Three documentaries shine a light on playing to the audience
By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 13, 2009
At first glance, documentaries about a prison rodeo, a viral-video sensation, and two improv actors don't seem to have much cross section. But look closer, and there's something of a shared fascination in aspects of performance, in subjects who play to audiences of the hundreds, the thousands, and sometimes unintentionally.
Bradley Beesley's film Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo follows the debut of women bull-riders in the Oklahoma State Prison's long-running rodeo, which puts inmates on a very public stage and gives them a reprieve from the 364 other days of the year spent behind bars. Ben Steinbauer's Winnebago Man documents his attempts to track down Jack Rebney, also known over the World Wide Web as "the angriest man in the world" due to leaked outtakes of his attempts to film a commercial for Winnebago in the Eighties (during which Rebney has something of an on-camera meltdown, swearing and sweating buckets, berating himself and his crew, and generally falling to pieces). And Alex Karpovsky's Trust Us, This Is All Made Up, which features a show by improv artists T.J. Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi (see "T.J. & Dave: Masters of the All Made Up"), expands the traditional performance piece by exploring the process itself.
The Chronicle recently sat down for drinks with the three filmmakers, as well as Beesley's editor and producer, Louisiana Kreutz, to talk about how their films came to be and what it's like making movies in Austin.
Austin Chronicle: So the reason why I wanted to sort of roundtable this with all of you at once ...
Bradley Beesley: [Laughs] We were wondering about that.
AC: Well, they all seem to involve, in some way, the idea of playing to an audience. Alex, your film is the one that's straight up about a performance and is filmed in front of an audience, but there are actually no cutaway shots to the audience.
Ben Steinbauer: [To Alex Karpovsky] Whoa. That's interesting. Why did you choose that?
Alex Karpovsky: Well, we had a camera for audience shots. It looked gay. It looked stupid. [Everybody laughs.]
Steinbauer: It was like a Chris Rock special or something?
Karpovsky: Yeah, it felt very familiar, packaged and overproduced. I didn't like the way it sat with me. It wasn't a big theoretical decision.
Beesley: We did a test screening [on Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo], and some of the feedback was, "We want more audience." So we went back through and added more.
AC: You mean at the actual rodeo, they wanted more reaction shots?
Beesley: Sure. And I think you know in some of the frames we cheat reality with when they're cheering. But it's interesting to see the mass of humanity, to see, as you say, this gladiator event.
Louisiana Kreutz: It's a strange mix of people that have family members in the rodeo or family members that work in the prison. ... And then you also have spectators who just want to see these inmates get fucked up.
Beesley: Ben actually [was on the crew] and didn't get to see the rodeo because his camera was on the audience.
Steinbauer: That's right. So I've seen the audience. And to add to that, the weirdest part for me, the prison aside – it's like going to the fair. I'm from Oklahoma and Kansas, and I'm used to this idea of "bring the whole town together." But the fact that they're watching inmates and there are guys with shotguns and there's barbed wire everywhere combined with the kid eating funnel cake who has stuff all over his face was so intense, the contrast. ...
And one of the saddest scenes, I think – [to Kreutz] and you did a really good job cutting this – that the kids were going and reaching through the cages to touch their moms. There was some painful, heart-wrenching interaction going on.
Kreutz: But that was a positive moment. ... All the women were beaming, showing off their country outfits, as opposed to their prison uniforms.
Beesley: One of the shots that Ben got, which is one of my favorite shots in the movie, was of this little boy Casey. His mom is Crystal, and she's behind the razor wire, and he's the one reaching and waving. She hadn't seen him since he was 19 days old, because the dad decided, "Well, we don't want this kid to watch his mom grow up in prison."
AC: Ben, in your film, there's a scene in which you're with Jack Rebney, and you're pushing really hard to take him to buy a camera so he can film himself. And in that moment, I felt really uncomfortable and kind of angry with you. I didn't realize until later that you were just trying to be proactive about helping him get an audience.
Steinbauer: It's been real interesting in the editing process. ... We've gotten lots of comments about people not liking me; they think that I'm a dick. ... And actually, I don't mind that. Because what ends up happening is this really interesting thing, that Jack Rebney looks like a dick in the beginning, in the clip, and the movie humanizes him, and I sort of do the reverse. ... And in the end, we both sort of have this nice moment. ... I had to take the fall a little bit, too, if I was honestly going to make a film about a guy who is sort of known as being a classical fool.
Beesley: I never knew you'd gotten that feedback.
Steinbauer: Oh yeah, we've heard that a lot. And I was doing what he said he wanted – he wanted to clear his name and reach this audience. He's known by millions of people on YouTube, so I was like, "Let's get you a camera and set it up for you, and I'll post it for you on YouTube, and you can have your say and fight back." And that's perceived in the movie as [if] I'm trying to make him do a diary cam for, like, The Real World. The audience doesn't trust my intentions. They don't think I have his best interests at heart. Which is interesting, 'cause, I mean, I sincerely did. I know that sounds maybe naive to say, but I was really trying to help him. But that's actually worked out great that it's not perceived that way.
AC: That's interesting that you become a character in your film. I'm wondering what that's like in the editing process. And Alex, you were in your first film [the narrative feature The Hole Story].
Karpovsky: It took me a year and a half to edit [The Hole Story] just because I kept shooting it, editing it, reshooting it. I just kept going back upstairs to the bathroom and reshooting a scene. And it became kind of a crazy thing. I was doing it all by myself in my parents' house in suburban Boston. It was not a pleasant process. I didn't have fun for most of it. And then finally I just lost it and asked my friend to step in and pick up the broken pieces. So I actually didn't finish editing the movie. I tried to. I think I got it into decent shape, but I couldn't carry that corpse over the finish line. I needed someone with fresh eyes and a different face. ... I realized I was making decisions based on vanity and narcissism rather than what was good for the movie. And sometimes I'd notice it, and sometimes I wouldn't, but ultimately it became a problem.
Beesley: But how could you not?
Karpovsky: It was hard. And I don't want to do it again.
Beesley: Well, it's interesting, Ben, that you found an editor.
Steinbauer: I had to. There was no way I could edit it, in a similar fashion to [Karpovsky], I think. Especially once I became a character, I just knew I had no perspective. It had been kind of a traumatic shoot for me, and so I couldn't look at the footage. I have too many associations. ... One of the most pivotal scenes in the movie, my pants are slouching so far down, it looks like I have pooped my pants. I have a hole in my sweater – I look horrible.
It's been one of these things where the more I'm exposed to it, I become desensitized. Now that we're about to show it to a lot of people, I'm starting to get nervous again. But once I had an editor come in, I forgot about it for a while, which was nice.
AC: It sounds like you had to put a lot of time into crafting a relationship with Rebney. Alex, your shoot was just a couple of days. Did you have a pre-existing relationship with T.J. and Dave?
Karpovsky: No, and I didn't know that much about improv to begin with. I just saw a show of theirs in New York; a friend dragged me to it. Most of the improv that I was exposed to before these guys was really not that good. It made me feel embarrassed for the performers.
AC: It's an awful feeling.
Karpovsky: It's a horrible feeling, which is a testament to how difficult it is to pull off. It's a really hard thing to do – especially for an hour, which is what these guys do, with no audience suggestions, no scene breaks – they just go for an hour. It's really hard.
So my friend dragged me to the show, and I went, and it was like a pseudo-mystical experience. It blew me away and made me think about all sorts of things – the underpinnings of human imagination and creativity and what these guys' relationship, their dynamic, was offstage. It made me really curious.
But there was never really a point when I felt: There's a movie here. There's a constant uncertainty as to whether or not this will be interesting. It still is. It'll be answered in a week or two, of whether or not people respond to it. You know, the basic challenge of the movie is: How do [you translate] this fundamentally 3-D theatrical live experience into a cinematic 2-D experience? I think it's generally tricky to do, and that was sort of the challenge and the source of enthusiasm for me.
And what I told Dave was, if we had 15 to 30 minutes before the show starts to create some kind of context, I think we have a chance to pull it off. A few basic models, even though they're very different, is My Dinner With Andre, which is basically a performance film in the sense that it's just a conversation. But there's a buildup to it – they walk around, and there's a voiceover for 10 minutes. I think without that, the movie wouldn't work. ... And also Swimming to Cambodia, which is also a performance film, but again, it doesn't start with Spalding Gray in the theatre – it starts with him walking around with a voiceover, which again I think is crucial.
Beesley: Because it hooks you in?
Karpovsky: It makes you get some basic read for who this person is. Hopefully this person is interesting, and it allows you to want to know more of him, and more of him in a different light than the one you've just been exposed to. In [Trust Us] I try to explore their relationship and their friendship, then hopefully you're interested in that, and you see how that translates and transforms to them being onstage together.
AC: What about you, Bradley – where did Prison Rodeo start for you?
Beesley: I think being a kid, growing up in Oklahoma, reading about the rodeo [in the papers]. Kind of being a suburbanite and creating your own narrative of what you think this rodeo is or could be. And then I was living in San Francisco in 2006, and I read some Washington Post article that said this is the first time females get to participate, and I thought: "Fuck it – I'm booking a ticket. I'm finally going to do this." So I got on a flight the next day. We shot for a day, and I was fucking scared, first of all. High-max-security prison. But also, like, "What am I doing here?"
I don't know why, but if I hear that you have a prison documentary, I'm automatically not gonna want to watch it. ... They're just so overdone and so cliché, especially on television – it's just not a topic that appeals to me. So I was going into it jaded. Like, "I'm just gonna go with my cameras just to shoot this event that's somewhat novel."
[To Karpovsky] You were saying you didn't know when it was going to be a film – I knew exactly. The first interviews were with Danny [one of the inmate bull-riders], and I had no idea he was going to become a main character. And he was talking about, "Just because you've killed in prison doesn't mean you're a murderer." And we're thinking, "Really?" Technically speaking, I think maybe it does. And then we kind of left the interview, because we shot the interview before we shot any of the rodeo, and my dad was there, and I [told him], "This is kind of creepy being in this prison, and these people are murderers, and I don't know if I want to be associated with them – like, I don't know if I want to spend three years of my life [on this project]."
And then you see this guy Danny get on the bull, and all of a sudden, you're like supertense. He only rides for three seconds, but after that, he comes back, and I'm like high-fiving and hugging him. And I caught myself mid all this, and I'm like, "Oh my God, this guy has killed someone." ... And I'm like: "Eh, I don't care. I'm caught up; I'm into it." So that's when I knew. You get caught up in the emotion. Maybe I'm just too big of a sap.
AC: So Bradley and Ben, you worked on each other's movies, and Alex, you've acted in a bunch of local people's films. I'm just curious how you feel about the Austin film community. Can we call you one of our own yet, Alex?
Karpovsky: I hope you can. I love it here. I've only been here a year and a half or so. ... I've lived in New York the last nine years. I never liked New York. I was there because my friends were there and there were some vague notions of opportunity there. But it's always a struggle to keep up financially. I get overwhelmed and anxious there very easily. I get claustrophobic there.
Beesley: This is a good place for you then.
Karpovsky: Yeah, it is.
AC: Why did you come down?
Karpovsky: For Andrew [Bujalski]'s movie [see "The Bee's Knees"]. And I had no intention of staying. But I just really loved Austin and wanted a break from New York at the same time. And [The Order of Myths director] Margaret Brown – her apartment was freeing up. So she went to New York and ...
Steinbauer: You lived in Margaret's old place? We lived right around the corner from there.
Karpovsky: Oh really? I now live at [Austin filmmaker] Heather Courtney's place, right around the corner from here. But I loved that neighborhood. Heather's in Afghanistan now.
Beesley: Is she still alive?
Karpovsky: Well, I got an e-mail a week ago.
Steinbauer: I saw [Austin filmmaker] Lisa Kaselak a couple of nights ago, and she had just gotten back from shooting something separately in Afghanistan, and they ran into each other on a base.
Beesley: No way.
Steinbauer: And they had no idea the other was there. She said it was the weirdest thing – they were shooting, and they literally almost backed into each other.
AC: What about you guys? You've pretty much signed on to Austin, right?
Steinbauer: You make it sound so ominous. Yeah, I love it here. It seems really, um – easy is maybe too reductive or simple of a word – but it's just like this [gestures around the table]. I mean, Alex, you needed a place; you found someone who had a place. You meet other filmmakers – it's like, everything in Austin happens that way. I have an anecdote: We were looking for a poster designer for this movie – the one we had wasn't working out. We went to Margaret Brown's afterparty, and we met this friend of a friend who, turns out, does illustrations for The New Yorker and This American Life in exactly the style that we'd been looking at that afternoon, thinking maybe we could find someone to do this. And it just naturally appeared. I have that experience over and over again in Austin. It seems like, as long that keeps happening, there's no reason to leave.
Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo
Special Screenings, World Premiere
Saturday, March 14, 11am, Paramount
Tuesday, March 17, 1:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Friday, March 20, 4:30pm, Austin Convention Center
Trust Us, This Is All Made Up
Emerging Visions, World Premiere
Friday, March 13, 9:15pm, Alamo Ritz
Tuesday, March 17, 6:30pm, Alamo Ritz
Friday, March 20, 8pm, Alamo Ritz
Spotlight Premieres, World Premiere
Saturday, March 14, 7pm, Alamo South Lamar
Wednesday, March 18, 6pm, Alamo Ritz
Friday, March 20, 1:30pm, Paramount