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Director Michelle Esrick on the Highs and Lows of “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie.”

Director Michelle Esrick on the Highs and Lows of "Saint Misbehavin': The Wavy Gravy Movie."

As far as documentary subjects go, Wavy Gravy, the focal point of Michelle Esrick’s new documentary “Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie,” is as multifaceted as one could imagine. A countercultural icon of the hippie movement, Wavy Gravy is perhaps best known as the acting MC of the Woodstock Festival. If that role didn’t suffice, Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream took care of immortalizing him in popular culture by naming a flavor after him. Esrick’s new documentary seeks to transcend the limits of popular culture and frame Mr. Gravy as a politically active figure who has dedicated his life to helping the underpriviliged. The claim is, apparently, not a difficult one to make.

The film is currently playing in select theaters in the Bay Area and opens this Wednesday, December 8 at New York’s IFC Center. indieWIRE recently got in contact with the director to talk about her new film and the filmmaking process.

Michelle Esrick on the calling to become a filmmaker…

I’m a human being, artist and activist, in search of how to be most useful. I discovered I am most happy when I am creating something that is challenging. I forget who said, “Do what scares you the most.” I’m not sure if this is true all the time, but it is certainly something to consider. It makes perfect sense that I would make a film about a poet, actor, comedian, clown and great activist, Wavy Gravy. My grandfather was a photographer for Ringling Brothers Circus. I came to a realization that being of service was the key to my happiness. Then I met Wavy and his life was a living example of what I believed to be true and simple. After getting to know Wavy Gravy in the mid 90s, I knew I had to make a film about him.

Esrick on directing the film…

I got to know Wavy through some benefit work we did together in the mid 90s. I was inspired like never before and I noticed my perception was shifting to a better place every time I was with him. One day I heard this thought come from within me. “If you make a film about him, people will see it and be inspired.” I also thought the world needed his kind of inspiration. It was a lot like Kevin Costner’s moment in “Field Of Dreams,” “If you build it they will come!” I think it’s a good idea to stay awake in life in order to be present for moments like these. I thought I was a little crazy for paying attention to my thoughts about making this film, since I never made a film before. The desire was unshakable for me (and i did try to shake it!). I actually asked another director who had real experience with documentaries to do it and thought I would be the producer on it, because I had confidence in this part of myself. As it turned out, I realized that I was meant to tell this story. It was mine to tell. I can now see the importance of a director owning the story that they want to tell and need to tell. Everyone will tell the same story differently, and give their opinion about it how it “should” be. It’s important to follow your heart and stand up for the story you want to tell. Wavy and his wife Jahanara gave me access into their lives. This gave me the confidence to move forward with it.

The director’s approach to the film…

I started following him around with a crew at Woodstock 99′. Shooting verite’ footage of him. Ironically, that three day shoot did not make it into the film because we had so many sound problems. I wanted the film to be a combination of verite’, interviews, and archival footage. I knew I did not want to make a biography. I wanted to give the audience the experience of what it is like to hang out with Wavy and I also wanted them to see the amazing stories come alive through the archival footage. I had a long list from hearing him tell these fascinating stories over the years and I was determined to find these treasures. I wanted to show not tell. I don’t like to be told how to feel or what to think. I am personally inspired by action.

I wanted the edit to be an intuitive process. Wavy has a certain rhythm in the way he speaks and talks and where he takes you emotionally and spiritually. I wanted the audience to feel this with Wavy in order to experience his magic. You have to feel it and be with it. A big studio Executive tried to convince me that the film should be chronological and I knew that the audience would not experience the Wavy in the same way. His life’s message is timeless; love is timeless. In fact, I needed to go back and forth in order to show this.

The project’s biggest challenges…

The biggest challenge was fundraising and the edit. I used to cry before I had to ask someone for money. Moving through this was one of my greatest lessons. Asking someone to help you with something greater than yourself, for the greater good, is really a spiritual act. Being grateful for each challenge that occurs can be the greatest challenge. I believe gratitude is a choice. I know when I am in gratitude and faith, the funding comes through faster than when I am in fear. This applies to any situation.

On what audiences will hopefully get from the film…

I wanted people to know that he is more than the guy from Woodstock, yet he represents the essence that made Woodstock an event we are still talking about 40 years later. I wanted to introduce a life long carrier of peace and justice, that went way beyond the sixties. I wanted to share a modern day “Court Jester”, “Holy Clown,” “Sacred fool”. I wanted people to meet a real hippie. After 16 film festivals I experienced audiences loving this film and walking away truly inspired. The music in the film is great. I think people find it fun and entertaining, hopeful and uplifting. This is the feedback I get.

That is what it feels like to hang with Wavy. So, it’s fun to give people this gift. I hope people will take away a deeper knowing that they can make a difference! Wavy reminds me not to take myself too seriously.

People are also very surprised by who Wavy really is. My favorite feedback I have received is that he affirms what we already know. I love that! He is really talking about Basic Human Needs. Wavy actually wrote a song called Basic Human Needs. It was a dream of mine to have his musician friends, like Jackson Brown, Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Bob Weir, Steve Earle, Maria Muldaur, Buffy Sainte-Marie and others, sing this song for the film. These folks love Wavy and have supported his causes like the Seva Foundation benefit concerts over the years. Our composer, Emory Joseph arranged and produced a gospel blues version of the song and it is righteous to the bone!

On the influence of other filmmakers…

Making a good film is inspirational to me! I love D.A. Pennebaker’s films and the films he makes with Chris Hegedus. Joe Berlinger’s film, “My Brothers Keeper,” is stunning. Barbara Kopple’s films, Errol Morris films. The Daniel Ellsberg film: “The Most Dangerous Man in America.” This list can go on and on! “Born Into Brothels,” see, I can’t stop! “Leon Gast,” “When We Were Kings.” Whenever I felt that my film was taking forever, I just thought of Leon’s 22 year process with his film! Michael Moore’s films inspire me and he inspires me. We loved doing his film festival and hanging out with him all week. I think every film I was ever moved by inspired my story telling.

Future projects…

I have a list of films I would love to make. Lets see which one moves up to the front of the line as the one I HAVE to make. I’m very interested and concerned with plastic pollution – the fact that there are five gyres of plastic in our oceans the size of the state of Texas is unreal to me. I have an interesting approach in mind. I am working on a few other projects I can’t mention at the moment but am very excited about.

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