Testing the waters

“Me and my friends dropped out of film school after our second year and moved back to Asheville,” Joe Chang tells Xpress, describing the Papercookie Picture Company he helped co-found. Less production company and more artistic collective, Papercookie was and is Chang's answer to the rigidness of the film-school experience. “We kind of got tired of film school and all the red tape to go through to get stuff made. We just want to make stuff on our own.”

Echoes of Robert Altman:The film is a series of interwoven, character-driven stories. Photos Courtesy Papercookie

Out of this came a sort of DIY co-operative of like-minded film school drop-outs, who simply want to make movies. As Chang points out, “It's nothing official, it's not a company; it's something we put a name on to represent ourselves.” After releasing two features — John Ferrer's comedy Grownups (2005) and Chang’s John Cameron Mitchell-praised Neutral (2007) — the group is debuting its latest film, Martha Stephen's Passenger Pigeons.

Chang — credited as producer and editor of Passenger Pigeons — sees the film as a culmination of years of work, and a continuing learning experience for Papercookie. “I don't think Passenger Pigeons could've gotten made as well as it did without going through the process of making Neutral or even Grownups. I think we've evolved as people and as filmmakers, testing the waters with the first one, seeing where we mess up, the process of it, planning everything. Everything seemed to fall together and run a lot more smoothly.”

The creation is very much the vision of writer/director Stephens, one of Chang's classmates at — and an actual graduate of — North Carolina School of the Arts. The film is a series of interwoven stories connected around the death of a Kentucky coal miner, and a very character-driven movie that echoes the work of Robert Altman.

Set in Stephens' childhood stomping grounds of Kentucky, Passenger Pigeons is obviously a very personal bit of filmmaking. As Chang describes it, “She loves the area and loves where she's from, and everything and everyone who's involved in the movie are family and friends and you can see from her influences that this a very personal thing.”

The film, as with other Papercookie productions, is very low-budget — out of necessity, rather than aesthetics. The story of how Passenger Pigeons came to be isn't quite as dramatic or exciting as how Robert Rodriguez subjected himself to pharmaceutical testing in order to finance El Mariachi, but it's still in the same spirit of scraping and clawing. “I had money saved up from working, Martha had a little saved up and the rest of it, her mom sold paintings online and donated some money,” Chang says. “All our friends chipped in 20 bucks, 30 bucks here and there. We borrowed the camera from a friend. We got a lot of stuff donated really cheap.”

And Papercookie used a four-person volunteer crew. “We definitely want to pay people,” Chang points out. “Hopefully that day will come where we can make some money.” But Passenger Pigeons, like Grownups and Neutral before it, are seen by Chang as rungs on a ladder to financial flexibility. “The Passenger Pigeons screening, anything we make off it will go into the budget of the next film,” Chang explains. “With each film we've tried to get it out there and hopefully it'll garner enough success so we can do the next one. That's the idea, to keep building so we have this little collection of films.”

Passenger Pigeons premiered at South by Southwest this past March, and is currently making the film festival circuit around the country. But already Papercookie is working on another project. They're currently finishing up their fourth feature, Aubrey Curtis' L'Orfeo and Elysium, and will begin production this fall on Chang's next picture Days of War, Nights of Love.

And while Chang acknowledges that having the ability to afford making films is and always will be a factor, the finished product of the film, and Papercookie's love of filmmaking, is ultimately what matters. “I don't want to think about money too much,” Chang says. “With Neutral I spent $20,000, all my savings and everything. And you don't really think twice about it.”

[Justin Souther can be reached at the.running.board@gmail.com.]

what: Passenger Pigeons, Asheville premiere and Q&A with the filmmakers
where: Fine Arts Theatre
when: Thursday, Aug. 12 (7 p.m. $8. Q&A with the filmmakers after. www.papercookie.net)

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