Ten years ago, “The Last American Freakshow” premiered at the Revelation Film Festival in Perth and so I think it’s a good time to reflect on the film and on the process of making it. Here is a trailer and a short summary about the film:
The Last American Freak Show is a documentary film that explores the shocking world of people choosing to exploit their disabilities in order to be seen as performers in control of their own lives, rather than be perceived as victims, these amazing residents-of-the-road sing, dance, spit fire and party heavily taking fierce joy out of life. At first Richard, the filmmaker, has a dim view of this. A massive 3000-mile odyssey from Portland, Oregon to Austin, Texas in an old school bus run on stolen cooking oil helps change his mind but maybe not for the better. You will never regret watching this fascinating journey. Shouldn’t we all run away and join the circus? Could you survive it?
The “Last American Freakshow” was my first film project as a producer and my friend Richard, who had made some films for television in the past, directed. I had known Richard for some time because he was connected to the Oxford music scene and we had many friends in common.
The first time I met Richard was outside my friend Pete’s house. At the time, Pete played bass in a band called Underbelly. I had parked my truck and was making my way to the front door. Pete must have pointed the truck out to Richard as I approached the house. The truck was famous among musicians in Oxford because it was often used as a rehearsal space. It had a kitchen, a drum riser and a generator to power amplifiers and instruments. I frequently loaded it with equipment and invited musicians for trips into the countryside to practise.
Richard stormed out of the house walked straight past me with no greeting or introduction and jumped inside the back of the truck to inspect whether it was suitable for whatever plan had formed in his head. Pete came out after him and muttered “sorry, that’s just how he is – he’s a nice guy really …”. It turned out that Richard wanted to use the truck to transport Underbelly, who he managed at time, to a show in High Wycombe.
The show took place in the bedroom of a young woman who had won a private performance by entering a competition in a music magazine. Getting there and playing the show was an experience worthy of another post but suffice it to say that during our adventure Richard and I bonded and became friends.
In the following years we worked on and off on various music projects and I sometimes wrote music for films that he was making. I don’t know exactly how the idea came about but one day Richard asked me if I wanted to raise funds for his new documentary project. At the time, I was going through some turmoil because I had realised that, after many years of building a career as a musician and composer, I found out that writing music was not making me happy. I was a bit lost and welcomed the change.
Richard had found a freak show, who called themselves “The 999 Eyes of Endless Dream” or “Carnival of the Damned” on the internet and contacted their booking agent to ask if he could make a film about them. The agent agreed and we started working on an exposé for the film. There was a deadline as we wanted to follow them on a tour for which the dates were already set.
My role was to raise money to help pay for travel, filming and post production and also to present the project at film festivals and events and help with creating business documentation such as contracts, budget, synopses, profit projections and recoupment schedules. I also supported Richard – both morally and financially – while he was on tour with the carnival.
In October of 2006 Richard flew to Portland to meet the 999 Eyes Carnival of the Damned. This is the first picture he took:
On his very first night in Oregon, the circus performed at a university. I suppose some of the guests didn’t enjoy the show and the carnival was chased through the premises by a mob of drunken frat boys. In all the excitement Richard couldn’t film but when he told me what had happened, it became clear that this project was going to be more difficult than I had imagined. This is what Richard wrote after the first couple of weeks on the road:
After a week or of the “freak show” I had just about come to terms with my environment. The “Freaks” are : ‘Lobster boy’, ‘Lobster Girl’, ‘Peg Leg – The Elephant Man’, ‘Jackie – The Human Tripod’, ‘Eric The Giant’ and ‘Dame Demur The Dancing Dwarf’. They are accompanied by ‘That Damned Band’, ‘Lowrent The Clown’ and ‘Dr. Elizabeth Anderson – Freak Historian’. The music is great and the show is fun filled chaos. The “freak” people are all under the firm but gentle control of ‘Samantha X’. Today is ‘ All Souls Eve’ (Halloween) and people dress up like freaks and witches. What they don’t realise is that the Carnival of the Damned look like that all the time…
‘Carnival of Endless Chaos’ – that’s how it seems to me – after losing the school bus and swapping it in Slab City ( a place that needs a film of its own to explain it ) for an ancient RV, we left in the dead of night and immediately ran out of Gas. After they finally realised this, they were off again however, the lights of the RV were constantly flickering on and off, leaving the mountain man (washboard player) driving mostly in the dark, checking the speedo with a torch. After spending hours at a gas station, the lights were partially fixed – we slept in the RV which was cold and uncomfortable. The following day we nearly got to phoenix but blew a rear tyre on the freeway. We had no spare so they had to call out a tyre guy and that dented their budget. Off they went and then the transmission blew,,,,, They arrived in phoenix on the back of a tow truck – vehicle number two was dead – now what?
When he came back to the UK after over a month on the road he brought over 60 hours of raw footage with him and we spent the following weeks watching it and trying to figure out how we could tell the story. The road trip from Portland to Austin with the occasional show and stops for vegetable oil along the way was an obvious narrative frame but the real story was about the people and that was much harder to tell; especially in the absence of a clear protagonist.
I think Richard wanted to make the film because he himself had been disabled from childhood and making the film was a way for him to resolve the conflicted relationship with his disability by learning how other people were dealing with theirs. The most obvious difference was that the “freaks” displayed their disabilities very publicly while Richard had spent most of his life hiding it from himself and others.
To show that dynamic, it made sense for Richard to also become a protagonist in the film. After all, it was as much about Richard’s quest to come to terms with his affliction as it was about the journey of the “freaks”. However, I don’t think he really wanted to be in the spotlight and found it a bit daunting, which is why some of Richard’s commentary in the film feels slightly uncomfortable.
The film received mixed reviews and naturally, there was some controversy over the subject matter. To me, Richard had a legitimate reason to tell it because his own disability led him to ask how other people deal with theirs. The proprietors of the freak show, Samantha and Dylan were not disabled and their claim that the freak show existed to celebrate genetic diversity just didn’t feel right.
For me, it was a learning experience which opened new possibilities. I traveled to the Sundance Film Festival in Utah where I met Joseph, with whom I would continued to make films in the United States. I also went to the Cannes Film Festival, where I met people who taught me more about the business of producing films.
At the Berlinale Film Festival and later in New York, I met Noah Workman, who introduced me to the idea of Alternate Reality Games and who helped conceive the time portal for Professor S. I also met all the members of the freak show when we filmed the final scenes of the documentary at their new home in Austin and at Antone’s.
The film never made much money but I am eternally grateful for the support and enthusiasm we received for the project. I know there will come a day when I can and will repay the generosity that was extended to us. I would not be doing what I am doing today had I not spent the years working on “The Last American Freakshow”.