Musical collision

Lawrence filmmakers set to premiere melodic, ambitious 'Air'

Ian Stark, left, and Megan Carter star as a socially awkward couple who meet via a car crash in the locally produced musical Air.

Dylan Hilpman, center right, sings while Kansas City band The Architects performs in the background.

Musician Steve Unruh crafted the music compositions on Air. Unruh played all the instruments except for the brass.

The Lawrence filmmaking scene has proven rather ambitious in recent years.

Westerns, mockumentaries, period pieces, horror films and sci-fi thrillers have all been produced and drawn their share of acclaim.

But filmmakers Jeremy Osbern and Christopher Blunk chose to tackle the one genre deemed all but untouchable by those in the cinematic scene.

“I can’t tell you the number of people who told us we were crazy for making a feature-length musical, let alone one for a very limited amount of money,” Osbern says.

So was he crazy?

“Maybe,” he replies.

Four years after principal photography began, “Air” will make its Lawrence premiere on Monday at Liberty Hall, 642 Mass.

“It’s so easy to say, ‘I don’t like musicals,'” says Blunk, who produced and co-wrote “Air” with director Osbern. “But look how many people have watched them recently. ‘Moulin Rouge’ and ‘Chicago’ did well. ‘High School Musical’ makes billions of dollars. I think when people say they don’t like musicals, they mean they don’t like ‘Oklahoma’ – which I can totally understand.”

“Air” follows three couples who collide in various ways – a misfit parking lot attendant and a reclusive beauty, a middle-aged pair who recently lost their spouses and an aspiring rocker with girlfriend troubles.

Neither a traditional stage-type musical nor a modern rock update, the film treads in all kinds of different genres, from country to punk to jazz to classical. It’s as much of a musical collision as the symbolic car crash that sets the plot in motion.

Osbern says that initial screenings of the movie have proved encouraging.

“There are those people out there that love any musical,” he says. “There are those people out there who like the more cult musical like ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show.’ Then there are people out there who absolutely despise musicals. The reaction we’ve had so far to people who have seen ‘Air’ is that there are people who fit into all those categories who like it.”

Found sound

Osbern, an accomplished cinematographer who also shot the 35 mm movie himself, came up with the concept for a musical while in high school.

“The idea was initially more of a modern musical with modern characters. I had this image of a punk in a back alleyway breaking into song. It just kind of grew from there,” the Lawrence native recalls.

He penned a rough draft and brought the idea to Blunk, a fellow film student at Kansas University. The pair collaborated on the project until they had a workable script. Only one thing was missing: the music.

Fortunately, Osbern lived next door to songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Steve Unruh, a fellow KU student.

“We’re both very much night owls,” Osbern explains. “I’d be working on a story at 3 a.m., and I’d go over and get his ideas on it. And he’d be working on some new song at 3 a.m., and he’d come over and play it for me.”

Unruh accepted the daunting task of composing a musical from scratch. He eventually contributed a whopping 20 original pieces of music to the finished film. Unruh also played every instrument on the soundtrack except the brass parts.

“The other big challenge was getting the lyrics to further the plot. That was one of our big goals: to have the music push the film along instead of just pausing while there’s some singing and dancing,” says Unruh, a Kansas native who recently relocated to Rhode Island.

Unruh was impressed with Osbern’s directing – a visual complement to his musical forte.

“He thinks in pictures. His screenplay is full of descriptions of how light falls onto the actors, or little interesting things that happen in the background,” Unruh says. “In the studio, he actually directed the actors when we recorded their voices for the songs … sometimes coaxing them or pushing them to their limits, other times even some method acting applied to singing.”

Once the film was done, the main quandary became what to call it.

“The original title was ‘The Song of Love,’ which I thought sounded too girly,” Blunk says. “I was kind of cruel about how bad it was. So Jeremy said, ‘Come up with a better one.’ I had a pocket music dictionary from my days taking piano lessons. I thumbed through and made a list of what I thought would be good titles, including ‘Air,’ which means a melody, amongst many other things. It was a much better selection than other ones on the list, like ‘ritardando.'”

‘Air’ force

“Air” was financed through independent investors, utilizing Osbern and Blunk’s own Through a Glass Productions company.

“We’re not releasing how much we spent on it, but it’s less than the budget of ‘Once,'” Osbern says of the recent Oscar-winning musical.

About 50 percent of the film was shot in Lawrence. The rest took place primarily in Topeka and the Kansas City metro area.

This is the pair’s first feature, although they have already built up a solid reputation with Through a Glass for producing commercials, music videos and corporate videos. Osbern and Blunk (who also handles sound design) started the company directly after attending KU, where they both graduated in 2004 with film degrees.

“When we went through the KU film program it was a lot more theory-based. The production equipment was there, but not as many people were using it. Partly why Chris and I became friends was because we were two of the people fighting over equipment,” Osbern says.

The pair is currently submitting “Air” to national film festivals. So far the musical has only played at one – the Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee – but it picked up the award for Best Feature.

“Right now we are distributing it throughout the state of Kansas one city at a time,” Osbern says. “This was so much a Kansas-made film. There were so many people in Kansas who helped us in so many ways, whether giving us financial help or loaning us an aquarium to put in the background of a scene.”

Just don’t expect an “Air 2” any time soon.

“We couldn’t shoot film for that amount anymore,” Blunk says. “We’ve used up all our favors with our friends.”