Getting his second feature film into Sundance, which opens Thursday in Park City, is only complicated by absence — the absence of David Fetzer, a lead player in that childhood crew. Fetzer starred in Riches' first feature, 2012's "Must Come Down," which was partially funded by a Kickstarter campaign. The movie was shot in and around Salt Lake City, including Riches' childhood home in the Avenues.
That December, Fetzer died at age 30 of an accidental prescription drug overdose. His death spurred Riches and their friends to join Fetzer's mother, Betsy Ross, in launching The David Ross Fetzer Foundation to support emerging theater artists and filmmakers.
Shortly after the funeral, Riches received a fortune cookie with this inscription: "The road to success is often a lonely one." But that wasn't the route Riches, who earned an art degree from the University of Utah and founded Salt Lake City's former Kayo Gallery, was interested in taking.
Instead, he was inspired to finish the script and find funding for "The Strongest Man." There was one more detour along the way: another fundraising campaign to make short films out of scripts that Fetzer left behind.
Fetzer's artistic sensibility inspires the film, says Patrick Fugit ("Almost Famous," "Gone Girl"), another childhood friend now transplanted to Hollywood, who plays a German guru in "The Strongest Man."
"David is a huge part of this film, and anything creative that our group does together," he says. "Consciously and subconsciously, we're always seeking David's stamp of approval."
With his first film, Riches says, he worried about whether it was marketable. With "The Strongest Man," he decided he didn't want to worry about an audience's reaction. "I set out to make a film with my friends, and I just made the movie I wanted to make."
"The Strongest Man" is a deadpan dark comedy that features Miami as a central character. The film unfolds the story of Beef, a 30-something Cuban-American who spills his heart in spare Spanish monologues that are translated into English subtitles. He narrates his life as if he were explaining things to his grandchildren, even while he admits he doesn't want to have children.
Beef is a man with a tender, anxiety-ridden heart tucked inside a strong body. He loves doing tricks on his BMX bike, which he rides after working construction jobs with his best friend, Conan, whose aimless life disappoints his ambitious Korean parents. Beef does odd jobs for a rich art collector, and at her high-rise condo, he becomes enamored of Illi, her niece.
Illi cajoles Beef and Conan to attend a meditation class, led by a German guru, who coaches them to imagine their spirit animals. The pair's literal interpretation of their spirit animals leads to complications in their lives.
Riches' crew praises the director's artistic vision. "He loves details," says Andrew Shaw, who scored the film, which means he watched individual scenes hundreds of times. "He knows how to frame a shot perfectly."
Fugit adds: "It's hard to pull Kenny apart from the film. The deadpan of the film is very much Kenny. It's all so much Kenny."
The character of Beef is played by native Miami artist and metalworker Robert "Meatball" Lorie, who became one of Riches' guides to Miami when the Salt Laker moved to town with Despain. One of many local ties to the project is that Lorie's wife grew up in Salt Lake City with Despain. Beyond acting duties, Lorie played host to the Salt Lake City cast and crew during filming, many of whom slept on air mattresses at his house to save money.
"We shot in a lot of places that we probably weren't allowed to be," says Fugit of the guerrilla tactics employed on the low-budget film shoot. "We were flying by the seat of our pants."
Producer Jesse Brown tells a story about how he befriended the property manager of a high-rise building, who happened to be a former aspiring actor. The property manager allowed the crew to shoot repeatedly inside a condo for free; recently, a Telemundo crew paid $50,000 to shoot in the same location.