‘West Bottoms’: ‘We have a good little movie’

Larry Poole (actor Corey Shane Love) pushes his motorcycle through a warehouse on the Kansas side of the West Bottoms in this still from the film. (courtesy Gregory Sheffer)

KC filmmaker Greg Sheffer makes the most of the evocative local setting in his first original short film, now on the international film festival circuit

In writer/director/producer Greg Sheffer’s first original short film, “West Bottoms,” we are introduced to down-and-out, crash-pad-dwelling, all-I-need-is-my-motorcycle loner Larry Poole, whose worrisome life is getting worse by the day.

For one thing, Larry’s long-suffering daughter Jessica, his last threadbare tie to a remotely normal life, is finally ready to move on from her father’s increasingly isolated and self-destructive behavior.

For another, Larry learns that he’s dying. Even if there’s enough time to make things right with his daughter, how can he possibly make up for all the time that’s been lost?

“West Bottoms” is strikingly shot in Kansas City’s historical West Bottoms, and its story is metaphorically heightened by the former stockyard area’s coexisting mix of past decay and promising growth. Amid a vista of timeworn brick buildings and the ever-yawning 12th Street Bridge — powerful images that evoke a steady and silent wisdom in contrast to unwieldy humanity — the flawed father emerges from his torment with the realization that he still has a choice. He can still try.

“My story is about a man and a father,” Sheffer says. “He’s hit rock bottom. And he decides to do what he can with the time left, to amend for his sins. It’s not going to be perfect. It’s not going to be enough. But it’s all he can do and he’s going to do it.”

For going on 20 years, Sheffer, a Mid-America Emmy Award and Telly Award winner, has undertaken considerable cinema-influenced doings as founder and CEO of Inversion, his Kansas City-based video-and-film production company serving such commercial/corporate clients as Garmin, Fox Sports and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Sheffer infuses his clients’ brands and concepts with his talents, but “I’m not an advertising man,” he says. “I’m an artist.”

Sheffer’s artistic expression encompasses his helming of various documentary film projects over the years. They include 2012’s “The Lynching of Bert Dudley,” about the lynching of an African American prisoner convicted of murder in 1916 Kansas, which was his last independent short before finally tackling the long-considered “West Bottoms.”

“It had been an itch that I’d just put off and put off scratching,” Sheffer says of “West Bottoms.” “I was just like, ‘You know, I have this story that keeps coming to me and I’m refining it — but can I still do this? Can I still tell a narrative story?’ It took me two nights to finally write it. But it was forming in my head and in my heart for a lot longer.”

Going Deep

Sheffer grew up as a member of the Church of the Nazarene in Olathe and graduated with a degree in history and education from Mid-America Nazarene University. Although he trained to be a teacher, he found the classroom too confining and instead became a youth director for the church, where he discovered his knack for visual storytelling.

“I could put a video together and make people laugh or get excited,” he says. “I’d go on trips with the kids and shoot the highlights, and I just always knew how to put music and edits in the right spots and even make it somewhat emotional. I hadn’t gone to school for it, but somehow it came together in my head.”

Filmmaker Gregory Sheffer (courtesy Gregory Sheffer)

Sheffer’s relationship with the greater Church of the Nazarene evolved into him creating short documentaries about inspirational folks around the U.S. and overseas.

“The church is full of good stories because it’s a transformational institution where you have people who turn their lives around,” Sheffer says. “And so I started telling those stories. And I thought I could do this for a living and call my own shots and make way more money. That was sort of my transition to being on my own and having my own production company.”

While still working for the church, Sheffer got the idea for the character of Larry in “West Bottoms” from “a little 5-minute doc I did for a mission up in Portland, Oregon,” he recalls. “It was about a guy who came out of Hell’s Angels culture. His grandfather and his father were both Hell’s Angels. He had an incredibly rough life. And he was, all of a sudden, working at this mission and wanted to help people instead of hurt people.

“And then, I think, like any artist, that your stuff comes from deep within,” Sheffer says. “And I didn’t have a good father, and I know what that’s like. My dad was a surgeon, so I’m not down and out, like Larry, as in hard-up for money. But I still know those feelings of wanting and wishing for something better, and I think that’s where this story came from — from deep inside.”

Working Together

The roughly $30,000 that it cost to make “West Bottoms” was paid by Sheffer, his two local co-producers and a GoFundMe page. For the most part, local crew and actors were utilized, including an oh-so-brief but effective turn by KC acting legend Gary Neal Johnson.

The film’s two lead actors, Corey Shane Love as Larry and Katherine Rodriguez as Jessica, were imported from Los Angeles, although “Kansas City’s full of great actors,” Sheffer says. “But I wanted actors who not only had the chops, but also looked like they were related. So we went to L.A. to tap the larger acting pool.”

The main shooting schedule covered a handful of days in August 2021, but Love and Rodriguez began preparing together for their father and daughter roles long before arriving in KC.

Rodriguez, whose prep included workshopping a scene from the film as part of her acting class in L.A., immediately connected with her frustrated character’s desire to overcome her circumstances.

“I had a sort of chaotic childhood and upbringing, so I related to Jessica’s relationship with her dad a little bit,” Rodriguez says. “Greg also helped me feel more comfortable in sharing my experiences and being vulnerable about those things, and that made me look at my character’s relationship with her dad a little differently, too.”

Love also regarded Sheffer as a thoughtful collaborator, even during the audition process: “The first thing Greg said was, ‘Do you need any time to prepare? Do you want to do an exercise?’ And I knew right then that I liked this guy, and I would want to do this part. You don’t get that very often, where the director will be ingratiating and support you to do the work, rather than just command.”

“West Bottoms” cinematographer Isaac Alongi, who’s known Sheffer for 15 years and done around 100 commercial projects with him as a freelancer for Inversion, sees Sheffer as an agreeable auteur, who knows how to intelligently and respectfully delegate in order to best realize his vision.

“I’ve done a ton of movies, and some directors like to be very micromanaging and really dictate every shot and every single thing,” Alongi says. “And some directors, like Greg, direct the story and the actors and let me direct the photography to make it look as awesome as possible.”

And the West Bottoms “is just so ripe for cinematography, because everything’s so old and cool-looking and has so much texture and character,” he says. “The West Bottoms is almost a character in the film, it’s so important. It’s integral to the storytelling to have that kind of place where Larry lives, where he rides his bike. It won’t look the same in southern Johnson County. It has a very specific vibe.”

Writer/director Gregory Sheffer and producer Jen Lytle look at the monitor during a shot at The Ship. (courtesy Gregory Sheffer)

Confirmation and Confidence

That vibration — perhaps even a buzz — is being shared with receptive audiences of “West Bottoms” on this year’s international film festival circuit. The film received its world premiere in May at the Romford Film Festival in London and its North American premiere in June at Dances with Films at the historic Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

“We got confirmation and confidence coming out of that,” Sheffer says. “We’re not going to set the world on fire. We’re not going to win an Oscar. But we have a good little movie. It was well received and the feedback was really good.”

Sheffer recalls: “At Romford, I sat around with a bunch of other short-film makers and they all kind of had this agreement that mine was the ‘best of fest.’ They said that to me. We didn’t win any awards, but to have a British actress get up and say, ‘The performances in this were spotless,’ is confirmation that you’re on the right track and you told a good story that’s touching people. English culture and American culture are kind of like cousins, but the fact that the story can resonate across the ocean, I like that.”

By mid-July, “West Bottoms” had been submitted for consideration to at least 50 independent film festivals and accepted by at least five — a respectable 10-percent placement rate, according to a film festival consultant hired by Sheffer — although Sheffer wouldn’t be surprised if the final tally numbered 15 to 20 festivals.

For now, the list of festivals that have or will screen “West Bottoms” include Ignite Film Festival in June and July in Marlborough, Wiltshire, England; the digital version of the L.A. Shorts International Film Festival in July in Los Angeles; and the Burbank International Film Festival Sept. 8-11 in the Los Angeles area.

“That’s a real industry film festival in Burbank,” Sheffer says. “We’re going to be right there in the heart of the San Fernando Valley, where all those studios are, so we’re going to have exposure we wouldn’t otherwise have. And I’m certain there’s people out there looking for projects.”

Jessica Poole (actress Katherine Rodriguez) is confronted by her father outside her house in the East Bottoms in this still from “West Bottoms.” (courtesy Gregory Sheffer)

Feature Dreams

Sheffer has a swell venture: Turn “West Bottoms,” the 20-minute short, into “West Bottoms,” the feature film. He’s already written a feature-length screenplay, delving more into the characters’ intertwining lives and backstories set against the unique urban-scape of the West Bottoms.

“The short was written first,” Sheffer says. “It’s a concise story and it may not end with all your questions answered, because character-wise, emotion-wise, context-wise, there’s just a lot more to explore. Our story has a lot of feeling that there’s more to the story.”

Indeed, “West Bottoms” encourages the engaged viewer to further ponder the fates of Larry and Jessica, as well as how they came to be. And that’s precisely what Sheffer wants potential backers of a “West Bottoms” feature to be wondering.

“We’re not just going to someone with a feature script,” Sheffer says. “We’re going to someone with a feature script and a 20-minute somewhat similar version of the story that they can look at and say, ‘Oh, you guys know what you’re doing, and I can see what it looks like now.’

“I realized that even for somebody who’s been financing movies for a lifetime, a lot of times they need to see something. A film script is a really hard thing for people to conceptualize, just because it’s so dry. It’s still amazing to me that something that simple and black-and-white and dry can turn into these beautiful images that are like our dreams.”

And if “West Bottoms” were to be green-lighted as a feature-length dream?

“If Greg gets the funds to do a feature, that’s when Joaquin Phoenix steps into my role,” Love says. “Of course, I’d do it. But I live in Hollywood. I know how this goes.”

Whatever happens, “if you can make films, if you can tell stories, these are hard things to do,” Sheffer says. “And I’m by no means an expert and by no means done learning. But I’m proud of this city. I grew up here. I love it. I hope that ‘West Bottoms’ shows that we can make really good films here in Kansas City.”

Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shared his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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