Local man’s dream sets sail
By Traci Chapman
It’s a long way from Mustang, Oklahoma, to the Sundance Film Festival, but that’s exactly where Jeff Robison spent last week.
Robison is one of the writers and producers of “Rudderless,” the William Macy-directed film selected to close out the festival, held last week in Park City, Utah. With a top-billed actor selecting his film as his directorial debut, Robison said the movie was another step in a dream job for him and writing partner Casey Twenter. It was a dream that started when both men were very young, Robison said.
“I’ve always loved movies,” he said. “I remember watching the 1933 version of King Kong, when I was about 4 years old.
“I’ll never forget bawling when King Kong falls off the Empire State Building, and I was connected with movies even then, they were something magical,” Robison said.
That was back when Robison was a boy from Mustang, a 1990 Mustang High School graduate who said he knew he wanted to do big things – he just didn’t have it all mapped out at that point.
“I went to Northwestern for one year and graduated from OSU in 1995,” he said. “My major was education, and I knew that was a good way to go.”
Where his education took him was back home, teaching for five years at Mustang Valley Elementary, alongside teachers who had taught him several years before.
“It was a great learning experience – some of the best teaching times I had,” Robison said. “Pam McLaughlin was the best boss I ever had, the teachers were the best I ever worked with, some of the best women I ever knew.”
From Mustang Valley, Robison moved to Putnam City Middle School, then Piedmont Middle School and Piedmont High School, teaching and coaching “pretty much everything but soccer, baseball and swimming.” He also coached his children’s teams, utilizing his own athletic experience as a MHS basketball player.
But while he loved teaching, Robison said movies were always in his blood, something that simmered under the surface until he got married. It was then Robison decided he needed to write a “legitimate” script. He bought software and a screenwriting bible and took his best shot.
“I wrote this script without really knowing what I’m doing,” he said.
While nothing came from that first effort, a chance meeting would spark Robison’s writing career. Enter Casey Twenter, who had his own Canadian County ties.
“We met at a fantasy football draft,” Robison said. “We started talking about movies and developed a friendship from there.
“It was the first time I’d met a friend I could really bounce ideas off without feeling idiotic,” he said.
Twenter lived in Oklahoma City, after getting a cross country scholarship from University of Central Oklahoma. He met his wife, Cristi – a Yukon High School graduate – and got a job at Hallmark. The couple now have a daughter, Kaitlyn, who is 8. Robison’s family was also growing – with wife, Jeni, he had two children of his own, Grace, 7, and Jake, who is now 6, he said.
Their families were the partners’ greatest inspiration and biggest concern as they moved from writing part time to a full-time effort, Robison said. Throughout the difficult decision to give up teaching to pursue his dream, his mom was instrumental in giving him the push he needed, he said. A secretary with Lakehoma Elementary for 25 years, Jill Thomson knew just what to say and do to keep her son believing in himself and his goals, he said.
“My mom has always believed in me – she’s been so supportive, has millions of friends, a lot of Mustang people, and there’s a community of Mustang friends who have been incredibly supportive,” Robison said. “Mom’s kind of been the ring leader for that.”
Even with so much strong encouragement, working toward their goal was nerve-wracking, Robison said. There were several stops and starts, times when the pair thought they had something that would sell and nothing materialized.
“It can be a frustrating business,” he said. “We would get down and I would say, ‘Dude, we’re in Oklahoma City, we’re not going to get anything.’”
The partners didn’t let the low times discourage them completely, however. The two would write and write, generating scripts in almost every genre, from horror to romantic comedies and dramas. Twenter would pound on doors looking for backing and the pair started meeting with known actors, people like Keith Carradine, Laurence Fishburne and Rob Schneider.
“We were ecstatic – these guys were actually meeting with us,” Robison said.
The excitement didn’t last for long after Robison and Twenter discovered they couldn’t raise funds to make their movie. But instead of being the end of their dream, two events would soon prove to be a turning point for the men.
“We were pretty depressed about the situation – I’m still teaching, he’s still in advertising – and I said, ‘Let’s make something else,’” Robison said. “You go to the movie store and it’s lined with horror movies, so we decided to go that route and make our own movie.”
The end result was “The Jogger,” a 2013 thriller written and directed by Robison and Twenter. On the first movie set the pair had ever stepped on, they filmed the production over 15 days, mostly in Edmond, Robison said. The film won Best Narrative at the LA Indie Film Fest, Kansas City Film Festival and the Tulsa United Film Festival, and has garnered positive reviews from critics and viewers alike on online sites. That was a turning point, but there was one other – when a chance call led to the pair’s biggest connection to date – William H. Macy.
“Ironically, Casey calls Creative Artists Agency and magically – it was a fluke – he got the agent of William H. Macy directly on the phone,” Robison said. “We had read Macy wanted to start directing, so we changed our strategy to try to get him to direct, so we sent the agent the script.
“I was at parent teacher conference in Piedmont the next week, and Casey is calling and calling and texting me, telling me to look at my email,” he said. “I told him, ‘I’m going to tell you right now if this is a joke I’m going to drive to Kansas City and we’re going to get into a pretty big fight.
“The next we knew we were sitting in William H. Macy’s house in L.A., eating dinner with him and his wife and daughters – I had two bites of chicken and could barely talk,” Robison said.
After four years of trying to get the movie going, by May the movie was in production and cast and crew were told it would be screened at Sundance. The dream was a reality.
“We can’t yet do this full time, but we now have something tangible we can hold onto and believe in,” he said.
Rudderless is only the beginning, Robison said. The partners have about 20 scripts finished and are constantly working on more. The pair hopes Oklahoma film incentives will allow them to shoot their next film this summer.
“It’s been a fascinating journey,” Robison said. “I understand how blessed I am to be able to live this dream, even for a year or two, of course, we want to do this for the rest of our lives.”