Saturday, June 25, 2016

Interview with Filmmaker, Musician and Die J, Mars Roberge

Electric and eclectic, eccentric and fantastic, Mars Roberge marches to the sound of his own drummer, and man, that cat can knock out some funky beats. It's no wonder his art is being lauded, and rightfully so. His origins are the heart of the city, with its filthy throbbing pulse driving his musical momentum and thrusting him into his cinematic journey of its underground.    

Body Count Rising: Your film “The Little House That Could” won the Audience Choice Award for Best 2015 Film from NewFilmmakers Los Angeles on June 18th (as well as being nominated for Best Feature Documentary), won Best Documentary at 2016 Philadelphia Independent Film Festival and was nominated for Best LGBT Feature Documentary at 2014 Queens World Film Festival.

Wow! Congratulations! I read that you spent a decade preparing for this film and “becoming one” with the LGBT community. Do you consider yourself an activist, or simply a documentarian?

Mars Roberge: I consider myself an activist. I was a member of the House of Field. From that, I was one of the few straight people involved. I lived in Toronto in the 90s, which is kind of what “Scumbag” is about and then I was rescued by the LGBT community in New York even though I’m a straight guy. So I owe them a lot and I would absolutely say I’m an advocate. As far as awards, “The Little House That Could” has been nominated for something each year since 2014.

Body Count Rising: Nice! So they just keep celebrating this film!

Mars Roberge: Yeah…

Body Count Rising: That’s awesome! Maybe next year you’ll get another one.

Mars Roberge: I hope so. We’ve played it around the world 24 times and it’s been presented in three languages. In San Francisco it played at Frameline, the oldest gay film festival in the world and we got the coveted Friday night slot for the premiere. That was back in 2013 and it’s been lauded ever since. So as a filmmaker I’m indebted to the LGBT community too because I was getting turned down from a lot of top tier film festivals when Frameline, the gay film festival, picked it up and that really helped launch the film and give it momentum..

Body Count Rising: So are you finding it now has a cult following?

Mars Roberge: Oh, it’s a total cult film right now. When we played in New York especially, people dressed up and got together to go see it. There is just a camaraderie of people that will say “OK it’s playing. We’ve got to go!”

The House of Field members are harder to track down now that Patricia Field closed her boutique this past February. And after she had been around like 50 years everyone was just left standing there saying, “Wow, we didn’t expect THAT to happen.” And now the film is just the last historical piece from that time. Bringing the magic of what I lived to the big screen just became larger than me at some point. The more I made the film, the more I saw how important she was to everybody. 

Body Count Rising: Would you say Canada is ahead of the US with regard to gay rights, or behind the times?

Mars Roberge: Toronto has one of the biggest gay festivals in the world, but the truth is, and I know because I DJed in the goth scene up there forever, there are a ton of gays who pretend they’re straight with girlfriends, in hiding, who only come out once a year to that festival. It’s weird to me because they should know “it’s ok to be gay.” It’s like they think they have to only hang out in the Chelsea muscle gay club atmosphere to be gay or something. I know it’s slowly changing but it hadn’t changed when I was there in the 90s. Now, to me, New York is even more gay than San Francisco, or as gay, and they’re very open and accepting. In Toronto the gay world is accepting of the straight world, but I can’t say the same about the lesbian world. They’re almost like separatists. Some people may not like me saying that, but it’s the truth. I get along fine with lesbians and I’ve not experienced that anywhere else. I mean, I worked for Patricia Field for ten years and in making the film we’ve become better friends than ever.

Body Count Rising: I absolutely LOVE Toronto. I used to visit all the time when I lived in Michigan. It’s my favorite big city. You came from Toronto to New York. What led to the decision to come to the states? 

Mars Roberge: I wanted to kill myself in the schoolyard where “Welcome Back Kotter” was filmed.

Body Count Rising: Oh! OK... (laughing)

Mars Roberge: (laughing) I’m not making that up either. That was my goal. I was watching it one night and decided I was going to jump on a bus and just go do that, you know? But I did meet Mr. Kotter about a month after I got here… Gabe Kaplan… at a place called Gotham Comedy Club. I told him he was the reason for being here and he looked at me and got scared. (laughing)

Body Count Rising: (laughing) Well, how were you going to do it?

Mars Roberge: No idea. There were enough distractions that I thought “Well, hey let me figure out this town first.” Then I got new friends and I ran into a bouncer at CBGB who I knew from Goth club in Toronto called Death in the Underground that I worked at and he kinda pointed me in the right direction. Now I have all these films to write about those years. 

Body Count Rising: OK but Toronto was the cleanest city I’ve ever seen. I can’t imagine going from that to New York. You must have thought it was filthy.

Mars Roberge: Well, New York has cleaned up quite a bit, but I was a bit unnerved when rats first went running by my feet.

Body Count Rising: Ugh. Nope.

Mars Roberge: Oh you just get to the point where they’re like squirrels. They’ll come up to you on the subway and it just starts to feel normal. I used to work at an S&M bar spinning vinyl from 5:30 PM to 4 in the morning and on the subway platform headed home the rats would charge. I’d just say “Shoo shoo!” and it was almost like playing chicken with them or something. (laughing

Body Count Rising: Oh… disturbing. (laughing) So… did the contacts you made while working for Patricia Field make it easier to transition into filmmaking?

Mars Roberge: That actually got me back into it. I went to film school at York University just outside of Toronto, and then when I graduated I worked in a post production house where they edited music videos for bands like Barenaked Ladies. I had left doing the cut and glue stuff in school and was doing digital linear editing--non-linear editing that we know today was so much money that you couldn’t even think about it unless you had 20 grand in your pocket. This meant if I ever made mistakes I would have to redo everything from scratch. I made some Super8 films but I didn’t know what festivals to apply to, or anything like that.

Eventually I got out of it because of sheer boredom. I wasn’t really getting to film anything. I also did various jobs on sets in a union-based work environment with a bunch of guys with families and just shooting a movie felt like work, and not fun. So I just started DJing plus I had a couple of bands and that kept me going for about 10 years. What really got me into doing any kind of film stuff is that I bought a computer in the mid-2000s after avoiding them for 20 years and found programs like Final Cut and I started creating experimental movies that I would play in the backgrounds at concerts.

Patricia Field needed some footage put together for a party she was hosting at Element Nightclub and I was asked to put it all together. I found this guy, Bob Lesser, to work with who was a roadie. He had an ad that said “narcoleptic psychopath with truck” and he had this Hare Krishna ponytail. We thought for sure we were going to get killed, but he ended up being my friend. He had all these lights and kind of became a partner. We just kept filming more and more stuff and that’s how this movie came about. But it was a good ten years between the time I originally was working in the film industry to the time that Patricia Field asked me to start filming.

Body Count Rising: I know you must have some wild stories from shooting "The Little House that Could".

Mars Roberge: There was a point where I needed to film the store, but I didn’t have electricity, so I stole it from a wall on the street. Cops were coming by and I thought we were going to get arrested for not having permits, but they actually stopped traffic so that I could shoot my film. That’s a big difference between New York and LA. 

We had this crazy party at the Rockefeller Center Ice Rink where we were there with a bunch of drag queens and just kind of took it over. I remember this poor guy there who was proposing to his girlfriend on the rink and all the Patricia Field people were screaming at her “He’s gay! He’s gay!” (laughing)

One time I had Juliette Lewis help me look for Jerry Lewis in the store because I heard he was there. All these paparazzi were following us through the store but I couldn’t figure out why. It was great.

There was this one time I had a breakup argument with my girlfriend, Sarah Roemer from "Disturbia" who wasn’t discovered yet, and I hung up and Dave Navarro came over and said “Man are you alright?” I didn’t realize who he was and I just said “Yeah man, I’m just having a hard time getting people to come to my party.” He offered to help me out, so I gave him a bunch of flyers and told him where to go hand them out.

Body Count Rising: Oh that’s great! (laughing)

Mars Roberge: I went back into the store and I saw this girl and, being newly single, I tried to pick her up. I didn’t realize at the time that was Carmen Electra and she was there with Dave, who I was making hand out my flyers. So he comes back in and I realize he’s with her and I go “Oh man- I know where I recognize you from. You’re the guy that sings the Scooby Snack song.” And I just kind of wandered away. (laughing)

Stars really do get a kick out of when you don’t know who they are, and it happened to me quite often. I yelled at the designer Chloe and Liv Tyler for playing around in the dressing room and they got all nervous, like I was a teacher or something.

Body Count Rising: (laughing) You said that the Patricia Field family live fast and die young. If you died tomorrow what would you most like to be remembered for, and how do you think you changed the world? 

Mars Roberge: It’s funny. I always think about that and I’m trying to get so much done so quickly now. If I were to die tomorrow, I’m working on being that guy who got along with everybody. That’s what I work towards, you know? I’d like people to finally see what I’ve done, because I’ve played in a number of bands that never quite made it. We played the same parties as The Scissor Sisters and Lady Gaga. Then I was a DJ where other famous DJs would always call me for music advice who financially made it big for themselves, and it seems like just now people are really beginning to appreciate what I was doing as a DJ, especially in Toronto. With my films, I don’t care if people don’t like it, I want them to be able to say that I did something original and authentic.

Body Count Rising: Which filmmakers most inspire you? 

Mars Roberge: I once interviewed Dr. No from Bad Brains and I asked him that question about guitarists. He said “I used to have some favorites but they didn't stick to those fingers.” I kind of feel that way about filmmakers. Some have a couple great movies, but that is small compared to the whole body of work. I really do like Harmony Korine because he’s been doing his own thing for so long. I like French New Wave films by guys like Jean-Luc Godard but I don’t like everything in them, just the subtleties; the subliminal messages. And then sometimes directors are lumped as filmmakers. That’s just not true unless they are auteurs. Some people can be great directors, but I appreciate filmmakers who make a film they actually wrote. I don’t relate to anything unless there is characterization. Characters mean a lot to me. Cult films most inspire me because it’s a film that continues to mean something to people for decades on, something unique from the heart. 

Body Count Rising: You are an auteur. You’ve played most every role as a filmmaker from writer to editor and everything in between. Where is your true passion within these?

Mars Roberge: It’s weird. I’m kind of a control freak I guess. There are a limited amount of people I give jobs to. The script does not always reflect everything that is in my head. I enjoy writing and editing, but the directing part feels like work when you have to keep track of everyone. Editing is just fun for me.

Body Count Rising: “The Little House That Could” featured “rebellious outsiders” as does your film “Scumbag”. How do these films reflect on who you are as a person? What about growing up?

Mars Roberge: Growing up I wanted to be against the establishment. I grew up in this burb called Scarborough, which was ethnically diverse and people there really liked to fight. “Colors” had just come out and Canadians wanted to be like the kids in the ghettos of America. The only way for me to survive was to look weird like a punk and to hurt myself skateboarding. I didn’t like all the shiny, happy people going to all of these techno clubs. I gravitated toward the goth scene, and that’s where I began to DJ. 

Actually my film “Scumbag” came from the fact that I took this shady job as a telemarketer. We used to joke that we weren’t criminals, we were scumbags. We pulled fast ones on different businesses to make beer money. 

Body Count Rising: Speaking of, you have a credit as an animal wrangler in “Scumbag”. What’s that about? (laughing)

Mars Roberge: I’m glad you noticed that. It always seems to slip through. My fiancĂ© Debra had one of the lead roles in “Scumbag” and she has this cat named Gwendolyn.. I’ve always been a dog person but now I think I’m becoming a cat person. I taught Gwendolyn flip and roll over. She does it in the movie, so I gave myself credit as the animal wrangler. (laughing)

Body Count Rising: I can’t wait to see that. You’re like the Cat Whisperer! (laughing)

Mars Roberge: Yeah! 

Rocktopia Manifesto

Rocktopia is a film genre created by director, Mars Roberge, in 2015 which he describes as "an individual's struggle against the ideals of a Utopian society where the only freedom of escape is to rock out." Influenced by the social realism movement of playwright John Osbourne, classic musicals, Dogma, 80s MTV and the absurd subtleties of French New Wave Cinema, Rocktopia has its own set of guidelines to follow: 
1. A large portion of the cast must be played by established musicians portraying characters far removed from themselves.
2. Rocktopia are epic movies that should have a cast of no less than 200 people and that does not include extras.
3. Magic must be involved. The term "magic" does not imply witchcraft or dark energies but may be referred to as "great luck." For instance, Scumbag found a lot of their bigger names a night before their shoot and scenes were shot perfectly with no preparation involved. This is what is termed "Magic."
4. There must be at least three original songs performed in the movie by the actual artist who recorded it. Each song should take place to heighten the protagonist’s stress.
5. Films should be shot on the highest quality settings possible, never accepting a lower grade just to cut costs.
6. Films should be mainly shot handheld.
7. Director should have a greater vision for multiple branding (theater, video games, art exhibits, clothing line, etc) for the film, keeping the film alive forever.

Body Count Rising: Oh, and let’s talk about the Rocktopia Manifesto. Three original songs are a requirement. “Scumbag” has quite the cast. So who will be performing the three original songs? 

Mars Roberge: Camille Waldorf, who played a girl named Megan, then there’s Princess Frank and Debra Haden who did a duet and a whole musical number. He plays Phil in the movie and she plays Christine. Spookey Ruben does a little song and he plays Junior. En Esch from KMFDM was also in there.

Body Count Rising: You were casting director for “Scumbag” and there were A LOT of big names in the cast. How did you coordinate so that everyone could be together for the film?

Mars Roberge: Well the movie was mainly funded by me, with some Indiegogo support. After 6 days and running out of my initial money, I found I could afford one day per month, so the film was shot over 10 1/2 months. Most of the co-stars have no idea how many other stars are in the movie. There are about 230 starring roles. There are people from Warhol, porn, martial arts… it’s like the party I’ve always wanted to throw! I could only make this film at this point in my life because of the experiences that I’ve had. I’m no longer rebellious. I want to help others. 

Body Count Rising: You have some big punk names in your film. Do you integrate a lot of punk rock into your DJ sets?

Mars Roberge: Absolutely, a punk rock ideology as it would apply to dance music. I owe my sister, Patty Powers, credit for that because she’s a punk rocker from back in the day and a writer and used to do spoken word when Henry Rollins was starting with that. She was really into Johnny Thunders. I grew up with punks around all the time that were older than me. At the same time I was a skateboarder and my Bible was Thrasher Magazine. I listened to Bad Brains, Circle Jerks, Fishbone, a Toronto group called Goblyns, T.S.O.L., Dayglo Abortions, all those great bands during the 80s. I think with the way the government is and the environment right now, we’re due for a hardcore punk resurgence. Hardcore was the only way out of Scarborough. That helped get me through my youth. 

Body Count Rising: You started DJing to research for a film, but ended up making it a career. So will this be your next film?

Mars Roberge: Well, “Scumbag” is about a DJ. “The Little House That Could” mentioned how a lot of us had DJ careers, etc... I think all of my films will address this somewhat. It’s one of those subjects that there’s so much to talk about that I have to address it over and over again. I want to make movies that I know, and I know this world. I want my films to be remembered thirty years from now because they really mean something.

Body Count Rising:
In your manifesto you talk about branding. You’ve worked in fashion, music and now film which are all excellent crossovers for marketing. What can we expect from Scumbag and when will it be available for purchase?

Mars Roberge: The premiere should be out in September or the last week of August and then we’ll continue on the festival circuit. After that we’ll wait for the distributors to approach us. We’re also having a huge party at Studio 79 on July 23rd in San Diego during the week of Comic Con (for info go to closer to the date) plus a big party at a gallery in downtown Los Angeles in late November. Once the film is out there, I have so many plans. I have ideas for a second film, a TV series, video games, you name it. I have all kinds of ideas. 

Body Count Rising: Beautiful! With so many involved in your films you’re generating quite the buzz. Do you already have those expressing interest in being in or contributing toward your next film?

Mars Roberge: Yes! The people that turned me down during the first film are expressing interest. I’m keeping close to the people who always believed in me though. If everything goes as planned, I’d love to do a part 2, but I have another film that will be an urban drama. I’d love to do both. I think people can’t relate to you if they don’t know you, so I always try to be as genuine as I can.

Keep up with Mars' latest projects and awards on his IMDb or follow him on Facebook