Category Archives: Filmmaking

Blaze Foley Headquarters: Amsterdam

As I creep my way out of the cold, fog-filled stone streets of Amsterdam and into the hotel, they eye me with suspicion. “They’re on to me,” I think, and then realize that I have a giant poster of an obscure homeless musician duct taped to the front of my body. It’s either that, or the towels. Every day we open the door but a crack and leave the “do not disturb” sign on the handle. They’ve responded by leaving bundles of towels and soap outside each day. Each day a giant bundle of towels goes in… but nothing ever comes out. We’ve also been obsessively calling the front desk, demanding that they give us our package from Germany. Each time, they’ve refused, claiming it’s never arrived.

On the desk is some kind of survival spork and I carry metal chopsticks at all times. A long line of parachute cord is stretched tight across the length of the room from the door to a gas line. It’s continuously dripping with socks and long underwear. In a wild attempt to overcome wasteful weight in travel, Kevin and I have stripped our wardrobes to the barest essentials. We arrived with nothing but a book bag of clothes that we wash with hotel soap in the sink each night. Anything else we need to keep warm or look good can be produced with duct tape and towels.

Blaze FoleyThe posters have been a master tool for meeting people. Everyone loves asking me about the guy on my chest and I have a pocket of postcards with the dates of our screenings at gunslinger height. I have it down to a smooth snap and the cards are in their hands. If I talk enough about our insane twelve years of working on this film their eyes glow and their grip on the cards shifts like they are more likely to survive the trip home.

Our second screening of, “Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah” went pretty well. Kevin wasn’t able to get an HD tape made in part because that Tsunami you heard about destroyed the factory that makes tape. He decided that the Beta copy of the film didn’t look nearly good enough and so he got them a digital copy of the film by using the sd card in his pocket camera and a laptop. A good sized crowed stuck around past the QA to hear Gurf Morlix perform and while the funny but crude, “Wouldn’t That Be Nice” got a few on the run they all loved the beautiful songs like, “Ooh Love” and most made a point to meet us afterwards. The legend of Blaze is definitely continuing to spread.

As a random bonus I ran into Andrew Berends at one of the schmoozfests. I still insist that it was my blog post that finally tipped the scales and had Hillary Clinton calling for his release. He doesn’t disagree. Fortunately Kevin hasn’t thought up a scheme to get us arrested in Amsterdam for the same kind of publicity. Yet.

Kai and Kevin with duct tape tuxedo and posterboard pitching Blaze Foley film

Above: Kevin Triplett sporting a custom duct tape tuxedo made by a fan of Blaze and Kai Mantsch with the poster. We’ve been telling people that it’s a playfully told, fun and uplifting movie about a homeless musician who gets killed.

This is Now Part 1: The Lowdown

It had been a long time since I had been around old school guy guys. Despite the amount of time spent discussing sex around my house, it’s usually in mixed company and of a certain flavor. I climbed into the van full of filmmakers and they paused long enough to say hello before launching back into the continuous outpouring of raunchy patter and boob jokes that had already been in full force. To his credit David did turn to me and say, “oh, right, I probably should have warned you.” By the end of the night, as we left our first dinner together, I found myself in a group hug with this same crew, talking about opening our hearts to the experience before us and giving Jef the space and support to be truly vulnerable. Somewhere in this mix, this seeming dichotomy, was the essence of our next few weeks of filmmaking.

The idea was to create a film that was a mixture of storyboarded narrative, documentary style interactions and improvisations. The structure from which the film hung was that “David” (the character) had just turned thirty and was writing a letter to himself on his deathbed. Knowing that this future self must have worked his way through the existential crisis he was now facing, he continually asks questions and describes his process as he surfs along on borrowed couches, pull out beds and floors through Portland and Seattle where the stories that shaped him once played out.

This is us with an actual leaf from the film “Apocalypse Now”. From left to right: David Soderberg, DP – Jef Greilich, Lead Actor – Kai Mantsch, Sound Recordist – Ira Flowers, Editor/Gaffer/Digital Technician – David Waingarten, Writer/Producer/Director. (Day 6)

In practice, this meant that we had a thin skeleton of a film and a whole lot of space that might, through the act of placing ourselves into the hands of god and the universe, be filled with amazing moments. Or go nowhere. We frequently made reference to the moment in Hearts of Darkness, a documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, where the film has degenerated into a slow slog upriver through the jungle and the cast and crew are given daily shot lists containing only the words, “scenes unknown”.

We did have a daily list of locations and people for our lead actor, Jef, to interact with. Many were people with incredible stories about spiritual awakenings, tragic war stories, or personal loss, like a man who’d lost his twin baby girls just weeks after they were born. Others were representative characters from David’s personal history. Having just watched, Synecdoche, New York, Kaufman’s latest ultra-meta film, I was well primed to enjoy the beauty of watching Jef, the actor, playing “David”, the character, based on David, the writer/director, who sat watching as Jef kissed David’s former crushes and ex-girlfriends, who were often playing the roles of other, different ex-girlfriends from David’s past. Most of the people Jef was to interact with were non-actors and so through their interactions, they would ask questions probing into who he (David, the character) was. This would prompt Jef to improvise and feel out the character that was emerging, and occasionally ask David (the director) to give him a story or talk about how he would respond to a given situation.

While I (and many others) originally questioned why it was that David didn’t simply play himself in this journey, it quickly became clear that he had made the right choice. Jef was unburdened by David’s ideas about what he could and couldn’t discuss with the people who had great personal weight in his life. There was also room for David himself to step back from the situation and see the interactions in a new light, as well as have enough distance to make decisions about what to cut and where to dive in deeper.

To Be Continued…

Next Episode: It Begins!

Out of the Clouds

Mark Gill (former president of Miramax) is the most popular prophet of the end of the indie film world with his now famous sky is falling speech. What he said was nothing particularly new or surprising, but it sums up what has been happening of late. Where once there was a dim hope of having a career of some sort as an independent film producer, that dim hope has become the candle that just went out: if I close my eyes and focus I can still just maintain the illusion. In many ways struggling to become a filmmaker has become more like fighting the odds to become a rock star.

I’ve previewed enough film submissions to know that even though 5000 feature length films were entered into Sundance this last year, it’s doesn’t mean that many were, despite their two million dollar and up budgets, even watchable. Statistically only about five of those have a chance of making money. But it does mean that there is so much noise in the system that it’s almost impossible to be noticed.

Kai filming on beach
Admittedly, I spent far too long working on other people’s projects before doing my own. This has put me a bit behind the curve, but what I’ve seen is that many of those friends who’ve produced a lot more and better work, have had successful festival runs, and even received small theatrical releases still aren’t bringing in any more food money than I do. In a quick informal survey after a recent shoot most were living off of about $9k a year. I felt like a wealthy baron with my $13k and health insurance.

This is the moment when you wake up and realize that you are not building a career, but are in fact living much more like a painter. (Although, sadly, the brushes are far more expensive.) It doesn’t make me want to quit making films. On the contrary, I feel liberated. If I don’t have to fuss about the potential commercial success of projects I work on, I can focus instead on making things I care about. Their value is determined entirely by my own metrics, and not where they might take me.

I’ve also been repressing my other artistic outlets, like writing and music, so that I could focus on film projects. This shift also means that taking time to work on music, either for one of my current film projects or an album of children’s music, becomes more viable. Without profit there is only art.

Kevin Bewersdorf comes from a different world. Despite his work in indie film, he considers himself to have been in the realm of painters and installation artists from the beginning. We exist in a new era wherein individual copies of an artwork have no inherent value. Everything digital is immediately pirated and available for free online. So borrowing from the world of prints, he made limited edition DVDs of one of his recent video installation projects and sold them, with certificates of authenticity, for extremely high prices. The buyers know they can get a copy of the work itself for free online. What they are buying instead is a piece of the artist’s work that may increase in value as a collectable over time and, more importantly, they have the opportunity to support a valued artist’s continued productivity.

I should also note, for the record, that Kevin’s deadpan, playfully sardonic artwork has been hugely inspirational to me lately. Highly recommended are his photographs and his Four Sacred Logos bit.

So while the road may have become rough with the remains of broken dreams fallen to earth, it doesn’t mean that I have to stop and turn back. If the sky really is falling, I can finally take my head out of the clouds and realize that what remains to be seen is just as beautiful.

Haunted House Story

The story sounded simple enough. Four filmmakers drive down to San Antonio to shoot a story about ghosts in a crumbling old mansion… just as a massive hurricane begins sweeping across Texas. It was as we began loading the van that I first noticed something odd. “Gee Bryan, I don’t see any lights,” I said. “Of course not,” he replied, “There’s no electricity”.

The house had been falling apart for many years. The massive grecian columns were shedding the last of their sun-bleached paint to reveal the cracked wood beneath. The old chain link fence that wrapped the front of the place was completely overgrown with an ivy bursting with purple flowers. Bees swarmed around and through them and danced about the metal sign that read, “No Trespassing”.

Haunted Mansion
The porch was a nest of rotting teeter totter boards that groaned and cried quietly beneath my feet as I heaved camera equipment to the door. Just inside I swung the sound mixer off of my shoulder and dropped a handful of sand bags. The owner of the neighboring restaurant had bought the house out from under the previous owners after the trouble started. Now he seemed to be using it as a storage space, as I was surrounded by tall, thin metal mushrooms of the sort used to heat an outdoor patio during the winter. Stepping through the little forest I had to climb around a pile of fat CO2 canisters squatting in the corner and past a huge rolling metal storage container.

The modern tools of the restaurant trade were loathe to extend any deeper into the house than the front room and I left them behind to explore. The railings had all been removed from the massive staircase and I could already see the evidence of the young woman’s chainsaw work. She had stripped the house of all drywall or plaster and left only the bare skeletal structure. Next to the stairs the floor had been torn away as well, and I could see through the lines of boney ribs to the earth below. Under the stairs, protruding only halfway up through the remnants of a floor was a sink, still installed and complete with copper pipes running off into the bowels of the house. It was as though it were designed for babies to crawl across the floor to the bowl to bathe. Equally as mysterious, a toilet sat resting, isolated, on top of the exposed floor supports.

I climbed up past the outline of an archway to the second floor where the damage was much the same with the exception of one room. Some of the ceiling and three of the walls had been covered with new drywall and painted a bright pink color. The remaining wall was no more than exposed studs, and light shone up past the ends of the floorboards. At the center of the room a brand new ceiling fan hung down into the room. It was like a guest in a tuxedo showing up for a barn raising, dangling from on high to survey, with nose held high, the piles of old nails, rat feces and raw wood thick with years of dust.

Indie Film Crew
I left this odd oasis to climb a metal ladder into the attic. Here the low roof sagged inwards towards me like a wet blanket. Instead of supporting or repairing it, they had popped in a new skylight that protruded from the tired wood like a pimple. Again all of the wood structure was exposed with the exception of but a fragment of original plaster, from which a tuft of pink insulation dripped towards a hole in the floor. Despite this, absurdly, to one side was a set of sliding glass doors that opened onto a tiny, exposed portion of the roof.

The dreamers who had come to this house years ago had arrived with great vision and little skill or money. The tall bamboo helped hide the eyesore from afternoon diners, but at some point the little mexican restaurant next door couldn’t play their music loud enough to cover the screaming as the young couple began throwing each other’s clothes out onto the street. Their fights grew louder and more frequent. It was the chainsaw being taken to the walls that finally lead the restaurant owner, fearing for his business, to buy them out.

No one really knows what happened to bring them to that point, but anyone who has tried to rebuild an old house (including Wendy Spies and myself) might have a few ideas. Our fearless director Bryan Poyser had a few ideas of his own, and you can see how they play out when he completes this next film.

Sadly it didn’t turn out, as I’d hoped, that a big budget reality film was being shot of us. I kept waiting for the moment that the door wouldn’t open and we’d be forced to spend the night in the place, or for something to grab my leg. Instead we had absolutely incredible natural light that made each shot look like a million dollars. At one point, watching Kevin walk up the staircase into golden light filtering through light clouds of dust, we all swore we’d just seen him ascend into heaven.

Soon this old house with all of its history and mysteries will be rolled off into another young couple’s dreams and the land left behind will become a parking lot. Even then, it could well be the place that a pair of future newlyweds emerges from a romantic dinner at the restaurant next door to share a first kiss. I’m glad we were able to add one more piece of history, and capture a bit of the soul of this place before it moves on.

All photos by Kevin Bewersdorf