Even though Scott Kurz made his name on the Omaha stage, his dream has always been to make films, and that’s exactly what he’s doing. Since leaving Brigit Saint Brigit in 2012, to pursue a full-time, on-camera acting career, he has been in about 20 commercials, played the lead in the short film, The Fixer; and, most recently, played the character McFarland, in the episode “Just Drive the Truck” on NBC’s Chicago Fire. (He shot in Chicago from mid-August to the end of August. The episode aired Oct. 7.) Within the last few months, he’s added a series of hyphenates to his resume as he is currently finishing up an independent short titled Lucky Stiff, which he wrote, acts in, directed, and is editing.
Kurz made his onscreen, feature, debut in 1995, when he played Evan, Simon’s Brother in Omaha (The Movie). One year later, he was cast in Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, playing Cheryl’s boyfriend, a role that was a “featured extra.” Back then, he had every intention to move to Los Angeles, and try to break into the business. But life had other plans for him, and, for the most part, he set aside his cinematic aspirations to act, direct, and adapt plays for the stage. In 2006, he began working with Hunger Artist Films on several indie shorts, the first of which was No Outlet, then In Silence and Tears (2010), and finally The Fixer (2012), which won Best Nebraska Short Film at the Omaha Film Fest.
At the end of July 2014, he became involved with the 48 Hour Film Project in Des Moines. The objective of 48HFP is for a team of people to make a movie – write, shoot, edit, and score it – in just two days. On the Friday, the team gets a character, a prop, a line of dialogue, and a genre, and by Sunday, the short film must be complete and in official hands.
“We were given the genre suspense/thriller. Our prop was a backpack. Our line was ‘That’s liquid gold.’ And we had to have a character named Alex/Alexis Simpson who was a real estate agent,” Kurz said. “We got our information at 7 p.m. Friday, and immediately started brainstorming. We asked ourselves ‘What are our strengths? What equipment do we have? And what actors do we have available?’ By 1 a.m. we had a complete script, and a schedule to shoot the next day. We should have started earlier, because we ran out of time. We lost light, so we had to go back to get the sunrise to match the sunset, and then we color corrected it.”
The pace was, to say the least, frantic. While editing was taking place, the composer was busy scoring. And then it was time to render it, and get it back to Des Moines in time. For Kurz and his team, which included actor Matt (Burke McLain) Brown and Chad Bishoff, who brought a drone into the equation, the result was Muddy Water. The title refers to the Missouri River, the murky water that provides the backdrop, and to the characters’ intentions, which are duplicitous. Because everyone committed to the characters and the genre – no one took a “wink, wink” approach – it won best in the city. And that meant that it moved automatically onto the next round of competition in Los Angeles at Filmapalooza, which runs Feb. 26 to March 1. If the short is deemed one of the Top 10 best there, it will go to the Cannes Film Festival.
Not only did working on Muddy Water make Kurz realize how much he enjoyed directing and telling stories, but, more importantly, it also made him realize that he could do it on film, and do it successfully. For his independent short Lucky Stiff, he is again working with Brown, who acts, and Bishoff, who provided the equipment. New to this team is Kurz’s long-time friend and collaborator Eric Griffith, who, on camera, has a supporting acting role, and behind the scenes, is the sound designer/sound recordist (with a boom-assist from Michael Campbell for the scene he was acting in), and is doing most of the post-production work: co-editing with Kurz (based on his first edit), re-recording dialogue where needed and Foley work, a few odd digital effects, and color-grading.
“Scott and I always looked for ways to work on projects like this,” Griffith said. “Now that he is working to develop himself as a filmmaker, I am thrilled he asked me to be a part of this project.”
About Griffith, Kurz said that “he and I have been a powerful creative team for nearly 20 years, and we were like that, literally, from the first time we ever worked together. I value him so much.”
The reason that Kurz began making Lucky Stiff is simple: He didn’t want to lose any creative momentum. “I had this idea for a couple of years,” Kurz said. “I started writing it, but then I hit a wall. I didn’t like where it was going. Matt and I talked for a few hours, and I realized that it was more about the relationship (between the characters) than it was the subject matter. I worked on it for a couple of weeks then I took a break. I worked on it for about one month total.”
The script for Lucky Stiff is 15 pages long, has five characters, and takes place in three locations (an apartment, a house, and downtown). Because the short is set during the holidays, Kurz was hoping to shoot between Christmas and New Year’s, but that didn’t happen for a variety of reasons. Making matters worse was the fact that it never snowed, and the script calls for snow. He ended up having to rent a snow machine. “It made a huge difference in the film,” he said. “I wanted it to feel like Home Alone or Gremlins.” And on one of the coldest days in January, he did manage to get out and shoot B-roll of Christmas lights.
As of today, he has four of the five scenes edited with hopes of completing the rough cut by this weekend. He hopes to edit it down to less than 10 minutes – right now, it’s going to be over by a few minutes – and eventually submit it to film festivals. Not that he will be waiting around to see if he wins any awards. He already has his sights on his next project, which, he hopes will be a feature. “By spring, I want to be working on it,” he said. He’s already looking for investors.
Kurz is a serious movie fan, and has been since his childhood. In fact, some of his fondest memories have taken place in the dark, staring at a big screen. (He and his siblings used to pour over the newspaper, looking at what was out and where it was showing.) He cites eclectic influences, including Steven Spielberg, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, Michael Bay, Zach Snyder, Richard Donner (Kurz adores his Superman films), John Hughes, J.J. Abrams, and Tony Scott. “The films from the 1980s had a real impact on me, and I am nostalgic for the films of my childhood,” he said.
Even though he plans to move behind the camera, he isn’t giving up acting. “I started pursuing acting to make money,” he said. “Because Omaha is a dead end with no professional opportunities for me, I had to move into the Kansas City, Chicago, and St. Louis markets, and I’m doing OK in those, but I missed directing. And I have stories I want to tell. I enjoy writing, and I think I have a knack for dialogue. I want to have a career in film. I don’t want to be famous or a celebrity, I want a career.” And, if he has his way, he would like to have that career in Omaha.