Making movies anywhere

Balderson documents filmmaking struggles

One of the most engaging sequences in Kansas filmmaker Steve Balderson’s new documentary “Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere” comes when the director recalls the process of casting his movie “Firecracker.”

Straight out of the gate he gets the cold shoulder from agents for Madonna, Jodie Foster and Sissy Spacek. Later, he learns that Kathy Bates requires a multi-thousand dollar down payment before she’ll even read his script.

But Balderson’s biggest dilemma comes when he actually does get celebrities to commit to the film — Dennis Hopper, Edward Furlong and Sally Kirkland to be exact. A week after signing on, Furlong was in drug rehab and severing ties with his representation. Meanwhile, Balderson was beginning to doubt that Hopper would be a proper fit for the duel roles of David and Frank in “Firecracker.”

“When all these celebrities started coming on board I was disillusioned with fame and fortune and all the numb hypnosis that comes along with Hollywood and bright lights,” Balderson says in the documentary. “I lost sight of what this film was and what my original vision was.”

Eventually, Balderson decided to turn down Hopper and Kirkland — one of dozens of strategic decisions he had to make while directing his second feature film. Those challenges — for better and for worse — are chronicled in “Wamego,” a documentary about the making of “Firecracker” that Balderson will discuss Saturday at the Kan Film Festival.

“The feeling of going upstream with the water rushing against your legs is universal — anybody that’s tried to do something out of the ordinary has felt that,” Balderson says. “The most important people that I think need to see (‘Wamego’) are aspiring artists of any sort — be they filmmakers or musicians or painters — so that they can see there is a way to do the unbelievable.”

The 100-minute documentary follows Balderson and the cast and crew of “Firecracker” as they shoot the film on location in Kansas over the course of a very exhausting year. From building the extravagant circus sets to struggling with the budget and disgruntled crew members, “Wamego” acts as a firsthand guide to the trials and tribulations of producing independent efforts.

“When I was young, I wish I would have been able to put in a movie and see the way that somebody else did it,” says Balderson, who oversaw the making of “Wamego” but left most of the work to a team of assistants. “If you can find someone who’s done it, I think the path is easier.”

Originally intended simply as bonus footage to accompany “Firecracker,” “Wamego” blossomed into a full-length documentary when fellow filmmakers Joe Martin, Josh Kendall and Ed Laboeuf offered a hand in the project. The documentary features extensive behind-the-scenes footage as well as interviews with “Firecracker” cast members Mike Patton (former lead vocalist of Faith No More and Mr. Bungle) and cult film star Karen Black.

For Laboeuf, a recent graduate of Washburn University’s mass media program, working on “Wamego” offered an intensive look at how independent films are made.

“It was so interesting to see how much work is done just to get a few seconds of footage during a film,” Laboeuf says. “People are really at ease around Steve. He usually gets the shots in the first take.”

  • KAN Film FestivalSaturday, June 5, 8:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.mall ages, free
  • more info
  • 2:30 p.m. — Balderson talks about making films for the world in Kansas

The documentary, which will be available June 18 for $10 via Balderson’s Web site (, should also help hype “Firecracker,” which chronicles a true-life murder that took place in Wamego during the Eisenhower era.

Three major studios have made offers to buy “Firecracker,” Balderson asserts.

“For about a year I was on autopilot making ‘Firecracker,'” says Balderson, who also directed the killer-prom-queen flick “Pep Squad” (1998). “For the most part, you can tell that it was a really laid-back, fun environment, and it wasn’t full of craziness and people angry at one another.”

Balderson will speak Saturday afternoon at the Lawrence Arts Center in conjunction with the KAN Film Festival, which will present him with the Independent Filmmaker’s Award. The speech marks a homecoming of sorts for the Wamego filmmaker, who won numerous awards from the festival while still in high school.

“That’s the greatest learning tool: to share your film with an audience and learn from their reactions,” Balderson says. “It all comes down to the fact that you are here to tell a story that is meant for entertainment. Whether that entertainment is to laugh, or cry, or feel awful, or feel good — the purpose is entertaining.”