Director Dean Budnick‘s feature directorial debut, “Wetlands Preserved,” is a documentary that details “activist nightclub” The Wetlands Preserve. In 1989, Larry Bloch and his collective opened a nightclub just south of the Holland Tunnel in the then-underdeveloped Tribeca neighborhood of Manhattan. The club had been the first venue for New York performances of bands like Pearl Jam and Rage Against The Machine, and fused music with environmental activism in an entirely unique manner. Budnick’s doc portrays a critical moment in recent music history, and is a tribute to a club that closed prematurely on September 10, 2001. Budnick, who is also the senior editor of Relix Magazine, talked to indieWIRE about the film.
Please tell us about yourself… What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
Like most anyone I would imagine who visits IndieWIRE regularly, my intimate relationship with film goes back to my childhood. In the early-80s my family purchased one of those gargantuan top-loader VCRs and it all happened in a rush. That was an interesting era, back when the inventory of local video stores was not altogether circumscribed by box office popularity. Not only that but the mom and pop stores only could afford to stock a few copies of each film, so folks would have to dig deep. You’d go in there on a Friday afternoon intending to rent “Back To The Future” and walk out with “Vanishing Point.”
While I did not pursue a career in film as a college undergraduate, during my senior year I enrolled in a seminar that required me to direct and edit a documentary. My film explored need-based college applications, tracing a high school senior through the process of applying for school and how her decisions (and the corresponding ones on the college side) were dictated by the availability of financial aid. It was an altogether satisfying experience for me and really affirmed my passion.
By the time I had completed that documentary I realized that a graduate degree in film might well suit me. Alas, this was the second semester of my senior year and I already had applied and been accepted to law school. This led me to New York City, where I soon found myself overwhelmed by all the cultural opportunities the city had to offer (not to mention the law school grind). My experience at Columbia also was important because it was in the spring of 1989 that I first made my way onto the #1 Train and took the subway down to a nightclub that had opened a few weeks earlier, called Wetlands Preserve.
Instead of practicing law, however, I opted for a bit more cocoon and entered Harvard’s Ph.D. program in the History of American Civilization. It was a rather open-ended course of study that required one to draw on two core disciplines, English and History while exploring additional fields as well. Ultimately, this gave me the opportunity to immerse myself in the history and art of film. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on the life and work of silent film comic Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle (now that’s a story that has yet to be explored properly in film. Maybe one day…).
These experiences ultimately paved the way for my involvement with “Wetlands Preserved.”
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Absolutely. While there is another documentary hanging in the air, I’m hankering to direct a narrative feature from a script that I have been working on over the past few years. Actually, during the process of making “Wetlands Preserved” I wrote a few scripts but one in particular is singing to me right now. Which reminds me, the protracted process of completing this film, certainly tested my mettle in terms of moving forward with another project. When we started shooting “Wetlands Preserved” my wife was seven months pregnant with my son, who will be celebrating his fourth birthday shortly after the film opens at Cinema Village.
How did the idea for “Wetlands” come about?
The genesis rests with Peter Shapiro, the second owner of the club and himself a filmmaker. He recently produced the “U2 3D” film. About three years after Wetlands closed its doors, he began exploring the idea of documenting the club’s story. Given his proximity to the subject matter, he was looking for someone else to come on board to direct the film.
While working towards my Ph.D. I also began writing about music, which is how I first met Peter. Shortly after he took over the club, I had wrote an essay on Wetlands for a book on improvisation rock. Over the years to follow, we collaborated on a few music projects. When he began serous contemplating a Wetlands film, I entered the dialogue and talked my way into the gig. I owe a debt of gratitude to him and to our executive producer Robert Difazio for taking a chance on me since most of my experience had been abstract and academic.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
One point I’d like to emphasize is the essential role of the digital animators who worked on the film. When I came into the project one limitation we faced is that we lacked much usable performance video. There were some VHS tapes created on old-school clunky camcorders but that was about it.
Ultimately in solving our video problem we landed on a solution that really elevated the film and serves the subject matter exceptionally well. While our video resources were limited, we did have the entire image archives from the club’s two staff photographers at our disposal. In addition, we had music recordings that spanned the history of club. So our solution was to enlist more than a dozen top-notch digital animators to interpret the sounds through the stills. The way it typically worked was that I would supply each of them with a piece of music and a series of photos. I also would share a rough idea of the context in which the sequence would appear and in some instances offer an idea or two. I offered a few notes along the way but the animators really had the freedom to interpret the music as they wished.
The results are rather stunning and really make the film. If we had relied on that camcorder footage, it all would have felt rather flat and two dimensional. However these animated sequences add a third dimension which I believe comes much closer to evoking the live music experience at Wetlands that the VHS footage would have done.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The path towards distribution certainly was labyrinthine.
First off let me say that Steven Beer ultimately represented us and did a marvelous job of finding a proper home for us at First Run Features.
I was rather naive in that I underestimated the importance of enlisting a top-notch producer’s rep who would come on board and offer some guidance before our world premiere screening. As a result, we embarked on a circuitous film festival route that carried us from Rhode Island to Breckenridge to Woodstock to Santa Barbara and finally to SXSW.
I am thankful that Steven’s associate Ted Weinrib was able to attend our screening at the NewFilmmakers series, which took place a few months and a few festivals after our Rhode Island premiere. Ted responded rather positively to the film and that put us on a proper path.
What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
There were two films that really inspired me as I began to think about “Wetlands Preserved.” The first of these was the very first documentary I ever saw in a movie theater, “Berkeley in The Sixties” (which I have gone on to screen in most any history class where it is even nearly applicable, just as I aim to screen Martin Scorsese‘s “King of Comedy” in courses on U.S. cultural history) . The second documentary film that influenced me was Stacey Peralta‘s “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” Both of these films capture bygone eras with zest. What I found interesting, though, was an interview with Stacey in which he decried the idea of placing his interview subjects in front of blown-up photos of themselves from their youth, which is precisely what Mark Kitchell does quite effectively in “Berkeley in the Sixties.” Incidentally, our distributor, First Run Features, also distributes “Berkeley in The Sixties,” which apparently continues to generate interest and steady sales.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
That’s an interesting question and one that often comes before me in the musical context: what’s “alternative” about alternative music?
What is “independent” film? Is it an aesthetic, an attitude, a matter of accounting? Well, yes and yes and yes. I think to some degree we’re left with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s effort to define pornography: “I know it when I see it.” Frankly, I think it is less important to define “independent film” than to take heart in the fact that there are people out there who will make an effort to look beyond whatever four films are playing on seven screens apiece at their local gigaplex.
Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
Aside from the completing the film itself? It certain respects it’s tough to say that the most satisfying achievement is anywhere but there.
However, our first public screening of what was essentially a rough cut of the film, also proved to be quite a night. We held it at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York and nearly 1000 people turned out. Frankly, that one spoiled me for all the screenings to follow, as the room was full of enthusiastic audience members, including many longtime Wetlands regulars, my parents, my wife and kids. The Ziegfeld typically projects from some NASA-designed bank of hard drives but for our screening they had to bring in a digital projector. We had tested it out and everything had worked out fine. But after Peter and I introduced the film and took our seats, something went horribly awry. The film just would not play. So we made a mad dash up the fifty rows or so to the projection booth, trying to diagnose the problem. Eventually some genius, not me, said, “Why don’t we just turn off the projector and then turn it back on.” Well that’s what we did and it worked. Our achievement on that night was just getting the darn thing to play. Sometimes there’s nothing more glorious than that.