Killer Cops and Moms in Prison
Documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom embraces the tough stories
Brian Lindstrom is a Portland-based documentary filmmaker who broke through to the mainstream with “Alien Boy: the Life and Death of James Chasse.” The film explores the case of Chasse, a well-known fixture in the Portland indie rock scene and a schizophrenic, who died in Portland police custody in 2006.
Lindstrom, 54, is a lifelong resident of Portland, Ore., and has been producing documentaries for years. One notable film, his 2007 work “Finding Normal,” followed three long-term addicts and was broadcast on Oregon Public Broadcasting. His newest work, “Mothering Inside,”about incarcerated mothers, their children and the Family Preservation Project, was released a couple of months ago.
I discussed Brian’s work with him in November 2014.
How (and why) did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
I became interested in filmmaking while in college. I was the first member of my family to go to college, and I put myself through school by working summers in a salmon cannery in Cordova, Alaska, doing work study jobs during the school year and taking out student loans. After I exhausted all the video classes at Lewis & Clark College, my video professor Stuart Kaplan gave me a gift certificate to take a filmmaking class at the Northwest Film Center. I made a short 16 mm cinema verite documentary about my grandfather and his cronies having breakfast at the cafeteria in the old Newberry’s at Lloyd Center.
How do you get funding for your work?
Grants from the Regional Arts & Culture Council have funded my films “Kicking,” “Finding Normal,” “To Pay My Way With Stories,” “Writing Myself,” and my current project about inmate moms at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.
“Alien Boy” was funded by a grant from Spirit Mountain Community Fund and donations from over 1,500 supporters.
I saw you raised more than $15,000 for “Alien Boy” via Kickstarter. How was that experience?
The Kickstarter experience was incredible. Very humbling and inspiring, the outpouring of support. It challenged me because my natural tendency is to kind of disappear in the background, and I had to be the public face of the project, which I was perfectly willing to do so that we might get funding to finish the film.
An Oregonian story quoted your ex-professor Stuart Kaplan saying that “Alien Boy” was “a major, major step up” for you. Do you agree, and could you talk about that?
I think what Stuart is referring to is that unlike my cinema verite films (“Finding Normal,” “Writing Myself” and “Kicking”), “Alien Boy” could not rely on a character or process to provide the dramatic momentum and structure of the film. Editor Andrew Saunderson and I had to uncover the twin threads of James Chasse’s personal life and the intricacies of the police actions and inactions that led to his death and the city’s response and lack of response. As filmmakers, we faced the daunting challenge of, how do you tell the story of someone who is no longer with us?
You worked on other projects while advancing this one. Could you tell me a little about this multitasking process and its pros and cons?
I think to take on a film like “Alien Boy,” you have to forge a strong identification with the topic and/or the main character of the film. We (producer Jason Renaud, editor Andrew Saunderson and DP John Campbell and myself) were driven to share James Chasse’s story, and to get at the bottom of what happened to him on Sept. 17, 2006, and why and how he died and who was responsible. There were many elements of this story that were outside of our control, such as the long drawn-out nature of the civil case and the judge issuing a gag order preventing Chasse family members from talking to us. I made two feature-length cinema verite documentaries (“To Pay My Way With Stories” and “Writing Myself”) during the time “Alien Boy” was being made. It can be a little crazy-making to work on various projects at once, but that is sometimes what is required to keep making films. Of course, there comes a time when all your energies have to be focused on one project in order to complete it. As T.E. Lawrence said, “Absorption is heaven.”
I found “Alien Boy” streaming on Amazon. Is there more of your work available online? How important is online distribution?
“Finding Normal” is available on IndieFlix. I think online distribution is crucial. As much as I love and prefer the theater experience of strangers sitting in the dark and sharing a cinematic experience, most people see my films online.
The movie had great footage of the officers testifying in court that really revealed their characters, I thought. Was access to that footage part of what inspired you to make the movie?
Actually, the deposition footage was given to us after we had already edited the film and thought it was finished. They completely transformed the film and in retrospect it’s hard to imagine the film without it. The deposition footage was given to us (along with the audiotapes of police interviews of the officers involved and the eye witnesses) by Tom Steenson, the family’s attorney, after the family settled their civil suit with the city.
The main impetus of making the film was really just a chance to share Jim’s story with a wide audience and to reveal at least some of his grace and his struggles, and to try to get at the bottom of what the police did and did not do that led to his tragic death.
I liked your use of animation to reveal elements of court documents and James’ art. Why did you make that choice?
Editor Andrew Saunderson and I were fortunate to have access to a lot of Jim’s letters, diaries, fanzines and artwork. Andrew began experimenting with After Effects and we were delighted with the results. Seeing Jim Jim’s writings and drawings “come to life” seemed to put the audience in Jim Jim’s head and by doing so furthered the audience’s identification with him. Which helps take some of the stigma away from mental illness.
The article quotes you as saying this movie tells the story in an “unconventional way.” What did you mean by that? I’m partly curious because I thought your sequencing of events felt really natural. How long did it take you to get to that point?
I’m happy to hear you felt the sequencing felt natural. Andrew and I worked many months trying to figure out the best way to tell the story. We gave every sequence a title and wrote it on an index card and put the index cards on the wall of our editing room, trying to find the best possible way to order the scenes. We finally realized that it was best for the audience to first understand who Jim was before dissecting the police actions and inactions that led to his death.
Has this project opened new doors for you as a documentarian?
It has. It is wonderful to be able to point people to Breaking Glass Pictures (the distributor of “Alien Boy”) or to Amazon on Demand, iTunes, Hulu Plus, etc.) when they want to see the film. And after being the guardian of James Chasse’s story for so long, it is very freeing to know “Alien Boy” is widely available so that people can access his grace and courage.