Movie Maker Profile: Jeff Krulik

By Jeff Krulik, director of independent documentary films and former Discovery Channel producer. Edited by Siobhan Hagan.

[I grew up in Bowie, MD] and graduated Bowie High School 1979. Moved there after spending the first two years of my life in Langley Park, MD. My Mom was from Baltimore, my Dad from NYC. He was in these parts as a shower curtain sales rep (family business: my Great Uncle Joseph A. Kaplan pioneered luxury shower curtains). My parents met at a Halloween party and that’s where the story begins.

After finally vacating my 20-year residency in a cramped DC apartment, [I currently live in] Silver Spring, MD. Glad to leave that behind. Now if I could have just left all my books, records, CDs, DVDs and miles and miles of videotape behind, I could truly be free.

[I went to] University of Maryland, BA 1983, English. I never considered going anywhere else. Half my high school seemed to go there, and that seemed to be the norm. No regrets. I always planned to live on campus and was encouraged to do so by my parents–even though my personal laundry service and home cooked food was just 20 minutes away. Thankfully, the dorm I was assigned was a great bunch of guys, plus one of my best friends Steve lived the next dorm over, and I managed to navigate the siren call of endless beer and partying alongside my studies, plus my burgeoning interest in the new music that was happening.

My group of new friends–we seemed to all meet at a Clash concert on campus that fall 1979–went on a mission to rewire the campus as best we could, and that included joining the campus radio station and college entertainment board at the student union, resulting in many many rewarding and long volunteer hours at WMUC and with Glass Onion Concerts. I had the first punk/new wave dedicated program on the newly christened 10-watt WMUC, it was Friday nights at 7pm and I named it Moods for Moderns after the Elvis Costello song. When I could, I focused on local bands playing original music. We got involved in bringing great local bands to campus, and even The Ramones which was a real coup at the time, as no one else on our programming committee believed it would be a success. We packed the place!

I went through at least five majors until I figured out my best, my favorite, classes were English classes, reading great books (or sadly, in some cases, great Cliff Notes). But my original career goal throughout most of my college years (1979-83) was to work in the music industry as I was obsessed with records, music and record collecting, or radio since I loved being a DJ and music programmer–but so much of the music I loved and championed was not in the least bit commercially viable. It took nearly a decade for that to change, and I just didn’t have the patience. Plus, being in the concert promotion business was out of the question, as I didn’t have the hard-as-nails temperament needed. Gradually, I explored my love and interest in films and filmmaking (film appreciation classes on campus), and that dovetailed with the discovery of nearby public access television, when anyone could borrow free professional tv equipment and make a tv show.

Public access community television became my school and playground at the same time–this is where I jumped in to the deep end and it was sink or swim time. Many people take classes and borrow equipment and never follow through on anything. But I not only started producing videos for the one company called Storer Cable (northern Prince George’s County with studios near UofMD), but I also became a door to door cable salesmen for MetroVision Cable (southern Prince George’s County which was completely unknown territory for me) when I graduated college in spring 1983. And by January 1985 I was promoted to running the the public access studio for MetroVision in Capital Heights, Maryland.

Honestly, I feel self-taught and I developed “my eye” behind a camera, and in front of an editing system, completely on my own. I never took filmmaking classes, only film appreciation classes. But I gobbled up movie history and always loved going to the movies and reading about films and filmmaking. But the funny thing is, I never touched celluloid in my life, and this used to be a source of contention and debate: Is videomaking the same as filmmaking and vice versa? This debate was further fueled by the lack of screening opportunities in theaters when you made video. Nowadays theatrical video projection is the norm. Not so when I was starting out. That’s one reason why Heavy Metal Parking Lot was so widely traded as a video, since there were no other ways to see it.

I wish I could say I worked in film, but I never touched the stuff. Nowadays I work in archival film research so I touch 16mm and 35mm all the time, but merely to thread it up and screen it on a Steenbeck. So I’d have to say my sentimental favorite format is 3/4″ Umatic video which is where I got my start, and with linear editing as well. No computerized hocus pocus–when you comitted to a timeline and sequence you committed to it, there were very few options to change it. Of course, since my career came to fruition during the golden days of analog video filmmaking, I have an endless pile of tapes in varying formats to deal with, including 3/4″, vhs, beta and now miniDV. Help!

I keep everything. But I’ve actually started divesting of tape. It used to be a code of the indie/underground filmmaker to trade tapes with your fellow filmmakers at film festivals. I’m now dispersing these films to other filmmakers, but I’m careful to make sure they go to a welcome home. At the moment, most of my recent projects are on miniDV so those tapes are sitting on several shelves nearby, and I have piles of beta and 3/4″ tapes in a climate controlled storage unit so they are safe as long as I pay my monthly rent bill.

One side project I’m doing is to transfer all my source tapes to digital files. In honor of Ernest Borgnine’s 95th birthday (and six months before he passed away), I posted all the source footage of our weeklong road trip on a dedicated YouTube channel.

And that’s what I’m planning to do for my other ambitious projects. First up, the outtakes from Traveling Sideshow: Shocked and Amazed. Stay tuned.

I can’t seem to make the leap to all-digital filmmaking, but many of my colleagues have.

Nobody I know makes a solid living as a documentary filmmaker. If you don’t have a supportive spouse or partner as breadwinner, it can be difficult. But not impossible. Documentary filmmaking is often ‘labor of love time.’ But I’m not privvy to the financial records of the gazillion doc filmmakers out there, so perhaps there are some who have figured out to make a living churning out films. I think the best gig would be in academia. I’ve dabbled in it, but never got beyond being a guest lecturer. My ‘day job,’ if you will, is as a freelance day location producer or archival footage researcher, so both of these are still in the film/video/media universe. But they are not regular gigs–I haven’t had linear employment since leaving a Discovery Channel job in 1995. But I’d always consider going back somewhere no question; this erratic freelance life is not for the faint of heart (or faint of bank account).

I don’t think there’s one particular thing I can pinpoint about Maryland that makes me ‘stay here.’ I think there are many factors at play, including family, friends and perhaps fear. But I didn’t know this back when I was just staying put. One year turned into the next, and so on. I’m 52 now and I’m not going anywhere. But that’s fine with me, as I’ve carved out a career and body of work and reputation, albeit perhaps a small cult one, in the filmmaking world. I wanted to create a body of work true to my vision, and do it in my hometown. The public access years taught me filmmaking, but when I was on staff at Discovery Channel I learned about network TV programming. These experiences have all been good, but I’m always developing and learning I ‘spose. The main thing I’ve learned is I need to collaborate. That’s essential for any filmmaker I believe. Very few people can do it all, and it helps to have additional opinions in the mix, even if it’s only just a few.

Let me just state that I’m a documentary filmmaker and producer, so I’m only qualified to give opinions about that type of filmmaking. I admire and envy those who can bring to life words on paper. Narrative filmmaking is a much different beast than documentary. I’d like to rise to its challenge one day, but if I never do I’m okay with that.

I think there a lot of cool things going on in the state that are an asset to filmmakers, from the various film festivals going on–regional ones like Utopia Film Festival in Greenbelt, MD or Frederick Film Festival in Frederick, MD, or big ticket fests like the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore or AFI Docs in Silver Spring, MD–to classes and workshops from diverse entities such as Docs in Progress or Arlington Independent Media (in Virginia but it’s open to anyone, I guess that doesn’t help the MD cause).

A pal of mine is a film professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, MD, and I’m sure he’s helped funnel talent to Maryland Public Television if not other entities.

Look what I just googled. Haha. Grab a camera kids.

If anyone wants to start a digital filmmaking center in Maryland, keep me in mind. I can come be the cautionary tale of doom and gloom, telling people to do anything but this. Then that’ll help whittle down the gene pool to only the most dedicated and passionate, because that’s what it takes to succeed in this universe.

I look at all my projects with a degree of pride, so it’s hard to pick just one as being ‘most proud.’ Clearly, both John Heyn and I are very grateful for all the attention we’ve had for Heavy Metal Parking Lot, both by accident and by design, and that title is easy to point to since it’s been quite a journey, now 27 years along. But Ernest Borgnine on the Bus was a game changer for me, and Hitler’s Hat allowed me to travel the major Jewish film festival circuit, and even small films like the recently unveiled The Real Pinball Wizard was a reclamation project from the depths of obscurity (culled from outtakes from the basement of Maryland Public Television). So I know this dances around the question, but my films are like family to me, and it’s it’s hard to pick a favorite (and I think you’ll find that same quote from many filmmakers out there).
Heavy Metal Parking Lot http://www.heavymetalparkinglot.com/

Ernest Borgnine on the Bus

Hitler’s Hat

The Real Pinball Wizard

One day I’ll have everything listed in a comprehensive way, either on IMDB or Wikipedia or my website or all three. Maybe I was too prolific for my own good, especially since most of my body of work is in the short form. And video allows you to just crank them out, since tape is cheap. Or now, megabytes are even cheaper, depending on the size of your project and hard drive. I believe in the web for both distributing your work, or providing information about your work, such as a dedicated site to Heavy Metal Picnic. I’d say just about every video I’ve produced has a story behind it, and when I post one on YouTube or Vimeo I try to provide some context. I try not to get too long winded because I am obsessed with minutae that people care very little about and I have to continually remind myself of that. But for anyone who really wants to dissect my work, I point to an essay Ed Halter wrote. He used to program the New York Underground Film Festival, was a film critic for the Village Voice among others, and is now a visiting professor at Bard College. He’s always had my back, and I’m forever grateful. Plus, he invited me to participate in the Flaherty Film Seminar in 2002 and that was a life changing experience. I’ll close with a plug for my latest called Led Zeppelin Played Here, nearing completion.

Heavy Metal Picnic http://www.heavymetalpicnic.com/

Television for the People http://canopycanopycanopy.com/5/television_for_the_people

Led Zeppelin Played Here http://www.ledzeppelinplayedhere.com/

And since you seem curious about my public access days, here’s one video I’ve posted that sort of kind of gives you an idea to my mental state during the latter period of my tenure, somewhere around 1988 or ’89 This was taped by a local resident who wanted to tape me giving a tour with his home video camera. I said no problem, as long as you let me make a copy of it.

And I’ve just posted this public access gem, where I make a cameo at 5:06
This was typical public access fare, and I hope it demonstrates why it was the best of the times, and the worst of times.

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