The creative, troubled life of James Chasse

From The Oregonian, February 2, 2013

On the afternoon of Sept. 17, 2006, a man with schizophrenia named James Chasse Jr. died after a run-in with three police officers in the Pearl District.

Chasse was 42 years old, gentle and artistic, loved by his family and remembered fondly by his friends. As a teenager he made such an impression on Portland’s original punk-rock scene that its most significant band, the Wipers, wrote a song about him. He had in recent years achieved a sort of detente with the mental illness that first surfaced in adolescence.

Brian Lindstrom is a Portland filmmaker who's been working on a documentary for several years about the James Chasse case, in which a homeless man was chased and beaten by Portland police and later died from his injuries.

Brian Lindstrom is a Portland filmmaker who’s been working on a documentary for several years about the James Chasse case, in which a homeless man was chased and beaten by Portland police and later died from his injuries.

Though living independently, Chasse had slipped back into a dark place by that September day, when he had the misfortune of, from the officers’ point of view, being in the wrong place and behaving suspiciously. Terrified, Chasse tried to run away. The three officers caught up and tackled him hard enough to cause 26 breaks to 16 ribs and a punctured lung. A little more than 90 minutes later, “Jim-Jim” Chasse, after being refused admission at the Multnomah County Jail, died in the back of a police car on the way to Portland Adventist Hospital.

Portland filmmaker Brian Lindstrom began work on his documentary, “Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse,” soon thereafter. The project was, as his former college professor and mentor Stuart Kaplan says, “A major, major step up for Brian.” Getting to the bottom of the fatal, controversial encounter and the creative but troubled life of its central figure was a complex, time-consuming process, fraught with delays.

Lindstrom would leave “Alien Boy” for periods of time to make smaller-scale films, then come back to the Chasse film. Later, as it neared completion, he shared in what he called “this otherworldly thing”: the sudden success of his wife Cheryl Strayed‘s galvanizing, best-selling memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.” Strayed’s book became a No. 1 best-seller and was featured on Oprah’s Book Club, with the movie rights sold to Reese Witherspoon. Strayed spent much of last year touring to promote her book, frequently leaving Lindstrom to care for the couple’s two young children.

But, finally, “Alien Boy” — the title comes from the song the Wipers recorded about Chasse in 1980 — is complete. It will premiere Feb. 15 as part of the Portland International Film Festival, then play again at Cinema 21 on Feb. 24-28 before hitting the festival circuit.

“A huge motivation for making ‘Alien Boy’ was to give a voice to … the participants of the story,” Lindstrom, 51, says as he puts the final touches on the film in a rented editing room on East Burnside Street.

Most of all, Lindstrom wants the film to remind people of Chasse’s humanity and challenge prevailing views of the mentally ill.

“I think in some ways this terrible tragedy afforded me the chance to shed some light on Jim, to show that his life had beauty, challenge, love, hardship, grace, all the things all our lives have. It’s easy for us to forget that when we see someone like Jim on the street. That’s someone’s brother, son, lover, friend — even if the mental illness might be so acute that they might have a hard time fulfilling those roles.”

The overlooked

A Portland native who grew up in Parkrose, Lindstrom has long had a deep interest in the experiences of “the other” in society. While attending Lewis & Clark College in the early 1980s, Lindstrom’s passion for documentary filmmaking was awakened while taking communications courses. The now-retired Kaplan introduced him to Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 documentary, “Harvest of Shame,” about the plight of American migrant farmworkers.

“Brian has always had a strong interest in social-justice kinds of subjects,” Kaplan says, “in the use of film to illustrate the plight of people … who are struggling.”

Even before he had learned the technical aspects of filmmaking, Lindstrom’s narrative gifts were apparent. Up until “Alien Boy,” which Kaplan considers a serious move into investigative journalism, Lindstrom employed an observational, unobtrusive style to make intimate films about the struggles of overlooked, underserved communities.

The subjects of Lindstrom’s locally set documentaries capture a city far removed from the absurd carnival of “Portlandia”: detox and addiction-recovery programs (“Kicking” and “Finding Normal”), writing workshops for lower-income people (“To Pay My Way With Stories”), a playwriting program for at-risk youth (“Writing Myself”). Then there’s “Old Town Diary,” which tells the stories of recovering addicts and the mentally ill living in Portland’s Old Town.

“What I’m interested in is resilience,” Lindstrom says. “Life hits (people) hard and they keep coming back.”

One of the memorable figures in “Finding Normal,” blunt-talking but compassionate addiction-recovery mentor David Fitzgerald, says he had no intention of appearing in the documentary that he heard was planned about the unorthodox rehabilitation program at Old Town’s Central City Concern. Then Lindstrom showed up to pitch the project to him.

“It took him five minutes to convince me to do it,” Fitzgerald says. “I did it because I liked him so much. I could deal with him. I understood his reasoning and I believed in what he told me he wanted to do.”

“Finding Normal” has numerous conversations between Fitzgerald — who abused drugs and committed crimes for decades before getting clean — and his clients that are so intimate and frank it’s hard to believe a camera and microphone are in the room.

“I could still work like that because Brian allowed me to be myself,” Fitzgerald says. “He’s genuine, he cares and he has a real purpose to what he’s doing. The movie changed me. It put me out there and gave me no room for error, which is good.”

Support and success

Strayed, jet-lagged after returning home from a book tour in Britain and about to fly to Salt Lake City the next morning, is happy to hold off sleep long enough to discuss her husband.

“Brian’s my most trusted friend and adviser,” she says. “He’s who I go to when it’s hard. We know everything that’s gone into each other’s work.”

Strayed and Lindstrom have been together 17 years and are constant sources of encouragement for each other’s art in both prosperous and difficult times — and last year was plenty prosperous for the couple and their son and daughter, ages 8 and 7.

In March 2012, as “Alien Boy” inched toward completion, Strayed suddenly became a famous author when “Wild,” her acclaimed memoir of bereavement, self-discovery and physical travails on the Pacific Coast Trail, became a best-seller. At the same time, Strayed revealed she was the author of “Dear Sugar,” a previously anonymous advice column with a fervent online following.

“It’s unreal,” Lindstrom says of the experience. “And yet, we’re sitting here in this (editing) room because we want to tell stories that matter. Cheryl did her own version of that. It was never about writing a best-seller, but keeping things simple: What are you trying to accomplish today?”

Strayed says she and her husband share in each other’s success.

“We give each other feedback. The most important piece is not the intellectual or critical input, but the emotional support. Just to say to each other to keep the faith, that this will work out in the end.”

Until Lindstrom relocated to the editing room, the couple worked in the same room.

“‘Wild’ was written with Brian 10 feet away from me working on ‘Alien Boy,'” Strayed says. “It was the soundtrack of my work. I’ve never seen anything as meticulous and tedious as the making of a film. It’s always like that, but ‘Alien Boy’ was especially so. It was grounding for me to know what Brian was looking at this whole time. I knew it was going to be really something when it was done.

“For the past year we’ve just been juggling the things many parents juggle. I’ve been traveling so much. It’s been a great relief to come home and ask Brian about ‘Alien Boy’ instead of having to talk about ‘Wild’ and myself. I’m just so proud of him.”

Juggling 3×5 cards

In January, with the premiere screening a month away, the “Alien Boy” production is hitting crunch time. Lindstrom sits quietly a few feet behind his co-editor and associate producer, Andrew Saunderson, who’s positioned in front of a Mac as they work to incorporate original music from Charlie Campbell, a musician best known for his time in the grunge-era band Pond.

Taped to the wall behind the computer are a few dozen 3-by-5-inch index cards on which names for various scenes are arranged in the order in which the scenes appear in the film. The cards have moved around a lot during production.

“We chose to tell the story in an unconventional way,” Lindstrom says, “not using a narrator, (but) using first-person (narratives) instead.”

He gestures toward the index cards.

“I think we exhausted just about every mathematical possibility of sequencing the story until we finally landed, we think, on a way of telling the story that allows the participants to carry the momentum and let the truth come out.”

Saunderson adds: “We tried to take as much of a hands-off approach as possible. Anytime we felt Brian’s voice was coming through, we backed off and re-examined the story in order to let it tell itself.”

While praising Campbell’s score, Lindstrom expresses reservations about the music for a crucial, boldly edited scene portraying Chasse’s death.

“It’s a beautiful, powerful piece of music, but I feel like it’s a little tilted toward the tragedy and could use a little bit more of the triumph of Jim. He overcame obstacles that were of a scale that he could overcome. The tragedy is made poignant by the triumph.”

Lindstrom sends the piece back to Campbell for tweaking. Asked about how “Alien Boy” might play outside the Portland area, Lindstrom laughs.

“I hate that question. The audience should be everyone! But I really make these films for the people in them. If the audience gets to know these people, the more they’ll learn about themselves. I want people to learn more about Jim, because I think his story has a lot to teach us.”