Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Interview with Louis Lapat: WIN OR LOSE - A SUMMER CAMP STORY

I always try to have a nose for the smaller films that get overlooked, but when the schedule was announced for MSPIFF, my objective was to find the biggest films in a bucket of small films. Hence, my lame excuse for passing over Win or Lose: A Summer Camp Story, a short documentary by Louis Lapat. I had already mapped out my plan for conquering MSPIFF when Louis contacted me about seeing and review his documentary. Although I was unable to make it to his film, he joined Daniel (from Getafilm) and I for our film goat gathering. Over a drink and a chat, Louis was kind enough to pass along a screener. We went our separate ways and I said that I would be in touch.

Embarrassingly, over a month later I finally got around to watching Win or Lose and I was pleasantly surprised. Like great things that come in small packages, Louis' short documentary, under an hour, is about as engaging as anything that is likely to come down the pipe. Win or Lose takes place at Camp Ojibwa in Wisconsin, an all boys summer camp that focuses on sports. The camp's trademark is a competition among teams called Collegiate Week. As one of the campers says of Collegiate Week, "There is winning and absolutely nothing." What starts out as a frat-boy testosterone driven narrative, slowly morphs into a sensitive and thought provoking real life drama.

Louis was kind enough to talk to me about MSPIFF, his film, summer camp, The Blues Brothers and what it takes to be a Ojibwa boy:

First of all, how did the screening at the Minneapolis St Paul International Film Festival go?

My whole experience at the film festival was very positive. My favorite part was meeting so many people in such a short period of time from the festival director Ryan Oestreich to local film bloggers such as yourself. For the screening, I was worried that I wouldn't have a huge crowd because the film was competing against some bigger films that night. Also, I had noticed that the festival was just beginning to hand out programs two hours before the screening. With that said, there was about 60 people that showed up for the screening. It played great. All the laughs came in the right spot. I'm pretty sure most people liked it, they all stayed for the QNA and no one asked really ignorant questions like 'what were you trying to say in the film?' or 'what's the deal with the animation?' They all got it.

Was there anyone at the screening that had been to Camp Ojibwa or had a similar experience?
Yes, there was one person from Camp Ojibwa at the screening. The Camp Ojibwa people always pretty much love the film. There are so many things about camp that stay with you. The sound of morning taps or the way your arms feel after losing a Tug of War. The movie just brings all these emotional memories back. Also, Camp Ojibwa is so hard to explain to people. As someone that went to camp, you want to be able to express how important winning a box hockey match is, but no one would get you, and no one would care. This movie makes these unexplainable camp-concepts understandable.

When is the next chance to catch Win or Lose?
It is being screened twice this Sunday in Highland Park, Illinois. It was just something that was assumed from the get-go. There would always be a screening in Highland Park because everyone that went to Camp Ojibwa is from Highland Park. If you were born in Highland Park, you know about Camp Ojibwa. I think it is going to be an exciting screening. Remember the part in The Blues Brothers before Jake and Elwood go on for their final show at the end of the film? There's like a thousand people in the theater and they are going crazy. That's how I imagine it. We'll see how reality compares.

But aren't people who go to the camp from all over the country?
Not really, there are people from all over the country but a majority, like 90% are from Highland Park, Illinois and the surrounding suburbs just north of Chicago.

What made you decide to make this film?
I went to camp 10 years ago. The first 3 years were fantastic, the last year was tough. During my last year at camp I was 15 and I wanted to stay home that summer. My goals were to sleep in every day and play Madden '94 on my Sega till nightfall, then repeat. My mom thought that plan was not ambitious enough so she sent me away to camp. At camp I had one friend, the camp hippy, we'll call him Jeff. I also had one enemy, the camp bully, we'll call him Steve. I was banking me and Jeff would be best friends all summer and everything would be hunky-dory. But Steve came along and stole Jeff from me. Now I had two enemies. I felt alone and depressed so I quit camp vowing never to return. It turns out when you walk away from things they don't necessarily want to walk away from you. For the next 10 years of my life, I thought about camp constantly and had dreams about it all the time. I knew I had some reconciliation to do. I also just happened to have a thesis film that I had to shoot if I wanted to graduate and I always knew collegiate week would make an exciting story.

I admit I never went to summer camp, but it seems like every component of growing up, both painful and joyful, are magnified at camp, especially Camp Ojibwa where it is so competitive. It's like an intense microcosm of your peers.
At camp there is no MTV, no parents and I'm pretty sure there are no cell phones allowed. It's just you, your friends and a bunch of athletic equipment. Also everyone is very similar: for the most part Jewish and way into sports. The emotions associated with winning and losing are magnified because there is not much else for you to do or talk about. Also, the friendships can be stronger. Some people at camp will argue that a camp friendship is much stronger than a home friendship.

There is a lot of great tension and build up in a very short amount of time. How much footage did you shoot and have to edit down to the current 58 minutes?
I shot 130 hours of footage. All the shooting of the film took about a month and a half. 2 weeks to shoot the camp competition and about a month to film the characters at their homes. I figured in a year I would be done editing. That was a miscalculation. It actually took 3 1/2 years to finish editing the film. Part of the reason it took so long was I had never edited a feature length documentary. I also found editing documentaries extremely challenging. It's very similar to writing except you have a limited pallet. You have to follow all the rules of character development, turning points, climax and resolution but you don't necessarily have the footage to back it up. There were also so many people along the way that helped me make this film that without, the film would have sucked.

Part of me feels that this whole competition is terrible for some of these kids, but then when I see the camaraderie and a real love between these guys, I change my mind. It seems that there are great life lessons to be learned at Collegiate Week, but there is also some pretty messed up psychology behind the whole thing. Where does your opinion fall?
I think in the end, competition is a valuable activity for kids and teenagers. The most important thing it teach us is how to lose. If you learn this early in life while playing a game it's so valuable down the road when you actually do lose something important. The other great thing about sports and competition is it's acts as a kind of social lubrication for boys. After boys share an intense experience like winning or losing, they can't help but have some kind of mutual respect for their teammate or rival. Today I still love sports but tend towards ones that are less competitive like pick-up ultimate frisbee games. I wonder if the same positive lessons at camp could be learned if the competition wasn't as intense? What if Camp Ojibwa was just pick-up ultimate frisbee games and long distance running all summer? Would kids still walk away with the same friendships and lessons learned about losing? Not sure.

I was totally ready to condemn the whole summer camp, but you are very good about being even-handed with the material. Was it hard to put your personal feelings about the camp aside for the process of making the movie?
For better or worst, camp shaped me. Like, I always fantasized about being the best athlete at Camp. It would have been one of the highlights of my childhood to go 1-1 in the camp wide draft. So part of me gets completely caught up in the competition and hype surrounding collegiate week. I still tear up a little bit at the end of the movie when the winners are announced. Another part of me remembers that horrible feeling of loneliness at camp my last year. I don't think camp made me feel like a loser, it was more that I was an insecure teenager who shouldn't have gone to camp that summer. With all that said, if I do have a son, I'm going to be very careful about where I send him to camp. If he can hit 60% of his free throws and can sit through a full Sunday of NFL football he might just be an Ojibwa boy.

Are you still friends with people you met at Camp Ojibwa?
I'm friends with a lot of the characters in the film. The main character, Andrew Robinson, just spent the weekend at my apartment. I'm actually not friends with any one that went to camp when I was a camper unless you count facebook friends.

Can people buy a copy of Win or Lose on DVD?
Not yet, I'm still holding off to find a DVD distributor. The best thing to do now is to become a fan on the facebook page found off the website - http://www.winorlosemovie.com/ - and I'll notify people when it becomes available.

What's on deck for you? Any projects that you are working on or thinking about?
I'm working on writing an episodic comedic internet series. It will be similar in tone to a short film I made a few years ago. The film is here:

Thanks Louis! We'll be watching!

Win or Lose official website.
Louis' production blog


Sandy Nawrot said...

Nice interview! I like the fact that Louis came to your goat outing! So Kath, you didn't go to 4-H camp with me? Jeez, I went every year for like five years. So I totally get this. Some parts were great and sometimes I just wanted to curl up on my cot and cry! I remember one year all I did was lay in my bed and read "The Stand". Another year I was terrified because Friday the 13th had just come out...

As far as competition between kids goes, we have something going on these days that drives me nuts. And that is the "we're not keeping score because everyone is a winner" attitude. If competition can mess up a kids' mind, imagine what THAT does, at least once they get into the real world. I've pulled my kids out of everything that takes that stance. It is setting them up for a hard fall later.

joe said...

Thanks for this! It was also great to meet Louis with the other goats. I can't say enough good things about this film, and I'm glad to see you give it your attention as well!

Kathie Smith said...

Also noticed this post on the Chicago Reader film blog: Learning to Lose

I would be interested to hear how the screenings went.

Louis Lapat said...

Screening in Highland Park was great. Since most of the campers are from there, over 450 showed up. Kathie, thanks again for writing about the film.