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Friday Conversation: Filmmaker Eric Steele On “Bob Birdnow”

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Eric Steele on the set of “Bob Birdnow”. Photo: Stephen Becker.

Art&Seek first met Eric Steele in 2011, when he, Lee Trull and actor Barry Nash were putting up a play Steele wrote –  Bob Birdnow’s Remarkable Tale of Human Survival and the Transcendence of Self - at the FIT Festival. A year later, Stephen Becker caught up with Steele and his partners again, this time as they were on set, turning Bob Birdnow into a movie.

The story unfolds in a hotel conference room. Bob Birdnow has been called to give a motivational speech. He loses his notes, and his Powerpoint, and winds up awkwardly telling the sales force audience a harrowing and tragic personal story.

The finished product is screening at Lone Star Film Festival tonight at 9 p.m. So it’s only fitting to catch up with Steele and find out how things turned out.

Steele joined me for this week’s Friday Conversation, which aired on KERA FM.

Listen here:


Highlights and Outtakes:

About the long title of this movie:

“We’re not ones for brevity. The title exists for two reasons. One, to literally tell the audience this is what Bob is going to say.  But also to play on how bad of a motivational speaker this guy really is. In my mind, that’s always the first slide of the power point. This enormous title that was just terrible.”

There’s no gore in the film, it’s not violent, but it’s very tough to watch. Steele says that’s part of the point:

“It’s part of why the film is considered experimental. The impact it’s been having on audiences is kind of extreme. We’ve had people walk out who got sick. And I don’t say those things to scare you away. When you see it it takes you through a horrific journey, but it’s worth the wait I think . The idea was, just as Bob is reliving this experience, so too did we want the audience to go through it with him. The audience in the conference becomes the audience in the cinema. …It was very intentional. At the end of the film, we want you to feel as though you’ve just climbed a mountain, you’ve just survived something extreme.”

Bob Birndow is part of The Midwest Trilogy, which also includes Topeka and Cork’s Cattlebaron, which also screens at the festival tonight. All have been made into plays and films.

“Really what ties them all together is the concept of travel in the Midwest and this loose idea I’m still exploring around social survival and this concept of being in the corprorate world and having ethics or morals and what do you do when those are challeneged and now that we’re not living in a primal state where we have to kill animals for our food in the mornings, how did those survival instincts exist in our modern lives …and so each piece sort of deals with that in a different way.”

Turning a play into a movie:

“Here we have this great theater community in Dallas. I could put the thing on stage and work out the kinks and figure out what works and what doesn’t. It was those moments on stage that helped us craft all of these pieces into films.”

Bob’s a survivor, but an unlikely hero. Do you think of him as a hero?

“I do. I think of him as heroic because I think of him as a human being and I believe that what we have so often lost site of is simply being alive and surving is heroic.  And for Bob, he wasn’t a war hero, in fact he was kicked out of the military, he was in a horrific accident…..but yet, he’s alive, so that’s heroic. There’s heroism in everyday survival. That may be a really sad way to look at living. If all people could accept the fact that hey I’m alive and that’s is a pretty an indrecible thing. and they could find pride in that, then I think people would have a different perspective on the world.”

The movie’s star is Dallas actor Barry Nash. This is his first film. His acting is extraordinary.

“He lived with the text for four years, and has done it continuously as a theatrical piece and then rehearsing for the film. It allows you to do so much. Barry and I spent about six months rehearsing leading up to the film. It allowed us to do a lot of thinks with the camera.

“We knew Barry was going to be on point. Bret Curry, who is the director of cinematography, Bret and I were able to flex muscles and set up lengthy shots and very long takes.   I think there’s a 9 minute take in the film. We could do that becasue Barry was so on point. We never worried about him missing a cue or losing a line. It put the onus back on the crew to say hey, how can we really do things outside the box and film this in a way that’s cinematic. I can’t see enough about Barry.”