Welcome to our Filmmakers-on-Filmmakers series, part of an ongoing tradition of getting folks together to talk about their craft. In this edition, we feature Ryan Steven Green, director of Volkswagen buddy/road-trip/docu-dramedy, Circle the Wagen, and Dylan Fries and Michael Sanders, of beard-enthusiast documentary, Men With Beards. Both films are now available on digital VOD.
Ryan Steven Green interviews Dylan Fries and Michael Sanders of Men with Beards.
Ryan Steven Green: Times are heavy right now. Lot of serious ills in society, things seem to be falling apart all around us. Yet you two chose to spend your days and years making a film about MEN WITH BEARDS. How do you justify this decision in light of all that’s going on and especially given the proven power of documentary films to create change? What could possibly be so important about beards??? (says the man who spent his days and years making a doc. about a rusty VW bus)
Dylan Fries: I’m definitely very concerned with the state of our world. I think we need to take serious action and plant as many trees as we can. More than ever we could learn some good lessons from beards. Good things take time to grow. Slow down and enjoy the ride. Stand tall even when society is against you. The guys we met making this movie are some of the most generous, nice, intelligent and interesting people I have ever met and I was drawn to the idea of all these guys finding a reason to come together and just meet total strangers and share a beer. Most of them I would say got hassled more than anything and grew their beards despite a very passive but tangible pressure from society to shave. We actually talked about this a lot and really didn’t want the film to become about the persecution of beards, or how society hates it or whatever. We wanted the film to be just enjoyable and maybe make you think twice before you judged someone by their looks. We actually cover a wide range of social issues throughout the film and I think generally have a message of tolerance and coming together for the common good. I was just tired of watching depressing movies about the world ending and I think people aren’t going to make any real effort unless they can picture a better future. I think the biggest problem in the world now is just a sort of global denial. We’re all just deer stuck in the headlights and no one really knows what to do about it. I guess I like the idea of just taking something good and silly and just taking it as far as you can take it. We’ve lost that sense of adventure and exploration of the world and I think we need to find that again if we’re going to survive the backlash Mother Nature is preparing for us. This was an impossible project for us but here we are. What other impossible things can we achieve if we just put the work in?
Michael Sanders: Yeah, what Dylan said.
RSG: The two of you share directorial credit. How did this play out in a practical manner during the making of the film? Did you divide responsibilities between you two? Were these understood from the beginning?
DF: It was very collaborative. Mike was definitely more experienced and knowledgeable about film and carried that part of it. He did all the camera work and editing. We basically discussed every decision until we agreed on how it would work and sometimes debated clips over years. It was a great experience for me because even though I’d never made a film before, Mike really took time to explain and discuss why we should or shouldn’t do something, so I learned a ton about the language of film. I would almost say I directed and he produced the first half, and he directed and I produced the second half. The body of the story, to me, was based on me trying to get back to the feeling I had when I walked into the World Beard Championships in Alaska in 2009, which was the original inspiration and Mike was trying to corral that into a film. By the end of the project Mike was grinding out the final edit and I was just trying to make sure he didn’t die in the process. I’d basically make him eat and go outside and then we’d watch the day’s cut and argue about it for a few hours.
MS: Well said. It was quite a bit like corralling. I’ve never corralled an actual live animal, but I can imagine it helps to have a person on both sides applying varying pressure to get the beast in the cage.
RSG: Many extreme close ups of just beard appear throughout the film, almost as if the beards themselves are a distinct character. How did this come about?
MS: It happened in the first interview we ever shot, which actually isn’t in the film. I was looking through the camera at this young man with a very substantial handlebar mustache and he was pontificating about something and I became hypnotized by the movement of the hair. So I zoomed in. Ultimately it became a way to cut away from the talking head without having to cut away from the talking head. I thought it was important to find ways to use as much footage of the subject’s face as possible.
RSG: Pick one bald-faced historical figure living or dead. Who would you MOST LIKE to see with a prodigious crop of viny locks?
DF: Anyone who really always wanted a beard but never had one.
MS: Barack. I think in his last year of office he should just go for the yeard (one- year-old beard). Certain people’s heads may actually start popping clear off their bodies at the sight of it . . . and I’d like to see that.
RSG: Interesting directorial choice to leave out lower thirds during the course of the film. Explain.
MS: Two reasons. One - by the end of the film no one was going to be able to remember whose name was whose even with names on the screen. They instead were going to say “the guy with the grey beard” or “the guy who cut his beard off,” etc. There are 17/18 characters and expecting an audience to remember them all was a stretch at best. Two - it is crucial to the flow of the film that the audience pay attention to the words being spoken by the subjects and we felt that putting titles up constantly reminding the audience of the name of the person talking would be distracting. In the end it was a total feel decision. It felt right to leave them out until the very end of the film where it feels like you are meeting these guys sincerely without distraction. It also provides a moment where the audience sees their name and thinks back to their role in the film and I think that’s a far more effective use of lower thirds.
RSG: In the film, Ian, the performance artist, shaves off his “suburbs of the chin.” If I did not just answer my own question, how did this come about?
DF: He actually had to shave it off for a theater show he was doing and one of his friends put us in touch with him. Seemed like a great opportunity to get that footage, though most guys with beards would not be down for that.
MS: We decided it was better to use the footage out of context. Tying the shave to Ian’s personal story felt to distracting and was clunking in the overall arc. Abstracting it and making it part of Darrell’s story not only helped to illustrated Darrell’s story but it also tied the two characters together in a way that hopefully helped to illustrate that all these guys are connected.
RSG: You are both long-whiskered men, and yet you avoided the trap that so many contemporary documentarians fall into - to turn the camera on yourselves. How were you able to do this?
DF: I was pretty set that I didn’t want to be in it. My beard actually was just a big mustache at that point, but I was finding it difficult to deal with the attention that generated for me, which was pretty over-the-top. I guess I just felt like an observer at the time. The mustache gave me some insight into the beards, and definitely helped establish a rapport and gave me insight into the day-to-day. Once we had a structure I was happy with, I started growing the beard in earnest and enjoy it very much.
MS: It would have been the easy way out and we have never been interested in the easy way. It would have been a much different film and I don’t think it would have carried as much universality through the story if it was constantly being interrupted by these two guys taking selfies of themselves.
RSG: Beards. Lovemaking. Discuss.
DF: Raw Power. Trim the moustache.
MS: A couple girlfriends ago the following statement was heard in the wee hours of the morning as I leaned in for a kiss - “I really like your beard, but right now it smells like vagina.” True story.
RSG: The editing work in this film is truly superb, each scene bleeding into the next with a seamless fluidity that completely immerses the viewer in the wonderful flow. Michael, tell me about your process here. How much footage were you working with, and how were you able to combine it all into such a wonderfully immersive progression of all things beard?
DF: Ah thanks, we spent a lot of time watching footage. Mike’ll give you the full low-down and deserves the credit for this. The flip side is if two clips didn’t mesh smoothly it would totally derail not only the pacing but the story thread of the film. We had to build the story on paper before we were even able to interpret the footage fully.
MS: You are too kind. Basically we had 21 hours of footage that made up interviews and b-roll. So not much at all. There was another hour of usable footage from Alaska. I watched all of it while shooting, then we watched it again while sorting. We started by pulling out subclips from the full interviews and sorting them in bins that were organized by broad themes like “society” and “my beard” etc. I watched these clips hundreds of times over and watched the full interviews over and over and over again. It wasn’t long before I had all the footage memorized both as subclips and entire interviews and that made it easier to draw those connections. I hate transcribing and I hate reading transcriptions. They lack the body language component of the interview and it was the body language that made it possible for me to log not only the words in my brain but more importantly the emotional context of those words. Once that’s all in my head it means I can make those connections with more agility than sorting through bins and moving clips in the timeline. If we hit a snag I would walk away from the suite and go have lunch or take a break. I would write the sequence out on paper in some sort of strange shorthand and because I could hear the clips in my head, I knew how they began and ended, that allowed me to iterate and experiment with sequences much faster than sitting at the screen staring at endless bins. I quite literally consumed the footage and spent two and a half years or more digesting it. There was one particular point late in the edit where we still didn’t have a smooth sequence for the middle of the film. We were having a lot of trouble tying together the wider cultural meanings of the beard in North America in a way that felt organic within the film. It was the biggest hole for the entirety of the edit and if it couldn’t get filled, we didn’t have a film. So after wrestling with it for a very long day I just remember feeling overwhelmed and doomed, and so I went to bed. I had this dream that I was eating dinner with Werner Herzog in his house. I was trying to get him to tell me what the secret to filmmaking was without directly asking him. I was trying to be coy. He knew what I wanted and was refusing to divulge his secret knowledge and seemed to enjoy watching me struggle. Then he stood up and said, “Follow me.” He took me down to his basement and all over the floor and stacked high to the ceiling were empty donut boxes. He then turned to me and said, “I love donuts.” Then I woke up. I actually bolted up out of bed with this one particular clip buzzing in my head. I pulled the 15 sec clip into the timeline and dragged the tails out on both ends and found a complete, uninterrupted thought from one of the guys that ran 5 min and gave us everything we needed to fill the hole. That pretty much sums up my process.
RSG: As a mustachioed man myself, I regularly receive “novelty” gifts of the hirsute variety. Coffee mugs, bandaids, wine openers, bandanas, etc. I would imagine the same would be true for you guys, especially in the wake of completing Men with Beards. What is your take on this type of paraphernalia? For or against?
DF: I don’t have anything against them, I have mustache wax and beard oil and stuff, which is great. Any gift is nice to receive and people tend to key in on distinctive things. I have an aunt who loves penguins so every Christmas I buy her penguin stuff, you know?
MS: I agree. Gifts are nice. And if they happen to be beard-related all the better. My father-in-law recently went to see ZZ Top with his buddies and brought me back a t-shirt.
RSG: Always have to ask - what’s next for each of you? New projects? New adventures?
DF: Well I’ve been working with the Oculus Rift for the last year. I’m actually more experienced in game development so I’ve been trying to get some game stuff together. I feel like we’re just getting our feet from making Men With Beards now, it was a huge undertaking for us and now we’re just building up our company. We have a bunch of projects in various states of development and are just moving them forward as best we can. Mike’s been working on a couple feature projects and we’ve been talking about trying to shoot at least one short over the winter just for fun.
MS: I have just begun a documentary about a Canadian photographer who was one of the first to photograph polar bears in Northern Manitoba. I have a short film I am co-directing and shooting this fall called Patron of Dreams about two dancers, one in the ‘20s and one today, who are connected though space and time. We are adapting a one-man fringe theatre play called I Hate Bill Pats, with the incomparable Bill Pats, into a feature that we will hopefully be shooting next year. We have a short horror that is going to camera this November and for some reason we have decided to shoot a second short in the dead of the Winnipeg winter later this year and into Jan/ Feb 2015. I feel like we’re just emerging from a bearded haze and really looking forward to focusing on some new projects. Should be an interesting year!
Michael Sanders interviews Ryan Steven Green of Circle the Wagen.
MS: How did the film come about? I assume you knew Dave and Charlie, did you travel with them on both trips to shoot? How did the project fall into place?
RSG: I was most definitely there on both roadtrips, in the thorny weeds, the dust and gravel, and the gasoline. How I came to be there is certainly a pertinent question. How does one stumble upon a story like this? Why was I so lucky? For me, it was simply my lot in life. Dave, Charlie, and I all met freshman year at USC and have been in contact ever since. When Dave initially won the Croc on eBay, there was no plan for a film whatsoever—there was simply Dave buying a vehicle he planed to drive around town once he got it back to LA. One problem—he couldn’t get it back to LA. After picking up the Croc, sight unseen, in Des Moines, Iowa and proceeding to break down four times over the subsequent twenty hours, Dave left the bus in Tulsa in the care of his (then) girlfriend’s parents. It wasn’t until he got back to LA (by plane) that he and Charlie started talking about their recent discovery of the AIRS List, the thriving VW culture in our land, and how those elements might serve to fix the bus up for real, and—oh, by the way—make a documentary about it. I just happened to be the sap with a camera.
MS: The story takes place over 4-5 years it seems, did post add years to that as well? How did you maintain your motivation and sanity over such a long production process?
RSG: Such good questions for which I have no good answer other than to say, naïveté. It took a total of six years to complete the film. During that time I simply believed, against all odds, that we could actually finish it—we had to finish it. Had I really been honest with myself, I would have realized that the film was dead for a good amount of that time; then again, had I realized that, maybe the film would never have been completed at all. The major delay was the four-year span of time, after the second failed attempt to get it to Los Angeles (the first attempt with cameras rolling), in which the Croc just sat at the Blue Swallow in Tucumcari. During that time Dave was traveling the world (as you see in the film), I got married, Charlie continued pursuing his acting career—in all ways life moved on. If it weren’t for that four-year gap, the film would have taken just two years to complete—a totally acceptable amount of time for an indie feature doc. And, yes, as you’ve said, most of that extra two years was post-production.
MS: Can you talk about how you managed Dave’s emotional arc in the edit? I really appreciated how the story found new life once Dave was determined to finish this one project where he had failed to complete so many in the past. I feel this element raises the film above a simple doc about a community and makes it a universal story about overcoming the obstacles we ourselves are responsible for throwing up. Bravo sir. How did this structure percolate in post? Was it clear from the outset or was it something you discovered in the edit?
RSG: Thank you! This definitely emerged during the making of the film, and goes back to the original conception of it, prior even to hitting the road on the 2007 trip. We all wanted to make the “VW documentary to end all VW documentaries!” We were going to Germany, we were going to Japan, we were going to Mexico where the official taxis are (were) bugs, we were going to Brazil where the bus was (at the time) still manufactured in the old body type. Well, after just two weeks of shooting on the road in the United States reality had already begun to set in—an independent doc simply cannot accomplish all those things with its monetary limitations; I had to accept that there would be no Germany. I began to consider what it was that I did have with this film, what made Circle the Wagen unique? What did I have that nobody else had? More and more I kept coming back to this person, Dave, and this bus, the Croc, thinking that, while anybody could make a documentary on the history of the Volkswagen bus—and people have, a number of times over—I was the only one in the whole world that could make a film about Dave and his bus. That decision really set the course for subsequent filming as well as how to edit the film. This latter task involved picking, out of over 70 hours of footage, what the best storyline—or, as you say, arc—for Dave’s “character” was. The wanderlust was an obvious choice, built-in to the very fabric of a journey film, as was his status as a newbie within a larger community. But what kept poking its head out at me was this idea of the trail of unfinished projects a guy like Dave can tend to leave behind him as a result of such a lifestyle. I already had failed attempt #1 (as an animated sequence), as well as failed attempt #2 in the 2007 roadtrip; I also had the Big Texan Steak Ranch and the short anecdote from his parents on his Eagle Scout project and its perpetual state of incompleteness. When I started stringing these thoughts together, I asked Dave if there was anything else in his life that he had left unfinished. The answer was even better than I could have anticipated and made for one of my favorite sequences in the whole film: his hand-made bass guitar. This was the very last thing I shot for the documentary and it just nailed this storyline for me. At that moment I believed I had achieved the most complete version of Circle the Wagen possible.
MS: Both of our films, on one level, are about a community of people and the bonds that form between people over their shared obsessions. We both grew beards during the making of the film and still wear them to some degree now. Do you currently own an air-cooled VW?
RSG: I do! She’s a 1967 pearl white Squareback named Wendy. She and I have been together over seven years now, the purchase coming shortly after we finished the 2007 roadtrip for the film. We actually sold my wife’s Jetta so I could buy it! I figured, “What kind of director makes a documentary about air-cooled Volkswagens having never driven one himself?” I found the answer untenable, so the purchase was made. Jim Maljanian, who appears in the film, actually helped me find the vehicle. But outside of that, I feel like the folks who appeared in the film have become better friends to me than in any of my previous films. Facebook certainly helps, especially since we’re spread out over the Western half of the US. I think it’s fair to say that I, as Charlie says in the film, “as cliché as it is, caught the bug.” I haven’t joined any clubs or anything like that, and my car is far more reliable than the Croc (a common case of, “you get what you pay for”), but I definitely think this film has crept far past the boundary of just another credit on IMDB. It really has been a season of life that has affected me personally as well as professionally.
MS: Can you tell us about any particular darlings that were slaughtered in the edit?
RSG: To be honest, there aren’t a whole lot. There is one scene, a breakdown scene (go figure), that came really late in the second roadtrip, about fifty miles outside of Flagstaff, that appeared in an early cut of the film. It’s a great scene! The thing about breaking down in an automobile is that there is ZERO correlation between the terror that is felt by the driver and the drama that appears on camera. Unless the vehicle itself explodes in a ball of flame, all of the drama of the situation is internal to the driver. Plus, as the filmmaker, you never know when they are going to happen! As a result, I tried to cut each breakdown we captured in a different manner, so that at the very least we weren’t watching the same thing happen in the same way each and every time. But the best I ever covered a breakdown was this aforementioned one outside Flagstaff. My camera was rolling at the moment when the orange light itself lit up on the console. I had been setting up for a “confessional” and so had a wide-angle adapter on the camera. Once the alternator light flicked on, there was no time to re-set the camera, so I just kept rolling. This meant that if I wanted a close-up I had to physically move the camera up close to the subject. As a result, the whole scene is imbued with this very abstract flavor that just adds to the urgency and confusion of the situation. I ultimately cut it from the film for the simple reason that, in a narrative sense, it was far too late in the film for yet another, and pretty major, breakdown to happen. However, the scene is included as a bonus feature on the DVD.
MS: Two men living in a van while driving cross-country - what have you learned about human nature and personal space?
RSG: Ha ha. That’s a funny and insightful question. You know, I do a lot of traveling, so I’m not sure that Circle the Wagen presented me with anything I didn’t already know. I will say that—man! vehicles get stinky. Especially with Charlie Pecoraro in the house!
MS: (Spoiler Alert!!) Do you still edit out of the van? What effect did cutting in that environment have on the final film?
RSG: Unfortunately I do not still edit in the Croc. As you see during the film credits, the Croc ended up at my house and I cut Circle the Wagen inside of it after converting it into a (very non-)mobile office. The Croc now has a new owner in Miles Brandon, and is on permanent display at the San Juan Capistrano Volkswagen dealership. And, boy, do I miss that thing! The effect it had on the final edit of the film cannot be understated. The reason I did it in the first place is that once I got in there I found I could work all day long without distraction; the ideas were flowing, the film was growing ever-nearer completion, it truly was inspiring. All these motivations were purely emotional, granted, but certainly they found their way into the film itself to a greater or lesser extent.
MS: Did you draw on any other films or other artistic works for reference?
RSG: You can’t help bringing in some of your references, right? Most of them are very subtle in Circle the Wagen. For instance, about midway into the film there is an off-camera outgoing voicemail message from Dave, the inspiration for which came directly from the Dude’s outgoing message in Lebowski. In a much larger sense, I could not help comparing my film to King of Kong and how that film was able to so convincingly tell a real-life, camera-as-witness story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Though I really have to tip my hat to Seth Gordon, he had it much harder than I did in that department. The road provides the easiest and clearest way to have a beginning, middle, and end to any kind of film.
MS: I feel as if both our films have a similar back-story revolving around risk- taking in film-making and in particular discovering the story as you shoot and then subsequently edit. Tell us about a risk or seemingly random event from production and how it helped to shape the story in the end?
RSG: This method of documentary filmmaking you mention is the one I like the most—figure it out! This was certainly the case with a previous film of mine—a film that bears even more similarity to Men with Beards both in its formal aspects as well as its subject matter—Between the Upper Lip and Nasal Passageway, my short doc. about the moustache. I did not have a plan at all when I started shooting that film, simply the concept of finding normal stories about the moustache, stories you won’t find in the novelty section of Urban Outfitters. Most of the film is made up of man-on-the-street interviews with men more than happy, honored actually, to talk about their crumb catcher. So then I had all this footage, but what to do with it? That’s where the real craftsmanship comes in and why I was so impressed with Men with Beards—you sustained the intrigue for a full 80 min.! BtULaNP is weak-sauce in comparison, clocking in at a mere 11 min. With Circle the Wagen this risk was mitigated to a great degree by the road itself as a natural structural element, as I alluded to before. For me, the risk with Circle the Wagen was the nagging question, ‘What if the Croc actually runs?’ In other words, if the Croc had made it all the way back to LA on the 2007 trip, what kind of film would we have then? Not a very interesting one! And yet I was not willing to trip the vehicle up—sugar in the gas tank, tacks in the road, etc.—or effect the natural flow of events in any way. While making for great reality TV, those tactics fly in the face of everything I believe about documentary filmmaking and basically destroy any credibility I might have earned as a documentarian. However, in hindsight, the risk that the Croc would run smoothly was a pretty small one, given the fact that Dave had already abandoned it once because it wouldn’t run. Without realizing it at the time, that was the Croc’s “audition” for Circle the Wagen. All the Croc ended up doing was totally living up to its reputation. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to that rusty POS.
MS: What projects are you currently working on and what can we look forward to in the future?
RSG: I’m currently in post on another feature doc called The Hollywood Shorties. It’s on a professional dwarf basketball team that played in the 1970’s and ‘80’s in Los Angeles and actually became quite popular. The started playing halftime shows at the Fabulous Forum against the Laker Girls, then the Clipper Girls, Golden State, Sacramento, Seattle, and so on. There is a picture that has been in my family for ages that has the Shorties team, including my uncle Larry (yes, he was a dwarf; yes, that is the correct term; no, midget is not an acceptable word), also my uncle Scott, who would referee their games, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, who was injured this particular game in Dec. 1981, and the Laker Girls, one of whom is a very young Paula Abdul. It’s a really exciting story that has been utterly lost to history, and it’s making a really terrific and bizarrely heartwarming documentary. I can’t wait for people to see this. I’m also currently writing my first narrative feature, a comedy. I love me some documentaries, but there is a lot more that I want to accomplish cinematically before I’m through!