Snake Oil Sam: Diversity in Action
By Tom Inglesby, Markee 2.0 Magazine
While major studios control large amounts of money, small independent productions with limited budgets can still make a splash if they approach their projects with great ideas, good planning, and high-quality but inexpensive equipment. Here are two such indie producers with awards to show for their efforts. The common thread is simple: they took chances and succeeded.
What does it take to be an independent filmmaker? Obviously, talent, time, money and ideas to start. But if you have talent and ideas, wouldn’t it be better to hook up with a major studio, one that would — in effect — provide the money you need and free up your time from chasing after the money you need? Independent means independent from someone telling you what to do, when to do it, and how to do it differently than the way you want to do it. It means you can win all the marbles your way. Or lose all your marbles.
Arlene Bogna is one of those betting on winning — not losing — by being independent. She has a background in directing commercials and branded entertainment, and experience in art direction, fine art photography, visual effects, and writing. Bogna has been a shadow director on two network drama episodes, and is currently preparing for a revenge western feature titled Amaryllis Bang! Bang! Most recently, she completed a short “art” film called The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam in which she combined steampunk and desert backgrounds with avant-garde music.
Arlene is a creative spirit, a female film director who wants to the push envelope in her productions. Her inspiration? “Aside from directors [such as] Sergio Leone, Quentin Tarantino, and Danny Boyle, I am inspired by cinema from the late 60’s through the 70’s, by music, and of course by the wilderness,” Bogna admits. “Spaghetti westerns have an attention to nuanced moments, as well as epic drama, which really draws me in. Cinema in the 70’s, like Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Vanishing Point, even Star Wars, have a freedom and an expressiveness to them, such that I really feel like I’m on a journey discovering a world right with the hero. I guess being in the natural frontier gives me a similar feeling, sort of ‘life times two.’ I’m a very visual person — meaning if someone says something, I visualize it instantly — so I am constantly inspired by the people I meet in my life and the stories they tell.”
The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam was inspired by new music by the band West Indian Girl, specifically the song “Taboo” from their album Shangri La. “I was listening to the track while brainstorming with writer/producer Anthony Ferranti so that we could explore concepts for a potential music video for the band,” recalls Bogna. Ferranti came up with the iconic visual of a snake oil salesman trekking through the desert, and Bogna says she felt like she had been struck by lightning.
“Clear as day, that was it!” is the way she remembers it. “It was an inspiring moment, and from there we developed the character Snake Oil Sam and added the sympathetic twist that he is seeking redemption. I also found that many of my personal interests could be layered into the story organically — what if Snake Oil Sam is a medicine man in the making? What if we could bring in an eclectic desert tribe, like in the 70’s film Vanishing Point, and make it an ode to today’s dance culture and subculture?”
That’s a lot of what ifs. But there are more. “What if I, as an artist, could explore certain cinematic notions in preparation for my feature, Amaryllis Bang! Bang!, including dreamy frontier visuals and the theme of redemption,” Bogna asks. “We realized we had a cool short film and that I had a chance to express myself in a unique narrative and fly my cinematic freak flag as a director, so I could not wait!”
An Independent film is a collaborative adventure that needs a certain level of people and situations coming together and falling into place at just the right time, and this kind of serendipity is certainly what made The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam possible. “It takes some grit, especially in the beginning, to find the right people,” Bogna acknowledges. “I am so grateful to all the talented and supportive people who came on board. I also found that the concept attracted people who were just as passionate about the material as I was. That was thrilling because I felt the film growing into something bigger than me. And the challenges of filming off-grid in the desert wilderness definitely kept us on our toes! Heat waves, bobcats; you name it, we encountered it.”
But like the show Survivor, the crew came together as a tribe, camping together and giving it their all. “It felt like a very special experience to me,” Bogna beams. “That is why it was so rewarding to have our work accepted into the Cannes Short Film Corner, part of the Cannes Film Festival, to kick off our festival run, because it felt like a strong affirmation of our efforts and vision.” Off in the desert again, Bogna responded to the age-old question: What advice would you give to an upcoming filmmaker? “Prepare, prepare, prepare! And hone your vision ahead of time. Be there for your actors. Stay open on set for inspiration and in case you need to adapt quickly to find another way to achieve your vision.”
Encouraged by the positive reception her film has been getting, Arlene Bogna has started her first feature-length film. She explains, “In The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam, I explored the cinematic notions of redemption and dreamy frontier visuals in preparation for my feature Amaryllis Bang! Bang!, which I co-wrote with Nicole Schubert. Amaryllis Bang! Bang! is a swashbuckling adventure about an Apache-trained warrior set on avenging the murder of her family, only to find out a chilling secret about herself. I’ve workshopped the script in scene study with professional actors, which is basically director heaven. Now I’m fielding questions about locations and logistics! I feel very fortunate to have producers on board to support my vision and bring Amaryllis Bang! Bang! to life. And I’m very excited by the positive meetings from Cannes. I can’t wait to see how serendipity plays out to bring this epic yet personal story to the big screen.”
Inspiration can come at any time, from any direction. As Bogna says, you have to be open for it. Who knows, maybe her story will be your inspiration.
The Ballad of Snake Oil Sam