“I think Southerners see the world differently. Truly aware Southerners see the world with a pretty unique lens.”
In honor of the 18th annual Sidewalk Film Festival on August 26-28, we’re publishing a series of interviews with Birmingham filmmakers that are featured in this year’s festival. This week is an interview with Justin Gaar, director of Curse Of The Man Who Sees UFOs, that was originally conducted for a feature in Birmingham Magazine’s August issue.
Curse Of The Man Who Sees UFOs will be screening Sunday, August 28 at 10:30am at the Red Mountain Theatre Company.
Were you born and raised in Birmingham?
I wasn’t born in Birmingham, but I lived in Birmingham from age 10-30. It’s the only place I call home. I grew up off 119 near Oak Mountain. I wish I’d been born in Birmingham.
How early on did you gravitate toward the arts, and specifically to filmmaking?
I always drew a lot and built weird contraptions with Legos. I won some art awards in 2nd and 3rd grade for some drawings, so I guess I was art-oriented young. The arts weren’t really a thing in my home growing up, though. My parents really pushed the idea of me being an architect because of the Legos thing. I met my best friend from childhood, Mike Chilson, when I moved to Birmingham at age 10. We liked all the same slapstick movies and comedy stuff. We also both were obsessed with blowing up fireworks and playing with fire. Mike brought over a VHS camera one day and we made a stop-motion video with a Gumby doll, some GI Joes, and this model airplane I had loaded full of black powder from a ton of bottle rockets. It was an excuse to play with fire, but we discovered filmmaking that day. We eventually grew as filmmakers beyond just burning stuff on camera. We made a bunch of really weird funny shorts, so we started making movies in 5th grade.
Where did you attend college, and how did you get your start in the film industry?
I went to the University of Alabama. The University had hired a really amazing professor my freshman year, and he built a film program from the ground up with new digital video technology. I was there from 2000-2004, so it was right when DV was really taking off and Final Cut made it really affordable to become a filmmaking hobbyist. It was a really great hands-on program and I learned a lot about physically making a movie.
What roles/positions did you play early on in your career?
After college I worked on sets in Birmingham. I actually learned the most working on local productions in Birmingham. I learned a lot watching dudes like Chris Holmes and David Brower work. There are some pretty spectacular veterans of the set in Birmingham that are really approachable and willing to pass on knowledge. It’s a great place to start out. Chris was later my boss at Alabama Public Television.
Was directing always the endgame?
I always intended to direct. I directed a lot in college. Production work dried up in Birmingham after 2008, so I ended up getting hired as Director of Photography at APT for their documentary department because I needed a job. I directed a lot of music videos, commercials spots, and interstitial stuff for APT during that time but I got kinda pigeonholed as a DP, especially when I got to L.A. L.A. believes in specialists and suddenly I was a doc DP only, which was pretty frustrating because I came out here to do other things. I’ve been fighting that since day one. It doesn’t help that I made a documentary immediately. Ha!
It does look like the bulk of your work has been in the documentary genre. What drew you to docs more so than narrative filmmaking (although I know you do some of both)?
I didn’t value documentary until I worked for Alabama Public Television. I honestly didn’t value Alabama until I worked for APT. I spent five years traveling around the state to marginalized places, meeting amazing people with incredible stories. The South gets such a bad rap as a backwards awful place but it’s actually an incredibly nuanced, complicated and storied place. It’s far more complex and interesting than the reductive narratives of most “Southern” stories and characters you see on screen. I didn’t realize that a lot of my identity and worldview was driven by my Southern setting until years into that exploration of the place through traveling and making movies in Alabama. Documentary also gets a bad rap. People tend to think of docs as pedantic, boring, and maudlin, but I think docs are currently one of the only places innovating and telling real human stories. Sometimes I value an incredible real story over a great fiction narrative because the fiction narrative is just made up. It’s not incredible to me to just make up a great story. It’s incredible when someone lives it and you hear it first-hand from primary sources. That being said, I don’t differentiate between docs and fiction narratives. It’s all filmmaking. It’s all storytelling.
You’ve done some music video work for several local artists (or local-ish, in the case of Washed Out). What makes you gravitate toward Birmingham’s music scene and helping these artists establish a cinematic presence?
I really love the music video format because there isn’t really one. I was on the ground floor with the burgeoning indie music scene in Birmingham from the early days. There was kind of a renaissance of the music video happening online when I started working for APT in 2007, and we had just started shooting We Have Signal with all these incredible bands. I met a lot of amazing musicians through that and was friends with a few before the show, so it just made a lot of sense to jump into music videos locally.
What inspired you to make the jump to feature-length documentaries with your feature-length directorial debut, Curse of the Man Who Sees UFOs?
I didn’t really make a decision to make a doc, it just fell in my lap. I moved to L.A. in July of 2013 and was desperately looking for work. I was doing all kinds of odd jobs like producing behind the scenes videos for Atlantic Records where famous folks like Chris Brown would scream at me all day. My friend Brian Ratigan called telling me he had a friend call with a lead on an editing gig in California and he wanted to suggest me. He warned me that it was apparently about UFOs. I was so broke and down for anything at that point so I took the call. The guy on the phone told me he was shooting real UFO activity around Monterey, California. I figured I’d get a good weird story out of it at the least, so I told him to send me the footage. I watched the footage and it was literally 11 hours of blinking dots in the night sky. I tried to get out of the job because I didn’t see how to possibly make a story out of it. Then the guy insisted he drive to L.A. to meet up. I met him, and he was incredible. Like a character straight out of my favorite docs. He told me his life story, which is pretty rough at times, while constantly checking the night sky for UFOs. I knew I had to try to make the story that was taking shape in front of me.
What’s next for Curse after Sidewalk?
Well, first of all, it means more to me than playing anywhere else to show at Sidewalk. After Sidewalk, we’re screening at Joshua Tree International Film Festival in September. We’re still waiting to hear back from a bunch of festivals. I also sold the distribution rights to the film recently. We were picked up by Virgil Films and Entertainment and will hopefully be on VOD across the board. We just started talking about plans and PR and all that, so I don’t know anything concrete about timeframes yet.
What’s next on your filmmaking agenda? Any plans to do more Birmingham- or Alabama-centric projects?
I’ve got a couple of music videos in the ether, mostly out here but one I’m hoping to do is for a Birmingham band. My producer from Curse has lined up some talks about directing a feature fiction narrative, but that’s all down the line. I would love to do more Birmingham and Alabama projects. I have a feature idea set in Alabama and would like to set a lot of stuff there, to be honest.
How do you believe a Southern upbringing helped shape your creativity?
I think Southerners see the world differently. The South is so complex and at the same time pretty entrenched in these clichéd ideas and images of what the South is, which is silly. The South is this beautiful and harsh crystallization of the American story, and I think being Southern keeps you in touch with the beautiful and truly brutal aspects of humanity, because it’s still pretty present in your everyday life if you’re willing to really analyze your surroundings and the driving forces that motivate the people in the world around you. In California, I’ve found that people aren’t as in touch with, or maybe just less aware of, their history and those kinds of complex narratives when walking down the street. Truly aware Southerners see the world with a pretty unique lens.
Who are some Alabama filmmakers that you appreciate or have been inspired by?
Obviously Michael McCullers and Daniel Scheinert are doing really amazing work. There are a lot of Alabama-based filmmakers doing cool work. Andy Grace is always up to something amazing and typically has a gaggle of students in tow learning to deconstruct complex Southern narratives, several of which have gone on to do cool stuff in L.A. and N.Y.C. I think that’s amazing. Brett Whitcomb and Bradford Thomason are now Birmingham-based, and their work as Window Pictures is great. I’m really looking forward to their new bio-doc on Suzanne Ciani. She’s no longer Alabama-based, but Margaret Brown is an amazing storyteller from Mobile. Jason Laray Keener has a really interesting voice and I really want him to make more stuff. Melodie Sisk is now partially or completely Birmingham-based and I love her for Modern Love is Automatic, but she’s also made a bunch more amazing films sense. I really like Dillon Hayes’ work as well. He’s doing some really cool music video work but is leaving Birmingham soon to pursue that.
Missed our first two Sidewalk Talks? Check out our interview with Daniel Scheinert, co-writer/co-director of Swiss Army Man.