Naomi McDougall Jones and the ‘Bite Me’ revolution
IF YOU GO …
What: ‘Bite Me’ Screening & Joyful Vampire Ball
Where: Aspen District Theatre & Glenwood Vaudeville Revue
When: Wednesday, July 10 & Thursday, July 11
How much: $15-$20
Tickets: Wheeler Opera House boxoffice; aspenshowtix.com
More info: bitemethefilm.com; also streaming on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play
With the new film “Bite Me,” Naomi McDougall Jones has made a charming romantic comedy set in the world of real-life vampires. But the Aspen native is also using the independent feature to test a new model for film distribution.
She and members of the “Bite Me” team are on an RV road-show with the movie, hitting a total of 51 screenings in 40 cities over three months. Now in its mid-point, the tour stops in Aspen on July 10 and in Glenwood Springs on July 11.
The vampires of “Bite Me” aren’t the supernatural blood-sucking monsters of lore, but actual people who live in our world and identify as vampires and, yes, drink blood. “We don’t bite,” a character explains. “It’s not sanitary.”
On the set of “Boardwalk Empire” years ago, Jones met an extra who identified as a vampire, which piqued her interest, inspired her to ask many questions and to begin researching it online (many vampires helpfully have online vlogs, a fact that makes its way comically into “Bite Me”).
She wrote the first draft in 2013. It evolved into a story that met these vampires on their own terms, as actual three-dimensional living and breathing humans who are often outcasts or feel like they are.
“One of the main reasons I wrote this movie was to make a movie for the real weirdos, for people who don’t feel seen, who don’t feel understood,” Jones told me from an RV campsite in South Carolina.
She stars in the film as Sarah — a leather-clad vampire with blue hair and a Tyson-esque face tattoo — who strikes up an unlikely relationship with the IRS agent (Christian Coulson) assigned to audit her vampire “church.” (A non-vampire, he’s known as a “mundane.”)
“Bite Me” is the second feature Jones — a 2005 graduate of Aspen High School — has written, produced and starred in, following the 2014 psychological thriller “Imagine I’m Beautiful.”
“Everything you see the vampires do in the movie is based on real things that at least some vampires do,” she explained of her research. That includes a donor system to get blood, balls to gather the vampire faithful and legal battles to practice their lifestyle.
The screening in Aspen, like every stop around the country, will be followed by a “Joyful Vampire Ball.” It’s inspired by a gathering in the film, which is based on actual balls thrown regularly in New York by a vampire named Father Sebastian. No, there’ll be no blood-drinking at the bash. It’s a costume party. Or, at least, it started as a costume party but has evolved into something more.
“The biggest surprise is that they’ve been extremely moving events,” Jones said. “I discovered that we wanted these events to be creative things where we invited the audience to show up fully as yourself and risk offering that up to other people that you don’t know.”
Costume pieces, rhinestones, temporary tattoos, glitter pens and the like will be on hand at a “transformation station” to help Aspenites transform. On the tour, she gets to meet people after every screening who tell her the kinship they feel with Sarah and the vampires of “Bite Me.”
“The stories I’m hearing from people at screenings are incredible,” Jones said.
Beyond her creative work on-screen, Jones has been making waves in the film industry in recent years as an activist for gender equality behind the camera, calling for a “women in film revolution.” Her TED Talk, “What It’s Like to be a Woman in Hollywood,” recorded in 2016, drew widespread attention following the revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s abuses and the birth of the #MeToo movement in 2017. It led to a book, which Jones will publish next year. She also formed The 51 Fund, which will financially back movies created by women. (“Bite Me” walks the talk, with a female-led creative team including director Meredith Edwards.)
The “Bite Me” roadshow is a revolution of its own.
Jones and her creative partners opted out of traditional distribution for the film, releasing it themselves instead and personally taking it to theaters around the country.
“The way independent film is distributed is just bad,” she said. “It’s bad for their filmmakers, it’s bad for investors, it’s bad for audiences. Distributors are just acquiring a ton of content and dumping it into the marketplace and the abyss of iTunes and Netflix and Amazon, not marketing it, not putting any kind of budget behind it.”
Most small-budget films disappear into a morass of content, lose money and don’t get seen. So Jones and her producing partner, Sarah Wharton, figured nobody will put as much time and energy into releasing a film than they would. So they’re doing it themselves.
While they’re on the road, they’re producing a YouTube docu-series that covers their colorful experiences on the road (battling spiders and emptying the RV sewage container, for instance) while also detailing how the new release model is doing. Each episode includes statistics on ticket sales and revenue (working toward a goal of $1 million, the team reported making $9,903 as of the May 25 episode).
Jones’ homecoming to Aspen, no doubt, will provide some compelling fodder for the show.
“It’s such an encouraging community and so many people who loved me and encouraged me growing up will be there,” she said. “It’s just the best.”
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