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Carson grad’s film debuts in Reno

by F.T. Norton

An independent film – eight years in the making and shot in Carson City – will make its Nevada premier Friday during the second day of the Reno Film Festival.

The film, “Pledge of Allegiance,” is the first feature-length endeavor written and directed by Lee Madsen, 34, a 1987 Carson City High graduate.

It’s the story of high school friends who emulate the Mafia in a small town. The lure of easy money eventually forces their “godfather,” star quarterback Mac, played by Freddy Rodriguez of HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” to choose between his allegiance to his friends and his personal interests.

The story takes place in a handful of Carson City locations. The characters walk through the halls of Carson High, party at Decades Bar and Grill and the Old Globe, eat at Red’s Old 395 Grill, and use the Pinon Plaza Casino’s exterior, along with the Lucky Spur, Cactus Jack’s, the Carson Nugget and Sonic Drive-In.

There’s footage of a Nevada Day parade and Carson High football games. For the staged football game scenes, Madsen said his staff filled the bleachers with people they found at Java Joe’s coffee shop. A courtroom scene was filmed in the Virginia City courthouse.

Former Carson High School teacher Louis Granier makes his acting debut as a tough-talking Italian named “Dutchie.”

Madsen, who lives in Hollywood, said eight years ago he thought the movie would be made when the screenplay was optioned by RKO Pictures, but after six months the company dropped the option and Madsen was back to square one.

One of five sons of Jim and Jackie Madsen, the writer-director said his love of movies began when he was a kid working in a video store.

“I thought I was either going to go into law school or join the FBI,” he said. “But when I worked in the video store, I ended up watching everything there. I was just a fan at the time; I didn’t realize I could make movies as a career. At some point it hit me, (directors) come from everywhere and films are made all over the world. Why can’t somebody from a small town make it?”

Madsen said his earliest film was made with the family’s home video camera.

“I shot a video of my little brother skateboarding off the parking garage of the Ormsby House and cut to a fake body flying off the edge and down five stories and then cut to him getting up and walking away,” he said. “I just cut it together hitting pause and record, pause and record. It was the most archaic way of editing with just a VCR and a video camera.”

Madsen attended the University Nevada, Reno, where he tended bar at the Little Waldorf as he put himself through school. Graduating with a degree in criminal justice, Madsen said he decided to attend film school in New York city.

“I wanted to learn the art of filmmaking. Once I learned it, I knew I could do it,” Madsen said. “I had the tools to do it.”

After film school, he returned to Reno and took up bartending again.

In the back room of Chewy and Jugs in Reno, Madsen wrote his first screenplay, which “got me motivated to move to Hollywood,” he said.

In 1996, RKO Pictures optioned the screenplay of “Pledge of Allegiance,” but six months later, Madsen said, the deal fell through.

“I went from having my phone ringing off the hook when people found out I had optioned the screenplay to nothing when the option ran out,” he said.

For the next eight years, Madsen said, he didn’t give up the dream of making “Pledge Of Allegiance.”

Eventually, he decided to raise the money himself and make the movie with or without a big name behind it.

Now, a year and a half after the film was shot, Franchise Pictures has picked it up for overseas distribution and there’s talk of changing the title to “The Red Zone.” Warner Brothers Pictures will distribute it in the United States.

Madsen is looking forward to the premier – it’s proof that he’s realized a portion of his dream, but he said his future doesn’t hinge on the movie’s popularity.

“I hope it’s out there, and that I’m fortunate enough to make another film,” he said. “I can’t worry what people think, and I cannot try and judge myself as to whether I’m as good or as bad or as talented as So and So. I just have to keep doing my art because it’s my life, it’s my profession.”