Meet the Slamdance Filmmakers: Matthew Bauckman & Jaret Belliveau, Directors/Producers, 'Elliot'
There's a whole genre of films about filmmaking, and a lot of them are documentaries. Elliot is a new addition to the canon. What happens when two no-budget documentarians team up to make a film about two no-budget martial arts filmmakers? Not what you might expect. We talked with Matthew Bauckman and Jaret Belliveau about the making of the film.
Documentary: How did you come to make Elliot?
Matthew Bauckman & Jaret Belliveau: We first found out about Elliot after reading several newspaper articles about him and Linda Lum. Elliot was promoting himself as an accomplished martial artist and award-winning filmmaker who wanted to become Canada's first action hero. When we watched the trailer for Elliot and Linda's first movie, They Killed My Cat, we immediately rushed out to rent their first two action movies. We had recently decided to co-direct a documentary project based in Atlantic Canada after working collaboratively on Jaret's first feature documentary film, and we had a strong intuition that this could be a fascinating story about two passionate low-budget filmmakers. There was an obvious disconnect between all the glowing reviews of their movies and the quality in which they were made. Upon meeting Elliot and Linda we found out that they were working on a new movie called Blood Fight. At this point we decided to follow them onto their set, where we met their friend Blake Zwicker, a self-proclaimed method actor, and several other passionate crew members who were all trying to realize their dreams. After a short time of being on their set, we realized that things in Elliot's world were not as they seemed, and we set out to discover what this story was really all about.
D: The crime fiction writer Jim Thompson famously said, "There are 32 ways to write a story, and I've used every one, but there is only one plot—things are not as they seem." Did you have this taped over you desk as you put together the film?
MB & JB: No, we didn't, but perhaps it would have saved us time if we had. In Elliot's world plot twists are commonplace, so it was really about having the patience to let the story find its own natural conclusion.
D: In terms of themes, ideas concerning truth and trust are at the center of this tale. Can you talk about these ideas in relation to storytelling, and a filmmaker's relationship with his/her subject?
MB & JB: With everyone's hopes genuinely pinned on Blood Fight's success, we knew the only way to give a fair and honest portrayal of these larger-than-life characters was to film in an objective, cinema vérité style. We tried to limit our influence over our subjects, and this is reflected in the way we have captured the seemingly mundane moments of their lives, which to us are usually the most honest and revealing. Capturing these moments demands a great deal of trust from our subjects, and the way we entered their lives was through compassion and empathy. As filmmakers we related to their struggles. As documentarians, getting to the truth of any situation is of great importance to us, and it becomes very tricky when your subject is not entirely truthful. There seemed to be something in Elliot driving him to delude himself and everyone around him, and our goal was not to give any answers but to present questions about how we all lie to ourselves.
D: There's a long history of films about filmmaking. Did you have a model in mind as you set forth, or did you simply start filming to see what you would find?
MB & JB: We are both huge fans of American Movie, which is an incredible film about a passionate amateur filmmaker, so we were aware of the obvious parallels but we did not use that movie or any other as a template, really. We definitely set out with a clear trajectory in mind, which, of course, quickly goes out the window when making this type of film. What we were unaware of in the beginning was the dramatic shift our film was going to take from comedy to drama as all of the conflicts in Elliot's life came to a head.
D: What did you learn about filmmaking, and yourselves, as you moved forward on this film?
MB & JB: First off, it is not always the best idea to edit your own movie. Having shot the movie ourselves and being involved in these characters' lives for so long, it took a long time for us to get a reasonably objective view of the story again. There is a great peril of getting pulled too far into your story as a result of being involved in your subjects' lives so much, and we certainly found ourselves deep into Elliot's world. Luckily, we had the privilege of working with a very talented producer and editor who was able to give us fresh eyes on our project; it's true what they say: "In filmmaking you are only as good as your team."
D: If you had to do it all over again, is there anything you might have done differently?
MB & JB: I suppose we would have kept more of a distance from our subjects, which is easy to say looking back but difficult when you place yourself in the middle of other people's lives. Getting any money up front would definitely have made this process a lot smoother for our personal lives. Not having to edit the movie in Jaret's dining room and not having to borrow several of our friends' cameras may have made for less tense times.
D: Any other thoughts you want to share about the process of making the film?
MB & JB: Through the process of making this film, we had constantly questioned and reassessed the validity of what it was that we were doing. In a way, we weren't certain if we were seeing our own movie through rose-colored glasses like Elliot. Strangely enough, what kept us going was the cast of Blood Fight and their unwavering dedication to their dreams.
Elliot won the Jury Award for Documentary Feature at Slamdance.
Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.