“What’s wrong with you people?!” is what one of the victims in Jim Stramel’s latest film, DEGENERATES INK. yells out at one point in the movie and it seems like a great way to start an interview with Richmond writer, director and filmmaker, Jim Stramel. I first met Jim when he was working at the now defunct (and oh so missed) Commonwealth Film Labs. Many of us had our 16mm film processed there and they, led by the late Roger Robison, made us feel right at home, like part of the family. The first film of Jim’s that I ever saw was My Ass Is Bleeding, which he agreed to show at Flicker, a bi-monthly series of short Super 8 and 16mm films that I launched in Richmond in April 1998, on Sept. 24, 1998 (Flicker #3).
For those of you who missed my My Ass is Bleeding, I’ve included the YouTube version at the bottom of this article. I do have to say that seeing the ass bleeding on YouTube pales in comparison to seeing it projected on 16mm film in a dark room with a cold beer. I can still remember the audible moans and groans and nervous laughter from the Flicker crowd that night. Having seen DEGENERATES INK. I can guarantee that you’re in for more of the same. Actually, I’d say the film is the love child of My Ass is Bleeding and The Thrillbillys — though this is one bad ass child, and, uh, please don’t ask me to babysit.
If you missed The Thrillbillys, you can head on down to Video Fan or, if you don’t live in Richmond or are just too damn lazy, you can rent it from Netflix. On his movie poster, Jim described The Thrillbillys as “a moonshine fueled rampage of revenge” — the revenge being some good old boys and girls who are fed up with the Super-Great Marts that keep a comin’ and destroyin’ Southern culture and decide to take matters into their own hands. Wes Freed and George Archer, Jr., who star in The Thrillbillys, along with Jim’s wife Renee and a host of other friends who worked behind the scenes, return to help Jim with DEGENERATES INK. (By the way, the soundtrack which features the Drive-By Truckers, Angry Johnny & The Killbillies, The Shiners and others is kick-ass and fits the movie to a T.)
So, since Jim’s been up to his own brand of cinema sickness for many years and with many of the same demented cast of characters, I’ll get down the interview and my original question.
James: Jim, what’s wrong with you people?
Jim Stramel: I trace it back to being six years old and getting a Hunchback of Notre Dame model kit from my older sister, sitting at an old card table in our basement painting in the whip scars on Quasimodo’s back with red paint and a toothpick. I’ve never been right since.
I don’t know what happened to the rest of these people, but I’m glad it did.
James: When I was first getting to know you in the late 1990’s during Flicker’s first few years, you had already made one or two short films (My Ass Is Bleeding and Pitiful Reflections). What was it that compelled you to pick up a camera and make your own movies vs. being content to just watch and enjoy?
Jim: I don’t know. I guess when you have a vision of a man running down the street spurting gallons of blood from his ass, you just want to share.
James: So, tell us a little bit more about those two short films. Many of readers may not have had the pleasure of seeing either (though we rectify that — no pun intended — by including My Ass Is Bleeding in this article).
Jim: Well, with My Ass Is Bleeding, I had actually just found an old Filmo 16mm camera in an antique store on Southside for $70, right about the same time I started working at Commonwealth Films. One of the owners at the time, David Williams, gave me a few 100′ rolls of old film he had in the freezer there and processed the stuff. My Ass … was basically a camera test, with blood. But working at Commonwealth meant everything, I had all these people, old timers there (sorry guys) who knew every aspect of the process, from being in the field filming through editing and sound work and out to a finished print. That was my film school, pestering them.
Pitiful Reflections was based on an article that ran in Poor Richmond’s Almanac — I think it was Poor Richmond’s, or maybe it was City Paper, or both — who cares, anyway, in each issue our friend Ward would recount these childhood memories, all true, and all tragic, but hilarious. Hilarious since it was Ward’s childhood and not mine I guess. But Ward, now Adam, stars in the movie, walking into different scenes and telling his stories. The last one in the old Broadway Cafe about his dog still kills me, “No one could love Pooh more than I did …”
James: In what ways did making those short films prepare you for making The Thrillbillys?
Each film was a step up, technically. My Ass … was shot silent with the wind up Filmo, Pitiful … was a longer movie, shot with a better camera and sync sound, and since we did that, I figured a feature was just 7 or 8 of those strapped together, so we did Thrillbillys.
James: The Thrillbillys and DEGENERATES INK. have a lot in common, namely the people involved in front of and behind the camera. It seems like you’ve developed your own company of players and personnel, like Roger Corman. How did that happen?
Jim: I dug a hole in the woods, covered it with leaves, and put a saucer of beer on top. Anybody that fell in the hole got stuck making movies with me.
James: When you started making films, you shot on 16mm film and edited on a flatbed (linear editing). For your last couple of projects you’ve shot with digital cameras and used Final Cut Pro (non-linear editing). What do you like/dislike about both formats and approaches to filmmaking? Has anything about your filmmaking changed as a result of this transition?
Jim: Well there’s a lot of technical pros and cons, but nobody really gives a shit about that, but what I do think has carried over is trying to shoot as tight as I can, meaning fewer takes, get it and go, which in ingrained from shooting film hearing the camera churning – which is the sounds of money burning. I think a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that since shooting digitally is cheap, say 6 or 7 bucks for an hour long tape, that they should shoot take after take after take after take. Then all of a sudden they have 50 hours of footage of bored actors that they can’t get through and they never finish the project. Which is not to say that I haven’t gotten stuck on a shot and all of a sudden been up to take seventeen (Sorry Mark, sorry Ian), but all in all we keep it pretty tight. My Ass Is Bleeding is still my highest shooting ratio at 7:1.
James: I remember when you programmed Movie Night at Zippy’s and would show films like Edgar Ulmer’s Detour and other lower budget/cult films. I wish I could remember more of the titles you showed, but I’m sure you can. That was a great series and spoke volumes about your love of the movies. Talk about some of the films and filmmakers you like and how you were first introduced to them and their movies?
Jim: There’s too many to even start, if I start listing movies and directors we’ll be here all day, but Michael Weldon’s Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and Psychotronic magazine were probably the biggest springboards to a whole bunch of ’em, and Chas. Balun’s Deep Red magazine for the gorier stuff. There was actually a time when we would travel around on payday to every Erol’s Video we could get to, to scour through their “Used For Sale” rack with Psychotronic and Deep Red in the car so we could run out and look up movies we hadn’t heard of. That was before all this fancy internet stuff, you kids have it so easy today.
James: You’ve written the screenplays for all of your films. Talk about the process of writing. Take DEGENERATES INK. as an example and describe how the idea was conceived and the process of getting it from an idea to being ready to shoot.
Jim: Well the idea came one day driving somewhere with George, George Archer that is, who’s a damn fine tattooer, and we were bitching about how big tattoos had become, how it used to be sailors and mean ass bikers and dirty shops that would reuse the same needles out of a bucket, and how that now everybody and their dog had a tattoo and you were walking into Target and seeing tattoo designs on little kid’s shoes and shit, so the idea hit to make tattoos dangerous again, make ’em dirty and mean. Plus George had an endless supply of stories of dumb asses that had come in to get tattooed, a gold mine of ideas for victims. There’s not a tattooer out there that’s not going recognize some of these characters, and cheer when they get their heads bashed in. The first draft took me a year and a half to write, evenings and weekends – I’m a really lazy writer, but after I stopped celebrating that I had finished and sat back and looked at it I realized that I had gotten it wrong, that the story should start where my script ended, so I pitched it and rewrote the thing, stripped it down, made it leaner and meaner and something we could film on a low, low budget.
James: One of the things you do really well is promotion. I remember being blown away by the turnout for the premiere of The Thrillbillys, and I think you told me there were around 600 people there. Lots of the people there were fans of the various bands featured on the soundtrack. And for DEGENERATES INK. you planned the second screening to coincide with the 18th Annual Richmond November Tattoo Arts Festival, which I think is brilliant. Tell me how/when you start thinking about promoting one of your films. How does it figure into the master plan for each film?
Jim: It all evolves together, not a master plan really but one thing leads to another. It’s always in the back of my mind, percolating, ideas for posters, soundtracks, vomit bags, etc.
James: Got any advice to aspiring filmmakers?
Jim: Yeah, hatred is your friend. Hatred of your shitty job, your stupid boss, your useless teacher, that fucken rich kid in class who gets a fancy camera handed to him who can’t shoot his way out of a wet paper bag. Landlord, co-workers, asshole who let his dog crap on your doorstep, ex-girlfriend/boyfriend, everyone. Hatred of what a fucking loser you’re going to be if you don’t get off your ass. Use how much everything sucks to keep you going, to finish your film so you can shove it down their fucking throats.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should let you know that DEGENERATES INK. made me vomit. Or at least I think it did. I had a stomach virus for days around the time I watched it. Coincidence? I think not! For your own nauseating experience (and don’t forget to bring a vomit bag), Jim Stramel presents an encore presentation of DEGENERATES INK. on Saturday, November 20, midnight at the Byrd. Tickets are $6 at the door. I’ll see you there!
For more of Jim’s brand movie madness, here’s his first short film, My Ass is Bleeding: