There’s a beautiful little film that’s spent the last year doing the festival rounds and if you’re a Russ Meyer or sexploitation film fan, it’s well worth seeking out. In fact, it’s well worth seeking out if you’re a film fan in general as this cinematic gem is well shot, well acted, well written and utterly full of charm. Up The Valley and Beyond is a short film, based on the book Russ Meyer, The Life and Films by David K. Frasier (itself one of the best books about the director), dramatically exploring the early stages of the marriage between the legendary filmmaker Russ Meyer and his model wife Eve Turner. Beginning with a great montage of black and white World War II footage highlighting where Meyer had come from (a great minute of editing in which editor Nickolas Perry really creates a sense of how the War was seen by the cameramen who filmed it), the film then bursts into gloriously bright 1950s pop colours and prints and shows how Meyer and Turner first met when he was looking for the ‘right built’ woman, eventually becoming a couple. Director Todd Rosken has struck casting gold with his two leads, Jim Parrack (True Blood, Sal, Battle Los Angeles) and Sarah Jones (Alcatraz, Big Love, Sons of Anarchy) who both pull off the real-life big characters. Parrack in particular is delightful as a younger Meyer, nailing the mannerisms and enthusiasm of the man himself and is a worthy candidate for the lead role in any future Meyer biopic. Equally good is Jones in the role of Eve, a tough woman to imitate and who Jones doesn’t quite nail completely in looks but certainly manages to bring across in fiery character.
The film has played at many major film festivals over the last year including the BFI London Film Festival, New York Film Festival, Seattle International Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Shortfest. What makes it stand out is the way in which Rosken and his crew have interpreted Meyer’s sense of style and substance, creating a playful fifteen minute dramatic homage that lives up to the infamous directors reputation without being too cliché. The one glaring out-of-place moment is the need for Meyer to validate his heterosexuality which no-one really need ever or have ever questioned. Aside from that, the pace of the piece flows extremely well, even if it does feel more like a promo for a feature than a short film. Director Rosken kindly took some time out to answer a few questions about the film and his inspiration.
Have you always been a Meyer fan?
I remember watching a documentary on Stanley Kubrick and Woody Allen said that the first time he saw 2001: A Space Odyssey, it looked great but he didn’t really get it and didn’t give much thought to it. Then a friend of his wanted to see it so he decided to see it again and after the second viewing, Mr. Allen realized how far ahead of everyone else Kubrick was and how it changed his perception of what can be done with film. This is sort of the same thing that happen to me. The difference being that it was the first time I saw Russ Meyer’s Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens. It was a moment of pure shock that jolted my perceptions of what the art of cinema was. It was a giant leap forward! From that point on I was a fan for life. It was after that that I did further research on his films and life.
Where did the original idea for the short come from?
The short film is just a snapshot from one of the many themes further explored in the feature length screenplay. The feature screenplay is based on more than twenty hours of video taped interviews with Russ’ closest friends, cast and crew members including Kitten Natividad, Tura Satana, Erica Gavin, Hugh Hefner and Roger Ebert. The screenplay is also based on a prodigious amount of periodical research (articles from the 1950’s-current) and a book titled Russ Meyer – The Life and Films by David K. Frasier. Making a short film can be just as complex as a feature film. There are no rules… but we wanted to have some type of conflict and resolution. So we decided to focus on the early part of russ’ life as a glamour photographer.
What was it about the period in time of his life that you chose for the shorts subject that interested you?
Being in the army during WWII was Meyer’s favourite time. The late forties and early fifties was also a time of discovery and invention in America. Disneyland opens, colour TV was introduced, first atomic submarine launched and the first Playboy magazine published. It was the time when Russ Meyer met Eve Turner and decided to transition from glamour photographer to filmmaker. It was the beginning of love and his life as a filmmaker.
Is any of the footage during the War montage at the beginning attributed to Meyer at all?
I would love to be able to say that the archival war footage used in the opening montage was footage that Meyer shot, but due to time and budgetary constraints, we had to choose other WWII footage. Creating the opening montage was a huge task! Nazi music, narration and wintage titles… It was like making a movie within a movie. My editor Nickolas Perry, who is also a brilliant director, was able to construct the one minute montage from hours of archival footage that I selected from various sources. There are a couple of shots that bear an uncanny resemblance to Meyer himself. Maybe it’s him?
Love is certainly the word that springs to mind when discussing Russ and Eve specifically. How did you go about tackling their relationship to condense it down for the general feel of the short?
Based on interviews that me and my writing partner, Bobby D. Lux, conducted and periodical research, we were able to see that this was a true and meaningful love that was shared between Russ and Eve. In the short film we show their love just starting to blossom.
What is it about the filmmaker for you personally that makes him so captivating?
Russ created his own cinematic language. I think the highest level of achievement for any artist is to create their own aesthetic and Russ did so masterfully . Although he had brilliant and amazing people working with him such as Anthony-James Ryan and Richard Brummer, Russ directed, wrote, produced, shot, and edited all of his films. He was the personification of what it is to be an auteur (the author of his own work). In an industry where decision by committee is the norm, Russ was the lightning rod for true independent film making. Russ Meyer challenged perceptions, broke boundaries, and never failed to entertain!
After doing a bit of research, how did your impressions of him change?
After scouring over everything that has ever been written about the man, my impressions of him didn’t change. I was able to perhaps understand how he developed his obsession (anyone familiar with Russ knows what that is!) and his style as a filmmaker. Russ’ film making technique was an amalgam of his prior experiences as a cinematographer in WWII and as an industrial filmmaker. Russ was able to incorporate his experiences flawlessly which gave his films their unique style.
How did you get Parrack and Jones on board?
My casting agent sent the script to their agent who repped both of them at the time. He loved it and gave the script to Jim and Sarah. I met with each of them to discuss the film. After we did a screen test there was no one else I wanted to audition. They nailed it! They both brought so much to the filming process and inspired me the whole time. I wouldn’t have been able to make the film without them.
Did you give them any research materials or let them do their own interpretations?
I did give them research materials such as pictures and interviews. I think their performances were original and organic.
Are you interested in further exploring a feature?
How is progress with that coming along?
We have been focusing our attention on the festival circuit but will start contacting producers soon. You can see the trailer for the short film below and on the website www.upthevalleyandbeyond.com.