FEAST OF FUN podcast interview

I was recently interviewed on the hit podcast FEAST OF FUN (you can subscribe on iTunes).  It was a great visit with Marc and Fausto, and at the time of this writing more than 24,000 people listened to the interview!

We talked about my friend the great actress Karen Black, filming EL GANZO in Mexico, digging up bodies on alleyways, punk rock royalty Pleasant Gehman, and the other current film I have on the festival circuit: HELL TOWN.  They also got me to talk about being betrayed by my ex the sociopath, but unfortunately the last half of our interview (which had to do primarily with commentary from the guys on the Rachel Dolezal crisis, during which I basically said nothing for 10 minutes) was cut when ProTools stopped recording without the guys being notified.

You can listen to the podcast HERE or at this link: http://feastoffun.com/podcast/2015/06/18/fof-2180-hell-yes-to-hell-town/

Enjoy!  I really loved my visit with FEAST OF FUN and am excited to share it with those of you who haven’t heard it yet.

A LETTER FROM GEORGE CLOONEY

I just read an article about the insanity of David O. Russell humiliating people on set.  Included was a letter from George Clooney that I want to repost for the day.  Those of you watched my docs THE WAMEGO TRILOGY (available for free at that link) saw the clips of him freaking out on Lily Tomlin.  That he does this all the time is just absurd.  I can’t understand why, with all the talented directors out there who are professional and polite, like me for instance, one would continue to hire people who abuse their coworkers.

In 1999, George Clooney got into a fistfight with David O. Russell on set of THREE KINGS.  Here’s what George Clooney writes:

He’d throw off his headset and scream, “Today the sound department fucked me!” For me, it came to a head a couple of times. Once, he went after a camera-car driver who I knew from high school. I had nothing to do with his getting his job, but David began yelling and screaming at him and embarrassing him in front of everybody. I told him, “You can yell and scream and even fire him, but what you can’t do is humiliate him in front of people. Not on my set, if I have any say about it”.

Another time, he screamed at the script supervisor and made her cry. I wrote him a letter and said, “Look, I don’t know why you do this. You’ve written a brilliant script, and I think you’re a good director. Let’s not have a set like this. I don’t like it and I don’t work well like this”. I’m not one of those actors who likes things in disarray. He read the letter and we started all over again. But later, we were three weeks behind schedule, which puts some pressure on you, and he was in a bad mood. These army kids, who were working as extras, were supposed to tackle us. There were three helicopters in the air and 300 extras on the set. It was a tense time, and a little dangerous, too. David wanted one of the extras to grab me and throw me down. This kid was a little nervous about it, and David walked up to him and grabbed him. He pushed him onto the ground. He kicked him and screamed, “Do you want to be in this fucking movie? Then throw him to the fucking ground!” The second assistant director came up and said, “You don’t do that, David. You want them to do something, you tell me”. David grabbed his walkie-talkie and threw it on the ground. He screamed, “Shut the fuck up! Fuck you”, and the AD goes, “Fuck you! I quit”.

He walked off. It was a dangerous time. I’d sent him this letter. I was trying to make things work, so I went over and put my arm around him. I said, “David, it’s a big day. But you can’t shove, push or humiliate people who aren’t allowed to defend themselves”. He turned on me and said, “Why don’t you just worry about your fucked-up act? You’re being a dick. You want to hit me? You want to hit me? Come on, pussy, hit me”. I’m looking at him like he’s out of his mind. Then, he started banging me on the head with his head. He goes, “Hit me, you pussy. Hit me”. Then, he got me by the throat and I went nuts. Waldo, my buddy, one of the boys, grabbed me by the waist to get me to let go of him. I had him by the throat. I was going to kill him. Kill him. Finally, he apologized, but I walked away. By then, the Warner Bros. guys were freaking out. David sort of pouted through the rest of the shoot and we finished the movie, but it was truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life.

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Perhaps this is the standard experience on a Hollywood movie set.  Thankfully no one who works with me will ever experience such a horrific situation.  If you want to catch the WAMEGO TRILOGY each is available for free at that link.

ZombieLife talks to HELL TOWN cast/crew

This radio interview with Eddie Rotten and ZombieLife Podcast was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had.  I was joined on the night of the HELL TOWN premiere (presented by the Austin Horror Society at the Alamo Drafthouse) with Elizabeth Spear, Owen Lawless, BeckiJo Neill, Kyle Eno and Sarah Napier.  Listen to our interview HERE or by clicking the logo below.

ZombieLife logo 2

Next HELL TOWN screening is in Charleston, SC at Crimson Screen Horror Film Fest on May 16.  Details at www.DIKENGA.com

 

Interview with HELL TOWN co-director Elizabeth Spear

The Austin Horror Society presents the world premiere of my new film HELL TOWN tomorrow night in Austin, Texas at the Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline.  Tell all your friends in Austin to go see it!

Here’s an interview with co-director Elizabeth Spear on KOOP 91.7FM in Austin.

http://www.lightscameraaustin.net/elizabeth-spear-april-2015.html

HELL TOWN: Review by Andrew Shearer for VOLUME ATHENS

HELL TOWN
Review by Andrew Shearer for VOLUME ATHENS

You can’t just run around making comedies about high school murder and mayhem anymore. It’s far too serious a subject, and even now, revisiting a classic like “Heathers” (1988) feels a little wrong. There’s a reason why Hollywood opted for adapting “The Hunger Games” rather than doing an English-language remake of “Battle Royale.” If you’re going to make a movie where kids are killing one another in the hallways, you’d better be doing so with a straight face.

Unless you’re Steve Balderson.

When I saw his first film, “Pep Squad”, (2000) I couldn’t believe anyone would have the audacity to release such a film (it was actually made in 1998). Centered around a girl named Cherry who goes on a violent rampage after not being nominated for homecoming queen, Balderson’s world was about as far from reality as you could get. To call it irresponsible film making would be a compliment, as there was no attempt made at holding up a mirror to the potentially disastrous consequences of teenage angst in American society. It was gross, it was hilarious, and it was necessary.

Cut to over a decade and thirteen features later, Balderson makes a return of sorts to his roots with “Hell Town”, a wildly original exercise in what John Waters once called “the theatre of the ridiculous”. Presented as three episodes of a non-existent television series, Balderson and co-director Elizabeth Spear (“Roundball”) throw out traditional story structure by placing the viewer in the middle of an already established set of characters up to their eyeballs in high drama. Trish (Krysten Day) is a Marsha Brady clone making a list of potential prom dates, Bobby (Blake Cordell) is secretly in love with track star Jesse (Owen Lawless), Mother Manly (Pleasant Gehman) is in a coma, and that’s just a small piece of it.

Also, there’s a serial killer that’s bumping everyone off, one by one. Fans of “Friday The 13th” will enjoy the creative spin on the famous arrow kill and will delight in the unbelievable “death by donuts” scene, but there’s something for the “Twin Peaks” crowd as well: Gehman also plays a dual role as the attending nurse (sharing nearly ever scene with a comatose version of herself) and one character is replaced with another actor between episodes. It’s surreal, it’s disgusting, it’s high camp, and yet there are still moments of quiet, understated artistry that speak of film makers with more on their minds than just spilling blood and making jokes.

Despite its blatant disregard for anything resembling political correctness, there is more going on with “Hell Town” than your typical indie shocker. Balderson and Spear never go for the cheap laugh, the obvious gag or the tried-and-true high school genre stereotype. Nothing happens the way you expect it to, no one behaves quite the way their appearance would suggest, and the silliness has a razor sharp edge that pokes you any time you’ve started to get too comfortable. Best of all, “Hell Town” exposes most television series for what they are: a glorified soap opera hidden under a higher concept, making you wait far too long to see anything happen.

# # #

Next week April 23, 2015, the Austin Horror Society presents the world premiere of HELL TOWN in Austin, TX at the Alamo Drafthouse.  Open to the public.  Cast & crew in attendance.
Tickets and details: www.DIKENGA.com

RECYCLING CRITICS by Jim Meskimen

Many moons ago I read this great article written by an actor friend from Los Angeles, and posted it to my website.  I rediscovered it recently, and would like to share.  Enjoy!

RECYCLING CRITICS
by Jim Meskimen

I’m not much of a fan of critics, especially these days when there are such an abundance of them on the payrolls of every newspaper, e-zine, cable TV show, news program and magazine. I think when professional critics start to outnumber working artists, something is terribly wrong. Even one critic to ten artists is a bit uneven. Critics will disagree with me, but to listen to some of them, one artist per field of art would be ample.

It’s not the individual critics I hate, mind you, it’s the whole impulse. I even hate it in me, and consider it one of my projects to evaporate any desire towards criticism of other well-intentioned people that I can detect in myself. It’s just not a handsome attribute.

So here’s my idea, and I’m almost serious about it, too. Today we have recourse to digital tools that have revolutionized the arts. You can paint, compose music, edit films, design buildings, all on your laptop while chewing a Krispy Kreme donut, if you choose. Basically, there is no excuse anymore for anyone who claims to be interested in the arts to not be very productive. It’s just too easy.

So we as a society should demand that anyone who wants to call themselves a professional critic, should make available on a website for all the world to see, an example of their efforts in the very field they intend to be an authority on. Music critics- let’s hear your songs and symphonies. Theatre critics- where is the play you wrote on the subway to Times Square? Art critics- let’s see the images you made on your laptop in Soho. Film critics – you hordes of imitation butter-flavor fingered typists, tell us where to view your short film please. We’ll patiently wait for the download.

This will make honest men and women out of the few really devoted critics who take on the challenge, and it will thin the herd considerably. With every critic activated as a productive artist, we will have more works to view and listen to, and less carping and complaining. Many will probably quit of their own accord, since artistic creation is so much more rewarding than casual, random destruction.

The real dividend for the culture will be the conversion of critics into artists. We always need more of the one, and seldom have a hunger for the other.

YOU DON’T NEED TO YELL

I was on a film shoot recently where I wasn’t producing or directing, so I was able to be a fly on the wall.  It was really a great experience to observe the daily dynamics of a film set that wasn’t my own.  I highly encourage everyone who is interested in making movies to visit someone else’s set.  Whether you are an actor, director, DP, Make-up artist, costumer, writer, etc.  It’s an incredibly educational experience.  No matter if you’re a Pro or a total Newbie.  And it doesn’t matter what kind of a movie it is.

The first film set I visited which wasn’t my own was Sean Penn’s THE CROSSING GUARD starring Jack Nicholson.  The second film set I visited was an amateurish indie shoot.  Each was on the farthest end on either side of the filmmaking spectrum.  One had over 100 crew people, endless trucks lining the street, a buffet of craft service that rivaled the best restaurants, while the other had none of that and just a handful of aspiring Production Assistants.  It didn’t matter though, because both had interesting dynamics to study and learn from.  So I suggest getting on any film set, anywhere, and just take it all in.  Compare how different directors work and how different types of actors work.  And do it as many times as you can.  It’ll help you better define how you’d like to operate your own film set.

Throughout all the differences, there was one thing I remembered that I’d totally forgotten about.  I forgot because I haven’t used one in years.  The traditional AD (either a First or Second Assistant Director).

Because I schedule everything ahead of time and manage all the administrative aspects of my shoots, I haven’t needed one.  But, I do realize that not everyone is as OCD as me, so you might need an AD or two.  And when you interview them, my advice is to keep an eye/ear open to how they communicate.

I’ve never been in a “How To Be An AD” class, but something about how most of them behave suggests they have learned to be stern, mean, loud, and generally irritable or irritating.  But it’s so totally counterproductive to behave that way in a job like that.

I understand it’s important to stay on schedule.  But there’s no reason to yell about it and to push people like a drill sergeant.  All that does is make people disrespect you.  Getting what you want is the goal, right?  There are two ways to accomplish that: the nice way and the mean way.

Try this exercise.  If you ask someone in a softer voice, “could you pass the ketchup,” the other person is likely to not think twice, and pass it.  Now, try it on another person and use a firm drill sergeant voice demand, “Give that to me.  Come on!”  You might end up getting the ketchup but that person won’t like the act of passing it to you.  And afterwards, they will likely hold some resentment for being treated like an inferior person.  And if they are continued to be treated that way, those tiny resentments will build up until they become so big that person will leave the set each night and never want to work with you again.

ADs who have been programmed to behave like Nazis will disagree with me, of course.  But never mind them.  The easiest way to get what you want is to figure out how to avoid conflicts from the beginning.  If you schedule correctly BEFORE you start shooting, you won’t need to worry about staying on schedule.  If you communicate with your make-up artist clearly, you’ll already know how much time each person will take, and you can plan for it.

If you use archaic ways of scheduling a shoot, just because everybody else does, or “that’s the way it’s always been done” you’ll have an outcome just like everyone else: over budget, behind schedule, etc.

But if you really take everything into consideration from the get-go, you can plan for it all.  Then, I suppose, you won’t need a professional AD.  You could just use an intern who knows how to communicate with people in a clear and respectful way.

GOING GLOBAL

I grew up in a small Kansas town, and when I returned home from film school it seemed the most logical place to begin making films.  Of course, people on the coasts thought I was nuts, but where else can you close down an entire street without having to worry about the police or any passers-by bothering you?

My first three features were filmed in Kansas.  It was only when I traveled to Macon, Georgia, for a film festival there, that I felt so comfortable in the town, I could see how easily it would be to make a film there.  So I did.  It felt like I’d graduated to the next level somehow.

After shooting in Macon, I decided to venture even further from the roost and shoot something in Palm Springs.  It was an exhilarating shoot.  Partly because it’s allegedly against the law to film anything inside Palm Springs city limits without having permission from the Powers That Be, permits, insurance, and all that.  So we just didn’t tell anyone, and made our movie anyway.

The next year, when we were headed to the Raindance Film Festival in London, I thought, well, if we’re all going to be there we might as well make a movie at the same time.  It was an absolute thrill.  Much like with the California shoot, London is beyond strict when it comes to permits, insurance, and permission from the Powers That Be, and so forth.  And, like our prior escapade, I decided to do it stealth and not say a word to anyone.  We got away with it.

I don’t do drugs.  And the rush that came with filming guerrilla style, essentially illegally, became so addictive I couldn’t stop!  After stealing London and Paris (for a quick scene at the Eiffel Tower), I set my sights on Hong Kong.  We filmed a week in LA and then flew to Hong Kong where we filmed an additional three weeks.  Hong Kong was more relaxed, and filmmaker-friendly than all the other cities, but it was still under-the-radar and more than once we filmed someplace we weren’t supposed to be.

How does one accomplish these things?  Well, it’s pretty easy, actually.  Google Earth and Google Maps makes it possible to “walk around” the streets and find locations, restaurants to eat in for lunch, alleyways to hold a staging area, and directions for subway travel times and so forth.  We didn’t need to hire any location scout or send someone to take pictures.  Google had already done all that for us!

It was pretty easy to post casting calls in both the UK and in Hong Kong, and all auditions were held via Skype, or on password protected YouTube or Vimeo pages.

In both places I had great help “on the ground” from the actors who would appear in the film.  We took advantage of shooting in areas they knew about, or perhaps places they lived.  In Hong Kong, our local producer even arranged for us to film the climactic fight sequence in a penthouse with terraces and more!

It might seem daunting at first to go to a far flung destination and shoot a movie without ever having been there before, but I’m here to say it can be done.  And, it is highly recommended.  The pure joy you’ll have coming home, knowing you made a movie in a foreign land… It’s something you can treasure forever.

THE OBSERVER EFFECT

Until I directed “Occupying Ed” I had a rule: never let the screenwriter on set during filming.  Why?  Because I knew—even though I’m very confident when it comes to staying focused while directing a movie—the presence of that extra set of eyes would sneak in and prevent me from being able to focus 100%.

Even if that screenwriter promised to stand in the corner and keep still, silent as can be, I would be aware of their presence.  Even if it were a small number, there would still be some kind of percentage of my focus wondering if they liked what they saw, liked what they heard, and so forth.  And, it would be doubly difficult to rewrite something in the middle of the scene if certain words just weren’t flowing as well verbally as they did on paper.

I like the freedom to rewrite a scene while we’re filming, and having the ability to feel the natural flow of what comes from letting the scene organically change when needed.  Having the screenwriter present can sometimes cause a challenge in that process.

What I’m talking about is The Observer Effect.  Which, I just learned, is an actual thing!

According to Wikipedia, The Observer Effect (also called the experimenter-expectancy effect, expectancy bias, or experimenter effect) is a form of reactivity in which a researcher’s cognitive bias causes them to unconsciously influence the participants of an experiment.  It is a significant threat to a study’s internal validity, and is therefore typically controlled using a double-blind experimental design.

An example of The Observer Effect is demonstrated in music backmasking, in which hidden verbal messages are said to be audible when a recording is played backwards.  Some people expect to hear hidden messages when reversing songs, and therefore hear the messages, but to others it sounds like nothing more than random sounds.  Often when a song is played backwards, a listener will fail to notice the “hidden” lyrics until they are explicitly pointed out, after which they are obvious.

On a film set, observers have a great influence on the process regardless whether they are screenwriters, production assistants, other actors, or camera crew.  It is because of this my new rule is: keep the sets closed at all times.  From everyone.  No one should be there on set but me.

Okay, I’m kidding.  I won’t go that far.  But I do think it’s a wise move to limit the numbers of eyes on a film set.  Actors are delicate creatures (cough) that need to feel safe in their environment so they can do what they do.  Same goes for directors, cinematographers and sound people.

Really there shouldn’t be anyone else on set that doesn’t need to be there.  On occasion for a tricky move, it’s important to have assistance and various crew people on hand.

Sometimes, of course, The Observer Effect is so minimal it’s as if there is no effect.  When we filmed “Occupying Ed” the screenwriter Jim Lair Beard and his wife, Christine, were extras during some scenes.  And you know what, it was an absolute pleasure to have them on set and to share in the experience.  I never once felt like my focus as director was in any way compromised.

That experience was so lovely that it changed my mind about The Observer Effect.  But, it’s still true: You can never purely observe anything because the presence of the observer changes the thing.  Keep that in mind.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 4 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE, TWO, and THREE.

The STUCK! shoot was marvelous.

One of the best parts was the food.  See, when the cast and crew are only a handful of people it is possible to go to someone’s home for a dinner party.  You can eat superior food.  Feeding 42 people on a traditional crew likely means scraps and bulk-made meals.  And there is no intimacy about that kind of thing.  With a set like mine we eat homemade slow-cooked masterpieces every night.  We can sit around the same table.  It becomes a far more rewarding experience.

Like WATCH OUT, the STUCK! shooting days were just as efficient.  We’d work from 9 AM and wrap around 5 or 6 PM.  We worked every day with no days off.  It took less than two weeks to complete.

The reviews were amazing:  Film Threat writes, “Balderson just doesn’t make simple films, and this is no exception. It’s not in the words, or the plot or the story; but it’s in the air, it’s in the beat, it’s in the very soul of the work.” The LA Weekly said it was “Revolutionary.”  And UK Critic MJ Simpson writes, “Steve Balderson is the best-kept secret in American independent cinema. He makes his own films – which are unfailingly brilliant – and the rest of the world very, very gradually catches up with him.”

In February, 2010, the American Cinematheque hosted the LA Premiere of STUCK! at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.  The cast was there with me to present the film and do a Q&A after the screening.  One of the people in the audience mentioned that because all the actors were there, talking enthusiastically about this new way of filmmaking, it spoke volumes about the process.

I signed a deal with a sales agent who is selling STUCK! to buyers around the globe.

In the fall of 2010, I put together another top-secret film shoot and produced my film THE CASSEROLE CLUB.  A couple new stars joined the group for this shoot: namely Kevin Richardson (from the Backstreet Boys), Daniela Sea (from the L Word), and acclaimed stage actress Jennifer Grace.  We made the film in Palm Springs in exactly the same way we made STUCK! and WATCH OUT.  The entire experience is captured in director Anthony Pedone’s documentary CAMP CASSEROLE.

The shoot was a lot like summer film camp.  We rented a few vacation homes that would serve as the locations, and also would house all of us.  Staying together in the same place was magical.  Each day we’d gather to film scenes, and if any actors weren’t working, they would lounge by the pool, read a book, and basically turn their time on the set as a vacation.  This aspect of the shoot was the best.  I made sure that we’re doing the work we need to do, but it’s just as important for me to create an atmosphere that is a rewarding experience personally.

Each evening we would have a meal sponsored by one of the cast or crew, or friends and family.  Imagine being at summer camp and coming together over a meal and singing Kumbaya.  That’s exactly what it was like!  Only instead of singing Kumbaya, per se, several people would pull out their guitars and do an impromptu acoustic concert; or, there would be fun short films being made; or, night swimming and gazing up at the stars with a great conversation.

One of my favorite moments filming THE CASSEROLE CLUB came whenever we needed to do some exterior shots around the Palm Springs area.  We’d just jump in my car and drive around until we’d find the greatest place, jump out, film it, then rush back to the car and speed away as if nothing ever happened.  This is the kind of freedom I love work in.  It’s exhilarating.

THE CASSEROLE CLUB premiered at Visionfest`11 in New York City where we were nominated for 9 Independent Vision Awards and won 5: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Kevin Richardson, Best Actress for Susan Traylor, Best Production Design.  And the most overwhelming compliment came in 2012 when the U.S. Library of Congress invited the film to be a part of its permanent collection.

Making films in today’s distribution landscape is drastically different than it was even a few years ago.  It is very important to spend as little money possible to make your films.  If your film cost $200,000 that’s fine.  But maybe you could try to find a way to make two movies for $100,000 instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

Be realistic when you’re planning your expenses.  Regardless of the storyline, regardless of the actors, stars or location, if you think your project will make $100,000 in sales, your best bet at sustainability is to make sure that project costs less than that.

These are just some of the ways the distribution landscape has changed the way films are made.