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Inside With: Jordan Vogt-Roberts

On a chilly April evening in Chicago, the Bastion got a chance to formally chit-chat with filmmaker Jordan Vogt-Roberts, in between his dates on the coast and right before the DC Comedy Fest this coming weekend (where he'll be chairing the Short Comedy Film portion of the festival). Embodying a famed lyric by one of his favorite music acts, Jordan lives and breathes the war cry, "No sleep 'til Brooklyn!," wherein Brooklyn is the Wide Open Future, or possibly for simplicity's sake the festival, or maybe it’s a development deal, or maybe it's just when his body refuses to take anymore commands and abuse. He's seen very little of that ever-elusive sleep this last week and has another all-nighter planned tonight. With tomorrow's dawn, he may be able to chase around the dreamworld, but daylight will allow that as such when the time comes.

Jordan came to Chicago a few years ago to pursue his studies in filmmaking, and has, in the last year and a half, found himself firmly ensconced in the Northside alt stand-up and improv comedy scene. Initially contacted by the Lincoln Lodge after they got wind of a music video he had directed and produced in Phoenix and that was then submitted to Gen Art for a contest, Jordan agreed to be their "variety act" for one of the shows, and subsequently met stand-up comedian Mike Bridenstine. Mike, a burgeoning filmmaker himself, approached Jordan with the idea of collaborating on a few small projects here and there. After deliberating for a bit, those 'small projects' became what is now known as Blerds, a blog and video site, whose content comes from twelve comedians, nine still in Chicago, and three on the coasts. Jordan became the Resident Filmmaker for the group, and soon found himself dedicating more and more of his free, and then sleeping time, to the group and their snowballing ideas.

Right now he and his sleep schedule are at odds due to the most recent project the group has signed on with – the production of online content for Jose Cuervo’s latest marketing campaign, The shorts the group produces will act as the viral/guerrilla video aspect of the site, Jordan explains. Three of the five shorts commissioned have been greenlighted, and now it’s a mad dash to create and finalize the product for the site. According to Jordan, Blerds videos previously produced were found quite serendipitously by a copywriter at Tribal DDB, who then passed the link along to a creative at the agency, and before anyone could say “Salut!” they were dressing up in Victorian garb and beast masks and the director was working a 21-hour shift. “It's new territory for Cuervo.  It's a pretty brave campaign.  In general this kind of stuff is new ground for a lot of the industry right now," he says.

During the same time that this new project was developing, Jordan got to revisit his very first project with the group -- “Every Eminem Song Ever Made.” A music video for the collaborative "Sugar Powdered Donuts" (stand-up comedians Mike Bridenstine and Mike Holmes), this short is currently seeing a surge in viral distribution, and has been picked up by several portals, including iFilm, SuperDeluxe, Daily Motion, Yahoo! TV, and Jordan, a self-described “fantastical-realist”, is hesitant to place too much credence in the medium, however. When asked how he feels about “what’s happening” with the video, he says, “I don't really feel like much is happening with it honestly. That video is a year old.  It's getting 50k to 150k hits on the various video portals that it's on. Ultimately that just doesn't mean much though.  Those views don't really translate into anything. That video is also such a unique beast -- drama it seems to stir with fire and brimstone Eminem fans.  It's nice to know the video is making its rounds though.” As for the viral world itself, he has a few thoughts: “It's such a confusing landscape right now.  No one is really quite sure how to make money off of Internet comedy right now or how to most effectively brand/market yourself. With the SuperDeluxe's, MySpace's, Break's, Rever's, YouTube's, Daily Motion's, iFilm's, Joost's and the infinite-other-distribution-sites-out-there it's a confused landscape. No one is debating how influential the viral landscape is but I think it's also worth noting that it's not as huge as people think it is… I like to know where my work is.  User feedback via comments is always somewhat worthwhile to me, if not from a professional standpoint but from a sociological one,” he says.

Asked if he had any inclination a year ago that Blerds would be the animal that it now is, Jordan says, “Blerds is a really strange thing in every way.  The group of people, the working process, the response we've gotten, etc. [It] still has an infinite amount of growing it needs to do in just about every way.  It's great in the sense that most video groups out there are sketch groups rather than stand up collectives.  It's also rare to get the combined perspective and collaboration of a filmmaker and comedians bringing different aesthetics to their work.  Rather than just a group of comedians picking up a Handycam and flooding YouTube with their 'hilarious video' or a bunch of film students making comedy.  It's a good mix.  People joke that it's like the Wu Tang Clan -- which sucks for me because I have no rhythm -- unless it's in an editing program!"

The Blerds stuff was born out of working with twelve comics who couldn't nail down a cohesive and agreed upon idea for an intro video.  They gave me a week to do it and so the first thing that clicked for me was to go with what we knew worked -- their bits. Visualizing them didn't seem like a particularly new or interesting idea to me, but it seemed like a competent one for the time I had to get the videos done. The style of the videos, which is essentially just stand up comedy visualized in slightly hyperbolized situations, is what made the most sense to me. In retrospect we stumbled upon a rather good way to present stand up comedy online in a digestible format.

Since, apparently, the non-stop Blerds filming schedule wasn’t enough for him, Jordan also recently began collaborating with Blerds member and uber-comedian TJ Miller on a side project. They’ve already had one showcase and screening in Los Angeles, and are currently trying to decide how to best approach the next step. In fact, directly after the DC Comedy Fest, Jordan is winging out to L.A. for some meetings and plans to secure representation very soon – “I'm just being introduced into this quagmire of getting representations, selling work, etc. Quite weird,” he says.

Although he did attend film school, Jordan kept finding himself knowing more about a technical aspect of film than his professor, and voraciously devoured all of the literature on the subject that he could find. What’s become known as the “Blerds style” is a unique method of shooting and editing that Jordan developed over his years of experiencing different situations and reacting to them accordingly, subsequently turning them back upon themselves in a reflection of what he sees: “It's all puzzle-solving to me.  Each project is just solving a problem.  It's a matter of finding what technique works best for the piece itself. My influences are all over the place but a lot of it just stems from being stubborn and thrusting myself into a situation where I'm in over my head.  That was my schooling.  Saying, 'hey, I'm going to go shoot a feature documentary' then reading ten books, then three weeks later flying to L.A. making phone calls and taking the crash course. Or saying, "hey, General Motors, sure I can direct this stuff for you,' and in reality having no prior experience but a good general understanding of the way things and humans behave. That was my schooling," he says.

Speaking of General Motors, fans of Jordan can support the American car company, with stock and automobile purchases: the company could possibly be considered Jordan’s benefactor and most powerful supporter. Back in the summer of 2005, a friend of Jordan’s convinced his place of employment to give this unknown filmmaker a chance to direct and produce a series of corporate DVDs, with the following condition: The company would buy the equipment, and if they liked the final product, Jordan could keep the equipment. If they weren’t satisfied, he would have to foot his own bill. “It's all the stuff I use now for the most part,” he said. And he didn’t have to foot the bill.

Jordan doesn’t see things slowing down for him anytime soon, and one gets the sense that he wouldn't have it any other way, either.

"Here's how I spent my Easter: Dressing up like a caveman and rubbing dirt on my face for a scene while shooting an homage to 2001.  Shooting a Victorian era scene and supervising beast prosthetic makeup. Did that from 9am until 6am. My back hurts.  My eyes are heavy.

"Let's just say that if I'm not sleeping I'm generally editing or shooting something.  It's really strange.  Everyone always warns me that I'll burn out or um, go insane.  Sort of the whole Icarus -- fly too high thing.  Meh, fly by night or build better wings, I say."

--Kristy Mangel

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