To read “‘Gator Bait & Me 1″ follow this link: http://barefootjustine.com/2013/01/23/gator-bait-me/
The story of my dinner with ‘Gator Bait creators Ferd and Beverly Sebastian.
I have been a fan of Ferd and Beverly Sebastian’s drive-in Exploitation classic… ‘Gator Bait for a very long time. The video (as in VHS) release poster I scored from a video store has been on my wall since as far back as the eighties; though the movie itself was released in 1973. For me, ‘Gator Bait was the perfect movie, it was love at first sight, right from the establishing shots and fabulously moody tone set by the opening song. First impressions aren’t always enough, the movie has not only held up through multiple viewings, but I have continued to notice little things about it that have continued to endear it to me. ‘Gator Bait is one in a million, and so are its creators.
‘Gator Bait is, at its simplest, a classic example of the (rape) revenge genre, yet it stands wholly apart and reveals its genre-subverting secrets slowly. One of its greatest strengths is its complete lack of cynicism and its warm and beating heart, which it always keeps in the right place… dead center. There is a depth of observation about the characters that always revealed a woman’s touch to me, after all, Claudia Jennings suggested the most rudimentary concept for the film to her friend Beverly Sebastian, who wrote the exceptional script. Beyond all of its obvious qualities ‘Gator Bait appeals to me for very personal reasons as well.
Firstly, Claudia Jennings as Desirae is not merely sexy, but strong and barefoot throughout, apart from a few shod minutes in the beginning. And she is not only barefoot, but a barefoot wild woman. Movies that fall under the “wild woman” category have long been favorites of mine–for I can relate to them. The problem with most wild woman movies and stories is that they more often than not reveal a deepset puritanical streak. More often than not the wild women in the movies must either be tamed and forced into shoes and submission, or worse… they must die for their wild “pagan” wickedness. See the otherwise wonderful Gone To Earth for just one example of the wild woman formula in action. In Gone To Earth, Hazel, the wild woman, is severely chastised (frankly, killed off) for her “wicked ways,” while the men (of course) all walk away healthy and happy. ‘Gator Bait is a rare exception in that the wild woman survives with her wonderful wildness wholly intact–if not hardened a little through the course of her adventure. Two of the most important factors that make ‘Gator Bait such a shining example of Exploitation at its best are its insightful and compassionate portraits of both the heroine and the villains. The writing reveals a woman’s touch at every turn, and a strong and passionate woman’s touch no less, and that woman, Beverly Sebastian, is a powerhouse. The villains, five men who have set out into the swamp to hunt, try, judge and kill Jenning’s character Desirae, all have their own motives and are bound together through the intertwining of their sins, ignorance and mistakes. Along the same lines, Desirae is brilliantly portrayed as a strong Cajun woman who falls into none of the traps of what filmmakers today errantly consider to be strong women.
Strong women do not abandon femininity to become men. Modern films take a grotesque shortcut when trying to create a strong female character, they rob them of every ounce of their femininity and turn them into characters as shallow, flat and uninteresting as their male counterparts. Strong women in modern films walk like men, chew gum like men, sling big stupid guns over their shoulders like men, and act every bit the asshole the men do… but they have ever buoyant breasts. ‘Gator Bait takes a much more enlightened approach. Rather than dismissing or degrading the truly feminine, ‘Gator Bait goes against the grain, celebrates it and reveals the sublime strength of primal feminine power. Desirae is no doubt strong and courageous (and a damn good shot, too), but she is cunning, sly, quick and quiet, and most importantly, she largely plays a distinctly feminine cat and mouse game with the men who sexually abused and murdered her sister and are now pursuing her through the swamps for a murder she did not commit. She plays these testosterone addled men like fools and leads them to self destruction. As the film plays out we slowly watch the men become more and more unhinged and frightened not merely of her and her swamp, but of each other. Such subtleties are rarely seen in Exploitation films… and I have seen and loved tons of them. Setting all that aside, and perhaps every bit as important as such subtleties, ‘Gator Bait does not make any promises it doesn’t fulfill, in the words of we Exploitation fans… it pays off!
Of course Ferd and Beverly have shot many tremendous and memorable films, even a second huge favorite, The Hitchhikers, another movie that made quite an impression on me. For a start, the lead is played by a woman, again, and she runs away from home barefoot. When I moved away from Ohio to Florida, I did so barefoot, and with nothing but the courage to take a leap of faith and the small envelope of cash I had acquired by selling off guitars, my car, and other stuff. As I walked out the door of my house in Ohio for the last time I could hear the music from The Hitchhikers playing over in my head. As you can imagine, the thought that I would one day meet the writer/producer/director team who created two such personally influential films was always a little faint daydream of mine. I have a longtime habit of seeking, finding, meeting and befriending my heroes, from the great artist Jeffrey Catherine Jones to French director Jean Rollin, whenever possible I have found my heroes and gotten to know them, thereby getting to know not only their work better, but myself as well. Those are the people I learn from. As an artist I haven’t spent much time with my contemporaries, not once I discovered I could shoot over their heads and aim for Masters and personal heroes–even in high school I was closer to my art teachers than the fellow students. For some time I had been trying to find Ferd and Beverly Sebastian, but they were elusive to say the least–read the attached and linked blog entry above for more on that.
Needless to say, having dinner with Ferd and Beverly several days ago was an unlikely and hard-won dream come true. And more than anything, that is really what this is about. I don’t care to review ‘Gator Bait, so many people have done that so badly already that I dare not cast my bait into those waters. Waters muddied by men (mostly) who would rather look down on the things they claim to love and laugh at them by using words like “Cheesy” or “Schlocky.” As for me, I would rather take the higher road and look up with respect and admire the things I love. If I am going to love something, why bother loving something I feel or see as being beneath me? I was never one to get together with people, drink, and laugh at movies, what a lowly and derisive pastime. The other thing such weak-minded reviews do is demonstrate that people do not know how to approach low budget, independent or “Exploitation” films. Most people come to them with eyes, ears and minds that have been brainwashed into only being able to view movies from a limited singular mainstream Hollywood-centric perspective. There are many ways to make, view, and consider movies, and in order to get all one can out of alternative, independent or low-budget film culture one must empty their cup before viewing a film like ‘Gator Bait. What I care to do here, rather than review ‘Gator Bait, is write about my evening with its creators and talk about how much it meant to me.
When I first contacted the Sebastians I had talked to Ferd on the phone, something their son Ben (who was also in ‘Gator Bait) had set up for me. Merely talking to Ferd on the phone flooded me with tremorous joy. As I hung up the phone, having set up a time and place to meet them, the anxieties crept in, the questions… will this be awkward, cordial, friendly, stiff, distant… or will there be a connection between us? When we (“The Beard and the Barefoot Girl”, i.e. me and my dearest friend and a fine artist, Joe Blue Sky) pulled up to the restaurant, within a few moments Ferd and Beverly happened to pull up right beside us. Shit! What are these people going to be like? I was set at ease by the warm and welcoming openness of our initial greetings. Ferd had looked at my artwork on this very site and was already impressed. That has been essential to breaking the ice for me. When I meet a hero I want to establish up front that I am not merely a fan, I am one of them, perhaps an equal. When one artist of skill and dedication meets another of the same skill and dedication the ice is instantly melted and a bond is easy to establish. This is never a manipulation on my part, nor is it boastful, it is merely my way of establishing that we are cut from the same cloth, that we can open up and communicate as equals. We must be at eye level, I cannot stand to be talked down to. Of course, Ferd and Beverly never once talked down to me, having seen my work made that impossible.
Once we all sat down together at the restaurant, Ferd and Beverly and Joe and I, I was astounded. ‘Gator Bait was now real in the sense that I had at long last connected not only to the movie, but now the man and woman who had created it 40 plus years ago were sitting with me and my very best friend over dinner! This movie was no longer something “other,” it was no longer some ethereal dream from the past that I would be forever at a distance from, it would now and forever be an actual part of “me,” of my life, it would be in my gravity and became ever so much more real. I like to get as close as possible to the things I love. It is a funny thing to think about, that until that dinner, ‘Gator Bait was always something distant, something I could watch but could never truly touch or take hold of, something I could never know intimately, it existed in shadows, like a dream. Now and forevermore, ‘Gator Bait will be something I have personally connected with. Moreso, it would now be something Joe and I had connected with together… this is a powerful bonding between friends and fellow artists.
For a while at first we talked about their (primarily Beverly’s, I think) newer project, her greyhound rescue foundation–for more on that go here and make a donation: http://www.4greyhounds.org. Additionally, Ferd has been running a sincere healing ministry after a profound and mystical healing experience. Joe and I naturally assumed they would be more inclined to talk about their present rather than their past, but soon into the conversation about their greyhound foundation, Beverly became emotional and said, “Enough about greyhounds, let’s talk about movies.” God bless her for that, now we were off and running!
For the next 3 and a half hours, after a meal and cups of coffee, we talked with ease and openness, like (dare I say it) old friends. I realized that these people were both (up around 80 years old) very present in the now, still as vibrant and passionate as ever, so I figured they would not want to talk about their films much past this conversation, so I wanted to ask all I had ever wanted to ask so I could leave them alone about it forevermore. From that dinner forward, it would be easier for me to see them in the future and only talk about their films with them when they wanted to do so. I don’t know if they are always like this or not, but the floodgates opened up and I learned far more about not only ‘Gator Bait and The Hitchhikers, but about their other films and the Exploitation film business in general, their methods, and Claudia Jennings than I ever could have thought possible. The next 3 and a half hours were staggering, even mind-blowing. But the most important lesson I learned was that just because you’re 80 doesn’t mean you have to accept the trappings of old age, no, they were as vibrant and passionate as ever, and both of them sharp as tacks, and this was so because they made it so. I need no longer fear old age… it’s all in the mind, you know! I want to grow old like Ferd and Beverly Sebastian.
Though I loved Ferd, as a woman with few real role models, Beverly soon became my hero, the one I most wanted to talk to and learn from. As a producer, I learned, she was terribly serious, did her research and the innovative and hard thinking it took to market her films, right down to her marking all of the area drive-ins on a map and figuring out which ones would be best for her films, as at that time they only had 20 prints of ‘Gator Bait struck. Their ad campaign involved taking out teaser ads in the classifieds sections in the places they thought would be most likely to be spotted by their potential viewers… keep in mind this was all done before the main ads were ever seen. This sort of ingenuity and classic ballyhoo had been essential to the Exploitation film biz, a beautiful holdover from the carnival, circus and Vaudeville days. Sadly, in this time and in this culture, that sort of thing is dead, and they are among the very last practitioners of this lost way of thinking. I for one am rather romantic about such things, so am delighted to hear stories from those who lived such grand adventures.
Beyond that they were patient with question after question about ‘Gator Bait, and not merely patient, they often went far deeper than I had been ready to ask. As a barefoot girl myself, and a big fan of other barefoot women, I of course wanted to know if Claudia Jennings and Misty Rowe were barefoot in their films because that was how the actresses were, or if they were barefoot because that was how Ferd and Beverly wanted them to be. Ferd clearly stated that that was their doing as the creators. Funny, I don’t know if this was disappointing or satisfying… I’m gonna go with satisfying.
I had heard that Beverly had written ‘Gator Bait in a weekend after Claudia Jennings had asked her to write a film where she could do a lot of action but wouldn’t have to speak much. Beverly confirmed that she had written the script in a weekend, but it was in no way tossed off by her, it became very clear as she talked about it that the script was positively inspired. She referred to ‘Gator Bait as “autobiographical,” so she understood those characters and their lives quite intimately. This film was easier than others for her, as she did not have to do so much research. She talked about the importance of research in regards to her other films, especially in learning how the people she wrote about talked. Beverly said if she made a film about prostitutes, she spent time with prostitutes. I, being a classicist and a big fan of research and disciplined approaches, was delighted to learn that we shared this thoroughness. This also explained why the characters in ‘Gator Bait all had such intense personal histories and motives… she was writing these characters from the inside out. And the closer I got to understanding how heartfelt and thorough their methods were, the more I understood why we were all getting on so well… we all created our works in the same spirit of dedication and sacrifice.
Of course Ferd had exciting stories about directing, especially about directing the actor who played the demented and tormented Leroy in ‘Gator Bait. Evidently, as convincing as the actor was, when they met him he looked like a little frail English professor. He had to prove to Beverly that he could frighten her, so he took a moment at the audition, mussed up his hair, grabbed a ruler and came at her as if it were a knife and he were Leroy. Hired! But our Leroy’s problems didn’t end at the audition, Claudia’s first day on the set involved shooting the scene where Leroy comes at her to finish her off, but Claudia had told Beverly that she just couldn’t be frightened of this guy, so Ferd gave the actor a brilliant bit of direction. He told him that as he stalked and approached her, to pretend he had a metal plate in the center of his skull, and a small metal ball bearing was rolling around on it, and if it touched the sides, it would blow his head off. The brilliant part is, when you watch that scene in the end when Desirae has set a trap for him, that he easily foils, as he comes down through the brush you can see in his eyes and posture that the threat of that ball bearing rolling too far to the side was ever present in his mind. And, of course, you could see the fear in Claudia’s eyes!
I learned a lot about Claudia Jennings, who I have always been fond of, too. What their stories about her did was wholly humanize her for me. In my mind, up to meeting with Ferd and Beverly, Claudia was something of a creature created by the media. What I learned from the Sebastians was that far from the vulgar and truly exploitive way Claudia Jennings was portrayed as a drug-hazed party girl on E True Hollywood Stories, Claudia was quite an innocent, another dedicated professional, and a very dear friend to the Sebastians. Far more than a friend, I think they were family to her. Of course I learned lots of other things and we talked about how misunderstood she and her tragic and untimely death were, but the Sebastians are still loyal and protective of Claudia Jennings, so I will honor that and talk about little beyond her professionalism. Besides, all we really need to know, and all that really matters, is that Claudia Jennings was wholly serious about her work, research and training, innocent, kind, and loving. And for the Sebastians to pass that along is an act of great love, after all, what greater gift can one do for a departed loved one than make other people love them as well?
Claudia’s dedication ran deep, she spent a couple weeks learning to drive that boat in ‘Gator Bait. They said she even wanted to do her own jumps over the logs and such (which they absolutely forbade), but she did do her other stunts all by herself, even going so far as to steer with her foot in the scene where she stands in the boat and shoots at the men. Similarly I learned that in Truck Stop Women Claudia demonstrated the same dedication in that she took the time to learn to drive a truck. These people, none of them, from the actor who played Leroy to Claudia and the Sebastians, were half-assing hacks… they were devoted and disciplined in their approaches, and any review of ‘Gator Bait that uses words like “cheesy” or “schlock” are to be treated with dismissal and contempt. It was important for me to learn that their working methods and philosophies were so disciplined and sincere, primarily because I had always hoped that was so, and it would have broken my heart to find out otherwise. Simply put, these are my kind of people, which explains why I have always been so drawn to ‘Gator Bait, The Hitchhikers, and will no doubt feel the same as I become more familiar with their other films.
So here it’s been almost a week since I met the Sebastians, and they invited me to call them again to come to their house in a couple weeks, and I am certainly hoping this happens. They are good people, and I need friends like them, but then again, don’t we all? Claudia Jennings certainly did.