Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a face mask in the summer heat, Brandon Townsend, 2018 Ball State alumnus, spent nearly three months in his hometown of Connorsville, Indiana, loving every minute behind the camera filming “Smokestack.”
“I wanted to make films for as long as I can remember,” Townsend said. “I first started taking it seriously as something that I knew that I wanted to pursue when I was in fourth grade. Peter Jackson had just released his ‘King Kong’ movie, and I saw an interview with him. It blew my mind because I knew people made movies, but I never really thought about it as something that somebody could do for a career.”
Directed by Townsend, “Smokestack” is a pseudo-documentary about Smokestack the Clown, who was once the host of a children’s TV show. Vigo Johnson, the actor who plays Smokestack the Clown, created the character when he was in middle school. From 2016-19, Johnson also performed blues music as Smokestack. After meeting up with Townsend at a coffee shop in January 2020, Johnson pitched Townsend the idea of creating a film about his character.
“When I was a kid, I was obsessed with clowns. I absolutely adored clowns. It was my dream job. There was something fantastic about it,” Johnson said. “As I grew older, I suffered with bullying, and I got really into Italian and French sad clown paintings. Eventually, I drew my own sad clown. I made Smokestack as a comic strip character, and it was just very nihilistic. It was like ‘Garfield’ … with four panels and a punchline.”
Townsend’s plans to begin filming “Smokestack” in March were interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Filming was put on hold until July, and when actors weren’t on camera, they were behind the scenes wearing a mask.
Since its release Sept. 26, 2020, the 20-minute film has received more than 22,000 views on Doxby Films’ Facebook page, a film production group established by Townsend and Prince Paradox, who plays the interviewer, Stanley, in “Smokestack.”
At Lift-Off Global Network’s First-Time Filmmaker Sessions, “Smokestack” placed sixth out of 123 films. “Smokestack” was also a finalist for the Los Angeles International Short Film Festival’s Independent Short Awards.
“I literally have people recognize me on the street,” Johnson said. “I've taken photos with fans. I even got a discount at a pizza joint because people working there had seen the movie, and that's nuts … We have a massive following.”
Paradox said he met Townsend in a class at Ball State, and they have been friends for nearly four years. Creating “Smokestack” was Townsend and Paradox’s first outing as Doxby Films. Paradox served as the film’s producer, where he oversaw the finances for creating and promoting the film. As the producer, Paradox said, he also enjoyed “doing the puzzle” to find solutions to any problems the team ran into with keeping on schedule.
“I want people to come up with their own ideas and theories about what [‘Smokestack’] is actually about,” Paradox said. “I've seen some really good ones … I really like seeing what people's own creativity draws from it, bringing the pieces together in their own way to create something entirely new.”
Townsend said his experiences at Ball State helped the entire process of making the film, as he learned how to use filming equipment, frame a shot and edit his projects in his classes.
Paradox also said the bond he and Townsend developed during their classes together at Ball State made for a smooth, easy experience directing and producing “Smokestack.”
“If it weren't for those opportunities, we wouldn't have seen the success that we have so far,” Paradox said. “I hope [‘Smokestack’] is a solid platform for people to see what Doxby Films can do and what we have planned moving forward. I hope [‘Smokestack’] is a nice way to assimilate people into our odd style. This is just a good base to jump from for the people who are going to consume our media.”