Saturday, June 30, 2007

Nilsson Schmilsson: A Chat About Harry Nilsson With Documentarian John Scheinfeld

1971's Nilsson Schmilsson
John Scheinfeld is a busy Los Angeles-based director and producer, who works in film, TV, and the unheralded world of DVD extras. In 2006, he issued the theatrical feature The US vs. John Lennon, while Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? made the festival rounds. I realize there were a lot of fine political documentaries released last year--and I've seen most of them--but music is closer to my heart than politics, and Harry Nilsson was my pick for top documentary. 

Sure, it helps that I grew up with Nilsson's playful, yet stirring music, and that I love it as much now as I did then, but I've been burned by numerous musical biographies before. Last year, it was Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley. This year, it was Ghost on the Highway: A Portrait of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. The former makes no mention of Jeff's father, singer/songwriter Tim Buckley, while the latter lacks even a lick of music from the Gun Club.

Unlike AJ Schnack's Kurt Cobain: About a Son, one of the more unusual musical portraits I've ever seen--as frustrating as it is fascinating--Scheinfeld doesn't reinvent the wheel with Harry Nilsson. It's just that he gets the details right. Like Joe Strummer, so indelibly captured by Julien Temple in The Future Is Unwritten, Nilsson was loved and admired by many, but he was also a troubled soul, and Scheinfeld doesn't shy away from those troubles, but nor does he wallow in them. His film brings a great talent to life, warts and all. Scheinfeld ably strikes a balance between affection and regret. Though his documentary has been making fans wherever it goes, it hasn't been released theatrically and nor is it available on home video. 

Consequently, I've been holding on to this interview for a year, even though Scheinfeld is possibly the most pleasant filmmaker I've ever met. Now that the 33rd Seattle International Film Festival is over, this seems as good a time as any to post our conversation in hopes that more people will get the chance to discover his film--as well as the timeless music of Harry Nilsson. 

***** ***** *****

Part One: Harry and Hugh 

In your documentary, you mark the break between Harry Nilsson and Nilsson. 

Yes, that's right. 

That seems so bizarre to me--it's such a Hollywood thing to just use your first name, but nobody just uses their last name. 

John Scheinfeld

It's really true. [laughs] [Well, not many.] 

That's different, but then, that's part of the film's point--this isn't a typical guy. 

He wasn't. I think that's really what drew me to it. I'm drawn to stories of people who go their own way and make their own way, for better or worse-in Harry's case, worse. 

[Scheinfeld has also made films about Brian Wilson, Peter Sellers, and Elvis Presley.]

You have both in there. So, are there more festival screenings after this one? 

Yes, we're going to be in London for sure, and our very next screening is at the Playboy Mansion. Hugh Hefner is a huge Harry fan. 

That's perfect. And you have that Playboy After Dark footage. I read that IGN piece you wrote in which you mention that Hefner was a help in getting that material. 

He was. It was really extraordinary what he did for us. We had contacted the Playboy licensing people, and they said, "We never license that material, and even if we did, it would cost you $12-13,000 a minute, and you can't afford that." So, I wrote a very passionate letter to Mr. Hefner, and two days after he got it, I get a call from some senior vice president who said Hef was a huge fan of Harry's. He said, "You can have whatever you want for free." Whoah. 


The one and only-Hef!

So, he was great. He was just, "I want to see the movie." So anyway, we're going to take it over. Every Saturday, he does a movie night for all of his friends. 

And poker! Which is, I think, a whole separate thing. 

This is going to be his movie night, a week from tomorrow. 

This isn't directly related to your film, but I'm just curious: Why isn't he more forthcoming with that material? I'm sure there are a lot of people who want to see more Playboy After Dark. Is he planning his own DVD releases? 

Yes, I think they're going to have their own DVD releases, but I think it has to do with clearances. I'm not privy to any of that information, but perhaps they need additional clearances, because there's a lot of music in them and a lot of performers. When they gave us the footage, they were like, "Okay, now you're responsible for clearing everybody who's in those clips." We said, "Okay, we'll do it. No problem."

***** ***** ***** 

Who Is Harry Nilsson (and Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)? plays the Mods & Rockers Festival on 7/14. To sample "Without You," please click here. Image from Wikipedia (Nilsson Schmilsson album cover).



  2. Hi Drake,
    During the early 1960's, I worked with Michelle Nilsson at Security First National Bank at Sixth and Oxford in LA. She often talked about Harry. But, when I searched his bio, I didn't see her name mentioned as a sister. Still, they resembled each other so much. Did she go by a middle name? And more importantly, what happened to her? We had so much fun working at the bank together. Her sense of humor was something!
    I'd like to reconnect with her. Thanks for any info. that you give me.
    Cathie Riddle- Weiser

  3. I might be able to assist you in contacting her, but I would have to ask someone for permission.