From the Big House to the Big Screen: The Story of Chris Petry’s film "Marilyn"

Written by a convicted felon from prison and filmed on a shoestring budget, the story behind the making of director Christopher Petry’s “Marilyn” is almost as fascinating as the film itself. The movie tells the story of a bank robber on the run (Ryan Robbins) who takes a runaway woman (Allison Mack) under his wing. Her volatile personality and dreams of becoming a singer change him forever.

[img_assist|nid=155|title=Allison Mack in 'Marilyn'|desc=Photo courtesy of Chris Petry and Marilyn|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=313]“Basically it’s a character movie,” Petry said in a phone interview with Legendary Women. “The two actors really carry the whole show.”

The story of how the film came to be has just as many twists and turns. The film started life behind bars as a screenplay written by Patrick “Paddy” Mitchell, a notorious bank robber. Mitchell wrote the film from Leavenworth Prison before his death from cancer in 2007.  Petry had heard the story of the notorious Stopwatch Gang for many years from his father, which piqued his curiosity. Through family connections, Petry became pen pals with the imprisoned Mitchell, eventually agreeing to direct the former bank heister’s movie treatment. Sadly Mitchell never lived to see the finished product of his film, but Mitchell led a life dramatic enough to be a movie in its own right.  

Mitchell was one of three members of the notorious Stopwatch Gang, a little remembered but highly successful band of bank robbers who managed to net nearly $15 million while robbing about 100 banks across the US and Canada. The Canadian gang – Mitchell, Stephen Reid and Lionel Wright – were called the Stopwatch Gang after the stopwatch Mitchell wore around his neck to make sure they exited banks within two minutes. This quick robbery turnaround was most likely one of the reasons it took so long for the police to catch onto the gang’s trail.

Another reason? They were just plain likeable. The Stopwatch Gang, active in the 1970s and 1980s, is really having a moment in 2012. In addition to Petry’s film “Marilyn” written by Mitchell, a documentary about the gang is premiering this February at the Sedona International Film Festival in Arizona.

It’s a serendipitous location for the film, since the gang kept their hideout in nearby Oak Creek Canyon. While the FBI finally tracked them down to their hideout there, they had no help from the locals according to crew members on the documentary. People in Oak Creek Canyon quite liked the bank robbers, who were polite, friendly and good neighbors. These good manners actually set them apart from other bank robbery teams. Despite their prolific robbery career, the Stopwatch Gang never shot or killed anyone and their victims were often impressed by their courteous behavior. They were gentlemen bank robbers.[img_assist|nid=156|title=Ryan Robbins in 'Marilyn'|desc=Photo courtesy of Chris Petry and Marilyn|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=169]

Mitchell’s dramatic story didn’t stop with bank robberies, however. He also managed to escape from two prisons, one by crawling out through the air vents.  Back in jail, Mitchell wrote a book about his experiences called “This Bank Robber’s Life”. So Mitchell was no stranger to putting pen to paper by the time he drafted the screenplay for “Marilyn”.

Petry himself was no stranger to the long, arduous process of getting from script to screen. Having worked his way up the ranks on the CW’s superhero franchise “Smallville” from production assistant to director, Petry knew a little something about hard work. This turned out to be good knowledge to have, since the process of getting “Marilyn” up and running required perseverance and patience. After Mitchell’s death, Petry worked with his family and shot the film between “Smallville’s” ninth and tenth seasons.

“It took me about seven years from when I got the rights to when I finally watched it on a big screen,” Petry said. “You have to really be close and feel passionate about a story to spend seven years on it.”

Once finally time to film, making the movie turned out to be no easier. The movie was shot on a shoestring budget with plenty of volunteers from the talented community of people that helped make “Smallville” a hit show for ten years.

“It was all favors and other people’s passions and volunteer help,” Petry said of the filmmaking environment. “It was the kind of environment where the collective group on that set would have made millions of dollars in salary, not just the actors but down to the camera guys and the sound guys.”

No person on the set was above helping out the production. Star Allison Mack, who played investigative reporter Chloe Sullivan on “Smallville” for ten years and headlined the film as Marilyn, helped out with lunches. Co-star Ryan Robins, who plays the film’s bad boy bank robber, bought the car he drove in the movie.

“Everybody just pulled together to do it themselves and we could not have made it without Allison’s help or Ryan’s help,” Petry said. “So it was a great experience.”

It also helped to be working with friends. For the titular role of Marilyn, Petry cast “Smallville” co-worker and friend Allison Mack. Despite the role being unlike anything Mack had played before, Petry was confident in her abilities as an actress to portray anything thrown at her. He had complete faith in her chops as an actor to pull off a far different role than what audiences were used to seeing her play.

“She does a complete 180 from Chloe,” Petry explained of Mack. “She’s playing a street girl who is basically a borderline hooker and a runaway. And she nailed the role exceptionally. She’s a wonderful talent.”

Once on set, Mack really dove into the character of Marilyn. Having watched Mack play a character she established and built from the ground up for ten years on “Smallville”, Petry was amazed to see her process in creating a completely different kind of character. Marilyn, a runaway and drifter from South Carolina, allowed Mack to flex a different set of acting muscles than her time playing hard-driving career woman Chloe on “Smallville”.

“She nailed the accent and she just lived in the accent,” Petry said of Mack’s process of getting into character for Marilyn. “Even off set when we weren’t rolling camera, that’s just how she spoke. I don’t think she wore shoes for I don’t know how long, so her feet were filthy,” Petry laughed. “She just let herself become the character.”

[img_assist|nid=157|title=Allison Mack in 'Marilyn'|desc=Photo courtesy of Chris Petry and Marilyn|link=none|align=left|width=250|height=376]His one concern about Mack tackling Marilyn was that the main character sings in the movie—and sings often. There’s a difference, Petry conceded, between being a great actress and being an actress that can spend a good amount of time singing. (Ask anyone on Broadway or any of the cast members of “Glee” for instance.) Then one day Mack played a CD for Petry of a song she had written for her boyfriend at the time.

“It was a beautiful song,” Petry said. “That’s when I knew it was going to be perfect.”

Petry hooked Mack up with friends of his who did all the music for the movie and they began the process of writing songs for the film. Mack performs three original songs in the film and spent three months practicing and jamming with the band. She even spent time in a recording studio to lay down the tracks for the film.

“Basically she was like the lead singer in a band,” Petry said.

Despite her vulnerable place in society, Petry sees Marilyn as a strong female character. Without giving too much away about the plot, Petry explains that Marilyn is the kind of character that does what she wants, when she wants. While she has a tough exterior and a no-nonsense attitude, it’s her genuine and vulnerable nature that makes her connect with audiences.

“She’s a very blue-collar character who’s been dealt some rough cards, but at the base she’s still a person with a heart,” Petry explains of his main heroine. “That’s the most touching thing about the film I think.”

The shoestring budget and assistance from Warner Brothers helped in one regard: Petry and producers own the movie outright. So they can decide what to do with the film next. Petry shares that “Marilyn” is somewhere between a few months to a year out from some level of distribution. Meaning it could be awhile before fans can purchase or rent the finished product. At the moment, Petry say the plan is to show the film at as many film festivals as possible to generate buzz.

The first stop was the Whistler Film Festival in Canada, where the crew took a rough cut of the film. To everyone’s surprise, the movie sold out hours before the show even started and ended up as one of the audience favorites at the festival. It was even nominated for best feature film. Next stop is trying to get “Marilyn” into bigger festival ventures like New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival and San Francisco’s South by Southwest Film Festival. Petry hopes fans of Allison Mack, Chloe Sullivan, “Smallville” and good cinema will stop by and support the film. It’s a story that is still very close to his heart.

“Allison’s arc is great in the film. She starts as one very vulnerable but hard girl at the beginning but by the end she gets this amazing growth,” Petry said. “The first thing people say is that the acting is the beauty of the movie.”

You can support the film by visiting the official “Marilyn” the movie website. Follow the film on twitter and like it on Facebook. And be sure to look out for and support it at a film festival near you!

Missed the first party of our interview with Chris Petry about Chloe Sullivan and his time on “Smallville”?  Check out part one here.