Popatopalis With Clay Westervelt

Life can be so simple. In case you ever wondered what it takes to make a movie, well, ask Jim Wynorski. „A big chase and a big chest“ and you’re done. You doubt it? Doubt no more. The one-of-a-kind B-movie director who has worked under more alias names than Jess Franco and Prince combined is responsible for over 150 feature films since „The Lost Empire“ in 1985 – and counting. Clay Westervelt accompanied Wynorski during the complete shooting of his 2005 video effort „The Witches of Breastwick“. For 3 days (yes, three). The footage resulted in one of the most hilarious documentaries on movie-making ever. Now available on iTunes and Netflix, „Popatopolis“ charms a whole generation of exploitaiton fans, bare-breast-lovers and aspiring filmmakers with no money at all. We talked to Westervelt about the project, how it came about, the benefits of independent filmmaking and what it’s like to be on a Jim Wynorski set.

screen/read: It’s only a couple of months ago that your film finally got available on Netflix Instant, iTunes and as a higher quality DVD at Amazon. Quite a lot of time went by since you started filming I think. When was the premiere? 2009?

Clay Westervelt: Yeah, 2009 was the premiere. We actually started filming in 2003 I believe. So it took quite a while to put the whole thing together. It didn’t take very long for the initial shoot obviously, that was three days [laughs], but everything else really adds up. We went tracking down some of the other folks for taking interviews, like making an appointment with Roger Corman, and then there’s several other wondeful interviews that we got from various people. So it took a long time to get all of that together and also just to watch through a lot of Jim’s movies [laughs]. But what really took the longest time was the editing. I knew that it was going to take a while and I was comfortabel putting the extra effort into it because this was a challenging movie in a lot of ways. We knew from the beginning that this wouldn’t necessarily be a puff piece, that the documentary would have some teeth and not everything was necessarily going to present everybody in the most flattering of light. But that also meant that we had a great responsibility in the editing room. I like Jim, I consider Jim a friend, and I was very, very specific about the film never making a joke at anyone’s expenses. I knew there would be funny scenes but I didn’t want it to be like we as filmmakers would look clever making fun of anybody or anything. So we worked really hard and pulled a lot of jokes out because they didn’t feel right. I’m very proud of the result now and probably the best that’s happened from it is that so far everybody involved seems to be supportive of the film. Because that’s always a danger when you’re making a documentary following people. No matter how true to life you think you’re being, you always run a risk of frustrating somebody. So we’ve been very lucky in that regard.

screen/read: It’s quite ironic that it took six years to make a film about a three day shoot and that says a lot about the care you took for the result and the people involved. But stepping back in time, where did the idea for the project initially come from? Actually, Jim Wynorski is not necessarily the first one you’d think of when wanting to make a documentary on a filmmaker.

Clay Westervelt: [laughs] Well, I had first met Jim maybe in 2001. I had just finished USC film school and I got a call from Franchise Pictures, who had done films like „The Art of War“, „The whole nine Yards“ and „Battlefield Earth“. Not the best movies but some pretty big budget ones [laughs]. And at that time HD video was just seeping into independent filmmaking and a lot of cinematographers were frightened off by it as they came from a film background. I luckily though had been exposed to both and so I got a call from Franchise, asking me if I wanted to come doing reshoots on this film that they did. It was an action film that they had scheduled for a 14 day shoot. I thought that sounded a little tricky but they went, „The thing is, we did it on location in Hawaii, and the crew actually shot it in 6 days and then took the rest of the days off to go to the beach. Consequently, we don’t have any wide shots.“ So they asked me if I could shoot the beaches in Los Angeles and make it look like Hawaii. And while I wasn’t sure if I could make it look like Hawaii, I was at least pretty sure I could make it look better than whatever the hell they were starting with. So I took the job, they fired the DP and hired me to shoot it. They also fired the director and hired Jim Wynorski to direct it. I found out later that they had wanted him because he had the reputation for being able to bring in movies on time and on budget. So he was going to be the saviour of the film. And he really was in every way. I didn’t get to meet him until the first day of the shoot and when I finally did he stormed through the door and instantly reminded me of John Candy in „Uncle Buck“ [laughs]. A very imposing, very intimidating character who has no problem raising his voice at a moment’s notice and I had been warned that he had a reputation for yelling at people. He never yelled on anybody in my crew though.

But what intrigued me was that halfway through the day it became very clear that deep inside he was a really nice guy, no matter how loud he was getting. And I think the thing that most fascinated me was to see how excited he got about what he was doing while I had already sort of developed that kind of professional filmmaker’s edge of feeling like that’s what we’re getting paid for, that’s what we’re supposed to do. And then there was Jim and I mean, we weren’t doing great crane moves or anything, but he would just get a twinkle in his eye and smile and say „This looks like a movie!” And I became jealous seeing that sense of wonder and of amazement and pure joy that he was experiencing. It reminded me of something I honestly hadn’t really experienced much since when I was back in high school fooling around with my parents’ video camera. And I just thought, I want to feel that way, I want to experience this world and this job the way that he experiences it. And that’s a trick. It’s very easy to forget how lucky we are to work in this industry and what a joy it is. It’s so easy to become grumpy and jaded. And if you can manage to do your work every day and do it with the sense of joy that Jim does, I don’t know what better gift there is.

screen/read: A lot of that translates very well in the film. For the most part, watching this three-day-shoot feels like he’s doing some home movie with a couple of friends. You’ve experienced the atmposphere in set, do you think that this not-so-uber-serious constellation without big studio pressure is the reason for his somewhat child-like approach?

Clay Westervelt: I think the close quartered, independent nature of it definitely lends itself to that sense of fun. There is no big brother looking over you. This is truly independent filmmaking where Jim is not responsible to anybody but himself. So with that, with whatever good and bad that brings, you get a sense of security. As a crew member, as an actor you have a sense of security that if the big guy says, „Good, moving on”, then that’s it. You know that everybody who needs to be happy is actually happy. And it’s definitely true that on any set the director is going to establish the mood for that set, and I think that „Popatopolis” pretty accurately portrays that sensibility from scene to scene. There’s this moment when Jim goes to pick up his lighting equipment and the guy wants to offer him five lights and he goes, „Wow, that’s a lot of light. I don’t have the guys to move them around. We got to keep this small and manageable.” So he leaves with only two lights. And from that point on he sets the tone of „We’re gonna move quickly.” But nobody is going to get abused or overworked. Of course, nobody is living in great luxury, nobody has a Winnebago Trailer out there for themselves, but also, nobody is working 24 hours a day. And everybody is fine with either. So I definitely think that there is nothing like being on a Jim Wynorski set. You’re never going to move as quickly and have as much fun. And you have to say that it all comes from Jim.

screen/read: And it looks like he’s comfortable with where he stands. There are various occasions in the film dealing with the question of whether he should move on to big budget productions, even Roger Corman mentions it. And that is something you would expect a filmmaker working in the low to no budget area to aim for. Not in his case it seems though. And that is one thing that feels pretty unique about him.

Clay Westervelt: I would agree with you. I for myself only run a small production company but there’s this sense of people that the purpuse of having a small business is to eventually turn it into a big business. And I think that can be a mistake. I think there’s a great value in knowing where you’re comfortable. Not every small business owner wants to live the life of the CEO of a major corporation. „Popatopolis” has been criticized for not addressing if Jim wants to do bigger movies or not. But that’s intentionally left out because I have heard him say opposing things. I’ve heard him say, „Sure, I’d love to do a 10 milion dollar movie, but nobody is knocking at my door and offering that to me.” I’ve also heard him say, „If someone gave me 10 milion dollars to make a big movie, I’d probably make a 1 milion dollar movie.” And I actually think both of those quotes are probably true, they just represent two different sides of him. I guess he’s up for any challenge, so if someone would hand him 10 milion dollars, I would love to see what he could do with it. But on the other hand I think he also gets a tremendous amount of accomplishment from stretching the dollar as far as he can get it to go. And I identify with that too. My guess is that for him a lot of that makes him proud of his work. He’s basically doing what people don’t expect him being able to do. Everybody expects you to make a great movie when you have 60 milion dollars. While a lot of times it doesn’t turn out so good [laughs].

screen/read: Unfortunately very true. Now in preparation for this I rewatched various of Jim’s films and among them was „Gargoyle – Wings of Darkness” where you have a lot of car chasing footage that he bought and it looks sort of good for what it is. And I imagined that movie with a budget of say, 60 to 70 milion dollars, and thought it would still pretty much be the same movie only looking more polished and expensive. And that’s a decisive difference to most of the independent low budget filmmakers who moved on, completely sold out and lost what made them so interesting along the way.

Clay Westervelt: Right, I think you’re exactly right.

screen/read: During that three-day-period of filming and being among the people involved, did you get the feeling that they are sort of living on some kind of island within the ocean of the filmmaking industry? Like in their own very special place that doesn’t even connect with the rest of the world? Cause that’s what it feels like to some degree when you watch the film.

Clay Westervelt: I think that every film production that you’re a part of has this sense of, call it family, call it an isolated island of your own or whatever. Anytime you are in a film production you have that experience I guess. I often said that no matter how long or short a production is, whether it takes three months to film or one week, it always feels like a year of my life [laughs]. So you go through beginning, middle and end of that project and you’re working with and are seeing the same people every day and so there is this sense of family that develops. No matter what size the project is, no matter if it’s independent or under a studio system. Sometimes those are very good families with people that you enjoy being around and can’t wait to see again. At other times there’s a less pleasant family where you think you must be adopted and can’t wait to find your way out of it [laughs].

But I think what you’re really asking is probably answered more by the fact that on a Jim Wynorksi film you tend to have people that are of the same mind. In other words, you’re going to have people who are there because they love what they’re doing and in no way are there just for the money. So even the more jaded of folks on a Jim Wynorksi set are still in touch with something that they love about what they’re doing, otherwise they just wouldn’t be there. And also everybody on that set loves him too. I think „Popatopolis” does a very good job at portraying what it’s like to be on one of those sets. You see him moving quickly but he is not the guy who is just saying, „Look, I need a wide shot, a close-up and one over the shoulder”. And no matter what Jim is working with I don’t think you can ever say that he is doing it without care. You can see it in my film that he wants to do it right. He doesn’t do a bunch of takes but he doesn’t leave until he’s got what he needs.

screen/read: There’s this one scene in the film that portrays this very well. It’s when Julie Smith isn’t getting one sentence right. And she isn’t getting it right for about ten minutes or so. And Jim was nice but demanding at the same time – apart from the fact that I thought it was totally unimportant if she said these specific lines according to the script or not. That sequece is very different from the rest of the film and it was my feeling that you left it in to show how much he cares about making things right. Or how did you experience the whole incident?

Clay Westervelt: I’m glad you mentioned that. It’s one of my favorite scenes. And it’s one of those that in test screenings would most often get criticized. People would say „You should just cut out a lot of that stuff and how many takes they’re doing on Julie’s line.” But I was totally against that from the beginning. I wanted minimal cuts in there because if you started to cutting it up and just showing take after take after take then you would start making fun of her for not being able to get the line right. And that wasn’s my intention. What I find in that scene I think is that it’s much richer than that. I go back and forth in it. Sometimes I feel bad for Julie because we’ve all had that experience of having a lot of pressure and not enough sleep and enough time and whatever reason there is for not getting something right. Then I go back to kind of understanding Jim’s point of view and there are several takes where the lines really don’t make sense at all. But the best thing about it is that I got to watch it with Jim and Julie and they both see that scene as Jim’s failure to be able to help her. Which I think says a lot about their relationship. So for me it’s a very rich scene about what’s going on between these two people.

screen/read: Fortunately you left it in. Also, that is again a huge advantage of working independently. I’m pretty sure if there had been a studio or a major production company behind this, they’d certainly forced you to cut it out.

Clay Westervelt: I think so too, I definitely do. I had the luxury to make this one on my own dime and I don’t know how I could have done it any other way if there was someone looking over my shoulder who would have put pressure on me one way or the other. I count it as a major accomplishment to be able to deliver a documentary with this much humor and with this many support by everybody involved. And that means something to me.

screen/read: Now with „Popatopolis“ finally being out and available for everyone, what are your next projects? And will making documentaries be the central focus further on?

Clay Westervelt: Actually, I had graduated from USC thinking that I was exclusively heading into fictional narrative filmmaking as a director. But what I found in the years since then is that in addition to that interest I have a great love for documentary which I never saw coming. I didn’t study documentary in school at all. So there are more documentaries coming up. My partner and I are finishing one right now with a completely different type of story. It’s about a pageant for disabled girls here in the US, it’s a heartwarming story about girls who have different types of disabilities finding their own voice and getting to be known for who they are as a person. It’s called „Chasing Butterflies“. Additionally, I’m putting together a low-budget thriller. That’s one that we’re in development on right now. And also I’m working on a science-fiction film as well and looking for funding there. Both of them I wouldn’t mind doing under the studio system but I’d be thrilled to work independently as well.

screen/read: You’ve experienced both sides, budget-wise as well as regarding creative freedom. From your point of view, what would you say defines the difference? And where do you see specific chances for working independently in the future?

Clay Westervelt: From my experience as a director and in terms of the process there’s not a huge difference between high budget and low budget. You can work with great people at any budget level both in your crew and in your cast. But where I do see the big difference is in the marketing or in the distribution. The movie distribution business is changing. I’m closely watching the music industry as a model, because that business has been shaken up by digital downloads and pirated material. And the same is happening to movies. I think what we’re heading towards is an eruption of independent distribution methods. Yet no-one knows what exactly that is going to be. Also the difference in advertising a film today plays an important role and the web is a big game changer as it allows a very specific type of marketing. You’re almost like a sniper there, being able to exactly aim at your core audience, and that’s really new. So things are changing. Of course, there will always be a place for the big budget Hollywood movies to a certain degree, but I think that with new distribution models we’re also going to start finding really unusual interesting voices of independent filmmakers that have a unique view on the world. And those will be able to get their material out to the public in a way they weren’t able to afford only years ago.