Film is probably the most frustrating and heartbreaking art form to be involved in. A musician can always find a place to play. He may play in front of 10 people, but he’ll play. A writer can always self-publish a few hundred copies of his book and give them away to libraries. He may not get read by millions, but he’ll get read. A painter has countless venues in which to sell his stuff. So eventually, all his canvasses will hang on someone’s wall. It’s not easy, but you have options. If you really work at it, aren’t afraid to lose money, and have a minimum of talent, you’ll achieve some sort of recognition eventually. It may not be superfame, but your hard work won’t be for naught.
But being a filmmaker? Hell, pure hell. It’s all tension and no release. It’s all planning and struggling and hoping with only a tiny chance for a payoff to all that work. I don’t know how some of these guys do it without having nervous breakdowns. It’s entirely possible to plan a movie for years and never see it happen; and even if you DO make the thing, it might never come out. Or worse, get a token crap release and just die in some dark corner like an old dog. None of this is helped by the fact that it’s so freakin’ expensive to make a movie if you do it the way you’re “supposed” to; a paradox when you consider that in this digital age it’s now possible to buy basically every single tool that you need to make a low budget film for the price of a new Toyota Camry.
“Wamego Strikes Back” is both a documentary on the oft ignored world of indie film distribution and a pep talk to like minded filmmakers who feel strangled in the age of the bloated Hollywood monopoly, gazillion dollar budgets, shoddy distributors and even shoddier financiers. It chronicles the efforts of Steve Balderson, writer and director of the excellent Firecracker, as he tries to get that film out to the public and acquire financing for his next project Wilbert Brummett, going so far as personally making dinner for prospective investors. Along the way we meet his family (who are definitely inspirations for his work), talk to people he’s worked with and get their views on why less mainstream fare is ignored by Hollywood in favor of “sure things” that cost much more and who often make less money than the least accessible movie by David Lynch. We also see the genesis for the straight to DVD “Phone Sex” that Balderson made in between projects, a fascinating movie that’s more of an experience akin to going down into the monolith with Dave at the end of 2001 than a film.
It’s a fun ride and Balderson knows how to string together a fast paced and interesting doc. Besides, no film on this planet can ever be boring when it includes footage of Lily Tomlin and David O. Russell losing their s**t on the set of I heart Huckabees. A movie, which, interestingly enough made no money and is a HELL of a lot less mainstream or accessible than anything Balderson’s done.
Not a traditional Makin of… That would be this documentary’s prequel/sister work: “Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere” which was about the filming of “Firecracker.” Instead, “Strikes Back” starts where most Making of’s end; with the selling and promotion of the movie; a crucial process in the production of a feature whose importance is rarely discussed in documentaries.
“Wamego Strikes Back” makes you feel as if you’re right there with Balderson as he hustles his work and muses on the philosophy of making films without going the traditional route, always showing a love and enthusiasm for what he does without being unrealistic or making it sound easy. Interviews with his father Clark and author Eric Sherman gives us further insight on the hard truths of trying to sell your movie in the old boy’s network now in place.
The thing that stayed with me the most after seeing “WSB” is just how well Balderson would fit in the very same Hollywood that seems to shun him. He’s artistic, but he also understands that film is a business and has no illusions about his particular tastes being for everyone. Unlike a lot of filmmakers who squander money on movies that are almost sure to fail, Balderson comes off as a level-headed realist who has deep artistic aspirations but who never forgets that you need to budget what you film while keeping in mind the size of the audience you’re aiming for. It’s a damn shame that no one seems to have paid serious attention to the kid from Kansas, because guys like him who understand both art and finance the way he does don’t fall out of trees.