Here’s the story of “Duct Tape Messiah,” Kevin Triplett’s documentary about the late, great Blaze Foley. Tom Weber Films will be handling marketing and distribution for this great film while Kevin is employed in Saudi Arabia. Kevin and I have a lot in common: we made our movies over many years out of passion for our subjects, and we marketed them the old-fashioned way, by barnstorming, traveling from city to city showing our work in bars, coffeehouses, libraries and church basements.
By KEVIN TRIPLETT
I worked 12 years on my documentary about the obscure but legendary Texas songwriter Blaze Foley, who was affectionately called the “Duct Tape Messiah.”
12 years is a long time to work on anything and I gave up several times. It was my first film, so I had to learn how to make a film and how to tell a good story well. I made many mistakes, which is why I’m writing this story, as a warning to other first-time filmmakers: avoid what I did!
But I also think it’s an interesting story because it involves a fire, a theft, a car crash, a death, and a rebirth. As for the rebirth, I started as an network engineer working for HP and ended reborn as an artist and filmmaker. I wouldn’t have done it had someone told me it would take 12 years, two houses, my retirement accounts, and two relationships. But now that I’m here, I have absolutely no regrets.
I landed in Austin after having made a video of my Christmas vacation in Wales. It was great fun and I wanted to find a documentary subject so I could make a “real” film. Blaze Foley was a friend of my cousins who told me these crazy stories about a homeless guy who lived in a tree house and wore duct taped clothes. He wrote great music, but when I learned that he was writing about his life in his songs, the idea came to me that he would make a great documentary subject. His music would be the backdrop for his story: perfect!
I was smart to realize that Blaze was so obscure that no one was fighting over the rights to his songs and therefore it would be easy to secure them for the film. Unfortunately, I was not smart enough to realize that meant no one was aware of his music, that no one knew they wanted to watch a documentary about him.
So avoid this mistake #1: pick a subject that you can get the rights to AND that people want to know about. Educating the viewing public as to why they should watch your film is a disadvantage that’s difficult to overcome without a big advertising budget.
So I began to learn how the new technology worked and how to edit video using a computer. That wasn’t too bad, since I was an electrical engineer and knew how to build computers. But at the time, DV was bleeding edge technology and I bought hardware that didn’t work correctly and never would.
So avoid this mistake #2: don’t rely on unproven technology. Research the technology and talk with people who are using it so that you know whether it works well or not. Last thing you want to do is spend all your creative juices fighting the technology.
One thing I did that helped greatly was to hire people to help me. I thought I could make a film solo. Light the interview, compose the shot, set the mic, monitor levels, monitor the composition, make sure the camera was rolling, and focus on the interview subject while they talked about Blaze. I learned pretty quickly that I wasn’t good at doing all those things.
So avoid this mistake #3: don’t be a solo act. Hire good people who know what they’re doing. It will sound better, look better, and you’ll preserve both your sanity and your ability to illicit great performances from your on-screen talent, whether documentary interview or scripted actors.
I lucked into hiring Chris Ohlson as production coordinator. He was able to get commitments from 127 interivew subjects and schedule three road trips all across the south and southwest to get our interviews. Without Chris, nothing would have happened because I’m not the kind of guy who can get people to commit to a schedule.
Even though I knew Blaze’s music was not in contention, I hadn’t thought to secure the rights until after most of the interviews were in the can. The lawyer who controlled the rights told me that I had to pay her $15,000 before I could start editing the film. That was a jaw-dropper. I didn’t have that kind of money left after the interviews. I asked her why she wanted the money up front and she told me, “That’s the only time we’ll ever see any money.”
I should have taken that as a piece of advice: I wouldn’t see the money from sales and she knew that, so she wanted the money now from the sucker (me). I abandoned the project at that point, disappointed but in way relieved that I didn’t have to finish the project.
So avoid this mistake #3: get the rights up front. Before you commit money and even before you commit energy and emotion, get the rights. Can’t stress this enough. If you can’t get the rights, so you can’t make the film. Period. Get the rights when you’re in more of a position to negotiate the cost. In my case, I could have negotiated a very favorable cost since the film would promote an obscure artist. It would have been almost like a marketing vehicle for Blaze’s music.
Then the lawyer died. Like soon after. I took that as a sign that I needed to finish the project. Throughout this project, I enjoyed thinking about Blaze pulling my strings like a marionette, finishing the unfinished business of getting his music more widely known. But after his lawyer died, I became a bit more respectful of the commitment I made to make the film.
KEVIN’S BIO: I grew up in a family of photographers, splicing Super8 film of silly skits acted out by my friends. I went on to college and got a couple degrees in electrical engineering and did that gig for over fifteen years. in 1998, I re-discovered my love of filmmaking and storytelling. Over the past four years, I’ve produced four short films, three music videos, a dozen promotional videos for corporations and non-profits, and currently I’m wrapping up a feature-length documentary on the Spacek family home in Granger. I’m also a fifth-generation Texan on both sides of my parents.