Wilson Large, owner of Camcorder@Large in Bellingham, won rave reviews for his documentary film, "The Face of AIDS in Whatcom County," but the project’s scope and his intense drive to accomplish his goals for it almost cost him his love of filmmaking.
Wilson Large learned a great deal about himself and his community during the yearlong making of his documentary film, The Face of AIDS in Whatcom County.
He learned about the value and the repercussions of immersing oneself in an artistic endeavor, and that more and more often, people are living with AIDS, instead of dying from it. And that despite his love of horror and adventure films, his conscience drives him to make documentaries about social issues.
He learned that despite sacrificing time with his family, expending about $50,000 worth of hours and equipment and ultimately burning out on filmmaking, the result justified the effort — a 64-minute feature documentary on the lives of six Whatcom County residents living with HIV and AIDS.
And he learned from his recent yearlong sabbatical from making films that he once again has the bug.
‘He had a madman’s job’
Large, who owns Camcord@Large on Prospect Street, didn’t quite know what he was getting into when The Evergreen AIDS Foundation first approached him in November 2003 about making a 20-minute news-magazine-type film about people in Whatcom County living with HIV and AIDS.
Ever since the Whatcom Film Association started the annual Projections Film Festival in 2000, Large had been involved in the local and independent film community, assisting more than a dozen filmmakers by loaning equipment, lighting, shooting and editing films.
Michael Falter, program coordinator for the Whatcom Film Association, said that Large has been invaluable to the nonprofit organization. He recalled how Large worked as the technical director for the organization’s True/False West Film Festival last year, lugging a gigantic DVD player from screen to screen, each of which showed four films with different formats for Large to readjust every time. The WFA paid Large a small fee, which Falter referred to as “minuscule” in terms of the scope of the project.
“He had a madman’s job,” Falter said. “If it hadn’t been for Wilson it would have been a real mess. We love him — he’s sort of an adopted employee.”
His love of cinema began with a Harrison Ford classic.
“It started after watching Raiders of the Lost Ark,” he said while sipping a soy latte on a weekday morning at the Black Drop Café. “I saw it about 10 times at the theater and took all my relatives to see it. It’s pretty exciting cinema, I have to say — I watched it the other day — and it holds up.”
Large looks the part of a filmmaker. He has Tarantino eyebrows, a goatee and cavernous brown eyes. As he drawls, you sense a slight hint of sarcasm lurking behind his humor.
At first, Large wanted to be a stunt man, but then he discovered horror movies and wanted to be a makeup artist. Then he got a VHS camera at 16 and started shooting movies for fun with his buddies.
In 2001, Large made his first true film, a Super 8 short called “Bloody Mary’s,” about a cult of man-hating women that sacrifices a male once a year. This is not to be confused with Bloody Mary: Legend of the Mirror Witch, another locally made feature film, now in distribution, that Large helped produce.
All of which are a far cry from what came next in his filmography.
BBJ photo/MARK MALIJAN
|Wilson Large’s hourlong documentary, "The Face of AIDS in Whatcom County," won a trio of awards from film groups, but Large suffered from burnout and is only just now thinking about taking on new projects.|
Making a feature documentary
When the Evergreen AIDS Foundation approached Large with the 20-minute film idea, they wanted it made in a month — in time for World AIDS Day — but Large knew he would need longer.
He began filming after selecting six people whose lives would be the focus of the documentary. Filming for one of the sources, Mitch, had to begin immediately because he had terminal cancer. Large remembers how articulate Mitch was, despite having to film the original interview at his house, in bed, because his medication had paralyzed him from the waist down.
“He was a very well-spoken person, with a pretty clear perspective. He’d lived with it for 15 to 20 years,” Large said; Mitch died not long after.
Filming for the remaining five sources took place during a long February day in 2004.
One of the sources, Robbie, had been infected with HIV at birth through a blood transfusion, but didn’t find out until he was in his teens.
Another source, Quinn, had lived with the virus since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, and had watched most of his friends die from it.
At least half of his interview subjects had contracted the virus through an unfaithful partner, Large learned.
The day of filming resulted in seven hours of footage, and Large informed the Foundation folks he was going to need some extra time.
“I said, ‘It’s going to be really hard to tell these people’s stories correctly in 20 minutes. I don’t think we’re going to do these people justice,’ and they said they weren’t opposed to doing something else,” he said. “So — of course I was banging myself on the head with a hammer for it for the rest of the year — I said, ‘We’ve got enough good stories here to make a feature.’”
With that, Large immersed himself into a world of editing, follow-up interviews and extra filming that took him the next three seasons to complete.
He captured some of the film’s most arresting footage during this time.
“People are very comfortable in their own environment. When you sit them down with studio lights and a mic in their face, they’re naturally guarded … they don’t give you the same stuff, but they give you enough to realize what else you need,” he said. “So, with Quinn, some of the best things that were said in the documentary were during us rolling around his pad in Ferndale, just talking about things. He’d just start talking and he’d pull out a picture and tell me how this is one of about a hundred people in his group — he was part of an airline flight attendant group — and I think most of the men in that group died from AIDS. He was around from almost the beginning, before they really called it AIDS, they called it the ‘gay cancer,’ and he’s been living with it for 25 years, and he’s watched most of his friends die.”
Members of the local film community proved invaluable resources during this time, helping him with the project without compensation.
“It was absolutely amazing the lengths people went to to help me,” Large said. “It gave me a tremendous feeling of love and support and I have made some of the closest friends I have ever had within the local film community. It’s just the opposite of a cutthroat competitive group of people who are oftentimes offering competing services to the community. We just don’t look at each other that way. We look at each other like ‘Hey, these people have a lot of talent and if I’m ever going to work on a project larger than a one-person show then I want them on my team’ kind of thing. If you watch the movie, watch the credits because they are all in there."
Although the foundation gave him a small fee, all told, the project cost Large $50,000 in time and expenses and consumed his life for most of a year.
The first draft sold out two nights at the Pickford Cinema in December 2004, and he screened the final version, completed in the fall of 2005, at the Projections Film Festival later that year.
The Evergreen AIDS Foundation received a grant to distribute 100 DVDs to local schools and video-rental stores.
The film also received three awards: the Award of Distinction, given by the 2005 Videographer Awards; the Silver Statue, given by the 2005 Telly Awards; and the Platinum Best in Show, given by the 2005 Aurora Awards.
“It was the most awesome artistic endeavor I’d ever done, because I immersed myself in the story, and that’s why I wasn’t really present anywhere else, I felt like I needed to tell these people’s stories correctly,” he said. “The greatest compliment I got was hearing from the people who were in the documentary, ‘That was perfect, you couldn’t have told my story any better, thank you.’ And that felt really good because they’d gone out on a limb to do this.”
But despite the film’s success, Large felt like he’d spent a year in the wringer.
“Honestly, I got pretty burned out on filmmaking. It took a year of my life, and because there was not any money really, I probably worked for 50 cents an hour,” he said. “I worked at nights, during the time I should have been spending with my family, and they told me afterwards, ‘You pretty much weren’t there for like four months.’”
Falter recalled being out of touch with Large during the whole process, and said he wasn’t alone.
“I don’t think anybody was in contact with him while he was making the documentary,” he said.
In fact, soon after, Large and his wife divorced.
“I’m sure the documentary had something to do with it,” he said.
When it was finished, Large had drained himself of creative energy and needed a respite from the intensity of the project.
“At the end of it, I had run myself into the ground so hard that I didn’t want to even think about a (film) topic — and I didn’t for a year,” he said.
The bug is back
Now, after a yearlong montage of divorce, getting back into work, and taking a breather, Large’s love of filmmaking has rematerialized.
“I’ve got the bug again,” he said.
In the last year, he realized his heart is ultimately in film production, not retail, and is hiring a manager to take over day-to-day operations at Camcord@Large so he can more seriously pursue filmmaking.
His weary drawl when discussing The Face of AIDS in Whatcom County is replaced with wide-eyed animation and a few excited hand gestures when talking about his new film projects. He is converting his backyard garage into a high-definition movie studio and recently bought a new high-definition computer and camera, which he gleefully shows off like a proud new father.
The goal, he said, is to shoot commercials, promos and public service announcements for local businesses and organizations in order to fund his fun projects.
Large realized while making The Face of AIDS in Whatcom County that he loves filming both the seemingly disparate genres of horror/adventure features and social service-focused documentaries.
“It’s important to have balance, where you can do some good things for the community and then you can make some things that have no social or redeeming value whatsoever,” he chuckled.
One of his “fun” projects involves a documentary about a group of local philanthropists who are building schools, wells and infrastructure in remote Kenyan villages. Large perks up in excitement when discussing their sustainable approach and long-term commitment to their projects.
One of the philanthropists, Andy Clay, who owns Pioneer Ford in Lynden, said she hired Large to produce a short informational film about their efforts in order to inspire others to do the same. Clay said Large’s enthusiasm for the project was rare.
“The thing about Wilson is, he cares,” Clay said. “When you take a project like ours to someone, it takes more than talent and expertise, you really have to care, and he does.”
Currently, Large cares about the project so much that he is in discussions with industry representatives to turn the 10-minute short into a full-length feature documentary.
He is also hoping to turn his “Bloody Mary’s” short into a feature.
“It’s really a battle of the sexes kind of film, which is something people can really get into,” he said. “It’s sort of shocking and controversial.”
He is also working on a half-hour television pilot for Darren Davis, a local comic book writer. The pilot would use a live actor and green screen to depict Davis’ Judo Girl character, and Large intends to shop it around to studios once it’s completed.
Falter extolled Large’s enthusiasm and film ideas.
“Technically, he’s making real strides because he’s becoming able to spend more time on the filmmaking aspects,” he said. “As a person, he’s so giving, and deals with a lot of nonprofits. It takes someone with an eye toward community to give of themselves so much. We try not to take advantage of it, but he’s a really good guy.”
While the giving is sometimes draining, Large said that the feeling he got from immersing himself in the making of The Face of AIDS in Whatcom County and its subsequent success influenced his decision to pursue film production further, but just like Indiana Jones’ quest for the lost ark, he has always known this was his destiny.
“I always knew I wanted to do what I’m doing,” he said. “So I can’t say working on the documentary solidified this move, but it definitely reinforced it along the way.”