Famous filmmaking pairs usually work together on everything or have clearly defined roles. The Wachowski brothers - the forces behind The Matrix series - both write and direct. Joel and Ethan Coen - the hip duo that made Fargo and many other cult classics - write together but split their duties otherwise, with Joel directing and Ethan producing.

Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, the 20-year-old talents behind the Quad Cities-based Bluebox Limited, never went to film school, and don't seem terribly interested in convention. At their tender ages, they've made four feature films - two (University Heights and Her Summer) released this year alone - and 13 short movies. They were among 50 finalists (out of 1,700 entrants) in HBO's Project Greenlight directing competition, and this month they added another honor to their résumés by having their short Shades selected as one of three finalists in the MTV Best Film on Campus contest. (They didn't win.)

But they have a much different way of working together than other moviemaking pairs. While they've shared directing duties on their short films for contests, they otherwise work separately. Woods writes and directs his own scripts, with Beck producing them, and vice-versa. So although they all come out under the Bluebox banner, the movies are far more the products of an individual filmmaker and sensibility.

"That's why we're able to make movies so fast," Woods said. "Each of us has our own vision," Beck said.

But the films couldn't be made - at least not as well - without the help of the other Bluebox partner. "We both support each other," Beck said. They review the other's scripts and offer feedback, and the nondirecting partner helps coordinate the production.

"We can both see what we put into each other's projects," Beck said.

Although Beck and Woods are young, their concerns aren't juvenile. The ensemble drama University Heights touches on issues of identity, suicide, sexuality, drug use, and racism, and one critic (http://www.microcinemascene.com) praised the director's visual storytelling in a mixed review: "Beck has a good eye for shooting and editing and comes up with some nice set pieces." Her Summer is a small-cast thriller in which a police officer discovers two of his brothers murdered and - after spending the night at the crime scene - ends up missing himself.

Beck and Woods have been actively making movies together since 2000, their sophomore years in high school. They continue now even though Beck attends the University of Iowa and Woods goes to Scott Community College.

For Woods, the inspiration to become a filmmaker started not with a great movie but with a disappointing one: Brian de Palma's Mission to Mars. "I took it upon myself to write something better," he said. That didn't work out so well, he said, but the seed was sown.

"Making movies was the culmination of our writing," Woods said. "The stories we've always been writing or telling are visual stories."

Beck said they work well together because they have similar goals and working habits. When asked where they'd like to be in five years, their targets were lofty but thoughtful.

"For us, five years is a lot of time," Woods said. They noted that John Singleton was 24 when he made Boyz N the Hood. "In five years, we should be doing pretty well," Beck said. Within that time frame, he added, he'd like to be working with a six- or seven-figure budget.

But the pair claims they aren't interested in taking filmmaking jobs for money alone. "We don't want to be sucked into the wrong project," Beck said. "Originality is really important to us," Woods added.

The pair isn't necessarily looking for fame and fortune. Beck said he wants to reach a mass audience and be able to support a family. Woods might be a little more artistically ambitious: "We want to have an impressive body of work," he said.

A six-figure budget would be a major leap for the pair. So would a four-figure budget. One thing that's distinguished Bluebox so far is how much it accomplishes with very little money. With a digital camera, volunteer labor from actors and crew, and a home computer for editing, the Bluebox Limited team spends between $50 (the feature Her Summer) and $400 to make its movies. And you'd never know it by looking at the production values.

Shoestring budgets don't necessarily scream amateur. Actor Travis Shepherd has worked with other filmmakers in addition to being a Bluebox regular, and he has nothing but praise for Woods and Beck. The two are "by far the easiest to work with," Shepherd said. "They have the clearest vision. When they're writing it, they have the whole movie in their heads."

Take Project Greenlight. The contest - in which winners get $1 million to produce and film a movie - has so far generated two awful movies, and shown the directors to be woefully ill-equipped for a professional set.

Shepherd said he believes Woods and Beck would "have done way better" with Project Greenlight than the directors who actually won, mostly because of their preparation. The winners - who made the Miramax-released Stolen Summer and The Battle of Shaker Heights - "didn't have the vision that these guys have," he said. And unlike the Project Greenlight winners - do-it-yourself filmmakers without much experience with professional cast or crew - Beck worked with a cast of 55 people and crew of 10 people on University Heights.

"Preparation has always been the number-one priority," Woods said, including using shooting schedules and storyboards. So far, the duo has only bailed on one project, which they abandoned after it was half-shot three years ago. They pledge that won't happen again. "We finish," Woods said.

"We're on our way to being well-equipped" for the professional filmmaking world, Beck said. "We're also building a sense of the business side of things." Bluebox has sold more than 100 copies of University Heights; the movie has been screened in four states, and it premiered at the Adler over the summer.

In the years they've been serious about filmmaking, "we've been progressing faster and faster with each film," Beck said. "Whatever we just made is best," Woods said.

Still, the young filmmakers recognize that they have a lot to learn and a long way to grow.

Beck said he and Woods have had a tough time taking and applying criticism. But eventually they realized that protecting their egos was less important than making the films better. "We've come a complete 180," Beck said. People offering suggestions "ultimately represent the audience.

"Another thing we've improved on is getting what we want," Beck said. Early in their moviemaking, they'd go with what they had, they said. Now, they do more takes to get the performance or shot they're looking for.

Woods said his biggest challenge is "making a story people can understand." Because he's so close to his material, he said, he sometimes forgets that the audience only has access to what's on the screen, not everything that's in his head.

What's most refreshing about Bluebox is how cognizant Beck and Woods are about being young and raw. "Making these movies is our film school," Woods said. Yet he acknowledged that they lose something by skipping a formal film education: making contacts.

And they even know they haven't arrived at a signature style yet, and that their movies will almost necessarily be somewhat derivative. Other filmmakers' styles "sneak in, because that's what we're learning from," Beck said. "We definitely try to stay away from going off of other people's styles," Woods said.

Even though they primarily work separately, Beck said he hopes the Bluebox relationship continues. "I think we've found a really good working condition."

"I think we're doing really good for student filmmakers," Woods said.

For more information about Bluebox Limited, visit (http://www.blueboxlimited.com).

Support the River Cities' Reader

Get 12 Reader issues mailed monthly for $48/year.

Old School Subscription for Your Support

Get the printed Reader edition mailed to you (or anyone you want) first-class for 12 months for $48.
$24 goes to postage and handling, $24 goes to keeping the doors open!

Click this link to Old School Subscribe now.

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher