|High There Producer, Burt Kearns (left) with Writer and Director, Wayne Darwen|
“... the content was shocking. It was beyond raw.
It was Wayne Darwen acting out his own Apocalypse Now!”
– Burt Kearns
As part of my follow up series to the review of the “Gonzo” style documentary ‘High There’ I was able to ask renowned Television Producer, Burt Kearns a few questions about his experiences while producing the film.
Burt has had a long and varied career in the film and television world, working on programs such as ‘Conspiracy Theory with Jesse Ventura’, ‘Guinness World Records Unleashed’ and ‘Joe Rogan Questions Everything’. He has also worked on many documentary films including Basketball Man and The Seventh Python which won him the Golden Ace Award at the Las Vegas Film Festival for “superior and standout filmmaking.”
In 1999 Burt published a memoir titled ‘Tabloid Baby‘ chronicling his years working in tabloid television. The book was described by CBS’ Mike Wallace as “sad, funny, undeniably authentic. …….tells the tale of what befell too much of mainstream television news over the past couple of decades as the bad drove out the good”
Documentary Dude Can you give us some background on your connection with Wayne Darwen? I understand he was mentioned in your book Tabloid Baby.
Burt Kearns I met Wayne Darwen more than twenty-five years ago in an edit bay for the television series, ‘A Current Affair.’ He was drinking vodka from a milk carton and putting together a story package in a way I’d never seen. I had more formal training in television news. Wayne came from print with the mandate to take his stories and present them visually. Without prejudices or bad habits, he was reinventing the form on the fly. We quickly became friends, collaborated on many segments, including one on our trip to the ‘World’s Second Largest Ball of Twine,’ and for a while ran the show together. In the time since, amid moves among various cities and continents, relationships and families, we’ve remained friends. We’ve hired each other on various shows, and collaborated on outside projects, most of which were reality television ideas that were ahead of their time, and watched the people we mentored get rich.
DD What was your first impression when you saw the footage Wayne and Henry (cameraman Henry Goren) brought back from Hawaii?
BK I first saw ‘High There‘ as a seven-minute trailer that Wayne and Henry produced in hopes of turning all their footage into a television series. They’d done it themselves and once again it wasn’t like anything I’d ever seen. First of all, the content was shocking. It was beyond raw. It was Wayne Darwen acting out his own Apocalypse Now. It was Fear and Loathing in Reality Television. And visually, it was like some stoned combination of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie and Jonas Mekas, totally out there. It was gonzo. There was no way a television network beyond IFC or Sundance would even consider it. I told them it was a movie. An independent film. Then they posted the trailer on YouTube and it racked up something like a million hits. I asked them to let me be the producer. I wanted to be part of this. So when the TV options played out, Wayne and I were back in business. We took all the hours of footage and I helped Wayne and Henry turn it into a movie. Wayne wrote the script. Henry started to edit what he’d shot.
DD Some of the footage looks quite raw? What challenges did you face putting it together into a finished product?
BK Oh, it was raw all right. Henry Goren is a brilliant news cameraman, underwater photographer and cinematographer, but for this project, he deliberately left all his fancy equipment at home and dreamed up these little non-threatening personal cams because he knew that they couldn’t get the reactions or relationships on camera with a big intimidating rig. So most of this was shot on consumer grade equipment, natural light, low light, on the fly – but not hidden camera. Henry is proud that everyone knew they were filming – but didn’t care. The real challenge came in post production. After Henry edited the first cut of the film, we hired an editor we’d hope would take it to the end. He turned out to be a disaster. He attempted some Final Cut conversion and wound up corrupting files and causing all kinds of problems. We had to reach out to one of the gurus to save everything on the drives. Then I took over the editing and drove home on a very bumpy road.
DD Why release the film as an Indie and not seek the backing of a big studio?
BK Our entire careers, we’ve worked in and around the system. Some projects are for studios, some projects are definitely not. The studios wouldn’t know what to make of this – just as the television people found it incomprehensible. When it came time to get the film out there, we hit our first film festival (the Action on Film International Film Festival in Monrovia, California) and were lucky to find BRINKvision. We needed someone who “got” High There, and BRINKvision got it from the start. They are probably the coolest distribution company around. The last of the indies. True partners who do what they promise. They got ‘High There’ out there.
DD How do you feel about the response the movie has garnered since it’s release?
BK To be honest, I’m surprised at how many people get it! We’ve gotten rave reviews from places as far-flung as Sydney, Australia, Anchorage, Alaska and Slupsk, Poland. Yes, the film is raw. its rough, it’s deliberately outsider art, it’s’ not slick or polished. But it is real and people appreciate that and Wayne’s performance. And the reviews we’ve gotten from online critics have been crucial! It seems there’s been another shift when it comes to critical influence in cinema. Back in the day, it was Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris and the serious cinephiles and great writers, then the TV critics like Siskel and Ebert and bite-size consumer reviews in People Magazine. Now, after years of hype and cheerleading from the Entertainment Tonights, the critics who make a difference, from indies to superhero blockbusters are the independent reviewers online. The last movie lovers. And without obvious conflicts like having your newspaper or TV show owned by Time-Warner.
DD I’ve asked this question of Wayne too. Based on your experience what advice would you give someone wanting to start a career in TV journalism today?
BK The TV part is easy. It’s the journalism part you should learn before you get in. You can take a scruffy newspaper reporter and turn him into a TV news star, but you can’t take a squeaky TV talking head and turn him or her into a journo. Then again, it depends why you’d want to go into TV news. The money can be good, but don’t expect to be covering much news. Or reporting anything the competition isn’t. It’s not even showbiz.
DD I understand that you and Wayne have another film in pre-production titled ‘Area 420’. Can you tell us a little more about it and when we can expect it on our screens?
BK ‘Area 420’ is a sequel of sorts to ‘High There’. It will be starring Dave High and Roland Jointz. But it won’t be set in Hawaii and won’t necessarily remain on this planet. We’re in pre-production now, and plan to begin filming in late fall. We hope to premiere at the Cannabis Film Festival in Humboldt County. The best little film festival in America. Great people and a great time.
DD Now that you have released ‘High There‘ will the response and feedback you have received change anything about how you produce ‘Area 420’?
BK This film may actually have a budget, and sadly, elevated production value. And Wayne may have to start drinking again.
DD What are your favourite documentaries?
BK Well, I have to go back to the ones that stuck with me since I was a kid. There used to be documentaries on PBS, Frederick Wiseman’s Hospital. I remember Seven Up! about the British kids. Gimme Shelter. Best Boy. But the one that stuck with me was An American Family, the PBS series that followed the Louds, including Lance Loud, who wasn’t only gay but went across country to find Andy Warhol. That series started it all. Twenty years later, I got to set up a reunion of sorts for an ‘A Current Affair segment’. There have been some great ones recently, and they’re all more like dramatic films only better. The Seven Five, The Wolfpack, The Act of Killing — and Marwencol, directed by Jeff Malmberg, whom I worked with on Conspiracy Theory. He was editing Jesse Ventura’s adventures while creating that masterpiece. That one deserved an Oscar.
DD What next for you?
BK I directed a documentary film on the singer Chris Montez that I’d love to complete. A story of a Mexican American kid from Hawthorne California who went to high school with The Beach Boys, met his hero Richie Valens, toured England with The Beatles as his opening act and wound up singing standards. And he’s still out there. A wonderful guy. We interviewed everyone from Herb Albert to Brian Wilson, but ran out of money a few years ago. That, the story of a woman who was murdered a block from the Vegas Strip, and a documentary series on the history of stand-up comedy. And producing television. To pay for all the rest.