Tales of cows, campfire songs, and hate mail.
The trailers that run in front of every Wisconsin Film Festival screening are one of the most reliable aspects of the festival, giving the audience something to bond over no matter what films that they're seeing in a diverse, unwieldy lineup. Not just an extension of each year's unique visual branding, they serve the functional purpose of shouting out the festival sponsors, partners, campus organizations, and most importantly the army of volunteers who make the festival happen. As the 2017 festival kicks off, we sat down with festival coordinator Ben Reiser—who's been directing the trailers since 2013—and get the good, the bad, and the ugly behind each of the four trailers he's worked on up to this point.
"When I sat down with [festival programmers Jim Healy and Mike King] at a coffee shop to pitch myself to them as the trailer-maker I asked what they were looking for in a trailer. I stupidly opened it up to them for what they were looking for and what they would like. Of course, they didn't like anything. 'It shouldn't be this, and it shouldn't be that. We don't want it to be any more than a minute, it shouldn't make a statement, it shouldn't really be about film, it shouldn't really be narrative. It should be very abstract like our favorite trailers. The shorter the better is the main thing, but something that's not obvious.' OK, I thought, you've given me nothing to work with. But we already had the graphic, the poster design that was based on these spaghetti western posters that Jim had brought in to [former festival director Meg Hamel] and she had used designing the posters. The central image was this cow, looking straight out at whoever was looking at the poster. I fixated on that cow. I thought wouldn't it be fun if I could get a live action version of that? An actual cow to step into frame and look at the camera? And then we could dissolve into the actual poster image.
"So I did a little storyboard thing, I even made a rough video demo of that idea and sent it to them, and they said 'nuh-uh.' This was around Thanksgiving of that year. I realized that if I was going to find cow I had to do it quickly because winter was coming and there wouldn't be any cows outdoors. Whatever I was thinking, I needed to get this shit so I drove around. [WFF staffer Christina Martin-Wright] called me and said 'I was just out on Highway P and there was a whole bunch of dairy farms and there were cows out in the pasture.' It was the last vaguely warm day of the year, so I grabbed my stuff and drove out there and found this perfect-looking pasture with great stuff in the background and I set up my camera. I went down to the farmhouse to see if I could find anyone, but it was a Sunday morning so I think they were in church maybe. There was no one around so I went back out onto the highway, set up, and framed my shot. I was shooting this and my idea was to get a real wide shot and then move in for some closer shots and see if I can move in and somehow direct these cows.
"I'm standing out on the highway and all of a sudden this pickup truck pulls up right next t where I'm standing like literally almost runs me over I walk over to the driver's side, he doesn't get out, it's the farmer who says 'What's up? This is my farm.' 'Oh I'm so glad! I tried to find you!' 'Yeah, so what are you doing?' I was so nervous 'Well, I'm with the The Wisconsin Film Festival... maybe you've heard of it? I'm just taking pictures and shooting some video as a test to convince them that your farm, and these cows, should be in the trailer.' He said 'Oh! OK! Great! Why don't you get closer?' He couldn't have been any happier. He let me into his farm and then he left. The cows were fascinated by me. It was easy to set up the camera and have them not in the frame because they were following me, and then start the camera and run back over to the camera and they would come back with me. It was pretty easy to get the shot that I was hoping to get.
"I cut that together and showed Mike and Jim a demo and they said no. So then I made a more elaborate video where I had A friend of mine do stuff that referenced things that Meg had done for the poster. I had him dressed 'western' with a jeans jacket and he was on a bike, riding into Madison, climbing around, doing Madison things. It wasn't really western but it felt like it because it was a cowboy riding into town but it's really just this urban guy on a bike. I liked that too and found a cool font to use for the credits. We got back together right after winter break and I showed them that, and I had also cut together a real version of this cow trailer, but I showed them the one that I thought they would like because it was more elaborate and seemed more like the poster and the cow thing saying 'I know you don't like this cow thing but I happened to get this shot of the cow so I thought I'd just do it.' They watched both of them, and they didn't say anything for a little while, and then Jim says, 'Yeah, the cow one. Definitely the cow one.' So that was the first trailer and everyone seemed to like that one and someone came up with the funny idea of putting the Italian subtitles and the -FIN- at the end.
2014: Campfire song
"I had the concept of it being a campfire. It was inspired by the graphic. There was a cute little cartoony campfire that was part of the... the poster image that year was like postcard image from the Dells, with water and trees, but there was a cute little campfire logo that was down where it said Wisconsin Film Festival.
"I looked around at a bunch of stock footage of campfires and I thought maybe I'd use this or that, but then I figured I'd stage my own. I want to start up in the sky and pan down. I wanted it be one shot. So I drove out to my friend's cottage and her husband built that fire, and the sun is going down and I want it to be twilight and that magic hour.. I wanted to at least start where you can see the sky and then it will get darker. So he, we were out on Lake Wisconsin, and he somehow built that campfire in two minutes, I have no idea how he did it so fast. It was a really nice campfire, and I had time to do the shot twice before it went completely dark.
"A campfire says campfire SONG to me. I used to go to summer camp in Maine, I grew up on the East Coast, and the last night of summer camp we would all get around this huge campfire and sing campfire songs. These were '70s pop songs, but they were accoustic and they would add things about how it was the last day of camp. When I think campfire song I think 'Leaving On A Jet Plane' because that's a song we sang on the last day of camp. I grabbed an acoustic guitar and scribbled down some of the lyrics and I came up with this melody right away and tried to make it feel like how I felt when I was younger. Then I ran across the street to Christina Martin and she told me 'That's not going to work. It's way too catchy.' What do you mean too catchy? There's no such thing as too catchy. That's the whole thing is to be catchy! But I did go to some of my songwriting friends Andrew Rohn and Catherine Capellaro from VO5, Steve Tyska, and Matthew Sanborn. I workshopped it with them and they threw in some nicer chords here and there. I was at a very simple pop melody and Matthew made it a little more melancholy which is what I was hoping for because there was always a sad part to a campfire song.
"We got some people together who were not singers, necessarily, and recorded them like a field recording in my neighbors back yard. We got twenty-five people and we taught it to them on the spot. It sounded kinda awful, so I went back and overdubbed it with Cat and Andrew and a couple of other people who could really sing. I had them sing along to that field recording three or four times and then threw everything in. The final recording that's in the trailer is our live recording of 25 people, but then a whole bunch of backing tracks to sweeten it up. It turned out to be such a hit, which was great!
"That was the year that Alexander Payne came to the festival to introduce some Italian film from the 60s that he was a fan of and he had written an introduction to in the Criterion Collection. He's friends with Jim Healy and he said 'I'll come to the festival and I want to show this film' so he's there at Sundance and he happened to have the seat in front of me, and my trailer comes on and Alexander Payne starts freaking out: 'Oh my god, this is fucking fantastic!' and he looked at Jim and said 'This is great! This is the best! This is making me happy!' and Jim turns around and says 'Yeah! It's this guy right here!' So Alexander Payne was shaking my hand about that trailer.
"James Kreul reached out to me early on and asked for the printed lyrics which he published on Madison Film Forum. People printed them out and were taking them to screenings! Some people were telling me I should do it live and I said, 'Believe me, people think I'm already obnoxious enough in front of a crowd.'" [Laughs]
"If you listen to that trailer, everything you're hearing is that campfire song but in different genres, different musical styles, so there's this kind of electronic-y one, or this muzak one when the viewer walks into the eyeglass store and they put it on and they're in Paris and the melody is still the campfire song but now it's a French-sounding thing and then they go to the desert and it's a more Middle Eastern-sounding version and then there's a goofy German one with lederhosen but it's all versions of that same song, which I don't think is that obvious, which is fun to me... And then at the end it's a sci fi sounding thing.
"One thing that Mike said to me last year that I was that with technology how it is now, you don't have to do just one trailer. We could do as many trailers as we want. We could do a different trailer every day of the festival, and I thought, oh that's a great idea that'd be so much fun. Not tell anybody, so that maybe you're at opening night and then you come back two days later and it's a completely different trailer. Hopefully people catch on early enough and say, 'I'm going to see a different trailer every day,' and make a point of catching at least one movie each day so they can see a different trailer. So I thought is we had eight different versions of this song then we could have eight different trailers. Not just me doing that song or one person doing that song, but actually find a bunch of local musical artists from different genres and have them interpret it, like do a blues version of the song, do a country-western version, or a punk thing. And really give them liberty to change all the words."
2016: Button gluttons
"We reached out via our Newsreel newsletter and on social media for anyone who has a story they wanted to tell. I wasn't sure what we were going to do, so looking at that poster and the silhouettes of people, I thought maybe it would be fun just to have testimonials. People telling weird stories or bad things that happened at the festival? I was hoping for more weird or bizarre stuff and I thought I would just cut it together and reassemble sentences, which I did a little of. I was hoping to have a lot of people, so we tried to reach out to the festival audiences as much as we could, we weren't being sneaky about it. It's me trying to do things as quickly and as simply as possible because it was the last minute so we had one day and we set up the studio at Vilas Hall and it was a Saturday afternoon and it really became a question of 'Can you make it in this four hour window?' Those were some festival die hards like Alan, with all the pins, and his wife. There were some ringers, like, my son is in it, and my next door neighbor, but no one was making up stories. Then there were people I didn't know, people who have submitted films that we've never accepted, and that was great. I thought it was a fine mix, and we had tons of great stuff to use, which was my real problem. I wanted to cut it down to a minute but I didn't want to lose this or wanted to keep that comment. I think people ended up feeling like it was more of a commercial for the festival, that's what some of the hate mail was. 'We already like the festival, we don't need you to tell us what's good about the festival, we don't need you to pitch us the festival.'
"A lot of people were not happy with this last trailer. We got the nastiest emails. I think that they were repulsed by the people on the screen. People were threatening mass suicide, it was crazy. It became a running joke that nobody wanted to see this trailer again. One guy wrote to say 'Clearly the senior programmer Jim Healy doesn't give a FUCK about what the festival patrons think, because I walked to him in the Sundance lobby to complain about the trailer and he said "What do you want me to do about it?" and he walked away from me.'
"At a couple of screenings towards the end of the festival, when I would do intros, I would say 'This trailer was sort of a love letter to you guys, the festival audience, so if you're not liking the trailer then think about what that says about you.' If people like it, they're not going to say anything, but towards the end, at every screening I went to, people were doing the 'cheep cheep cheep' part and I thought 'Great! This is catching on!' I thought it was funny.
"People send angry emails to firstname.lastname@example.org and I'm the one who gets those. They feed into my inbox. So maybe in 2014, it was one of the years we were at the Capitol Theater, I came home one night after the festival around 4 in the morning. For some reason I decided to look at emails, and there was an email from this woman who sent a message that said 'We love the film festival, but can something be done about what the people who represent the festival wear? I was sitting in the second row at the Capitol Theater and Ben Reiser was on stage and his shirt was above his belt. I could see his stomach and it was disgusting and I don't wanna see his fat stomach.' And I'm the first one who gets to see this.
"The best hate mail, and I got at least three of these, was where they said something along exactly the same lines of, this year's trailer is terrible, go back to the guy who did the cow trailer and the campfire trailer, like 'We want that fucking campfire trailer.' 'I don't know what you were doing this year, but go back to the guy who did these other ones' and again, it was me reading these things. 'I'm going to go back to me.'"