Petaluma-filmed ‘Pill Head’ pops onto big screen

“I love stories where a character who you least expect of goodness or heroism, finds themselves having to somehow become heroic,” says Daedalus Howell, author and filmmaker. “That’s the kind of lead character I wanted for ‘Pill Head.’?”

“Pill Head,” now bearing the catchy poster slogan, “A Dose From Another Dimension,” is the feature-length movie Howell filmed in and around Petaluma last year. As writer and director, he decided to not just shoot the movie in his hometown, but to set the story in a kind of alternative version of Petaluma.

A town he calls Lumaville.

The movie’s producer, Karen Hess, says she liked the idea, and especially appreciated Howell’s commitment to telling a tale in which a troubled person discovers an inner strength they did not know they had.

“Who doesn’t love a redemption story?” she says.

“Pill Head,” which premiered to a sold-out Mystic Theatre crowd in February, will be released in a video-on-demand format (initially on Vimeo) on May 16. The film will then be released on Blu Ray and DVD later this summer. But first, it will receive a multi-cinema big screen run at several North Bay theaters, including four screenings in Petaluma on May 13 and 15.

The intentionally comedic, satirically off-the-wall film stars Emily Ahrens at Theda, a pill-popping party girl who comes into contact with the mysterious Dr. Ashe, played by Alia Beeton, recently seen as Sally Bowles in Cinnabar Theater’s 2018 production of “Cabaret.”

“We were so lucky to get such great actors as our leads,” says Hess. “They really understood what we were going for, and were totally committed to making this film, which, because of its budget, had to be pretty inventive.”

“That’s her way of saying we had to make some of it up as we went,” says Howell.

The idea for the film came in the spring of 2017, after Howell and Hess had fruitfully collaborated on a surreal local art exhibit featuring fake ephemera from a fictional rock band called Le Drama Club. The exhibition, at the small gallery in the rear of Heebe Jeebe General Store, was done so successfully that certain attendees swore they actually remembered seeing Le Drama Club perform live at The Phoenix in the 80s.

“That totally happened, people said that,” laughs Hess. “But it’s impossible, because we invented the band.”

Buoyed by the results, Howell and Hess began looking for another, similarly artsy project to team up for. What they settled on was to make what Howell now calls “a ripped-from-the-headlines exploitation movie in the style of Roger Corman,” but with a decidedly gentler, art-gallery vibe.

“I immediately thought of it as an ‘arts-ploitation’ film,” Howell says. “I’d already made a bunch of weird short films. So I said to Karen, ‘Look, we just did an exhibit where we made a whole bunch of real-looking props, and we created this whole world out of nothing but visual elements, so let’s do that again, but add a movie, and a story, and actors. I may have actually said, ‘How hard can it be?’ Anyway, it opened the door, and Karen liked the idea, and she gave me a month to write a script.”

Having produced two self-published novels – “The Late Projectionist” and “Quantum Deadline” – both already taking place in Lumaville, Howell decided to use elements of that same world in the movie. Those elements include an alternative version of the Argus-Courier – for which Howell has served as columnist and one-time Features Editor – now called the Argo-Knot. The story Howell began to envision was that of a young woman, a drug addict with a poor sense of self-value, who agrees to undergo an experimental drug therapy grogram, from which she emerges with, for lack of a better description, supernatural “abilities.”

“I read it at Wishbone, while eating breakfast, with Daedalus watching me read,” Hess recalls. “I loved the script, just totally enjoyed it the first time I read it. And I started reading with no idea what it was about, because Daedalus had told me nothing. He just handed it to me, and off I went.”

As the film’s producer, Hess did have a few suggestions, including a note about the original ending.

“Something happened at the end, something the main character does, that I knew a woman would never do,” she says.

“So I changed it, and it made the movie so much better,” Howell agrees. “It really gave a focus to the film that wasn’t there before. I think it’s a really powerful ending now.”

From the beginning, Howell planned to shoot the film in black-and-white, which created some challenges for cinematographer Raymond Daigle.

“It was worth it, though,” says Howell. “I can’t imagine it having the same sense of weirdness if it were in color.”

Another decision that was made early on was for Daedalus to appear in the film himself, as a mysterious, time-travelling author named … Daedalus Howell. He even hawks copies of his “Quantum Deadline” book to wary strangers, and at one point is seen sneaking copies of the book onto the shelves of the local library.

“Daedalus was free, to we had to cast him as himself,” Hess jokes. “Meaning … he was literally free, we didn’t have to pay him. We paid everyone else on the film, though.”

“If we could afford to hire someone else, I’d have cast someone handsomer than myself to play Daedalus Howell,” says Howell.

Hess, a Petaluma-based painter and one-time graphic designer, created all of the poster and art design for the promotion of “Pill Head.” Like Howell, she is also a former writer for the Argus-Courier, having contributed weekly arts and culture pieces during the ‘90s.

“I love Petaluma,” she says. “And I love the way Petaluma looks on film. Part of the fun of making ’Pill Head’ was getting to showcase all the cool little details of this town, American Alley, the River, Hotel Petaluma, all of it. Petaluma looks really great on film, and it’s changed so much, we wanted to capture it as it is now. In a lot of ways, ‘Pill Head’ is a time capsule of Petaluma.”

“And it looks great in black-and-white, very stylish, very noir,” says Howell, adding, “Petaluma is a very noir kind of town.”

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