It catches your eye, that shiny, gold Emmy sitting on a lonely filing cabinet. “Pete Schuermann, Writer,” it says, along with Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, the name of the Colorado Springs filmmaker’s 2003 PSA on alcohol abuse.
Schuermann isn’t interested in that though.
“This is my new Godzilla,” he says, patting the head of the 2-foot-tall figure on his desk. There’s joy in the statement, but also faint embarrassment.
His computer sits there, but the desk is mostly an altar to science fiction and the villains that power it, especially the monsters from ’50s and ’60s Japanese films. The multiple Godzillas—big and small, new versions and old—crowd the surface with an army of spiky/toothy/big-footed baddies, all glowering at him. Work harder, faster, smarter, they seem to say.
“Awards? I don’t need someone to tell me if it’s good or bad,” says Schuermann, who has directed 11 films, including 2014’s The Creep Behind the Camera, an experimental blend of documentary and narrative that’s probably his best-known film. “I wish the work would speak for itself.”
He makes movies for a living, but Schuermann doesn’t follow the Hollywood playbook. He makes his own way.
YOU CAN PICTURE IT: Schuermann as a kid, sucking up the language of film during weekend matinees and Creature Feature airings of classic sci-fi. It didn’t take long before his own ideas found their way into Super 8 stop-motion shorts he made with his brother, John, in their Long Island garage.
By the time he was 8 or 9, he had decided to become one of the special effects guys that made the impossible look all too real. Only a few years later, the thrill ride of blockbusters like Star Wars and Jaws widened the possibilities to directing.
“They made movies a hell of a lot of fun, and that’s what I wanted to do,” says Schuermann, who also makes corporate and commercial videos. “To this day, I want my movies to be entertaining, not just a study in moodiness.”
And in the niche world of small-budget, independent films, they are successes. There were film festivals and awards. Many have seen wide release on DVD and Blu-ray. Hick Trek (1999), a goofy send-up of Star Trek that featured a spaceship made of a Skoal tobacco can, a beer can and cigarette butts, was picked up by Netflix. Haze (2008), his lauded documentary on college binge drinking, racked up a record number of views on Hulu on its release.
“If you talk to a millennial that’s just gotten out of school, they’ve probably seen it,” he says. “The satisfaction of Haze was that it actually made a difference. It changed the environment. I got calls from sorority girls crying, ‘You saved my friend’s life.’”
He laughs. “I also got plenty of pissed off hate mail from fraternities.”
His Big Break came, as it does in every good Hollywood story.
In 2004 or 2005, veteran Disney director Bob Garner saw one of his films and tapped him for a 50th anniversary “docu-tainment” on Disneyland. Schuermann headed to Los Angeles to edit the project, but when it was done, he had scored a co-director credit with Garner, who says he’s “the real-deal talent.”
But Schuermann came home to Colorado Springs. He hated L.A.
“I would have been working in the machine, slaving away, a cog in the works,” he says. “A friend of mine was there cutting Lady and the Tramp 2. … I thought, That would be me, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Jim Garber gets it.
“I think he deals with his passions,” says Garber, the former Disney marketing VP that executive produced the anniversary video. “I think he enjoys doing unique documentary projects that he can sink his teeth into. I think he thrives on being his own man. … And in an industry where so much is a copycat, he kind of forges his own path.”
Schuermann’s wife, Ashley, gets it too. “He never wanted to come to work and just hold a camera and direct, to just execute someone else’s vision.”
SCHUERMANN SHAKES HIS HEAD. “I don’t know why, but this one really gets me.”
In the short video, a puppy mill chihuahua trembles in the back of a filthy cage. The breeding female has probably never left its confines, been treated for illness, or been touched by a human with anything like affection. She’s terrified.
“I wasn’t kidding in the [social] post,” Schuermann says, turning away. “I cried.”
He spends some days like this, looking through possible clips for A Voice for Lil Olive, an unfinished documentary that focuses on a handful of rescued dogs to tell the industry’s gut-wrenching story. He started it about four years ago.
It began as a promise to Ashley—for putting up with the demands of his other films—but it’s become a crusade for Schuermann, who adopted a mill dog with Ashley in 2010. His dream: to have the impact of Blackfish, a 2013 doc that so changed public perception of breeding and exhibiting orcas that SeaWorld curtailed the practice. An Oscar wouldn’t be bad either.
“People ask, ‘How are you going to stop the puppy mills?’” he says. “By public awareness and making the market go away. Nobody is going to want to buy from a puppy mill if they know what it’s about.”
The film’s budget is $400,000 if he doesn’t compromise too much. An Indiegogo campaign for the film (which has The Big Bang Theory’s Kaley Cuoco and about a dozen other celebrities attached) netted $109,000. Another campaign is planned for later this year.
“Our budget is actually very small,” says Schuermann, who adds that he’s uncomfortable “begging” for money. “But in our community, it’s ‘You need $400,000 to shoot a video?’ So that’s a big part of it, convincing people that you’re not nuts, that you’re a real filmmaker and you’re here.”
Ashley laughs. “We could retire if we had a dollar for every time someone said, ‘You can do that here?’”
And can you? In Colorado Springs?
“Yes,” she says firmly. “He’s been able to surmount large odds to get things done and to live the dream. Most people, myself included, would have given up long before he’d ever throw in the towel.”