A Conversation With Missouri Filmmaker Blake Eckard

 In Culture, Feature

Stanberry, Missouri, native Blake Eckard has been making films on his own terms for two decades now, crafting a grim vision of small-town life. His self-financed, micro-budget features to date include “A Simple Midwest Story,” “Backroad Blues,” “Sinner Come Home,” “Bubba Moon Face” and “Ghosts of Empire Prairie.”

Eckard’s works are dark and remorseless, defying easy categorization. They seem to be composed of equal parts social realism, film noir, Greek tragedy, Biblical brimstone and exploitation grime. Working as a writer, director, editor, producer and cinematographer, Eckard has garnered a devoted circle of cast and crew regulars who are drawn to his hard-edged stories and artistic perseverance.

His latest film, the pitch-black, slow-burn thriller “Coyote Kill for Fun,” premiered at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival on November 4. Coming up in early 2018, Synapse Films, the “Criterion of Cult,” will release a DVD boxed set of Eckard’s entire filmography. We caught up with the filmmaker at the screening of “Coyotes Kill For Fun,” discussing the film and his formative cinematic experiences.

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Roxanne Rogers in “Coyotes Kill for Fun.” Courtesy of Blake Eckard.

You’ve said on previous occasions that filmmaking is something you had always wanted to do. What are some of your earliest movie memories?
There were about half a dozen films that I saw, probably when I was too young, that were the big ones: “Poltergeist,” “Mad Max,” “The Road Warrior,” “The Elephant Man,” “The Thing” and “Alien.” For a Vietnam-era man who was born in a town of a thousand people, my dad was kind of a film buff. He would let me see these sorts of films while watching over my shoulder. Meanwhile here was my Mom going, “No, no, no. Go to bed. You can’t be watching this.”

Later, it was Ray Harryhausen and Willis O’Brien. I liked stop-motion animation, and I tried to do it with a video camera. I didn’t realize you that you couldn’t do a frame at a time.

My understanding is that you don’t have any formal training in filmmaking.
Oh, God, no. [Laughs.] I barely graduated from high school. I was a punk. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker. I shot my first film, ‘A Simple Midwest Story,” my senior year of high school. I talked my parents into paying for it, and it cost twice as much as had I told them. The film was shot in three weekends, and then took three years to finish. By the end of that process, I was paying for it myself. Every film I’ve made since then, I’ve been totally on my own.

When you first started out, how did you learn the technical aspects of the craft? Was it simply learning by doing?
I’m self-taught. I started making films on VHS, on my dad’s camcorder. He was the first person to buy a VHS camera in Stanberry, Missouri. On my seventh birthday, I made my very first movie, “Alien.” I had seen [Ridley Scott’s] “Alien” when it had premiered on ABC. My version was seven minutes of second graders running around, where my mom—who put on a quilt and an ogre mask—kills everyone. All told, I made more than 200 movies on VHS.

I had a crew from Kansas City for “A Simple Midwest Story,” but I shot my next two films myself on 16mm film. I had never seen film or loaded it in a magazine. I used a [Cinema Products] CP16 [camera], and I was reading a manual printed in 1970. I had to guess how much film stock I would need, and my guess turned out close every time, but I still got bad takes that I had to live with. [Laughs.]

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Arianne Martin (left) and Roxanne Rogers in “Coyotes Kill for Fun.” Courtesy of Blake Eckard

While the films you cite as influences are these more fantastic genre works, your own features are more grounded. They’re about ordinary people in rural communities living these mean, ugly lives.
You’re 100 percent right, and I’ve thought about that a lot. I make serious films, but “Poltergeist” isn’t a serious film; “Mad Max” isn’t a serious film. At the same time, I judge myself by those films: “My first movie isn’t as good as George Miller’s first movie!” Not even close. [Laughs.]

Of all your features, your latest, “Coyotes Kill for Fun,” feels the most overtly noir-like in its plot and mood. There are shades of “Diabolique” and “The Postman Always Rings Twice.” It’s almost blacker than noir. This dire view of human evil seems to be a common element in your work.
It’s got to be where I come from. I don’t really think I have a worldview. My films are still personal, of course. There’s no way to make something that isn’t personal. However, “Coyotes” is a very black film. I shot most of it in 2014, so for three years I was living with this black thing and not really liking it. I told myself I needed to throw it away or figure it out.

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Todd Morten in “Coyotes Kill for Fun.” Courtesy of Blake Eckard.

What didn’t you like about it?
It was another Blake Eckard small-town movie. I was looking for the depth, the meaning. “What is this thing about?” The film was planned—it wasn’t some collage of improvisational material—but it was just short and clumsy at first. I don’t have an editor on call, to improve this or that sequence. It’s all me. I think I found what I was looking for, because I’m happy with it. I think it’s the best thing I’ve made.

Would you say your independence as an artist is important to you?
It is, but I make movies to be seen, just like everybody else. I don’t think of myself as an artist. I still think of myself as a craftsman who can hopefully figure this out and keep making better and better films.

Other than the forthcoming boxed set of your work, what’s next for you? You’ve mentioned that you might want to tackle something different than your other films.
I want to finish my documentary about Bigfoot hunters. It was the second film I shot, every bit of it on 16mm. I had thought I’d make a 45-minute documentary, then sell it to A&E. [Laughs.] I spent an entire year out in the Pacific Northwest. It’s probably time I got back to that picture. I think that there’s still a film there.

All images courtesy of Blake Eckard

Cover image by Alex Eckard

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