In the courtyard of an oddly palatial, Spanish-style ophthalmology office in Palm Springs, Florida, a man in an open-front vest and gray face paint stands on the edge of a gurgling water fountain. Suddenly, he swings a roundhouse kick at an older man in a bowler hat and a long black robe. "Hi-yah!" the robed man screams as he pushes his attacker into the water. Behind a tripod, a wiry guy with graying dreadlocks records the battle.
That's all the script calls for, but the man in the bowler hat isn't satisfied. And his opinion matters because he's Chiu Chi Ling, a weathered kung fu master raised in Hong Kong who's starred alongside Jackie Chan, and everyone else on set is an amateur actor.
"Get some water! You, get some water!" he yells at his costar, gesturing excitedly. The guy in the vest isn't following. He looks wide-eyed from Chiu to the camera and then leans over and splashes his face. "Use your mouth. Get water!" Chiu says, pantomiming spitting it out.
Suddenly, the man understands. "This?" he asks, quickly thrusting his head into the fountain and slurping up the frothy, brassy-tasting water and then spitting toward the camera. They film several more takes, with the man tumbling toward the fountain, gulping water, and spraying it at the director while other cast members — along with a couple of curious ophthalmologists — watch. Finally, Chiu is pleased.
So is Gary Davis, the man behind the camera, for whom filmmaking has always been an exercise in exactly this kind of on-the-fly, last-minute maneuvering. Over the past two decades, the 64-year-old has established himself as South Florida's own "disaster artist," a self-made auteur who has written, directed, shot, scored, and edited some 40 movies — all with no budget or formal training. A native of poverty-stricken Camden, New Jersey, whose love for filmmaking began in childhood, Davis takes pride in pulling off complicated, action-heavy projects with little more than sheer ambition.
"Somebody called me the king of Z movies," he says. "That's an honor, that title. Nobody does what I can do with no money. Nobody."
Though his fan base is mostly limited to the actors who appear in his films, his status as an ultimate outsider artist has grown as tens of thousands of viewers watch on YouTube. And Davis might have the last laugh: As the film industry has cratered in Florida after legislators axed an incentive program, he's among the last standing still making features in the Sunshine State.
The truth is, Davis has always believed that with real funding, he could create a bona fide hit. And this film starring Chiu, a "postapocalyptic-style martial arts fantasy with a bit of horror thrown in for fun," could be the big break he's been waiting for — or at least the next big cult classic.
For a guerrilla filmmaker, the path to the premiere is always riddled with challenges. Davis had dodged cops called to his on-the-fly shoots, worked around his actors' real jobs as restaurant managers and blackjack dealers, and been booted out of countless locations by irate building managers. But all of that pales in comparison to what happened before the cameras began rolling on 2054: A Princess, a Soldier & a Tailor. In a tragic twist that could almost be lifted from one of Davis' movies, one of the would-be stars was found dead last summer under mysterious circumstances.
But Miami's own version of Tommy Wiseau is doing the only thing he knows how to do: pressing ahead and holding tight to his belief that this could be the movie that changes everything.
"We don't let tragedy stop us," Davis says. "Keep going. Make the dream happen."
Growing up poor in one of Camden's segregated black neighborhoods, Gary Davis used to dig up his backyard looking for clay. It was the 1950s — right on the verge of a period of racial unrest that would lead to rioting and white flight — and Gary's parents, a Korean War vet and a nurse, couldn't afford the Play-Doh that Gary saw on TV.
No matter — he and his siblings made their own with the backyard clay. That was the thing about Gary: He could always find a way to make do. It was a trait he would rely on for the rest of his life, one that would come to shape his many efforts in filmmaking. Without money to pay actors, lock down locations, or fund special effects, he's always had to lean heavily on his own resourcefulness to bring his stories to the big screen.
"Coming from the hood and poverty and no money," Davis says, "you had to learn to take nothing, and out of nothing, make something."
The oldest of six boys and one girl, Gary was born in 1953 to Clarence, a TV repairman who later became a high-school teacher, and Eleanor, a nurse. The couple, who had come of age in Camden when it was still a proud industrial city, had met as teenagers and married soon after a 21-year-old Clarence was drafted into the Korean War.
His father's time overseas planted the seed for Gary's fascination with film. While the family was stationed in Korea, a fellow soldier boasted that he didn't care what the Army did to him because he had a Jaguar and an Argus C3 — a rangefinder camera — at home. Clarence knew he couldn't afford a luxury car. So when he returned to Camden, he says, "the first thing I did was buy an Argus C3."
He was the only person he knew with such a sophisticated camera, which thanks to its rangefinder produced perfect photographs. Hooked on his new hobby, Clarence later bought a wind-up video camera, using it to film his growing brood. None of his children were as enamored as his oldest, a quiet kid who loved martial arts and the piano and was so studious that the others called him "professor." At 10 years old, Gary used birthday money from his parents to buy one of his own. Then he began making movies.
From the very beginning, Gary's work was ambitious. He recruited his younger siblings and neighbors for flicks inspired by the James Bond and John Wayne epics his dad took him to see. Shot in Kodachrome on 8- or 16mm film, Gary's movies were complete with action scenes and whatever special effects he could muster using tools like smoke bombs and model cars. In one he made as a teenager, a boy with a drawn gun lies atop a Volkswagen bus as it barrels down a wooded road. In another, someone falls off a roof after being shot from below.
"We didn't see half the stuff that he did until later on," Clarence says, chuckling, "because half the stuff that he did we would have never allowed him to do."
For Gary, making movies was a way to put his runaway imagination to work. He figures he got his inventiveness from his dad, who, after growing up during the Depression, knew how to make something out of nothing. Gary was a grown man by the time he learned that the horses his dad always talked about playing with as a kid were made of sticks.
Movies also offered an escape from a lonely childhood in a faltering city. "When we went to the movies, we had to decide which way to go," he recalls. "Did we feel like getting attacked by the gangs or the bullies or the dogs? Which way is the best way to go? Because all the ways had issues."
By the time Gary got to Camden High School in 1967, his hometown was in turmoil. The factories and shipyards shuttered, taking thousands of jobs with them. Tensions soared. Riots broke out in 1969 and 1971, the first in response to rumors of police brutality, the second after a Puerto Rican man was beaten to death by white officers.
Between homecoming, track meets, and a janitorial job at the Midway Movie Theater, Gary's high-school memories include sit-ins and walkouts and cops guarding the hallways with baseball-bat-size batons. Around him, people were dropping out, going to jail, getting shot. Preoccupied with making movies with titles such as Crime Machine and Wynn, the Davis siblings avoided the always-lurking trouble. It helped that their parents had high expectations, with their mother always reminding them: "I want six doctors."
"We definitely should have been a statistic in terms of not ever making it out of there, not ever surviving," Gary's brother Kevin says.
But they did make it out. After high school, Gary went to Rutgers University on a track scholarship. He studied engineering and then transferred to Glassboro State College, where he turned his hobby of piano playing into his major. With jazz and funk organist Richard "Groove" Holmes for an uncle, Davis had played piano since childhood. Now he thought maybe he could make a career of it.
As for his other creative passion, it never occurred to Gary that filmmaking could be a career. He didn't know of any black directors. It was easier to imagine becoming a doctor because he'd seen black doctors.
So in 1980, he graduated with a music degree and made a few disco albums while New York City's disco and rap scene flourished. Then he married Sonjia, a pretty, sassy girl from his neighborhood whose sister had once dated his brother. The couple had a daughter and in 1984 moved to South Florida, where Gary found work managing fast-food restaurants.
His family thought his dream of making movies was behind him. Until, suddenly, it wasn't.
The hardest part is always pressing the 'record' button," Davis says. It's 9 a.m. on a chilly Saturday in January, and he's pacing around a CubeSmart in Royal Palm Beach, where he has rented a couple of storage units as a makeshift studio. In one, clothing racks are heavy with costumes: scores of floral and dragon-covered robes Davis and his wife picked up at thrift shops. In another, a desk marked with a sign reading "The Fuel Depot" is set up against the back wall, beside several oil canisters and some sort of steering-wheel contraption meant to resemble a gas valve.
Davis was all set to begin shooting 2054's first scene: space-age soldiers fueling up their flying cars. But there's a big problem. The CubeSmart employee who OK'ed Davis' shoot failed to clear it with his bosses. Just before starting to roll, a manager calls the director's cell phone, ordering him to leave. Davis tries to argue, but a few minutes later, a district supervisor arrives and shuts down the operation.
Day one of shooting isn't happening. Not today anyway.
Reluctantly, 20 or so cast members — including a pair of bounty hunters in cowboy hats and trench coats, a "supersoldier" in a denim jumpsuit, and a general wearing martial arts gear — gather in the parking lot of the strip mall next door. They squint in the sun and swap stories of past catastrophes while shooting Davis' films — like the time the sheriff's office came rushing into the park where an actress was tied up for a rescue scene.
So it goes for Davis and his haphazard films. Ask about the movies he's churned out over the decades, sometimes at a rate of two or three a year, and he'll regale you with tales of dropping cameras six stories to get the perfect shot and editing entire movies two days before premiering.
"This is not a new set of circumstances that I can't handle," he says of this latest challenge.
After all, he's overcome plenty to make movies in the first place — going from fast-food employee to prolific filmmaker with little more than the force of his desire.
For more than a decade after he moved to Florida in 1984, life kept Davis away from movies. He had a wife and a daughter and a mortgage. So he worked his way up to manager at a local McDonald's and then managed a nearby Taco Bell. On the side, he taught karate.
His childhood passion reignited around 1994, when some of his Taco Bell employees asked for his help shooting a music video. That led to other shoots with local musicians. A year later, he started a show called He, which featured music videos and interviews with locals acts and aired as paid programming Saturdays at midnight. Before long, he was hooked. He began making minimovies, and then full-length flicks, that also aired on the channel.
"Things kind of spun out of control," Davis says.
Soon he left his job as a manager to cook at Denny's on the graveyard shift, freeing up his days for filming. He initially used people from the music community as his stars and then began hosting auditions. No one was paid, but Davis found that South Florida was full of aspiring actors happy to simply to appear on the big screen and the cover of a VHS or DVD. Many became regulars.
Davis kept the rest of his costs low by shooting in public places and sweet-talking the owners of distinctive-looking spots such as the Mai-Kai and Splendid China into using their businesses as exotic sets. Distribution comes cheap too: Davis orders a few hundred copies to sell directly to actors and their families, his friends, and anyone else who's interested.
But why would Davis turn his life upside down to film a VHS that perhaps 100 people might watch? Ask him and he talks almost as if he doesn't have a choice: He has to make movies to clear out the ideas that have been popping into his head since childhood.
"It's like having a song in your head," he says. "If I'm dreaming and falling asleep and there's this thing in my head that I can't get rid of, I gotta do something about it. So it's like a relief. I got this idea; I gotta get the idea out of my head."
Davis' first movie after his return to filmmaking, called He Is a Spy?, was inspired by the Bond films he's loved since childhood, but with a twist: His Bond character was a martial artist. When it was released in 1996, it was noteworthy enough that three South Florida news stations aired stories. Thrilled at the hype, Davis released two sequels within the next year.
By 1999, he had turned his hobby into a job, getting a gig doing production work at the local TV station WXEL and freelancing video work for local equestrian shows.
That Davis found himself back behind a camera didn't come as a surprise to his brother. "I thought he would always have a camera somewhere," Kevin says. "That's one of the things that makes him him."
His wife, who saw all of his free time suddenly consumed, was understanding, though she says wryly, "I wish it was another woman."
She's not the only one who's had to deal with Davis' often unpredictable whims. Though Palm Beach County has an entire office devoted to attracting filmmakers to the area and helping them secure permits, Davis can't afford the $1 million insurance policy. So he films without permits and sometimes without notice.
Once, he shot a robbery scene at the Palm Beach Mall without informing management. As six burly men toting what looked like real guns burst into a store, panicked shoppers hurried away. It was all for his 2004 gangster flick, A Sinner's Prayer. Davis had explained before that shoot that he wanted it to look "like it's happening right as the audience watches." Mission accomplished.
In another episode, actress Massiel Checo was bound in ropes and screaming at the Wellington Environmental Preserve. A couple of horrified cyclists who were pedaling by called the cops, who zoomed into the park, lights flashing, ready to break up a kidnapping in progress. "In the moment, I was freaking out," Checo recalls. "I didn't know if they were going to believe us. We didn't have a permit or anything."
After the group explained they were shooting a film, and Checo showed the cops her IMDb page, they were allowed to continue. That might have been Davis' most dramatic run-in with authorities, but there have been many over the years, dating back to when he was a teenager and showed up at a hospital with a "gunshot victim" and had to assure concerned staff that the emergency wasn't real.
Davis could solve a lot of problems by just writing movies set in modern times, without any supernatural elements or special effects. Yet every story he writes weaves elaborate tales set centuries in the past and far in the future, in locations such as China and Mexico, with zombies and vampires and mad scientists. They involve high-speed chases, explosions, and fight sequences, including one set on top of a bus.
When wider audiences have seen his work, they sometimes aren't sure what to make of it. At the premiere of vampire horror/drama The Spanish Inn at Boynton Cinema in 2006, viewers giggled more than gasped, the Sun Sentinel reported. Three years later, the prequel, Zen, drew a similar response. The movie, a Palm Beach Post arts reporter wrote, came off like a comedy, especially in scenes where Davis used a plastic doll as a stand-in for a crying baby. It was a plight common to many a Davis production.
"Even those in Davis' inner circle of fans concede that they're often laughable affairs: They don't just feel low-budget (think thrift-store finds as props and costumes)," the Post story continued. "They declare it with an almost proud defiance in scene after disjointed scene."
The result puts Davis somewhere on the film spectrum with Wiseau, whose 2003 cult classic The Room inspired the hit James Franco comedy The Disaster Artist last year. Like Wiseau, Davis truly doesn't care what people think about his work.
"I don't pay people no mind," he says. "I'm very happy with everything I've done because I've done it with nothing, you know what I mean? I've done it with nothing, and for me, it feels good to be able to make these movies with nothing."
Last summer, he began plotting his biggest production yet — 2054: A Princess, a Soldier & a Tailor — the latest installment in the kung fu, post-World War III series that already includes ten movies and a TV series, released nonsequentially like Star Wars movies. In the newest tale, a princess is set to marry a general, but — spoiler alert — he's secretly harboring an evil plan to create a supersoldier who will secure his goal of world domination. Davis wrote the part of the tailor, the princess' confidante, specifically for Chiu, who also played a tailor in Kung Fu Hustle.
Davis was sure this film was the one that could break him into the mainstream.
"I am doing what could possibly be the next big underground cult-movie classic," he says.
Even for a Davis film, though, his would-be masterpiece has been beset by trouble. First, the Kickstarter campaign he and his actors set up raised only $540 of the $10,000 goal they had hoped to reach, leaving Davis to front the expenses.
Then his scheme to use the CubeSmart rentals as a studio blew up.
And, worst of all, a few months before filming, one of the stars was murdered.
Davis had spent all morning trying to reach BeeOne. It was a Saturday in August, and after months of wrestling with the script for 2054, he'd finally finished it the day before and sent a copy to the actor. He was counting on one of his most loyal stars to play General Ming, the film's nemesis. It was BeeOne's dream role.
But a full day later, Davis hadn't heard anything from the actor, whose real name is Borketey Boyefio. When Davis' phone finally buzzed, it was another regular from his 2053 series. Sounding shocked, he asked if Davis had heard the rumors: All over Facebook, he said, people were saying Bee had been killed.
"I had a hope that it wasn't real," Davis says. "And then I got a bunch of phone calls: It's real, it's real, it's real."
For all of the challenges Davis had encountered in his long history of no-budget moviemaking, none was as dramatic — or as devastating — as Boyefio's stunning and inexplicable death. Over the previous five years, BeeOne had emerged as one of the most talented in Davis' misfit cast of recurring characters, bringing both personality and genuine martial arts skills to his roles in ten films and a TV series.
In fact, he'd made an impression on Davis from the very beginning. The director first met him in 2013, when he'd shown up to auditions for 2056: Escape From Zombie Island looking like a kung fu master in an emerald-green Asian-inspired robe.
He learned that BeeOne's interest in martial arts went all the way back to his childhood. Boyefio was born in West Palm in 1981, the youngest child in a family that had emigrated from Ghana several years earlier. His father had come to the States on a student visa after turning heads with the suits he handmade. After finishing school, Gilbert Boyefio found work as a tailor and sent for his wife and two daughters. Eventually, he set up shop in tony Palm Beach, where, his sister Kalebie claims, future president Donald Trump was among his clientele.
Kalebie was the first of the Boyefio children born in the Unites States; Borketey followed a year later. Growing up, the two were inseparable. "He would always stick up for me when people would make fun of me, and he had my back even sometimes when I didn't deserve it," she says.
As a kid, Borketey was obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Bruce Lee movies, which served as his introduction to martial arts. He pestered his mom to sign him up for karate lessons and then began advancing through the belt ranks. He was hooked. His love for martial arts was matched only by his love for rapping and acting. "Ever since he was little, he said he wanted to be an actor, a rapper, and a kung fu artist," Kalebie says.
After graduating from John I. Leonard High School, Borketey moved to Dallas, where his mom lived and his sisters had moved, and pursued acting and music gigs. On the side, he taught martial arts. In 2012, he returned to South Florida to care for his dad, who had just suffered a stroke.
That's when he heard about Davis' audition. For the first time, he saw a way toward his childhood dream.
Impressed by his kung fu skills, Davis gave Boyefio a minor part as a supersoldier in 2056. Once he was on set, though, he proved he had much more to offer. A karate teacher in his spare time, he was brimming with ideas of how to better choreograph martial arts and fight scenes and knew how to teach others. Not only that, but also he was friendly and fun-loving, a prankster who delighted in jumping out to scare actors between takes.
Davis soon gave him leading roles in other flicks, such as 2053: Two Girls, a Dragon & a Fisherman, where he played a crazed general bent on bringing the world to war. The filmmaker began listing Boyefio's name on the front of DVDs and promotional posters.
"He said his name means 'There can only be one,'" Davis recalls. "There can only be one BeeOne. He had a special way of saying it to make the point, but it's true."
Boyefio's love of martial arts was infectious — even for Davis. Boyefio was a devoted fan of Chiu's; as the director worked on Davis' script for the movie, he had mentioned the movie star was a real-life martial arts master with schools all over the world and helped inspire Davis to go through his kung fu connections to see if he could recruit him to appear in 2054.
Davis knew that after BeeOne's work as a heavy in 2053, he would be perfect as General Ming, a lead role with several fight scenes, in his latest film. And BeeOne was thrilled to star opposite Chiu, an icon of his. He told Kalebie that he was working on "something big," though he wasn't ready to tell her just what.
But on August 17, BeeOne's dreams of kung fu stardom came to a sudden end. Police found his body inside an art-deco apartment building at Jefferson Avenue and Ninth Street in Miami Beach.
Six months later, they've still released few details about his death. Police say it's being investigated as a homicide but haven't confirmed the exact cause of death or any possible motives. Because the investigation is ongoing, they declined to comment on the case for this story.
Boyefio's family buried him a few days later in a West Palm Beach cemetery in a plot next to his father. Davis and the actors who had appeared in movies alongside BeeOne held a benefit in his honor and pressed police to crack the case.
"He didn't deserve to go out of this world the way he did," Kalebie says. "He had a lot left to do."
Davis had planned to start shooting 2054 in January, but as 2017 drew to a close, some of his other regulars debated whether to go on with the project at all. The director felt certain Boyefio would have wanted the movie to be made.
The final sign came when Chiu, improbably, agreed to appear in the film, and Davis' brother offered to pay the kung fu star's way to South Florida for the shoot. They had to make 2054, Davis decided, for BeeOne.
"The guy was beyond belief talented, very charismatic," Davis says. "You could make a movie just about him."
Inside Davis' home off a dirt road in the Acreage in West Palm, loose-leaf sheets of lined paper are taped to bright-green walls. "We must believe!" he has scrawled across one. "Believe in the plan!" another instructs. "Move forward with the plan! No buts! Look at what we've done!"
A wall in another room is nearly consumed by shelves lined with hundreds of DVDs, with one shelf holding all of Davis' work. He pulls out a few of his favorites, ping-pongs from talking about movies to his family history, and then abruptly sits at a piano and begins playing.
"He needs Ritalin," his wife Sonjia jokes at one point.
Davis is in almost constant motion, and his mind is rarely far from his films. He makes a to-do list each morning, checking off tasks such as hitting the thrift store for props and coordinating with all the actors. Lately, he's been spending a lot of time scouting locations, and he thinks he's figured out at least one of them: His wife has agreed to allow him to shoot at their house.
After 20 years of maniacal film shooting, Davis' endgame is still unclear. But in a bit of serendipity, just as he has honed in on his biggest ever project, Z-list filmmaking is having something of a moment in the Zeitgeist. Thanks to the bump from Franco's film, Wiseau is selling out theaters across the nation for The Room. And Davis has begun finding a niche online he could never find by distributing VHS tapes. One of his films has racked up 107,000 views online. The reviews, however, are not exactly glowing: "Nice try kids," the top comment reads.
Not that Davis is really keeping track. He would make movies even if zero viewers ever watched them — to him, that's not the point.
"I'm interested in creating things more than what happens with them," he says.
So he's plowing forward with 2054, even after Boyefio's death and the CubeSmart disaster and the fundraising failures. He's found a replacement for BeeOne, another local martial artist who works as a stuntman.
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"We gotta move on and do the best we can under the circumstances, because that's what he would want us to do," he says of Boyefio. "So that's what we do."
After three days of shooting in late January, Chiu flew back home to California. Davis is still filming the remaining scenes for 2054 and hopes to host the premiere in March at a local movie theater. He still believes the film could find a wider audience than any he's shot before.
But as always, his mind has wandered along to the next projects. He already has a new script in the works that he's sent around to his loyal crew of actors for feedback.
"The best part is creating it," he says. "After it's done, it's on to the next story for me — on to the next movie."