The question at the heart of this conversation was inspired by a moment of brutal truth on a recent job: How does filmmaking change as you get older? As I scrambled to the top of a semi to get the shot, I stood there and thought, “I’m not getting any younger. One day, I won’t be able to do this.”
I reached out to two filmmakers I madly respect, Beth Harrington and the Angry Filmmaker, Kelley Baker. We had a fun and engaging conversation about the changing nature of filmmaking as you get older. With over 40 years each into their careers, both continually move forward into the future, telling stories that matter to them, building supportive communities, remaining fiercely independent, and realizing that they are in this pursuit for life.
About Beth Harrington
Beth Harrington is an independent producer, director and writer, whose fervor for American history, music and culture has led to a series of award-winning and critically acclaimed films.
Whether exploring the aftermath of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, chronicling the history of the Aleutian Islands or drinking up the world of craft beer brewing, Beth seamlessly straddles the line between objective journalistic integrity and a passion for every subject. As a result, her films are both thought provoking and heartfelt.
Beth’s most recent works, The Winding Stream – The Carters, The Cashes and The Course of Country Music and the Grammy-nominated Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly, reflect her long-standing love of music. A rock and roll singer and guitarist, she is most noted for her years as a member of Jonathan Richman & The Modern Lovers on the Warner Bros. Sire Records label.
About Kelley Baker, Angry Filmmaker
I am the poster boy for bad decision making in the Independent Film World.
I’ve written three books, made three features, eight short films, some documentaries, and a ton of corporate videos and commercials. I’ve worked on other people’s films as an editor and sound designer for the last 35 years. There are certain truths I have learned, and certain things and people I shouldn’t have listened to. I have messed up my life financially, emotionally, and probably physically and it’s all been for the love of movies. My movies.
I was named the Angry Filmmaker by others. They watched my films and listened to me speak about the realities of the independent film scene. They came up with that name. I’ve embraced it.
Beth Harrington (BH): I’m Beth Harrington, I’ve been a filmmaker for 40-plus years now. I have always been in a world of art and media. My family was very art oriented and my dad was in advertising. Both my folks went to art school. So that’s something that’s been like an undercurrent of my life, all my life. So, it isn’t a huge leap that I became a documentary filmmaker, or a filmmaker in general. I would say that lately I’ve been looking at my life and looking at the times we’re living in and trying to figure out what about being a documentary filmmaker is different in the time of COVID, and I’ve finally decided that it’s not that different.
It’s always been a struggle and it’s always been required that I be scrappy and get stuff done, and so, that’s kind of still where I am. So, I’ve been looking at my life lately a lot and thinking, “Well, how is this any different than before?”
Kelley Baker (KB): I am Kelley Baker, I am known as the Angry Filmmaker, and like Beth, I’ve been doing this, I just thought about this about a week ago, I’ve been doing this for 40-plus years. You wake up one morning and you think, “What the hell happened?” Because, I’m 64 and I don’t feel at all… I still feel like I’m this young, dumb filmmaker trying to get something done. My background in my family had nothing to do with art. I was always the black sheep. I mean, my father sold used cars and my mother worked in a bank. And so, there’s that old saying, “Everybody wants a Van Gogh in their living room. Nobody wants their kid to be Van Gogh.”
And I think my poor parents ended up with Van Gogh, to a certain extent. I mean, I just was not what they were expecting, and so my journey has always been really, really different because I didn’t have the background. I met people who had the background, like Beth. We’ve been friends for 20-something years I think.
KB: But, for me it was just kind of like, in relationship to family, I’m boldly going where no one in my family ever went. And to end up, I went to USC’s film school which totally blew my mind back in the day. And so, like I said, my journey has been, I think, I don’t know if it’s different than some. I mean, it is my journey. A nd like Beth said, you hit a point and you start looking back and you’re thinking about what you’ve done or where you’re going to go. And one of the projects I’m currently working on, which I hate to even talk about, it’s a film I shot, did most the work on 30 years ago, and I’m editing it now, and I’m looking at the work of this kid and I’m really critical of myself. It’s like, “What a boy, I didn’t know shit back then.”
And now I’m trying to save this thing. And maybe I’m being too hard on myself. I mean, I knew what I was doing, but I didn’t have the life experience that I have now. And so, obviously, I think the film is going to be a better film now than it would have if I would have finished it 30 years ago.
Chris Martin (CM): Yeah, what’s interesting… Thank you both for sharing just a glimpse into your journey because I’m kind of, I would say, right in the middle for myself, where I’ve recently woken up, going, “Holy shit, it’s been 20 years.” And so as I think moving forward, I notice the shift and I’m curious when the shift happened for you. But recently I was climbing around in a truck documenting Christmas trees moving around, and I’m standing on top of this semi shooting down at all these trees coming in, and I literally said in my head, “I’m not going to be able to do this one day.”
BH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
KB: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
CM: And that was just a huge mind shift of, “Wow, you can still do this,” but it changes drastically. When was that moment for you?
BH: It’s funny, I feel like I have had those moments, but it’s more that I’m trying to figure out when the place is to say, “Oh, yeah, I should stop doing that particular thing.”
BH: Maybe it’s a gender thing, too, but I’ve noticed when I’m, in the last 10 years of my career, when I go out with crews on various shoots, it’s still true—especially when I have been working with Oregon Public Broadcasting all these years—that most of the crew are men and arguably some of them are stronger than me, physically. And I’ve noticed that there was a point where I was allowed to help move things, and always wanted to. As a producer and director I always felt you can’t be precious about the stuff, I will pick up a case and move it or I will help with sandbags or whatever it is. And there was a point where people were rushing over to stop me from doing things, and that’s when I started thinking, “Oh, wait a minute, there’s something going on perception-wise where they think I shouldn’t be doing this.”
And then I had to say, “Well, should I or shouldn’t I?” Because I still go to the gym, I still lift weights, I still workout all the time, I walk a lot. I’m very healthy. So it’s like, “Should I be stopping?” So I still do it, and I have to fight a little bit to do it, some days. But I do understand that there’s a point where you look at things and go, “Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t be up on that ladder doing that thing.” Only because the consequences are so much different now.
KB: Yeah, when we were younger we used to bounce-
KB: … when we’d fall. I don’t know, now, I think I splat. Or I crack, or something. I still don’t have that feeling I shouldn’t be doing this.
BH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
KB: Like Beth, I work out too, and I walk, and I try to keep myself in decent shape. I did notice years ago that crews, when I’m directing stuff, they don’t want me moving stuff around either, but, as my gaffer explained to me, it’s a respect issue.
KB: So maybe that’s what it is with you, too, Beth. It’s like-
BH: Nah. It’s not…
KB: Yeah. No, no. But that surprised me, too. It’s like, “You don’t have to do this,” because I was always first on set, last to leave. And any more it’s been, when we’re finished shooting, they’re all looking at me, like, “You can go now.” And I’m just like, “Yeah, but I need to be here in case you guys need any help with anything,” and they just look at me like, “We don’t need any help. We’re good.” And I still think I’m doing a lot of the stuff that I used to do with this pandemic going on. The thing that’s interesting for me is, I tour a lot and I’m on the road showing my work and all this other stuff, and I haven’t… My last tour was 2017, but I find myself missing the road, but I don’t know if I can do the road anymore. And I think that’s an age thing.
BH: That gets old. Yeah.
KB: Yeah, two months at a time in the van, me and the dog. But, I never thought about it in that way. I thought touring will always be a part of my filmmaker existence, but I’m realizing now that that’s probably going to be the first thing that actually goes.
BH: The traveling involved with filmmaking, and in your case, also, touring, I did a bunch of touring with my last film, and, yeah, there is a point where you’re just driving yourself places and you’re tired, and you still have to be on in the destination you’re going to.
BH: That gets wearisome, and I don’t know if it’s just a question of pacing. I mean, I’m reminded today, today is the birthday of my friend Wanda Jackson who was in one of my music films-
BH: … and that Wanda is the queen of Rockabilly, for those who don’t know, and she’s 83 today.
CM: Oh, wow.
BH: And she just retired last year. And she’d been on the road since she was 17. Now, in the music business. But most of those years were extremely hard touring, and when I think about stopping doing what I’m doing, which almost seems out of the question all the time, and touring is a part of that, I think, “Yeah, but what about Wanda?” And Wanda just quit at the age of 82. So I think some of it is what you’re willing to do and what you’re willing to put yourself through, because she put herself through a lot. I think it’s an individual choice for us, but a lot of it is pacing and a lot of it is having some support around you when you do it.
KB: Yes. Yes. Support, absolutely.
BH: We’ve been doing this by ourselves. Kelley, you get in the car and drive by yourself.
BH: And I was doing that for what I was doing. And that’s tough.
KB: Yeah, especially, and I mean, I travel with my dog, but they can’t drive, they don’t have opposable thumbs.
BH: No. No. Can he go into the burger place and get you a burger?
KB: No, but what they can-
BH: You can’t trust him to bring it back anyway…
KB: I was going to say, but what they can do is they can take questions from the audience, because the audience always wants to pat the damn dog. They could care less about talking to me, so it’s like, “I need a break here. Pe t the dog. I’ll be back in 20 minutes. He’ll be fine.”
BH: Well, that’s good.
KB: Yeah. But, yeah, I think the whole… Why should we stop doing what we love?
BH: I don’t want to stop.
KB: Somebody asked me once, “What are you going to do when you retire?” And I thought, “Retire? What an interesting concept.” But I said, “If I were to retire I think I’d write books and I’ll make films.” Oh, shit.
KB: I’ve been retired-
CM: That’s what you’re doing now.
KB: … since I was 24.
BH: And there are also parts of my career, there were whole years that went by where I was like, “Oh, I didn’t get a lot of work this year. Maybe I am retired.” And that was when I was 50. So, I may have already retired a long time ago and not known it.
KB: This is your second career. You’ve come back. You’ve come out of retirement like every good rock ‘n’ roll musician-
BH: Like Cher.
KB: Yeah. That’s right.
BH: I’m the Cher of documentary filmmaking.
CM: Please put that on your website.
BH: I want the Bob Mackie outfit to go with it, though.
KB: There we go. And soon there’s going to be a bunch of Beth impersonators out there.
BH: Excellent. I look forward to that day.
CM: I love the idea so much that you don’t think about retirement and that you would do this forever, because I think for a lot of people there is that dream of just like, “I’ll find massive success, I’ll have all the money in the bank, and then I can just let that go and do something else.” But, you’ve been at this for over 40 years, it’s who you are.
KB: But the other thing, though, is define success.
KB: Because I get that all the time. “Are you rich?” “Oh, hell, no. I’m still just getting by month-to-month.” I mean, truly, it wasn’t until a few years ago, thank you to the Obamacare, that I had health insurance. But, in my mind, I’ve been very successful because for 40-plus years I’ve done what I love to do.
KB: The financial rewards, certainly. You have some, “One of these days I’m going to be a big success.” You know, hardly. But every day I get up and I can hardly wait to keep doing what I do. And to me, that’s certainly successful after 40 years, even if I have nothing to show for it, outwardly.
BH: And that’s what people who do more traditional work in the world, have a nine-to-five job and work towards amassing money, which is not… Never been my goal-
BH: … fortunately for me, because I’m in the same place you are, Kelley. My income has fluctuated wildly and has never been great.
KB: Oh, yeah.
BH: Even in its heyday it was never great, but, heyday was many years ago.
KB: True. Right, absolutely.
BH: But, I think a lot of people want to do when they retire, kick back, have time to do creative stuff, have time to write or paint or make a short film, or whatever it is, and travel. Those things have been a part of my life, like you say, for so long that retirement doesn’t seem to hold any allure for me because that landscape is already so much a part of my life. So, meeting people, going places, making things with a team, that’s been really fun. I think a lot of people want that in retirement, and frankly-
BH: … it might be too late for some people. It might not happen for them, and I’ve been happy, too, that I kind of seize the… Carpe the diem, as they say.
KB: There we go. Well, maybe for us when we retire we can go to work at Walmart or something, and have a real job.
BH: That could happen, actually. Don’t you go kidding now.
KB: You never know.
BH: You never know. Oh, my God. Yeah.
CM: One of the interesting things, Kelley… There’s the question that people like to ask, “What advice would you give to your younger self?” But I love that you share it, that you’re actually, in a way, working with your younger self.
CM: And so, what are you learning about who you are today, as you explore the past?
KB: One of the great things here at my advanced age is life experience. I realized doing this documentary that I could have made a very fine, perfectly boring, Ken Burns kind of movie 30 years ago, but I didn’t have the life experience to really make the movie that needs to be made. The advice that I’d give to other filmmakers, especially younger ones and to myself, is, first off, cut off that safety net. Get rid of it. If you have a plan B, you’re going to go to it when things get hard. Get rid of that plan. I mean, if this is really what you want to do, you, go full force. Go big or go home, and devote yourself to it.
I mean, really, really learn all the stuff that you need to and experiment. But work your ass off, because I feel like I’ve worked my ass off my entire career, not just as a filmmaker but as a sound designer, as an editor, doing all the stuff within the business, and I’ve had amazing experiences. I’ve learned life lessons and I have stories to tell. That’s, I think, my advice to most people, is, go out and live and don’t wait to pursue, “I need to make X amount of dollars before I can go do this and do this.” Screw that. Throw caution to the wind. Now you’re looking at a guy who’s lost his house and I mean all this other shit over the years, but no regrets. I did what I wanted to do, I did what I felt like I needed to do.
BH: Right. Yes.
KB: And I would do it again. Except for that night in Mexico, but we’re not even going to go there.
CM: Darn it, that was the next question I had.
KB: You know, I still… I’m under gag order. Can’t do it. Beth, what about you?
CM: Tell us about that night in Mexico, Beth.
BH: You know, what happens in Mexico, stays in Mexico.
CM: That’s right.
KB: And in the court system.
BH: His name was Raoul. But that’s as far as I’m going.
KB: There we go. There we go.
BH: Raoul and I will never speak of this again.
KB: Oh, you wait.
BH: The tell-all is coming. I would agree with everything that Kelley says, especially the go big or go home part, because you just have to be all in or you might as well hang it up. There’s no half measures with this lifestyle or this kind of work. I would also say to my younger self that I feel like I was too obedient to the hierarchy coming up. And a lot of it… Things are very different. You couldn’t… As a 30-year-old filmmaker, I couldn’t put my hands on a cheap camera that I could operate all by myself and go out and start making my own little films and edit them on the laptop. That, of course, was not an option.
So, I had to be part of a bigger system, and as a young woman filmmaker, I bided my time and waited for my moment and certainly tried to prove myself. But I could have used a sharper elbow, I think, when I was younger. Like, I have as much right to be here as anybody and I’ve got something to say, and eventually I did get to say it, but I think there were a number of years I certainly learned things and I certainly picked up on stuff, but I didn’t demand credits I should have had. I didn’t make my way to the front of the line, and that, I think, is partly being a woman of a certain generation and what was possible at the time. Some of the stuff just wasn’t possible.
KB: Sure. Absolutely.
BH: But I would tell myself to be a little more aggressive. I don’t regret any of it. I did, like I say, did learn a lot on the way. I could have just been doing more. More sooner. But that’s a minor regret in a career that has let me… I’ve been able to do all the things I wanted to do, largely, and I felt really good.
CM: And I love, too, that you mentioned… You wish you would have been a little bit more aggressive, because when I see what you’re doing now, it’s like, you are serving that example to people today, through what you do and how you keep pushing for your vision and bringing it to life. And I think what you wish you were in the past, you actually are now.
BH: Aw. Well, thanks, yeah, I-
KB: I’m in total agreement with Chris on that one.
BH: Aw, thank you. I mean, I feel like the joy of being an independent filmmaker, I’ve always stayed a little bit in the public television world, some of it a lot in the public television world, and then less so over time. But I feel I’ve been, as an independent, I’ve been able to work on my own terms, and that has a downside which is, it’s me, it’s all me. But it’s allowed me to say, “I’m running the show, and if you don’t like it, then move on.” And mostly people seem happy to be part of the show that I’m running. I feel good about that.
CM: That’s really interesting, Beth, just in terms of pushing for what you want, being an example, and I think just telling the stories that matter to you. I think there’s a connection there as well.
BH: All of us, and I know Kelley is doing this as well, we’ve done this over the years that, you tell a story that you think needs to be told and often the pushback you get is, “Why would anybody care about that story? It’s never been told.”
KB: Right. Yeah.
BH: There’s like… “Well, yeah. That’s kind of why I want to tell the story.” And so that’s always been a hurdle for any independent filmmaker, I think. And because I want to tell stories, I have told a lot of stories about women, women musicians and whatnot, or underrepresented people, there’s been more of a push there that I’ve had to make about, “Well, yeah, there’s a reason nobody’s told this story, and here’s why it’s cool.”
And having to advocate for your own point of view has been tricky and often it means the powers that be don’t always support that. They don’t always give you the money you want and expedite what you’re trying to do. So that’s where the being committed to your vision comes in, because you have to figure out a way to do it whether the marketplace thinks it’s viable or not. And ironically, once you make it, the marketplace usually goes, “Oh, this is great.”
KB: Why hasn’t somebody done this sooner? What a good scoop. No, and what you have to say, too, is, the funding is the stuff that always… It never seems to show up.
KB: I mean, you’re killing yourself trying to get these things made, and you can only ask for so many favors. I think I’m way overdrawn in the favor bank.
KB: Well, because the money isn’t there.
BH: You’ve paid it forward many times. You paid it forward many times. I’m going to interrupt there.
KB: Well, thank you. Thank you. We’re the mutual admiration society.
BH: Yeah. That’s true.
KB: It is funny, Chris, yeah, because, Beth and I are like… I like to think I’m one of her biggest cheerleaders and vice versa. I mean, I just love the work that she does.
BH: Likewise. We have been each other’s fan club for a long time.
KB: That’s right. And every now and again we will get together and have too much alcohol and just say, “Why the fuck are we doing this?”
CM: But I think that brings a really good example, though, of what you need over time to really make it. You need, as you mentioned earlier, support. Not only support of the people to watch your work, but the support of fellow filmmakers.
BH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
KB: And that always doesn’t come. Sometimes people can be really competitive in this business. Sometimes people don’t want to help, and then, there you meet those people who just bend over backwards for you. So, you never know who it’s going to be, you never know when it’s going to be, but you try to be the best person you can and hopefully when you need it, somebody shows up.
BH: Right. I totally agree with that. And I feel like you build the community that understands-
KB: That you want.
BH: … where you’re coming from. That you want. That you build the one you need. And that involves doing things for other people.
BH: That’s why when Kelley has been coy about… I want to tell a little anecdote on Kelley-
KB: Oh, shit.
CM: Please do.
BH: … where, years ago, I thought he was kidding. I thought he was kidding. He did some favors for me on my film “Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockability,” and you told me, “I’m going to do this for you but don’t tell people I did this,” or whatever… When the premiere in Portland happened, I got up and I had a thank you list, and I thanked a bunch of people publicly besides what the credits said, and I said, “And I really want to thank Kelley Baker.”
BH: And I don’t think I said much more than that, and he came up to me afterwards, and he said, “I told you not to do that.” He’s like ridiculously quiet about his filmic philanthropy and support.
KB: But the other half of the coin with that, and I want to defend myself for a moment, because at the time I had my own studio, I had gear, I had all sorts of stuff, and I was always getting hit on by people I didn’t even know wanting to come and use my stuff and use my… And on, and on, and on. And so, it was a defensive mechanism for me to tell everybody who I helped, absolutely, just like, “Don’t publicize it, please. Don’t let… You’re my friend. I’ll do anything for you,” but I don’t want all of these other people coming to me and say, “Well, you helped them.” I’m just like, “I don’t even know you.”
BH: Right. Right.
KB: And there was a time when, for me, anyway, it felt like it was really, really bad that I was getting bothered a lot trying to do my own stuff and, why won’t you help me? And so, I mean, that was a long time ago. Nobody ever calls me now.
BH: Well, hey, I need a favor. No.
CM: What I love about that story, too, though, is, there is the idea that when you’re younger you have a lot of maybe shallow relationships around you, and then as you get older your relationships either tighten up or they just drop away. And I think it’s so powerful to show the example of what that powerful relationship looks like that lasts time.
BH: Yeah. Yeah.
BH: I will say this. Our relationship, and I’ll tell another story on Kelley, our relationship started on a very weird footing-
KB: Of course.
BH: … where I was moving to the Portland area, for love, to be with my now husband, Andy Lockhart. And I had just finished a sort of a hybrid documentary, there was a personal documentary about something that happened to me, and I had-
KB: Which I love.
BH: … looked around… Thank you. Thank you. And I looked around and tried to see who in Portland was doing kind of similar work, and I fell upon Kelley Baker and his films that he had put himself in, and I thought, “Oh, here’s a kindred spirit.” And so I found his phone number and I called him up, and I was still in Boston, and I said, “Hey! Hi, Kelley, my name’s Beth Harrington.” And he just went, “I don’t have a job for you.” And I said, “No, I’m calling to be friends.” And he went, “Friends?” Like, what? And this is how he gets the rep of the Angry Filmmaker, by the way.
We ended up having a really funny conversation and he invited me out for coffee when I came to Portland, and that was the beginning of our friendship. But it was very funny, like, “What?” You know, very curmudgeonly Kelley Baker. Like, “I… What do you… What are you calling me for?” “I want to be friends.”
KB: See, but nobody ever did that. I mean, it was like you and John de Graaf ended up being, like I said, really close friends, really valued friends. But like I said, there was a time… And I also think a lot more public at a certain point in my life, because I was doing a lot of work with Gus Van Sant and some other people.
And so, like I said, I felt like I was getting badgered, but Beth turned out to be a breath of fresh air. And like I said, I mean, 25? How long have you been here? You and Andy have been married for a long time.
BH: I’ve just hit my 24th anniversary, October 12, here in the Northwest. Yeah.
CM: Well we’re glad to have you in the Northwest.
BH: Thank you.
KB: Oh, hell, yes. Hell, yes.
BH: I’ve lived in the Northwest longer than I’ve lived in Boston. Which is weird. I mean, in the city of Boston. I grew up in the suburbs, but, yeah, it’s the place I’ve lived the longest in my life now.
KB: And you haven’t lost your accent.
BH: They certainly tried to drive it out of me, but it’s definitely in there.
KB: Don’t let them.
BH: Well, in college they tried to… I wanted to be on the radio, and I was, eventually.
BH: They tried to make me lose the accent for the radio, at the time, because that wasn’t done, then. You had to sound like Walter Cronkite or something.
KB: Well, and you had a rock ‘n’ roll career, too.
BH: I did. And that has certainly served me well as my hearing attests.
CM: I think you touch on a really important topic, though, of how to build relationships, and I love that you just called Kelley to be friends. I think that’s such an understated thing to do, even today, just reach out to people and just to be friends with them, just to get to know them, just to… Not to get anything, but just to get to know them. I think that’s so powerful.
KB: I’m afraid to say, I don’t think it happens all that often anymore. I mean, I do feel people want to contact others. They usually want something or they have… Maybe that’s my get off my lawn cynical, Angry Filmmaker thing, but I do believe that you meet certain people and you realize that the friendship is genuine. Unfortunately, that’s in the minority of the friendships that we have, and so much of it is, what can you do for me?
BH: I agree with that. And I also think that there’s… Been an unfortunate mythologizing of independent filmmaking that we could probably… be it own podcast, but, or maybe an encyclopedia of stuff, but-
BH: … I think that there’s been this encouragement of the transactional, right? Like, get your film made at all costs. And that means, just getting what you need from whomever it is. That’s why you got those obnoxious phone calls from people saying, “I want you to give this to me.” It’s like, “I don’t even know you.”
KB: Right. Right.
BH: Get off my lawn! But if you’ve built community, if you’ve proven yourself, it doesn’t have to be tit for tat, but you told me pay it forward, in effect, when you did me favors, and I have tried to do that over the years.
KB: Oh, absolutely you have.
BH: You get a reputation for being the person who will do that, and then you build the community that you want when you need it. I don’t think a lot of people understand that, and I think part of that… we’re living in this age now enhanced by, or exacerbated by, COVID, where interpersonal, real-life, sit down and have coffee relationships are really getting buffeted about. You’re not really able to do that as much and it was on the wane before COVID hit.
BH: So, if I were going to give advice to people, I would say, “Work on building that community,” and the successful, independent filmmakers I know now that are younger than me, are doing that. They’re building community, they have their own cooperative, collective sort of approach to making films, and they get stuff done because they’re all working for each other.
KB: If someone asked me for a favor and it’s someone I know within the community who is doing things for other people, I’m much more likely to help them out, than, especially if it’s somebody from out of town, or this or that. I mean, it’s just… It does, you pay it forward even with just being a nice person.
KB: You know what I mean? It doesn’t have to be a favor for a kind of a thing. And sometimes when we hear about other people’s struggles, there’s a couple of filmmakers that I love their work and they’ve had some real struggles, and I’ve said, sincerely, “If you need anything, let me know.” It’s like, I can’t come up with money, but I can come up with other things. I can help you with things because I like their work, I respect their work, and I can see that they’re struggling.
They don’t have to ask me. I will volunteer for the folks that I believe in, even when they’re younger than I am. I mean, the ones that I don’t know so well, if I’ve seen their work and respect their work.
CM: What you’re talking about is intriguing me, because if you’ve rewinded back to when you were starting, did you have this mentality then? Or is this something that you grew into and really embraced as you helped each other out?
BH: You know, for me, there are two parts. One is, I’d already been in the world of music when I more seriously pursued filmmaking, and I knew that in music nobody was making any money and we’re all doing each other’s projects because that’s what we did. We were going to make records and we were going to do live performances and we were going to have big shows, and that was all about collaboration and cooperation. And then, as I got more serious about my filmmaking career, which came on the heels of leaving this one rock ‘n’ roll band, I joined Women In Film, and this is back in Boston.
That was a really burgeoning organization with an amazing group of women who were scrappily figuring out how to do things, combined with some people who were actually in the structure of the WGBH public television world. And so, I quickly realized that, it wasn’t particularly like sisterhood is powerful or anything, it wasn’t very overtly feminist, but it was certainly a group of women that were doing things that I wanted to do and I could see them doing them and I could go to them and ask advice and figure out how to get things done.
And so, I think the combination of the crazy, scrappy world of music and the crazy, scrappy world of film, in those days, in Boston, and Boston had a very cohesive indie-ish, certainly music and also film subculture, I guess, that made it, for me, easier to figure out how to build my own little community out of that.
KB: And for me, it was totally opposite. When I started this, and when I started doing this stuff, filmmaker was not an occupation. I mean, people didn’t do that, and when I remember telling my parents, my poor parents, “I’m moving to LA and going to film school,” they went nuts, because nobody does that. I was in LA for five years and got bit by the independent bug and realized that if I stayed in LA I would just be a cog in a giant machine, and so I came back to Portland. And there was an old guard here. There were some people who were making a living, industrials and those kinds of things, commercials, and that kind of stuff. And for the first couple of years I did not feel welcome at all.
I really had to scrape, and I got hired by one of the filmmakers here who was doing a feature, and the only reason I think that they brought me in at that point was, they needed my skills, but all these people used to say, “Well, you’re from LA. What are you doing here?” And it’s like, “I’m not from LA. I’m from here. I just was educated down there and I’ve come back.” And I felt a lot of doors closing on me, and I really felt… And there was nobody I could turn to. I mean, I really felt that, and if I would meet people who I thought, “We have a lot in common,” well, they’d already be part of some little group, and apparently there was no room.
KB: And so, I spent a lot of years just struggling to find people to talk to. And I kept in touch with my friends in LA. I mean, that’s why for years and years and years I was bouncing back and forth between here and LA because I would get more work out of LA. I’d have to go down there and come back up. And it’s like, I’ve got these LA credits but nobody wants to hire me here? So, it became a real… Because I’ve always had to support myself. No trust fund, no… I’ve always had to work, and if I can’t work, I can’t pay bills, obviously.
So, for me, like I said, I hope that Portland is changing, because that was the Portland of 35, 40 years ago. But, like I said, at the time, I did not feel welcome, and for years I did not feel a part of the Portland film community.
BH: Yeah. Even 24 years ago, I felt it was kind of provincial and a little zero-sum game-
KB: Kind of? I’m sorry.
BH: Yeah. When we… and even, 10 years… but beyond that, right?
KB: Right. Oh, yeah.
BH: I think it’s a by-product of this only so much work, and especially in those days, it goes back to us saying about what film was actually like then. I mean, one of the reasons I didn’t pursue filmmaking, I had a communications degree, but when I went to college nobody told me independent filmmaking was an option. The only two independent filmmakers I knew about were Andy Warhol and John Cassavetes. And I didn’t really know anybody that was going off and making films until the early ’80s I started going, “Oh, yeah, I guess you could do that. I wonder what that would look like.”
And that was in Boston where arguably there were more resources, but even when I came to Portland, I agree that there was a sort of, you’re not from here kind of thing. It should be that just being… There’s just only so much work-
KB: And they did not want to share.
BH: And, no… Yeah, people didn’t want to share, sure. Sure, I got mine.
CM: It’s really interesting because the world of 35, 40 years ago that you’re describing, if the pendulum was there then, it is entirely shifted it seems all the way to the other side of, now filmmaker is like people are coming out of the womb with an iPhone in their hands-
CM: … thinking that they’re a documentary filmmaker, cinéma vérité, down their mom’s…
BH: You know what.
CM: But it speaks to this idea of, if everyone is a filmmaker, what does it mean to be a filmmaker?
BH: And I remember early on in my career going to the party and people saying, “What do you do for a living?” And saying, “Oh, I’m a filmmaker,” and people going, “Oh, wow. Tell me about that.”
BH: Doesn’t happen anymore. Please don’t tell me about that.
KB: The problem with that, the last parties when we were able to go and be social, people would say, “What are you doing?” And you’d say, “Oh, I’m a filmmaker.” And it’s, “Oh, really? So am I.”
KB: And then, I went to a party one night and I was so sick and tired of all that stuff, I kept telling everybody I was a truck driver, which is one of the things… I worked my way through college driving a beer truck, of course. Nobody would talk to me. It was great.
KB: It was one of the most peaceful… Because they were all trying to meet people and move up the ladder. And I was there with a friend of mine who kept telling me, laughing and saying, “You are really awful.” I’m saying, “Yeah, but everybody’s buying it, so I’m good here. Can I get another beer?” Because I wasn’t in the mood. When I go out, the last thing for the most part I want to talk about is movies or work. I mean, you want to go out with your friends and Beth and I can talk about music. We can gossip. We can talk about…
KB: We left that party that one night and what was it, all those protesters came storming past us-
BH: It was the, yeah, the Northwest Film Center party we liked and went down to the Japanese place and drank beer while people were rioting in the street. So it was not… It was four years ago. It was after-
KB: Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was after the-
BH: You know who got elected.
KB: Yeah, yeah. But I just remember you and I suddenly coming round this corner and there’s all these people marching towards us and there’s cops everywhere and stuff. It was like, “Okay, we better get down here and get a drink.”
BH: Yes. Yes.
KB: Let’s get off the streets here, just in case.
BH: That was a good decision.
KB: That’s always a good decision.
KB: Part of my problem here and this gets down to… because I do some teaching, too, is that everybody wants to call themselves a filmmaker, and I was probably doing this stuff for 10 years before I ever used that term for myself.
BH: Ah, I am with you. I am with you.
KB: You don’t just become this.
BH: I’m with you.
KB: You have to work. You have to learn. You have to earn it. And I think more and more people don’t want to take the time to really learn the craft. Because filmmaking is a craft, be it digital, be it… Because here they’re coming out with their iPhones and they’re doing all this other stuff, but it’s like, where is the lighting? Where’s the art? Where’s the performance if you’re doing dramatic stuff?
They’re shooting a lot of stuff and sometimes there’s some good stuff, but there’s just so much bad stuff, and yet, people just throw that term around, filmmaker, and man, out of respect of the other people that I knew who were filmmakers, I would never use that term. And like I said, I’d probably made five or six films by the time I finally said, “Yeah, I guess I am a filmmaker.”
BH: I agree. It took me forever to really own it, and it was because I felt I was green. I didn’t know everything there was to know, and I’d made a little film and I… Yay, but I wasn’t going to go around and advertise myself as a filmmaker at that point. It did take a while, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think what’s happened is that in the current media culture, you have to brand yourself and you have to say, “I’m a perfume designer, and a filmmaker, and a super model, and…” People are pushed into defining themselves those ways, and often with not a lot behind it.
KB: Right. And it’s because there is a craft to what we do, and there’s art, and there’s… I mean, there’s so much stuff to it. I want to get a job as an influencer. What the fuck is that?
BH: Isn’t that great?
KB: And I want people to sponsor me and give me… But, I’m bad, too, because I still get people who want to write for my website, and I know it’s just drivel, it’s content, it’s all this other shit, and I’m always saying, “No.” They’ll say, “We’ll give you these articles for free. I don’t want them.” People who come to my site expect a certain thing, expect a certain attitude.
But I don’t sell or give away my email lists. I don’t let other people post shit on my site, and there’s no advertising, except for me, of course. But, I mean, people are too willing to give stuff away or to… They want looks, they want… If we get into the whole media thing, everybody wants information and I try really hard to, one, give out my own information, but not to take other people’s as far as, or allow other people to use my site in any way.
CM: Well, I think that’s a really good point of… There’s information and then there’s action. So, as a teacher, Kelley, you’re like, “Here is all the information you need to be successful,” and yet, what’s the percentage of people who actually act upon it and do something with that?
KB: Tiny. I mean, when I teach production classes, I can sit in the room for about an hour talking to people and I can tell you who’s still going to be doing this in two years and who’s still going to be doing this in five years or 10, and the numbers just keep getting smaller and smaller. People don’t realize how hard it is what we do. I mean, I probably shaved 10 years off of my life just from all the overnighters I’ve had to pull to make a deadline. Really.
But it’s just like, we work hard and our deadlines are hard and fast. It’s like, I can’t… When I was doing some television work, even features, I can’t call up Columbia Pictures, and say, “You know that movie that’s coming out in a couple of weeks, that I’m doing the sound design on? Oh, how… Can you push it back?”
BH: Right. Right.
KB: “We had some stuff going on with my family, and…” I mean, that doesn’t happen. You’re up for the next seven days straight and you deliver this thing, and if it’s not good, you hear about it.
KB: And so I think a lot of people don’t want to put in the work that we do. They think this is fun, this is… I had a student once who we did this exercise and we shot all the stuff, and we’re done. And I was telling them, “Okay, put all the gear away now. You’ve got to pack it all up and we’re going to go.” And this one young person, I’ll say, “This has been so… How did we do?” And I said, “Okay.” So, “Well, are you going to compliment us?” And I said, “For what?” “For getting this done.” And I said, “No, I expected you to get it done. You have met expectations.” Now if you’d gotten… If you’d cured cancer while we were doing this, of course I’m going to congratulate you.
BH: And document it.
CM: That’s right.
KB: Yeah. But I mean, everybody wants to know what a great job they’ve done when they’re just doing their job. And I’m just not on board with that.
BH: Yeah, it’s interesting. I often get people who come to me and they pick your brain. Kelley and I could go on about this one. I will try to keep this short. But I want to talk to you, I want to pick your brain. It’s like… how many times has my brain been picked?
CM: I apologize. I’ve picked your brain before.
BH: You’re the example that Kelley was saying, two year, five year, beyond… you’re the beyond person.
BH: But… And we knew that about you, too.
KB: Of course.
BH: It’s interesting because the pick your brain conversations often are just like people wanting reassurance that it’s not as hard as it seems. And it’s like, “No, no, actually, it is that hard.” And it is that thankless, and it is that un-lucrative. It’s all of those things. It’s also gloriously fun, and when it’s great it’s great, it’s satisfying. There’s so much about my film life that has enriched my personal life, including… I met my husband that way. But, there’s just so much great stuff. A lot, for me, is about the human interaction. How many amazing people I’ve met, how many great relationships have moved past the film into my…
Today’s Wanda Jackson’s birthday. Wanda and I talked the other day. That was 20 years ago that I made that. So, there’s just great stuff about the career that I do believe is appealing and I don’t want to deny that it exists, because I think sometimes I tend to just moan and groan, but the other piece of it is, that it is really hard and you can’t reassure somebody that they’re going to make money. And people often say to me, “How do I do what you do?” And I always think, “What is it you think I’m doing?”
KB: Yeah. Yeah.
CM: That’s a great question.
BH: That, tell me what you think I’m doing? And then I’m going to address that.
KB: Yeah. I had an instructor who used to… A close friend of mine who taught at Columbia in Chicago, and she used to say, “All of my students want to be you.” And my response to her was always, “Your students would absolutely freak out if they knew what it takes to be me.”
KB: They wouldn’t want that because we do make sacrifices. But as Beth says, my life has been so enriched by the people and the experiences I’ve had. I have done things that most of my contemporaries never even thought of doing, or, I’ve worked with some of the most amazing people in this business and I’m grateful for all that, and I still get humbled when I’m around people whose work I admire and respect.
CM: You both mentioned the relationships that you’ve built over the years. Is that how you would think about your legacy, as you move forward?
KB: I don’t think about a legacy. At all. I keep moving forward. I have a lot of work I want to create. I’m writing a lot more. I’m doing short stories, I’m doing all sorts of other stuff. And I can honestly say, I don’t think about a legacy at all. I think I need to get this next book done. I need to make this next film. I need to make… I’ve got a pretty good career of not… I’ve made it a habit of not looking backwards and not thinking about those kind of things.
BH: I’m with you on the moving forward completely. I’ve got three projects in different stages. I did my first virtual film shoot on Sunday in Upstate New York. I was the great and powerful Oz on the laptop interviewing somebody with the… Out in the middle, and outside, because I didn’t want the camera person to be in danger.
So I still feel like there’s stuff out… I totally agree with Kelley. Stuff I’m doing, stuff I want to do. It drives me crazy that there’s this arbitrary sense of, I’ve hit a certain age, I’m supposed to be winding down, because I don’t feel that. When nature tells me I’m winding down, that’s when I want to wind down, but-
BH: … it’s not happening now. I’m perfectly healthy and active and busy and… But I will say, the only thing about legacy that I’ve considered is what the eff to do with my media? I’ve started to think… and a lot of it doesn’t mean much to anybody. I have a master tape I’ve got to figure where to put these masters, right?
BH: Just last year I started looking through my two history-based music movies and saying, “Oh, shit, I’ve got stuff here of people who are gone. I’ve got stuff here that’s close to the last interview this person did. This needs to go somewhere.” So, I’ve actually started trying to figure out where to put media. I sent a bunch of stuff to an archives in Tennessee with all my Carter Family media, because it’s near where the Carter Family lived. It’s part of a school that has a Roots music program.
And so, I just sent that stuff off and housed it and did all the paper work and everything. So, to the extent that I think about legacy, I think about that. But, otherwise, I just hope that people somehow, some of the stuff remains and especially this stuff about history at a time when I think we need a better grasp of history in all of its nuances. I’m just hoping I can figure out a place to put the media that tells those historical stories.
KB: I guess I’m lucky in that. My poor, long-suffering daughter will have to deal with all that stuff when I’m gone.
BH: There you go. There you go. Yeah. I don’t have kids, so if anybody’s going to do this, it’s got to be me, unfortunately.
KB: You know, I think Fiona would volunteer for you, too, because she loves your work, too.
BH: Oh, good. Oh, yeah, Fiona, I’m sure Fiona wants to deal with my so-called estate.
KB: That’s right. Remember that I… When she first saw Welcome to the Club, I think you went up and I found that you gave her, I think, her own copy of VHS-
BH: Oh, wow.
KB: … because she loved the film so much, and you signed a VHS copy and gave it to her.
BH: Well, I’ll have to give her a DVD then, at least.
BH: It’s time to upgrade her collection.
KB: You know, unfortunately… Well, not unfortunately, fortunately, she and her husband have the VHS machine, still.
BH: Do they really?
KB: Yeah, because I’ve got all the old Rocky and Bullwinkle tapes on that. So-
BH: Oh. Yes.
KB: … there we go.
BH: And those are going to come in handy because you have a grandchild.
KB: I have a granddaughter now, eight-months-old.
BH: She needs to know Rocky and Bullwinkle.
KB: Of course. We all need Rocky and Bullwinkle.
BH: Now more than ever.
CM: Well, Kelley, Beth, this has exceeded my expectations of conversation today. I feel enriched with your wisdom and inspired to keep moving forward. Thank you both so much.
BH: Oh, thank you.
KB: Wait a minute, wait a minute. You’re not going to promote our websites or anything? Come on, dude. We’re independent filmmakers, we’ve got to make a living.
BH: Oh, my God.
KB: Have you… Chris, have you learned nothing over this last hour?
CM: I’ve learned so much. Apparently I missed that memo. Kelley, tell us about your website.
KB: It’s funny you should ask. My website is angryfilmmaker.com, and that’s where people can buy my movies, my books. Hopefully a fifth book is coming out before Christmas, a new collection of short stories. All my stuff’s there. And Beth, what about you?
BH: Mine’s bethharrington.com. Pretty simple.
CM: Nice. I will definitely say that Road Dog, Kelley, is one of my favorite road books.
KB: Oh, thank you.
CM: I thoroughly enjoyed reading that book. I highly recommend people check that book out, and everything else you have to offer.
KB: Thank you so much. That actually means a lot, that you like the book.
CM: Well, thank you, both. Again, this has exceeded my expectations and I hope everyone listening to this will check out your websites, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. And, really, just take inspiration in what you’re doing beyond just that glorious feeling of inspiration, and do something with it.