No matter what happens, you are not in danger…
That was the friendly warning at the bottom of my ticket to a performance of America the Beautiful. It probably got your attention. It got mine. I literally double-taked. I thought I was going to kick back at a Slamdance film screening of America The Beautiful at the Ace Hotel, not post up in some newfangled escape room.
What the hell was James Kaelan getting me into? I didn’t know but I was going to find out…
James Kaelan is a brilliant Los Angeles based writer, director and filmmaker. Years ago we worked together at MovieMaker Magazine and became friends. America the Beautiful was his new project with partner Blessing Yen. I knew James and Blessing made films, but this was something new. Something dangerous.
The project had come a long way. In 2017 the film was just another Sundance reject before its metamorphosis into experimental theater. The new medium attracted the attention of the 2018 Slamdance D.I.G. program. That is their digital/interactive/gaming slate, which happens in Los Angeles. In this interview Kaelan shares how the work was produced, adapted and transformed into an impactful performance art show that spawned a feature film spinoff.
FS: Where did you get the idea for America the Beautiful (AtB)?
JK: In late 2016, my partner, Blessing Yen, and I designed and edited a film magazine called BRIGHT IDEAS, published by Seed&Spark. Our next issue, which we decided to call BRIGHT IDEAS X, was slated to come out in Park City during Sundance/Slamdance. And we were going to dedicate the issue to resisting Trump.
We conducted mock interviews with a bunch of the filmmakers we’d covered over the years, all of whom answered the same 14 questions as if they were in prison, arrested by the new administration for films they were making. And I decided to write a short story for the issue called “The Sentries,” which told the story of a man named Billy Reynolds who gets seduced into the orbit of an alt-right militia in Southern California.
I sort of thought that was the end of it. I’d written the story I needed to write. Trump came into office, and he was so inept that it seemed reasonable he was going to burn out and maybe resign before his term was over. Michael Flynn went down in flames after, like two weeks. It was a shit show. But then the administration started to get its act together, despite the scrutiny of the special counsel. And I think on the Friday when Trump announced the Muslim ban, I thought, “This is the beginning of the thing we most feared. It is on.” And I started thinking about how to take the short story I had written and turn it into a film. And then it became much more than a film.
FS: How did you go about producing AtB? What was the budget?
JK: Our first goal was to tell our story exclusively using the resources we had on hand. Blessing and I have made almost all our films together, using the same actors and crew whenever possible. And we always try to approach our work by finding the place on the graph where the story and the method cross.
Our second goal was to tell a story that felt as absolutely real as possible. And it occurred to us then that, looking back at the campaign season of 2015-16, many of the most indelible moments were vertical videos shot at rallies and protests. Guys in MAGA hats screaming at people. Anti-Trump activists getting attacked and dragged out of auditoriums where Trump was speaking. That was the aesthetic that would shape our film. First-person, vertical video. We would show a man radicalize from ambivalence to fascism through the lens of his iPhone camera. No visible edits. Just unadulterated chronological clips separated by three seconds of black.
FS: What did you shoot on?
JK: We shot exclusively on an iPhone 6S, and recorded sound exclusively through the same phone. No boom. No lavs. Especially with the sound, recording live from a single-source, we got an automatic mix. We didn’t have to build a deep soundscape. If we had five people speaking in a room, we recorded them at their natural volume in relation to Charlie Faith—who plays Billy and held the camera in almost all the scenes. And because we chose this hyper-realistic aesthetic, and because the camera picture and audio are clear, there was absolutely no reason to use fancier equipment. It would’ve cost more, and required a ton of post to dumb down the media enough that it felt like it was shot on an iPhone. So, you know, we just shot on an iPhone!
FS: How many days did you shoot?
JK: Our shooting schedule was pretty elongated. Because we were self-financing, we couldn’t afford to pay our actors enough to take time away from their jobs (although we paid everyone $100 per day that they worked). So we shot mostly on weekends, and a few weekday nights, over about six weeks in the summer of 2017. We had a strong outline of the scenes, as well as a shooting schedule, but I didn’t actually write the scenes until the week we were shooting them. I’d write Monday and Tuesday, revise Wednesday, and send the scenes to the actors by Thursday. Then everyone would show up on Saturday and we’d rehearse. As we were blocking, Charlie would think through how the camera would perform in each scene. Then we’d do a rough take, look at how the story felt in camera, refine, and repeat. We used all diegetic lighting. So literally besides the actors, our crew was me, Blessing, and our other producer, Max Silverman. We could do eight or more pages a day working just six hours. It was kind of a dream for everyone.
FS: AtB blends and straddles storytelling methods. How would you categorize it?
JK: Great question. Up to this point, I’ve only really talked about the filmed portion of the project. Throughout the summer of 2017, we shot the actual footage that tells the story of Billy’s radicalization. And at the time, that’s what we thought the project was. We sent it to Slamdance and Sundance, where we’d shown previous VR work we’d directed or produced… But we didn’t get into either that year.
Then around May of 2018, Peter Baxter, who runs Slamdance, reached out and asked if we might be interested in bringing America the Beautiful to Slamdance D.I.G. Peter said that they’d really liked the film, but that they felt it would be more powerful, more complex, placed in some kind of installation. Some sort of new context that would allow deeper access to the story.
And that was a revelation. Suddenly we began to think, what if this was more than a film? What if the story sort of tore through the screen and confronted the audience in the physical world. And this is where shit gets crazy.
The film portion of America the Beautiful is about Billy becoming a fascist. He starts out apolitical. Then his house gets robbed (or he thinks it gets robbed). And that incitement makes him susceptible to the charms of a man named Ron McVee, who operates a local militia called “The Sentries,” that patrols their neighborhood. Soon to his wife Carly’s horror, Billy is going on armed patrols. Tensions rise on the block. Someone tags Carly’s car. Billy thinks he knows the kid who did it. So he waits up one night, catches sight of the alleged perpetrator, follows him like George Zimmerman followed Trayvon Martin, and confronts him. The film ends in tragedy.
As we began to think about how to present the film for Slamdance, it occurred to us that maybe the footage Billy shot actually wound up as evidence in a murder trial. Unlike Zimmerman, Billy is found guilty. And now Carly is going around giving talks about how her husband committed murder in the name of a hateful ideology, without even realizing that he’d radicalized. And while Carly discusses the case with the audience, that’s when militia leader, Ron McVee, played by Brennan Kelleher, shows up at the screening and throws everything into chaos.
Suddenly we had a performance frame that we could wrap around the film that expanded the narrative.
FS: What has the audience reaction been like?
JK: Absolutely wild, in both good and very not good ways.
So when we began planning the performance elements, we didn’t really know what to expect. We knew what our intention was. We wanted to bring the audience into direct conflict with the story’s antagonist: Ron McVee, a tyrant, a bully. And we wanted to give the audience an opportunity to stand up to him.
We didn’t know if people would participate. Audiences, especially in LA and Park City, are pretty savvy and jaded. But to our crazy surprise—and eventual terror—people really participated. Even people who knew members of the cast, who were friends with people in the cast, treated Ron as an actual threat. Shit got insane.
FS: What happened at the last performance? I heard the cops got called.
JK: After Park City, we performed America the Beautiful at a theatre space in downtown Los Angeles. Those performances were intense. But a good portion of the audience at that venue were friends or family or friends of friends. No matter how intense the emotion, people understood deep down that what they were seeing wasn’t real.
Then an amazing voter registration organization called Field Team 6 invited us to perform at a private fundraiser in Sherman Oaks. The invitation explained that the event was an immersive performance, and I spoke to the crowd before things started and explained the genesis of the project. Why we made it. What our intentions were.
Only this time when Brennan Kellerher, as Ron, showed up to troll the event, people literally ran away. Two people called the police. And a Holocaust survivor, a woman of 86, jumped out of her seat and began screaming at Ron. She thought he had a gun. It was horrifying and mesmerizing and amazing and chaotic and very clearly on the knife’s edge of danger. People who realized it was a performance were able to explain, in time, to the people on the phone with the 911 dispatchers that Brennan was an actor, that the whole thing was fiction. So the cops didn’t come.
But it was very literally nearly an actual tragedy. And we traumatized a Holocaust survivor. It was a nightmare. Afterwards, though, we were able to get to a place, collectively, where we felt that we had unintentionally acted out a real traumatic crisis—a real confrontation with tyranny. And everyone had acted bravely. And so in a sense it was more successful than we could’ve possibly hoped. But we can’t ever perform it again. It’s literally too dangerous.
FS: Is there anyway to see the film?
JK: You can see the actual film on Seed&Spark. And now we’re actually beginning work on a sequel. We want to tell the story from the perspective of people victimized by The Sentries. We plan to use the same aesthetic and narrative techniques as we did on the first film. But because we’ll tell it from the perspective of the victims and not the victimizers, we feel that the new film can ethically stand on its own without a performance frame.
The reason why we set out to make the film—to challenge the rise of tyranny in this country—is more urgent than ever. We’re not looking forward to making the sequel. We don’t enjoy being reminded that democracy, civil society, are crumbling. But we know we have to do our little tiny part to maybe help keep the pieces glued together.
Please check out Bad CEO at the Ace Hotel on December 10th at 7 pm. Tickets are free. Presented in collaboration with Free Machine & Ace Hotel, Bad CEO is a keynote by a fake founder having a real crisis of conscience. Andrew McCollum (Brennan Kelleher) isn’t here to talk about how he captained two startups toward big exits. He wants to talk about his doubts. He wants to talk about how he became a bad CEO, and why you might want to consider becoming one too.