ELECTRIC MONK MEDIA
FILM & DIGITAL MEDIA PRODUCTION
Words: Justin Schafer / Photos: Janine Kropla
Dylan Fries is a programmer and video game developer. Michael Sanders is a long time independent filmmaker and photographer. The duo, along with business partner John Toone, make up Electric Monk Media; a media production company that recently released the documentary, Men With Beards.
Men With Beards is a light hearted, realistic look at the world and wonder of facial hair fanatics. The film examines topics of self-identity, masculinity, and cultural meanings. It takes you on a [surprise] emotional journey through first hand accounts of life sans-chin, from a collection of hairy characters.
The film is a treat but how it came to be is a script waiting to be written. On an early December morning at their McDermot studio, Dylan and Mike shared with us the story of how a fluke road trip to Alaska spawned an idea that resulted in three years of hard work and frustration. The kind of frustration that comes with editing twenty-one hours of interview footage into eighty minutes. The kind of frustration that finds you lost and takes you to the brink of mental illness. The kind of frustration that can only be solved by a parallel universe with Werner Herzog and his affinity for donuts.
Muddy Water: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you like to do?
Dylan: Well, I have a Computer Science degree. I just finished a film. I am a programmer and game developer. I also like to paint digitally and I like to make things. I have always been fascinated with technology and art since I was a really little kid and I am always trying to figure out ways to bring them together.
Mike: I started out as a graphic designer and photographer fifteen years ago. I always saw myself working in film and I [saw] my way into film by learning how to use a camera through photography. I got into editing as a hobby and started a production company with a couple friends. I have always been obsessed with story telling in one way or another.
MW: The whole idea for Men With Beards started with your experience at the World Beard and Moustache Championships in Alaska in two thousand nine, what spurred the idea to road trip up there?
D: I met a guy named Loaf at a Festivus party and he was like, “Hey, I’m going to go to the World Beard and Moustache Championships in Alaska. If anyone wants to pitch in for gas, they can come along.” I thought it was pretty funny, so I held him to it. He and I went and did a twenty-five day road trip up to Alaska. At the time I was working as an intern with Mike at Absurd Machine Studios and they gave me a camera because they thought it was hilarious too. Quite a nice camera too, it was like an expensive, don’t-come-back-without-it, kind of camera. I think that was actually the instructions.
MW: [Laughs] I think that comes with all cameras.
D: I think it was actually like its not insured if you lose it but it is insured if you break it, so if someone tries to take it from you, hit them with it!
M: [laughs] Yea we did have that conversation.
MW: Can you talk about your experience at the championship and what inspired you?
D: My experience was seeing this world for the first time; being in a room with 400 guys with the biggest beards you’ve ever imagined, hanging out together and being like, “Hey dude, nice beard. What kind of beard oil do you use?”
So I filmed tons of stuff and when I got back and showed Mike he was like well, your footage isn’t very good but I like the idea. I had made contact with a whole bunch of guys up there, and we knew there was something interesting there.
MW: Then what happened? Can you take me through a little bit of the process throughout your three years working on the film?
M: When Dylan got back we started shooting interviews right away. We knew a few guys in town and had some contacts from the championship and then people just started being like well I know this guy with a beard and this guy with a beard and we would just start showing up with a camera. During the interviews we noticed they were all such different characters but there were whole ideas that every one of them would share. That’s when we knew we had something to work with. We ended up doing twenty-one interviews in all, they turned out great. But then it was like ok now how the hell do we fit this into one movie? And then we spent three years editing.
D: The way we approached cutting it was really intricate and took a lot of work because well, there’s no narrator and no one really introducing the ideas for you. So we had to string together all these dudes that had never met and make it seem like they were around a table having a conversation together. It flows very smoothly and you don’t even notice it but, for it to make sense as a full piece, each clip has to slide together nicely and move the idea along. When it worked it worked really good, but when it didn’t it was a train wreck.
M: So when we first cut the interviews up, what we did is we went through and made sub clips, so while we were listening to them if someone said anything that sounded like a specific quantifiable theme we would cut it out and put it in a bin labeled society or self-identity, all those kind of things. It was just a way to make sense of it all. So what that ends up doing is, you end up removing the context of all these little segments. Which is good in one way because you want to think about it in terms of how are we going to mix it all up and put it together. It is bad in another way because eventually in that process you have to comeback to every clip and make sure you’re listening to what is happening and how it progresses.
D: We were developing the ideas as we were piecing the film together, the more we dug into what these guys were saying, we would find the larger idea and try to represent that in the film.
M: The only way to do that is watch the footage hundreds of times, you watch it and watch it and watch it and watch it and watch it, if you don’t know what to do and you don’t know what to edit, you just keep watching interviews.
D: It was a flawed system and we had really late stage editing problems, where we were having serious discussions asking ourselves “ok, do we have a movie? Or do we have to walk away from this?” like weeks before the final cut! We still had fundamental problems we hadn’t solved which is a pretty terrifying thing.
MW: Can you talk about one of those problems?
M: We finished our rough cut two years after we started shooting and it was ok, well no, it wasn’t ok, it was broken. We screened it for six people and by the middle of the movie you could feel that no one wanted to be there anymore. So we kind of walked away from it for a few months because you just need some space at that point.
Then we came back to it, editing on and off. By that point Dylan left to work in Newfoundland, and we were trying to edit over Skype. Dylan couldn’t see in real time what I was cutting and I would have to explain. The whole function of the process just wasn’t working. So I went to Newfoundland, that way we could at least be in the same room together and we edited everyday for 30 days straight. Dylan would go to work during the day and I would cut for 8 hours while he was gone, and when he would come home from work we would work for another 6 hours that night. Constantly having conversations about what the film is as a whole, and plotting that long arc and always talking about where it needed to go.
Then we had reached the midpoint where it needed to build up, it needed to feel like it is having ramifications throughout society it cant just feel like its these 15 guys all lamenting. We had probably cut that section a dozen different ways and it wasn’t fucking working. And then I had this insane dream one night.
It was this dream about Werner Herzog and being at his house and wanting to ask him the secret to what would possibly solve this problem, and he knew that’s what I wanted but he wasn’t telling me anything, he was just playing coy. And then at one point he takes me down into the basement and there are empty donut boxes everywhere, and he turns and looks at me and says, “I love donuts.” Then I woke up. And then the next morning I was like, “I think I know how it has to go, we just have to keep working at it.” When Dylan came home from work that day I was like, “Check out what I found!” I had found this five-minute clip of Ian Mozdzen talking about beards and symbolism in North American society, and that was exactly what we needed. We had been trying to get over that hurdle for two years and we finally had found the clip we needed to tie everything together.
D: Things were getting pretty scary before that point. It was Christmas and we were having conversations that were like “Ok Mike, you’re going to go to Christmas and you’re going to spend time with your family.” And he was like “Ok, I’m going to Christmas and I’m going to watch the movie with my family.” And I’d go “No Mike, you’re going to go to Christmas and you’re going to leave the movie here and spend some time with your family and your girlfriend. Just put the movie away.” And he was like “Ok. Ok. You’re right. So I’m going to bring the movie and we’re going to watch the movie.” [Laughs]
M: I did bring the movie [laughs] but you had to. At that point you’re committed. It was Christmas but we didn’t know if we had a working film. I had to watch the film in a room with other people that hadn’t seen it.
MW: Was your family worried about you?
M: I think everyone around me was concerned that it was taking so long. Because people don’t know, you know, five years isn’t a long time to make a documentary. In fact, that’s the average time to make a documentary. And we didn’t make it easy for ourselves.
MW: Well it turned out, it’s an amazing film. It premiered last month in Calgary, Vancouver, and Winnipeg. How was it received?
M: It was awesome. People have been leaving with a big grin from ear to ear, which is just overwhelming.
D: We’ve had a great response. During each screening people laughed at different points at first, some laughed at the big beards, some at the old b-rolls, but by the end everyone was always kind of synchronized, laughing together. It brought the whole theatre together and that’s really cool.
MW: What’s in store for the future of the Electric Monks?
D: We have more documentaries in the works, low budget horror shorts—Mike’s good at scaring people. We are also developing games for the Oculus Rift (a virtual reality headset due out to the public next winter).
M: All sorts of stuff, the thing in this industry though is we have a dozen or more projects that were throwing at the wall right now, but by the end of march, two of them might have stuck. And we’ll do that for a year.
See what sticks and take a look at the MWB trailer at www.electricmonkmedia.com
Rent or download MWB at www.devolverdigital.com/films/view/men-with-beards