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SXSW '07 Interview: "Wetlands Preserved: The Story of an Activist Rock Club" Director Dean Budnick

by Laura Kyle

The "Wetlands Preserved: the Story of an Activist Rock Club" pitch: The story of a truly original New York rock club, which fused music with activism, earning an army of famous fans in the process.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
The story of an activist rock club, with sublime sounds (quite literally, come to think of it) and eye candy galore.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
I would say that the most energizing and anxiety-infused moments of my festival experiences have been the half hours just prior to each initial screening, waiting on the audience, as the audience, in turn, waits on the film.

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
Big kid? (I'm no strapping lad). Honestly, writer. Filmmaker was beyond my lexicon for some time.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did youget your real “start” in filmmaking?
As an undergraduate I trailed a fetching high school senior for a few months while she applied for college, as I directed a thirty-minute documentary on need-based admissions policies. But even so I didn't really immerse myself in the film world until a few years later when I (eventually) convinced Harvard to let me dig in and write a doctoral dissertation on Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s “the festival circuit?”
Does the acceptance of our film to a festival such as SXSW carry some form of personal affirmation? Absolutely. More to the point, though, it allows me to re-establish eye contact with our executive producer who allowed me to take on this project as a first-time filmmaker with the four inspiring words: "Don't fuck it up." (That is indeed true, although he said it with a smile).

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
For me it's all about the hand inside the puppet. Although my two year-old son votes for Berp.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
I did not grant myself that luxury.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
A few years ago, I wrote an essay on the subject of my film (New York City nightclub Wetlands Preserve) as an appendix to a book on improvised music. I had always thought that one day I might write a full-length non-fiction work on Wetlands (in fact, during the club's final days, about two weeks after 911, the NYC police permitted me to drive my car through the barricades down to Hudson Street where I carted out much of the venue's office materials with an eye towards that goal). A few years later, I was invited into a conversation with the film's producer and executive producer, who knew a bit about my background and interest in film. The subject was broached, I dug my fingers into the cliff and wouldn't let go.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
When in doubt, put your head down, barrel forward and trust yourself. But never be afraid to listen to others.
What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
Absolutely. Although some of them like Salesman, Jazz on a Summer's Day or even The Kid Stays in the Picture were just not quite in the realm of what we hoped to accomplish. On the other hand, I would say that the two films that served as inspirations and were a bit closer to my intent were Berkeley in the Sixties and Dogtown and Z-Boys. Berkeley in the Sixties was the first documentary that I ever saw in a movie theater (at the Coolidge Corner- it would be a dream for Wetlands Preservedo play there one day). It's funny though, I read an interview with Dogtown director Stacey Peralta, where he said the last thing he ever wanted to do was place his interview subjects in front of blown-up photos of themselves, which is exactly what Mark Kitchell does in Berkeley in the Sixties. So I think that as I began pre-production on this film, I drew on a number of contrasting, yet to my mind, complementary, aesthetics.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Would it be cheating to say Dan Castellaneta? If so, Dick Cheney.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
I could crush on an adaptation of my Arbuckle dissertation “Directed Verdict.” If that doesn't count, for adaptations, how about one of the early Neal Stephenson books (“Snow Crash” or “Zodiac”), Mark Helprin's “Winter's Tale,” Fitzgerald's “This Side of Paradise,” Kerouac's “Desolation Angels” or Kesey's sprawling “Sailor Song.” Come to think of it, while we're on the subject of Kesey, what about Tom Wolfe's account of the Merry Pranksters, “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”. Either that or I'd like to be the guy who takes on David Foster Wallace's “Infinite Jest.”

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Well ours is a documentary, but I would say that the team of hardcore heroes/tattoo shop proprietors, Vinny Stigma (Agnostic Front) and Jimmy G (Murphy's Law), deserve their own film or better yet, a mini-series.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
An aspiring filmmaker.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
Benji. Or Ian McShane/Ian McKellen/Ian MacKaye.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
I think the moment anyone thinks they've "made it," they're on the fast track to decay.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
I think that depends on the context. I think there are certain films, in particular, some studio films with built-in audiences that can remain critic-proof. Once you move beyond that, particularly to the realm of independent film, I think critical plaudits matter much more than filmmakers might be willing to admit.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
Diaper Genie all the way. Or Burpee Heavenly Blue Morning Glory seeds.

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
Ask Kirby Dick to represent me in my appeal healing? To be honest, I'm such a relative prude that I can't even imagine this happening, so I suppose I'd just remove the offending wiener, which must have been in there by accident, anyhow.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
Well, as a director, I can't deny that it's cool. In addition, while I believe that the director's vision sets the tone (all the more so in the indie world of smaller crews), there is no question that any film is created "by" many, many people. But even as I suggest that the "film by" credit is an exercise in self-indulgence, I should point out that our poster identifies Wetlands Preserved as a "Dean Budnick Film."

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
Is there such a thing as an average moviegoer? I think every moviegoer is above-average (smooch smooch). Having said that, I believe that Wetlands Preserved offers a scintillate account of a team that defied all expectations and odds to create a unique workplace and environment for compelling music and social change. Gee, I'd LOVE to see that film (come to think of it, I have, 354 times). But wait there's more. Not only is this the story of a maverick protagonist, but the music is vivid and engaging, as is the artistry of fifteen digital animators, whose contributions are unlike anything most folks have yet encountered on the silver screen. Okay, here's a more pithy approach. How about: "Your heart will dance, your eyes will pop, your ears will buzz (or some variation thereof)."

Wetlands Preserved: the Story of an Activist Rock Club, directed by Dean Budnick, will premiere at the 2007 SXSW film festival. For more information, click here. And check out for even more info!

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originally posted: 02/17/07 08:50:37
last updated: 03/07/07 09:41:29
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