Nationally acclaimed painter and Columbus local Bo Bartlett is venturing into a new form of expression, film. In his new film Things Don’t Stay Fixed, Bo draws inspiration from his childhood in Columbus and the charm of our small city.
Interview by HELEN SANDERS Photos by S.Saxon
For Bo Bartlett, Columbus has always been home. Throughout his career as a painter, Bo has been inspired by his upbringing in Columbus. Bo found himself painting the things he knew: his town and his family. He dreamed that his paintings had movement, which inspired him to pursue film. In 1986, he followed his passion and began attending the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. In the late 80s, films were produced with celluloid film and scotch tape. Today, Bo Bartlett uses high tech equipment, but his passion for moving art has not changed. SVM got a chance to sit down with Bo to discuss his latest project, the film Things Don’t Stay Fixed, the challenges of film making, and how he draws inspiration from his hometown.
Things Don’t Stay Fixed isn’t your first film; what is your background in filmmaking and how did your previous films help you prepare for this one? I went to film school at NYU in 1986. I was five years out of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and I had been dreaming about my paintings moving and I thought “how cool would it be if I could make that happen.” Then it dawned on me that there was already such a thing as “moving pictures”... the movies, film. So, I went to film school. It was a very analog process back then, very hands on. We cut real celluloid film with razor blades and edited with scotch tape. I had the idea for Things Don’t Stay Fixed back then. My screenwrite teacher inspired me to go hunt down a good playwright to help craft my dream. Sandra Deer had just finished a short-lived run on Broadway of her play, So Long on Lonely Street.
It was shut down before TIME Magazine had a chance to review it, writing that it was the best new play of the decade. Sandra and I hit it off right away. It took five years to write Things Don’t Stay Fixed. After we finished, it was optioned in Hollywood for a while. Meanwhile, I worked with Betsy Wyeth making Snowhill the official documentary on the life and art of Andrew Wyeth. It was an award-winning documentary that played on many PBS stations for years. I’ve made many shorts, documentary shorts and documentaries over the years, most recently SEE - an art road trip made with my wife Betsy Eby. Each project is different. I balance filmmaking with my art practice, painting all the while as I film and edit.
One well known quote from you is “the purpose of art is to wake us up.” How are you achieving this through the film? Things Don’t Stay Fixed is about waking up. It is about what it feels like to evolve and expand beyond our comfort zone. Although the title is a Southern play on the William Butler Yeats line, “things fall apart,” it suggests the human attempt to fix things, mend things, our constant struggle in our life to have control, and the growth that happens when we surrender. The initial set up for the film is a world-renowned photojournalist returns to the Deep South to try to stop his daughter’s wedding, to save her future, but discovers that it is he who has been stuck in the past. It is a midlife coming of age film.
How does the creative process with your paintings deviate or compare to your creative process when you’re making a film? They play off each other. Painting and filmmaking are very interconnected for me. Most of my films have to do with art, my own or others. It is a way to explore in words, sound music, and movement, which is an extension of the ideas I explore in painting. I know how to paint; it is second nature to me. Filmmaking is much more challenging. One must really have their wits about them, all cylinders have to be driving at once. There is no time to sit back and contemplate your next move. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. It is extremely difficult. It is miracle when a film comes together and is finished and sees the light of day.
What or who inspires and influences you in both mediums of art? My favorite films and favorite paintings have a lot in common. I like the classics. In painting, I like darker serious paintings which explore human psychology- Titian, Hammershoi, Eakins, Homer, Hopper. In film, I like Ingmar Bergman and Tarkovsky. But, I also like big films with magic like It’s a Wonderful Life and Wizard of Oz. I love the wide open films about a character’s inner-outer world such as Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke.
You chose to direct and produce your film in Columbus, GA, along with choosing local actors to star in it. Why did you make these decisions to stay local and what impact has Columbus had in your life? I grew up in Columbus. I love Columbus. Most of my paintings are set in Columbus or inspired by events from my childhood in Columbus. The rule of thumb for a creative project is to write what you know. Write about your own backyard. Your experiences are yours alone, but if you write about them in a truthful way, they will strike a universal chord. Others will be able to relate because of the veracity of the experience. Sandra Deer and I co-wrote the screenplay setting it in Columbus. We could have made it a mythical Southern town, but I wanted to honor Columbus, to give back. I hope that people will appreciate the film and see it that way. I hope that it’ll shine a favorable light on this little corner of the world.
What familiar locations can people expect to recognize in your upcoming film? Was transferring your vibrant images from paintings to film an easy process? The people of Columbus were amazing during our filming. We couldn’t have made this film anywhere else, starting with Columbus State and their Georgia Film Academy students who served as interns. They weren’t just learning the tricks of the trade on our set, they were hands on crew members. We are a low budget feature and the people of Columbus appreciated that and at every turn went out of their way to accommodate and help us get locations and services for free or the lowest possible rate. St. Elmo Home, The Illges House, Dinglewood Pharmacy, AJ McClung Stadium, Goethcious House, the Historic District, the Park District, The River, The River Walk, River Road, Broadway, Frank Romeo’s in St. Elmo Plaza, Victory Drive, Linwood Cemetery, Oakhurst Farms, and Bartlett’s Ferry Dam, among many other locations will be easily recognizable for a local audience. Each location is itself, not doubling for someplace else.
Tell us about the characters in your upcoming film. Tell us about the main actors. Any recognizable faces? The actors and crew are all Georgia born or bred, with only a couple of exceptions. Stacy Cunningham is the Producer. She put together a stellar team. She spent time in Columbus prior to her career in Hollywood. She has returned to make films in Georgia. She co-founded the Way Down Film Festival, a great “shorts” festival that I encourage all to attend. Our actors are from Columbus and Atlanta. Some had to travel from LA but have heritage in Columbus. A few of the principals are William Gregory Lee (Zena, Warrior Princess), Tara Ochs and David Marshall Silverman (both featured in the film Selma), veteran Atlanta stage actress, Brenda Bynum, Melissa St. Amand, and Lucy Sheftall. Local actors include Lorenzo Battle, Yolanda Sewell, Desi Owens, and Jonah Miller. Paul Pierce and the Springer were very helpful with casting. SVM