Michael Sanchez, mastermind behind the new burlesque documentary Save Our Souls, talks Spike Lee, Hurricane Katrina, Banana Republic, Orphan Annie, love and redemption.
Q: After ten years in the film industry in different capacities, Save Our Souls is your first feature film. What was it about this story that made you ready to invest six years, a ton of cash, and all of your energy into this project? How did you know this was “the one”?
Save Our Souls began as a simple taping of a singular event. In fact it was Slow Burn Burlesque’s ‘South of Heaven’ at the Howling Wolf in New Orleans, where it all began. My producing partners, Richard and Philip Barnes decided to tape a show to pair with some other footage we had shot of a Roller Derby Team back in Los Angeles. Well, that one night led to more shooting, more interviews and what began to emerge was a group of people, driven by the life force of their city (New Orleans), collectively experiencing their lives through their art.
The project started to blossom and went one step further behind the scenes to unveil what it really takes to pursue the art of Burlesque. Once I began to understand the humanity, the honesty and the talent I was witnessing, the art form took on a different meaning to me. No longer was I watching strip tease, or cabaret, I was beholden to the redemption process; the struggle of life, with love and loss intertwined, and from that emerged the film we have today – Save Our Souls.
Q: The film’s website states that you began filming in the days and months immediately following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. At 108 *billion* dollars, it is the costliest “natural” disaster in US History; making post-Katrina New Orleans very different from pre-Katrina New Orleans. Before you set out to make Save Our Souls had you ever been to the city? What were your pre-Katrina experiences with NOLA?
To be clear, Save Our Souls didn’t begin filming in the months after the hurricane, however, we did recount those days from the performers’ perspective, and in most cases, ultimately showed it to be the primary impetus for them to move to the city. Being my first time to the city, I was fascinated to learn that a large percentage of the dancers were spurred by the catastrophe, to make the decision to move to New Orleans. In fact, most of the troupe took the hurricane as a direct cue, which is another theme we explore in the film.
Burlesque became their contribution to a city struggling to get back on its feet. In the film, Moxie Sazerac describes this effect as an empowerment aimed squarely at the audience, so they leave the show fulfilled, reinforced with the idea that the city they live in is on the mend, bad ass, and for even just that moment, that evening, a little bit better. Even today, it could be argued that the city is still on all fours, and just as vulnerable as the image implies. I believe it is this vulnerability that brought the troupe together; after all, burlesque itself brings elements of strength through vulnerability, which makes the New Orleans setting ring even truer.
Q: When you arrived after the storm, was your intent to make a film about the aftermath of the storm, the city, or burlesque? How did you choose the Slow Burn Burlesque troupe as your subjects?
Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, is a film production Mecca. Film being my business, I happened to be on assignment there for quite some time. In my days off, by chance, I happened to run into a Slow Burn performance, and the seed was planted. Immediately following the show I began to plot how I could capture what I saw on stage. Everything from the burly southernisms of the great Ben Wisdom, to the over the top creativity of Lady Lucerne, Roulette Rose, Nona Narcisse, Bella Blue, Ginger Licious, Kitty Twist, Ruby Rage, Roxie LeRouge, Sebastian Tchoupitoulas Rey and Moxie Sazerac.
Q: Stage manager for Slow Burn Burlesque, Sebastian Rey, talks about how much he believes New Orleans to be underrated nationally in the burlesque community, and seen as behind cities like New York, L.A., and Chicago in burlesque entertainment and entertainers. Would you agree? Is there something that struck you about New Orleans burlesque (Slow Burn in particular) that you haven’t found in the rest of the country?
Sebastian’s comments in the film are macro to a larger dynamic of New Orleans kind of always being a shittier option to the larger cities. I’ve seen shows in New York and L.A., and there is something unique to the New Orleans Burlesque community. I think Sebastian’s comments lend themselves to the idea that it’s a city prone to struggle. It’s a transient place where everyone’s either coming or going for one reason or the other. Because of the crime, the weather, and a host of other Banana-Republic – type elements, it takes a real commitment to live there.
It’s like Donkey-Island meets the Garden of Eden. Beautiful and Crazy. This in itself is a struggle amongst ideals. Everything there is just harder. People there have to be stronger. Throw in the booze, the food, the music and the heat, and you’ve got a undeniable struggle that makes its way into everything – including Burlesque.
Does that make it behind other cities like NY, LA and Chicago? I think there is a lack of recognition there, but maybe this film takes us one step closer to realizing Sebastian’s dream. He’d like that.
Q: Oddly enough, for a film with a burlesque troupe as the entire cast, Save Our Souls didn’t strike me as a burlesque documentary at all, rather the story of a group of artists and their need to create art, as an outlet and means for sanity. Did you have any previous experience with the modern burlesque revival, or burlesque in general before this project? Did you set out to create a burlesque film, and how did it evolve for you?
The film masquerade’s as a Burlesque Documentary, when in truth, it is a story about struggling artists and their journeys. I spent much of my life playing in rock and roll bands, finding limited success from time to time, always determined to ‘make it’. I can relate to the struggle. Something about Slow Burn brought that back for me. Even in the two short years I spent with them, I watched their shows improve dramatically. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, and I can’t help but wonder where they’ll all be in 10 years. Where we’ll all be in 10 years!
(I’m watching Annie right now in the background. Tomorrow, tomorrow… It’s making it hard to type.)
When we began this project we thought about doing a historical segment on Burlesque in New Orleans, using Trad Jazz, and making it way more of a “for broadcast” type of piece, but I only know what I know, and when it comes to Burlesque and Trad Jazz, I know very little other than what I’ve seen.
What I do know is what it takes to be able to call yourself a performer. I know the sacrifice, the struggle, the broken relationships, the relocating, the financial hardship, the day to day that makes a performer good at what they do. So as a filmmaker, I had to stick with what I know. Imagine if I started pretending like I had an authoritarian grasp on the Burlesque scene at any level. It would have been laughable at best. Save Our Souls showcases a troupe of burlesque artists in a way that’s true and real, and I know that’s the only way the audience will be able to relate. You can say what you want about the film, but you can’t call it fake. And that trumps all.
Q: Slow Burn is made up of mostly transplants that arrived in Katrina after the storm; with a few native Orleanians mixed in. Both “types” of residents are very candid with their feelings about their love/hate relationship with New Orleans. Were you surprised by this?
When it comes to Katrina, transplants and natives alike are very clear as to their status in terms of where they were when the storm hit. If you were to claim you were in New Orleans, or somehow affected by it, when the storm hit, when in fact you weren’t? You may as well work for BP, cause they’ll be coming for you.
To live in New Orleans is a badge of honor. The longer you stay the bigger the badge. Don’t be making the locals ask you ‘Where you get that badge from?’
Q: For a film made in post-Katrina New Orleans, I was surprised by the lack of devastation in the film, or Katrina specific stories. As someone with generations of family in the city, I know New Orleans well and visited as soon as I could after the storm (five months). The film is void of things like FEMA trailers, descriptions of the smell of rotten flesh, and nothing in the way of interviews about the storm itself. Was this a conscious move? What was the thought process behind that direction?
The intro of the film is essentially the extent to which I wanted to explore Katrina. The photos were taken by Jian Bastille in the days following the storm and are set to the music of Debauche, a Ukranian folk song, Tsvite Teren, which means ‘Blackthorn Flower’. In fact that is what is ‘growing’ through the opening titles is a blackthorn flower. One of the boats in the Katrina photos was named Blackthorn, just in case anyone was paying attention.
The intention was to set the tone and move on. Think of it like a timeline. This is where the storm happened, and this happened afterward. SOS is what happened afterward. Let’s see what happens next.
It was a very conscious decision not to include Katrina stories. We had them (footage and interviews) ranging from rows of rotting refrigerators, to miraculously recovered heirlooms, even more current disasters like the BP oil spill. My feeling was that this was all well documented, and beyond the scope of what I liked to call ‘our little rock and roll film’. How can I, as a filmmaker, start to peel back the effects of Katrina without going into the flood zones and interviewing some of the more hard hit communities. It’s a totally different movie, destined to introduce themes of racial inequality, national indifference and local fanaticism and government corruption. It could have never lived up to what exactly is and has always been going on in New Orleans, and I would still be working on it. Just ask Spike Lee.
We decided to stick to the troupe. It was an extension from the original show we had planned. Our concept was to explore each performer, their story, and then on to an ensemble finish. We also wanted to make something timeless and not linked to current events. Something someone could find years from now which still would be relevant to any kind of artist, or person facing the adversity of his or her surroundings.
Q: With so much time between 2005, when Katrina was fresh in the nation’s mind, and Save Our Souls release date- Summer 2012- do you think Hurricane Katrina has been forgotten in most American’s minds? Is it still relevant, or have New Orleans and the rest of the country moved on?
To New Orlenians, Katrina could have happened yesterday, and only once the next one hits will it be relegated to maybe having happened the week before. To America, Katrina is the skinny girl who got bounced of American Idol last week. I’m not sure anyone west of Texas could tell you the year she hit. Never mind Andrew.
When you compare Louisiana’s southern hospitality, and the city’s undeniable welcoming charm to a seemingly indifferent nation whose interests in the region are limited to NFL scandals, Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras. It’s a real slap in the face to a community who asks for nothing they aren’t prepared to give themselves.
Q: Besides the hilarity of Slow Burn front man Ben Wisdom’s preacher alter-ego and thick religious background, combined with an artists’ need to fill their spirit with the act of creating, and the soul of the city of New Orleans, was there anything I missed behind the genius title Save Our Souls?
The title has another side. It was designed to conjure the idea of a cry for help, and hopefully by the end of the film, the realization that they are helping themselves just fine (Another local theme). I really like the idea of using Sebastian’s argument of equating the Art of Burlesque to the profession of stripping. I didn’t directly dismantle this faux argument, instead I placed it near the top of the film, and kept a place for the unbeliever, the naysayer to condemn the troupe, and have pity on them throughout the duration. The film of course keeps moving and once we come to know the performers as human beings, my wish is for the audience to see the folly of their uninformed judgments and assumptions, and maybe ask themselves if their souls are the ones that need saving.
Q: The dynamic camera angles, raw silent film effects and techniques as transitions, and energetic and original soundtrack of the film are phenomenal and make it a joy rather than the chore of some documentaries (even burlesque ones). Was this a product of the collaboration between you and Slow Burn Burlesque in an effort to translate the energy of a live show into a film, or is this a signature style of yours we can expect to see more of in the future?
I shot Save Our Souls, with the undying commitment of Zack Holmes who really helped me realize the complete vision of the film. We were working with DSLR cameras, so taking photographs became a natural extension of shooting video. Many of the transitions are in fact elapsed time photography segments that add a peculiar feel to the film when artistically blurred. As though we were hovering above a miniature model of New Orleans itself, choosing where to explore from scene to scene, this omniscient approach served us well.
A lot of the editing style was introduced to me by Scott Roon, an editor in Los Angeles, who really got involved in the project by cutting together the live performances in more of a music video style. Once I saw the work he was doing, I decided that the whole film should have these quick cuts, and torn up scenes. It just matches the content so well, like it was “scraped together, and will only be this way for a moment so get a good look.”
I was also very fortunate for the contributions of Robert Davis, who along with the music of The Yelling, also provided the overall sound mix for the film. We actually created a Soundtrack based on his music that is currently available where all fine records are sold. Filed under Save Our Souls Soundtrack – Volume One.
I find documentaries a little dry, so we definitely went with the idea of something more akin to a 78 min music video. Throw in the Rock and Roll Soundtrack courtesy of The Yelling, and the crazy Russian Mafia Band – Debauche, and now you’ve got something worth watching. You either love it or hate it. Sound familiar?
Q: Speaking of signature styles and the future, you are currently working on a scripted film project. What are you at liberty to share with us about your new film endeavor?
We have a few things lined up at the moment. We’ve begun to develop a free Burlesque-centric app for the mobile and tablet platforms, which will be full featured and enable performers from every city to interact with their audience and other performers in new and exciting ways, so we’re looking forward to that launch.
The official release of Save Our Souls is fast approaching, and I’m packing my bags for the Madrid Film Festival, where Save Our Souls has been nominated for Best Short Documentary. With the recent inclusion in the Cyprus Film Festival in Greece, we’re really looking forward to bringing the stories of this fabled city to a European audience.
Currently, I’m sifting through my emails and realizing I will be back in New Orleans in July for the Slow Burn Burlesque Shake Our Souls Burlesque Contest. I also just received a call about another project in New Orleans, which begins around the same time. This may keep me there until the end of the year plus we’ve got our own film in development, which now looks like it may be set in Louisiana. (Think Angel Heart meets Powaqqatsi meets Weekend at Bernie’s on mescaline.)
Looks like I’m all hers for a little while longer. I wonder if she remembers me?