STEVE HENDERSHOT: This is Cedar Cathedral, a podcast about artistry, craftsmanship and the creative life in the Great Lakes. I’m Steve Hendershot, along with Clare Hendershot, from The Diving Bell, our band in Chicago.
The directorial style of indie filmmaker Brandon Colvin is deliberate, in both senses of the word: extremely intentional, and also extremely measured, carefully stripped of all energy. His characters are chronically weighed down by frustration, angst and disconnection, and one way Brandon conveys that is with stifling silence and dialogue that is delivered with all the zeal of a teenager answering questions at the dining-room table.
(clip from Frames plays)
CLARE HENDERSHOT: One problem with that approach is that Brandon himself doesn’t always feel that way. For example, there's the morning before the first day of shooting on his second film, Sabbatical. It was his first time working with experienced, professional actors—people whose work he knew and admired. They had come to Madison, Wisconsin, ready to receive his directorial wisdom.
SH: He was pretty geeked, blasting euphoric electronica and bouncing around his house like the amped-up frat boy that he generally is not. Then he got to the set and remembered, he was making a Brandon Colvin film.
BRANDON COLVIN: I would psych myself up to go into the set and tell the actors to like go way slower and talk way quieter, to just drain the energy out. That sort of is like calibrating the emotion to me because like the rate and volume in which people speak has emotional connotations, and you can get the right levels dialed in on all of those things then I think all the emotion is just there in the physicality in the comportment in how mumbly or clear someone’s voice is.
(clip from Sabbatical plays)
BC: The biggest surprise like the most pleasant surprise was when you ask professional actors to do something, they can do it. Their mastery of their bodies was astonishing to me, and they were able to get things so much more quickly than I even thought they might. It's like the less energy they put into it the more they have to trust that the filmmaking is going to make it work.
SH: And it did work. Every frame of Sabbatical, exudes the languid, oppressive mood Brandon was trying to capture. The silences and mumbles are arresting, and the most powerful line in the film is the one at the end that isn’t spoken. Sabbatical ranked fourth on FilmPulse’s best-of-2015 list, and it was singled out in a review of the New Orleans Film Festival for RogerEbert.com.
CH: On this episode of Cedar Cathedral, find out how Brandon Colvin grew into his distinctive approach to filmmaking, and about his next movie.
SH: First, a moment to thank you for listening to and supporting Cedar Cathedral. It was really cool, as we played Diving Bell shows in Michigan and in Chicago over the last couple of weeks, to meet people who are listening. And it was great hosting our first meetup, at Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids, where we talked about the West Michigan food scene.
CH: We’re still new, and could use your help spreading the word about our show about Great Lakes creators. If you’ve got friends who you think might like what we’re doing, please let them know about us. It would mean a lot. Same with iTunes reviews — we’ve got a tutorial on the website to show how to do that, and the whole thing only takes a few seconds. And if you’re looking for the full Cedar Cathedral experience, please follow us on Instagram and visit CedarCathedral.com, where we’ve got photos and often videos to accompany each episode. This week, for example, we’ve got both of Brandon’s films embedded in the episode transcript.
SH: Speaking of Brandon, let’s get back to his story.
THE VALUE OF ABSTRACTION
SH: Brandon lives in Madison, Wisconsin, where he is pursuing a PhD in film studies alongside his career as a writer and director. But let’s travel for a moment to rural, eastern Kentucky, the place where he grew up and where he fell in love with movies. He was that kid, living on the edge of a national forest but less interested in Daniel Boone than Robert Bresson. He played drums in post-rock instrumental bands, obsessed over David Lynch and Fellini, wrote edgy screenplays and generally was as indie as he could figure out how to be based on the influences available to him in greater Morehead. And it was music that most influenced his style as a filmmaker.
BC: There was a moment when I started getting into music when I realized that I didn’t really care about lyrics and I didn’t really care about the overt narrative that songs were trying to communicate or the characters they were trying to portray, but what I cared about was the emotional arc that was contained in the music and that was not reducible to like a verbal description and so that is sort of a way to start to value abstraction. Art that is more that seems to like flow from an emotional place rather than from a logical place.
SH: Still, when Brandon left for college, he did so as an aspiring film scholar, not a director.
BC: Somewhere along the way I lost confidence in the fact that I could be a filmmaker. It seemed very difficult and like something that I couldn’t actually touch. There were many things about the industry that seemed very unappetizing to me and uninteresting to me, like all the compromise, having to work your way up through the system when I felt like I was ready to make a film now. Like I needed to make it now. And I just had no interest in doing anything else on a film set other than being a director.
CH: So Brandon put it all to the side, didn’t even think about making movies until he had to write a screenplay for a school project right before graduating from Western Kentucky University in 2010. That first script wasn’t magic, but it did something magical to Brandon.
BC: I was sort of confronted with this urge that I guess I had repressed for a few years to make something. It was the first time that I had really completed something of that scale and it felt really good. And then I immediately wrote another one.
SH: Just for fun, he told himself. Something to do as he was getting ready to move to Wisconsin for grad school.
BC: I was like, “Okay, well I’m just going to have this in my back pocket, and I’m going to keep going on this academic path.”
CH: But then, once Brandon arrived on campus in Madison, he mentioned the screenplay to a new friend, cinematographer Aaron Granat. Aaron wasn't into the whole back-pocket thing.
BC: He was like, “That sounds awesome, let’s do it!” And I was like, “What?” And he was like, “Yeah, we can just do it.”
SH: So, yeah. Who needs Hollywood when you’ve got Aaron? The two of them turned that script into a film called Frames, about a teenage auteur who discovers an undercurrent of violence and abuse running beneath the placid surface of his small town. This was the first time viewers got to experience that signature Brandon Colvin vibe, this stylized brooding, and then as the climax approaches a different sort of tension gets woven in.
CH: Once the film was finished, Brandon was ready to share it with the world. Based on the style, he knew it wasn’t a mass-market blockbuster. But he knew it was good, and he figured it would light up the festival circuit.
BC: My style of storytelling is not the most approachable. It’s sort of demanding in a certain way, and a little bit unusual. I think sometimes I have aims that don’t quite line up with what people’s expectations are. And so I sort of thought, like, oh, you know, “Film festival programmers, they’re really in for the most difficult kinds of films. That’s where this film is going to find a home.”
CH: Instead, he soon discovered that getting people, even art-cinema fans, to watch independent films from unknown directors is almost as hard as making them in the first place. All of his submissions resulted in just a handful of film-fest screenings in 2012, including the first-ever Mt. Hood Independent Film Festival in Oregon and the last-ever Derby City Film Festival in Louisville. Cool, but not what Brandon was expecting.
SH: Fortunately, he also knew of a special corner of the Internet where micro-budget indie filmmakers and fans gather to screen one another’s work, called NoBudge.com, and he submitted Frames there. This time, he didn’t just catch a break, he scored a direct hit. He made a fan out of actor and filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who runs the site, and soon the audience Brandon really cared about — other indie filmmakers, people Brandon admired — they were also watching his movie, and loving it.
BC: That film getting on NoBudge and the reception that it got there, where it felt like it found people who got it, was the first time I really felt like I’m a filmmaker.
SH: Frames was named NoBudge’s 2013 feature of the year, and suddenly, not only was Brandon a viable filmmaker, he was making his second picture, Sabbatical, with a cast that included great, established actors like Robert Longstreet, Rhoda Griffis and even Kentucker Audley from NoBudge.
BENEVOLENTLY MISCHIEVOUS CATALYSTS
CH: We told you Sabbatical was good, and that it was well received, and that it was on the gloomy side. Yet it was on the set of Sabbatical, maybe as a release from the sober heaviness that permeates the movie, that Brandon got the idea for his next film, called Dim Valley. You’ll note that it’s a change of pace for him.
BC: It’s like sort of metaphysical sex comedy with a lot of dark stuff in it. And also some supernatural elements. And it’s about some inept biologists who come upon these strange women in the woods whose origin is very ambiguous, and these women become these sort of benevolently mischievous catalysts for these biologists.
SH: For Brandon, this new movie is a sort of allegory about Kentucky, and Brandon plans to film it in his hometown of Morehead. The biologists represent the repressive culture of his hometown, and the women in the woods represent the beauty, mystery and freedom of the nearby Appalachian wilderness. In other words, you’re still going to get your dose of Brandon Colvin angst, but this time, in the form of sex comedy perpetrated by mystical woodland sirens, there’s a counterbalance, a little light that’s allowed to leak into the frame.
BC: This is like one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, so I was like is there a way for there to be like a redemption.
CH: And for inspiration, he turned to one of my favorite directors, Hayao Miyazaki.
BC: There’s a kind of spiritual, animist quality to the way he thinks about the natural world, and it’s this sort of thing that is like, man if that were real, how beautiful would that be? And makes me feel so good. Because Sabbatical and Frames are both films that are pretty firmly entrenched in the negative emotional territory and so I was thinking about how to find hope and I think Miyazaki does something that feels like real hope to me.
SH: And so Brandon Colvin will return to Kentucky as a bona fide filmmaker with a distinct aesthetic and approach, and someone who is pulling off the difficult feat of pairing his challenging and artistically rich vision with an audience that will support it and be moved by it. That first day on set, surrounded by talented actors and crew and all the glory of Appalachia, he’ll probably be pretty excited. But here’s betting that he'll be up to the task when it’s finally time to tell all those actors that the right way to do a Brandon Colvin metaphysical sex comedy is to slow down and be more quiet.
CH: For more on Brandon Colvin, visit CedarCathedral.com. We’ve got photos as always, and you can also stream both Frames and Sabbatical in their entirety. Also, if you live in or around Madison, check out the Micro-Wave Cinema Series, the film series that Brandon runs to feature adventurous, provocative and beautiful work made by young American independent filmmakers.
MUSIC: FRANCES LUKE ACCORD
SH: Every week, we conclude the show by featuring a great indie band from the Great Lakes, and this week it’s Chicago-based duo Frances Luke Accord, whose debut full-length record Fluke just came out. Here’s Brian Powers from the band, speaking last Thursday, we caught up the day before the release:
BRIAN POWERS: It's been a long time coming. I mean it’s definitely the biggest project either of us had worked on.
SH: We’re going to play you a song called Something Moving, not only because our friend Kristina Priceman plays violin on the track, but also because it’s fantastic. Because there's something about it that's moving It’s so simple instrumentally, and yet it grooves so hard, and that is something that the other half of Frances Luke Accord, Nicholas Gunty is proud of.
NICHOLAS GUNTY: It’s really difficult to do simple things well in such a way that doesn’t betray their complexity but also allows the listener to feel comfortable. There’s a fine line that you gotta walk for sure and that song I think we’re both happy with how it turned out.
(Something Moving plays)
CH: Cedar Cathedral was produced this week by us, Steve and Clare Hendershot from The Diving Bell. Thanks to Brandon Colvin, both for sharing his story and showing us around Madison. For background music we turned to our bandmate, Graham Gilreath, who makes electronica under the name Redge. Thanks also to Brian Powers and Nicholas Gunty from Frances Luke Accord. We’ll be back in a couple weeks with another tale of Great Lakes creativity.