October 13, 2009

DePaul graduate proves money is no matter for making movies

After several years of making music videos, DePaul University graduate Brandon Wetherbee decided he wanted to make his first short film in his hometown of Chicago. But there was one catch: He had a very tight budget of $300.

Wetherbee is a local artist who has recently established the performance company You, Me, Them, Everybody, and works several jobs to support himself and his art—every spare cent he earns goes toward funding his creative projects, which include everything from podcasts to music videos to his current film, The Shuffle. His young company currently performs at The Hungry Brain every Monday evening, bringing along locally produced films and local comedians, musicians, and writers.

With both a passion for the Chicago arts scene and an acute awareness of the financial costs of being an artist, Wetherbee explains that his bohemian lifestyle is difficult, but that it is, in some ways, a dream come true. “I’m doing everything I wanted to do when I was 14, but not at the scale I wanted [to] then. I have to do this now before I have a wife and kids. This is a preventative measure for midlife crises.”

Determined to live his life without regrets, Wetherbee decided he needed to make a film, no matter how little money he had to fund it. Luckily, he had friends with “cameras and connections,” along with ties to universities, all of which made the filmmaking process easier and cheaper. With help from his buddies, and with a little bit of begging, Wetherbee managed to keep his costs down, and produced a movie he was proud of: a simple, nonjudgmental film about a relationship’s beginning and end.

For Wetherbee, it was very important that The Shuffle refrain from prescribing meaning. He wants the film to show the viewer the “bare bones” of the situation without forcing any particular interpretation on them. The Shuffle is the story of a relationship which the viewer knows is doomed from the outset. The movie begins when the couple first meets in a bar, and then flashes back and forth in time between the couple’s first date at a bowling alley and their breakup on a park bench. The odd thing about the movie is that it does not tell you exactly why the couple broke up, or what brought them together. What it does show, in a beautiful and subtle way, is how easily people come together and, alternately, leave each other.

The rich, dark musical accompaniment of Daniel Knox adds a kind of melancholy to the story, which underscores the sadness of this common story of breaking up. Wetherbee emphasizes that his film “has no villains or victims,” but merely shows the audience what happened and how it happened—it is up to the audience to find meaning in the relationship, or to simply experience the breakup without looking for blame. Wetherbee declares that his aim was to create a sense of “authenticity,” to show how real people react to such a traumatic, yet everyday, event. It’s no surprise then that his story is loosely based on his and his friends’ experiences. Wetherbee focused on the particular stories of people he knew, attempting to bring together details from all of their lives into a coherent story, because, he notes, “You write what you know.”

Wetherbee’s other influences run the gamut from everyday acquaintances to Hollywood cinema. He carries a notebook with him everywhere he goes, writing down anything that strikes him as particularly of interest. Some of the best artistic material he gets comes from working as a bartender. “Being a bartender has really helped,” he explains. “I listen to all these conversations. Every time I bartend, I hear more and more. Yes, I haven’t lived...these lives and stories, but I know specific details.”

Wetherbee gets a glimpse into his clients’ stories by overhearing some of their most intimate conversations. He tells about a fascinating conversation he overheard on a couple’s first date. “They never spoke to me, but I felt like I knew them,” he confesses.

Other sources of creativity and motivation come from more conventional sources. As one might expect, Wetherbee loves movies, and many of his favorites have inspired him. He realized he wanted to be a filmmaker when he was 12, after seeing Michael Moore’s Roger and Me and Kevin Smith’s Clerks. “I figured, if those guys could do it—overweight guys with no money—anybody could do it,” he said. Wetherbee particularly feels a connection with Smith, who also worked odd jobs to support his art and actually based his movie on his experiences as a store clerk, much in the same way that Wetherbee hopes to use his bartending experiences to create movies.

Whether it be in podcasts or feature films, Wetherbee wants to be a storyteller, but he believes the best way to do that is through movies. He argues, “You can tell a story in a newspaper or a book, but you can get to a wider audience with a movie. It’s the hardest thing to make, but it’s by far the most satisfying.”