An Interview with Kelley Baker – By Nic Brown

When you visit filmmaker Kelley Baker’s website, the first thing you might notice is his logo: a black hand giving the world “the finger” – only the finger is a strip of film. An appropriate symbol for a man whose trademarked title is “The Angry Filmmaker”. Baker loves making movies, but not the environment in which most studio films are made. A Hollywood veteran specializing in sound design, he worked on some of the biggest films of the 90s, including the Academy Award winning film GOOD WILL HUNTING. Baker, encouraged by his friends in the industry, struck out to make a feature length independent film: BIRDDOG. While he was able to complete the picture, the support he’d been promised from friends and colleagues in the industry didn’t materialize and the film, although critically successful, didn’t get the distribution that he had been assured that it would (providing a valuable lesson to get everything in writing).

While the situation was financially devastating for Baker, he didn’t give up on the idea of filmmaking. In fact, he proceeded to make two more feature length films: THE GAS CAFÉ and KICKING BIRD. This time though, Baker learned from his mistakes and scaled back his productions. Using every trick he’d learned from twenty plus years in the business, he was able to make both films on a shoestring budget and when distribution didn’t show, he gave the system the finger and started distributing his work himself.

Now Baker spends a good portion of his time on the road each year touring the country and sharing his filmmaking experiences, good and bad with audiences who want to know more about how to make a movie the right way. He also sells his movies and book: THE ANGRY FILMMAKER’S SURVIVAL GUIDE. When not touring, Baker spends his time in Portland, Oregon, writing, consulting and doing the thing he loves best: making movies.

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Nic – Kelley Baker, you’re called the “Angry Filmmaker”. What are you so angry about?

Kelley – How long have you got? [laughs] A lot of people think I’m pissed off at Hollywood and I’m not. The reason I’m not is that Hollywood has never, ever tried to pretend it is something it’s not. Hollywood is a factory. They make movies there; they make entertainment. It’s a product to them and they couldn’t care less what it is. It’s just something they crank out.

What pisses me off are the independent filmmakers, because most independents want a Hollywood deal. They spout a lot of bullshit about “I’m following my art” but the moment they sniff big money, that goes out the door. Most of them are doing their “art” so they can get the deal and then make the Hollywood films. They start off as independents, but take the first hunk of money that comes to them Look at Robert Rodriguez. Did we really need SHARKBOY AND LAVAGIRL? Give me a fucking break! So yeah, my anger is all built up with the so-called independent film world. A lot of those “independent” films are actually made with millions of dollars and while the studios say they don’t fund them, if you look closer, you see that they [major studios] are behind the funding. Not only are they putting up the money, they also guarantee distribution, so it’s the whole lie that they’re all for true independent films and that those filmmakers can get their movies out there into theaters. It’s so much bullshit and, man, that just pisses me off.

It’s time somebody told the truth about Hollywood and the independent film world. Look at Sundance – what a fucking joke. Half the films that show there are invited. Most of the films they show aren’t from people sitting there and filling out their applications; they just don’t take many of those films… if they take any at all.

Nic – So what do you consider a real independent film then?

Kelley – Truly independent films are usually made for very little money and without any big name actors. But the heart of it is filmmakers that have a real vision of what they’re trying to do. Now saying that, I think John Sayles is an amazing independent filmmaker. He takes the Screen Writers Guild minimum and the Directors Guild minimums when he works on a project, and all the actors that work with him do it for SAG minimum. But they come in and work on the project because they believe in it. Then if the film does well, they split the proceeds. So if the film does well, they all do well. This helps him attract real talent both in cast and crew to his projects. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he’s an amazing writer.

I’ve worked on a lot of so called independent films where there was a studio or a distributor backing the production. So you’d have them there saying, “Oh you need to make these changes or do this and that for marketing purposes.” That’s not real independent filmmaking and I have a problem with that whole thing. Marketing people and studio executives always tell us they know better than we do. Fuck them!

Nic – Well that’s pretty clear!

Kelley – [laughs] You caught me in a good mood.

Nic – I certainly have! Now as a filmmaker you’ve done just about everything: primarily sound design, but also you’re a writer, director, editor, producer…. What’s your favorite job when you’re making a movie?

Kelley – I’m a filmmaker and you know I enjoy the solitude of writing the script and getting it all together. But then after a while I get so sick and tired of just being by myself, that when it comes time to make the film I’m ready for the hustle. I love casting, I love rehearsals, I love being on the set shooting. But then by the time we get through the whole production thing that I am so sick and tired of other people that I can hardly wait to retreat to the editing room and edit, do sound design and mix. Then once again it becomes that whole thing of “oh God I’m sick of being by myself!” So I am ready to go out and promote the film and once again be around other people. I like it all. There’s not a part of it that I dread. There’s not a part of it where I think, “oh God I don’t want to do this.” I’m a filmmaker and I love what I do. I’ve got the best fucking job in the world! I don’t have a favorite part, I really don’t. When I get to make a movie I enjoy all of it. I love making movies.

Nic – So you love making films, but what are some of your favorite movies to sit back and watch?

Kelley – I always talk about ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, I also love TOUCH OF EVIL. I’ve shown that film a couple of times recently and when Walter Murch did the sound and editing and stuff, he made a fantastic film better. Another film is AMADEUS. I have a soft spot for that film because I hear people say, “You know, I don’t like that kind of music, but man that was a great movie!”

There are so many different genres too. I mean look at THEM. It’s got giant ants and what they do with that film – the sound in it – is so inventive at the time. You never see the ants until the end and then you’re disappointed. But through most of the film you just hear the sound of the ants and it works so well.

I love tons and tons of different films. One of my favorite recent documentaries is a film called SEARCHING FOR THE WRONG-EYED JESUS. It’s about the south. In the film, this southern musician takes a BBC film crew through the south to show them what it’s really all about. It’s a beautiful, amazing film shot in black and white. NORTHFORK by the Polish brothers is another recent film that I love. I just like all sorts of stuff: DOUBLE INDEMNITY, THE MALTESE FALCON, anything by John Huston just gets me going. There are tons and tons of films that I love and that have been an influence on me.

Nic – So thinking about the movies you like, what do you think it takes to make a good film?

Kelley – Oh that’s easy. It’s hard to do, but it’s easy. You have to have a good story. In the end, the story is what it’s all about. So start out with a good, interesting story, then get good actors. Then rehearse the hell out of them. The key is that it is a single vision. John Huston, Clint Eastwood, Sam Peckinpah, hell, Ron Howard, they all have a single vision for the project. That vision goes back to the script and you have to have a good script. You can’t make a good movie out of a bad script.

People always talk about TITANIC and how it made so much money. I don’t get the whole deal behind TITANIC. We know how it ends – the Goddamn boat sinks! Where’s the drama there? Somebody’s going to die. Whoopie! Give me a good story. But good stories are so hard to do.

Nic – You spend quite a bit of time on the road each year lecturing about film, don’t you?

Kelley – Lecturing is such a nice word. I rant mostly.

Nic – Ranting is good, but they call it lecturing when someone pays you to do it.

Kelley – [Laughs] I do spend a good amount of time on the road each year. My tours take me to art house theaters, college campuses, media art centers, film festivals…. Shit, I’ve shown my movies and lectured in bars. It doesn’t matter to me where the audience is and that’s something filmmakers have to start doing, going to where the audiences are, that’s where their fan base is.

This fall, I’ll be doing 50 or 60 dates in two and a half months. It takes time to put it all together. I’m trying not to tour so much in the spring because I’m tired. Physically that kind of tour takes it out of you. I love doing it, but I’m not a young dude anymore. Still, I’ll go anywhere they’ll have me. I’m like a punk band on the road and I do all my own bookings. That’s what I love though, going where the audience is. I want to teach young filmmakers how to do shit right. Such a big part of it is promoting the true independent ethic and the punks have it right, do it yourself!

Nic – You say you’ll go anywhere. What’s the oddest place you’ve ever shown a film or lectured?

Kelley – Well, there was this bar in Fort Worth, Texas where nobody wanted to buy my merchandise, but everyone wanted to buy me a beer. So at one point I’ve got ten open cans of beer sitting around me and I’m thinking. “For Christ’s sake, would you drunks at least chip in and buy one DVD!” I mean they were all open so I had to drink them. That was pretty messed up.

I’ve had a lot of interesting experiences after too. I remember being in Montgomery [Alabama] at Hank Williams’ gravesite at midnight, drinking beers with Hank – that’s a big tradition there. I’ve done all sorts of stuff like that. Half the fun for me is after the gig.

Nic – Speaking of interesting things. Who is Kay Boyle and why is she important?

Kelley – When I met Kay Boyle, she was the last living expatriot from Paris in the 1920s. She was an author and a political activist. She has witnessed and written about almost every major event of the twentieth century. Kay lived the kind of life that people can only dream of. She had three husbands, six kids, wrote 18 novels, 60 short stories, volumes of poetry, essays. She also translated a bunch of books from Italian and French. When she was in her sixties, in the 1960s, she received her tenure at San Francisco State University while she was serving time in jail for her Vietnam War protests. She was a firecracker and an activist.

One of the things Kay told me once was “I try to make revolutionaries of my students.” By that she meant that she wants them to break the rules when it comes to writing. She was a hard core writer and poet who, one of her students told me, wouldn’t accept a poem about your socks in the corner. Your work had to be a poem about something that mattered, something that is going on in society. Here’s this woman who was so prolific and she wasn’t really a self promoter, and in America I don’t think we appreciate and value our female writers, especially if they are political. Kay was always, always, outspoken no matter what and she encouraged me and a lot of other people to get involved and to be outspoken.

Why is she important? Because too many people are putting their heads in the sand, they are afraid to speak out. It’s not just with the government either, it’s in their neighborhoods. People feel like it’s OK not to get involved, not to comment about things and I think that’s wrong. We should be speaking out about the things that we believe aren’t right. That’s why she’s important. She was one of the last of the artists who really had a point of view she let you know it, but she would still listen to other peoples’ points of view.

Nic – You have a project you’re working on related to Kay Boyle, don’t you?

Kelley – I started making a movie about Kay Boyle and her life 25 years ago and it’s uncomfortable because who is she? I started shooting with her in 1985~86 and I could never get many grants for the project. So most of my money has come through small donations. I took a ton of money from my own work, like TO DIE FOR and GOOD WILL HUNTING and put it into the project. I’d say I easily have well over a hundred thousand dollars into it, not even counting time.

I shot the movie on 16mm film and I’m trying to raise money now to get all of the negatives transferred to digital. It’s one part labor of love and one part the albatross around my neck. For 25 years, people have been saying to me, “When’s that movie going to be done?” And it’s been a difficult movie to make. So when they ask now, I tell people that the filmmaker who started making this movie back in 1985 is not nearly as good as the guy who’s going to finish it. I think that I needed to get a lot more experience with life, and a lot more stuff under my belt before I could really do this film justice.

Nic – So what happens when you finally finish the film?

Kelley – With the film or with me?

Nic – Well I know you’ll drink a beer, so I’m asking about the film.

Kelley – Actually, I’m hoping there’s a whole bottle of Kentucky bourbon with my name on it, dude!

Nic – I can arrange that, in the name of supporting the arts.

Kelley – Alright, so now I have a goal! [Laughs] I hope to have it done within a year and what I see is this film being four different movies.

It will be a feature length documentary film that will run about 90 minutes about her life and her work. But I’m also going to take the existing footage and the footage from the film and turn it into three, 20-25 minute educational pieces for high schools and colleges because I believe that she should be taught in the schools. I mean she was a rebel who contributed so much and she knew so many of the major artists of the 20th century; Marcel Duchamp, who did Nude Descending A Staircase, that’s her son’s godfather. She knew Picasso; she knew Becket; she hung out with James Joyce. She has wonderful stories about all these people. She thought Hemmingway was an asshole, which I love, and she knew him!

So I’ll break it down into three short educational pieces. One on Paris in the 1920s. One on the 1940s talking about the war and the subsequent black listing. Finally there’ll be one on the 1960s and what she experienced then. I’m also thinking about doing a fourth short piece on writers and writing. This one film is really going to be a bunch of different films.

I plan to take the documentary out on the road and I’ll also try and get some of the major channels like HBO and some of the others interested in it. Sundance doesn’t like me so that’s out.

Nic – Why doesn’t Sundance like you?

Kelley – Because I say bad things about them. So it will never play on the Sundance Channel. Like hell I’d ever even submit it to them. Then again I won’t submit it to any festivals. I just don’t submit films to festivals. I go to them and I get paid to go to them and there are some great ones. If one of the festivals I’m associated with wants to show it, all they have to do is ask. I think the film will have a really nice life as a download in the DVD world. I also think the educational pieces will be really important.

As for what’s next for me after this. I have a script about a musician who’s been on the road for too long and what’s going through his head. Part of the film takes place up on stage and he breaks into a song, and you’ll hear the first verse and the camera will kind of move off into the darkness and then it’ll come up on where the song came from. That’s going to be my next dramatic film that I’m dying to do. I have some interest with a musician who I think would be great for the lead. He’s a young man; he’s in his early 50s.

I’ve also got a piece that I’m working on with a friend of mine. It’s on the economy and the shit that has been happening to ordinary working class people. It has two guys spending the night in a grocery store together trying to kill each other and doing this whole “my life is worse than your life” kind of thing.

Nic – I guess you do have a couple of things planned then.

Kelley – Well and I’ve still got my second book to finish and I need to start on my third book. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Nic – So what’s the new book?

Kelley – It’s called “Sound Conversations With (un)Sound People”. It’s a series of interviews with a lot of sound professionals that I’ve met like sound editors, music editors, location recordists, sound designers, picture editors and others. They talk about what makes good sound in film and why they do what they do. It will have a lot of good tips for filmmakers.

Sound is totally neglected. I wrote an article years ago for Filmmaker Magazine about why does the sound in independent films always suck?

Nic – Give us the short answer, why does the sound always suck?

Kelley – You talk to these guys and they can tell you all sorts of shit about their new camera, but they have no idea what a decent microphone is or what a location mixer is, and this isn’t the age of silent movies anymore. If an audience can’t understand the dialogue, you can have the prettiest pictures in the world, but if you don’t have the dialogue, you don’t have a movie. Another thing is that all these filmmakers think the dialogue is replaced later in ADR in the studio and it’s not. That’s the worst thing you can do.

I’ve got Gary Rydstrom who did SAVING PRIVATE RYAN and JURASSIC PARK, he’s an old friend of mine and he’s interviewed for the book. I’ve got Peter Kurland, the location recordist for the Coen Brothers, and he says the majority of everything he records on location ends up in the movie. I’ve spoken to some heavy hitters in this book, and the biggest thing they come back to again and again is that you need great location dialogue and that they use it and that it’s convincing. It sounds better than trying to replace shit that you didn’t get right.

Nic – So the old adage about fixing it in post isn’t really that good an idea.

Kelley – You know, you can do a lot of stuff in post and it will cost you a shit load of money, but you’ll never be happy with it. If you’re a smart director, you’re going to look at this stuff and you’re going to know the sync is not right. Then you’ll be thinking, “God, I wish I’d gotten this right when we were on location!”

Don’t get me wrong, on occasion I’ve had to ADR some stuff for my own features, but you know I can spot those lines a mile away and it always bothers me. But sometimes you’re in a location where you just can’t get good sound. There have been times going in that I knew I couldn’t get good sound because of the location but looping is still a last resort.

Nic – Let’s shift gears a little; we’ve talked about your films and your books, but what about your website. You have a hell of a lot going on there.

Kelley – My site What I’m trying to do more and more with the site is go beyond just being able to buy my stuff and listen to me rant and rave. So what I’ve been doing is interviewing a lot of other filmmakers and people in the film business, and I’ve been posting those on the site because I think there is a lot to learn from these filmmakers, all the things they’ve done and their experiences, both good and bad. I’m trying to make my site more of a clearing house for information so other filmmakers can come there and pick up different things. They can learn about someone like Joe Heyen who did a documentary called COWTOWN BALLROON…SWEET JESUS! about the Cow Town Ballroom in Kansas City, and part of his self-distribution plan was concerts. He used it to open concerts for different bands that played at the Ballroom like The Ozark Mountain Dare Devils and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. John Gaspard who did FAST, CHEAP AND WRITTEN THAT WAY, which talks about how he approaches doing an extremely low budget picture. I’m trying to do more stuff like that and to let people know about interesting filmmakers who have stuff coming out, so maybe they can find it online and buy some of these interesting films.

Nic – Any last words of wisdom for independent filmmakers?

Kelley – You mean besides go to my website and buy my shit?

Nic – Well it’s all good shit, but yeah, besides that.

Kelley – [Laughs] Don’t get in this business for the money. Don’t get in this business because you want to be famous. We don’t need you. Make films because you have to. Make films because you love it. Make films and tell stories because if you don’t you’re going to burst! After almost thirty years doing this stuff, I still can’t wait to get up and face my day. Sure we have bad days, everyone does. But I absolutely love what I do and I think if you find a job like that then it’s not a job. I write in my book that I don’t have a job, I have a lifestyle and sometimes I’ve had to make sacrifices. I lost my house because of some bad investments and some bad advice from some people but still, every day I get up and I make movies or work on movies or write and I love it. If you want to make movies and be an independent filmmaker, do it for the write reasons… and the right reasons are not money and fame. If you’re lucky, the money will come and who gives a shit about the fame?

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