(This feature is part of an ongoing series of Reeler profiles of New York films and filmmakers at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Click here for a complete list of this year's interviews.)
I checked out your film last night and I liked it a lot. You’ve directed a short before, right?
Straight out of school, I directed some stuff, but it was never really... you know. There was a short I did that was supposed to be a pilot for a sketch comedy show. That never happened. Mostly what I've been doing in New York has been working as a production manager.
You worked on most of David Gordon Green's films in that capacity.
Yeah, he's a good buddy of mine from school, so I worked on George Washington and pretty much all of his films except for this most recent one. So that's most of what I've been doing since I moved up here. I've been an AD on a couple of things, but that been mostly it for the last four years while I've been trying to get this movie off the ground. And finally I did.
For the record, can you recap what Great World of Sound is about?
It's about a scam that happens in the record industry; it's called "song-sharking." I just thought of those newspaper ads you see if you look in the back of the free paper in your town: "Record company producer coming to your town! One weekend only! Do you have what it takes to be famous?" You go in and perform for them, and whether or not you are, they tell you you're amazing and that you have a future with them if you just give them $3,000. And it's a scam, you know? And my father actually participated in something like this in the late '70s; he was like the main character Martin in the movie. He answered an ad to become a record producer: for a while when he was doing that, he thought he was doing something good. He was giving people a chance, at least, and then not only was he being scammed but he was involved in the scamming of people. It's something I always wanted to make a movie about: when you realize you've been duped into becoming a scam artist or whatever.
It's funny, because this is the era of American Idol, and people will proably draw that parallel. But it's also the era of Borat, with people getting gypped by others who know better. There are both dynamics in your film, and I wanted to talk you about that--
You mean the reality aspect?
Yes, because you feature authentic performers in this film, right?
That's right. I did want to make that reality TV/American Idol parallel, and what we did in the four major sections of the film where people are auditioning was... Those were all sets we built in the back of our production office. We actually cut holes in the walls, and wherever you see mirrors, we put cameras on dollies behind all those things and I actually put an ad in the Charlotte newspaper saying a record company was coming to town and looking for auditions. So the people you see who came in to perform that you see the movie, at the time, didn't know they were in a film yet. They were literally auditioning for the record company -- for my actors -- and with us behind the walls with hidden cameras.
It was on purpose, like you said; mostly what I was interested in was getting a real performance. Have you ever seen Salesman?
Yeah, I can't believe how many people haven't seen it; it breaks my heart. But you know how the people in that movie always wish (the salesmen) would leave the house and regret having let them come in? And they just have that uncomfortable feeling the whole time? That's what I wanted to get. I wanted it to be like how weird it feels to have somebody say, "Don't walk out of here and turn your back on your dream." That was my initial reason, but I do think it gets people thinking about American Idol and why people would want to go on a show like that.
So what was the process of getting releases and notifying these individuals that they were on camera?
As we would start to wrap it up, and either they said they would or wouldn't give money, they would be taken to another room and somebody would debrief them and say this was actually a film. It was never my intention to be mocking these people; it was about song-sharking, a scam that really happens. But because it's a scam, a lot of times it's not totally legal, and they'll have you sign something that indemnifies the scam artist. So really, the only way you can catch these people is to raise awareness of what the scam is to the degree that people don't do it anymore. It's really the only sort of way to stop this from going on. So we would say to not answer ads like this again; it's the only way to solve this problem. Pretty much everyone in the film determined that it was an experience they wanted to be a part of in some way, and if they didn't, we wouldn't put them in it. Sometimes they'd come back and meet us and things like that.
But to go as far as you do with some of these people -- one woman is actually persuaded against her better judgment to offer you money -- and then pull the rug out from under them and be told by a filmmaker, "We're just doing a movie about this" -- devil's advocate might say you're crossing the line. What do you think?
On one hand, it's hard to talk about it without seeing it happen -- and the woman you're talking about is really one of the only ones you see who goes that far. Honestly, you have to sort of be able to tackle it at some point. I really just feel like ethically, it was never my intention to make this movie to ridicule people like that. In fact, I think because she believes in it, it helps me kind of be able to see how real this is. She's one of my favorite people in terms of it expressing the emotions these people have; you can't really write stuff that way. We tried to have actors come in, but often it just fell flat. They would immediately start acting suspicious; once you know what's going on, you don't want it to seem like you agree with it. In her case, she met everyone and what not and got to understand where were coming from with the film -- it was ultimately not a bad experience for her. I really wanted it to be part of the film. It's important to see that to know that's what's at stake -- to see how this situation can be that fucked.
I say that, of course, not really knowing what the dramatic alternative might be.
Absolutely. It's important that you see how what they're doing isn't cute -- it isn't cool. I did want it to have that impact. All of the filmmakers - myself, the producers -- wanted to be as sensitive to the people as possible; it wasn't Borat, where they're saying, "They told us this was only going to air in another country." They would often come back and see the whole set up, and a lot of times they'd just be like, "Oh, I got punked." We didn't intend this as something harmful.
I have to presume people are going to bring up the exploitation line and whether or not you crossed it. Have you thought about having to answer these questions at the Q&A's?
Yeah, I have, and I thought about them when we were making the movie. I didn't want to do it in a way that felt like we were taking advantage of people. At the same time, I've worked on reality TV, where there's complete disregard for that. Look at shows like Room Raiders on MTV, where you sign an agreement beforehand that they could shoot in your house, then you get in a van and people come in and look through your drawers and all over your rooms. I didn't want to be like that, you know? But I thought about that, and why people would want to be on that show so bad, and this was a way to say it.
It probably sounds patronizing, but none of this would matter if it weren't an excellent film. It's funny, it's well-written, it's exceedingly well-acted. But there's this other dynamic; I think it'll be controversial. Do you invite that discussion?
Most definitely, yeah. I mean, I've been asked to work on things where they're shining UV light over people's bedsheets. At least we're being straight with the people in the film.
You've been to Sundance before, right?
Just once, but yeah.
What else are you expecting or preparing for this time around?
I really can't wait to see how the film plays. I was able to get people to help me make this film because they were all excited by the idea; it was literally mad with a bunch of friends, and the fact that it got this far is amazing. It's wonderful. I'm not going as that guy who's insanely stressed out about whether the movie sells, because I think water finds its own level. For me, I'm just really curious to see what the discussion is. That's what I'm interested in.
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