by Clay Barbour
In September Derrick Borte, the Virginia Beach-based director and businessman, will release his fifth Hollywood motion picture, American Dreamer, a dark tale of a desperate man driven to extreme measures.
Filmed in Norfolk, it stars affable comedian Jim Gaffigan in a twisted turn that has some in the industry seeing shades of Philip Seymour Hoffman. But the movie is notable beyond its star; it is also opening doors for Borte, in much the same way his first film, The Joneses, launched the ad agency owner and former TV reporter into the world of feature film and TV.
Borte has been tapped to helm a new motion picture starring Russell Crowe in New Orleans. Titled Unhinged, it tells the story of a road rage incident that spirals out of control. With a budget of about $30 million – 70 times that of Dreamer – it will be the biggest movie Borte has ever made and has the potential to change the 51-year-old’s life in ways as important as his first big break did back in 2009.
Dreamer also represents another triumph of sorts. After years of trying, Borte was finally able to get a movie made in Tidewater – this time by working with the state and Old Dominion University.
“When I was young I was definitely always looking for a way to leave here, whether it was to find better waves somewhere, or just a cooler place,” he says. “But I kind of decided to do what I could do to make this place somewhere I’m not itching to leave all the time.”
He has worked toward that goal by investing in the arts and real estate, and by working with ODU’s film program, something that was not available to him when he first fell in love with film.
Borte, a Virginia Beach native, graduated from First Colonial High School in 1985. Back then he was pretty much obsessed with surfing, skateboarding and punk rock. His father, Don Borte, designed and built some of the finest, high-end custom homes in the city. His mother, Susan Borte, was a homemaker and boss of the family.
Borte earned an art degree at ODU and headed to Los Angeles, where he hoped to make it as an artist. He managed to snag space in a prominent gallery and started selling his work. He supplemented that income by doing graphic design work for some big surf companies. But by the early ’90s, Borte was tending bar and looking for a change. He eventually decided to head back East, this time to New York, where he started working on a graduate degree in media studies from Parsons School of Design. The hope was to turn that into a career in film, an idea that was not entirely out of left field.
“I had always been a serious film junkie, but it wasn’t until I saw Wings of Desire at the Naro in the late ’80s that I realized making them was actually a thing. After that I was there as much as I could be, getting an education from all the great writer/directors, all those indies through the ’90s that really shaped who I am and still influence me today.”
Borte got a job at Sony Music Studios in New York, which gave him hands-on experience working on everything from MTV Unplugged to music videos. After graduate school, he was offered a job at WAVY-TV 10, so in 1996 he returned home to Virginia Beach to begin work as a TV reporter, focusing mainly on human-interest features.
For two years he traveled the region, writing and producing segments himself. Going from high-end, glossy film work to a guerrilla-style, gritty approach helped expand his skills and eventually prepared him for daily challenges on film sets. “There’s a million things that can go wrong and you just have to be able to flow,” he says. “You have to be able to find solutions because no one cares about excuses.”
Borte quit the station in 1998 and went into business for himself, making commercials. This move eventually flowered into Brite Brand Illumination, a marketing and advertising firm he co-owns with Carol Norris. But he never let go of his dream to make movies.
“I realized … I wasn’t going to get hired from a local or regional level to do feature films unless I had a piece of intellectual property that was in demand,” he says. “Basically I had to have something to pry the door open.”
It was the same method Sylvester Stallone used to get his big break with Rocky. And as with that classic, the odds were firmly against him. Borte started writing scripts in his spare time.
“No one’s first script is going to be good,” he says. “I mean it’s just a different medium. It’s a different skill set. So I wrote a lot of bad scripts and then I wrote one that everybody wanted. And I mean everybody.”
That was for The Joneses, a movie that now seems oddly prescient. Starring Demi Moore and David Duchovny, the 2009 film told the story of a team of stealth marketers who moved into a neighborhood and pretended to be a family. Every aspect of their lives was a form of product placement, accurately – if to an extreme degree – predicting the social media influencer culture we experience today.
Borte said he had many opportunities to sell the script for more money, but he held out for the chance to direct it. And when he finally had a deal in place, he turned to Scott Lochmus, an old friend, to be a producer.
Lochmus was the person who hired Borte to work for Sony. The two had grown close over the years, so working on the film seemed a natural fit. That was the beginning of what would become Storyland Pictures, the production company the two own.
“He is a natural collaborator,” Lochmus says of his partner. “He always encourages input. He loves to say he is the dumbest guy in the room. That’s obviously not true, but it speaks to his style. He loves to get talented, smart people together, and then let them do their thing.”
The pair have partnered on five films, including Dreamer, 2013’s Dark Around the Stars, 2015’s H8RZ and 2016’s London Town.
Borte’s next film, however, could be a game changer. Produced by Solstice Studios, Unhinged is a full-on big-budget thriller that has the potential to raise his profile considerably. And it was, at least in part, his handling of Dreamer that sealed the deal for him.
“I’d met with the studio before, on another project, then again after they saw (Dreamer), which they loved, and there was a great connection,” Borte says. “So it was probably part chemistry and part their reaction to Dreamer.”
Written by Borte and Daniel Forte, Dreamer tells the story of Cam, a down-on-his-luck HAIL driver (think Uber) who ferries around a drug dealer and makes a series of horrible decisions over the course of one night. It was filmed around downtown Norfolk over 16 days.
An early review in the Hollywood Reporter praised the film as “an intimate and unsettling genre piece” and noted how it differed from the director’s earlier movies:
“Borte has shown a preference for happy endings in his previous work, but here he embraces the story’s dark implications, and the results, however discomforting, are dramatically satisfying.”
Gaffigan says he was thrilled to get the opportunity to play such a dark character, which runs counter to how most people view him. But his public persona helped when it came to the movie. “People might initially view Cam a certain way and they might be on his side, but then all of a sudden they start to realize he might be crazy.”
He was able to go that dark only because he trusted Borte and the director’s grasp of the material. “Derrick wrote the script, which was super ambitious, so he knew what he wanted,” he says.
Gaffigan was also impressed with Borte’s ability to take suggestions, something that has become a calling card for him in all aspects of his life. Norris, Borte’s partner in the advertising agency, says he is a natural communicator who manages to keep a healthy sense of humor about himself. “He is a commonsense problem solver who just so happens to solve artistic problems,” she says. “He can work with anyone.”
Gaffigan seconds that and says he’s excited to see what Borte does with Unhinged.
Borte says the movie looks at the thin line between a road rage incident and something completely insane. But despite having a much larger budget and an Oscar-winning, iconic star, Borte says it is business as usual.
“I just have to take it one day at a time,” he says, “facilitate a great collaborative environment, and do what I’ve done every day for my entire career.”