Documenting Fiction: Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman on Kung Fu Elliot (2014)
By Paul Risker.
Going behind the scenes of Blood Fight, the latest film from amateur filmmaker and aspiring Canadian action hero Elliot Scott, Jaret Belliveau and Matthew Bauckman encounter the truth of cliché first hand in their documentary Kung Fu Elliot. Viewer sentiments like “fact is stranger than fiction,” “art as deception,” and “comedy and tragedy colliding” are unavoidable during Kung Fu Elliot, which for all the hope therein, depicts an honest view of dreams and their vulnerability to exploitation.
Belliveau’s sophomore documentary feature, Kung Fu Elliot follows his 2011 exploration of skateboarders in Highway Gospel. Belliveau brings the experience to the directing partnership as Bauckman embraces the creative challenge of leaving the editing room for a seat in the director’s chair.
In conversation with Film International Belliveau and Bauckman spoke of navigating the inevitable learning curve they are on, and reflected on the roots of their careers in filmmaking. They also shared their thoughts on working in documentary and how the experience has set their sights on narrative fiction, while also discussing film as a possession of the audience and not the filmmaker.
Why careers in filmmaking? Was there that one inspirational moment?
Jaret Belliveau (JB): Well I came from a documentary background: still photography. So I was oddly practicing documentary making and fictional storytelling, but obviously more with images. It just seemed like films were the next step for me personally, and I made my first documentary Highway Gospel which opened in 2011 at the Hot Docs Festival. It took four years to make, but I considered it a film school. So there was just a lot of passion in me to tell unique stories, and definitely stories from our perspective as Canadians. This is how I met Matt – as an editor on Highway Gospel – although he has had a different path to get to where we are now.
Matthew Bauckman (MB): Basically, I just watched a lot of bad movies growing up. My dad was an artist and so I was always into art. I just found that filmmaking was the most interesting medium as far as the way you could tell stories. I met Jaret six years ago now when I started working as an editor on his first movie, and that’s how I got into documentary filmmaking.
JB: And that’s how we got to Elliot [Scott]. Matt’s dad is one of his biggest supporters – you know how parents are – and he actually sent Matt an article that featured Elliot – I think it was two articles, right?
MB: Yeah. I was going to film school in Toronto and my dad kept sending me articles about Elliot Scott and his first two movies. So strangely enough I had heard about Elliot even before I had met Jaret.
JB: I actually forgot I went to high school with Elliot, but that’s a different story [Laughs].
What was it that suggested to you that Elliot’s story was a compelling subject for a documentary?
MB: I think it is made up of a lot of things. At the time when Jaret and I began to want to do this movie we didn’t have any type of budget; we didn’t even own our own cameras. The reason why the story about Elliot spoke to us I guess was that it initially seemed like a great underdog story about this dreamer. We are both big fans of films like American Movie (1999) and what stuck out was that it could be really interesting.
JB: As we got to know Elliot we had more questions about him, and we kind of figured that Elliot lived in his own world or that’s what it seemed like. We knew some of the things were not probably true from the start, like the film festival he won: it took one Google search to find that out.
As a subject for a documentary it became interesting because it really spoke I think to the ways that Elliot was trying to go with himself, and which was mostly done in his own mind. So it became kind of like a palette for a very cerebral look at a man.
MB: Well, what you are saying is documentaries are all about truth, and Elliot was completely rooted in fiction: in his life and how he dealt with people and relationships.
JB: And they just got more and more complex, a little twisted and went to places where we would never go with Elliot. What brought us through it though was the story of Elliot and Linda. The big focus in the film is how his white lies or flat out wrong lies were affecting her. But the thing that kept us going back was to see what was going to happen between these two people, because she seemed to very much love Elliot, and at the start we very much thought Elliot loved her as well. Maybe he does, in a weird way.
MB: But I think when we discovered the relationship between Elliot and Linda, and how that operated, then we knew that we had enough material for a feature film.
JB: It was just a very surreal experience. Things just kept falling into place, and as with a lot of documentaries, to make a documentary it is a lot of hunches, and especially with these types of movies. So even when we first met Elliot we had this hunch that something amazing was going to happen, and Blood Fight seemed like the perfect place to be looking. We met Blake and Blair there as well as another cast of characters – some that do not make it into the film. There was such a lively group around him that made for rich storytelling, and gave us a chance to tell a pretty unique story.
One of the challenges often cited by documentary filmmakers is the mass of rushes that need to be condensed. What are your experiences of sifting through rushes to find and to then create a story that translates to the screen?
MB: That was definitely one of the hardest parts of the editing process, because we had an hundred and thirty hours of footage. So yeah, it was just a process of whittling it down to ten hours, then four hours and then down to two hours. It gets harder and harder to cut the stuff you have.
JB: In this movie there was such an intricate balance because we were obviously so invested in the story and the characters. So it took Matt and I a long time to really get the distance we needed to see the story that was there. I really feel that you don’t make a documentary but it makes itself: it is what you have. You can’t really go and get anything you might have lost or forgotten.
One of the things that becomes important in our movie is the ring. Linda really wants Elliot to commit. We had to rush and take a hard long look at what we had to pull out for the mention of the ring because it became important. When we were filming never once were we, oh, we have to make sure the ring is in there. But then you get into the story and you are trying to put all of these arcs together and as you can see in our film it gets pretty emotionally involved. So that was a really big process for us being the first time we had really edited a feature film ourselves.
MB: Entirely ourselves.
JB: But it is a tricky thing because when you are shooting you really want all these magic moments, and then they become somewhat of a burden later on.
Picking up on the human element most of the great stories – films and novels – feature this. While the story can appear to be about one thing, what hooks an audience is the human story or human relationships. In your opinion is humanism essential to any story we choose to tell?
MB: I think you have to set out to paint an honest portrayal of someone, even if it is a dishonest person. This movie could have easily been about this guy who is not the greatest filmmaker, and it could have been so easy to take a derisive tone by laughing at the guy. But who would want to watch that? I think it is really important to try to understand the people whose lives you are entering.
JB: Exactly, and people have these stereotypical views of one another, which I dealt with a lot in my first film because it was about skateboarding. So you could easily look at Elliot and dismiss him – dismiss what he is doing and all of these things.
It didn’t make it into the final movie but there is a second documentary crew that actually started following him while we were filming. We would have loved to have brought them into the movie, but we just didn’t have enough in the end. They kind of gave up after we were able to secure money to get to China and they couldn’t. They were like: Oh shit, you guys get to go to China – we can’t compete with your documentary anymore. But they were also making a completely different type of film – more of an MTV generation look at how ridiculous this is.
What we really wanted to do was give great importance and weight to these people’s dreams, and to really get past the way you look at people sometimes on the surface when you maybe just bump into them. Some people dismiss Elliot as though they can smell him out right away. But I think by sticking with that we were able to end up with quite a unique documentary, because as well as the human story, a lot of people don’t believe it is real: they believe it is fake.
MB: That they are all actors or something. We had a hunch, but….
JB: You have to put your faith in that these people will reveal themselves, and in Elliot’s case, he didn’t actually really reveal himself that much. So what became difficult for us was to find meaning. Unlike in American Movie where Mark speaks so greatly about himself, the problems he was trying to overcome, and his relationship with his mother and all the other people….
MB: The ability to self-reflect….
JB: In the moment, and when Elliot doesn’t he totally lives out these fantasies in his real life, which you see when the stalker comes. In a way he his borrowing from these movies and bringing them right into real life, which becomes very interesting for us to figure out what is going on at the time. But then you look back and you see how….
MB: The dreams were busting out of the movies; full blown into our documentary.
JB: Entering his life and ours.
One of the successes of the film is the balance it strikes between comedy and tragedy; specifically how in tragic moments it can still retain humor and in humorous moments retain the tragedy. What you show is how the two can co-exist in the same space and at the same time, which inherently makes it awkward as a spectator, because how do you respond to emotions that are pulling you in different directions?
JB: Definitely, and with tragedy and comedy there is a fine line between the two. Even when the movie starts getting dark it doesn’t stop being funny. Even the last scene when things are coming to a head Elliot will still say a one-liner that will crack people up.
MB: Well it is always interesting to watch somebody who can’t see themselves. I think for an audience member who can kind of clearly see what some of the issues are, they will be hoping that this character, this person sees these things and will catch themselves. I guess the most important thing for us was to make sure that these stories were told quite compassionately, and I think the big moment that really hits people in the movie is when Blake is talking with his Caroline, because around five to eight minutes ago you were laughing. He was doing Shakespeare and his transcendental meditation. It is cringe worthy but hilarious and unbelievable. Then all of a sudden it is like there is this real person in front of you, and camera inches away at the brink of crying. He’s lost somebody who was so dear to him, and then you have Elliot come in who helps his friend with a lie. So there are all these conflicting things going on, and the whole movie conflicts against itself because you want these people to also grow up and understand that they are probably not going to reach their dreams. They question Elliot on this, but then they can’t question him because he his kind of the gatekeeper of their dreams – he’s given them the biggest breaks they have ever had. They consider it a big accomplishment to make a feature film, which it is. Not a lot of people can actually pull off an hour and a half, and keep people around long enough for all the two years of filming or however long it took Elliot.
JB: It has been interesting for us to bring this movie out to the world, because some people really don’t get it; they don’t know where our hearts and our intentions are for the film.
I’ve spoken with filmmakers who have said that once you have made the film and once you have put it out there, then it is no longer your film. Do you agree that ultimately a film belongs to the audience?
JB: I agree with it in the way that how we see a movie is completely different from how other people do. So yeah, I think so, because hearing other people’s reviews of the movie has been really interesting. We were like: oh okay, I remember trying to really put that point into the movie, but that was a year a half ago. So it is interesting what people pick up on and what some people completely disregard, although I think everyone’s opinion about the film is valid.
MB: I feel what is valid for me about it is that it comes back to photography in a sense: in that a photograph you take the story with you and you bring with you your own experiences. So I feel that this film also puts up a mirror to the audience, and makes them look at themselves. A lot of people that maybe have been manipulated and maybe taken advantage of believe in some way that they shouldn’t have been, but it is easy to strongly react to Elliot and to have all these different things happening within themselves. And just based on the fact that they are watching a documentary we have had audience members in complete conflict about laughing. One person came up to us once and said: “I thought this was fake and so I laughed the whole time. But now that you are here doing a Q&A, I’m feeling guilty.” It has been really interesting to put such a surreal documentary out there and primarily into the documentary world.
JB: A lot of times we have seen people that maybe had a cynical world view and thought our intentions were bad. Some people had maybe more of a positive world view in that maybe people are not so terrible, and were like: okay we can see you are trying to get to the root of something there. So people’s reactions are really interesting.
MB: Do you remember the filmmaker we met at Sundance who actually thought Elliot was the hero, because his lies were bringing good to people? That’s wild. We never….
JB: Would have thought that ourselves. It has been that kind of movie where the first time we showed it at Sundance we walked out of the screening and people were just besides themselves and arguing. It has been interesting to be in a sense controversial.
MB: We never would have thought it would have brought about this much discussion.
JB: Yeah, that has been the greatest part about the movie. It has been good and bad but it has been mostly interesting.
Looking back on the film what did you take away from the experience, both personally and professionally?
MB: Well, Jaret and I have both decided to work on a narrative film next. So a big thing would be just remembering when we were waiting for the ending to occur, thinking about how our fate was not in our hands [Laughs]. As far as a character-based observational type documentary like this, a lot of times you have to wait for these things to happen, and it is like you are waiting to direct it. But it is very much not in your hands, and while I absolutely love documentaries, right now I feel like getting more into the narrative world.
JB: I think it is a good place to go after this because it can allow us flexibility, but there is some creativity and things we have learned from being involved in such a wild story. For me personally, I think I have become even more careful where I put my time and my emotion; not that I regret the movie, but these are the decisions you make wholeheartedly, and they affect a lot of time in your life. So to be really mindful and to make sure that what we do next will be able to satisfy us and push us to the next level. I just want a little bit more control over our creative process at this point in time, and so professionally, I think you just re-learn every time how to make a documentary. There are no rules; it is such an open book.
MB: I absolutely love the type of documentary we made, and it is my favorite type: where the filmmakers aren’t like characters. But I think the type of documentary I like to make is not the easiest, as far as having control of writing the script, or whatever.
JB: For us, there are always these big learning curves because Matt had never made a documentary before this. I think that has been really eye opening for him as well as for myself. I think that every day you are on set with people where you are trying to get to something or somewhere with them, then you are constantly having to push yourself personally to be open and to not judge or to laugh, but maybe kind of become invisible a little bit, or at least hopefully. So it takes a lot of humility, and it is a lot of stuff that you have to work on more and more because you are putting yourself behind the action. I think I can also be a little more patient because where my first few moments were such the extreme of just waiting, waiting, waiting for moments, and sometimes it felt a little rushed. And you get annoyed when somebody has been lying to you for a year a half.
So using documentary as a springboard into narrative fiction?
JB: Yeah, and we are really excited about our ideas. We have been writing a little bit and that’s the thing with a documentary. We made this with borrowed cameras and we pretty much edited it in my dining room. So it is amazing what you can do with that hard work nowadays. It has been really amazing, but I think we are ready to have a little more funding and support, and that’s the big thing, professionally. Go through the process here in Canada and get some development funding.
Kung Fu Elliot is now available on VOD, iTunes and Amazon. It will be released theatrically in Phoenix, AZ at the Film Bar and Seattle, WA at the Egyptian Theatre and the SIFF Film Centre on Friday the 6 of March.
Paul Risker is a critic and writer for a number of on-line and print publications, including Little White Lies, Flickering Myth, Starburst Magazine, and VideoScope. He is currently based in the United Kingdom.