Montana's Flathead Beacon: It’s About John Mellencamp

Montana's Flathead Beacon By Molly Priddy

The trigger for creativity is different for every artist, and can come from nearly anywhere. Still, the spark behind Kalispell photographer Kurt Markus’ new film is especially unique: it was a dare from rock and roll superstar John Mellencamp.

“He dared me to make a good film. He said, ‘Kurt, you know I expect this to be a Sundance film,’” Markus said. “He’s got a very aggressive and challenging demeanor … I think he was just trying to light a fire and that was cool.”

And though it began as a challenge, Markus believes Mellencamp, who he has known for years, also commissioned the film because he wanted to capture an important window of time in his career.

“I think he felt that he was doing something important, that he knew that this next album was special to him and the way he was approaching it,” Markus said.

Markus and his son Ian, now 22, ventured out for about two months with Mellencamp on his 2009 tour with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. They also captured some of Mellencamp’s recording sessions for his 2010 album, “No Better Than This.”

The resulting film, “John Mellencamp: It’s About You,” will debut in small theaters in New York and Los Angeles this month. It will eventually be available for purchase and on Netflix, Markus said.

Markus has already made his mark on the still photography world. His work has appeared in numerous national and international media, including Vanity Fair, GQ, The New York Times Magazine, Outside, People, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Entertainment Weekly, and many more.

He has also written screenplays, and directed music videos for Tori Amos, Mellencamp and Jewel. But “It’s About You” was his first foray into filmmaking and, as Markus described it, “a huge quantum leap into the unknown.”

“There’s really no blueprint for how we approached this thing,” he said in an interview last week. “We had to invent quite a lot.”

Going into the project, Markus was a student of music documentaries. He said he watched numerous such films in preparation, and felt drawn to the productions that used fewer cameras and had a more intimate feel.

“It cemented to me the idea that whatever was going to happen, it had to be filtered in a personal way, that we were never going to be slick,” Markus said. “So why not embrace funk?”

One of the first challenges Markus ran into was accounting for sound. In still photography, it’s just not a consideration, he said. But in a movie, especially a movie about a musician, sound is just as important as the picture.

That provides another challenge, he noted, because he shot the film on a Super 8 camera, which does not record sound while filming. That’s where Ian and his digital camera came in, Markus said. They synced the sound during the editing process.

Sounds other than music came into play in production as well. For example, the 8-millimeter camera was too loud for the recording sessions, so Ian had to capture it on the digital camera. Then, they played the footage on a large, flat-screen television, where Markus re-filmed it with the Super 8.

Working with his son was a blend of personal and modern interests, Markus said. Ian, an art student at Montana State University, provided the digital know-how for the editing process, while Markus stayed devoted to his 8-millimeter film.

And spending two months traveling 10,000 miles in a rented minivan with his son while they tailed music superstars made for an interesting father-son dynamic.

“It’s both complicated and beautiful all wrapped into one kind of messy ball,” Markus said. “My son really rose to the occasion, especially when it came to editing.”

The final product is an 80-minute film, full of live music and fascinating interviews that provide a behind-the-scenes look at an iconic American performer.

Markus said the response has been “wonderful,” and that the film has been shown at a couple of festivals already. And as for Mellencamp and his dare?

“He ended up liking it,” Markus said.