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Steve Balderson

Making Movies Anywhere

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By: Pat Sierchio

Photos: provided by Steve Balderson

+ Oct 18, 2006 at 1:33am

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Steve Balderson, a Kansas born and bred film director, produced all of his critically acclaimed films in his own backyard. Sheltered from the land of abounding budgets, massive crews and bloated egos, Balderson opts for a more intimate atmosphere in which to create his films. His productions are very much a family affair, with his father Clark serving as producer, his sister Brooke and his brother Scott contributing to his productions, both in front of and behind the camera. There are few professional outsiders hired, out of necessity to fill key positions on the crew.

"You don't have to live in L.A. to make a movie," declared Balderson's father, Clark Balderson, in the film WAMEGO: A DOCUMENTARY Making Movies Anywhere. That declaration not only refers to location but to a state of mind and manner towards the craft of movie-making. The 30 year old filmmaker has proven his father's point three times so far, with his home grown features: Pep Squad (1998), WAMEGO (2004) and Firecracker (2004).

His first feature, Pep Squad, a dark comedy about high school socialisms and the deadly violence that preceded Columbine, won the 2000 B-Movie Festival award for Best Screenplay. His documentary WAMEGO, which chronicles the production process of Firecracker, won awards at the 2004 Kan Film Festival and the 2005 Fox Film Festival. Firecracker, which won high praise from film critic Roger Ebert and multiple Vision Fest Awards, garnered an International Fantasy Film Best Actress Award for leading lady, Karen Black, who compares Balderson's playful on-set directing style to that of Alfred Hitchcock's. Black worked with the Master of Suspense on his final feature, Family Plot.

Aside from Karen Black and actress Susan Traylor, the cast is made up of unknowns and musicians. Go-Go Jane Wiedlin and Mike Patton, formerly of the band Faith No More and more recently Peeping Tom, are amongst the group. Originally, Balderson sought out prominent actors for his projects. Madonna, Jodie Foster, Sissy Spacek and Dennis Hopper have been involved in his past efforts. Ed Furlong was also thrown into the mix for a while by a would-be co-producer who wanted to buy Balderson's script and turn the film over to director Gus Van Zandt. But Balderson, who views himself foremost as a director not a writer, felt it was more important that he hold onto the project and remain true to his vision than to turn it over to a "name" director or pump it up with celebrity names.

"The trick," Balderson says, "was to deprogram the people from L.A. into thinking differently about how to make a movie...with my family, in this town, under our circumstances."

In lieu of a Hollywood-machine style production team, Balderson discovered that it takes a village to raise a film. In this case that village is Wamego, Kansas, where many of the townspeople have become an extended family, taking part in the creation of sets and scenery as well as working in production as actors and background extras.

Associates describe Balderson as "a filmmaker with a clear vision of what he wants his film to be." It is that clarity that allows Balderson to maintain a confident and relaxed approach to his directing style.

Just before taking a trip to Europe, to promote his film, Balderson answered a few questions for Aesthetic Refuge that give further insight to his background and the creative methods of making films on the Midwest prairie, far from the hills of Hollywood.

Pat Sierchio: How did you get started in the film business?

Steve Balderson: I picked up my grandfather's video camera when I was about five years old. I started making movies with friends and never stopped. I only started to take the craft seriously when I graduated high school.

What valuable filmmaking lessons did you learn at the California Institute of the Arts?

I went to Cal Arts 1993-96. In my last year, I realized there was a thing called a "mid-residency review" that is given to everyone after his or her second year. I never had one. So, I asked my Dean why I never had one. He said Master's students don't get them. Then, I informed him I was an undergrad. He seemed surprised and told me I'd been evaluated as a Masters student since I got there, and then asked me to do independent study with him directly. I learned a great deal more than the average student by having direct one on one "classes" with my Dean. I'd go in one week and he'd give me a Hitchcock film to dissect. I'd go dissect it and the following week would return with a presentation. We'd discuss it, and then he'd give me another film. And this continued until I was ready to leave. I left in my last semester without graduating because I'd had enough with "talking" about making movies and was ready to finally "do" it.

On Pep Squad you were practically a one-man crew. Was this out of necessity or a desire to control as much of the production as possible?

Totally to control as much as possible. We actually had a bit more money in our budget for Pep Squad than we did for Firecracker. On Firecracker it was also for control, but because we had limited funds, I had to be creative in finding ways to achieve the same results for next to nothing. Like building an entire carnival sideshow, complete with authentic, moveable Gypsy Wagons.

What films or filmmakers most influence your visual style?

Hitchcock, John Huston, and Fritz Lang. My favorite

films of all time are The Night of the Iguana and The Fountainhead."

Would you say those directors influence your story-telling technique, as well?

I don't let myself get influenced in regard to storytelling techniques. I know there are only a few forms known to man. So my job is to apply my perspective to it and tell it honestly from where I see it, without care of how other people see it. That's the difference with people making movies as art, or as a commercial product. I like both, don't get me wrong. But on Firecracker, I was more interested in the art of the project. If people don't appreciate it while I'm alive, I don't care. I know what I made. And, apparently, so did Roger Ebert. That's enough for me. After having been named on Ebert's list of the year's best films, and reading his review of my work, I knew I never again had to be bothered by critics or the public as long as I live. That's the greatest lesson in The Fountainhead, and one of the hardest to live by. [Note: The Fountainhead, is a film based on Ayn Rand's novel about a visionary architect who refuses to compromise his work.]

For Firecracker you cast several people connected to the music scene. (Mike Patton, Jane Wiedlin, Pleasant Gehman). How do you go about casting your films in general?

In the past I've chosen to tell stories using auditory functions rather than visual. But make no mistake - I'm a visual storyteller. I pick musicians a lot of the time because they're friends of mine. So my film sets are usually more like summer camp than a boring and typical working environment. I cast my movies without using agents and managers. I usually base my decisions on who fits the part and how will they interact with the other actors. Margaret Cho and Mink Stole are in my next film, which

I'm casting now. And when I cast them I said, 'I want Mink Stole and Margaret to be in this.' Then I just figured out how to get to them. We have mutual friends, so I just begged everyone to introduce us.

How do you market yourself in such a crowded and competitive field?

SB: By remaining true to myself and never trying to be like everyone else or fitting in. I think if anyone just does the thing they feel fits them the best, they'll succeed. Only when people start comparing themselves to other people will they fail. When it was time for Firecracker to be released in theatres, I could've picked a company that would've released it in three cities for a run of two weeks. Or, I could've released it myself in 10 cities in the first ever "Freak Show Tour" managed by Landmark Cinemas - the nations largest art house chain. I picked the latter.

How difficult was it to find distribution for your films?

It's always a challenge. Sometimes buyers send complete idiots to screenings and there's nothing you can do about it. But all the idiots do is waste time - they don't prevent you from getting your movie out there. At the end of the day the movie gets out somehow. And, really, it doesn't matter as long as it does.

I read somewhere that you are clairvoyant. If true, does that influence your filmmaking in any way?

I think we all have the power to never edit ourselves and to use instinct and energy. Most people get scared or limit themselves so they cannot harness the energy. I'd say it influences everything I do. Whether filmmaking, landscaping, laughing, crying, or just, well--living.

And, finally, where would you like to be in five years?

Five years from today's date? Somewhere in northern Europe. Business-class.

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