Auteur on a Wire

Johnny Wu takes Cleveland independent film to new heights.

In a scene from Cleveland filmmaker Johnny Wu's short, "The Chase," a woman is in a warehouse, running away from a guy with obvious bad intentions. Two guys with good intentions are chasing him. Their paths collide in a freight elevator at the end of a tight corridor.

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Cleveland filmmaker Matthew T. knows that a good sequel can't simply ape the original, a la Hollywood's recent (and dreadful) "Be Cool." So he and his L.A. counterpart, Marcel DeJure, are mixing things up at the sixth annual 20,000 Leagues Under the Industry Film Festival to keep it fresh.

The indier-than-indie fest teams up with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Cleveland and takes things alfresco on Friday, June 17, to kick off the museum's annual MOCA Mix summer series. Starting at sunset, "Fever Dreams," a program of more than 30 short films, will be screened on green space that T. refers to as "the grassy knoll" outside MOCA's digs.

A low-wattage transmitter will broadcast the films' soundtracks over an FM band. T. encourages audience members to bring their own radios so they can listen to the movies drive-in fashion while sitting on their own lawnchairs. "The goal is to create a beach-party feel for the screening," he says.

After the films, Los Angeles-based puppet troupe The Cinnamon Roll Gang will perform a show titled "Beach Blanket Babylon."

Cost is $5 for MOCA members and students with ID, $7 for nonmembers. For more info, call MOCA at (216) 421-8671.

— Michael von Glahn

This is where suspense turns into suspension. Harnessed to a contraption made of hooks, pulleys and wires that run from the corridor into the top of the elevator, the three men become airborne, their arms and legs spinning like deadly whirligigs in a martial arts melee.

Not one to follow convention, Wu experimented with wireworks because it had never been done in Cleveland.

"I try to break different rules," says the 37-year-old auteur. "The fact that we pulled it off is kind of cool."

Wu was born in Cleveland — he surprised his parents while they were visiting friends here. But he grew up in Panama City, where his late father was a Taiwanese diplomat. In 1995, Wu moved to the city where he was born. A few years later, he went to Los Angeles, where he contracted with several major Hollywood publicity and marketing firms, such as PMK, and learned to "make noise."

"Make noise not to make yourself heard, but to make people see that there is something good going on," Wu says of his main goal when creating cinema. In L.A., the lean, gregarious guy with the accent also learned that who you know matters.

"The most important thing about Johnny is that he is a consummate networker," says Tim Gunn, an indie filmmaker who moved here from Michigan last summer. Gunn says he once complained to Wu that he couldn't find a photographer. The next day he received phone calls from several.

Last year, in an effort to make noise for Cleveland's independent film scene, Wu founded the Cleveland chapter of Indie, which claims 200,000 members worldwide.

Free and open to anyone interested in film, meetings (held on the third Sunday of each month) regularly pack the viewing room of Talkies Film and Coffee Bar in Ohio City or some other location. In the first half of the meeting, filmmakers can screen their work. For the second half, Wu schedules different experts to address everything from working with weapons instructors to operating different types of equipment.

About 50 indie-film lovers from as far away as Canton attended a recent meeting. Filmmakers ranged from a high school student premiering his short film about angst-ridden teen vampires to a middle-aged man showing clips from a police zombie-hunt movie. Gunn, who served as the host, showed an excerpt from his new noir film. He also moderated a detailed discussion on high-definition video versus digital video.

Wu used the forum to show off a teaser from his most recent foray into wirework, "A Joker's Card." Shot in less than a week last October, the mini motion picture premiered at The Grid dance club in April. In an effort to save money on expensive superhero costumes, Wu imagined the plight of several superheroes' progeny. Thus, the plot pits the spawn of Batman's former nemesis, the Joker, against the scion of his sidekick, Robin. Having studied the martial arts since age 3 — his father taught him Wu Jia Quan Shu (Art of Wu Family System), created 2,800 years ago by his ancestors — Wu himself became a wired warrior in several sequences.

Wu made this "fan film" with no legal hassles from the characters' creators because he will not earn any money. It's destined for film festivals.

Wu also serves as president of the Organization of Chinese Americans of Greater Cleveland and earns his living working part time for a civil engineering firm in Berea, as well as from his own marketing and creative media consulting firm, Media Design Imaging. He's planning a film for 2006 that will feature an original superhero with 15-foot steel wings, so that copyrights won't be an issue.

Ever the networker, Wu hopes local filmmakers will band together more as Cleveland continues to gain momentum as a place to make movies.

"I can't say that they're all making good films," Wu says, "but it's encouraging to see it evolving to this point."

Clevelanders can catch "A Joker's Card" Aug. 5 through 7 during the Twisted Nightmare Weekend fest at the Quality Airport Inn in Middleburg Heights. For more information on Wu's work, visit

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