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Roaring feature film was shot on Vashon

Jay Rowlands, as a race car driver, and Alan Luxmore, as a mechanic, act out a scene from
Jay Rowlands, as a race car driver, and Alan Luxmore, as a mechanic, act out a scene from 'Clutch' inside Engels Repair & Towing.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

After a long and obsessive journey, a West Seattle filmmaker has crossed the finish line in his quest to make the perfect car movie, and the results will light up the big screen soon at the Vashon Theatre.

On Saturday, the theater will be the scene of a classic car show and special screening of “Clutch,” a new independent feature film billed in its tag line as “the most driven car movie ever made.”

The film — made in homage to 1960s and 70s films such as “Bullitt,” “Vanishing Point” and “Two Lane Blacktop” —  is also one of the most Vashon-centric films ever made, with more than half of the footage in the muscle car-filled movie shot on Vashon’s roads and other backwoods spots.

The film is also chock-full of cars owned by islanders — a 1969 yellow Dart owned by Mike Stroble, a 1972 Challenger owned by his son Mike Stroble, Jr., and a 1970 maroon Monte Carlo owned by Mike Bredice, to name just a few.

And to top it all off, one of the film’s main locations is Engels Repair and Towing, an iconic, retro spot that has been in business for 53 years on Dockton Road.

“Hollywood couldn’t build a place that looked like that,” said Jay Rowlands, who is the film’s lead actor, director, writer and producer. “You couldn’t set dress a place that looks like the inside of that joint.”

For Rowlands, who has deep family ties to Vashon, the film is a passionate project that has taken an incredible l2 and a half years from start to finish.

In a phone interview, he mused on all he’s learned and been through in the process of making the film.

“I had no idea it would take this long,”  he said. “I was a little naive, but my naiveté was a blessing, because otherwise I wouldn’t have ever done it.”

Early on, he said, he showed his script to a film professional in Seattle, who tried to talk him out of making the movie because she thought its many action scenes would be too expensive and logistically difficult to ever finish.

“I had never made a movie, so someone saying ‘You can’t do this’ just fueled my fire,” he said. “I went into it headstrong.”

“Clutch” tells the story of struggling race car driver Travis Engels (played by Rowlands), who decides to put everything on the line when it comes to financing his expensive racing habit. He risks his life, friends and even his freedom when he becomes involved in crime to support his car-crazy lifestyle. Along the way, there are car chases, races and crashes, scantily clad women and all kinds of other classic B-movie staples.

Most of the acting scenes were shot in the early days of making the film — a good thing, Rowlands said, since so much time elapsed between the beginning and end of filming that he lost much of his hair in the intervening years.

The stunts and racing scenes were shot more recently, he said.

“That’s just an enormous job, to shoot action,” he said, adding that 150 classic cars, worth more than $6 million dollars, appear in the movie. Most of them, he said, were borrowed from his friends and acquaintances.

Rowlands, a 43 year-old, self-described “gearhead” who spent most of his life restoring hotrods, motorcycles and muscle cars, made the film to showcase his acting skills. He had studied and worked for years as an actor, even moving to Los Angeles for a brief spell in 1999 to try his luck in Hollywood.

But his love of the Pacific Northwest and his devotion to his friends and family, soon drew him back to West Seattle and Vashon, where the idea of “Clutch” took hold.

It was at least partially inspired, he said, by conversations he had with islander Paul Engels, who works at the Engels gas station and has been his friend since childhood. The pair shared a love of talking about cars and getting together to watch old car films.

“It came from me and Paul saying they don’t make these movies like they used to,” he said. “I thought, someone’s got to do it for us car guys.”

The film, according to the movie website IMDB, cost just over $5 million.

It was all self-financed, Rowlands said, beginning with the sale of what he called his dream car — a 1969 Camaro Rally Sport convertible. He worked as a bartender throughout the years of films.

“I starved and lived off of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches,” he said. “I would just work, work, work as a bartender and save my money, and then I would take a leave of absence and pay off the crew.”

He also said he took out a lot of loans during the shooting, and he’s spent the last two and a half years paying them off. He hopes to recoup the last of the money he spent on the project by selling DVD and Blu-ray copies of “Clutch” online. He’s distributing the film himself, he said, because he was dissatisfied with several offers for the film that he got from Hollywood distributors.

He said he’s pleased with the finished movie, which he edited himself from 75,000 feet of color 16 mm film.

“It has the grainy, gritty feel of those old car movies,” he said.

Paul Engels, too, described the movie as one filled with authenticity and soul, and said he was thrilled it was coming to Vashon.

“We’ve all been hibernating for 13 years, waiting for this,” he said.

Vashon Theatre’s presentation of “Clutch” will kick off with a classic car show at 5 p.m. Saturday in front of the theater. The movie will be shown at 6 p.m., with tickets on sale at the box office. After the show, there will be an old-fashioned hotrod cruise around the block downtown. Several island restaurants, including Perry’s, The Hardware Store Restaurant and Sporty’s are offering special deals to ticket holders that evening. To find out more about the movie and buy a copy of it, visit www.clutchthemovie.com.

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