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Don't Look Back in Anger

Kelley Baker Channels His Rage Into His Movies, Then Takes Them On The Road

Jenna Biggs

By Aaron Mesh | Posted 9/3/2008

Kelley Baker doesn't look angry.

The man who calls himself the "Angry Filmmaker" is soaking in a rare afternoon of sunshine in his hometown of Portland, Ore., sipping a glass of PBR at a picnic table. With his small glasses, stringy gray hair, and powder-white beard, the 52-year-old looks like a cross between Harold Ramis and Jerry Garcia. Occasionally, he reaches over and pats the head of his drinking companion, Moses, a 120-pound chocolate Labrador retriever, who is lapping at a bowl of water.

Baker seems downright sanguine. But don't be deceived. "Gimme time," he chuckles. "I'll work into it."

It doesn't take much effort to get Baker riled up. You just have to invoke the right words. Try saying "Hollywood studios," and wait for the retort: "They will make a ton of money on your movie. And you won't." Or mention the Sundance Film Festival: "Sundance is a joke. It has been for the last 10 years."

But the incantation that really gets Baker going, the one he's been nursing irritation over for the better part of two decades, is "independent filmmaking." Say that one and duck.

"It's a joke," he says. "It's a marketing phrase. Hollywood wouldn't know an independent film if it bit 'em in the ass. And what pisses me off is the co-opting of the term `independent.'"

Baker has made a career of complaining. His movies range from peeved documentary shorts (about the theft of his Toyota pickup, say, or his miserable childhood vacations) to feature-length dramas with characters who rage against hypocritical authorities. But his chief gripe is that, while making a movie is easier than ever before--just find a digital-video camera, a boom mic, and some friends--the only way to get that movie seen is through a system of festivals and studios that only bet on sure things and big names.

So Baker drives around the roadblocks: If Hollywood won't bring people to his movies, he'll bring his movies directly to the people. For more than five years, he's traveled from city to city in his 2005 Ford Freestar van, six months every year, screening his films and conducting seminars on how to make movies on the cheap and distribute them without studio marketing. This week, he's back in Baltimore at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, screening his short films and hosting a discussion on guerrilla marketing.

"I'm basically the Tom Joad of cinema," he says. "Wherever there's an empty theater that wants to see a movie, I'll be there, Ma."

Before he started barnstorming with Moses in the passenger seat, Baker was a guy with connections. From 1991 to 2000, he was the sound engineer on each of Portland-based auteur Gus Van Sant's movies, from hits like Good Will Hunting and My Own Private Idaho to misses like Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Psycho. ("Yes, I did the remake of Psycho," he says in a commentary on his short-films compilation. "But I had my own reasons, and I had a good reason--I needed the money.") In the meantime, he worked on little personal movies, comedic sketches like the three-minute reel of friends explaining in exacting detail how having a child would ruin his life.

But he wanted to make something bigger, something he could call his own. So in 1999 he spent his life savings on Birddog, a 100-minute drama about a used-car salesman who uncovers dark secrets behind the 1948 Vanport flood, which nearly wiped Oregon's black population off the map. (The film is fiction, but the flood was real, giving Birddog an extra resonance after Hurricane Katrina.) Trying to get a studio to option the movie taught him exactly how much his connections to Van Sant and fellow Portland filmmaker Todd Haynes were worth: "That and $4 gets me a cup of coffee," he says. Baker never found a distributor and ended up so badly in hock to the IRS that he lost his house. (He now rents.)

The debacle taught Baker the lesson he has now passed on to audiences in more than 200 cities: The DIY mantra applies as much to showing an independent movie as it does to shooting it. "You gotta go hit the road," he says. "You can have the greatest film in the world, [but] if it sits on your shelf and nobody sees it, who the hell cares? Once you make your movie, the work is just starting."

The most interesting thing about Baker's touring philosophy is that it makes him sound less like a filmmaker and more like a one-man rock band. He stays in motels ("or in Wal-Mart parking lots--I've been known to sleep in those"), he books extra gigs between scheduled stops, and he returns home long enough to record his newest inspiration. (He prefers to shoot his movies in the winter, when Portland is besieged by cold rain: "Most of my characters have no future. When the weather's against them, I'm a happy camper.")

The resemblance between Baker and a music group on the make is intentional: He's modeled his treks on indie-rock bands who don't bother with record labels. "The independent music business is usually a couple years ahead of the independent film business," he says. "Musicians tour. Comedians tour. Actors tour. So why do filmmakers think they're so special?"

Baker's distribution theories are fairly radical, but his movies are homespun affairs. The shorts he'll be showcasing this week have a personal, ramshackle quality that's charmingly quaint--many of the ones made in the '90s look like they were shot in the '60s--and the features he'll be selling are marred by amateur acting and pedestrian scripts. But the subtext of each film is that Baker doesn't give a damn about criticism. One of the characters in his most recent movie, Kicking Bird, seems to speak for the director when he describes the virtues of cross-country running to the hero: "You don't do it to be watched, Martin. You do it for yourself."

Or maybe Kelley Baker speaks just as well for himself in the liner notes of Kicking Bird's DVD: "I'm proud of this movie and I hope you like it as well. But if you don't, I won't be losing any sleep. I'll just be working on my next one."

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