James Bickert is that brilliant powerhouse who inadvertently created his own brand of drive-in bikersploitation. And the look, feel and tone are unmistakable. With films like DEAR GOD NO! (2011) and FRANKENSTEIN CREATED BIKERS (2016) he’s captured the minds and hearts of independent film fans and critics alike.
James Bickert: Ready? Aim. Shoot!
My formal training is in photography and art history but everything else is self-taught through trial and error and a ravenous passion for cinema. I’m just a junkie for genre film, really. It has been that way ever since my mother took me to see a screening of the original KING KONG (1933) when I was around five years old.
I favor film aesthetically over shooting digital which requires a colorist or crash course in the latest post-production software. You can’t rule anything out though. It’s just a matter of what makes sense in order to tell the story within the constraints of the budget.
35mm was very difficult for mobility and a constant struggle to keep enough stock on hand for the shoot day to day for DEAR GOD NO!. The trade-off was all the gifted industry professionals that volunteered their free time to come be a part of the 35mm film experience, again and lend a hand to the camera, lighting and grip departments. We would have seasoned cinematographers stop by and help load mags or bring film stock they had saved from a shoot. It was magical.
Film brings a different sense of camaraderie that I haven’t experienced with digital. I believe it’s born from a closer connection with the past and the craft; just a more organic and hand-made quality. I really miss the properties of the Fuji film stock. That was some beautiful stuff with rich blacks and heavy color saturation, especially when you got down to the lower ASA stocks. I’m not complaining about shooting with Kodak Vision 3 and the enormous color range, just miss the Fuji option.
With the camera department, I think it’s the vision, organization and a shared passion for the process. I love it on set when a magazine starts squeaking and the assistant camera person bangs on it with their fist. The room gets quiet and then everyone shrugs their shoulders as the Arri motor quietly purrs. You don’t punch a RED camera.
James Bickert Kicks it Old School with VHS (and Porn):
I like the nostalgia of VHS; the remembrances of visiting those old “mom and pop” stores with all the lurid big box art in the horror section and the surplus of Godfrey Ho Ninja flicks.
There was a time when I carried a video card for every video store within a 150 mile radius of Savannah, Georgia. I would take road trips just to track down RETURN OF THE EVIL DEAD (1973) or SOUL HUSTLER (1973). It will forever be a part of me. I liked going into that porn room too! There were a couple of video stores where you put down a $1 deposit to get your own key that would unlock the porn room. I was always on the hunt for any 70’s shot on film porn that would freak me out.
Something about watching nervous people picking out porn in a back room is fascinating to me. I would go in there and want to talk about the films with people. Like, “Hey have you seen NIGHTDREAMS (1981) or WATER POWER (1977)? What’s the creepiest one you’ve seen, dude?” Some guilty looking salary-man would be all nervous and whisper under his breath, “Get the fuck away from me headbanger.”
Jett Bryant and I worked together in an adult video store back in the early 90’s… actually a “dong and bong” as he calls it. I could do an entire comedy routine based on porn preferences by race and gender. Man, we saw some weird shit. Oh, VHS collecting. Sadly, I’ve had to give up collecting everything. I still hold on to my collection of exploitation and drive-in, one-sheet theatrical posters but now my pennies go towards anything that can be seen onscreen or comes in a keg.
DEAR GOD NO! lends itself to the VHS medium and adds connotations of a filthy snuff film you can’t achieve with blu-ray. I always thought the VHS format enhanced the viewing experience of THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (1974). When you watch the DVD and realize how beautifully shot that film was, it loses some of the grime that made it so terrifying.
We did limited releases of VHS for each festival we would play. They were hand-signed with different box art and limited to between 10-20. I like when you can give something that special to genre fans who collect. I made all those VHS tapes myself and as a recovering collector I love being able to make a connection with someone that has the same interest.
James Bickert on Set:
Pre-planning is key. There will always be some pick-up you might need due to running out of sunlight, rain or something of that nature. The trick is to keep those to cutaways so you don’t necessarily have to bring back principal actors. I storyboard everything and then deviate from those based on any location logistics that throw a wrench into the situation, which is inevitable. There may be something exceptional in the moment or performance that just captures the idea better that wasn’t available to you when you were in pre-production.
On FRANKENSTEIN CREATED BIKERS, I went off my boards to shoot a sequence that just felt like it would work better with a French New Wave aesthetic. It was so sleazy. I have all the technically challenging shots well planned out in advance. Having that blueprint keeps things on track and moving at a fast pace until you run up against special make-up effects which, by their very nature, are time consuming and often require some creative “on the fly” solutions.
Since I’m using film, we rehearse a lot on set prior to rolling. The film stock is just expensive, you know. If an actor isn’t connecting with the dialogue then I’ll adjust it to help them relax and let the performance become more natural. Most of my dialogue has multiple purposes and the words are chosen to be precise on all tiers. I have a lot of patience, I listen and hopefully the cast and crew feel that energy of how much I believe in them.
James Bickert on Direction and Dialogue:
Silence is the worst thing you can do to a performer. I try to avoid that even though I’m probably panicking about the next camera set-up because I have 70 shots to get before sundown. I keep the mood light and praise everyone when they’re doing really good work. Validation is so important. Just taking the time to be thoughtful and polite among all the chaos that comes with a fast-paced, underfunded production is essential.
Sometimes it becomes difficult to address an issue that you may consider minor at the time; not due to indifference, it’s just there are so many big tasks at hand that require your full attention. I’m trying to get better at providing quicker solutions to on-set emotional needs when my brain is in technical mode. I want to put everyone in the best situation to excel at what they do. A great attitude is contagious and puts the entire set in position to do their best creative work.
On the surface dialogue is generally humorous with a layer of innuendo. It contains something that adds dimension to that character without having unnecessary exposition within the film. Then there is an element that reflects the underlying theme of the film and how the character fits into the internal conflicts I’m personally exploring as a writer. That last layer is what I find the most rewarding element of filmmaking. I sugar coat it with humor so it isn’t blatantly obvious all the time. I did a lot of acid in the 80’s so there isn’t much than can be taken literally in my dialogue. Even what might appear as a one-liner probably has deeper meaning.
Some Final Thoughts with James Bickert:
The biggest challenge is always time, money and the never ending challenge of swimming in the shark invested waters of sales agents, producer’s reps, aggregates, lawyers and distributors. That’s an evolving process where you try not to make the same mistake twice. I’ve been pretty outspoken about the thieves in the industry. Most filmmakers keep their mouths shut out of fear. Or worse they feel they have an advantage over other filmmakers with their personal knowledge. I don’t want to see any artist taken advantage of in this industry regardless of genre.