No One Hardly Makes a Dime Making Movies in This Town
A Conversation With Brian Blauser – Cinematographer on Spring Night, Summer Night
Interview by David Jenkins
Reading time 10 Minutes
Brian Blauser is a photographer based in Athens, Ohio
Brian Blauser is a photographer based in Athens, Ohio. He told us the story of his involvement in Spring Night, Summer Night, on which he worked as a cinematographer.
How did you get into the movie scene and how did you first meet with Joseph?
I went to school at Ohio University. I was in the still photography program. I got my bachelors in the Summer of ’64. At that time, Joe Anderson was the head of the film department at Ohio State University. Ohio State has a very famous football team. They were in what’s called the “Big Ten”. He made a time-lapse movie focusing on the stadium during a single game day. He watched the stands fill up and then the game itself. It was all sped up as he was shooting a single frame every ten seconds. Then he set this all to bluegrass music, which is indigenous to this area. Woody Hayes, who was a football coach at Ohio State, a famous guy, couldn’t stand the film. He hated it. So Joe ended up leaving Ohio State and he came down here to Athens to teach at Ohio. And there he started the film program. That’s when it began. I think it was ’64 when he got there because at that I was taking film courses. Instead of leaving and doing my masters somewhere else, I decided to stay, and I became Joe’s first graduate assistant. I taught a class. I set up the film lab and I helped working the film processors.
Was Joe’s class focused on film history or practical filmmaking?
All of it. We studied some of the past masters, people like Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa. Joe had written a book in conjunction with a guy called Donald Ritchie called The Japanese Film. At that point in time, he was an authority on Japanese film. I was doing my masters in cinematography. We formed a company called Triskele Limited – it was Joe, me and another guy named Franklin Miller. They had the script for Spring Night, Summer Night, and I was the director of photography. We shot the film in ’65.
Did they make you director of photography because of your experience as a stills photographer?
Yes. I was learning how to do movies as well. David Prince, he was also a stills photographer, was also involved. He wound up a year behind me, as he left when he was a sophomore, went to New York to try and break into the scene up there. He ended up coming back. He was still an undergraduate at that time. And there was Art Stifel, and between the three of us we shot all the main footage. The reason Art was involved is because he owned an airplane.
Did you get much use out of it?
There were some aerial shots involved. There was one episode where we had to follow a Ford Mustang down Route 56 at pretty low altitude. They ended up strapping me to the outside of the airplane – to one of the wings. We put some counter-weights on the other side to keep things balanced. We had to make sure the camera could see beyond the wing struts so you wouldn’t get them on the film.
That sounds extremely dangerous.
Yep. I’d never ever do it again, that’s for sure. We did a lot of crazy things. We had a Ford Econoline… no, I think it was a Dodge. It was a van, anyway. We built a platform that stuck out to the side and put a camera attached to a short tripod out there. This was so we could do follow shots on the highway. I was also filming from the back of a motorcycle. All kinds of crazy stuff.
What was Joe like as a director?
He was great. He did what he was doing. A lot of the stuff that we did was in tribute to other filmmakers or other directors of photography. He was aware of all this stuff, not so much me. He just told me how to shoot a certain thing and that’s what we did. But this was the first feature film that was shot in Athens Ohio. It has never been done before.
You capture the working class Appalachian community
You capture the working class Appalachian community in quite an extraordinary way.
We filmed in real places. We researched all the locations. All of the bars and stuff were all in an old mining town called Shawnee. The bar where everybody lived was clear on the other side of the county. They had everything: goats; pigs; horses; cows; you name it. Which is crazy. There were goats too, who had a bad habit of eating our material. They would jump over the cars. It was crazy. All the locations were real places.
Were you asking local people to be in the film?
Not really. There were a few local people in cameo roles, or in the background. Most of ’em were people who wanted to be professional actors.
So what happened after the shoot?
I came out of university, after my second or third year there in the graduate program, and got drafted.
So while I was off with the government in the army, they were editing the film. By the time I got released, they had finished with it. I actually never saw the completed film because I was on active duty in the army. I only caught it in 1970. It was at a theatre in Cincinnati.
That’s a long time to wait to see a movie you made.
Yep. And back then, it had been altered. There was this guy named Joseph Brenner who was a film distributor. Joe paired up with Brenner who told him he wanted some extra skin footage shot. They wanted to change the title of the thing from Spring Night, Summer Night to Miss Jessica is Pregnant. Now it’s back to its original title and they eliminated all that additional footage. They film wound up in a place where they screen sex movies. It was the B film. It wasn’t even the main attraction.
What was the experience of finally seeing it, albeit in a mangled form?
It was very strange. But I did have other things on my mind, as I was then making movies for the army. I was 84C20, which was the MOS [Military Occupational Specialty] number – an army cinematographer. That’s what we did. They held me back after I finished cinematography school, which I wound up teaching part of. This was down to security reasons. When I got to New York City I had a top secret head of secret security clearance. Everyone in the unit had to have that level of clearance or above. First day on the job I got shot at during the Newark riots. Then we covered the Detroit riots and a bunch of other places. But that’s a whole other story.
When was the last time you saw anyone involved with Spring Night?
The film is making a comeback in the last couple of years or so. David Prince died a few years back. He went up for some operation in Columbus, Ohio and never made it out of the hospital. David was my best friend back in school. When I left and went to the army, he was the one who shot all the skin footage. When they ended up putting the titles in, I’m one third company owner, and when I left for the army, I was director of photography. But when the film came out they’d given the title to David.
You now work exclusively as a stills photographer.
Yes, I came back here. The year I got out the army I started a film production company called Nirvana Productions in Los Angeles. I did that for a year then I came back to Columbus, Ohio to visit David Prince. I wasn’t real happy with what was going on in LA. There was a job opening for film director at WOUV which was a public TV station. I interviewed for the job and got it on a handshake. I should’ve got some paperwork signed, though. I went back to LA, got my wife and kids in a van and I had $3,000 to my name. By the time I got back to Ohio they’d changed their mind. Someone already working there decided they wanted the job. So when I got back here I had to reinvent myself. To this day, no one hardly makes a dime making movies in this town. I fell back on my still photography thing and what I do now is take pictures of musicians.
You also produce drone footage too?
I do. In fact I was just out flying this afternoon.
That’s quite poetic considering the fact that you were once strapped to the wing of a plane.
Yeah, that was the way to go. With that, as long as my eye was up to the viewfinder and I had this impression that I was making a movie, it was all okay. But when I pulled the camera away to look around to see where I actually was, it kinda freaked you out. Landing was the hardest thing of all.
When did you last talk to Joe?
I haven’t talk to Joe since I was in the army. I talked to Frank – he was here for David’s funeral. He gave me a copy of the new version, without the skin footage.
Have you watched that version?
Tell you the truth, no I haven’t.
David Jenkins is editor of Little White Lies magazine and freelance writer. He has worked in film for much of his adult life, and counts Time Out London, Sight & Sound and The Guardian among his bylines. He has edited the book What I Love About Movies, released by Faber and Faber, and the Little White Lies Guide to Making Your Own Movie with Laurence King Publishing.
Art by Jason Ngai