The Wamego Trilogy

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

FINDING YOUR PERCEPTION

No two people see the same thing the same way. It’s a fact.  No two sets of eyes share the exact same perspective – even when we’re looking at the exact same thing.  Everyone on earth has an individual overall perception of everything that resides past the tips of his nose.  Many people dislike looking past the tips of their noses – in either direction – but that doesn’t change the fact that no two people see the same thing the same way.  There is no singular perspective.  No overall point of view.  Even when thousands of people are gathered in a convention center looking at the man at a podium – no two people in the room will have the same point of view.  One man watches from this angle – another man watches from millimeters away.  No matter how hard you try – it will be impossible to see out another person’s eyes.  It’s just not going to happen while you’re alive.

The first thing I learned attending film school at CalArts was… and they actually said this… “You don’t need a degree to be a filmmaker – you just need to be a filmmaker.”  The second thing I learned was the concept of individual perception.  Upon hearing the word, the first thing I wondered was, “What is perception? Is it something to be found in a textbook?  Certainly, I’ll have to buy all the books and required reading.  I mustn’t miss a single class – just in case they pass out samples.  Maybe after next year’s tuition payment they’ll tell me what it is.  Must be exciting, this ‘perception’ business, because it’s certainly costly.  I mean, one could purchase a Mercedes for the same price. It must be something rather extraordinary.”

Well, it was.  When I understood the notion of individual ‘perception,’ it was as if an entirely new world had opened up for me.  It was, in fact, better than a Mercedes.  It’s one of the most exciting, most rewarding ideas I have ever pursued.  Having a core – a self – wherein *I* am in charge of what I see – changed my life.

There was a class at CalArts called Scene Analysis (or something of the sort).  We watched films and took them apart shot by shot, scene by scene – inspected, from an overview floor plan (like an architectural blue print), where the camera was positioned for each shot.  We also studied where the actors were standing and where the lights were positioned.

Here’s what I learned.

Hitchcock, Lynch, Fellini, Huston, Kubrick, and the other so-called masters, weren’t putting the camera in the *best* place.  They weren’t putting the lighting in the *best* place.  They weren’t using the world’s *best* stories.  So I began to wonder: “Why on earth are they so admired?  What’s all the fuss about?  I’ve seen their work.  I’ve inspected each frame down to the millisecond.  What’s so special about them and not other filmmakers?  What do they have that others don’t?  Most everyone has seen a Lynch film.  Nine out of ten people think they make no sense, have no purpose, and look at the story and don’t ‘get it,’ so what’s the big deal?”

Well – the biggest deal is: Perception.  That’s what they’ve got that no one else seems to understand.  They have an individual perception.  Special emphasis should be placed on the word INDIVIDUAL.  These artists don’t look at their families, friends and neighbors to answer how they ought to see something.  They don’t look to their schools, churches or governments for definitions on how to be or think.  They simply look inward and ask themselves, “How do *I* see this?”  And once they answer the question – on their own – they respond with, “If I see it like this, I shall put the camera here.”  They do not have other people telling them where to put the camera or how to light the scene.  They answer to no one but themselves.  Their eyes tell the tale – not the eyes of the D.P., Key Grip, Focus Puller, leading actor or Editor.

These filmmakers are masters because they are simply putting the image together as they see it.  Seems easy enough.  So why aren’t most people doing the same thing?  Why is our entire culture doing the total opposite?

I suspect that there is a reason why the notion of individual “perception” isn’t taught in schools.  Clearly there is a reason why the concept of individual viewpoint is not encouraged at church.  Why?  First and foremost, the concept of individual perception is very dangerous to those who maintain their power through prescribing what is accepted and what is not, and “persuading” the populace, whether it is the marketplace for movies or the voters of a nation, to a single, externally defined criteria for a group perception.  Never mind that the term “group perception” is an oxymoron.

If an instructor at a university actually understood the concept of individual perception, it would make grading the work of students much more difficult.  Beginning with an admission that the professor’s view was not the “right and only way,” it would force enormous change upon institutions of higher learning, not to mention calling their very existence into question.  If society actually embraced the idea that no two people see the same thing the same way, it would revolutionize interpersonal communication.  We can only imagine what would happen to movie reviews, at least as we know them.  Instead of Mr. Critic proclaiming for the world what a film is about or what it means, he would actually leave it to the viewer to derive his own perception from the work.  After all, it was the *viewer’s perception* not his.  They had it.  He didn’t.  Their eyes are their eyes.  His eyes are his.  Just a thought: this will never occur in our lifetimes.  The power structure will see to it that the concept of individual perception is squashed wherever it seems to blossom.  Governments, religious institutions, big business, education… you name it… have a vested interest in promulgating the notion that “one size fits all.”

On my street, one size does NOT fit all.  I’m a little over six-foot-four.  *Normal* chairs don’t have the right height.  I can’t sit at a *normal* desk without ramming my knees into the low desktop.  And it doesn’t end there…  *Normal* counter-tops are too low.  The *normal* clothing sizes located at the mall simply don’t fit me.  I wear size thirteen shoes.  No one carries them.  It was like pulling teeth to get the plumber to install a shower head at the correct height.  He said, “But this is where they put shower heads.  No one puts them that high.”

“I understand this, but I’d like the shower head to pour down on my face.  I really don’t want it to be at my chest-level.  I’m not five-foot-eight and I shouldn’t have to pretend I am just so you feel better about it.”

It then occurred to me that the plumber was, in fact, my size.  How could he live his life never questioning this.  Has he never noticed his own shower head?  Has he never noticed the height of his bathroom sink?  Probably not.  He probably has spent a lifetime defining his expectations and beliefs because *THAT’S HOW IT’S ALWAYS BEEN DONE*.

It amazes me that people seem to PREFER just going along and letting the world define who they are and what they ought to believe.  I recently got a call from a storyboard artist.  He offered to sketch my storyboards for my next movie.  I thought, how strange… Why would I want to shoot a film from his perspective?  Wouldn’t I rather use my own?  My eyes are not his eyes.  I mean, it’s an interesting concept, to photograph someone else’s vision.  For me, it goes against what I define for myself as a filmmaker.  If I’m not using my own perception of the material – what the hell am I doing?  Lounging by the fucking pool?

Beware the people who pay lip service to the notion that there are 6 billion viewpoints in the world.  Even as they say that, they attempt to categorize entire nations into a single descriptive group.  Muslim, Jew, Christian.  All Muslims are terrorists.  All Jews are rich.  All Christians are good.  Well, it just isn’t true.  In fact, we’ve got a few Christians in Kansas that…  Well, there’s no reason to mention their hateful Baptist church out loud.

The next time that some politician tells you to vote for him because he shares your values, ask him how he knows what your values are and what is so special about him that he can see the world through your eyes.  The next time some “know-it-all” tells you that your script isn’t traditional enough, or your short story doesn’t follow the accepted structure, look deep inside and see if it fits your requirements and definitions.  If it does, tell them to mind their own business.

Everyone would benefit by having an individual perception.  Yet…  Most people fight it.  Most people do NOT want to have their own perceptions.  They avoid developing their own unique, individualized viewpoints.

Why would anyone NOT want to have his or her own perception?  Could it be…  Is it maybe…  Just maybe…  People want to avoid taking responsibility for themselves?  Consider this: It’s so much easier to blame someone else.  Somehow the world has defined responsibility as ‘fault’ – and fault as something demeaning or negative.  But the truth is – everything that happens in YOUR life is YOUR fault.  YOU are responsible for your actions and reactions.  YOU are responsible for YOU.  Not your neighbors, churches, schools or governments.

People who don’t like hearing things like that will always find an excuse to justify their behavior.  Commonly, people use money as their primary excuse: “Oh, I don’t have enough money to make a film…” or “Oh, I’d love to move away and be an actor but I don’t have the money…”  Another one is, “I’d love to work outside with my hands but I can’t afford to give up my present job.”  Well, then, why not figure out how to make it, be it or do it?  There are ways to find investors, or a job to pay your expenses or a different and affordable lifestyle.

The second set of excuses usually deals with blaming other people. “But I can’t leave my spouse and do what I want to do…” or “If I do what I want people will think I’m crazy!”  Okay.  Maybe so.  But who is driving your car?  Be aware there *are* choices.

Finally, people unwilling to take responsibility for their own behavior will use horror or abuse.  “9/11 wasn’t my fault!  So there!  You’re wrong!”  No, chances are, the horrific terrorist acts of 9/11 were not your fault.  But ask yourself: Who forced you to stop working until 9/15?  Who made you sit in front of the television?  Did the terrorists?  Or did you choose to do that all on your own?  “I’m abused on a daily basis.  It’s not my fault he beats me.”  You are correct, it isn’t your fault if you have been beaten.  At least not the actual hitting.  But do you make the choice to remain in that environment?  Do you seek help or escape?

Everything that happens in your life is your fault.  Another way of saying it is that you are responsible for determining what you do, how you do it and what your attitude toward life is.  Environmental things will occur.  Storms will come.  Accidents will happen.  Disasters will occur.  But what you do, how you respond, is up to you.  It’s one of the first hurdles to overcome in developing your own perception.  If you make the choice to not find investors, then you probably won’t have any.  If you make the choice to not create a business plan, you won’t have one.  If you make the choice to not find a job you enjoy, chances are, you will probably work at a job you hate.  If you make the choice to let society define who you are, you won’t be the one defining you.  Is this what you want?  Are these your choices?  If not, remember the old saying, “People who dislike having their feet sliced open should avoid walking on shards of glass.”

If you want to make films, or tell a story, or work in a forest, or sit on a mountain…  Well, get your shit together first.  Develop YOU and YOUR point of view.  Are you going to define your story by what it says in the “How to Write a Script” book?  Will you define your perspective by the rules in the “Filmmaking for Dummies” manual?

According to the 2001 CIA World Factbook, men in the USA, on average, live to 72, while women live to 79.  For the sake of making this less confusing, let’s say the average span of a human life is 75.  About 35% of it is lost in sleep.  And another 30% of that is lost to the vicissitudes of youth, while 10% is probably spent being old and/or ill.  That leaves about 25% of those 75 years to be all we can be, to do all we can do, and to live life as though it is as precious as it actually is.  We have 18 or 19 years during which we can make choices that enrich our lives, put meaning into our relationships and advance the causes we believe in.

Just eighteen years.  That isn’t a very long time.  Every day we are given choices. Every time we look at something we are given the opportunity to either learn – or not; to do – or don’t.  What will YOU choose?

On my street we praise the individual for striving.  It isn’t about quantitative success.  After all, whose definition of success are we using?  We have some simple questions on my street.  “Are you happy?  Are you fulfilled?  Do you have a sense of reward at the end of the day?  Are you meeting YOUR expectations (as opposed to those of someone else)?”  And when the answers are “no” which they sometimes are, we ask these questions: “What could you do differently that would get you what you want?  Is there another path to pursue that might yield different results?  Are there people in the world that might help you?  Have you fully defined what you want?”  These questions keep me, and others on my street, focused on being responsible for our own results, not thinking wishfully about what could have been or how unfair life is.  Next time you start to blame somebody else for your less than desired situation, try a couple of those questions on for size.

(originally published in “Balderson Blvd” for Aftertaste Magazine, 2001)

ERIC SHERMAN

Eric Sherman is my mentor and consultant and guru and… well, he’s just like Yoda.  Only real.  I first met Eric when I was a student at CalArts in the mid 90s.  Eric taught Film Directing and on the first day of class, as he arrived, I handed him my business card.  My attendance was spotty, but I thoroughly enjoyed learning what he had to share.

At the end of the semester, I left CalArts for a few weeks to direct a feature version of Anne Rice’s novel THE VAMPIRE LESTAT.  See, for another class, we were given an assignment to direct something with texture (or something about composition in general).  The assignment was supposed to be a short film, but I never thought in short-storytelling format, so I instantly thought I’d adapt and direct LESTAT since I’d just finished reading the book and was really inspired.  Anyway, I had to leave CalArts in order to get back to Kansas to make the movie.

When I returned, most of my instructors asked where in the world had I been and I replied, “I was doing the assignment!”  Then I handed them a double VHS set of the finished and edited movie.  (Yes, this was before DVDs were invented and the movie was longer than 2 hours, so I had to use a second VHS tape to hold the last part).

Eric gave me an INCOMPLETE on my report card.  I didn’t know what that meant, so I went to see him.  Evidently if a student doesn’t attend the class, there’s no way for him or her to learn what is being taught in the class.  Of course he was right.  But, no matter my plea, I still received an incomplete, and was forced to re-take the class in order to pass it.  So I did.

In my memory, it’s hard to tell exactly how many times I re-took Eric’s FILM DIRECTING class.  I’m pretty sure I only repeated it once, but it might have been three times.  After my stint at CalArts, I set off to direct my debut feature film.  To understand filmmaking as both a business and creative endeavor, I hired Eric as a film consultant to help me with my business plan and pre-production management.  He taught me how important it is to be ultra-prepared.

Eric’s father was Vincent Sherman, the last of the great Golden Age Hollywood directors.  Eric himself worked with everybody, including Orson Welles.  I knew he had the knowledge I needed to learn.  I was right.  Later on, as my first film became a real project, I asked him to come on board as a co-producer.  That film is PEP SQUAD.  It would be the first film to predict the soon-to-be onslaught of American School Violence.  Furthermore, it’s is a dark comedy and a subversive satire—an entertaining combination.

At one point, I decided against casting the actor I’d auditioned to play the sleazy principal who gets killed.  Instantly I turned to Eric to see if he’d consider it.  He eventually agreed to do it, and he’s just great portraying the wonderfully demented and evil character.  On the day we were to kill off the character, I recalled getting an INCOMPLETE in his class, and I couldn’t recall if I ever did, in fact, pass it.  Clearly, at this point, I didn’t need to worry about it.

Eric and I continue to work together and today I consider him more than a mentor and friend.  He’s family.  If any of you are in need of hiring someone with Yoda-like know-how on filmmaking, or in need of a mentor, or consultant, I’d be happy to put you in touch with Eric.  He’s the best!

LLOYD KAUFMAN

The first time I met Lloyd Kaufman, it was in his Troma Tower on Ninth Avenue in New York City.  It was before the premiere of my film PEP SQUAD at the Cannes Film Festival, where I would later get to know him better.

I first learned who Lloyd Kaufman was during the shooting of my first film PEP SQUAD.  My CalArts mentor and confidant Eric Sherman introduced me to the world of Troma.  Eric had been Lloyd’s college roommate at Yale, and spoke highly of him.  When I first saw the brochure for Troma movies and merchandise, I couldn’t believe what I was looking at.  I was getting my first taste of truly independent filmmaking, and I didn’t know what to make of it.  Was there a market for movies like this?  I had no idea how important and groundbreaking Lloyd’s empire was.

I agreed that Troma would announce my film at the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France in 1998.  My team (well, my father, sister, and best friend) flew to NYC to seal the deal.  We met at the Troma headquarters and I was overwhelmed.  It was reminiscent of what I imagined the New York Times reporting room to be like.  Desks of reporters lined wall to wall, and smoke rising to the ceilings while they banged on typewriters and answered rotary dial phones.  I can’t recall what it was really like, but that’s my romantic memory.

Lloyd has a mammoth energy.  It felt like I was meeting royalty.  And indeed, Lloyd remains, a King among men.  He sat behind his big leather desk.  I imagined Madonna and other celebrities, sitting where I was, seeing the same thing.  It was humbling.  And scary!  I would learn later that Madonna had, in fact, done just that, earlier in her career.

The deal was signed and stamped.  Soon we were in the south of France.  I joined Lloyd at the Carlton Hotel.  It was a massive white cream-frosting of a place, with armed guards to keep the uninvited out.  But we had official badges, so we were allowed inside the inner sanctum (lobby).  And then up to the rooms where all the Industry (Miramax, etc) rented out make-shift offices while in town.

The next day I joined Lloyd on a panel with Roger Corman.  E! Entertainment filmed it.  It was awesome.  Later I found out that my hometown hadn’t yet subscribed to E! so no one I knew saw me.  O, the travesty.

The two weeks flew by with a snap.  And then I was back home in Kansas and no idea what had happened or what was to happen next.

It came to me nearly half a decade later.  Lloyd Kaufman was indeed a King among us.  His empire and know-how became an inspiration to me.  What he has done to shape the TRULY independent film industry is nothing more than an extraordinary accomplishment.  And beyond.  What I love most of all: he did it on his own terms.  He followed his dreams, his plan, HIS inner spirit.  And he will always remain one of the most important and influential filmmakers of all time.

IT’S ALL WHO YOU KNOW

Everybody knows show business has less to do with talent and more to do with the connections you make and the ones you can use to your advantage.  However, when I suggest that it’s all about who you know, I mean—when it comes to life in general.  Who you know, and who you surround yourself with, will effect the quality of your life and your work.

If you surround yourself with people who are chaotic, angry, shallow and unpleasant, you will live a life that is chaotic, angry, shallow and unpleasant.  If you surround yourself with people who are centered, mature, and full of inspiration, you will live a life that is centered, mature, and full of inspiration.

After leaving CalArts, I surrounded myself with people who were very dramatic, very catty, and sometimes incredibly bitchy and shallow.  I also had friends who were centered, calm, and interested in visiting about the bigger picture.  I didn’t know it at the time, but what was happening was this: when I was around those creative artists, I too felt inspired to create.  And when I went out to dinner with the shallow and superficial person, I experienced the world as she saw it.  It was a miserable friendship and I didn’t even know it!

The great actor Michael Caine once said, when asked about the secret of his success and long career, he answered: “I have a policy.  I never listen to anyone explain why they can’t do something.  I don’t want to be convinced by them.”

It is true that other people’s beliefs and behaviors impact each of us.  How many people are in your life that drive you crazy?  Do you have people in your life that inspire you?  Who are they?  How often do you seek to be around people who enrich your life, instead of take away from it?

Sure, some troubled people might be “going through a phase.”  That’s fine.  But ask yourself: how does their “phase” influence you?  Is it better to remove yourself from their sphere, so you can live your life on YOUR terms, or is it better to live your life in theirs?  Sure, some troubled people are good people deep down, and with the help of therapy and deep introspection on their part, they might be able to grow out of it.  But, ask yourself: how many days and years of your life will you waste being swallowed up by their troubles?

It’s taken me years to figure this out, but now I have a great group of friends.  We support each other emotionally and inspire each other creatively.  There is no room in my life for the shallow, the superficial, or the melodrama created by people who are insecure, catty or generally troubled.  So when I come into contact with those types of people, I remember to get them out before it’s too late.

Why am I successful?  Why am I inspired to create?  Why am I stress free?  Why are my movie sets organized and calm?  Why is life and work full of joy and freedom?  Do you want the same kind of life?  If so, the secret is out: it’s all who you know.

WHAT I LEARNED IN FILM SCHOOL

When I’m asked to speak at a film festival, or to a class at a University, aspiring filmmakers and students always ask me what I learned in film school.  Is film school worth the expense or the trouble?  I always tell them it depends on their goals.

I attended California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), in Valencia, California from 1993 until sometime in 1996.  For me, there were things I liked, instructors who inspired me, and some courses that held my attention.  But, there were also bad teachers, poorly structured courses, and things about it that I felt were wastes of time and money.  Lots of money.

If you are considering film school and have specific questions for me, let me know.  I’m happy to help.

LIFE LESSONS

The most significant thing I learned at CalArts was about life in general.  How to function away from home, being on my own, meeting new people… and how to take responsibility for myself.  All colleges are different, but when it comes to learning life lessons, I think any of them will deliver a good dose.  But are those life lessons that can be learned outside of film school?  Most likely.

TALKING ABOUT IT VS. DOING IT

I learned more on the set of my first film than I had in all my years at CalArts.  I’d been making movies since I was a child, but for the first time on a real set, it all clicked and made sense in a totally different way than it had before.  At film school they didn’t prepare me for what it would be really like directing a feature.  Running the set, managing actors and crew, egos and more.  I learned about none of those things in film school.  Of course, I didn’t know that until I was out of school.

SCENE ANALYSIS

I learned how to break down a scene, draw overhead floor plans of the set, showing where the camera is, lights are, where the actors are…  Was that a beneficial course?  Sure.  But, you’ll get the same thing by reading articles in this blog about how to do it.  And it won’t cost you $20,000 a year.

MOTORCYCLES ARE OKAY

I learned that driving a motorcycle through the hallways was acceptable so long as no one got hurt.  One morning about 10 AM, a girl named Whitney (I forgot her last name, and have no idea what she was studying) put on a Versace dress (one from his bondage collection), poured some Godiva liquor into our coffees, hopped on a motorcycle (she drove, I hung on from behind), and we drove into Tatum (the CalArts coffee shop), then roared out into the main school hallways and drove around.  It was exhilarating.  When we were done riding around, we went back to the coffee shop and finished the liquor.

CLOTHING OPTIONAL

I learned there was a clothing optional rule at the dorm swimming pool.

SEX IS OKAY

On one of my first days at film school, on the way to my class, I noticed two people having sex in the hallway.  Instructors walked by, no one stopped them.  I wondered if I’d missed something in the brochure, so I asked my Dean about it.  He informed me that so long as you didn’t hurt anyone, you were free to do what you liked whilst at CalArts.  If you don’t like something you have the power to shut your eyes and turn or walk away.  That began a fascinating study into experimenting with all kinds of sexual activity.  I’d slept with both men and women before CalArts, but never with an entire group.  It was also pretty common knowledge that after every art opening (which was always complete with a bar of some sort) came a kind of bizarre orgy.

CHARACTER STUDY

One of our classes had a textbook called “Men, Women & Chainsaws.”  We studied gender in the modern horror film.  It was a great class.  But, again, you can buy the book on Amazon for a lot less than a semester’s tuition.

TECH STUFF

I learned that if you’re interested in becoming a cinematographer (or DP), you’re better off going to Art Center in Pasadena.  If you want to learn how to edit a movie, you might be better off attending a seminar on the subject for a few days.  Again, an entire semester may not be worth it.  Unless of course, you’re interested in experiencing these kinds of life lessons.