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Independent filmmaker Eric Shiveley talks about music, fame and assless chaps


  • Brienne Boortz

Click here to read a review of Shiveley's film, Everyone But You

When filmmaker Eric Shiveley shows up at the Independent office for a photo shoot and interview, he jokes that he's brought his "entourage." Two friends help him carry in his guitar, his camera, his "lounge singer" suit from the film, a couple other props and a computer with his income tax information, due to the government the same day.

He'll hate the comparison, but Shiveley brings to mind a thinking man's Paris Hilton: He usually travels with a posse of little dogs, and his new film, Everyone But You, is a sort of video docu-diary. Its themes about trying to make it as an independent filmmaker and musician have made it a fitting selection for opening-night feature at the Indie Spirit Film Festival.

When he sits down to talk, however, Shiveley speaks without pretense. In fact, he shares way more than any reporter should know, and generously answers questions for two hours-plus. A small portion of the interview appeared in print; the expanded version appears here.

Indy: Your film will have its Colorado premiere here, but you just returned home from the Oxford International Film Festival and its world premiere. How did that go?

ES: The "real" answer is, the whole thing was kind of weird. But it went fine. I guess the "on-the-record" answer is that is was really and truly fine. But I'll just answer you the only way I know how. Every festival is probably different, I guess. This one is kind of one where they try to have a few "names" there, I guess, so there is this weird schmoozy thing that happens. Not everyone is like that, but parts of it felt weird ... There were a few people I met who I think are really, really good at what they do. And then there were, ah ... Well, the best part was just having a hotel room with a working bathroom and cable.

Indy: So you got to enjoy a little luxury?

ES: Yeah, it was awesome, plus seeing old friends. One of my creative writing professors and his wife still live there and work there. They've been really nice and helpful with my movie. I talked to his classes, which was cool. One of the classes was "The Writer's Marketplace," so it was good to have, hopefully, something useful to say to the students.

But the whole schmoozy thing is the least fun part of the deal. And trying to sidle up to someone because they're big is silly. I always try to find people who I think are good. Because if you like their paintings or their music or film, you're usually coming from the same place up here (points to head) and usually end up being good friends. And those are the people you'll really need when you feel bad. Those are the people who will really like what you're doing and tell you sincerely, "No, what you have is good. Don't throw it away. Keep working on it."

Hopefully, the movie shows [that] I try to find people who are just good, and that's it. Like the painter in the movie I've gotten to be friends with her and her boyfriend. It's great because she does these really great paintings, and she doesn't even have a Web site. I've always thought if you do something really, really good, that the rest of it will take care of itself. It's all this big equation, where being good is part of it. It's one of the few things you can control. Or sort of control.

Indy: I understand you went to Miami University in Ohio, where the festival was held. What was your degree?

ES: It was creative writing, but only because I had to pick something ... I was actually not bad at short stories. Poetry I couldn't do worth a crap. I was terrible at it.

Indy: You do some pretty good poetry in the film.

ES: That was really just a whole bunch of prose. The narrative was really just me writing ... With writing a short story, it feels easier to just sort of let go and hopefully, get on a roll. With poetry, it's like trying to reverse-engineer some math problem. But with songwriting ... if you find some music that flows, then you just try to figure out what words fit that. But it's not like having a totally blank canvas. It's a little easier.

For the narrative in the movie ... I had music and footage as a starting point and an idea in my head about what I want to say, so I think it's really more like writing a short story. It's the same thing, of writing a whole bunch and chopping out a whole lot. There's really no secret. It's just work. It's not like you sit and channel something ...

But finishing the stuff is the hardest part. There's were most of the work comes in. Then if you do it right and you actually sweat all the details, that is when it seems effortless and the thing seems to flow ... Sometimes it ties together exactly how you think it will ... But without some kind of deadline or someone breathing down your neck, it doesn't get done.

Indy: So how is that, to work on your own now, without anyone's deadlines but your own?

ES: Yeah, it was hard. That's probably the hardest part, because that's why, in the movie, I set a date to have a housewarming. And that's why I was trying to get the house done. And that was kind of like a deadline for me ...

Indy: How was it to see your film and your life and yourself up on the big screen for the first time?

ES: It's nice. It's not ummm ... When you first start playing music, you imagine the first time you hear yourself on the radio on some college local show or something you fantasize about it being some incredible thing. But I've been doing music long enough to kind of get past it. It was fun, but I didn't expect it do be anything like that. At some point, you just worry about people showing up or about the sound person being competent. It was fine... It's like you just kind of relax and sit and watch it. Kind of like everyone at the festival, I probably won't be happy unless the film finds a big audience. So seeing my film there is nice, because it's one stop in the whole process that you haven't struck out. But you're still kind of hoping, everyone's still kind of hoping, to find a big, wide audience ...

Indy: Did you win any awards for it? Or was there any other recognition there?

ES: I did, actually. They gave me they actually invented an Emerging Filmmaker Award.

Indy: You weren't that impressed?

ES: The thing is, I had it pulled from a festival a week before that who had it scoring highest among their documentaries. And so I actually kind of gave that up because Oxford said they'd like to have it for a premiere, and in exchange they paid for my gas money and lodging. So ... you don't know if you're just paranoid or not. Maybe they're just making up some sort of token award to give to me ...

It's weird that didn't even have [my film] as one of the nominees for best documentary in the festival ... So you don't how much of that stuff is just baloney or what ... It's nice to get some kind of recognition. But anyone implying to me, "Well, it's good for a first effort," I want to say, "Fuck you." Maybe because my movie is a rough, low-fi kind of thing, but I resent anyone implying that it's not the real thing or it's not a real movie. Because how many "real" movies with "real" budgets do you see that aren't that good?

Indy: That was the first film festival you've even been to?

ES: Yeah. That was the first one ... All I've been doing for the last 2 1/2 years, almost, is everything that's in the movie ... and then I thought it would take two months to edit the movie together, but it was almost a year to edit it together ...

Indy: You've had two festivals now where your film has been chosen as the opening-night selection. Why do you think your film is striking a chord with the people who see it? That's a big deal, isn't it?

ES: Yeah, it's wonderful. That's all you hope for. That if it works for someone, it really, really works for them. That's what never leaves your head the whole time you're making it. And you have friends offering edits, saying, "This is really going to piss people off." Or, "This is really going to offend people." But you're thinking, "Yeah, but it makes sense to me."

It really can be hard to decide what to keep in. All you eventually really have is your own judgment. And all you hope for is that a certain percentage of people who watch it are going to really, really like it ... I wanted to something really, really good, but you don't know.

Indy: For our readers, describe the premise of your film.

ES: Ahh ... ummm ... the premise ... It's just that I hate all the stuff about words like "artist" ... Because most people assume "artist" implies something more important or noble than being a plumber or anything else, which I think is kind of silly like it's more important or takes more skill or something. Some friends have said, "What you're doing is really brave, or takes a lot of courage." But I've done everything I've done because I felt like I would just go crazy if I didn't ...

Indy: So did you ever regret leaving the tech writing job?

ES: No. Not at all. You do it as long as you can, because that's what told to do. You're supposed to go to college, and then when you get out, you get a job, get a house. Then you're set to retire so that you don't have to eat cat food or something. I just couldn't. I don't know why.

Getting up on stage and playing to people who are actually listening just seems like the absolute coolest thing there is. And maybe that's totally dysfunctional. But trying to get there is so hard that most people, when they do it and then get the shit kicked out of them, then they realize, "Oh well, I'm not dying to do this anyway." ...

I really envy all my friends who have jobs that they don't mind going to and it keeps a roof over their heads, but I don't mind being pretty much broke all the time when I'm doing the stuff that I do. But I didn't plan to make a movie. I planned to just film the house being built and then thought, "Wouldn't it be the coolest thing to make a movie out of building the house?"

So it was supposed to just be this movie about building the studio and only using the music of the bands that I recorded for the soundtrack. Because everyone you record even if no one's heard of them, or even if they can barely sing they all seem to have a couple songs that are just knockouts ...

Indy: So the soundtrack was more the point almost than the film, in the beginning?

ES: Well, it was supposed to be pretty simple. Then these others stories came up and the good stories kind of took on a life of their own. It sounds corny but ...

Indy: So it grew from this smaller idea, and at some point you went and got the "real" camera vs. the camcorder.

ES: I'd kind of know all along that I wanted to get a real camera, but I was so far into making the movie with just the camcorder because that was all I had at the time, that I figured, "Well, I'll just go with what I have."

I got this camera after I'd really finished shooting the movie, or thought I had, and I was editing it all together ... Around Cinco de Mayo 2007, that was the first scene I shot with the new camera and it ended up being the beginning scene in the movie ... If the movie has a strength, I think the strongest part is the segment toward the end, where the stuff gets spilled that this guy thought that everything was lining up and then it just didn't. It just didn't ...

I'm lucky I couldn't find anyone else who was interested in making this movie, because I had to do it all myself ... so it shows how freaking hard it is to finish something when you have no prospect of it getting anywhere, you have no distribution label waiting for it to push it when it's done, and you're the only person who has seen it or believes in it ...

Maybe what I'm trying to say is, if the movie's good, it's because it's trying to capture what it's like to try to do a big thing totally on your own ... I think if you want to be a director, just start making movies. That's the best way to learn, anyway ... I admire anyone who can do all their work independently before they get off the ground, before they're in any galleries or a small record label or anything ... Because everyone needs an audience ...

Indy: Tell me a little bit more about how you put it together. Did you have a script at some point? I know in the film you say something about "acting" in the coffee shop.

ES: I always hoped it would be obvious what part was scripted and what part wasn't. Just because of what was being said. But I think the acting that was done is done really well. Like Erin, "the brainy pretty girl" in the coffee shop, did a fantastic job. What I did, I wrote a whole bunch of stuff about what the movie was supposed to say, and I threw away 90 percent of it ... because you learn to let the pictures speak for themselves, and to use the absolute minimum narrative. Just like I'm doing right now. I should use far fewer words (laughs).

Indy: Well, you do have a very spare narrative, but it seems like everything you say in the film is important. Is the editing process where all that happens?

ES: Yeah, thanks. You want to err on the side of letting it sit there and someone says, "Wow, what exactly did that mean?" But hopefully in their head, they're thinking, "I don't know, but it's pretty." You want to make everything pretty and err on the side of letting it speak for itself ...

Indy: So do you always have faith in your work, and find the challenge is getting other people to notice it?

ES: That's a tough question, a good question. Yes, most of the time I fiercely believe in my best songs and my production skills and in the movie. But you never really know how good it is. Just think of your favorite movies: You share them with friends, and half of them will be like, "Huh? That didn't do anything for me."

Indy: You talk a little bit about your family in the film. Did they get to see the film, and how are they doing?

ES: Thanks for asking. I actually stopped through Nashville on the way to Ohio, and saw them for the first time since before I even bought a video camera ... I'm trying to be nice and not spill anything about my family ... but sometimes the only way to hopefully make it better is to stay away until they realize you're not a kid ... because the last thing you need is for somebody close to you to be hoping for you to fail or thinking that you're stupid.

Indy: Is it hard enough already, that you've got to kind of buffer yourself from people that are going to bring you down?

ES: Yeah, absolutely. And you're family, you don't have to be crazy about what your kid is doing ...

Indy: Did they see your film?

ES: I left a copy with my parents, and I don't know if they've watched it. I showed them a couple of clips just to show them what my house looked like. And they're nice people, they're not monsters ... but the whole thing is kind of sad. Yeah, I wanted to see them before anyone was sick or died or something.

Indy: Once they see the film, everyone will want to know: How is Jenna (his love interest)?

ES: She is great. She is feeling good ... It's a weird thing, because I've always believed that with two people if it works, it just works and that's it. But the whole thing with her has been ... not like that. So the whole theory is shot ... It's sort of "on." But I really don't know (laughs). I feel kind of powerless about the whole thing.

Indy: Give us an update on the dogs. They're also a big part of the movie.

ES: They're great. Thanks. Seor is my doggie, and I adopted Lupe from Macy. Lupe's the big plump one that talks like Jabba the Hut. Macy was selling her house ... so Lupe got sent down to fat camp with me, so she's my doggie now. They're great, though. I usually bring them everywhere I go, but since I was getting a ride with friends, I didn't bring them today.

Indy: Tell me about the album you mention in the film, Point of Failure. Where are you at with that now?

ES: Yeah, I know that's what I need to do. I've haven't been, but I need to just stop trying to push the movie ... and do that album. And I'd love to do a couple of videos for it, because I haven't done anything with the real camera the whole way yet.

Indy: Are you going to do a soundtrack CD?

ES: I probably should. I should burn some CDs and bring them. It's weird, because I'm so used to lugging CDs to [music] shows, and you don't have anyone who wants them ... "CDs for sale, $20, no $15, no $12. $10!" I went through it so much I just stopped bringing CDs to shows because no one would buy them. But I should do that.

Indy: Do you think your life has changed at all because of the movie yet? Do you see that happening at all?

ES: I'm still a complete failure. No, I'm kidding. I feel different. It's nice to feel good at something and be able to go into the coffee shop and not feel lost. I don't even think it's because the movie has gotten anywhere which it really hasn't, in the grand scheme of things but I just feel like I'm good at something, I guess. Despite what all the self-help books say "Your work is not your worth" I think everyone needs to feel really good at something.

Indy: Do you feel like you're a filmmaker now rather than a musician?

ES: I don't know. I sincerely believe anyone can do a movie like I did. If you're burning to do it, that's how you learn everything. If you think about school, if you were taking classes because you had to, you hardly got anything out of it. But when it was stuff you really liked, then you just kind of flew through it.

Indy: So was this movie burning in you?

ES: I wanted to do something really pretty, and I wanted to do something so the world and friends could actually see I'm not insane. I feel like my place is a mess and I'm terrible at many things, so I want to write and record songs and produce them really well so I can say, "See, this is what it's like inside my head."

Indy: What's your favorite part of the movie?

ES: I'm proudest of the sequences toward the end. You know, the whole movie changes in the last 25 minutes or so, and everything unwittingly funnels toward this thing where you're trying to finish something and you're completely alone. I think the movie captures when you're trying to see through what you've started even though you feel completely ruined and you don't know if anything's going to happen with it.

Indy: And yet you did and now something's coming of it ...

ES: Yeah, I'm proud that the festivals have liked the movie so far. And it would be nice if people in general did.

Indy: Oh, your house. Did you complete it? We never really get to see the inside of it, and it left me so curious.

ES: I know, I know. A few people have said that: "You didn't show the inside of the house." It's not done. One answer to that is Jenna and I were going to finish it. It's way easier doing that work with someone else, so I just haven't really felt like working on it. But regardless, that's kind of like a lazy excuse.

Well, the other thing is, I get by fine in the trailer. Most human beings only do stuff if they're backed into a corner somehow. And I haven't had any pressing need to finish the house. The trailer is cozy.

Indy: I'm also curious to know if anything has changed in your life in terms of recognition for the film. Have you heard from any distributors?

ES: Actually, someone called from an NPR show in New York and they asked for a copy ... and someone in Denver wrote a couple weeks ago and said, "I've been tracking the progress of your film and I have a friend with Lionsgate who's interested in it." So I sent it to them last week. But only because I've been doing music long enough to know that like every 18 months or so, you seem really close to having some sort of break or possibility of some kind, I'll believe it when I see it ...

Indy: So if this movie hits big, how do you think that's going to change things? Would you move out of the house that made you famous?

ES: That's funny, because someone at one of the showings asked me if the house is a tourist attraction now. I can hardly get the local paper [in Alamosa] to write anything about it ... But if anything ever happened with the movie, if it got distribution anywhere, I would love to be able to just give a chunk of it to La Puente [the homeless shelter] and to a friend who does work for the Alamosa Uptown & River Association ... But I can't imagine the moving changing anything about where I live or anything ...

It's probably the worst thing, to have too much money. I'd certainly love not to have to worry too much about money. But it's not something that keeps me awake at night (laughs) ... No, actually, I would dump all my friends for sure, and get a Lexus that gets 18 miles to the gallon, and for Seor, I'd get a pair of diamond-encrusted assless chaps.

Indy: What are you hoping for next? Will you be submitting to more film festivals?

ES: I really should stop. I've submitted it to everything I've heard is a good, competitive festival through the end of the year. And as fate would have it I really am about broke, so I've got to get to work on something ...

Indy: Do you think about making another film?

ES: I've been shooting plenty of stuff. (He turns the camera on me. ) This is pretty much it. Right here.

Indy: So is this going to be a sequel? Or is it going to show the rise to fame?

ES: No, I've just been shooting whatever. Like when I went to Oxford for the film festival. I really honestly haven't felt like shooting anything, but I thought if anything happens I'd regret it if I don't ... to see someone go from absolutely nothing to getting somewhere. How cool would that be?

Indy: What's been the best part so far?

ES: It's wonderful to feel good about having captured what's in the movie and to finish it. But still, really, the best part has been actually getting to make out with the "cheerleader class president," and if I can end up even temporarily with the 25-year-old with brains, then anyone can. It's America! (laughs)

Indy: So do you think the film is going to make you a babe magnet?

ES: (laughs) I would probably be frightened. No that's scary, actually.

Indy: It seems like there are a lot of good musicians out there, and only a small fraction are seen. Do you think getting the movie out there will do that for you?

ES: At first I just wanted to make a film that was really good. And then you're dying for an audience to see it. And then it would be nice to help build something ... If you have a movie that's one thing. If you have a good movie, that's 10 times better.

Probably the best answer is that ... if you end up being able to have a captive audience for a while, that's a great thing.

Indy: So do you take the camera everywhere you go now?

ES: For music stuff or any film stuff, I do. But I don't want to be the annoying guy who carries the camera everywhere. But so much pretty stuff happens in the [San Luis] Valley, that any time I don't it's, "Awww ... why didn't I bring it?"

Indy: Are you planning another film?

ES: Not planning.

Indy: That's coy. So one might emerge?

ES: If the public demands it (laughs). Actually, no, I'm planning to find work, actually. I'm planning to not be broke, but I'm so worn out from the last one, I can't look that far ahead ...

Indy: You're hard on critics in the movie. Do you think there's a place for criticism in the world?

ES: ... I could go on for hours about the critics (laughs). But that's the funny thing, because that's also your lifeblood it's getting a nice write-up, or hopefully, a nice write-up, so that's what you live for ...

Indy: So is there anything I haven't asked about that we should know?

ES: No, but thank you very much, though, for asking all that. It's like anyone who makes film or plays music is dying for anyone to listen. Thank you very much.

Everyone But You
Indie Spirit Film Festival opening night selection, with directors Q&A
Kimballs Twin Peak Theater, 115 E. Pikes Peak Ave.
Friday, April 25, 8 p.m.
Single-show tickets $10, festival passes $20-$100;
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