Documentary director Sam Jones kept a “filmmaker’s diary” of his experience working on a movie about Wilco. The documentary would eventually be called “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” but I remember a short period of time when the film’s web site called it “I’m Trying to Break Your Heart.” (The Internet Wayback Machine tells me the title was updated on wilcofilm.com some time between March 26 and May 23, 2002.)
Jones rolled out the diary to the site every couple of weeks after transcribing his handwritten notes from months before, starting with his writing to Wilco’s manager about the idea in October 2000. The final entry was uploaded in February 2002 after only getting through August 2001. Jones said, “We will continue to update the diary every few weeks with new entries, and have no intention of stopping until the entire story has been told.” Nevertheless, he did not persist. By 2004 the web site was abandoned and in 2005 the wilcofilm.com domain registration was not renewed.
Before he quit the project, Sam Jones contributed over 40,000 words to his filmmaker’s diary. Quite an effort! It would have been cool if he would have seen it through, but even in an incomplete state, it’s a really cool achievement. Inquiries to Jones were not immediately returned. We’re reprinting it here.
October 26, 2000
This film began with an idea and a letter. The idea was that a band that I really loved was probably in the studio recording their fourth record, and there should really be a movie about that. The letter, once I tracked down his address, was sent to the band’s manager, Tony Margherita. It said, in many more words, basically the same thing. But everything that happened next was probably largely a result of those many more words, because they had a conviction that has carried me through the project. I wrote in the letter that I believe Wilco is a band that will stand the test of time. Like The Band, the Clash, Big Star, the Velvet Underground, and Bob Dylan, Wilco makes dense, emotional, timeless records that will keep being discovered by new generations of music lovers.
November 3, 2000
I received a phone call from Tony Margherita, Wilco’s manager, who told me that the idea sounded very promising, and that Jeff Tweedy and Tony would like me to fly to Chicago to meet them. I asked Tony about the schedule and he informed me that the band was about 30% into the making of the new record, tentatively titled “Here Comes Everybody,” and that they were recording entirely in their Chicago loft with no producer or record company personnel present. We talked more about what the band would be doing for the next year, and it seemed very feasible that I would be able to get the whole record-making process on film. Tony suggested I fly to Chicago the next week to talk.
November 10, 2000
Wilco expense #1: Airplane ticket to Chicago and a hotel room and a dinner at an Italian place in North Chicago with Jeff and Tony.
I met Tony at the bar and we talked for about 15 minutes before Jeff came in, smoking the first of maybe 15 cigarettes that he would have that night. We talked and ate, talked and ate, until we were the last ones in the restaurant. By the end of the dinner we had decided on several things, one being that I would make this documentary, and I would start in a month. We also decided that “Don’t Look Back,” and “The Last Waltz,” were two very important influences on this project, and that I should see the loft where they record, and that I should hear every demo and recording that the band had made so far. At about midnight I piled into Jeff’s Honda with a stack of recordable CD’s, bade Tony goodnight, and took off onto Lake Shore drive.
Jeff said that he always liked to hear music when he was driving, because he could listen without any distractions. Therefore, he would play me everything while driving me all around Chicago. I realized that this would be a great time to have a camera and start filming, a realization that I would revisit throughout the film.
The first track I heard was “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” and three minutes into the seven minute track I realized that the band could very well be making their most complicated, artistic, and greatest record to date. The song hit me on several different levels, sounding like a broken-down truck of a beautiful confession. I know that makes no sense, but that’s what it sounded like. It was part Tom Waits, part torch ballad. One of us said, “this would be a great title for the movie,” and guess what? But the song title describes Wilco’s intent with their listeners, and hopefully also describes my effect on the eventual audience of this film. Images, sounds, and emotions tied together with the express purpose of breaking a heart. Or breaking through to a heart. And in the car I got a real stab of fear because I knew that this film had a lot to live up to if this song was any indication of the coming record.
Chicago’s skyline flew by outside the car as Jeff played me demos, uncompleted songs, and song ideas. When vocals weren’t yet recorded, he would sing them to me. Again I felt the desire to have a camera right now. Incidentally, the more we listened the more a movie outline started to take shape in my head. The songs I was hearing were very different from the last two Wilco records, more dense and more challenging. I imagined the people at the record company hearing the new songs and realizing the album represented the massive growth of an artist. How will this play out in the coming months? Will it be a giant commercial breakthrough for the band, or will the record be mismanaged by a bumbling record executive and not get it’s due? One thing was for certain as we drove around: this is not a “safe” record. It is a powerful statement that will draw much commentary from the critics and the fans. And hopefully the film will show that entire process.
Nov. 18, 2000
Sat down with Peter Abraham today. He is the commercial producer at Fusion Films who originally signed me as a director, and he has graciously promised to help me through this process and serve as executive producer.
We discussed financing strategies, film schedules, and a possible budget. We outlined the entire film (ha ha — don’t ever try to do that with a documentary), and created a pitch letter that we could present to possible financers. I was more optimistic about our chances for financing than he was (he’s smarter than me), but he was willing to do the legwork to explore every avenue.
At the end of the meeting (several meetings actually) we kind of had a ceremonial handshake and said “Let’s make a movie,” or something like that.
Dec 12, 2000
I am beginning to wonder how one goes from talking about making a movie to making one. In the last month I have had many discussions with Tony Margherita, Wilco’s manager, and although he assures me the band is excited about the idea and wants me to do it, I have received no invitation to start, and I can’t get Jeff Tweedy to return my phone calls. ( I will learn later that this is a widespread problem, and not specific to me).
Furthermore, it seems unlikely that I will be able to find any financing before filming starts. Peter seems to believe that we need to have something to show potential investors before we can get any serious money. Which probably means I will be footing the bill for the first segment of filming, so that we can cut together a “trailer” to show to people. The good news just keeps coming.
Dec. 19, 2000
Jeff Tweedy called today. Out of the blue, when I had a million other things on my mind, Jeff says “hello, and why don’t you come out and start your movie.” He went on to explain that the next recording session for the new album was going to be in the second week of January, and that I was welcome to come to Chicago and film anything I wanted. Cool.
We talked for about an hour, and Jeff committed to the film in big way. He said that there would be no restrictions on what I could film, and that he would be as honest and candid as humanly possible. (How true this would become).
I hung up the phone and it hit me. I had just committed to this project, and there was no turning back. And I was paying for it (at least the first part). And I really had no idea what I was doing. Does Jeff know what he is getting himself into?
January 10, 2001
I am three days away from starting the movie, and I am filled with excitement and doubt. We have hired a producer, a camera operator, a soundman, and even a production assistant. In three days we all fly to Chicago to begin filming during Wilco’s upcoming recording session. We are using Arri SR3 cameras, which are state-of-the-art super 16mm film cameras, and I am unfamiliar with them, so I went today to a camera house in Culver City and put one on my shoulder. Heavy — but in three days I will be lugging this thing around for twelve hours at a time, so I’d better get used to it. Oh yeah, the other thing I did today was write a check — my first deposit on the film. Ouch.
January 13, 2001
Christy (the producer), Roger (soundman) and I flew to Chicago today. We arrived in the evening, and were met by super production assistant Graham. As he drove us from the airport to Wilco’s loft, I realized that Graham was a huge fan of the band, and that he had a very persistent habit of singing along with the stereo. Christy and I exchanged some worried looks as Graham warbled along without restraint. (Luckily, this turned out to be Graham’s worst habit, and he has been a fantastic help on the film). We would be meeting cameraman Dave and soundman Roger tomorrow.
We were let into the loft by none other than Jeff Tweedy himself. The rest of the band was sitting around a card table having Chinese food. I was introduced to Jay, John and Leroy. The mood was strangely silent and somber, and I felt very awkward as Christy and I tried to make conversation. After about 15 minutes Jeff asked if he could speak to me, and led me back into the recording area of the loft. Uh oh, I thought, movie’s off, they’ve changed their minds, and we have to leave.
“We’ve let Ken go,” Jeff said. I assumed correctly that he was speaking of long time Wilco drummer Ken Coomer, who was notably absent. Jeff went on to explain that it hadn’t been working out in the studio with Ken, and they had brought in new drummer Glenn Kotche to replace him. He said it was very tough for the band right now, but they knew how much I had already put into this film and they wanted me to start the film on schedule.
It was a bittersweet blow. I had looked forward to documenting the band I knew: Jeff, Jay, John, and Ken, in the studio, and it wasn’t that exact group anymore. On the other hand, this meant that in many ways, the band had to start the recording process over with a new drummer, so I was now “there at the beginning.”
It was an odd way to start the movie. The band was enormously saddened that they wouldn’t be working with their friend Ken anymore, but excited about adding a fresh element to the music. I was already trying to work out in my head how to present this conflict into the story of my film that I hadn’t even started yet. Little did I know it was just the first of many changes in store for Wilco. Poor Glenn Kotche (Wilco’s new drummer). The band didn’t even tell him that a documentary was being made. He was about to find out.
January 19, 2001
Wow. What a week. We have just finished filming our first segment of the film, and I couldn’t be more pleased. 16 hours of up close and personal footage with five of the nicest and most accommodating musicians I have ever met. The film we shot exceeded all of my expectations of what this film could be.
We started out in the loft on day one before the band, putting up a few lights, prepping the cameras (with super assistant Dan Larkin), and getting sound ready. We took over a corner of the loft near the refridgerator, packing in cameras, lenses, stands, sound equipment, film canisters, and lighting accessories. Both Roger and Dan set up workstations, as we would be there all week, and I made a funny sign that said “Roger” and taped it to the wall above his sound cart. As the bandmembers started to arrive they regarded our set-up with curiosity. Leroy made the first of many smelly vegetarian concoctions in the microwave, Jeff drank the first of many diet Coke’s, and I kept apologizing for being in the way. But as I was to find out, these guys were as accommodating and polite as anyone I have ever met, and let us do what ever we needed.
Cameraman Dave arrived on no sleep from a job he was shooting in Memphis, and we were ready to get started. The band was getting set-up to record “Kamera,” a song that they had tried many different times, but still weren’t satisfied with. Engineer Chris Brickley was running microphone cables and setting up sound baffles, while our sound man, Roger, was working with him to tap into his board so that we could record the same sounds he was for our film. Poor Chris was not only trying to make a record, meet a new drummer, and work with a less than ideal recording environment, he also was involuntarily roped into being the film’s sound consultant. Somehow, through he and Roger’s hard work, by the time the band was ready to record, we had great sound for our film. We would be able to record the band from Chris’s feed while Roger roamed around with a boom mic picking up dialog between bandmembers between songs.
Camera assistant Dan set up a two-camera loading system, and also had to slate both my and Dave’s camera every time we started filming. How he handled all of these duties and also managed to be there for me while I moved around the loft is beyond me. I know that we would not have gotten half the footage we were able to get without his talents. We had two smart slates that Dan managed to always place strategically around the loft within view of the cameras. The “smart slate” has a running time code that syncs up to Roger’s sound mix and the band’s music mix, so that hopefully, if all goes well, we can put the sound and the picture together at a later date. Soundman Roger had to constantly run between the recording area and his sound booth, setting levels, changing tapes, and pointing his boom mic at the band without getting in either of the two camera’s shots. Somehow he managed to do all of this with a bored look on his face and a cigarette dangling from his lips.
I should mention at this point that with the exception of John Stirratt, Wilco and their entire crew are all heavy smokers. This combined with having to keep the windows shut to keep sound and cold out, made for a very hazy and suffocating environment for this non-smoking director.
The first day was spent filming Wilco as they transformed and recorded the song “Kamera.” Dave and I moved around the recording area, getting more and more bold with the cameras, until I found myself 6 inches from Jeff Tweedy as he sang his vocal. To his credit, he never complained or asked for space, allowing us to get incredibly close and intimate as this album was being recorded. Dave, the other cameraman, has a lot of experience shooting music videos, and had no qualms about putting the camera three inches from the keyboard as Jay played a part, or laying on the ground as John’s foot tapped time. The difference was, these guys weren’t rehearsing or lip-synching; they were making a record! The access that they gave us all week was incredible.
At one point I had the camera next to John, pointing straight at him, and he flubbed his bass line. The song stopped, and Jay yelled out “That one was going so great!” I felt terrible, but John, ever the gentleman, claimed that I didn’t have anything to do with him messing up. (Yeah right, you try doing your job all day with a virtual stranger pointing a giant camera at you.)
As we filmed I became aware of just how great of a band Wilco was. They did not build a song part by part — (laying the drums down first, then the bass, then the guitars, and saving the vocals for last ) like most bands these days do. They got in the room together and played — as a band. The fact that they were able to complete take after take — trying out different approaches, as an ensemble, was very impressive, and I had an even greater respect for them.
As the days went on we were able to capture on film the recording of 7 songs, as well as visiting each bandmember one on one for interviews. We even spent an afternoon driving around Chicago shooting scenery, with Dave and I switching off driving the van while Dan loaded from the backseat. I marveled at Dave’s dedication as he stuck his head out of the van during 15 degree Chicago winter weather to get a long driving shot on Lakeshore drive. I felt like I had to do something to rival his dedication, so I took the camera and shot while driving the van. Dan didn’t like that very much.
It was great to conduct initial interviews with the bandmembers. On our second day of filming we trekked to John Stirratt’s home in Chicago, and interviewed him. After talking about the origins of the band, as well as other topics, John took out a twelve-string guitar and played one of his songs on camera. It was a great filmic moment, albeit cold, as John elected to perform the song on his deck, standing in the snow. I also spent time with Jay in his favorite pawn shop as he played songs on an acoustic he found on the wall and subsequently purchased.
On the last day of filming for the week we spent time with Jeff, traveling with him to the auto repair shop as he got his car worked on, and then at his home in Chicago. We did a little interview in the car as Jeff drove, and as we took off to start the interview, I inadvertently slammed my finger in the car door. Filming was stopped as I jumped out and stuck my finger into the snow, cursing and flailing about. The rest of the day’s events were accompanied by throbbing pain, with Jeff’s wife Sue trying in vain to fill me up with aspirin. We went to Jeff’s house, where he played a few songs on acoustic guitar. It was an enthralling performance, and Roger made a stellar recording. We finished by going to the park with Jeff and his five year old son Spencer. Once again we froze as Jeff and Spencer cleared the snow off of the teeter-totter and proceeded to play. I almost slipped on a patch of ice walking backwards with the camera – which would have added nicely to my finger-injury day. But we made it back to the loft without incident and filmed the wrap up of a very successful week of recording.
January 25, 2001
I got my first real taste of the commitment I have made when I saw the bill for the film and processing. Not to mention the airfare for four, hotel, camera rental, lighting, labor, insurance, food, I went over all of the expenses today with producer Peter, and we discussed how we were going to turn this first batch of film into a workable “movie trailer” to get possible investors interested in the film. The funny thing is, now this project has transformed from an idea into an actual entity. There are people to pay, cans of film, sound notes, and the next big agenda: transferring.
January 29, 2001
Now for all of you aspiring filmmakers out there who want to make a film and want to take the high road and shoot it on actual FILM (like I naively did), keep this in mind: Not only do you have to purchase the film. You have to process the film (.19 cents a foot x 31200 feet for the FIRST WEEK you do the math), and then you have to TRANSFER the film. That means you have to record the film along with the sound onto some form of tape medium so that you can edit non-destructively. (That means you are not actually cutting the film negative). We chose to transfer the film to both digi-beta and 3/4 inch. This process involves a “colorist,” which is a person who syncs the film with the sound (more on that later), adjusts the contrast, color and exposure, and makes all of the film stock match, so that it has a consistent look. This process takes longer than “real-time,” with each hour of footage taking about 2 -3 hours to transfer. (A colorist charges anywhere from $350 – $500 an hour, you do the math). Now, I’m sure you are all thinking, what the hell takes so long? Well, during filming, everytime I or cameraman David started filming, we have to film a few seconds of the “smart slate” (that weird clapper thing with time-code numbers on it) so that the film can sync with the sound. If we stop the camera 30 seconds later, move to another part of the room, and start the camera again, we again have to shoot a picture of the smart slate. On a ten minute reel of film there could be up to 20 or 30 “cuts” (where we stopped the camera and then started again).
Now, (if you’re still with me), flash forward to the transferring session. Everytime a picture of the smart slate comes up, the colorist has to stop, reset, and find the new spot on the sound reel that matches up with the new time code displayed on the smart slate. Even this isn’t as easy as it sounds, because depending on how diligent or lazy the cameraman was, this can be incredibly difficult. For instance, if the slate is sitting across the room, the cameraman may just shoot a quick out-of-focus shot of it before moving on. Now the colorist is working with a tiny smudge across a room with blurry numbers (and there is 8 numbers that have to be read accurately). If those numbers are not readable, the colorist has to try to manually sync the sound with the action, which can be incredibly difficult, or even impossible. I was about to learn how valuable and cost-effective a good slate shot was.
We started the transfer today, or more accurately, tonight, because our session is scheduled for 7pm until 3am. We are getting a slightly better rate by transferring at night. Our colorist, Chris, had never heard of Wilco, but was about to become a big fan. As the images came up on the monitor I was transfixed. There it was, right in front of me: the start of the movie! All of a sudden I felt really good about my decision to shoot black and white film. The images I was seeing on the monitor looked timeless and iconic. And they made the band’s loft look like Abbey Road or something. Chris and I spent the next 8 hours working on getting the feel of the film just right, adjusting contrast and tone. We both worked very hard trying to read the numbers on the smart slate. Slowly, we were making progress. Very slowly. After my initial excitement wore off, I realized how tedious this process could be. But then every hour or two, we would throw up a new reel, and there would be a scene I had forgotten about, and the excitement would start anew. I especially enjoyed the shots we had made from the window of the van while driving around Chicago, and I mentally rolled opening credits over the images. I’m sure Chris thought I was off my rocker.
It’s funny how different the footage looks when it’s seen on the screen, as opposed to through the eyepiece of the camera. I was watching a scene of Jeff singing that I had shot, and I was fascinated by the expression on his face, and the way his eyes turned to slits as he sang certain words. I could really study his face in a way I cound not do when I was there. When filming, my thought process went something like this: “Don’t move-they are recording, and you are right next to the vocal mic,” and “Damn this camera is heavy, am I breathing too loud?” and, “I really shouldn’t be this close to Jeff’s face-it’s got to be bothering him?” and so on.
Then there is the whole magic transformation between seeing color through the viewfinder and seeing black and white on the screen. Now, I have shot literally tens of thousands of images, both still and moving, in black and white, but it never gets old to see the results.
By 2:30 am I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I left Chris to finish up, and drove home. This process would continue for the next four days, and at the end we would have our first week of footage ready to go.
February 9, 2001
I’ve dedicated my whole weekend to watching the footage shot during the first week of filming, and to that end I have borrowed a 3/4 inch tape machine, a monitor, and a video printer. My idea is to become thoroughly familiar with the footage by creating a index card system that will deliniate each “scene.” That is where the video printer comes in, as I can push a button and create a little 3″ x 4″ image to affix to each card. Oh the best laid plans…..
I am gradually finding out what a daunting task this is, especially since I have footage from two cameras, and I am trying to create an index numbering system. I’m starting to feel a lot of empathy for poor Dewey and his decimal system! It takes me 3 hours to do the first hour, and the stack of tapes next to my chair, which this morning looked like Christmas, are starting to look like homework. However, I persist because I am fearful that the editor that we are looking for will not be as excited as me about the project, and therefore could miss important scenes. But I should back up.
A week ago, producer Peter and I decided we should put together a 5 minute “trailer” comprised of the footage we had so far, so that we would have a show reel to present to possible investors. It would also serve as a script or a storyboard for anyone who wanted to get a feel for what the finished film would be like, both stylistically and thematically. This meant we had to find an editor-and not just any editor, but one who believed in the project enough that they would work for free on the trailer, and also hopefully have a place to edit that did not cost us anything. Peter placed an ad on a website for commercial production opportunities, and we are now waiting to see if we get any responses. I think the ad reads something like : “Editor wanted to start work on a documentary about the band Wilco. No pay, but chance to edit feature-length film for theatrical release.” We are crossing our fingers.
So now, as I sit watching my footage, I am overwhelmed with tremendous anxiety, because I surely have never “edited a feature-legnth documentary,” and do not know how all of this film can be compiled into a 5 minute story that makes any sense. I also can’t imagine anyone who takes on the job of editor (especially for no pay) can be as diligent as I about becoming familiar with what is on each reel.
But this too passes, like all of my swings in confidence so far on this project, and soon I am just watching the monitor again, forgetting to write anything down, or make any video prints, for long stretches of time as the footage progresses.
At the end of the first day I decide I need to do some “test marketing,” and so I invite my friend Ed over to take a look at some of the footage, provided he brings the beer. Ed ambled in an hour later with his wife Gloria in tow, carrying the requisite Bass ale. They sat down on the couch and I popped in hour 6. Now, Ed is a bit of a Wilco fan himself, so I expected him to be interested, but Gloria doesn’t know much about the band. A scene of Jay Bennett buying a guitar in a pawn shop came up, and Ed and Gloria watched the monitor, and I watched Ed and Gloria.
We must have watched at least a half hour of raw footage without Ed and Gloria saying anything (and if you knew Ed and Gloria, you would consider it a rousing success, considering the ability they both have to pontificate). I kept waiting for them to say “wait a minute, this doesn’t look like a real movie,” or something, but they both seemed to be behaving exactly like they do when they watch “Seinfeld,” or “Charlie Rose.”
Well, my film had passed the Ed and Gloria test. Watch out Ebert and Roper!
February 12, 2001
I have just finished my last index card for my last hour of footage. I can’t believe I just did that. I must have over 500 index cards, all labeled with my screwy numbering and lettering system, along with about one video print for every minute of footage. I fear my paranoia has forced me to be far too detailed, and there is not much difference between reading my index cards and actually WATCHING all of the film. In fact, I find that if I flip the index cards very fast through my fingers, it is almost like watching the movie. I am convinced I will scare away any prospective editor.
Speaking of which, we got our first reply to our ad today. The guy that did the Nine Inch Nails documentary is interested in talking to me. Well, all right! Now we’re talking. It feels like another step towards this film being a reality when strangers get involved. I decide before I call this guy back, I will pop over to my video store and rent the NIN film, so that I know who I am dealing with. However, anyone who is willing to donate time at this point must be given serious consideration.
February 13, 2001
Oh dear. I have just finished watching the Nine Inch Nails documentary, and I realize it is everything I DON’T want the Wilco film to be. It is full of quick edits in time to the music, with every visual medium ever invented mixed randomly. Although it is probably quite effective and perfect for the NIN audience, to me it is like watching moths darting around a porch light. After 30 minutes I decided that it was the antithesis of what I want my film to look like. I would rather a scene from my film be mistaken for “Harold and Maude” than it be mistaken for a music video (actually that would be quite a compliment). I don’t feel like the movie has to look like MTV to feel musical. And I decided right then and there that I do not want a music video editor to cut this film.
Unfortunately, that means I would not be able to use NIN guy, although I’m sure he is very good, and he was very nice on the phone. I just realized that I wanted the person who was going to cut this with me to have a sensitivity and a sense of grace that is missing from the whole music video genre. Moral: Beggars can be choosers, if they are willing to keep begging-and hoping.
February 15, 2001
Wow. The response to the internet posting looking for an editor has gone very well. Either there are a lot of out of work editors out there, or Wilco fans have a high propensity for entering the visual arts field. Unfortunately, a lot of the reels that the editors have sent in look about the same. Really impressive, but really in need of Ritalin. They were all very fast-paced, jumpy, and flashy. But the other morning a reel caught my eye by a woman named Erin. Her reel was more emotional, more musical, and had less hype. Also, I accidentally watched it all in black and white, which really made it seem like a good fit.
I called producer Peter, and told him out of all the reels, the only person I would really want to meet was Erin. He said he would set up a meeting, which ended up happening today. Peter and I went to the company where Erin was currently working to have lunch with her and chat about the possibility of doing a trailer. I brought along my massive pile of index cards, thinking that if she wasn’t serious about the project, this massive pile of info would scare her away. I was really worried about whether the editor would spend the time to get as familiar with the footage as I had.
We arrived at Erin’s workplace, and my first impression of her is how young she looks. How can she have risen to her position so soon, I wondered. I was immediately suspicious of her talent. I explained the project, and showed her my cards. Her eyes widened a bit, but she took it in stride. She explained that she really wanted to do a documentary project, and that although she had clients in a lot during the week, we could work nights, weekends, and some weekdays in her avid bay (for free???). As we spent the next hour looking over the cards, she asked all the right questions, and I explained my fears about the editor needing to be as diligent as me in knowing the footage. We continued to talk, and I started to get a gut feeling that this was the right person for the job. She seemed young enough that she was still very enthusiastic about her job, yet experienced enough to make up for my lack of experience. I told her at the end of the meeting that I would like to work with her, and would love to get started as soon as possible. I gave her some reference movies to give her an idea of what I was trying to do, and asked her how much she knew about Wilco. It turns out she knows of the band, likes what she has heard, but is not a huge fan. That seemed perfect to me, because I don’t want to make a film that just appeals to hardcore Wilco fans, but one that can be interesting to anybody. We agreed to meet in a few days to get started.
For those that don’t know what an Avid bay is, it is basically a room that houses an editing computer, a mixer, a few monitors, some comfy chairs, low lighting, and jars of M&M;’s and other fattening candy. Avid is a very expensive computer program that allows the cutting and pasting of the transferred footage, along with sound into a finished digital product.
Erin went on to explain that her company would let us use the Avid bay for free (yessss) when it was not in use by other clients. The caveat being that we had to rent storage space, as digitizing 15 hours of footage takes up an amazing amount of hard disc space. I would learn later how much this would cost.
Erin asked me to go through my cards and put them in order of priority, so that she could start digitizing. Digitizing means taking the digibeta tapes that contain the transferred footage and inputting them onto the hard drive. The machines digitize in real time, so we had at least a day of that before we could start anything. I left the meeting excited to get started.
February 16, 2001
As all of the editing excitement was going on, I still had a film to shoot. The band planned to come out to Los Angeles for the Grammys, and I planned to film it. Wilco was nominated for the second year in a row for “best folk album” for their collaboration with Billy Bragg on Mermaid Avenue Vol. 2, a collection of Woody Guthrie lyrics set to new music by Wilco and Bragg.
I was determined to learn from my first experience in Chicago, and film this segment for much cheaper. Little did I know it would end up costing me $11000.00 for my one day Grammy experience. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let me first just say, I was na?ve enough to think I could get myself and my film crew into the Grammys. Ha ha.
I spoke with Tony, the band’s manager, who told me that despite what he said last week, Jeff was now not going to attend the Grammys. With Ken Coomer being out of the band, that left John and Jay. I called them both, and they said they both planned to attend. I decided to go ahead with the filming, thinking of how upset I’d be if they won and I wasn’t there to capture the moment. I then phoned the Grammy people, and found out that there was no way I could get a ticket, and that filming was out of the question. I called Tony back and relayed this to him, and he thought maybe I could use Jeff’s ticket. Great, I thought. Now I’m masquerading as Jeff Tweedy. So much for crossing the documentary line.
Jay called me back later in the day and said that he and John didn’t really have suits. Since I am also a photographer in my other life, I thought I could make some arrangements with some fashion stylists I knew. I told him I would try to find them something to wear. (All journalistic lines now crossed — filmmaker now dressing his documentary subjects). I called my favorite Los Angeles wardrobe stylist, Jeanne Yang, and told her the story. She said she would see what she could do. Jay and John were set to come out to Los Angeles in 3 days, and Jay assured me he would get me in.
I started assembling a crew, and noting my expenses on the last shoot, decided to start calling in favors. I called my cousin Moe, who is a soundman on commercials, and asked him to help out. He agreed, for a fee. But it was a reduced fee, so…I called a cameraman friend, who has worked on many major films like “Planet of the Apes,” and he also agreed, for a reduced fee. These reduced fees didn’t seem that reduced to someone with no budget, but we considered ourselves lucky. I also was fortunate enough to find producer Russell Curtis was free that day, and willing to work, for FREE. Wilco phase 2 here we come.
February 19, 2001
I worked my first day with Erin, and I was more than impressed. I was blown away. In the three days since I had seen her, she had worked almost non-stop digitizing and notating the footage. Finding my cards totally useless, she came up with her own system of logging the footage, which included transcribing whole interview segments.
When I saw her avid screen, the first entry read “12:04:07:00 Tony M talks about the hopes he has for the band’s next album” She immediately pulled up that footage, and said she thought that was a good quote to explain what the documentary was about. We had talked a few days earlier on the phone about what the trailer had to accomplish, but I had no idea she would have taken it this far already. We both decided that in the trailer Tony could serve as a narrator, outlining the subjects that would be covered in the trailer. This must have been what I had in mind when I interviewed Tony, because it was the last thing I shot before I left Chicago. Erin had intuitively picked up on this, and I couldn’t wait to begin.
We worked that day on the beginning of the trailer, which I decided should feel less like a theatrical preview, and more like the beginning of the movie. We decided we would have opening credits, and pace it like it was the beginning of the film. This would hopefully give potential investors the feeling that they were watching a completed movie, not some advertising pitch film. We started the trailer off with a quote from manager Tony about there being two kinds of potential, artistic and commercial. I felt that this was the crux of the documentary — a very artistic band making a record for a very commercial label. After Tony’s initial quote, we decided to roll the opening credits over scenes of Chicago as seen from the van that we had shot from. This would mimic my original feeling of hearing the demos Jeff played for me in his car as he drove me around Chicago, and we even chose footage that followed the route Jeff had driven. We debated over which music to use, and finally decided on an acoustic performance of the song “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” that Jeff had played for the cameras in the family room of his house. He had sung it at 11 in the morning, and it had a very intimate and isolated feeling that fit with the images of Chicago perfectly. I remembered that Jeff and I had talked on that first night in his car about possible titles for the film, this being one of them. Erin and I decided on the spot to call the movie “I am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
As we put the music to the scenes, little elements started falling into place that almost dictated the editing. Almost like the music and the footage were telling us which order to put the clips in. (I know that sounds really artsy fartsy, but it really DID seem like that.) The opening shot is through the windshield as it is raining as Jeff sings “I am an American Aquarium drinker.” The rain stops, and the next shot is on Michigan Avenue as Jeff says “I assassin down the avenue.” The next shot is of the rear-view mirror of the car with the city reflected in it as the sun flashes off the glass. I’m hiding out in the big city blinking… The car goes under a bridge, extinguishing the daylight as Jeff goes on, “what was I thinking when I let go of you.” We had to stop for the day, and I asked Erin to run me off a VHS copy of the minute of footage we had assembled to show to Peter. Following the tradition established last week when Jay sent me a disc of demos for the new album that he covertly titled, “Men at Work Greatest Hits,” We called the VHS “Weekend at Bernie’s Two.”
I rushed off to show the piece to Peter, and then I had to rush home to meet Jay and John, who were arriving from the airport. They were going to try on the suits that hopefully Jeanne was bringing over to the house.
I arrived to find Jeanne already at the house with two black suits (she is quite incredible) plus several options of shirts, ties, and even shoes. Minutes later Jay and John showed up. After hellos and hugs all around, Jay informed me that he didn’t have Jeff’s physical Grammy ticket, but he was sure he could forge a letter from Jeff saying I was to pick up the ticket in his name on the day of the Grammys. Great — now I’m passing off perjured documents.
It’s too bad this diary doesn’t have a section for pictures, for I am sure that you would all find interesting the Polaroid I took of Jay and John in suit coats, shirts, ties, and boxers. However, I am just as sure that Jay and John are delighted I am not posting that picture! It’s all getting a bit surreal to me.
I took Jay out to the office to create the forged letter from “Jeff,” and he assured me it would work. All I had to do was take the letter to the Grammy ticket office located in the Biltmore hotel on the morning of the Grammys (tomorrow) and present it to the right people. They would, Jay assured me, hand over the ticket. I planned to sneak a video camera in to the ceremonies. I crossed my fingers.
February 20, 2001
Grammy day. We planned to meet Jay and John at Jay’s hotel room, which was in downtown LA just 10 blocks from the Staples Center, where the Grammys were to be held. The crew was meeting at 10:30am. I planned on being at the Grammy ticket office at 9:30 to claim my (Jeff’s) ticket. I would then meet the crew as they were loading the cameras and sound recorders. We planned to film Jay and John getting ready for the ceremony, and maybe get some interview footage while we were at it. Then I would change into a suit, we would hop into the limo, and go to the show. After the show we planned to follow the band to the after-show party held by Warner Bros. Oh the best laid plans.
My first surprise came when I got to the room in the Biltmore hotel where the Grammy tickets were being given out. There was a line out the door and down the stairs. I got into line, knowing that it was going to make me late. I shuffled slowly down the hall with a crowd of future Grammy ticket holders. When I finally got to the table I handed the forged paperwork over to a very snotty guy. I felt like a spy at the East German border. I knew there was a problem when the guy started shaking his head as he shuffled through the “T’s” (for Tweedy) a second time.
“I’m sorry, but there is no ticket here for you,” snotty guy said.
I tried my best “I’m sure it’s some mistake, and look again, and can’t you do something, and I’ll pay you cash, etc etc,” but he was having none of it. I walked out of the hotel dejected and late, and only when I saw the angry look on the parking attendants face did I remember I told him two hours ago that I would only be parking for fifteen minutes. Was it to be one of those days? When I got to the hotel I found out about mishap number two: Warner Bros. was not providing a car for Jay and John to get to the Grammys, so they had decided to walk. I thought that it was rather odd for a Grammy nominated artist on a major label to have to find their own transportation to the ceremony, but Jay and John took it in stride. I figured since I wasn’t getting into the show now, at least I could get footage of the guys walking to the ceremony as some sort of a consolation prize. However, how would we get to the party? Jay’s brother, who had flown out to Los Angeles for the show, saved the day. He hired a car that would pick up the guys at the hotel after the show, and take them to the party. He then graciously offered to let us (the film crew) ride in the town car with Jay and John, while they followed in another car. In addition Jay’s girlfriend and John’s date agreed to let us have their seats in the towncar for my cousin the sound mixer, who was thinking of riding in the trunk. That way we could film and record the post-show conversation.
We went upstairs and filmed Jay and John getting ready, and they gave us their thoughts on the chances of them winning (slim, they thought against Johnny Cash and Emmylou Harris, among others), as well as more insight into the relationship with their record label, and the new record. We then followed them outside and down the street as we began our walk to the show. I’m sure we made a strange congregation, with most of us walking backwards. When we got close to the Staples Center, there was a huge crowd of people hoping to catch a glimpse of Madonna or somebody, and we had to fight our way through. We were stopped at the intersection by police, and Jay and John went on through, having the proper credentials. However, we still heard their conversation, as they were wearing radio microphones that they had forgotten to give back to soundman Moe. Moe recorded their voices as they receded from view. John was heard asking, “Have you seen my date?”
The crew retreated back to the hotel to wait out the ceremony. We all ended up in the bar watching the telecast. The “best folk artist” was not a televised category, so we just had to wait. We had a few beers, ate plenty of peanuts, and rigged the town car with lighting so that we could film in it later.
Jay called me from his cell phone in the ceremony to tell me that Wilco did not win. Although he had assured me earlier that he didn’t think there was much of a chance, I still experienced a pang of disappointment when I received the news. I realized that I really wanted them to win, although my belief about the Grammy’s is that it is a mainstream popularity contest, and always has been. Jay said they were headed back to the hotel, so I readied the crew.
The trip to the party produced a few good filmic moments, as Jay and John discussed their feelings about the whole ordeal. Before leaving, I stuffed myself in the car in a rather compromising position to be able to film. I was on my hands and knees in the front seat crouched over the camera, and my ass was poking into the dashboard. Half of me wanted to trip to be long enough to get some great conversation, and the other half (you can guess which half that was) wanted to be out of that car as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the conversation fizzled out long before the trip was over, as the car crawled at one mile and hour through a sea of limos to the party. To make matters worse, the driver, who thought he was doing me a favor, went around the block a few extra times without telling anybody.
We got to the red carpet, piled out of the car, and filmed the guys walking into the party. Jay got a kick out of seeing Bette Midler, and of course we were stopped at the party entrance, and filming ended for the night. Jay and John were kind enough to take me into the party (I knew that black suit would come in handy), where I met the winner of the “best folk album,” Emmylou Harris.
February 21, 2001
The day after the Grammys, and I am back in the Avid bay with Erin working on the trailer. We are working on a particularly tough scene where we are trying to show how a song (in this case, “Hot in the Poor Places”) goes from an acoustic demo to a full blown recording. We had captured the band in the studio working out the chords to “Hot,” but we left the studio at 1 am, and missed a moment of divine inspiration where the band had recorded a whole bunch of noises brought upon by having instruments “play themselves. We came in the next morning only to have Jeff tell us, “you should have stuck around last night-you missed some great stuff.” Thankfully, the band had left everything set up for us, and Jay led us through the studio pointing out how the band had set up different instruments, pedals, and other noisemakers to play themselves “somewhere near the key of B flat.” The instruments included a guitar being played by and egg beater, some marbles in a dish recorded through an echo machine, a drumstick holding down an organ key (with the help of some duct tape) feeding back, and other oddities.
Now we were in the editing bay trying to meld the footage of Jay leading us through the instruments with film of the song being played acoustically. The idea was to build each sound into the acoustic performance until it resembled the finished song. This turned out to be tougher than it looked, and required some serious skills by Erin to sync up all the different sounds.
During this process John Stirratt showed up, and we played back some of the footage for him. I was concerned momentarily that he was going to dislike the footage, and the whole project would become derailed, but John immediately complimented me on the footage, and his sincerity bolstered my confidence. Now that I know John better I know that he is a southern gentleman who truly appreciates anyone trying to create something new, and would be the last person to criticize the work. He watched the process for a good hour, and we showed him selects, and I got the feeling he was truly enjoying watching the footage.
After John left, Erin and I worked for another hour, trying to resolve the “Hot” scene. Neither of us had a clue about how to end it. We had it up to a point where Jay was playing a morse code CD through a phasing pedal with a big silly grin on his face. That was the image frozen on the screen when Jay Bennett in the flesh showed up. He immediately laughed and said,”oh God, I look fat.” Had brought his brother and his girlfriend, and the three of them watched as Erin and I showed him the trailer so far, plus some completed footage. As they were watching, Jay appeared over my shoulder, looking at the mixer on the table. I could tell the engineer in him was itching to say something. “Which channel is my voice?” he said. I showed him, and he asked if he could tweak some of the lower-mid’s out of it. Before I knew it, he had pulled up a chair, and started wanting to get involved in the editing. I could tell he was loving how similar it was to mixing a recording. We were just using pictures instead of instruments.
After a while Jay left, and we decided to break for the day. We agreed that we would come in tomorrow and either finish the “Hot” scene, or move on and come back to it later if it wasn’t working.
February 26, 2001
We are making serious progress on the trailer. We finished “Hot in the Poor Places,” with an ending that I am really proud of-the whole song comes to a crescendo, and then there is dead silence and we are back to Tony Margherita’s face. We have used Tony three times in the trailer so far, and his comments are working as narration for the different topics that we hope to cover in the film. When we got done with work today, Erin gave me another VHS of our progress so far, which she inexplicably titled “The Life of A Fish.” I guess her theory was that if it was found by somebody else, they would not actually want to watch it.
March 2, 2001
We are done with the trailer, and I am very happy with the way it has turned out. What was going to be a 3-5 minute teaser trailer has turned into a twelve minute chunk of the movie. It starts with Tony Margherita, then travels through the streets of downtown Chicago while the opening credits roll. Five minutes of studio footage follow, showing the recording of two songs, “Hot in the Poor Places,” and “Ashes of American Flags.” We then take a road trip with Jeff as he listens to a rough mix of “Magazine Called Sunset” on the car stereo. We end up at Jeff’s house and go for a walk with he and his son Spencer as the closing credits roll.
All and all, I think it is fairly representative of the movie I want to make, and I am pleased with the timeless quality that the black and white film is giving. I am excited to show it to a few people to see their reactions. My first stop is Fusion Films, where I show it to producer Peter.
Peter watched the trailer a few times through, and thought it was good enough as is to send to some possible financiers. He had a few suggestions, and now that I have watched it 10 times or so, I have a few myself. In the next few days I will do final tweaking, because my hardest critics, Jeff Tweedy and Tony Margherita, will be watching the trailer next week .
March 3, 2001
Today I flew up to San Francisco to begin phase 3 of the Wilco film. Jeff is currently doing a solo tour which includes a stop at the Great American Music Hall for two nights, and I plan to film one of those nights. I traveled up to San Francisco with Paul Hughen, who was the cameraman on Phase 2. We were to meet up with Darcy, a producer that works with me on still photo shoots, and who would be helping me with Phase 3. Darcy met us at the airport and drove us to the GAMH, which is situated right next to a strip club. But, as promised by Tony Margherita, it is a beautiful venue to shoot in, with a very beautiful stage and old world balconies. There is even a balcony directly over the stage that I immediately spied as my perch for the beginning of the show.
We met up with the stage manager, who agreed to give us the light we needed, and she showed us around the backstage area. Paul and I decided that we could secretly change all the light bulbs in the hallway leading to the stage to a higher wattage, allowing us to follow Jeff to the stage from his dressing room. We figured out how to light the dressing room in a fairly non-obtrusive way, and figured out camera angles. We even checked out the hotel where we would be staying, and met the guy who would be our camera assistant the next week.
I got home late, and tired, but I was looking forward to getting some actual performance on film, and was curious to see how Jeff’s songs would sound in an acoustic environment. Although the rest of the band is not involved in Jeff’s solo shows, it still seems essential to me to chart the growth of the new songs.
It seems now that the movie is so far underway that it can’t really be stopped. Little did I know the obstacles that faced me in the months ahead. I would probably have quit if I had known how difficult it was going to become to finish this movie.
March 7, 2001
Today we traveled back up to San Francisco to film Jeff’s solo show. He is actually playing tomorrow and the next night, but we figured we would get in a night early to get set up. Peter flew up later in the day, and we planned a dinner with Jeff, Tony, Peter, myself, and the tour manager, Daniel.
Jeff and crew showed up in the tour van and I did a double-take. Jeff had grown a bushy beard, but it grew so low on his face that it looked like an Abraham Lincoln beard. His hair had also gotten long, giving him the appearance of a woodsman or rapist. We all went to dinner, and were treated to road stories that I probably shouldn’t repeat here. Jeff and Tony asked how the trailer was going, and we told him we had a copy with us, and that we could show them tomorrow. Dinner ended, and we all went back to the hotel.
March 8, 2001
Thank you Rosita. Rosita is the kind woman who runs the front desk of the hotel we are staying in, which does NOT have a supply of VCR’s for any guest that asks for one. I called down to the front desk this morning and asked for a VCR to be sent up to the room, and the manager curtly informed me there was no way this could happen. Of course, I told Jeff and Tony to come by my room to see the trailer at 1pm, and now I had no VCR. I went down to the front desk where I encountered Rosita. She made sure the manager wasn’t in earshot and told me that there was a VCR in the manager’s office. He was leaving soon, she told me, and she would try to help me out. I thanked her and gave her a conspirital wink.
Sure enough, an hour later, I answered a knock on my door to find Rosita standing there with a dusty VCR, it’s wires trailing behind her like guts. She had a big grin on her face, which got bigger when I gave her a big tip, and wallah, I was in business. Now on to bigger problems: would Jeff and Tony like the trailer. Would Tony appreciate his face being the first image to appear on the screen? Would Jeff regret the footage of his belly with a face drawn on it (by Jay)? I started having second thoughts-what was I doing showing these guys the footage while I was in the middle of making the film. But it was too late, I had invited them, and they were coming.
Jeff and Tony sat on my bed exactly one hour later, taking in the trailer. What must be going through their heads? Neither said a word until it ended, and then Jeff asked to see it again. I rewound it, and they watched it through again. Then a very funny thing happened-they both said it was very good, then Tony said-do I come off all right at the beginning? And Jeff said, “I can’t believe I let my stomach be filmed. They had both responded to my fears, but neither held me responsible. I realized then that the whole band and Tony had truly committed to the film, and to letting me have total creative control. Although we had discussed this the first time I had met them, it was nice to see that it held up.
We talked a little more, and Jeff managed to articulate that from a outsider point of view, he thought the trailer looked great, and was very cool, and from a personal point of view, he hoped he would be portrayed as accurately and honestly as possible. I walked away from this experience with a lot more trust and respect for Jeff, and I knew he was not going to try to control the film.
We showed up at the Great American Music Hall at around 3pm. Jeff was coming in to soundcheck at 5pm and we wanted to have the backstage dressing room lit, and have our camera positions ready. Paul and I hung lights in the dressing room, and changed out light bulbs. It looked like the light fixtures were from the turn of the century, and I was honestly worried one of us would be electrocuted! But everything turned out okay, and we filmed Jeff’s soundcheck, using that time to get light readings and figure out angles. I stayed onstage with Jeff for most of the soundcheck, filming very close-up shots.
Jeff hung around after soundcheck, a practice I was soon to find out was common. He seemed to like sitting in the dressing room playing guitar, reading and listening to music. Jeff had brought along a comedian to be his opening act, a guy named Fred Armistad. Fred apparently had an abundance of characters, and for this tour he was Farasito, the latin lover and bongo drum player. We had some fun filming Farasito interviewing Jeff, and vice versa. I liked the fact that Jeff didn’t go the obvious route of having another musician open his shows, but rather chose an act that added dimension to the show. By having a comedian Jeff was also saying that singer-songwriters were not required to take themselves so seriously. Anyway, Fred is hilarious and he seemed to put Jeff in a very good mood.
About 30 minutes before Jeff was to go on stage he asked us to leave him alone for a little bit, asking for the first “work-stoppage” of the whole film. We complied, and left the dressing room.
We filmed the whole show with two cameras. Paul worked from the balconies, while I roamed around the front of the stage. However, when the show started, I was at my perch above the stage, capturing the crowd. When I got tired of filming the back of Jeff’s head, I came down, and filmed from the front of the stage. The crowd was respectful and enthusiastic, and Jeff bantered with them more than I had ever seen him do at a Wilco show. He was at times insightful, hilarious, and downright silly. But one thing became apparent, he was not afraid to put himself out there without a band, and he connected with the audience on a very personal level. As I was filming I realized that the only things in my shot were a man with a guitar and a microphone, and a black stage. This footage could be from anytime in the last 70 years. Again, the timeless theme surfaces.
He finished the set and I followed him down to the dressing room. He had a moment of insecurity, saying to me, “Sorry Sam, that wasn’t a very good show.” I would watch the transferred footage later and disagree with him wholeheartedly.
We filmed the after-show formalities. About fifteen people crammed into the dressing room and tried to make small-talk with Jeff, while Jeff tried to be very polite about it. One person asked Jeff about weather patterns in Chicago, and I could see the look on Jeff’s face saying “How did I get into this conversation?” This went on for about 20 minutes, during which time Jeff signed a few posters, and was very gracious.
Jeff then walked out of the dressing room, and all of a sudden, everybody in there realized how cramped and small of a space it was, and how they now had no purpose being in there. They filed out past the camera one by one, leaving an empty room in my frame. Jeff then re-appeared, exhaled heavily, and sat down on the couch to eat a banana.
I sat down for a little impromptu filmed conversation to ask Jeff why he had asked for some time before the show. He explained that he sometimes experiences anxiety and an unsettledness before going on stage. He also told me about his severe migrane headaches that he has had since he was a child. This small detail would end up coming up later in a very interesting way.
March 11, 2001
Today was Jeff’s solo show at the Knitting Factory in Los Angeles, and I decided to go not as a filmmaker, but just as a spectator. It had been a long time since I had seen Jeff or Wilco perform without sticking a camera in their face, and I was excited to get a chance to just hear the show. I showed up for soundcheck, and had a revealing half-hour with Tony Margherita in the office of the club as he tried to sort out the guest list. Now, for those of you that aren’t familiar with the concept of the guest list, when a band does a show they get a certain number of tickets to give away to family, friends, press, and industry folks. The guest list never creates a problem in a city like Denver, but in places like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, it can become more complicated than planning a wedding. For some strange reason, most people in the music industry will not go see a show unless they don’t have to pay for it, and consider it a major insult to be left off of a guest list. But at a place like the Knitting Factory, which maybe holds 200 people, you can see what having to get 60 people in for free would do to the profits. Also, giant guest lists often prevent true fans from getting in to see a show because the number of tickets for sale are severely limited.
So this was the headache I walked in on as Tony and tour manager Daniel were scanning a list of about 60 names trying to decide whom to put on the list. I should also mention that when a name is put on a guest list, it almost always has the words “plus one” next to it. This allows the guest to bring a guest‹which halves the amount of people you can actually put on the list (unless you want to embarrass that person at the door when they show up with a date).
As Tony was whittling down the list he explained the intricacies of this process, and admitted that it usually resulted in more people being pissed off than thankful. I watched Tony and Daniel consider each name, often being brutally frank about that person’s reason for needing to be on the list. It was both humorous and indicative of how hot of a ticket this show was, with ticket requests outweighing capacity by 300%. I thought I even detected a whiff of pride in Tony’s difficult task, as I’m sure this is the kind of problem a manager dreams of having. I’m sure it’s much more satisfying to keep people out of the club than to try to figure out how to fill it.
I went back down to the club to watch Jeff soundcheck, and then sat with him backstage and talked about how the shows in San Francisco went. I know I am getting closer to my documentary subject now, because I didn’t even feel that self-conscious about picking up Jeff’s 1959 Martin guitar and playing a few chords while we chatted. I guess in the traditional sense of what a documentary film is supposed to be, that is crossing the line, but there is a comfort level building between Jeff and I that seems to benefit the making of this film in the sense that the more comfortable Jeff is around me and vice versa, the less the camera will feel like an intrusion.
After about 15 minutes of this Jeff introduced me to Howie Klien, the big, kind-faced (soon to be departed) president of Reprise records. He and Jeff seemed very close, and talked a bit about the progress of the record.
I spent a completely enjoyable two hours watching Jeff’s show that night, remembering why I was drawn to make this movie in the first place. Jeff’s songs were both electrifying and intimate in a solo setting, and his voice sounded honest and clear, perhaps because it wasn’t competing with a whole band. Jeff is a pure storyteller much like Dylan or Nick Drake, and he held the crowd silent and captivated for the entire evening.
After the show I was introduced to a man named Albert Berger. He is a film producer who, along with Terry Zwigoff, made the movie “Crumb,” which was a documentary about an eccentric and controversial comic artist that won the audience award at the Sundance film festival a few years back. As it turns out, Albert is a big fan of Wilco, and he and his partner Ron Yerxa are very interested in seeing our trailer and discussing ways they could help us with our film.
I drove home that night excited by the prospect that some legitimate film folks wanted to get involved in this project. I couldn’t wait to hear what they had to say.
March 12, 2001
I just came home from a very interesting dinner with Tony Margherita, Peter, Albert Berger, and Ron Yerxka. It all started yesterday the day after Jeff’s solo show) when Peter and I took the trailer in to show Albert and Ron.
Albert Berber and Ron Yerxka run a company called Bona Fide, and they have been producing movies together for a long time. In addition to Crumb, they produced Election, the Wood, and are currently working on two films, Cold Mountain, and Pumpkin. They have office space in Los Angeles, in the old CAA building. My first real impression of Albert was him sitting behind a desk in a wood paneled room with all of Hollywood framed behind him in the window. There was a coffee table, a couch, a few movie posters, and a giant bookshelf with mostly music and film biographies. I noted several Dylan books, and concluded he was probably an all right guy.
Peter and I spoke to Albert for a while, explaining the project, and our hopes for finding financing to finish the movie. We told him we really wanted to release the film theatrically, rather than just doing a DVD. He in turn told us that he was a big Wilco fan, and had even talked with a fimmaker in the past about doing a Wilco documentary, but it had never come to fruition. He then explained how impossible what we were trying to do was. He informed us that Crumb took nine years to make, and that music documentaries are a hard sell. Rather than feeling the excitement of finding a partner, I felt like I was in the doctor’s office finding out I had some incurable disease! But the more we talked I realized Albert is a realist, and this is probably why he has had success in this very fickle and unpredictable industry.
Ron joined us, and together he and Albert explained to Peter and I the different ways a film gets financed. Basically, they said, we had two options. The first is known as a limited partnership, where you find several (10-100) individual investors who put up an amount anywhere from $5000 to $50000, and when the film makes money the investors get their return investment back plus a predetermined percentage of the profits. Many independent films are made this way, including the Coen brothers first film, Blood Simple. The main drawback with this type of financing is that it can take a very long time, which doesn’t often work for a documentary project.
The second form of financing for a project like this comes in the form of a single large investor who has something to be gained by being a part of the project (other than just pure profit). These kind of investors would gage the marketing potential of aligning themselves with the film. For instance, there is a film about the beginnings of skateboarding that won the audience award at Sundance last year, make by ex-skateboarder Stacy Peralta. The entire project was financed by the Vans shoe company, who make shoes and apparel for skateboarding. The company may or not make their money back on the film, but they feel being associated with it raises their credibility and “cool-factor” in their marketplace.
The obvious choice in this model would be Wilco’s record company, Reprise. They have the most to gain by Wilco becoming a more high-profile band. Other ideas would include a major sponsorship by a beverage company (Jeff drinks enough diet Cokes to irrigate a small country), or some other product that would like to be tied in with a band.
We all threw ideas out, some more hilarious than others (the American Cancer Society was my idea), but the more I thought about it, they didn’t seem feasible. I did not want to go with any financer that would have any say, creatively speaking, in the finished film. That definitely excluded the record company. The last thing I wanted to do was created some pseudo film/marketing tool for Reprise records (and I don’t think the band wants that either). The two most interesting ideas that came up in the meeting (once I got over my disappointment in finding out that Albert and Ron don’t actually finance movies, but find financing for movies) were the Experience Music Project in Seattle, and Apple Computers. The EMP is a rock museum in Seattle with a big splashy building designed by architect Frank Geahry. It was created by Microsoft’s Paul Allen to be kind of the opposite of the Rock and Roll hall of fame, with exhibits created to give the visitor the feeling of being a part of rock and roll. Visitors can play guitars and drums, and sit in on a mixing session. We all thought that this film, which is trying to capture the feeling of what it is like to make a record, might be a good fit for the museum. The Apple idea came mostly from the “think different” ads, which seem to fit with a band like Wilco. Somehow Wilco just doesn’t strike me as a band that would be sponsored by Lite beer, or Sprite, but maybe Apple would latch on to the spirit of independent creativity. We all agreed to think more about these ideas.
Almost as an afterthought (especially for me, when I found out Albert wasn’t going to pull out his checkbook) we adjourned to Ron’s office to show the trailer. They both watched the eleven or so minutes silently, and afterwards were even more excited about the film. Albert said that it was visually very striking, which made me feel very proud.
We agreed to meet the next night for dinner with Tony Margherita, who was staying behind in Los Angeles for a few days after Jeff’s solo show to do some business.
The five of us; Tony, Albert, Ron, Peter and myself, met at a very fine restaurant in Los Angeles the next night, which struck me as kind of ironic, considering we were ( I mean I was) scraping together every dollar to make this film. I felt like we should be eating at Subway, or something. But I have to admit, I felt like the film had just been lifted to the next level as we all sat down and ordered wine, a little rock garden waterfall gurgling behind us. I think Ron and Albert were even wearing ties.
We discussed different forms of creative financing, kind of giving Tony the summary of our discussion the day before. As Albert and Ron and Peter went on about all the different ways to gather money, my mind drifted, and I heard less and less of their conversation. A little germ of an idea that had started in my head yesterday was starting to make more sense to me, and that was that no one would finance this movie until we got a hell of a lot closer to being done. I just couldn’t see someone taking a risk on a first time filmmaker based on eleven minutes of footage. Furthermore, anyone who would take that risk would want some control of the final creative decisions. I was also aware that the only person who really believed this film could be a reality (besides myself) was Peter. I made up my mind right there that I was going to have to throw out my “cap” on spending money on this film, and figure out some way to keep going on my own. If this means loans and debt, then so be it. Now, I don’t want to sound like this was some sort of epiphany, because it wasn’t. In real life I don’t think there is any one moment when a bolt of lightning comes down and strikes you and you change your life. I think I just gradually realized that I had a bigger stake than anyone else in this film, and if it was going to be done right, I would have to see it through. There wasn’t going to be some magic pen and checkbook in the sky giving me the money to finish the film, and then disappearing so that I could do it however I wanted.
I tuned back into the conversation at the table as Peter was talking about an idea we had had for a while now, which was to create a website for the film. Ron and Albert seemed very interested in this idea, and even thought of it as maybe a way to get some financing. Their take was that the fans of the band could become “limited partners,” or investors in the film by buying film merchandise. There was also talk of taking donations in exchange for on-screen credit. (Luckily this idea was eventually squashed‹I couldn’t imagine actually soliciting money from fans because if the film ever did make a profit I would feel very guilty about this strange form of charity.)
The merchandise idea, however, was a good one. This way fans could feel like they were supporting the film, but would still get something for their money. I shared some of my ideas for what the website could be, notably as a place where fans could see the in-progress, behind the scenes footage, therefore building excitement about the eventual release. I also realized after the first week of shooting that no matter how full our DVD release was of extra footage, we could never fit all of the moments I was getting on film into it. Therefore the website could be an extension of the movie and the DVD, where fans could see footage that would be available nowhere else.
Albert and Ron weighed in with some great ideas about using Apple’s movie software “Quicktime,” and even said that they had a friend who was a fan of the band who happened to design websites. Then I weighed in with an idea that has become my personal labor of love and also (for those of you reading this and wondering why I am 10 months behind schedule) my own personal hell: the filmmakers diary. As I sit up late at night and try to transcribe and make sense of my handwritten notes from months ago, I wonder if this was such a good idea. However, at the end of the day I do enjoy writing. I just never quite realized how much time it takes!
Anyway, getting back to the dinner, we all agreed that a website was a good idea (although I think Tony was the most cautious about how we presented ourselves‹and I think with good reason. He didn’t want this to turn into something that could backfire for the band). We agreed to meet with Albert’s friend, and also Lawrence Azzarad, a graphic designer who had done the artwork for Summerteeth. The idea was to have something up on the web in a month (ha ha). We left the restauaunt full of good food, good wine, and good intentions.
March 23, 2001
I spoke to Jeff on the phone yesterday (he is now returning phone calls a little more regularly) and he informed me that the band was going into CRC studios in Chicago at the end of this week to do some final recording, and start mixing the record. I told him I wouldn’t miss it for the world, and hung up to do some serious panicking. I had less than a week to prep for a very important part of the film. Furthermore, I still didn’t have any money. I called Peter, told him that we couldn’t miss this, and then I called Ron and Albert. They had told me to keep them abreast of the project, so I thought I would see if they had any resources to offer. Ron answered the phone, and after I explained the situation said that he knew a woman in Kodak’s entertainment imaging department, and that he would give her a call to see if we could get a discount on film stock. (And considering film stock costs about $100 per every 10 minutes, this was very good news).
I decided to do this project without a producer, and without any one helping on the lighting prep. I figured we could save a lot of money by me showing up the day before and hanging lights myself. I reasoned that if I could get the same crew, we might be able to get by without a producer, provided I kept an eye on EVERYTHING (bad idea). Now, for those of you wondering what “everything is,” I will give you a brief rundown. (And this is not to say I didn’t have help, because Peter’s office was working with me a bit on this, but when I eventually got to Chicago, I would be on my own). First, there are the travel plans: hotel, per diem, transportation and airfare for myself and soundman Roger. Then there is the negotiating stage where I haggle with the camera assistant, the soundman, the lighting company, the camera rental company, the film permit office, the recording studio, the lab, etc etc, over the rates, method of payment, and terms. Then insurance must be secured for every person and every piece of gear. Then a lighting package and a camera package have to be put together. Now, don’t forget about shipping — mercifully the lights were rented out of Chicago, but the camera package has to be shipped: all twelve cases. Then there is the stage of setting up purchase orders and shipping instructions to get the unexposed film from Los Angeles to Chicago, and the exposed film from Chicago to our lab in Seattle — all with the proper film exposure and camera notes. Then there are countless conversations with the soundman and the recording studio to figure out how to get a sound feed off the board while the band mixed the record, and somehow marry that with the dialog recordings. Then there is the scheduling of the camera assistant‹as it turns out assistant Dan can only be there one day, but he will help me schedule replacements for the next two days (that’s twelve more phone calls). I could go on but I think you get the idea…
About three hours after ordering our film stock from Kodak I received a call from Ron‹he told me to call a woman at Kodak named Candace Chatman, who runs the “entertainment imaging department” (I still don’t know exactly what that is, but it is by far my favorite department at Kodak!). I thanked Ron and immediately called Candace. She told me that Ron had told her all about the film, she had seen the trailer, and that she wanted to help me out. She told me she could secure 30 rolls of film for free (WOW) now, and maybe there would be more later. I couldn’t believe how nice of a gesture this was, (and as I later retold people in the film industry this story I became even more impressed with Candace, because apparently, this just doesn’t happen). I thanked her profusely, and promised to keep her informed of my progress. I hung up the phone and just sat there smiling for a minute. I had even more confidence at that moment that this film would be finished someday.
Thinking about it later, I finally rationed one of two things: one, either Candace and Ron go way back and this is a really nice favor to Ron that I happen to be the benefactor of, or two, maybe Kodak is responding to the alarming (alarming if you manufacture film) trend of digital filmmaking, and decided to help us because we were shooting on a very classic black and white film stock. Either way, I couldn’t be happier.
It looked very much like I would be on a plane to Chicago in a few days to see what the new songs had morphed into. I couldn’t wait.
March 29, 2001
I arrived in Chicago today, and took a cab to CRC recording studio. I did not have my usual Chicago volunteer crew so I agreed to meet everyone at the studio.
Not an hour after I landed I was setting up lights and cables around the control room and studio space. CRC is a really professional and beautiful studio, and from what I understand, part or all of Being There was recorded here. The staff were very cool about letting me put up lights and equipment, and I did my best to hide the lights so that I could shoot from any angle in the control room, and then pan out through the control room window into the studio to capture the action out there. But I should back up and explain, for someone that has never been in a recording studio, what one looks like.
Imagine the set of Star Trek, and you will start to get an idea of what the control room looks like to an outsider. This room is kind of a hexagon shaped area with a massive mixing console (15 feet wide, 5 feet deep, and probably three thousand buttons and knobs) in the center. It is surrounded by tons of rack-mounted gear, tape machines, and speakers. The back of the room is set up kind of like a lounge, so that listeners can be in the room without getting in the engineers way. (However, the space certainly wasn’t created with a camera crew in mind‹a serious design flaw, in my opinion!). The front of the room is all windows that look into the other three rooms of the studio. These are the areas where the musicians set up and play, and the windows allow for visual communication. This way people are free to make noise in the control room that won’t affect the recording process. The way CRC is set up, you can see three massive rooms without leaving the chair at the mixing console.
As I was lighting I couldn’t help noticing the 12 big boxes laid out on the floor of the studio. Each one contained at least a half dozen master tapes of the new Wilco record. There were also piles of DAT’s and CD’s. Wilco had recorded a massive amount of material, and they now had the task of piecing through it all to figure out what would eventually end up on the album. Little did I know I would eventually be faced with a task equally as daunting: weeding countless hours of footage down to under two hours of a completed movie.
April 3, 2001
I have just completed three very long days of filming! Let me just say up front that I ended up somehow shooting twice the footage I budgeted, and got some great moments. I also managed to capture a band at a serious crossroads: it became apparent that Wilco will not make their deadline to finish the record, and may not even come out of CRC with one song.
We filmed many hours of Wilco in the mixing room trying very hard to mix a record in a democratic fashion, with all 5 members adding input. I got to witness first hand what 14 hours a day in the studio can do to someone, and I got some very interesting moments on film that depict how hard it is to mix a record, and how many decisions have to be made.
I also managed to film more of the recording process, because as the band brought up the mix of one of the songs, they decided to re-track a lot of the parts. In addition, I filmed an impromptu performance by the band, and was able to talk to them all for the first time about Ken Coomer’s departure.
In fact, I did a lot of interviewing on this trip, and was able to gain some new perspective on the record and the band. One of the people I spoke to was engineer Chris Brickley. We sat down at the very end of my visit, and I’m sure the stress that he was feeling at that time was pretty heavy, but he gave me all the time I needed. One of the most interesting comments came about when I asked him if he thought the band was concerned about the album’s commercial potential. He said, ” I don’t think they care if this record sells 2 copies or 500,000 copies, as long as they all get a copy of it to listen to.” For me, that pretty much summed up Wilco’s approach to their career. They love what they do.
I spoke to Glenn at length for the first time about joining Wilco, and his thoughts on taking over for Ken Coomer. He talked about the eventuality of playing the old songs (from Summerteeth back) live, and said that there are so many parts that Ken did that he loves, that he hopes he can live up to them. I also got a chance to watch him prepare a bit, and I can honestly say that I have never seen a drummer more prepared than Glenn. He had a whole notebook filled with notes on the songs. He knew that as soon as this record was finished he would be going on the road with very little rehearsal, and needed to know about 60 songs.
I spent one morning filming manager Tony Margherita, and I foolishly suggested we do it “down by the lake.” We met on Lake Shore Drive: myself, camera assistant Dan, soundman Roger, and Tony. The idea was to get a very gray lake and sky background behind Tony while I interviewed him. Well, being from California, I was unaware that when it’s a balmy 38 in the city, it can be 20 degrees colder by the lake (and it was). Tony gamely sat on a rock and we began our interview, trying to keep from shivering, or at least audibly chattering our teeth. We were not 10 minutes into it when the quiet of the morning was shattered by the sound of some giant battering ram slamming into the earth every 5 seconds. We had failed to notice the construction site just behind us. We had to pick up and move a mile up the lake (to an equally freezing location) and start all over again.
Perhaps the most interesting moment I filmed is when Jeff sat down to work on some new songs, and I got to witness the songwriting process. Jeff spread out a pile of notebooks around him and paged through them looking for lyrics. When he hit on a page that seemed promising, he would start playing, and try to fit the words into the chords he was playing. I wondered if I was hearing a throwaway, or a song that would appear on the next record!
There were also some very funny moments‹more examples of what happens when 5 people are stuck in a room together for a week but I will save those for the film.
April 11, 2001
I am beginning notice a pattern in my behavior as this film progresses. I return from a week of shooting exhausted and excited to see the footage I have just shot. I wait anxiously for the neg report from our film lab in Seattle (a neg report is when the lab calls you and tells you the condition of the processed film. Luckily so far we have had good neg reports — no major scratches or bad exposures) then schedule a transfer session. At about that point I stop and realize how much money was just spent, and how many more thousands of dollars will soon go to the transfer house. Now my excitement is turning to anxiety and dread. Then I actually go to the transfer session, and get excited all over again when I see the first hour of footage.
That is where I am now as I watch the footage shot at CRC recording studios in Chicago. And as more and more footage comes up I start worrying about just how I am going to make this part of the film make sense. I have many many hours of the band mixing the record, which is a long and tedious process at best. There are long stretches of time when a single kick-drum beat will be e.q.’ed, compressed, and tweaked, and the atmosphere becomes akin to waiting for a bus. However, within all of that time some important things happened in regards to the record, and the band. The challenge for me is to put it all together in a way that makes sense.
Mixing a record and editing a film are very similar processes. You come into the studio with hours of raw material which can be assembled in a million different ways, and your job is to shape and guide the material in a direction that hopefully stays true to the intent of the raw material. However, in the process of creating all of this material you can become very attached to the individual elements — so much so that it may be difficult to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. That is why directors have editors — because an editor is impartial to individual bits of footage, and if they are good, they will find the material that best tells the story.
What I am leading up to in a very convoluted way is that Wilco went into CRC to mix their own record. All five of them, plus engineer Chris, planned to go about the mixing process in a democratic way — with all of them giving input into the mixing of the songs. To this outsider, that is an enormous task (although one that Wilco has successfully managed to succeed at in the past). Now it seems that my task is to take the many hours of footage that I shot at CRC and shape it into a story about the complexity and frustration involved in taking on a task like this. I think Wilco is aware that they have probably their most personal and complex record nearly done, and each one of them is dearly attached to making it great. The footage I shot shows the enormous amount of work that the band put in to these mixing sessions.
With each segment of this movie that I film, my task gets greater. I am not trying to make an overwrought drama here, but it seems as though this story is starting to become more complex than I originally imagined.
April 17, 2001
I received a call today from a producer on the show “CBS Sunday Morning.” His name was Ramon Parkins, and he his voice made me think he had been living in New York and and producing television shows for a long time. It was weary and to the point. But when he explained why he was calling his voice began to change, taking on enthusiasm and excitement. He was doing a piece on songwriters, specifically Jeff Tweedy and Ryan Adams, and had heard that I was filming a Wilco documentary. He wanted to know if I had any footage of Jeff by himself that could be used in the piece. I immediately thought of the footage of Jeff’s solo show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. Wouldn’t that be a great early way to let people know about this film! Then I thought of how broke the production was, and how much money I owed the transfer house.
Then I remembered that Ramon was still on the phone, waiting for an answer.
“Well,” I said, I have a lot of nice footage of Jeff onstage solo, and I would love to show it to you, but frankly, the transfer process is still going on, and I haven’t even been able to look at the footage because I don’t have a 3/4 machine or a Digibeta deck to look at it on, and I would need to pay an editor to put it in some sort of reasonable order… and…”
I think Ramon knew where I was going with this, and he told me that they rarely pay for their footage, and in cases such as this record companies were usually more than happy to supply footage in exchange for the exposure. However, he said, he thought he could get me a little money for the film, but that he needed the material quick. Quite, frankly, the amount he then offered me was so low in comparison to what the footage cost me to shoot that it was almost laughable, but it was a great opportunity for me to get the word out about the film, so I said okay, I would try to throw something together in the next week and send it to him.
I got off of the phone torn, thinking that on one hand this was a great chance to get people talking about the film, and that maybe the show would direct the right financer to the movie, but on the other hand, CBS has a hell of a lot more money than me, and yet they were asking ME for free content. I had to settle for the fact that they were giving me a paltry sum, which I would hopefully pass on to editor Erin after asking her for another favor — to cut this new little project together with me.
I got on the phone with her, and she said that we could sneak the project in to her bay in the afternoons and evenings of the end of this week. I explained I had a little money to pay her, and she declined it! I told her I was paying her regardless, and she had no say in it. She laughed, and told me to call her tomorrow to start.
April 28, 2001
Today I met the man that will be building and hosting our Wilcofilm website. Albert and Ron have a friend from Chicago, Bernie, who creates websites for films and other entertainment ventures. Apparently Bernie is also a Wilco fan, and one hell of a nice guy.
Peter and I drove to Bernie’s office in Culver City, a funny little community of movie studios, industrial spaces, and architects. Bernie’s office was small and hard to find, especially since Peter had forgotten the address. When we found it, we buzzed the door buzzer and were greeted by Bernie himself, who led us inside to a conference room with a giant chalkboard, a table, and a few chairs. We all said hello, and sat down.
The door buzzed again, and Lawrence Azzerad walked in. Lawrence is the graphic designer who did the Summerteeth artwork, and has also done numerous other Wilco graphics. He has agreed to help us with our initial graphic design on the film.
We talked about the proposed website for at least an hour, with Bernie confirming that his work would be gratis. As we continued to talk I realized that his offer was extremely generous, as I had no idea what went into designing and maintaining a website. I tuned out during most of the technical stuff, but there seems to be a server, and something called uploading, and compression, and hosting, and it all sounds pretty complicated. Judging from the other projects written on the wall (mostly movie titiles that Bernie’s company made websites for) it was not a cheap process.
I told Bernie about what I wanted the website to be like, which is almost exactly what it became. Mainly, I didn’t want it to be a site that people went to once, and then never visited again. I also didn’t want it to be one big advertisement that had no content. Basically I wanted it to be a companion piece to the film, a place where you could see extra scenes and get to know more about the process of making the film. Truth be told, I also saw it as a place where people who wanted to help, or had something to offer (like Lawrence or Bernie) could find us.
We also discussed the merchandise part of the site, which would give people a chance to directly support the film by buying a poster or t-shirt. (This has taken months and months to get off the ground, but is finally a reality). Lawrence gallantly offered to design the merchandise and the entire site, which made Bernie really happy because it took one giant step of the production out of his office.
Of course we also discussed the filmmaker’s diary, which I claimed I could have up to date by the time the site launched. Ha ha ha ha. (For anyone reading this, I know I have fallen hopelessly behind on this thing, but stay with me, because I am committed to finishing it no matter what).
The meeting ended with Lawrence, Bernie and I all having giant tasks to complete in order to make the site a reality. Lawrence wanted to immediately pull still frames from the footage we shot to make the pages, so he planned a time to go over to Fusion and do that. I had to select the biweekly film clips that would run on the site in Quicktime. And poor Bernie had to build the whole thing, put it up on the server, and make it all work.
May 4, 2001
Today was a long day. After a full day of work in my other life as a photographer, I met up with editor Erin at 6pm to start cutting the footage for CBS Sunday Morning of Jeff’s solo show. Erin had already digitized all of the relevant footage, and was ready for me when I showed up. Digitizing involves inputing the footage from the tapes (in real time) into the Avid so it can be cut up and re-assembled non-destructively. Erin inputted every complete song that we had on film of Jeff’s show at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.
We started by seeing which songs had the most coverage. Since we only had two cameras at the show, some songs were unusable due to both cameras being either out of film at the same time, or some other issue. Sometimes both cameramen will be reframing or refocusing the shot at the same point in the song, so you have a hole where you can’t use either camera. This is why when you watch MTV Unplugged or something like that there are 6 or 7 cameramen. This ensures that there is complete coverage of every song. However, we do not have the MTV/Viacom budget, so we made do with two cameramen. In a way this works to our advantage, because we are forced to stay with shots longer, creating a different feeling that the quick-cut editing style made popular in concert films in the last decade. These long, uninterrupted shots give the film a timeless quality, and allow the viewer to really study the person in the frame.
Or that’s what we tell ourselves.
Our next step is to determine out of all the complete songs which are our favorite performances. (Actually our next step was to order dinner, as it was getting close to nine p.m. Erin grabbed a menu from a Chinese place close by, and soon I was munching on some Kung Pao chicken while Erin delicately ate some tofu concoction.)
We chose three songs, Hesitating Beauty, Sunken Treasure, and Not For the Season, a new song that I absolutely loved. For the next three hours we cut and manipulated and moved footage around and physically forced these songs into a reasonable (and moving, if I do say so myself) edit. I found out something else too — having only two cameras considerably speeds up the edit times because often you have no choice as to what shot to use. Also, this was strictly concert footage, which cuts together pretty fast, because you are cutting to a song. Thirdly, Erin is probably the fastest editor on the planet — she attacks the Avid keyboard like a court reporter at an Evelyn Wood bankruptcy hearing. Long story short, by 2 am we had three songs cut.
Erin had one more night booked to work on this cut, but since we were finished we decided to use the next night to pull the website clips. I figured we could pull about 24 clips, and be set up for the first two months of the website.
May 11, 2001
I got a call from Tony Margherita today. He asked me if I wanted to do the photographs for the new Wilco record. Of course I said yes, and he then told me to get in touch with Lawrence Azzerad, who would be designing the package for the record. I already was in touch with Lawrence because of the website, so I called him to discuss the record and the site.
In my career as a photographer I have photographed a lot of celebrities. Most of my picture taking career has involved shooting for the likes of Vanity Fair, Esquire, Entertainment Weekly, Premiere, etc. Occasionally I will do a band, but it is more likely that I would get a call to shoot a solo artist, because there are not a lot of band shots in my portfolio. I should explain: all working independent photographers have portfolios, or books (as they are referred to often) which they use to show potential clients their work. It gives the client an idea of what you like to do, and what you are capable of. It can also act as a crutch for an art director who is lacking an idea, and will call 20 books into his office and use them for inspiration (or outright copying) to come up with an idea. You just hope that art director hires the photographer he stole the idea from!
So anyway, my portfolio has grown and multiplied as I have advanced as a photographer. I now have 12 identical 25 pound 75 page portfolios that cost a fortune to fedex around the country. They get updated everytime I shoot some new images that I feel should be in the book, and they occasionally have to be repaired or replaced. ( I don’t know what goes on in some of these art directors offices, but the portfolio suffers some odd abuse!).
What I am getting at is that everyone in the band and the Wilco organization responded very positively to my portfolio, but yet it looks nothing like a typical rock photographer’s book. I decided that I wasn’t going to worry about that, and that I would just try to make pictures that looked like the record sounded.
When I talked to Lawrence about it we both agreed that the images I had filmed of the Chicago skyline worked very well in the trailer, and seemed to capture the mood of the record. I told Lawrence that I would love to create still images that evoked that same feeling. He wanted to take frame grabs from the actual film, like he was doing for the website, and create record cover ideas out of those. I told him I wanted to shoot the band as four separate individuals (Leroy at this point was still a silent, faceless member). I wanted the simplicity of the images that graced the cover of “Let it Be” 34 years ago. We agreed that I would do two shoots, one of the band members, and one of the city of Chicago. Then Lawrence could put these images together in any way he liked.
The only odd thing for me about this whole thing was that for six months now I had been filming Wilco as a documentarian, the idea being that you film as naturally as possible-observing without influence. As a photographer, I would play a very different role, telling them where to stand, where to look, what to wear, what to do — all day. I had a moment of worry wondering if this would upset the balance of the film. But then I realized that the band had asked me to do this because they felt comfortable with me. The more comfortable they are with me, the more I they can be themselves around me — which would actually help the film.
The other side of the coin would be me turning them down — which would most likely do harm to my filmic relationship with the band. Okay, moral dilemma over, I will photograph the album (like I wasn’t ever going to anyway!).
May 21, 2001
Yesterday the CBS Sunday morning show aired, and I managed to wake up early enough to watch it. It was a very well done piece (in fact, that whole show is very well done; kind of in the spirit of what TV was supposed to be originally — a show that featured many different stories about the human existence without over dramatization — kind of like reading the Sunday paper). The arts section of the show featured a story hosted by Bill Flanagan from VH1, who wanted to spotlight the new crop of singer/songwriters that are gaining critical favor. He spoke about growing up in a generation that had Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Jackson Browne, and talked about how his generation bemoaned the loss of the great singer/songwriters. His take was that they still existed and thrived, you just can’t find them on the radio.
He spotlighted three artists, two of which were Ryan Adams and Jeff Tweedy. He saved Tweedy for last, introducing him as an artist that was poised to be next in the line of great singer/songwriters. He even elevated Tweedy above the other two spotlighted artists, saying that he has the greatest chance of being seen as the next “voice of a generation.” It was about then in the program that our film’s footage came up on the screen. Parts of “Sunken Treasure” and “Not for the Season” were used, and there was a long stretch without any narration. It was exciting seeing the footage on television, as I realized this was the first time any of the film had been seen outside of a few people close to the production.
Although Bill Flanagan never mentioned the film, I was still really happy that it had been used. It was a nice piece about Jeff as a songwriter, and in a way it added relevance to the project, confirming what I had always felt about Wilco.
I decided to call Bill Flanagan this morning (what the hell) and find out if VH1 possibly wanted to be the network to show the film in its entirety when we finished it. After all, he is a bigwig at the station, and he obviously thinks the world of Wilco. (although it is funny considering I set out to make the anti-Behind the Music movie).
I managed to get through to him, and told him how much I liked the piece. He asked me about my film, and I told him the old story: feature length, black and white, independent, etc. He seemed interested, and so I asked him, just out of curiosity, what it would take for VH1 to want to air the movie.
He told me that for VH1 to do this, which would be very unlikely, Reprise would have to really be promoting the band heavily to the station. He went on to explain that Reprise would have to use bigger acts on Warner Bros. as leverage to get Wilco on the station. He went on to explain that when Wilco did a video for “Outta Site (Outta Mind)” some years back, the label made a bit of an effort to push it, but it didn’t immediately take off and the label pulled their support.
What I was beginning to understand as Bill explained this all to me was that this was some legal form of payola: the station needs content, which the record company provides for free in the way of videos, and therefore the labels have a say as to what gets on the air. It dawned on me that Bill’s appearance on CBS Sunday Morning was more of a labor of love than a reflection of the changing industry. Because in reality, the station he worked for was contributing to the very reasons his generation was complaining that they couldn’t hear great music on the radio.
Now, Bill was extremely nice to me on the phone, and asked to see the movie when it was near completion, and certainly didn’t rule out the possibility of the station airing it. But the reality was that great music doesn’t magically find it’s way on to commercial radio or television these days like it did in the 60’s and 70’s, when an FM disc jockey could play a record because he liked it, not because a corporate record label with business connections to a corporate radio conglomerate told him to.
This story is very similar to the power of AM radio in the 50’s and 60’s, where the influence of a record company executive on a radio programmer was massive. Then FM radio came along and challenged that system. Slowly FM radio changed into a version of what AM radio used to be, only now the recording industry have figured out a way to do it “legally.” The bulk of the FM airwaves are owned by Clear Channel, a massive radio and entertainment giant that spits out playlists from it’s central offices that are followed religiously all over the country. I don’t pretend to understand the complexity of it all, but I do know that if I want to hear a great band I will not be finding it on corporate radio. I have to turn to college radio stations (of which there are two great ones in LA KXLU and KCRW, so I am lucky). But, to paraphrase a great songwriter, sometimes I want to throw down my hat and say everything is wrong with this picture.
Well, long story short, old Bill Flanagan got me thinking that there is a much larger story to tell about the record industry. I’m sure my film will just barely scratch the surface of it, but all of this talk begs the question: why are the same 50-60 songs getting played on radio and television in every city in the nation? Where did the diversity that was supposed to be inherent in publicly owned airwaves go? (Yes, the radio waves are owned by you and me).
It occurs to me that Wilco is the model of a middle class band. They tour and sell out 2000-3000 seat halls, earning enough to make a comfortable living. You hardly ever hear them on the radio, or see them on MTV, and yet they end up on critics top ten lists every year. I suppose if this is ever going to change it will take a massive campaign by Reprise records.
There is a great book about all of this called Starmaking Machinery, by Jeffrey Stokes, which was (funny enough) written in the 70’s, when AM radio still had a last gasp hold on pop music. It chronicles the story of the making of a record by a band called “Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen.” It follows the record through its promotion to AM radio, and you realize as you read the story that the band never had a chance; their success or failure had very little to do with the music on the record, and everything to do with how much muscle (read: money) the label was willing (or wasn’t willing in this case) to put behind the promotion and marketing of the record.
It’s a great read for any music lover, and although it is out of print you can find it by searching the internet (today’s FM radio?) like I did. I have to give credit to David Fricke, senior editor at Rolling Stone, for telling me about the book.
Although it really doesn’t matter to me (as a fan) whether Wilco is ever on my local commercial rock radio station, because I am confident Wilco will continue to make records regardless, it is disheartening that some thirteen year old kid living in the middle of the country may not have a chance to be exposed to their music. I was lucky, I am 35 years old and I grew up in an era where you could hear obscure bands and album tracks on mid-day FM radio. Also, every Sunday night a local d.j. would play entire albums start to finish, highlighting a different band each week. My friends and I would religiously gather around the radio, and a love of music was built in to me.
I guess in some ways it is up to Reprise more than anyone else, for a band hires a record label to sell their records. If the band is not selling records, it is the record company’s responsibility. I must say I am very curious to see how this plays out in Wilco’s case.
May 28, 2001
Today I received an email from Sari Karplus, who is our official “webmaster” on the Wilcofilm site. After Bernie figured out what we wanted to do, he turned the project over to Sari and a guy named Andrew to actually build it. Form here forward, most of my contact with Arrowire would through Sari.
Sari informed me that the “beta” webpages were ready to look at. She explained that while the site was under construction, I could go to a special web address and monitor the progress. That way we could work together on finishing the site. The address was some long and convoluted thing with forward slashes and colons and things, and I knew that no one was going to be accidentally stumbling across the uncompleted site.
When I got the address typed in correctly I was amazed at how far along Sari had gotten. All of the photographs were in place, and the movies, although they didn’t run yet, had thumbnail pictures already. Even the message board worked, so we tried that out. Sari sent an odd and funny message (the first of many offbeat correspondence that I would receive from her — besides being a web master, she is a stand-up and improv comic).
Sari told me we were waiting for the movie clips to be uploaded over at Apple’s server. Apple graciously offered to let us use their server to store all of our film clips, saving us a ton of money. Apparently, there are some Wilco fans at Apple, including a guy named Glenn Bulycz who runs the marketing division for Quicktime. He offered unlimited space for as many film clips as we wanted to post, with no limit on “hits.” Furthermore, he has offered to post a link to Wilcofilm on the Apple site once we are up and running. This is so cool, and I’m sure it has a lot to do with the fact that Jeff Tweedy appeared in a “Rip, Mix, Burn” commercial for Apple. (You had to watch the 60 second version, and look real close).
I have never been a real web person before this site was created. I use the web daily for things like research, location scouting, and the obligatory ebay searches and the like, but I have never really wanted a website for my photography (and still don’t, really). But I have to say, it is a really cool way to share the making of this film. I so often get disappointed by websites that are nothing more than elaborate advertisements, with graphics that take many minutes to load and play. Whenever I accidentally stumble into one of those sites, I feel like the company is holding my computer hostage, and I am stuck waiting for a site that I really didn’t care that much about in the first place to load. I told Sari and Bernie in the beginning that the site should be easy to use and have new content all the time, and they seem like they are really delivering.
So, bottom line, if you see a pop-up window advertising cheap airline tickets on our site six months from now, or a subscription fee to see the clips, you will know I have sold out, or that I am destitute for cash to finish this thing!
June 11, 2001
I have just come home from a very nice dinner with the whole band (minus Jay), and my two photo assistants, Curtis and Bob. And now I am more than ready to sink into my sagging hotel bed in downtown Chicago. Its been one hell of a crazy couple of days, mostly due to Bob, who has made this trip extremely interesting so far.
I flew out to Chicago day before yesterday to photograph the band for their new record. It is the first time that I have been around the whole band without a movie camera. Reprise and Tony are both looking for a lot out of this photo shoot, so we have hired a clothing stylist, and a “groomer” (basically someone to make the band’s skin and hair look like they HAVEN’T been in the studio for the last six months). Although I thought the clothing stylist was a really good idea (because it is always nice to have someone there to look out for the way people are dressed), I didn’t want to change Wilco’s image at all. The last thing I wanted to be a part of was a major label “makeover” like we have seen so many artists succumb to. (I think Bryan Adams was one of the more glaring cases, but there have been many in recent memory, like the Old 97’s, for example). So I called Kim Meehan, a New York stylist who works often with Annie Leibovitz and other top photographers. One of her talents is making it seem like she wasn’t there. What I mean is, she can bring a truckload of clothes, and end up pulling a t-shirt and a pair of jeans out of the closet of the person being photographed . Somehow she gets paid very well for this! What I mean is she manages to find clothes that the band would have bought for themselves anyway (and they often do buy the clothes at the end of the shoot). I knew she would find some clothes that Wilco liked, and true to form, the clothes we ended up using were mostly from the guys’ closets anyway.
The trip started with a long flight, and another van ride from the always cheerful Graham, whom we had hired to drive the van and pick up equipment, and who entertained us with more of his “singing along to his own mix tapes” routine that he made famous earlier in the year. Graham picked up Bob and I from our LA flight, and Curtis and Kim, who had traveled earlier in the day from New York. This was a bi-coastal photo shoot!
Our first order of business was the next morning was to scout the city of Chicago for locations (for both the band and the “skyline” shots I mentioned earlier). Graham, Curtis, and I met in the lobby at 8AM. Our plan was to hop aboard one of the boats that runs through the Chicago river and out onto the lake. This would give us our bearings, and also may end up being a place to shoot the band, if we could hire our own boat.
We waited in the lobby for Bob. Ten minutes turned into twenty, and then a half hour.
But I should back up. I have known Curtis and Bob now for about the same amount of time, 7 or 8 years. I met Bob in Los Angeles when I had an outdoor studio, and I would occasionally hire him to paint walls or pick-up equipment. He has somehow stayed in my employ until the present, moving from third assistant, to second, to first. Now I pay his health insurance and see him at least 3 times a week. He is responsible for all of my gear, all of the film, and basically for everything equipment-related at a shoot. Although he is a really great guy that has a lot of responsibilities to handle, he occasionally is the cause of great frustration in my life. For instance: there was the time he hit a tree so hard with the TOP of the equipment truck that he ripped a hole in it (the truck, not the tree). There was the time when we got to a house at seven a.m. to do an all day shoot in a swimming pool, only to find out Bob couldn’t swim. Then there was the time he left a camera case sitting at the curb at the airport. Then there was the time he lost 15 rolls of exposed film on a Ben Affleck shoot (they were later found). But somehow Bob has managed to stay on the crew, and even endear himself to everyone with his odd sense of humor and his calm demeanor. But that relationship was about to be tested.
After thirty minutes of waiting, we decided to call his room and tell him we were leaving without him, and that he should make his way to the boat dock when he felt it would be convenient for him. Since Bob is regularly 20 minutes late to everything, I wasn’t initially alarmed, just extra pissed off, because when you travel and work everything is twice as hard already, without having to track down your crew. Graham, Curtis and I set off with the gear to a boat dock to buy tickets and take a cruise. Halfway there Curtis decided he really wanted coffee, even though we were already in danger of missing the boat. I held my tongue as he asked Graham to pull over, but I was starting to get steamed. We made it to the boat just in time and bought three tickets. Sure enough, just as the boat was being untied from the dock, here comes Bob. We pulled away and I gave Bob the silent treatment for a while, before turning around to remind him how many times he has been late, and how much it pisses me off. Sometimes with Bob I feel like a broken record, and this was one of those times. Curtis tried to lighten the atmosphere, and I tried to spill his coffee in his lap.
As we made our way down the Chicago river, I decided to concern myself less with scouting, and instead go ahead and start shooting the passing buildings. The sky was a deep blue, which would turn almost black when I added a red filter, and the buildings stood out crisply against the sky. Somehow these buildings reminded me of the dense sonic textures that Wilco had been making in the studio for the last 6 months, and I wanted to capture as many of them as possible. I also made many images of the water that passed under the boat. A bit of a theme was starting in my head, with monolithic buildings pasted next to big skies, and trees, and water. The night before, in Curtis’ hotel room, we had pasted up some pictures that Curtis had made while scouting earlier in the day, and I taped a shot of lake Michigan next to a shot of a giant bank building. The contrast was really cool, and I decided to look for images like that over the next two days.
We passed the Marina Towers, which are the two corn-cob looking apartment hi-rises that sit next to the river (often referred to as the “Steve McQueen” towers, because a ’74 gold GTO was driven off the tower’s parking structure into the Chicago River in a Steve McQueen movie). I made several photographs of them, throwing a red filter quickly on the camera to increase the already brilliant contrast between them and the sky. (this image would later become the cover of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot).
We were on the water for two hours, which included a trip out on the lake to view Chicago from afar. It was a bit choppy, and at one point I got a direct hit of spray in my face and camera, causing me to unleash a few choice obscenities. Bob took over a whole bench on the boat to load film and change lenses. Curtis worried about getting a sunburn and made a cardboard “nose shield” which he wedged under his sunglasses. I added a pair of cardboard eyebrows above his sunglasses, and he took on the appearance of a large bird. Looking back, I am sure the tourists on the boat thought we were absolutely nuts. I must have shot 20 rolls of film by the time we got back to shore, and we set off in search of lunch.
The rest of the day was spent preparing for tomorrow’s shoot with the band. We had rented a large amount of equipment so that we could build a natural-light studio in the parking lot of the band’s loft. This is essentially a large tent that I occasionally build when a studio is not readily available. This way we wouldn’t have to use strobes or lug all of our gear up to the loft. It also saved the cost of a studio. The plan was to show up at the loft at 8AM and build this tent-like structure that we could shoot in most of the day.
We parted that evening with my strict instructions to meet in the lobby at 7:30 AM, and that Bob would serve himself well by being there at 7:20!
The next morning started bad, with me arriving in the lobby first. I checked the time, 7:30. I had no idea the day was about to get worse. Curtis showed up five minutes later, and Graham was waiting outside of the hotel with the van. There was still no sign of Bob, and as much as I wanted to leave him at the hotel (for the rest of time) he had the cameras in his room. We called up to his room, but there was no answer. Fine, he’s in the elevator on the way down. Ten minutes later, still no sign of Bob. I called his room again, still no answer. Now it’s 8:05 and I am livid. I decide (in a moment of anger) to leave him AND the cameras at the hotel, and go to the loft to set up the outdoor studio. We wouldn’t need cameras for at least an hour, and maybe by that time Bob would have come to his senses and taken a cab to the loft.
We hopped into the Graham-commandeered van and started heading to the band’s loft. About halfway there I started getting worried. As much as I believed Bob was capable of being an hour late, it didn’t make sense that after how mad I was the day before that he would do it again. I also worried because Bob had recently (within the last two years) aquired adult-onset diabetes. He seems to take very good care of the disease, and it has never affected him this way before, but I was no doctor.
I suddenly yelled to Graham, “stop the van!” I voiced my concerns about Bob being diabetic, and that maybe his absence was related to his illness. I REALLY needed to get to the loft to start building the studio, but I decided to send Graham and the van back to the hotel to see about Bob. Curtis and I hopped out and hailed a cab as I called the hotel on my cell phone. I explained that Bob may need medical attention, and that someone needed to go up to the room and open the door to check on him. The woman on the phone said that she would send up a security guard. I gave her my number and told her to call me back.
Curtis and I arrived at the loft close to 10:00 AM and met the local assistant that we had hired for the day to help us build the outdoor studio. I was impatient waiting for the hotel to call back, so I called them again, and the operator connected me with the security manager. He told me that he knocked on Bob’s door for a full 2 minutes before keying in, at which time he found Bob still asleep in his bed. The guy told me he woke Bob up, and that Bob said he had just overslept, and that he was fine. RELIEF At least he wasn’t dead. However, who sleeps two hours past their alarm and doesn’t wake up when someone is pounding on the door?
I called Graham and told him to wait in the lobby, that Bob would be down soon with the gear. I then went up to the loft to meet the “groomer” and to say hello to the guys. Curtis and the local assistant were busy unloading the truck.
After meeting everyone, I went down to help Curtis, and decided to call Graham to make sure he was by now on his way with Bob. Graham said that he was still waiting in the lobby, and there was no sign of Bob. This was starting to sound like a bad dream! I told him to get the security guard again, and go find out what the hell was going on. I stayed on the phone with Graham as the security guard let him into Bob’s room again. To my horror and dismay, Graham reported that Bob was again fast asleep (30 minutes after the guard aroused him for the first time). I told Graham to call 911 and to call me as soon as they got there.
After another 15 minutes of nervousness, I called Graham again, who told me that Bob was showered, and they were headed down to the lobby. I asked, “what about the paramedics?” Graham told me he didn’t call them because Bob told Graham he was fine. I think I snapped at that point. Here was a guy who was basically comatose for three hours diagnosing himself. I told Graham to IMMEDIATELY call 911 and wait in the lobby for the paramedics to get there — and not to listen to Bob.
Well, Bob didn’t die. The paramedics checked him out, and warned him that if his blood sugar gets low enough to prevent him from waking up, it could mean death. He finally showed up at the shoot, and I was so relieved that he was alive that I didn’t even say a word, other that to ask him if he was okay to work. He said the paramedics gave him the ok, and I think he was relieved that I wasn’t mad. I still wonder what would have happened if we didn’t wake him up — would he have died?
Needless to say, we got a late start and ended up frazzled the whole day. It was an odd experience to shoot photographs of the band after filming them in their “natural environment” for so long. I could tell Glenn was nervous, having never done much of this stuff. When Glenn is nervous he smiles a lot, and can’t really stop. I could tell Jay had had some bad experiences with photographers in the past because he was the most worried about the outcome, and took the most interest in the polaroids. Jeff and John endured and tried to keep the mood light, and Jeff also displayed his “Peter Sellers Being There” humor, looking at the camera like he had never seen one before, and generally being funny. I have to say, I have never photographed a more polite band. In a good-natured-ribbing sort of way they gave me everything I needed.
The day ended with a trip to the water’s edge to shoot pictures of the band out on a thin spit of concrete. We arrived en masse at about 6:30 pm and sat around by the lake for about twenty minutes waiting for the light to get a little better. We had minimal equipment out there, and with everyone carrying something (even the band) we were able to make it in one trip. When the light started to get good I noticed how cool the skyline looked, so I turned away from the band to shoot it. Now the light was really good and we were trying to go fast to capture both the band and the skyline. I would shoot a roll and then hand the empty film magazine to Curtis in exchange for a loaded one. Curtis would hand the empty one to Bob to reload. Soon, I was waiting for magazines, and since we had 5 of them, I couldn’t understand why. I looked down at Bob, and said “I need another color mag.” He looked up at me and fumbled with the film, seeming really flustered. Now, Bob, for all the ragging I have done on him here, can load a film back as quick or quicker as anyone that ever lived, and so I was really surprised that he was slowing me down.
“But I don’t know what we’re shooting,” he said.
“We’re shooting the skyline in color, with a blue filter, at plus 1” Curtis told him.
“But I don’t know what we’re shooting,” Bob repeated, flustered.
Curtis and I looked at each other with the same incredulous expression.
I kneeled down to Bob and said, “Bob, load me another color mag please.”
“But I don’t don’t don’t kn kn know what we are sh shooting!” he repeated.
I looked at his hands and they were shaking. He was also having trouble getting his words out, like a stutterer. I turned to Graham and told him to run to the nearest snack bar, or store, and get Bob a candy bar, or an ice cream cone or something. I told Bob to sit quietly and Curtis would take over loading. Now I was a bit terrified. He seemed almost normal, and yet was unable to function.
Graham returned with an ice cream sandwich and some chips, and Bob was soon back to normal. He acted casually, as if nothing had really happened, and that he was just a little hungry. Curtis and I exchanged another look and I knew he was thinking the same thing as me — this was a serious situation.
The sun settled over the city, and we ran out of daylight. Shoot over. Jay took off, but the rest of the band decided to join Bob and I for dinner. We ate at a fabulous restaurant (I forget the name, but it was kind of a Euro-Asian mix). I just hope Reprise pays the bill, because it wasn’t cheap.
June 13, 2001
I am on the plane traveling home with a copy of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot playing on my headphones. I guess one of the perks of spending your life savings on a movie about a band is you get to be one of the first people to hear their record. Jeff had just finished mixing the record days before our photo shoot, and I was now the proud owner of a cd that simply had “Glenn” written on it. Jeff had burned a copy for Glenn Kotche to hear, and had given it to me instead, joking “hell, he’s just the drummer, he can wait!”
The day after shooting the band I spent with Curtis, Graham and Bob (who was miraculously still alive, having survived the night) driving around Chicago shooting more cityscapes. I focused on sections of buildings, odd cloud patterns, moving trees, and water. Graham would drive the van, and Curtis, Bob and I would jump out into traffic, knock off a shot, and wait until Graham came back around the block.
At the end of the day I headed over to the loft to plan my next visit, which was coming up soon. I planned to be back for rehearsals and the mini tour that the band was embarking on around the fourth of July. I spoke to J.P . about how the rehearsals would go, and talked him into letting me take down a giant blue tarp that separated the rehearsal area from the rows of guitar storage racks. This would give me tons more room to shoot, and many more angles than we had the last time. Jeff was there, and he asked me if I wanted to hear the new record. Of course I did, and Jeff and I hopped into his car and took off. Jeff stopped for diet coke and cigarettes at a 7-11, and when we got back on the road, Jeff turned to me and said, “mind if I rock it,” meaning do I mind if he cranks the volume. I said please, and within 10 seconds the first noises from “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” were coming through the speakers at a high volume. I sat back and listened as Jeff drove a route that took us all around Chicago. Occasionally we would say something to each other about a certain element of a song, but for the most part we listened in silence. At one point we passed a park (or it may have been a cemetery, I am not sure) and it was full of trees that were losing their white blossoms. There was a wind up (this being Chicago) and these blossoms were just swirling around the park at sunset like some sort of June snowstorm. It was an unbelievable effect, and provided perfect accompaniment to “Radio Cure.”
We finished the record and pulled back into the loft, deep in conversation about the album and other things. Jeff pulled the CD out of the player (the one that said “Glenn”) and handed it to me. Somehow it felt like an ending.
June 17, 2001
Well, we officially launched our website today. There was no party, no fanfare, no champagne. Just a call from Sari telling me, “it’s up.” The sad thing was that one of the reasons we put all of this work into the site was to be able to get a little of our money back by selling t-shirts and posters. But we are nowhere near having any merchandise! No one can decide on a design they like, and our graphic designer, Lawrence, has gotten very busy, so for now, the site will simply be an extension of the film. I don’t want to go into too much detail about the filmmakers diary because, well, you are reading it, but I will say that I had no idea about the task I had bitten off. Although I have been keeping notes since the beginning of this project, I have not assembled them into any legible form. When I did the first installment of the diary for the launch of the website last week I realized just how long this was going to take me! But here I am in March of 2002 writing about June of 2001, so I’ve really made some progress …ha ha.
I am really bummed out about the t-shirt dilemma because it seems like such an easy thing to do–print up some t-shirts and sell them. But making that happen is very difficult. We have asked, besides Lawrence, a few other designers to try their hand at making a shirt design, and so far we have seen nothing that we like. Now I am in two businesses that I know very little about: filmmaking and retail clothing sales! Pardon the pun, but I hope I don’t lose my shirt on these ventures.
I am losing my mind. Time to go to bed.
June 18, 2001
With each new segment of the film that I embark on, I hopefully get a little smarter, and figure out a simpler way to accomplish my goals. It is now the middle of June, and Wilco is about to embark on a “mini-tour” of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. They will be rehearsing for the first time with Glenn, and will be playing the new songs live for the first time. I feel it is an imperative part of the film to show this process, and to gather some live and rehearsal footage. The production (meaning me, at this point) is completely out of money, and I will need to beg and borrow and steal to get this next section of filming done.
The plan is to show up at the loft on the first day of rehearsals, film three days of that, and then travel with the band to Minneapolis and Milwaukee, then back to Chicago for the big “Taste of Chicago” festival that Wilco is headlining. Apparently this festival draws 30,000 to 50,000 fans, and Wilco is the main attraction. My plan is to shoot all of my band footage in this segment, covering both the new material and the old.
The first step was to contact J.P., the head of Wilco production. As usual, he was extremely accommodating, helping us to come into his space and disrupt his job! J.P. has been a lifesaver this whole movie, helping us in every facet involving the band. I told J.P. that we wanted to make a good sound recording of the rehearsals, (as well as filming them with two cameras) which would mean a separate soundman. This meant that on top of J.P. and his crew of sound guys trying to make rehearsal work (and prepare for the shows) we needed a separate mixer, separate microphones, and separate cables. In short, my request would not only mean a giant headache for J.P., but would also tax the power supply in the loft. But J.P. only wanted to help.
My next step was to call Chris Brickley, who engineered Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in Wilco’s loft. He was the only one who really knew the acoustics of that room and all of the equipment. I figured if I could hire Chris he would not only make a great recording, but he would save us a ton in equipment rental charges by using all of Wilco’s gear that already existed in the loft. I got in touch with Chris, and lo and behold he was available and willing, and gave me a great price for his time. I couldn’t believe my luck. The band was so used to having Chris around setting up mic stands and running cables that he wouldn’t even be seen as an intrusion in fact, the band probably won’t even consider him part of my crew.
My next step was to call soundman Roger and beg him to defer his pay for a month or two. I promised him it would be great fun — going on the road with Wilco, the road, the chicks, (ha ha), the laughs. He grumblingly agreed to let me pay him “in the near future.” Great — now I had Roger and Chris: I knew the sound part of it would work out. My big problem now was finding a second cameraman who I didn’t have to pay.
My next in a long line of saviors was producer Christy, who informed me that her husband, Joe (a cameraman!) was going to be driving to the midwest for a wedding around that time, and he might be willing to do it. Furthermore, she explained, he owns his own 16mm camera package, and loves Wilco.
This sounded too good to be true, but I spoke to Joe, and sure enough, he was willing to drive out to Chicago and shoot for the week with me, for free, using his own equipment. The only catch was that I had to rent him a truck to drive across the country, put him up in Chicago, and get a few lenses and things to complete his camera package. No problem. I couldn’t believe my luck. All I needed now was a local camera assistant, and a lot of film.
I called assistant Dan, who wasn’t able to work, but he called Keith, a great assistant that we used for one day in April. Keith signed on for the whole week, and just like that, we had a crew. I decided to save money on renting lighting equipment this time, and instead decided to light the whole rehearsal area with large paper globes (the kind you can buy at Pier One, or Costco). The ceiling above the rehearsal space had various air conditioning ducts, sprinkler lines, and hooks, so I decided to create a network of 12 globes hanging among the existing Christmas lights that John Stirratt had hung long ago. They are so light (just the weight of the bulb and the cord) that they can hang from almost anything, and I would load them up with 500 watt bulbs (more of a power drain on the poor loft). I tallied up what this lighting set up would cost me and it came out to less than $150.00. That is a savings of about $1500.00 compared to the last time I lit the loft for filming.
My final call was to Candace Chatman at Kodak. I figured, why the hell not ask for more free film, all she can say is no. But I guess it was my week, because Candace donated 30 more rolls of film to the cause, and the mystery of why Kodak is interested in Wilco deepened.
I don’t want to make this sound like I got on the phone for an hour and set this shoot up, because in reality it was several days and many many phone calls made by both Peter, Christy, and myself. But I was surprised at how generous everyone was being with their time, and decided not to question it too much.
I won’t bore you with the excruciating details of the tens of phone calls we put into the city of Chicago to get permission to film at the “Taste of Chicago” festival, but I will say that it was a very difficult process, and it is still up in the air whether we are going to be able to film at the festival at all.
I have been progressing like we will be able to film there, and to that end I put a call into old Graham to get him going on this project as well. I asked him to round up anyone he knows to serve as camera loaders, assistants, and runners. Also, I have asked him to find a cameraman to operate a third camera during the “Taste” show, to be sure I have every song covered. He thinks he has found someone willing to do it, so we will keep our fingers crossed. Luckily, we will be in Chicago for a few days the week before the festival, so I am hoping that when I am there we can wrap up all the loose ends.
It’s funny how the absence of a “client” affects a shoot. For instance, if I was shooting a commercial in Chicago, we would have to have everything taken care of a week before we traveled. On this film there is just not the money or the manpower to plan everything out. So, I am learning to roll with it, and each day brings new problems to solve.
June 27, 2001
I am back in another cheap Chicago hotel room, weary and worn out, only this time I am in shorts and a t-shirt, and I am STILL hot. Summer has arrived in Chicago, and the loft, the streets, and my hotel room are all the worse for it. This time we (Roger, Joe and I) are staying near the downtown “loop” in a non-descript Marriot type of thing with an elevator so slow we have been tempted to drag the camera cases up the stairs to the eleventh floor. Also, my room, though labled non-smoking, reeks like the R.J. Reynolds break room,(which probably smells a bit like Wilco’s loft). At least now, with summer here, the band opens the windows and lets some of the smoke out. For this non-smoker, it is almost too much to take.
As you may have figured out, I have now been here for three days filming rehearsals for Wilco’s upcoming “mini-tour” that starts at the end of this week and goes ton Minneapolis, Wisconsin, and Illinois. I have been anticipating this segment of the film for a long time, and it has been a nervous week leading up to the filming, because I really want this film to capture the “live” Wilco, often referred to by journalists as one of the best live acts in all of rock.
I got into the loft a day before the band was to begin rehearsing, and met up with Wilco’s production manager, J.P., and Chris Brickley, the engineer of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, whom I had hired to make the sound recordings of the rehearsals. J.P. had his crew working on getting the loft set up to resemble Wilco’s on-stage layout. Jason Tobias, monitor engineer, was working on the monitor mix (the mix the band hears) while Jersey Joe handled the heavy stuff, the cables, and keyboards. J.P., besides being the production manager, is the Wilco guitar tech, which is no small feat considering the 180 some guitars owned by the band, in addition to 60 some amplifiers. To make his job even harder, Wilco uses dozens of tunings song to song (and this explains why the band changes guitars almost every song)so he was running aroung the loft like a mad professor in his labrotory.
Added to this group was Stan, Wilco’s “front of house” man responsible for the sound the audience hears. It is his job to work the main sound board at every venue and make sure Wilco sounds good.
Needless to say, there was a lot of activity going on at the loft, with me hanging lights and looking at camera angles, Jersey Joe muscling in amps and keyboards, J.P. uncasing dozens of guitars and getting footpedal boards working, Jason twiddling knobs, and Chris Brickley putting up microphones and running cable back to Wilco’s makeshift mixing area in the loft.
For those of you unfamiliar to how live sound is recorded, here is a quick explanation. When a band is on stage, (or in rehearsal) all of the instruments and amplifiers are mic’ed, so that they can be amplified through the sound system and fed to the main speakers and the monitor speakers. That split to two different mixers means that the band can have control over what they hear on stage. This is helpful if a bass player wants to hear the drums louder than the singer does. This way, the band can play to it’s strengths.
There are many different ways to record this sound, and the decisions are usually determined by the budget. The best way is to record each instrument onto a separate track, so that the music can be mixed more accurately at a later date. This also gives more flexibility to control the sound. Unfortunately, this requires a great amount of gear, including mic’s cables, and pre-amps for every instrument, a mixing board with at least 48 inputs (which is huge) and enough individual tracks to record everything. We are talking about thousands and thousands of dollars and a considerable amount of space to set this up.
The most important part of this process is the engineer, who has to be able to put this whole system together, make it all work, and make it sound good, all without disturbing the band’s set up on stage. Now, if you add the fact that this music has to be synchronized with a film camera, you can see how complicated and expensive it can get, because then, in addition, you have to generate time code that can sync up with every camera, and that applies to every individual track of recorded sound.
Another option is to make a stereo recording, which can be much cheaper to set up and can still yield great results, provided you have a great engineer. In our case we do not have the budget for a multi-track recording, but we do have a very good engineer in Chris, and so we opted for the more budget friendly stereo recording.
The way this works is that you still put a microphone on every instrument and run all of the cables to a big mixing board. The difference is that rather than recording every instrument to an individual track, you make a real-time stereo mix of the performance. This recording is basically unchangeable once it is finished, because it is mixed to two-stereo tracks on the fly.
Our biggest problem is that the mixing area in the loft is not separated by any walls or sound-baffling, making it very hard for the engineer (Chris) to hear what he is recording to tape. His and my hope was that with a little time for set-up with the band, he could get a pretty good mix through listening back to a song he had just recorded, and making adjustments. Obviously, there are many flaws to this system, but given our budget and time constraints, this is the best we could do.
We spent the rest of the day making sure we had every microphone in place, and every cable as secured away as possible. I even talked JP into letting me push all of the cables to one area, giving me more room to operate the camera without tripping. I also met Joe Kessler, who is the husband of producer Christie Kessler, for the first time today. He has graciously offered to operate the “B” camera for free, driving from California for the privelege! We talked about how we would work, who would shoot what, and how we would approach every song. It was important to me, after filming this band in the loft before, to have a more organized approach.
A good deal of work was also done between Chris and soundman Roger. Roger had the difficult task of trying to record the dialog that took place among the bandmembers between songs, and synchronize that with the sound recordings that Chris would be making. Then, in the transferring process, the two recordings could be fused into one, allowing us to capture pristine dialog and well recorded music. This was accomplished by Roger carrying a boom microphone around while we filmed rehearsals, and mixing that with a feed of what Chris was recording.
If this all sounds complicated, it is, but by the end of the day I felt like everyone was pretty confident it would work out. Now we just needed the band to deliver on their end!
The next morning actually started at about one p.m., with the bandmembers arriving separately. They planned to practice until ten p.m. for three days, and at the end hopefully be prepared for the tour. Jeff informed me that this marked the bands longest layoff from playing live in his memory. Add to that the fact that they had never played a live show, or a live SONG with new drummer Glenn Kotche. With Wilco’s catalog approaching 80 songs, this rehearsal was no small task. Everyone in the loft, from my crew, to J.P.’s guys, to the band, had the same look of weary determination mixed with giddy anticipation.
We followed the band over to the rehearsal area and started rolling cameras on a run-through of “Jesus Etc.” The sound of the song filled the room, and I must admit I had a hard time concentrating on focus or framing as I got used to the fact that Wilco was playing a few feet from me!
I have to stop here and try to explain the difference between watching a rehearsal and a live show. When a band rehearses, they are playing with, and TO each other, rather than to an audience. There is a constant visual communication going on between the bandmembers as they learn the dynamics of a song, and it is a completely different experience than a live show. The focus is completely on the music, and the band is devoid of any showmanship. Any emotion or action that arises in a rehearsal comes across in a much more honest and forthright manner, as if the music itself inspired the musicians, rather than the crowd.
Of course, this can possibly make for a much more boring filmic experience, and yet somehow it doesn’t with Wilco. I found it fascinating to film a band that was playing for nobody but themselves, and suspect that it will be interesting to others besides just me, because it is really never seen. Most film of musicians is shot during performance, when the camera is limited by an audience and a stage, or for music videos, where the band is encouraged to ACT like they are performing, pantomiming to a recorded track of their song. Rarely do you see a band playing what you are actually hearing, without the added barrier of the audience. The result is an observation of an artist involved in the creation of his craft with very little pretense, and I found it riveting.
Realizing this, I made an attempt to get as close to the musicians as possible, and often found myself within a foot of Jeff as he sang into the microphone. To his and the rest of the band’s credit, they didn’t even seem to notice me. I attribute part of that to the addition of drummer Glenn Kotche. Glenn had done his homework (like no one else, especially drummers, EVER does) and knew every song in the Wilco catalog. With each song that the band tried, pleasantly surprised looks were exchanged as they realized they were having more fun playing all of these songs than they had in years. Any fears about Glenn not being the “live” drummer Ken Coomer was (not to say they are similar in style) disappeared as rehearsals continued, and the band seemed to be playing with a joy that kept growing. I truly believe they were having so much fun playing that they didn’t even notice me or Joe walking amongst them (at least that is what I like to believe).
Another fascinating aspect of watching and filming rehearsals was witnessing a song get stronger and more dynamic with repeated attempts. A great example of this is “Always in Love,” from Summerteeth. Both Jeff and Jay started out playing guitar, and as they practiced, they found that the rhythm section was so powerful that Jay (with a little coaxing) could flesh the song out more by playing keyboards instead of guitar. The resulting song (on the fourth or fifth take) was one of the finest live performances I have ever heard, and we captured it all on film.
At the end of the first day, and every day after that, I would go over to the mixing area and listen to the mixes Chris was making. Although my ears were a bit fried from standing a few feet from loud amplifiers and drums for 8 hours, I could tell that the mixes would work, and I felt with confidence that the stereo mix approach was right for this situation, the reason being that there would be a tendency to tweak a multi-track mix too much, and possibly lose the ragged, garage-like, quality that the rehearsals, and our tapes, seemed to have.
Jeff and Glenn stayed at rehearsal longer than anyone, playing songs as a combo, first with Jeff on electric and Glenn pounding away in a fashion that would make the White Stripes jealous. They would run through old Iggy Pop songs, and any other chestnut that Jeff could pull out of his stuffed to overflowing hat of musical knowledge. After a while of this, they would move to another part of the loft, and Jeff would play acoustic guitar and Glenn would set up a little kit and play it with brushes. This would go on for a while, with Jeff now running through his own catalog. We filmed all of this, and I started to realize that when this project was through I will have filmed nearly every song Jeff ever wrote. As I filmed they went through almost all of AM, and then Jeff played a very moving version of Pieholden Suite, adding lyrics where the horn section normally would be. (He told me later that originally there were supposed to be lyrics there, not horns, but Jeff felt the horns communicated the sentiment of the lyrics better than words could.) I could see at the end of this performance that Jeff was impressed with Glenn’s knowledge of the song, and he remarked that the band always thought that song would be too hard to play live. Glenn laughed this off, and sure enough, later in the year, they would attempt that song (and pull off a very admirable version of it) on stage.
I too was impressed with Glenn. How does someone learn 75 songs (perfectly) without any help from the band? He knew every change and tempo, and I could tell that he had really prepared for the upcoming tour. He almost knew the songs better than the guys that had been playing them for years!
Finally even Glenn started dropping hints about having to go home. Jeff reluctantly laid down his guitar, and noticed he was sweating.
“Why is it so hot in here?” he asked. “Is the air conditioning off?”
Our soundman, Roger, caught red handed, said “Sorry Jeff, I turned it off to make a better audio recording.” Jeff gave him one of his half smile-frown things, because he too, would suffer a hot room to make a good recording.
The band and I, along with Roger and Keith the camera assistant, will depart for Minneapolis tomorrow, a seven hour drive. Before we leave we have to meet with representatives from the city of Chicago to discuss being able to film at the 4th of July festival next week, where Wilco will headline to a crowd of 25000 people. I have big plans for this festival for many reasons, and want to make this concert the centerpiece of my movie. For one, it is outside in the daytime (actually in the evening, but this being July, there will be plenty of light), and two, it is being recorded for a live broadcast on radio station XRT, and the mobile recording outfit that has been hired to record the concert has graciously agreed to let us have a feed of their sound that we can synchronize with our cameras. Hopefully the band will work out all of the kinks in the show in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, and return to Chicago ready to give the performance of their lives. In anticipation of this I have rounded up a third cameraman (besides Joe and I) named Alan Thatcher, who has agreed to operate a camera for us (gratis). Also, trusty Graham is finding any camera assistants and production assistants in the city willing to work in exchange for a front row view of the show, so we should actually have a 9 person crew by the time the 4th of July rolls around.
I guess I had better get some sleep. I will pick this up later.
July 2, 2001
It is midnight July 2, and I have just come back to the hotel in Milwaukee after Wilco’s show at Milwaukee’s “Summerfest,” where the band played to a crowd of about 10,000 and braved a freak summer downpour and an irate promoter. But so much has happened in the last few days. I should back up. This tour started with a trip to the Petrillo band shell in the city of Chicago to meet with some representatives of the city to discuss our filming the 4th of July concert that closed the “Taste of Chicago” festival. I had talked to the rep., Dan Kobyashi many times on the phone and we had worked out an arrangement, with him agreeing to let us sign a waiver stating that we were a non-profit film and therefore exempt from paying a large fee to the city. When we got to the band shell, however, I started getting nervous about our arrangement. It seems that the stage manager, a gruff, all-business woman, saw us as a hindrance, and Dan really didn’t have any say in the matter of how much access we would have.
We left the meeting with everything up in the air, no set camera positions and a “wait till the chaos starts” attitude that has worked in the past to my advantage. Now on to round two of discomfort; telling Joe Kessler he wasn’t coming to Minneapolis.
Joe has been nothing if not enthusiastic on this whole trip so far, and has put up with long hours, no pay, and gross bar meals in our gross hotel. However, I had not planned to shoot the concerts in Minneapolis or Milwaukee, but instead shoot road life and backstage happenings. I would save my concert budget for Chicago. Therefore, once Jeff told me how small the dressing rooms were in Minneapolis and Milwaukee, I decided that two cameras would be more trouble than they were worth, and I figured Joe and I would just get in each others and the bands way. Also, I was trying to be as inconspicuous as possible so that I wouldn’t disrupt the reality of what the band goes through by having a big camera crew, and Joe, being a big, friendly, chatty guy, had already crossed that barrier (against my warnings–but it just happens, the band is too nice). So, I told Joe that I would see how Minneapolis goes, and then call him and tell him whether I wanted him to meet me in Milwaukee or not. He seemed okay with the decision, and planned to shoot some time-lapse stuff of the city skyline for me. (Time lapse, as you probably know, is the act of shooting a frame every minute or so for several hours while the camera is “locked-off” on a tripod. The resulting effect is quickly moving clouds, and the day changing to night in the span of a minute. I thought that it might be cool to have a bit of that kind of footage to create some transitions.
Anyway, bottom line, a director has to make some tough decisions, and when the director is also the producer, there is no middle man to soften the blow. I left Joe in Chicago, and Roger, Keith and I set off in a 15-passenger van loaded with camera equipment, sound equipment, film, lighting, clothing, and a map. We headed across the middle of the country, with Keith immediately falling asleep, and I discovered (to my horror) that when Roger gallantly offered to drive, he forgot to mention the words “fifty miles an hour.” It seems as though Roger takes the “safety first” theory very seriously, and I settled into my chair for a very long drive.
We rolled into Minneapolis at about 8pm, the night before the first show. We checked in and I decided to go over to the club (First Ave.) to check out the space. Keith and Roger opted for sleep, and so I walked the seven blocks on a warm-breezy Minneapolis evening, keeping an eye out for the fabled Minneapolis “Skyways” made famous by Paul Westerberg and the Replacements. I was an indie-rock tourist!
When I showed up to the club, I paid a ten-dollar cover and walked smack-dab into Salsa Night! The entire place was filled with people learning to salsa-dance, and I found the whole thing very funny. In Los Angeles, where people are entirely more fashion conscious, the Salsa nights are filled with people that look like they belong in Rio De Janero, but here in Minneapolis the salsa dancers were attired in college sweatshirts, shorts, and Nikes. It was a strange combination of a tailgate party and a latin celebration of passion. Meanwhile, the salsa teacher was dressed in some silky, John Travolta looking thing with little pointed boots. I stayed on the edge of the stage, fearful that I would be roped into the fray, and looked for the dressing room.
It was small, Jeff wasn’t lying. However, the club had a great vibe (if you imagined it without salsa music and football fans pumping throughout), all black with a gritty stage and balconies. Also, this club has a long and celebrated history, with most of my favorite bands passing through here every time they play the Midwest.
An idea started forming in my mind about actually attempting to shoot these concerts, and I walked back to the hotel with a thousand questions on my mind about light, sound, and permission!
I met up with the band and my crew at sound check the next day, which was 4pm. The club had a few windows, and there was enough light to shoot. I also located the lighting guy for the club, and told him about my film. I said that I would love to shoot the concert, but I would need him to hit the stage with a lot more light than normal. He said that he had the wattage to do that, but that the club gets REALLY hot when he uses that much light. I begged, and told him of the historical implications of his club appearing in a MAJOR MOTION PICTURE ( I can bullshit with the best of them when I need to), and what was a little discomfort compared to a lasting piece of ART. He broke down, telling me he was a major Wilco fan, and if the band didn’t complain, he would do it. COOL
Step two, sound, might be a bit of a problem. This occurred to me when I looked down from the balcony after coming out of the lighting booth, and saw Roger sitting cross legged on the floor of the club, screwdriver in hand, with parts of his DAT recorder spread out around him. I wondered what this was going to cost me.
I went downstairs, and found, much to my dismay, that Roger’s DAT machine had exploded. Being in the film business, and being used to this kind of thing, I skipped all of the normal questions and asked Roger when a new one could be here. He said that he could get one fedex-ed out by tomorrow, and I said no good, we need one now. We grabbed a phone book, and started making the series of calls that are very familiar to anyone who has done production. Step one, call all of the motion picture sound rental houses in town (of which there was one). They didn’t have one, so we ask them to recommend someone. They suggest audio recording supply houses–no good, no one has one. They suggest recording studios no good, lots of DATS but none that generate time-code. We try a different tact, calling every soundman in town to rent their personal machine. Many soundmen are out working, so we leave messages. By now the band is starting sound check, and I am starting to stress out, because if we want to record the show we will have to perform a recording test during sound check.
We find two soundmen home with DAT recorders who are unwilling to rent them because “the gear is too precious, but we would be happy to come out and work the job for you, just pay our rate and our equipment rental.” No thanks, I already have a sound mixer. Finally someone calls us back and is willing to rent us his machine. Only two catches: one, he lives an hour away, and two, he wants a check (made out to CASH!) to cover the replacement cost of the DAT machine. I swallowed hard and handed the phone to Keith to get directions to the guy’s house (no he wouldn’t meet us halfway), while I got out my checkbook and wrote a $4000 check to someone I had never met! (However, in his defense, if he is reading this, he saved our butts, and he didn’t cash that check)
Two hours later, with sound check long over, we have a working DAT recorder and we decide to try and film the show. Luckily, Wilco’s trusty soundman, Stan, is willing to help us make the best recording we can, and if it doesn’t work tonight, there is always tomorrow night’s show (did I mention Wilco was playing two sold-out shows?).
The rest of the band went back to the hotel long ago, but Jeff had stuck around, sitting backstage and strumming an acoustic guitar. I went back there with my camera, and caught a very cool moment on film. The opening act was a band fronted by Jesse Green, a violinist who had played on the recording of “Jesus Etc.” She came backstage with her violin, and she and Jeff played a couple of songs, including a beautiful rendition of “Lonely One.” I sat very still on the floor of the dressing room and filmed, keeping one ear open to listen to this beautiful and intimate performance. Wilco’s production manager, J.P., came in and out discussing sound issues and guitar choices with Jeff, and it dawned on me that this was Glenn’s first show with the band, and as much as you couldn’t tell from Jeff’s or JP’s calm exterior, I’m sure that it was on their minds. Jeff had played with the same drummer, Ken Coomer, for ten years, so he must be a bit nervous.
I turned off the camera for a minute and basked in the glow of a rotary fan. The dressing room, with the addition of my ever-present china globes, was probably 80 or 90 degrees, and I was sweating. Jeff saw that the camera was off, and turned to me.
“We heard from Reprise, and it seems as though they don’t like the record,” he said in a confidential tone.
I’m sure my face registered shock, and Jeff explained that nothing was for sure yet, but the record company, if Jeff doesn’t make changes to the album,” may ask them to leave. This was like a bomb being dropped in my lap, and I didn’t quite know what to say, other than, “those fuckers,” which I think I said out loud. Jeff said that although he was hurt, he realized it could be a really good thing, because why put an album out on a label that has no enthusiasm. If he can get the record back and find a label that is more enthusiastic about it, it would be a much better situation.
I asked if the other band members knew, and he said, not yet. My mind switched over to filmmaker at this point, and I realized I had a much bigger story to cover. How would this play out? Jesus. I set out to make a little movie about a record, and now that record might not come out!
As the club started to pack up with people like my mind was packing up with thoughts, I decided not to let the news get me down–if Jeff was fine about it, then I would be too, and I will just try to follow the story as it unfolds. I guess, in retrospect, that from a documentary filmmaker’s point of view this whole “the label doesn’t like the record” thing is GREAT because it is now a more complicated and exciting story, but I have grown close to this record, and this band, and I can honestly say that I think this is an outstanding album, and I am saddened by the record company’s callous response. Anyway, I am sure that once the higher-ups at Reprise get wind of this, calmer minds will prevail and the Wilco record will end up coming out after all, unchanged.
The rest of the band showed up and I spent the next hour and a half in the dressing room filming the various going’s on in the backstage world. Let me tell you, Wilco’s dressing room scene is nothing like most people would imagine a rock show would be like. For one, there aren’t a lot of people in there before a show. Really, for the last hour before Wilco hit the stage just the band and my crew and I were backstage. Occasionally Glenn’s wife, Mirri, would pop in, but for the most part, it was the band, alone, talking and strumming guitars. I think John may have had a half a beer, but that was about as decadent as it got. I find it funny that the wild stories of rock and roll life, complete with drugs, sex, and groupies, are so widespread. I guess that is a more exciting story to tell than the reality, which was that these were five guys doing a job (albeit one they love) and not some non-stop party. I resolved to try to show this when I reach the editing stage, and I hope that when people finally see this movie they will say, “he got it right, that’s how it really is.” I always find it funny when I watch a movie about a subject that I know a lot about, how fake it always seems. (for instance, when I was younger I was a pretty serious skateboarder, and whenever I saw a scene in a movie that dramatized, or tried to show what skateboarding was like, it would kill me). Now granted, this is a documentary, and not some fabrication or fictional story, but it seems even in a lot of music films (especially lately) there is an attempt made to make the band more exciting, more crazy, and less human than they really are. In fact, there are only a few music films in my mind that avoid this trap, and with the exception of the Radiohead movie (which may have made the band even MORE boring than they are in real life) you have to go back pretty far, to films like “Let it Be.”
Anyway, I hope that I can tell an interesting story without having to resort to trying to over-dramatize the situation. I’m sure this is harder than it sounds, but I think I have picked a band that is up to the task of not trying to be anything other than who they really are. I am reminded of this as the talk backstage turns to which band was responsible for forcing the club to install a bathroom in the dressing room (Sonic Youth), which leads to everyone talking about needing to use the bathroom before they go on stage. This of course, leads to miles of footage for the cutting room floor!
Wilco was given the “five minutes” warning from road manager Chris Green, and they all milled about waiting to go on stage, which was all of 10 feet from the dressing room door. When I thought I sensed that they were about to go out, I turned on the camera, hoping to have enough film to capture, uninterrupted, the transition from backstage to onstage, and an entire song before I run out. Of course, right after I turn on the camera, Jeff needs to go to the bathroom, and I end up wasting more film. Finally they walk out, with me right on their heels, and I follow them through the dark (which is no small feat with a 35 pound camera on your back and looking through one eye) and up the stairs on the side of the stage. They walked on to a roar from the crowd, and I stopped at the stage edge and trained my camera on Jeff as he started “Via Chicago.” The stage was dark, and I’m thinking, where is my damn lighting guy who promised me a decent exposure! Well, I guess he was being arty, because the lights didn’t really come up until the drums started, but when they did, I had more than enough light to shoot, and I prayed that Roger was making a usable sound recording.
Well, damn, that lighting guy was right, it does get hot in this club when you turn up the lights! I ran into a problem that I hadn’t encountered as I gamely tried to shoot the concert, which was that the sweat on my neck and shoulder was making the camera slip off of me, and it was all I could do to keep it steady (we’ll see how steady later). Also, sweat was running into my eye and fogging the viewfinder, forcing me to guess focus and composition. Note to self: be careful what you ask for! The band seemed to be having similar problems: Jay was dripping with sweat (like he just got out of the pool) and Glenn was having a hard time hanging on to his drumsticks, I learned later. (I just had a horrible thought that the band is going to read this and blame me retroactively for making the show so uncomfortable ! It’s all in the name of cinema.)
Well, it may have been oppressively hot, but the vibe of the show was incredible. It was like watching the original Decline of Western Civilization through the viewfinder (when I could see) as the band sweated and rocked with the audience through a very punk-rock set. I could see how much fun the band was having playing with Glenn for the first time, and after every song there were smiles exchanged all around. The audience picked up on this vibe as well, and looked through my foggy lens like a see of bobbing heads all belonging to one strange creature that bucked and swayed as if in a rocky sea.
The band played a long time, doing three encores. I followed them backstage each time and filmed their sweaty exhilarated expressions as they decided what to play next.
How they topped this for night two, I will never know, but somehow the second night was even better than the first. I captured many more great backstage and on-stage moments, including a great rendition of New Madrid that Jeff, John, and Jay played to get their voices ready to go onstage. I shot from the balcony the second night, and I have to thank the 25 or so people that I either bumped with my camera or blocked their view as I shot footage. The people in Minneapolis were so accommodating, where as if I was filming in New York or Los Angeles (besides having to pay a steep location fee) I would never have been treated with such courtesy. I should note, by the way, that the owner of First Ave. was happy to have us shoot in his venue, and asked for no fees or insurance.
After the second show there was a bit of a crush backstage as well wishers from the Minneapolis music came back to fraternize and compliment the band. Dave Pirner and Gary Louris were among the musicians that crowded into the tiny little dressing room, and after 10 minutes of filming these proceedings, I left the boiling room for a little peace, and happened upon John Stirratt. I will save the scene I shot for the film, rather than writing about it here, but suffice to say it was classic.
We left Minneapolis the next morning and traveled straight through to Milwaukee. The band is playing Summerfest tomorrow, and I plan to be there. Summerfest one of the big music festivals that dot the Midwest every summer, and this is not the first time Wilco has played it. However, it is the first time Glenn has played it, and since Summerfest can see crowds upwards of 10,000, this will be a significantly bigger show than he saw in Minneapolis. How strange to step into a band that has crowds the size that Wilco does already built in! Glenn seems to be handling it well, but my camera did catch his very shaky palms moments before they went onstage in Minneapolis!
I met the band in the hotel the next morning at 9:30 am. Another rock myth was shattered. Rock musicians do not sleep until 4 pm! The sound check was scheduled for 10am, and the whole band (minus Jay, who was traveling by himself) was waiting in the lobby at 9:30. The band was given very little time to sound check but I decided to take advantage of the bright morning and shady stage to film them going about their business.
I always find sound checks fascinating. The band is doing the exact same thing they will be doing later on that night to thousands of adoring and screaming fans, but during sound check people mill around like the band is no more than a construction crew making a lot of noise. I decided to try to film this aspect of touring, and there was no better place than Summerfest. The stage was outdoors, and there were rows and rows of bleacher-type seats, all empty. The festival was actually open, but I guess it was too early for anybody to be around. The result was Wilco playing their hearts out to the following: a janitor, a family eating corn, a couple with a baby, and a guy securing some cable at the back of the audience area. On the side, two unidentified middle-age men who looked like they belonged at a computer convention watched the band with mild interest. (Note to music fans–next time your favorite band is in town, try to witness the sound check. You will see a performance that you can truly say was just for you. Usually, if you are there people assume you are part of the crew, and they leave you alone.)
My crew headed back to the hotel after sound check. I decided not to shoot the show tonight after determining that a) it was going to be a very dark stage at 10pm, and the festival didn’t seem to have enough lighting to do the job even if I convinced them to crank the power all the way up, and b) I didn’t feel like a very good recording could be made last minute at an outdoor show. Therefore , I would attend tonight’s show basically as a spectator, but would film in the dressing room before and after the show.
I had made an “appointment” with Jeff for another interview, mainly to discuss what was (or wasn’t, I suppose) happening with Reprise. He agreed to be interviewed in his hotel room at 5pm, so I told the crew to meet outside his door at about 4:55.
When Jeff opened the door I was sure he had been sleeping, and I apologized for waking him. He said no problem, but I could tell he was a bit weary, as if he had been needing a nap all day, and we spoiled it. I guess that 9am wake-up call was a bit early after all! I came in with the crew ( and a word on this. It is very odd to travel everywhere with a crew, and to disrupt normal life just by walking into a room. On Jeff’s end, it must have seemed like a knock, then the Spanish Inquisition. I come in and start taking light readings, while Keith the camera assistant looks for a place to set down his six cases of gear, and Roger knocks over a lamp with his boom microphone.) Jeff sat back down on his disheveled bed, a guitar for a bedmate (one rock myth still alive!), and lit a cigarette. I chose a seat by the window so that when Jeff looked at me to answer my questions his face would be in the light.
I started asking him questions about the situation with Mio Vukovich (their A&R; person) not liking the record. Although Jeff had now had time to digest the information about the label not being satisfied with the album Wilco had turned in, he could not conceal his general disgust for the way he was being treated, and for the lack of bravery in the music industry. I got the feeling that Jeff wasn’t too surprised about the record company’s reaction, but at the same time he couldn’t understand their logic. The bright side was that Jeff had final say over creative control of the record, and if the record company didn’t agree to put out the record “as is” then Jeff could quite possibly get out of his deal with Reprise records.
For those of you that are unclear as to why this would be a good thing (getting out of a major label contract), I will attempt to explain, although I am no expert, and am quite baffled about the whole situation myself. As best as I understand it, a band is signed up for a long term record contract that spans several albums. As long as the label keeps putting these records out, the band is obligated to honor their contract. However, the person who originally signed the band may not be working at the label anymore, or may have lost interest in the band, so there may be no one that is enthusiastic about the band at the label . Now, although this is surely not the case with most of the Reprise employees (most of them love Wilco) the band was starting to get the feeling that at the radio and promotion levels, they were not a top priority. Add to that the feeling that this new record was disliked by some high-ups at the label, (or one high up at the label) and you start to see the problem. The band would rather go somewhere else with their record, preferably to a label that is enthusiastic about it, than have to honor their contract and watch their album get lost and never be promoted.
This is a story that gets played out all the time at major labels. The label spends a lot of money recording a record, then is not satisfied with the results. Rather than giving the record a chance, and spending money marketing and advertising it, they put the record out (honoring their end of the contract) and never “work” it. Meaning, they don’t do anything to TRY to sell the record, so of course it DOESN’T sell, proving to them it wasn’t a good record. The problem with this system is that only a FEW people end up determining the success or failure of a record, in essence. I’m sure you can think of at least a couple of good records, or artists, that never sold well, although you thought they were great. A major label can, in essence, bury an artist by making them uphold their contract, while spending no money to promote them (think: the Replacements).
So you can see why the possibility of getting out of his Reprise contract appealed to Jeff. If the band can buy back the record (pay the label back for what the record cost to make) and shop it to another label they can not only hopefully find someone more enthusiastic, but also sign a better deal in the process. The problem is that a record company will almost never agree to this kind of thing, preferring instead to put the record out and hope for the best rather than see the band go to another label and watch them possibly succeed.
The next few weeks would be very interesting to watch play out, and I was, in this interview trying to cover all aspects of the story in my questioning.
About half way through the interview the phone rang. It was Tony Margherita, just in from Chicago, and he wanted to come up to the room. Ten minutes later Tony arrived, and sat down on the bed next to Jeff. He told Jeff (while cameras were rolling) that he just got off the phone with Mio Vuckovich, who had talked to his boss, David Kahne, the head of A&R; at Reprise. Mio told Tony (who told Jeff, as I filmed) that David agreed with with Mio about the record needing work. Tony told Jeff that this may be the way out of the deal–if Wilco refuses to change the record, and Reprise refuses to release it unchanged.
I couldn’t believe the events that were taking place. When I started this project I didn’t know I was going to have to call in Woodward and Bernstein to get to the bottom of this! I guess the silver lining was that although Jeff and Tony were incredulous and disappointed at the absurdity of the situation, they were incredibly optimistic and even excited about the possibilities. I guess I will just have to change the title of the movie to “Wilcogate.”
We finished the interview, and I told the crew that I would meet them at the show about an hour before Wilco was set to go on. Wilco was supposed to hit the stage at 10:00pm, and planned on getting to their “dressing room” ( a trailer) at 9:30 or so.
We filmed some pre-show activity, like we did the past two nights, including a few more backstage “vocal warm-up moments” which were quickly becoming some of my favorite things in the film. The band warmed up in the trailer by playing “Summerteeth,” and the song sounded wonderful in its stripped down form. For once my china globe lighting was appreciated, as the night had turned unseasonably cold, and threatened rain (July 2 in Milwaukee, who would’a thought). Someone in the band commented that the dressing room was the warmest place in Milwaukee tonight!
I filmed right up until the band went on stage, and then put the camera down and went to watch the show. I stayed on the side of the stage for about four songs which is a whole different perspective from watching a band from the audience. When you watch a set from the side of the stage you really get the band’s perspective, and you realize how big a part the crowd plays in the vibe of the night. When you stand in the audience you see the band, and the backs of thousands of people’s heads. But when you stand on stage, you see all of those peoples FACES.
The sound was terrible from the side of the stage, and I think it was terrible ON stage as well. (I don’t mean the band, I mean the sound rthe band was hearing through the monitor speakers) Jeff was making faces like he couldn’t hear the instruments properly, and didn’t look like he was having fun. From the audience however, the band sounded great, and there was a giant crowd there to see them. I was torn between watching from the wings, which was fascinating, and watching from the audience, which was, for lack of a better term, rocking. I chose to split the difference, and went half and half. I saw Tony Margherita in the audience, bobbing his head like a fan.
When the band got close to the end of the set, I retreated to the dressing room trailer to prepare to film. Roger and Keith met me back there, and we waited until we heard the crowd cheering and clapping before turning on the camera. I pointed it at the closed door, and a few seconds later a very wet Wilco blew in. It had started pouring during the last song, and the band had gotten a shower on the way from the stage to the dressing room. Jeff was angry about the sound mix, because he couldn’t hear the band properly all night. (This was no fault of the band’s crew Stan and Jason, but more due to the vagaries of playing an outdoor festival where 8 bands played between Wilco and their sound check. Levels change, equipment goes bad, and in some cases, the atmosphere even changes the sound to the degree that the band’s mix in sound check sounds NOTHING like the show. Stan did an admirable job of making it sound great to the audience, but on stage it was apparently very muddy-sounding and hard to hear the individual instruments) In addition, the promoter wanted them to keep playing, and had gotten in Jeff’s face on the side of the stage. I guess every night can’t be magical for the audience AND the band, like I witnessed for the last two nights in Minneapolis.
In two days the band would play to one of the biggest crowds in their life, as the headliner of Chicago’s “Taste of Chicago” festival. There could be upwards of 30000 people there, so I guess if there was going to be an off night on this little tour, better it happened in Milwaukee, when we WEREN’T filming, then in Chicago, where we have a 9 person crew ready and waiting for our return.
July 3, 2001
What a day. We arrived back in Chicago at noon today after an easy two hour drive from Milwaukee in the van. That was the end of the “easy” part of the day, however, because we had plans to interview Tony Margherita (about the recent label struggles) and Jeff, plus I had an interview scheduled with Jim O’Rourke. In addition, we had another meeting with the city of Chicago people to make last minute arrangements for tomorrow’s filming of the “Taste of Chicago” show.
I ran into Joe Kessler at the hotel in Chicago, and it was like talking to a different person. Gone was the smile, the chattiness, and the enthusiasm. Instead, he barely made eye contact and acted like a mad employee or scorned girlfriend. I quickly deduced that he was angry about not going to Minneapolis, and for me not calling him about Milwaukee. Although I felt bad that he was upset, there was not a lot I could do. I am making this movie virtually unaided (when I am on the road, anyway) and have to make decisions as I go along about what is best for the movie. And in this case, it was better for the movie that I not have a second cameraman with me on the road. I hoped that it wouldn’t affect his performance in shooting tomorrow’s concert, and I hope that he will realize it was nothing personal, and just a decision related to the job. If he wanted to give me the silent treatment, then what could I do?
I took off from the hotel shortly thereafter to interview Tony Margherita with Roger and Keith. Keith would operate the camera while I asked Tony questions. We showed up at Tony’s new office, which was a considerable distance from downtown, and parked the car. This was a difference from the first half of the movie, when Tony’s office was virtually a desk in Wilco’s loft. I guess he got tired of trying to make phone calls while Wilco was playing and recording music at full volume.
We walked into the office and started setting up, and Tony got a phone call. After the first thirty seconds of listening to him talk I realized he was speaking to someone at Reprise records, and that this was not going to be a friendly conversation. I grabbed Keith, who was just getting the camera situated, and pointed his body at Tony. I said, “start shooting and DON’T stop.” I spun my head around to get Roger’s attention, but he was already aware of what was going on, had his recorder running, and was in the process of extending his boom mic. Within 10 seconds we were rolling, and I whispered in Keith’s ear as he shot to keep filming even if Tony turned his back or told him to stop.
Tony was getting more and more heated, and basically telling the person on the other end that he was insulted and pissed off, and this was becoming an irreversible situation. At one point he said “the best thing for the band would be to get away from Reprise records.” As I watched this play out I couldn’t believe our luck that we happened to be here when this phone call was taking place, and that Tony wasn’t kicking us out. This phone call was the first proof to me that Wilco’s future was about to change radically, and that the album may not come out for a long, long time.
Tony’s phone call ended, and he sat down to talk to me about what had just transpired. He was still pretty heated, and I can safely say that I captured my most emotional interview to date. We talked for almost an hour about his frustrations with the label, and his optimism for the future of the band. This was turning into a very different movie than I imagined it would be (doesn’t everything), and I was determined to follow this story.
We left Tony’s office and raced back to the city for my interview with Jeff and Jim O’ Rourke. Jim had mixed the entire record, and although he could arguably be blamed for some of the record company’s displeasure, the truth is that Jim probably helped the band realize their artistic vision with Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Jim and Jeff had a final, creative collaboration that really shaped the record into a cohesive piece, rather than a collection of disjointed songs. They closed the doors to the studio for a few weeks and mixed the entire record, which was by no means the original plan. In fact, when I last talked to Jay about the mixing stage he was under the impression that the record would be partially mixed by the band, and then a few songs would be farmed out to different producers. But somehow that had changed, and Jim mixed the entire record. I wanted to talk to Jim and Jeff to find out what prompted the change in direction, and to get Jim’s thoughts on the record company’s reaction.
Roger, Keith and I showed up at the loft at about 7pm and started setting up gear. Jim and Jeff showed up, sat down, and we started filming. I had hoped to create an environment that would spark a conversation between the two of them, and I could just film it, rather than asking all of the questions. It kind of worked, and sometimes Jeff would comment on something that Jim did in the studio, and Jim would respond to him. But for the most part, I had to interject a lot of questions and ask them to clarify what they were talking about. I realized that putting two artists together for a conversation was fascinating in person, but very hard to film, because they spoke in such abstract terms. At one point Jeff was trying to describe the mixing process, and he said, “you can try to make tables and chairs, or you can try to make trees!” I had been following the conversation and I understood what he was talking about perfectly, but I knew in the context of the documentary form this would be a hard interview to make sense of.
Sometimes the enormity of what I am trying to do with this film overwhelms me. As I was listening to Jeff and Jim I realized that an entire film could be made about just MIXING a record. And yet I was simultaneously trying to tell many stories: the story of a band in relation to the creative process, the story of a record from its birth to it’s release, the story of the development of an artist, the inside story of the music business, the story of a year in the life of a band, the story of a manager of a band, and on and on. Somehow I was going to have to put all of these hours and hours of footage together into a narrative that made sense, and I often (especially now, with growing apprehension) felt a bit in over my head.
I also feel a tremendous responsibility to tell this story in as honest and as correct a way as possible. Everyone with even a passing interest in music knows about all of the stereotypes in the record business, from the sleazy managers and A&R; men, to the band being ripped off and left penniless, to the drugs, groupies, and sex,, etc. and to a certain extent, those stereotypes are nurtured and glamorized by much of the media. I really want to be as truthful as I can about my subject, and not fall into the trap of creating a stereotype to enhance the drama of the story.
One outcome I never imagined when I started this project is that I might end up being disliked by a band that I have a tremendous amount of respect for. One thing I have learned in my years of photography and film is that it is almost impossible to make your subjects (whether they be photo shoots, interviews, or a film like this) happy with the results. We are most critical of ourselves, and I’ll bet if YOU (the reader) saw two hours of of your life protrayed on the big screen there would be things you would like to cut out!
The most difficult thing I face is trying to condense all of this information that I have gathered over the year into a two-hour movie. In a sense, a documentary becomes a caricature of the subject, exaggerated and minimized simultaneously. When you film something, anything, you add importance and focus to that something without even meaning to. I guarantee that if you added a 30 second shot of say, a tomato, to the middle of any film, the audience would immediately assume that there is something extremely important about that tomato that requires their full attention, that it will be called upon later in the telling of the story, and that it is more than JUST a tomato. This is probably an accidental function of film that is responsible for the magic in the art of movie making.
The point I am making is that anything I put in the film will be exaggerated, and anything I leave out will be minimized. Therefore, the best I can do is try to make a sketch of the events that took place, trying to pick the best examples of the events that shape the story. One good example of this is interviews. At the end of this film I will probably have 30 hours of interviews. Now, to be completely true to my subjects, I would have to rent a theatre for a week to show every minute of those interviews. Of course, no one would come to see this film, but at least the subjects would know that I represented them correctly, because I left nothing out, and everything they said is in order. This would be a perfect (and perfectly boring) world. But what I have to do is try to pick the moments in those interviews that best represent the story I am trying to tell. I can’t tell every story, and I can’t touch on every subject. And if anyone reading this has ever been interviewed for a magazine or newspaper, and then later read the story, they know exactly what I am talking about. No matter how good the story is, it never seems like the interviewer quoted you right, and it often seems like you were misrepresented or that an important part of what you were trying to say was left out.
I just hope that I can tell this story as accurately as possible, and that the band can forgive me for the limitations that are inherent in documentary filmmaking. The crux of the documentary form is that to make a good film, you have to accept a responsibility for portraying the subject as accurately as possible, while maintaining a responsibility to the audience to tell them as interesting of a story as possible. In other words, you can never make everyone happy so you might as well try to make yourself happy. I am resolved to make the film that I would want to see. Hopefully, the rest will take care of itself.
July 6, 2001
Things are never what you imagine they will be. Have you ever found out you were going on an incredible vacation, and imagined the entire trip in your head-‹from the beach, to the water, to the hotel, whatever? If you have, you know that good or bad, it is never like you imagined it would be. Well, I guess the Taste of Chicago was like that for me.
I had built up the Taste of Chicago show in my head for months, planning on it being the centerpiece of the concert footage in my film. How could it not? I had a radio station paying for an entire mobile recording unit that we could tap into, ensuring pristine sound. I had an outdoor environment, meaning I could shoot fine-grain negative film, and I had 25000 Wilco fans as a backdrop. In addition, the city was letting us shoot the concert basically for free, and I had three cameramen, including myself, and five assistants, all donating their time. (A big thank you to all of you)
Here’s what happened. We got to the stage, which was a giant amphitheater in the center of Grant Park in Chicago, and began looking at our proposed camera positions. We had rented a Western dolly, which is basically like a big wagon with no sides. It is a flat platform with big rubber wheels that is used when you don’t want to lay down dolly track (or if you don’t have the budget or permission for the track). A little film information here: a dolly is a platform with wheels that a camera can be mounted on. These come in all different styles, from the most simple (like the Western) to sophisticated rigs with camera cranes, remote heads, and full rotating capability. Most dollys run on a track, just like a train. This ensures that the camera work will not be bumpy, and that the finished shot will slide along like butter. A western dolly is used when you can’t lay track, and it has big soft tires that absorb as well as possible any small bumps in it’s path.
We brought the Western dolly hoping that we would be able to use it. Because no one said anything, we unloaded it and set it below the front of the stage, marking it’s path with masking tape on the ground. We then went to the back of the seating area and tried to find an appropriate place for our “master” camera. A “master” shot is typically one that provides the most and safest coverage of the scene. In this case, it was a camera set up in the back of the amphitheater that could see the whole stage with no obstructions. I had asked Alan Thatcher, a local operator that agreed to donate his time in filming this concert, to run this camera. He begrudgingly agreed (this shot can be a bit boring for a camera man, but it is essential for the editor). The plan was that Alan would operate this one, I would shoot from the dolly that could travel horizontally in front of the stage, and Joe would work the sides of the stage, in the wings.
Alan and I both agreed that a 15 foot high electrical shed that we found had a perfect roof for a camera mount, and we climbed up to see how sturdy it was. This is when the problems began. The stage manager (the aforementioned woman) immediately nixed the idea, and started making noise about not being made aware just how many crew people we had. She was under the impression, I guess, that there would be one person with a video camera! She ran off to talk to the stagehands union boss, and as I watched her scuttle away, I knew that couldn’t be good news.
Alan and I resigned ourselves to a spot by the sound board, next to a mini video cam on a flimsy tripod. I could almost hear Alan sigh, and I am sure if our camera had feelings it would feel the same way: oh the indignity!
Soundcheck was starting, so I left Alan in his compromised position and headed to the stage to get an idea of what was to come. That’s when the next disappointment hit me. The band was set back about 15 feet from the edge of the stage. That, coupled with the fact that the first audience row was 15 feet from the edge of the stage, made a 30 foot gap between the band and the crowd-‹not exactly a distance preferred by performers or cameramen. The band would seem so far away from the crowd! To add to the heartbreak, there were giant, ugly banners set up behind the stage advertising SEARS and XRT radio. They would be in every shot. (When, by the way, in the history of our great nation, did banners take over the world? It is getting to the point where you can’t look anywhere without seeing a giant advertisement. I understand the power of advertising, but there should be some attention paid to aesthetics!)
Wilco started their soundcheck, but I didn’t get to hear it. It seems as though the stagehands union decided I needed to pay a location fee after all, and I was forced to either write a check, or call off the filming. I got out the checkbook, and all of a sudden, people were a lot more friendly. We were told we could have our Western dolly, and that Joe could roam the stage.
I hurried back to the front of the stage to test the dolly. We weren’t planning to use the dolly in the traditional fashion, with a tripod, so I had to see if the combination of hand-holding a heavy camera and being pushed along an uneven, sloped surface was a good idea. We got to the dolly and I stepped up onto it, and took the camera from Keith, the camera assistant. He pushed me no more than three feet when I took the camera from my shoulder and said, “we have a problem.” The dolly was too low, and consequently I would be looking up Jeff’s nose when I filmed him. I sent Keith scrambling for every empty camera case we owned (camera cases are incredibly sturdy and heavy steel boxes). We stacked up the cases precariously and now had enough height to make a good shot. The problem was that now the dolly, which was never a stable shooting platform to begin with, was now a teetering, rolling, accident waiting to happen. Well–what could we do? We strapped the cases together, making them as secure as possible, and practiced making several passes at different speeds without the camera, until I got used to the feeling of standing on a stack of rolling boxes. The stops and starts were the hardest, but I learned to anticipate them, and soon felt good enough to try it with a camera. We practiced with that for a bit, and I couldn’t help but think of how blindly I had backed into this project. Here I was operating a hand-held camera on a rolling dolly, which I would have to do non-stop for two hours (in an odd, bent-back posture with a 35 pound camera on me), whereas six months ago I had never had a movie camera on my shoulder. Be careful for what you wish for.
We set the slate on the dolly’s base, and I practiced pointing the camera down to the slate, and then doing a big move with my upper body (kind of like the follow-through on a golf swing) to a focus on the stage. This move was, with the added motion of the dolly, rather disorienting, and I knew that I was in for a rough afternoon of work. It was supposed to be 90 degrees by the afternoon, and it already felt like it.
My other concern was the people in the front row not wanting a camera in front of them, but I rationed that they would rather have a moving obstruction than a still one, and reasoned that if I just kept moving I would only piss people off for short periods of time! The other concern was that the dolly would get in the way of the master shot, but Alan assured me he could shoot around it.
We had about six hours before Wilco went on, and I wanted to film a few other things with that time. I checked in with Roger, who put some headphones on my head and played me the feed he had recorded from soundcheck. True to their word, Tim Powell and his mobile recording unit had let us patch into his sound board, and the audio was fantastic. At least I didn’t have to worry about that part of it!
I set out with Joe to track down Greg Kot, the Chicago Tribune critic who had reviewed “Being There” for Rolling Stone some years back, and who had written several Wilco articles. I wanted to get his take on the recent label situation, as well as his views on Wilco’s place in the history of music. I had heard he was hanging around backstage.
I found him, and he readily agreed to sit down for an impromptu interview (those are the best kind, I’ve found-‹give the subject no time to prepare!). The problem became WHERE to do the interview. The backstage area was mobbed- in addition to Wilco and their crew, my crew, and the stagehands, there were personell from the other two acts on the bill: Semisonic and the North Mississippi All-Stars. The soundchecking going on onstage made it impossible to do an exterior interview, so we were left with the option of commandeering the All Stars dressing room-‹which seemed fine, since they hadn’t shown up yet.
We closed the door and commenced with an interview that, although eventually yielded some great moments, was disrupted and eventually cut short by every possible interruption. In fact, I would like to take this moment to apologize to Greg Kot, who put up with a very difficult situation and still managed to give a great interview.
Here’s what happened. I had asked only two questions when a strange drumbeat started up in the room. I asked Joe to stop filming, and we looked around, puzzled, trying to find the source of the sound. As it turns out, the Petrillo band shell is set up like a traditional theater, with a speaker in each dressing room so that the performers can monitor the stage. Someone had started playing the drums onstage, and it was magically piped into the room. We found a box on the wall, turned the speaker off, and continued the interview. Not one question later, a cell phone went off. I won’t embarrass the person who’s phone it was, but a film crew should know better than to leave a cell phone on during an interview! I apologized to Greg, and asked him to continue. Not two minutes later, there was an insistent knock at the door, which I at first tried to ignore. It didn’t stop, so I again asked poor Greg to hold on a moment, and I opened the door. It was my favorite person, the stage manager. She told me that we weren’t supposed to be in the All-Stars dressing room (which was completely empty, by the way, and not filled with food, drink, or All Stars). I asked her if the band had shown up, and she said not yet, but we weren’t allowed to be in there. (I will never understand the logic behind these kinds of statements). I asked her to please let us stay for five more minutes, and she relented.
We started up again, and got the best five-minute chunk of the interview done before we were again interrupted by the stage manager, who successfully kicked us out. I told Greg that despite the distractions, there was a lot of usable stuff, and that I was satisfied. Greg, being a journalist himself, understood, and we agreed to maybe try it again some other time.
It was getting close to showtime, so I gathered the troops and made last minute arrangements. Joe would be with the band in the dressing room, and then follow them to the stage. I would be on the dolly out front waiting to capture their arrival on stage. Alan was already in his position getting crowd shots.
Finally it was time. With the 10 minute call I left the dressing room and went to my stack of “rolling boxes” that would be my home for the next two hours. I had a guy named Reid with me, who was responsible for pushing the dolly- a job he had never done before, and Keith, who was crouched on the ground with a light-safe changing bag ready to re-load the film magazines. We tried to work out a foot-stomping system for stop and start so that I wouldn’t have to stop looking through the eyepiece. The announcer, a DJ from WXRT in Chicago, came out and addressed the crowd. We made a pass of the crowd cheering, and then waited for Wilco. They came out to a massive amount of applause, and though I was concentrating on focus and framing, I wondered what it looked like to Jeff and the guys to walk out to a crowd the size of this.
Well, the rest of the concert was pretty uneventful from my end. Reid kept pushing and pulling the dolly from right to left and left to right, and somehow I kept balancing as the sweat soaked my shirt and crept into my eyepiece. Finally, after about 10 songs, I needed a break, and gave the camera to Keith for a song. Now I know why NOBODY in their right mind would shoot a full length concert with a hand-held camera. My back was killing me, and my arms felt like two 4×4 posts hanging from my shoulders. But, after Keith had spelled me for a song I took the camera back and let him go back to his frantic film loading duties, and I somehow made it through the show.
I spoke to Joe and Alan afterwards, and they both assured me they got great stuff. I just hoped that they were right, because there are no more concerts in the budget! I went to the hotel tired and happy that we actually pulled off filming a major outdoor show.
July 12, 2001
I woke up this morning gripped with a strange fear. It was one I had not experienced for many years, since early on in my professional photography career. It was the fear of wondering how I would support myself if I stopped being “wanted” by my industry.
For many years now I have been working at a very steady pace, with many job offers, often more than I can possibly accept and still keep my sanity. I have left the fear of unemployment in the dark recesses of my memory while slowly working at building a career and a life. Then, in August of 2000, I decided that path wasn’t enough, and that I needed something more to challenge me. I chose, through an act of passionate, caution-to-the-wind naivety, to make this film. No matter that I had never made a film before, or that the subject I chose was a band that only a small percentage of people knew about, I innocently just decided that Wilco should have a film made about them and I was the man to do it.
Now here it is July, a week after the Wilco record was to be in stores, and a week after I had originally planned to finish filming. Instead, I have a halfway-at-best completed film with no ending, and the band I chose to “chronicle their artistic road to success” is dropped from their label, and they have no means or plans to release the record anywhere in the near future, and I am about $100,000.00 into my rapidly depleting funds, with no end in sight. Furthermore, in the two weeks I was gone on my latest Wilco adventure, I missed several very lucrative opportunities for the only kind of work I have ever made a living doing: photography. I suppose to be accurate, I should not only count the money I have spent on the project and the money I still owe on the project, but I should also add to that the money I have lost by turning down photography jobs.
I know this sounds like complaining, but it is more that I am airing my fears about this project. I still have no means of recouping any of my losses, and no one has come along interested in taking the plunge into helping me get this movie made. It is quite frightening, let me assure you.
I got out of bed with this unsettled fear still rattling around in my skull, and crawling on my flesh. It didn’t wash off in the shower either, and when I sat down at my desk I decided I would look at just HOW deep into this project I was.
I figured that after the hundred grand or so in checks I had already written to Fusion Films (Peter had offered to handle the accounting and the distribution of payments), I was still in for another twenty grand, plus what the film I had just shot would cost to develop and transfer. Considering we had shot the most film of any segment so far nearly 25 hours, this number was not insignificant. Rather, it was nearly half of the total footage. HOW did we shoot so much film?
I decided that I would get all of the film processed, but I would see if I could wait on transferring it, hoping that I could get a better deal if I didn’t need it all right away. I called Peter and expressed this to him, and he said he would ask the transfer house if they could give us a discount by “tacking” our job onto the ends of other jobs. In other words, if a colorist was booked for an eight hour day on some big-budget commercial job and finished in six hours, he could spend a few hours on our project without us having to be there. The theory is that everyone could save a little money that way, with the owner of the company not having to pay a colorist to sit around and do nothing, and with us agreeing to the second class service in exchange for a discount. The only drawback was that it could be over a month until I saw the footage we had shot. But at this point, I was willing to be patient.
The next thing I did was to make a wish list of the people I wanted to get into the film, in light of the recent upheavals with Reprise. I had confirmed with Tony Margherita by phone that the band was indeed in the legal process of getting out of their record contract after coming to a stalemate with the label, which was that the A&R; department wanted the band to make changes to the record, and the band refused. Luckily the band had a clause in their contract which permitted them to break their contract if the label didn’t release the record within 45 days of its delivery (or something like that). The label was being surprisingly and suspiciously amenable to the band leaving, maybe leading one to believe that they wanted to avoid a bad scene in the press, and maybe because they were realizing they made a mistake, and realized that there was too much water under the bridge, so to speak. Regardless, there was a lot of filming to do if I intended to tell this story. My list looked something like this: interview the following people: Bill Bentley, head of publicity for Reprise, David Kahne, the head of A&R;, Mio Vuchovich, Wilco’s A&R; representative, Howie Klien, the recently departed president of Reprise (who allegedly left the label the day before the record was turned in), Gary Briggs, the head of marketing for Reprise, a few music journalists who could put this all in perspective, and of course the band, with Jeff and Tony being at the top of my list.
The only silver lining in this cloud of extra cash that I now had to spend was that the majority of these people resided in Los Angeles, the home of Reprise records, meaning hopefully I could do these interviews on a shoestring budget, borrowing cameras, using volunteers, and stacking up two or three interviews a day. I also resolved to wait a little while until some of the dust had settled, because I was sure that no one would consent to speak to me when there was so much to still be decided. Hopefully the attorneys would have most of this stuff worked out in a few weeks, and I could then begin my Mike Wallace-like assault on the label.
The fear I had felt upon awaking was now starting to abate, replaced by a sense of purpose and a bit of excitement at the prospect of following this story. I was genuinely curious to see how this would play out, and who would (and when) eventually release the Wilco record.
I busied myself with my photography career for the rest of the day, and although that unsettling little voice of fear never quite disappeared, it did get a lot quieter.
I remember a radio program my mother used to listen to when I was young. She had a thing about this station, KABC, when I was growing up, and kept the radio on all day, even when she left the house, explaining that “burglars would hear voices and think someone was home.” I guess that accounts for the fact that she never locked the doors either. Anyway, there was a show on in the morning with two guys, Ken and Bob, who were probably like every other pair of morning guys on AM radio across the country in the 70’s and 80’s. Goofy, overly optimistic, and very conservative, Ken and Bob had a way of making the normal seem even more normal. They had a saying, “EGBOK” which was simply an acronym for “everything’s gonna be okay.” Somehow they made this inane little nothing into a catch phrase that they used ad nauseum every morning, until finally a little orange and white button showed up at our house that said “EGBOK.” I think my mom wore it around, and somehow it became lodged in my brain as some odd and comforting memory.
As I sat at my desk and contemplated the mystery that lay ahead, I involuntary spoke the work “EGBOK.” I laughed out loud, knowing it must take a pretty powerful bit of apprehension to dredge that outburst from deep in the lodgings of my brain. Everything WAS going to be okay, I just needed to stop worrying about it.
July 22, 2001
If it seems as though it has been a while since I picked up this journal, it is because nothing much is happening on the Wilco film front. A quick summary: I have now shot 53 hours of footage, 24 of which I have not laid eyes on, basically because there is no money to pay for the transfer. We are at the mercy of the transfer house, who is promising to squeeze us in whenever they can for a cut rate. The band is in limbo their deal with Reprise, but in no hurry to sign with another label and put the record out. They are sequestered in Chicago, rehearsing and laying low, and maybe taking a much needed break after a very strange six months. There is no release date planned for the record, and the news that the band is away from Reprise has still not really hit the media.
On the topic of “how the hell is this film going to get finished,” there have been a few developments. The Experience Music Project, a rock museum in Seattle created by Paul Allen, has expressed interest in getting involved with the film in some way. Last week a very nice guy named Ben London flew down to Los Angeles to visit Peter and me. He wanted to see some footage and report back to his boss (and the guy who runs the EMP) Bob Santelli. We showed Ben our trailer, and some other footage that I had shot, and he seemed very enthusiastic about getting the EMP involved in some way. He promised to talk to Bob Santelli and see what he could do. I guess expecting him to write us a check this week was out of the question!
We have also gotten some interest from both Palm Pictures, and Rykodisc. They are the people that distributed the Billy Bragg and Wilco documentary, “Man in the Sand,” and they too wanted to see some footage. This was exciting to me, but somehow less so than some of the other queries. I had a grand and optimistic vision that this film could be distributed theatrically, rather than just having a DVD and VHS release, which Palm and Rykodisc seemed to be suggesting.
What WASN’T happening, was that no one was stepping up and saying to me, “we want to buy your unfinished movie, give you $500,000.00, and let you finish it how ever you want to.” And that is really what I need!
So for now, I wait. And Wilco waits. And I am not very good at waiting.
July 30, 2001
Today I made contact with both Bill Bentley and Gary Briggs. Bill is the head of publicity for Reprise, and Gary is Reprise’s product manager. They both have agreed in principle to being interviewed for the film, but they want to wait until the dust settles a bit and they see where they are with the Wilco situation. I, of course, am chomping at the bit to talk to them, because I want to get their FIRST reactions to the situation, rather than an interview filled with calm hindsight.
Bill has also promised me he will contact Mio Vuchovic and David Kahne, Wilco’s A&R; representative, and the head of A&R;, respectively. These two are being fingered as the only responsible parties for the band being dropped from Reprise, and I am crossing my fingers that they will consent to talk on camera. The other person on my Reprise “wish list” is recently departed label head Howie Klein. Howie’s last day at the label was also the day that Wilco turned in Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and I wanted to get his take on the whole situation. My understanding of the situation is that the record was “hidden” on a shelf at Reprise for Howie’s last few days, and although this is only hearsay, it does shed some light on why it took the A&R; department two weeks to get back to the band after such a high-priority record was delivered. After Howie left, Reprise was virtually without leadership, with David Kahne taking the temporary reigns.
This sheds some light on Wilco’s quick dismissal. Howie Klein was a longtime supporter of the band, and would have perhaps massaged the situation in a way to keep Wilco around had he still been president. I guess we will never know.
A quick explanation about how record companies are structured may shed some light on how this situation was allowed to happen. Keep in mind I am no expert, but this is how I understand it.
A record companies character is defined, in a perfect world, by it’s president, and it’s A&R; staff. In the beginning, when Reprise was created by Frank Sinatra, it was conceived as an artist-friendly label a place where artists were assured that creativity and artistic integrity reigned supreme. Howie Klein’s intent, as president of Reprise, was to maintain that stance, and indeed he built and maintained a stable of artists from Wilco to REM to Neil Young, among others. He also was responsible for hiring an A&R; staff that understood the philosophy of the label. Now, for all of you who are wondering what A&R; means, it is an antiquated abbreviation for “artist and repertoire.” This term has been around since the early days of record companies, when an A&R; representative was responsible for shaping a group, finding good material for that group to record, and putting that group in touch with the right producers, publicists, etc, to create, hopefully a radio and record sales success. As artists have become more independent (which started with artists like Bob Dylan and the Beatles writing and recording material) the role of the A&R; rep has changed as well. Although there is still the task of guiding the band through the process of making a record and helping with the decision making, and A&R; reps job is now more often to try to be a go-between for the artist and the label, with more emphasis on finding and signing acts and deciding if the act is commercial, and trying to shape the band into what is needed by the marketplace. Although there are still many similarities between the old and new roles of an A&R; rep, the big difference seems to be that the rep lends his ear more to the needs of the label than the artist these days. And part of this comes from the intense pressure to have a hit in a marketplace that is more and more fragmented and compartmentalized, with the time to succeed becoming shorter and shorter. This is especially true of the big corporate-owned labels (of which Reprise, owned by AOL/Time Warner is a member of). An A&R; rep is judged more by his short term successes than his long-time development of a catalog. Therefore the A&R; department doesn’t have the luxury of long-term development that it once had.
On the other side, many bands these days have less and less a need (or a trust) for an A&R; representative, preferring instead to produce and oversee their own records. This is especially true of Wilco, who had almost NO contact with Mio Vuchovic during the making of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. (I think Jeff told me he met Mio once, which explains how much the A&R; role has changed in the music industry). Therefore, when the band turned in the record, Mio may have been subtly responding to his perceived feeling of being kept out of the Wilco loop by not responding to the band for two weeks. Again, more speculation.
In Wilco’s case, a lack of trust for the A&R; department seemed to build up over the course of their seven year tenure at Reprise. According to Jeff, the A&R; department asked them to make changes on every record they turned in, with the band complying to some requests and turning down others. The last straw came when, after recording “Summerteeth,” the band was asked to record additional material, after the record company “didn’t hear a single.” The band gamely agreed, flying out to Los Angeles to record (ironically, with David Kahne producing) “Can’t Stand It,” which the label claimed to be ecstatic about. Jeff related to me that despite their purported enthusiasm, they never marketed the song to radio, and basically “let it die,” breaking their promise to the band to “work” the song.
Among other A&R; requests were asking the band to remove the horns from Being There’s “Monday,” and the fiddle from A.M.’s “Casino Queen.” Jeff did not honor these strange requests, realizing even early in his career that the label people should not be making decisions on song arrangements and choices of instruments.
It is not hard to understand, knowing this history, Wilco’s reticence to change “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.” They didn’t trust their A&R; department, (or more accurately, they really trusted their own instincts MORE than the A&R; department) and it seems that the A&R; department didn’t trust them. When I spoke to Jeff he lamented the change in a record company going from an entity that SELLS records to one that MARKETS records. The difference being that in Jeff’s view a record company’s function is to find and support artists, and encourage them to be the best artists they can be. When the artist turns in a record, it is the labels job to figure out how to sell that record. In Jeff’s opinion, the record companies today would rather a band turn in a record that is EASY for them to sell: i.e. it sounds exactly like something you hear on the radio.
Unfortunately, this has been going on for a long time. It is reported that jazz great Duke Ellington was known to have said, regarding his record company’s request to fit the mold, ” I don’t sell records, I make records it’s your job to sell them!” Infallible logic?
Regardless of who’s fault it ultimately is (after all, a record company has a right to decide what it wants to sell), there is no doubt that the conflict between art and commerce is multi-layered and has a long history. But to anyone who has ever made something that they were proud of, and then been asked to change it, or been told it wasn’t good enough, the blow is swift and lasting. It is no wonder that Jeff and the band wanted to be out of that environment as quickly as possible.
August 16, 2001
I have just finished a fascinating and tiring day of interviews with two key players in what I am now referring to as “Wilcogate.” Today was spent talking to Bill Bentley, head of publicity for Reprise, and Howie Klein, the recently departed president of Reprise. And as we packed up our gear in Howie Klein’s backyard in the fading summer light, I reflected on how odd it was to be making a Wilco movie that took me, of all places, to a backyard in Hollywood, California. When I started making this film I never imagined that I would be rolling cameras in the heart of the moviemaking industry, 2000 thousand miles away from the band! And yet there I was, a 20 minute drive from my home, finishing another day on the Wilco movie.
The day started early, with a pick up at Keslow Camera in Culver City, who gave us a camera at a VERY cheap rate. I met the camera assistant, Dave Coltiere, at the camera house, and we went through the lenses and ran a film test. I tried to explain as best I could the style I had been doing the interviews in, as Dave would be operating the camera while I asked the questions.
I then drove to the San Fernando Valley, which was the location for the Bill Bentley interview. Bill had agreed to be interviewed during his lunch hour (that ended up taking 2 hours), but didn’t want to do the interview at the record company offices. Considering the sensitive nature of the situation with Wilco, I understood. We ended up solving the problem when Bill’s co-worker, Jim Baltutis, agreed to let us use his house, which was conveniently located 10 minutes from the Reprise offices.
Dave, myself, our production assistant Mike Early, and new soundman Charlie Kelly met at the house a half hour before Bill was scheduled to arrive to find a location and set up our gear. Jim’s girlfriend, Rebecca Esmerian, let us in the house, and we were greeted by a few cats and a spread of sandwiches and drinks. Our first catered shoot! I thanked Rebecca and told her how wonderfully unexpected the food was. Only in Hollywood!
After munching down a few sandwich triangles, Dave and I looked around for a location to shoot the interview. We ruled out the backyard (too noisy), and the living room (too homey) and settled on the stark dining room area. It had good natural light and white walls, so it would match the Tony Margherita interviews. I went to the car to get my light meter to figure out what exposure to shoot and discovered to my horror that I couldn’t find it! I then remembered leaving it on my kitchen table at home, where I placed it so I wouldn’t forget it! This was no good. A filmmaker without a light meter is like a hiker without a map.
I pulled Dave aside and told him what I had done. He said “no problem, I brought mine!” Ah, relief. Dave reached into his bag and pulled outS.the oldest light meter I had ever seen! It looked like he stole it from the estate of Ansel Adams. Now, I know what you are thinking: Ansel made some pretty good exposures with his equipment! However, this thing looked like it had not been serviced in 40 years. I looked at Dave skeptically, and he swore it was a great meter. We took it inside, and I took three light readings all from the exact same location entirely different readings! Dave looked perplexed, and then exclaimed, “oh yeah, I forgot to take out the full-sun filter.” The what? He grabbed the meter and pulled out a little piece of glass that looked like a neutral density filter. “Try it now,” he said. “You aren’t supposed to have that thing in when you are indoors.” At this point I just shook my head and again took a reading. The needle danced around somewhere in the range that I kind of expected it to be ( I had already started coming up with a backup plan in my head to make the most educated guess, rather than trust the first light meter ever invented). I gave Dave his light meter back, and he carefully restored it to it’s rotting leather case, much like a baseball card collector would carefully replace a Babe Ruth rookie card back under protective glass. I decided to set the aperture somewhere between the ancient light meter reading and my best guess, and hope for a decent negative.
Meanwhile our new soundman Charlie was setting up his equipment, and I was relieved to discover that he was going to be recording on a recent model DAT recorder and not wax cylinders! I took the camera and had Dave sit where Bill was going to sit so I could see the composition. I then showed Dave what I wanted, and we were set.
Bill showed up on time, dressed in a sport coat and striped shirt. He was very polite, a bit nervous, and more conservative than I expected. He was definitely from another generation of music publicists, older, with no tattoos, earrings, or any attempt in his dress style to “fit in” with musicians. I immediately had more respect for him than a lot of people who I meet in the music industry.
We sat down and started right in. Bill talked about the sequence of events that had happened starting with when the first Wilco recordings were turned in, up to the present. We kept talking, and Dave kept loading new film magazines on to the camera. At one point, Bill said “it broke my heart to see Wilco go, I thought they were in line to become the next BIG band at Warners/Reprise.” I could tell that Bill was not only a man who took his job very seriously, but he was a guy that really LOVED Wilco.
The interview got a little awkward when I pulled a story out that I had clipped from the Chicago Tribune and asked Bill to comment on a report stating that there was a drop list that was created over six months ago that had Wilco scheduled to be dropped from the label long before “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” was to be delivered. Bill said he couldn’t talk about it, and that it didn’t exist. He also asked that the interview be over. I could tell that he was uncomfortable with speaking about the sticky situation that the company he was employed by was involved in.
We finished up, and in some ways I felt like I had more questions now then when I started with Bill. I thanked him, and my crew and I broke down our gear and packed up, agreeing to meet in two hours at the home of our next interview subject: Howie Klein. I don’t know what the rest of the guys were going to do for the next two hours, but I was going to drive to my house and pick up my light meter!
I met back up with the guys in an area of Los Angeles somewhere between Los Feliz and Silverlake, at the home of departed Reprise head, Howie Klein. Klein has a modest two-story with a peaceful backyard and a whole wall of CD’s. He was perched on a hill, and his backyard seemed quiet enough to conduct the interview, which we decided to do. His house was fairly dark, and I wanted to avoid setting up lights and disrupting his home, because he seemed a bit reluctant to do the interview in the first place.
Again, I got the impression that Howie was really sorry to see Wilco go, and that he believed in the band. However, he was also the guy that hired David Kahne, and gave him the head of A&R; job, so in a way he hired the man that dropped Wilco, and he gave him the power to do it.
Howie also explained during the course of his interview that there were certain things he couldn’t talk about because it could jeopardize his severance package that he received upon leaving the Time Warner/AOL “family.” So, clearly, there were several contradictory forces that were shaping this interview.
I gamely asked the questions, and Howie did share some of his insight into the way the radio and promotions department works, and into the problems that come up when a corporation owns a record company. We talked about the lack of artist development that takes place now in comparison to the “good old days” of Warner Bros. I could tell that Howie had a love for music, but had also become very comfortable as a big-time record executive. He told me that he understood artists, but also had an understanding of the needs of the shareholders. In retrospect, it was a very confusing interview, which at times seemed not about Wilco at all, but more about the state of the record industry.
I started to realize that part of the story of this film wasn’t directly about Wilco, but more about the struggle of the artist in a commercial environment. If I look back at the history of music, I could plug in dozens of artists that went through exactly what Wilco is going through right now. And I realized this could be a good thing, and that this aspect of the story could be interesting to people who had never even HEARD of Wilco.
One thing was clear: Wilco was shaping up to be depicted as the classic underdog heroes corporate pressure. And something else was clear, as much as Howie Klein and Bill Bentley proclaimed to love Wilco, their main focus was on selling as many records as possible. Their drive seemed to stem from trying to figure out WHAT the public wanted, and delivering that. As much as they loved Wilco on a personal level, they needed to sell a lot of records to be considered valuable in their jobs.
At this point it occurred to me that the label has a need to sell way more records than the members of Wilco need to, and therein lies the problem. The number of records that Wilco needs to sell so that the individual band members can lead comfortable lives doing what they love to do is considered a failure to the record company. The situation begs the question, “How much is enough?”
I once again am falling back into the realm of talking about a subject that I don’t know enough about, but I have become so curious about the record industry as I have made progress on the film.
We regret that this diary is almost 10 months behind schedule. Trust that the filmmaking process is still going on as we enter February of 2002, and we hope to have a completed film out by Summer 2002. We will continue to update the diary every few weeks with new entries, and have no intention of stopping until the entire story has been told.
I Am Trying to Break Your Heart premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 21, 2002, and opened at Chicago’s Music Box Theatre on August 2, 2002. Here’s our original Glorious Noise review by Jeff Sabatini.