Fred G. Sullivan: An Adirondack Filmmaking Visionary
An Interview with Katie Sullivan, daughter of Saranac Lake-based Filmmaker Fred G. Sullivan
By T J Brearton
There are all kinds of filmmakers. Is it possible that Sofia Coppola may never have gotten into the biz if it wasn’t for her father, Francis Ford? Certainly. But that’s like wondering if the ball would hit the floor if it hadn’t been caught mid air. It’s a paradox; we can’t really speculate much on parallel realities (at least, not without some significant background training in string theory, M-theory, and maybe a neutrino detector).
Kubrick came into filmmaking because he did poorly in school. Really. His father, Jack, a physician, tried different things to rouse the academician in his son Stanley. He sent him to Pasadena, California for a year, hoping a bit of the balmy temperatures and change in topography would spark a new attitude in his son. It didn’t. Next, he tried giving his son a camera. Thousands of photographs and hundreds of cinema viewings later, Stanley decided he wanted to be a filmmaker. Today we have The Shining, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Spartacus and many more films which have taken their place in the lexicon of immitigable, classic American cinema. And perhaps we have Doctor Jack Kubrick, with his fatherly love, to thank. There is a myth, perhaps, that celebrities, both behind and in front of the cameras, are somehow a cut above, or inherently better people because they are involved with the big screen. The reality is, whether you see it as fate or fortune, there’s no formula for getting there.
Some people say if you want to make movies, you have to move to Los Angeles or New York. That’s not the case for JuDah Cougar, a Vermont screenwriter, or, say Roger Watkins, who made horror films at Oneonta State which made their way onto DVD. (And maybe, if you ask Veronica Lake, going to Hollywood is not such a smart idea anyway, but the real horror show.) Needing to dive into the hustle and bustle wasn’t the belief held by Fred G. Sullivan, either, a filmmaker from Saranac Lake, NY. Fred believed that instead of traipsing around or pulling up stakes and moving, he could bring his dreams to him. And he did.
No one knows this better than his daughter, Katie, just a wee girl when Sullivan made his legendary film, The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Fitness and Filmmaking.
Prior to the BDG, Sullivan had made Cold River. The critical response to Cold River was mild, and its box office draw only a trickle. But an indefatigable Sullivan channeled his passion for the visual storytelling medium into something which, by all accounts, was one of the first of its kind. A quasi-documentary, a mixture of fiction and autobiography, which has only recently become a more pervasive style of storytelling. (See: Buried Land, or The Forbidden Quest, as examples.) Some say that with the institution of fiction, with its rules and conventions, there are a finite number of stories that can possibly be told, and every story we’ve ever read or seen on screen can find its derivation in one of these archetypes – some say there are eight, others only two: the fish-out-of-water and the stranger-comes-to-town. Some say that this institution of fiction is on its way to toppling over, already is hemorrhaging the cymatium of its hallowed walls as we live and breathe. For those who say this, the documentary, or the blending of fact and fiction, is the new paradigm. If that’s the case, then Sullivan certainly was a visionary. And even if it isn’t the case, and this is all just some more of the “sky is falling” we’ve heard since man first started drawing on cave walls, Sullivan still was doing something which preceded the commercial proliferation of its genre.
I wondered, with a father doing such seminal work in the mid-eighties in a small Adirondack town, what it might have been like to spend a day with him, let alone a life. I also wondered, what with many examples of fathers shepherding their children into the biz along with Kubrick’s dad, either purposely or inadvertently, what the case was with Sullivan’s kids. He’s got four of them–Tate, Kirk, Katie, and Ricky. Katie I’d met while we both lived in Santa Barbara. Recently I sent her an email, and we started to talk.
Katie K. Sullivan: I was four or five when production began of BDG. There is a scene of me getting on the bus for my first day of kindergarten.
TJB: Was it just business-as-usual for you and your family, or was there the sense, “My dad is a filmmaker; this is unusual?”
KKS: I knew that our life was different and a little more exciting than average, but since there was a camera around and some sort of filmmaking involved in my life from when I was in the womb until now, it was and is just “life.” I guess I always felt a little like a local celebrity. It was great until I was about thirteen, then it got really annoying to be filmed all the time, because that is the age when all girls go crazy. Looking back life did always seem magical with my dad around. Life felt a little larger than life, but it was all I knew so it was normal, just awesome.
TJB: Did you offer your dad creative suggestions?
KKS: I believe the only creative suggestion at age five noted in the movie was that he should get rid of his beer belly during a workout scene. I think I played more of the role of “daddy’s little girl” at that point, leaving him loving messages and lots of adoration to encourage him. I’m sure that I offered the creative suggestion of “get out of my face with that camera” once I was a teenager.
TJB: What was the process like? 16 hour days for weeks on end, or was it more here and there?
KKS: The process was my life from day one to year seventeen. He was always imagining, filming, visualizing, capturing, staging, interviewing, editing, writing, distributing, worrying, dreaming and creating.
KKS: There is a scene in BDG about the distribution process. I believe he had it lined up, but I know this was considered the most challenging part of the process.
TJB: What did you think would be the outcome of the film?
KKS: I was under the impression that “if people don’t come to see this movie, we’ll starve.” (One of the opening lines of BDG.) But really, I don’t think I thought about outcomes then. I felt like a princess riding in limos to film openings, life was good.
TJB: Did you attend Sundance?
KKS: My father took my older brother Tate and I to Sundance when I was around 8. BDG was being shown there. Park City was a town the size of Lake Placid then, and we did lots of skiing. I shook Kevin Bacon’s hand and met John Cusack who was one of my brother and my favorites at the time. We were appalled at how skuzzy he looked, and he wasn’t too thrilled to talk to two brat kids either. I think that was my first interaction with a “celebrity,” although there were probably quite a few there. I remember a lot of parties that I found boring and drinking Shirley Temples in my hotel room. My dad always hooked me up with Shirley Temples on our trips.
TJB: Who holds the rights to Beer Drinker’s?
KKS: Good question. Another person you might want to contact is Bill Sweeney; he is a local accountant and was a main producer of the film. He would know more about distribution and such.
TJB: How would you describe the film in a few words? Pastiche? Highly personal? A rollicking good time?
KKS: I usually describe it as the story of a struggling filmmaker with four kids trying to bring his big dreams to him in the Adirondacks rather than go out in search of them. It’s filled with beer, bathroom jokes, finding humor in life and all situations, and a story of perseverance in the face of adversity.
TJB: Do you consider yourself a writer or filmmaker?
KKS: I dabbled in editing and documentary filmmaking in college in California, as well as tagged along to production sites with (my brother) Kirk in LA. I am sure it will be in my future at some point, and would love the chance to work with Kirk again. I’d have to say my favorite aspect is editing, although I do consider myself a writer as well. I’ve always thought I would write a book one day about my life experiences and would make a great columnist. It is more of an aspect of getting off of my lazy butt and doing it rather than speak or visualizing about it. I also know that the times I feel most “at home” are when I’m on a movie set. You always feel most at home when you’re surrounded by your roots, I guess.
KKS: I do not have any plans in the near future to do so, although it was a great experience. I would like to show it once every couple of years. It’s great for me to reconnect with my father, his dreams for me, and values. I also believe it can be used as an inspiration for other local people, who may think their dreams are too big for the area.
TJB: What are your thoughts on this region for filmmaking? Any predictions about the growth of the industry here?
KKS: I think wherever there is drive and desire that there is room for growth.
TJB: Okay, almost done—you can get off the hot seat. What is one of the most important things you learned, not just about filmmaking, but about life, from your father?
KKS: I learned to always follow my dreams and to “push on in the face of frustration and adversity, trial and tribulation…” (directly quoting from her father). Most importantly to me, I learned to always find the humor in situations and to laugh at life. From my father’s death, I learned that life is short, and can end instantly, so you better live it the way you want to. I also learned to keep those I love close to me and to be nicer to them. Lastly I learned that I miss a camera being in my face at all times, with someone behind it trying to capture all my moments. Sadly, nothing can replace a father’s love and adoration for his daughter, but I am extremely thankful for the life I got to have with my Dad.
Fred G. Sullivan’s films, Cold River (1983) and The Beer Drinker’s Guide to Fitness and Filmmaking (1987) (aka Sullivan’s Pavilion) can be found on VHS on Amazon.com. Click on their names above to read more.
A good book which includes a piece on Fred G. Sullivan and making Cold River is Rooted in Rock: New Adirondack Writing 1975-2000 by Jim Gould.
–TJ Brearton is a Contributor to The Free George.
The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our new City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.
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