‘Salamander’ comes home

After traveling to festivals around the state, short film made at Haslett’s Mayfair Bar screens Saturday at Studio C!


When Paul Rothman was in high school, he created a short film that made it into the East Lansing Film Festival. That early success led him to enroll in the film program at Lansing Community College, but he didn’t finish film school.

“I was young,” he said. “You know, I probably thought I knew everything.”

He ended up pursuing a career outside the arts, as well as a family. He eventually became a mortgage banker and was elevated to a leadership position.

“I had become a director, which was what I always wanted. But it wasn’t the type of directing I thought I would be doing,” he said.

In summer 2022, Rothman returned to filmmaking for the first time in nearly 20 years, citing his daughter as his inspiration.

“She’s going to be at the age where she’ll ask why I did certain things or didn’t do other things,” he said.

His short film “Salamander” was pulled together with a budget of $500 and edited using free software. The movie was shot on an iPhone at the Mayfair Bar in Haslett and features Mayfair employees both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. It will screen 8:45 p.m. Saturday (March 2) at Studio C! in Okemos as part of the Lake Michigan Film Festival, which runs Thursday (Feb. 29) through Sunday (March 3).

Rothman wrote and directed the film, and he also plays one of the lead characters.

“It’s such a narcissistic thing when you write and direct your own thing, and then you star in it,” he said. “But at the end of the day, you’re like, ‘What am I going to do?’ I want to get my movie made. And I’m cheap. Actually, I’m free. You just have to do it yourself.”

From left: “Salamander” assistant director Andy North; director, writer and co-star Paul Rothman; and producer Keli Williams Johnson set up shop at a booth at the Mayfair Bar to discuss the film, which screens 8:45 p.m. Saturday at Studio C! in Okemos.
From left: “Salamander” assistant director Andy North; director, writer and co-star Paul Rothman; and producer Keli Williams Johnson set up shop …

The film also stars Mike Nelson and Brett Elstro. Nelson is a local theater actor who has appeared at the Lebowsky Center in Owosso and with Homegrown Productions in St. Johns, and Elstro is a cook at Mayfair. Behind the scenes, Mayfair’s kitchen manager, Andy North, worked as an assistant director, and bar manager Keli Williams Johnson was the producer.

Rothman’s production company is called Elevator Pictures, which he said is based on the ethos of elevating those around you. He’s been delighted to see Mayfair celebrate the movie because its staff played such an  important role.

We didn’t discuss the script during our interview because the cast and crew didn’t want to give anything away.

“It’s a slow burn,” Williams Johnson said, “but if I tell you what it’s about, you’ll know the whole movie. We should keep it mysterious.”

Johnson has worked at Mayfair for 23 years. She allowed the crew to film after her shifts on Sundays and acted as a consultant for Rothman on all things related to bartending.

“She helped us understand how a bartender would react to things, and she made us a lot of fake Jameson,” Rothman said. 

Mayfair is a historic bar located right next to Lake Lansing. It’s the kind of place where everybody knows everybody. During our interview, a regular called out, “Hey, Keli!” as he overheard our conversation.

According to Williams Johnson, the establishment has one of the oldest liquor licenses in the area, acquired in 1934.

“We’re totally a Michigan State University bar, too,” she said. “There’s so much history here.”

North said he had “zero” experience with filmmaking, but he was responsible for filming when Rothman was in front of the camera, as well as recording sound. Although he and Rothman have been friends since middle school, this is their first film together.

“It’s always been movies and shows with us,” North said before turning to Rothman and asking, “Was it supposed to be funny?”

Rothman responded, “If I try to make a script serious, it ends up funny. If I try to make something funny, it just comes off as creepy.” The group laughed.

Rothman said the feedback the film has received at other festivals has been positive.

“I’ve been asked where I studied acting. That was a nice compliment, I hope. A lot of people have said, ‘I actually know a person who is exactly like that.’ I don’t spell it out, but I hope it’s clear that I’m not glorifying the character,” he said.

“Salamander” has been screening at small festivals around the state since September 2023, including the Soo Film Festival, the Flint Short Film Freakout, the Jackson Festival for the Arts and the Saugatuck Film Fest, where it took third place in the Shorts category. Rothman said the experience has been a departure from the instant success of his youth.

“We’ve been turned down a few times, but we just had to break into that first festival, and now it’s getting accepted,” he said.

He’s especially looking forward to Saturday night’s screening in Okemos.

“A lot of people are going to see it because Brett is in it. They’re going out of curiosity, but they’re not necessarily seeking out a film festival. I’ll feel great if it plays well here. But you have to see humor in everything. If it bombs and everyone walks out, that would be funny, too,” he laughed. “We’re going to do our best.”

The cast and crew plan on a good turnout, especially from the local bar crowd. Mayfair has posted two Facebook updates about the screening since Feb. 13, mentioning that tickets are available at the bar and on the Studio C! website. According to Rothman, 40 tickets have already been sold.

“After the movie, a lot of people ask about the $2 whiskey, so we’re doing a thing where if you bring in your stub, you can get a $2 whiskey at Mayfair.” Rothman continued, “But most people say, ‘That was decent, what are you doing next?’ Anyone can make one good short film.”

He said his next project is already mapped out. It’s another 15-minute short, and his goal is to make it with a budget of $1,000. He also has a feature-length “stalker movie” that he thinks he can get made for $15,000.

“It’s all about scaling up,” he said. “I’m going to keep making movies until someone notices. You know, you hate it during the editing process, but then it plays well, and you think, ‘Hey, I might just be the best ever.’”





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