When New Brunswick native Matthew Bauckman took a film production course at the Toronto Film School, his dad sent him articles about a rising filmmaker on the East Coast. That man was Elliot Smith, a professed martial-arts champion taking a stab at making low-budget martial arts movies. His name stuck with Bauckman because the budding filmmaker loved the title of Elliot’s first movie, They Killed My Cat.
After working with Jaret Belliveau on the 2011 doc Highway Gospel, Bauckman was looking for the subject of his next film. With Belliveau, the friends decided to tell Elliot’s story. However, the young filmmakers did not quite know what they were getting into. The revealing and ridiculously funny doc, which took three years to make, won an award at Slamdance, is heading to Cannes in May and is currently making its mark at Hot Docs. Toronto Film Scene spoke with Belliveau and Bauckman about Kung Fu Elliot, and their crazy journey with an unforgettable man: one who wants to be Canada’s Chuck Norris.
Jordan Adler: What did you think of Elliot’s films when you saw them?
Jaret Belliveau: We had watched his trailers and also read some articles and went on his Facebook page. He was an award-winning filmmaker and he was a martial arts champion. He seemed like a very interesting person. [Matthew’s] buddy, Steven, paid the $25 because Elliot sells his movies for $25, $30 at the local video stores in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. We borrowed it from a friend, watched it and we were perplexed. To us, it looked like it was our chance to make our American Movie. We were very influenced by that film and love that film. So we went down pretty innocently looking to see what he was up to. He told us he was filming Blood Fight. When we got down there, we found out about Linda and their relationship and their working relationship, and then we started meeting all of the people around them.
JA: At the beginning of the movie, Elliot talks about how cinema all began with smoke and mirrors and grand illusions. When did you realize things weren’t exactly as they seemed?
Matthew Bauckman: What we tried to do with the movie was have it mirror our experience with Elliot. We tried to let people know, At this point this is how we felt about him. Right away from the first time we saw his footage to what it was saying about him in his articles, there was definitely some kind of disconnect there. We didn’t know what that was. That was the beginning of our journey to try and figure out who Elliot is. For the most part, our journey is pretty well mirrored in the movie.
JB: I knew after interviewing him the first time what he was saying wasn’t really lining up with what we thought was real. But it seemed so innocent. If Elliot wanted to make up a film festival where he won, good for him. If it helps him sell a couple more copies of his movie, good for him. The things we kind of saw as glaring inconsistencies, we said, Well, what’s the harm? Ok, he made up a film festival. What’s the big deal? He’s still passionate, he’s still an underdog, he’s still a story that we’re interested in. and it was not just Elliot. It was the group of dreamers around him and the love story between him and Linda that was really interesting. As soon as that true nature started being revealed… everyone that was believing in Elliot was really just believing in a fantasy and we’re going down the rabbit hole with them, it all starts spiraling. It’s not just Elliot anymore. They have all put their faith in this.
JA: How did you deal with Linda? Her relationship with Elliot is so strained and bizarre, there seems to be no romance or connection. It’s so uncomfortable to watch.
MB: It’s definitely a quirky relationship, for sure. She’s about 16, 17 years older than Elliot. There’s a bit of an age gap there.
JB: That’s an understatement.
MB: There are so many strange things about their relationship. It took a long time for Linda to open up to us. Initially, we had no idea what her intentions were. But in the end, I know that she loves Elliot and she just supports him, and she’s the one co-directing these things. She had no intention of making movies. She didn’t grow up wanting to make martial arts B-movies some day.
JB: We first thought she knew everything, what we thought were inconsistencies we thought she knew. It turns out that wasn’t the case. She just really didn’t question anything. She was a very private person, which we respected, but eventually, we became a sounding board and a person that was able to listen and talk opening about Elliot. What we initially thought was a woman who was trying to hold these secrets was really just a woman figuring it out as we were. We were all coming to these realizations. These are some big revelations to find out about your partner. But to Linda’s credit, she’s going to stick by the man she loved, which speaks very much about the power of love. Even after the film, they stayed together for six months before they finally went their own ways. They’re not together anymore.
JA: Have they seen the film?
JB: Unfortunately, nobody involved with the film has seen it. We will be showing it to Blair and Blake when we get home. It’s been a very wild ride. After winning Slamdance, we came home and cut ten minutes from the movie. At Slamdance, we had never shown it to a crowd. When we were sitting there in the theatre, the movie just didn’t need to be 97 minutes long. As we watched it, it was compelling, but there were places where no one’s really laughing or this feels really redundant. You make these calls in front of an audience that you can’t make on your own.
JA: What is up next for Kung Fu Elliot?
JB: It is going to Cannes, Telefilm is bringing it there. We are doing a screening on May 8 at the Rio in Vancouver. We are releasing it on iTunes Canada on May 1, 2014. We’re looking for a lot of other partnerships. We’ve applied to IDFA, Edinburgh, Sheffield, Melbourne. We have an application into a Japanese film festival. We have three screenings for Slamdance on the Road that are coming up in August. We’re trying to get into some of the other Canadian festivals. We’re also trying to be work with Tugg Platform to demand screenings. The thing for us is to find a way to create events around the film, which is what we’re still trying to figure out – to try to give it a limited, non-traditional theatrical release.
MB: It definitely seems like one of those movies that could be a Midnight Movie-type thing, which seems rare for a documentary. But I think we can have a cult following.
JA: What should audiences take away from Kung Fu Elliot?
JB: We all construct our own realities. What we tried to do with Elliot is bring people on this journey on how we all lie to ourselves. What documentaries usually try to do is represent reality. The slogan of this festival is something like, Step away into reality. Is it any less real? Is Elliot living any less of a dream in his head than he is in reality? As we saw him, he felt accomplished and he felt successful and he felt all these things and it seemed like real feelings.
MB: Was does it matter if someone’s making A-type Hollywood movies and feeling miserable about what they’re creating, and Elliot’s making these B-movies and feels amazing about it? In his head, the quality is amazing.
JB: The craziest and coolest thing about Elliot is he’s actually out there. So many people sit around and they have these dreams and they do nothing about them. He’s still that underdog, and as filmmakers, we felt like that was admirable. It was the same thing we were doing in a sense. We were making a low-budget documentary. We did this all ourselves. We had no funding. We went to China, we’ve had to pay for our music, but it was all based on the same thing, just a feeling and a dream. I probably ignored reality too sometimes. I think you have to fool yourself to make a feature film because they are quite large endeavours to take on when you have no support.
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