Filmmaker Alex Lukens Makes Art From Soda Suicides

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Alex Lukens.

In January 2015, Idea Capital announced the 10 recipients of its annual art grant competition and, as usual, the selected winners represent a diverse cross-section of the Atlanta creative community, with experimental projects ranging from 3D printing (Ann Stewart) to performance art (Jared Dawson) to photography (Stephanie Dowda) and other categories such as sculpture and sound design. As someone who appreciates filmmakers who explore and push the boundaries of the format, I was particularly intrigued by High Fructose Suicide Booth, a film/installation concept from Alex Lukens that was among those chosen from the 87 submissions.

Perennial Properties

This was the first time that Lukens had ever applied for an art grant. His original concept is provocative and promises to be a unique viewing experience based on his description on Facebook: “Imagine living in a world comprised completely of raw storage locker spaces. What would life be and how best would you make use of tight quarters? Given you discover all this life has to offer, would you continue changing spaces or tap out of this world?”

In a recent phone conversation with Alex, we discussed the origins of the project, details about the Idea Capital grant and Atlanta as a viable community for media artists.

Jeff Stafford: Tell me about the initial inspiration for High Fructose Suicide Booth.

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The F Word at Hunter Museum

Alex Lukens: I tend to pull a lot from my childhood and things that intrigued me as a kid. I grew up in Indiana where drinking soda is as commonplace as drinking milk. One of the things to do in a restaurant, if they had a soda fountain, was to mix all of the sodas together. We dubbed that a “Suicide.” It’s not great tasting or good for you, by any means, but I latched onto it because I really appreciated the concept of taking something that someone has given you and repurposing it. So I think that was the seed. I’ve always thought that making Suicides is a blissful experience in that there is nothing that you can do that’s wrong. It’s all perfectly acceptable. By the way, I’m not in any way condemnatory of soda [laughs].

JS: But suicide has other connotations in your film installation piece, correct?

AL: I’ve often thought about our culture having a taboo with even talking about suicide. It’s difficult to discuss because everybody has their own hard and fast opinions on it. I’m trying to find a way to talk about it—like the way I did with the soda fountain—in which all viewpoints might come together and be acceptable, or at least all viewpoints can be heard. And I’m aiming for it to be funny. I think the aim is to approach this concept of the value people place on their lives with the same kind of openness.

Currently, Lukens is finalizing locations for the film and repurposing a 1980s telephone booth that will be a key component of the installation. He predicts that pre-production will probably last two months with the actual filming taking place three months from now. Lukens also notes that one of the many advantages of winning the Idea Capital grant is that no predetermined delivery dates are imposed on the artists as long as they are working toward their goal and making genuine progress on their concepts.

JS: I was reading some of the guidelines for submitting a grant proposal to Idea Capital and it seemed a bit daunting for someone who has never gone through this process before, such as creating an itemized budget.

AL: I think they want to see that whatever amount of money is allocated to each project will have a pretty forceful impact on the completed piece. I also think Idea Capital wants the project to evolve in certain ways. They lock onto the core idea of the piece but everything is changeable, which is a good place to be. This is one of the first times I have a decent pool of money, and I have to figure out exactly how to allocate it so that I achieve the desired look and effect I want.

I had actually not heard of Idea Capital until this year. I hadn’t really pursued grants before, so I feel very fortunate to have been recognized.

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JS: Are you going to shoot High Fructose Suicide Booth in a digital format?

AL: That’s actually the biggest question at the moment. If we can get all the logistics together, we’d really love to shoot it on 16mm film. My director of photography is really pulling for that whereas my producers champion shooting on a digital format. If we shoot digitally, our camera budget would be next to nothing but film will take a bit more.

A graduate of Emory with a Masters degree, Lukens wrote his thesis on the concept of media gimmicks, particularly in film. He cites producer-director William Castle as the king of the promotional gimmick, with such films as The Tingler (and the vibrating theater seat stunt known as “Percepto”) and House on Haunted Hill in “Emergo” (a large, lighted plastic skeleton sails over the audience at a synchronized moment in the film). He readily admits that High Fructose Suicide Booth incorporates a form of gimmickry in terms of audience interactivity.

AL: We’re going to be shooting the entire film in a storage locker facility and it would be ideal if the work could be exhibited in that same facility. I’m trying to heighten awareness of these pieces of raw space that are underutilized but could be used for just about anything—not only film screenings, but you could do multiple things with these spaces. We’re doing things inside this storage locker so that when you’re in the suicide booth, you’re watching the film and can understand how these props and set pieces were manipulated to create this final work.

When Lukens is not working on his own film and video projects, he supports himself with freelance work on large budget commercial projects like the TV series The Vampire Diaries and major Hollywood films (A Walk in the Woods starring Robert Redford, Emma Thompson, Nick Nolte and Mary Steenburgen is a recent example). His particular fondness for the horror genre—he mentions Re-Animator and Evil Dead II as personal favorites—is reflected in the macabre anthology film Night Terrors, which he co-directed with Jason Zink.

JS: For those who want to work in the film industry, Atlanta seems like a great alternative to New York or Los Angeles, plus there seems to be plenty of opportunities for those with experience.

AL: I have a pretty great work/life balance. I work pretty regularly as a producer’s assistant, helping with budgets and schedules. It’s been great to know that stuff because I might not have been able to do Idea Capital’s budget portion of the grant had I not had that experience. So I work really hard for those TV shows and films and then I have these periods of two to three weeks where I can give myself to this or that project. I take great pride in the fact that Idea Capital is an Atlanta grant, and I’m proud to be in Atlanta. I feel it’s still a hotbed of activity so I think I’ll be here for some time to come.

Jeff Stafford writes about art, film, music, gardening, and other favorite topics for various digital publications.