SXSW FILM FESTIVAL 2010
By Don Simpson | March 24, 2010
Jimmy Tupper vs. the Goatman of Bowie was the very first SXSW 2010 screener that I watched and it really set the bar high for the rest of this year’s films. I have always wanted to like found footage horror films – most likely due to my obsession with cinematic realism – but films like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield left me feeling so frustrated. Found footage directors never seemed to really respect the intelligence of their audience. I always felt like the director didn’t think I would notice if some scenes could not have been filmed by any character in the film or there is unrealistic expositional dialogue. Then again, maybe most filmgoers didn’t care that the directors cheated or took shortcuts in order to advance an all too traditional narrative?
Well, after watching Jimmy Tupper vs. the Goatman of Bowie, I immediately sensed a kinship with its writer-director-actor Andrew Bowser. I was really excited about meeting up with Bowser at the Austin Convention Center to chat about micro-budget found footage horror films, more specifically the one that truly strives for cinematic realism – Jimmy Tupper vs. the Goatman of Bowie, which screened as part of SXSW 2010’s “Midnighters” series. Without spoiling too much of our conversation before you even have an opportunity to read the interview – I did confirm that Bowser and I are truly of the same ilk.
DS: How much of the creation of this film was a direct result of budget restraints?
AB: It had almost everything to do with budget restraints. We made our first feature – The Mother of Invention – about a year and a half ago and it had a micro-budget even when compared to indie film levels of budgets; but it was still a good amount of money for us and we had to get a good number of investors onboard to make it. We got into two tiny festivals with The Mother of Invention and not really much play anywhere else. So I was itching to make another feature because I think it is important to keep stretching that muscle of “I need to be a feature filmmaker” – even if its feature filmmaker who is making micro-budgeted features. Being out in LA nobody wants to give you money to make a feature unless you’ve made a feature and you can’t make a feature without money. Nobody on that side of the fence understands the mind-screw that is. So I just figured that I had to make something that is the length of a feature. I started watching the more experimental Gus Van Zant films like Paranoid Park, Gerry and Last Days – sometimes he even doesn’t bother finding a narrative at all, but instead he follows some thread-line through and reaches 70 minutes or more and it’s a feature. I know I don’t have any cred like he does, but I was inspired just to structure something out that would be feature length. I thought that it needed to be found footage because that would be something that wouldn’t cost any money. So I started structuring out what would be a found footage monster movie that I could shoot for relatively nothing. That’s kind of how it came about. It was necessity being the mother of invention, in the sense that I just wanted to make a movie but had no money – so that’s kind of how it came about.
DS: I assume that you’re probably hearing some comparisons to The Blair Witch Project?
DS: How do you feel about those comparisons and do you feel as though The Blair Witch Project had an influence on Jimmy Tupper?
AB: I think it did in the sense that our film is, I believe, a reaction to Blair Witch, Paranormal Activity – Cloverfield, honestly, more than anything because that’s the film that feels the most fabricated and artificial of the films that are supposed to be real and tangible because they are found footage. Not that it is intending to be very visceral; but, the point being, I feel like our film is more of a reaction to found footage films than it is just another found footage film. So I don’t think it could exist without Blair Witch – Paranormal Activity hadn’t come out yet when we made it so it doesn’t have much to do with that film – a character in our film even references Blair Witch. So it is supposed to exist in the reality of found footage films being something that this character has seen. That’s what would hopefully set it apart – that is a sort of irreverent take on it and not a dead serious entry into it.
DS: How important was it to you to establish a sense of realism and what guidelines did you establish for yourself, the cast and the crew to achieve that level of realism?
AB: Realism was the only goal, really. Because I feel like in the found footage genre, you should be striving for realism; but so often those films just fall back on a lot of clichés that any narrative film has – with expositional dialogue, things happening just a little too perfectly, and timing everything out. Everything in those films – they often seem like they are just handheld narrative films. In Blair Witch, at least they gave the lead character the impetus to be obsessed with filming – she was a documentarian. She would not shut the camera off and that was the part of her character that aggravated the other characters, so it kind of worked. With Paranormal Activity, I don’t think they built up enough of a reason to have that camera on non-stop. Point being, I really wanted our film to feel like what would be on a mini DV tape that a bunch of guys in Bowie, Maryland used to film themselves partying and goofing off – and then every once in a while, maybe the character that owns the camera has to film his brother’s high school graduation. Maybe there’s a night when his girlfriend takes the camera because she’s going to be having a slumber party with her friends and wants to goof off. I feel like we took found footage more seriously in a way; but, then again, that is part of the complaint – that it’s so found footage that it’s more experimental than narrative at times.
I was constantly telling my actors not to sound too expository in how they were giving their lines; and not to care if something was in the frame that you think “it’s a movie so you need to see that.” Maybe you don’t need to see that. Maybe you don’t need to hear that. Can the audience piece stuff together even if the frames are skipping – which just happened naturally because the tapes are crappy. And then there’s never a cut that couldn’t be the camera being manually shut off by a character. Obviously with films like Paranormal Activity they get around that because they say “well somebody found this footage and now we are releasing it, so we can fast forward and edit it.” But I wanted to put something on the screen that actually felt like we took the tape out of the camera and put it on the screen. That’s why you have to sit through a lot of action that doesn’t end until someone walks back and shuts off the camera – it’s tedious but it kind of an exercise in tedium, really.
DS: I think for those of us who really appreciate the level of realism that you are attempting, it really pays off.
AB: It’s just not as serious to a lot of other filmmakers that can set up tenets and precepts, and then dodge around them. For me as a filmmaker, I thought it would be more fun to follow those restrictions to a meticulous point.
DS: How did you come up with the character of Jimmy Tupper?
AB: He was kind of an amalgamation of people I grew up with in Bowie, Maryland – where I’m from. I’ve always been someone who has been very active and productive. I’ve always wanted to make movies. I started acting when I was 8, and yadda yadda yadda. I would see a lot of people in my hometown who were – and this isn’t supposed to sound mean but I really believe that everybody has a purpose, everybody has someplace that they could reach that would feel to them that it was a destiny fulfilled – I was surrounded by a bunch of guys who didn’t feel that way. They didn’t necessary act like they had any purpose or destiny. I thought it would be cool to make a character that was a composite of those types – a guy who just wasted his time. Maybe deep down he has a dream to do something bigger, but has been met with too many closed doors. I thought it would be cool to kind of give him a purpose through something that is fantastical or supernatural – whether or not he finds that purpose or steps into it fully or rejects it is up to…you’ll see in the movie. But I thought it would be neat to have somebody like that thrown into a situation that would maybe challenge them or require more of them than the world has required of them thus far.
DS: How important was it for you to establish his untrustworthiness? This guy is a drunk, a loser, and he exaggerates…
AB: Really important. I’m a fan of underdogs. The character in our first feature – The Mother of Invention – is a very hapless dimwit in most people’s eyes. It was very important to build the idea that Jimmy is the butt of everyone’s jokes. And there are other guys in his crew of friends that are more formed characters: Pedro is the funny guy; Mike is the leader who is the tall handsome guy and the only one who we see that has a girlfriend in this film. Jimmy is just kind of the blank slate, the listless one; and yes the one who is always drinking too much and the one who is always being a burden on the rest of the guys. That was part of the dynamic that I wanted to play with – what if a guy like that tried to convince everyone that he saw something? They would not believe him. They just wouldn’t. It wouldn’t mean the same thing coming from someone who was more respected. It needed to come from someone that no one had any respect for.
DS: How often was the camera actually in an actor’s hands?
AB: Whoever was supposed to be holding the camera was actually holding the camera. That’s why I encouraged them to talk and be loud. The idea was that these guys aren’t camera operators. They don’t know how to follow action or keep the camera steady. I didn’t want a D.P. to be playing a character. That’s why there are scenes where the camera is upside down – because the person didn’t realize it was on – stuff that can be really annoying for an audience but hopefully they can kind of find the humor in it. But, yes, any time that the camera is rolling – whoever’s voice you hear, that’s who is holding it and that’s who is supposed to be holding it. And when I’m alone, I was the only one out there in the woods…
DS: And how did you handle your drinking scenes? I thought your performance as a drunk was pretty convincing.
AB: It’s funny because I guess I didn’t think about “well the character is a drunk so he’s just going to be drinking all the time” and I just starting filming and people kept handing me beers. I know my limit very well with what I can handle when it comes to drinking, so I realized a couple beers in that “I now need to ask someone to empty all these cans and fill them with water” because I wanted to be able to stay sober-minded to direct. I’m not one who just wants to rely on “I’ll just get trashed and we’ll get the scene.” The actor part of me just thinks that’s cheating. It was just a goof on my part to not think ahead “you know you’ll have to be doing this for hours and you will have to do probably a couple of different takes.” We just didn’t have the foresight – to empty out all the beer cans and fill them up in order to be ready for the night – because it just wasn’t that kind of shoot. It was a “could you have people come over to your house and actually party and we’ll be there with a mini DV camera” kind of shoot. Some of them knew that we were filming, but didn’t know why. Some of them actually threatened me physically – which I thought would had been awesome if it happened on camera, but it didn’t. It was after the fact that they said “I was going to punch you. I didn’t know what you guys were doing. You were so obnoxious.” I really wish that they had said that on camera. It would have been great to have that in the scene. Also, I think the audience would have loved that because there would be some action up front. There are multiple scenes of Jimmy drinking, but I never was drunk on camera – I was smart enough to avoid that luckily.
DS: What do you see as the benefits of showing a film at a film festival like SXSW?
AB: Just feeling a part of something and feeling accepted into something that I consider to have great prestige. Films that I’ve loved have come out of this festival. As an independent filmmaker, my route is one of banging on the door over and over again – as it is for a lot of filmmakers at this festival. They’re broke. I went to a panel today called “War Stories.” It was just refreshing to hear people say “yeah, we secured distribution but I’m still in this much credit card debt and I’m still sending out checks that I know will bounce.” There is just something that feels wonderful to have a festival open its doors. I just consider getting in a “thumbs up.” Even if the audience booed through our entire film, I would feel amazing that it even played here. I’m realizing that I’ve gained a feeling of, I guess, validation – for lack of a better term. I know that constant debate of the artist – are you looking for validation? Well, you shouldn’t be because your art will be affected by the response and criticism too much. But, I have to be honest, not getting into this festival would have made this year a much harder year for me creatively. It’s hard to keep tricking yourself into thinking that the breakthrough is around the corner. I know I’m only 27, but I’ve been acting since I was 8 and making films since I was 12, so it feels like a lifetime. I know it hasn’t been. I know there is plenty of time. Meeting the other filmmakers and hearing their stories and the other festivals that they’ve played and their experience with getting funding or not getting funding or getting representation or not – that’s been an awesome thing. It just seems like everyone here has grace. They understand that these films, a lot of them, were made with little to no money. So it’s a really good environment that’s just spurring me on.
DS: What is your intended audience for this film? It’s screening at SXSW 2010 as part of the “Midnighters” series – is that your ideal audience or are you hoping for some crossover outside of the realm of cult/midnight movies?
AB: Definitely. Originally that was my intended demographic – that’s where I thought this film would hit best. But a lot of our feedback – our first screening there were some questions during the Q&A session where people were already asking about the sequel, and that was coming from kids like me that love stories that are epic – they have these three part series that you follow this character through all of the ups and downs and they evolve. Evil Dead to Army of Darkness style or even Ripley through the Alien series. I don’t know why but we just love serialized storytelling – I grew up reading comics. It was cool to see that somebody of that ilk was getting that satisfaction from my film. Then, I had a girl come up to me – who is a student here at UT studying film – and the thing she loved about the film was its experimental nature and its abstract storytelling. She was even talking about French cinema and things like that. That was encouraging because I really think it could be a genre-bending crossover piece if more people see it. I think it could be for a lot of different audiences. I think it was a good idea for the festival to play it at midnight. I think that’s cool that we’re getting great responses from that. But, in the future, yeah I hope that it can crossover and be seen from a different perspective. I think the structure and the pacing was something that I learned about in film school as far as how to build something out of nothing.
DS: And it doesn’t really have any violence or gore…
AB: That was a fear of mine going into this. Especially with the name – I kept going back and forth with the name, thinking with something like this you just have to make it as overt as possible because maybe that will get people into the seats. Even our poster is very vintage and b-movie inspired. I do feel like the film really evolves into that image, but I’m wondering if it could cause disappointment because it doesn’t have the violence and the gore that a poster like that would insinuate. I’m kind of still figuring it all out. I definitely am not sure the best way to represent this film to people. That’s something that I’m thinking about even more now, after sitting through it with an audience. Was this even the right title? Should it have been called something like Polanski’s old movies – like a vague adjective that hints toward an emotion – maybe it should have been called Delusion or something like that? That’s still a question in my head – whether or not I am going about things from the right angle? I don’t know. We’ll see, I guess.
DS: What was your primary intention or goal with this film?
AB: What I wanted – and which could very well happen, if not from this film festival than some other festival – is that this would find a modest release at least on DVD. Then, that could lead to a sequel because I have already written the second script – being the early preparer that I am – and it is something that I find really exciting. The sequel is something that – even more so than this first kind of prologue film – would please multiple audiences. There is something in it more in line with what the midnight crowd would want, but it still is inspired by a lot of emotional character building pieces and – this is going to sound incredibly pretentious when talking about a Goatman movie – the films that Cassavetes made. It would be fun if filmmakers starting blending the genres more. Why can’t we have something pulled from this film and put into this genre? Chris Nolan doing Batman films is completely blurring the lines between crime thriller, drama, and superhero action piece – and he’s doing it wonderfully. So I think more filmmakers are probably going to start to do that, and that’s what I want to do with the horror gore thriller genre. If I could describe the sequel – and I’ve already told this to people and they roll their eyes – but I would say it is Buffalo ‘66 meets The Thing. People hear that and they say “good luck finding anyone to pay to make it and then to pay to see it.” But I have to believe it’s possible. Or, I would be happy if this one had a healthy festival run and developed a cult fan base around it.
DS: At what point will you actually go ahead and make the sequel?
AB: I don’t know. Part of me has thought that you just have to start looking for avenues to fund it immediately, just because I’m getting less and less excited about the idea of waiting for some big hand to come out of Hollywood and grant me any kind of money to do anything. I’ve thought of finding someone local to my home town that may be interesting in helping me get it made. I’ve even thought of shooting the portions that I can afford to shoot almost on my own, then use that footage as a fundraising tool to finish the bigger aspects of this second script. I think after South By I am going to read through the script again and think realistically about what a budget would look like for it. I would love to start shooting something next year just because I’m excited about this idea. I am very eager to do it because I’m excited about the character and what we’ve set up. The crowds seemed really excited when it hit the sequel’s title at the end credits – we got a really vocal response – which is really fun for me. It makes me feel like – as challenging as a watch as it can be for certain people, it wasn’t just 10 people cheering at the end but it was the whole theater.
For more information on Andrew Bowser and his film Jimmy Tupper VS. the Goatman of Bowie please visit: www.thegoatmanofbowie.com
Don Simpson’s review of: JIMMY TUPPER VS. THE GOATMAN OF BOWIE