Exploding ‘Firecracker’

Kansas director earns critical acclaim and national audience

During the last few weeks, Kansas filmmaker Steve Balderson has screened his movie “Firecracker” at Landmark Theatres in Boston, Atlanta and Minneapolis.

But a major snag transpired when the film was preparing to play Detroit.

The print – which is stored in two canisters – wasn’t delivered properly by UPS. So the “Firecracker” crew had to tell the sold-out crowd that the first half of the movie was there, but the other half was not.

Audience members – some of whom had driven 300 miles to see the film – voted to watch the first half.

“I used to be obsessed with cliffhangers,” Balderson says.

“I remember being really little when my mom would watch the ‘Dynasty’ wedding massacre and thinking, ‘Oh my God, what will happen?’ So I’m hoping that some of that excitement of letting (‘Firecracker’) linger in their memory will make them anxious next time to see the whole thing.”

Steve Balderson, left, directs former Faith No More singer Mike Patton in a scene from Firecracker. The Wamego-based filmmaker based the oddball tale on a real-life murder that happened decades ago in his hometown.

The making and releasing of “Firecracker” has been nothing but a series of cliffhangers for Balderson.

What began as a murder mystery starring Dennis Hopper and Blondie singer Debbie Harry turned into a hallucinatory drama starring Karen Black and Faith No More singer Mike Patton. And that’s just a taste of how much behind-the-scenes drama and artistic revision went into the creation of the final product.

(The process proved so compelling that a full-length documentary was released about it called “Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere.”)

“Firecracker” (2004) was accepted by a bevy of marquee film festivals, where it played to large crowds. But despite studio interest in buying the nearly $2 million project, no concrete offers materialized. It looked like the feature was never going to make it to theaters.

“When we kept doing this film festival circuit, I started realizing that a lot of Mike Patton fans who are used to driving three or four hours to go see a music concert would drive out of their way to come see our movie,” Balderson says. “I thought, ‘If we could do this on our own, it would be really great.'”

So he partnered with Landmark, the nation’s largest art-house chain, for a nine-city tour that is spanning Boston to Seattle. The expedition swings its closest to Lawrence with a St. Louis date on Tuesday.

What helped raise the picture to another level is an Aug. 18 review that über-critic Roger Ebert published in the Chicago Sun-Times.

Ebert wrote, “I praise ‘Firecracker’ because it is original and peculiar, but also because it is haunted; there is an uneasy spirit living within this film that stirs and regards us with cold, unblinking eyes.”

“Well, the whole thing impressed me, as I suggested in my review,” Ebert tells the Journal-World.

“What’s probably most remarkable is what a command of tone and plot they achieved despite the complexities and reality levels of the story.”

Balderson first heard about Ebert’s three-and-a-half-star review when a Sun-Times staffer called to tell him it had run that morning but was not yet online. He convinced the employee to read him the whole thing over the phone.

Firecracker movie poster

“I got really emotional afterward,” Balderson says. “I turned 30 this year, and I started working on this movie when I was 22. My 20s were spent trying to conceive and make this movie. To have this recognition – even if nothing else came of it ever – felt really amazing.”

But already the review has opened certain doors. Balderson claims Ebert’s ink convinced the Independent Spirit Awards to submit the flick despite being past deadline.

“When I sent my proposal to Landmark, I think that helped them pay more attention,” he says. “If I hadn’t had that, would they have answered?”

Wild visions

“Firecracker” is as instantly provocative as it is difficult to describe.

Set in Wamego (about 70 miles northwest of Lawrence), it’s a blend of true crime and garish surrealism. It moves freely from color to black-and-white. The cast is fashioned from equal parts Hollywood character actors, amateur Kansans and “carnival freaks” such as The Enigma and George the Giant. To make things even freakier, Patton and Black play dual roles.

Co-producer Jennifer Dreiling, right, huddles with cast member The Enigma while filming on the Wamego set of Firecracker.

Wamego native Balderson was studying film at the California Institute of the Arts when the impetus for the movie struck.

“My aunt was talking about the murder,” he says of the Eisenhower-era crime. “When she was talking about being there when they dug up the body, I started getting a little more addicted to it, because it was something that had happened so close to where I grew up.

“Once they started telling me about the story and I started putting the pictures in my head, it was so vivid to me that I knew I had to make this movie.”

Jennifer Dreiling, a Lawrence resident who co-produced the effort, says the director’s “vision and steadfastness” are his strongest attributes.

“He knows what he wants, and he sees it and knows how to execute it,” she says. “I’ll look at something and I’ll just see a tree. He’ll see it as a weeping tree with tons of stories to reveal. Then when he shoots it, you see it, too.”

Dreiling admits life during the making of “Firecracker” was as wild as the finished film might suggest.

“When you’re working on a smaller production, everyone develops a very familial relationship,” says the producer, who’s known Balderson since high school. “We would have nightly dinners together. You’d be sitting down having some brisket that a local had made for everyone – for this crew of 40-plus people – then The Enigma is standing right beside you and putting nails up his nose and hammering them. … Every day was like that. It was just a very raucous, carnival atmosphere.”

Steve Balderson

More fireworks

After this latest “Firecracker” tour, Balderson is finally ready to move on to another endeavor. He’s written a comedy he hopes to start coordinating by the end of the year.

In the vast expanse between projects, Balderson supplements his income with a variety of cinematic gigs.

“If we take part of our gift – which for me is visual storytelling – I can apply that to any number of jobs that are more of a steady income. For instance, when I do graphic design and am making industrial videos for people, it’s really good income, but it’s also still part of my dream.”

Interestingly, that’s not the only gift Balderson possesses.

Under the trivia category of his listing on the Internet Movie Database, it claims Balderson is “known to be clairvoyant.”

“Periodically in my life, I’ve had instincts about certain things and I’ve been real vocal about them,” he explains. “Most of us have a gut instinct about certain things. And if we follow that instinct, some times we’re kind of amazed at what happens. But if we deny that instinct and start questioning ourselves, then we lose.”

Budding filmmakers don’t need to be able to read minds or predict the future to learn the value of that advice.