BEN CHACE AND SAM FLEISCHNER, “WAH DO DEM”
With Jamaica in the American news again (just barely) due to the ongoing siege and popular counter resistance taking place surrounding the attempted U.S. extradition of alleged Jamaican drug kingpin and folk hero Christopher Coke, perhaps there is something timely about the release of Ben Chace and Sam Fleischner’s Wah Do Dem. A winner at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, it stars Sean Bones, a first time actor, as Max, an archetypal Williamsburg Hipster – he’s a skinny, aloof, very pale, self-consciously smug, skateboard riding dufus who attempts to take his girlfriend (Norah Jones) on a cruise to Jamaica. When she breaks up with him before he gets the chance, he’s stuck with a pair of tickets and no one to join him. Taking the journey alone after a buddy accepts and then turns down his offer to come along, he quickly gets embroiled in the type of trouble that tends to befall naive tourists; his wallet, clothing, ID, money and shoes get stolen while at a beach.
Working on a intimate scale, the directing duo have been friends for well over half their young lives, although they found filmmaking and each other as collaborators only recently. Fleischner is an alum of Wesleyan College’s increasingly well regarded film program. After debuting last night to an assuredly appreciative audience at BAMCinematek’s begging to be hip BAMCinemafest, the Brooklyn based duo will open the film themselves in New York this Friday and Los Angeles the following weekend.
Filmmaker: Do hipsters take cruises to Jamaica? Did this project evolve out of some real life experience with that somewhat odd juxtaposition?
Fleischner: Ben and I have been friends since Kindergarten. We took our own paths getting into filmmaking in college. A couple years out of college, Ben won a cruise at a raffle at a concert at Prospect Park.
Chace: At a film screening actually.
Fleischner: Of silent movies. He invited me to go on the trip with him. We realized it was an opportunity to make a creative project out of this otherwise weird and boring vacation. That’s sort of how it snowballed. We both shared an affinity for Jamaican music when we were growing up. We were also seeing an opportunity to sort of get ourselves into Jamaica via this platform of a film project.
Filmmaker: How quickly did the project come together from after these initial conceptual stages?
Chace: It took us a while to getting around to making it. We were both working freelance stuff in New York. We delayed the cruise that I’d won two years before we actually got on it and did the film. We knew that given our resources or lack their of to make this that it was going to be a DIY thing and that’s kind of our ethos anyway. Also, the character. We discussed him as a way to juxtapose these different cultures and also paint a portrait of this somewhat archetypical character who is around New York, kind of a well known New York character, who’s kind of the spaced out artist-
Fleischner: Cultural elitist.
Chace: Yeah, cultural elitist. That’s a good way to put it. Then, try to break that down a little bit and in the process show how his… there’s kind of a supposition that the cultural elitist knows something about the world because they’re so specific about there choices and the music they listen to and everything like that so we just wanted to take this character and put him in different contexts as a way to… to uh…
Fleischner: Breakdown that pretense.
Chace: Yeah, yeah, but I think the DIY aesthetic totally works for that kind of character because that’s who that character is, he’s coming out of this mod of doing it himself and selecting all his… own music and film and culture that he loves, clothing and everything so it… it also works with the scale of our budget so both of those things…
Filmmaker: How much was the film made for?
Chace: Um… Initially $50,000 was our shooting budget. Total, it was like $75,ooo I think.
Fleischner: After post-production and everything. Then we put even more money into the soundtrack to license everything for the film.
Filmmaker: What’s the financing environment like for a project this small? Did you rely on private equity? Friends and family? Debt? It seems like those are generally the three models for DIY production.
Fleischner: We had 18 investors who put in between $1,000 and $5,000.
Chace: I think two put in $10,000.
Chace: But it was small investments, basically passing the hat to our… you know… parents friends and stuff like that. Who, you know, didn’t really expect us to do anything. I don’t think anyone was expecting a return out of it, which was nice. They just kind of knew us from childhood and knew that Sam and I had known each other forever and had always been kind of pushing each other and just kind of trusted that we’d use their money to do something good with it, but probably not expecting for us to do with it what we’ve done with it. We were lucky to have that ability.
Fleischner: We won the LA Film Festival which also gave us more money, which really enabled us to bring it to a point of full… ownership in terms of the music and everything. We were able to get to the point of having a product that we could actually market. Hopefully now we’ll be able to generate some income.
Chace: We were lucky to have just raised the money. It was August of 2008 and mostly done over a couple of weekends. Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy and the whole thing went to shit about a month later. People who were possibly going to give us money at that point just said, “we can’t do it now.”
Filmmaker: Had you been trying to finance this movie after September 15th, 2008, do you think we’d be having this conversation?
Chace: I kind of doubt it. Some people would have definitely given us money, there’s no question. A bunch of people who were thinking about given us money, as soon as that happened, everyone started freaking out a little bit.
Fleischner: Some people we had to give money back to.
Chace: A couple people wanted money back, a couple people were going to give $5,000 but they ended up giving $1,000. It would have been alot more work and it would have been difficult, but I bet we could have put it together, it would have just been tougher.
Filmmaker: Did you go to them with a revenue model in which they could anticipate a return? What does that model look like on a project like this one, in which you’re taking it out into the theatrical marketplace yourselves?
Fleischner: It seems like we’ll be able to return the investments within a year. That’s the conservative estimate. Wait… is that right, a year?
Chace: I think two years is what we projected. It kind of depends on how it goes with our release, if we get some good press out of it, sell a couple more… foreign distribution rights, it could happen quickly, but if its the kind of thing where… the press is so so, DVD stuff trickles in and the iTunes trickles in and we kind of have to try a more blog oriented and word of mouth oriented thing and it builds slowly it might take longer. I think we’re going to do it eventually because… uh… people like the film generally.
Filmmaker: The film backgrounds the climax of the 2008 Presidential campaign very frequently, building to the scene in which Max is watching the Obama’s victory with a clearly elated group of Jamaicans. Can you talk about what these events are supposed to mean within the larger thematic mission of the film, one in which we watch the emotional struggle and slight coming of age of this Williamburg hipster?
Fleischner: Two things. One, I think part of that character is a certain amount of apathy. There’s the apathy of your typical… you know… young, privileged, white guy in New York who’s well educated, like we said this cultural elitist, I think there’s often this apathy, it’s kind of easy not to be involved. There was also this incredible movement happening that Ben and I were a part of, we both worked for the Obama campaign a little bit. When we realized that this was the only cruise we could do timing wise and it was going to be during the election, when we realized we weren’t going to be around for it we were bummed, but we quickly realized we could write it in as a sidebar to the story we thought it would be this just interesting little thing. it was just part of our production. It was something that were following and checking up on and documenting through out film but we were also very much invested in it.
Chace: It was such a moment. When we first started editing it, and it still kind of does, it gives me chills to see that scene, because that was actually a live scene when the results came in and those are real reactions of the people there. Now, its a year and a half later and it is dated and the initial, kind of like, idealism, euphoric “oh, maybe Obama will save the world” has kind of changed, its definitely changed. So its cool, I’m really happy that we captured that, it was so perfect for that time and I think it was also, like being on a cruise ship or in an impoverished country we had no relationship to, the foil for Max’s whole world view and his attitude about who he is and where he fits in, because he kind of has to address it. He’s following it in this kind of ironic way slightly, looking at the projections on the cruise and his friends are like, “dude, you’re going to miss the election” and he’s like, “yeah, whatever man”, but he finds himself and like everything in the film eventually he has to confront it, even if he doesn’t really want to or doesn’t think its cool right away. Confronting it, he’s actually enraptured by this experience. I’m psyched that we got it in there.
Filmmaker: How did you prepare for the Jamaican portion of the shoot? You had no contacts or relationships down there initially?
Fleischner: We went to Jamaica for a week long scouting trip about a month prior to our shoot. It was been and I and Carl Bradshaw, just driving around the country looking for interesting locations and interesting characters. We were fortunate to be in a place where… people are just generally very performative and energetic and talented. There was just so much talent to choose from. Everyone except Carl Bradshaw hadn’t acted before. We were just about to hand pick people that just kind of fit the scenes that we had written. Norah [Jones] had done that My Blueberry Nights movie with Wong Kar Wai and Kevin Bewersdorf has acted in a handful of the mumblecore movies with Swanberg.
Chace: I think its worth noting to that most of the main characters of the film in the Jamaican section were actually members of our crew. Part of that was planned and part of that wasn’t planned. For instance, Mark Gibbs who played the character of Juvie, the kid on the bike at the end, was like our PA down there. We had to rewrite the ending because we were running out of time and money and our flights were coming up and we still didn’t quite have the ending nailed down. We spent alot of time with this kid and really got to know him. He was the person we got to know the most since we had gotten down there. In some ways, I think that was the best performance we got from anyone down there. That was the most developed artistic collaboration we had. We got to spend two weeks with him before we started shooting, kind of figuring out his energy and he was figuring out our energy. We had to put these scenes together very quickly, but it was like a real symbiotic thing where we were all throwing ideas into it and cultivating it.
Fleischner: The guy who drives him to the beach, Father Black, was actually our driver. He was driving a production van the whole time.
Chace: We hired him knowing he would be the actor.
Fleischner: Right, right.
Filmmaker: How light were you in terms of your crew size and production footprint? Did you permit in Jamaica or was this a complete guerilla operation?
Fleischner: We had some permit that we paid for but never once were we asked to produce it, I never saw it, we never pulled it out.
Chace: You don’t really have to have a permit down there. We had this permit that covered the entire country. No one ever asked for it and our crew was so small that most people didn’t even know we were making a movie.
Fleischner: We had three battery operated LED lights was our lighting kit, you know? We didn’t even have a tripod with us, it was all very inconspicuous, small operation.
Filmmaker: Have you shown the film in Jamaica? Do you have any plans to distribute it there?
Fleischner: We already have. We showed it down there at the Reggae Film Festival in February. That was in Kingston and then we did and outdoor screening at this really great beach outside of Kingston, Hellshire Beach. We set up a screen right next to the ocean and played it off of this mega sound system, so it sounded really great.
Chace: I’m headed down to Jamaica in June also. Were going to try to find a way to get it into the theater down there. Sam and I are talking about doing another film in Jamaica centering on the character of Juvie, Mark, the kid on the bike at the end of Wah Do Dem.
Fleischner: One thing that was really interesting about showing it in Jamaica was that Ben and I didn’t… consider our audience. We didn’t think about how it would be read in Jamaica. We didn’t realize quite how differently the movie would be received.
Chace: I thought alot about how it would be read but we just didn’t know, we didn’t have an idea of how it would be read.
Fleischner: What we realized while we were down there was that people couldn’t relate to Sean’s character period until it got to Jamaica. They were like, “who the hell is this guy, who are we watching in these odd places?” They have such a different relationship to cinema in general there. There aren’t many, like, cinephiles or people who really can, like, breakdown movies the same way. There relationship to it is so different that you can just feel this incredible boredom when they’re watching the movie until the Jamaica part and then the Jamaica part was way more hysterical and way more amusing than any other times we’ve shown the film so… that was interesting. I think if we do release it down there, we’ll probably change the edit and maybe put some Jamaica footage in the very beginning and then cut back on the Cruise section and the Brooklyn section.
Filmmaker: Uh huh. So you’re going to have two different cuts of the film in order to cater to different audiences?
Fleischner: Yeah… who knows if we’ll actually do that or if we’ll have a Caribbean release, but if there is the opportunity to do a proper Caribbean release, then I think that would be a smart thing to do, change the edit a little bit. Bring it right into that context a little bit sooner.