Weird, Dark, & Funny: The Filmography of Jason Schumacher – By Trevor Kupfer

Jason Schumacher is weird on purpose. The Twin Cities filmmaker, and the man behind GreyDuck Productions, has a passion for working from the fringes and being an outlier. He takes simple ideas and adds layers of playful humor, dark cynicism, and unexpected twists to actively toy with audience expectations. It’s risky business, as each project could easily be misunderstood by the audience, and he knows it. In fact, his works sometimes reference that misunderstood creative vision and desire to express the unexpected. But for the audience members who take the time and effort to “get it,” Jason’s work can be a lot of fun. Surreal, dark, and (perhaps most of all) weird, but fun nonetheless.

Early in his filmmaking career, Jason served as actor, director, cinematographer, producer, editor, and writer, often simultaneously. This isn’t out of the ordinary. Most directors are forced to be jacks of all trades out of financial necessity. What is strange about Jason’s case, however, is that one of his earliest professional credits is a major Hollywood production.

At the age of 20, while still enrolled at UW-Milwaukee’s film school, Jason and his father started a weather effects business. They purchased a semi-trailer’s worth of equipment from Paul Murphy, a Minnesotan who created snow/rain for such films as Fargo, The Mighty Ducks, and Jingle All the Way. Jason would tackle effects jobs as they came, mostly on weekends so he could commute from university, until the opportunity came to work on North Country, the $40 million Oscar-nominated production starring Charlize Theron. Just a year after buying the business, Schumacher took a leave of absence from school and jumped at the chance.

Eventually demand slowed and Jason stopped doing weather effects, but it had its high points. “North Country was the last movie with a significant budget to shoot here, which was almost 10 years ago now,” he said. “But I also did snow for the Low music video Monkey, some rain for a Forbes ad, and some Target stuff. Nothing much. We did get to do two Gatorade commercials with Neill Blomkamp, the director of District 9 and Elysium, before he got big. Kevin Garnett and Kerri Walsh were in them. It was down at Paisley Park and we made it purple rain, so that was cool.”

“It was weird. I was going to experimental art film school and at the same time working on an Academy Award-nominated movie. People at school were asking me, ‘What are you still doing here?’ ” After a few more semesters, Schumacher found himself asking that same question, and decided to call it quits. He took the money he earmarked for tuition and instead put it toward his first feature film, Stimulus (2007). “That, to me, was film school – making [Stimulus]. It’s kind of a clunky movie at times – it certainly has its flaws – but it was a way for me to learn.”

After a few more film projects (including two Minneapolis 48 Hour Film Project submissions that led to quite a bit of attention), Jason built up significant connections and ‘street cred’ within the Cities’ cinema scene. Now he’s in a place in his career where he no longer has to operate the camera or do the editing, so he can focus on writing, directing, and honing his craft. “So I can really be the creative force behind it,” he said. This led to his first feature film, 2011’s The Telephone Game.

The film is a behind-the-scenes look at a fictitious small theatrical production, with casting rehearsals taking place in the opening scenes and the final production at its climax. Schumacher sketched out the general plot and some ideas for the characters, but otherwise the film is entirely improvised. “For almost every take in that movie [what you’re seeing] is the only time that actually happened or was said,” he noted.

That said, The Telephone Game doesn’t feel anything like the works of Christopher Guest or Mike Leigh. It’s a comedy, but is more subtle and purposely awkward than one might expect. There’s a wandering camera, offbeat tone, and the whole thing is presented in black-and-white, yet this isn’t arthouse. Basically it’s hard to pinpoint, and that’s the idea. Some people “got it,” most notably Minneapolis Underground Film Festival and RAW: Minneapolis, which honored Schumacher with awards for Best Cinematography and Filmmaker of the Year, respectively. It also got a solid review from FilmSnobbery.

But Schumacher knows that some viewers just won’t get what he’s going for. So it’s no coincidence that the film’s main character considers himself an artist in the purest sense of the word, yet only one person (the female lead) ever really understands his vision. After he loses control of both his relationship with her and the production itself, the play falls into the hands of a well-liked understudy. The result is a play that tries too hard to please everyone and, in turn, pleases no one.

The use of improv, and trusting the cast with that amount of freedom, taught Schumacher valuable lessons about screenwriting and working with actors. It also got him into the habit of running scenes long. “I definitely say ‘cut’ long after it feels appropriate because – and sometimes an actor will get scared and confused, or they’ll just say ‘I’m done,’ but – sometimes they keep going. And every so often something really interesting happens,” he said. The Telephone Game also marked the beginning of an introspective, dark comedy period – a phase that may become his trademark. “I like the term ‘sad funny’ for the vibe of my movies,” he said.

Jason’s penchant for dark, offbeat comedy continues with the upcoming short film Sad Clown, which he co-wrote with star Jesse Frankson (a frequent muse of Schumacher’s) and is currently about halfway done with its KickStarter goal. Though the protagonist is a clown, it leans toward serious drama more than anticipated. Jesse’s titular character insists that he no longer wear a traditional smile and rosy cheeks, opting instead for a frown and tears. “The smile was a lie,” he explains to his boss and ringmaster.

The film has several moments of offbeat silliness, such as a clown-and-magician love scene with nose honking and doves flying out from under the sheets, but he also confronts audience expectations and the conflicting notions of escapist entertainment versus honest expression. Strangely the film strikes a balance between the two, with the surface level presenting clowns doing goofy clown things and just beneath that surface/makeup lays a broken character questioning his creative identity and self worth. Schumacher and Frankson are coming to grips with honest creative concerns, and doing so under the guise of a short film about a clown.

Jason shared with me another dark comedy script they recently wrote together, and hope to eventually shoot, that sprints down an even darker tragicomedy path. It’s called Brian Tumor and while you eagerly await its release, you’ll just have to take my word for it that it’s funny, weird, dark, and surreal. So basically another Jason Schumacher movie … and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Jason has served as a cinematographer, photographer, and producer on several other local films in the past (such as Why Am I in a Box? and The Curse of Yig), but his approach to that has changed slightly. “Early on, helping other people’s projects was a way to learn, so I could see how they do things,” he said. “Now it’s more about collaborating with people or ideas I find interesting.”

He served as producer on Rosie, a dramatic short film that wrapped post-production the afternoon I spoke with Jason and is also expected to see release later this year. Written and directed by Alexander Kohnstamm, the film is about an overworked lawyer who’s struggling with work-life balance and is affected by his latest client, a grieving father. The film is based on a local legal case from about a decade ago and was co-written by Alexander’s father, P. Kenneth Kohnstamm, who was involved in the case. He’s also involved with another film set for release later this year, Beyond the Thrill. It’s a half-hour documentary Jason was hired to direct and edit (the original director dropped out) that involves four skydivers, who are otherwise just run-of-the-mill Minnesotans. “It follows a four-person competitive skydiving team, the kind that fall in formation and try to do as many as they can. The theme is basically what takes skydiving from a bucket list thrill to something a person wants to do thousands of times. What makes someone want to do this crazy, dangerous thing that much?”

Fueled by all the connections he’s made and reputation he’s built, Jason is also regularly called upon for commercial work and corporate videos, including spots for MTV, Remington, Kids Quest, Miller Brewing, TLC, and IBM. “That pays the bills and so far has been pretty good for me. I sometimes worry that it’s gonna teach me bad habits, so I try to keep that and the creative passion stuff in separate parts of my brain,” he said.

There have been a few times, however, where these prospects combined. The three videos he commissioned for Habibi Art, for example. “We made them satires and pushed it way over the edge,” he said. One is a kitschy used car salesman talking to a 50s housewife. Another is a ‘sex sells’ pitch. And the third combines fantasy with obnoxiously pretentious critique. Another great example is the music videos he’s directed for area bands.

Of the dozen or so he’s taken on so far (many of which have been revered by, City Pages, and The Current), most have been straightforward performance videos (for Omnitrigger, Nathan Eliot, Matt Curney, Jenny Dalton, We Can & We Must, etc.), but his most recent releases are the most “Schumacharian.” The artists he’s worked with have, for the most part, allowed him to take the creative reins and shoot his own vision for their music, and you can definitely tell in his most recent output. EMOT’s experimental Garbage Tones video undoubtedly recalls Jason’s art influences (which I’ll get to in a moment). There’s layering, surrealism, and abstract images galore. Meanwhile his penchant for playful darkness is all over With a Gun for a Face’s Parade of Horribles video.

Following that video, Jason collaborated with the band’s frontman, Nathan Graves, on the upcoming short film End Land. The 10-minute film isn’t darkly comical like Schumacher’s previous efforts so much as it is morbidly atmospheric, lying somewhere between A Turn of the Screw and The Twilight Zone. “I always try to come up with a little challenge for myself and in End Land you see there’s two actors, one room, and no props. Let’s try to make that work,” he said of the minimalist project.

In it, a suicidal dentist is interrogated by a man straight out of a David Lynch movie. He’s an inexplicable character (with an evolving face to match) who’s both uncomfortably pleasant and macabre. Their unsettling conversation, coupled with the creepy sounds and padded cell-like setting, demands that the audience decipher where these characters are. Is this a claustrophobic purgatory? A menacing nightmare? Some experimental new therapy? Or what?

Filmmaking and videography are, without question, Schumacher’s main disciplines, but his interests extend across the arts spectrum and have led to pursuits in the visual arts and music realms, as well. After he dots the i’s on his most recent film commitments, Schumacher hopes to release an EP album and coordinate an exhibition of his mixed media paintings.

When I first perused his portfolio of artwork, I splayed the words “Anatomy in the Cosmos” across the page. But after speaking with him a bit and seeing his most recent works, I’ll amend that description to “Sea Creatures, Skinless Wizards, & The Cosmos.” There’s no grand explanation, no socio-political messages, and no pretention – just silly images slapped on aesthetically pleasing swirls of paint. His process involves mixing acrylic paint with water and moving them around with a brush, one color and layer at a time. This method creates organic shapes, resembling those in space or the ocean, that serve as compelling backdrops that he often combines with either cutouts of human anatomy diagrams or a sea creature. The result is that same balance of surreal, weird, and funny.

“I often get the boards really wet and then I add acrylics or paint markers that reject water, and I just slosh it around. I move it all with a brush, or move the brush around the paint.” He adapted this method from Christina Habibi (of Habibi Art), who combines outdoor exterior paints and moves them around with the brush. The important difference, and one that lends itself to many of Jason’s endeavors, is that he completes his one layer at a time. It’s a slow, methodical process, and while he doesn’t always know where it’s going, he keeps doing it until he’s satisfied.

Like his films and artwork, Jason similarly plays with unlikely pairings and dichotomies in his music. Each track on his four-song EP, entitled Dumpster Baby and planned for release later this year, ebbs and flows between layered riffs and tones. Its most clear genre label would be electronic, but he spans the wide inter-genre gap between dubstep-influenced pop to industrial noise rock in a mere four songs. And then there’s the moments when the layers fold away, revealing a simple acoustic singer-songwriter approach with the sweetness of a lullaby. (Listen to one of the tracks, Secret Selves, as a teaser.) Like his cinematic projects, it may be hard to place, but there’s something catchy and fun about it. And, ultimately, isn’t that all that matters?

As if all that recent output isn’t enough, Jason is currently in the process of writing two more feature films. One is a period piece that he hopes to sell. The other he intends to shoot himself, and – guess what? – it’s a dark comedy. I’m gonna go out on a ledge and guess it’s also weird.