By Josh Moss
Robert McAtee didn’t always know that he’d make movies. After all, the filmmaker, who was born in Louisville and grew up in Madison, Ind., picked up the guitar long before the video camera. And after graduating from Indiana University, where he studied audio technology in the school of music, he returned to Louisville, for a job in publishing and graphic design at the Presbyterian Church’s headquarters. Eventually, he wanted more.
“I just wasn’t happy with what I was doing,” the 36-year-old McAtee says. “I had this desire to go to Hollywood — I know it sounds funny and cliche — but I wanted to get into movies, wanted to make movies, act in movies, do music for movies. I just had that bug.”
Eventually, he scored a national freelance gig with Toys “R” Us creating two-sided index cards for a training program. It paid more than $10,000, money McAtee used to move his family (which at the time included a wife and two children, though now he’s divorced) to Los Angeles in 1999. Within a year he was taking acting classes at UCLA. They paid off, because by 2002 he landed the lead in his first feature, an independent film with a $400,000 budget called “Touch My Girl.”
“All this creative stuff, at least for me personally, is in the same part of my brain,” McAtee says. “And that part of my brain is the part that works really well.”
Since then, McAtee has been in about 17 other features. Tonight, as part of the Derby City Film Festival, his directorial debut, “Trail of Crumbs” — which already had its West Coast premiere — shows at 9 p.m. at the Louisville Memorial Auditorium, 970 S. 4th St. A day pass costs $10. “It’s kind of my baby,” he says of “Crumbs.” Rightfully so. In addition to directing it, McAtee is also the lead actor and co-writer. Plus, he recorded the film’s music.
Without spoiling anything, "Crumbs" is about a guy named Calvin Miller (McAtee), who is divorced and without a job. Then his Grandma dies and leaves him a vacation home in Vermont, where he hopes to begin a new life. About that time, Wendy (Molly Leland, who co-wrote the script) shows up. Calvin’s grandmother owned something that Wendy wants. Calvin doesn’t realize this, and they both head to Vermont.
McAtee and Leland started working on another script before "Crumbs." It was about, as McAtee puts it, “a disaster that had taken place in L.A. that brought two people together.” After a while, it became depressing. McAtee also wondered how they’d fund it. “Eventually, I said, ‘I’m done,’” McAtee says. The two were at a Starbucks, and Leland stormed out. When she returned, though, they started talking about what they could pull off. With friends in Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and Vermont, they started writing a script in October 2005 that would take place in those states. Three weeks later, the bulk of the screenplay for “Crumbs” was finished.
They started shooting in January 2006, and, in total, it took 22 days. It’s a beautiful film visually, especially a shot of Calvin and Wendy standing by the Ohio River, beneath one of the downtown Louisville bridges, on a foggy day. “A lot of people who aren’t from Louisville have thought that shot was in Europe or something,” McAtee says. “Louisville gave the film a unique look. It was January when we shot so it was just this grayness that kind of matched the Calvin Miller character.”
In addition to shots downtown, viewers will also recognize Churchill Downs’ twin spires and Big Rock at Cherokee Park. And although the themes of loss and home are apparent in “Crumbs,” McAtee doesn’t have a particular idea he wants people to take away from the movie. “I’d love people to watch ‘Trail of Crumbs’ and not take it as literal as it is,” he says. “Hopefully it will make people think about their own lives.”