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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Aug. 1, 2014

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In Movies & TV

Brian Rott is an actor and clown choreographer for the short film "Coulrophobia." Photo courtesy of Vincent Buckley

Local short film hopes to show clowns are nothing to fear


Coulrophobia, the fear of clowns, has increased in popularity steadily over the past few decades. If you asked a crowd of people about their greatest fears, you'd probably get a bunch of the expected answers – few votes for spiders here, several votes for heights there – but you'd also get multiple votes for clowns.

Some experts believe its origins are psychological, as the exaggerated features of clown make-up causes some to panic. Others blame the media, which used clowns as childhood terrors in films like "It," "Poltergeist" and even the Joker from the Batman movies.

For Brian Rott, a professional clown and clown choreographer who went to school in Italy to study the art of physical theater, clowning and maskwork, it's a sad reality for a once widely respected and subversive art form.

"Over (in Italy), they don't have the same type of culture that has placed clowning into a minority art form, if even that," Rott said. "Most people in the United States don't even think of clowning as an art. It's either a ridiculous clown who goes to a kid's birthday party or it's a scary clown."

Luckily, Justin Lothrop, Vincent Buckley and Melanie Killingsworth, three Milwaukee filmmakers, just happened to have a script for "Coulrophobia," a short film that uses clowns not as horror movie creations but as a way of addressing prejudice. It took a while to get to that point, however.

"(Gary Wright, the writer) wanted to do a prison mockumentary where humor is a crime," said Lothrop, one of the film's producers. "It would've been really hard to produce on a minimal budget, though, so we brainstormed some ideas of what we could do instead. And then one day, Gary just emailed me this script – which was completely different from what we had talked about – and it worked out great. It was the perfect short film script to do on a low budget."

When they approached Rott with the script, he was originally not as enthusiastic.

"At first, I was a little skeptical," Rott said. "I was thinking, 'what's this take on clowns?' But it's good! In its simplicity, it kind of gets at the heart of being a clown."

"Coulrophobia" follows two parents awaiting their clown son's arrival from a long absence. The father is looking forward to seeing his son, all grown up out of his clowning ways, but much to his surprise, his son comes home not only still a clown, but with a clown partner in tow. In simple terms, it's a variation on the 1967 classic "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" … but with clowns.

"The whole point is to show that we're not all as different as we like to think we are," Lothrop said.

Rott joined the project as an actor and clown choreographer, bringing a whole new layer to the film's look at prejudice. Lothrop noted that the script could've been about cowboys and the themes would've still come through; it just turned out to be clowns. Later, Rott brought up the idea that a prejudiced society helped degrade clowns from subversive cultural artists into cartoonish figures and nightmare fodder, adding a literal angle on the film's metaphorical tale of prejudice.

In order to get the short film off the ground, the filmmakers are using Kickstarter, a popular website where people can pitch their projects to the entire Internet and earn funding. The goal for "Coulrophobia" is currently set at $2,000, which – if raised – will go towards the gear, equipment and costuming needed to make the film a reality.

"Right now, I'm short things like lighting for sure – I don't have really anything in that regard – camera supports, so things like dollies and a jib," Lothrop said. "I would love to get a steadicam if I could. There are a lot of things that I'm still working on getting my hands on … I need help if I want to really make this right."

As of writing, "Coulrophobia" has raised $510 of its $2,000 goal. The bidding period ends on February 12, and if the project doesn't reach its pre-set money amount, none of the Kickstarter funds are kept. The crew is optimistic, but they're ready to go on in case the Internet fundraiser doesn't come through.

"I'm going to produce this film one way or another," Lothrop said. "It's just a matter of how much production value we can have show up on screen … I'm happy for what's come out of (the Kickstarter), even if we don't actually reach our goals. It's gotten some exposure for what we're doing, and it's heading in the right direction."

Outside of simply raising the funds, there are other challenges involved with taking "Coulrophobia" as far as the creators believe it can go. Vincent Buckley, the film's director, and Lothrop noted it's hard to compact a high-concept idea, tell all of the requisite storytelling and create an emotional connection with the audience in such a short frame of time. Balancing the story and the message is also crucial to the filmmakers' success.

"For me, this is just a great story," Buckley said. "It's all about the story and letting the subtext come through without pummeling people with it."

All of that must happen – in addition to making the final product look as good as possible – for the film to accomplish its goals of reaching a wide audience, getting out on the festival circuit and – in their wildest dreams – the Oscars. For Rott, he has his own personal goals for what he would like to see "Coulrophobia" do.

"Around the time "It" came out, that really popularized the scary clown, and people tricked themselves into being afraid of clowns," Rott said. "I want to do the art form justice. I want the clowning in this to remind audiences that there is something that lies underneath the façade of how the American public perceives clowns and what kind of stories they can tell."

More information on "Coulrophobia" and pledging to the film can be found on its Kickstarter page.

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