The New Orleans crime thriller “Dark Meridian” looks much bigger than its $250,000 budget.
Director Rankin Hickman called in favors he’d accrued among friends and associates during his nearly 20 years working in the local film industry. Crew members volunteered their time and talent. Leading man Billy Slaughter, a New Orleans native who’s appeared in more than 80 movies and TV programs, recruited the film’s other actors for the appropriate roles.
Ronnie Lamarque, well-known locally for appearing in his Lamarque Ford commercials, inquired about and was cast in a key role. After the completion of principal photography, Lamarque signed on as an executive producer.
The help was much needed. Hickman made “Dark Meridian” on a shoestring budget that wouldn’t support a script supervisor and other customary resources. And the “Dark Meridian” crew could vary from day to day.
“Because I couldn’t afford to pay people,” Hickman said. “We asked people to come in whenever they weren’t working on other things and getting paid.”
“Our goal was to do a micro-budget film that looks like a million dollars,” Hickman said. “We gave it our all.”
“Dark Meridian” begins a weeklong run Friday, Oct. 27, at Chalmette Movies. In January, it will be released online and play limited theatrical engagements in New York and Los Angeles.
In “Dark Meridian,” Slaughter plays Patrick Fox, a character who’s abducted and brutally interrogated by the Marek family crime organization. Fox’s demise appears imminent until the youngest son of the gang’s patriarch suggests that Fox is the wrong man.
Dave Davis (“Daddy’s Home,” “Logan,” “True Detective”) plays Tevi Marek, son of crime boss Oren Marek (Lamarque). James Moses Black (“Terminator Genisys,” “Logan”) co-stars as the corrupt police detective who joins Tevi Marek in marathon pursuit of the story’s real killer.
Hickman and his cast and crew filmed most of “Dark Meridian” in May 2016. Locations included a warehouse at I-610 and Franklin Avenue, a building in the French Quarter, the bottom of an overpass in the Bywater and a Camp Street address in the Warehouse District.
Locations played a big part in the development of the “Dark Meridian” script. After some years of not finding New Orleans locations suitable for stories he’d written, Hickman shaped a script around locations he knew were available. The film’s interrogation scenes, for instance, happen in a warehouse owned by “Dark Meridian” producer Jimi Woods.
Hickman created the film’s Fox character for his friend, Slaughter (“The Magnificent Seven,” “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” “The Big Short”). “Billy is a tremendous talent,” he said.
“I loved the script and the role,” Slaughter said. “It’s a dream role for anyone, but for me in particular. It’s something I haven’t done before. Rankin gave me that opportunity.”
After accepting the lead, Slaughter became the project’s casting director.
“When I read the script, I thought of friends and colleagues of mine who were perfect for these parts,” Slaughter said. “The cast consists of so many of our top local actors. Many of us are friends who’d worked together before. We brought our already developed chemistry to the screen.”
“We don’t have stars in the film who can grab headlines and give us big box-office receipts,” Hickman added. “These are not recognizable names, but we have many great local actors who have played opposite A-list stars. They’re never given an opportunity to do leading roles in the films that come to town, because stars are already cast in those roles.”
With “Dark Meridian,” Hickman gave himself the role of writer-director. It was a longtime ambition for a filmmaker who’d previously worked his way up from production assistant to production supervisor.
“I smiled every day I was on set,” Hickman said. “I was overwhelmed with joy at being able to finally tell a story the way I’ve always wanted to.”
A native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Hickman moved to New Orleans in 1998 to work in the film business. In December , Hickman and his wife, producer designer Christina Kim, and their two sons moved to Los Angeles because film and TV work had dried up in Louisiana. He’d like to return to Louisiana and hopes the state’s revamped Motion Picture Production Tax Credit program will spur film production in the state.
Slaughter also hopes to work in Louisiana more often.
“I enjoyed a luxury I know not many have, which was making movies in my hometown,” the actor said. “That’s what a lot of us want to do, make good films with good friends. We look at ‘Dark Meridian’ as a step in laying the foundation for New Orleans-based production, and telling our stories, the stories we want to tell.”