Despite the ongoing conversion to digital media in almost all forms of filmmaking, Laura A. Stewart is still inspired to use 16 mm film. Last year she received her MFA in film, video and new media from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was awarded the William Merchant R. French Fellowship for outstanding MFA thesis.
I chatted with Stewart about her thesis film, Shooter and Whitley, a hybrid documentary about motorcycle-club culture in Green Bay. It centers on two bikers: Shooter, who is in his late 50s and Whitley, who is in her early 20s.
Shooter and Whitley will be shown at the Wisconsin Film Festival next month. Screenings are at the UW Cinematheque (4070 Vilas Hall) on Friday, April 4, at 6:45 p.m., and at the Chazen Museum of Art on Sunday, April 6, at 3:15 p.m. Both screenings will also feature her earlier short films.
Isthmus: What was your previous experience with biker culture, and why did you choose that subject for your film?
Stewart: I had lived in Door County, Wisconsin, for eight years prior to attending graduate school, and my boyfriend was the president of the Titans MC [motorcycle club]. He had been friends with Shooter, the president of the Black Pistons MC. I knew the lifestyle fairly well. I looked at the club not just as a group of bikers but as a microcosm of the culture as a whole. The gender roles that play out in the bike club may be a little rougher, but in a lot of ways they are really not that different.
With the film I never wanted to cast any kind of judgment. I just wanted to say, "This is what this is, and you can come to your own conclusions."
What drew you to Shooter and Whitley? Why did you want to tell their stories?
Shooter is a very dynamic person, a total leader of the club, and all the men respect him. You never know, once you start filming somebody, how they will actually be on camera, but there was something about him that intrigued me, and I thought, "I want to make a story with him." The relationship with Whitley is constructed for the film, but what they talk about in their voiceovers parallels what's going on in their actual lives.
In my work I'm interested in the line between narrative and documentary. I think working within a narrative structure strips away the voyeurism and gives non-actors the freedom to reveal what they want to reveal about themselves, and perhaps create within that a more true portrait. In the voiceovers, when Whitley talks about growing up and her dad being in the motorcycle club, all that is told from her real life.
When I started the film I really had no idea what was going to happen with it. I knew that I wanted to cast someone as the "biker chick." Once I met Whitley, I knew that she was going to be perfect. In many ways Whitley carries the story because I could see a lot of parts of myself in her. Also, on film, Whitley is stunning. One viewer described her as an old-school Hollywood screen actress, and I completely agree. Until I tell people, nobody who sees the film realizes that Shooter and Whitley are not in a relationship, which I find fascinating.
The character of Speedy is also very interesting, because in popular culture you rarely see the older women who have left the biker lifestyle. What do you think her story tells us about biker culture?
Speedy had known Shooter for 20 years. She is a former biker mama, and she worked as an escort. When I started editing, I realized I wanted more with her because in ways she and Whitley parallel each other. Speedy's just a little further down the line. When Speedy did a voiceover, the level of introspection and insight into the culture and how it plays out, especially for women, I found to be pretty fascinating. She kind of has one foot in, one foot out. There are elements of the scene that intrigue her, but ultimately she's glad to have something more stable.
When Speedy watched the film, she described it as a cautionary tale, and I think there's some truth to that. But I also think you can be part of the biker scene and not let it take over your life.