Cory McAbee Rides Again
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because never again will you have to say, “Now, if ‘I’ had made that movie…’”
By Eugene S. Robinson
Cory McAbee, 52 years old, fit and trim and looking like a younger Sam Shepard, either with or without the cowboy hat, is on fire. A very polite fire, but a fire nonetheless.
“My idea was to create a global community for a film,” he says, sitting in New York at his kitchen table and waiting for his family to arrive. “And pull in every artistic medium there is from … out there.”
No stranger to either filmmaking or being “out there,” McAbee is an old hand at the theatrical. Singer and songwriter for the confusingly named Billy Nayer Show (none of the associated gaggle of musicians was named “Billy” or “Nayer”), the group mixed theater, music, film and soundtracks into an overarching sensibility designed to make every show evoke a free-floating flotilla of ideas. Ideas that embraced everything from interstellar space travel to a love of retro Americana. Now, with Captain Ahab’s Motorcycle Club, writer and director McAbee is going after the same sort of thing, but with a few crucial twists.
”The director Gregory Bayne and I were on a panel at Columbia University,” says McAbee. ”We started talking afterward and came up with this idea: to work with all of the people who had approached me about working on stuff in the past and pull them all into making a movie.” So based on an earlier film idea he had called The Great American Funeral, which mutated into The Embalmer’s Tale, the plot of the film would be a fictitious rendering of the funeral of Abraham Lincoln.
Confused? Not yet, you’re not. Lincoln’s funeral — he was taken by train on a two-and-half-week memorial tour through some northern states — as told by his embalmer, was high drama from beginning to end and perfect for a cinematic treatment. So McAbee sent word out to all and sundry: We, the royal WE, are making a movie, so chip IN.
Not just cash but everything. A guy from the Library of Congress had original glass negatives of some of the very earliest photos of the funeral. And even cooler, he had some of the original sheet music from the funeral, as well as music from the 1850s. Boats from Estonia were used to ferry Lincoln’s body across the Hudson River; the original boat and the boat builders still exist and McAbee got access to them, and they have donated the boats for the greater glory of art and the joy of participating. As the collaboration grows, so do the plot twists and the library of songs.
Armed with notes, ideas, a skeleton script, assorted illustrators working on sets and marketing materials, McAbee took the show on the road to the Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontiers Lab in October 2012, now as a an art collective called Captain Ahab’s Motorcycle Club. “We worked with everyone there to develop the story and the film in ways that would embrace a global collaborative approach,” says McAbee. Think: improv theater. Which was the right time and place for it, as he emerged from the festival with a bunch of deals in place for the film to be aired on Netflix, Hulu and the festival circuit.
The expected next step in the saga is that the movie debuts, and everyone gets rich and buys swimming pools, right? Wrong. McAbee zigged instead of zagging: All of the money the film earns is going to Doctors Without Borders. “Most of the work is volunteer, though we will be raising funds to meet productions costs,” McAbee says. “This is the first time I have created a film to give to a charity. And I don’t think it will be the last time. I like the idea of the total impact of creativity being positive.”
So, so it goes: 360 degrees of development, directing and a whole gaggle of folks contributing everything from, in the early stages, music to T-shirts. All you need to do to join the Club is participate. ”I’ve been sending out song stems to anyone who wants,” laughs McAbee. “And they remix it, send it back to me and without listening to them first — which is why I call this my suicide set — I perform them live. Just to road test them before we put them in the movie.”
And lest it seems that this is some quixotic quest for feel-good cute, McAbee’s resume reads much less random than some of his plots. His films run from his 1990s experiments — Billy Nayer, The Man on the Moon, The Ketchup and the Mustard Man — to his new millennium award winners The American Astronaut, Stingray Sam and Crazy & Thief. Captain Ahab’s Motorcycle Club is scheduled to begin filming in 2014 – look for it next fall. McAbee is now touring performing the songs that will form the spine of the film’s soundtrack and doing it in a way that’s consistent with how the rest of the movie is being made. Which is to say: crowd-driven and collective.
High-wire act of the highest order, McAbee is about to find out if there is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen by flooding the kitchen with as many cooks as it can handle. “Film has always been one of the most collaborative arts,” Berlin-based director Manuel Liebeskind said. “This is just taking it to a delightful extreme.”