While it storms outdoors, Clif Childree slathers white paint on the concrete walls of a Wilton Manors warehouse. His Converse sneakers are splattered, and his normally spiked hair is pasted to his head with sweat. Gone are the antique coffins, the handcrafted carnival rides, the smell of fresh-cut lumber, and the Pan-Cake makeup. Although Childree's dream world has been gutted of its thespian magic, he's not lamenting. "I've got the film," says the self-taught moviemaker with a sated grin. "That's what really matters."
Shot in black and white on 16 mm film, The Flew includes not one explosion, screaming car chase, or cheesy fire-lit love scene. It spins the tale of a motorized mannequin living in a scarlet-painted shooting gallery. Slogans like "Watch His Strange Hallucinations!" and "Life-Size and Frighteningly So..." adorn the attraction's entrance, luring carnivalgoers to plunk down money and take their shots. The camera follows the weary mannequin through his routine until his boredom dissolves one night when he becomes infatuated with the Wood Embalmer, a broken-down carnival ride just outside his bedroom window.
Each evening since March, Childree has shuttled from his day job as a maintenance man to his evening gig as a director, cameraman, set builder, and actor. He's filled his frames with vaudevillian imagery that swings from slapstick to spooky; one sequence shows the mannequin's bowler sailing straight up from his head à la the Marx Brothers. Others reveal him malfunctioning as he dreams of climbing into one of the Wood Embalmer's purple carts and gliding through its haunted tunnels.
If the premise sounds wacky, that's just the way Childree wants it. In an industry typified by megabucks budgets and formulaic story lines, the 29-year-old and his film are dreamy, slow-paced anachronisms. This filmmaker isn't interested in spoon-fed plots, and he cares nothing for fame. For Childree what counts is documenting the visions in his head. What counts is the making. "I don't care about money at all," he says. "I don't see how people can. To me it's all about making it, working on it, just doing it. The process is sooo important. I love it. It's my favorite thing in the world to do."
Childree's passion for celluloid dates back to when he was but a tot, when his mother, Sissy Doetsch, a painter, musician, and film buff, screened Creature From the Black Lagoon weekly at the family's Plantation home. A Super 8 reel of The Return of Dracula was reserved for birthdays. Childree recalls that the black-and-white horror films fueled his imagination. "We were into spooky shit. Even when I was little, like seven, I dreamed that Alfred Hitchcock took me to the afterlife to visit all these dead filmmakers. And he was patting me on the back."
Encouraged by his mother, he made his first flick, The Red Caped Killer, when he was ten. Filmed on Super 8, it told the tale of a vampire who lived in the woods behind young Childree's house. But he never saw a final version. "I dropped the movie off to get developed, and the guy that came out was an old man with a huge hunchback," he recalls, laughing at the memory. "I was so scared, I never went back to get it."
Childree connects much of the imagery in his films to his childhood, a time replete with antiques, art, and music. The idea behind The Flew germinated during antiques shopping trips he took with his mother in North Florida, where the pair often sifted through vintage arcade games. "I always thought about what it would be like to live inside one of those," Childree recalls.
Summers meant visits to his grandparents' waterfront home on Mobile Bay in Alabama. His mother and his uncles Harry and Bubba played front-porch sets on a clarinet, a banjo, and a washtub bass while Childree and his cousins ran barefoot and hunted for crabs. "Music is where you get all your visions from," he notes.
Recently he even made a bass with an antique washtub, a broomstick, and some string. Unlike Uncle Bubba's instrument, Childree's is tricked out with a harmonica, an old rubber car horn, and a school bell he clangs by whacking his foot against a spring. He plays with a local band, Mr. Entertainment and the Pookie Smackers, but typically his evenings are filled with the making of his opus. "I work on it every night," he says. "Whether it's thinking about it, writing notes, building sets. Every night for three years. It's like a kid."
Childree has spent more than 6000 hard-earned dollars to finance his film. He has made hundreds of trips to Home Depot, constructed faux-antique arcade games, fiddled with lighting, shot countless frames, and even built a double of his main character (who incidentally is played by Childree himself).
Excluding friends who have helped move heavy equipment and occasionally worked as extras, Childree's film is a one-man show. He even devised a way to film himself while he acted by using a tripod, duct tape, and a stick attached to the lower part of his body. "If I started walking, [the camera] would follow me," Childree remarks.
He meticulously documents his moviemaking rituals on oversize sketchpads. Hundreds of entries written in Childree's block print fill unlined pages. One reads "CASKET AND SHOVEL/LIGHT STRIKE." Another refers to the mechanical man's bedroom and how some of his more, uh, crucial parts have malfunctioned: "SHOT OF TALL DRESSER NITE LITE. FOR CLOSER POV WHEN PENIS THING IS MAKING NOISE."
Although he's concerned about screening his only copy of the film, he recently showed New Times a brief sequence at his Victoria Park apartment on his reel-to-reel projector. "If it gets scratched, it'll probably make the movie better," he reasons. "It'll make it look older."
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He flips the switch, and the familiar clattering noise begins. Playing the mechanical man, Childree appears on screen. His eyes are rimmed with black shadow, his face a blanched ivory encircling a darkly painted mouth. In this scene the audience watches the leading man's secret life as he runs from one part of the shooting gallery to another. Childree totters through woods clogged with fallen logs and skeletal trees. Dressed in a somber flannel suit, he carries a suitcase, and his stride is a mix of Chaplin and animatronics.
He took a week off from his day job for the first time in more than four years to film the five-minute sequence at a friend's Plantation home, close to where he grew up. "I had to drag cords from his house, and the lights kept going out because so much power was draining from it," he says, laughing. Childree is incredibly easygoing about the difficulties he's faced. He prefers to see them as delightful surprises. "It's weird because you don't film a movie from start to end. You don't really know what's going to happen. It always changes. So when you put it all together, that's when it really comes alive.... It's like everything else is not real, like tunnel vision into the psyche. It sinks right in there. It's the same as a dream."
Childree still needs to shoot a few more scenes before he enters postproduction. He plans to edit the film with the aid of a computer, a modern-day tool that even an old-fashioned guy like Childree can appreciate. "You don't have a lot of middle men now. That's my hope for the future. Anyone who wants to make a movie, they can do it by themselves. They can distribute it and even show it in other places."
Although he might enter The Flew in a few art-house festivals, Childree envisions showing it in iconoclastic fashion. He plans to travel the country with his movie, playing its soundtrack on a 1905, two-pedal pump organ that now sits in his apartment among his 40-plus vintage cameras, his Victrola, and dozens of other antiques. The music perfectly suits the man and his work. It is a melody from a simpler time that brings to mind carousels, popcorn, women with bustles, and netted hats. "I just love to do something creative like this. I really want people to love my film and to love what I do," he confesses. "It's the whole reason a lot of artists do stuff. You want people to love you."