South By Southwest 2014 Interview – THE 78 PROJECT MOVIE: Alex Steyermark & Lavinia Jones Wright
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/08/14 03:51:46
“The 78 Project Movie is about two people driving across the country to record contemporary musicians on a 1930’s Presto direct-to-disc recorder. The musicians get one microphone and one blank disk to cut a 78rpm record of an old song in one 3-minute take anywhere they choose. The adventure of capturing these intimate musical performances on film reveals the shared cultural connections of people from seemingly disparate backgrounds.” Director Alex Steyermark on THE 78 PROJECT MOVIE which screens at the 2014 South By Southwest Film Festival. Producer and Presto Recordist Lavinia Jones Wright also joins us to talk about the movie.
Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?
Alex Steyermark: I have been to Austin a few times before, and I love the city. But I’ve never been to SXSW, and I'm so excited about it because I can't imagine a better context for having our World Premiere. It was always our dream, and we're so honored and thrilled to be invited. Lavinia has been to the music part many times, and she's told me that nothing can prepare me for the excitement and energy of it all, as well as the overwhelming fatigue, so I'm trying to get all my sleep in now.
Lavinia Jones Wright: Both Alex and I will be at all four of The 78 Project Movie’s screenings. We’re looking forward to them all!
Your favorite barbecue/food in the city?
LW: I’ve been to Austin many times, and am always so appreciative of all the wonderful non-meat foods the city has to offer. I always try to get people to try Casa de Luz. I love how there’s no menu, and you just eat what they’re serving that night! And for all food lovers alike, Barley Swine is one of my favorite restaurants in America.
What do you love the most about showing movies in Austin and Austin in general?
AS: My first feature, Prey for Rock & Roll, opened the Austin Film Festival back in 2003, and the thing that struck me the most was how incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about film the audience was. Austin is a real cinephile town, so it’s a real treat to be able to share your film with the audience here.
LW: The creative energy and rich musical culture of Austin makes for a great environment to premiere a music doc like ours. Austin is a warm, welcoming and intellectually engaged place to show your movie for the first time. We’re very grateful for that!
Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?
AS: I studied film & photography in college, and started out professionally as a documentary editor and cameraman. I eventually ended up as an editor on feature films, before finding myself fully immersed in the music side of film. I was a music supervisor and music producer for many years, and got to work with some really inspiring directors: Spike Lee, Ang Lee, Paul Schrader, Robert Rodriguez and Jim Sheridan, just to name a few. My music experience is what helped get me my first opportunity to direct a feature, “Prey For Rock & Roll”, which premiered at Sundance in 2003. I’ve directed two more features since then, “One Last Thing…” and “Losers Take All”.
LW: This is my first feature film as a producer. My background is in journalism and performing. Before coming to The 78 Project, I worked for ASCAP writing and editing ASCAP’s Playback, Inside Music, website, award shows, and Field Recording web series, and I contributed to numerous publications such as Billboard, SPIN, WSJ, AOL and Harp. I also put together concerts independently and toured and recorded with a few bands.
How did this whole project come together from your perspective?br]
AS: The 78 Project Movie is my first feature length documentary as a director. It began as an ongoing multiplatform web series that Lavinia and I launched in the Fall of 2011. The basic idea is that we give contemporary artists one 3-minute take to cut a 78rpm record of an old song on a 1930's Presto direct-to-disk recorder, in a location of their own choosing, and then film and edit the whole experience into short webisodes. After we'd done the web series for about a year, we felt the need to make a feature-length film which would explore some of the context for our fascination with the early field recordings and also show the musical connections of folks from all kinds of musical genres and from seemingly disparate cultural backgrounds. So Lavinia and I hit the road, and spent the better part of a year traveling around the country recording and filming musicians in their homes and other locations, as well as filming with some of the incredibly cool people who are the caretakers of our country's cultural legacy at places like the Library of Congress and The Smithsonian.
LW: Everyday we'd find ourselves in a new place, lugging the old gear out of the car, up steep hills (when we were in Topanga Canyon), into a chapel in Mississippi, or into a home on the Louisiana Bayou. We were constantly amazed by the openness with which we were received by the artists, and by the support we received from friends and strangers along the way. A lot of generous folks made us meals and let us crash on their floors. We're also extremely grateful to everyone who backed our Kickstarter campaign, which made the film possible in the first place.
What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?
AS: That’s an interesting question, because to tell you the truth, the whole experience has been one of the most satisfying experiences creatively that I’ve ever had. This is the most personal film I’ve made to date, and getting to make that with Lavinia, and sharing that experience with so many incredible musicians who put all their trust in us and in the process, really felt like a gift rather than a challenge. That being said, I suppose the biggest challenge was that, except for a few days of production, Lavinia and I were a two person crew. While that gives the film the unique intimacy that it has, it also meant we were always pushing ourselves to our fullest capacity physically and mentally. And that was just plain exhausting at times.[br]
LW: Sometimes our Presto would break down, but we were always able to fix it on set, and get a recording.
AS: And I suppose post-production was also a challenge, since I was editing for the better part of a year, and being alone in an editing room for that long is also mentally taxing.
If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?
AS: Honestly, I can’t pick one favourite moment. The whole experience was one continuous pleasure. I mean, it isn’t often that you get to do something like this with so many of the people you’ve always admired.
LW: It would be impossible. Because each day was spent in a new place with a new person whose experience was unique and fresh and moving, each moment of making the film was singularly meaningful.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?
AS: The thing that keeps me going is knowing that there is no other option but to get it done, and that this opportunity won’t come again.
LW: And, yes, there was a fair amount of coffee involved on our film. In our case, Stumptown Coffee was keeping us fairly well stocked, and I brought along a French press coffee maker and we bought a grinder at a hardware store in Alexandria, Virginia when we first set out on the road. So, we always knew we could count on having good coffee around.
I would love to know about the technical side of the film, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.
AS: Well, I was the DP, and to some extent that was by necessity. There were a couple of days in Memphis and Nashville where Nathan Black shot with us, and that was great because it also meant he could capture some of the process that Lavinia and I go through on a shoot. But for the bulk of production I was shooting, and Lavinia also shot some material. We had always said to ourselves that it would be good to get to the point where, if we needed, we could shoot The 78 Project, both the webseries and the feature film, with just the two of us. While there’s no doubt that having another camera person and a sound person can be very beneficial, Lavinia and I have gotten a method down where we can show up, set up the Presto recorder, the digital recorders, and the cameras in an hour or so. It means we can be very nimble, and it means when we’re on the road we can be flexible with artist’s schedules and availability. And we just have our rhythm and our process down, and we work fairly quickly and quietly, and that makes for a much more intimate experience with the artist. It’s just the two of us and the artist. During shooting, Lavinia is operating the Presto recorder and I’m shooting as well as recording digital audio. The film was shot with the Canon 5D, 7D, and Rebel, as well as the Canon C100. There’s even some stuff shot on the iPhone. Basically, I set up 3 cameras on tripods and have one handheld on a rig. There’s a boom mic on a C-stand, and a stereo recorder on a tripod. Lighting is almost always available light, with maybe one old halogen light to supplement from time to time.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW?
AS: We are definitely coming, we wouldn’t miss this for the world! We’re looking forward to sharing the film with the Austin audience, and also there will be a bunch of folks who were in the film or helped us out, and also folks attending SXSW that are old pals of ours, and we can’t wait for them to see the end result of what they’ve been watching us work on for the last year and a half.
LW: We’re thrilled about that. And SXSW is a wonderful intersection of technology, film and music, which is at the core of our project, too. The fact that the festival brings together creators from all three of those areas reflects what is possible, how we are all able to collaborate and broaden the reach and creative possibilities of our projects through all of these new platforms.
AS: Throughout “The 78 Project Movie” film, technology and music are interacting in meaningful ways. So we’re excited to have an audience that reflects all three worlds and the places where they intersect.
After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen?
AS: There will be some more festival screenings, and then the thing that Lavinia and I are really looking forward to is taking the film on the road. Our plan is to travel around to theaters, and do event screenings where we cut a record live after each screening. That way we can expand the film viewing experience and make what’s depicted on screen something physical and tangible for the audience.
Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?
AS: It would be fun to show the film in Tokyo. We’ve had some really ardent followers of the project who are in Japan, and it would be fun to share the whole experience with them.
What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film?
LW: We like to think of The 78 Project as a multi platform experience. Part of our production experience is to share it with the folks who are following us online, which means we tweet and post from wherever we are during production. And so do our artists. So, if the audience is moved to text or tweet their enthusiasm for what they’re seeing on screen, we like that!
There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?
AS: I figure I can learn more from them than they could ever learn from me. But one thing I’ve really come to appreciate while doing The 78 Project, both the web series and the film, is that we live in a really exciting time where the tools of production are pretty affordable and of amazing quality for the money. And the other thing is that web based distribution is really exciting, and the tools for that are within everyone’s reach, and filmmakers should embrace the possibilities of all of that. It’s a great time to be a filmmaker if you are someone who espouses a DIY sensibility.
And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have seen at a film festival?
AS: That’s a hard question to answer, since one of the best things about film festivals is that they expose you to the best of what’s out there, including films that may not get a commercial release. I’ve seen a lot of great films at festivals, films that were so different from one another in their greatness that I couldn’t narrow it down to one film.
This is one of the many films screening at the 2014 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 7-15. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jasonrcwhyte