Steve Balderson is an independent filmmaker who worked outside of the system to create the films he wanted to create. Filmmakers dream of artistic freedom, and he’s figured out how to make it happen! From drama to comedy, horror to action, thriller to period melodrama, Steve (now 41) has made over 16 award-winning feature films from his micro-studio in rural Wamego, Kansas! He has now made the move to Hollywood, but that is just now, after at least 16 films, recent work with AXS.TV and more. He is a multi-genre award-winning filmmaker with has 3 diversely different films premiering in August/September on TV, VOD and Theatrically. I had the pleasure of interviewing him on his process, story, and his work.
Joanna: After having made over 16 award-winning features out of your studio in Kansas to me you are the quintessential forward-thinking filmmaker, and prove that it’s possible to make Hollywood level content outside of LA, and on your own terms. Now, after 16 features, distribution, and having made the move to Hollywood…. so far, do you feel that it was truly necessary and worth it?
Steve Balderson: It was totally worth it for the food, alone. I love the diversity of the different kinds of amazing places to eat, cultures to experience, and opportunities to soak up art. I think that to continue making feature films where I’m solely the one producing them, I could live anywhere to do that, as I proved. But, when I realized I’d been doing the same thing for 20 years, I really wanted to expand my experiences in my next 20 years. I’ve never directed a short film, or a music video, or a commercial, or a TV show, or a web series – I’ve only made features. I’d like to explore the experiences of directing all these kinds things. Which, for all practical purposes, I picked LA for the time being, instead of New York or London.
Why did you drop out of CalArts Live Action Film School?
Steve: In my third year at CalArts, I went to my Dean and asked him why I hadn’t had a “mid-residency review” at the end of my second year. He told me that Masters students don’t get them. I told him I was an undergrad and he was shocked. Apparently I had been evaluated on a Masters level, so he told me to stop going to all my classes and do independent study with him instead. On Mondays I would go into his office and he would hand me several Hitchcock films. I would go back to my apartment in Valencia, do a total scene analysis for each film, and then return on Fridays with my report. We did this every week for a month or two. Then one day, I woke up, and I was ready to make my first film. So I packed up my things, drove back to Kansas and made my first film PEP SQUAD, which premiered at the Cannes market in 1998. I never told anyone at CalArts I was leaving.
So funny! Ok so, how did you learn how to get distribution, and do you think that it is changing, or will drastically change in the future?
Steve: My first experience learning about distribution was studying how Lloyd Kaufman made an empire out of TROMA. He’s truly a marketing genius and an inspiration to me. My mentor at CalArts, Eric Sherman, introduced me to Lloyd when I finished PEP SQUAD and Lloyd gave me 4 screening slots he’d reserved at Cannes. Harvey Weinstein called us personally to ask for a print, as did almost everyone else in town. I guess you could say I just jumped right in head first. That film is a satire on school violence, and when we were in final talks with one of the majors, Columbine happened, and then suddenly, no one would touch it. I think that while the evolution of distribution has changed, and is changing, there is still a role for sales agents, buyers, and some aspects of the traditional system. But, I’m also very excited for it to continue to evolve. I’m pretty sure that the distribution landscape will be drastically different in five or ten years.
Did you direct AXS original content “Elvis Lives” here in LA?
Steve: I did. It was pretty wild to recreate Memphis by using places in Van Nuys, Altadena, and Northridge. It was also a really big challenge for me, but one I embraced. I know there’s no such thing as a problem – there is only how resourceful I can be to what someone else considers a problem. So when I’ve been asked to make chocolate chip cookies and am given a bowl of cauliflower as my only ingredients, I figure out how to do it the best I can in that situation.
Will you still utilize reliable crew in Kansas remotely from LA, such as your favorite editors?
Steve: Yes. There are some people that I’ve developed really solid relationships with, and since we’ve worked together multiple times, on different kinds of projects, there comes to be a shorthand, and the communication is clearer. But all this time, I’ve also included people in my process who live in LA, or New York, or other places. So my web is global in that sense. And sometimes the Kansans move elsewhere, such as my favorite DP, Hanuman Brown-Eagle. Originally from Kansas, now splits his time between here and there.
Cost benefits aside, do you feel that you had more creative freedom and inspiration being outside of Hollywood and not caught up in trends? Or do you feel more inspired/creative now that you are among endless film talent in a condensed location (Hollywood)?
Steve: Yes, definitely there is an incredible freedom in making something where no one’s looking over my shoulder or suggesting I do “this” or “that.” I’ve been allowed to do whatever inspires me, whatever I’m in the mood to explore next. Living in LA only accentuates those things. It also opens me up to the new experiences I crave, such as working with producers other than myself, using my gifts to translate their vision. Which I find even more creatively inspiring than the process I followed in Kansas. And, let’s face it. The web of creative producers in this region is vast. It’s a bit like being a kid and walking into a giant toy store for the first time. Endlessly fun and exciting.
Regardless of location, who or what inspires you?
Steve: Travel is my favorite inspiration. Going to a new culture, new city, soaking up their artwork, statues, architecture, exploring the culture in whatever place. It’s a great way to clean off my memory “hard drive.” I find it especially worthwhile to travel in between directing projects.
I think the person who inspires me most is my Dad, who taught me that anything in the world is possible – all we have to do is ask “how” and figure out all the different ways to achieve whatever goal it is.
Were the many feature films you made from your Kansas studio profitable?
Steve: Some of them were, some of them weren’t. When FIRECRACKER was distributed we had a lot of trouble getting paid. And then we saw an article on the front page of the NY Times about how some people involved with the Oscar winner CRASH, who had our same distributor, hadn’t been paid either. We thought, oh, great. If they’re screwing those guys we won’t have a chance. But that taught me the lesson to figure out less expensive ways to make a film, and how to market certain types of films to niche audiences. Once I began to do that, it became something sustainable.
Since you’ve made such a Diverse pallet of genres of films, Horror/Love/Book Adoption/Documentary/Drama Noir/Satire (PS I can’t wait to see El Ganzo… not sure what genre that is!) do you have a favorite genre that you want to focus on moving forward?
Steve: I can’t wait for you to see EL GANZO. It’s my most personal film thus far. I think that I have a natural desire to lean into suspense and thriller and dark aspects of the human condition (thanks Hitchcock). But on the other hand, I really love having fun with a story – be it comedy, action or campy melodrama. The only genres I haven’t explored yet are science fiction, erotica and a western. Perhaps I should do a combination of all three at once!
What is your ultimate goal/dream right now, looking ahead?
Steve: I can vividly see where I’ll be in 20 years, and I’m very curious to learn about what questions I’ll be asking myself then, about what to do and where to be for the 20 after that. My dream is to have the freedom – financially and creatively in all aspects – to be able to do whatever I want, wherever I want.
Joanna: Big thanks to Steve Balderson for the interview!!
It’s fascinating learning the different ways that modern filmmakers are making films. Below is info on his most recent movies. And everything new and old is on his website, http://www.dikenga.com.
Premieres on AXS TV August 16th
(Check your local listings)
Released VOD August 23rd
Theatrical Release, Sept. 9th-15th at Arena Cinemas (Los Angeles)
10th Anniversary Screening Sept. 10th at Arena Cinemas