The Circus Animals
Directed by Nicholas Clift Bateman
At the Creative Alliance Aug. 31 at 8 p.m.
Maybe one of the hardest things about following his dream of becoming a filmmaker-even harder than the whole dropping-out-of-college thing to pursue it-was the bed bugs. During post-production for his first feature film, The Circus Animals, 22-year-old director and Timonium native Nicholas Clift Bateman was sharing his own little piece of squalor with his cinematographer/producer David Ross and actor Alex Kafarakis in Brooklyn. Parts of the floor were missing, so there were just exposed chunks of dirt, and-for whatever reason-there was a window separating the shower from Kafarakis' room. "A rat stole the sponge out of our sink and ran away with it," Ross reminisced over the phone. The ick factor escalated when Bateman discovered he was covered in bug bites.
"We had to throw everything out, so then we were in there for like two months where I didn't have a bed, and I was literally sleeping on this dirt floor," Bateman recalled. At the time, he would work from 5 p.m. until early morning, then come home to edit The Circus Animals from about 3 a.m. to 10 a.m. before passing out. To boot, he was hovering just above broke. "It was the darkest days possible."
Though several rungs below hospitable, the place, thankfully, was actually bed bug-free. "I had stress hives," he said, laughing guiltily and ashing one of a series of cigarettes into an old glass mug. "We didn't have bed bugs."
So after bouncing from George Mason University to Towson University to New York, Bateman now lives in a much cozier place in Bolton Hill, sharing the spot with two of his other collaborators, Francis Cabatac and Ethan Millspaugh. There are boxes of Circus Animals DVDs in the corner and film equipment stashed on the periphery of the living room, where the apartment's inhabitants and I sat and talked. At each step of setting up the interview, Bateman would bring up a different person I just had to speak to, someone without whom the film would not have been possible. In an age where the auteur is idolized, it's refreshing to hear about a team of people so enamored with one another, so eager to share ideas and strengths in pursuit of a common goal.
Though Bateman wrote and directed the project, the folks behind Painted Stage Pictures each feel equally invested in it. That energy bleeds into The Circus Animals, a movie within a movie about a group of friends making a film together. Despite its direct reflection of real life, the film dwells in a world all its own, full of daydreamy cinematography and matte-painting backgrounds. It has a style so focused and sure of itself that upcoming projects from the company should prove interesting, and the group already has several ideas in the works. Bateman is currently working on the script for his next feature, while other members of Painted Stage are developing their own short films.
With a medium as collaborative as film, gathering a crew of dedicated people is crucial, and finding folks with the enthusiasm it takes to get through long days (and nights) of shooting can prove difficult. The team behind Painted Stage make it work, however, despite being divvied up throughout the country. A smattering of people live in Baltimore, some in New York, while a couple far-flung members call other cities home. One of the producers, Michelle Hill, lives out West, where she's earning two doctoral degrees at Arizona State University. Bateman hooked her into the project while they worked together at a camp in 2009. They became friends, and over time he started bouncing different ideas for the movie off her. Those conversations rolled into nightly phone calls when they went their separate ways: Bateman contacting her from the set of The Circus Animals to share its progress and get her feedback. "For someone who has as much vision and ambition as he does, I'm always kind of surprised by how willing he is to take other people's ideas and criticism," she said via telephone.
Ross was swept up in the excitement too. "As far as our passion for filmmaking [goes], he reignited it in me," he said. "I'm more interested in making movies with Nick and these people than just making movies." It's the kinship, the mutual respect among cast and crew, that pushed the production forward, crafting a nebulous, multifaceted movie that reflects every person involved.
Dedicating one's life to making art can be a terrifying prospect, especially in an expensive artform like filmmaking. Finding the right allies is crucial; you need those people who will talk you through those moments where you're unsure of what the fuck you're doing, to sleep beside you on the dirt floor, and to laugh with you about it later, when those dark days are done.