Sunday, October 20, 2013

Filmmakers Rob Kuhns & Esther Cassidy encounter inquisitive & enthusiastic Southern audiences

From Rob Kuhns:

Oct 20 - Georgia College and State University, Milledgeville, GA

Joe Windish, Associate Director of the Georgia College and State University Library, and my host for the screening here greeted me on my arrival and graciously took me to lunch. Turns out we both went to NYU film school – he graduated in ’87 and me in ’85.  Joe had lived in NYC (where Esther and I live) for 28 years, and we even knew and worked with some of the same people. Joe had done a great job advertising the screening – there was a fabulous poster he put on the floor of the library and one in the lobby of auditorium.  The screening was very well attended by both staff and students at the university. Happily, there were both Romero-fanatics and those who avoided horror films altogether. Esther and I always like to see that – part of the mission of the documentary is to “de-ghettoize” the horror film and Night of the Living Dead in particular, which is often seen as less-than art. 

This was my first screening without Esther – she, unfortunately, had to return to her job at NYC, and I was sorry she couldn’t be here.  It’s always more fun with Esther! Questions after the screening included what was the time frame in making the documentary. The idea came to me in 2005, shortly after reading about the making of Night in Paul Gagne’s book, “The Zombies that Ate Pittsburgh” (a wonderful book that takes readers from Romero’s childhood through the making of Day of the Dead in 1985).  I was captivated by the making of Night as an underdog story of a “little-movie-that-could.”  We interviewed Romero at the very end of 2006 – the first of the shooting – and finished the film in 2012. This is a bit deceptive because Esther and I both held day-jobs during production and post-production. I’d guess it would probably would have taken us just two years or so if we could have worked on it full-time. Another question was what non-Romero zombie movies do I like? I asked the questioner what his response would be – he answered 28 Days Later and I enthusiastically agreed – LOVED that movie.  

I was also asked about the scene in the documentary with the children who were studying Night in Christopher Cruz’s literacy through film class in the Bronx – how did we find them, and how their response to Night compares with children’s first response to it in 1968.  As shown in Birth, the children in ’68 experience of Night was made famous by Roger Ebert’s review of Night. Ebert wrote, “they had no resources they could draw upon to protect themselves from the dread and fear they felt.”  We also interviewed for the documentary Elvis Mitchell, Michael Kimber and Clara Tirado, who both saw Night as children and how it completely freaked them out. In Cruz’s class, however, many children, while they found Night thrilling, were completely able to handle it.  I chalk this up to simply their being exposed to much, much more media violence, through movies and video games, than children in 1968 were.
Photo caption (Left – Right)
Alexandra Campos (Student), Jenny Harris (Librarian), Elise Fitzgerald (Student), 
Joe Windish (Associate Director of Library), Rob Kuhns, 
Mary Magoulick (English Professor)
There was a reception in the lobby of the auditorium after the screening, and I was greeted very warmly by the students and faculty. Some of them even wanted autographs, which I was delighted and honored to give. Tomorrow morning I’ll participate in a class on “Deconstructing the Zombie Genre” held by Joe Windish, Dr. Brad Koch and Dr. Mary Magoulick. Sounds pretty brainy. I requested this be more of a discussion than a lecture – it’s always more fun to hear other people’s thoughts than my own!

From Esther Cassidy:

October 18 - Link Center, Tupelo, MS
At the suggestion of Melanie Deas, Executive Director of the Link Center, Pat Raspberry, Tupelo Film Commissioner, and Shawn Brevard, Chairman of the Board of the Link Center, Rob and I went to “BBQ by Jim,” a local restaurant with a regional reputation for incredible BBQ (see photo of a happy Rob). It was dreamy…and a perfect way to begin the screening in Tupleo, the birthplace of Elvis Presley.

The Link Center is a multi-purpose community and arts center at the edge of downtown Tupelo. The intimate black box space where the screening took place also often hosts theater groups. The audience here was younger and made up of fanatic fans of all of George A. Romero’s films, as well as fans of horror films in general and a few emerging filmmakers. They were totally attentive and responsive during the screening of Birth of the Living Dead.
The audience wanted to talk about Night of the Living Dead, when they had seen it, what it had meant to them. They shared their enthusiasm and love of Dawn of the Dead and Day of the Dead. One young woman said she wanted to get her own, “Bub.”  Bub was a zombie in Day of the Dead who the mad scientist character was attempting to train to co-exist with humans.
They wanted to know - How did George A. Romero, Image Ten and their gory glorious Night of the Living Dead, escape the movie industry coding system? Rob explained that the film was released during a tiny window of time when the Production Code – the guidelines in place since the 1930s which dictated what was deemed an acceptable level of sex and violence - was abandoned and the ratings system (G, PG, R, X – now NC17) was put in place. Other films of that era that also fell through the ratings crack included: Rosemary’s Baby, and Bonnie and Clyde.

The audience asked about the after school class of 8-9 year olds that we portray in our documentary. Where did we find those children? Larry Fessenden, the Executive Producer of our film, and a terrific horror film director (BeneathThe Last Winter, and Wendigo, among many others) connected us to the after school instructor, who used Night of the Living Dead as a tool for literacy with his class. We also wanted to juxtapose the difference between the 1969 youngsters who were terrified when they the film and kids today, who are fascinated and thrilled, but not disturbed by Night of the Living Dead.
After the formal Q & A, audience members converged upon us to talk informally and to receive signed copies of the Birth of the Living Dead poster. I was so glad that Tupelo was the last stop on my Southern Circuit tour. I will always remember the warm and gracious people at this screening and all of those we met in town. The next morning the trunk of our rental car opened and stayed in the up position the whole time we had a leisurely breakfast at IHOP, talking with a woman who lived down the road. When we came out into the parking lot, we saw that our luggage was still there, safe and sound. These experiences in Tupelo reminded me of all the gracious people I had met in the other stops on the Southern Circuit tour: Gainesville, GA; Auburn, AL; Memphis, TN; and Charleston, SC.  I do hope I can return to these places again soon. 

October 17 - Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, School of the Arts, College of Charleston, Charleston, SC

The screening took place in the spacious and airy recital hall at the School of the Arts in the middle of the magical and gracious city of Charleston. 75 people attended – with at least 60% saying they had previously seen Night of the Living Dead. Rob and I had wondered if people who had not previously seen George A. Romero’s masterful film would be interested in seeing our documentary, Birth of the Living DeadLizz Biswell, the Halsey’s Curator of Education and Public Programs, introduced our film to an audience that was a mix of older adults and college students. Many of the Southern Circuit audiences had laughed and commented noisily throughout several of the previous screenings of Birth of the Living Dead. Rob and I were amazed at the Charleston audience’s very different low-key response. We had to admit they were attentive – they seemed to absorb every second of the film.  But, it was very different than what we had experienced so far. Many of their questions were also different! They wanted to know why we had used archival footage and stills in a documentary about a horror film. We believe that some of the iconic images in Night of the Living Dead reflected the turmoil of the late 1960’s, specifically those television news images of the Vietnam War and the race rebellions in Detroit and Newark, N.J. That led to a confession – Rob and I let it be known that we agree with those authors that believe that good horror films are an expression of society’s deep anxieties.  We hope to pursue that concept in future films. Another question: what was the recognized turning point – when did people realize that Night of the Living Dead was a masterwork – not just another horror film? Rob remarked that Night of the Living Dead began to be taken seriously when it succeeded at the box office and when European critics gave it excellent reviews. In 1970, the Museum of Modern Art exhibited Night of the Living Dead to standing room only crowds, and acquired it for its permanent collection. A film student asked us what the budget of Birth of the Living Dead was. This seemed important because film students want to know if making an independent is possible. We spoke of the difference between out-of-pocket expenses, like paying for a DP, travel and accommodations costs, and production and post-production supplies, and the considerable time we had both put into the project in directing, editing, and producing. We also assumed the expenses of film festival submissions and some early promotion costs. Yes, it is possible to independently produce a feature-length documentary and then attract distribution.  After Birth of the Living Dead was featured at eight film festivals, we did get some good press, which led to distribution offers! First Run Features is distributing Birth of the Living Dead in North America. After the Q&A dozens of people lingered over cookies and tea, and asked us even more questions about how we made our film, and to tell us about their great love of George A. Romero, and Night of the Living Dead. People who hadn’t yet seen Romero’s film said they were going to seek it out right away. We are very grateful to Lizz Biswell and Allison Ross-Spane, a Halsey intern, for organizing the screening and we were delighted with the very focused and knowledgeable audience in Charleston. An older man left us with this: “Thank you for bringing Birth of the Living Dead to Charleston. It brings back horrible memories!”  (He saw Night of the Living Dead in 1969.)

October 16 - Indie Memphis, Memphis, TN

Rob, Brighid Wheeler, Dylan, Levy, Erik Jambor, Esther
Esther in the lobby.

October 15 - Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University, Auburn, AL

Rob and I were amazed by the magnificent grounds and museum and couldn’t believe a venue such as this would host a screening of Birth of the Living Dead. Of course, the Museum of Modern Art had exhibited Night of the Living Dead to standing room only crowds in 1970 and George A. Romero wowed the crowd during that Q&A with his audacity and creativity. 

We found fascinating outdoor sculptures and bright human shaped bicycle racks that lined the drive up to the museum and were placed around the building. Inside the spacious light-filled high ceilinged museum the first gallery exhibited a large walk-in sculpture by David Henderson (see photo) and a gorgeous multi-colored chandelier made out of 600 pieces of blown glass. The museum’s other gallery spaces are currently exhibiting Carol Mickett and Robert Stackhouse’s series of large paintings and related drawings, prototypes, and engineering studies for sculpture projects. We also loved many of the impressive world-class art works in the Museum’s permanent collection.

Rob and I believed this audience may have a slightly different demographic than the lively and talented film students we met in Gainesville.  Scott Bishop, the Museum’s Curator of Education, and Lauren Haynes, Event Manager, introduced Birth of the Living Dead, and Rob and I waited to see what this audience of mostly older adults and a sprinkling of college students would think of our tribute to George A. Romero and his literally ground-breaking creation of a new monster – the resurrected flesh-eating monster.

This audience loved our documentary! It reminded them of all the glory and gore in Night of the Living Dead.  During the Q&A and afterwards many people recalled the first time they had seen Night of the Living Dead and how much the film had meant to them. They seemed to be proud that they had seen Night of the Living Dead in the early 70’s when it first came out. One woman said that her father was a Vietnam war veteran who had fought in the Tet offensive. She said the historical material in our documentary was particularly meaningful to her because of his experiences. One older man mentioned that the reason he remembered Night of the Living Dead, was that the ending was so shocking…Ben, the hero gets killed. Rob added that it is especially compelling because no one alive remembers that Ben fought so hard to live. And no one left alive even knows that he wasn’t a flesh-eating ghoul when he was killed.

This older audience wanted to know all about George A. Romero.  They were grateful to us because they thought Birth of the Living Dead made them feel like they knew him.  Several people in this audience asked insightful filmmaking questions like: How did you select the people you interviewed in your film?  What was it about Night of the Living Dead that inspired you to make a documentary about it? And what gave you the idea to use school children in your documentary? Rob and I were so happy to screen the film at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Art and we now know that screening Birth of the Living Dead fits right into their mission of presenting compelling exhibitions and programs to diverse audiences…to foster the transformative power of art.