In a darkened sideroom adjoined to Rojo that has been converted into a makeshift theater, an audience watches as a cell-molecular biologist eats 11 ghost peppers. For those not in the know, the Ghost Pepper ranks as one of the hottest peppers in the world; it is over 400 times hotter than the standard bottle of Tabasco hot sauce. Questions arise: why is this seemingly-intelligent man eating one of these, let alone 11? And why is he doing this on film?
Along with four other short films, Sam Frazier Jr.’s latest, The Ghost Pepper Eating Contest of Jefferson County, made its debut screening in Alabama on May 12 to the merriment of a crowded room. This new film is a short documentary that captures a local hot pepper eating contest, with contestants such as medical researchers and college students sweating through round after round of eating hot peppers for a grand prize of $150. As Frazier likes to say, “I make films about intelligent and successful people doing stupid things for no apparent reason.”
Frazier was born in Tuscaloosa, but moved to Birmingham at the age of two after his father obtained his law degree. Eventually, Frazier would attend Washington & Lee University in Virginia, where he would obtain an bachelor’s degree in philosophy. “With a philosophy degree, you are either a philosophy teacher or an attorney. My father and sister are attorneys, so that’s really enough for one family,” Frazier says.
What Frazier did have an interest for was movies, especially comedies. His favorites are good-natured and fun films like Stripes, Ghostbusters and The Princess Bride. “When people are mentioning the greatest movies of all time, they are going to mention The Godfather or Casablanca — and those are great movies, but rarely do people put a comedy on that list.” Frazier is then quick to point out, “Making people laugh is really hard.”
After living in Washington D.C. for a year, and then in Ireland, Frazier moved back to Birmingham in 1999, where his first foray into filmmaking began. Originally, Frazier focused on the writing end of the process, but soon realized he was just as interested in the other aspects of the behind-the-scenes work that makes movies possible.
“Back in those days, they did not have the same kind of equipment and digital video largely didn’t exist,” Frazier says of his lack of formal training from a film school. “I’d have had needed a half-million dollar editing machine that wouldn’t do a quarter of what you can do today with just software and a decent computer. So I took very few [film] classes. You go to school or you’re a self-made idiot, as the joke goes. I’m a self-made idiot.”
Frazier’s first few projects were narrative pieces, short films featuring creative and satirical plots tackling subject matter such as the relation between suicide and TV nature programs, and a tongue-in-cheek takedown of the turn of the century hacker scare. Unfortunately, Frazier soon became disillusioned with the filmmaking process. “If you don’t have the money to pay people,” Frazier explains, “then you are depending on sometimes 20-50 people to be in one place at one time and then do what they’re told. … It’s nearly impossible.”
For the next five years Frazier claimed retirement, until 2010, when Frazier couldn’t pass on the opportunity to film a truly extravagant experience in local excess: Innisfree Irish Pub’s 24-hour St. Patrick’s Day celebration. Armed with only a camera and a car battery in a backpack, Frazier spent the entire duration at the bar, soberly documenting wave after wave of drunk people (only one reveler actually lasted the entire time) while fending off a migraine. The end result is Frazier’s first comedic documentary, 24 Hours of Madness.
Suddenly, Frazier found himself in a bind. “People asked, ‘What’s your next project?’” Frazier recalls. “Next project? There is no next project. I don’t do this anymore. ‘Well, what do you do?’ Oh, I run a loan office. ‘Well, that’s stupid. I bet you suck at that.'” If these words of confidence were not enough, Frazier discovered the push he needed after once again getting behind the camera to make Cardboard Titanics, a 2011 film about people trying to race boats made solely out of cardboard and duct tape.
The event was a birthday present for Justin Roth, one of the film’s stars, from his wife. Roth had often mentioned his memories of making such boats as a kid with a relative back in the Midwest, so his wife organized a small race to be held on a local lake. Frazier asked if he could film the event and Roth agreed, though he wasn’t sure why Frazier would want to film such a silly event. But, as clearly seen in the film, this was to become Frazier’s would be in his filmmaking element.
“Documentaries are usually about bad things happening to disadvantaged people,” Frazier says candidly. “And that’s fine — people need to be made aware of these things — but after awhile, you want a curve ball. … We do have real problems in our lives, but we also have so much we lose track of. To spend a day building a cardboard boat and racing it — you really appreciate where you are and what you have. It’s part of being a child again, almost. It’s a beautiful thing.” Frazier laughs. “Even failure is met with delight!”
And delight is exactly what his films are met with. Cardboard Titanics went on to be screened in dozens of film festivals all over the country and even in Europe, winning numerous awards. A sequel, Cardboard Titanics II, was filmed next year, which went on to have its own successful run of screenings and garnishing of accolades, including an audience choice award at 2012’s Sidewalk Film Festival.
While certainly happy with the success of his films, Frazier isn’t surprised by their reception. “If I’m in a documentary block, they usually put me towards the end because you don’t want the audience to leave depressed, and the other documentaries are going to be depressing.” He goes on to elaborate: “Comedy is a communal thing. It’s meant to be shared. Comedy is not pornography. It’s not meant to be watched alone at night in the dark.”
Currently Frazier works during the daylight hours and then goes home to get to his real job of editing films and entering submissions. “If I were smarter, I would hire someone to help me, but I don’t always think things through,” Frazier says with a laugh of the process of looking for an agent. “I’d love to have more time to do this and have this as a day job. That would be really nice.”
For more information about Sam Frazier Jr.’s films visit dtbdfilms.com.