Intelligent life: Milwaukee filmmakers reflect on William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet
Our fair city has a relationship with living icon William Shatner that extends far beyond that perplexing Hupy & Abraham commercial. In 2007, the Milwaukee Ballet Company’s adventurous artistic director Michael Pink invited renowned New York choreographer Margo Sappington to mount a production as a guest of the company. Affected by Shatner’s 2004 musical album, Has Been, Sappington pitched the idea of creating a performance set to the album’s songs.
The result, Common People, was surprising, critically acclaimed, and crowd-pleasingly fun, much like the Ben Folds-produced album that inspired it. Three Milwaukee filmmakers were asked by Shatner to document the occasion, and what they found was a story that went much deeper than the ballet itself.
“He just wanted it recorded for posterity,” says Patrick Buckley, co-director of what became William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet, a terrific film that not only captures the Milwaukee Ballet’s performance, but also—through interviews and behind-the-scenes footage—tells the story of the project’s origins.
“About four days before the performance, I got a call through [Milwaukee musician and filmmaker] Xav Leplae. Bill Shatner’s assistant had contacted him to film it,” Buckley continues. “Xav was really busy, so I gave them a synopsis for how I’d do it. Then Bill called me five minutes later and said, ‘Let me tell you about my vision for this project.’ No time to think about it. We attended one dress rehearsal. It was very sudden.”
Buckley’s fellow directors, Special Entertainment’s Andrew Swant and Bobby Ciraldo, assembled a team of collaborators to pull off the elaborate filming on very short notice. Notably, Mark Escribano, Drew Rosas, Jim Herrington, and Ray Chi contributed to the process.
“Being around that type of performance is really compelling,” Buckley says. “And that combined with the music, the dance, Bill... Our heads were spinning. We thought, ‘This is a bigger story.’ And he agreed. And that began the journey.”
As this was far from an ego project, Shatner agreed to send some speculative money so the filmmakers could start editing and make sense of the story. The team flew around the country for interviews with Shatner, Folds, Sappington, Henry Rollins, and others who played key roles in the project. Shatner even shed a tear or two when discussing his music.
“Yeah, he got really emotional,” says Swant, a Trekkie who idolized Shatner’s Captain Kirk character since childhood. “It’s because the songs were from the heart, about things that meant a lot to him. And to see them have this life of their own... The whole time he had an air of, ‘This is going to redeem me for [Shatner’s notorious 1968 musical outing] The Transformed Man. This is more artistically inclined.’”
Gonzo shows Shatner and his craft in a revelatory new light. It’s no wonder the filmmakers are quick to refute any suggestion that Has Been, or any of Shatner’s work, could be seen as a novelty.
“He’s 80 years old now,” says Ciraldo, “and I think he always just wants to try new things. So when an opportunity comes up, he can’t pass up doing something he’s never done before.”
Adds Swant, “When the ballet came along, it was like another chance to do something that he was proud of, or was meaningful. I think a part of him was worried it would come off as a novelty, but when the ballet turned out to be good, he was really proud of it. And when the film turned out to be good, he was really proud of that, too.”
William Shatner’s Gonzo Ballet is available now on Netflix Instant, with a DVD release in the works. Shatner performs his one-man show, Shatner’s World: We Just Live in It, this Sunday, March 18, at the Pabst Theater.