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Jamie Meltzer began his filmmaking career as a news stringer, shooting natural disasters, police chases and fires for San Francisco Bay Area TV News. His ten-minute documentary, Pegasus, chronicled the adventures of a gay motorcycle club on a joy ride in Marin County. This short 16mm film was screened at the 1998 San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. OFF THE CHARTS: The Song-Poem Story marks his feature film debut.
Jamie discusses what he learned about making art from song-poem auteurs, and how inspiration can be found in the places you'd least expect - even in deep-fried Snickers bars.
Why did you make this film?
The first time I heard the "I Died Today" CD was in 1998, and I was blown away by Rodd Keith's music and the lyrics he had to work with. It immediately presented me with all these questions - who were these people? Why did they do it? Is it a scam? The film was my way of exploring those questions. Also, I recognized that this was a world that was just under the surface of both the music industry and of our American consciousness. I love the idea that a whole secret world can exist right below the surface, and once we decide to peek in, all the humor, complexity and beauty of something that we had previously been only vaguely aware of is revealed.
What do you hope to achieve with this film?
I want to take people on a journey. Introduce them to the concept of song-poems, to the song-poets and the musicians, and go from thinking, "Hey, this is pretty damn strange and funny" to thinking, "These people are expressing themselves in a unique way and their musical collaboration isn't just funny and strange - it's priceless stuff." I also want them to recognize the bravery of these people, especially Gary Forney, for putting themselves and their art out on a limb.
The motives behind making song-poems, to express oneself and be noticed, are the basic motives behind any artistic endeavor, so I want people to realize that this is a story about dreamers and that the metaphor of the song-poem writer extends beyond the song-poem world.
How do you strike a balance between showing people who are funny or eccentric and making fun of people?
That was really tough in this film and I had to walk a fine line. I think it comes down to simply treating each character with respect, both in your dealings with them and in the editing. The trick comes in actually showing the film, since documentaries are so open to interpretation and you ultimately have no control over how people perceive your characters. But the proof is in the pudding and every character in the film that has seen OFF THE CHARTS loves it and feels comfortable with it.
Have you ever written a song-poem?
No. While making the film, several people suggested that I write a poem to send in and include in the film, but I feel like the brilliance of song-poems comes from the sincerity of them - both the writers and the musicians are trying their best, working to the limits of their creativity and beyond. To write a "funny" set of lyrics would have been too self-conscious a move for my taste. That said, I did at one point want to send the list of the end credits in to a song-poem company and have that song run at the end of the film over the credit roll. I still think that would have been fun…
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Albert and David Maysles, Sergio Leone, Errol Morris and Robert Altman.
What are your three favorite films?
What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?
- Don't Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker film about Bob Dylan; made me want to be a documentary filmmaker when I saw it at age 14)
- An American Family (the 1973 cinema vérité PBS series)
- Demon Lover Diary ('70s documentary about making of a low-budget horror film in Michigan. Ends with the filmmakers literally being run out of town at gunpoint by Ted Nugent).
That's a tough one. The foods that are the most inspirational are not always readily available when inspiration is required. When I shot at the Old Time Music Festival in Iowa, for instance, I took my inspiration from deep-fried Snickers bars. No joke, there was a hot dog stand that had deep-fried candy bars - all kinds. A tip though: you only need to try the deep-fried Snickers once for the necessary motivation/inspiration.