Auteur of the Scenester

With 'The Horrible Flowers,' indie filmmaker Eric Tretbar aims to prove he's still in bloom

Eric Tretbar has spent enough time hanging around movie sets to have developed a reliable taxonomy of film-crew types. "The camera guys always have the best coffee because they spend so much time standing around," Tretbar explains. "Wardrobe--they're the best dressed, of course. Actors are the ones dancing around in the middle of everything. That's genetic. Lighting guys--they're the muscle, so they're the strongest ones around. Sound people have the gossip on any film set. You have to remember: The mic is always on. So the sound guys sit there listening to everything and smiling."

And the director? Tretbar, who's shooting a scene for his latest film, The Horrible Flowers, at 7th St. Entry, doesn't fit the central-casting stereotype of the Napoleonic auteur barking orders through a megaphone. Consulting quietly with his crew while morning rush-hour traffic rattles outside, Tretbar looks more like a sensitive indie rocker, or perhaps a bookstore manager. He's a bit on the short side. His hair is longish, worn over the ears, '70s-style, with narrow muttonchops. His clothes are Rock Casual: glasses, red Adidas sneakers, brown cords, and a gray pocket T that stretches around his belly. He reminds one a bit of Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lester Bangs in Almost Famous--if only because Tretbar, like Bangs, is a penetrating observer of those drawn to rock 'n' roll's incandescent wick.

That comparison may not do Tretbar justice. In point of fact, Eric Tretbar is to indie-rockers as Kurosawa is to samurai. Tretbar's highly regarded first feature, The Usual, is about a naive Minnesota girl who's seduced by rock's siren song. His follow-up, the slow and lovely 1998 film Snow, follows two aging Minneapolis scenesters who are drawn together briefly by nostalgia. Snow is a veritable elegy for Minneapolis's legendary rock heyday. The two characters ramble through sleepy downtown coffeehouses, attend a raucous show at First Avenue, and even make love beneath a Zen Arcade poster. According to Tretbar, The Horrible Flowers, which completes a trilogy of sorts, will darken and complicate this oeuvre.

"Snow was kind of a lost-youth film," Tretbar explains. "Like: 'I'm grown-up--what am I going to do now?' The Horrible Flowers takes that further. It's about the struggle of [main character] Bettina--she's a garage-band leader--to let go of this past that's dead so that she can get everything she has ever wanted. She's looking around at her friends who have nice houses and jobs and money in the bank. And she's riding around in a leaky van with a bunch of juvenile delinquents."

Indeed, to judge by the action Tretbar is shooting at the Entry, indie rock--like indie filmmaking--is far from a glam thrill-ride. In this scene, a brawl breaks out during a Horrible Flowers show, and Bettina (played by Emily Cline) is assaulted by a rival. Tretbar and his crew began shooting at 4:00 a.m., an hour at which most rockers are nestled drunkenly in their beds. Everyone looks a little frazzled. The Entry smells strongly of clove cigarettes and sweat. The overhead lights feel like a midday July sun. In the corner by the bar, a girl with complicated hair is filling Summit bottles with water. "Get the background artists from the corral," one of Tretbar's production assistants says into a walkie-talkie. (Although everyone calls the extras "background artists," they're still herded around like cattle.)

When the extras have assembled on the dance floor, and the Horrible Flowers have taken their places, Tretbar hops lightly onto the stage to marshal his troops.

"You guys are super-psyched to see this band," he directs the actors. "You suffered through another band. Now you're ready to rock."

"So we're just going to be rockin' out to the show?" one of the background artists inquires.

"Yeah, but you know how it is. This is Minneapolis, so not a lot of theatrics. Kind of sway a little if you want."

"Like a Japanese crowd," someone chimes in helpfully.

Tretbar smiles at this.

If Tretbar is feeling pressure about The Horrible Flowers' prospects, he's not showing it. In fact, for a filmmaker on the make, he's remarkably philosophical about his career. Yet it may not be a stretch to see some autobiographical congruence between Tretbar and his main character, a musician whose dogged commitment to her craft has meant sacrificing any semblance of a stable life. "It's a story about the life of an artist," Tretbar acknowledges.

Make no mistake: Expectations are high. Ever since The Usual made the round of film festivals in 1992, observers have been predicting great things for Tretbar. "From my perspective, he's one of our more advanced filmmakers," says Jane Minton, executive director of IFP-MSP. "He's someone who stays true to his own vision--sometimes to his detriment. His first film had a really successful [run on the] festival circuit. I think on his sophomore effort, he experienced what a lot of filmmakers experience. Without a bigger budget and a larger cast, it's just not going to happen for you that way again."

John Schott, a cinema- and media-studies teacher at Carleton College in Northfield, has known Tretbar since the latter was an undergraduate. "He [Tretbar] has given up a lot in life in terms of the career he could have," Schott says. "But he has a willingness to stay and build the Minneapolis film scene. He hasn't been eager to jump out of that scene. There may be things that are frustrating or limiting about that. Every filmmaker wants to get his work out as widely as possible."

Given Tretbar's dedication to the Minneapolis scene--the city's snow-muffled industrial environs, the enduring legends of its rock clubs and bars--it's a little surprising to learn that he actually grew up in suburban Kansas City. Tretbar's father was a doctor, his mother an English teacher. His younger sister Kirsten, who is also a filmmaker, says the family was steeped in film culture. "Our parents were total film freaks. You know how some families go to the lake and go waterskiing on weekends? We'd have movie marathons where our parents would take us to see Wild Strawberries or the latest Woody Allen movie.

"Eric was always the director type," his sister says. "I'm sure he doesn't want me talking about this, but he used to make these elaborate dioramas of World War II, these recreations of battles. He knew way more than a kid should about Rommel's tank movements in North Africa. Basically what he was doing was storyboarding a film."

Tretbar also got some early exposure to the film industry. His father, an avid photographer, oversaw the animation of a number of medical training films. Once, when Tretbar was nine years old, his father took him along to visit an L.A. movie studio. Tretbar was decidedly underwhelmed. "It was the most tedious, boring thing I've ever seen," he says.

Tretbar first came to Minnesota to attend Carleton. It was there, he says, that his interest in filmmaking blossomed. Schott, who became a mentor to Tretbar, remembers that his student was particularly taken with Sculpting in Time, Andrei Tarkovsky's meditative volume on the philosophy and metaphysics of cinema. "I think it became a sort of bible for him," Schott says. If nothing else, Tretbar's embrace of Tarkovsky should suggest an enthusiasm for cinema somewhat more rigorous than the average undergrad's.

After college, Tretbar went off to film school at NYU. The program didn't take, however, and he left after a year. "I think a lot of people like me get interested in movies in an academic way. Like, 'I'm really into film. I just wrote a paper on Hiroshima, mon amour. My girlfriend thinks it's cool.' But filmmaking is one of the least academic and most practical, most concrete of all art forms.

"The problem with any film school," Tretbar continues, "is that [filmmaking] is like being a surgeon. You can learn science and chemistry, and watch other doctors cut the body open, take out the bad parts, and sew it up. But you have to do it for yourself. That's the only way to make a movie. If you want to know how to make a feature, then make a feature. It's always up to you. That's the naked truth about cinema: No one can stop you from making a film. But on the other hand, no one cares if you do make a film."

Despite his early infatuation with Tarkovsky, Tretbar favors the raw, DIY approach of auteurs such as Jim Jarmusch and Jean-Luc Godard. When he made The Usual, using his house as a primary location, he was, he says, "too inexperienced to know everything I was doing was wrong."

Tretbar had played in bands on and off since college, and, upon returning to Minneapolis in the mid-'80s, he started playing drums with the Funseekers, which also included future Hang Ups guitarist John Crozier. Tretbar's segue into making movies about the rock scene was, then, merely a natural outgrowth of his own rock career (indeed, Crozier appears in his first two films).

"The basic thing is that the rock scene is fascinating," he says. "There's all the bad behavior you'd expect. But the truth is, most of the people I know aren't in bands because they want to be rich and famous. They just love music and love performing." In the subculture of indie bands and seedy bars, Tretbar has found a ready set of metaphors for the conflicting claims of ambition and freedom facing any creative artist.

Which brings us back to 7th St. Entry and The Horrible Flowers. In the scene Tretbar has spent all morning shooting, Bettina, the film's protagonist, is facing a life-altering decision: She can either give up life on the road or she can blindly follow her muse, daring much to accomplish something that 99 out of 100 people won't care about anyway. This being an Eric Tretbar film, you can guess which she chooses.

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