INTERVIEW: Steve Balderson
Firecracker - Steve Balderson speaks about his upcoming film & the acting debut of Mike Patton (EBM / SynthPop)
By: Danny Canak
Firecracker has been one of the most talked about films over the past two years despite the fact that it is yet to see the light of day. Big time actor Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, Apocalypse Now) has even declared it as one of the best scripts that he has ever read! What's it all about you ask? Firecracker is a thrilling murder mystery based upon the actual murder of David White which occurred in the city of Wamego in small town Kansas, USA in the mid 1950s. This astonishing story of abuse, suffering and denial reveals dreams of escape. The inevitable confrontation unleashes the truth concealed behind the pleasant facade of small-town USA. So what is it about this film that has generated so much interest? Well it could have something to do with the fact that Mike Patton makes his acting debut in Firecracker. And in case you're wondering, yes its Mike Patton of Faith No More, Mr Bungle, Tomahawk and Fantomas fame. I caught up with writer/director Steve Balderson to get the lowdown on this upcoming masterpiece.
Tell us a bit about the film. How did you come up with the title Firecracker?
Every year on our Independence Day, the 4th of July, Wamego is visited by a traveling carnival. The day is celebrated by small-town parades, night time fireworks displays, and the neon glow of the carnival booths. David White disappeared on the morning of July 5th, when the carnival left town. Aside from timing of the events, I think we're all lit fuses we take abuse, we deny abuse, we deny as much as we can, covering up things we'd rather not confront or discuss (regardless of the subject). Living this kind of way - how long can we handle it before we, too, explode?
There has been a lot of initial public interest in Firecracker despite the fact that it hasn't been released yet. Has that surprised you? What would you attribute it to?
I think there's something intoxicating about true stories - especially ones as insane as Firecracker. When I first heard about the disappearance and murder of David White, I was totally mesmerized. Not to mention it happened three blocks from where I grew up! I've often wondered what would've happened had Truman Capote heard of these events when he was here writing In Cold Blood. Sideshow oddities, gypsies, hidden secrets, murder and cover-up - right in the heart of small-town Americana. It's right up his alley! Although, I'm not sure the public could have handled the subject matter back then. Some of the events in Firecracker are more brutal than the events illustrated in Boys Don't Cry. They're nearly beyond belief.
The ensemble cast includes everyone from Karen Black ("The Great Gatsby," "Nashville," "Five Easy Pieces") to sideshow performer The Enigma. How did you go about assembling this eclectic bunch of characters?
Without using agents or managers! Because they can't comprehend the way I do casting. One of the first things I do when casting is scour magazines and newspapers looking for artists who visually possess the aesthetic I've designed. Second, I call them or get in touch with them personally. I check their voices do they sound interesting? Will I like to hear this person speak for 2 hours? Next, I find out how we behave with each other. How easily could I get them to do what I asked? How would we interact on set? How would they interact with my crew? Will I want to spend 14 hours a day for six weeks with this person? After passing the tests on a personal level, I make some sketches. I watch the scenes play out in my head, and if they fit - they fit. If they don't, I go on to the next person.
That's how I do casting. The problems with agents or managers are endless but the major issue I have with them is that they refuse to allow any sort of personal connection. You can't talk to their client until you've put down a sum of money. You can't even send them a letter until you've sent in thousands of dollars. It's like buying a car without taking a test drive -- simply ludicrous. Additionally, it makes no sense to me to develop a personal relationship with someone I won't be directing or spending any amount of time with. I mean, when the actors are out in the middle of Kansas shooting the movie, the agent or manager won't be there. So by not allowing film directors to speak to their clients - even to say hello on the telephone is just senseless.
I also don't believe in the need to hold auditions. I'm not interested in how well someone can recite a monologue from a play I'm not directing. I want to know how they can portray the people in the film we're working on. And I've learned that almost anyone can act. Clearly some people can pretend they are someone else more believably than others, but it's the director's job to get people to behave a certain way. If they are behaving in a way I don't see fits in the film, it's my job to show them the way. There are indeed people who simply cannot project emotion or pretend they are someone else. But those kinds of people are discovered during the initial casting process.
Dennis Hopper was initially to appear in the film. I heard that he loved the script when he first read it and was very keen to do the part. How did he take it when you said that you didn't have a part for him?
Yes, Dennis Hopper wanted to play Frank, the psychotic sideshow owner. He actually said Firecracker was one of the best scripts he'd ever read. So he invited my dad and me to his house. He was on board that same day but the story that follows is long. I'll try and keep it short, but to answer the question truthfully I must confront part of myself that lived in denial. And often that isn't easy for anyone.
For me it all came down to my original vision. It had to be done the way it was supposed to be. Whomever played Frank had to also play David. Hopper is forty years too old to play David. So if I kept him on as Frank, I'd be denying myself my true vision. It took me many months to finally realize that I had a wild decision to make. I had to ditch Hopper. But I lived all those months with a foggy illusion that Hopper's name brought fame and fortune to the project. There was even talk of him producing it. I was hypnotized by the illusion of fame and fortune. But when I realized that all the while I was in total denial of myself I wrote Hopper a letter explaining that he could not be Frank. I never called him up afterwards and asked, "Dennis, is that okay," because it wasn't his film. I didn't need his permission to be true to myself. I'll probably invite him to the premiere, but I haven't had another reason to call him. And I can't think of a reason he's had to telephone me. So I have no idea how he responded. Either, because he is a visual storyteller also, he respected my choice, or he didn't.
What then made you choose Mike Patton - a man who has had no acting experience previously apart from making music videos with Faith No More? What made you believe that he could pull it off?
He perfectly fit the pictures in my head. Acting in a film is no different than recording an album. Inflection, projection, emotion, rhythm, pretending to be different types of people - it's all the same. The only difference is the medium. In film we do sequences shot by shot. Much like recording artists go into the studio and record songs one at a time. They don't usually sit down and sing through the whole record all at once. It's not like performing on stage. The environment is totally controlled. If someone forgets a line or moves to the wrong place, we simply shoot it again.
Do you think he has a future in acting? Could he be the next Johnny Depp?
No doubt people will want him to appear in their movies. It's my understanding he's been offered quite a few since the early 90's. Mike has a certain kind of energy in performing that is rare among any theatrical artist (on stage or in film). But I don't see him taking some of the roles Johnny Depp has. Maybe it's just me, but I can't currently see him voluntarily choosing a brainless romantic comedy or teen spoof sequel. But again, Mike isn't the kind of person who limits himself, so I assume it would depend on the story regardless of the genre.
What was it like working with him and how did you both get in contact in the first place?
I approached him personally like I did the rest of the cast. Working with him was great. He was prepared, professional, and always reliable. There was never a single moment of craziness.
Did you ever consider using any of his music for the film?
No. I admire Mike for wanting to do a variety of things. He's a true artist. He doesn't have to sing in everything he does. He should be encouraged to do anything. Act, paint, take photos, sketch, write, build-- It's a bit narrow to think someone can only do one thing. Besides, this isn't Evita.
Edward Furlong (Terminator 2, American History X) and Blondie's Debbie Harry were also initially cast to star in the film. What happened to them?
Debbie and I were on great terms - we'd talk on the phone for hours and really became nice friends. But supposedly her music manager told her to abandon the movie and focus on her music career, while her acting manager, Jason Weinberg, really wanted her to do the movie. I mean it was only for a couple of weeks. When I called Debbie at home (to say goodbye and thank her) she was moving, and sounded upset, like something else was going on. I thanked her for supporting me and left it at that. Clearly whatever was happening was none of my business and had nothing to do with the movie.
Furlong, on the other hand, was a different issue. I was told by our co-producer at the time that Furlong wanted to play the role of Jimmy because he thought it could get him an Oscar. A few weeks later, for a variety of reasons, we got rid of said co-producer. When we did, I attempted to contact Furlong personally, like I had with all my cast and his agent refused to put us into contact. I tried to reason with the agent as best I could that I wasn't going to consider directing someone who was incapable of talking to me on the telephone. A couple weeks later I saw on the news that he was dropped from 'Terminator 3' and had entered rehab for substance abuse. So I started looking elsewhere.
Do you have any interesting stories to share from behind the scenes - any actors throwing tantrums, etc?
Plenty indeed. But I'd rather share the tales in a "tell all" book much later in my career. Truth be told, only one of the tantrums happened with me present. That one included a dim-witted crewmember from Los Angeles. All the other "episodes" happened to other people. Some of which I was never aware of until long after said individuals left town.
What are some of your influences/inspirations? What are your favourite CDs and movies of all time?
My top CD of all time is Ella & Friends with Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and others (GRP Records). Without question, my top movie of all time is The Night Of The Iguana with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams and directed by John Huston. I'd say that depending on the day and the feeling - I'm influenced by everything.
When do you expect Firecracker to be released?
We're just now beginning to discuss a strategy for distribution and marketing what film festivals to attend, where to have screenings, etc. However, you'll see it soon enough - anywhere in the world.
What do you have planned for the rest of 2004?
For the rest of 2004, I'll remain productive. I work from 9am until 7pm every day, seven days a week. But I love what I do so it's the best kind of working environment. In addition to preparing Firecracker for the world, I've just published Simple Times, a coffee table book of my late grandfather's photos (recently, our former President Jimmy Carter picked up a copy); I was hired to do a screenplay adaptation from Howard Norman's novel The Museum Guard; and I'm also developing new films for myself to direct. With the casting process for those just around the corner, I'm thrilled!
Any other final comments?
I just want to add that as long as you believe in yourself, and in your dreams and remain true to yourself in the process you can make anything happen. The trick is just having the courage and honesty. Making your dreams a reality is one of the most terrifying things in the world. I just hope that anyone who might have a doubt will see that it is possible. Accept no limitation.
Firecracker is now complete and should be released later this year.