Interview with Michelle Esrick: Making Saint Misbehavin'
by Richard Whittaker , Jul 2, 2013
It was through Nipun Mehta, that I was introduced to Michelle Esrick who made Saint Misbehavin,’ the documentary film about Wavy Gravy. It was my luck to be in attendance at the film’s San Francisco premiere at the Red Vic Theater. Located in the Haight Ashbury, the venue was perfect—home base for the hippie psychedelic movement of the 1960s. Wavy Gravy was one of the iconic figures associated with that movement. What’s less known is the deep level of philanthropy at the core of Wavy’s life. An extended encounter with his commitment to service is what inspired Esrick to undertake the film project, a decision that turned into a journey of her own transformation. Before I got to the theater that evening, Nipun had already filled me in about Wavy. “What people don’t know about Wavy,” he told me, “is that Wavy really walks the walk.” Michelle’s film makes this all visible in quite an inspiring way. I talked with her after she had returned to New York…
Richard Whittaker: Tell me a little about how you first got connected with Wavy Gravy.
Michelle Esrick: I met him in 1992. A close friend of mine was having lunch with him and interviewing him for a book. I went along and my head was turned right then and there. Then in the mid-90s this same friend and I ended up doing the PR launch for Grateful Dead Neckwear and Wavy became our spokesperson for that campaign. That’s how I got to know him on a deeper level. The campaign lasted a couple of years and we did a lot of press together. I heard him tell a lot of stories just spending time with him. So two things were happening. I was listening to his incredible life and just going, Wow! Oh, my gosh! He did what? [laughs] It was never ending. And the other thing was that I was being emotionally altered.
RW: By being with Wavy?
Michelle: By being with him. When you hang around certain people with a beautiful perspective on life, people like Maya Angelou, like Harry Belafonte, people like Odetta, people like Wavy…
RW: Were you around the people you’re mentioning?
Michelle: Well, Odetta became my mother in my adult life, and yes, I’ve been around some very inspiring people throughout my life. People like Ram Das. People who, when you leave them, you feel different, you feel better, a little more enlightened. Anyway, Wavy was really affecting me on that level. He’s so in-the-moment and always looking to see how he could be useful. I never hear him saying anything bad about anyone. I saw that he just inspired people to want to help others. One reporter did not hear me correctly and wrote that he inspires people to want to hug people [laughs]—it’s help people, not hug people.
I was an actress for years. I love Shakespeare and I love the role of fool. It just hit me that Wavy was our modern day fool, our modern day court jester. Fool’s role is to make people laugh, but it’s always at a moment when truth is being transmitted through the foolery. That’s why I talk about it in the movie, how Wavy walks a fish on a leash or the way he dresses, which he just calls clothes. I’ve been around him, maybe at a big festival, and reporters will say, “Wavy, what do you call this get-up?” And he says, “Clothes.”
But he’s also aware that he’s using these things to make people feel good and to laugh. Then he can transmit the things he’s really excited about. He’s excited and very serious about fun. He sees lifting people’s spirits as healing.
RW: Can I go back to the character, "fool"? You were saying something about how that character was able to transmit truth. I guess people drop their guards and then new things are possible, like the transmission of truth.
Michelle: And I try to show that in the movie. I think he’s transmitting the simplest messages about human nature, basic human needs, things we probably learn in kindergarten. People can’t really argue with “It’s nice to be nice,” for example. They can argue about how to go about it, but who is going to disagree?
RW: Right. But then somebody insults you. Then the test comes, right? And I’m guessing that Wavy is able to keep this principle in mind in the middle of difficult conditions. What do you think?
Michelle: Correct [laughs]. He doesn’t lose those principles. But he’s human. I call the movie Saint Misbehavin.’ He can get tired and a little cranky, but never at the expense of anyone else. And his humor is never at the expense of anyone else.
RW: Now that’s rare.
Michelle: Very rare. Larry Brilliant talks about that. Try that for a week, he says. Try not having one joke be at the expense of anyone else. It’s very hard. But his brain just doesn’t go there, even with the cops who have beaten him, injured his back and have created pain for his entire life. You’ll hear him say they were misguided. He still calls them peace officers.
RW: So you’ve been around Wavy a lot and have seen him embodying these ways of behaving that are simple truths—living them. I mean, that’s a big thing.
Michelle: For me it’s a practice. And he would probably say it’s a practice. He’d say it’s one breath at a time. When I’m around someone who is living it pretty much all of the time, then I can see when I’m not [laughs]. I may be losing my patience with somebody and he will say, well, he’s trying. Try to look at the best in people.
RW: What happened that made you decide to make a movie and when did that happen?
Michelle: I call it my Field Of Dreams moment. After the tie campaign was over it just hit me. I literally thought, I have to make a movie about this guy. People only knew him as a hippie, and yet did not really know what a real hippie was, or they knew him only from Woodstock, which was three days of his life. Or they knew him only as an ice cream flavor.
I wanted to introduce people to the Wavy Gravy I saw—someone who has lived a life of service in a very unique and authentic way. Like Gandhi says, my life is my message. Wavy’s whole life is his message, not just Woodstock, and not just the sixties. I opened the film with his poem Only Love and show pictures of him as a child. Wavy wrote that poem, and you hear a recording of him reciting it. I believe that Only Love was inside of him from the beginning.
People ask, when did he have his transformation? But there wasn’t just one moment. It might have crystallized for him over time. The two moments in his life I illustrate in the movie are when he passed the acid test by seeing that when you help someone who is sinking worse than you are, everyone gets high (and he is not referring to a chemical high). Also, when he suffered unbearable physical pain due to police beatings, he was asked to cheer up children at a cancer unit at Oakland Hospital. He realized the only way out of his pain was helping others.
RW: It came to you to make this movie and then that was a process that took ten years?
Michelle: Yes. It became my intention, because you could want to do something, but if you don’t have a clear intention, it doesn’t always stick. So I had a very clear intention. I wanted to truly introduce him to people. I wanted to share him. I needed to share this essence. I needed to share what he represents, which is bigger than him. I thought people will pay attention to him even if they don’t want to. [laughs] He’s so interesting and entertaining. That’s the hook.
Once you’re being entertained, these beautiful messages and this essence is being washed over everybody. I thought this would be transmitted in the theater and people would be inspired to go and help somebody.
That was my intention. People would get to hang out with Wavy. I wanted the hour and a half experience to feel like that. The people who do hang out with him do feel inspired and do want to help the world. They do feel, yeah, we can make a difference and we can have fun doing it.
RW: Obviously Larry Brilliant feels that very strongly.
Michelle: They’re best friends. He told me the proudest moment for him is being called Wavy’s best friend.
RW: That’s something coming from a person of his stature. That says a world of things, doesn’t it?
Michelle: It does.
RW: It is a beautiful film and a gift. There must be special moments that stand out from all the years of making it.
Michelle: There were a lot of moments. I never made a film before and this was the craziest idea I ever had in my life! I didn’t plan on it, okay? [laughs] I was an actress and a poet. I read poetry with a jazz band, and I painted. I never thought of myself as a filmmaker. But I’ve always lived my life following my heart and I’ve seen that it pretty much works out. I mean, the good thing about practicing being awake, practicing being conscious, is that you’re awake to hear callings. I think we all get them, or we get messages—you know, turn right or maybe you shouldn’t turn down this way. Or you meet somebody and you feel maybe I should pay attention to this person. I think it’s important to practice awakeness [laughs]. Is that a word?
RW: It’s a good word, either way.
Michelle: To be conscious to hear these things, to hear your heart speak to you.
RW: Has that come naturally or have you been helped by some of the people you mentioned, like Ram Das?
Michelle: I’ve definitely been helped. And I also love the Dalai Lama and Zen and Buddhism and Thich Nhat Hanh, who is Wavy’s teacher. And it’s been a practice in my life. I used to contemplate my navel, trying to figure it all out. I ended up suffering and feeling sorry for myself. In my early twenties I realized that the answer was being of service. I loved feeling useful. That was the only thing that brought me fulfillment.
RW: Can you say more about that?
Michelle: I just saw that when I focused on myself it didn’t feel good. Then, when I helped somebody, I noticed, wow, this feels good! It feels so great that everybody I know who does it wants to do more. It becomes addictive, I think. Like Wavy says, it makes him high. He does it for the buzz. He says, "It’s a high that can’t be found in the pharmaceutical cabinet."
But as far as making the movie, it probably took me ten years because I didn’t know how to make a movie. I had to learn how to ask people I admired for help. So I just found people I admired and asked, what do you think?
When I found D.A. Pennebaker, he became my mentor. He encouraged me to tell the story I wanted to tell. When you have someone like D.A. Pennebaker saying, you can do this, you pay attention.
RW: I wondered what things evolved for you during the making of this film?
Michelle: There was a lot. It was like giving birth to myself many times over. As Larry Brilliant said at the premiere in San Francisco, Michelle made a million phone calls and everyone put her on hold. It was funny, but it was accurate, and it really touched me that he knew that. Sometimes I’d feel very alone. You know, fundraising is probably the hardest thing for any independent artist. We’re creative people, but in a way, we have to become business people. It’s not the most comfortable thing. Asking people for money is difficult. I had to turn that into service as well.
RW: How did you do that?
Michelle: I realized I it was a service getting this message out. I mean, it’s been proven to me. I’ve sat with audiences and have talked with them, and people have emailed me. They’ve told me the film changed their life. They probably mean it changed their minds—that’s one of my mantras, change your mind.
I had a man come up to me and say he was going to quit his job because he realized he needed to be doing something he felt better about. I had a fifteen-year-old girl write and tell me her parents were always taking her to films about saints or people living these amazing lives and she always felt like a loser, afterwards. Then, after she saw this film about Wavy, she said she realized she was enough.
RW: That’s pretty special.
Michelle: Her dream was to build schools in Africa, but whether she got to do that or not, she saw that the main thing was to help somebody each day. She said, I can do that. That’s pretty powerful. The film is very much an affirmation of hope and that we can make a difference. But you were asking what evolved over the ten years?
Michelle: Well, I didn’t take it on full time until the last three or four years because I was doing other things. Then Wavy would tell me he was doing something interesting and I’d go shoot that. What evolved was my confidence. At first I used to apologize. Hi, my name’s Michelle. I’m making this movie about Wavy Gravy. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t be the one doing it [laughs].
I used to say that for the first few years. Then it hit me—you better stop saying that. You’re affirming something negative. Then I stopped saying it and to own this calling. Then one evening Larry was in New York and we had dinner. He told me how much Wavy and Jahanara trusted me and how other filmmakers had approached them about making a movie, but they wanted me to do it. And the way they gave me access to come into their lives, that made me want to step up to that! They’re trusting me. I’ve got to prove them right.
RW: And you have.
Michelle: Thank you. But just going back to the difficult times—sometimes difficulty shows that you should let go of something. But no matter how hard it got, I couldn’t quit. There would be phases where nobody would take my calls. Nobody would donate any money, and it would be like this is never going to happen. Then all of a sudden something would happen that affirmed, yes, this is meant to be.
And I had this intention, this feeling. I really believed, really wanted to serve this message.
RW: There’s something interesting about how you’re using this word intention. Can you say more about that word?
Michelle: I think Gary Zukav writes about it best in his book, The Seat of the Soul. You can have wants and desires, but if your intention for why you want it is not clear, it usually won't happen. Also I believe that there is a force in the universe that is listening and, if I am not clear, it can't help me out. I sound so New-Agey, but I am speaking from experience. This is what I have witnessed in my life.
RW: So now the movie is out. You’re going to screenings. It must be wonderful, this phase.
Michelle: Yeah, it is a wonderful phase. We did sixteen film festivals and then I really wanted to release the movie in theaters. I didn’t want to go straight to DVD or TV. I feel that watching the film needs to be a communal experience. I want people to come together and watch it as a group. That’s why I fought for it to be in theaters and waited patiently. And I didn’t get distribution in terms of some big company giving me money. That hasn’t happened.
I raised money to distribute the film through my company [Ripple Effect Films], and with the help of Jim Brown, who is the head of Argot Pictures, we booked the film in the Bay Area and New York. Our goal was to make a big splash, with great press, hopefully get a great New York Times review and have good box office—because the other theaters around the country are just waiting and watching.
RW: And that’s happened.
Michelle: It’s happened. Right now about 20 theaters around the country have booked the movie so far. People say, are you so happy? And I am so happy. We opened in Peoria today! I can’t believe it! I looked at the list of theaters we’re in and said, wow, my dream really came true! We’re going to be in Milwaukee! We’re going to be in Chicago! We’re going to be in Colorado! But since we’re still distributing the movie ourselves, we’ll continue to fundraise to keep it all going.
Here's a short video interview with Michelle Esrick and Wavy Gravy after a showing of her film: http://vimeo.com/4079542