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The Wisconsin and the Poodle: ‘The Spinning Gyre’ Productions

June 6, 2011 | By | Add a Comment

Benjamin van Loon

Production still from "Disconnected"

Filmmakers in the Midwest are bound together by a few basic realities: harsh winters, humid summers, and the understated beauty of the Great Plaines. In many ways, Wisconsin can be as strange and stoic as any of its neighbors, though according to Sarah Hesch and Amy Thortenson of Madison, Wisconsin’s ‘The Spinning Gyre’ Productions (TSG), the Badger State is anything but cloistered.

Madison, the capitol of Wisconsin, is located a two-hour drive west of Milwaukee. While the city itself has an active intellectual community, it is surrounded by hundreds of miles of forest and farmland. Madison thus encounters the same kind of challenges faced by other Midwestern urban centers; namely, remoteness. Hesch and Thortenson say, “We still must face the difficulties of having limited resources and connections to ‘The Industry’,” but they affirm that Madison itself is, “incredibly supportive of all independent […] theater, film, and music.” It is this sense of community that inspires and fuels the creative energy behind TSG.

TSG is the brainchild of Hesch and Thortenson, who extracted the name of their company from ‘The Second Coming,’ a poem by W.B. Yeats (Turning and turning in the widening gyre / the falcon cannot hear the falconer). While the words ‘spinning gyre’ don’t exactly roll easily off the tongue, they evoke an image of the dynamic, self-relegating energy Hesch and Thortenson aim to capture through the work they produce.

The filmmakers first met during their freshman year at Lawrence University in Appleton, WI, where they soon founded the aptly-named Artistic Masturbation Theater Company. After four years of theater performance, production and undergraduate education, Hesch and Thortenson graduated and went their separate ways: the former to Madison and the latter to NYU. However, the two soon rejoined in Madison, this time inspired by production know-how, a new-found interest in filmmaking and a cooperative desire “to write and direct our own work.”

TSG’s earlier productions include a selection of short parodic and light-hearted satire films. They also created a version of ‘Waiting for Godot,’ haling back to their theater days (and perhaps joshing them) by using shots of zoo animals to round out the production. Hesch and Thortenson also wrote and directed the Bod Squad web series, which involves three female graduate students acting on an academic project to don lingerie and rob a local bar. This and some of their other projects can be viewed on their YouTube channel.

These are just some of the projects Hesch and Thortenson have been involved with since TSG’s conception in 2009. Sarah recently completed work on her short science-fiction film, Disconnected, and TSG recently embarked on the production of their first full-length project, The Worm and the Poodle, which will be filmed in a faux-documentary style and follow one man’s quest to memorize a 1,000-page novel in 10 years.

Production still from "Disconnected"

Because of TSG’s involvement within Madison’s artistic scene and their proximity to the vast creative resource provided by the University of Wisconsin, Madison, TSG can boast of a certain enviable community intimacy. Hesch and Thortenson recognize that filmmaking is “much less glamorous here than in LA or New York,” but are confident in the idealism of the local filmmaking community, where integrity comes before income. “Everyone involved [in Madison] is always in it for the art instead of the money.”

Hesch and Thortenson recognize Madison’s ‘backwater’ reputation, an opinion which can be as tough on the psyche as it can on the wallet. However, Hesch and Thortenson confide that, “Instead of throwing money at the problem, we try to come up with creative solutions that instead draw on the talent and hard work of us, our crews and our actors.” This cooperative approach is a grassroots necessity for TSG and other Midwestern filmmakers. The total proposed budget for The Worm and the Poodle caps at around $1,500, at least half of which is coming out of the filmmaker’s own pockets.

Networking is an important aspect of TSG’s work and summarizes their connection to the greater Midwestern filmmaking community. Thortenson works closely with Madison’s Living Storm Productions and has recently been accepted to Northwestern University’s Stage and Screen MFA program; Hesch is a graduate of the Madison Media Institute and continually involved with filmmakers everywhere from Chicago to Minneapolis. Both of them are frequent supporters of UWM’s Wisconsin Film Festival.

From the read-through for "The Worm and the Poodle"

Independent filmmakers operating in satellite cities like Madison face an almost Sisyphean challenge when it comes to fundraising. Hesch and Thortenson summarize the work as coming down to, “careful choices and great people.” Most of the TSG team does the work pro bono, though with this most recent project, Hesch and Thortenson have plans to become involved with community fundraisers and financial support from local business.

Another way TSG solves the ‘budget question’ is by selecting sites that allow them to film free-of-charge. Hesch and Thortenson are avid fans of Madison’s “beautiful and quirky” architectural character, as well as the unique topography of Wisconsin’s landscape, which can range from willfully bland (Werner Herzog’s Stroszek) to humbly picturesque (David Lynch’s The Straight Story). For those filming on a budget, Wisconsin provides a diverse and affordable alternative.

What ultimately gives TSG an advantage is their attenuation to the Midwest’s particularly dry, self-effacing and inimitable brand of humor, which is evidenced by some of their favorite local work, like that from the “Chad Vader” web-series or documentary cult-favorite, Wisconsin Death Trip. Sarah Hesch and Amy Thortenson review their own work in a similarly tongue-in-cheek way: “We’re not trying to save the world here – we make movies. If they happen to cause good things to happen, that’s great too.”

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