Just pick up your camera
URBANA – You can't really pigeonhole Michael Wiese.
From an award-winning "Star Wars" spoof to a quest for spiritual enlightenment in Tibet, Wiese has explored an incredible range of subjects as an independent filmmaker – not to mention stints producing exercise and music videos and Democratic political ads.
The University High School graduate reviewed his 35-year career Saturday morning at the Illini Union while tossing out jokes and a few kernels of wisdom to aspiring directors at this year's Ebertfest. His latest release, "Sacred Sites of the Dalai Lamas," was shown Saturday at Boardman's Art Theatre in Champaign.
Wiese admits, with a mixture of pride and chagrin, that he's probably best known for "Hardware Wars," George Lucas' favorite "Star Wars" parody. It features a nerdy Fluke Starbuck and friends Augie Ben Doggie, Princess Android, Ham Salad and a Muppet-style Wookie Monster with a Tinman look-alike for C-3PO and a vacuum cleaner R2D2, flying around in irons and wafflemakers.
"The biggest special effect we had was a sparkler," Wiese said.
Made for $8,000, it became the highest-grossing short film ever made, bringing in more than $1 million. Why? It was good, funny and a marketing gold mine, re-released every time there's a new "Star Wars" movie, he said. Even the Defense Department ordered 12 copies.
Wiese started his film career as a summer "cub photographer" for The News-Gazette. He and cub reporter Roger Ebert covered the county fair together.
"I'd shoot the big fat girl with the big fat Heifer and the skinny kid with the skinny chicken," he said, and Ebert would write about them. Then they would sneak off to the tent where the strippers performed.
After learning the technical side of filmmaking at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Wiese went west to the Art Institute of San Francisco in 1965, where his artistic side flourished. He felt one early project, "Memories, Memories," was too good to screen in class, so he went to New York and approached Salvador Dali. The surrealist artist agreed to screen it at the St. Regis Hotel ballroom and invited Andy Warhol and friends. That persuaded a theater owner in San Francisco to show the film, which drew 2,000 people. The owner offered the midnight time slot to Wiese and his friends, and the first "midnight movies" were born.
After traveling around the world, Wiese made "The Silver Box" in 1974, a black-and-white expressionist film about the place we keep memories of loved ones. It begins with grainy but moving photos of his childhood in Champaign, including one shot where he's holding a box camera.
He loves the "shadowy" feel of the film, designed to evoke the soul. But for years he wouldn't show it after one critic called it a "ego trip." Filmmakers have to have a tough skin, he said.
Wiese said the movie invites audience interpretation and participation, something sorely lacking in films today.
"I have no interest in Hollywood-style movies," he said.
He refers to those early days as his "blue period" and his commercial work, for studios, distributors and cable networks, as his "black and blue period." At one firm, he produced hundreds of political ads, including a technically challenging spot that showed champagne flowing out of flutes and trickling into a tin cup to illustrate the Republicans' "trickle-down" economic theory. A narrator intones, "It isn't fair; it's Republican." After growing disillusioned with most of the candidates, Wiese quit.
"I realized they would just do and say anything to get elected. That was not the way I wanted to use the power of the media, said Wiese.
Another early documentary "Dolphins," was the first to explore the possibility of communication with the highly intelligent mammals in the wild. He's about to re-release it on DVD with "Return of the Dolphins," after he takes his daughter to swim with dolphins at the same spot in the Bahamas.
Before filming it, Wiese was promised financing from a developer that never came through.
"I had to learn to go out and talk to people and pitch the project," he said. "If you can't do it, keep your day job."
Wiese now runs a company that publishes books on filmmaking from his home in southwestern England and makes occasional "guerrilla attacks" into independent films. One charmer is "Field of Fish," a 22-minute tale of a "witching eye gang" of children in a small English town who help a fisherman driven mad by a mysterious vision at sea.
With its odd length and no "marketing hook," it's been difficult to get the movie shown at festivals, which tend to favor edgier films, Wiese said. An explosion of independent filmmakers means up to 3,000 entries for 100 open spots, he said.
His current project is "Bali Brothers," based on his own trip to Bali in 1970 with a friend who eventually went mad. He wrote a book about it and is trying to raise money for the film.
It was put on hold a few years ago when Wiese was invited to accompany musician-friend Steve Dantz on a spiritual journey to Tibet. They had unlimited access to sacred sites Westerners rarely see, including the holy temple of Barkhor.
Taking only a small camera and tripod, so he didn't have to apply for a film permit, Weise had no preconceived ideas about what might emerge. He knew only that any film couldn't be openly critical of the Chinese government, so as not to endanger their hosts. Instead, it celebrates Tibetan culture. The self-financed, $7,000 film has generated much wider interest than he anticipated.
"Sometimes you just have to pick up your camera and go make your movie," he said. "Go there with innocent eyes, and be there."