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Meet the Filmmakers: Michelle Esrick--'Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie'

By IDA Editorial Staff

Editor's Note: Saint Misbehavin' opened December 3 in theaters in San Francisco and Berkeley, December 8 in New York, and, appropriately enough, will open December 10 in Woodstock, NY.  Here's an interview with director/producer Michelle Esrick that we conducted in conjunction with the film's participation in DocuWeeks 2009.

Over the past few weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, currently running through August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Michelle Esrick, director/producer of Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie..

Synopsis: Saint Misbehavin' tells the true story of cultural phenomenon Wavy Gravy, a man whose commitment to making the world a better place has never wavered. Wavy Gravy is known as the MC of the Woodstock Festival, a hippie icon, a clown and even a Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor. In Saint Misbehavin' we meet a true servant to humanity, who carries his message through humor and compassion. The film weaves together intimate vérité footage, reflections from an array of cultural and counter-cultural peers, and never-before-seen archival footage to tell a story that is bigger than the man himself.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Michelle Esrick: I had a lot of friends who were documentary filmmakers, and I helped out on their projects over the years. I have always been a huge fan of documentaries and have been inspired by people like DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Michael Moore, Barbara Kopple, the Maysles Brothers, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinoksky, and Errol Morris, just to name a few. I love people and the human experience, and a good documentary can connect you to people and communities around the globe that you would most likely never be able to know so intimately. I have been in the arts my entire life, as an actress, painter and poet, and I never really thought I would make a documentary myself. But then I met Wavy Gravy and felt this huge calling to properly introduce him to the world.

IDA:   What inspired you to make Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie?

ME: I met Wavy Gravy in 1992. A friend of mine was interviewing him for a book and I went along for the interview. It was over lunch and I was inspired immediately by him. We connected and stayed in touch, and then in 1996 I started doing some benefit work for some of his causes, including a children's camp he runs called Camp Winnarainbow. We did a lot of press interviews over the years and I heard him tell these amazing stories about his life, that I was constantly "wowed" by. I could not believe there was not a film about him!

But there was also something else going on for me on another level. I felt inspired by the way he looked at the world. He was, and is, in each and every moment, doing service. He is like a walking celebration of service and optimism! And the guy deals with some very serious issues and causes, and yet finds a way to keep his sense of humor and put a smile and giggle on all who are around him. He is all about the solution and gets a huge buzz out of helping and being useful wherever he can. He also does it to a great soundtrack! He loves music and is always calling upon his famous musician friends to help him bring awareness to causes--mostly the Seva Foundation, which he founded with Dr. Larry Brilliant and Ram Dass, among others.

I also noticed that whoever got to hang around Wavy for any period of time felt inspired by him and realized that we can change the world and have a good time doing it. So, I thought, hmmmmm....If I can capture his message and his magic and put it on screen and then put him in front of as many people as possible through the movie, everyone will feel inspired to help the world! Wavy is always saying, "Put your good where it will do the most," so I poured every ounce of my "good" into this film in order to spread his message.  

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

ME: Well, to have a passionate calling to do something that you have never done before is a HUGE challenge. The film took me ten years to complete, and I was pretty upset about the calling for the first four years. I used to say, "Scorsese should be making this film about this great man!" I just had to show up and ask for help from my filmmaker friends. People started coming into my life and giving me the help and guidance that I needed, and I could feel that the universe wanted me to do this. I also was told by Wavy's friend Dr. Larry Brilliant that Wavy and his wife had been approached by filmmakers over the years about doing a documentary, and for some reason they wanted me to do the film. He said, "They trust you." So, I felt a deep obligation to honor their trust and make a great film.

Then I met DA Pennebaker, and we connected on many levels; he became my mentor and eventually my executive producer. If Pennebaker had my back, I knew all would be OK. Also, meeting my producer, David Becker, was a giant support and relief! David started working on the film three years ago.

The other challenging part for me was raising the money. I had to grow a thick skin and learn to love the word "No!" But after every ten or eleven "No"s, you'll hear a "Yes," and that is a glorious sound!

The other challenging thing was finding the story. I did not want to make a biography; I wanted to cover his life but focus on his message, which he has lived out his entire life. This is what interested me. We had so much incredible vérité footage and archival footage, and his stories are endlessly interesting. So the edit was challenging; we were in the edit room for almost two years sculpting away at this piece of art. Making a film is challenging and rewarding, all at the same time. I could not have done it without my incredible team and all their support of my vision.       

IDA:  How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes? 

ME: My vision never changed. I always wanted to share his message and his magical way of inspiring people; I just did not know what form it would take.

I did not want to script it out. I wanted to organically find it in the edit room. I also always envisioned using Wavy's song "Basic Human Needs" in the film as part of the score, which my composer, Emory Joseph, did a brilliant job at incorporating. I envisioned Wavy's musician friends singing it and getting the whole world singing it. Emory produced a gospel blues arrangement and a track with Jackson Browne, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Maria Muldaur, Steve Earle, Bob Weir, Buffy Sainte-Marie and more. It's incredible!

IDA:  As you've screened Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film?  What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

ME: I am currently writing to you from Michael Moore's film festival, which is our seventh festival since we premiered at SXSW last March. Audiences rise to their feet at the end of every screening and they sing and clap along to "Basic Human Needs." The Q & A's are so powerful and moving. To hear how inspired people feel to make the world better is so affirming. The one thing I could have never predicted is what it feels like to watch this film with an audience in a movie theater. The film is so entertaining and Wavy is so funny, which I believe we captured really well. It's a wonderful balance of humor and heart, and to feel that collective experience with an audience is so awesome! People love this film and are truly altered by it. They leave the theater wanting to go help somebody and make the world better-- and know we can have fun doing it!

Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie will be screening at the ArcLight Hollywood Cinema in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in Los Angeles, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in Los Angeles, click here.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

To purchase tickets for DocuWeeksTM in New York, click here.