If James Clauer seems a little distracted at his carpentry job this week, cut him some slack. On Monday, he became the first Nashville director invited to show a film at the Sundance Film Festival, the country’s trend-setting showcase for independent cinema.
“Aluminum Fowl,” a 13-minute documentary Clauer made with a Nashville crew, including cinematographer/editor Brent Stewart, was announced Monday as part of the festival’s 29th annual lineup starting Jan. 19 in Park City, Utah. To give some idea of the competition, 73 short films were chosen for the festival out of 4,311 submissions.
Sweetening the deal, Clauer’s short was one of only 30 films selected for the Sundance Online Festival, which comes with a private invitation-only screening. On top of that, his film was just confirmed for the International Film Festival Rotterdam, one of Europe’s largest and most prestigious. That’s also next month.
“It’s weird—I feel it’s validated now,” says Clauer, a native Nashvillian whose outrageous performance pieces with acts such as C.O.B.S. and the Tony Guides turned heads a decade ago at the now-defunct Lucy’s Record Shop. “It’s a piece I strongly believed in, and there was a time I thought I was crazy.”
He wasn’t alone. The film’s subject matter—cockfighting—repulses a lot of viewers sight unseen, and Clauer’s lyrical, nonjudgmental portrait of four black Louisiana teens raising fighting cocks seems destined to anger some animal rights supporters. (Clauer says cockfighting opponent Sen. Bill Frist should see the film “since he’s really into cocks.”) One person Clauer contacted early on about music rights was deeply offended by the idea of the film, although he changed his mind when he saw it.
But Sundance shorts programmer Roberta Munroe hails the film as “an unflinching look at what it means to be poor and unemployed.” At times, “Aluminum Fowl” resembles one of the first Sundance award winners, Charles Burnett’s 1977 film Killer of Sheep, a study of a Watts homeowner struggling to support his family by working in a slaughterhouse.
The road to Park City has been a rollercoaster. “It took two years to make a 22-minute film,” Clauer says, laughing. The genesis involved filmmaker Harmony Korine, Clauer’s longtime friend and fellow Nashvillian, with whom he’d worked on Korine’s locally filmed 1997 feature Gummo. Korine had formed a production company, O’Salvation, with French fashion designer and film producer Agnès B. For their first film, Clauer planned to make a documentary about flamboyant rapper Flavor Flav.
Monetary demands and Flav’s gig on The Surreal Life nixed the deal. As Clauer tells it, he and Korine were at the now-closed strip club Showtime when they ran into a friend from junior high. He told them he made a living shuttling cocks between Kentucky and Louisiana. The idea stuck. When Clauer went down to Louisiana to visit, he was drawn to his friend’s neighbors, four kids between the ages of 15 and 18, who spent their time raising cocks, obsessing over aliens and manufacturing homemade bling out of tinfoil.
Clauer shot some initial footage with Nashville filmmaker Michael Carter. He went back in the summer of 2004 with Stewart and returned with 80 hours of raw material. The strain of making his first film, and his insecurity about the piece, led him to “a really dark place for a while,” Clauer remembers. He decided to revisit the footage six months later. Suddenly, he says, he started to see the film taking shape.
“Brent was a lifesaver,” Clauer says. “He’s very methodical, and I’m very spastic.” Together, he explains, they “tried to create a narrative with real people.” They ended up with a 22-minute cut, capped by a poetic voiceover Clauer adapted from conversations with the four brothers. The result was submitted to Sundance and other festivals a few months ago. Though impressed, the Sundance shorts programmers suggested that Clauer make the film even shorter.
“It was horrible to decide what to cut,” Clauer recalls. “But in the long run, it makes you understand your material better.” He says he’s “really happy” with the new version, nine minutes shorter, although the longer cut was accepted into Rotterdam.
Clauer’s festival appearances kick off a momentous year for O’Salvation and its roster of Nashville filmmakers. Stewart’s film “Blackberry Winter,” a 40-minute black-and-white mood piece filmed in Gallatin, is about to hit the festival circuit, and he recently directed a music video for the Silver Jews’ “How Can I Love You if You Won’t Lie Down.” And Korine, whose every move is followed on the Internet, is at work on Mister Lonely, the follow-up to his remarkable 1999 Dogme 95 feature julien donkey-boy. Judging from online speculation alone, it’s one of the year’s most anticipated films.
Clauer himself has no idea what to expect from the coming year. While the Sundance shorts rarely get the same media attention as the features, they’ve launched many impressive talents—Wes Anderson (Rushmore) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights), to name two. And the festival’s glare creates overnight sensations. Last year, it was struggling Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer, with his feature Hustle & Flow. Ten years ago, it was the screenwriter of a film called Kids that caused an international scandal—a guy named Harmony Korine.
So far, Clauer hasn’t been able to share the good news with the whole family. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, he has tried to reach his four principals. He’s heard from only two of them. “Aluminum Fowl” amounts to a group picture.
“It’s a portrait, but I wasn’t trying to do a political or sociological portrait,” Clauer says. “It was more like, ‘Damn, that’s the way it is.’ ”