Interview: Ford Gunter and Carlton Ahrens Pt. 1
By Paul McRae, Posted on 2011-12-24
I sat down a couple of weeks ago with Ford and Carlton to discuss their new film, Art Car: The Movie. They were both very candid and had a lot to say. We met at my house where we talked for 3 hours about a number of topics.
They were eager to to sit down and talk and were grateful to be given the chance to address their critics. It's a lively interview as you're about to see.
I've broken the interview into two parts. In this part They talk about their backgrounds in film and how their partnership came to be. Ford talks about quitting his job in order to finish the film and they take us through the process of making the movie.
ACN: We'll start with two questions you've probably answered a bunch of times, how did you meet and how did your partnership begin?
Ford: We met in pooh corner probably in pre-elementary school.
ACN: Pooh Corner?
Ford: Yeah, I think so. I lived across town in a different area of the city. We were born on the same hallway of the hospital, two days apart. Then my parents moved in closer to where Carlton's parents lived, and then eventually on to the same street. We've basically been friends ever since I can form memories.
ACN: So you're childhood friends in essence, then. And you went to school together I take it. So when did you start working together? How did that come about?
Carlton: We had a 7th grade drama class that we were both in and for one of the projects we had to do a music video. And so we did a music video on Jane's Addiction's Been Caught Stealing.
ACN: And that was your first experience with video?
Carlton: Really it was our only until we started hanging out, I guess, a few years ago, working on these short films.
ACN: So you were friends first. Would it be safe to say that you fell into making video?
Carlton: We had to do that for a school project.
ACN: That was like the proto version. When did you decide to come together as a partnership and decide, "Let’s work together?"
Carlton: It was, like three years ago. We talked about it for awhile. We lived in different cities Ford moved back to Houston from Hawaii, and we got together and started making short films.
ACN: Were you both working in the film industry at that time.
Ford: I've never worked in the film industry.
ACN: Ok. Talk about your early works. What did you do before Art Car: The Movie?
Ford: It was the '08 election and we were getting pretty frustrated. You remember I'm sure; the rhetoric was kinda... the volume was real high. Everybody was screaming a lot. We were just looking for an outlet. We were getting pretty frustrated. You couldn't have a civil conversation about things, so...
Carlton: It seemed like whenever we would go out at night everyone would talk about politics. It was when we were wanting to have fun, drink some beers, relax. And everyone's just yelling at each other about politics and no one's listening to each other. We would just come back and bitch about the experience.
ACN: Everybody was really frustrated after 8 years of Bush?
Carlton: I guess so.
Ford: Well, it was on both sides. We've got friends on both sides of the political aisle. There were people screaming on both sides. I think we started to make these shorts as an outlet because we were really frustrated that the level of discourse was so crappy. Carlton had an idea he'd been kicking around forever and we decided, screw it, let's go for it. We did it. We enjoyed working together. I personally enjoyed it. I don't want to speak for Carlton, but I thought it was much more satisfying way to express myself and my frustrations and it was a very positive way for me to vent.
Carlton: It was definitely. I mean it was just too much negativity, there were too many people yelling at each other and no one was really listening to each other. And we found that this was a positive outlet. And in a way it maybe kinda shed some light on how we act stupid in these situations, myself included. In politics we probably need to listen to each other, think a little bit more and stop yelling.
ACN: So also then, working in the medium of film, was that just the means to an ends? What I'm getting at is did you have strong desire to be filmmakers. It sounds like you just approached it as a tool to reach your objective?
Ford: I can speak for myself on that one. I was in Journalism for 10 years. I had always wanted to tell stories to some degree. I thought that film was kind of a way to do that. Carlton and I talked about it for a long time, we kinda joked about it all through our 20s when we'd had too many beers... "Wouldn’t it be great if we did this?" I always assumed that making a movie was gonna be something beyond my capability. So no, I never really thought I was going to wind up doing it. But as soon as we started working together, as soon as we started making these shorts, and I realized that it was something that I could accomplish, that we could accomplish together, it was much more satisfying for me to do something on film than to ever write something, an article in a magazine, or newspaper, or something like that. To me, it was the ultimate storytelling that I had tried at that point.
ACN: Ok, so for you at least making films was an outlet for your storytelling, your journalism. It was kind of an extension of your journalism?
Ford: Yeah, I think so.
ACN: I want to point out, because the photography in your work is really fantastic. Do either one of you have a photography background.
Carlton: I've taken a few classes, but not like you. You're the photographer.
ACN: Well, uh... Okay, thank you (laughs). I think your skills as photographers are top notch. That's just a little personal compliment.
Carlton: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
Ford: I'd taken a lot of pictures. I've always liked to take pictures, but I'd never had any formal training or anything like that. I'd never really worked with video cameras. Everything I learned Carlton taught me.
Carlton: In all honesty, making a documentary, we did make a lot of mistakes. So as the film progressed our skill level got better as filmmakers, we weren't making as many mistakes as we did before, but with film you just delete some of your mistakes. And we learned pretty quickly. It was pretty intense.
Ford: There were some happy accidents too. Like, you mean to zoom in, and instead you change focus and for whatever reason you figure out that that works for that situation. So not everything was done on purpose, at least when I was handling the camera, but you know, with documentaries you’re just kinda running and gunning and you hope it works out in the end. In the interviews we took a lot of time to set up and conceptualize and light and think about things like that, but a lot of the other stuff that looks really, really cool I would say is just a product of our experience and some good fortune.
ACN: Okay, let's see. I've noticed that your early short films have been removed from the internet. Or am I just not seeing them?
Ford: We took them down, didn't we?
Carlton: I know we wanted to.
Carlton: They're not very good (laughs).
ACN: I looked for them and I couldn't find them. Did you consider them a liability to promoting your current project? Why did you remove them, I guess is the question that I am asking.
Ford: I wouldn't say it was a liability.
Carlton: A lot of filmmakers talk about only wanting this polished piece of work out there. And I do understand that. Our philosophy is we're not perfect, we're never gonna be, we're always getting better and so we wanted our short films to be up there as a testament of how we've progressed as filmmakers. If I were to watch one now, I'd be like, ugh, horrible! But, look at this one, the Sign, that’s probably more indicative of what we are trying to do as filmmakers; entertaining, but also with a social message.
They were learning experiences. We have a lot of friends who went to film school and so we took a concept of film that they would do, like a silent film. There was no dialog and we would shoot our own version of that. So we'd hear back from people in film school, what they were doing. We wouldn't have the professional criticism that they would get. We were just trying to copy that experience as best as we can without spending the money or time to go to film school.
ACN: I'm going to give you another personal compliment. I don't know if you remember, but I was the first person you contacted when you decided to do this film, the artcar film. And you sent me a link to your website, Delmonte Films, and I went there, and I looked at one of your films. I thought Wow, this is really good. So I sent the link to Nicole, to put it out there to the KLUB (Houston Artcar Klub), I told her, these guys are really good, this is exciting. I was very excited from the get go because of that early work you did. So, it's something to think about.
Ford and Carlton: Thank you.
ACN: Let's move on. What was it about artcars that sparked your interest that made you think, this is gonna be it. Because obviously, this is your first major project and you decided to do artcars. So what's the, where did that come from?
Carlton: Boy... just seeing them, growing up in this city, seeing artcars on the street and what that means to me and what I know it means to this city it got me initially interested. And once we started pursuing it and meeting artcar people the excitement level went up astronomically for me.
ACN: Are you talking about before you decided to make the movie?
Carlton: Before we decided to make the movie we thought it was something cool that we have (In Houston) and I haven't been that much outside of Houston so I thought other places had it. So I think there was a time period where I took it for granted. And then I started to realize it was more unique to Houston than other places and I thought that was really, really cool. And really, really brave, because I think in this society we care so much about our cars and the artcar artist are transforming something we hold sacred in what I consider a negative sort of way. A car doesn't represent you, not mass produced cars. And then you have an artcar artist that says yes it does, look at my beautiful... my thing, whatever I've created, for whatever reason, personal or whatever. I think it's just really bold and brave and I think it's really hard to be an individualist and I think artcar people are doing that. That's how I looked at it. I think it's amazing.
Ford: It's got everything you want in a documentary. It's got really colorful characters, it's very visually interesting and it's also something that's... like he said, growing up in Houston, I think Houstonians are all aware of artcars, but I don't think there really fully understanding, myself included. I grew up with them. I grew up next to Allen Parkway. I've seen artcars my whole life. And I never really appreciated or bothered to try to fully understand what was going on there. So I think the idea that there is such a vibrant story below the surface is very appealing for any documentary film. You can pick any of them and just scratch the surface and there's a lot going on underneath. That was pretty huge. And like Carlton said the icon of the car, it's always interesting when you can find something where people are doing something that can be considered unholy to a sacred object. It's not the most controversial documentary in the world, but American's value their cars in a really interesting way. And whether they know it or not or whether they want to admit it, they do. And everybody puts a certain value on their car and you guys are out there challenging that, which is pretty cool.
ACN: Who pitched the idea to the other?
Carlton: We have a weird kind of process where we're constantly throwing stuff at each other and so it's really hard to say who does what because even if one person says “why don't we do this,” the other person's conversation usually led them to that thought. And it's not like we're attached at the hip or anything weird. I don't know who came up with this idea.
ACN: So there wasn't like an Aha moment when one of you said let's do a film about artcars?
Carlton: No, I don't think so. It's something that we already both loved and respected so it's like...
Ford: We didn't... I don't think we fully understood, but expected, we went into it thinking that at the very least we'll get some practice shooting some stuff. Maybe we can cut together like a 5 to 15 minute PSA that we can just give to the Orange Show and they can put it on their website if they want to. It just might go away forever, but it would be good experience for us. So we didn't really start filming, we called you and when we started talking to Nicole Strine and Rebecca Bass and Bryan Taylor and everybody in the scene. We had no concept that it was going to be such a big thing.
Carlton: At certain points I remember having aha moments like you were talking about, like holy shit, this is so cool. These people are awesome. These stories are amazing. And this stuff is really really powerful. Kinda like what Ford was saying earlier, with transforming the car and the curves and the boldness it takes to do that and how that transforms society. It just kept blowing us away these different time periods where we would have social events, social occasions, life would go on and then we'd have artcar stuff and we're like fuck regular stuff lets do this artcar stuff, this is so cool. Upgrading our equipment, even though we didn't quite have the money for it at the time, quitting a job like Ford did to dedicate to this. Not going to weddings - friends getting married, like wow, this is something that we really want to spend our time on and we would have moments like that. At the end of the day we're like wow, this is absolutely amazing.
ACN: Ford, you quit your job to make this movie?
Ford: Yeah, I'd been working and making the film. And I had been doing both for awhile and it just got to a point where I was wearing myself out, burning the candle at both ends. And the movie was something I felt very passionately about. And the job wasn't.
ACN: It had become bigger at that point than you had originally thought it was going to be?
Ford: Yeah, but I think I had known for awhile. At the point when I quit last August, we knew at that point that we were making a feature length documentary. We knew we were going big and we were gonna try to really make something special and something big. It got to the point where I was worn down to the point where I wasn't really contributing positively to either of them, the job or the movie. So I knew I was going to have to quit my job eventually, and I actually lasted longer at it than I thought I would, but there came a point where I just couldn't do both.
ACN: How long did it take you to make the film? Walk us through the process from when you first had the idea to filming and editing and then presenting the movie to the public.
Ford: The first thing we shot was in December of '09. I'd have to look at my calendar...
Carlton: I think that we came up with the idea to really pursue it at the summer’s parade. So it was May of '09. And we started contacting people, meeting with people, trying to wrap our minds around it. The more we contacted people, the more we started filming, the more excited we would get and then it just took off from there. So we filmed all the way up to the parade in 2010 and then started the editing process and continued doing...
ACN: You weren't exactly finished filming after the 2010 parade. You did more filming after that.
Carlton: We did
Ford: We didn't anticipate filming as much as we did after the parade, but right around that time the movie was starting to... It had changed a lot, the way we conceptualized this thing. It began as goal oriented storytelling. Your characters are striving to achieve a goal.
ACN: A lot of documentaries follow that format.
Ford: So once we realized that we had moved beyond the goal oriented story of just people trying to finish their cars by the 2010 parade and were reaching into some much more relevant social commentary things like that. About the car and statements you can make with your car, the trips we were making after the parade were really chasing those leads. You saw the Baltimore footage, the woman, Rebecca from the American Visionary Art Museum was saying some pretty profound stuff that I think if we'd heard in December of '09 we wouldn't have begun to comprehend. It was a natural progression for us to figure out the movement, the story we had to tell.
ACN: Okay we'll talk more about that in a minute, but we're talking about the process of making the movie. You've done all of the filming and you've spent some time, a lot of time editing, because you filmed so much. I guess you probably spent a lot of time just looking at the footage editing out what was obviously bogus, and getting reels of usable film. I really don't know how the process works, actually.
Carlton: We essentially took each artist we followed making the car and then created timelines for each one. So each artist that we followed, we've got numerous timelines that didn't make it into the final film that we plan to show on the DVD extras and we've got all of this awesome content that unfortunately just doesn't fit into the 90 minute format of this film.
ACN: Is that just an industry standard, the 90 minutes? You can't make a 2 hour film?
Carlton: We'd like to. They really wanted us to come out with an 80 minute one and we struggled to do 98 minutes.
ACN: Is that because an 80 minute film will fit nicely on a 2 hour time block on television, including advertising?
Ford: No, It's... It's a lot to ask an audience. There just seems to be, with movies in general, especially documentaries, it's a lot to ask an audience to stick with you for 2 hours. There aren't that many 2 hour documentaries out there. Most of them really come in under 100 minutes. And the ones that don't are from very accomplished filmmakers.
Carlton: It's a very rare occurrence.
Ford: Yeah, it's super rare.
Carlton: We look at the DVD as a way to keep the work that we've done on these awesome other cars and concepts and storylines that we've followed. Like, we have a whole section on Commercial artcars. We filmed the Weinermobile, St. Arnolds...
Ford: We've got really cool photos of the Lifesavers car from the 30s. Zippo has a bunch of cars that are really frikkin' cool.
Carlton: We've got another section on what happens if you get pulled over by a cop. And it's really funny. But we couldn't put all of that in. The DVD's going to be chock full of this stuff.
Ford: Getting back to the question... So we made all of these timelines, we had all of these different things. We basically start trying to piece it together and see how it flowed. And we knew by the time we started editing that Rebecca (Bass) and Mark (Bradford) were the primary characters. So we were working on building the story around them, and around the chronological backbone of the race to finish on time. And trying to figure out and map out our jumping off points of when we could jump off to talk about a certain something and we'd jump out to talk about something else and who we could use to do that. And then we basically say we are going to use this artist to help us explore this idea. We could jump off, and of course we'd have this big block of stuff for this artist and at the end of the day we would be down to here and really as the story... I don't really have anything to compare it to, I feel like that's a normal process, but I don't really know if it is or not.
ACN: When you were filming after the 2010 parade, were you still just information gathering or were you trying to fill holes in your story at that point?
Ford: We were going after pretty specific stuff. I mean, we thought we were, but then of course the story did change some more. I don't think we were really targeted interviewing until pretty close to the end.
Carlton: That Baltimore interview we used a lot of we were targeting it for something else.
Carlton: That didn't even work. We really wanted to talk with her about the therapeutic properties of art, why people do art just for mental health reasons. We kind of got that in a weird sort of way, but we got all of this other stuff out of it. I guess it's kind of like our thought processes changed throughout the editing. So we ended up making the movie more based on the narrative of artcars in society and the philosophy around what that phenomenon is.
Ford: I think we learned more during editing than we did during filming.
Carlton: During filming, we were just running around shooting everything we could.
Ford: Once we got to the editing process we started to grasp what people had been telling us, because when you are behind the camera, as much as you are trying to you are thinking about so much other stuff.
ACN: I understand that as a photographer.
Ford: Yeah, absolutely. You probably look at pictures you've taken, or video you've shot and you see stuff and you hear stuff and you pick up on stuff that never even crossed your mind when you were in the act of capturing it. And probably to some degree, when you go back and listen to this tape, that's just the way it is.
Carlton: You've got to write an article based on this interview and there are things you'll pick out of it like a narrative structure and we were engaged in the same process. Finding out how it all fits together.
ACN: So you got the film, you've decided what you have, you are scheduled to show the film at Miller Outdoor Theater so you are under the gun at that point to finish. Did you have any thoughts that you weren't going to finish it in time? Or were you worried that you were going to put up something that wasn't exactly ready?
Ford: I think we, I personally work better with a deadline, (to Carlton) I'm guessing that you probably do to... a little bit?
Ford: I know I do, but I don't think we were ever afraid we weren't going to finish. I was afraid we might not have time to get the movie we wanted to get out there. Even in the last weeks leading up to the festival in our editing, there came a point when it was super stressful, and the hours were ridiculous that we were putting in, but I always knew that we were going to do something good. That we had something good and we were going to finish something good so I never really had that fear. I always knew that we would do it; it's just whether we were going to be putting in 12 hour days for the last month or 16 hour days, but I always knew we were gonna get it done.
ACN: So what we saw at Miller Outdoor Theater, that is the film, it is complete? What I'm getting at, are there more edits to come or are you satisfied with the film you presented?
Carlton: There is some cleaning up of the history section, some minor clarifications that need to be made. But outside of the history section no, that's the film.
Ford: We did what we wanted to do and we're happy with it. We've heard that there's some confusion. We don't want the history section to be misleading in terms of Houston artist’s role in the birth of the whole thing and so we are going to readdress that. And honestly, neither of us has watched the movie since Miller Outdoor Theater, and we're probably not going to for another little bit… after Christmas.
ACN: I only asked the question because I know that y'all were editing it right up to the last minute and Bryan Taylor made the joke that the band that played before they showed the film kept playing and playing to buy you time so you could finish the movie (laughs).
Carlton: We're going to revisit the film in a few weeks, but by and large, what happens with me was I think about 2 or 3 months before Miller the story really came together in my mind of what it needed to be. So a lot of times we would sit there and look at footage and we would keep, what we called pushing it forwards the footage instead of cutting it back. And we kept keeping so much stuff because we really didn't know the story. And then about 2-3 months ahead of time it really cemented in my mind. (To Ford) I think as yours as well. And that's when the cuts became a lot easier and a lot faster.
ACN: And that's when you were able to cut out a lot of the stuff that doesn't fit?
Carlton: So for me, there was like a panic, 3 or 4 months ago.
Ford: It's interesting too, when we were going through the process, like Carlton said, pushing it forward, let's say we had this artist and their encapsulated little 3 minute story and we would push it forward, push it forward and when it would come time to where we were both pretty sure that that wasn't going to fit and we had to delete it, we would always say, well we know it's there. We can always go back and get it and bring it back. And we never brought back a single thing back. (To Carlton) Am I right about that?
Carlton: There was a very minor quote.
Ford: Yeah, minor quotes, not chunks of edited footage.
ACN: Now we're gonna start asking some tougher questions.
Okay, that's the end of part one. We'll be back next week with part two. Stay tuned.