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Discover Mid-America — August 2004

Wamego's hot for a movie

There's purity in the way Steve Balderson makes movies.

For him, it's not just a living but life.

And here's the thing: I've never seen a movie Steve Balderson has directed. But after watching the documentary Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere, I can't wait.

Wamego: Making Movies Anywhere, a documentary by Steve Balderson, is available on DVD at Firecracker is available at

The documentary was largely the idea of Balderson, who had a camera operator follow him during the process of making Firecracker. The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen.

Wamego is good story telling. While Balderson is biased, it is still a rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict that begin with the director himself.

Balderson is a perfectionist. He has a vision that is the finished movie in his head. The people who work with him have to adjust themselves and their attitudes to his, which, simply put, is this: Find out how to do it. It doesn’t matter that the money isn’t there; he will find someone to donate the time and materials. It doesn’t matter that the stars don’t line up to get into his film, their contract arrangements and needs don’t groove with his. It certainly doesn’t matter that the Hollywood types that he has to work with — in the middle of Kansas — don’t want or can’t understand how to do things his way, they have to.

Balderson makes people angry. He sics his dad, who’s basically his business manager and a real can-do guy, on them. He ignores them, walks away from them, lets them stew. All the while, he has a willing chorus of Wamegans who pick up hammers, drills, and wrenches and believe in him. Ultimately, the Hollywood types drop their Hollywood ways, realize they are in Kansas, and join the Wamegans in getting the film done.

Meanwhile, he has either angered or turned away Dennis Hopper, Edward Furlong and a host of other male stars while landing on Debbie Harry as his female lead. Harry has conflicts and can’t make it, and other female leads either won’t come to Kansas or won’t bend to Balderson’s wind.

In the end, Karen Black joins a cast list that include young Mike Patton, Balderson’s sister Brooke (who has also starred in Balderson’s first major film, a horror/thriller Pep Squad), a host of local and working Hollywood actors, and such notables as George the Giant, Lobster Tail, The Enigma and Silent Luna.

Wamego’s other great asset is the town of the same name. It’s a place of great beauty, situated at a bend in the Kansas River at the beginning of the Flint Hills. The streets are wide, heavily shaded with elm, oak, and sycamore, and patrolled by cops who know people by name.

The town, of course, plays heavily into the setting of Firecracker, as well as he people, who are extras, workers and suppliers of decidedly non-Hollywood equipment that gets Hollywood quality shots accomplished — cranes, carts, tracks for dollies, heavy equipment, etc. Moreover, Balderson and his crew make best use of the spring prairie burning, when cattle ranchers burn off the stubble and dried grass of the previous year to make for new, tender grazing, with wide panoramic shots. While they are there, they joke with the locals, take in the grandeur of the prairie and become enthralled again with the place they call home.

Wamego is recommended viewing for any Midwesterner. Balderson, in his own, family-oriented, artsy-but-hardnosed way, shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.

The only weakness in the documentary comes in the form of an old journalistic watchword: Show, don’t tell. The last quarter of the film is pure self-stroking — people talking about how great Balderson is, how great Karen Black is, how great working with Balderson was, etc. At some point, we already got it. Balderson has already shown how great he is, and he’s done something much more important — he’s demonstrated how much work, time, thought and talent leads to a great movie.

And devotion to the vision. Let’s not forget that.

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at or

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