For a few years now, Bill Streeter’s name has rung out in various St. Louis circles. As a creator of the popular lofistl.com video site (and its offpsring, lofisessions.com), along with a teaching gig at Saint Louis University and miscellaneous freelance projects, Streeter’s become a known, go-to source for locals looking to break into web video creation and distribution.
But about two years back, Streeter and wife Mitzi Ellis Streeter welcomed a baby boy into their world, a decade-and-change younger than their first son. The addition of a toddler to their household came at roughly the time that Streeter launched upon a very St. Louis story, to be told in feature length: the history of brick in the building of our region. Even with other projects pulling at his time, along with his role as a new daddy, Streeter found funding for his brick film through U. City’s generous CALOP commission, which doles out the seed monies for countless local docs. After that, all that remained were small matters like: building a filmmaking team; studying the varied, discordant storylines that developed during filming; and then editing dozens of hours of footage into a solid, cohesive narrative.
Finally, in less than a month’s time, that story gets told. Brick by Chance and Fortune: A St. Louis Story will play the St. Louis Filmmaker’s Showcase on Sunday, August 14, at the Tivoli Theatre, with a 4:30 p.m. screening.
Going back in time, Streeter says the idea came about organically, in stages.
“There were two things,” he says. “First I had a friend visit from the West Coast, and the whole time he was here he just kept talking about how amazing it was that everything was built from brick here. I mean, I had noticed the brick myself when I moved here from Chicago, but never thought that much about it. And I sort of picked up elements of the history St. Louis has with the brick industry just by hearing people reference it here and there over the years. And then I saw this video on YouTube that Antonio French shot a few years back of Alderman Sam Moore describing how brick thieves work and was kind of blown away by the story. So I guess the two things sort of festered in my head over time until they became the idea for the film.
“The idea seemed kind of nutty to me at first; a movie about brick seems kind of nutty when you think about it,” he adds. “But when I saw 'Helvetica,’ which is a film about a typeface, it made me think it wasn't such a crazy idea, after all. And the more I thought about it the more I liked the challenge of taking what some people might think is a mundane subject and attempting to make it emotionally engaging and human.”
He admits that many different stories and scenes were brought into play as the film developed. And, many times, buildings almost vanished in front of his camera, subject to brick thieving or other forces of man and nature. Sometimes, the images were fairly dramatic.
“Sam Moore took me to a part of his ward on the North Side where entire blocks of homes have been stolen by brick thieves,” Streeter says. “You see it in the film, and it's dramatic because of what you don't see there: buildings. The entire block consists of one, or maybe two, burned out frame homes and the rest of the street is just overgrown vacant land. It looks like a country lane, but there's a city paved street and curbs. And, of course, almost every building that's been devastated by brick theft is a heartbreaker. Especially when you can see how magnificent the building was when it was whole. We visited some areas a few times over the course of months, or so, and we saw some really lovely buildings disappear in that time. One was a lovely two story Victorian that had been boarded up. The first visit it merely had a small 4 ft. x 4 ft. hole punched in the side. A few months later half of the building was gone.”
Though certainly not planned that way, Streeter’s film hits at a time when several, notable St. Louis buildings have been targeted for possible demolition. Though structures like Lindell’s mid-centuary AAA office building and the “Del Taco Saucer” aren’t necessarily brick-based, they fit into a pattern of urban neglect that Brick by Chance and Fortune discusses at length. It’s an especially urban story, and one that doesn’t always allow for a set, predictable ending.
That said, Streeter feels that the current crop of preservationists attacking this multi-headed issue are both passionate and able to rally new media to their cause.
“The preservation community here is pretty active and strong,” the filmmaker says. “There are great people here that really care about maintaining our built heritage. And [there are also the] young people who have taken an interest in learning what we have in St. Louis and appreciating it.”
In order to add depth to his story, Streeter called upon a variety of people for aid, including: videographers Bowls MacLean and Virginia Lee Hunter; assistant editor Greer Ellen Anastasia Geczy; and managing producer Jeannette Hoss.
Also familiar to St. Louisans will be the musicians on the soundtrack, including Mat Wilson and Pokey LaFarge, who share backing bands with the Rum Drum Ramblers and the South City Three, respectively. Lafarge’s tracks, in particular, have been key in the build-up of the film through trailers and short cuts that Streeter’s released, or played to small circles of friends for needed feedback.
“I met Pokey through some mutual friends a few years back and interviewed him for Lo-Fi Saint Louis,” says Streeter of his frequent collaborator. “So I guess you could say I was the first to help introduce him to St. Louis. Later we worked together on some other stuff, I helped him out with his website and by shooting photos for him. When this project came about I reached out to him to see if he would be interested in contributing a song to the film. I showed him some of the early interview footage I shot for the film. He became very enthusiastic about the project and came back to me with this great song about brick thieves. He's fun to collaborate with and has serious focus and commitment. It's not surprising to me that he's enjoyed as much success as he has.”
As for the possible successes of his own film, Streeter’s looking forward, first and foremost, to finally debuting it for a St. Louis audience. After that, “chance” will play a large role in the future of Brick by Chance and Fortune.
“We're looking at submitting to some other festivals, like SXSW, Toronto, Los Angeles, Hot Docs and Silver Docs, maybe a few others,” he says. “But there will be more local screenings here this fall. It would be nice to get a little distribution deal of some sort. It's hard to gauge what the market is for a film like this. I mean nobody gets rich making documentaries, except maybe Michael Moore. Honestly, I didn't think it would even play very well outside of the region, but recent online buzz on some influential blogs have made me rethink that a bit. If nothing else I'd like to sell it myself online eventually somehow. But we'll see. I'm just happy if people can see it.”
Here, of course, the local fans will emanate out of the built environment crew made up of hardcore bloggers, photographers, architects and professional (or avid amateur) preservationists and historians.
Among the foremost of that group, Michael R. Allen of the Preservation Research Office and Modern STL, is an interviewee in the film and gives it high marks for “getting” the St. Louis preservation cause.
“I have seen the finished film,” Allen says, “and am impressed with its narrative arc and its emphasis on the people interviewed. This is a very human look at brick, exploring our connection to this building material rather than simply presenting its history.”
For more information on the St. Louis Filmmakers Showcase and the showing of Brick by Chance and Fortune, visit cinemastlouis.org/st-louis-filmmakers-showcase.