By Joe Hadsall
Globe Features Editor
JOPLIN, Mo. —
"I'll tell you this, movie blood tastes worse than real blood."
Justin "Dane" Fletcher got more than a sample of movie blood a couple of weeks ago. Dressed in his role as Howard in a movie called "Murder Incorporated," he played a hit man who leads a murder-for-hire business and faces off against an enemy.
While shooting scenes for a teaser for the movie, he and others tried to portray themselves as hot and sweaty in December air. He wore makeup that showed he had just been in a rough fight, complete with bruises, swollen parts of his face and plenty of blood. He got a mouthful of the fake stuff.
"It's kind of sweet and thick, because your spit thins it out," Fletcher said. "It tastes like sweet plastic syrup. It is not good."
It's less painful than tasting real blood, however, and Fletcher knows that firsthand. He got his fill of his own blood after a career as a mixed martial arts fighter. Career detours led him to stand-up comedy, modeling and now movies.
Fletcher, a graduate of Neosho High School, is working in the starring role of the movie being shot in Iowa. Set to begin filming next year, producers already have a line on getting the movie in the legendary Cannes Film Festival.
Making Cannes, the most world-renowned film festival, isn't official yet. Held in May each year, the 2013 festival will happen two months after Fletcher and the rest of the crew start an aggressive four-week filming schedule in March.
But Fletcher said a new governor, with a mission of reviving Iowa's once-strong movie industry, is pushing hard for the picture's success and entry into Cannes. Fletcher said Gov. Terry E. Branstad's involvement should lead to an appearance in 2014.
And buzz is high not just in Des Moines, where the movie is being filmed, but all over the state, he said.
"Everyone is really excited. We have people doing the film for less pay than they would normally command," Fletcher said. "They want to be a part of it. They see something special."
Raised by divorced parents -- with his father, Clint Fletcher, on a farm in Columbus, Kan., and his mother, Jodi Lansaw, on a horse ranch in Neosho -- Fletcher originally moved to Des Moines to pursue a career in mixed martial arts fighting. Getting his start in 2005, he fought in places such as Tulsa and Springfield, before moving to Iowa, where the business was bigger.
He did well, he said, and climbed the ranks of his league. But he saw that the level of competition got considerably more difficult the higher he went. He was about to hit a ceiling, unless the ceiling hit him first.
"I was about to hit a ceiling," Fletcher said. "I was pretty good, but I wasn't great. I'd never be great, and I knew that. So, I thought I should do something else."
That opportunity came when he injured one of his hands during a fight, requiring downtime to heal. Without a specific direction, he tried performing comedy at an open-mic night.
"I did an open-mic at the Funny Bone and found out that I liked it," he said. "It went well, so I dove into it head first, and I found out I could make an easier living telling jokes than fighting. No one was trying to punch me."
His comedy career took him to Los Angeles, where he got an agent and regular performances. And as his fighting weight dropped, Fletcher started working with a Des Moines-based modeling agency.
But after the birth of his first child, he wanted to stay close to home, he said. He took a job as a broker, but the entertainment business was hard to ignore.
"When you've been in the entertainment business, it's kind of hard to have a normal job," Fletcher said. "Entertainment is a lot of work. People don't usually see the work side of it."
He landed bit roles in a couple of Iowa-based movies, including "The Experiment," a direct-to-video movie featuring Adrian Brody and Forest Whitaker. His agent also led to him meeting director Thor Moreno who directed "I Think I Just Saw the Devil" and "Iowa," the latter of which premiered this month.
Two years later, he was approached about starring in "Murder Incorporated." Iowa was the perfect place, Fletcher said, because plenty of the creative agencies needed for movies were still in Iowa.
Since then, Fletcher has been hard at work promoting the movie and working with the production company.
Because the cast includes several other comedians, Fletcher has organized the "Killing with Laughter" tour, a comedy show that will play around Iowa until filming begins. After filming, Fletcher said he would like to bring the tour to the region.
Additionally, bands that are featured in the movie's soundtrack will perform in a music festival.
Lights, camera, Action
"Murder Incorporated" is the story of a modern-day murder-for-hire business similar to the ones in the '20s or Ô30s run by infamous gangsters such as Bugsy Siegal and Lucky Luciano.
Fletcher said that the movie is a black comedy with violence and dramatic elements -- a mix of "Pulp Fiction" and "Smokin' Aces," he said. Fletcher plays Howard, the leader of the business.
The movie includes more than 80 speaking parts and 500 extras, and 030 Productions, the production company behind the movie, is using top-of-the-line cinematic equipment.
Fletcher's past experience is helping him handle the load, he said. His ability to promote was honed from stand-up and fighting. His comedy experience helps with the delivery of Howard's lines, and his time spent fighting has him experienced with taking a punch.
Not that he'll take a lot of punches: Good stunt work should ensure that no actual contact happens during the fight scenes.
However, Fletcher thinks he'll take a solid hit from a longtime friend.
The most intense fight scene in the movie will happen between him and John Jameson, of Joplin, who was cast as a body guard.
"He's a guy I used to weight train with and showed me how to do it right," Fletcher said. "When we needed someone to fight, I called him and showed him to the casting director. He's a champion bodybuilder."
Fletcher said Jameson, 51, is such a good friend that if he'd take a punch from anyone, it's him.
"I'll have to talk to him about pulling it," Fletcher said. "I don't want to eat through a straw. He could punch over a bus if he wanted to. I'm anticipating taking one on the chin."