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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Danielson: A Family Movie' Director JL Aronson

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Danielson' Pitch: A songwriter leads his family to indie rock stardom, eventually facing the struggles of a solo career and a protege who finds greater commercial success.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Creativity vs. accessibility.

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.
First time at SXSW, yes. I’ve been to a few other fests with a different film. So much of the festival world is kind of a scam. The attention is great if you have a buzz-worthy film or a good PR agent but the politics can get pretty yucky. Prestigious festivals nearly demand that you give them a world or regional premiere which can mean you only get to screen at one really good festival. SXSW let me play Danielson as a sneak preview in the San Francisco Independent Film Festival last month but then they punished me by giving me crappy screening times. (Tues 14 at 4:30pm and Wed 15 at 5pm)

Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
Famous musician. Like many people without raw musical talent or discipline, I wound up working in the orbit of musicians. But I have no complaints. Few people can maintain a successful music career past 35 but you can direct films from your wheelchair. And anyway, I’m a buddhist so...

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
Well, my high school had a TV studio that I worked in for 3 years and my friends and I were always making movies (yes, in backyards) but I really just decided to make a movie some years back and then got it into festivals. Maybe I haven’t started yet.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
Ask me after I have a distribution deal.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
The Swedish chef because no one understands me.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Of course. I make films that I want to see and the films I like have good stories, provoke thought, inspire people, and make their money back.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
I was aware of Danielson Family and approached them with the idea of making a movie about them. It took some months of convincing them and finding people we had in common who would nudge them a bit. We finally started shooting in March 2002 as the band was preparing to go on their first European tour. I was thinking that the film might be something like Don’t Look Back where everything happens in one week. It wasn’t until after we got back from Europe and I went on a little tour with Daniel and Sufjan that I realized things were changing for Daniel and that I’d have to stick around to see what would happen. I never heard Sufjan’s music until after we all got back from Europe. Seeing them on tour together, I realized he was a great foil for Daniel. Over time he became more than that, of course. A lot of the film I edited as I went along. There were substantial periods of waiting for the next thing to happen. I often wanted to tie things up and just get my movie out there but it really couldn’t have been finished any earlier.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Focus on the core story.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
Albert Maysles is a constant inspiration. Pennebakers’ Don’t Look Back and Grant Gee’s film about Radiohead are just about perfect.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
As a documentarian, I feel it necessary to choose a non-actor: George Bush.

Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
For a while I’ve wanted to do a series on Americans living abroad. Why do they leave? What do they find in their adopted country? What does the local population make of them? Kind of a Henry James story but global in reach.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
Lenny Smith (Daniel’s father). He’s already had some success but sooner or later people will discover his treasure trove back catalog.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
A monastic.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
Gary Sinise.

Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
If I’d made it I would be free of all vexations and dwell entirely in the present moment.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
I wouldn’t know, I don’t read them.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?

You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
A contract is a contract. That said, I find all representations of sex to be kind of disturbing. Sex is something you experience. Prayer is the same way.

What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
The director term for documentaries is pretty sketchy. With this film I really did just about everything myself so I could say “a film by JL Aronson” and in fact, that’s what I says on the promo items. But in the opening credits I appropriate the European term for director which is realisateur: the one who realizes the film or makes it happen. The actual credit says “Realization.” I really think that’ the most appropriate, even if people think I’m self-indulgent for doing it, the truth is, it’s more humble/honest than saying “I directed these things.”

In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
My movie is about real people pursuing their artistic vision and navigating the vicissitudes of life. Plus it has Lenny Smith.


Danielson: A Family Movie, starring Daniel Smith, Sufjan Stevens, Rick Moody, Steve Albini, and David Garland, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Danielson: A Family Movie website.

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originally posted: 02/19/06 08:42:51
last updated: 02/19/06 08:43:33
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