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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Slam Planet' Director Mike Henry

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Slam Planet: War of the Words' Pitch: A feature length documentary film about spoken word artists in the Poetry Slam movement. It's a story of two teams of poets, one hailing from Austin, TX, one representing Manhattan's lower East side, and their struggle to survive, both on and off stage.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Two families of Slam poets. One grows together, one falls apart.

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.
Slam Planet is my first film, so SXSW is my first film fest from this side of the fence. As an Austinite, I’ve been way into SXSW since about 1990, mostly on the music fest side, doing everything from playing in bands at the festival to owning one of the top live music venues in town to working as a stage manager. It’s a hell of a great festival, great music and movies and industry access.

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?
Either a professional bowler, Evil Knievel, or the secret, fifth member of KISS. Or Johnny Carson. I had a lot of time on my hands as a kid.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
I guess I’d have to say it was this film. Had some background and training, public access TV stuff and working on friends’ music videos, but really it was this story that led me here. I’ve been in Slam for over a decade and I knew this was a world that needed to find its way to the big screen.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
Just happy that audiences are going to get to see it. And especially happy that they’ll see it first at the Alamo Drafthouse, because they can order beer.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Animal. Gotta be Animal. Okay, maybe Scooter, the guy who runs around backstage losing his mind. Yeah, that’s probably more accurate.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
You try not to consider any of that as it can be pretty paralyzing, but coming into this art form with a background as a slam poet myself, I tend to think about the audience pretty early on in the creative process. A very smart friend of mine always says, “the audience is Emperor, always.” And, sometimes it helps to dream out a little and think about people seeing the film, who will get it, who won’t...

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
My Co-Director and I had started a digital media company focused on Slam, recognizing how amazing the content was and that the marketplace was ready for it. We started talking to people about the idea of a new documentary about Slam and met the man who would become our Executive Producer. Pretty much from that day on, the rest is a blur, with one point in the middle where our edit suite burned to the
ground. Isn’t it still last night?

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Surround yourself with brilliant people who know their stuff and learn when to get out of their way. And watch out for fires.

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.”?
I’ve been inspired by a lot of documentaries over the past years, probably most by Murderball. But, really, I try to take most of my inspiration from outside of film. I look at movie making as just another application of the same creative process that it takes to write a poem.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
Chris Rock.

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?
Now, see, I know better than to put information like that out on the internet.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
I’d mention a lot of them for different reasons – Da’Shade Moonbeam and Celena Glenn will be changing how people think about hip hop in years to come. All of the poets in our film have already proven themselves in the fastest growing literary movement of our time as well as blowing up as theatre artists, screenwriters, published poets, etc.. But if I gotta pick one, I’d say Chris Lee for his natural charisma and personality.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
...getting a lot more sleep.

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

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!”
When Slammers across the globe can make a living at what they do, Slam is an Olympic sport, and Slam 101 is taught in every high school. Until then, the mission continues.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
Very important. I love all of you. Marry me.

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

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?
See, this is exactly why I like making documentary films.

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?
It’s a process unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I am blessed to work with the individuals who have come aboard to make this film. When it comes down to it, the team is there to serve the story, and the final, specific version of the story you’re telling (as opposed to the thousand other versions of the film that exist in the same footage) can only live in one person’s head. But it’s best if that person is a good listener.

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?
Easy. Open your newspaper, find the Poetry Slam in your city, and check it out. See you at the movies.


Slam Planet: War of the Words, starring Christopher Lee, Andy Buck, Tony Jackson,Zell Miller III, and Da'Shade Moonbeam, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Slam Planet website.

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originally posted: 02/27/06 19:34:48
last updated: 02/27/06 19:35:54
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