Press / The Birmingham News

Art imitates life on Highland Avenue

This is a story that had to be set in Birmingham. All that avarice and artifice. That crooked mayor and the conniving lawyers. The injudicious judges, the plots and the slots and way, way, way too much murder. That's not a movie. That's the front page of the Birmingham News. On any given Sunday.

But on Highland Avenue these days, it is becoming film, too. Part Midnight in the Garden of Greed and Corruption, part Raising Alabama. This thing is going to be as dark a comedy as the Jefferson County Commission itself, as deliciously disturbing -- if less dangerous -- than a Birmingham City Council meeting. The movie is called "Clubhouse," and it is set, almost exclusively, in a stately old home at 2908 Highland Ave. South, across the street from Rojo. The story, roughly, revolves around efforts by assorted sinister characters to seize control of the century-old mansion from the humble owner. Sure, there are parts of this film snatched the headlines and from real life. As one member of the crew put it, the real parts are the parts that are most unbelievable. Just like the rest of Birmingham.

But writer/director Yuri Shapochka insists his first feature-length film is not a satire about any particular place. "It is a universal story," he said. "It is a universal story of love." A dark, Coen Brothers sort of love, to hear the cast and crew talk about it. A plenty twisted story of love with plenty of blood loss as accompaniment. But Shapochka, a Ukrainian native who makes Birmingham his home, insists that what you see in twisted killings and bloodshed is not necessarily the story of his movie's soul. "You could think it's about politics, or corruption, or greed, or deception," he said. "But it's not. It's about pure love." It's like Birmingham, all right, the most incongruous stew of dysfunction and devotion, of killing and kindness, of corruption and compassion you can possibly find. Why don't more crews film here? This town is the perfect setting for a morality play. Of course it was also perfect for Shapochka because it is cheap, because the only way he could finance the film -- and it is a tiny, tiny film -- was to shoot it all in this house in a dozen days.

But to hear the actors talk about it, there is some alchemy in the making of this movie, too. Leslie Easterbrook, who once sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl and is most famous as the va-va-voluptuous Debbie Callahan in all those Police Academy movies, stars along with Tim Abell, whose long list of credits includes TV's Soldier of Fortune, Inc. They aren't going to make a lot of money on this movie. It is an art film of sorts, a dark art film. But when she read the script in L.A., Easterbrook said, she fell in love with it. So at 62 she came to Birmingham to be "creative." Now, she says, she has fallen in love with the city, too. "Birmingham is just the warmest, most wonderful place to work, with the best crew I think I've ever worked with in 37 years," she said. "You can only go by instinct. But I have a feeling ... that we captured magic." Right here in the Magic City. Yep. This thing had to be shot in Birmingham.

By John Archibald, Birmingham News