Aaron Yonda & Matt Sloan
Snow globes do not move on their own. In the Star Wars universe, though, an adept of the Force certainly could make a snow globe slide itself down a bar top.
Which is why, at Cafe Montmartre on a Friday morning in December, Aaron Yonda was about to pull a snow globe with a piece of fishing line. At the end of the bar, Matt Sloan gazed at a television monitor displaying an image of the globe.
Yonda and Sloan, and more than a dozen other cast and crew members, had assembled to tape scenes for 'Chad Vader: Episode V,' another of the Star Wars-themed short films that have turned the pair into Internet celebrities. The films' title character is the hapless brother of the mythically unpleasant Darth Vader, but whereas Chad looks and sounds almost exactly like Darth, he glumly toils in a dead-end job as a grocery store manager. (Much of the series was shot at the Willy Street Co-op.)
'Special-effects shots are always the hardest,' said Yonda of the snow globe setup, to no one in particular.
'It's a little bright for a bar, but we'll iris down,' said assistant director and lighting designer John Urban.
'Camera!' said director of photography Tona Williams, who is Sloan's wife.
'Action!' said Sloan, and behind the bar the actor Drew Foerster began wiping the counter with a rag. As he reached out for the globe, Yonda yanked on the line, and the globe moved an inch. Foerster jumped, then reached again. In a smooth motion, Yonda pulled the globe down the bar and out of the camera frame.
'Cut!' barked Sloan.
So began the day's work. At the beginning of the completed episode, which debuted on MySpace Dec. 19, Chad, sitting at the bar, uses the Force to summon the snow globe, which he studies drunkenly before slurring his order for another drink. A few minutes of barroom antics later, the scene ends as Chad unsteadily curses a room full of people, then entangles himself in a Christmas tree on his stumbling way out. The bar patrons laugh contemptuously.
It is funny stuff. Darth Vader is always supremely in control, yet here his double is very much out of control: enraged but impotent, baffled by life. There was always a touch of pathos about Darth Vader, and it emerges more fully in Chad, who is played by both Yonda and Sloan ' Yonda is in the suit, and Sloan does the voice.
Since the series started in June of last year, the five 'Chad Vader' episodes, the longest of which runs just over six minutes, have together attracted more than 7 million views on the video-sharing site YouTube and the social-networking site MySpace. And the buzz has gotten bigger, even, than the Web. The fourth 'Chad Vader' episode debuted on ABC's Good Morning America, and the cable channel VH1 will feature 'Chad' in a February special, 40 Greatest Internet Superstars. Sloan and Yonda also received favorable press in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times.
'He's an antihero, I guess,' Sloan told me of Chad when, a few days before the Montmartre shoot, I joined him and Yonda for coffee.
'Is he?' asked Yonda.
'Is he?' replied Sloan.
'Sure, why not?' said Yonda.
The idea for 'Chad Vader' first occurred not to Yonda or Sloan, but to Tim Harmston, a Madison standup comic who has collaborated with Sloan and Yonda on films. Harmston was living in Chicago when he got the idea, about seven years ago.
'It was from frequenting this Ukrainian grocery store,' he says. 'The people who worked there, they were so chilly I thought they could be Darth Vader. I'm a comedian, so I always write down ideas, no matter how insignificant they might appear.'
It fell to Yonda and Sloan to flesh out the idea and write a story arc. Critically, they decided to have the films feature not Darth but Chad, who shares his brother's megalomaniacal impulses but is stuck trying to manage a bored, sullen supermarket staff.
'He doesn't impress people,' says Yonda. 'I worked at a grocery store when I was a teenager, and he reminds me a lot of the managers back then. They wanted to be cool, and they took their jobs very seriously. But that's probably what made them not cool, is they took their jobs too seriously.'
Of course, the nuances of the writing would matter less if Sloan and Yonda were not able to pull off a convincing imitation of Darth Vader. In this regard they have done remarkably well, considering that they are hardly working on a Hollywood-size budget. (Each 'Chad' short costs $500 to $1,000.) A key element is Chad's outfit, an officially licensed Supreme Edition Darth Vader Costume. Yonda spends about 15 minutes putting on the suit, which includes a codpiece and shin guards.
Sloan, meanwhile, makes Chad sound uncannily like James Earl Jones as Darth Vader, whether the grocery store manager is shouting orders at underlings or singing 'Santa Baby,' as he does in a short, wry holiday greeting the team filmed. Some digital processing makes Sloan's voice sound more machine-like, and the wheezing sound of Darth's respirator follows Chad around.
In fact, Sloan's Darth impression is so accurate that on the strength of his work in 'Chad Vader,' he recorded the Sith lord's voice for a LucasArts Star Wars videogame, Empire at War: Forces of Corruption. 'They said they hadn't heard anybody do the voice that well,' says Sloan of LucasArts representatives who contacted him. 'Apparently it's a hard voice to do.'
The 'Chad Vader' films succeed in other details as well, including the Star Wars-inspired typeface of the credits, and the doleful acoustic version of the familiar 'Imperial March' that is the series' theme music. It was arranged by Yonda's brother, Andrew Yonda, of the Madison folk-pop duo the Buffali.
And then there is the casting. Yonda and Sloan have drawn heavily on local talent for performers, all of whom work for free. Madisonians may recognize theater veterans Rob Matsushita, Craig Johnson and William Bolz, as well as the standup comedian Kealynn Keas ' and Sloan himself, who has acted in many plays with Strollers Theatre.
A key role, however, is performed by an actress not from Madison but from Appleton: Christina LaVicka, who plays the cashier Clarissa, Chad's impassive love interest. She saw a screening of a Sloan and Yonda comedy at an Appleton film festival, and she was hooked. 'I was just dying, the dry sense of humor,' she says. 'These guys made me pee my pants.'
She contacted the two to tell them she was available for work, and the role of Clarissa soon followed. After the series debuted, her e-mail inbox filled with messages from fans.
'I'm saying to everyone, 'This might be my 15 minutes,'' says LaVicka, a substitute teacher in the Appleton school district. 'My friends say, 'No, Christina, you're just getting started.''
Matt Sloan directing the cast of Chad Vader on location at Cafe Mo.
Yonda, 34, and Sloan, 33, have succeeded partly because of some happy coincidences. For one, the pair introduced 'Chad Vader' at almost precisely the moment that Web video became a mass phenomenon, as a result of near-ubiquitous broadband Internet access and new Web-based video software that works quickly and effortlessly. The team chose well, too, in producing a Star Wars parody, since Internet culture, though now mainstream, retains many of its old fascinations with geeky subjects like ambitious science-fiction epics.
Thanks to all of that, plus good luck, 'Chad Vader' went viral. That surprised everyone involved, including Courtney Collins, who produces the series and is Yonda's fiancÃe. Just before 'Chad Vader' hit the Web, she says, 'We screened it at a few places locally, a few coffee shops, and it didn't get a lot of laughs. We were really scared.'
But unlike many other Web videos ' those of a thousand lip-synching teenagers, for example, or Sen. George Allen's 'macaca' moment, which demolished his reelection campaign ' 'Chad Vader' is scripted, rehearsed and edited. That is because Yonda and Sloan have been making short films like 'Chad Vader' for years. What they lacked, before YouTube and the like, was good distribution.
Yonda, a Menominee native, has labored in the quirky realm of public-access television since 1993. That year he and Benson Gardner, a high school friend, began producing 'The Splu Urtaf Show,' a sketch comedy vehicle, for public-access television in Eau Claire. 'It was a natural outgrowth of stuff we were working on together, renting video cameras, editing audiotapes,' says Gardner, now a documentarian and a publicist for the University of Wisconsin Press. After Yonda graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 1996, he and Gardner moved the show to WYOU, Madison's public-access channel.
Gardner left 'Splu Urtaf' in 2002, and Sloan joined the show. Sloan, who grew up in Milwaukee and went to St. Norbert College in DePere, had moved to Madison from Green Bay in 2000. He met Yonda when they were performing with the now-defunct improv group Madison ComedySportz.
Sloan and Yonda also honed their cinematic skills as co-directors, with Tona Williams, of Wis-Kino. Founded by Yonda and others in 2002, Wis-Kino is the Madison chapter of Kino, an international amateur filmmaking movement. The three have relinquished their leadership roles, but, says Sloan, 'We're certainly Kino success stories.'
Now Yonda and Sloan focus much of their energy on the Internet. On their Web site, splu.net, are links to the 'Chad Vader' videos, as well as to their other series from Blame Society Productions, Sloan and Yonda's production company: 'McCourt's in Session,' a spoof of judge shows on daytime television; 'Fun Rangers,' about the misadventures of two not-very-bright social outcasts; 'Super Shooter,' about a foul-mouthed assassin. Also available on the site are many of the team's stand-alone films, like 'The Life and Death of a Pumpkin,' a short comedy that won two awards at the 2006 Chicago Horror Film Festival.
Their Internet success notwithstanding, Yonda and Sloan remain staples of public-access television. On Friday nights, WYOU still shows 'Splu Urtaf' installments old and new (or newish: the last 'Splu' episode was completed in 2005). The episodes' ramshackle comedy is at moments inscrutable, but it prefigures the polished 'Chad Vader': The zany characters are there, and so is the crisp writing.
So what is next for a couple of regional filmmakers who have a hit on the Internet?
'It could continue as a niche product on the Web,' says Michael Curtin, a professor of media and cultural studies in the UW-Madison's communication arts department. If each episode, he says, 'got a million hits, and each person paid a dollar a hit, that could be a business model that works. You'd possibly be looking at people who would say, 'I'll sign on as a subscriber.'' In fact, Sloan and Yonda are already earning income on the Web by selling DVDs, T-shirts and coffee mugs.
Of course, Star Wars creator George Lucas might be displeased if Yonda and Sloan profit too much from his character. 'Lucas is very encouraging of fan films,' says Yonda hopefully.
Otherwise, says Curtin, the series could be 'a calling card for the producers, for their career.'
Indeed, Sloan and Yonda are now represented by the fabled William Morris Agency, and they are negotiating a production deal with a media company. (They are mum, as of yet, about the details.) And both recently left their day jobs: Sloan quit his position at the University Book Store, and Yonda took a leave of absence from the metal shop Custom Metals. They did so in part because they hope the production deal will go through soon, but also because they are increasingly busy making commercials ' and making the sixth episode of 'Chad Vader,' which they plan to tape next month.
As eager as they are to advance in the entertainment business, though, they do not necessarily want to move to one of the coasts.
'I hope to see more stuff like this happen in Madison, and in towns all across the country,' Sloan says of the success of 'Chad Vader.' 'I think there's a lot of different perspectives, comedic and otherwise, in all different parts of the land. We don't need to have all our entertainment centered in two areas of the country.'
If Yonda and Sloan do head for the Big Apple or Tinseltown, they hope it is temporary. 'I really like Madison,' says Sloan. 'It would be a shame to leave it behind.'
And perhaps they will not have to, says Yonda: 'With the Internet, we can do what we want to do here.'