Camp Casserole is the Making Of for Steve Balderson’s The Casserole Club, a 65-minute look behind-the-scenes made with care, skill and a clear determination to be a film in its own right rather than just an off-the-shelf DVD extra. It’s a mixture of talking heads, off-set goofing and stills-montages, all in black and white, with smart editing and effective music running throughout the whole thing.
The Casserole Club built further on the film-making model which Steve developed through the production of Watch Out and Stuck!: a small, self-contained team of actors and minimal crew. People take turns cooking the food, people do their own or each other’s make-up. Everybody chips in when things need shifting or tidying.
For The Casserole Club, Balderson and co rented two houses in Palm Springs, using them as both sets and living accommodation. Anyone who wasn’t directly involved with shooting a scene simply kept out of the way, often in the pool. Those people who had families just brought them along.
Instead of spending four or five weeks shooting 12-hour days with everyone hidden away in trailers and hotel rooms, everyone started work at 9.00am and clocked off at five, just as if they were in an office. A home office. And they got the whole thing wrapped in a fortnight. It sounds like a sort of hippy commune yet from this comes a film which is commercially, as well as artistically viable.
Camp Casserole does a great job of capturing the feeling on set and the relaxed, happy atmosphere which surrounded production. But there’s a problem. And the problem is this:
There is no point in Camp Casserole where the narrative says: ‘But there’s a problem. And the problem is this:’
That’s the problem, d‘you see?
Basically, everything went so swimmingly, everyone was so nice to each other and had such a good time, that there was nothing which this Making Of could actually use to create a dramatic structure. Not Anthony Pedone’s fault of course; he can only work with what he’s given and if fate gives him a happy production that wraps on schedule and under budget, what’s a boy to do?
This makes Camp Casserole an enjoyable but frustratingly empty experience, which is a shame. It’s like a hero’s journey where the hero finds what he wants almost immediately. It’s boy meets girl, boy and girl get married - without the important boy loses girl middle act. It’s a man climbing a tree but instead of falling out so we can determine if he’s alive (comedy) or dead (drama) he simply climbs down again and explains to us what a terrific tree it is.
Steve’s own Wamego trilogy documented his trials and travails making Firecracker, distributing Firecracker and then making Watch Out. Each film individually had a beginning, middle and end (although in Wamego Strikes Back there were, appropriately, in the wrong order). And together the three films made a single narrative structure. Making Firecracker was boy meets girl (or boy - it’s a modern world); trying to find a distributor was boy loses significant other; then making the next film on his own terms was the heartwarming embrace in the rain as the music swells. All is right with the world. Three three-act films together make a three-act trilogy. It’s fractal film-making.
I described the first Wamego film as “a fascinating, intriguing, uplifting movie packed with conflict resolved, obstacles overcome and ambitions achieved.” And that, as I say, is what is missing from Camp Casserole. There is no conflict to be resolved and there are no obstacles to be overcome. There’s just ambitions achieved. On schedule. Under budget.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some fun bits here, including footage of folk goofing around in the evening shooting improvised casserole-related skits. Pyrex of the Lambs, for example, features a ‘Hannibal Lecter’ with a collander on his face imprisoned behind an up-ended bed-frame. If they’re not too self-indulgent, maybe one of these gag micro-shorts could be included on the Casserole Club DVD as an Easter egg.
But the closest we get to actual drama on set is a scene in which Steve and co. shoot a sidewalk sequence guerilla-style without permits. Turn up, shoot, drive away. No-one queries what they’re doing, no cops appear from nowhere. Later, they drive up into the hills so that an actress can scream her lungs out into the microphone without attracting attention from cops or neighbours. Which was a good idea and all, but without visits from cops or neighbours, what is there to interrupt the film-making process?
The photography and editing on Camp Casserole is fine; Stephen Floyd shares duty with Pedone on the former and Anthony Ferreri joins both men on the latter. The monochrome image doesn’t really serve a purpose but doesn’t distract and there’s a wide variety of music in the well-judged sound mix (including an extraordinary version of ‘My Sharona’). Some juddery opening captions in a jagged font are hard to read and there are so many participants that it’s difficult to keep track of who’s who, but that’s not really a problem. Stevie B is credited as associate producer.
So a worthwhile documentary but a victim of its subject’s success. Steve is coming over to the UK next to make Culture Shock. Please don’t get me wrong when I say that it would be nice if he encountered a few problems. This is Britain, I’m sure we can rustle up a tube strike or a security alert or maybe just rely on the British weather. We’ll think of something.
MJS rating: B