'Silverdome': The story of a ruined quarterback and a ruined stadium

(Courtesy Silverdome Films LLC)

The Pontiac Silverdome, standing hard by the intersection of two highways outside Detroit, once boasted the title of largest stadium in the world. In its day, it hosted the Super Bowl and WrestleMania, The Who and the World Cup, Led Zeppelin and the Pope. But the Lions abandoned the Silverdome in 2002, and soon afterward, pretty much everyone else did, too. It now looms large in the middle of abandoned parking lots, its roof deflated, its seats torn out, its insides scavenged. It’s a painful relic, a stark reminder of the inexorable passage of time, and it’s now the site of a searing new independent film.

“Silverdome,” a production of a local group of filmmakers and actors, used the abandoned dome as the setting for the story of a former championship quarterback who has hit hard times in middle age. The production company, which includes everyone from Hollywood veterans to Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, got permission to shoot inside the wreckage itself, and the result is a haunting story given more weight from the Silverdome skeleton all around it. The filmmakers have finished shooting, and have mounted a Kickstarter campaign to finish postproduction work.

Here’s the film’s trailer:

“Silverdome” is the (fictional) story of Jack Franco (played by Glenn Pakulak), the quarterback who won the only championship banner ever hoisted in the Silverdome: the Michigan Panthers’ USFL victory in 1983. The film takes place in the present day, where Franco, feeling the effects of a lifetime of concussions and despondent over the blandness of his life in the suburbs, returns to the spot where he once reigned as a king. His wife and son seek him out, and try to pry him loose from the ruins of his past life.

Behind the camera, “Silverdome” is a story of determination; local writer Ted Kluck crafted the script and hooked up with with longtime friend Pakulak, a former NFL punter with the Saints and Redskins. Along with producer Chris Regner, another colleague, they used their connections to entice actors with experience on shows such as “Breaking Bad” and “Empire,” as well as Kingsbury, a friend of Pakulak’s who’s an executive producer and fact-checker for the movie.

“The main thing was writing a script that honored that post-career lives of football players,” Kluck said, “and honoring the places where we watched games with our dads. We all grew up in the 80s going to stadiums like the Silverdome, and now all of those places are either gone or in disrepair.”

You don’t have to look very hard to see the metaphor at work here: as the site of former glories fades and crumbles, so too do the lives of the men who won that glory.

“Glenn and I bonded quickly over the difficulty of the post-football life,” Kluck said. “He played at the highest level, and while I bounced around semi-pro and some low-rent indoor leagues, the experience of leaving the game is still the same. Once you’ve done it, everything else seems boring by comparison.”

“Life for anybody in Detroit itself gets hard,” Regner said. “What do you do when you run up against that? What do you do when your dreams don’t come into fruition and you’re not who you thought you’d be? He pulls the plug and heads back to the Silverdome. It’s about what his past was, what his present is, and whether he’s going to have a future.”

The filmmakers received permission to shoot for 10 consecutive days in October 2016 in the Silverdome, but that meant their challenges were only just beginning. “We might as well have been in the middle of a desert, or a swamp, actually,” director Travis Andrews said. “There is no power, no lights, no elevators and no working restrooms. While we were filming we had rain for most of our shoot days at the dome.” The Silverdome’s field is below ground level, meaning the rain pooled and turf bits floated on as much as 18 inches of water.

Andrews and his crew adjusted the film on the fly; Andrew notes that a camera loaned by Panasonic was able to capture scenes in low light that otherwise would have been impossible. The result was a harsh, stark look at the stadium, a color palette and feel that matched the emptiness and desperation in Jack Franco’s own life.

“It’s a quiet, thoughtful, simple story of brokenness and restoration — both for Glenn(‘s character) and his marriage,” Kluck said, “as the brokenness in his life is sort of reflected in the brokenness of the building.”

“To stay in character, at night I slept inside the decrepit and abandoned Silverdome during the entire filming,” Pakulak said. “Well … and to also help save money for the film!” Pakulak went full Marlon Brando, Regner said, hauling a blanket and inflatable mattress into the Silverdome’s club level for the duration of the shoot.

But passion and commitment can only take you so far; at some point, you need some cash, too. Once principal photography finished, the filmmakers took to Kickstarter to raise money for postproduction costs, including editing, effects and a title sequence. The estimated cost is $30,000, and naturally, the filmmakers are throwing in some incentives for giving: parking passes from an unplayed Lions playoff game, a scrap of the Silverdome’s fabric roof, even a seat back from the actual dome itself. Stretch goals include the use of USFL footage and the creation of an original score, if funds permit. The fundraising drive runs until May 24.

After a storm shredded the roof in 2012, the Silverdome has spent the last few years open to the elements, the centerpiece of a battle between the facility’s current owner and local government. Photos of the facility in its decayed state are haunting, and vandals and scavengers have swiped nearly everything that’s available. The dome is now slated for demolition later this year, adding a sense of urgency to the film project.

“It’s unbelievable to think that it once was the biggest stadium in the world, and now you’ve got trees growing up inside of restaurants, you’ve got destruction everywhere,” Regner said. “But it’s still beautiful, because you’ve got memories from being there … We think there’s a lot of people that will identify with that. They may not be from Detroit, but they have things like the Silverdome that they hold precious in their memories.”

“My hope,” Andrews said, “is that the beauty of the Silverdome comes across in the film and that we do it justice as being the very last ‘event’ ever to be held there.”

[Kickstarter page for Silverdome]

The remains of the Silverdome. (Courtesy Silverdome Films LLC)

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Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports and the author of EARNHARDT NATION, on sale now at Amazon or wherever books are sold. Contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter or on Facebook.

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