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Filmmaker Spotlight: Erik Howard (Open Projector Night)

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Erik Howard talks about process and inspiration behind his film 'Farewell Tour' that won the audience vote at Open Projector Night.

We'd like to congratulate our last Open Projector Night winner, Erik Howard and his film 'Farewell Tour.' We were excited to have a conversation with Erik to learn more about him, process, and filmmaking background. 

1) Your film Farewell Tour just won our last Open Projector Night Audience Vote award – how are you feeling?

I can’t even describe how I felt in that moment and even now. I am filled with so much thanks and appreciation for not only the support of viewers, but the support of the other incredible filmmakers I shared a screen with. From Meowzow, to Sara & Jamie, Contraceptive, even the absolutely incredible experimental shorts we got like Rock Pools and Overflow… to be mentioned in the same breath as these is a privilege I will never take for granted.

2) Pretend you’re the singer of a rock band and you’re playing a show to a whole new audience. How would you explain yourself to that audience? What are your interests, hobbies, etc? Sell yourself!

Believe me when I say this was the hardest question to answer. I just love all things visual from film, to photography, even painting. My love for filmmaking really started with photography, as I used to create little videos and promotional photos for clothing brands my friends started. Eventually I made my own charity clothing line in partnership with Arbor Circle, in which we raised money together for mental health awareness. Otherwise I genuinely love skateboarding and skate culture. That scene has yielded some of the most raw, fun, and entertaining experiences I’ve ever had, as well as introduced me to the art of skateboarding videos. I’m also a die hard football fan with Liverpool FC having my heart, so you’ll find me on most weekends inside SpeakEZ lounge singing and hanging with complete strangers watching the most riveting 1-0 scoreline you’ve ever seen. Basically, you can find me all over GR doing some of the most random things… but I guarantee you I’ll be loving whatever it is.

3) To those who haven’t seen Farewell Tour – Give us the elevator pitch.

Farewell Tour tells the story of Johnny Stranger, a rockstar on top of the world, who upon returning home to Grand Rapids, MI. discovers that the man he once was is nearly indistinguishable in the eyes of the people he thought he knew. During the build up to his final show of the tour, Johnny clashes with his extortive manager, Ray, as he attempts to find his identity amongst the crushing image of “Johnny Stranger”.

4) Lame question but I must know – what’s your top 3 favorite films and why?

My heart belongs to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which was literally the film that sent me to film school. It's closely shared with Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, which to this date is the best movie I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to stop at three, but I’d say Before Sunrise takes that third place spot. Richard Linklater taught me how to develop dialogue so authentic that the audience would forget it was even written, something I still value and hold myself to in all my scripts.

5) In passing at Open Projector Night I noticed you were wearing a jean jacket with a Doors patch on it. A discussion opened about your passion for them and how it influenced this film. Can you elaborate on this?

I could write a full novel on their influence on me. The Doors have been my inspiration for all artistic ventures of mine since day one. Through them I learned the complexities of poetry, music, and even filmmaking as lead singer Jim Morrison was actually a film student himself. I remember in my first semester at GVSU, I talked to Joel Potrykus and expressed how I was struggling to find my filmmaking voice amidst talented people way ahead of me. We instantly bonded over The Doors, and he left me with some advice: If you love rock and roll, you need to be a rock and roll filmmaker. From that advice, I believe that very summer I wrote the first draft to Farewell Tour. A year and a half later, as well as over 10 scrapped scripts, Johnny Stranger said goodbye to Grand Rapids!

6) Some believe artists, filmmakers, musicians, etc hold some level of responsibility while using their voice to create art. Sometimes that voice can be political, theological etc. When creating Farewell Tour, we dive into the rock n roll lifestyle and drug use. Did you feel any sort of worry that some may be upset with the result of the film or do you just say to yourself “I’m going to make what I want, and I don’t care what others think?”  

Part of the beauty in filmmaking is that when we create something, we immediately open ourselves up to critique, support, questioning, etc. We create a piece of art based on our observations and experiences, and that may upset some and or inspire others. With Farewell Tour, I wanted to offer a different perspective by not allowing Johnny to be characterized by substance abuse like traditional cinematic representations of rockstars. Johnny is not necessarily an addict but a normal guy who is collapsing under the unyielding pressure of fame. While his use of pills in the film does serve as the physical catalyst for his inevitable demise, I wanted to make sure that it was shown to audiences that his demise is far more mentally significant than it is physically. By adopting this perspective I felt I could offer my experiences with overwhelming pressure and becoming lost in a crowd I thought I once knew. If people take issue with how that is represented, then so be it. I am confidently and uniquely myself in my art, and not everybody is gonna like me.

7) Other than music, what else inspires you? 

I am routinely and actively inspired by the many filmmakers I’ve come to meet and befriend in Grand Rapids, and beyond. At times where I’ve felt my lowest about my creativity and subsequent output, I have never once been forgotten by the incredible community around me who have always made an attempt to get me on a set, back in the seat to write another script, or just to the nearest theater to watch anything from a goofy action flick to something that’ll make me reconsider life. I owe so much to our incredible scene and the people who help it, and me, flourish.

8) I always like to ask this question. If you were to make your dream film and didn’t have to worry about budget – what would you create and why?

Oh easy, a Godzilla film. I can’t imagine anything more fun than reviving the beauty of suit-mation in the modern era and bringing it back to cinemas. Godzilla, while remembered for creating slug-fests, has proven himself as being a vessel for some of the most potent commentary in film I’ve seen to date. America is yet to really understand and appreciate his creation, and amidst a time when our country feels as if it's teetering on the edge of disaster, would we even be able to come together to stop something of Godzilla’s magnitude? I feel like that question oughta be asked, so Toho… you know where to find me.

9) Okay, quick off-beat question Do you believe in the curse of the 27 club?

Without a doubt. You can’t have Morrison, Joplin, Cobain, Hendrix, and Winehouse dying at the exact same age and not think the universe is at work here!

10) Let’s talk a little bit about your creative process. When you have an idea for a project that you want to complete – what are your stages from beginning to end?

It all starts with a little pocketbook that travels with me everywhere I go. The moment something strikes me, and you see me frantically throwing chicken scratches into that notebook something’s brewing. I feel some form of intimacy by writing an idea down in ink physically, it feels like the hasty handwriting and wild slashes emphasizing words portray how much I believed in the idea in the moment. At that point, the most important step in the process is developing characters. Sure I may have a unique idea, but my characters will be the ones living that reality. It’s a long arduous process but each main character needs to be fully developed for me to go forward. That rang true for Farewell Tour even, where a draft was entirely focused on the mute Changelings band members so I knew how they’d appear in the film. They sit further from Johnny, contain their disdain for Ray and just get on stage and get paid. When characters reach this standard partnered with an idea I’m passionate about, my process really ends with collaboration of friends and fellow filmmakers. I absolutely love pitching an idea and characters to my filmmaking buddies and going wild with scenarios, events, and consequences. That’s when I know my idea is worth the production, because if my people believe in it as much as I do there are hundreds of thousands of others in the world who will believe in it too.

11) Every filmmaker runs into hurdles while creating a a film. What were some of the major issues you faced and how did you overcome them?

The most pressing issue I encountered was belief in myself. Farewell Tour was the result of years of loving and engaging with rock n’ roll, and to arrive at the point where I had the resources and insanely talented crew to pull it off fostered a real do or die attitude in me. My first drafts of Farewell Tour weren’t even from the perspective of Johnny Stranger, but rather through a superfan named Pamela. Hell, Johnny’s name was Steven Davis at the time… have you ever heard of a rockstar with such a lame name? I needed to truly believe that I was capable of telling the story of a rockstar without being one, and I would have never made it without the overwhelming support and belief from my cast and crew. I owe it all to them.

12) There are a lot of people out there that want to make a film but don’t even know where to begin. What advice would you give to get them started?

The most important advice I could give anyone, as I was in their shoes as early as two years ago, would be to trust your ideas and your voice. There is a great chance that the films you consume on a day to day basis follow a rigid, profit-yielding, structure complete with Hollywood heartthrobs as the faces. Yet the spirit of filmmaking lives in communities such as our own, through scraping together a couple hundred bucks, grabbing a camera, and heading out onto the street shooting in a place you’re probably not supposed to be in. Your ideas are uniquely yours, and they deserve to be told.

13) Okay, you’re on death row and you must choose your last meal. It includes a drink, desert, and meal. What is it?

While I’m concerned about how I got here, I literally just want like one hundred chicken nuggets from Wendy's, their new insanely good fries, a chocolate frosty, and probably just water. Ever since I’ve sworn off a majority of fast food, I have never been able to swear off the craving for Wendy’s nuggs. I also drink nothing but water, so with those three I’ll die happily. Goodbye cruel world.

14) If you have any fond cinematic memories such as your first experience at a movie theater, a first screening, etc – can you share and explain how it impacted you?

It’s not as illustrious as some of the proposed scenarios, but in my senior year of high school I used to leave at like 10am every day and go to the Kent District Library, where I’d rent whatever movie I’d seen in some curated Instagram feed. I’d bring ‘em home, pop them in my Xbox and bawl my eyes out as I always ended up with sappy romance movies. That was until I brought home Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I was so stunned by the level of emotion, artistry, and cinematic language that I turned it off, drove to an open field, and sat on a hill underneath a tree until the sun set. It was probably the cheesiest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but hey it was like some sort of an artistic awakening. I wrote an essay about it at GRCC and somehow got an A from the hardest teacher I’d ever have. Honestly, I feel like she could just tell I was passionate about it, because I kept writing film related essays for her class and eventually convinced myself I should go to film school. So yeah, thank you Instagram movie pages, thank you to KDL, and thank you to Jennifer Shinabarger for changing my life.

15) What’s next for Erik Howard? Any projects in the works? If not, what’s in store for you?

Can’t say for sure what’s on the horizon, as I feel like I’ve just closed the door on a long chapter in life with Farewell Tour. But the current idea I’m tossing around is about two cinephiles who open an insurance agency for Kaiju related damages because they’re convinced we’re on the brink of disaster. One actually does show up though, and the U.S. Government thinks they had something to do with it. They’re eventually recruited by the government to not only clean up the damage but basically create a defense force for all future kaiju attacks. I dunno… something like that?

16) Would you be so kind to share your experience and thoughts on Open Projector Night? 

Open Projector Night is exactly what Grand Rapids needs. A night where we can celebrate filmmakers from or connected to our amazing community, and give audiences a chance to see the incredible level of talent we possess here in Grand Rapids. Anyone can come out and meet filmmakers, cinephiles, or that person that serves you coffee just down the road, and share the love of film with one another in a space that celebrates the audience just as much as the filmmaker. If anyone is reading this interview and feels like they want to be a part of this, do not stop submitting, attending, and experiencing all the Grand Rapids Film Society has to offer. But let open projector night do the convincing for you… see you in a couple months!

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