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Wandering Billy

Grab Your Popcorn

A locally produced WWII film hits the big screen

By Billy Ingram

“Strip away the phony tinsel of Hollywood and you’ll find the real tinsel underneath.”       — Oscar Levant

Our fair city has been a hotbed of independent filmmaking over the last quarter century or so. Recently, perhaps inevitably, a number of locally produced motion pictures have been attracting worldwide audiences. With the wide release of Condor’s Nest in January, one cadre of Greensboro-based filmmakers, Lost Galleon Films, has burst onto the Hollywood landscape in a big way with a rollicking, star-studded revenge flick set in 1950s South America focused around a search for Nazi war criminals.

While writer/director Phil Blattenberger grew up hither and yon, he’s considered Greensboro home for more than two decades now. “So yeah, I’m a local filmmaker if you wanna call it that, kind of by default,” he tells me. “I grew up on all the ’80s pastiche.” His favorite films as a youngster were those blockbuster, so-called popcorn flicks that didn’t take themselves too seriously. “Obviously all the classic Indiana Jones and Back to the Future movies.”

In Blattenberger’s latest motion picture, Condor’s Nest, a German Colonel played by Arnold Vosloo (Imhotep in The Mummy) sadistically executes an American bomber crew during WWII. Ten years later, the commander of that doomed mission travels to South America to exact revenge and, in the process, uncovers a sinister plot to ignite a Fourth Reich to finish what Hitler had only just begun.

It’s a fact that thousands of high ranking Nazis fled Germany after the fall of the Third Reich, establishing new lives and new identities in South America. It’s been convincingly posited that Hitler and Eva Braun lived out their lives in Argentina.

“It’s a really rich narrative that’s not been touched on, surprisingly,” Blattenberger says of what he proudly calls his own popcorn flick. “The type of film that your older brother brought you to when you were 13 and not supposed to see R-rated movies, and you sat in the theater with a bag of popcorn and just watched a bunch of Nazis get their asses kicked. Nazi ass-kicking movies do extremely well globally and have a grand appeal.”

Condor’s Nest is a motion picture shot on a grand scale, including constructing an 85-foot-long, 80-year-old historic aircraft. It serves as a major set piece for the opening scenes, which take place alongside a little farmhouse in Eastern France. “We built a full scale crashed B-17 bomber down to the centimeter in terms of engineering,” Blattenberger notes. “Museums donated original pieces from B-17s to really build this thing out.”

Making a motion picture of this caliber means there are thousands of moving parts and, if any one of them doesn’t look right, the whole thing falls apart. “We were amazed the first time actually looking at scenes through the monitor on the day we were shooting,” Blattenberger says. “All right, smoke’s pouring out the engines — these things look like real engines. We have car chases and explosions, some really high production value elements that are so easy to fall flat if you don’t have the crew that can put it together right. In fact, those elements became some of the strongest points in the film.”

Name actors invariably help to sell films, giving it more commercial cache globally. “Obviously Nazis are bad,” Blattenberger says, chuckling. “It’s been done so many times. What you don’t want to do is just get the stereotypical Nazi with an evil laugh. We wanted to find somebody with gravitas who was going to bring a bit of nuance to the role, in the sense that his character was internally justifying his own horrible actions, actually making him the good guy in his own head. And we knocked it out with Arnold Vosloo who went toe-to-toe as the villain in Blood Diamond up against Leonardo DiCaprio.”

Michael Ironside appears as a Russian agent. He’s been in dozens of movies like Starship Troopers and Total Recall, and was featured in Top Gun. “We pulled in Twilight star Jackson Rathbone to play a really seedy character,” Blattenberger says. “He shows up about halfway through the movie and turns into one of the big third-act villains.” Cast as Heinrich Himmler is James Urbaniak (Robert Crumb in American Splendor). “He had never spoken a word of German in his life,” Blattenberger says of Urbaniak’s performance. “He had to learn his entire role in German, doesn’t speak a word of English in the entire movie. We cast Academy Award nominee Bruce Davison (Longtime Companion). He did his whole scene in German.”

Key setups with these actors were filmed in and around the Julian Price House, a Tudor-revival estate that looks as if it could exist anywhere in the world, most improbably in Greensboro. “That’s actually the Condor’s Nest,” Blattenberger notes. “The titular location for this film that’s supposed to be set in the mountains of Bolivia.”

Lost star Jorge Garcia portrays a turncoat bartender in Buenos Aires spying for both the Russians and Germans. The basement of Havana Phil’s Cigar Company, for some four decades known as Cellar Anton’s, one of the city’s most revered dining rooms, served as his bar. “We shot our big wide establishing shots in South America,” Blattenberger explains, “selling the idea that you’re in another continent, so we could jump in the movie to the interior of a bar that’s on a different continent. Greensboro was a great location for that.”

“The real guy to talk about is Jacob Keohane,” Blattenberger says of his lead actor. “He’s been active on the East Coast theater circuit for years. He had a major role in Halloween Kills that came out last year. The guy’s absolutely brilliant.”

This locally produced picture proves there’s no need to lower expectations just because a film isn’t made in Hollywood. No less than Paramount Pictures picked up the distribution rights for a dozen or so major cities including New York and Los Angeles, and the movie is available on streaming platforms as you read this.

I can tell you first hand, there is no other experience in life comparable to working on a movie set. The writer/director agrees: “Running around with a crew of 30 or 40, there’s a mania and an energy to it, a coordinated chaos. It’s addictive. It’s something that you latch onto and, man, you just wanna keep making movies, you know?”

As for Phil Blattenberger and Lost Galleon Films’ next project, “We’re officially in pre-production on Without Consequence, a crime thriller set in the American West in the early 1960s, shooting in New Mexico this October or November. We’ll pull a few familiar faces from Condor’s Nest on it and there will probably be a scene or two shot in Greensboro.”  OH

In another of life’s moments reminding us just how old we are, Billy Ingram actually worked on the posters and trailers for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Back to the Future 2 and 3.