Although he's just begun a beginner's video production class at Pima Community College, filmmaker Pearry Reginald Teo already has an award-winning film to his credit. His 27-minute Liberata Me was named the "best short subject: horror" in September by the New York International Film Festival.
Now, Teo and his new company, Aaquinas Productions, are planning Revelations, a trilogy of feature-length films based on the Bible's Book of Revelations. Not bad for a 24-year-old Singapore native born into a Christian family so strict he was never allowed to watch TV as a child and didn't see his first movie until he was a teen-ager.
"I didn't even know there was such a thing as a film director until I was in my teens," Teo said.
The first movie Teo saw was Top Gun, for which his father snuck him out of the house. "I didn't really care for it, but my next movie was An American Werewolf in London, and that was more like it."
After going to school in Australia and living for a short time in Texas, Teo moved to Tucson in 2001 to enroll at PCC.
"They were like the only school that accepted," he said recently in his Aaquinas office, surrounded by film editing equipment, fast food wrappers and various assistants. Coming in and out of the room were sound engineer Lisa Fowle and actor Layton Matthews, Teo's main partners in making Liberata Me.
Originally shot on video with no budget to speak of, Liberata Me was truly a seat-of-the-pants production. "It just started off as one of those things that you do in your spare time," Teo said.
Teo completed the first draft of his story in July 2000. In the ensuing months, his script went through a couple of revisions and he got assistance with tightening up the dialogue. By the time Teo met Matthews in the spring of 2001, he wasn't sure whether he would make the movie or not.
Matthews persuaded Teo to start the project at full-throttle, regardless of lack of experience or budget. "I figured if we were going to be taking risks, you might as well do it right," said the actor, a self-described University of Arizona drama school drop-out.
Teo and the cast and crew embarked on a dangerously steep learning curve. Said Teo, "I had to start reading books on filmmaking and video production right away."
Shooting began in August 2001. Teo and his crew built all their own sets and props and shot in various Tucson locations, such as the former Fine Line nightclub and an abandoned house on Convent Street.
In the film, Matthews plays Julian, a drug-addicted young man so obsessed with the Ouija board that he gets it tattooed on his back. "The tattoo becomes a tool for a journey he's going through in the film," director Teo said.
Matthews added that his character commits suicide at the beginning of the film but comes back two hours earlier. "Now he's got two hours to figure out how he came to commit suicide."
The conclusion of the film is ambiguous and intriguing. "As far as I know, nobody's figured out the ending, even those people who figured out the endings of The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects in advance," Teo said.
The film was finally finished this past March, just in time for its premiere at the Arizona International Film Festival in Tucson. Because it was a late entry, Liberata Me was shown outside of competition for the Tucson festival.
"But we never expected the response we got," Teo said. The New York film festival pushed for the film and recommended it be shown at the prestigious Cannes International Film Festival in France.
With the help of a generous silent investor, Aaquinas Productions was formed after Liberata Me was finished. "He came to offer us money to make a feature film, and we worked out a business plan. Our company officially opened in May of this year."
"This company allows us to be self-sufficient without any artistic interference," Matthews added.
Since he began seeing movies at an age somewhat older than most kids, Teo said he approaches the art form with fresh eyes. "I learned what I have learned simply by observing people and their attitudes toward film. It wasn't a conscious choice to be a filmmaker, but it was a conscious choice to disorient people."
Not surprisingly, Teo said the films that have influenced and impressed him most are The City of Lost Children and The Crow, both movies about the search for the self amid dark cityscapes, with generous amounts of the supernatural.
As a viewer, Teo said he's still catching up on his movies. "I've never seen a Hitchcock film and I've only seen one-quarter of a David Lynch movie."
This fall, Teo is busy with a student film for his PCC class, but he's keeping his eye on the future.
The director admits his intention to make his Revelations trilogy is "kinda ambitious," but he plans to build momentum and budgets through the series. "The first film will have low, low budget, the second a medium one, and the last will be a big-budget blockbuster."
Mainstream movie fans disappointed by the overt preaching in such Christian films as The Omega Code, Left Behind and the recent Time Changer need not worry about Revelations, Teo said. "It's not confined by dogma. It's not a Jesus movie, but it will be based on the rise and fall of the Antichrist."
Talk about horror.