Portland, OR based filmmaker Andy Blubaugh first drew the attention of programmers and indie film audiences when his short film, “Hello, Thanks” was included in the 2006 Sundance Film Festival. Like his follow-up short, “Scaredycat,” which premiered at the following year’s Sundance, “Hello” is a documentary which employs a distinctive and highly personal style and tone – self-referential but not self-indulgent which he has called “speculative documentary construction” – which quickly grew to characterize Blubaugh’s work. A few years later, he’s expanded and developed his autobiographical approach into a unique blend of documentary and drama for his feature film debut, “The Adults in the Room,” which screened as a work-in-progress this month at the Ashland Independent Film Festival before heading on to Sarasota.
Originally from Cleveland, Blubaugh was first drawn to making comics, but notes that he lacked the discipline to hone his technical skills. “When I discovered filmmaking, it reached a lot of the same spots in terms of being able to tell stories through a variety of different methods,” he related in a phone conversation earlier this week. He admits that his initial films, about the helplessness of growing up in the Midwest, were what you’d expect from a 15 or 16 year old – “lots of symbolism, grainy dramatic shots, flat landscapes” – and that he didn’t develop his personal voice until his 20s. The turning point was when a friend noted that Andy’s simultaneous obsession with and procrastination from exploring an undeveloped roll of film (that might or might not contain the last images of his deceased mother) made for a better film subject than whatever fictional story he might develop based on it. His first short, “Burden,” was the result.
While Blubaugh enjoyed filmmaking as a creative outlet, the high school dropout was content working in the non-profit Northwest Film Center and considered it a hobby until he was accepted to Sundance, which he submitted to on a lark. “I was blown away. Ripples coming from my experience there made me decide to be a filmmaker.” He followed up “Hello, Thanks,” which charted Blubaugh’s efforts to find companionship through the personal ads, with “Scaredycat,” wherein he confronts his irrational fears after a robbery and beating, and “The Pull,” a portrait of Blubaugh’s relationship with an ex-boyfriend that had a pre-determined expiration date.
“You can only make so many shorts,” Blubaugh noted. “I felt an urgency to make a feature now,” referring to “The Adults in the Room,” which once again takes as its subject Blubaugh’s personal story: the film explores the complex and secret relationship the 15-year-old Blubaugh had with Peter, a man nearly twice his age. Originally intending to approach “Adults” as a scripted narrative, Blubaugh came to realize that reflecting on his past was only half the story and that he needed to explore its impact on him in the present, now about the same age Peter was when they began their affair. While a more traditionally minded filmmaker might have simply added a scripted role for an adult version of himself, Blubaugh instead altered his plan and wove in a documentary component alongside the scripted elements. “I suppose I’m still hearing echoes of the advice to just tell my own story… it’s almost more cowardly to hide behind some character.”
The decision to create a hybrid documentary/drama, much less on the (non-damaging) sexual relationship between an adult and an adolescent, led to some difficulties securing financial backing. In discussing his experience in the documentary track at 2008’s Independent Film Week, Blubaugh reveals, “I had no idea how to talk about the film. I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t know how to pitch a project…. and I’m not sure if the doc crowd was ready to hear what I was saying.” Despite this, he managed to make “Adults,” which was very well-received at its first public screening in Ashland, leaving Blubaugh encouraged. Beyond Sarasota, the film will screen at the Jacob Burns Film Center’s Out at the Movies series and at the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival in May, followed by NewFest, Frameline, and Outfest in the summer.
Looking to the future, Blubaugh expressed an interest in working on projects that are not autobiographical, where he isn’t the subject, or necessarily even the writer, though he wants to figure out a way to maintain his distinctive storytelling techniques. He said that he enjoyed working with actors more than he thought he would and welcomes the opportunity to do so again. He also unexpectedly revealed an appreciation for commercials: “I would really love to direct a Honda commercial – the best commercials tell interesting stories in a concise way.”
Blubaugh also discussed continuing to work outside of the filmmaking capitals of Los Angeles and New York City: “In LA, everyone’s making a movie – so what – but in Portland, there’s at least a little but of a ‘wow’ factor left when you tell people you’re filming something. There’s also a tremendous DIY community here.” At the same time, he notes, “You hit a level where it becomes difficult to get what you need here,” both in technical terms and when it comes to securing funding. He self-financed “Adults,” but has started a Kickstarter campaign to help cover final post-production costs.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, guest curates the Out at the Movies film series at the Jacob Burns Film Center, and recently co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter @1basil1.