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SXSW '06 Interview: 'Pick Up the Mic' Director Alex Hinton

by Scott Weinberg

The 'Pick Up the Mic' Pitch: A startling, fast-paced documentary on the world of gay, lesbian, and trans-gendered rappers. Featuring searing performances and raw, revealing interviews with the community's most significant players, the film captures an unapologetic underground music movement just as it's exploding into the mainstream, defying the homophobic stereotypes of traditional hip-hop in the process.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
Doc about queer hip-hop.

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.
This is my first time to SXSW. I’m so excited. I visited Austin last year for the first time during the beginning of the film fest. My partner Andy & I came to see our friend Jason Cohen get married, by Robyn Hitchcock no less, and to meet the legendary Gene Defcon in person. Paul Reiser and Al Franken were both on our flight out. Jesus, am I name-dropping?

Anyways, we fell in love with the town, the food (the scrambles at Magnolia – we went back twice), Waterloo and the atmosphere, and we are so glad to come back.

I’ve been to a few fests, the biggest being the Toronto Film Festival in 2005 where we world premiered the film. That was totally amazing and just like mind-boggling-ly so large and intense. We brought up 14 of the artists from the film and had a huge party at the Panorama Lounge, the 51st floor of the Manulife building overlooking downtown Toronto. It was crazy and exciting and just a once in a lifetime moment for all involved. We had such an overwhelming response to the film and the artists.

So that brings me to my favorite part of attending a film festival, which is showing your film to a really responsive audience. And my least favorite part is immediately after the festival experience, because you really want it to last forever.

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?
A director. I never wanted to do anything else. I remember having that Dr. Seuss’ book, “The Big Book About Me” and on the inside covers you would circle the occupation that you wanted, policeman, fireman, doctor, lawyer, etc. Well I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, which at the time I thought was called a producer, so I looked all over and of course didn’t find it, so I circled the word “nun” thinking that I didn’t want to be “none” of these, I wanted to make movies.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
Yeah, I was not a Spielberg or a Rodriguez making my own mini movies growing up. I was a late bloomer, not making films until I went back and put myself through school. I made my first film, a short on Super-8 called “The Perfect Shade,” in 1999. It starred everyone’s favorite work-a-day gal, Janice, and it traveled the world playing film festivals. Of course I couldn’t go to all of them since no one wants to fly a kid over with a 5 minute short, but it was great to know that Janice was entertaining people all over.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
I guess a little relieved, because there’s always that feeling of sending out this piece into the world after you’ve been laboring over it forever, or what seems like forever. I’m just so glad that it’s getting such a great response everywhere. It really is a film that gives a platform to artists that need to be heard.

Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
Well I had an Animal doll growing up. You could work his eyebrows. I remember his head was really heavy hard plastic. So I guess I could relate to him the most. I loved Janice – the crazy keyboard playing hippy chick in the band. She’s the one that would be caught talking like a Valley Girl during either The Muppet Movie or Muppets Take Manhattan. I think she was retired. I loved her because her eyes were just eyelashes.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
Yes. We had such a chore (Alan Skinner and myself co-edited the film). We had over 300 hours of footage, and I always wanted to include as many artists as possible in the film. So we had to figure out the structure and the balance to get a cohesive, fun, entertaining, enlightening and real film. You know, there are about a million paths that anyone can take on any subject, and the finished film is my take on this subject matter. I wanted a film that could reach as many people as possible. I believe (and everyone involved with the film believe) that you don’t have to be a hip-hop fan or just a queer person to enjoy this film. We’ve had the broadest spectrum of audiences watch the film and really respond positively.

Now, if you go the community route and try to make sure that everyone has a say in your film, the result will more likely than not be diluted, unfocused and bland. At the end of the day you have to be a strong filmmaker and take a stance as to the piece of art that you are making. Be strong with your point of view, and don’t make a film dictated to other people’s opinions.

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 working with Bret Berg on a non-profit organization called “Queer Youth TV.” We made short docs about queer life for the under-25 sect. I was looking for story ideas and googled “gay hip hop.” Up came the websites,,, etc. I emailed Juba from Deep Dickollective because he was the closest in proximity to me, and he emailed me back and invited us up to film Peace Out in 2002. Bret and I went up to Oakland and filmed non-stop for 4 days. We cut a 40-minute piece with our initial footage, and that got the attention of Stephen Nemeth at Rhino Films. Stephen totally believed in the project and got us on the road to go filming around the country. After a year of filming, I came back and hooked up with Alan Skinner. We edited in my apartment for a year straight. We got a rough cut to Adam Shulman at The Firm, and he worked as an angel on our behalf to get around town to reps. We got it to Jeff Dowd and David Garber of Lantern Lane. During that time we got invited to the Toronto Film Fest. Went to Toronto made a splash with our film and event, and then started our distribution t talks. Now I am on my festival tour (I’m writing this from the Miami Film Festival), and we are nailing down our release schedule. Tomorrow I’m back in LA and starting prep for SXSW, and our event at the Red Bull House on Tuesday March 14.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
Always trust your instinct. Your gut will guide you to the correct decision everytime. And always back up everything.

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.”?
There are two documentaries that really inspired me before I started filming, Jennie Livingston’s Paris Is Burning and Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March. I used to work in a movie theatre in Santa Cruz as a projectionist and assistant manager, and when Paris Is Burning came out we had it at our theatre. I watched it like a billion times. I learned lines from it, and I just memorized it. I had just come out, and I was fascinated by this look into gay culture that wasn’t anything I knew of at the time.

Then when I moved to LA in ’92, I interned at Roland Joffe’s company. There Mindy Affrime introduced me to Ross McElwee’s film because I told her that I wanted to do a documentary about following my favorite band at the time, Book Of Love (don’t ask). I explained that I wanted to do a personal documentary, and she said, “Well, you should see Sherman’s March." So I did, and I fell in love with McElwee’s pure and simple storytelling, and honest personal reflections. He makes it seem so simple and true, and the film really unfolds before your eyes.

So when the idea for the film came up, I knew it was a subject I had not heard about and few had, and when we hit the road filming I told Bret Berg (who was second camera during the majority of the shoot) to really go for that on the spot filming. Like if we heard a crazy noise we would focus in on that noise. I wanted real life to be captured and true moments to unfold before the camera. And we got that. People meeting for the first time, people stopping us on the street mid interview, etc. It all added up to what I was glad, a documentary that wasn’t looking back on something; it was looking forward.

What actor would you cast as a live-action Homer Simpson?
You really can’t get away from Dan Castellaneta’s brilliant voice, so it would have to be him in a fat yellow suit. But please, don’t make a live version of “The Simpsons.” Or if you do, please wait until after I die.

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?
Well, I can’t believe I’m actually admitting to this, but when I was younger (like 19) I totally wanted to do “Less Than Zero” over as a true adaptation of the book. None of this crappy mid to late ‘80’s stuff like the Marek Kanievska version. I wanted pure ‘80’s like from ’82 – ’84 as the book was written. I think I actually started writing it years ago, but then came to my senses. But I didn’t give up on this dream until after I embarrassed myself in front of Bret Easton Ellis, and told him that it was my life’s goal to remake the book.

Name an actor in your film that’s absolutely destined for the big-time. And why, of course.
All of them, because they are all stars and have true passion to be the biggest stars that they want to be and they have the talent to prove it.

Finish this sentence: If I weren’t a filmmaker, I’d almost definitely be...
An anthropologist, but I wouldn’t get that far because I like indoor plumbing and TV too much.

Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
Montgomery Clift pre-crash.

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!”
I have “made it” in completing my first film. Now no one can say that I am not a filmmaker. But right now in my current state I believe I will have made it when I don’t need another income other than filmmaking to support myself.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
They are important in certain levels of filmmaking. Like me at my level, they help, because if Roger Ebert wanted to write a glowing review of my film it would open doors to get my film seen by a lot of people. But if I was directing the latest Harry Potter film or Saw sequel, critics don’t necessarily have much impact.

You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
The latest release from Retard Disco, of course.

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?
Go for the NC-17, because if it’s a sex scene in my film and it’s integral it’s probably a homo scene, and I know my audience would want to see it.

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?
I do feel that there is always a singular directorial vision to any strong film. The director is the captain of the ship in the filmmaking process, and he/she should have the ability to direct every process in making the film towards that singular vision. But this doesn’t mean that some people can take this too far. You can’t be an egotist in this field, because you always, always need the help of someone else whether it’s from the funding, to the acting, to the lighting, to someone carrying the donuts to the set. You can’t do everything. And just from my perspective, the director is usually not the coolest guy in the room.

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?
Come see Pick Up the Mic, you’ll groove to some great tunes, you’ll learn about something you didn’t know existed, and you will come out wanting to make your own music.


Pick Up the Mic, starring Juba Kalamka, Dutchboy, Johnny Dangerous, Deadlee, Tori Fixx, God-des, JenRO, Katastrophe, Miss Money, and Marcus Rene Van, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official Pick Up the Mic website.

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originally posted: 03/06/06 16:06:15
last updated: 03/06/06 16:07:15
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