SxSW ’10 Interview – “Thunder Soul” director Mark Landsman
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/11/10 04:00:08
“In the early '70s at an inner-city Houston high-school history would be made. Conrad “Prof” Johnson turned the school's mediocre jazz band into a world class funk powerhouse. The Kashmere High School Stage Band would soon become legendary. Thirty-five years later, his former students return to the old band room to pay tribute to the man who changed their lives--the 92-year old Prof. Some haven't seen each other or played their horns in decades, still they come, determined to retake the stage to show Prof and the world that they've still got it.” Director Mark Landsman on the film “Thunder Soul” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.
Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?
First time! It's the film's World Premiere. We're all coming down for it; myself, the producers, cinematographer, editor and 30 original members of the Kashmere Stage Band featured in the movie.
Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
I got the bug when I was exposed to social justice documentaries in college. Rob Epstein and Jeff Freidman's, Life & Times of Harvey Milk, Barbara Kopple, the Maysles, Pennebaker, and the emotional impact and connection of their movies to relevant issues of the day. For more personal reasons I've always been drawn to films about people finding and expressing their voice in tough situations against all kinds of challenges, who find courage to do it in a gutsy way. When I heard Conrad Johnson interviewed on an NPR story a few years back, talking about what it was like to be a black band leader with an all-black band in a predominantly white scene, where they faced significant challenges, I immediately saw the potential for a great story. I looked him up, we talked on the phone and next thing I know I'm on a plane to Houston meet him. It happened fast.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …”
…artist or architect. I was always into making stuff, but I sucked at math, so that ruled out architect.
How did this whole project come together?
In 2007 I heard a NPR story by David Brown (KUT-Austin) on the release of a double-disc anthology called "Texas Thunder Soul". When I turned on the radio this giant wall of funk was blasting, the sound was huge and I assumed it was the JB’s or some other big early 70s band. The reporter came on and said they were high school students circa 1972, the Kashmere Stage Band, and then he introduced their teacher, Conrad "Prof" Johnson. As I listened to Prof's interview the hair on my arms stood up, and got that sense that his story had to be told. I jumped online and looked up every Conrad Johnson in the phonebook, called the first and it was his son, who gladly passed on his dad's number. Took me a week to get up the courage to call him, I did and when he picked up the phone he said, "Man, what took you so long? I've been waiting all week for your call!" He agreed to allow me to do the film and I brought it to our producers, Keith Calder and Jessica Wu, who got it right away and were willing to take the leap.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?
The biggest challenge was time, making sure we had enough coverage and where to focus our story given there were so many people involved. Archival was also really challenging-not a ton of footage on high school stage bands from the 70s. We got lucky in that we found some incredible stuff shot on 16mm that we used almost every frame of.
Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
I have great appreciation and respect for Sandy Chandler, our DP. She's shot many excellent docs for HBO and others and has an old school verité sensibility that is rare and highly tuned in. We shot on Panasonic HDX900 1080i. We mixed with all kinds of media in the cut like old 16mm, old video, and 35mm. Our editor, Claire Didier, is a wizard with both music and allowing moments to have their breath.
Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?
This is our first fest screening and the premiere. We've done a few advanced screenings for different folks in a few cities. The reaction's been strong. One guy in his early 20s wrote: "This is the first thing I've seen that makes me happy to get old." I was blown away by that. A high school band leader from San Antonio wrote us and said he doesn't want to wait until the film is released (who knows when), so he's chartering 3 busses and bringing 150 of his students to SXSW.
Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?
I hope a story like this has broad appeal. Especially if you're into music, playing it, listening to it, collecting it, learning it or teaching it. It's universal. Plus it's just an incredible story and those don't come along all the time.
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?
My inspirations are pretty varied. When I was a kid I saw every John Hughes and Spielberg movie ever made, thought "Poltergeist" was the greatest thing ever; my brother and I were obsessed with "Animal House" and "Blues Brothers". Later thanks largely to a doc professor in college, I was exposed to The Maysles and Barbara Kopple, and knocked out by social documentarians who captured truths and crafted them into compelling narrative (especially the work of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman) films that skillfully walk the line between enraging and entertaining. I also deeply appreciate Mike Leigh, Robert Altman for making fiction feel like life; and Alexander Payne for making great movies that provoke on all kinds of levels. I love being provoked in a movie and coming out saying "that was amazing." I think Cary Fukunaga kicks ass; "Sin Nombre" floored me. I want to be floored, that's why I go to the movies.
How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?
I came to LA in 2002 to make narrative, scripted films after 10 years in NYC working on doc-based productions. My goal was and is to do both. I'm doing that now as we're developing the fictional version of Thunder Soul. My sensibility is independent; I'm not going to be the go-to guy for the next Lara Croft. At the same time I'd like for good stories to be seen by a lot of people, and that could happen in a studio system, an indie path or both.
If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?
Teaching. Kids are awesome.
Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.
I'd love to work with Mike Leigh, just watch him work with actors for a while; Chris Nolan because I think he's genius with tone, pacing, camera movement. I'd love to work with cinematographers like Lance Acord, Adriano Goldman, incredible. Actors, I respect many--Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett, Derek Luc, Jeremy Renner, Ryan Gosling, Zoe Saldana, Lawrence Fishburne, Angela Bassett, Joseph Gordon Levitt, Laura Dern. It'd be great to work with giants like Meryl Streep, Sam Waterston, Diane Weist, Barbara Hershey, Diane Keaton…or basically anyone who's ever been in a classic Woody Allen film. If she could come back from the dead, I'd like to work with Anna Magnani.
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
I think the blogosphere is hugely important. It's all about word of mouth these days, and the fact that can spread around the world in a minute is something to reckon with.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?
Can we do four? The Paramount in Austin, The Ziegfield in New York, The Castro in San Francisco and the ArcLight Hollywood.
What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?
Want a free ticket?
What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?
What do you love the most about this business of making movies?
The people you meet in all areas, coming from all different perspectives and skill sets but all really into it.
No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?
Yeah, start. Just do it. Get your story told in whatever way you can and don't get hung up with how "big" it has to be, just begin.
And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
I don't know, it changes all the time. Right now it's "Sin Nombre" because it's devastating and I can't stop thinking about it.
This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com