Silver Screen

A Movie About Movies Is Filming at One of Portland’s Oldest Cinemas

With sponsorship from PAM CUT and a cast featuring Carla Rossi, Genre Flick will shoot at the Clinton Street Theater in May.

By Matthew Trueherz March 30, 2023

Thom Hilton has connections to Clinton Street Theater, the filming location for his next project, Genre Flick.

A sunny evening a few Tuesdays ago, the actor and filmmaker Thom Hilton strutted past the vinyl chairs and black velvet paintings of Dot’s Cafe and ordered a Diet Coke at the bar. “You’re over 21?” the bartender asked. Hilton, who is 25, thanked her for the compliment through a conspiratorial smirk. The dull pulse of Black Sabbath bounced off the rococo wallpaper and over the pinball machines.  

Across the street was the historic Clinton Street Theater, the set of Hilton’s upcoming short film (his fourth), set to begin filming in May, and from where he hosts “Rocky Horror for Virgins” the second and fourth Saturday of every month. He's currently raising funds for the project in partnership with the Portland Art Museum’s Center for an Untold Tomorrow. Genre Flick will center on a rotating cast of moviegoers trapped in the worlds of the films they’ve just seen, including local drag legend Carla Rossi as a version of the emblematic femme fatale, Vera, from the 1945 noir, Detour. The script received a slew of praise last year in screenwriting competitions and was a finalist at the Cordillera International Film Festival and the Plot Point International Screenwriting Awards. 

“I like my funny stuff really fast,” Hilton says, eyeing the theater’s marquee from Dot’s sidewalk patio. He wrote the script around characters he developed while performing as a stand-up comic. In a way, he had to cast different versions of himself, but he plans to play one character himself. The actor Harrison Sheehan (Beach Rats) stars as Robby, an excessively handsome theater employee who gets asked on a series of dates by the genre-bound characters, including a John Wayne–inspired cowboy. (“Red River is this great, classic, gay—meaning homoerotic—cowboy movie.”) 

Despite the fact that Robby dates “boys, girls, drag queens, you know, all that,” in the film, “nobody’s like, ‘Well what’s that person’s sexuality?’” Hilton says. “Nobody will refer to Carla as a drag queen in the text. Nobody will say anything about [Robby] going on a date with a woman. In the text, queerness is like, beyond normal. We are in Queer Utopia World.” 

Aside from Carla Rossi, Sheehan, and of course Hilton, Genre Flick will feature Portland actress Lauren Modica, a star of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival as well as several Portland Center Stage productions. John Henry Ward, who you may recognize from the Elle Fanning Hulu drama The Girl from Plainville, will act opposite Sheehan.   

Through the fundraising process, the film has grown into a community project. The Clinton couldn’t be a more perfect venue, Hilton explains, being “specifically queer and avant garde,” like the script. Other local endorsements haven’t had as explicit of an impact on the film, but with everything from local sex toy retailer She Bop to pizza places to thrift stores as sponsors, there’s truly a village rallied behind the project. Fiscal sponsorship from PAM CUT means that donations to the film are tax deductible and the museum’s backing provides crucial access to equipment and promotional opportunities. 

Each scene in the film will begin with a shot of the Clinton’s marquee, introducing the to-be-referenced film while holding a constant listing for the Rocky Horror Picture Show, as it does in real life. Hilton started going to the Clinton’s Rocky Horror screenings as a teenager. And when he moved back to Portland during the pandemic from New York, he pitched the idea of running a series of educational “virgin night” screenings. He would share his decade-plus of yelling at Susan Sarandon and teach a new generation of viewers how to watch this “bad” movie that “doesn’t make any sense.” 

“It’s a lot of yelling,” Hilton explains between sips of Diet Coke. 

Like shouting, “Hey, Ma. What’s for dinna?” before Meatloaf bursts through a wall on a motorcycle, and making  sure you know “Brad is an asshole!” Hilton brings rice and newspaper and toilet paper and fake flowers to throw and teaches you how to do the time warp. A recent virgin night screening drew an audience of nearly 100, complete with a kid celebrating their 10th birthday (accompanied by parents), 20-year-olds on dates, and you know, adults, too.  

Hilton cites Kevin Williamson’s Scream films, known for their callouts to old horror movies, as a major inspiration. But, like he believes of Williamson’s campy classics, Hilton doesn’t want to use past cinema as a pretentious mode of film school; he’s interested instead in the sharpness of the archetype that naming a reference can bring, not the potential didactic clout citing 80-year-old films might garner. “I don’t personally think that there is a value in—and there was just a big movie that did this, Babylon—in making a movie that tells people to watch other movies when they're watching the movie that you've just made,” he says. Even if you haven’t seen Detour, you know what a femme fatale is, and having the reference brings specificity to the character. You know what a cowboy is; why not make it John Wayne himself?  

Above all, Hilton is adamant that Genre Flick will be “an extremely queer movie that has nothing to say.” It has the freedom to celebrate what it is, where it is, and who’s in it. It started with: “Me and my friend are gonna make this joke movie, right?” And has since grown into: “Oh, the whole neighborhood is in it,” Hilton says. “And isn’t that great?” 

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