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Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere

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(Jul 04, 2004)
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Editorial Reviews


The documentary "Wamego" serves dual purposes. For the curious, it provides a behind the scenes look at Mike Patton's feature film acting debut in Steve Balderson's "Firecracker." But even more important, it serves as an in-depth lesson on DIY filmmaking as Balderson has documented every step of the "Firecracker" process. "Wamego" is a look at a filmmaking family doing whatever they must to get the show on the road...and they're doing it all far outside the moviemaking industry of Los Angeles. And they're doing it well. Imagine that. Fresh from his feature length directorial debut, "Pep Squad," which went on to premiere at Cannes and was nominated for numerous awards at several other film festivals, Steve Balderson decided to re-team with family members - father Clark Balderson (producer) and sister Brooke Balderson (actress and the lead in "Pep Squad), in Kansas to tell the tale of a true life murder that happened locally in Wamego. With the rest of the Balderson family chipping in, this tale would become the recently completed film "Firecracker," starring vocalist Mike Patton (Fantomas, Tomahawk) and cult film star Karen Black. Rolling alongside Balderson's film was a documentary crew (including Joshua Kendall, Joe Martin, Ed Leboeuf and even Steve Baldserson himself) revealing the tremendous work this family put into the making of this feature and it's a wonder to watch how well they all interact with each other. A lot of families can't stand to be in the same room together. This family's making movies. For those who enjoy watching the feature length documentaries on the "Terror Firmer" and "Citizen Toxie" DVDs as much as I do (I watch these more than the actual films), then "Wamego" is a must-see, not because there's a bunch of s**t-talking and in-fighting going on (because there really isn't any), but simply because it immerses you in the filmmaking process. There appear to be no secrets here, no major egos to contend with. In fact, several secrets of indie filmmaking are revealed right here, making "Wamego" an amazing how-to for filmmakers who think that they can't get a film made because they don't have all the help or resources they desire at their fingertips and even sillier, because they don't live in Los Angeles. There's a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons. It also looks like they have a d*mn good film on their hands, too. --Film Threat

Wamego, Kan.: home of 4000 inhabitants, The Red Raiders high school football team and the world famous Oz Museum, housing one of the largest private collections of Oz memorabilia in the world. This may not sound like the type of place to make a movie, but for young, passionate director Steve Balderson, it's not only his home, but the only place he chooses to make his films. In Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere a side of film-making rarely seen by the mainstream as well as independent public, is in full view. Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension. Similar to Lost In La Mancha, a documentary on Terry Gilliam's failed attempt to complete The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, the basics of film-making as well as the many issues surrounding it are present. While Gilliam had to deal with rich and impatient executive producers, Balderson has to come up with inexpensive, effective alternatives to high-priced, major studio equipment. However, unlike his predecessor, Balderson is actually successful in completing the final picture. Coming off the critical success of Pep Squad, a darkly, comedic satire about school violence, Balderson decided to create what he dubbed a modern day tragedy. Firecracker, the true story of a brutal murder which occured in Wamego decades ago, takes place in the heartland of Kansas as well as a sleazy, carnival sideshow and stars Oscar nominee-Karen Black and famed avant-garde vocalist Mike Patton. Because both Black and Patton each play challenging, dual roles, the already complex murder mystery is also a disturbing take on the Oedipus complex. Firecracker also stars various local actors, including Jak Kendall, a young actor in the lead role of Jimmy, as well as several real "freaks" from sideshows across the country including the Jim Rose Circus. Wamego follows not only Balderson himself but also his father, sister and many other locals as well as several Hollywood imports through the many phases of guerilla film-making. From the long and tiring casting process which included everyone from Dennis Hopper to Debbie Harry, to the actual filming process, where it becomes clear just how serious everyone involved really is. There are no actors yelling over chai-lattes or rider contracts, only people sharing a common dream coming together to make a reality. Nowadays, with indie films costing nearly as much as major-released films and being hyped up 10 times more as an "alternative," Wamego is a far cry from all of this. Stringshoe budget reaches new heights in Wamego. However, while most low budget films tend to focus more on the big picture and sadly forget the minor details that make up that picture, Balderson and crew do not compromise the high quality and expect and demand only the highest. They may sometimes find ways to get around the high budget prices of filming, such as building their own camera rigs and sets from junkyard materials and storyboarding each individual shot in incredible detail as opposed to just a few general shots for the scene itself. Balderson is so detailed in nature that they spend ridiculous amounts of time using every color combination known to man in Black's screen test. This high standard is also present when the Baldersons and crew spend months building functional sideshow trailers, beautifully adorned and each customized to the character it houses. While these take up most of the time, it is mentioned that they will only appear on screen for barely half of the film, if not considerably less. With the imminent premiere of Firecracker at the Raindance film festival in London, there is a part that wants to see Balderson take Hollywood by storm and become another Spielberg.... --Hofstra Chronicle

One of the most engaging sequences in Kansas filmmaker Steve Balderson's new documentary "Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere" comes when the director recalls the process of casting his movie "Firecracker." Straight out of the gate he gets the cold shoulder from agents for Madonna, Jodie Foster and Sissy Spacek. Later, he learns that Kathy Bates requires a multi-thousand dollar down payment before she'll even read his script. But Balderson's biggest dilemma comes when he actually does get celebrities to commit to the film -- Dennis Hopper, Edward Furlong and Sally Kirkland to be exact. A week after signing on, Furlong was in drug rehab and severing ties with his representation. Meanwhile, Balderson was beginning to doubt that Hopper would be a proper fit for the duel roles of David and Frank in "Firecracker." "When all these celebrities started coming on board I was disillusioned with fame and fortune and all the numb hypnosis that comes along with Hollywood and bright lights," Balderson says in the documentary. "I lost sight of what this film was and what my original vision was." Eventually, Balderson decided to turn down Hopper and Kirkland -- one of dozens of strategic decisions he had to make while directing his second feature film. Those challenges -- for better and for worse -- are chronicled in "Wamego," a documentary about the making of "Firecracker" that Balderson will discuss Saturday at the Kan Film Festival. "The feeling of going upstream with the water rushing against your legs is universal -- anybody that's tried to do something out of the ordinary has felt that," Balderson says. "The most important people that I think need to see ( Wamego') are aspiring artists of any sort -- be they filmmakers or musicians or painters -- so that they can see there is a way to do the unbelievable." The 100-minute documentary follows Balderson and the cast and crew of "Firecracker" as they shoot the film on location in Kansas over the course of a very exhausting year. From building the extravagant circus sets to struggling with the budget and disgruntled crew members, "Wamego" acts as a firsthand guide to the trials and tribulations of producing independent efforts. "When I was young, I wish I would have been able to put in a movie and see the way that somebody else did it," says Balderson, who oversaw the making of "Wamego" but left most of the work to a team of assistants. "If you can find someone who's done it, I think the path is easier." Originally intended simply as bonus footage to accompany "Firecracker," "Wamego" blossomed into a full-length documentary when fellow filmmakers Joe Martin, Josh Kendall and Ed Laboeuf offered a hand in the project. The documentary features extensive behind-the-scenes footage as well as interviews with "Firecracker" cast members Mike Patton (former lead vocalist of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle) and cult film star Karen Black. For Laboeuf, a recent graduate of Washburn University's mass media program, working on "Wamego" offered an intensive look at how independent films are made. "It was so interesting to see how much work is done just to get a few seconds of footage during a film," Laboeuf says. "People are really at ease around Steve. He usually gets the shots in the first take." The documentary, which will be available June 18 for $10 via Balderson's Web site (www.dikenga.com), should also help hype "Firecracker," which chronicles a true-life murder that took place in Wamego during the Eisenhower era. Three major studios have made offers to buy "Firecracker," Balderson asserts. "For about a year I was on autopilot making Firecracker,'" says Balderson, who also directed the killer-prom-queen flick "Pep Squad" (1998). "For the most part, you can tell that it was a really laid-back, fun environment, and it wasn't full of craziness and people angry at one.... --Lawrence Journal World

About the Actor

Mike Patton - Mike Patton formed the band Mr Bungle and then joined Faith No More as a vocalist. Also member of bands Fantomas, Tomahawk, Peeping Tom. Karen Black - Academy Award and Golden Globe winning actress who starred in "Five Easy Pieces," "The Great Gatsby" and "Trilogy of Terror." Deborah Harry - vocalist from the band "Blondie."

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