In Conversation With: Steve Baker

Steve Baker, left, with Anton Yelchin

Steve Baker is a writer and filmmaker whose work has screened at festivals around the world. His film, An Imaginary Life, was the first animated short ever to win Sydney, Australia’s Tropfest, the largest film festival by attendance on the planet. He also directed The Apprentice, starring the late Anton Yelchin, as part of the omnibus comedy film Movie 43.

Perhaps his most widely-known project, however, is The Video Dating Tape of Desmondo Ray, Aged 33 & 3/4. A gorgeous, charmingly obscene, and ultimately beguiling multimedia short about a rather quirky man, the film was nominated for the Grand Jury Award for Animated Short at the 2014 SXSW Film Festival. Last month, Baker released This Is Desmondo Ray!, a 6-episode continuation of the titular character’s story, entirely for free online. The show recently won Best Animated Series at the 2017 International Academy of Web Television Awards.

To celebrate the victory, Baker spoke by e-mail with Sean L. Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary and Criticism about Desmondo Ray’s many idiosyncrasies, working across visual mediums, and sharing a film title with a certain President’s former television series. This conversation, as always, has been lightly edited for clarity. We have left in the filmmaker’s preferred spelling of “favours” to be polite.

You can watch every episode of This Is Desmondo Ray! here. You can also watch Desmondo’s video dating tape here.

Desmondo Ray

CineMalin: On a scale of 1-10, how angry are you at Darren Aronofsky for co-opting the exclamation mark in mother! just as your show is coming out?

Steve Baker: motherf**ker! I didn’t even notice that! To be honest, I was more concerned about This Is Spinal Tap fans taking issue with me for using the ‘This Is’.

CM: You directed a short film called The Apprentice, now an ignominious title in the United States. Has that given you any measure of concern or shame for the future of that film?

SB: I admit, every time I see anything to do with that TV series, I wince a little at the title.

However, the unfortunate connection you’re referring to barely rates a blip on the radar. The Apprentice was actually made for what is now considered by some critics to be one of the “worst films ever made”: Movie 43, which, for those who don’t know, is an infamous feature film made up entirely of R-rated shorts that was meant to be a throwback to the Kentucky Fried Movie era of exploitation comedies. I hold the dubious honor of being the only filmmaker to have had their film cut for pushing the boundaries that little bit too far. Apparently Hollywood suits can’t handle the idea of a dark comedy about necrophilia. Who knew?

But on a serious side note – the film starred Anton Yelchin, and after his death I just couldn’t keep the film online anymore. I didn’t want anybody using it, or its controversial subject matter, against him. Although, after being bombarded by his many fans begging to see the film, I recently put up a short excerpt.

To be blunt – while I loved making The Apprentice, and all the people I worked with, especially Anton – it doesn’t represent me as a filmmaker. I learned a great lesson on that film: if you’re unable to maintain 100% creative control, then it’s not truly your film, and never will be.

Now, all that said, I honestly believe that in the not-too-distant future, Movie 43 will make a comeback. It could be a year, 10 years, or more, but there will be a point when someone decides, rightly or wrongly, that it’s a “misunderstood” classic, and deserves a revisit… Maybe then I’ll put The Apprentice back online.

Anton Yelchin in The Apprentice

CM: Independent filmmakers, none moreso than animators, often tell me that making a movie requires eating humble pie for the simplest of favours and appealing to old friends’ sympathies. Did you find that, in making the new series and getting it seen, you were required to ask such favours?

SB: Over the years I’ve certainly asked friends for favours, but generally speaking, they’ve been very small favours, and that’s mostly because my films have been purposely simple. If I ever felt like I was about to ask for too much, I just wouldn’t ask. I’d try and think of a creative way around it and figure out a different solution, which, admittedly, is easier to do with animation than it is with live action.

In regards to Desmondo, it was a big jump up in production value from my previous work. My producer, Leanne Tonkes, and I were lucky enough to receive funding from Screen Australia as well as Screen Queensland, so we were able to pay almost everyone. There were still favours to be asked, most of which came from friends during post, from voice-overs to music tracks, even one of the performances. The actor who played the “Mansplain Host” lives in LA, and he just filmed that scene himself and emailed it to me.

The post-production houses responsible for VFX and sound (Chop Shop and Sonar Sound) were also incredibly generous. Like, crazy generous. Thankfully they were also involved with the original short film (which can be seen in the prologue episode), so they were keen to come back and be a part of the series.

Once it was released, I also made sure I let Vimeo know. They were fans of the dating tape and had staff picked that, so I wanted to let them know about the series. Vimeo really enjoyed it and decided to staff pick episode 1 and feature the series on Short Of The Week, which I’ve been told is quite rare for a web series. That sort of online attention is invaluable for a series like this, which isn’t trying to go crazy viral, but instead trying to find a special niche audience.

CM: What kind of support and response did you get for Video Dating Tape when you were touring that film a few years ago? And since then, what has the fanbase been like for Desmondo, especially down under?

SB: The dating tape short was fully supported by the production company I’m signed to, Taxi Film, who mostly work in TV commercials. They originally wanted me to make a 30 second spec commercial so they could show ad agencies my style. But I suggested we kill two birds with one stone and make a really short film that could still show off my style, and also be put online as a short film to see if anything exciting happened.

You have to understand: the original dating tape was never intended to tour around the film festival circuit. I was more interested in reaching out globally to anyone with an Internet connection, and fortunately, that’s exactly what happened as soon as it was staff picked by Vimeo. I was really lucky, too, because it was staff picked a day after I uploaded it, and once that happens, it can become a runaway train across the internet.

It’s quite nerve-wracking, but also a lot of fun to sit back and watch it being shared across hundreds of websites and reading people’s responses. It’s those responses that I care about. That’s how I rate its success. The online response was incredible – I started (or rather, Desmondo started) receiving a lot of messages from people all over the world, from all walks of life. Some of these were profoundly personal and incredibly touching. People even started getting tattoos of him! And a lot of people were asking to see more of him. Without that we probably wouldn’t have made the series.

Eventually I started entering festivals. That, too, ended up being very fortunate because its festival premiere was SXSW, so after that, the invitations from other festivals were coming in almost on a daily basis for a while. The one great thing that a festival provides is a chance to meet people in the flesh, which can be very important for hermits like me who don’t get out enough.

CM: Tropfest has this secretly massive influence over the industry. I just saw Alethea Jones’s film Fun Mom Dinner at Sundance, which was bought for distribution; I still remember the cheering when her short film won Tropfest in ’12. How have you been impacted by it?

SB: I’ve had a long history with the festival, so I love it. I would go so far as to say it altered the course of my filmmaking life. Back in 2001, it was the first film festival I had ever gotten into. It was with a simple animated stick figure film called The Cutting Room Floor that I had made in just 4 days. So you can imagine what it was like for me having made one of my first films, screening it in front of the single largest film festival audience in the world. It definitely sparked something in me, and I was hooked after that night.

I got into the festival again in 2004 and ended up winning a couple of awards (Runner Up and Best Comedy). Then in 2007 I finally managed to win with An Imaginary Life. It was easily one of the better nights of my life. Kind of like a dream, but sadly that feeling didn’t last long.

A day later I was very publically accused by a journalist from one of the largest papers in Australia of stealing my idea from an American kid’s show that I’d never seen or even heard of. For some reason, people seem to think if you’re an animator that you must know every single animated film or series in existence.

It’s like assuming you’ve read every single piece of film criticism ever written – it’s ridiculous. (The truth is I watch very little animation).

Tropfest

So, I never had the proper experience of winning Tropfest the way that other winners like Alethea have. It was extra heartbreaking too because it was the first time I had created something that felt like it was “me”, like I now had a voice and was using it. But the story – can I call it Fake News?! – continued to run on the front page of that paper for numerous days, as well as TV shows talking about it. It even made it over to your shores with Variety running an article about it.

That beat me up enough to bury the film and not enter it into any other festivals. But thankfully, it was put online, first by Tropfest, then later by me. And because of that, I think I can say I had the last laugh. I started receiving really positive messages from all sorts of people saying how much they loved it.

The sweetest thing was when some parents told me their kids wanted to start making films because of it. I also started hearing about schools adapting it into a stage play, universities were studying it in various courses, and by the end of the year, it had been nominated for an AFI Award for Best Animated Short (the AFI’s have now become the AACTAs).

Polson called me as soon as he heard about the AFI nomination to congratulate me and to let me know he called that journalist and left a “polite” message on his phone letting him know about the nomination, too. That made me laugh…Oh, and eventually that paper ran a retraction and apologized – just not on the front page, of course.

George Miller, Steve Baker (center), and John Polson

CM: Although he is a comic creation, Desmondo himself is a complex, sometimes difficult character. He is warm and cuddly, yet somehow vaguely perverse and grotesque in the same manner as Quasimodo or Igor (though he’s not nearly as ugly as those guys). How has the atmosphere and creative charge around your idea of the character shifted since he was first imagined?

SB: There actually was a slight shift in tone from the original dating tape to the series. As a storyteller, I’m drawn to stories about outsiders constantly searching for their place in a wild and mixed-up world. They are the sorts of characters that ask big questions from within intimate settings, and therefore allow me to focus on creating complex characters, instead of complex plots.  However, my primary focus has always been to create an intense emotional resonance. I’ve always used the combination of humor and heart to create a lingering, bittersweet atmosphere. But I’m also drawn to darkness, and I really wanted the series to introduce a dark pain simmering beneath the surface. So being able to add even more atmosphere and emotion into this story hopefully feels like an unforgettable rollercoaster ride of emotions for the audience.

CM: Do you think the line of what’s appropriate and what is not for comedy has impacted Desmondo Ray at all?

SB: I think we can all agree that what is appropriate or not in comedy has become such a huge topic in this current climate. Everyone seems to have an opinion on Twitter, and they’re not afraid to express it. For me, I ignore all of that and just focus on what feels right for Desmondo. I’m not presenting Desmondo to the world and saying, “he’s perfect – be more like him”. “Perfect” characters are often intensely boring. Desmondo is just trying to find his place in the world like everyone else. He is extremely flawed.

Take, for example, the scene in the dating tape/prologue, where he is dressed up as a Nazi. I knew what I was doing, I knew it would raise eyebrows, and possibly even offend. But I would hope that people actually take the time to consider what that scene actually means, instead of what they see on the surface.

Desmondo is a man-child who views the world with childlike wonder, awe, and innocence. When he sees footage of Nazis marching along and saluting Hitler, he’s not seeing all the history and horror that we see; he’s seeing a bunch of funny-looking dudes dressed in funny-looking outfits all waving hello to another funny-looking little man. For Desmondo, it’s an opportunity to play dress-up simply because it looks fun.

Now, that won’t play as comedy for everyone, and understandably so. However, I’m of the opinion that comedy can be at its most powerful and useful when it’s dangerous. So I purposely used one of the darkest chapters in our existence to highlight something very sweet about Desmondo’s character. Seeing the world as an innocent is a characteristic that can lead him into a lot of trouble, but also to a lot of beauty.

CM: There really has never been a full-length web series like yours, aside from purely live-action stuff on various YouTube channels. If you had to make a list of supplementary texts to help someone engage with This is Desmondo Ray!, what material would make the list?

SB: I actually made a mood board a while ago, before we started shooting. To help paint the picture of Desmondo, I guess try to imagine the absurdly comic, melodramatic, foreboding darkness of Twin Peaks, combined with the surreal, rudimentary elements of shows like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace and The Mighty Boosh, as well as embracing the in-camera miniature goodness of one of my childhood favourites, The Thunderbirds. But also add to that the photography of Diane Arbus; the introspective writings of Daniel Clowes; and the cosmic mind of Carl Sagan, all accompanied by some old-timey, scratchy recordings of yodelling.

“Mood Board” for This Is Desmondo Ray!

CM: To make a short film requires a lot of touring, educational screenings, and festivals, where they are paired with other films. How do you feel about pairing an episode or two of the show, which clocks in under an hour, with other films or shows by other creators, in order to get the series screened on the fest circuit?

SB: Well, I think that’s what happens in most festivals, or at least web series festivals. They screen just a couple of episodes from each series in the one screening. I find that really fascinating because you cannot get a complete picture of any of the series, so you have to go home and watch the rest online where it was originally intended to be watched anyway. I like that.

I’d love to see festivals be more adventurous, though. For a single screening, maybe find two series that collectively run for about 90 – 100 minutes, and screen them back-to-back in their entireties. They could treat it like an old-fashioned double bill, and have some real fun with it like what Tarantino and Rodriguez did with Grindhouse.

CM: Does Desmondo wax his head or is he naturally bald? Does he shave his body? How is his digestive system? Generally, is he concerned about how he comes off to other people, as a character?

SB: He uses a buffering machine on his head. I don’t think he even realises he’s bald, he just likes the feeling of that machine vibrating on his dome. But he’s not concerned with impressing anyone. If he wears a bright pink shiny suit, it’s because he likes it, not because he thinks someone else will.

And, I mean as far as his digestive system goes, his diet consists of fairy bread and strawberry milk, so naturally he poops rainbows.

To learn about festival screenings and other news, you can follow Desmondo on Facebook or Twitter.

Images graciously provided by Steve Baker

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