Monday, 5 May 2014

Wamego Strikes Back

Producer: Steve Balderson
Cast: Steve Balderson, Clark Balderson, Eric Sherman
Country: USA
Year of release: 2007
Reviewed from: screener DVD

Wamego Strikes Back starts with the Star Wars theme music (not the original version, obviously) and a text crawl that spoofs the opening of each of the Star Wars films. It’s a little affectation which we can allow Steve Balderson before he plunges headlong into the sequel to his earlier Making Of feature on Firecracker, his second feature film proper.

And just think for a moment how odd this is: a sequel to a documentary. Who has ever heard of a documentary having a sequel? Who has ever heard of a movie having two feature length documentaries made about it, each of which is released on a separate DVD? But then, young Mr Balderson is not someone who does things ‘the normal way’. Tucked away in a corner of Kansas, he is about as independent as independent film-makers get.

Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere told the story of how Firecracker was conceived, cast and produced. Wamego Strikes Back picks up the story with the film’s world premiere at Raindance in London and tells of how it was distributed - or not, as the case may be. Making movies, as anyone who dips a toe into this ridiculous industry rapidly discovers, is only half the battle. Once you’ve made a film, you’ve got to find a way for people to see it. Sure, you can send it to film festivals, but only a very small percentage of the movie-going population ever attend a film festival and to some extent every festival acts primarily as a shop window for (a) distributors and (b) other film festivals.

So for eighty minutes we watch Steve and his producer/father Clark struggle with distributors, seeing the film that they slaved over turned down again and again for increasingly ridiculous reasons which all basically translate as: “Though we like to think we’re edgy and independent, in actual fact we are as conservative as the Townswomen’s Guild’s cake-and-jam stall at a village fete and we dare not touch anything that doesn’t look like everything else that we and our sheeplike competitors are buying at the moment.”

It’s not like Firecracker doesn’t come with a seal of approval. Roger Ebert no less praised it to the skies in one of the best-written film reviews I’ve ever read. It picked up a truckload of nominations and awards at festivals around the world. But no, no-one wanted to distribute it. And you know, you can make your own movie in Kansas but if you want people to see it, you’ve got to work with the Hollywood system. They control the horizontal and the vertical. There is no alternative.

Bollocks to that said Steve (or would have done, had he been making films in Market Drasen instead of Wamego). Inspired by the travelling carnival in the movie, he took a 35mm print of Firecracker out on a roadshow tour of the USA, proving that there is a way to let people see your work. Suddenly, distributors came sniffing but as we see in a series of scenes featuring an increasingly exasperated Clark, Hollywood is just naturally structured to screw the little man. So huge corporations for whom anything under a million dollars is small change are months late in making payments of fifty or sixty thousand dollars.

While Clark struggles with the financial chicanery surrounding Firecracker, Steve tries to drum up investment for his putative third feature, Wilbert Brummett, a character ensemble piece loosely based on his own family. By the end of this movie, Wilbert Brummett is consigned to a shelf as Steve realises he can’t just make one film every six or seven years. Instead, he sits at his desk and makes his offbeat documentary/installation Phone Sex for pretty much nothing at all (as he points out, he didn’t even have to pay for long distance phone calls because people were calling him).

On this basis he decides that he can go completely outside ‘the system’, making the films that he wants, when and where he wants, rather than slaving for years to make one specific film. That doesn’t in any way take away from the extraordinary achievement that is Firecracker (or indeed Pep Squad) but Steve wants to move on and explore new avenues - and well he should.

Although similar in presentation to the first film, Wamego Strikes Back suffers slightly from having a less visually interesting topic. Making a film involves building things and painting things and cameras and actors and sets and extras and props and, you know, stuff that’s interesting to watch and look at. Distributing a movie involves endless meetings (where a video camera can’t go) and phone conversations or even e-mails. There is a head-bangingly bizarre moment when Clark reads out an e-mail exchange wherein both the sales rep trying to sell Firecracker and the person he thinks might buy it consistently refer to the film as Fireworks.

You might think: how can someone sell a product that they don’t even know what it’s called? But frankly, the title is the last thing that any distributor worries about. We saw that with Pep Squad which was released in the UK as I’ve Been Watching You 2, an ersatz ‘sequel’ to high school vampire thriller I’ve Been Watching You which was itself a retitling of David DeCoteau’s The Brotherhood!

Among the talking heads and other footage, Wamego Strikes Back repeatedly cuts to a fellow named Eric Sherman who, according to his website, is an ‘author and film industry consultant’ (and whose father Vincent directed The Return of Dr Rx!). I can see why Steve gets on with Sherman because he comes across as a no-bullshit guy and there aren’t many of them in Hollywood.

According to Sherman there are 500 people in the American film industry calling themselves sales reps or producer’s reps; in other words, their role is to connect film-makers with distributors. Sherman says he has met and spoken with every single one and that there are only fifteen who won’t charge an upfront fee. Like any reputable agent, those fifteen make their money by taking a percentage of the deals that they broker. The other 485 have to be paid in advance with absolutely no guarantee whatsoever that they will achieve anything - or even try to do anything. That’s like paying a builder a wad of cash just to come to your house and give you a quote on a new kitchen. It’s bizarre.

How can the market survive like that? Why doesn’t everyone use the fifteen honorable reps? I would imagine that, because of how they work, they can pick and choose the very best films to represent. After all, they can only have so many titles on their books at any one time. So every other film, even if it’s an award-winner, has to go through one of the 485 shysters. Okay, so why doesn’t any one of those shysters think: “If I took a percentage instead of charging an upfront fee, I too could have my pick of the best films”?

Because they don’t need to, that’s why. People bring them films and pay them money, people who have worked their guts out on a movie and are desperate to get it distributed, so there is no need for those 485 reps to adjust their business model. The whole thing is extraordinary.

There are lots of Making Of documentaries but Wamego Strikes Back could very well be the world’s first Distributing Of documentary. It’s a story rarely told and a salutary lesson for all would-be film-makers. It features loud aunts, Kansans getting lost in London and cheekily appropriated YouTube clips of Lily Tomlin screaming obscenities on the set of I Heart Huckabees. Throughout it all is an overwhelming sense of ruthless honesty. Because Steve is ploughing his own furrow, determined not to battle through this nonsense again, he has no qualms about naming names; not individuals but the companies he is dealing with, the ones who pay his father sixty thousand dollars four months late.

There is nothing coy here, nothing diplomatic. Steve and Clark are dealing with people and companies who are either idiots or bastards or both and the men from Kansas call it like they see it. In that sense, this is an even more interesting, important and essential film than its predecessor.

So why is it curiously unsatisfying? What is it about Wamego Strikes Back that is just slightly off, that prevents it from coalescing into a robust and substantial whole?

About five minutes from the end of this film, a thought struck me, one of those moments of critical clarity that just comes along occasionally. I realised that Wamego Strikes Back doesn’t just ape the title and opening of The Empire Strikes Back, this film actually is The Empire Strikes Back. I don’t mean it has Taun-Tauns and Wompas and AT-ATs and the like. I mean that the big problem with this movie is exactly the same big problem that Empire has and since Empire is a magnificent cinematic achievement, its triumphs rendering its big problem irrelevant, we can likewise simply and safely ignore that problem when it arises in the North East corner of Kansas.

Let me explain. Most Star Wars fans will tell you that The Empire Strikes Back is the best film in the series, although I personally prefer the first one. True, Empire has terrific action sequences, wonderful special effects, breathtaking art direction, a thrilling, entertaining and literate script and more characterisation than the other two (in fact, five) Star Wars films put together. But it does not have a conventional cinematic structure.

Empire’s big problem is that, although it has three acts - a beginning, a middle and an end - they are not in the right order. Think about it: the movie starts with the battle for Hoth, pitching us right into a massive, climactic battle scene, full of action and heroics. That should be at the end of the film. The middle bit is people doing stuff - character and plot development - which is all well and good. And then the film ends when our various main characters split up to undertake their individual quests in the pursuit of a common goal. That should be at the start.

The Empire Strikes Back is a wonderful film but it is back-to-front, it’s arse-about-face, the hero’s journey is travelled in reverse gear. Whereas the original Star Wars has its beginning, middle and end in the correct order and so is - for me - more satisfying.

And so it is with the Wamego duology.

Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere tells a story from start to finish. It has a conventional beginning, middle and end in its reasonably linear documentation of development, pre-production and production. It starts with ambition and culminates in achievement. It goes forwards. But Wamego Strikes Back, which I at first found almost random and disjointed, actually plays in reverse. It opens with a triumphant world premiere, which one would expect to find at the climax of a film-making narrative. Then there’s a bunch of people doing stuff (or in the case of producer’s reps, getting paid for not doing stuff) and the film finishes with our hero Steve deciding on what he wants to do and how he wants to do it, which in a classical narrative would be our first act.

Just like its sci-fi namesake, Wamego Strikes Back has a beginning, a middle and an end - but not necessarily in the right order.

But you know what? That didn’t matter with Empire and it doesn’t matter here. I’m going to knock a grade off this film for its structural problems and then stick it right back on again because that’s not the point. The point is to watch, in sometimes painful detail, quite how hellish life can be for an independent film-maker.

However, as Clark points out, in a few years digital downloading will be the norm and film-makers will be able to distribute their wares in the same way that musicians can now. And then Hollywood had better watch out because their tentative hold on Steve Balderson and his kind will be lost forever.

(Oh, and one more thing. Does Steve Balderson only have one shirt? He wears the same blue check shirt in almost every scene throughout the combined three-hour running time of these two films, which together document nine years of his life. For God’s sake, buy the man’s DVDs so he can afford some new clothes.)

MJS rating: A-

[And two years later, Steve was back with... Wamego: Ultimatum - MJS]

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