I’ve written about this movie previously, but now, with the film making its national premiere in theaters, on InDemand and iTunes on July 3rd, I had the opportunity to ask the filmmakers my own questions. As a fan of Big Star and of this documentary (having seen it twice), I wanted to know about its genesis and their experience in making the movie a reality, so I spoke with producer Danielle McCarthy, director Drew DeNicola and co-producer/director Olivia Mori. My infinite thanks go to these three very fine people for Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me and for their generosity of time.
(left to right: Danielle McCarthy, Olivia Mori, Ardent Studios founder John Fry, Drew DeNicola)
Who first came up with the idea to do a film about Big Star and when/where did the process begin? How did you three come together to do this?
Danielle: I came up with the idea, I suppose, technically back in 2006. I was a huge fan of Big Star and had read some books about Memphis music and culture including Robert Gordon’s It Came From Memphis. My boyfriend at the time was friends with Winston Eggleston, who’s the son of the legendary art photographer William Eggleston.
We came down to Memphis and Winston and I were geeking out about Big Star and I said, “wow, it’s such a fascinating story, it would make a great documentary!” And then Winston replied, “why don’t YOU make the documentary?” Which definitely took me back a bit – I had gone to school for Cinema & Media Studies. I really had no production experience. But it got me thinking and then Winston introduced me to Robert Gordon, who then put me in touch with the great John Fry – the founder of Ardent Studios and the engineer on all the Big Star records. John really holds the keys to the kingdom when it comes to Big Star. Other people had come to him with the idea and he had pretty much dismissed all of them. I guess the recommendations he had received for me were strong enough, so he took my call. I pitched the idea to him on the phone and for some reason, he said yes. This was in 2007, and then a month later we were down there and John had rented this huge van and drove me and the crew around as we did interviews. It was pretty crazy.
After we shot all that, we worked a bit on editing, but the rest of the crew all had other jobs and such, so we weren’t making enough headway to gain any momentum. I was in bad need of a creative partner on this – a friend of a friend recommended Drew DeNicola. We met up in late 2008 and I pitched him the idea and in less than 10 minutes he was totally on board. And he’s never waived since then! Fully committed from day one. As our roles evolved, he became the director and I, the producer. Then, as we were about to shoot for a month in Memphis, Olivia Mori came on board as a producer. She and Drew shot for months in Memphis, as I took weekends off to fly down there since I still had my day job. Olivia’s role also evolved and she became producer as well as co-director. So lots of twists and turns to the story!
What were you all doing before this project?
Danielle: I’ve been working for 8 years in Publicity & Marketing at Magnolia Pictures. So before the project, I was here at Magnolia. Prior to that, I had been working for publicity agencies and going to grad school studying Media Studies at The New School.
Drew: Between freelance editing gigs, I have been working on a documentary I started in 2005 about black radio DJ’s from the 50’s and 60’s. It’s the story of how a few enterprising, outspoken black men got on the air and became leaders in the black community, as well as providing an outlet for the R&B and soul music that had been ignored for so long. Eventually, they learned to use their power to affect change in the Civil Rights Era and influenced gave rise to Hip Hop with their adept rapping and rhyming over the air.
Olivia: I have been working in the film industry for many years as a costume designer. While I love this work, I had decided that I needed to take some time off from it to follow my muse and work on some music and writing projects, and in that time I watched just about every music documentary I could get my hands on. It was right around then that I met Drew. He and Danielle had just launched the first Kickstarter campaign to raise the funds start production in Memphis, and I intrepidly jumped on board.
It was initially going to be a 3 week shoot, Drew and I ended up staying in Memphis close to 3 months that summer, and then went back the following year to shoot more. The story kept getting bigger and bigger.
When did you know that this was turning out to be even more special than you’d envisioned?
Danielle: I always thought the story was special and was so beyond excited – and frankly, a little nervous to be involved. But in terms of when I thought this was going to really happen, it was probably after we did our first Kickstarter and we hit our goal in 24 hours. That really blew our minds. That was just the proof everyone needed that we were serious about this and that there was a sizable audience hungry for it. After that, the momentum just kept building and I knew then that we were going to be able to make the film.
Drew: In the beginning, it seemed like this project was way too difficult to tackle–there was not that much footage available; so many potential interview subjects had passed away, and there was nothing really conventional about Big Star in the sense of it being a “band bio.” But when we got to Memphis, we started seeing the potential with every person we met. Ardent Studios was the nexus of it all. The studio was virtually unchanged since the 70’s, and so many of the people who were a part of the “Ardent Family” were still around and willing to talk. The first element I wanted to explore was this group of people and build around that. Big Star’s dreams – were they dreams? Everybody was so interesting and the “Memphis mentality” – if you want to call it that, was what they had in common. It’s a DIY approach and an almost crass dismissal of how they do elsewhere or how it’s supposed to be done and that was at the heart of Big Star’s music, and the way the records were made, promoted, etc… That mentality may have been part of the reason for the their own downfall, but to me it’s still the most inspiring element of the story.
Olivia: Once we got to Memphis, we immediately started meeting and getting to know all of the people involved in and surrounding the Big Star story; we spent a lot of time with our subjects because they were all so cool and brainy and endlessly fun and fascinating to hang out with. Really, everyone’s story and personal history was fascinating, but that’s Memphis. I really do believe that there is something special in the water there. Once we had assembled this remarkable cast of characters, our angle was clear to us: the story of Big Star was this unique combination of a group of very special people coming together in a very special place at a very special time. So yeah, way more special than I ever could have imagined.
Were you surprised by the Kickstarter response?
Danielle: Very much so! Kickstarter was still very new – maybe only a year old. No one had heard of it. We spent a lot of time just explaining what it was. We set a very low goal because we were worried we wouldn’t make it and not get any of the money. It was set at $6,000 and we hit our goal in 24 hours which was like some new record for Kickstarter! We ended up making over $14,000 dollars, which was very much needed for our production budget. Kickstarter really changed all of our thinking about making indie films. Now there’s a bit of crowd-sourcing fatigue, but when we did our first one it really opened our eyes to a whole new paradigm for funding indie projects. We did a second Kickstarter last year and the response was once again overwhelming. We raised over $40,000 the second time for our post-production budget and we were just as impressed with all the fans. For the right project – Kickstarter is the best thing to ever happen to creative folks.
Olivia: Not really; Big Star holds a pretty special place in most music lovers’ hearts. Fans of the band have a very personal relationship to this music, and yet those records have always sort of been shrouded in mystery. For so long, people have been wanting to know more about the band and how these rare records came to be. So it wasn’t surprising to see so many fans come out of the woodwork in strong support of a documentary about the band.
How do you feel about the finished film? Do you think it captures Big Star, their story and everyone aligned with it the way you wanted them to all be portrayed?
Drew: Yes! But we had to almost create a new way of telling that story in order to keep it concise and under 3 hours! The film became more of an impressionistic accompaniment to the music. Factoids and specifics were often jettisoned in favor of poignant moments, and the myriad thematic elements I started to see coming from this story.
Olivia: I’m pretty happy with the film. I think it accomplishes telling the story of the the band. My hope is that people come away from the movie wanting to know more. Because there is so much more to the story.
What were the high points of doing this?
Danielle: Getting the chance to meet all these wonderful people and spending time in Memphis was definitely a high point for me, personally. This was all our first time making a film and I’m sure we’d all say it was a life-changing experience. It certainly has been for me. I’m so glad it worked out!
Drew: Well, I just never realized that doing this doc would be an affirmation or exploration of what I believe in artistically. I really see the Big Star Story as one about the purity of individual artistic expression–what is the result when you take fame and money out of the equation?
Olivia: Well, the experience of discovering and spending time in Memphis, soaking up the atmosphere and history there, I will undoubtedly say that my time spent there was a high point in my life. There is no place that you can even try to compare it to; Memphis is just that special. It really encapsulates to me all of the greatest aspects and attitudes of American culture (at its best), most of which have disappeared in this country, but you can still find it in some places, and there’s a whole lot of it down there, still.
I will also say that the editing process was pretty exciting. With all the material we had, it was incredibly challenging to pull the story together and keep it under 2 hours. But putting together an enormous puzzle is always an incredibly satisfying task, albeit an exhaustive one.
Do you feel that the film could be viewed as “perfect for fans of Big Star” and equally “THE primer for the burgeoning Big Star fan”?
Danielle: I hope so! We definitely tried to please the fans, but also make it accessible for folks just hearing about Big Star for the first time.
Drew: That was the goal. I was tormented by these two almost opposing agendas throughout the editing process.
Olivia: My hope would be yes!
Are you all still as passionate about Big Star (or are you even more into them now)?
Danielle: When I first got into Big Star I became completely obsessed and listened to them constantly. At the time my brother and I were living in an apartment in Park Slope Brooklyn and of course, we’re both huge fans, but even he thought it was a bit much. I even have the BIG STAR star tattooed on my arm! So I guess you could say that even after all these years, I’m still as passionate as I was when I first heard them.
Drew: Yes, somehow, or actually I know how. There was a theme we were trying to work into the film along the way–it’s only sort of hinted at now–about the idea of “durable music.” One of our most eloquent subjects, Rick Clark, kept returning to this. The thing with Big Star’s music is that there’s this instant accessibility, but it doesn’t end there. There are just so many layers in the production, and each record is different, and then there are the lyrics which just get progressively darker and then sometimes hopeful… I can still listen to this music and hear it in new ways.
Olivia: Of course, more into them. Like all great music, it never gets old, there’s always new things to discover in those songs and recordings.
When is the DVD out? Will there be extras? I have a space in my DVD cabinet reserved, you know!
Danielle: We’re looking at a DVD release this November. We have oodles of goodies we’ll include as extras!
Drew: They’re saying fall. But I hope later because I have big plans for it and only just started on the “Extras”–that’s how I plan to satisfy any fan who wants more. It will all be there.
Olivia: DVD should come out sometime in the fall/winter. Yes there will definitely be extras; the more time we have, the more extras we can hopefully put together; there is so much great material that didn’t make it into the film.
What next for all of you?
Danielle: Just continuing my job at Magnolia and taking a vacation from producing… for now!
Drew: A desert island, my guitar, and many more Kickstarter campaigns to feed the DeNicola documentary machine.
Olivia: I continue to work on various productions as a costume designer. And I’ve also started shooting and editing a series of shorts mostly involving or about traditional American music.