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Thursday, September 19, 2013

Q&A with Shredder Orpheus director Robert McGinley

By David Reilly

On September 23, BAMcinématek wraps up Skateboarding Is Not a Crime with an ultra-rare screening of director, writer, and star Robert McGinley’s gonzo Seattle skate punk rock opera Shredder Orpheus. For the occasion, McGinley dug out from his garage the only existing 35mm print of the film; he’ll appear at BAM for a Q&A following the screening. We spoke with him about some of the wild backstory behind this truly singular curio of skate cinema.

Could you tell us about your involvement in Seattle's skate, music, and art scenes at the time, and how this project came about?
During the 80s I served as On the Boards' founding artistic director and had a blast developing OTB's new performance programming, which included utilizing the space for punk rock shows (Dils, Dickies, Dead Kennedys, Sub Humans, etc.). I had a brief stint writing reviews for the Seattle rock magazine The Rocket and covered a lot of local new wave and punk music, so I knew my way around the scene. Around 1987 I co-produced a skate punk band called Agent Orange (they sounded a lot like a precursor to Green Day) that tore the theater/dance floor apart (by the way, it was a challenge cleaning up the sweat, puke, and urine after these shows before dance class the following morning, not to mention a Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane show the following weekend!).

If I wasn't doing a show I would meet my skate buddies downtown, sneak into parking garages, ride the elevators up 12 to 14 stories, and skate the ramps down—kind of like urban snow skiing on skateboards. It was insanely fun (sick), not to mention illegal, so the added danger of avoiding arrest by police and/or security ramped the adrenaline high. We were chased a lot but somehow we avoided getting caught.

What drew you to the Orpheus myth as a centerpiece of the film?
First of all, the Orpheus myth is Western Civilization's oldest love story and at the time my favorite films were the Orphée films by Jean Cocteau and Black Orpheus. I was also a total Joseph Cambell/Carl Jung mythology freak and the quest for undying love in the underworld always fascinated me.

Usually protagonists in the Hero's Journey stories are warriors, but Orpheus is a unique hero: a transformative artist and musician that could manipulate consciousness as well as as animate material objects. I found the music-driven love and death story embodied in the Orpheus archetype irresistible.

How did the legendary underground poet/performer Jesse Bernstein get involved with the film, and how was your experience working with him on set?
I produced Jesse Bernstein's performance work at On the Boards and his poetry and performance work was and is astonishing. People often refer to him as "Seattle's Bukowski," but he was a one-of-a-kind and his work is iconic and it was an honor to work with him. I wrote the character of Axel for Jesse, a homeless skateboarding, crippled war veteran who narrates the story. Jesse had a number of afflictions and could be difficult, but he helped me with dialog a great deal; "Robert! Too many words." On set he was a real trooper and brought great ideas to embellish his character. It was very distressing when he passed away a few years later.

What were some of the challenges you faced serving as writer, director, and star of the film?
Shredder Orpheus was my film school. In addition to being writer, director, and star, I was also the uncredited producer of the film. As the OtB videographer I knew a few things about shooting and I knew lots of artists who were willing to jump in on a non-SAG (Screen Actors Guild) film, but I did not go to film school and had no idea how hard this was going to be. I remember trying to take some pressure off by looking at some "real actors" to play Orpheus with my co-producer, Lisanne Dutton. However, based on a short prototype version of Shredder Orpheus with myself playing the lead, she at some point said to me, "You have to suck it up and do it." By the last week of shooting I really was in the "underworld," but the cast and crew pulled me through.

The soundtrack is incredible! Could you talk a bit about Roland Barker and the other musicians who were involved?
I shot and produced a music video for the seminal Seattle band The Blackouts, when I first met Roland Barker, who played keyboards and sax. Members of the band went on to join Al Jourgensen to become the industrial rock band Ministry. When Roland finished his stint with Ministry, he began composing electronic pieces that were very trance inducing, and I grabbed him. We put together a Shredder band for the film to execute the score consisting of Dennis Rea (guitar), Amy Denio (bass), and Bill Reiflin (drums; Roland's bandmate from the Black Outs/Ministry). It was a great collaboration working with Roland and an incredible group of musicians. Writing lyrics for "Worm Song" and watching Bill Reiflin play drums in the studio was icing on the cake. Other interesting musical influences include composer percussion artist David Van Tieghem (check out "Ear to the Ground") and the consummate percussion performance artist Z'ev. These two were inspirational to the development of percussion ambience built into the scenes and the sound score.

There have been a few attempts to release the soundtrack on vinyl and I hope we can do that soon.

What were some of your visual influences for the film, especially the skating and music montage scenes? Were you looking at mostly skate and music videos of the time?
I already mentioned the Cocteau films, but a key inspiration were the Stacey Peralta and the Bones Brigade videos. I spent hours watching them but was concerned that Seattle did not have the skating talent (e.g. Tony Hawk, Stacey Peralta, Tony Alva, etc.) to match that stunt work. However, there are a few virtuoso performances including the freestyle dance work done in the foreground of the Metaphonics junk percussion band and my stunt double Peter Olive.

The whole cast looks like they had a ton of fun making the film. What were some of the craziest things that happened on set?
True to our guerilla skateboarding ops in the Seattle parking garages we stole most of our exterior locations. During the "Eurydice Door Show" scene where Orpheus confronts Hades and the Furies at the Euthanasia Network, we were using two or three big time "stud horse" smoke machines to backlight the Furies at an out-of-use train station downtown.

The director of photography kept screaming for "MORE SMOKE!" and after about take 16, smoke was pouring out of all the upper windows and cracks of the building. We were oblivious being below the street level of the building so it was a complete surprise when the Seattle Fire Department showed up with five trucks including two hook and ladders. The next thing I know I am negotiating with the fire chief wearing only white body paint and a loin cloth. That was the fastest talking I have ever done in my life but the guerilla film axiom holds true that "it is better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission."

The most fun was certainly shooting those parking garage skate sequences. I didn't have to act or produce: just skate my ass off!

How was the film received in Seattle at the time? Did it have any sort of theatrical release?
Lisanne and I were hoping that we could get into the Seattle International Film Festival in the spring of 1989 but Shredder was roundly rejected. I guess they weren't into skate punk mythology. Given all the people who worked on the film it was a minor scandal being rejected by the hometown festival, but that created a lot of interest in the film which resulted in an invitation from Landmark Theaters to do a one-night screening on Halloween at the Neptune Theater. We were excited to get this, but when I showed up to do a curtain speech I was shocked to see a long line outside the theater. I never gave the speech because the line was too long and I couldn't find the manager! The Neptune was close to sold-out for two of the three screenings and the next day Landmark offered me a six-month run on Friday midnights for six months. That set the stage for domestic home video and international distribution.

What do you hope audiences will get out of seeing the film on the big screen in 2013?
Love, Death and Rock n' Roll on skateboards.

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