Consumer Grade Film is a U.S. Midwestern collective of filmmakers focusing on low-budget, socially-conscious films. Their current projects include the short film Ubercreep, the feature film In Circles and the YouTube channel VHS Girl. In Circles tells the story of three teenagers, Carmen, Stephen, and Virgil, who "sell stolen prescription drugs in order to pay for an abortion, while the small farm town they live in is being threatened by a drilling company." Ubercreep tells the story of two women who are stalked by a driver from a ride sharing service. In late August Red Wedge’s Adam Turl spoke to Consumer Grade Film founders Carson Cates and Andrew Laudone.
Adam Turl: I love the name, “Consumer Grade Film.” It reminds me of many oppositional gestures in 20th century art – embracing the contingency of the position we find ourselves in as artists. We don’t necessarily have mana from heaven – a million dollars to make your first movie. Why did you call yourselves Consumer Grade Film? And how did you come to form Consumer Grade Film?
Andrew Laudone: We have a personal connection to it. When we met there was this album we were listening to all the time and one of the lines is, “consumer grade video at night…” I can’t remember the full lyric at this point. But it was years before the conception of the company. We thought it would make a great name for our collaborative effort. We assumed we wanted to make film cheaply and economically.
Carson Cates: We started using it way back when in 2009 and 2010.
Andrew Laudone: Yeah, in our early student work.
Carson Cates: To me it was always really comedic. This film is approved for human consumption. It is “consumer grade.”
Adam Turl: So a double pun on the name for cheaper grade camera film.
Andrew Laudone: Almost mocking the Hollywood system of doing things. We intentionally want to go cheap even though at this point it is our only option. In In Circles – the feature film project that we are working on – we want to film the story in a way that we think the characters would, that the people in this town would, and they are not going to use a 100,000 dollar camera. They are going to use something they can afford.
Adam Turl: Can you tell us about the overall project of In Circles? Maybe sketch out the story a little bit for us. You sort of tagged it as a film about the Midwest by the Midwest.
Andrew Laudone: To restate, it is a project by the Midwest for the Midwest. But you can apply the problems in the film to almost any region in the country that’s poor and rural. We want to include everyone we can in our area because that is the backbone of DIY filmmaking.
Carson Cates: I think the “by the Midwest for the Midwest” tagline is indicative of self-representation. We are making a movie about the Midwest because that’s where we are from. We are making a film about ourselves. We are not outsiders making a film and I think that is pretty important to the overall project.
Adam Turl: I got a chance to read the script for In Circles and one striking dynamic is this back and forth between the personal or inner lives of the working-class characters and overarching social trauma represented by the Crescent Energy Company. It isn’t just didactic propaganda but neither does it abstain or withdraw from things that require one to take sides.
Andrew Laudone: We wanted everything to fit cohesively. This is a microcosm of the Midwest in which all the things that can go wrong are going wrong. It is intentionally overt while still realistic. All these problems are interwoven so deeply that even what is ailing them is also helping them – for example, their use of alcohol and drugs. As we have been promoting the project people ask us what does it matter that the area around the town is being fracked? We can’t say exactly why because it would ruin the story. I also think synopses are kind of bullshit. But the ending sort of represents a trickle down economics.
Adam Turl: You have a particular approach to the character of Carmen and her reproductive decisions. It is just assumed by all the principle characters that she has the right to do whatever she wants in terms of terminating her pregnancy.
Andrew Laudone: I think the issue is that somebody else is telling her what to do. She is in a position she doesn’t want to be in. This is similar to how the drilling company is oppressing the town itself. These are poor people’s problems. You get oppressed by a higher body. The film follows three Midwestern teenagers – Carmen, Virgil and Steven – in a river town that is threatened by a fracking operation. They are selling stolen prescription drugs in order to pay for Carmen’s abortion. That is the central plot of the film. Carmen doesn’t know what to do. The resources are not available to her. She knows the solution to the problem but cannot afford to fix it. She is trying – just like the town’s residents are trying to keep the fracking company out.
Turl: In the demo reel for In Circles you capture this aesthetic impression of small town Midwestern life –particularly the rivers region (southern Illinois, southeastern Missouri). How does the setting fit in – its evocation of a certain set of feelings, the constraints on the characters? One of the things you said earlier really struck me – that in places like this sometimes the things that hurt are also the things that help (drugs, alcohol). I was wondering if you could unpack the setting a little bit.
Laudone: They say write what you know. I wrote In Circles about a place like the place I grew up. That is irreplaceable from a personal standpoint. As a story telling tool I think the landscape represents bigger forces beyond what the characters are capable of effecting. I wanted to give the cornfields this sort of cosmic vibe; somehow affecting what they are doing. What is interesting about Midwest Emo, for example, is that it is a genre at all – to be so emotional about the place you come from. So I wanted this mindset, this ennui.
Carson Cates: What you are saying about evoking a mindset – there is a lot of nostalgia for people in the Midwest, more so than other regions. People have strong connections here to their landscapes. It really informs your life; what you grew up next to, what you grew up with and without.
Laudone: The town in In Circles is completely isolated. They have these vast cornfields separating them from the rest of society. There is a town in Illinois called Evansville. It is isolated and almost lawless in a way because there isn’t a police station. It is almost like they’ve been left behind…
Turl: By time?
Laudone: By time I suppose. Or the original prospects of the town.
Turl: Do you think this is inherent to the rust belt – to the deindustrialization that occurred over the past few decades, the closing of the mines, the Maytag factory, the feeling that the promise of the area has been curtailed?
Cates: That is actually very similar to the history of the town I grew up in. When we finally got a library and saw the historic records we found out that it used to be a more prosperous town with all this industry. And now it is a tiny town with less than a thousand people living there. If you live there you work for the coal mines and are constantly imperiled that you are going to lose your job if the mines shut down. At the same time the coal mine is destroying the livability of the town.
Turl: The health of the people and the environment?
Cates: It goes so far to destroy the farmland because they dig underneath. So the land sinks and it is not worth any money. There are piles of coal and ash. It is an eyesore if nothing else.
Turl: And then black lung for folks who work there…
Cates: Yeah. Or any kind of accident. When my father got a job in the coal mine the second month he worked there something fell and hit him in the head. If it had been just slightly over it would have killed him. He was on workman’s comp for a long time. That’s a pretty common story for people.
Turl: I’d like to ask about another one of your projects, Ubercreep, about a couple of characters who are stalked by a driver from a ride sharing service. On top of the old economy failing – which we were just talking about – here are the problems of the new “sharing economy” and of course gender and sexual violence.
Cates: I’m the writer and director of Ubercreep. I conceived this idea last year. I wanted to do something specifically where female characters are threatened or in danger but never actually get hurt or victimized – because most of our movies have plenty of women being raped and murdered and we don’t need to make a lot more. What I like about Ubercreep and the Uber driver is that women are constantly told not to go home alone or take safe rides. So these two characters are actively taking the “safe option.” But it is not safe because you don’t actually know who is behind the wheel. There have been plenty of instances where Uber drivers have stalked or hurt or done crazy fucked up things to women passengers. Taxi drivers too. There is no really safe option.
Turl: One of Consumer Grade Film’s other projects is VHS Girl. It is interesting in that it deals with this anachronistic media but not in a way that is totally nostalgic or merely humorous.
Cates: VHS Girl started as an Instagram account where our associate Katie Winchester started collecting video tapes and posting them online. There is actually an online community of people who collect and trade VHS tapes. A lot of people pass off VHS tapes as something no one uses anymore but that isn’t really true. I myself have a pretty big VHS collection. Katie has a considerably larger collection that is always growing. There are all these people on the internet who love VHS tapes. There is a nostalgia factor to it. But I also feel like there is a medium preference.
Turl: Do you think it has something to do something that used to be a mass proletarian media – go to Blockbuster and rent a movie, everybody had VHS tapes – but now they’ve become rarer so they take on an auric value? Watching a movie on VHS seems more magical somehow than watching something streaming online.
Cates: Yeah. I really like watching VHS tapes for a number of reasons. One of my favorite things about a VHS tape as opposed to a DVD or Netflix is that VHS tapes as a physical medium deteriorate. You get artifacts in the tapes. The more you watch them the more worn they get and it changes the overall image quality of the tape. You can argue that is a con but for a lot of people who like VHS tapes it is actually a pro. It shows the life of the tape. And VCRs are really convenient. You can fall asleep and it rewinds the tape for you. You don’t wake up to a DVD menu screen playing over and over incessantly. They are more fun to collect than DVDs. Its cover art becomes its own thing. It is actually more fun to display your movies. I think that is a big reason why most people who collect tapes collect horror and sci-fi tapes; especially horror. The art is really interesting and the movies are really weird. There are also a ton of movies on VHS that never got transferred over to any other formant. They are little hidden gems you can’t get on DVD.
Turl: I read an article a while ago by Alain Badiou about “the encounter” – digitization can remove some of the “random” encounters one has in life. So you find a tape and watch it regardless. That transformative experience can be lost if you always know exactly what you want to see or watch.
Cates: That is one of the most important things about collecting tapes. You find a tape you haven’t seen. There is also the fact that tapes are almost always less than one dollar. You can get them at the Goodwill five for a dollar. It is almost like a ritual. I love the old commercials. I used to fall asleep to a tape based on which previews I wanted to watch.
Turl: Is there something about the actuality of VHS tapes that is related to the impulse that led you to call yourselves Consumer Grade Film? Some sort of materiality you are trying to communicate?
Laudone: Maybe subconsciously. It is a nice parallel. But I think we came up with the name before we were into VHS.
Cates: I was already into VHS. Andrew’s not into VHS tapes. I’ve been collecting them for about seven years. It started because I didn’t have a DVD player but I had a VCR.
Turl: Didn’t they just stop making VCRs?
Cates: They did. But I don’t think that will last very long.
Laudone: You can still get VHS printed though.
Cates: Yeah you can still get VHS made. One of my favorite things is newer movies on VHS.
Turl: Not unlike contemporary independent musicians putting out audio tapes.
Turl: How can people support Consumer Grade Film and In Circles? And get notified when Ubercreep is coming out and get updates about VHS Girl?
Laudone: Start by going to our website consumergradefilm.com.
Cates: You can also follow us on Instagram.
Laudone: Right now our only Facebook page is for In Circles but we’ll start a Consumer Grade Film page after this fundraising cycle ends. If people are interested in donating to our project, letting us use interior or exterior properties for location shoots, or auditioning or being an extra if you are local, check out our site and e-mail us.
Carson Cates is a filmmaker and founding member of Consumer Grade Film.
Andrew Laudone is a filmmaker and founding member of Consumer Grade Film.
Adam Turl is an artist and editor at Red Wedge Magazine.