It’s no secret that we (okay, I) love puppets here at the clubhouse. Hell, our own mascot is a 10-year old puppet personified. So when Writer/Director Ian Nolte came knocking with a look at his latest film, Trace Around Your Heart, I had to know more. So, I did what any normal person would do and decided to tie Nolte to a chair until he answered all my questions! …that’s totally normal (legal) right?
Anywho, Nolte was cooperative enough to answer my questions and has since been set free back into the wild of wherever he came from. The following is a record of the events that transpired as best as I can remember them…
Thanks for not pressing charges, Ian. Since you’re here, what can you tell us a bit about yourself?
I’m a filmmaker from Huntington, WV. Which is a really grandiose way of saying I’m a guy that likes to make stuff with his friends. My most recent short film is called Trace Around Your Heart, and we premiered it on the web this month.
Let’s talk about your friends. You and Michael Valentine first started working together at a movie theater in Huntington Mall?
Yes, I was working at a movie theater with my friend, we both liked comedy, and we would both rather screw around than do our job. Michael and I were working a shift at the theater around Christmas time in 2004 when he came up to me asked, “Do you want to make a movie?”
I said, “I don’t really know how to make a movie.”
And he said, “Neither do I.”
And so that’s where we started (with literally nothing and no idea even how to make a movie), and we just sort of started piecing stuff together from there.
Did you start small or jump head first into filmmaking?
For some reason, making a little one or two minute video to see if it was even possible didn’t occur to us, and we spent the next couple months writing a feature-length script. I’d come in to work with this spiral notebook, talk about what should happen in the next scene with Michael, and then write it all down. It was really fun and exciting to collaborate in that way.
I can still vividly remember finishing the first draft of the script. I was popping popcorn in an upstairs room at the theater, sitting on this stack of bags of unpopped popcorn, and I finished writing the last scene. I was like, “Huh. I really wrote an entire movie.” As a guy who loved to write his entire life but had never taken on a large project, it was a big moment. Then I had to empty the hopper before the popcorn burned.
So how did the rest of your crew, Brainwrap Productions, come about?
The group that calls itself Brainwrap grew out of that first movie Michael and I were working on.
I mean, we finished that script, and we had vague idea that you could use a computer to make a movie, but that was about it.
So we borrowed a camera and asked some friends to help out. A couple of them were really interested in it, like Michael and I were, and we started shooting for probably about a year. Filming catch as catch can.
When we were done, we didn’t have a finished movie, but we had a core of people who were really passionate about filmmaking. Michael Valentine, Seth Martin, Glen Brogan, Kyle Quinn, my brother Max Nolte, and me. What was left after of all that mess, that year of trying and failing, was Brainwrap.
What was that experience like, making your first film?
The entire movie took place in the mall. And it’s not that we didn’t have permission to shoot so much as we were explicitly denied permission. Repeatedly. So eventually we had just been chased off so many times by mall security that we had to give up.
One time, it was sunrise on a Sunday morning. We thought the mall was deserted, so we were trying to film this sequence that took place on the roof. I was running, being chased by Seth Martin with a fake gun, and this security guard came marching across the roof. I thought for sure we were all going to be arrested. We barely talked our way out of it. It was such a close call I was like, “Guys. We can’t keep doing this. We’re all going to go to jail.” So we only filmed for a couple more months.
It sucked when we had to quit, and it was pretty devastating. But Michael taught himself how to edit. I learned how to manage a production and plan out shooting days.
We never stopped working on stuff, and we’ve tried to learn something new with each production we take on. Everyone got better at their jobs. We added people to the group (most prominently our most recent Brainwrap member, Courtney Holschuh) and we just kept chugging along.
From that early effort eventually came a series of web shorts called Seth Martin and Friends. What was that series about?
We started working on Seth Martin and Friends around 2010. We’d been making movies for a while then. We’d made a ton of shorts for local festivals and even produced a feature film that Seth Martin wrote and directed called Johnny Boy. We’d really learned and grown as a production crew, and we wanted to try something a little bit different than working on short films or trying to mount another feature.
We came up with an idea for a webseries about Seth Martin living in a basement with a bunch of puppet pals. We spent one winter sitting around inventing all the characters, and Kyle Quinn taught himself how to make puppets.
The webseries eventually became a series of loosely connected shorts. Really just us experimenting with different types of stories and production techniques using these characters we’d made up.
Who were the main characters?
Chappy was one of the first puppets we invented. He’s a Chaptstick man. Chappy is sort of child-like, but we always try to give him a little hint of mysterious wisdom or foresight. Our behind-the-scenes joke about Chappy is that he is a cosmically superior being—existing at all points in time. He just chooses to manifest himself in Seth’s basement. But that’s a really complicated explanation of what is basically a Chapstick that talks with a funny voice.
One character I really like is Super Ultra Man. He’s an obliviously dumb superhero, which is maybe an obvious kind of character, but if you watch the sketches, more or less the only thing he talks about is fast food. That’s very funny to me.
Another is Trace Cherokee. Trace is a country-western singer-songwriter. Our idea with Trace is that he was born with the heart of a poet, but he was raised on terrible early 90s pop country radio, so he thinks that’s what art is. He’s kind of a wounded soul.
There are a bunch more, but it’s sort of long to go into. There’s Norman the irritating next door neighbor, Dum Dum the preteen, Arthur C. Cardinal the scam artist bird, and the ghost of Yuri Gagarin. Heck, one character, Kenneth the Spider, was even designed and built by Tessa Morrison who writes movie reviews for your site.
Were there ever plans for SMAF to become an independently produced half-hour sitcom?
Well, yeah, actually. Most of our ideas start out in the most complicated, impossible to accomplish way imaginable. So our original idea for Seth Martin and Friends was to make a series of 10-12 half hours.
We actually started production on the first 30 minute script, but it got bogged down with scheduling problems and we had to scrap it. That’s when we decided to focus more on 5-10 minute sketches and cannibalize the better ideas in our half-hour scripts for those.
What led to the decision to focus on a film starring Trace Cherokee rather than returning to web shorts?
Well, when we were experimenting with the web shorts, one thing we learned is we didn’t like producing simple one-shot sketches. We liked focusing on stuff with a bit more production value.
So we’d sort of taken a break from working on the sketches just to regroup when we decided we should come back with something kind of bigger and bolder. We thought it was really funny to kind of take the ideas from the sketches and turn them into a more traditional short film—kind of like when the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers turns into Mighty Morphin’ Power Ranger: the Movie.
Trace Around Your Heart is very much our attempt to make a Seth Martin and Friends: the Movie.
What’s the premise for the film?
It’s about this puppet with a broken heart. His name is Trace Cherokee and he used to have a hit song with the woman he loved, but his addiction to ADD medicine and Freon caused him to lose it all. Now he lives in a basement apartment with his friend Seth and a talking three-foot tall Chapstick.
When his former partner, Sasha, approaches him about getting together for one last performance, he has to face his fear of taking the stage again. But fortunately for him, that’s when he gets a visit from the ghost of Hank Williams, Jr.
It’s a weird movie, but I think a really fun one.
You co-wrote some of the songs in the film as well, right?
There is really a ton of music in the movie. Two original songs, a song by Tim Lancaster who is a song writer from Vermont, and even some clips of a live performance by Sasha Colette, the human co-star of the film. She’s playing herself and backed by her real band in the film, and they are great. There’s even a ton of original score written by Nicholas Blain, a musician from Huntington, WV.
It’s a movie about music, so we wanted to include as many musicians as we could.
Who performs the musical numbers for Trace Cherokee and the Stenders? How did they get involved?
Michael Valentine wrote the music for all of the original songs in the film, and the songs were produced by Bud Carroll, who owns a recording studio in our town. Bud is very generous with his time and energy and he put together a bad ass country combo to record our songs—himself, Doug Woodard, Rod Elkins, namely.
Michael is a talented song writer, but basically he and I presented Bud and the boys with these weird little songs a puppet is supposed to sing and then he and the real musicians turned them into genuine, kick butt jams.
Bud got involved with the movie the same way everyone on the movie got involved. We begged him and hoped he thought it was cool enough that he would to donate his time to us. We got lucky with him, and we got lucky with the other folks who were gracious enough to help our strange little passion project. This entire production was basically a long, elaborate favor where a bunch of talented people gave us tons of time and energy.
What’s next for Brainwarp Productions, can we expect any SMAF shorts in the future?
I think we’ve kind of decided to give the puppets a rest for the time being. We think Trace Around Your Heart is a good one to take a break on. Though, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was writing about a Chapstick arguing with a superman again before too awful long.
The core Trace Around Your Heart production crew of myself, Michael Valentine, Max Nolte, and Courtney Holschuh are in preproduction on a couple of different projects now. (That means we’re arguing in Michael’s basement once a week about what to shoot this summer.)
Before we set you free, there’s one last thing… what’s the strangest thing you can remember doing as a kid?
Man. I was a weird little kid, so I’m kind of spoiled for choices.
When I was seven, I would make my brother and our neighbor go out on the deck and help me choreograph and practice elaborate routines to Michael Jackson’s Bad. It seemed really important to me at the time, but, in retrospect, it was pretty strange.