Host Pete Schwaba sits across from director Ryan Churchill to discuss Churchill's film The 60-Yard Line

Q&A: Pete Schwaba, Director’s Cut

Pete SchwabaFrom his home base in Marinette, writer, director and comedian Pete Schwaba remains connected to the independent film community as host of Director’s Cutas well as introducing documentaries shown on Independent Lens and POV.

Each year, the Director’s Cut season kicks off with a preview of the Wisconsin Film Festival. Join Schwaba and special guests – festival organizers and filmmakers – 9 p.m. Monday, April 1 on WPT to discuss some of the great offerings in store. Then, come on down to the fest itself from April 4-11, where Schwaba presents the Golden Badger Awards to the best of Wisconsin’s Own films.

Schwaba spoke with us to share some of his favorite indie film picks from past seasons, and what he loves about public TV. Read on!

How did you end up in Marinette?

My wife and I are both from here, but we’re not really natives. We met when we were in college and home for the summer. I started a stand-up comedy career in Chicago and went off to Los Angeles for 15 years, where I was a writer and into acting. When our kids started getting to a certain age, we were missing our folks and had been in LA for a long time. We thought, “If we’re going to do the small-town thing, let’s go where our parents both live.” (My son is 18 now; my daughter’s 13.)

The things we like about it outweigh the disadvantages. We’re right on the water of Green Bay itself, just north of the city of Green Bay.

Two people saw a snow-covered downed tree amidst Wisconsin snowOne of the films featured on the coming season of Director’s Cut was actually shot up here in Marinette. It’s called Aquarians. The director, Mike McGuire, is a native of Marinette and gets back there quite a bit. He’s doing some great stuff in LA and making a name for himself as a producer. Really sharp guy. [Schwaba has a small role in the film.]

Aquarians is a narrative, and I’m excited to have a couple more of those on our show this year. The last couple seasons we’ve been a bit documentary-heavy.

What are some of your favorite things to watch on public TV?

I’m kind of one-note. Independent film is kind of my life. I’m a filmmaker myself; I do the opens for Independent Lens and POV, but I was a fan even before that happened. I love documentaries. I love indie films.

I wrote in the studio system for years; I sold some screenplays and did punch-up and rewrite work and all that kind of stuff. So I’m not anti-studio, but what gets me most excited are independent films. PBS and Wisconsin Public Television are supportive of both indies and docs.

How do you like to watch public TV?

I typically get my news from Wisconsin Public Television and PBS. I usually stream them – the nightly PBS NewsHour, as well as Here & Now. Even for Wisconsin Public Radio, I have an app on my phone when I’m walking.

For watching movies, I still prefer bigger screens for those: a nice high-res screen, 4K if possible.

How long have you been hosting Director’s Cut now – since 2013?

A woman poses with a man wearing a mullet hairstyle in the cover of The Godfather of Green BayI was a guest on Director’s Cut in 2012 for a movie I made called The Godfather of Green Bay. I remember asking then-host Charles Monroe-Kane  how a guy gets a hosting gig like his on a show like Director’s Cut. As it happens, he stepped down not too long after. I guest hosted with two other hosts in 2012, and I took over full-time in 2013.

What are some of your favorite films you’ve seen through Director’s Cut?

From a narrative standpoint, we screened a thriller several years ago called Into the Wake, by a director named John Mossman. It’s about a family feud where a guy in Chicago is drawn back to his hometown in Wisconsin and plot plays out. I could not believe what he accomplished for the money and the performances are amazing.

Read more about Into the Wake here.

Also on the narrative side: Ryan Churchill’s The 60-Yard Line. He’s a comedy writer, and we have mutual friends at the Acme Comedy theater, which is a great operation out in LA. I really like the comedy in that film.

Read more about The 60-Yard Line here.

The poster for Being Canadian features a maple leaf shape wearing a knit winter hatFrom a documentary standpoint, Rob Cohen’s Being Canadian is probably one of my favorite documentaries. He explores the ties between Canada and how many comedians and funny writers that come from there. While I was watching I thought, “Wow – per capita, that’s a crazy ratio of funny people to residents, much more so than we have here.” Rob interviewed so many famous comics – people like Martin Short, Catherine O’Hara, Seth Rogen, Dan Aykroyd – and got their take on what it’s like to be Canadian. It was really deftly executed.

Read more about Being Canadian here.

Another couple documentaries I really enjoyed: Everyday Sunshine: The Story of Fishbone and Wild Bill’s Run, which is about a group of guys in the ’70s that tried to ride snowmobiles from Minnesota to Russia. Really fascinating story.

Read more about Everyday Sunshine here and Wild Bill’s Run here.

I’m always blown away by our Wisconsin filmmakers that we often feature on Director’s Cut. We’ve got an undercelebrated community of filmmakers here, a really solid group.

How about some of your top moments on the couch with filmmakers?

It was really exciting to introduce Stanley Nelson, who directed The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (among other films). I was familiar with his work already, so it was an honor to chat with him in person.

Read more about Nelson’s 2016 visit here.

When Rob Cohen came by, both of us had a comedy background, so [Director’s Cut producer] Mary Pokorney-Donelan let us riff a bit. We ended up with some funny extras that got posted on the web.

I also got to interview my writing partner, Greg Glienna. We sold some films to the studios  in L.A. which is a great experience but most of what we sold is still sitting on the shelves. Only one film, A Guy Thing, got made – after it was rewritten by about three other writers.

That’s part of the reason I turned to indie films and made The Godfather of Green Bay. It was a much more fulfilling experience than just selling something, doing a couple rewrites and then exiting the project.

So when Greg was a guest on Director’s Cut, we had a lot of fun  discussing indies and the whole process of getting films made. Greg created the Meet the Parents franchise; he made it as a low-budget indie, and it was hilarious, and it got remade with Ben Stiller and became a huge success. So he comes from the indie world, too. It’s just more fun when you’re more involved in a project creatively than when you’re just paid to sort of go away.

What do you like about PBS’s connection with independent filmmaking, both documentary and narrative?

PBS was kind of a trailblazer. There’s Sundance and IFC, and a few other outlets, but for a while, PBS was it for independent film. Their shows have been on for decades. I think it’s great that they celebrate that world, that independent films have found a home here.

It’s more than that; I don’t know of another state that has a program like Director’s Cut. It surprised me that Director’s Cut exists in a state like ours. Wisconsin is a rural state, for the most part, and not really considered a movie hub. Often, people fly in to discuss their films and they’ll say, “Wow, this is a cool show.”

I’m so glad that Director’s Cut exists here in Wisconsin, because I would love to see more films shot here. A couple of current and former lawmakers have actually reached out to me trying to get the film incentive packages back here. It’s a process… but if someone were to get behind it, it’s great advertising for our state.

I don’t know how long Director’s Cut will go, but I enjoy doing it. Even when I lived in LA, where they have access to tons of movies and filmmakers, I don’t remember seeing a program like Director’s Cut. So from a cultural standpoint, I just think it’s great for the state to have a show like this.

Are you planning to attend the Wisconsin Film Festival? What are you looking forward to seeing?

Yes, I’ll be there. I’m usually there the first weekend, three or four days, and I give out the Golden Badgers, which is always exciting. My son (Joe Schwaba) actually has a short film in the fest this year, called Lost Cause.

I’m also looking forward to seeing the other two films that are packaged in the same slot as Lost Cause. James Runde, who graduated from UW-Madison a few years ago, has a film called Played Out that won a Golden Badger this year. He seems to be a staple at the fest; he makes what seems like a film every year.

Then there’s Arielle Bordow, who’s a junior this year and made a short film called 140 N. Hancock. I enjoyed her film last year, Starman Radio, so I’m looking forward to seeing what she has next.

Read about Runde and Bordow’s films here.

Aside from that, I’m very excited to see Inquiring Nuns. It’s a doc made back in 1967 in Chicago: nuns asking people if they’re happy. They restored it in 16mm. I went to Catholic school as a kid; to be honest, I did not like nuns that much! But now that I’m older, I really think they’re cool.

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