Interview with Filmmaker Vagabond Beaumont

DIRECTINGWe recently spoke to filmmaker Vagabond Beaumont, whose short film, Aftermath: The Seeds of Armageddon, will show at our “Matinee Noir: Black Speculative Fiction Shorts” on Oct. 28! Beaumont’s short story “Kafka’s Last Laugh” was included in Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, an anthology of stories by people influenced by science fiction writer Octavia Butler.

Midwest BSFA: Tell us about yourself. 
Beaumont: I was born in the Peoples Republic of Brooklyn to a Jamaican father and Puerto Rican mother. I’m an artist, writer and award-winning filmmaker. In 1999, I co-founded the RICANSTRUCTION Netwerk a collective of anarchist artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers dedicated to the freedom of Puerto Rico. It was a horizontally structured organization that organized protest marches and rallies, created agit-prop (like pamphlets and posters), painted murals, and made music, films and ‘zines.  
Midwest BSFA: What were your favorite films growing up and why? 
Beaumont: Apocalypse Now is my favorite film. i first saw it the I was about 14 years old. It was an important film to me because there were a few things going on in my life at the time that Apocalypse Now helped me to understand.

My history teacher had spent a month on WWII and a week on the Vietnam War. When I asked why were spent so much time on a war that was four years for the U.S. and so little time on one that was 12 years, I was told because that was the way it was. It was 1982 and the U.S. still had trouble with the idea that they had lost the war. I felt like my history teacher was trying to hide something from me about the Vietnam War and it made me want to find out why.

At the same time that we were studying the Vietnam war in History, we were reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness in English class. I had told my English teacher that I was trying to find more information on the Vietnam War and he told me that Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness was made into a movie but it was set during the Vietnam War. That piqued my curiosity and so i went to my local video store and rented Apocalypse Now. I was blown away. After seeing the film, I could understand both why and what my history teacher was trying to hide. 
My other favorite film growing up was Blade Runner. It was the first time I saw a vision of the future that was grimy and dirty and broken. I also loved the way it played off the genre of being a film noir. The themes of what is human and who is human resonated with me in that film because people of color had been struggling with those questions for centuries, thanks to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Another favorite film of mine was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. Like a lot of kids who grew up in the ’80s in NYC, I watched a lot of karate flicks in Times Square when I cut school and on Saturdays on TV, there were marathons of kung fu movies. Seven Samurai was epic though in ways that many of those other films weren’t and essentially it was a western set at the end of feudal Japan.
Another favorite film of mine is Pink Floyd’s The Wall. That film made a huge influence on me. It was a film that’s narrative was being driven by the music. And the animation was just so amazingly surreal. It also made some pretty heavy political statements on fascism.

There are more films and i could go on but you get the idea.
Midwest BSFA: How did you get into filmmaking? 
Beaumont: We had a weekly alternative newspaper here called The Village Voice and occasionally there would be interesting ads for jobs in the classified section. I saw an ad for a production assistant on a film that was being shot in Staten Island. I called went out for the interview and got the job. It paid $50 a week and I worked 14 hours a day with travel time being about another three hours round trip, so I was doing 17 hour days. My last week on the job, I got a raise to $75 a week and they paid for my tokens to go to and from work.

On that job, I met another production assistant who told me that she was going to work for Spike Lee on her next job. Spike was a huge inspiration to me then and I asked her if she could get me a job. She told me there were no paid positions but I could intern for free. So i did. And I wound up working on Do The Right Thing for five weeks. I met so many people on that movie that it led to other jobs and I was able to find work on a pretty stable basis after that.
Midwest BSFA: Was there a turning point for you where you decided this was what you wanted to do as a career?
Beaumont: I knew when I wanted to be a filmmaking when I went to go see Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider. The film opens with a girl reading from the book of Revelation in the Bible intercut with a rider dressed in all black riding a horse. When the girl gets to the part of Revelation that says “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death,” she looks out the window at the rider on a white horse and then says “and Hell followed with him.” The interplay between the editing the reading blew me away. This was the way that I wanted to tell stories. It was right there and then at that moment that I knew for sure that I wanted to be a filmmaker.
Midwest BSFA: Who are your favorite filmmakers?
Beaumont: I have so many. Jim Jarmusch, Michael Mann, Akira Kurosawa, Claire Denis, Jean Luc Godard, Terence Malick, Abel Ferrara, Alex Cox, Peter Watkins, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárittu, Gillo Portecorvo, Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Copolla, Werner Herzog…
Midwest BSFA: What made you gravitate toward film and not other mediums to tell your stories? 
Beaumont: I went to a specialized high school in New York called Music & Art that you had to take a test to get into. The test was based on your talent. At 11 years old, I knew that I wanted to be a comic book artist and so when the time came to try and choose a high school, I took the art test for Music & Art and got in. For the first three years of high school, I was struggling to try and make comic books but because I wanted to tell my stories in a particular way, I always felt something was lacking, like I couldn’t draw enough panels to tell the story the way that i wanted to.

I had always loved films and going to the movies. When I was younger I would find two movies I wanted to see and look at all the theaters to see where they were playing back to back with the idea that I would buy one ticket to see one film and when it was over sneak into the other movie when no one was looking. 
When I went to go see Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider as I said earlier everything fell into place for me. Filmmaking seemed like the culmination of storytelling, it was visual and auditory, it dealt with literature and movement and music and photography so it seemed to me like if you wanted to tell a story this was the ultimate place to do it.
Midwest BSFA: How did you come up with the premise for Aftermath: The Seeds of Armageddon?
Beaumont: So the idea for Aftermath: The Seeds of Armageddon is actually based on another feature length film that I was writing called Kali about a group of girls in the distant future that is so bleak and dismal that they have decided that they want to destroy the world. The way they do this is by traveling back in time to kill people that they have deemed responsible for making the future a nightmare. If they kill the right combination of people, they will destroy the world and be unable to return to the future because that future will cease to exist. Despite it’s nihilistic premise the film does have a glimmer of unexpected optimistic hope.

I decided that Aftermath: The Seeds of Armageddon should be a kind of prequel to Kali. So I wrote this film to give a backstory to the lead character in Kali and the tragedy that she goes through that makes her so angry and so full of rage that she wants to destroy to the world. It also gives a backstory as to how these other girls join her in her quest to destroy the world. The reason it’s called Kali is because Kali is the Hindu goddess of death and although there are no names used in Aftermath, the lead actress (played by my niece Alexi “Flea” Fernandez) is named Kali. 

Aftermath was also made as a short film made specifically for a contest that Japanese musician and composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (his last score was for Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant) held for the his latest album asynch. Ryuichi Sakamoto had stated that asynch was a soundtrack to a film by the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, but the catch was that it was Ryuichi Sakamoto imagining a soundtrack to a Andrei Tarkofsky film that didn’t exist. So Ryuichi invited filmmakers from all over the world to shoot a short film using one or two songs from the album. Aftermath is the result of our effort to try and win that contest and although we lost we did manage to make a film using the music of Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Midwest BSFA: What are your favorite kinds of films to make and why? 
Beaumont: I like narrative filmmaking the most. I do and have done documentaries but I tend to do them out of a need that I feel for others to know more about a particular story. I’m in the process of finishing a feature length documentary called All Roads Lead to the Fire Escape on Jesus Papoleto Melendez, who was one of the original Nuyorican Poets. I’ve also been working on a documentary about Abiodun Oyewole, one the founding members of The Last Poets, called Harlem’s Last Poet. I’m also about to start shooting a third documentary before the end of the year called Six Shooters about six Puerto Rican photographers from the South Bronx who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s known as Seis Del Sur (Six from the South) taking photos as teens and who grew up to accomplished photographers.
But the kind of filmmaking that really attracts me as of the last five or six years is sci-fi. I think sic-fi is a perfect vehicle for exploring the issues we’re currently facing as human beings but the genre allows you the freedom to take those issues to a place that no one is really imagining or is expecting. I think when people see good sci-fi they have a better understanding of where we are today and where we could potentially end up.
I’m working on a new sci-fi script right now called God’s Only Man, which deals with the kidnapping and sex trafficking of young women of color and illegal immigrants, synthetic life and automation displacing workers and the death of God theology in an ever advancing technical society. I’m hoping to start shooting that before the end of the year.
All of my filmmaking is overtly political. I’m always thinking within political or social terms and I think that everything is political. Whether or not people recognize that or want to recognize that everything is political, from the news you watch or read or listen to, to the films and television you watch, to the music you listen to, to the books you read, to the jobs you have, to the relationships we have with family friends, everything is political.
We can’t escape the ideology that is being constantly being crafted for us and we can’t escape the political landscape that is constantly shifting around us. So rather than try and avoid the politics of a story or of filmmaking I embrace it, pursue it, consciously incorporate it into my filmmaking. Everything is political but fewer and fewer artists seem to be confronting the politics of their art and are trying to make art outside of a political context but that’s impossible. So I think that I’m trying to be as politically aware of my decisions as an artist, as a filmmaker and as a human being.
Midwest BSFA: What has filmmaking taught you about life? 
Beaumont: That you can plan, plot and scheme but Chaos Rules Everything Around Me – C.R.E.A.M. 
Midwest BSFA: What advice do you have for younger black and brown filmmakers?

Beaumont: Don’t go to film school unless you have $200K lying around and even then don’t go to film school use the $200K to just make a film. The so-called best film schools, like NYU, Columbia, USC, UCLA, AFI, are breeding grounds for Hollywood and if you have the money to go to those schools then you’ll most likely be classmates with the next young crop of filmmakers in Hollywood. That can help if your goal is to work in Hollywood but it’ll cost you $200K and there are no guarantees. 

Midwest BSFA: If film school isn’t the best way to go, what is? 
Beaumont: School is just one way to get the knowledge. There are other ways. The internet, books, or working for free on film sets. Working on film sets will get you the practical knowledge of filmmaking of how thing run on a set and how easy it is for things to go wrong. The other knowledge you need is film theory and film history. For that the internet and books are a good resource. You should also get a subscription to FilmSturck.

FilmStruck is the streaming service for the Criterion Collection and it costs $99 a year. The Criterion Collection is a distribution company that distributes the best films from the best filmmakers from all around the world. If you got a subscription and watched a film everyday for a year you’d have an amazing knowledge base of 365 films from around the world from the best filmmakers in the world.
If you want to make a film and have no money then start with a small cast two three people at the most for at least 85% of your film. If your self-financing the film don’t do a budget. A budget can be an inspiration killer. Take the easiest scene in the film to shoot and make a list of what you need to shoot that scene. Do it like this:

Two actors
A park bench (the set)
Camera
Sound
Transportation to get to set (car rental, cab)
Some money to feed cast and crew

Go shoot that. Then take another scene make a list of what you need to shoot and shoot that scene. Wash, rinse, repeat. Do it on weekends, days off. Keep your cast and crew small every person who has to be on set when you shoot exponentially holds you up when you want to schedule a shoot and they can’t make because of work, school, or life in general. So be small, keep it guerrilla.
Do this enough times and you’ll have half your film done in six months. If you did a budget and saw how much you needed to do everything you did in six months it would make you think that there would be no way that you could afford to do this. If you do it in small chunks you’ll have made half the film without any of the debilitating hand wringing of trying to raise the money to do it. 
As you are shooting the film in chunks and pieces, edit the film, see what’s working and what’s not, experiment with mood, pacing, tension, energy… The beauty of making films like this is the ability to adjust as you shoot. Use the fact that you don’t have all the money to shoot the film as a luxury to take your time in making the film.

The advantage you have of shooting a film in piece meal over six months to a year is that you can take your time which is something conventional shooting schedules of 21 to 30 days on most indie feature films don’t have. Take your disadvantages turn them around and make them work for you. And not just with your budget and your scheduling but with the creative aspects of your film. Embrace your limitations and find creative ways to work within them.
If you have good stuff and have gotten to the point in your film where you are doing a larger set piece then you can ask friends and family to donate to your film and they’ll feel comfortable because you’ve been chipping away it little by little and you can show them some scenes that you’ve shot and cut and they’ll feel like they’re a part of your adventure. Then go do that big set piece that the film needs to be done. You’ll have built up your confidence and your callouses so that now when it’s time take on something more ambitious, you can.

This is how I made my first feature film Machetero. It started as a 23 page short film and grew to be a 98 minute feature. I went from shooting street scenes with two actors to shooting bigger street scenes with four and five actors to shooting with an international film star Isaach de Bankolé who was in Casino Royale, Manderlay, The Limits Of Control and recently Black Panther in a prison with a cast and crew of 20. I was able to shoot one day in a prison for $1200. That film went on to screen all over the world and win six awards while doing it.

The only other piece of advice I can give is this. You can love filmmaking but it will never love you back.
Photo by Edwin Pagan

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