Inside “The Film Lounge” with Paul Berge

    Paul Berge
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    Welcome back to the lounge – and please, make yourself comfortable.

    “The Film Lounge” is a new TV series that features a sampling of short films by Iowa filmmakers. It’s produced by Iowa Public Television in partnership with the Iowa Arts Council and Produce Iowa, the state’s media-production office, and its first episode airs at 10 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12.

    Three preview parties will take place in Des Moines, Iowa City and Sioux City during the week leading up to the premiere.

    If you’re just joining us here in the blog, don’t miss our previous interview with Sam Kessie, the globetrotting artist in Iowa City who mixes dance and film into a single artform.

    Filmmaker Paul Berge behind Black Magic camera.
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    The next filmmaker on our list is Paul Berge of Indianola, whose short comedy “The Waiting Room” takes cues from an old-fashioned radio play and takes a wry look at the hopelessness of dealing with authority. Sometimes, you know, all you can do is laugh.

    And Paul knows that better than most. He served in the Army. He also taught high school, coaching kids in the finer points of theater and film.

    He’s produced shows for independent cable, worked on radio dramas, done voice work, appeared onscreen in a few feature films, and spent a decade writing and hosting for “Side Roads,” an Iowa travel series on IPTV.

    For the last five years, he’s teamed up with Bradley Smyser of Infinipix in Ankeny for a handful of projects under the combined name the Smerge Brothers. They’ve jumped into the festival circuit, screening work from Beacon Hill, N.Y., to Bath, England, and picked up awards for writing, directing and cinematography at the Wild Rose Independent Film Festival in Des Moines.

    Oh – and by the way, Paul has also written six novels, a pile of short stories, and a textbook about how to fly an airplane. He’s a longtime pilot.

    We emailed him a few questions about his wide-ranging experience and got some insightful answers, lightly edited below for clarity and length.

    Where are you from?
    I was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up nearby in Westwood (the birthplace of James Gandolfini).

    What kinds of films do you make?
    Short comedic dramas – dramedies. I’ve also acted in several indie features in eastern Iowa (“To Survive,” “Finding John Smith,” “Castle Siege”).

    Actors Kim Duede, Etta Berkowitz and Steve Matthews rehearsing for The Waiting Room.
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    What themes do your films explore?
    My work deals with the amusing absurdities of people taking themselves way too seriously. Think Kafka or Monty Python or the Marx Brothers.

    “The Waiting Room” toys with the universal dislike of waiting. The characters react in different ways – with fear, friendly surrender, annoyance – but none of them can change or even comprehend the wait. Shooting in black and white strips away any glow of humanity while simultaneously allowing the audience to explore the possibilities in the shadows. (Yeah, I’m a film noir fan.)

    What are you working on these days?
    Two projects: Brad and I are in post-production on a documentary called “The Old SEAL,” about an 82-year-old man named Gerald Clark, who left Weldon (south of Osceola) at the age of 17 to join the Navy and see the world. He served 23 years, starting in 1952, and became one of the Navy’s first SEALs. We’re planning to finish it later this year.

    Our second project right now is our first collaboration on a feature film, with the working title “Graveyard Gold.” It’s based on the true story of a southern Iowa farm boy in the late 1950s who found a Civil War-era gold coin while digging in the family garden. Now in his 60s, he teams up with two unlikely gold diggers to find the rest of the mysterious stash. The project is still in development.

    The other projects in endless development are a light romantic comedy feature called “Restoration,” for which we have a completed screenplay but still need serious funding, and “Black Knight of the Soul,” a two-act Elizabethan-style stage play I’d like to adapt for the screen. Marketing any of this remains a separate challenge.

    Crew Brad Smyser and Chris Gourley with Actors Steve Matthews and Etta Berkowitz on set for The Waiting Room.
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    What do you like about being a filmmaker in Iowa?
    I’ve come to filmmaking relatively late in life (unless I live to be really old) but have always loved film and have spent a fair amount of time in front of cameras. I’m a writer first and have been for many years.

    Collaborating with Brad to put our words on the big screen is slow-motion magic. Filmmaking is all about collaboration, and Iowa offers a vast supply of talent – actors, videographers, editors, musicians, casting directors, pilots – all at affordable indie prices (meaning everyone’s underpaid, which is sad).

    Iowa also offers a wide array of locations. For “The Waiting Room”’s opening scene, we used the 1912 train station in Osceola, a town which has proven to be wonderfully helpful in several of our productions. The screenplay for “Restoration” was written with Osceola locations in mind, and two years ago we shot “Trying To Quit” in the same town. That story, about a low-rent thief who’s arrested for a stupid petty crime and faces the reality of “three strikes and your out,” required night-time street scenes with a police car, interiors at a bar and a police-station interrogation room – all available in Osceola.

    Our short, “CoPay,” required a skeet range and an emergency room, which we also found in and around Osceola. Jim and Mary Ellen Kimball and the Clarke County Arts Council have been instrumental in assisting our cause.

    What is one thing you’d like to change about the film scene in Iowa?
    I know it’ll never happen, but in order to compete in the big film world, we need to reinstate the film tax credits. Without them, it’s tough to compete with other states that are taking away what had been here, albeit briefly, until the so-called tax credit scandals shut us down.

    Meanwhile, we’ll just have to press on, making great films as best we can on what little funding is available.

    Coming up next: An interview with Ian Carstens of Dubuque, whose thoughtful documentary “Empty Basket,” studies the act of observation and its relationship to time – by watching those who are watching.