for keeps.

CultureMap: OK, here’s the set-up – you’re in the lobby of the AMC Studio 30 on Thursday evening, and someone comes up to you and asks: “I’m thinking about buying a ticket to your movie. What’s it about?” Now, quick, how do you respond?

Tom Vaughan: It’s about a young couple who buy their very first house. But they've over-extended themselves, they can’t afford it. So they ask their friend to move in and help with the mortgage. And once they do that, he invites his new girlfriend into the house. And they discover she’s not exactly who she says she is. And she likes what they have. And she does not want to leave.

It’s a really fun thriller. It’s designed for the audience to have fun, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. But it plays everything truthfully. It’s a rollercoaster ride that evokes emotions from the audience.

CM: Would you also describe it as a reunion of the University of Houston mafia?

TV: [Laughs] Actually, a lot of the connections to UH were found after the fact, after we were already working on the project. It was actually a surprise to find out just how many UH alumni  were involved. It wasn’t anything planned. It was just a case of my using some actors that I knew from around town. Shelley Calene-Black and Craig Welzbacher were the only ones I’d went to school with. And Shelly was actually in the first play I ever directed at UH, back in 1993.

All the other ones, I’d met over the years. And some of the younger ones, I’d met more recently in the comedy scene, the improv scene, here in town. And they introduced me to other people.

CM: It’s been said that with developments in digital video and other technology, it’s much easier – and cheaper – to get an indie film made today than it was even five years ago. Did you find that to be the case?

TV: It’s a double-edged sword. The physical production is a lot easier. But that’s actually also created a problem, because there are a lot more productions out there. There are lots of people with no business making movies, making movies. And kind of pulling production capital towards their direction. And there’s also a problem when you get out into the marketplace -- there is so much more product out there. So trying to get recognized – trying to even just get seen – is much more difficult.

CM: True enough. But Playing House is an erotic thriller. And, traditionally, there’s been a ready market for movies of that sort – right?

TV: Well, let me put it this way: People like our movie, thank goodness. We were at the American Film Market in Los Angeles last October. And we had distribution before we even started the festival circuit. Which is a rarity. We actually come out nationally on DVD in June. And we’ve sold to plenty of international markets. Like, we’ve sold to Russia, to South Africa, Canada, Mexico. And I still haven’t gotten the report from the Berlin Film Market [held in February], so I don’t know how well we’ve done with that yet. But as far as commercially speaking, yes -- the erotic thriller, done well, is still very much a marketable genre. And still selling around the world.

CM: Why do you think people are responding to your erotic thriller in particular?

TV: People really seem to be responding to the writing, and to the performances. It’s a quality production. In fact, the only thing that kind of lets you know it’s not more of a Hollywood film is that the actors are all unknown. Which I think in a way helps the film. Certainly not in a commercial sense, but from a viewer’s standpoint in terms of not knowing these faces. You wouldn’t know that it’s a low-budget film. We were very, very fortunate with the crew that we got.

CM: You bring up an interesting point. It sounds odd to say this about a movie starring Will Smith – but when Independence Day came out in 1996, director Roland Emmerich said that he was glad he had no real stars in his cast because, that way, the audience never knew for certain who’d live, and who’d perish.

TV: And we make use of that as well. We throw the audience for a bit of a loop fairly early, right around the midpoint of the film, to let them know that nobody’s safe.

CM: That’s a nice, safe, scrupulously ambiguous response.

TV: [Laughs] Hey, I don’t want to give anything away.

Playing House will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday at the AMC Studio 30 as part of the 2011 WorldFest/Houston International Film Festival. There will be a Q&A with the filmmakers following the screening.