Q&A with Zach Neumeyer, filmmaker of “Smelly Little Town”

For Brooklyn-based filmmaker Zach Neumeyer, “Smelly Little Town” was a passion project. 

Zach NeumeyerRoute Bay City talks with Director, Producer, and Editor Neumeyer about his inspiration behind the film, the challenges he encountered, and what shocked him most.

“Smelly Little Town” aired on opening night of the 2021 Hell’s Half Mile Film and Music Festival. The 26-minute film details Bay City’s indecision over whether to capitalize on the celebrity of its most famous native — Madonna. Her connection to the town has been a hot button issue there since her rise to stardom in the 1980s. Then-Mayor Timothy Sullivan used it as a wedge issue during his 1985 re-election campaign. Later, public opinion turned against Madonna after comments she made about Bay City on national TV. By 2008, though, attitudes had shifted as the town fell on hard times and there was renewed interest in using Madonna’s fame for municipal gain. Neumeyer filmed the movie in 2019.

Neumeyer has been in the business of filmmaking for about 20 years. His late father, Will Neumeyer, taught a class in video production at Zach’s high school in Indiana, which had a Live-to-Tape television studio. He didn’t need much convincing to study film in college. Neumeyer graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Telecommunications (now called Cinema and Media Studies). 

Gary Johnson, music enthusiast and local historian, was central to the film. He's been a longtime promoter of Bay City's music scene, even starting an online hall of fame to feature Michigan's artists. (Photo courtesy of Zach Neumeyer)Q: What inspired you to make this film?

A: My dad (who was from Bay City) used to tell me this story when I was in high school about losing a battle of the bands to Question Mark and the Mysterians. I found myself wishing I had gotten more details to that story. And so I just decided, as I often do, to start going down little rabbit holes in my spare time to see if there was any information online about Bay City’s Battle of the Bands. I assumed at some point I would have to go to the microfiche in Bay City at the library. Lo and behold, I didn't find any information about my dad’s band specifically, but I found this blog by Gary Johnson. 

I found these articles he had written about the Battle of the Bands, and it was so well-researched, so interesting, that I just kept reading. He also had some entries about the Madonna situation — most of which was news to me. I've been coming to Bay City my whole life, at least a couple of times a year to my grandparents’ house. It intrigued me, and so I just started digging and found there were some colorful characters. 

It was the kind of film I wanted to make as far as tone goes, where there is some poignancy to it; there are some serious issues with the town’s declining tax base and population and what happened to the auto industry in 2008. It’s also, in general, a lighter, quirkier story. Sometimes, I work on these true crime things, and I’ve got to look at some gruesome stuff. And so when I make a film in my spare time, I don't want to do that; I want to do the opposite of that. 

Q: What was your biggest challenge making the film?

A: There were a lot of different versions of this story, a lot of details that people got wrong. The “smelly little town” comment, some people remembered as “stinky little town,” “little smelly town,” “smelly little town.” (Madonna actually said “little smelly town.”) They remembered it as being on the Tonight Show. (It was on the Today Show). You had to really wade through things and do some research to get the story straight.

In some cases, it would have made a better story (if what people misremembered were true). I think it's interesting enough as it is, but some of the versions were so sensational that they would have made a better story. But, ultimately, they didn't prove to be true. 

The reason I kind of hesitate to give that as an answer for my challenge, is because Gary Johnson had done so much of this research and I got to piggyback on that. I was really trying to document his quest to get some recognition for Madonna. I didn’t come into this film as a Madonna fan; I have no strong opinion on Madonna, good or bad. My interest was profiling this community in an interesting outside-the-box kind of way, and I just saw that as a through-line. 

Michael J. Buda, former Mayor of Bay City, presented Madonna's key to the city to Lee Meredith, who appeared in a series of beer commercials. Since he hadn't heard from Madonna, he gave the key to Meredith. (Photo courtesy of Zach Neumeyer)Q: What shocked you the most during the process?

A: Mike Buda (former mayor of Bay City) talked to us for quite a while, and he told this story about giving the key that he had intended for Madonna to Lee Meredith

So I don't remember how I found this out, but I think I called her (Lee Meredith) husband's production company and I just said who I was, what I was researching, and what I was doing. I was surprised when I was at work one day, I saw I had a voicemail, and it was from Lee Meredith. You hear a snippet at the end of the film, and she was a little cryptic; she was like, “Oh, this is very interesting what you're doing. Give me a call back at this number.” And so like, wow, OK. I called her back and she started talking about her memories of being in Bay City for the fireworks festivities, and I said, “Oh, so you do remember this key?” She's like, “Do I remember? I have it right here.”

I mean, that was just so weird in a good way. That was so much fun to not only corroborate all these other interviews I had done and some research, but to also somehow get ahold of her.

Ultimately, one of my favorite parts of the film is about how you somehow have this story where the people of Bay City are involved, and Madonna is involved, and then now we're roping in Mickey Spillane and this woman from a Miller Lite commercial that aired throughout the ‘80s — where this led was just so much fun. And to have gotten the key and to have had it in my hands, and it was exactly as Mike said — her (Madonna) name was engraved on it. It just kind of blew my mind because I had seen one of those keys with the city hall emblem on it. This was exactly like that. I wasn’t expecting to hold it in my hand; it’s my favorite scene in the film.

I understand that (Lee Meredith’s story) is a bit tangential, but in a way, Bay City’s whole thing with Madonna is tangential, constantly getting off track. I feel it was emblematic of how the issue has been handled over the years, and it was also just a lot of fun. It was one of those things where the same story told through someone else might not have been as entertaining, but when Mike tells it, it’s just good fodder for a film and a scene, and it was a lot of fun to put together.

Zach Neumeyer's curiosity about his father's hometown lead to him making a movie about Bay City's relationship with Madonna. (Photo courtesy of Zach Neumeyer)Q: What’s your connection to Bay City?

A: My dad was from Bay City; he passed away quite a few years ago. My grandma (Irene Neumeyer) still lives over by Delta College. She actually came to the Hell’s Half Mile screening, and she's 96 years old. 

I'm from Fort Wayne, Ind., originally, so the drive (to see the grandparents in Bay City) wasn't all that far. It was much closer than where my other grandparents lived. Basically, every Christmas and sometimes during the summer (I’d visit.) So that sugar beet smell was a thing I personally was well aware of before I ever did any research into the film. 

A really cool and unexpected benefit of the film was, for my whole life coming to Bay City, I saw Bay City as a place through the lens of my grandma and her circle of people. Making the film, we got out into other areas of Bay City and met other people, and I learned there was a lot more going on than what I ever saw through those visits. And I'm sure some of this stuff has probably happened over the years too, but now I go to town and I know the coffee shops, and there's a brewery I really like, and I know the places to eat. I’ve really gotten to know it and like it. 

Q: What was your impression of Hell’s Half Mile?

A: I'm from Fort Wayne. I know there's some people trying to do good stuff there – I root for them; I'm not trying to disrespect it – but Fort Wayne is much bigger than Bay City. But, I feel like Bay City has more going on. Like, Downtown Fort Wayne you could go to the ballpark, which is cool, but Bay City – I like the antique stores down there, the coffee shops, there’s the river, there’s all sorts of stuff down there. 

I'm not just saying this because those guys were so good to the film. I mean, it really is a cool festival. In comparison to my hometown, there's nothing that sort of hip and trendy and organized, in Fort Wayne. The festival really does punch above its weight, as far as where the size of the town is. I kind of had an inkling as I researched the festival and started making this film, because it was an obvious place to submit to, but I really was impressed with the people I met: other filmmakers, the staff of the festival, just everyone. The whole operation is first class.

It was a lot of fun. I was impressed that a small town — there's not like a major university or anything — and yet they have this film festival. I’ve been to some other film festivals in places you’d think would be better, and it’s not. Hell’s Half Mile is really pretty cool.