Do the funky cinema chicken

Filmaker Mark Cantu sits before his computer, which shows a still frame from his new film Crazy Thing Called Love. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)

It is a normal Saturday at The Pig Stand - numerous patrons are seated at tables and booths enjoying their food - save for one anomaly: James Blake Beene will soon begin clucking uncontrollably like a chicken. Before he clucks, Beene will commit other unnatural acts: He will yell lewd comments, drink cigarette ashes, and attempt to seduce a complete stranger by twirling and snapping his fingers. Beene is not insane; he is an actor. Beene behaves like a madman because a 70-page script instructs him to, and he is obliged to follow suit no matter what sort of public spectacle he creates in the process.

The madman in charge is Mark Cantu, 26, a local filmmaker who has undertaken the creation of an "oddball romantic comedy" titled Crazy Thing Called Love. Cantu is the independent film's writer, director, and lead actor. The script, which follows the misadventures of two losers groping pathetically for love, mirrors Cantu's own romantic frustrations. The connection is prophetic rather than inspired. One week before shooting commenced, Cantu's girlfriend of six years sloughed him off.

"I thought, 'I can find this guy easy,'" Cantu says of embodying Casey, his heartbroken character. "With all the ammunition, it was a piece of cake." The result is a giddy riff on sexual frustration, replete with all the lewd thoughts and actions that accompany such a condition. The plot tracks Casey and Jackie, two Star Wars geeks fueled by intergalactic sex drives, as they comb the city in search of gratification. None of this, of course, explains why Beene will soon stupefy Pig Stand patrons with some previously scripted bestial behavior. That is where Cantu's artistic vision comes in.

As screenwriter, Cantu has constructed a ludicrous universe. Viewers would be advised to suspend their disbelief from the highest point they can find, preferably the Tower of the Americas, before settling into a world where Death gets drunk on Puerto Rican rum and voodoo sex spells go horribly awry (hence the clucking). And yes, there are "cannibal psycho bitches from hell."

"It's a really quirky, tilt your dog's head sort of thing," says Cantu, who insists the film is based in reality. Casey's tryst with a bloodsucking cannibal, for instance, conveys the adage that love can be found in the strangest of places. But Cantu is not aiming for grandiloquence. "I think underachieving at the outset is my specialty," he says, "then raising the bar as we go along."

Cantu's previous film attempted to scale the heights. Envisioning an epic action film with a dark and edgy atmosphere, Cantu spent six months just rehearsing martial arts choreography. Ultimately, Library Policeman was a bust. "It was too serious for its own good," Cantu says.

If Cantu's new film can be accused of anything, it is certainly not solemnity. The film's humor ranges from the absurd (Jackie transforms from a chicken to a Japanese dictator) to the crude (one male character drinks his own breast milk) to the irreverent (Death accuses Jesus Christ of donkey-punching him in the head and running for the door, hence his resurrection). "I'm a big fan of films that are pure entertainment, just goofy and fun," says Samantha Garcia, who plays a buxom babe in the film. "I think this script really delivers a good time."

The lighthearted material mirrors Cantu's directorial style. He is always joking with the cast, and most takes devolve into hilarity and/or delirium. Although Cantu is a natural comedian, his gregariousness also contributes to the grand design. "I make sure I'm relaxed and laid back," he says. "If the director's relaxed, the actors notice that, and creativity comes from that all the time. I think a relaxed actor is a very good actor."

Cantu also encourages the actors to express their opinions and make suggestions. "Just because I'm doing quite a bit of work doesn't mean my ideas are the best," he says. "If you keep yourself open to everything, you don't deny that creative impulse." This openness translates into a lot of improvisation during shooting. For one scene, in which Casey scuffles with another character, someone suggested Cantu topple into the San Antonio River. Despite the frigid morning temperature, Cantu obliged. He did it for the laugh.

"Mark's directing is very freeform, very loose," says Michael Burger, who plays Death in the film. "`He lets` you find what's organic in the scene."

Nonetheless, Cantu knows what he wants. At the Pig Stand, Beene takes issue with a line in which he exclaims, "Holy Sebastian Shaw!" (English actor Sebastian Shaw played the unmasked Darth Vader in 1983's Return of the Jedi.) Cantu's film is peppered with such arcane references, particularly with respect to 1980s pop culture: Lionel Richie, leg warmers, and Kajagoogoo also crop up. Despite Beene's reticence to pay geeky homage to the late Shaw, Cantu convinces him to play the line with gusto.

"I think underachieving at the
outset is my specialty, then
raising the bar as we go along."

- Mark Cantu

As an actor, Beene has all the necessary verve to animate the script's outrageous material. He is thin and wiry, with a face capable of assuming madcap contortions. The present scene requires him to shout a line that would send the Motion Picture Association of America into a tizzy. Jackie and Casey are sitting beneath a giant neon pig, eyeing a voodoo potion that promises to transform them from hopeless geeks into "the embodiment of every woman's fancy." Jackie is eager to consume the concoction, but levelheaded Casey insists they wait the required 48 hours.

"Instead of making complete jackasses of ourselves," says Cantu, "I'd rather err on the side of celibacy."

"I'd rather err on the side of blowing my wad!" yells Beene, and although none of the numerous diners crane their necks to investigate the source of the impropriety, some patrons have no doubt become aware of a bizarre and lascivious event unfolding in the back of the restaurant.

The following scene finds Casey departing for the bathroom, which tempts Jackie to down the potion. He does so impetuously and then spies a beautiful girl sitting at the booth across from him (Samantha Garcia in her role as the buxom babe). Imbued with a supernatural confidence, Beene glides from his seat and struts toward his prize. The script calls for Beene to display "the swagger of John Wayne and the charisma of Frank Sinatra," but Beene's performance does not go far enough for Cantu. So the director performs a preposterous twirl and snaps both his fingers to show Beene what he wants. Everyone laughs, and Beene dives into high camp like he was born for it.

At the girl's table, Beene must now drink a glass of water with a used cigarette floating on the surface.

"I just put my cigarette out in that," says Garcia.

"That's alright, adds flavor," says Beene, water dribbling from his mouth.

The seduction scene follows. This is a lengthy take; much caressing and trembling of flesh ensues. A teenage boy sitting at a nearby table is transfixed. Then the potion goes awry, and Beene invokes a fowl.

"GWAAAK!" he says, eyes bulging with surprise.

Now people are looking.


Despite the bewilderment of the diners, the cast of Crazy Thing Called Love disintegrates into laughter.

"That was so bad!" Cantu says. "But in a funny way!"

By Brian Chasnoff