Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I Pity The Fool - An Interview With Brent Coughenour


"This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit's since the last days of the Maya. The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild."

"Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie - an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco." Rebecca Solnit - 'Detroit Arcadia' [Harper's, July 2007]

Detroit has undergone the most dramatic transformation of any major city in North America and yet, its history is largely ignored or misunderstood. What reduced Detroit from a metropolis of 2 million to less than 900,000 was a complex combination of de"ndustrialization, decentralization, outsourcing and white flight or, as Solnit boils it down in Harper's, 'bitter racism and single"ndustry failure'. And yet, although the narrative, that the city diminished because the white folks wouldn't let the black folks have a seat at the table, then fled the table altogether, is largely true, it leaves out the uncomfortable fact that there were a number of whites who never had a proper seat at the table either.

The history of Detroit is one of insane racial polarization and segregation, of Southern blacks migrating North to seek opportunity and systematically being denied, but it is also a history of Southern whites landing on the margin. It would be ironic to say that 8-Mile is the most prominent film in recent memory to explore those intersections of race and class, if it weren't for the fact that it happens to be a really good film.

The shadow of this history can also be perceived in Brent Coughenour's I Pity The Fool. Although the film largely focuses on the decaying environs of Detroit, a central part of the movie reflects on the ghostly absence of lower-class whites who were once a part of the city as well as those who remain as spectral presences. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, the film offers a glimpse into a history which many, myself inlcuded, know very little of, but which deserves a storytelling as rich and provocative as that of Baltimore in The Wire.

I Pity The Fool screens Tuesday, August 7, 8pm at the NWFF, along with Jack Cronin's Invisible City as part of Vanishing Ruins: Visions of Detroit. Brent Coughenour will be in attendance.

ESF: I thought I'd start with some technical questions.

BC: Sure.

ESF: I'm assuming the film was shot in Super-8.

BC: Yes, that's correct.

ESF: What kind of camera did you use?

BC: I actually used several. Whatever happened to be around, I borrowed. I work with a non-profit organization in Detroit and they had a couple of cameras that I would use at various times. I started with a friend of mine's and then that camera started to malfunction. So I bounced around. I probably used three or four different cameras. I can't even remember. It's hard to find a real quality, working Super-8 camera, at least, when you're borrowing cameras from people. So, I used a bunch of them, is the short answer.
ESF: And how about the film stock. Were you using different ones or was there one particular one you stuck with?
BC: It was mostly Kodachrome for all the outdoor stuff and then, for the lower light situations, I used Ektachrome. I think they've both been discontinued since then. They've been replaced with others. So, it was just those two stocks.
ESF: I noticed early on, in the scene in the hotel room, the curtains have a nice brown glow. You managed to get some nice warm tones.
BC: I spent forever on the color correction. I was actually pretty blue in the original. With a lot of the lower light stuff I would shoot without the filter, because it would have cut even more of the light out, so a lot of that stuff had a real blue cast to it when it was shot and was color corrected in Final Cut Pro.
ESF: Who did you use for your processing and transfer?
BC: The Kodachrome I did at Dwayne's, which is in Kansas, and then the Ektachrome I did at a lab in NY that I was not happy with. It was kind of spotted, there's little spots on the film from the processing,AeP but the transfers I did myself. Actually, I just shot it off of the wall with a camera and, you know, at times there's some flicker. When I transferred the film, for whatever reason, the projector I was using happened to be running at a speed where it didn't give much flicker and then I came back a year later to do some more transfers and I noticed it was flickering more, so I think there was something about the belt, the tightness of the belt in the projector, I don't know, it's an odd thing. It was just a home remedy, basically [laughs].
ESF: I thought it looked pretty good. I wasn't aware it was shot off a screen.
BC: It's surprising. I mean, I was surprised. That's why I decided to go with that. I did it, originally thinking it would be just a rough transfer that I would work with and that I would pay to have a professional transfer done, but then I was happy enough with it where I didn't feel like it was worth the money, that I wouldn't get that much of an improvement for whatever I would have to spend.
ESF: You mentioned Dwayne's in Kansas. Is that a lab?
BC: Yes, it's a lab. It's the only place that does Kodachrome in this country or maybe North America. If you send it to Kodak they ship it to Switzerland or something. So, yes, it's one of the only places you can get Kodachrome developed anywhere nearby.
ESF: How do you spell it?
BC: D-W-A-Y-N-E-'-S. Dwayne's Photo. Their website is k14movies.com
ESF: Because you were shooting Super-8, I assume the sound was recorded wild.
BC: Yes. It was recorded wild. Most of the film was post-dubbed. I recorded most of the sound afterwards and then spent months and months synchronizing things. There were a few scenes where I did record sound while I was shooting and then, maybe two or three scenes, where I actually used that sound. I had to mess with it to try to mask the camera noise.
ESF: For example, the scene where the guy is skateboarding around the fountain, was the sound recorded at that time?
BC: That was all done later. After I shot it, we were in a parking lot somewhere else and I just had him do a couple of runs with the skateboard and then I took all that sound and meticulously laid it in to match it all up. And later, the different ambience tracks, the sound of the fountain, that sort of thing. So that was completely done after the fact.
ESF: One of the things that's interesting about the sound is that you're shooting in a city, but a lot of what we hear are nature sounds. They're not the sounds you would normally identify with a city and it adds to this odd, depopulated feeling the film has. You have this guy cycling along, past weed lots and open spaces, to this massive, empty building and you have bird sounds and droning music quietly underneath and, not to make a facile comparison, but the first thing that springs into mind is Stalker.
BC: It's funny you would bring that up, because originally, well, actually the music is now out of that scene. You saw a version that's right before the final one and I've actually just gone with the straight ambient sound for that scene. But before the one you heard, there was an earlier version with a different music track and that was actually layered from samples I took from the Stalker soundtrack [laughs]. But it was a little too dense. And I tried to pare it back and, even with the version you saw, the sound still felt too emotionally pointed for that section, so I ended up just going with the ambience. But, yeah, some of that's just the landscape. Detroit's a pretty surreal place. I mean, a number of the sounds were recorded in Detroit in and around my apartment. For instance, there are all these cicadas, and that was just recorded outside my window. But some of the areas, like that area, where that building is, is pretty depopulated. It's a big area, there's a park there, but there's also just a really wasted landscape.
ESF: Is that building the Michigan Central Railroad Station?
BC: Yes.
ESF: And the area right around it is pretty depopulated?
BC: Yes, the immediate vicinity is pretty empty. Pretty barren. I mean there's a railroad there and, when we were shooting, there happened to be a train going by, but it's pretty empty.
ESF: Does the city itself feel pretty empty?
BC: Yes, in places. I mean it's pretty incredible. I was just reading an article in this month's Harper's about Detroit and it talks about this issue of how Detroit has this post"ndustrial landscape and how sections are returning to nature. There are these large areas where nature is reclaiming it. The Stalker reference really isn't off the mark. A number of years ago, long before I started this film, my girlfriend at the time was from Russia and she was visiting me. We were driving downtown, and instead of the freeway, we took one of the main streets-I think Grand River-and we hit patches of utterly wasted landscape, and both immediately made a connection with Stalker.
ESF: Maybe a little 12 Monkeys, also,AeP Some people talk of a rebound happening. Other than the Renaissance Center is there anything going on?
BC: Well, there has been some, I think. You know the Super Bowl was a big catalyst for trying to renovate the area and I captured these images during the time when city was trying to get ready for the Super Bowl and they were knocking all these buildings down and trying to improve the image of the city. I don't know if there's going to be a turnaround. Personally, I don't think it's going to pan out. There's a ton of new condos, but the housing market is really bad. It's all speculation and I think there's going to be an implosion, but who knows. It's hard to know how things are going to go, but economically, Michigan is in really bad shape. I think it's one of the worst places in the country right now.
ESF: In doing some research I came across an interview with a guy named Lowell Boileau, who specializes in doing tours of these abandoned buildings. Are you familiar with him?
BC: No, I don't know him. I know there is a website for the ruins of Detroit. I haven't researched that thoroughly. I have friends who have told me about it and have looked into those kinds of things. All my information comes from people I know and that's how I discovered some of the places in the film, it's through friends who found them and told me about them and some of them are actually in the film.
ESF: I was curious who the people are in the film. Are they all friends?
BC: A couple of them are students. The two guys who are in the trailer park, getting scrap metal, were students of mine. They are the ones who introduced me to that area. They brought some footage to my class they had shot there. It was actually a big catalyst for the project. Pretty much everybody else was just a friend. There are no actors. They're not really playing characters, anyway. There's not much acting involved, but I think for me, I choose people based on what they look like maybe more than anything else.
ESF: Was that also your mother in one scene?
BC: Yes, that's my mother.
ESF: Where were you teaching?
BC: I was teaching at the College for Creative Studies. It's an art school. I was teaching basic video and digital skills involving photoshop and graphics and I got that job because the department chair knew me through this other organization, the Detroit Film Center which is a non-profit media arts center in Detroit that I've been working with for a while and he was involved with that. So, I was teaching adjunct at the College for Creative Studies and then I was also teaching at the Detroit Film Center. I was teaching 16mm production classes and some video classes. So, for about three-and-a-half years, those were the two things I was doing.
ESF: The students who brought in the footage from the trailer park, which class were they in?
BC: That was at the College For Creative Studies. That was actually in one of the more advanced courses that I taught, which was an experimental narrative, non-traditional narrative class and so they were juniors and one of their projects, I had them do weekly shooting projects where they would go out for an hour with a camera, kind of like a video journal, exploring, practicing with the camera and they would bring in the footage each week and everybody would show a little something that they had been shooting. So, that was some of the footage that came back through that project.
ESF: Have you kept in touch with any of the students? Has that class seen the finished version or near-finished version of the film?
BC: I've just kept in contact with a guy who became one of the main characters. I contacted him a few times to do a shoot and I got in touch with him because I'm going to screen the film in Detroit at the end of July, so I was telling him about that. I haven't encountered the other people in quite a while. So, I don't know if word will get out to anybody about that screening.
ESF: The people in your film are almost entirely white. Given that Detroit is 85% black, I was wondering if there was a reason for that.
BC: It's a question that I am aware of and have been aware of throughout the making of the film and I'm not sure exactly what I can say to answer that other than the people that I knew that I wanted in it are white. I did want to get a broader representation, but at the same time the political aspect wasn't my primary concern in making the film, so I didn't want to force something that I didn't feel was a big part of the film to begin with. Certainly the issue of race has played a huge role in the history and development of the city, but it's not really something that I have the knowledge of or the authority to make an intelligent contribution to. I think that there are a lot of white people that still live and move around in the city, so I don't think it's wholly unrepresentative. My concern was, could this be real, could these things actually happen, would you see these types of people in these types of situations and I believe that you could, in that sense. That's why I wasn't too worried about that aspect of it.
ESF: My interpretation of the casting was that the people in the film represent your surrogates. That they represented aspects of you as an observer and as someone living and traveling through Detroit.
BC: That's something that I wouldn't say was a conscious thought on my part, but a conscious thought on my part was to make the film open to different interpretations. I intentionally left this broad framework where I sketch in a few details, but I really want it to be open for the viewer to participate in creating what's going on so, by not forcing the viewer to accept a certain interpretation, I leave it open for them to fill in those gaps and I'm hoping that's what's going to happen, that people will interact with the film in that way. But you're right, in the sense that the film certainly comes from my perspective as a white person in the city, which I'm not really trying to hide. I didn't want to try to make it some sort of neutral or broadly representative film. I'm not overtly trying to represent anyone's experience or to give an 'accurate' portrayal of the city. The film is extremely myopic, in the sense, that it focuses on a few details of minutia. Certainly those details resonate with much larger issues, but the film only suggests that. It's up to the viewer to make those connections. To create a one-to-one corollary between the demographics of the various ethnicities in the city and the demographics of the people in my film-that wasn't really something I felt was necessary.
ESF: Was the inception of the film as a class project? What did it grow out of?
BC: The root for this film was probably twelve years ago or something. I got an idea for a storyline and I hadn't really made any films at that time, but kind of just filed it away, and was mulling it over. I made a couple of other films in the meantime and had a couple of other ideas for things and then there was a point where they started to come together, like these different ideas that I thought were different projects started to fit into the same framework and then,AeP it's even still kind of fuzzy to me exactly how it all came about, but I remember I had a script I was writing, I was thinking about shooting it around 2004, but then these students brought in this footage and I went to this place they had shot. That really was the last thing that fell into place as far as the idea of a story. So, it was a real convoluted evolution and it became something very different from the germ of the idea that I had a decade ago.
ESF: At certain points in the film the screen goes black and we hear a script being read. Was that your original script?
BC: Yes, and I originally had intended to shoot that, but at some point I decided to try that approach and I liked it and decided to stick with it. For me, the filmmaking process is sort of like playing a game with myself and one of those games turned out to be playing with the idea of not showing images,AeP the idea of the Filmmaking experience as an aural experience and as a mental experience.
ESF: Getting back to the sound design, you said the DVD I saw has music that's no longer in the film. Does the film, people are going to see, still have music or is it mostly the ambient sounds?
BC: There's never been a lot of music, but I pulled out that section and then I laid some background music over the scene where the character goes to the community center for a cup of coffee. There was a voiceover there with some kind of ambient music, in the background, and I took that out. All the other scenes that had music, I think, are still there. It's just been some minor tweaks and I did some tightening. I think maybe I rearranged the order of one or two scenes between the version that you've seen and the final version.
ESF: That's funny. I watched the DVD twice, but now I want to see it again!
BC: [Laughs].
ESF: Speaking of music, do you still have that blast of heavy metal at the beginning and end of the film?
BC: Yeah, that's still there.
ESF: Where is that from?
BC: I made that.
ESF: You did that?
BC: Yeah.
ESF: Was that you playing?
BC: Yeah, it was through GarageBand. You can tune your own amplifier sound in GarageBand and it's a bass guitar and, actually, an acoustic guitar, as well another layer, but yeah I made that on my own.
ESF: It's pretty good. I wanted to hear the whole song.
BC: [Laughs] That is the whole thing.
ESF: Well, I think you pretty much nailed the heavy metal riff.
BC: I was emulating this Japanese death metal band, Corrupted. Originally, I just laid in one of their riffs, but I'm very enamored of the idea of doing everything myself. So I used their sound as a model. I thought I did a decent job of nailing it and, when I listen to it, it sounds pretty good, but if I play it back to back with Corrupted, there's a tremendous difference in the density and texture of the sound. Their guitars are so much richer, which I guess is understandable, given the differences in equipment. But ultimately, I'd really rather do something myself, even if it's not quite the same quality I could get elsewhere. That's a significant part of the filmmaking process for me-part of the reason I make something in the first place-so it's important to do as much of it as I can myself.
ESF: A couple of months ago I saw RJ Smith deliver a paper, at the EMP Pop Studies Conference, on Strange Fr/ot: Rock Apocrypha, an installation piece by the Detroit band/art group Destroy All Monsters that consisted mainly of a set of four large murals depicting cultural and political figures who were prominent in Detroit in the 60's and 70's. The point of the talk was to show there was this really interesting history of artists, mostly musicians, but also visual artists, who were a product of or deeply influenced by Detroit as an environment and I was wondering if you felt there was such a tradition and if you felt like you were a part of it.
BC: I think that's true. I'm not the most knowledgeable about those kinds of things and I'm not sure to what extent I'd consider myself to be aligned with it, but it's definitely the case that Detroit has a rich history of musical contribution in a wide variety of areas, you know the MC5, The Stooges, Techno in the 80's, the White Stripes, and all of that. The art world as well. There is a certain aesthetic that I associate with a lot of Detroit artists. I'm not sure how well known Tyree Guyton is, but he's known outside of Detroit for his Heidelberg Project where he has these houses that he's bought around his house and puts up junk, building these huge sculptures, and it's been really controversial. The city has bulldozed areas around his property, because they call it garbage, but he's certainly very typical of the Detroit aesthetic.
ESF: There really does seem to be a Detroit aesthetic.
BC: I think so. I mean I think there is a Detroit aesthetic, not that everything in Detroit is part of that, but definitely there's something in common with a lot of work that gets done there.
ESF: Did you grow up in Detroit?
BC: I grew up mostly in the suburbs. I was born in Detroit, but my parents moved, like a lot of people did in the 70's, out to the suburbs. The whole white flight thing.
ESF: Which suburb did you grow up in?
BC: Southfield.
ESF: Really. My grandmother lived in Southfield. So, you grew up in the suburbs,AeP
BC: Yeah, I grew up in the suburbs and I didn't have a lot of contact with the city, so I was isolated from a lot of those artistic things and it wasn't until later that I became more aware of them.
ESF: How often do you go back?
BC: Periodically, my family is still there. I would like to move back there. I'm not sure whether that will happen or when it will happen. I really like the city a lot. It seems like a lot of the people I know are trying to leave, but I like it and I get back a couple of times a year.
ESF: If you moved back would the goal be to teach?
BC: Yes. I went back to grad school to get an MFA so that I could teach, because I was already teaching, but as an adjunct, and I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that it's the only way I'm going to make any money, because the films that I've made or am interested in making are not films that I can see ever making a dime off of. And I enjoy teaching.
ESF: Has the film been in festivals?
BC: No, not yet. I showed it in Detroit as a work"n-progress, a while ago, at one of the art museums, they were doing a touring show called Shrinking Cities, which was focused on several different cities around the world. I think the project originated in Germany and Detroit was one of the cities that they picked to focus on, as a post"ndustrial landscape and then, after the exhibit was in Germany, it toured around. So, when it was in Detroit, they were doing these side events and they showed my film as one of those screenings, but really that's it. I mean, like I said, I really just finished it. I showed it at school a month ago, right before graduation, and I've started sending it out to a few places.
ESF: How did it come to the attention of the NWFF?
BC: I sent it to Luke Sieczek. He was at school here, at the University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last year and now he's working at the NWFF, doing some programming for them, I think. So, I sent it to him and he liked it and decided to program it.
ESF: Cool. You mentioned a screening earlier in Detroit. Where will that be happening?
BC: I'll be screening at the Detroit Film center, because I worked with them for a long time and used some of their resources in making the film. So I know them well and they wanted to show the film when it was done. That's set up for the end of July, so I'll be heading back there for that and then I've been trying to set up this mini-tour out West, that's where the Seattle screening comes in. A friend of mine who's in the film, Bill Brown, is a filmmaker and he's done a lot of touring and he knows various places to screen. So, he's given me some contacts and I've been trying to set up a little tour. I will send it to festivals, but I'm not really optimistic about how many opportunities there will be to be to screen it that way, so I'm trying to make something happen on my own right now.
ESF: What other screenings might you have after the NWFF ?
BC: Some of these are kind of iffy, I haven't gotten definite confirmation, but possibly Vancouver, then Northern California, Eureka, then maybe San Francisco and a couple of things in LA. They're all going to be at small venues, micro film kind of screenings at non-profits and things like that.
ESF: Early in the film, one of the characters discovers some letters and we hear those letters being read. I assume those were actual letters that you found somewhere.
BC: Yes. Those are real. And they were from that trailer park. I went with some friends and found some of the photographs that one of the characters finds and I told some other friends as well, so there were several groups of us that were going to the trailer park and eventually I discovered that this other friend had found another batch of photographs from the same collection, as well as some letters, so I got those letters from him. I had actually begun shooting the film before I found those letters, but they became a significant part of the movie and worked their way into the storyline.
ESF: And how about the Super-8 film of the Thanksgiving Day parade at the end of the film?
BC: That's my father's old home movie. That, and the one of the swimming, those are my family home movies. So, there's a little blending, a fictionalization of what's happening with those things being blended in with the other material.
ESF: The feeling I got from watching the Thanksgiving Day parade was a glimpse of a past when Detroit had an active civic life.
BC: Yeah, that actually was from 1974, right around the same time as those letters, which is coincidental, but there is this sort of parallel reflexivity between the present and the past that I think is definitely there, if people are interested in thinking about those things.
ESF: The places that you were going into, for instance, the train station. How accessible were they?
BC: It's not hard to get in. I mean, they're blocked off and technically it's illegal, but people know how to get in and so you can sneak in. That, actually, might be the only location we went into that was blocked off.
ESF: There's a sequence where a woman leaves an office and drives through what looks like part of the train station as well.
BC: That's actually the Michigan Building, which has a parking garage. It's the same one that was used in 8 Mile. They used that to shoot a scene where Eminem is hanging out. It used to be an old movie theater and it's been a parking garage for twenty years or something, but there's this huge vaulted ceiling and the plaster's falling off, it's pretty surreal and I knew somebody who worked in that building and the building happens to be right next to this other building that appears a lot in the film, the United Artists building, which at the time had all this graffiti in the windows. I was really fascinated with the image and the appearance of that building, so I was really excited to know somebody whose office happened to be right across from it.
ESF: How about the building that you pass by on the elevated train that looks like it has these decorations in the windows,AeP
BC: That's the one I'm talking about. That's the United Artists building, that's got all these drawings and paintings in the windows.
ESF: That's graffiti?!
BC: Yeah.
ESF: Really!?
BC: Yeah, like every window in the place had been painted. What's really kind of sad is for the Super Bowl the city paid somebody, who knows how much money, to go in and clean off every single one of those windows. I mean the building is empty, the building is pretty much condemned, but rather than tear it down, they wiped clean all the paintings in the windows, which I thought had been of the more beautiful buildings in the city, because of it.
ESF: That's weird. Because they're so beautifully executed, my assumption was they were some kind of city-sponsored art project.
BC: No, I think only the really, most beautiful things in Detroit are the illegal art people have done without city permission. The state-sponsored art projects are mostly ugly. One of the main motivations for doing this film was to capture all these things that I saw that were really appealing to me, so there was the United Artists building and the train station which, from a certain angle, you can see through. You can see the daylight on the other side. To me it's a surreal, huge building, that's got this huge history and it's in this stark wrecked nature, but there's a beauty to it as well. To some extent, doing the film was almost an excuse for me to shoot these things that I really wanted to capture, like a shot of a tree growing out of a building that was across the street from this place where I worked downtown. So, in making the film, in addition to these ideas for these kind of little story things, a really big part of it was to work in a picture of the visual aesthetic of the city that I found really exciting.
ESF: Most of the demolition we see was going on before the Super Bowl?
BC: Yes, like the year prior. They wiped out a bunch of buildings and put parking lots in their place, but there's a ton of vacant buildings that are still standing, I don't think they could afford to get rid of all of them. I don't know what made them decide which ones to get rid of.
ESF: I read somewhere that Detroit has more abandoned buildings per square mile than any other city in the world apart from those in war zones. Do you think that could be true?
BC: I would not be surprised. I've heard some crazy facts too about how much of Detroit is vacant. Not just the abandoned buildings, but the city having all these vacant lots and everything.
ESF: And I've read that, because the buildings are abandoned, you've got these eco-systems developing on them, like birds roosting on top and whatnot.
BC: Yeah, like I said, there was the one image of the tree growing out of the building, but there are others. There are houses where there are trees growing out of the top, where's there's no roof and it really is a case where nature has reclaimed a lot space and it's a beautiful thing. It's an odd thing and a surreal thing, but it's really interesting. That article in Harper's, that I mentioned earlier, one of the points that the writer was making is how a lot of people are gardening. There are all these people who are making use of this new green space, this vacant space to do gardening and it's almost like the possibility for Detroit to be this post"ndustrial, alternative city that's not just trying to be green by recycling, but actually taking steps to do things that are environmentally sound.
ESF: The ultimate irony would be if Detroit became one of the greenest cities in America.
BC: It would be, if it happens. I'm kind of pessimistic about the city, so anything that smacks of an idealist sort-of thing, I feel there's no way it's going to pan out for the best, but there are good things happening and it could continue to happen, so who knows?

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Nilsson Schmilsson: Part Five

Son of Schmilsson (1972)

A Chat With John Scheinfeld: His Own Man (click here for part four)

He was his own man and fiercely independent.
-- Paul Williams (click here for full tribute)


Since we've been talking about a number of British people, and this may be in
the film-I might have just missed it-but I'm curious how Eric Idle met Harry.

Harry first met Graham Chapman in 1974, and they became instant buds.

I can see that.

[Chapman also tended to...tipple.]

And through Graham, he met all the Pythons. It's Harry's sense of humor, really.
In fact-it was a goofy thing-there's a book about the history of the Pythons, and Harry wrote the afterward. It came out in the 1980s. He wasn't as close to [John] Cleese, I gather. He was fairly close to [Michael] Palin. We just missed Palin when
I was in London doing interviews. He was in the Himalayas doing some BBC thing, but we got Terry [Gilliam] and Eric. There's a great story I'll tell you that will be part of the bonus material. The Pythons were performing at Lincoln Center in New York
in 1976, and they closed the concert with 'The Lumberjack Song.' One night-I forget who it was-but some big movie actor came out as one of the Mounties. And so the next night, Harry was in, and he was invited to be one of the Mounties, and they're singing to the end, and then it's over, and he takes the applause. Before the Pythons can come out to the front of the stage, Harry takes a bow before the stars
of the show-because it's so Harry-and he fell into the orchestra pit, and broke his wrist. Terry and Eric tell the story. Idle was, I think, a very close friend for about four or five years, and then the alcohol sort of got in the way, and they didn't see as much of each other, but without hesitation, both Terry and Eric, when I requested
the interviews, said, 'Absolutely-do you need anything, do you want anything?'

Idle in the Python days
Eric, in particular-did you stay for the credits?
Eric said, 'I want to do this song for you.' Not only did he do 'Harry' three times, so that we could get his hands as he was playing guitar, but he gave it to us for free.
Did he ever record it?
He did it as a gag in 1978. Harry did this album in 1980 called Flash Harry, which
only had distribution outside the US-I think maybe even only Japan and England,
I can't be sure-and Harry said, 'I want to put this on my album,' and so he did.
With Eric Idle singing?
Yeah. He couldn't have been nicer.
I figured there must have been a Monty Python connection, because it seemed
like too much of a coincidence, even though their stories are completely different-Eric Idle's, and then Terry mostly talks about him [Harry] doing a song for
The Fisher King-so I figured it must have gone back further than that.

It really did. They hung out together, and they were friends. I think with all of our films, certainly with Harry, certainly with Brian, and certainly now with Lennon-which is slightly different-we want to talk to people who were there. We don't want just a rock critic who has some observation, but never knew the subject, or didn't know the subject well. So, all those people knew him well enough to say the things they did.
Since you've mentioned bonus material, is there anything you're set on including?
There's quite a bit. Everybody we talked to had an Adventure With Harry story-everybody-from the outrageous to the maudlin to the whatever. So we're gonna
build a whole section around Adventures With Harry, and there are some wonderful ones. Jimmy Webb has a great one about being locked out on a hotel balcony with Harry, and Stanley Dorfman, who was the producer/director of the BBC, told us a wonderful story about driving cross-country with Harry, and what they had to do when the police were on their tail. So, it's that kind of thing-we're going to do a lot of that-and there's the equivalent of deleted scenes, but it's not like we did the movie, then cut them. It was just too long. My first cut was two hours and 20 minutes, so we ended up having to cut something. There's [also] a wonderful sequence where people talk about how generous Harry was as a person, not only with his time, but his money. There'll be moments like that. And there's some more [Who Dropped
] Mouse I think we'll put on there. Maybe some other performance stuff, too.
Badfinger-another Beatles favorite
Since Badfinger wrote "Without You"-and I should know this, because I love them-and two members committed suicide, making them one of the more tragic stories, but are both songwriters deceased? It was written by [Pete] Ham and,AeP
[Tom] Evans. Ironically, they both committed suicide-they both hung themselves.
So, you couldn't talk to either,AeP Joey Molland is one of the survivors-I don't know about the fourth member-he helped write some of their better known songs.
It's interesting. When I was making the film, I never heard Badfinger's version.
It's really good.
It's really good, but it's not Harry's. Harry and Richard Perry took that song,
and raised it to a level that I don't think anyone else has reached-
not even Mariah Carey's version in 1995.
I'm a soprano, and I can't hit that high note. It's funny, but I have the record, and you can sing along with it, but that's where you lose him-you sound like an idiot.
Yeah. [laughs]
Next: The Future of Harry
Images from Pythonland and the AMG.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Nilsson Schmilsson: Part Four

The 1974 album on which Nilsson "blew his voice out."

A Chat With John Scheinfeld: Pussy Cats (click here for part three)


Since you have a reputation from your films, and since you've worked with people like Van Dyke Parks before, was it a natural progression to get them to participate?

Yes, because oftentimes when we call they already know us. And not just us, I think Van Dyke would've done it anyway, for Harry. But there were some people we got, like Diane, Harry's second wife. She didn't know us from Adam, and she didn't want to do it. It took me three and a half months of trying to charm her on the phone.

And she needs to be in there.

She needs to be in there. And she wasn't until near the end.

Nilsson and Lennon shooting pool-French style!
Was her son involved before she was?
Yes, she heard from him that it was a good experience, but she still wasn't ready
to do it. Then after the interview when she saw how respectfully she was treated,
she started to send us photos and all this cool, rare stuff, which filled in some
gaps. There's the photo where Harry disappears from their life, and we didn't
have a picture of the three of them together until she sent it to us. So yeah, I
think there is a degree to which a lot of these people know us from one project
or another, or from their managers, agents, or publicists. That's the value of having a track record. You're not just somebody doing something, you're somebody whose work they respect, so they decide, 'Okay, I'll go ahead and do that for them.'
Had you interviewed Yoko Ono before?
No, in fact this is where we met Yoko.
I would assume she segued from one [project] to the other,
because you couldn't do a Lennon film without her participation.

Absolutely not. I first met her doing Harry, and she has approval over how the interview segments are used-she wants to see the context in which they are used. So, when we cut her sequences together in Harry, we sent them to her, and she
said, 'Oh, this is very good, thank you.' Armed with that, we then approached her attorneys about doing The US vs. John Lennon, and it took almost a year of charming, cajoling, calling back-everything-to where we finally got the meeting with Yoko. David had the meeting, and she had a good feeling about him, and she operates very much from that, and so we made a deal. But I'll tell you, having a deal wasn't enough, because she's so much a target of the media and so reviled, and she's wary. She's very wary. So, we did three interviews with her for the film at three different times. The first one was really good, but it wasn't until she saw our rough cut, until she saw that we did exactly what we promised we were gonna do, that
she opened up, and the second two interviews were unbelievably good, and I think
if and when you see the film, you will see a Yoko Ono you've never seen before. She's relaxed, she's playful, she's smart, she's emotional, she's articulate, and she's not this sort of inscrutable dragon lady the press makes her out to be most times.
In terms of timing, if you had made this film [Harry Nilsson] a few years before, would you have been interested in speaking to George Harrison? I get the impression he was a friend, but not a great friend the way John Lennon and Ringo Starr were, yet Harrison provides that great bit at the end. [A choice quote.]
I know he didn't do many interviews.
He didn't, but we would have put in a request. We did put in a request with his wife, Olivia, to see if she would speak for George. She said, 'I'd love to-I loved Harry-but I didn't know him well enough. I couldn't really do that.' But it was interesting.
He was a better friend of George's than I thought. That was something I learned.
At Una's house, I went through drawers and drawers of cassettes. Harry taped everything. There were tapes sent between him and George over the years. We
don't have this in the movie, but George was the first one to meet Harry. George
was here in the spring of '67, staying in the house on Blue Jay Way that he wrote about for Magical Mystery Tour, and Brian Epstein wanted to sign Harry to NEMS.
I saw that in the press notes. It definitely caught my attention.
And he thought the way you get a young artist is you impress them, you
have them meet a Beatle, so George was staying at the house, and it was
arranged that Harry would come, so he came over, met George, and they became friendly... I think they stayed friends, but yes, not as close as the other two.
And not as much of a 'party' friend. I guess that was one of the major differences.
Yes, George wasn't a partier, and Harry wasn't a spiritual guy, so that was part of the thing, but they had great admiration [for each other]. There's a cassette I found that George sent-his first album in some years was Somewhere In England-and he sent the first version to Harry, and said, 'What do you think?' I don't know what Harry thought, but it was sitting there in his collection. I thought that was interesting.
Did you try to interview Ringo?
Yes, numerous times.
He's really a presence in the film, so I didn't even notice actually,
until later, that he wasn't there...

Good, I'm so glad.
You include footage of the wedding-that's a big deal, to be Harry's best man-
but afterwards I thought, he must not have been interviewed.

We tried multiple times-we tried through his lawyer, his publicist, his sister"n-law, who runs his production company, and Mark Hudson, who's Ringo's producer now-
we tried every which way. And everyone went to bat for us, everybody tried on our behalf, but... And we finally thought, 'Let's let him see the movie,' so we sent him
a rough cut, and he watched it. We heard back that he really enjoyed it, and thought we 'got' Harry, but some things were missing, and I thought, 'Yes-like you!' But
what came back, what he said to us is, 'I won't talk about George, John, or Harry
in public-it's too emotional. It's in my heart, and that's where it's gonna stay.'
I wondered about that, because he's lost a lot of people over the years,
including Keith Moon, who's in the film. It occured to me that some of
his best friends from the 1960s and 1970s aren't here anymore...

He gave us great cooperation. We got photos, the excerpt from Son of Dracula...
That was bizarre.
That's not been seen since it was in a theater in Atlanta in 1974. There is a crappy bootleg version. You can buy it on eBay for about $16, but you can barely make out the images on some of them. It's actually a different cut, but the master film was in Ringo's vault in England, and as soon as we requested it, he was like, 'Absolutely.' We paid for the transfer, but we got it, and he said, 'Use whatever you want.'
Nobody seems to think that highly of it-but look who's in it.
That's great, but I do have to say that when Bruce Grakal, who is still Ringo's attorney, and he was Harry's attorney-he's the one who says that it's one of
the worst movies ever made. I would say to you: he's not exaggerating.
Nilsson/Starr cross-promotion.
Next: His Own Man
Reminder: Who Is Harry Nilsson makes its Hollywood premiere tonight at the
Egyptian Theatre as part of the Mods and Rockers Film Festival. Director John Scheinfeld will be in attendance along with Danny Hutton, Micky Dolenz, and
Jimmy Webb
. Images from The Heat Warps, Google Images, I Heard the News Today (Ole Christiansen credited for Ono pic), and Cinema Without Borders.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Nilsson Schmilsson: Part Three

1968's Aerial Ballet

We have two things in common: You're a virgin and I've never had one.
-- Harry Nilsson to the soon-to-be Una Nilsson

A Chat With John Scheinfeld: The Art of the Interview (click here for part two)


You've already kind of addressed this, but I was wondering-not just in this film,
but in others, as well-is it difficult for you, both personally and professionally,
when an interview subject starts to cry? How do you handle that?

That's a really good question.

Like Jimmy Webb, at a certain point, says something like,
'I can't say more right now...'

Yes, that was after Harry lost his voice-he blew his voice out.

Webb makes it clear that that particular portion of the
interview is over. He's either gonna cry...or something.

Songwriter Jimmy Webb
I used to get into these conversations with my colleague, David Leaf.
Some of these [interviews] we do together and some we do separately.
I don't know if you saw Beautiful Dreamer: Brian Wilson and the Story of 'SMiLE'.
I did, and I really liked it.
I was the producer, but it's David's film, really, and he did a great job. Harry's really my film, and he was one of the producers. We used to get into this discussion years ago, and he would say, 'You get guys like Jimmy Webb, or you get really good interviews-anybody can do this job,' and I would say, 'No, anybody can't do this job.' Now he's come around to my way of thinking, because this is my idea about that: It's a gift to be able to talk to people, and to make them feel comfortable enough that they open up to you. I don't need to [get them to] say something bad or ugly that they shouldn't be saying, but so that you get the full range of their emotions and
the full range of their recollections. I did an interview with Candice Bergen about Murphy Brown, and she said, 'I don't know what I can say that I haven't said a thousand times, but go ahead-and can we do this in 15 minutes?' Well, 45 minutes later, she said, 'That was fun.' Both David and I, though our styles are different, we have that ability to put people at ease... I think they sense that we have some integrity, so they just open up. We found this with Yoko in the current film [The
US vs. John Lennon
]. So, that's part of it. I think if they didn't feel comfortable,
they probably wouldn't cry in front of us, so that's getting back to your question.
And it's a lot of men in the film.
Yes, Van Dyke [Parks] got very emotional.
Arranger Van Dyke Parks
More of the men get emotional than the women, because Una's very clear-eyed. She obviously saw him [Harry] at his worst, and she doesn't break down at all.
I suspect you must be of Irish descent, so maybe your family is the same way.
Yeah. [laughs]
She's very Irish in that she does not show her emotions to strangers.
She smiles a lot, but it isn't always necessarily a happy smile.
That's right. You know, it's the first interview she'd ever done in her life,
but she felt comfortable enough with me to do it.
She's certainly gotten offers then. I can't imagine that she hasn't.
She was really great in that regard. And yeah, she's been asked a lot of times,
but she would never do it. As much as [it's about] asking a good question, it's the ability to listen. If your subjects feel you're listening to them, they're going to open up even more-'Okay, this person really cares.' As opposed to... I've seen people
do interviews, where they're like, 'When did you do this? Uh-huh. And how about this? Uh-huh' and they're not even listening, they're just on to the next question.
So, I think we create that environment, and when they do get emotional, it's great. It's honest, and it's something I want as part of my storytelling. My attitude is: Shut up. Let them do what they're gonna do. Don't ask another question. Don't interrupt. Don't try to say, 'Are you okay?' Don't do anything. Just let the reaction play out to whatever point it will. So, in Jimmy's case, it was, 'I can't talk about it, I can't talk about it.' He just kept doing this, so we fade out on that. Then he sort of collected himself, and said, 'What's next?' And we went on to the next question.
Parks at Nilsson's gravesite
That works. You get the point.
And then sometimes, like with Van Dyke, where it's towards the end, and he
talks about how Harry's heart went out on him...there was nothing more to be
asked. He was a very honorable man, and he was going to cry, so I just let him
sit there for a second. He sat there like he was in his own little world, and then
he came back. And that's my attitude towards that. You let whatever the very
real response is-whether it's crying, whether it's anger, whether it's, 'Don't ask
me that,' or whether they fight you a little bit-let them do it, and then you come back with your follow-up question, and that's okay. Does that answer your question?
Yes, it does-it definitely does. They [the subjects] are very articulate people,
too. It feels very non-exploitative in that the emotion is in there, but there aren't
a bunch of breakdowns. Everybody has their own approach. The Werner Herzog approach is that, when he sees somebody getting emotional, he does what you
do, but he takes it farther into a very strange...world, in that he just leaves the camera on. He doesn't cut like other directors, so you see somebody about to
break down, and then they get confused, and you see them thinking, 'Wait, I'm
still being filmed,' and there's this long pause, and then they start to talk again,
and he'll leave that in there. Sometimes it makes for exciting moments, and sometimes you feel, 'Okay, he's gone too far. I feel really uncomfortable,' because he's showing somebody thinking and wondering what to do next...it's very weird.

[There's a scene like this in White Diamond.]
I think he wants that.
Then there's the Barbara Walters approach, where
she's trying to get subjects to cry, and then they do.

That's right.
People go into her interviews knowing she's going to try to make them cry.
We don't do that. We also try to protect our subjects from themselves. I felt comfortable leaving that in with Jimmy. Or if you remember Rick Jarrard's look.
He says what he says, and then his face drops. I felt comfortable leaving that
in, because it told us, without words, how he was feeling. There was more, but I wanted to protect him. I didn't want him to look stupid or uncomfortable. It's knowing when to stop. People look at our films, and they know they'll be well treated. If you go after somebody big, they want to see something before they commit, so if they see that we treat people with respect... Also, sometimes people say things they shouldn't. Some directors find that great-if it's some big revelation-and they'll
keep it in. Out of respect-if I don't think they meant to say something-I won't do it. Other times, it's that they got something wrong, and it would be interesting to have that in there, but if it doesn't protect them as a person, I won't do it.
Next: Pussy Cats
Images from Uncut, the All Music Guide, and Van Dyke Parks.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Nilsson Schmilsson: Part Two

A Little Touch of Schmilsson...

A Chat With John Scheinfeld:
Did Somebody Drop His Mouse?
(click here for part one)

Harry was a big bunny with really sharp teeth.
-- Paul Williams in Who Is Harry Nilsson


You know, I grew up thinking that he [Nilsson] was British. In the documentary, somebody compares him to Paul McCartney. Or you could even say Ray Davies...

Randy Newman makes that connection.

That makes perfect sense, since he drew from some of the same influences-
I think of the musical hall as a British tradition-and I knew about the Beatles connection. It's embarrassing not to have known, but he did record there...

Well, he lived in England for awhile, and he had a place there for a
long time, and he recorded there for a number of years. You're probably
not the first person to say that, so you shouldn't feel badly.

Then you hear his [speaking] voice, and you realize: Not exactly. [laughs]

[Nilsson was born in Brooklyn.]

The trailer!
In your film-and I would imagine this was kind of a Holy Grail-you have
material from Did Somebody Drop His Mouse? Why was that film not completed?

I think in some ways it was a similar situation to Let It Be in the Beatles
universe, in that it was documenting something not to be celebrated, but it
was documenting the rift-the battle for control-between [producer] Richard
Perry and Harry. And I think they were never totally comfortable with the cameras being there, and it captures some things perhaps that they didn't want captured.
I can see that.
And it just sort of fell apart. There was a rough cut done in 1974 that Harry had done himself, and then he brought Richard in, and they did some voiceover for it, and Harry had a print of that rough cut at home, which we found in Una's garage [Harry's widow]. And then when we went into Sony's vault last year, we found an earlier cut that was only a black and white work print. Where the color is, who the heck knows...
You didn't use much of that.
We used a little bit of it. There's some black and white stuff in there. There are
35 reels of the uncut material in a salt mine in Pennsylvania, and we were able
to call up some of those reels, which we transferred, and some of that stuff is in
the film. One of the challenges of making this film is how do you make a movie about a guy who never performed live anywhere, so there's no concert film, and really only did a handful of television things-how do you do that? You'll have to
tell us whether we did it well enough... It was really-not smoke and mirrors, in the sense of something phony-but rather, how do you keep things moving and keep the storytelling going in an interesting way, and make the best use of everything we
had? So thank goodness we did have the Mouse footage, because that really filled in for the Perry years, which was, I think, the high point of his recording career.
And his interviews are great, but there's a difference between hearing his
stories and then seeing them working together. He has the benefit-which unfortunately Nilsson doesn't-of perspective.
[Nilsson died in 1994.]
I mean, he's still obviously unhappy about certain things, but he can
articulate them. I imagine he would've been more bitter if you had talked
to him at the time
[the early-1970s], and I wouldn't really blame him.
I think you're right. You certainly pick up on that with Perry, and you see
it with his first producer, Rick Jarrard. You can see the pain on his face.
And that comes as a surprise-I won't go into detail, because it could be a
spoiler for some people-but when he says what he says... What a bummer.

[Harry, God bless him, was a user and a mean drunk.]
It is, and you can just feel the pain.
It's sad that Harry never apologized-he could have.
Well, Harry wasn't one to do that. Harry was one of those guys-
someone explained this to me once-his attitude was: You're either
with me, or you're against me. And if you're against me, you're out.
Next: The Art of the Interview
Images from the All Music Guide.