Director Alex LeMay follows up 2004's "The Bulls of Suburbia" with "Desert Bayou," a compelling documentary that details 600 African-American Hurricane Katrina evacuees who are transported from New Orleans to a isolated military base in Utah without their knowledge. As he follows their stories, LeMay brings up questions of race, politics, poverty and religion as responses from the government and local citizens do not encourage much hope.
Please introduce yourself. How did you come to be a filmmaker?
Like many filmmakers, I began making movies on my father's Super 8 mm camera. My first film was a remake of the "The Six Million Dollar Man" television show using stop-motion animation, firecrackers, and smoke bombs. Video hadn't been invented yet. Since then, I never stopped surrounding myself with all things film. When I saw Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now", it made me acutely aware of just how powerful a movie could be. It inspired me to always find the narrative in everyday life.
In 1993, after I graduated from college, my dear grandmother passed away leaving me $36,000. After using some of it to go on a trip to Europe, I made my first legitimate film, shot in 16 mm. It was a black and white short called "The Scoreboard", which told the story of the guys who operated the manual scoreboard at Wrigley Field. It received moderate success after a few screenings, but it was enough to make me realize that I was hooked on filmmaking. I suppose I had a chance to go to film school, but I never took it, preferring to learn filmmaking on my feet. I made a series of films for the sheer purpose of knowing what to do, but especially what not to do, and that led me to the odd corporate client doing PSAs and odd local commercials. As I gained confidence, I quit my bartending job at a Chicago Italian eatery and started my production company in earnest. Since then I haven't looked back. I just kept pointing cameras at things, which eventually brought me to the far corners of the world to laces such as Fiji, Spain, Mexico and Moscow. Today I'm working on my third feature documentary, "Conversations With the Enemy", as well as raising my three wonderful kids. My wife and I can't wait to take a breather; I think its time to go to Barcelona.
Where did the idea for "Desert Bayou" come from and how did it evolve?
I watched the scenes from New Orleans on the news with a sense of shock and sadness that I am sure was experienced by all Americans - by all civil humans. Not since 9/11 has so much devastation visited American shores and as we have seen, the loss of life was horrifying. However, those who survived need their stories told, so there is a record for all time, of their struggles, losses, and triumphs. There are many angles for stories about Hurricane Katrina, most told from the perspective of a broadcast news reporter or the major media outlet. At some point, however, this has stopped being a "news" story and become purely, a human story.
Our cameras followed two families from different backgrounds, but united by one thing: they were put on a plane and sent to a place where the culture was in direct contrast to their own. It is a fish out of water story-a story of resurrection, rebirth, of human beings helping one another and overcoming incredible odds.
We didn't follow convention - we didn't impulsively go to New Orleans and collect the exact same footage that would soon be available through any news outlet. Instead, we went 1900 miles west and told a story that at first seemed to be a simple human-interest story lost on page six between the crime blotter, and the Mattress Warehouse 1/2 page sale advertisement! What we found was much more dynamic than any of us could have imagined. With only four days of preproduction, we arrived in Utah just days after the storm. We were forced to make this film solely on instinct, letting the story take us where it wanted us to go, instead of manufacturing an outcome. The resulting movie is well past "news". Rather, it is unadulterated humanity played out against the backdrop of religion, politics, race, and two peoples forced together by a storm yet connected forever by necessity.
What were the challenges in completing the film?
The biggest roadblock in shooting this film was the fact that this story involved so many hot button issues including race, religion, poverty and politics. Its not like I can just call up George Bush and tell him I want to have a sit down. Many politicians and community leaders simply wouldn't return our phone calls. The great thing was, this, in the end, is a human story. So we followed the people that Hurricane Katrina truly affected, which was not the politicians and the pundits, but average everyday people who had lost everything.
What were your creative influences in making this film?
Just before I decided to make "Desert Bayou", I bought a DVD of Tony Scott's "Man on Fire," starring Denzel Washington. His use of odd film stocks and frame rates gave me a lot of inspiration in how I was going to handle the "look" of "Desert Bayou". I used a lot of cross-processing and the likes, and I even found the guy who did the processing for "Man on Fire" at Fotokem in Burbank, California so I was able to achieve a look that had that same worn, surreal vibe. Maybe not on such a grand scale as Tony Scott, but hopefully it will inspire the audience just the same.
What are your interests outside of filmmaking?
Vespa Scooters, chicken wings, stand-up comedy (not me doing, me watching), Starbucks, Notre Dame football, drawing fake mustaches on all my children, going to bullfights sober, cake.
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
I define success as a filmmaker as having the freedom to make choices; as being able to make movies with my friends. The fact that I can pay my rent and feed my children with money that I earned by pointing cameras at things is the greatest success that one can achieve. Lets face it, not many people know who I am, but I'm living my childhood dream in a city that I love with people that are incredible.