The director takes 69 year-old LeRoy Tessina on a journey to discover the truth behind the world's greatest unknown mysteries in this upcoming documentary
In the new documentary Gawd Bless America, Blake Freeman sets out to discover the truth behind aliens, ghosts, psychics, and other great mysteries of the unknown with 69 year-old true believer LeRoy Tessina, a man who has sunk all of his money into protecting himself from these potential human threats and is now crippled by debt. This hilarious true-life adventure has been garnering massive word-of-mouth since the debut of its trailer, which does a good job of selling Gawd Bless America as one of the must-see documentaries of 2011.
We recently caught up with director and star Blake Freeman to find out what all the fuss is about. Blake gave us a pretty detailed account of the behind-the-scenes antics that went into making this truly unique expose on the supernatural. He also let is know more about LeRoy Tessina, who brings a lot of heart and humor to the project.
Here is our conversation:
Blake Freeman: This movie has gone haywire. We are getting more interest than I had expected.
That must have a lot to do with the trailer. Its an immediate attention grabber. It becomes quite obvious that this thing is a lot of fun. Its not your typical documentary by any means.
Blake Freeman: We had a ball with it. Old Hollywood had lead us to believe that this would do well domestically. But it will not go worldwide. Because I am kind of an unknown. But Old Hollywood couldn't have been more wrong. Gawd Bless America has become the number one video in Germany and Spain since its release on December 17th. I was going, "Wait a minute! This is a worldwide topic." I don't think it has shit to do with who's in it. Its done really well. I think those guys were very wrong on that side of it.
The Unknown and the Supernatural are topics that appeals to most people, no matter who they are. Especially me. I am certainly interested in this stuff. Nowadays, most people are skeptics. I haven't seen the movie yet, but watching the trailer, you certainly come across as a skeptic. Was it your intention to enter into this project as a skeptic, or were you trying to show the opposite side of what LeRoy is going through, and what he truly believes in his own life?
Blake Freeman: I have my thoughts on it. I am a bit of a skeptic. But I don't charge into this like Bill Maher. He goes in with Religulous, and his mind is set. He thinks, "This is all bullshit." I tried not to do that because I was taking this 68-year-old man, a guy who believed in all of this stuff, with me. I tried to keep an open mind about it. We had about a half a million dollars to spend and talk to as may of these people as we could in finding if any of this was real. So I dropped my skepticism. I quickly kicked it out the door. But it was quickly rebounded and refounded as soon as I started talking to some of these people.
How did you initially come across LeRoy's path? What was the gist behind finding this guy, and discovering that he'd spent all of his money to protect himself from aliens, and on psychics?
Blake Freeman: We were doing a production. I'd wanted to do my own movie. I had developed and sold a couple of TV shows. But I had only been in the business for a few years. I started writing out a script for an hourlong series that we could sell to TV. It was about some of these ridiculous things in life, like exorcise equipment, and some of these other things I'd always thought about debunking. Like how Americans buy into the hype, and we do whatever anyone tells us to do. I went at it at that angle. During the production, we ordered pizza, and it came to eighty-eight dollars and eighty-eight cents. I still have a copy of the receipt. LeRoy Tessina, who delivered the pizza, told me I was going to have triple wealth and prosperity because of those numbers. Here's my pizza guy telling me that. I didn't know anything about numerology. I started talking to him more, and he starts telling me how he's seen UFOs over Los Angeles. This happened two weeks prior to delivering the pizza. He goes onto tell me that he sleeps with a helmet on his head at night to protect him, to keep the aliens from reading his mind. He believed in mind control. He paid for psychics. This was all I knew about him at the time. Of course, not to jump too far ahead, but I went to his house to ask him to do the movie. Going into the movie, we soon found out that he thought his dad was haunting him. So we go with ghost hunters. We go the whole ghost route, and talk with paranormal experts. We went to the Roosevelt hotel, and we went to the room that Marilyn Monroe is supposed to haunt. We had a woman come to a séance, and she said that she could get Marilyn Monroe to come to this room. So, I said, "Fuck it! If you're going to bring Marilyn Monroe...LeRoy, this is your chance!" So I dressed him up in his best suit. We set a table for two. They were going to dine by candlelight. There were posters of Marilyn Monroe all over the room. There are these candles that this woman brought, which are everywhere. And I am trying to get LeRoy laid by Marilyn's ghost. I kept it lighthearted and funny. But we kept at it, and we kept finding more and more things that LeRoy believed in. He was actually in quite a bit of debt over all of this stuff. There are quite a few twists and turns in the movie that we never saw coming ourselves.
Why was this 68 year-old man delivering pizzas? Was it because he was in so much debt?
Blake Freeman: That was my first question to him. I said, "You know what? I feel guilty that you are standing here talking to me about numerology when I should be the guy delivering you a pizza." It was funny. The guy served in the military. And he had either been a waiter or a bartender his whole life. Its ironic that this man has served this country in one form or another, whether it be food or military. Through his whole life, all he has to show for it, is that late at night, he is delivering pizza. I come to find out its these ridiculous, oppressive beliefs that people have put on him. I'm not saying that everyone who believes in UFOs is wrong. Its these people who are making you pay them for their own beliefs. I couldn't stand around and make a movie that was just a straight doc, where I am talking to people. And they are answering my questions. That would be boring. It would be another skeptic's movie. No one would watch it. About halfway through shooting, I said, "You know LeRoy? We need to see if this shit's real." That's when we began pulling these elaborate pranks. Its pretty funny.
You talk about LeRoy being in debt. I'm sure the film goes into this, but what exactly did he pour all of his money into? How did he spent so much money trying to protect himself from aliens, and whatever else he was doing?
Blake Freeman: He spend thousands of dollars alone on the UFO and alien stuff. He had to make these helmets I told you about. He has stacks, and stack, and stacks of books. He had this kit that is supposed to save him from 2012. What else did he buy? In his house, there was shit everywhere.
What comes in a kit that is supposed to save you from 2012?
Blake Freeman: It was a cooler. In the cooler, there was some dried food. Some astronaut food. It was an Igloo cooler. Who knew? This is what's going to save you from the end of the world. Its pretty funny. A few years prior to 2012, someone had sold this old man this garbage. It was funny. And the way the movie ends, it's a funny situation. But, you know? Close to the end of the movie...And this is something I don't tell everybody...I don't care if you print this...I lost LeRoy for three days after we got through the meat of this. He just went missing. I felt the worst. I couldn't find him at his house. I didn't know what was going on. I finally caught up with him. He called and told me to meet him at the park. I met him at this park in the valley. He was there, basically crying. He said, "I realize now that my whole life has been wasted." At this point, I thought, "Man, I just screwed this guy's life up." In actuality, it was the kind of moment he needed and I needed. What we did without folding everything...LeRoy paints. He has painted his whole life. So we gave LeRoy an art show. We had to dress LeRoy up as a famous French artist. We tried to put his art in galleries all over town, but people kept telling us that, because he is unknown, they are not interested. It wasn't about how good his art was, it was because he was unknown. They were down right rude about it. So we dressed him up as a famous French artist and sold his artwork for thousands of dollars. Doing that, we saved his house from foreclosure.
Is that in the movie? That sounds like it could be the subject of a film all by itself...
Blake Freeman: That is how the movie ends. I can tell you this. We tested it. Alcon Entertainment, who did The Blind Side and The Book of Eli, they loved the movie. Obviously they are tied to Warner Bros. So their upcoming slate was set. But they decided to pay for a screen test, which they did, and they put two hundred people in there. We kept being told not to do this in Los Angeles, because its full of haters and filmmakers who have not made it. They are going to rip your movie apart. And, man, we scored over 70 percent excellent ratings. It was 85 percent males under 25. We tested really, really well. But we are not a studio, so we don't have millions of dollars to throw at distribution. We are going theatrical. So I am hoping that this takes off on word-of-mouth, which it already has. We've had over a hundred thousand views a month on the Internet, and on Youtube. Overseas, we were told that we got over five hundred thousand views in one month on this proprietary site. I hope the word-of-mouth keeps going, and this blows up. It will be good for us because we are the indie guys going at this in an indie way. With the trailer, we can't tell you everything that goes on in the movie in just two minutes. People don't know that this has anything to do with art. And they don't really know that it has anything to do with ghosts. They don't know that we went to a hotel in Las Vegas. LeRoy hadn't been there in forty years, so I took him to a hotel in Vegas, and we blew it out one night. He doesn't drink any more. But we drank all night long. He was passed out. We had a two thousand and some odd-dollar bill, I think. We barely had any money left to finish the movie on our budget. Donald Kushner, the executive producer on Tron and Tron: Legacy...He came on and helped us. Here, we ran up this big bill in Vegas. And we didn't have any cash. We'd just put down the four hundred dollar cash deposit. By the time we needed to get out of the hotel, we'd shot some things hidden camera, so we had these big backpacks and bags that we would carry our cameras in. I ordered up a wheelchair or a gurney, and they sent a wheelchair up to the room. LeRoy got in the chair, laid his head back, and took his teeth out. I put him under a sheet and wheeled him down to the front desk. I was crying, and I pulled the sheet back. There's LeRoy with his head back and his teeth missing. I told them that my grandfather had passed away while we were staying there. I told them that I just needed to settle this bill. I asked the guy to come help dig LeRoy's wallet out of his dead body. The guy said, "Go, man! Just get out of here!" So we end up sneaking out of our hotel bill. There is so much shit that just happens in this movie. And LeRoy played along with it. You just can't put all of that shit in a trailer.
As LeRoy gets more well known through this movie, it seems like that would definitely push interest in his art. Now he will be someone that is "known" just from his exploits in this...
Blake Freeman: For sure. We've held off on putting that stuff on the internet. He doesn't have anyplace to sell his art right now. This is all just waiting to see what happens with the film. He definitely has a better life now. Since we sold his art, LeRoy hasn't had to work over the last few months.
These people who are selling this alien and 2012 garbage are clearly just taking advantage of individuals who are gullibly enough to believe in it. Do you go deeper into that aspect of the storyline at all? Do you find out who some of these folks are? And why they are doing what they are doing to make a quick buck?
Blake Freeman: I didn't go into that too deep. Because, you really do run out of time. We had one hundred and fifty hours of footage that we had to squeeze into ninety minutes. There is just so much footage, it becomes ridiculous. We got shot at one time. Over at some guy's house. That is not in the movie yet. We are trying to see if we can put it back in the movie. But its one hell of a DVD extra. Before we get that all sorted out, this is all I can really say about it. But it is going to be intense. To try and fit all of that stuff in, and then go after the people who are selling this junk, and doing people like LeRoy wrong? That becomes just crazy. We basically went after the people that LeRoy knew. We went to the UFO conferences. That's how we found some of these people. We found the Prophet Yahweh. Everyone that is in the movie, you can look up on the Internet. They are there. Except for the psychics. They were local, Los Angeles area psychics that LeRoy had gone to see. Or planned on seeing. We were kicked out of a lot of places. That is for sure. You know what I did? You are the frist person I have told this to. For part two, we are actually pulling in crazier guys that we had met on the road. We have this other guy who is not in the movie, but he thinks he can control the weather with his mind. Another guy thinks he is an alien hybrid. These are real people. Then there is Prophet Yahweh, who thinks he can call upon UFOs. We were thinking about making Gawd Bless America Part 2, and going back out on the road with this team of experts. Its almost a group of misfits. They are going to stop 2012 from happening. Because they all have the power to stop it. That may be the next one. We are doing the movie Noobz, which is about online videogame players. That is not a documentary. That has a real narrative. That is what we are doing next. But I think then we are going to roll right into Gawd Bless America Part 2.
That second movie...You hopefully have to get that finished before December of next year, right?
Blake Freeman: For our release date?
Yeah, because if this team doesn't stop 2012 from happening, no one will get to see the movie.
Blake Freeman: I think it is December 2012 when the world is supposed to blow up. Yeah. We move faster than anyone. Like I said, we are doing this comedy Noobz next. It will be a traditional narrative. It has some big actors in it. Its going to be a great movie. We are about to make the announcement that the online videogame in the movie is the largest online videogame on the market. Its big news for us. We are shooting it in April. Its getting a rough cut for E3, which is the first week of June. Then we will be rolling that film into theaters September of this year. So, we've raised enough money to do our own P&A. We are putting together a two hundred and fifty million dollar fund to put these movies out. We don't have the money in place yet with the theatres to do Gawd Bless America. So we're taking the indie route with that one. But if we do Gawd Bless America Part 2? It will be out this same year. We'll have the money to do that.
If you do Part 2, and these guys are going to stop 2012, you obviously have to have Part 3 in 2013, if the world doesn't blow up, showing how it was these particular guys that stopped the end of the world.
Blake Freeman: I agree with you. That is a great point. That will probably be the reason why you'd want to buy the DVD. You'd want to have their reactions about how they were the ones to stop this. Or do an HBO special.
I can't wait to see that. I am so fascinated by 2012.
Blake Freeman: That's the same with me. You can't disprove it. That's not what I am doing. I am just showing how ridiculous it is. I've done four Australian interviews this past week. I had no idea this thing would be so big worldwide. We had no clue.
Where will the movie be playing that people can see it? Coming up here in the States?
Blake Freeman: The rollout starts in four theaters. It will play at the Grauman here in Hollywood. It will play in Nashville, Tennessee, Huntsville, Alabama, and New York City. If this does well the first week, then it will roll into seventy other theaters. Then the next one is six hundred. It just keeps going up.