Jon Watts knew that when he got around to making his first film, he wanted it to be local — and he wanted it to be character based. Choosing one of Atlanta’s more notorious icons — Blondie, the most famous exotic dancer in the South — as his subject allowed him to do that in a very public way.
His documentary “AKA Blondie” debuted at the Atlanta Film Festival in 2012 to appreciative audiences and has spent the last year-and-a-half circulating area festivals, as well as three international ones, and had a week-long theatrical run at the Plaza Theatre. It’s become the Energizer Bunny of local independent films. It screens for the final time, however, at Valdosta State University tonight (November 13). Watts’s new “Homespun” series debuts locally on Friday, continuing his emphasis on local subjects.
Watt’s “Homespun” is a documentary series he developed with his wife, Brantly, and the Atlanta Film Festival to collaborate with fellow filmmakers and tell community-driven stories about unique subjects. It’s being developed as a quarterly series and the November 15 bow at the Plaza Theatre will feature a trio of shorts. “Machine Gun Mary,” directed by Watts, is about Mary Matia, a 22-year-old local boxer training for the 2016 Olympic Games. Takashi Doschler’s’ “Time” examines a father and son pair of clockmakers. Both films are available online (“Machine Girl Mary” was also recently on PBA), but Brantly Watts’ “Golden Child” is a premier that focuses on Shawn Knight, a local performance artist, assemblage sculptor and urban junk collector. All three films are all under 10 minutes each and will feature Q and As with the filmmakers and subjects.
Watts, 31, has lived in the area all his life. He grew up in Cobb County area and moved to Athens to study telecommunications at UGA. Later, he studied documentary filmmaking at the Maine Media Workshops. He dabbled here and there as a production assistant, including working on the Sundance-accepted “Somebodies,” before starting his own company, Half Pint Productions in 2009. Inspired by the likes of documentary filmmaker Errol Morris and the director’s “The Fog of War” — a film that Watts feels has a lot of talk but a lot of heart as well — he set out to make his first documentary feature.
Watts met the iconic Blondie a few years before he started, or even envisioned, the project. From the first moment he met her — and she read poetry to him — he had a sense that there was more to this woman than crushing beer cans with her ample bosom. “I could see it in her face, this dual personality,” he recalls.
Blondie, aka Anita Rae Strange, has been working at the Clermont Lounge for 30 years now. When the film debuted she was 55. She’s not the oldest performer at the Clermont but — decked out in her blonde wig — she’s the star attraction, even amidst dancers half her age.
Getting her aboard was hardly easy. When Jon and his then-girlfriend, Brantley, approached Clermont owner Kathi Martin about making a film about Blondie, Martin chuckled and told them to “get in line.” Yet they persisted. Anita heard about their plans and approached the duo, eventually agreeing. The timing was right. “She told us if we had approached her a year ago, she wouldn’t have wanted to do this,” Watts says.
He and Brantly, who served as the writer and producer, collaborated on the project. They would come to the Clermont routinely to talk to Blondie. Jon says Brantly was especially instrumental in the early stages by interviewing Blondie and finding out more about her. “We needed a female perspective,” he says.
Over time, Anita opened up. “AKA Blondie” doesn’t shy away from some of the subject’s demons — drugs, prostitution — but does peel away layers to reveal Anita Strange as a poet, an artist, an LGBT advocate, and as an articulate, thoughtful soul. Watts specifically started the film with 10 minutes of glitz — then focuses on the real woman. “Her calling is as an entertainer,” he says. “She wants to be around people. But she has a big heart.”
In all, the film took about five years to complete. Pre-production began in summer of 2009 and lasted until spring of the next year. Production lasted a full year and post-production lasted eight months, until the end of 2011. He and Brantly were dating when “AKA Blondie” began and got married in 2010.
When he got word he had been accepted into the Atlanta Film Festival, Watts wasn’t sure how audiences would react. It didn’t take him long, though, to realize he had touched a nerve — the opening night “Blondie” screening sold out and another screening was scheduled. Blondie’s story has translated here and beyond — and the festival circuit has allowed he and Brantly to meet other filmmakers.
The screening in Valdosta is the film’s “last hurrah” on the big screen, says Watts. He’s in talks to get “AKA Blondie” on Video On Demand in the fall, but one condition is that the film be done with its festival run.
Watts is already thinking ahead to the next Homespun series — with episodes about an exorcist and the owner of the most expensive bottle of whiskey in the world. It’s not imperative that he and Brantly be the sole filmmakers involved. “We want to take a backseat approach,” he says. “We can create content but we really want to work with other filmmakers here in town.”