Long Island native Chris Daleo is the force behind the lens in Why Neal, screening at the Kansas International Film Festival, which kicks off Friday. The documentary covers two years in the life of his oddball friend Neal Hecker and captures the latter's frequently inexplicable (and sometimes disturbing) everyday antics. He makes collages in emotional fits. He defecates in an old hamper filled with kitty litter and topped with a toilet seat. And the 30-year-old obsesses over a 15-year-old girl, begging her to run away with him to a state where they might legally marry. (Yeah, we know where that might be.)
Daleo, who calls his friend a "tall, emaciated, asexual, aesthetic monk," insists that Hecker isn't totally off his rocker.
"He has a firm grasp on reality. He just didn't have proper training as a child to deal with that reality," Daleo says in a resplendent Long Island accent. "We all have fantasies but don't necessarily act on them. He acts on them."
It was the pull of such a unique character that led Daleo to pick up a camera. He had long been interested in filmmaking, watching and reading all he could about the craft. After reading an interview in which Woody Allen referenced Kafka, Daleo became obsessed with the author.
"The twists, turns, unpredictability protagonists working their way out of puzzles and mazes. They're asking themselves, 'Why am I here? I know I'm guilty of something.'"
Daleo realized that Hecker's life was extremely Kafkaesque.
"He engages in self-torture," Daleo says. "He lives his life inside his mind. And he has an uncanny ability to create antagonism wherever he goes."
The story itself was a no-brainer, Daleo says, but the technical aspect of filming was something else altogether. He had never attended film school or received any sort of training.
"The trick for me was to learn to hold the camera steady, shoot cutaways, get close-ups," he says. "But when I watch a film, I can forgive the technique if the stories and emotion are there."
Daleo didn't worry about exploiting his friend, whose future was uncertain before the attention and focus of Why Neal.
"He was confident I was going to do a good job," Daleo says. "In fact, he has said in the past that I literally saved his life." The two men remain close and plan to create another film together, a road-trip saga.
"We're like Laurel and Hardy. He's the sensitive one, and I'm the gruff one," Daleo says. We're not buying it. He made a biographical film as a tribute to a friend. He's editing a documentary about a girl's relationship with her mother. He makes his living as a professional magician. And he's scared to board a plane from New York to Kansas City to showcase Why Neal. Yeah, Chris. Pretty gruff.
"It's the first time I'll have flown in 15 years," he explains. What about Neal? He's coming along, too. Is he worried?
"He doesn't have a problem with it," Daleo says. "But somehow that doesn't comfort me."