For many years, Jared and Kelly Choate have been searching for the perfect project to work on together.
Sure, since the couple relocated to California’s Bay Area, they started a band together with friends. When Jared decided to run across America, trekking 3,000 miles from Surf City, N.J. to Santa Monica Pier, Calif., Kelly served as his eyes and helped him route the trip. And together, they wrote “The Now Testament,” an e-book released in 2013 about the adventure.
But when the couple returned home to the Chippewa Valley for Christmas in 2017, a conversation at The Joynt with owner Bill Nolte about what it was like to bring in well-known jazz acts like Dizzy Gillespie and Gerry Mulligan to the small but iconic Eau Claire bar, they stumbled upon the idea they’d been dreaming of — a documentary about Eau Claire’s music and arts scene, and the people behind it all.
Though The Joynt had always been their “watering hole” while studying at UW-Eau Claire — in fact, it’s where they met — they’d never met Nolte and never truly understood the history of music and art in the Wisconsin city.
“We were so inspired after that conversation,” Kelly said Thursday afternoon. “Before, I didn’t really know that there was all of this music happening here. As we learned about so many different musicians and so many stories, we were just like ‘Why doesn’t everybody know this? How did I not know about this?’”
“We spent so many years wondering what we were going to do,” Jared said, smiling at Kelly as he spoke. “And it was like we realized that back home has all the elements of a story worth telling. We want to tie together this community, shine a spotlight, bring other people around here and give us a reason to celebrate us.”
Since that night, the Choates have been returning to Eau Claire any chance they get to continue filming the so far untitled documentary, which they hope to complete by next summer. On a filming excursion this week, the couple spent their days interviewing another batch of Eau Claire movers and shakers — artists, writers, musicians and entrepreneurs ranging from best-selling author Michael Perry and poet laureate Bruce Taylor to sound engineer Brian Joseph and performance artist CV Peterson.
A passion project
From the outside, it may seem out of the blue for the couple to consider producing a documentary.
The Choates have never produced a documentary before and aren’t professional filmmakers — both work at startup companies in the Oakland area. Jared, an Eau Claire native, earned degrees in psychology and criminal justice from UW-Eau Claire and Kelly, a Spooner native, graduated in music performance.
For a time, Jared considered returning to school for a degree in film but instead decided he’d dip his toes into the medium through experience. He’s worked on several movie sets in California and has served as a producer.
The Choates are funding the project as they go, with their own money and other friends who have joined as producers.
“It’s a true passion project,” Jared said, chuckling. “In the utmost sense of the term.”
Although the Choates haven’t lived in Eau Claire for about a decade, they want the film to be entirely “Eau Claire-oriented.” They scouted for an Eau Claire-based filmmaker, and eventually discovered Nick Houchin, who now serves as director of photography on the project.
“We’re trying to keep it all homegrown,” Jared said, noting they will eventually scout for an Eau Claire-based film editor.
The overall premise for the documentary, Jared said, is to track the origin and history of art in Eau Claire while also attempting to find some sort of understanding of why these artists do what they do — why they’re motivated to create, and why in this city of all places.
“We’re trying to figure out what makes (artists) tick and keeps them going, because we have so much respect for that drive,” Jared said. “No one tells them to go carry heavy gear across the state so they can play music for $10 or a free beer after the show, you know?”
The documentary will also delve into how artists and musicians make their craft work as a profession nowadays — “artrepreneurship,” as it’s been coined among local musicians and artists of late.
“There’s not a huge record industry — no one’s booking big contracts anymore,” Jared said. “You have to wear many hats just to get by. It’s not enough to just put words on a page ... So we want to find out how can artists thrive? Not just survive, but thrive.”
But it’s not a “puff piece” — a documentary about artists can’t be, Jared said, as there’s a natural conflict between the artist way of life and society.
“It’s not all lollipops and gummy bears,” Jared said. “We’re trying to get to the grit of the artistic struggle and drive.”
And, it’s not all about the music.
A growing web
As the Choates and Houchin continued working on the project, and got connected to more folks of all trades through what they call a “web of artists” in the community, they realized there was a lot more happening in the Chippewa Valley. They soon noticed burgeoning literary and fine arts scenes and began expanding their scope to include art in all of its forms.
“It’s everything growing,” Kelly said. “It’s every art form, and I think that’s really special.”
Although Kelly and Jared haven’t been around to witness the growth of music and art in the community, they agree they cherish the times they have and enjoy returning to see where it’s led.
And more than that, it’s fitting that their project brings them back to their home; back to their roots.
“I think that everyone who has that itch to create, it kind of all comes back to where you’re from,” Kelly said. “I don’t really know that I’d be interested in making a similar film in San Francisco or Oakland or some place that I don’t consider as my real roots. There’s something about it here, being part of our past, that just feels special and to see what it’s like now is really cool.”