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Stuck in Neutral Wants You 

Help fill the soundtrack of the new North by Northwest film.

After about six years of helping make other people's movies, the crew at North by Northwest Entertainment is preparing to make one of their own again. Stuck in Neutral is set to begin filming in 2006, but the pre-production work is gearing up in earnest this summer -- including an opportunity for local bands to help create the film's soundtrack.

It's the story of a kid with cerebral palsy. Shawn McDaniel's body is twisted and prone to involuntary spasms and seizures. Psychiatrists estimate his IQ at 1.

What his parents don't know, though, is that he has a photographic memory and is easily the most articulate person in the story. More so even than his father, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. He has poignant things to say about the way his condition affects those around him, but is ultimately helpless to express these things to those around him.

The film is based on the book by Northwest author Terry Trueman, and writer/director Juan Mas says the adaptation process was difficult from the beginning. First, since no one else can communicate with him, Trueman's Shawn does a lot of first-person narration, explaining himself and his situation to the reader. This works well for a novel, but for a screenplay, Mas says "it's like the kiss of death," because lots of narration usually means lots of voiceover work. And too much voiceover makes a movie about as compelling as vacation slide show.

So Mas and Trueman, along with writing partner Robert Caisley, had to figure out a way to make the thought processes of a severely handicapped kid engage an audience. "That was the first big hurdle," Mas said.

Their solution is part American Beauty, part Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

The movie will begin at a moment of crisis. Shawn will look back over a period of weeks to figure out how he got to that point. Guiding the tour, Shawn's brain will be represented by an able-bodied person who lingers on camera, talking directly to the audience, as the rest of the actors (including his handicapped self) move around the screen.

Having an able-bodied Shawn, though, obviously means the actor who plays him can't have cerebral palsy. The next big hurdle, then, is finding a young actor capable of tackling the unbelievably difficult task of playing a person with a condition as debilitating as Shawn's. The search will begin later this summer in Spokane. If no local drama club standouts pass muster, the search will move on from there.

The soundtrack, like the part of Shawn, will be homegrown. Beginning July 7, North by Northwest and the Blvd. will audition local acts, battle of the bands style, for inclusion in the movie. They are interested in all genres of music but warn cover bands to stay home -- ruling out any possibility of hearing a screamo version of "Tommy" playing as the McDaniel family confronts its crises.

Mas is looking for artists to produce new material to fit the film. He promises the winners an important role in the creative process, saying the bands will be given scripts and will help choose where and how the songs are presented.

The Blvd.'s general manager, Jeff Maahs, says he has bands for the first two weeks, but he's leaving room for late entries. He wants to try and group the bands by genre, "so we don't get an acoustic act playing against a punk act." That means that while there's no real deadline for registration, spots are limited.

Mas said the competition so far includes area stalwarts Mourning After and Jupiter Effect. It is expected to last eight weeks, the last two serving as a finals round.

The decision to release the soundtrack as a CD isn't up to Mas or his team, but he suggested a release was possible if the movie plays well enough to generate that kind of crossover buzz. It'll depend, ultimately, on how good the songs are.

But Mas has faith in the area's bands, saying, "I think there's a great music scene in this town, and I wanted to reach out to it and say, 'Help me make this movie'." Beginning July 7, we'll see if that confidence is well placed.

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