BY JONATHAN VALANIA Brad Beesley has been the Flaming Lips in-house documentarian and videographer since the mid-90s. Just about any Flaming Lips video you have seen was made by Brad Beesley. He is also the director of Fearless Freaks, the excellent Lips documentary released a few years back, culled from literally hundreds of hours of interviews and performance footage that Beesley shot over the course of the last 10-plus years. Concurrent with his work on Fearless Freaks, Beesley also served as cinematographer for Christmas On Mars, the just-released low-rent sci-fi thriller the Lips made in Wayne Coyne’s garage.
Back in 2000, Beesley made Okie Noodling, a documentary about the curious backwoods Oklahoma past time of catching catfish with your bare hands. We are talking real fucking big catfish, like, 65 pounds. And the way you catch them is you stick your hand in the murky holes that pit the sides of muddy creeks where catfish nest and get them to bite down on your hand. Basically, your hand is the bait, and your arm is the fishing rod. From there it becomes a struggle between man and catfish. While the practice of hand-fishing, or ‘noodling’ as they call it in Oklahoma, was fairly obscure prior to Beesely’s documentary, that would soon change. The response to the film surprised Beesley. The BBC, Jimmy Kimmel, The Food Network and ESPN all wanted a piece of the action, sending film crews down to Oklahoma to cover the annual hand-fishing competition that Beesley started.
“To be honest, I was just looking to give my film a climactic ending and since then it’s turned into this annual event with people coming from all over the world to compete,” says Beesley, speaking on the phone from his current home in Austin, Texas. Beesley soon realized a sequel was in order to document the international phenomenon Okie Noodling had triggered. Hence, Okie Noodling 2, which screened last night at the First Person Arts Festival.
PHAWKER: So I just saw Christmas On Mars, which I enjoyed as much as anything I ever saw on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s like the garage band equivalent of a sci-fi film.
BRAD BEESLEY: That makes sense, since about a third of it was filmed in Wayne’s garage. I am glad it was fairly coherent because shooting without a script, you never know what is going on in Wayne’s head. The film is supposed to take place over the course of 24 hours, but in reality it took six years of filming on and off.
PHAWKER: The cameos — Sam Rockwell and Fred Armisen — really kick things up to another level, what with having actual professional actors involved. How did they come about. I am assuming both those guys are Lips fans.
BRAD BEESLEY: Exactly, the Lips would be playing LA and people would come back stage and say ‘I am a huge fan, I am working on this film, you should do some music for it’ and Wayne would go ‘Sure, we’ll do some music for you, as long as you come to Oklahoma and appear in OUR film.’
PHAWKER: Any big names that got away?
BRAD BEESLEY: Hmm, Frodo was supposed to be in the movie but it never happened. And Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse was in the film, but his part got cut out in the editing.
PHAWKER: Elijah Wood? The film could have used a hobbit come to think about it. I am sure everyone asks you about that scene in Fearless Freaks where Steven Drozd talks about his heroin addiction and you practically show him shooting up.
BRAD BEESLEY: We wanted to be really honest about a very dark chapter in the life of Steven, which had a huge impact on the band, mostly for the worse. There were some in the Lips camp who refused to be associated with the film if that scene was included. We had lots of discussions about it, and originally there was very explicit footage of him shooting up, which was really disgusting, Steven bleeding all over the place. Eventually we came to the compromise you see in the finished film, where the actual shooting up is off camera, but the viewer gets a real sense of the horror of it. I am happy to report that that was the second last time that Steven did heroin, and he has been clean and sober since 2001. When we first started shooting Steven was in very bad shape. He only weighed, like, 161 pounds, was missing six teeth and had a huge cyst on his forehead. Today he is healthy, happy and married with two beautiful kids.
PHAWKER: Glad to hear it. So how did you first learn about this practice of catching catfish with your bare hands?
BRAD BEESLEY: When I was a kid and would go to family reunions in southern Oklahoma, I noticed that my cousins had all these cuts and scrapes on their arms. And I was like ‘How did that happen?’ And they were like ‘noodlin’. And then they explained what ‘noodlin’ was, and the image of them catching these giant catfish with their bare hands was just burned into my mind. And somehow I went from the guy who never in a million years do this, to a guy who not only noodles, but hosts an annual noodlin’ competition every year.