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

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.

HOLLYWOOD APPLE TURNOVER

I’m not speaking of the traditional apple turnovers, which are tender and flaky, with apple pie-like filling and a thin, white glaze.  Nor am I speaking about Gwenyth’s daughter.  I’m speaking of the kinds that are just a bit flaky and work as executives at movie studios in Hollywood.

When I began my film career in the 90s, I met a slew of awesome people who had great jobs with MGM, Miramax, and so forth.  After Harvey Weinstein called me personally to express his interest in my film PEP SQUAD, I became friends with his assistant.  Or, rather, his assistant du jour.  That person was quickly replaced by another assistant, who, shortly after being hired, developed a crush on me.  It was kind of bizarre.  Of course I never met the guy in real life, but to be funny, I sent him an 8×10 glossy of my face as a joke.  He hung it up on the wall by his desk.  And each time I called to visit with Harvey, the assistant thought I was calling to visit with him, not Harvey.  It all became very confusing.  But, just as soon as he was developing some long-distance feelings for me, he was axed as well.  So in came another assistant.  By that point I’d sold my movie to another distributor and I didn’t think Harvey would appreciate me continuing to bother him, so I stopped calling.  I’m not sure who his next assistant was.

My mentor Eric Sherman always suggested it was a really good idea to network and make friends with executives at certain companies because at some point they might be able to help me get a movie made, or whatever.

Besides Harvey Weinstein’s assistant, I met some great people who were VP’s of production, directors of acquisitions, and other higher-ups that, one would think, would be relatively great connections.

One incredible woman, Sara Rose, was an inspiration to me.  After seeing my film at the Cannes Film Market, she came up to me afterwards to introduce herself.  Any time I was in LA I would stop by and see her at MGM.  She always took my meetings and was always a delight to visit with.  She then became VP of Production at MGM and we spoke many times about making my film FIRECRACKER together.  That didn’t happen, but we kept in touch and I always looked forward to working with her in the future.

While I was on track to develop these relationships (some of the people were awesome, like Sara Rose, but some of the other ones were the flaky kind and not so cool), a strange thing kept happening.  They kept losing their jobs.

Some executives moved to other companies on their own free will, some were moved into different jobs within the same company (but not a job that had anything to do with why I was talking to them), and then there were some were fired and were never seen or heard from again.

After several years it became clear to me that most movie executives can’t keep a job for more than about two years.  This Turnover Syndrome is a bizarre fact about the movie business.  Even Penny Marshall mentioned this phenomenon in her memoirs.  If there is someone working with you on your movie when you start the process, they won’t be working at the studio when you finish the movie.  Just as simple as that.

My question is: WHY?  Why can’t most movie executives keep a job for more than a couple years?

Mark your calendars: BLOG START

On Wednesday, 14 November, I will post the first of many articles about lessons I’ve learned and my experiences during the past 15 years of making and selling films globally.

This blog will be a detailed look at my style of filmmaking.  As a believer that there are nearly 7 billion people in the world with 7 billion different perspectives, far be it for me to proclaim that this is THE style of ALL low-budget filmmaking.  I’m relatively certain that other filmmakers exist in the world today and have developed their own methodologies for bringing their visual works to fruition.

There are two pioneers in this world of ultra-independent filmmaking that I want to call out.  First is John Cassevetes.  The other is Stan Brakhage.  I bring them up, not to pretend to be in their league, but to simply show the reader that from the earliest periods of film, there have been mavericks – independent and strong-willed individuals with a story to tell, who have refused to follow the rules as they existed at the time.

John Cassevetes worked in a world of classic cinema.  He was a well-respected actor who was sought after for traditional films.  And yet there was another side that embraced “doing things differently.”  When I met Gena Rowlands (Mrs. John Cassevetes) at the Stockholm International Film Festival in 1998, where she was receiving an outstanding achievement in film award, I was struck by her comments about working in that independent environment.  There was a devotion to the art and a devotion to the craft, and neither had to be compromised to reach the final outcome.

I never had the privilege of meeting or knowing Stan Brakhage.  Ironically, he was a Kansan, as am I.  And my earliest mentor, Eric Sherman, was a dear friend of his.  I learned about Stan through Eric, and became intrigued by his work.  Here was a man who explored the world of film without even subscribing to the notion that there had to be a narrative.  It was an exploration of the visual sense – a journey into the brain as wired directly by the optic nerve.  Though I remain a committed narrative storyteller, I have been influenced greatly by Brakhage, and have tried to find my own way of using color and visuals to provoke the viewer’s response.

What is the point of mentioning these two greats?  It is simply this:  no matter where we are, or what we have done, others have gone before us.  We can derive much wisdom from their journey, and their experiences can have a positive impact upon our own journey.  No, we cannot simply make their journey again.  That is the ultimate problem with Hollywood – it can only emulate, copy and reproduce.  Originality is lost.  What we can do is be inspired and encouraged by those who have gone before.

In and of itself, the above is not enough reason to put this blog together.  When I embarked on my filmmaking odyssey in 1996, I was a recent Cal Arts dropout.  I had been obsessive about filmmaking from the time that I talked by grandfather out of his Betamax video camera when I was 8.  I wanted to make films.  Cal Arts was the right place to be if I wanted to be independent, but it was not the place to be if I wanted to dive in and experiment with narrative, live action filmmaking.  Being a stubborn, 20 year old first born, I simply quit and said to my dad, “I’m ready to make a real film.”  He simply said, “If we can do this in a business like manner, then yes, I will help.”

What has followed, since Pep Squad was filmed in 1997, has been a series of lessons and experiences that have resulted in my approach to filmmaking.  Each new project – and there have been 11 of them – has taught me valuable lessons about what to do next time, and what not to do ever again!  It is my hope that sharing all this with you, the reader, will be of benefit to you as you move down your filmmaking journey.

Good luck!