Sweetback (SB): Before we jump into THE CAN-CANNIBALS DOUBLE FEATURE, I was hoping you might discuss your production company ALWAYS WRONG FILM, which takes a DIY collaborative attitude to film-making. What’s the ethos behind it, and how – ideally – would you like to see it grow?
Matthew Ragsdale (MR): I don’t ever want to appear that I’m better than anyone else working my project. Yes, I’m the director and I make all the decisions, but I don’t have to pretend I’m not working with my peers because they are my peers. No one is actually beneath me in any form. It really irritates me when I see other no-budget directors acting this way. But it shows, because those directors don’t finish projects, they don’t properly repay the cast and crew and they don’t keep the respect from them either.
I want all of my projects to be fun and cooperative; and since we shoot with local actors and use the same actors in various projects, the cast and crew become friends and to me that’s very important to build up and to keep that sort of bond. And getting into the collaborative part: by that I don’t mean we’re like Astron-6 and we all direct and write one project. With my projects, I direct and write, but my brother Paul shoots everything; and he also writes and directs his own films. I trust my brother with his opinions on the script and every other aspect of the film, but with the actors, their contribution comes mostly from helping out in other departments. I don’t want to hear directing advice from my actors, but their input with locations, costumes, props, make-up, etc is very important and is appreciated. No one is being paid to perform one task/job; we all work together to make the best possible project. If an actor shows up to the set and just acts that’s fine, but when they go the extra mile to help me it shows with the end product being even better than I had planned.
SB: You’ve been pumping out projects regularly since your controversial first film REMOVAL NOTES. I imagine that film – which focused on a school shooting – was very much a trial by fire. What was the response like to that film, and how has your experiences on that piece affected your work since?
MR: REMOVAL NOTES was my final for the advance film course at Modesto Junior College, which sadly no longer offers a film class, and it had very limited screenings and hasn’t garnered many views online. What I heard were some negative responses, mostly though it was people saying I “copied” Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT, which I don’t understand how when we both used the same real life event as our source material. Other than that and a few pats on the back, there wasn’t much to work off regarding viewer response. What I did take away from that project was the entire experience of making the film. To this date, REMOVAL NOTES is still one of the biggest projects I’ve worked on. It had a big cast, long script and many props. The experience taught me how to handle every obstacle that would come up with the proceeding projects because I had gone through most of them with “Removal Notes.” It seems that doing a project that I wasn’t ready for, in regards to my experience, was one of the best things for me as a filmmaker. Also it didn’t cost a lot to make, only about $300.00 so I wasn’t putting every penny I had into a project that really didn’t do much for me audience wise. I’m very grateful and proud of that film.
SB: The CAN-CANNIBALS DOUBLE FEATURE short takes the form of a fake trailer, similar to Jason Eisener’s original HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN trailer. What specific challenges are there in trying to create the look and feel of older exploitation features, while trying to fulfill the needs of a trailer at the same time?
MR: When editing The Can-Cannibals I discovered what the most essential aspect of a fake trailer was, in my mind: random cutaways to random scenes. With a real trailer you have a full movie to work with and tons of dialogue and action that can be constructed together to make a mini short story, but when making a fake trailer you forget to put in random scenes of the main character walking, thinking, starring off into the distance or saying one-liners that don’t have to do with the next shot the proceeds it.
I tried really hard to figure this out but I would always end up building entire scenes instead of just one 5 second clip. That was the real challenge. I do have a gag at the very end of the trailer that says, “Coming soon. Summer ’93.” But I didn’t bother with 90s appropriate costumes or cell phones, I just used modern ones. I didn’t do that because of budget. I did not want to spend any money that I didn’t have to and costumes were a department I was not willing to spend on. Also my trailer is influenced by exploitation it’s not trying to only emulate them. Originally I didn’t want to use any grain filters because so many other trailers use them, but since I couldn’t put in VHS scratches, due to my lack of ability, I went with the film scratches. So now instead of foregoing the film grain I decided to be original with the concept of a fake trailer by making it a trailer for a double feature. Then I went further and made it a double feature that stars the same group of actresses/performers The Can-Cannibals. So it depends on what you are going for in your own trailer. If it’s a period piece then you’ll have to get the costumes and props right, I think it would be cheaper and more feasible if you go modern and homage the films you’re influenced by.
SB: Where did the project originate? Did you already have a relationship with the Can-Cannibals Dance Troupe, or did you approach them? How did you develop the concept?
MR: I went to high school with the leader of The Can-Cannibals, Vaudie Va-Boom, and we became friends through the school plays and drama class. She moved to Oakland, CA, which is where she formed The Can-Cannibals dance troupe. Then in late 2011 we met up and I informed her that I wanted to do a film project with her and the dance troupe, but at the time I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Then my brother was finishing up his short horror film, CINCO DE MAYO. He normally shows the finished product at his house, but with this film the cast was larger and he wanted the cast’s family to watch it as well, so he decided to rent a small screening room at a local theater. Then my brother decided he wanted to show more content than just his film, so he asked some friend’s of his and me to make our own fake trailers. At first I didn’t want to copy GRINDHOUSE but I knew the project would be fun. I instantly thought of The Can-Cannibals for the trailer. Since I never worked with them, other than Vaudie, I figured we should start with a small project and this fake trailer was the perfect fit. This project took a couple of months to develop actually. I watched a ton of exploitation films and trailers. I tried to create what my version of an exploitation/revenge film is and not just flat out copy one. When writing the concept I listened to a lot of music and most of it I used in the trailer itself. I didn’t try to be funny, or to write something “cool,” I just let myself go. I let the over-the-top ideas come freely. I even told my actors to not act funny or try to “act bad” on purpose. If anyone sees anything as good or bad in the trailers it will be genuine which is what I want.
SB: Is there any interest in turning either – or both – of these trailers into a feature?
MR: I do have an interest of doing both into longer pieces, but I’m not sure about a full feature film. I wouldn’t mind doing both films as 30-40 minute shorts and put them on a DVD together. But it all depends on how much interest there is with the audience and if the Can-Cannibals/cast are willing to commit to a longer project.
SB: What’s coming up for ALWAYS WRONG FILM, and yourself in particular?
MR: I just finished shooting a music video for Minnesota hardcore electronic band Gabber Nullification Project (http://www.facebook.com/gnphurts) and I’m currently editing it. The video is a satirical piece where forms of the entertainment industry (film, TV, video games, and music) are presented through the eyes of a radical right-wing group. They see the media as bad influences and purveyors of filth, so that’s what I show in the video. For example there’s a film director character that blatantly makes a torture porn movie for the sake of perversion and not art. He wants to corrupt youth with his film. I hope to have it done before the end of the year. After that I don’t know exactly what project I want to focus on. But one thing is for sure: I want to make a feature length with my brother, which would be our first feature film. Right now it looks like we’ll focus on a concept my brother developed. But he wants to make another short so I’m not sure if I want to do another short too. It’s kind of all over the place, but I’m confident we’ll get it together. But developing a feature length is my top priority.
SB: Anything else to plug?
MR: If you don’t mind, there’s a couple of things: First would be of course of The Can-Cannibals, http://www.facebook.com/TheCanCannibals, without whom I wouldn’t have made this project. Then my brother who’s finishing up a French new wave inspired piece, http://www.facebook.com/aandpproductions. Then my girlfriend who supports me and writes a vegan blog, http://www.missmuffcake.com. And finally the bands in the trailers. You can click the stats/info bar on the video and you’ll see all of the links to the band’s Facebook pages.
SB: Finally, what advice would you have for young or inexperienced film-makers who are attempting to make projects on a limited budget?
MR: First thing I would say is follow the Robert Rodriguez formula of film making, which is use what you got and refuse to spend money. With using what you got, Rodriguez spoke physically. If you have access to a store, a dog, a junkyard, police car, etc you make a movie around it. I also like to say be inspired by what you got. Don’t force yourself to write a topic, but be inspired by your surroundings, your life style, your friends, your lack of friends and/or your town. I had a burlesque troupe and a warehouse in Oakland, so that’s what the concept was and that’s where I shot. Then remember to refuse to spend money. If you know your idea requires explosions, stunts, props, costumes or anything outside your grasp then you’re approaching it the wrong way and maybe should develop a new project.
Then there’s this great video of Kevin Smith talking about “why vs. why not.” How people need to encourage artists instead of discouraging an artist by questioning why they want to pursue their art. He also talks about taking the shot. He uses a Wayne Gretzky quote and applies it to film and art, the quote is “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” It has really inspired me and it is absolutely true! Always take the shot; it will always be worth it.
And lastly here’s a bit of my own advice which is to be honest with yourself and your craft. Acknowledge your short comings and/or faults and learn from them. Don’t just arrogantly proclaim, “I’m my harshest critic” then praise yourself. You won’t learn that way. I say this not because I know better but because I see the faults in all of my own films and I admit to them. When I think back or watch what I did wrong in a film that just makes me want to do better with the next one.
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