Chuck Statler started his long career in innovative and influential music video by collaborating with his classmates and fellow-pranksters at Kent State University, Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale of Devo. It all began with the landmark DEVO: In the Beginning Was the End and, from there, led to work with a who’s who of cool musical collaborators (Pere Ubu, Prince, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, James Chance, Graham Parker, Madness, among others). JP Olsen interviewed Statler about his Akron past and career in filmmaking.
Residents of Akron, Ohio are well aware of their city’s contributions. Tires, the zipper, Alcoholics Anonymous, and its distinction as having been the “bowling capital of the world.”
This post-industrial hub of 200,000 people – 290,000 at its peak – was once named the “All-American City” by the National Civic League and is the birthplace to the only NBA player to make First Team All-Star for 16 seasons and counting. That would be LeBron James, of course. He secured nearby Cleveland’s first and only NBA Championship. Then he left town, tearing the hearts out of Northeastern Ohio sports fans. Akron was also home to space shuttle Challenger astronaut, Judith Resnik, ground zero for a father-son “soapbox derby” cheating scandal, and the early, evil deeds of the human-eating Jeffrey Dahmer.
In short, Akron has had its share of hardships and struggles so when, in 1983, Firestone High School alum Chrissie Hynde lamented that her city was gone, more than a few understood that this message of love had already been broadcast five years before in a fresh, striking, and chaotic form – that is, in multiple video form – in the work of Devo. These Devo videos were directed by Akron-raised visual artist, Chuck Statler.
Chuck Statler has since been called “the godfather of music video.” He has been the go-to video director for Stiff Records, Blank Records, ZE Records, and others. Artists with whom Statler has worked include Prince, The Cars, Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, J. Geils Band, Madness, Pere Ubu, James Chance and The Contortions, The Waitresses, The Moldy Peaches, The Jayhawks, and most notably, Devo, with whom he shares a longstanding creative friendship with his former university classmates Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh.
It was Statler who, along with the band, produced the landmark DEVO: In the Beginning Was the End. That work is acknowledged as the catalyst that helped Devo bag a Warner Bros. contract and set the stage for a long and creative career for the band and for Statler. As of late, Statler has taken to working in still photography and is in the midst of completing a global photographic project.
PKM’s JP Olsen sat down to interview Statler about his Akron past and his journey from wayward Midwestern mutant to elder statesman of indie cool filmmaking.
PKM: You’ve directed more than 50 music videos and 10 concert videos, made independent films, shot photographs for independent projects, and worked in advertising. Do you see a unifying theme in your work?
Chuck Statler: I love to highlight people who have a unique personality or a unique style. I have a penchant for casting that has carried through with everything I do. When I started doing music videos – this is prior to MTV – you were on your own. You didn’t have any approvals. And for good reason, there was no money. So when I started doing ad work, I brought that casting preference to my productions, and at one point I realized they were calling me not because I was the best or the cheapest, but because I would bring a different perspective to the project. That’s a common element that goes through indie work and to music video work. I’m a visual artist. I’m an image maker, more than anything.
PKM: Your inserts are signature. How did you come up with that?
Chuck Statler: When I started out at Kent State, one of the first projects was to collect found footage and cut it together in some fashion. I did two or three films at Kent that were collage based and that stuck with me. In music videos, early on, my inserts were done out of necessity because when it came to post-production, I’d say, “oh, no, there’s a hole, how do we fill it?” And I had collected a wealth of a stock footage, so I turned to that. Or in the case with one or two of the Elvis Costello films later on – and the same with Suicide Commandos – I did street casting and plugged those shots in. So inserts were done to cover mistakes. I liked it doing it. So, part of it was intentional, and part of it was necessity.
PKM: Your work with inserts was informed by working with found or archival images and moving them around in a way that made sense for the film?
Chuck Statler: Yes. Jerry Casale from Devo, we were friends at Kent State, he and I would find corporate and instructional films. I had a projector, so we’d get together and thread this stuff up and look at how absurd some of it was and how incredible some of it was in terms of the production values. The arrangement of shots, the composition. To me, at least, it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a film is if it has good composition and a little bit of lowercase ‘a’ art in it. That’s engaging to me. Russ Meyer is a big influence. He started out doing industrial films before he started doing skin flicks, or whatever they were called. But that’s the roots of it. Looking at industrial films and saying, oh god, that’s an incredible shot!
PKM: At Kent State you studied with experimental filmmaker Richard Myers. What influence did he have?
Chuck Statler: He instilled a curiosity about the world and how you observe and incorporate that into making a film. I’m pretty sure there were only three film classes at Kent at that time – Filmmaking 101, 102, 103, or whatever it was titled. The class was part film appreciation, part instruction about the mechanical and technical aspects of film. But the real takeaway was his aesthetic, his sensibility, and his role as a filmmaker because he made a number of independent films. This is back in the Sixties when the underground film circuit was really alive and happening. His films were playing in that circuit and there were two or three dozen repertory houses around the country where his films were seen nationwide because they played in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, et cetera. So he had the ability and credibility as a filmmaker and was active as a teacher as well. At the time, Kent had a sizeable film festival too and because Richard was well networked in this underground film culture and scene. He could bring in name underground filmmakers like Stan Brakhage or George Kuchar. The programming was really illuminating. I mean, it was great.
To me, at least, it doesn’t matter what the purpose of a film is if it has good composition and a little bit of lowercase ‘a’ art in it. That’s engaging to me. Russ Meyer is a big influence.
PKM: What was it like growing up in Akron?
Chuck Statler: It was a town with a concentration of wealth because of the industry and a large blue-collar population. School was a hardship for me, to put it politely. But I liked Akron and the friends I had there. One of the most memorable aspects of Akron was in the morning. This is back in the 1950’s and if the winds were right, you would smell rubber in the air. I mean it was rich. The other thing that stays with me that is unique to Akron was that – and I think they did this once a year – they would bring in the fleet of blimps. It was quite an experience to look up and see four or five blimps in formation. It’s an indelible image. Also, Akron was a three shift, 24-hour town then, so when you’re 18 years-old and stay out all night, you had a place to go. They had league bowling at two o’clock in the morning. When I lived there the Big Three rubber companies – Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, Goodyear – were there along with General and half a dozen other rubber companies. Many of the labor force came from West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky to get employment on the line.
Then in the early Sixties, they had a number of “million dollar churches”, including The Baptist Temple, Reverend Ernest Angley’s Grace Cathedral and Rex Humbard’s Cathedral of Tomorrow. There was an abundant supply of Christianity. I could prattle on about Akron, but there are memorable and unique aspects to it that I retain to this day. It was an interesting mix.
PKM: You met Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh from Devo in an experimental sculpture class at Kent State, is that right?
Chuck Statler: Correct. The title of the class was Materials and Techniques. I actually met Jerry before that class. There was the Art Theater, a neighborhood theater where they screened foreign and independent films and served espresso in the lobby. It was an outgrowth of the Beat culture and a Richard Myers’ film would play or a Bunuel film would play, or some European art film. One time I went to see a film with a young woman and we got there early and I was talking about something and somebody tapped me on the shoulder and I turned around and it was Jerry Casale. He said, “I hate to interrupt you,” but he’d overheard our conversation and was curious about what I was talking about. That’s how I met him. Then we came to realize we were both students at Kent State. So Jerry and I found out we had common ground because of our interest in film, and not just Hollywood productions. Needless to say, music was also important. We were both Captain Beefheart fans. Lord Buckley fans. Unique, offbeat, challenging music is what we were interested in. And it developed from there. Then probably within a year after I met Jerry, I enrolled in this class along with Jerry and Mark. The three of us hit it off. We were on the same wavelength in terms of how we looked at art and our environment and that class gave us complete freedom. I mean, you could do anything.
PKM: What was Kent State like at that time, 1970?
Chuck Statler: It was a mix of frat culture and hippie, bohemian culture. There were a couple of communes not far from Kent. I think they were short-lived. But it was just this, you know, idealized lifestyle that Midwesterners had read about taking place in the Rockies, or in upstate New York, or in Northern California. Kent was a real creative environment. It had a really vibrant music scene, like The Numbers Band, and certainly The James Gang, who had a national reputation at that point.
Needless to say, music was also important. We were both Captain Beefheart fans. Lord Buckley fans. Unique, offbeat, challenging music is what we were interested in. And it developed from there.
PKM: What about the political scene?
Chuck Statler: I wasn’t as politically involved as Jerry. Mark wasn’t as politically involved as Jerry either. But the politics were radical, no question about it. SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] had a strong presence and I think Jerry was an SDS member at one point. I don’t know whether that was before or after the shootings, but I know the shootings radicalized him. He lived in Kent, so he was immersed in that scene. I commuted from Akron, so it was a bit of arms-length distance for me. But the shootings were on May 4, 1970, and by all accounts what I’ve heard from Jerry or read, that’s what sparked the development of the philosophy about De-Evolution. That was 1970, so the band hadn’t been formed yet. Their first public performance was at the Kent Creative Arts Festival in the spring of 1973.
PKM: You were at that show and shot it. Do you remember it?
Chuck Statler: I think it was a six-piece band at that festival. During the course of recording it, I took the camera, a Portapak, and panned it around the audience. There were maybe 12 people, and at one point, Mark’s synthesizer glitched. It did this loop, around and around and around, and he’s looking down at it. It’s hard to say that he had a quizzical look on his face because he had a monkey mask on and was wearing a lab coat. But when I focused on a couple in this one row as this was happening. They looked … nonplussed. An inauspicious start but interesting, nonetheless.
PKM: How did DEVO: In the Beginning Was the End come about?
Chuck Statler: It was a division of labor because it had to be. I was in Minneapolis [where he has lived since 1973] and the band was in Kent. But I had family in Akron and went down there for Christmas at the end of 1975. One very late night, Jerry and I were at an all-night diner and he was lamenting that Devo hadn’t secured a record deal and some of the band members – and I don’t know who it was – were getting tired of doing the drill and they were on the verge of breaking up. And I said, ‘well, it seems like we should record this before anything happens’. So Jerry and I talked about it and I went back to Minneapolis and he went to work on what songs the band might do. That’s where it started. But the band is responsible for bringing all the elements together. I just showed up. It was a shared aesthetic. I went down there and spent about a week and I think we shot two or three days. Then there was some insert stuff I did back in Minneapolis, like the D-E-V-O letters and credits and graphic elements. The edit took from spring 1976 until January or February of 1977, so over six months to do the post on it. I had asked a film editor in Minneapolis to help me and I got him access to a flatbed editor to work on at night. But after a week or two, he said, ‘this is too weird for me!’ So I was without an editor until I found Dale Cooper who ended up not only cutting the whole piece but he became my partner in crime as production manager and editor on ninety percent of the subsequent music video production.
PKM: How did Mark Mothersbaugh’s father end up in DEVO: In the Beginning Was the End?
Chuck Statler: I think the film cost $1,200 to make and the band was going to put up $600 and I was going to put up the other $600. That was a lot of money to us at the time, and I think it was Mark who said he didn’t want to put the money up or he didn’t have the money, whatever it was. It was Jerry who really wanted to do the film. So a friend of mine said ‘I’ll give them the money’. So then the band wanted him to be General Boy, and he agreed. Everything was figured out, but then he said he didn’t want to be General Boy, so at the last minute they asked Mark’s dad. And he agreed. He was a really sweet guy.
PKM: Tell me about the dancer in the “Satisfaction” film.
Chuck Statler: That’s Spazz Attack! He was lead singer in a band that precedes Devo called Arthur J and the Gold Cups. Their name was an amalgam of two coffee shops in L.A. He’s great. Anyway, this is 1978, so I was in Minneapolis. Devo had moved to L.A, so whenever they had an idea – and primarily Jerry was the point person because he was the film devotee in the band – we’d talk about what I had access to in Minneapolis, or what they had access to in L.A, or Akron, wherever the case. We shot “Satisfaction” in Akron. Anyway, Jerry called me up and told me while they’re performing in L.A., they saw this guy with this bright, orange rooster hairdo do a 360 degree flip and land on his back on a concrete floor and get up and do it again. Jerry said, look, we’re going to send him to Minneapolis and you shoot him. That’s was the direction. So I rented a 12-foot roll of carpet, this odd green color that I knew would complement his orange rooster hairdo. He would do his twitching, spasmodic dance, and incorporate it the 360 flip into it. It’s pretty astounding. I think he lived with Toni Basil and was on a David Bowie tour as a dancer. He’s also in a scene in Blade Runner and he’s quite noticeable in it. He really stood out in a crowd. As far as I know, he’s still around. There is another curious fact about him and that is that he is from Ohio. Must be something in the water.
But the shootings were on May 4, 1970, and by all accounts what I’ve heard from Jerry or read, that’s what sparked the development of the philosophy about De-Evolution.
PKM: Have you ever had something go wrong in a shoot, but then it turns out to work out in an interesting way in the edit?
Chuck Stater: Those are called “lucky strikes.” I’ve never had enough of them. I’ve had a few. For Nick Lowe’s “Cruel to Be Kind,” we shot that at Nick’s wedding. We incorporated footage of their actual wedding in the video. And we had insert shots of the baker delivering a cake and the clergyman administering vows. I was casting for a gray-haired actor and I’m driving down Santa Monica Boulevard and drive past Oki Dog, a hot dog stand, and I see this guy sitting at one of picnic benches and I go, ‘oh, oh, he’s perfect!’ So I talk to him. He tells me he lives in an elderly residence a block from Oki Dog and this is his routine. He gets a coffee and a hot dog and sits there for hours. I said, ‘okay, we’ll give you x number of dollars, we’ll have somebody pick you up, we’ll bring you back home when we’re done. It should take about an hour to shoot and blah, blah, blah.’ So we’re at this location filming. Somebody picked up the talent from Oki Dog and brought him to the location and gave him the wardrobe, which was a black coat and white clergy collar, and sent him to the bathroom to change. I’m shooting out in a garage on seamless paper and I say, ‘okay, we’re ready’, and someone came up and said he’s locked himself in the bathroom. I said, ‘what do you mean?’ ‘Well, he went in there and when he saw himself in the mirror with this collar on, he freaked and he’s not coming out.’ The bathroom window was ajar, slightly, and I tried to talk him down. Meantime, somebody from the crew is going through the neighborhood to find somebody to replace the guy that I picked up from Oki Dog. Lo and behold, he calms down and we get him out of the bathroom, get the collar, and a guy who was cutting his lawn eight houses down puts the collar on. I don’t know if that made it better …
But a similar situation occurred with “Come Back Jonee.” Devo called me and said we have these quasi-military cowboy uniforms and we’re going to rent Saguaro cactus and put buck rail up around the stage and shoot this at The Roxy. I said, ‘hey, I got a great insert for it’. There’s a bowling alley in Minneapolis, “Lariat Lanes.” It’s got this cowboy motif and they go, ‘sounds great.’ So now I’m going to do cowboy bowling and I’ll hire three cowboy bowlers. I go to my standby, a place called Employee Overload. You can go there and get laborers to unload a truck, work light assembly, site clean-up, etc. I go in and ask for three guys, no heavy lifting, other than what a bowling ball weighs. It’s eight o’clock in the morning and they’ve got a van that takes day laborers from the Employee Overload office and delivers them wherever the job is. So the van shows up and two guys get out and I said, ‘no, I need three guys’. And their response was, ‘oh, he probably stopped for a beer.’ This is eight in the morning. So I’m going ‘okay, well, I guess we don’t need him.’ I look around. There’s the sound man there to record sync bowling effects, okay? I had the chaps and the hat and the vest and the shirt and we put the sound man in for the guy who stopped for a beer. As far as I’m concerned, that was better than someone showing up halfcocked. But if you see the three cowboys, you’ll know which one is the sound man.
PKM: DEVO: In the Beginning Was the End showed at Ann Arbor Film Festival and seemed to take on a life of its own. I’ve heard variations on how it got to Brian Eno. What’s your recollection?
Chuck Statler: I don’t have all the information beyond the fact that I marketed it as best I could and it was accepted at every festival I applied to and it won an award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival, which at that time was one of the longest running indie film festivals in the country. I felt great about it. The band felt great about it. That was really an accomplishment. And it proved effective because people could see the band and the substance to it. That propelled the deal. I know it did because Jerry sent me this interoffice memo about, you know, everyone has to come to the conference room to see this video that we have of Devo because ‘it out Tubes The Tubes.’ That was the quote.
PKM: So you’re often associated with Devo, but you’ve done work with a lot of pioneering artists, such as Pere Ubu. How did that come about?
Chuck Statler: This is 1978 and I was all charged up about working with bands. I go to Cleveland and meet David Thomas. Now, if you’ve ever seen David perform, he’s kind of … how can I say it? He can be kind of reserved or aloof, and tough to read. I tell him, this is what I’ve done and the label thinks it’s a good idea that we shoot a video. He sits there and I don’t know whether he likes what he hears. I have no idea. I come back to Minneapolis and I’m not buoyed by the experience. Well, I find out later that Devo – and this is history now, it doesn’t exist today – but back in the mid-‘70s when they played in Cleveland, there was a competitive attitude between Pere Ubu and Devo. I don’t think it meant that much to Devo. Devo were satirists and enjoyed stirring it up a bit. But it was at WHK Auditorium in Cleveland and Pere Ubu was the headliner and Devo opened. Prior to Devo’s set, Mark comes out and does his send-up of Pere Ubu called “Spare Poo-Poo.”
Of course, David is not amused. So I walked into the lion’s den when I said, hey, I did the Devo video! That’s 1978. I was crestfallen, disheartened, whatever the expression, because I liked the group and because I find David interesting. So life goes on and 20 years later I get a call asking if I was interested and we get together. We do the first video and we hit it off famously. I’ve grown to love the guy and I’ve seen him play at least a dozen times. We ended up doing three, maybe four videos together.
Jerry sent me this interoffice memo about, you know, everyone has to come to the conference room to see this video that we have of Devo because ‘it out Tubes The Tubes.’
PKM: How did you end up working with Elvis Costello?
Chuck Statler: There was a music venue in Minneapolis called the Longhorn Bar. I went there to see a band from the UK. I don’t remember who. I was getting a cold before I went there, and I started really feeling lousy once I got there. So I went out after the first band and sat on a bench in the vestibule. I’m out there by myself save for this guy who is pacing around. He comes over and he says, ‘how come you’re not watching the show?’ It turns out that he’s Jake Riviera, Elvis Costello’s manager and the manager for whomever was the playing that night, and he says, ‘who are you?’ And I say, ‘Chuck Statler’, and he gets this strange look on his face. He says, ‘I’ve been trying to find you…how would you like to do a video with Elvis Costello? We’re going to Hawaii.’ So this is just a chance meeting and if I wasn’t sick, I never would have met Jake and now he’s asking me, ‘what will you need to do this?’ I said, ‘I travel with a crew of three.’ He said ‘go to the Northwest Orient office. There’ll be four tickets for you to meet us in Vancouver. We’re leaving this weekend’. I went home and called the crew and said, ‘hey, do you want to go to Hawaii with Elvis Costello?’ And everybody jumped in to join the circus. That to me is astounding. I got the “lucky strike” because I was sick.
PKM: You shot a project with Prince that has yet to come out. What happened and what was it like working with him?
Chuck Statler: I had the opportunity to work with him because he asked me to do The Time video “Cool.” I did that before I did any work directly with him – if there is such a thing as working directly with Prince.
Anyway, his management said Prince would like to let you know if you want to do a video for this new band he’s constructed called The Time get in touch. So I went out to a warehouse in the suburbs where The Time was rehearsing. I walked in and Prince was at the drum kit showing Jellybean Johnson, their drummer, this drum riff. We had a very brief conversation. I think he just wanted to see me in the flesh and see whatever kind of vibe he got off me. So I set everything up to go shoot the video in a classroom. Then Prince comes in with his manager, Jamie Shoop, in the middle of day and they sit in the back of the class. They’re out of the frame and they watch for a half hour. Then they get up. Jamie says, hello and goodbye. Prince doesn’t say anything. He just leaves. The next time I see him, he comes to the edit suite because I’ve got a rough cut. He says hello. He looks at the edit. He asks to see it one or two more times and says, ‘I think we’ve got to move that one scene like three frames’. They say goodbye and the editor said to me, ‘we can move that three frames and no one will ever know the difference’, which was true. It was just the idea that he wanted to have input on it. He was a control freak and he wanted to have his say.
Now we have finished The Time video and I hear, indirectly, that he liked the video and wants to know if I’d be interested in shooting the final day of the Controversy tour in Minneapolis. This is the spring of 1981. He said whatever you think you need to do this within reason. They flew me to Boston. I watched the show, blocked the show out and go about the business of setting everything up and with five cameras. We record the show. There are some off-stage antics. Prince sees the footage. He loves it. Now, I’m going to be as objective as I can about this. I think he was enamored with it because he had never seen anything like that before. Meaning there wasn’t any 16-millimeter color footage, five camera shoots of him in performance, at least at that point. So that’s the concert footage and now there’s brainstorming going on between management and Prince. The label is Warner Brothers and they’re not involved. In fact, I never heard the words ‘Warner Brothers’ during the six-month timespan this took place.
Then they get this idea to introduce Prince to a wider audience. Maybe we should make it a theatrical narrative or a theatrical concert film with interstitial material. Maybe a blow up to 35 millimeter and get it to theaters in suburbia and the college markets. It’s a valid idea. So they call me up and say we’ve got this idea and what happened was Prince started to define this new project, how this interstitial material was going to personalize him beyond his performance. So we scouted locations. We go to his father’s house. His father no longer lived there, but his house is on the northside. We go to a couple locations. We start to plot shooting, like two or three sequences for interstitial material At the same time, the editor, Steve Rifken, is cutting it. Steve is the brother of Bobby Z, who was in Prince’s band. So Steve is cutting the concert footage because that’s a time-consuming job and we want to get that rolling. And now we’re going to start shooting. We’re going to shoot at Prince’s house because Prince has something in mind. I have no idea what that is, and Prince is not about to share it with me. So when you asked me, ‘how was it to work with him?’ There was a lot of mystery surrounding what we were doing, which was confusing. Anyway, we start at eight or nine in the morning at his house at Chanhassen. Things are going well, but I wish I had more understanding of what he had in mind. He never showed me anything. He would just say, ‘well, listen, the two women are going to come out of the kitchen. They’re going to walk into the living room. Set that up and shoot it’. And it’s like, okay. We set it. We shoot it. When it did go off the rails is when I was doing a boom shot of Prince and I made the mistake of saying, “okay, we got it, let’s go to the next shot.” He looked at me and said, “no, I’ll tell you when we’ve got it.” So he put me in my place, even though I thought my place was directing. Or a co-director. Or even a quasi-director.
Shortly thereafter he decided to step away from the project and he no longer was enamored with the concert footage. I know people that worked with him. I know the sound man for the vast majority of his shoots, music videos, etc. He worked with him on a lot of projects from Purple Rain to the very end, and Prince would always say, “hey soundman.” He would never use his name, even though he knew it. There are all kinds of stories about Prince and his insecurities and being a control freak. So God bless him. He’s a monumental artist. I have nothing but utmost respect for his creative prowess.
PKM: A YouTube comment posted for your The Cars video of “Panorama” reads that “this song … sounded like the future … it still sounds like the future.” What do you think about that idea of being ahead of the future, in music and sound?
Chuck Statler: The Cars video was 1980. I have this recollection of being in Boston when we were shooting that and seeing Casey Kasem’s show. It was the first show I saw with music video clips and a precursor to MTV. In 1980 there weren’t a lot of videos, so if anybody did anything remotely looking modern, it probably would look like the future. But “Panorama” was designed to have a James Bond feel about it. It was this kind of techie approach because the late Seventies were high-tech in fashion and design. Jerry and I are credited with co-directing that. Godley and Creme made videos as a duo, not unlike Devo in that way. They were talking about opening a shop in L.A. so they reached out to find out if Jerry and I would be interested in working at their shop. Then Elliot Roberts, who managed Tom Petty, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and The Cars, said The Cars have a new album and let’s see if you two can partner with other artists and see what comes of it. It never went beyond that. If it weren’t for that fact there was this hint of doing some kind of business with Godley and Crème, it may not have happened. But the idea was that we would do something high-tech with “Panorama.” It’s a long track. But the Cars were that powerful at that point to say, that’s what we want to do. The other video we did was “Touch and Go.” That was more playful.
PKM: Oh, well, so here’s a question. Any bands that you’ve worked with, who you think deserve a second listen?
Chuck Statler: James Chance is one of my all-time favorites. He never had a big audience. But I thought he was the real deal. I mean, I loved what he was doing. I loved the music. Some people might perceive it as an act. But I’ve been around him enough to know that’s really him. I worked with the Moldy Peaches. I thought they were great because they were more like what rock & roll was at its inception, rebellious and unpolished. They were firebrands. They were young. They were doing it their way. I really appreciated that about them. Also I liked the music. I thought the music was cool, it was good, it made sense. It has a great attitude and a great aesthetic.
There are all kinds of stories about Prince and his insecurities and being a control freak. So God bless him. He’s a monumental artist. I have nothing but utmost respect for his creative prowess.
PKM: What are you looking for when you choose a camera for a shoot?
Chuck Statler: One that works! That’s the short answer, but I don’t think I ever did anything in music videos in 35 millimeter. I shot a number of ads in 35 millimeter. Most national and some regional ads had the budget and we would shoot 35, if not, then 16mm. I know that I’ve got the reputation with one art director who said I am the only director who can make a 35 millimeter look like Super 8. That’s a backhanded compliment. But I love it. With Devo, for “Freedom of Choice,” we shot two or three videos. That was the first time we used video. After that, I wished I would have shot video on earlier Devo projects because it has this look about it that I thought was more appropriate for their aesthetic. And four years ago, I made a video for The Jayhawks. For that we needed a low-profile camera and I found something that looked like an Instamatic, which is a Sony Alpha 6300. It’s a little compact camera, half frame, but great capture for a small camera.
James Chance is one of my all-time favorites. He never had a big audience. But I thought he was the real deal.
PKM: What is it about music that you find appealing as a filmmaker?
Chuck Statler: I find music appealing, filmmaker or not. I think it’s that primal element in terms of the beat, the beat, the beat. I mean, that’s where it started.Film is also about beats, sustained or choppy. It’s all about the rhythm in edit. My love of both film and music goes back to my youth. It was inevitable for me to combine them. And it’s the same for me today. It’s just discovery and continuing to maintain curiosity and, you know, back to Richard Myers, in terms of saying you can always find something that can spark creation. And music did – and does – that for me.
PKM: Your most recent projects focus on street art. Why is that?
Chuck Statler: In late 2017, I went to clean a memory card from my camera that I used on a trip to Paris. What I gravitated toward shooting while I was walking around is loosely defined as “street art,” and in particular, paintings and photographs of portraits. I have this almost obsessive fascination with portraiture because of the human element. I’ve dealt with that in all the film work I’ve done. It goes all the way back to Kent. I look for people who have a certain style, a certain unique look, a certain fashion presence or lack of – whatever that is. The human condition has always fascinated me, still does, and there’s nothing more revealing than the most expressive element and that’s the human face. That’s where it started. I used the camera I bought to do the Jayhawks video – that was my payment on that job – and I took it to Paris. Then I came home and discovered what I shot and it triggered this interest in and an idea for publication. I set a quota to capture a thousand images. The next thing I did was to go on Amazon to look at the street art books. I found about 250 titles, so I knew no one needs another book about street art. But that wasn’t what this was about. It included street art, but it was about public portraiture. So I committed to developing the idea and started the survey. And again, for me, it’s the performance, regardless of outcome. It is the process, and this project has been one of the most rewarding processes I’ve had because it was almost the antithesis of working in film. There was no crew. It was me, it was a camera, it was available light. There was no equipment.
I find music appealing, filmmaker or not. I think it’s that primal element in terms of the beat, the beat, the beat. I mean, that’s where it started.
I started in L.A., which is the Mecca. It’s the motherlode because of the urban sprawl. There’s more canvas there, 12 months a year fair weather, and thousands of murals and street art. And it changes weekly. I was there for seven days and almost didn’t come back. I was in such a euphoric state, driving like a madman, run and gun. I would get out of the hotel by 7 a.m. and I would go until sundown. I worked 10 to 12 hours a day. Then I went to Detroit, Cincinnati, Baltimore and a dozen other cities. I surveyed 15 cities in all, ending in New York a year ago. I saved that for last because it wasn’t feasible to drive and shoot. The others were by car. I knew that New York would be by foot and it was going to be a tougher drill. I did 75 miles on my feet. I clocked it. I was there for seven days and averaged about 10 miles a day. It was another rewarding experience. It boils down to creating a reality — your own. If you can maintain your curiosity and your flexibility, then you do what Richard Myers preached, taught: go out, explore, and create.