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Filmmaker David Cranstoun Welch on a Nelson to New York journey

Filmmaker David Cranstoun Welch on location.

As a young boy growing up in Nelson, Welch could often be found in his primary school classroom forcing his classmates to perform works that he had both written and directed. Born in Upper Moutere, just out of Nelson, Welch has always been well ahead of his peers. After producing a number of short films, he went on to direct his first feature length film at the age of 15, an impressive accomplishment for someone so young.

How would you describe your first feature film?

It was a verite road movie, inspired by early 1970s independent and New German cinema. Films like Wim Wender's Kings of the Road and Two Lane Blacktop. In keeping with the spirit of those films, the actors were all non-professionals: middle-aged blues musicians from the area, who appeared in scenes between drinks.

Your second feature, High Water Rising, was made when you were only 17. Can you tell me about it?

It was, I suppose, what you would describe as an "Acid Western". A black comedy, filmed in sepia, on a Hi-8 (to bring a gritty, 'unearthed' quality to the visuals). The story followed a rough and tumble fur trapper on a whiskey soaked, metaphysical journey, through a hostile western landscape. The lead, Billy Hunter, was a method actor, from the UK. He spent the entire shoot sleeping in his filth-covered trapper costume, and brought a feverish Klaus-Kinski quality to the role. Billy was also a palm reader, and liked to tell the fortunes of the cast and crew.

You've obviously been inspired to create film from a very young age. Who would you cite as your major influences?

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As with any filmmaker, there are a number of influences. I admire Frederik Wiseman, for his dogged determination to document and expose the ill-functioning institutions of the US. I admire the Danish director, Carl Dreyer, for his singularity of vision and obsession for detail: he once demanded, on the set of the film "Ordet", that shooting stop until the direction of the clouds had changed. Obsession is key. As far as New Zealand filmmakers go, Christopher Pryor is doing some amazing work that is both emotional and anthropological. He is also one of the best cinematographers we have.

When did you decide to move to New York City?

I moved in 2008. George Bush was still president, and the recession had just hit. The week I arrived, Time Magazine published a piece called the "The New Hard Times" which had a shot on the cover of a line of unemployed men, in the 1930s, lining up for soup. I had never visited America before I made the move, so there was an… adjustment period.

Where did you decide to live in New York City? How would you describe the neighbourhood?

I spent a number of years living in Brooklyn, in Red Hook. It is comparatively isolated, with no real public transportation, but had its own, vibrant life. It was a neighbourhood of contrasts, where, on one street you could find boutique clothing stores and cafes, and the next you are surrounded by the local housing projects, dotted with run down liquor stores and fried chicken joints, with bullet proof windows separating the customer from the teller.  The Latin American baseball fields, only a few blocks from where I lived, were always great, for both food and entertainment. I am currently living in Jersey City, on the border of Jersey Heights and Hoboken. Hoboken is filled with the classic New Jersey characters: lots of big hair, and painted nails. It's fantastic.

New York is the dream for filmmakers and workers in creative fields in general, what made you decide to move there?

I was fool-hardy, and wanted to find the kinds of characters you only read about, and see on television. New York has them in spades. In late 2012, my wife (the filmmaker, Belinda Schmid) and I attended the New Year's Day poetry marathon, at St. Mark's Church, in the Village. A lot of great characters were there, like Jonas Meekas, John Giorno and Taylor Meade. However, there was one character, who stood out above everyone else: CA Conrad. He was larger than life; close to 400 pounds, dressed in a large fur hat, with glitter nail polish, and an enormous crystal slung round his neck. His poetry was delivered in a loud, honking tenor that was immediately arresting. It was the work, however, that really grabbed us: stripped down and direct, but filled with brilliantly excessive, Rabelaisian humor.

We began working with him on a short documentary, which developed into the feature-length film, The Book of Conrad. We quickly found that, as a homosexual, living in America, Conrad's entire life had been shaped by violence: from the violence targeted against the community of drag queens he lived with in Philadelphia, to the suicide of his first boyfriend, in rural Pennsylvania. One boyfriend was even murdered, though the murder appeared to have been covered by officials in back-water Tennessee (where the murder had occurred).

The documentary took us on a journey across America, as we investigated the murder (interviewing the victim's twin, and local authorities) and followed Conrad's personal evolution, from outsider to celebrated writer. Conrad believes in externalising his emotions by performing unique, and sometimes bizarre rituals - from listening to the song "Blue Velvet" on repeat for several days on end, to performing reiki on meat in his local supermarket. We even filmed him "recharging" his crystals on Elvis' grave (much to the surprise of other visitors at Graceland, who were the "Blue Suede Shoes" variety).

Will we be seeing The Book of Conrad on our shores?

The Book of Conrad had its world premiere at the Thessaloniki Documentary Film Festival in Greece, and will be playing next month at Norsk Litteraturfestival in Norway. Hopefully coming to New Zealand soon.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on a narrative feature inspired by the life of Phineas Gage; an engineer who suffered a serious brain injury, when a tamping iron was fired through his skull. Gage's personality changed overnight.

What is the most interesting experience you have had in your work?

I had some odd experiences working as a journalist; you meet a real variety of people, from farmers, to musicians. Not long ago I interviewed (via a translator) the head of the North American arm of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church's Holy Synod in Exile. When filming The Book of Conrad, we had to shoot in both a sex shop and African American Baptist Church on the same day. It's all about the contrast.

What advice would you give a young New Zealander wishing to enter the filmmaking industry?

Grit your teeth and prepare to spend your entire life fighting. One day, maybe, just maybe, all the fighting will have been worth it.

You can find more about the work of David Welch at www.delinquentfilms.com

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