Interviewing the Unorthodox: Chris Kelso, Laura Lee Bahr, and the Short Film STRANGE BIRD

By Amy M. Vaughn

Our guests today may not need much introduction since both are heavyweights in their fields. Chris Kelso is the author of an enormous and phenomenal body of work, including most recently The DREGS Trilogy and the forthcoming nonfiction Burroughs in Scotland. Laura Lee Bahr is no less prolific. She’s been featured in several anthologies, published three novels (including the Fungasm classic Haunt), and written three feature-length screenplays, one of which, Boned, she also directed.

Both talented creatives in their own rights, we would expect that when they team up—as they did for the screenplay of Bahr’s 2019 short film Strange Bird—the result would be nothing short of exceptional, and we would be right.

Hopefully both Bahr and Kelso will be game for individual interviews with Babou 691 in the future, and we’ll be able to get into their ongoing and future projects. But for this interview, we’re keeping it all Strange Bird.

AMY VAUGHN: First of all, congratulations on making such a great film! Every time I watch it, I like it more. Okay, question: because so many of our readers are writers, could you talk about the difference between writing prose and writing screenplays?

CHRIS KELSO: Thank you so much, Amy. I’m glad the film benefits from repeat viewings, all the movies I love bring new things to the fore with each watch. I think writing prose is much more forgiving. You can have areas that are slow or stretch some purple prose across the page—but scripts must be economic. Airtight. You spend most of the time shaving bits off, instead of fattening it up (as you would a novel). 

LAURA LEE BAHR: I always think of screenplays as a blueprint, a representation of what you are building, whereas prose you need to actually build a house to live inside. The script needs to inspire others to bring their talent to give it life. Movie making is a collaborative effort, so the script needs to invite that.

AV: Let’s talk about collaborating. How did this pairing come into existence? Can you talk about your process as a team? Were there defined roles or was it a more free-form kind of dance?

CK: That is exactly it—a dance. A back and forth. A search for synchronicity. I think your performance is only as good as your dance partner, or dance troupe—and Strange Bird assembled quite a group of creative athletes. I had a real desire to collaborate again with Laura, after our short story, “The Invisible World.” She is such a phenomenal writer, actor and director. I was a fan long before we ever worked together or met in person. I sent her this scrappy contrived script and she basically slapped it around until it was filmable. Everything good in that script came from her, or her partner Ezra. My part was fairly infinitesimal compared to the powerhouse that is Laura Lee Bahr. It has never been so smooth to tango. 

LLB: Working with Chris is definitely a smooth and beautiful tango! Back in the day when he was making the “Imperial Youth Review” zine I became a fan of Kelso’s writing. Just because you like someone’s work doesn’t mean that you will work together well, but honestly I have had nothing but joy working with him. And he definitely sells himself short in his above description. There would be no Strange Bird without his ideas, his enthusiasm, his continued dedication to the project. Also, he brought in Pumajaw. Their awesome soundtrack defines the tone and feel of this movie.

AV: Strange Bird sure is relatable for being so weird. Your protagonist, Collene, and her situation with work and relationships and (I assume) depression is desperately real. Where does she come from? Is she based on an individual, is she more of a symbolic amalgamation? Tell me all about Collene.

CK: Collene was originally your standard aimless, down-and-out middle-aged male who worked for a suicide hotline. As soon as Laura got the character, she molded that indistinct 2-dimensional avatar into something with more depth and substance. But the grain of that personality is present in me, for sure. That desperate soul pawing around in the darkness for connection and meaning—I mean, that could be any one of us, right? But Collene has been hurt before. The dialogue does not divulge that, Laura’s performance does. She subtly reveals the nuance of her inner sadness. Whatever Laura brought to the role is the really interesting part. 

LLB: I agree with Chris. Collene is the alienated everyone, her soul day by day being sucked dry, stuck in a dead-end city, job, relationship and life. But also, she is incredibly personal to me. I fight so hard to keep my heart alive in this world, but there have been years of my life that I have spent feeling dead inside. Feeling like I am being stalked by something that will kill me or awaken something that I need to stay alive—this I know like my own reflection.

AV: To me, it seems like making a film would take a level of commitment far beyond getting a book out into the world. Can you talk about what it takes to make something like Strange Bird a reality?

LLB: Okay, sorry about the novella here. It’s a different type of commitment, certainly. It involves a lot more people, technical expertise and money. I have been making independent movies for my entire adult life, and it is an incredibly challenging undertaking. That being said, what we wanted to do with Strange Bird was something different. We wanted it to be something that we found interesting, inspiring, and that challenged what we could do with people working for free, guerilla-style. It was really Chris’ enthusiasm for the project that helped me over the hurdle of my own cynicism about movie-making. My partner, Ezra Werb, came on to help me produce it and to edit it, and he worked with Chris and me on ensuring the script was tight and something we could do with the resources we had. Cody Wagner, our DP [Director of Photography], was essential. I had worked with him on his project The Eagles are a Country Music Band (which he directed and co-wrote) and I knew his talent was what we needed to make Strange Bird look incredible. The amount of work that Cody put into it made him a fellow producer of the project. We had a gruelling shooting schedule (and Ezra, btw, had just had kidney surgery so it was awful for him during our production—he was literally moaning in pain in the other room). But Cody is a bad-ass filmmaker who just kept pushing through, and I trusted his vision implicitly—it’s what allowed me to be on camera as well as direct. Cody also referred me to the other cast members, to Mason Azbill who delivers a powerhouse performance and Chloe Cuffel who just knocked her cameo out of the park. Caroline Maxwell, our production designer, is an incredible artist (no actual crow was harmed or used in our production—that’s all Caroline’s magic!) John Wills, who did our sound design, did an amazing job, and he and Pinkie Maclure are Pumajaw, whose music actually inspired us before we even started shooting. The color correction and SFX that Kevin McMahon, a director, DP and pro-colorist, did for us blows my mind every time I see it. Nicole Ellsworth did these gorgeous titles and poster. (One of my all-time fave artists, Jim Agpalza, also did a gorgeous poster for us!) So, each of those individuals and others I didn’t name (who are in our credits—we were a tiny crew!) were an integral part of what brought Strange Bird to life, and, not having really much of a budget, it took us about 7 months to complete the project after we shot it. So, yeah. It’s a very gruelling process that takes a lot of time, commitment, and on the indie level, a lot of actual back-breaking work. Lights are REALLY heavy! And we totally cleared out our apartment so we could shoot there, which meant basically putting everything in a different room than we were shooting every time we changed rooms . . . Anyway, it took a lot of people donating their incredible time and talent to make it a reality.

AV: Then, after all of that hard work, the pandemic hits and social distancing goes into effect, basically wiping out the festival season. What has been the upshot of that? Will you wait for next year, or have there been alternative ways to get recognition?

CK: The film has been getting into so many festivals and causing such a quiet stir that the future seems encouraging. The nature of our screenings will be different in the Covid-sphere, but the fact people want to offer us a platform, and that people want to actually see the film, is incredibly gratifying. 

LLB: Yeah . . . both the Boston Underground Film Festival [BUFF] and the Sick and Wrong film festival went online this year, which is completely different than an in-person festival, but still cool. We still have a killer DCP [Digital Cinema Package] (for projecting in a theater) that we got for BUFF before everything shut down, so hopefully one day we will get to see it projected on a nice beautiful theater screen.

AV: What is the plan for Strange Bird in the immediate future? Will it be available for popular consumption anytime soon?

LLB: We are still in consideration for a few festivals. After that, we will definitely be offering it for the public to vibe into. And right now anyone who has interest in Strange Bird should look up Pumajaw’s soundtrack on bandcamp. It is such an incredible score.

AV: Any final thoughts, last words, things we should be looking forward to from you, together or individually?

CK: Just that Laura and her team are a dream and I hope we can work together again at some point. I have a multitude of basic-bitch scripts that Laura could elevate to a higher plane of cinematic excellence. I’m incredibly grateful to know her and to have worked with her.

LLB: I ditto Chris’ sentiment and thank you so much for featuring us! 

You can find the Strange Bird soundtrack here:

Chris Kelso’s official page here:

And Laura Lee Bahr’s is here:

Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books like Freak Night at the Slee-Z Motel and Skull Nuggets. She’s also the editor of Dog Doors to Outer Space and a contributing editor at Babou 691.