BY Tori Shaw || Contributing Writer
Zeke Zelker is a critically acclaimed and award-winning filmmaker known for his distinct approach to storytelling, which he calls “cine-experiences.” This approach encourages the audience to become both part and parcel of the story, leading to an experience that reaches beyond the bounds of entertainment. Zelker produced the first transmedia project at Sundance, and is also credited with writing, directing and producing the 7th most-viewed drama on Hulu, InSearchOf.
His latest film, Billboard, will be previewed in PA before its April release. The film focuses on an entrepreneur struggling to manage his late father’s radio station. To save the station, he hosts a billboard sitting contest where four people must outlast each other living on the billboard. The film features John Robinson, who starred in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, and Eric Roberts, a 1986 Academy Award nominee for best supporting actor in Runaway Train.
I recently spoke with Zelker to discuss his background in film, the creative process and everything in between. This interview is edited and condensed for clarity.
You originally went to college to study finance, but left before graduating in order to become a filmmaker. What drew you to making films as opposed to working in finance, and what would you recommend to students at F&M who are worried about the practicality in pursuing a career in the arts?
I actually went to the University of Maryland to study economics and finance, and then I went to grad school for film and left before finishing that. My family background is a bit different; my family started Dorney Park. So I was exposed to amusement entertainment since I was a kid, and over time grew an affinity towards it. When I was in undergrad, I ended up working with Merrill Lynch and analyzing entertainment stocks. I kind of had a hard time with that — I loved it but it wasn’t creative enough. However, my business background has definitely helped me as a filmmaker. I tell anybody that wants to do stuff like this that it’s going to take at least seven years or so to get on your feet. It does not happen overnight; even overnight successes take quite a bit of time. I suggest that people follow their passion, and not do the same thing over and over again just because there is a lot more gratification for it.
What led you to continue making films in the Lehigh Valley as opposed to moving to LA or New York? Do you think there is a level of authenticity captured in staying in one’s hometown and telling stories that reflect your community’s experiences?
I truly moved back home to make films. I really wanted to contribute to making the Lehigh Valley a better place and for others to highly respect it. When I was younger and traveled a bunch everybody would say Allentown was a run down town and I completely thought otherwise. With regard to authenticity, staying in a smaller town and using it as a backdrop definitely breathes this idea of authenticity into a project through osmosis for the most part. We don’t pretend to be something we’re not, and there are a lot of pretenders in LA and New York.
Was there ever a time when you thought that perhaps you wouldn’t make it as a filmmaker and if so what led you to overcome those feelings of doubt?
Failure is not even in my vocabulary. You just keep on working and working until you become successful; that’s been my modus operandi. The people I work with end up keeping me inspired, so I have never thought that I was not going to make it. I’ve been making films for over twenty years now and all my projects have returned resources, so I haven’t even thought about that. Failure is not an option!
When inspiration is waning, when you feel creatively sapped, what do you do? Do you ever engage with other artistic mediums in order to improve your craft?
I’m very big into food, so I’ll do a lot of culinary activities to keep me going. I also don’t watch films when I’m involved in the writing aspect of a project because I don’t want to be influenced by that. What I end up doing is going to art museums and finding inspiration there.
You’ve invited your audience to interact with the characters from Billboard via a mobile app. What do you think distinguishes this approach to filmmaking from mainstream narrative arcs? What does the audience get out of this that they wouldn’t from simply being entertained by the work itself?
We’re telling the story from two different vantage points. One time the story is about the radio station hosting the billboard sitting contest and there is a 30-episode web series that is solely on the four people living on the billboard. The Billboard web series will be released February 1st and then the mobile app will be out shortly before that. People can engage with the characters via social media and get deeper into the story world. We’re kind of breaking down that fourth wall where the story becomes a part of life, instead of it being linear or outward facing. We’re trying to get the audience to look inward.
This film is inspired by a real billboard sitting contest you recalled from your youth. How do you think this film speaks to the relationship between fact and fiction, and do you think giving your audience the freedom to impact the storyline contributes to disrupting the rigidity of these categories?
Totally, and I remember the contest as a kid so this is not based on any hard facts. It’s not a representation of that contest; I’m playing with the idea of narrative and community engagement. In terms of storytelling and the arc thereof, we did a test of this as an interactive play through the mobile app that we created and it was very fascinating to see a mob effect develop. When people would latch onto one thread of the performance, others would follow. So we start to worry about the psychology of audiences, and how with social media when one person says something negatively all of a sudden twenty people are saying something negatively. It’s fascinating that once you turn something over to the audience, you have to be willing to throw it into the ether world and see how people respond to it. Getting into story mechanics, you also cannot play God in that aspect, meaning that if I turn something over to the audience I have to let it run its course.
What emotions do you feel this film brings forth in its audience and what is the message you hope they take away from it?
People have said it’s a very authentic story, which is something that any filmmaker strives to be. A lot of people have been touched by the storyline, especially those people who have ever tried to do anything hard. And I encourage people to do hard shit. Doing something easy and simple does not get you anywhere. Also, there’s this idea of community and how media affects somebody’s success or failure. I’m not talking specifically about news media; I’m talking about media in general. We all create media everyday, through social media and through writing. It’s just a matter of how we can affect a business or something based off of what we do ourselves.
Can you give me a brief overview of what to expect from the Q&A?
We want to hear what people think and have to say about the film. I’m not one of those holier than thou filmmakers; I really listen to my audience and make adjustments accordingly. We have time to make edits because the film is going to be released nationally in April. We’re also hosting local entrepreneurs and I’ll be asking them questions based on the content of the film.
Why did you choose Lancaster and specifically Zoetropolis to preview this film?
I have to show at Zoetropolis! It’s part of the course. I chose Lancaster because it’s a trending city, meaning that it’s on the up swing and there are a lot of makers. I feel that this idea of authenticity and people who appreciate something that is made is definitely there. It’s important to share with an audience like that so we can have that parallel audience somewhere else in the country that we then know how to market to.
Billboard will be showing at 7 PM on November 27th at Zoetropolis. A Q&A panel will follow, with local entrepreneurs from Auntie Anne’s, Fig, and Slate Cafe. To purchase tickets, please visit: https://ticketing.us.veezi.com/purchase/875?siteToken=nz9d0gpqj0c5x4k770arskvwz4.
Senior Tori Shaw is a Contributing Writer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.