Ask A Director: The Universal Heartache Of Sal Bardo
  • MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 28, 2015

  • Posted by: Don Saas

[Ed. Note: I'm not sure if we can call this the beginning of a series cause we don't know when we'll be doing it again, but we've long talked in the Baeble offices about talking to the folks who direct music videos because that has to be as interesting an experience as being the performer whose work is being turned into a video. And, on that note, we want to introduce you to the first entry in our new "series" (we hope) called "Ask A Director" where we do...just that, and we're starting with Sal Bardo.]

There's a small moment in Tom Ford's 2009 drama A Single Man that always cut me to my core. Colin Firth's George Falconer is laying on the couch with his partner, Matthew Goode's Jim. George is reading some high literature and Jim is reading pop entertainment -- Capote, I believe. The two needle each other about their chosen tomes, and then the record they're listening to cuts out and George complains about being too old to change the album and makes Jim fix it. And then, like a cruel knife to the heart, we cut back to the present day in the film, where Jim is dead and George is desperate and alone on the day that he has decided to end his own life.

There's a trend in mainstream LGBT storytelling that most folks in LGBT communities wish would go away. These stories are almost always "coming out" stories or transition stories or they're stories about prejudice (or they're stories about prejudice that whitewash and straightwash away any elements that would make heterosexuals uncomfortable *cough*Stonewall*cough*). They're rarely just the stories of an LGBT person living their life and facing the same sort of existential questions that heterosexual folks have represented in media. And that's what made A Single Man so special. It was a proudly, inherently queer story but the film was really about the overwhelming power of grief. And in his music video for his song as Paper Ring with Stranger Cat and Mercury Rev's Jeff Mercel, filmmaker Sal Bardo has created a heartwrenching tale of regret, rooted in the struggles of LGBT folks but presented in a stunningly gorgeous manner that any person capable of empathy should be able to connect to.

I don't want to spoil too much of the video -- it has its twists and turns -- but its premise of a 70 year old woman leaving her husband of decades for the woman she's loved her whole life but could never be with stirs at those most basic human questions: do we have a right to be happy and is there a point in our life where it's too late for us to correct for decisions we were too scared to make? The video's thematic weight paired with its stark but dynamic black & white photography and the painfully real performance of its lead makes "Great Escape" an easy contender for one of the best videos of the year.

Check out the video for "Great Escape" below -- which is part of Bardo's larger "Pink Moon" short film project -- and read our chat with Sal about his philosophical and aesthetic approach to this production.



Elderly LGBT folks rarely have any media visibility unless they're celebrities or in a state that has recently legalized same-sex marriage, but, obviously, LGBT folks exist in every portion of the population. What made you decide to tell a story focused on this rarely portrayed portion of the LGBT community?

Sal Bardo: Well, when I was trying to come up with a video concept for the song, which is about impossible love and escaping reality with someone, I tried to think of an angle that would be somewhat unique. Using two young adults, like in "Pink Moon," wouldn't be very interesting and I already told that story. And I think I saw an interview with Edie Windsor, who was the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that overturned DOMA last year, and I thought, this is a demographic that's not very well-represented in LGBT media. And I liked the idea of a woman of a previous generation seeing the progress we're making today and finally finding the strength to be who she is.

As a queer filmmaker that has told queer stories with your work, do you ever worry about being labeled as someone who can only tell those sort of stories in your work?

I think about it, but I wouldn't say I worry about. The most exciting aspect of "Pink Moon" for me was being able to address reproductive rights. I'm interested in telling more stories about women, and I have an idea for a web series that involves straight men, but in a queer context. If anything, making LGBT-themed work has opened a lot of doors for me. And even though the characters might be queer, the stories are still universal. Our struggles are human struggles. The main character in "Great Escape" could be my mom or your mom. She's just a woman who's searching for something and deciding whether or not she has the courage to go for it and risk losing everything to find it. I think everyone can relate to that.

The song "Great Escape" was written specifically for your short film. As someone who also writes about music, what did your multi-medium knowledge of both music and film bring to the project?

And I also write music. It was definitely synergistic, but only because I wrote the song, directed the film, and then directed the video. I've always loved the music video medium, and it sort of died an early death when MTV turned into nonstop reality TV. But the digital revolution has breathed new life into it, both from a production and distribution standpoint. I really want to direct more videos, and I have a couple of high-concept ideas, but doing a video for my own song from my own film seemed like the perfect way to get my feet wet - literally. I wore leather boots in two feet of snow and had to borrow new socks and appropriate boots from my crew.

Truffaut was a critic before he was a filmmaker as well. As someone who also analyzes culture, do you ever feel hyper-sensitive and hypercritical of your own work?

And Godard too! I'm definitely super-critical of my work. I never went to film school, and I don't even write about film. My background is in music and I started out in the music business. I was a songwriter before I did anything else, but when I started acting and then making movies, I stopped writing songs because that creative energy wasn't being channeled elsewhere. I've tried to keep those two parts of my life separate until recently and I'm not really sure why. I don't buy that whole "Those who can't create, teach/critique" idea - I think that's propagated by artists who can't take criticism. Criticism is an absolutely essential part of art and its consumption. The amount of weight you give it is a whole other story.

The music video visually is propelled by a lot of stark visual contrasts, specifically one of the more breathtaking moments has the protagonist walking down a snowy road while she's dressed in black. Are those sort of crisp and sharp visual dichotomies the key to working in black & white?

Totally. It also saves a lot of time on production design, since everything looks better in black and white! I've wanted to shoot something in black and white for a while, but it's tricky because it can come off as pretentious if you don't have a good reason for doing it. But people, for whatever reason, are more forgiving of things like that in a music video. And we shot in the middle of a snowstorm, so everything was pretty much monochromatic already. It just made sense.

The performance from your female lead was fierce in its naturalism...deeply emotional without straying into melodramatics. When you two were workshopping her acting style for the video, what were you setting out to accomplish?

I definitely like naturalism, but we didn't do much rehearsal. The key to getting a good performance is good casting. I do all of my casting myself, and when I met Maxemillian, the actress who plays the lead role, I knew she would be perfect. Not just because she looked like the woman I imagined, but she asked me all the right questions about the character and the story, and I could tell she really understood what I wanted to do. She understood this woman and what it's like to be married and love someone, but not be happy and need something different. She also started acting late in life, and that takes bravery.

I don't want to spoil the ending for folks who haven't watched the video yet, but it's gut wrenching in an honest way. How do you strike that balance between realism without coming off as cruel to your characters and the audience?

If the endings of my films come off as sad it's because they're ambiguous and open-ended, and people typically want closure and answers, so I guess you could say that's being cruel to the audience. But life is open-ended and ambiguous and messy, and I'm just drawn to stories like that. Whatever cruelty there is toward the characters is self-inflicted though. When I see a movie with a so-called "happy ending" I always think about how that's not the end of the story - things could still go horribly wrong after the credits roll. In this case, the main character's happiness is in her own hands. So I see it as hopeful. I'm still trying to learn that a happy ending is a possibility, in my work and in life. I guess I should talk to my therapist about that!

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