Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Saberfrog Road Trip-Final Report

So this was it. It was time to re-enact the fictional road trip depicted in the movie.

On a Saturday afternoon, I left Rochester to drive to Hartford, Connecticut, the starting point for my road trip. The drive was beautiful, and it always feels good to get away from home and hit the open road.

I had wanted Josh, the main character in Saberfrog, to be living in a fairly middle-class and corporate area before he goes on his quest to find himself. After some research I decided to pick Hartford, Connecticut as the city from which his journey begins.

When it came time to research venues, however, I discovered that Hartford actually had more of an art scene than I expected. Real Art Ways was an art gallery / movie theater that seemed like an ideal choice, but I ended up going with the more economical choice of The Outer Space, a smaller venue in nearby Hamden. However, I decided I would pay a visit to Real Art Ways while I was in the area.

There I watched a documentary called Reality is Embarrassing, about an impish artist best known as a puppeteer on Pee-Wee's Playhouse. It seemed fitting to see that film, since I was making a documentary – or at least a video diary – of my own as part of the trip. Before leaving Real Art Ways, I was able to record my first interview. I happened to be there on the projectionist's last day working there before taking another job near Boston, and he was an aspiring filmmaker himself. This was a ridiculous stroke of good luck, and he proved to be a great interview subject.

While I had been very determined to book a showing in Baltimore, I had been unable to find a venue that was both affordable and available in the time frame I was looking for. But for the sake of my trip, I wanted to visit the city anyway.

In the film, Baltimore is where Josh's friend Terrance has made a new life for himself. My prior knowledge of Baltimore was pretty much limited to its status as John Waters' hometown, and in real life I found the city agreeable funky.

Again I went to a movie at a venue I'd considered – this time it was The Charles Theatre, and I decided to go see Liberal Arts, a comedy-drama about a thirtysomething trying to reconnect with his own college-age optimism. Despite its quasi-pretentious title, I'd read a couple interesting reviews that made me decide I should check it out, and I'm glad I did. The film touched on a number of the same themes as Saberfrog, and though reviews have apparently been mixed, I found that the film spoke to me deeply. In an age of so much bitterness and sarcasm, here was a movie which showed people still yearning for beauty and meaning, while struggling to come to terms with the past and moving forward with their lives. I loved it.

I'm not sure Liberal Arts ever opened in Rochester, so seeing it at The Charles would have been enough to make the trip to Baltimore worthwhile. But as luck would have it, Creative Alliance at the Patterson (another venue I'd investigated) was holding an open screening the very evening that I was in town. And I just happened to be carrying with me a DVD of the Saberfrog trailer and two short promos of myself and John Karyus, a DVD which I'd prepared for my presentation to the Buffalo Movie-Video Makers group some weeks earlier.

So in a limited sense, I did get to have a Baltimore screening after all. My videos were well-received, and one of the audience members turned out to be a friend of Rochester-area filmmaker Chris Seaver, and recognized Karyus from his roles in Seaver's films.

I also got to record two more interviews, one with a filmmaker working on a documentary about an irreverent priest that he admired, and one with a woman who worked at the Patterson as a bartender but was also a singer in an R&B band.

In each city that I visited, I tried to investigate the local arts scene as much as I could in the time that I had. When I originally wrote the script, I knew very little about Pittsburgh and really only associated it with George Romero zombie films, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover what a thriving arts scene it seemed to have. The Pittsburgh portion of the movie was filmed in Buffalo, at a club called The Shadow Lounge, and I was amused to discover that the real Pittsburgh also has a place called The Shadow Lounge!

Saberfrog was booked at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which is an awesome place – by Rochester/Buffalo standards, it's like Visual Studies Workshop, Squeaky Wheel and the Little Theatre all rolled into one. The venue houses a cafe as well as a screening room, and offers filmmaking classes, equipment rentals, and screenings of classic movies.

While in Pittsburgh, I tried to go to the Toonseum, which seemed to be a museum devoted to cartoons and/or animation. I never actually got to go the Toonseum, unfortunately – I couldn't find a decent parking space anywhere near it – but along the way I got to see the gorgeous architecture in downtown Pittsburgh.

This would prove to be something of a theme during my trip – not completely succeeding at my original mission, but having positive experiences along the way that I would never have had if I hadn't made the attempt. While I sold a few copies of the movie on DVD, neither the Hamden screening nor the Pittsburgh screening drew the crowd I was hoping for. This took the wind out of my sails a bit, somewhat hampering my efforts to publicize the remaining screenings.

The Cleveland showing at Cedar Lee Theatre was competing against at least two events I knew of – a Browns game and a local stage performance of the Rocky Horror Show, so both jocks and nerds would have had other things to do. The Buffalo showing at Hallwalls, though it turned out to be on the same night as an election debate, gave me the chance to reconnect with an old college classmate who came to the show.

Toronto seemed like the biggest canary in the coal mine as far as the status of independent cinema. The Toronto Underground Cinema – an alternative venue that I've always wanted to visit – announced back in August that they were closing their doors. The Bloor Cinema, apparently due to financial struggles, has been taken over by the Hot Docs film festival and been rebranded as a venue mainly for documentaries, meaning that the kind of cult film showings I'd so often enjoyed there (including Troll 2, Hobo with a Shotgun, and Poultrygeist) will now be much more rare. Most surprisingly, the NFB Mediatheque – a viewing center that I only just discovered in my previous visit to Toronto a couple months earlier – has also shut its doors and is now open by appointment only.

Fortunately, a few alternative film venues still survive. One of these was Trash Palace, which shows 16mm film prints on Friday nights. I went to their showing of an old black-and-white film called Stakeout. One of the attendees was an aspiring filmmaker himself, who said out loud what I'd been forced to realize – that the ease of access to moviemaking tools has somewhat devalued the status of low-budget films, and that you now have to be more creative in order to put on a show that people will attend.

While in Toronto I also encountered a group of stilt-walking street performers, two of whom I got to interview. They too were articulate and enthusiastic in explaining why art is important to them.

Saberfrog screened at CineCycle, a funky hole-in-the-wall venue that typically shows experimental films. It strangely fit the Canada-set finale of the movie (which I won't spoil if you haven't seen it). Each time I watched the film on a big screen one more time, it seemed more and more like a film made by someone else. It started to feel like a movie that belonged in the world, not just in my own head.

I'm glad I went through the process of trying to self-distribute a movie. It was a learning experience, and an opportunity to try and create the kind of underground film screenings that I always used to go to when I was a student. But I think the era for this kind of event may be nearing its end. People now expect to be able to consume media where and when they want, and when you commit to a single showing you're competing against whatever else might be going on in town at that time … which can be a difficult thing to know about weeks or months in advance.

I originally wanted to book these kinds of screenings over a year ago, when the film was newer, but as usual I had ups and downs in my own life (including a new job) that made this impractical. Failing that, I should have booked these shows a few months earlier than I did, so that I could have spent more time and effort on publicity, but there too I had some events in my personal life that put me behind schedule. Having all the shows so close together in time was possibly a mistake – although it made the trip seem more like a continuous journey (despite being spread across three weekends), it gave me less time or energy to promote the individual shows separately.

The biggest thing that I learned the hard way, though, is that I wasn't prepared for the amount of self-publicity that would be required. I became a writer and filmmaker specifically because it was a more indirect way of expressing myself. But in the social-media age, you're supposed to be an aggressive self-promoter, which takes me somewhat outside my comfort zone. I'm of the older school where the artist stays remote – it's the work that's important, not the author. That older approach is, depending on your point of view, based on shyness (“I don't want to put myself out there”) or arrogance (“I will only deign to communicate with my audience on special occasions”) or both.

In a previous post, I said that when I see a film, I hope to see something that will blow my mind. But having that kind of epiphany is an inward, solitary journey. Art – as maker or as consumer – is no longer a solitary journey of discovery. It's supposed to be social. You have to “engage with your audience” in order to make friends, so that you have someone to invite to your show!

When I was a kid, oddball short films would play on 16mm in classrooms and libraries, and as filler on cable TV. Those obscure, eccentric films played a large role in inspiring me to become a filmmaker myself, but I think this road trip helped me to finally close the door on that obsession. In the age of YouTube and streaming, perhaps there's no longer anything really underground about making movies. The idea of making something unique and original and personal still appeals to me, but you can't afford to think of yourself as a unique snowflake. You have to think like a salesman, and aim at a specific audience.

I'm also ready to let go of the 90s nostalgia which seems to permeate the indie film scene currently. It may be a while before that scene consists of newer guys who are fully at ease with how things are now, rather than struggling to unlearn outdated expectations from the Miramax era.

Perhaps the most tangible benefit from this trip was the handful of interviews I conducted with artists that I met on my journey. I asked each of them what I personally found to be highly challenging philosophical questions – why do we make art, how do we justify the sacrifices required, how does one balance the inner compulsion to be an artist against conflicting responsibilities? To my surprise, each person I interviewed had clear and articulate responses to these questions.

I guess the biggest thing I've learned is that I can no longer afford to be a loner. When I was young I felt like a loner, and it was that sense of alienation that drove me to become a filmmaker. But after the experiences and accomplishments I've had in my life, I'm not that person any more. I have to come to terms with living in a more socially connected world.

When I got home from this trip, I thought for sure that I was done with filmmaking, that I could divide my entire life into before and after Saberfrog. But within days of coming home, there was a networking event and a “how to promote your film” seminar (both at Squeaky Wheel in Buffalo), neither of which I wanted to pass up. And I still have ideas for the tie-in novel … and another screenplay … so I guess I just can't turn it off.

I do feel that I've raised the public profile for Saberfrog just a little bit, and met some new people. And the trip forced me to finally complete a decent DVD. So on a personal level, the trip has been a (qualified) success. Now I just need to do what I should have done earlier – send the film out to various websites to get it reviewed, and get the film online so that it's commercially available.

The Saberfrog road trip may be over, but it seems the Saberfrog journey is just beginning.