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Ben Nagy Reviews ‘Wamego’ and ‘Wamego Strikes Back’: The Triumphs, Challenges of Independent Film Production Laid Bare

Piggybacking off the speech to filmmakers ( f--- “aspiring,” remember?) that Joe Bob made at the conclusion of the second feature of the May 15th, 2020, episode of The Last Drive-In, Ben Nagy checks out the first two installments in the Wamego documentary trilogy featuring filmmaker Steve Balderson and the challenges of independent filmmaking.

These two flicks reinforce the message Joe Bob was giving at the end of One Cut of the Dead

Piggybacking off the speech to filmmakers ( f— “aspiring,” remember?) that Joe Bob made at the conclusion of the second feature of last week’s episode of The Last Drive-In, I decided to check out the first two installments in the Wamego documentary trilogy featuring filmmaker Steve Balderson.

Wamego’s a town of about 4,500 people in eastern Kansas and where Balderson, now a veteran director with 12 feature flicks under his belt, started to cut his teeth in making movies. He started out with his full-length debut Pep Squad and then followed it up with Firecracker, which he conceptualized based on a local murder. That 2005 movie starred Karen Black and singer Mike Patton and received critical acclaim, but a distribution/promotion snafu blunted the prospects of wide release. 

Ben Nagy Reviews 'Wamego' and 'Wamego Strikes Back': The Triumphs, Challenges of Independent Film Production Laid Bare 13
Director Steve Balderson and crew pull up a set piece during production of Firecracker.(Screen capture from DVD by reviewer Ben Nagy)

Balderson’s “do-it-yourself” mentality and style, as depicted in this series of documentaries, flies in the face of Hollywood standard operating procedure: namely if you aren’t spending $2 million to $3 million on a flick and your production crew is filling more than one role, you’re seen as having an inferior product. Plus he’s not exactly in the midst of an urban hub, being 40 minutes from Topeka and two hours from Kansas City.

Remember Joe Bob’s rule Numero Three-o after One Cut of the Dead: There is no Hollywood? Balderson and these documentaries are the proof.

The first two installments — Wamego: Making Movies Anywhereand Wamego Strikes Back — deal with the creation, production and marketing of Firecracker. The perils and pitfalls of trying to put your imagination on film are well-documented in both, and you find out that even when the end result is exactamundo just how you wanted it, circumstances beyond your control can still kick a filmmaker in the gazebos or in the groceries.

But getting the flick made is Job 1, and you don’t have to be beholden to “conventional” wisdom as a filmmaker, Baldenson and crew show. Rather, as an “independent” filmmaker, you truly don’t want to be dependent on anyone when it comes to executing what you want your film to be.

Ben Nagy Reviews 'Wamego' and 'Wamego Strikes Back': The Triumphs, Challenges of Independent Film Production Laid Bare 14
Second Unit Casting Director Nancy Pujol addresses extras interested in appearing in Firecracker. (Screen capture from DVD by reviewer Ben Nagy)

Balderson starts out by talking about his strategy toward casting, eschewing auditions and taking a visual approach to that process — finding and tenaciously pursuing the person he visualizes as filling the part in his script and then doing phone interviews.

“If I’m going to spend six days a week with someone for six weeks, I need to know this is someone I can work with, interact with…” Balderson said.

He had the gazebos to reach out to Black, Dennis Hopper, Jodie Foster, Deborah Harry, Edward Furlong and even Madonna to try to get them to come out to his small Kansas town to be in his film. Sissy Spacek showed interest. Some of them were attached, some of them detached and oh by the way, his connection to Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman helped him to get Karen Black to commit and show up.

Ben Nagy Reviews 'Wamego' and 'Wamego Strikes Back': The Triumphs, Challenges of Independent Film Production Laid Bare 15
Actress Karen Black is shown in some test footage for Firecracker. (Screen capture from DVD by reviewer Ben Nagy)

From decorating and putting together sets to gathering costumes to wrangling extras, the boots-on-the-ground aspect of independent filmmaking is on full display in Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere, showing how resources that are on hand can be employed to make a movie and also how much damn work it is if you want to do it well.

“Whatever you think it is, sitting there,” said Clark Balderson, Steve’s dad, who acts as a producer. “It’s about 10 times that.”

But where the first installment is about the need to work hard and wear many hats in order to make the creative journey from imagination to screen a successful one, Wamego Strikes Back shows how the labyrinth of film agents, distributors and theaters can prevent something from being seen no matter the number of stars given by notable critics.

And let’s not even talk about how they had to wait months to get paid by the distributor or what kind of hoops Balderson had to jump through and schmoozing he had to do to try to get financing for his next flick, including making garlic pasta for potential financiers in a Chicago apartment EVEN AFTER the critical accolades Firecracker got.

Ben Nagy Reviews 'Wamego' and 'Wamego Strikes Back': The Triumphs, Challenges of Independent Film Production Laid Bare 16
Director Steve Balderson is silhouetted in front of a carousel during production of 2005’s Firecracker in Wamego, Kan. (Screen capture from DVD by reviewer Ben Nagy)

Love his flicks or hate his flicks (I haven’t seen any of them yet — something I have to rectify), Balderson was able to get his movie DONE his way in small-town Kansas with an attention to detail that satisfied his vision. In the eyes of some reviewer his flicks might get one star, three stars, four stars. In the eyes of the true filmmaker, he gets four stars every time for a mission accomplished in getting the job done.

If you’re looking to make a movie — these two documentaries are four stars. They show you a little bit of what you’re getting into, give you pointers in the nuts and bolts of achieving that dream on your own terms and show the way that worked for Balderson and his crew years ago.

Ben Nagy Reviews 'Wamego' and 'Wamego Strikes Back': The Triumphs, Challenges of Independent Film Production Laid Bare 17
Filmmaker Steve Balderson gives a presentation to film students at Kansas State University in 2006. (Screen capture from DVD by reviewer Ben Nagy).

The content in these documentaries come from circa 2005 and 2006. The internet and streaming have changed things, so some aspects of the second documentary could be dated. (Check out all the VHS tapes stacked behind the distributor expert who’s interviewed in Wamego Strikes Back). However, getting the right strategy to market your flick and targeting an audience remains a challenge, so there’s not a blueprint for that here, just a case study on how the system swallowed a Firecracker. But step one is getting the sucker made, and here’s one possible path.

As mentioned at the top, there’s another installment in the trilogy showing the development of another project out there in Wamego, but here’s a quote from Mark Twain used to close Wamego Strikes Back that might resonate with some of you out there and sounds like the guy whose name adorns this website:

“Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Balderson’s Wamego trilogy is available through his website as are many of his films. 

Check em out.

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