Behind the scenes of J. Neil Schulman's Lady Magdalene's
By Thomas M. Sipos
As with Brad Linaweaver, I first met J. Neil Schulman in the early 1990s at Los Angele's libertarian Karl Hess Club. I previously wrote about Schulman's indie film, Alongside Night (2014). But before that, there was Lady's Magdalene's (2008), Schulman's directorial debut.
Shot during the summer of 2006 in Las Vegas and Pahrump, Nevada, Lady Magdalene's is the tale of a Homeland Security officer booted off the force by political correctness, who then stumbles onto an Al Queda plot, partially set in a legal brothel owned by Lady Magdalene, played by Nichelle Nichols.
"I met her at a Star Trek convention in the 1970s, which I was covering for the National Star," Schulman had told me. "She was in one of the suites where a party was going on at night. She was lounging on one of the beds. I went up to her with my recorder and lay down on the bed next to her, and I interviewed her. She maintains to this day that she remembers me doing that, which I find astonishing. I was one out of several thousands of reporters that interviewed her.
"I met her again a few years ago [i.e., a few years prior to 2006], regarding the script adaptation of my novel, Escape from Heaven. We began developing that together as executive producers. I decided that I could have only one madam for Lady Magdalene's, and that was Nichelle Nichols."
When it came time to film, Schulman considered Pahrump (a small Las Vegas suburb made famous in the 1990s as Art Bell's home base), to be an ideal location. Its surrounding desert can pass for the Mideast and local businesses were easy to work with (e.g., the Front Sight training center). That Schulman owned a second home in Pahrump was also convenient.
Like many low-budget filmmakers, Schulman engaged in guerrilla tactics. "Hoover Dam refused us permission to shoot there. We went there stealthily. One security guard saw our cameraman with the camera on his shoulder. The guard asked if we were shooting professionally. I said, 'No, just home movies.' Which was true. It was my camera. We did it before principal photography, so I had no contract with the corporation producing the movie. At that point, it was a home movie."
As an inside joke, Schulman includes a scene where his character (yes, he cast himself in a role) waves at the camera while standing at the dam. "That was basically me acknowledging, you guys didn't get me."
Lady Magdalene's was inspired by America's post-9/11 milieu, but also by a true story. "Back in the late 1980s, the Mustang Ranch went into federal tax receivership. Because it's a legal business, the federal court appointed a federal agent to be the tax receiver for the Mustang Ranch. I thought, that's the funniest fish-out-of-water idea I've ever heard. A federal agent given the job of managing a legal brothel in Nevada."
Despite his film's heroic portrayal of federal agents, Schulman was poorly treated by the government. "We come along with a movie in which the feds are the good guys, and the Department of Homeland Security would not give us any cooperation. We went to the FBI building [in Nevada] to get some exteriors on a Sunday, when the place is closed. They sent out a security guard to try to arrest us."
Schulman found most of his cast and crew, "referral to referral to referral. One person gives one person, that person gives you a third. Some actors I already knew. We listed the film with Breakdown Services. We did an open call in Pahrump. I hired one actor from Las Vegas, four from Pahrump, several from the East coast, lots out of Los Angeles, and one from Manchester in the UK."
And there was me. Yes, I too have a small speaking role. When Schulman announced his film, I asked if I could have a part. He said, okay. No audition. Just like that. In Hollywood, it really is who you know.
By 2007, Schulman was submitting to film festivals. Sundance and Cannes declined (yes, he actually dared to enter), but Lady Magdalene's did win for Best Cutting Edge Film at the 2008 San Diego Black Film Festival, the Audience Choice Award at the 2008 Cinema City International Film Festival at Universal Citywalk, and the Special Jury Prize for Libertarian Ideals at the 2011 FreedomFest's Anthem Film Festival in Las Vegas.
Yet a theatrical distribution deal proved elusive, despite Schulman's constant reediting. On April 12, 2007, he test-screened his film for the NRA at the Culver City Denny's. "I'm a past president of this chapter. It's our first chance to show the film to non-industry people in a no pressure environment. I'll be looking at their comments for an idea of how to market the film."
In 2011, Schulman uploaded Lady Magdalene's to YouTube, introduced by a brief infomercial from his new sponsor, Life Enhancement, a nutritional supplement company. "This is a new distribution model for independent films, where a sponsor's sales revenues are shared with the producer." The infomercial, produced by Schulman's Jesulu Productions, features actress Mara Marini from the film, interviewing Life Enhancement CEO Will Block.
Schulman told me that Lady Magdalene's cost over a half million dollars. Like indie filmmakers before him, he raised money by mortgaging his house and tapping into his trust fund. Unfortunately, this was shortly before the housing crash. He lost his home in Culver City. His Pahrump home became his only home. Yet that did not deter him from shooting Alongside Night several years later.
You can see Lady Magdalene's in its entirety and for free on YouTube.
Schulman was a much celebrated libertarian sci-fi author and a generous friend. He died on August 10, 2019, 19 days before his longtime friend, Brad Linaweaver. Libertarian pulp fiction is poorer without them.
Thomas M. Sipos writes satirical novels and film criticism. His website is CommunistVampires.com.