Shaun Peterson has been making films since elementary school. An established music video director, Shaun stepped into the world of no-budget feature filmmaking with his film “Living in Missouri” and hasn’t looked back since. Film Threat’s Mark Bell had the opportunity to talk to Shaun about his early filmmaking days, “Living in Missouri,” and the film’s special edition DVD release.
Bring us up to speed on Shaun Peterson, the quick history.
I was born in Kansas City, Missouri and grew up in both KC and in the small town rural areas outside of St. Louis (Wentzville, MO). I was a highly imaginative child. I spent most of my boyhood in the basement inside of a cardboard box pretending to be Luke Skywalker. I was very political in high school: I was student body president, voted Most Likely to Succeed and was one of 2 kids chosen from Missouri to meet with President Bush at Boys Nation. But what I always wanted to do was make movies. After graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz with a film and theater degree (where I became a tree hugging vegetarian) I moved to Los Angeles to sell out. After editing at MTV for a year, Connor sent me the script for “Living In Missouri.” I gathered up a bunch of friends from college, and headed for my home state. After “Living In Missouri,” I directed the music video “Calling All Angels,” for the band Train, which was #1 on the VH-1 Countdown. I currently live in Venice, CA and still direct music videos and edit documentaries. I have several Midwestern based projects in development with Connor Ratliff.
You say you always wanted to be a filmmaker. What really set you down that path?
When I was 3, I saw “Stars Wars.” There was never a doubt in my mind what I wanted to do from that day forward. I even sent away for USC’s grad school catalog in 7th grade, because that’s were Lucas had gone. As time went by, I gravitated towards more independent and gritty cinema, but my initial interest was in the sci-fi popcorn movies of the late 70s.
What kind of films were you making back then?
I produced and directed a trilogy of films in Junior High and High School called “The Adventures of Shane Jones“ with my friend Scott Nenninger. The second film, “The Unknown Slasher,” features Grandpa Jones (played by yours truly) who was a chainsaw wielding homicidal maniac. My production company today (grandpa jones productions) is an homage to my humble beginnings. All three films were 30 minutes each, and were based on a kid we knew in school that moved to another town named Shane Jones, played by Ryan McMillan in our movies. The villains in all of our films were caricatures of our teachers, who of course were played by friends of mine from the school theater department. We shot everything on VHS. Our High School Football couch and Health teacher loved “The Unknown Slasher,” (even though it was outrageously gory) and he showed it in all of his classes. 10th grade Health class at Wentzville High School was my first public screening.
Now to the present, tell me about “Living in Missouri.”
Well, Connor Ratliff (the writer) and I are dear friends, and we have very similar tastes in films. We’ve been friends since high school, and we both grew up in smaller communities in the Midwest. I think we both wanted to make a film set in the Midwest that was about Midwesterners, and portrayed them accurately. So many films set in the Midwest create these hilly Billy-like caricatures of Middle Americans. We also set out to make an anti-Slacker film…a film about the listless, lost, and depressed condition of Gen-Xers, but in a more realistic manner. I think “Living In Missouri” is funny and touching and dramatic, but it’s not hip. There are no hipsters in our movie sitting in a coffee shop wittily bantering and making nuanced pop cultural references. It’s about corporate influences, gluttony, neglect, depression, the fixation on the Entertainment Industrial Complex, being trapped in one’s childhood, cynicism of marriage, growing up and facing reality. And frankly, I wanted to make a movie that in one turn makes you laugh, and just when I get you laughing, I spin around and sucker punch you with an intense moment of drama. I am a big fan of filmmakers like Todd Solondz, Lars von Trier, and Thomas Vinterberg who are experts at this.
What’d you shoot on?
We shot mini-dv. “The Celebration” had just come out, and I was very inspired by a film that could be distributed internationally that was shot on a consumer camera. So, we chose DV for budgetary reasons, but aesthetically, after seeing “The Celebration,” the deal was sealed.
What was the budget?
We shot the film for $7,500 bucks. It was a 25 days shoot, and it took almost a year to edit on a very unstable Final Cut Version 1.2. We spent some additional funds in post.
Any horror stories?
We hired a professional film consultant to look at the rough cut. He tells us not to waste another minute, or another dime, on this film. My favorite quote is: “It’s not a bad film. It’s a good film. But it is impossible to watch.” I still think we should put this on the poster. His basic point is that the film is simply too depressing, and that the character of Ryan is too unlikable for any audience to tolerate.
That had to be upsetting.
In truth, there was a great deal of overlap between his notes and the problems we had been discussing amongst ourselves, and the film was improving with each new edit.
How’d the festival run go?
We got accepted into the Austin Film Festival. It was a particularly satisfying victory, because the emphasis of the AFF is on screenwriting, and Competition Film Programmer Courtney Davis cited the film as one of her favorites of the festival. Within the same week, we were accepted into two other festivals, all of which took place over a period of 7 days in October. We won awards in Oregon and Seattle, but were rejected, oddly enough, from the St. Louis Film Festival, which would have been our home state Premiere.
Now you’ve got a special edition DVD coming out. How was the hunt for distribution?
We met with everyone…Miramax, Sony Classics, Lot 47, Filmmovement, and they all pretty much said the same thing: “If you had Phil Hoffman in your film, than we’d buy it in a second. But since you have no stars, and since it’s not a genre picture, we couldn’t market your film.” FT DVD is really the only place in America for truly independent films to go. It’s a Godsend for movies like “Living In Missouri.”
How’d you get involved with Film Threat DVD?
I had my DVD and sleeve cover art at a replicator ready to burn off 1000 DVDs. We were going to DIY distribute the film on our website. I suddenly remembered that Film Threat was distributing films and I called the replicator to hold the presses. Two days later we got the thumbs up from FT DVD and we couldn’t have been more thrilled.
What’s in the future for Shaun Peterson?
I am directing a music video for the SubPop Records band Low called “California.” Connor and I wrote a screenplay called “Greenwood County,” loosely based on my cousins in southern Kansas. It has been optioned and is currently in pre-production. We also have several other television and film projects in the works.
“Living in Missouri” is available for sale now at the Film Threat Shop.