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Legendary Dennis Hopper wanted the lead role, but it went to rock star Mike Patton (Faith No More, Mr Bungle, Tomahawk, etc) for his acting debut; iconoclastic young director Steve Balderson tells Danny Canak why, and how this bizarre and brutal film, Firecracker, was cast Ė without auditions and without talking to agents. The film has developed a buzz that precedes its Australian release sometime later in 2004.†

The recently completed US independent film, Firecracker, is a mystery based on the murder of David White in Wamego, Kansas, in the mid 1950s. This astonishing story of abuse, suffering and denial reveals dreams of escape. The inevitable confrontation unleashes the truth concealed behind the pleasant facade of small-town USA.†

How did you come up with the title Firecracker?
Every year on our Independence Day, the 4th of July, Wamego is visited by a travelling carnival. The day is celebrated by small-town parades, night time fireworks displays, and the neon glow of the carnival booths. David White disappeared on the morning of July 5th, when the carnival left town. Aside from timing of the events, I think weíre all lit fuses Ė we take abuse, we deny abuse, we deny as much as we can, covering up things weíd rather not confront or discuss - regardless of the subject. Living this kind of way Ė how long can we handle it before we, too, explode?

There has been a lot of interest in Firecracker, well ahead of its release. Has that surprised you? What would you attribute it to?†
I think thereís something intoxicating about true stories Ė especially ones as insane as Firecracker. When I first heard about the disappearance and murder of David White, I was totally mesmerised. Not to mention it happened three blocks from where I grew up! Iíve often wondered what wouldíve happened had Truman Capote heard of these events when he was here writing In Cold Blood. Sideshow oddities, gypsies, hidden secrets, murder and cover-up Ė right in the heart of small-town Americana. Itís right up his alley! Although, Iím not sure the public could have handled the subject matter back then. Some of the events in Firecracker are more brutal than the events illustrated in Boys Donít Cry. Theyíre nearly beyond belief.

The ensemble cast includes everyone from Karen Black (The Great Gatsby, Nashville, Five Easy Pieces) to sideshow performer The Enigma. How did you go about assembling this eclectic bunch of characters
Without using agents or managers! Because they canít comprehend the way I do casting. One of the first things I do when casting is scour magazines and newspapers looking for artists who visually possess the aesthetic Iíve designed. Second, I call them or get in touch with them personally. I check their voices Ė do they sound interesting? Will I like to hear this person speak for 2 hours? Next, I find out how we behave with each other. How easily could I get them to do what I asked? How would we interact on set? How would they interact with my crew? Will I want to spend 14 hours a day for six weeks with this person? After passing the tests on a personal level, I make some sketches. I watch the scenes play out in my head, and if they fit Ė they fit. If they donít, I go on to the next person.

Thatís how I do casting. The problems with agents or managers are endless Ė but the major issue I have with them is that they refuse to allow any sort of personal connection. You canít talk to their client until youíve put down a sum of money. You canít even send them a letter until youíve sent in thousands of dollars. Itís like buying a car without taking a test drive Ė simply ludicrous. Additionally, it makes no sense to me to develop a personal relationship with someone I wonít be directing or spending any amount of time with. I mean, when the actors are out in the middle of Kansas shooting the movie, the agent or manager wonít be there. So by not allowing film directors to speak to their clients Ė even to say hello on the telephone Ė is just senseless.

I also donít believe in the need to hold auditions. Iím not interested in how well someone can recite a monologue from a play Iím not directing. I want to know how they can portray the people in the film weíre working on. And Iíve learned that almost anyone can act. Clearly some people can pretend they are someone else more believably than others, but itís the directorís job to get people to behave a certain way. If they are behaving in a way I donít see fits in the film, itís my job to show them the way. There are indeed people who simply cannot project emotion or pretend they are someone else. But those kinds of people are discovered during the initial casting process.

Dennis Hopper was initially to appear in the film. I heard that he loved the script and was very keen to do the part. How did he take it when you said that you didn't have a part for him?†

Yes, Dennis Hopper wanted to play Frank, the psychotic sideshow owner. He actually said ďFirecrackerĒ was one of the best scripts heíd ever read. So he invited my dad and me to his house. He was on board that same day Ė but the story that follows is long. Iíll try and keep it short, but to answer the question truthfully I must confront part of myself that lived in denial. And often that isnít easy for anyone.

For me it all came down to my original vision. It had to be done the way it was supposed to be. Whomever played Frank had to also play David. Hopper is forty years too old to play David. So if I kept him on as Frank, Iíd be denying myself and my true vision. It took me many months to finally realise that I had a wild decision to make. I had to ditch Hopper. But I lived all those months with a foggy illusion that Hopperís name brought fame and fortune to the project. There was even talk of him producing it. I was hypnotised by the illusion of fame and fortune. But when I realised that all the while I was in total denial of myself Ė I wrote Hopper a letter explaining that he could not be Frank. I never called him up afterwards and asked, ďDennis, is that okay,Ē because it wasnít his film. I didnít need his permission to be true to myself. Iíll probably invite him to the premiere, but I havenít had another reason to call him. And I canít think of a reason heís had to telephone me. So I have no idea how he responded. Either, because he is visual storyteller also, he respected my choice, or he didnít.

What then made you choose Mike Patton - a man who has had no acting experience previously apart from making music videos with Faith No More? What made you believe that he could pull it off?†
He perfectly fit the pictures in my head. Acting in a film is no different than recording an album. Inflection, projection, emotion, rhythm, pretending to be different types of peopleÖitís all the same. The only difference is the medium. In film we do sequences shot by shot. Much like recording artists go into the studio and record songs one at a time. They donít usually sit down and sing through the whole record all at once. Itís not like performing on stage. The environment is totally controlled. If someone forgets a line or moves to the wrong place, we simply shoot it again.†

Do you think he has a future in acting? Could he be the next Johnny Depp?†
No doubt people will want him to appear in their movies. Itís my understanding heís been offered quite a few since the early 90s. Mike has a certain kind of energy in performing that is rare among any theatrical artist, on stage or in film. But I donít see him taking some of the roles Johnny Depp has. Maybe itís just me, but I canít currently see him voluntarily choosing a brainless romantic comedy or teen spoof sequel. But again, Mike isnít the kind of person who limits himself, so I assume it would depend on the story regardless of the genre.

What was it like working with him and how did you both get in contact in the first place?†
I approached him personally like I did the rest of the cast. Working with him was great. He was prepared, professional, and always reliable. There was never a single moment of craziness.

Did you ever consider using any of his music for the film?
No. I admire Mike for wanting to do a variety of things. Heís a true artist. He doesnít have to sing in everything he does. He should be encouraged to do anything. Act, paint, take photos, sketch, write, buildÖItís a bit narrow to think someone can only do one thing. Besides, this isnít Evita.

Edward Furlong (Terminator 2, American History X) and Blondie's Debbie Harry were also initially cast to star in the film. What happened to them?
Debbie and I were on great terms Ė weíd talk on the phone for hours and really became nice friends. But supposedly her music manager told her to abandon the movie and focus on her music career, while her acting manager, Jason Weinberg, really wanted her to do the movie. I mean it was only for a couple of weeks. When I called Debbie at home (to say goodbye and thank her) she was moving, and sounded upset, like something else was going on. I thanked her for supporting me and left it at that. Clearly whatever was happening was none of my business and had nothing to do with the movie.

Furlong, on the other hand, was a different issue. I was told by our co-producer at the time that Furlong wanted to play the role of Jimmy because he thought it could get him an Oscar. A few weeks later, for a variety of reasons, we got rid of said co-producer. When we did, I attempted to contact Furlong personally, like I had with all my cast Ė and his agent refused to put us into contact. I tried to reason with the agent as best I could Ė that I wasnít going to consider directing someone who was incapable of talking to me on the telephone. A couple weeks later I saw on the news that he was dropped from Terminator 3 and had entered rehab for substance abuse. So I started looking elsewhere.†

When do you expect Firecracker to be released? Will we get to see it in Australia?†
Weíre just now beginning to discuss a strategy for distribution and marketing Ė what film festivals to attend, where to have screenings, etc. However, youíll see it soon enough Ė anywhere in the world.

What do you have planned for the rest of 2004?
For the rest of 2004, Iíll remain productive. I work from 9am until 7pm every day, seven days a week. But I love what I do so itís the best kind of working environment. In addition to preparing Firecracker for the world, Iíve just published Simple Times, a coffee table book of my late grandfatherís photos (recently, our former President Jimmy Carter picked up a copy); I was hired to do a screenplay adaptation from Howard Normanís novel The Museum Guard; and Iím also developing new films for myself to direct. With the casting process for those just around the corner, Iím thrilled!

What are some of your influences/inspirations? What are your favourite CDs and movies of all time?
My top CD of all time is Ella & Friends with Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and others (GRP Records). Without question, my top movie of all time is The Night Of The Iguana with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner. Based on the play by Tennessee Williams and directed by John Huston. Iíd say that depending on the day and the feeling Ė Iím influenced by everything.

Published June 10, 2004

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Steve Balderson




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