Thursday, September 18, 2014

Beauty In Imperfection: A Conversation About Try This At Home

Fifteen years in the making, the new film Try This At Home is centered around the 1999 and 2001 editions of the Yo-Yo A Go-Go music festival in Olympia, Washington. As fate would have it, they turned out to be the final editions of the festival, making the movie that Cris Dupont, Thomas Logoreci and Elina Shatkin assembled — then fresh out of UCLA grad school — one of the only documents of the events.

Featuring performances by Elliott Smith, Negativland, the Mountain Goats, the Microphones, C Average, the Lowdown, Jen Wood, the Make-Up and Mecca Normal — and interviews with Calvin Johnson, Phil Elevrum, Ian Svenonius, Mark Hosler, and Mirah, amongst others — Try This At Home bears witness to a landmark moment in indie rock: Not only did 2001 ultimately mark the end of Yo-Yo A Go-Go, it was also the year of Is This It, White Blood Cells, and The Argument — a debut, a breakthrough and a farewell, respectively — three records which symbolize, in contrasting ways, the sound, spirit and ideology of an evolving subculture that was about to have its first brush with the mainstream.

As the Strokes and White Stripes redefined the potential reach of guitar-based bands in the new millennium — and with Fugazi representing a bygone paradigm of regional indie infrastructure — a new generation of DIY artists were now, with the help of the nascent digital revolution, able to find audiences heretofore unimaginable. “It sort of seems like things are changing. But it’s like, I wonder what’ll be next, you know?” wonders Khaela Maricich (The Blow) in one particularly prophetic passage, just before the filmmaker’s cut to a breathtaking performance by the late Elliott Smith. There’s more said in that single edit than most music documentaries manage in their entirety.


Before we get to how this film came about, let’s start with why it’s seeing the light of day now. The festival the film documents had its final two iterations in 1999 and 2001, and the interviews appear to have been recorded around that time. Why the 13-year gap until the official premiere?

Cris Dupont (co-producer/co-director): I think that ultimately is just the amount of time [it took] for the film to be made. We were complete novices coming into it — it was the first project any of us did coming out of film school. We were pretty clueless about what it takes to make a film. At the time, Elina and I were in a relationship, and it was around then — 2000/2001 — that we split up, which interrupted the process.

Thomas Logoreci (co-producer/co-director): The main problem we had was a legal quandary. Of course one of the main people in the film is Elliott Smith, who passed away very early during in the editing of the film, and [there was] a lot of difficulty involving his estate. So, to clear that up took a lot of years — that was one of the main problems.

Elina Shatkin (co-producer/co-director): We worked on it on and off in the interim.

Dupont: I also think the world changed, and that was probably the biggest thing for us. With the coming of September 11 in 2001, everyone just started questioning what was going on in the world, which for us also included our personal problems a little bit. But the general relevance of the film also became a question.

To go back to the beginning, then: What are your personal histories with Olympia, and when and why did you begin to think this particular scene needed to be documented?

Shatkin: I had heard the music coming out of Olympia — from K Records to Kill Rock Stars to Yo-Yo. And I had heard about the festival and I had wanted to go in ‘97, or maybe even before. But I didn’t have the time or the money to get there or a place to stay. I grew up in San Francisco, and then moved down to Los Angeles to attend college at UCLA, which is where I met Cris and Thomas. So Olympia was a little bit of a haul. So come ‘99, I decided that come hell or high water I’m going. And then I got to thinking about it, and I was like, “Hmm, wouldn’t it be cool if somebody had documented this other festival [that I couldn’t go to]. Like, I wish I could have seen it.” And then I just sort of thought to myself, “Hey wouldn’t it be cool if somebody was going to document this festival that I am going to.” Then I thought, “Hey, maybe I should document it. I just graduated from film school. I know how to use a camera. I love documentaries. I love music. Why don’t I do this?”

So I got [Yo-Yo Records owner] Pat Maley’s contact info — which wasn’t hard to get; probably off the back of a Yo-Yo 7-inch or something — and basically just cold called him and said, “Hey, this is who I am and this is what I want to do. I want to come up there and I want to shoot a feature-length music documentary about this festival and I think it would be awesome.” And he was amazingly responsive. He said he basically had wanted somebody to do that at the previous festivals but it hadn’t happened. So we just took it from there.

Dupont: Pat was the main producer of the festival, and he gave us some money to cover our expenses going out there and for tape costs and stuff, but I had a camera and we borrowed a couple other cameras from friends — at least for the first trip. I think in 1999 we made every mistake we could. It’s a five-day festival with 50 bands, and we shot all five days, 49-and-a-half of the bands, plus some of the events outside. But we got, like, two interviews. We had maybe an hour or two of additional B-roll.

Logoreci: We really didn’t understand the parameters of what we were going to do until we got to Olympia. I thought the festival would probably run from 5 o’clock at night to maybe, like, 11 p.m. What I didn’t realize is that it would run every day from noon until three in the morning. I looked at the schedule and said, “What are we doing? This is going to run for an insane amount of time.” We shot every show — we didn’t stop rolling. I mean, it was really just such an amazing overload of extraordinary sounds. But to shoot all of that was insane. And that was the thing we realized in ’99: we had missed so many beautiful little events that were happening around town.

Dupont: So when we came back home we had amazing concert footage, but I guess we were so exhausted we didn’t even think to shoot anything else. And so from 1999 through 2001 we spent a lot of time editing performance footage and selecting the bands we thought would be good to be in the final piece but we had to go back in 2001. We could have made a concert film but we wanted to do something more.

How did you go about compiling the other footage? It seems to come from a variety of sources.

Shatkin: We came back home and started putting the footage together, putting all these performances together, and we showed it to a couple of friends and one of them made a really good point. They said, “Look, you have, like, 25 bands in a row playing. It’s too much.” So we went back in 2001 and we didn’t really shoot the festival — we shot maybe a couple of performances. But we mostly shot footage of the town. That’s where we met [Negativland’s] Mark Hosler, who took us on a driving tour of Olympia. We shot interviews with [The Mountain Goats’s] John Darnielle and B-roll footage of the town.

Logoreci: And then we got a variety of tapes that were shot by people from around that time that Pat had given us — just an accumulation of stuff. That was the main problem when we started editing: How do we, first of all, choose which music pieces to put in, and then how do we organize this [other] material in a coherent piece — to make the whole thing work?

There was a whole other cut of the film originally. But it was done in a very straightforward way. Like, “Now we’re going to talk about relationships in Olympia. And now we’re going to talk about fashion in Olympia.” And this early version was really…awful. I later worked on a film in San Francisco and when that film was released I sort of had nowhere to go. And I think at that point no one really wanted to look at the Olympia footage again, so I said, “Look, I’ll go through all of it,” all hundreds and hundreds of hours, and try to come up with some kind of structure. And that’s how it ended up becoming the structure that it is now. That was around 2005, where it was all sort of torn apart and restructured.

One of the things I admire about the film is how you guys avoid romanticizing the event. I think it helps that there are no contemporary interviews included, and so there are no opportunities for nostalgic reminiscing about the time period. Was it a conscious decision not to incorporate newer interviews once the editing process began?

Dupont: Not consciously — I think it just would have felt weird. First of all, I don’t think it’s something worth being super-nostalgic for. I mean, I am personally nostalgic for it, but I don’t expect the whole world to come knocking at our doors because we have this Olympia film. That’s the thing about Olympia: they’re not romantic about it. I think Olympia is more interested in doing work than looking back and celebrating the past.

Logoreci: I had no interest in mythologizing any of it, because I don’t think we were really able to get inside of it. What’s amazing to me is how many questions we asked that were not only ponderous, but slightly obnoxious — like, we’re trying to understand how this [music scene] is happening, but I think we never really felt we were allowed inside what was happening. It’s funny, because the story we always tell is: In 1999, we had these over-sized cell phones and the whole Olympia scene was like, “They’re from Los Angeles! They even have phones they carry around!” And we were sort of regarded as outsiders. Which is fine, but I think as a result of that, it’s always going to be sort of an outsider’s glimpse inside.

You allow a lot of the performances to play out for the length of an entire song, rather than editing into sequences in the fashion of traditional or television-type music documentaries. One of my favorite performances in the film, for example, is by Jen Wood — and she’s not what anyone would consider one of the big name acts, and yet you allow her song to play in full.

Dupont: That performance made me cry. I was so moved. And I desperately wanted it to be included — it’s my favorite performance from the whole event. I mean, the Make-Up blew me away but that song Jen Wood performs, I had to sit down as I was shooting it because it just broke my heart.

Were there other films you looked at that not only inspired the choice to give time to the performers but also documentaries that informed the overall structure of the film?
Logoreci: The one that I worshipped and watched incessantly was Robert Frank’s Rolling Stones film Cocksucker Blues, which I think is one of the most extraordinary musical documentaries ever made. Also Craig Baldwin’s [movie about Negativland] Sonic Outlaws. It’s a film I would always go back and watch. They aren’t what would really pass for a traditional music docs. It’s weird to say, but they’re almost like an autopsy.
How did you decide which artists to include? One of the odd effects of watching the film now, so long after the festivals took place, is seeing some artists who have gone on to gain larger audiences, like the Mountain Goats or Phil Elverum of the Microphones, while others like the Make-Up, who didn’t achieve much subsequent prominence, are captured at the height of their popularity and are treated as such.

Dupont: I think we just went with performances that spoke to us. But then it became a balancing act with the audience who would be watching the film: could we keep their interest and give them a sense of everything that was going on? There are plenty of bands [I wish we could have included]. I mean, Sleater-Kinney isn’t in there.

Shatkin: Part of it was pragmatic. There were some bands that we just didn’t do a brilliant job of shooting, or the lighting on them wasn’t great. One of the things we loved about the festival itself was that every performer, whether you’re Elliott Smith or the Make-Up — a headliner of the fest — or you’re someone for whom this might be your first big gig, you’re on equal footing, you get treated with the same sort of respect. And we just thought we’d like to do that for the performers too.

It’s interesting that the last year of Yo-Yo turned out to be 2001, which is essentially the year that first brought contemporary “indie rock” closer to the mainstream. Was any of that on your mind while you edited the film, as it went through its different formulations over the years?

Shatkin: I don’t think it was really on my mind. It’s only something I’ve really been able to see now that the documentary is done. There were actually three things that happened in or around 2001, right after that last YoYo. One was 9/11, which changed culture in all sorts of huge ways. The second thing was technology changed right around then. Digital distribution and digital music platforms started to become the thing and I think people began to interact with music very differently. Teenagers grow up with music very differently, I suspect, than when I was a teenager.

Now everything is so instantaneous. If you’re in high school and you hear from your friend, “I just heard this awesome band. You should check them out,” you can go right then and there and download it on your phone. There’s a lot less cachet in being the cool, indie, underground kind of act with a ton of critical acclaim but who only a few people ever really know about.

There’s a charming innocence — some might say naivety — to many of the interviews in your film. No one seems particularly career-oriented. There’s certainly a respect for the art of creation and performance, but no one seems aware or concerned with the potential accessibility of their music.

Dupont: That’s why it feels like a historic piece now—because it really was just that innocent. We had no idea what was coming. All those people were there to make music and do their own thing.

Shatkin: I think part of that is Olympia itself, where people were really rewarded for making music that was their own personal project. This is a place where you can go and see people who just started playing the ukulele, the bass guitar and the timpani three weeks ago, and now they’re putting on a show. And people would actually come see them! Olympia really fostered that idea. But I think [the film’s perspective] was driven by the interviews we got. I think the nice thing that those interviews do is speak to the title of the film, those four words — “try this at home.” It’s a kind of a DIY ethos, and a paean to the fact that creativity is work. Making art and starting creative projects: that’s work. Here are people that are living in a little town that’s pretty unglamorous — it’s not New York, it’s not San Francisco, it’s not L.A. — but it’s just people doing it because they love to do it and are driven to do it and they keep doing it day-in, day-out, even when it’s not glamorous or pretty or when there’s not hundreds of people from around the world coming to applaud them and see them on a stage.

Logoreci: People felt strange about talking to us, because the year before Time Magazine had done three paragraphs that said “Olympia is the next big scene.” And a lot of the people talking to us thought if we did this film, all of a sudden people would be overriding their scene, which now seems thoroughly absurd. It was something that kept popping up. And so there was this whole thing about protecting who they were and not allowing cameras — and I understand it, because you don’t know how long something extraordinary like that might last — but you don’t want it to be ruined by people who are very disruptive. I remember thinking, “None of this stuff is going to connect with the mainstream.” And then Elliott became — well, he was already pretty big at the time we taped him because of Good Will Hunting, but he wasn’t close to becoming the giant he ended up becoming after that.

The specter of Elliott Smith kind of hangs over the film — I think a couple fans mention him at the beginning of the film, but you don’t see or hear about him until his featured performance, which is relatively brief. Not only that, but it’s a performance in which he messes up on a couple of occasions, to humorous effect. I think it humanizes him to a degree. Was it a purposeful decision to allot a roughly equal amount of time to every performer included, and also to go with an Elliott performance that is quite unexpected compared to the persona that has been built up in the years since?

Dupont: That’s what I love about it — it’s just like a little moment behind the wall. He’s very professional, but he’s also of that community, so it’s this very intimate place where expectations are high, and he’s trying to do his best, but there’s just this little crack in the façade, and you get to see a little bit more of him. And I think it fit in well with the theme of the movie, that there’s beauty in imperfection. I think his mistake is so beautiful.

Logoreci: I had to take my eye off the lens, and it sounds cheesy but the sheer electricity of what [Elliott] was doing, it’s something that connects with an audience that you don’t often see. There were a lot of great performances but that one, I like the way it shows a lot of what Olympia is all about.

Shatkin: We did shoot the entire performance, but we only used one song for various reasons. One was that we didn’t want it to be a film about Elliott Smith, and we knew that if we used a bunch more it would be about him instead of about Olympia. Second, we just wanted to treat him like everyone else. And third, honestly, even if we wanted to use a lot more of him we probably couldn’t have afforded the music rights. The song [“Angeles”] where he messes up and then starts again is still really beautiful, and he still really has the audience enthralled, and that’s emblematic of not just the festival but of his ethos as well.

You take a surprising amount of time in the film to document other aspects of Olympia, activity with little or no relation to the music scene. There’s footage of children on theater tours and people in everyday locations, local folks not associated in any way with music. A few interviewees even make it a point to clarify just how normal and sort of unexciting the town is at pretty much every other time of the year. Was it important to you guys to accurately portray the town and the lifestyles apart from the music?

Dupont: I won’t claim we set out to accurately portray [the town], but I think that’s what makes a documentary for me. I’m not familiar enough with Olympia to know if we accurately portrayed it. But that’s why that quote from Mark Hosler is in there, when he says, “It’s not going to be an accurate portrait of this town. You’re going to show a tiny little slice.”

I really don’t like films that are just performance/interview/performance/interview. If it’s going to be about Olympia, you need to see some of Olympia. It goes with the name of the movie, that’s really the idea: for people to take this and try it at home. Not to recreate Olympia where you are, but to take and express yourself in your own community in the best way that you can. And that was part of the reason to not give up on the movie. The last song in the movie is Jason Traeger’s “Don’t Give Up on a Good Thing,” and every time I wanted to quit on this movie I told myself not to give up on a good thing — to see this through to the end. But that’s one of the benefits of giving it so much time. I think it’s coming out now because it was meant to come out now. [WS]

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