Topeka’s Got Talent

Filmmaker Gary Piland touts the city as a haven for artists of all types

So, you dream of making movies. Most aspiring filmmakers, actors, and musicians would journey to Los Angeles or New York. Some would start in places such as Seattle, Portland, Austin, or Nashville. 

But what about Topeka? Gary Piland is the president and CEO of Roaring Rat Films. As an all-in-one writer/director/producer, he made six movies in Topeka featuring talent from the area. This includes his latest current film, “Blackstone: Hand of God,” which is gaining viewers on Amazon.

“Topeka is an arts town,” says Piland. “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an actor, musician, or writer. There are amazing people here doing amazing things who have chosen this for their home. Per capita, this town blows all those cities away. If you were able to count the number of people involved in the arts as a per capita percentage, I know we would blow them all away.” 

Piland feels The Golden City attracts talent for many reasons. First, the Topeka Civic Theater (TCT) is the oldest dinner theater west of the Mississippi River. Also, the University of Kansas is a top art school just down the road, and the band Kansas attracts musicians from all over seeking their shot at fame.

That’s what initially brought Piland to Topeka in the mid-1970s. He was a drummer and a wannabe rock-n’-roller. All the good bands came out of Topeka at the time, so he and a friend decided to be there, too. They formed the band Limousine and spent the next eight years on the road playing more than 800 gigs. 

While the band did well, they were what Piland calls “almost famous.” The group never got a contract with a record company, partly because they were a hard rock band when punk rock and dance music topped the charts. After leaving Limousine, Piland worked at various jobs before landing one in IT for a large advertising company. Fourteen years later, his wife, Martha, encouraged him to leave the company and start his own website development company. In 2003, he opened Umbrella. 

And Piland had a new artistic dream—creating films.

“I’d always wanted to make movies, but it wasn’t possible because you had to have a lot of money,” he explains. “But with Mac computers and Final Cut Pro, with all the prices coming down and capabilities going up, in 2010, I decided I wanted to start making movies.”

Piland has a movie concept he hopes to produce in the future, but when starting out, he didn’t want to film his dream project before learning the necessary skills. He says, “I thought, ‘What’s kind of fun and weird? Let’s make zombie movies.’” 

The first was “Zombie Laundry.” Piland gathered up some friends and shot the film at a Brookwood Shopping Center laundromat after closing time. There was no script. They just made it up as they went along.

Next came “Zombie Chigger” and “Zombie Tattoo Parlor.” This time he got accomplished local actors to participate, mainly through Topeka Civic Theater (TCT). These early films are available to watch for free on roaringratfilms.com.

“TCT has huge talent,” Piland says. “If you take their top-tier actors, they could walk on any set in the world today and be in that move. They really are that good. They have lives. They have other jobs. But if given a chance, they could do that.”

The following two films, “Zombie Beauty Pageant” and “Zombie, Kansas,” are part of a trilogy that, along with “Blackstone,” explains Piland’s concept of zombies being created from a virus, not rising from the dead. The movies present a world where humans and zombies live together. Plus, viewers are introduced to local actor Dusty Nichols in the role of Reverend J. Mortimer Blackstone, a fire-and-brimstone preacher who believes God didn’t call him to save the world. He was called to end it.

“Blackstone” took three years to make. All of the actors worked for free for an opportunity to gain skills working on film versus the stage. Plus, they now have a piece of work where they can reference their talent. 

Piland says, “Showcasing their talent is a big chunk of why I do what I do. I tell them, ‘Your gift to me is your talent and time. Putting up with me. My gift to you is I’m going to give you something that in 30 years when I’m long gone, you can still put this movie on and see yourself at whatever age. You’ll have that forever.’” 

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