Tyler Dawson, left, Jessie Wiseman, Evan Glodell (who directed, wrote… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)
Think of it as the ultimate bad romance: Boy meets girl, girl cheats on boy, boy torches her things with a flamethrower and sets off on an apocalyptic rampage. "Bellflower" transforms a youthful breakup into something that seems like the end of the world.
Evan Glodell — director, writer, star, co-producer and co-editor — designed and constructed the digital cameras used to give the film its idiosyncratic look as well as the flamethrower and fire-belching muscle car that have become the film's calling cards. Having premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and gotten a buzz-building boost at South by Southwest in Texas this spring — the rowdy party with a live cricket-eating contest helped — "Bellflower" has become one of the most talked-about festival films of the year. Which is not to say everyone loves it; people fall passionately to either side.
The film opens with two friends, Woodrow and Aiden (Glodell and Tyler Dawson), spending their days like a post-punk Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, shooting propane tanks and working on gadgets like a car with a dashboard whiskey dispenser. Into this boy's-life bliss enter Milly and Courtney (Jessie Wiseman and Rebekah Brandes), and when Woodrow and Milly's brief, passionate affair falls apart, it is an emotional reckoning.
Opening in Los Angeles on Friday, the day after Glodell's 31st birthday, the film has seemed oddly blessed. When Glodell was filming a television segment featuring the muscle car (named "Medusa") for "Last Call With Carson Daly" on the streets of Austin, music superstar Sean Combs, just walking by, jumped on-camera and handed him $1,000 cash. Glodell, broke, used the money to get home to California.
"We did some repairs on the car when we were in Texas, so we were out of money," recalled Glodell in Los Angeles. "I was trying to figure something out, and that's when I went on 'Carson' and P. Diddy gave me a thousand dollars. The next thing I was going to do after the interview was run around and try to find a way to get home. So it ended up working out."
Originally from Wisconsin, Glodell briefly studied engineering and then filmmaking before moving to Southern California in the early 2000s. He lives in Ventura; the film was shot there and in Oxnard. After a bad breakup he wrote the first draft of "Bellflower" in 2003 and returned to the script periodically while also making a series of shorts.
"Bellflower" was shot over 90 days starting in July 2008; the version submitted to Sundance cost about $17,000, including the Medusa, which Glodell figures ate up as much as half the budget. Glodell's production team annexed an unused section of an office space where Glodell had previously worked, turning it into a workshop and crash pad, with upward of 11 people sleeping there.
"Every dollar that came in, it was like, 'Oh, we can actually eat something today,'" recalled Vincent Grashaw, co-producer, co-editor and an actor in the film. "And Evan would spend it on the car. The thing about it is, I've come to respect a lot of the things I actually fought against with him. And knowing now what the car meant to the movie, it was really smart. Sacrificing what you eat for the day is nothing compared to the car. So it was worth it."
Gonzo-style, guerrilla filmmaking taken to some umpteenth power, the film was a do-it-yourself, by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavor. A stunt driver was hired for one day for a specific maneuver on a city street, otherwise the production handled its own stunt work. Grashaw convinced security in a hospital parking lot that they were shooting a documentary on Glodell, who was made up with heavy bandages.
For another scene, police dropped by to break up a party as it was being filmed, and another time officers in a cruiser inquired what they were doing with a bunch of broken glass on a city street late at night but let them continue.
"A lot of times filming, it was pretty stressful," said Grashaw of the safety and logistical concerns. "It got to a point where if we didn't talk about it, we didn't worry about it as much. It was definitely always on my mind. If we were caught firing a flamethrower? I'm assuming that's pretty bad."
Partway through the movie, Glodell's character is hit by a car and once out of the hospital he fears he may have brain damage. This kicks off the film's most wildly stylized and violently excessive section, which may or may not reflect his character's damaged point of view, like a short-circuiting fantasy sequence.
"The movie was never meant to be a puzzle," said Glodell of how audiences are to perceive what happens on-screen. "It's not really supposed to be about that. It's an emotional story line, you're supposed to just kind of go with it."
Though the Medusa car and the film's rough-and-tumble spirit are its most obvious selling points, "Bellflower" is meant as a genuine emotional experience, sincere and heartfelt even as its male characters valorize Lord Humungus from "The Road Warrior" and their beer-and-bacon for breakfast bonhomie masks how they feel too deeply.
"People came in not knowing anything about the movie," said Glodell of audiences' overwhelmed responses. "They'd watch it, they'd like it and they'd try to describe it and just say, 'It's got a really cool car in it!' You can't think of anything else to say because the movie is difficult to describe. So the car becomes almost like the one thing you can hold on to."