He’s Not in Kansas Anymore
Filmmaker Steve Balderson has had four films in various stages of release this summer, but what’s intriguing about this, and his impressive repertoire of 16 features in 20 years, is that, while he did attend film school at CalArts, he promptly returned home to Kansas to make his cinematic dreams come true.
So Balderson’s recent move to Los Angeles begs the question, why now?
“When I turned 40 a year and a half ago, I realized what I’ve been doing for 20 years in Kansas has been really great, really successful, really fun,” says Balderson, in a phone conversation that revealed a man with an abundance of warmth, energy and positivity. “I could continue to do that, but I also started thinking about what would my next 20 years look like?
That–and a betrayal involving a 12-year relationship–lead him to reevaluate where he wanted to be in his life.
“It occurred to me I had no spouse, no debt, no pets, no children, no responsibilities, and yet, I didn’t know what it was like to live in Paris for a year, or San Francisco or LA. I thought gosh, the next 20 years I’d really love to have a new set of experiences.”
A regimen of meditation and research, which “started with self-help, and then opening up to abundance in life and seeing good in everything,” he says, lead to the realization that “lots of really great things can happen if you’re looking for great things.”
That helped lay the groundwork for his latest film, “El Ganzo,” shot on location in and around the real-life El Ganzo Hotel. Set in the Mexican town of San Jose Cabos, the sister town to the more touristy Cabo San Lucas, the site lends itself to the magical and mystical aspects of the story of two vastly different people, a straight white woman and a gay African-American man, who find common ground in a foreign land, and share an intimate connection.
Through his CalArts days, Balderson had met and made many friends and colleagues, including the late actress Karen Black, with whom he worked and formed a friendship (she starred in his films “Stuck” and the critically lauded “Firecracker”).
“She knew she was very ill,” says Balderson, recalling the inspiration she provided for “El Ganzo.” “She asked me, ‘Do you know the secret of how you really know you’re truly alive?’
“I said no, tell me! She said, ‘It’s in the unknown. If you’ve been down this road a thousand times and you know there’s a town coming up, a tree or a curve in the road, you don’t really pay attention, because you’ve been down the road so many times you just know where you’re going.’
“If you don’t know, she said, there’s no idea what’s coming up and you have to be really focused and really present, and in every sensation–what does it look like, sound like, smell, taste … If you haven’t been down that road before, all the senses are at work, you’re fully alive and there’s no better place to be.’
“I thought it was a phenomenal idea and an experience I wanted to implement … and this is the film I would test that.”
Balderson called the management at El Ganzo Hotel in Los Cabos and asked if the crew could come down and have the run of the place. They said yes.
“Susan Traylor and Anslem Richardson [who play lead characters Lizzy and Guy] and I built a skeleton of a script. The whole structure was planned but we didn’t know how each item was going to manifest.”
They shot the film in order, picking locations as they drove. Among the “magical” finds were the mission and a shop owned by a woman, Magdalena del Rio, who also wound up with a speaking part in the film because of her magnetic presence. The filmmaker discovered later that she was once a popular news anchor on Mexican TV.
“I don’t know if that experience could be duplicated in another film, or if maybe it just opens yourself up to the possibilities of what’s around you,” says Balderson. “It was such an magical experience. At the end of the day, Karen was right.”
So far, Balderson’s career move has worked out, as he quickly picked up the director-for-hire made-for-TV film “Elvis Lives” for Mark Cuban’s network, and he’s currently casting his next feature for his own production company, Dikenga.
“It just felt like [this was] a great place to start the next chapter,” he says.
For more about the filmmaker and his work, go to www.dikenga.com.