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Taxi Driver 

Filmmaker/cab driver Peter Kirby has an unusual marketing plan for his movies --he advertises in laundromats

Wednesday, Feb 20 2002
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When Peter Kirby, the independent filmmaker, sat down at a Tenderloin coffee shop recently to talk about his oeuvre, we expected him to cop an attitude about mainstream movies. "I like a lot of Kubrick and Scorsese," he explained a bit tentatively. He was nervous -- this was his first interview. "I thought Cape Fear was a really great movie -- I went to the theater and saw that seven times. I also like a lot of sleeper movies that aren't big hits but are quality films. Return of the Living Dead is a good example. That fits in with my philosophy about making movies: It has to be a good movie."

Kirby is a hack -- he drives a cab in San Francisco. He also happens to make movies, on which he's spent more than $20,000 of his own money, and which he advertises in laundromats. He recently finished three works that he considers good enough to actually sell, and they're available on one tape. Two of them, Self-Portrait and The Hunter, are highly experimental, while San Francisco Taxicab, at 45 minutes, is easily the most thorough history of local cabdriving ever committed to videotape. "None of these films ain't appeared in no film festival," boasts the advertisement. And they ain't.

When you send 10 bucks to a stranger for three movies that are being advertised next to washing machines, you have to keep your expectations low -- especially when the promo copy uses a triple negative. But Kirby is clearly talented, if new at all this. Self-Portrait and The Hunter are offbeat, 10-minute pieces that play with mundane images (street signs, people waiting for the bus) and try to give them a spooky, ethereal feel. Kirby, 28, confesses to some film and photography classes at S.F. State but can't speak to any deep knowledge of experimental film. "I saw some of them when I was at S.F. State," he says. "Was Potemkin an experimental film?"

Excellent question.

His three films were made over the past two years, though the ambition to become a filmmaker arose in 1996, when he began driving a cab and scouting locations in an off-the-cuff manner. "I started thinking I might want to drive a cab around the same time I figured I wanted to do movies," he says. "I can remember thinking back in high school that driving a cab was something I wanted to do. I wanted to learn the city." From there, he made a lot of trips to the Film Arts Foundation for gear and guidance. Jason Wolos, an equipment manager there, was impressed with his diligence. "You see some people come in, and they get scared off by some little problem or issue with the equipment," he says. "That's never the case with Peter. He worked a lot of long hours. He hasn't been by for a month, though. He's between projects, as they say."

San Francisco Taxicab is an amateur exploration of the history of cabdriving from pioneer days ("Prior to the Gold Rush, there was not anything ... that resembled a taxicab.") to the present. The film is drawn from hours of shooting old Chronicle and Examiner articles at the New Main Library, and Kirby chose a fellow cabdriver, Sai Lee, to provide the narration.

"I thought he had an interesting voice," Kirby says. "I first heard him on the radio when he was dispatching."

Sales are slow, Kirby admits. While he's bent the ear of a handful of local shops and asked them to sell his "Home Movies" on consignment, he's primarily been posting notices in laundromats and hoping. In the meantime he's plotting out his next three films. A sort of storyboard for the movies is filled with little handwritten motivating notes to himself: "Do it right," "Own all your own equipment," and "Follow your vision: Only the penitent shall pass," a line drawn from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

"I try to express everyday life," he explains. "In my life, nothing really exciting is happening. I go out and make these movies, but nobody's knocking down my door. Life is slow to me. I guess it's fast to other people."

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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