Sometimes, it can even be all of the above.
Pennsylvania filmmaker Zeke Zelker and his crew have been on a multi-year odyssey to bring “Billboard” to the masses. In what Zelker describes as a “cine-experience,” “Billboard” is much more than the movie that will be making its Lancaster debut on Friday, April 26, at Zoetropolis Cinema Stillhouse.
“[Cine-experience] is creating a story world where the audience can take in all of the different content we’ve created and sort of pick and choose what suits them,” explains Zelker over the phone.
“Billboard” is inspired by a tale that is instantly familiar to anyone who lived in the Lehigh Valley during the ‘80s. In 1982, three Lehigh Valley residents climbed up on a billboard sponsored by radio station WSAN. As a promotion to attract new listeners, the station offered a new mobile home to the person who could stay on the billboard for the longest amount of time. The accompanying media swirl was felt by a then-12-year-old Zelker, himself a Lehigh Valley resident. The nugget of an idea stuck with the director years later, and would eventually lead him and a team of dozens to “Billboard.” As Zelker purposely avoided the specifics of the actual tale, the movie’s central plot focuses more on the concept of a struggling business doing whatever it takes to succeed, which mirrors the filmmaker’s own journey.
“Billboard” stars John Robinson (“Lords of Dogtown”) as Casey Lindewiler, the owner of a struggling radio station who decides to hold a billboard-sitting contest to help the business. Also featured in the film are Heather Matarazzo (“Welcome to the Dollhouse”), Eric Roberts (nominated for an Oscar for 1986’s “Runaway Train”) and, in her last film role, Carlene Cates (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”).
“Oh, she was a doll,” Zelker says of Cates, who passed away in 2017. “She fought all of her life with obesity. We had to shoot her scenes remotely, because the alternative was having an ambulance drive her here from Texas.”
Zelker strove for authenticity above all for “Billboard,” from the use of Lehigh County landmarks such as the Bethlehem Steel plant and Dorney Park for shots, to seeking product placement from the film’s beginning stages.
“If I want to use an Apple computer in a movie, I’m not just going to slap a sticker of an orange on the back, because that isn’t real,” explains Zelker.
The film’s soundtrack is provided entirely by online submissions to “WYTY 960,” the fictional radio station in the film. Thus far, nearly 1,200 bands have submitted music, including Tigers & Thieves, who will play a live set following next week’s screening at Zoetropolis.
Even for an independent production, “Billboard” is nearly a cinematic universe unto itself at this point. As writer and producer, as well as director of the project, Zelker credits his drive as a central reason for the project’s undertaking.
“The biggest thing is, if you have a passion for something, you have to set your mind and work towards accomplishing that," says Zelker. “Too many people feel like, when things get hard, they kind of give up. That’s a big part of what the film is about, it’s a matter of trying something very hard and doing everything you can to succeed.”
“Billboard” premieres in Lancaster with a screening and performance by area band Tigers & Thieves at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, April 26. Tickets can be found here. Keep up with the various aspects of the film project here.