Film depicts ‘a beautiful, but dangerous’ steampunk motorcycle

Local filmmaker Seth Brown to debut short film at CIFF

Posted:  Wednesday, September 26, 2012 - 10:00am
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It’s got to be really exciting, but a little weird, to see your first short film up on The Strand screen sitting next to the guy who is the subject of your documentary.  Oh and the guy is a filmmaker himself. No pressure there.

Seth Brown had had little sleep the morning we met. He’d been up late editing his short film, Deus Ex Machina scheduled to screen on Sunday, Sept. 30, at 12 p.m. at The Strand Theater in Rockland as part of Camden International Film Festival’s “Shorts Plus” series.

'This film is my cobbled together motorcycle.'

Brown, 25, is a refreshing departure from the hipster filmmaker. He’s a Maine boy, born and raised. Plaid shirt and jeans kind of kid.  When he speaks about his experiences, he’s humbled by what he doesn’t know. No matter how far he’s come, he’s still eager to learn. In one sentence, he described what this film has to offer. “It’s about an ex-filmmaker who builds an incredibly beautiful, but dangerous machine.”

The “ex-filmmaker,” is his mentor and Camden resident, Jack Churchill, who worked in the film industry for 40 years in New York. The “machine” is a steampunk BMW motorcycle that Churchill built last year and has ridden, though not as fast as its 90 m.p.h, limit. “I’m more afraid of this one than any other motorcycle I have,” Churchill said.  

Churchill’s retirement from film doesn’t mean he has left the industry altogether. A  film teacher at Camden Hills Regional High School for the last nine years, he first encountered Brown as a student in one of his classes.

“In class, usually what you get is a group of boys who want to film themselves and their friends doing jumps on skis or snowboards,” said Churchill. “They don’t prep it, they just cut it together and put some rap music or some dub step and call it good. And that was originally Seth’s motivation. But every year we see students with enormous potential and Seth was one of the first ones we looked at. And it’s not just potential –it’s passion. As a teacher, what you’ve got to do is get their interest in snowboarding to translate into interesting film. If you learn the craft, then anyone will be interested in seeing it because the product is so good.”

After studying film at Emerson College in Boston, Brown could have gone to New York or Los Angeles, where most aspiring filmmakers are encouraged to go. Instead, he chose to come back to Maine and make his own opportunities happen. Last year with two of his friends, Tyler Dunham and Corey MacLean, Brown dreamt up the idea of renovating an old school bus and taking it across the country as part of a social media/film experiment while doing good deeds for community service along the way.  Largely funded by individual donations while they drove to California, that phase of their lives was called Love, The Bus.

Brown said, “Every time I’d come back from college, Jack would help me with my film projects as an advisor. He helped us so much on the pitch video for Love, The Bus, always telling me, ‘fix this or fix that.’ The day he looked at it and had no critique for it, I was like, ‘Yes!’  I wouldn’t be where I am now without his help and advice.”

The concept behind Deus Ex Machina all started with a steampunk motorcycle that Churchill built. It took the better part of six months, and nearly 30 hours a week to build it…just because he’d seen a similar one at The Owls Head Transportation Museum the previous year and thought he could make one just as good. [See accompanying video of how it was made.] Now almost done [to be truly “done” Churchill said, he’d leave it out in the rain for another six months and let it rust up pretty nice] it rests under the spotlights at The Transportation Museum, its oxy acetylene torch welder handlebars and old leather horse saddle purposefully chapped and rugged. It is one smart-ass bike with way too much attitude. To a gear head (and fans of Mad Max movies) this bike is fascinating. And perhaps the story of building it is equally interesting to those who like to tinker around, spending their afternoons looking at old cars at The Transportation Museum. But to a harried stay-at-home mom of three toddlers, or a chess enthusiast with heliophobia, how interesting is it going to be? Would they really go out of their way to go out of their way to watch a 14-minute film about it?

That is, in fact, the struggle of every young documentary filmmaker--to pull a universal story out of specialized subject matter and entice the viewer to stick with it until the end.

That was Brown’s challenge from the beginning. In the last year, Brown has focused his efforts on more documentary projects while supporting himself as a part-time filmmaker for corporate videos.  All he had to do is see the machine Churchill was building to know this would be his next film project.  He had no idea what he’d so with the film once it was made—he just had to make it. “As usual, I learned so much more working around him, like using a crane for the first time,” said Brown.

Churchill added, “Seth and I have always had this mentor-mentee relationship, but in the filming of it, you can imagine how this went. He’d set up a shot and I’d say, ‘this shot would be much cooler if he pulled back the telephoto lens to show the silhouette.’ “

Brown jumped in. “One day he was ratting on me for using a 50 mm lens and I liked that lens. I kept debating with him about it. Finally, I said, I’m going to use the 50. This is my film. Back off.”

Churchill smiled.

“This is why I haven’t shown him the film, because I know he’ll have critique,” continued Brown. “It is about him, but it is my story about his story. This film is my cobbled together motorcycle.”

Churchill added, “The beauty of the experience for us is that what Seth went through creatively making this film was the same thing I went through creatively making the bike.”

Maybe it was because he was now fully awake and had warmed to his subject, Brown paused for a moment to really extract the meaning of what the two of them had just accomplished together. “What started out as a film about the construction of the bike, turned into a theme of what it means to build. Anyone who has ever constructed something, the creative process, the ups and downs, in order to see the final product through will recognize themselves in this film.”

Sounds as though Brown has found his universal story.

To check out CIFF’s short film schedule visit: camdenfilmfest.festivalgenius.com/2012/schedule/week