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INDIE FILMMAKING IN KANSAS
By Michael Truscello
On July 12, I attended the North American premiere of Firecracker
at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal. Directed by Steve Balderson,
Firecracker is a densely symbolic rendering of a true event, the
only murder in the history of Baldersons hometown, Wamego,
Interest in the film is building on two fronts: initial reviews
are strong, as they were for Baldersons first film, Pep Squad;
and two lead roles are occupied by avantgarde rocker Mike
Patton, formerly of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle, in his acting
debut. The cast also includes the ubiquitous Karen Black (Nashville,
Easy Rider), and Susan Traylor (To Die For, Valerie Flake). Mr.
Balderson discussed independent filmmaking and the cinematic quality
much of the Kansas we see in the film is the cinematic Kansas?
That is, the film foregrounds its basis in reality, but I would
say it feels like the depiction of Kansas is based more on a cinematic
rather than an actual referent.
Steve Balderson: Much
of Firecracker is Cinematic Kansas but Kansas, itself, is
really this cinematic. But it takes a secret eye to see it. When
one is growing up here, or passing through, its easy to not
see the beauty. Sometimes, especially for artists growing up in
this place, the landscapes we see are more often interpreted as
a prison separating us from the outside and rest of the world.
There is also a grittiness to Kansas. In Cold Blood is another Kansas
film that captures that starkness. There is both beauty and panic
in something stark. One person can look out at the continuous prairie
and feel calm, while other people might feel terror. Ive seen
people feel both.
Pamela Robertson once said The Wizard of Oz paradigmatically
enacts the road movies contradiction between the desire for
home and away. Firecracker seems to capture the same tension,
albeit in much starker contrasts. The sound of the train is forever
present, a reminder of things constantly leaving and arriving in
Wamego, or maybe just passing it by. More centrally, the contrast
between the carnival (which never stays) and the character
of Jimmy (who cannot leave) embodies this desire for
home and away. If one believes Sandras advice to Jimmy, one
need not leave in order to become an artist. Is this tension between
the artistic predilection to be mobile (the classic trope for avant
garde artists) and the sense of connection with the land, with place,
an autobiographical element of the film? Would you say this is an
artistic manifesto of sorts for you?
SB: Thank you for picking up
on the sounds of the train and its meaning. Youre the first
person to notice what I was going for there. The train is a symbol
of all that passes by Wamego. In addition, you will
notice upon a second viewing, the placement of the train and its
sounds are crucial. The sounds are there to remind Eleanor and Jimmy
of the crime they are trying to deny. Its as if the sounds
of the freedom and movement will always be a reminder to them of
their mistakes and their loss or loneliness. I do see the
contradiction in Firecracker between the desire for home and away.
Also, with the symbolic nature of the dikenga, explained on my website
in the mirror image essay, another aspect is the term
dichotomy. Home and safety (Wamego) are represented by geometrical
simplicity all right angles and triangles. Danger and evil
(the carnival) are invariably twisty, irregular and misshapen. The
world of Kansas, in Firecracker, is a great void, shaped with uncomplicated
shapes in black and white. The carnival is a separate sphere, free
and nomadic wherein the openness of Sandras great
escape and the vividness of the green, against her red cape,
become terrifying. On the mirror image page of the Firecracker
website I elaborate. Heres a direct link: www.dikenga.com/films/firecracker/mirror_image/index.htm.
Youll see many things in this essay that tell secrets of the
ECHO: I also
found it interesting in the Wamego documentary that even though
your production was free of the Hollywood system, it wasnt
like that freedom meant some kind of anarchic filmmaking. It really
seemed to mean being even more organized. Your father sounded like
I imagine a studio executive to sound (trying to curb costs wherever
possible, keeping people in line with their jobs, and so on), but
on a much smaller scale. What do you think are the central constraints
that are absent from an independent production like yours, but present
in a larger production?
SB: The constraints in making
an independent film centre more around money and the resources than
anything else. A small production has those constraints. Because
the big productions dont have those constraints, people are
never pressed into figuring out how to do something for less. They
arent forced to be creative. That leads to the narrowthinking
and bureaucratic thinking prevalent on bigbudget productions.Making
Firecracker was probably more organized than more expensive movies.
Weve always said there should be structure. In order to make
a movie look like a multimillion dollar film for a fraction
of the cost one must have structure. It must be organized. The trouble
with anarchy is that you dont achieve objectives. Our trouble
with Hollywood is that they impose a structure that is irrelevant
to the end result. Sometimes a favoured Hollywood process is simply
illogical for a small independent film. Sure, when one has $180
million to spend those processes dont dent the bank. But when
one is making a movie without an endless supply of cash, sometimes
certain ways of doing things just arent wise. For instance,
I had to do all the casting on Firecracker myself. We didnt
have tens of thousands of dollars to hire someone else to do it.
Same goes for building sets. I took a handson approach because
I love to work, and by doing so myself, we were able to save a lot
of money. By saving money in one area, we would have the freedom
to rent a helicopter, for instance.
America has received a good deal of attention since the 2004 Presidential
Election, much of the attention based on the cultural divide between
coastal states and the rest of America, and a sense that Middle
America gets ignored in the larger mediasphere that is America.
When Middle America is depicted in this larger mediasphere, it is
often a caricature of the reality (take, for example, the only remotely
rural Hollywood movie of the summer season: The Dukes
of Hazzard). Do you think places such as Kansas are untapped artistically,
especially cinematically? Is there a burgeoning scene in Middle
America of which we are not aware?
SB: I think there are many talented
artists that live in Middle America that are ignored or, worse,
succumb to pressure imposed by the coasts, and give up working.
At the same time there is a burgeoning scene here in the Midwest,
there arent a lot of people creating art that otherwise should
be. So much emphasis is placed on moving to the coasts, that people
actually believe that they cannot create art from anywhere else.
There is a discussion between Jimmy and Sandra where he says, Id
love to go away and make art, but my mom says I should stay here
and be a good person, or something to that effect. Ive
heard this repeatedly. The coastal cities tell us were nothing
unless we live by their expectations, and sometimes, we start to
believe them. That is the single biggest threat in my opinion. The
answer comes down to ones definition of success. Is it to
go to Hollywood parties, be known throughout town, sip Martinis
at the Chateau Marmont? Or is it to create a work of art and be
productive? Or is it to raise a family? There are some people who
I consult with who cannot grasp that I can be a successful filmmaker
and live in Wamego. I examine why they think this and it makes sense
to me. They are defining success in film with all of those things
I mentioned first, about fame. Somehow, media or the culture of
Hollywood, enables this thinking that if one is going to make films,
one must fit their particular definition. And because I am not at
the Chateau Marmont, I am not successful. Even though Im making
films and achieving my own personal objectives. As long as mainstream
culture defines success by measuring the wrong elements, there will
be many artists ignored and not acknowledged.
Weekly - 2005
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