COURTNEY FATHOM SELL: SO YOU WANNA BE AN UNDERGROUND FILMMAKER?
Last month we published a piece by Courtney Fathom Sell, “Hi-8 High Life,” on the underground filmmaker’s no-holds-barred artistic credo and production philosophy. In advance of a screening event on September 11 at the Bowery Poetry Club, here is his tale of his ASS Studios and the New York underground film scene.
When we first formed ASS Studios, a no-budget independent film production company, we didn’t expect to gain much attention from mainstream America. Our catalogue of titles, such as Elf Workout!, an homage to cheesy ’80s workout videos which more of less could be viewed as soft-core porn, The Bitches of Bowery, a celebration of a leather wearing man-hating girl-gang terrorizing the streets of the Lower East Side, and most recently Satan’s BitcheS, an exploration into the dark side of Satan worship through the eyes of two Catholic schoolgirls kidnapped and served up for a ritual sacrifice by stoners named Doobie and Echo, does not exactly promise a prime-time slot. Honestly, the chance to have one of our titles featured on the Lowes Cinema marquee continues to get slimmer quicker than the anorexic junky I once knew in art school. However, we’ve decided to persevere and push on. After all, what do we have to lose other than our overall sanity?
I began ASS Studios with writer and painter Rev Jen, a legendary Lower East Side personality most famous or perhaps infamous for her memoirs Live Nude Elf and Sex Symbol for the Insane, as well as her syndicated local television series Electra Elf, which found her battling monsters and other political tyrants in a pink leotard with the help of her talking Chihuahua fluffer. If that wasn’t enough information to make you fall in love with her, she has been the host of the Anti-Slam for nearly twenty years, profiling the talents and occasional mental illnesses of hundreds of performers in her neighborhood, who are now referred to as “Art Stars” a term used by Rev to describe such talent.
Rev and her troop of Art Stars have been terrorizing the streets of the Lower East Side in an alcoholic haze for years, and it seemed only normal for someone such as me, a chain-smoking, excessive drinking, drug-rattled, no-budget filmmaker obsessed with underground, sleazy movies to collaborate and make art, whether the world wants to see it or not. The point of launching ASS Studios was not to conquer the world, but to simply use our insanity to revive and pump some excitement back into the somewhat seemingly dying underground cinema scene within New York City. Since the passing of No-Wave cinema, it seems New York City has been lacking an overall underground scene of moderate size in comparison to those previous years. Growing up idolizing those films and the overall D.I.Y. manner which I so frequently, if not tiredly, preach, it only made sense to collaborate and work beside the people who have been doing it for so much longer, as they have become wonderful educators to so many in the field of ‘no-budget’ filmmaking. Once Rev and I decided to piece together ASS Studios (Art Star Scene Studios, get it?), 16 or so pints into our first meeting, my official crash course in New York underground filmmaking began. What is detailed below, is a document of my experience as a modern day underground no-budget filmmaker in New York City whilst working beside some of the most legendary underground artists who have outlasted numerous film movements within New York City, though I hate to use terms like that so freely. I never expected the world of underground cinema to be glamorous, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be so fun!
We took to the streets of the Lower East Side, equipped with my trusty Hi8 video camera, a slew of insane performers willing to show off their talents, and sometimes private parts in front of the cracked lens, and countless amount of ideas that would help our film be the craziest they could be. After all, the point of ASS Studios was not to make films that depressed our audience, but instead, make them laugh. In a time of needless war, recessions, and useless politicians leading us to our absolute demise, it was time to make movies entertaining again. Since I became a film school drop out and began making films of my own, I have been inspired by the careers of these Art Stars and their willingness to fight back against the norms of society with their art. They had gone through it all earlier. They had lived in a time when the Lower East Side was actually cheap, they had seen Guiliani take to the streets and force his “Quality of Life” values on the public, and most importantly, had created work in a time where there was a still some danger to be had.
“The Lower East Side was still a bit dangerous in the mid ’90s,” says Rev Jen, “but all my neighbors thought I was a Witch (because I wear prosthetic elf ears) so they left me alone. It was definitely much cheaper then, which meant there were inexpensive spaces that could be used as theaters. It was in those theaters (Collective Unconscious and Surf Reality to name a few) where the Art Stars first started getting together. First we started doing live shows, which evolved into making movies and sometimes cable access television. Having written scripts, I was delighted when Courtney, over our 16th pint, suggested we start a motion picture studio. I believe in following through on even the craziest ideas. That’s why I live in a Troll Museum.”
It became obvious to us even in the earliest stages of development of ASS Studios that money would never be an issue as we would simply make our work no matter what. Safe to say, we didn’t actually have money! The cheaper and tackier the set and costumes, the better! If our actors can’t remember their lines, hell, we’ll just arrange cue cards throughout the set, whether in the frame or not, to help them through the scene. Why can’t they do it if Marlon Brando did? Also, due to the talent of these Art Stars, we did not feel it to be necessary to hold auditions for roles such as Doobie or Echo. Instead we simply decided to cast whoever was available and willing. If they weren’t right for the part, we’d just re-write the screenplay to accommodate their style and look. However, in respect to their talents and our vision, we took every second of each production seriously.
The first order of affairs in piecing together ASS was to shoot a pilot. Though we were not producing a TV series, we understood that in order to gain attention, we needed a short subject that could help raise awareness and perhaps even catch some word of mouth. Our main goal was mostly to create work that would be so outrageous, so over-the-top, and so incredibly cheesy that it could receive a chuckle from Big Chief from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. We began cold calling every Art Star in a five-mile radius of our official office, the nearby dive bar, seeking willing actors for our first project Elf Workout! Sure the project sounds innocent enough, however trying to find serious Actors and performers to dress up in leotards and other skimpy outfits, and direct them to run up and down Orchard street proved harder then expected; Especially since we had not one film to our credit. Luckily, there was Faceboy.
Faceboy really does not need a lengthy explanation within this article, as anyone who has the ability to use Google would be able to complete their own research and realize he too is an absolute legend within the Lower East Side. Faceboy, who happens to be an extremely talented and professionally trained actor, is one of the most dedicated performers I have ever had the opportunity to work with and soon enough, he became the official “Fairy Grant” of ASS Studios. Without Faceboy, it is clear to both Rev and I that our no-budget film company would most likely not succeed. A master of comedic timing, pratfalls, and jumping immediately into every insane character we would write for him without hesitation caused him to become our go-to guy; our face (no pun intended) of ASS Studios.
“Rev Jen and I have been BFF’s and collaborators for over a decade and a half,” says Faceboy. “Despite so many of our beloved little theaters closing, Rev and I continue to make and present our work in any medium available. All of these incredible, multi-talented performers have been giving their time (and flesh) and I love that sometimes we can go from first concept to final cut in less than a day.”
Once we avoided arrest and completed Elf Workout, even trying to make a few bucks in the meantime by selling Rev’s sweaty t-shirt on eBay, we all realized we had something special on our hands. Working with ASS Studios was like working in Hollywood minus the money, big-shot producers, wardrobe trailers, caterers, or even PA’s. Ok, maybe it wasn’t like Hollywood at all. However, what we did have were the streets of the Lower East Side as our set, the ability to shoot an entire feature in one afternoon without any hesitation, an on-going/on-growing tab at the nearby bar, and some of the most dedicated performers in New York. At this rate, we could pump out films faster than Roger Corman! With the success, and by success I mean completion and riotous experiences while shooting of Elf Workout!, which featured Rev hosting a series of sexually explicit work-out moves with a group of her friends, all the while slugging 40’s, smoking cigarettes, and essentially strip-teasing for the camera, we knew it was time for our next project. Our speedy production process helped me invent the term “Crash Cinema”, as if we were all taking a one-day “crash course” on filmmaking. Or perhaps more related to viewing a car crash and not being able to look away. You be the judge.
For a no-budget production company specializing in sleazy, trashy, cheesy cinema, every production promises to be a challenge in various ways. Without a budget you must convince your performers to work for free (something I hate doing, yet with strong trust and honesty, they will most likely want to work with you & hopefully you can compensate them later). Also, without a budget, production costs such as food, press material, beer, drugs, and tapes for the camera become over-draft expenses on your credit card that your friends and family will most likely need to help you pay off in the upcoming months. So why then you may ask, do we do it in the first place? The answer is incredibly simple: we want to make films. The fact that we’ve lost our minds plays to our advantage as well.
From the reaction of Elf Workout! from our stars and friends, we realized that if we were to go through the process of another project, it must promise even more sleaze. So, once again, we gathered up our ASS Studios regulars one afternoon, who now included Rev, Faceboy, burlesque dancers Stormy Leather & Fem Appeal, fire-eater & dancer Reina Terror, and photographer Jason “Jboy” Thompson, and began raising eyebrows, stopping traffic, and creating a massive tourist attraction on Orchard Street when all the girls, now dressed in skimpy leather outfits, taunted gawking ice cream eating construction workers and beat up innocent men on the side of the street who dared to look in their direction. Yes, this was ACTUALLY in the script. At one point, a pizza delivery guy passing by on his bike who didn’t realize we were shooting a movie, began pedaling faster hoping not to be the next prey of the girls.
“I found out later that passersby didn’t realize that we were shooting a video.” Faceboy recalls. “They just let me get my ass kicked, which was great for the video but doesn’t say much for humans. Then again I wouldn’t fuck with the Bowery Bitches either and I already know that most humans suck ass.”
The joy of making “underground films” as I’ve probably stated a million times by now is the fact of not having any restrictions what so ever. I knew I was in good hands however, being in the company of such seasoned veterans of underground cinema, who were already highly experienced in avoiding arrest, sweet talking policemen out of tickets, and doing what it takes to get a film made without permits, money, or professional equipment. Many drinks and cigarettes later, The Bitches of Bowery was wrapped that night. With two films under our belt, ASS Studios was ready to show the world what we had in store.
Our official ASS Studios launch party at Bowery Poetry Club gained perhaps a bit more attention than we expected due to coverage from various local New York based newspapers. When we arrived, there was already a crowd forming outside, which surprised me to no end. Hell, give the people what they want, and if it’s sleaze that they want, give em’ sleaze! What your mother didn’t tell you about “underground film screenings” if she told you anything at all, is that most of the time they either end in arrest, fire, or chaos. As I stated earlier, always expect the unexpected. Throughout the course of the premiere, the crowd, nicely intoxicated at this point, began hollering at the scantily clad girls on the big screen. After the films were done, the audience seemed to want more even though we had nothing left to show them. Soon, obviously chaos broke out when a man jumped on stage and hammered a nail into his penis. The night ended when drunk audience members pulled out stun guns and began zapping unfortunate patrons. Chairs were thrown, beer was spilled, tears were shed and blood was let, making it single-handedly the greatest film screening I had ever been apart of. While some may feel they have completed a great film when their audience cries or laughs at their work, I personally feel that when your film evokes members of the audience to begin self-mutilating themselves on stage, you have officially succeeded. Hell, I felt like nailing a rusty nail through my penis after I saw Paranormal Activity.
I understand that the term “underground film” is difficult to justify when speaking of modern filmmaking and in a time where most any film can be viewed online, however in keeping with the style of original underground films, we have purposely chosen to restrain our work from being self-released online as much as possible, hoping to get people back into the small screening houses and celebrate true independent cinema personally. Let’s face it, the excitement one may feel when becoming an unexpected witness to a stun gun attack or penis nailing is something you don’t usually experience in your own living room! While our main goal for ASS Studios is to entertain the audience, I also hope to further inspire other aspiring filmmakers with this work to take to the streets in order to make their movies! The extremes which we underground filmmakers suffer and live through only add flavor to our work. I have had the immense pleasure of being taught and personally educated from some of the people whose work I have looked up to for so long, and feel honored to have the opportunity to band together with the same individuals to make art and occasionally raise hell. Sure you could go see The Smurfs this weekend, but why not experience something new? Well, maybe not new, but certainly more interactive and even a bit sexy.
P.S. Just a word of advice: If you’re hoping for a romantic getaway with your partner or a proper venue to propose, you might want to avoid attending a screening of The Bitches of Bowery. However, if you chose to ignore this warning, you will most likely get laid anyways! — Courtney Fathom Sell
(To catch a glimpse of the work of ASS Studios, Courtney, Rev Jen, & Faceboy will be presenting their entire catalogue of films at the Bowery Poetry Club on September 11th at 9PM alongside performances by a variety of Art Stars. Films include Elf Workout!, The Bitches of Bowery, as well as new short films and a never-before-seen documentary entitled Art Star.)
Photo by Rosalie Knox.