Dry your tears: Lise Swenson, top left, scopes the Salton Sea for her new film. (Photo courtesy Swenson)

Beard world and Swenson's Salton Sea

Michael Fox July 22, 2008

SF360.org editor’s note: This is the first edition of Michael Fox’s "In Production" column on Bay Area filmmaking, which will be appearing every other week in SF360.org.

Director’s Manual, Lesson 1: The idea for a film can literally strike anywhere. Laura Lukitsch was chilling at a rest stop in Arizona in 2003, en route to her sister’s wedding in New Mexico, when a busload of men on their way to the World Beard and Mustache Championships pulled in. She took out her new camera—which she was still learning to use—and discovered it had magical magnetic properties. "They came up to me and gave me an interview because it was the biggest camera there," the San Francisco filmmaker said with a chuckle the other day on the phone. When Lukitsch showed the sequence to family and friends, she got an unexpectedly passionate response. "Guys wanted to buy the footage," she recalled. "There was more to this than meets the eye. It seemed to bring up issues of family, of tradition, of religion, even male bonding."

Lukitsch had moved to the Bay Area in 1999 to work in marketing in Silicon Valley, not make colorful documentaries. A Wisconsin native with a master’s degree in economics from Jawarharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, she picked up the basics of film production in workshops at Film Arts Foundation and BAVC. Semi-confident that she’d been sufficiently groomed to helm a feature-length doc, Lukitsch embarked in 2004 on a shooting tour of facial-hair competitions in Washington state, Berlin, London, and Grottaglie, Italy. She also widened and deepened the focus of Beard Club by including hirsute men (and a bearded lady and a drag king) whose accoutrements are not trophy-driven, from Sikhs to bears to employees of loosey-goosey start-ups. "I’m very interested in how different cultures blend, or don’t blend, because of my experience living overseas," Lukitsch says.

The first-time director has an 80-minute rough cut that she intends to shave a few minutes from. Sundance may be the first destination that springs from most filmmakers’ lips, but Lukitsch thinks Amsterdam or Toronto would be a better fit. "It’s a quirky film, and Europeans are more open to quirkiness," she mused. But with an offbeat topic, she’s learned, there’s a risk of being typecast. "I’ve already been asked to do a film on bald people," she says. In case you’re wondering, Lkitsch mastered her camera along the way, to the point that she now runs her own video production company. For the latest news on the film, go to www.beardclub.com.

Lise Swenson: salt in her eyes

The last time we saw Lise Swenson, the Mission District artist was basking in the kudos for Mission Movie and absorbing a bracing reality check. If you think making an indie feature is hard, try getting it into theatres and screening rooms. As she gears up to shoot her second feature, I asked Swenson the primary lesson she took from that 2004 experience. "Get your distribution in order while you’re still in preproduction," she replied without hesitation. "Get your legal, your E & O [errors and omissions insurance] and identify audiences early on."

Naturally, I inquired who Swenson had targeted as the audience for Saltwater, the loosely autobiographical, character-driven story of a San Francisco woman who stumbles across a photo of her late grandmother in her wedding gown and (in Swenson’s words) "goes on a Holy Grail quest to get the dress." The trail leads to the "beautiful and seductive and horrific and repellent Salton Sea, 220 feet below sea level and filled by a series of man-made fuckups. It’s a great metaphor for us"—"us" being the human race. That should be sufficient to whet your appetite, but there’s more. "The film looks at how we live with ongoing sadness and depression," Swenson says, "but it’s kind of a comedy." (Now you get the title’s other meaning.)

Digital video cameras are slated to roll on Saltwater February 1 of next year, with a two-week shoot in San Francisco and five weeks down by the sea. Swenson and co-producer Kathleen McNamara have set a $600,000 fundraising goal that would pay the cast and crew upfront—an admirable, ambitious aim. And the audience? "It’s a universal story of a person on a quest to be liberated emotionally," Swenson says. "I think it has broad appeal but essentially it’s a chick flick." But she hastens to add, "The guys on the film are the biggest girls sometimes. I say, ‘Could we just stop processing and do the work?’" A six-minute promo for Saltwater goes up next week at www.saltwaterthemovie.com.

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