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An Interview with Filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis

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By The Gourds News / June 8, 2012

Dhd rehearsal
Doug Hawes-Davis films The Gourds rehearsing in South Austin, TX, 8-30-11











The Gourds News: Of course, I want to dive right into questions about The Gourds documentary, but before we do that I was wondering if you can say a little bit about yourself...where you're from, what it was like growing up there, and do you ever get a chance to go back?


Doug Hawes-Davis: I grew up in Jefferson City, Missouri (pop. 35,000). Did K-12 in the public schools there. It was a really great place to be a kid. We spent most of our time as little kids outside in the woods and hills and creeks which were all around at the time. A lot of central and southern Missouri has seen poorly-planned mega-development since I moved to Montana in 1990, but Missouri still has some incredible landscapes. I used to go back pretty often and see my family and friends there. I would generally take a week or ten days and run a river in SE Missouri or NW Arkansas and then spend a few days hanging out in Jeff City. My parents like coming to Montana to visit now and my sister lives in Oregon, so it's been a while since I've been back. Last time I was there was for the premiere of FACING THE STORM: STORY OF THE AMERICAN BISON at the St. Louis International Film Festival two years ago. I'm due for a trip.


TGN: A couple of things came to mind while you were answering. I found myself wondering what your parents did for a living and how it might have influenced your career...and then I also had this image that while you and your friends were running over hills and through creeks, you had a camera in your hand. Or did that not come until later?


DHD: I'm not sure that my parents had any direct influence on my career path. I did a few different things before settling into film making full time. I was a lobbyist in the statehouse in Wyoming for a session in 1992. I was also a lobbyist in Washington, DC, for a year. For many years I taught college-level field courses in natural history and environmental policy while I was learning film making. I'd be out for about a third of the year in places like Big Bend National Park, SE Utah, and central Montana. The rest of the year I was either preparing for one of these outings or working on a film. The combination of the two jobs paid the bills...but it wasn't until after college that I had any interest in trying to make a documentary. When I finished grad school in the spring of 1992 I met a fellow student who was interested in making a film and seemed to have some experience. I had no experience, but thought I had a topic that would make a good documentary and so we set out to make the film. In the end the documentary had poor production values, but told a good story. It was an expose about a plan to mine lead in a previously undeveloped area of Missouri. The local residents who were fighting the plan were very much empowered by the movie and were able to communicate their ideas to people who could help turn the course of events. I was also very much empowered by providing this media to them and helping the cause. It might have been the first thing I ever did that had, in my opinion, a positive impact on the world. At that point, I didn't know what other stories I would like to tell, but I knew I wanted to make another film. A couple years later I made another ultra-low-budget documentary and have repeated the process many times since.


TGN: There are lots of threads I could follow up on there and each of them seems political to me in one way or another. It makes me think you probably had a good time getting to know Kevin Russell, who’s always impressed me as being politically tuned in…but, anyway, when I consider your answers so far and I compare them with my memory of Facing the Storm, I begin to think that maybe nature and empowerment are important themes for you. So how does that translate into making a movie about a band?


DHD: I've had a good time getting to know all of the guys in the band as well as their sound technician, Mark Creaney, and their manager, Joe Priesnitz. It's true that most of my previous work in documentary film has in one way or another concerned the human relationship with the natural world. So, you might figure there's some hidden connection here, but really I've just always loved music. I played in bands myself until the early 1990s. I had too many other interests to pursue music as a career. But, I'm still a music fanatic and music has always played a significant role in my documentary work. I've worked with a number of great musicians scoring films and always enjoy conceptualizing and editing sequences that are driven by music. For years I've considered making a music film, and have gotten close to starting projects on a couple of occasions. Everything just came together on this one.


TGN: Speaking of things coming together on this one, can you say a little bit about where you are on the project at this point?


DHD: I'm certain that I'm finished shooting performances. We've been shooting the shows with 3-8 cameras and a full multi-track audio recording at each one. It's a lot of work, but it's also great fun. I've got nine shows at regular venues plus four or five live-on-radio and record store performances in the can. It's amazing how much of this stuff you need to shoot for everybody to get it right...at least one camera has to have a great shot, the band has to play the song well, and there can't be any problems with the multi-track. A lot has to come together to make it work. I think I'm finished shooting generally, but if past projects are any indication, there will be a few small things I need to shoot before it's all done. I won't know about that until I'm well into a rough cut. After each shoot, all of the footage has to be "processed" to get it all in the same format or codec. It's all shot HD 1920x1080, 24fps (frames per second), but the cameras all record different codecs, so most of it has to be converted before I can work with it. That's taken about a week after each shoot. Next step is to get all of the camera angles synced up with the multi-track audio recordings. I've gotten a little quicker at that job over time, but it's still time-consuming. At this point, I've got all the shows but one synced up and ready to edit. I've edited a few performances...two for Vanguard Records to use in promoting OLD MAD JOY, and several to support the kickstarter fundraising campaign. I've also spent a bit of time with the supporting interviews and "behind-the-scenes" material when I was creating the Peppermint City "teaser" that's our main video on kickstarter and the official web page for the film. Last week I received over 100 hours of footage from a close friend of the band who was working on a documentary in Austin in the late 1990s. More than 30 hours of that footage is analog and will have to be transferred to digital tape and then digitized. All of that footage is standard definition and 30fps, so anything I use from that material will have to be up-rezed to HD and the frame rate converted at the end of the process. I've not started on that material at all yet. I have a self-imposed rough cut deadline of the first week of November. In order to meet that deadline, I'm planning to work with at least two additional editors. We'll split up the work between performances, interviews/behind-the-scenes, and archival. As we each start to rough out scenes, I'll start compiling them into a single timeline that will eventually become the finished film.


TGN: Sounds like a lot of work. I'm guessing the kickstarter money will help speed things along? Also, two questions about the film itself...did you go into it with a particular vision, or does something usually emerge for you over time? And, I'm not sure if this is the right way to ask, but we've all seen band docs and I'm wondering if there were things you decided from the very start that you did NOT want to do.


DHD: Oh yeah, the kickstarter money is a game changer. At the outset, I had figured that kickstarter or one of the other crowd-funding sites would be the only way a film like this would get financial support. I suspect that most films about bands are entirely financed by a label or the band itself. Neither The Gourds nor their label have those resources, so I knew I'd have to come up with some other source of funding...or take years making the film in my spare time between paying jobs. A small portion of the kickstarter money is going to be spent providing the rewards to all of our backers, but the bulk of it will go to paying a couple of additional editors to help get the film done much more quickly. All of the DVDs, posters and other premiums cost money, but I think it's a great way to fund a film, in part because in addition to raising money, we've started to build a constituency for the movie. Usually, that process starts when you finish the film. The only other way to go would have been to "invest" in the film and hope for the best in distribution. I like the route we're on much better. Other costs include final audio mixing and post and possibly music licensing from the various record labels.

I had a simple vision for the movie before I started. I wanted to convey the energy and brilliance of the live Gourds to the screen, which has to include great cinematography, but also great audio recordings. To accomplish the latter, I employed my friend Brendan Canty, who has himself directed a handful of great performance films, to record the first of the multi-tracks and help shoot the doc. Brendan is best known as the drummer for the post-punk band, Fugazi, but he's also a talented filmmaker. He's done films on Eddie Vedder, Death Cab for Cutie, and others, but his first Wilco film, ASHES OF AMERICAN FLAGS, is in my opinion, the gold standard for a performance or tour film. I figured if I could make a film that does for The Gourds what Ashes does for Wilco, it would be a worthy endeavor. And with Brendan on the project, why couldn't I do that? I actually don't think I would have started the project had he not agreed to help. I learned so much working with him on the first couple of shoots it really gave me the confidence to produce the shoots for the rest of the live performances myself. Brendan will also be doing the final mixes on the performances in the movie. Before this project I really had pretty limited experience with this sort of documentary work...okay, in truth I had no experience. What I did have experience doing was documenting people's stories. So, I was more comfortable from the start trying to document the story of The Gourds. I plan to blend the best of the live performances with archival footage, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage to tell that story. I think the truly great music documentaries hook you whether you like the music or not cause they tell a great story. I also like music films that create a texture and style that fits the music and musicians being profiled. Some of my favorites are MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY, STRAIGHT NO CHASER, ANVIL: THE STORY OF ANVIL, THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT, INSTRUMENT, and of course, the previously mentioned ASHES OF AMERICAN FLAGS. The one thing that is common to many music docs that none of these films does is have a bunch of talking heads tell you how great the band is. I don't necessarily have a rule against that, but a little bit of it goes a long way. Rather than have outside experts or other musicians tell you how great The Gourds are, I'm hoping ALL THE LABOR will show you how great they are.


TGN: Okay. I should probably let you get back to work. Thanks for your time, Doug.


DHD: You bet.

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