Interview: James Wallace (Director/Co-Producer – ‘AT FEST’)

AT FEST‘ takes you on a never-before-seen and highly personal journey where you become part of one of the oldest and biggest annual outdoor music festivals in North America. The 50th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival serves as the setting for an exploration into how this festival, run by a non-profit and 2,500+ volunteers, is older than Woodstock, yet remains beloved by “fest virgins” and long-time Fest-goers alike. See a farm field transform into a huge festival.  Filled with music, love & surprises, ‘AT FEST‘ is an intimate portrait of a festival unlike any other. Catch a new American music scene as old as music itself, and sure to please anyone who loves to have fun.

In one of our most comprehensive conversations yet we spoke with Director James Wallace on a number of subjects including his own diverse background that lead him to filmmaking, the fine line cultural events walk between commercialization and reputation, as well as alternate crowdfunding models and more.  The film has its NYC Premiere on MONDAY, AUGUST 12, 2013 at the famed Brooklyn Bowl with a screening and special performance from featured band HOGMAW.

Find More Information & Tickets to ‘AT FEST’ at Brooklyn BowlHERE

How were you first introduced to the Philadelphia Folk Festival?  Why did you feel it was a subject that could hold together a consistent and interesting documentary narrative?
My initial introduction was through my wife.  At the time we were just dating and had been together for 10 months or so.  We met just after she had been to the festival so it would be nearly a full year since it came up again.  To be honest, at the time I did not really get it.  I did not understand why it was something she had done every year for almost 20 years.  She tried to explain how there was camping and music, but the whole thing was still very difficult for me to fully understand.  Eventually she came down with the fact, “I’m going to go every year for the rest of my life so I HOPE you decide to go and I hope you enjoy it“.

I am the kind of person who likes to get an idea of what they are getting into and then, once that happens, I am all in.  I am as open minded as a person can be and I am not going to go into anything being a complete cynic or skeptic, but I do want to fully experience things.  That is what I ended up doing at the folk festival and I fell in love with it.  At the end of the day, there are things my wife does that I may not enjoy and there are things I do that she may not enjoy, so this was certainly not a matter of “because my wife likes it I automatically like it“.  I came to it on my own terms and I loved it.

What were some of the festival’s characteristics that drew you to it?
I am a former military guy so my idea of camping was predominantly survival training, which is about as far from fun as you can imagine. Before I showed up I was like, “Oh my goodness! Why would I put myself through this?

There are two things I wanted to give you in relation to my background before I answer.  My dad was military as well so I have lived in a number of places.  One of them, where I spent 9 of my first 18 years, was Hawaii.  Hawaii, like New York where I live now, has a brand. People think about it as more a vacation spot than an actual place to live.  I got to experience Hawaii as a resident.  I learned a lot of its history so I developed a love for Hawaii in a way most people did not.  I loved it for what it was. One thing that is big in Hawaii and Hawaiian culture is the sense of ALOHA and the very strong sense of family.

So I show up at the folk festival and I realized 1.  it is NOT survival training and the camping was as civilized as camping could actually be.  I don’t mind a little bit of hard work and cooking food.  In fact, I enjoyed that part very much.  There is something relaxing about not doing anything except making sure that your basic survival needs are being met, as well as hanging out with your friends.

The other thing about the festival is that sense of ALOHA.  I have traveled all over the country and around the world and have met some wonderful people, but it was really the first time I felt that true sense of ALOHA.  I am sure they do not necessarily use that word at the folk festival, but that sense of community is really strong.  It was really what struck me.

AT FEST

Were you a fan of folk music prior to the festival?
Yes and no.  What I mean by that is my musical interests run the gamut.  From electronic music, R&B, Hip Hop, Jazz, Ragtime, DooWop…I think Wynton Marsalis once said that there are two kind of music, good music and bad music.

Specifically in regard to the folk genre, I did not even realize how much of a fan I actually was. Then I started thinking about artists I did enjoy like Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Counting Crows and Blues Traveler.  Each of these bands, as you think of the folk genre, would not be the first ones to come to mind but really they should be  They are acoustic influenced, singer/songwriter, guitar led music that really takes a lot of inspiration from folk music.  When you ask me if I was a fan of folk, I think I was I just did not know it yet.

In ‘At Fest’, you specifically cover the 50th edition of the Philadelphia Folk Festival.  In my experience with festivals (I was part of a team that threw a “first of its kind” event on Randall’s Island, here in New York City) it is very difficult to maintain them as distinctly non-commercial.  It seems that the way the “market” is set up for these events to even succeed in the long term requires a certain amount of commercial sponsorship, for better or for worse.  My point being, as awareness grows so does attendance and therefore the potential for profiteering from events that once (if not born out of) had distinctly anti-corporate mentalities become more evident.  How has the Philadelphia Folk Festival lasted so long without falling victim to commercialization over the past 50 years?
That is an interesting question.  First, I want to be clear that I do not have any formal affiliation with the Philadelphia Folk Festival or the Philadelphia Folk Song Society, so I do not want to speak on their behalf.  As far as commercialization, it is important to note that there are a lot of vendors there and they are all juried.  They do go through a process trying to make sure everything is handcrafted and such, but that is a question better posed to the Folk Song Society itself.

The one thing I can say is that the Folk festival is run by a non profit organization.  Their mission is to teach people about folk music.  When you have an event like this, it teaches people about folk music in the most gentle way possible.  It is in a very social environment that is fun. The whole construct of the festival, from the camping to the juggling to the aerial performers and workshops, has been created in a way to specifically appeal to a wide variety of people.

When you talk about commercialization, and I have been to some of these other music festivals, I notice an interesting relationship between commerce and art.  If you are interested in commerce you are trying to get people to separate from their money but if you are interesting in teaching or art you are trying to enhance peoples lives.  It is true that people who spend money (sometimes) are enriching their lives, but a teaching event specifically aiming at enrichment has a different tone and tenor.  It does not make it better or worse, just different.  That is not just for the Philadelphia Folk Festival but for any non profit led event.

In ‘At Fest’, this mission of education comes out very consistently throughout the figures in the film.  It looks as if it is wholly engrained into their cultures at this point.  I find it interesting since, in my experience, the commercialization was immediate.  All of a sudden an event that was claimed as being born from the underground is now sponsored by Sirius XM, Vitamin Water, Beats by Dre, not to mention the countless profit based, non artisanal vendors that appeared the very next year.  Again, to some it is the sign of success but I was also at Woodstock ’99 where mass commercialization directly caused angst and rioting amongst the festival patrons.  It is a fine line to walk…

At Fest

Moving on, I wanted to speak to you about your interests as a documentary filmmaker.  You mention your military background, but what is your background as a filmmaker and specifically a documentary filmmaker?  Is this your first venture into documentary?
I had a very non traditional path to get here. I was a pilot; I got my MBA while in the Air Force; I got my JD at Georgetown and worked for a law firm; I started an internet company that was sold in 2011.  When you look at that kind of background it begs the question “What do you know about film?”  People who have known me a long time wonder what took me so long to get into film though.  It was always the one thing I really wanted to do.

About 5 or 6 years ago I started teaching myself as I generally love learning new things.  As someone whose mother worked in a concession stand at a movie theater some of my earliest memories were of popcorn and celluloid.  I would rent DVDs and watch all the directors commentaries also. It is sad because I am not sure this will even be possible anymore.  People are streaming movies now and, to my knowledge, there are not that many streaming services that offer director commentaries.  I question why as it is essentially free film education.  I mean, we can be honest and admit some are pretty useless, but the majority of director commentaries are fascinating.  Now that I have done this film I am aware as to how much work goes into it.  After a few years you kind of want to be done with a project, but the educational component will always live on.

I continued to teach myself editing and production techniques so by the time this film came around I had made dozens of short web videos already.  In 2010, my wife bought me a small flip camera that was weather proof.  I shot a bunch of footage at the festival and decided to edit a short based around it.  That short turned was the idea for the feature.  Then I realized that the festivals 50th anniversary was coming up so I thought that this would be the perfect time to make it.

Where did the final construction of the narrative come from?  Did you draw from any specific documentary influences? Perhaps from concert films, sub cultures, etc…
There was definitely a balance between influences and demands.  Aside from watching the directors commentaries on DVDs, along the years I have read most of the cornerstone books on the craft like “Screenplay” by Sid Field, “Save the Cat” (of course), “Story” by Robert Mckee.  So it certainly was not like I watched a bunch of DVDs and now I am a filmmaker.  I pushed myself to specifically learn about storytelling.

In terms of specific documentaries, after principal photography was wrapped I watched ‘Woodstock‘.  This was, not only, after principal photography was done but after the rough cut was done.  What I was shocked by was how different the two films were.  Clearly ‘Woodstock‘ had a massive budget and had news type interview segments intercut with amazing concert footage.  It starts as a balance between the event and the music, but it very much shifts to a music documentary predominantly relying on stage performances.  That was interesting because I was in the editing process, having shot what I shot, I had crafted four very human storylines and the challenge was putting those four storylines together and not venturing into “concert film” territory.

I see the storylines of HogMaw, their fiddle player who also volunteers at the festival and the abundance of attendees who span the spectrum of age and demographics as all being very genuine inside the festival ground, as well as out…

At Fest

What did you find to be the most difficult part of producing this documentary?
Probably trying to make a documentary that was NOT a concert film and making it so it was not an extended YouTube film of what I did last summer.

Going back to the short film ‘At Fest’ was based on.  Did you use this short in your fundraising efforts or was it more a template for what you wanted to do with a feature length documentary?
As far as the role of the short in creating the narrative, it was absolutely something that helped inspire the structure and really forced me to look at a lot of different things.

In regards to crowdfunding, we actually constructed two crowdfunding campaigns, first on Kickstarter and then on IndieGogo, neither of which used the short.  We ended up shooting some other clip and making a pre production trailer.  Some of the things we learned from the short was having a through line for the story from beginning to end.  Also, music rights.  At a folk festival you can go to a jam circle and they are playing Bob Dylan or The Eagles so these songs can’t be used.

I guess at the end of the day these kind of things will always matter…
…If you do not want to put out a film with any rights issues then it definitely matters.  I could have put out a movie and said “to hell with making money from this” and dumped a few thousand dollars into it making a nice calling card.  I considered it but, at the end of the day, I really wanted people to value the art.  If something is “free” it is very difficult for people to understand the effort that goes into it.  It is a strange situation.  I will be lucky if I make my money back, so I certainly did not do this to become a multi millionaire, but I would love to make another movie.  I would love to make enough money from this to fund my next movie, which brings me back to crowdfunding…

…We spent a lot of our own cash and are incredibly thankful to all those who contributed.  I think the largest contribution we got was $1000, but we ended up raising $7ooo total.  It is a very small number in comparison to other projects.  It did not even begin to cover our expences, but every little bit helps.  I mean that without being facetious or condescending.  In fact, it almost brought me to tears when a friend of mine who I knew was going through some financial difficulty put in $1.  I was so flattered and still cannot talk about it very well.  It was very moving.

Finally, our third crowdfunding campaign was done through a platform called PledgeMusic.com.  It is a NYC based site that began in 1999, but whatever you do do not refer to them as a crowdfunding site.  No disrespect to Kickstarter or IndieGoGo but they are not as personal as PledgeMusic.  For example, if by any chance a donor does not receive their funding incentives it is very difficult to call someone at those platforms who will rectify the situation.  PledgeMusic prides themselves on being personal and a direct to fan platform.

It sounds like PledgeMusic (who I am not familiar with) really brings out the community aspect of “crowdfunding”, making the whole experience personal from beginning to end…
…Right.  That is why, again with no disrespect to Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, but for our movie it ultimately made more sense to go to PledgeMusic where we raised twice as much as we had on the other two combined.  It really worked for us and helped us connect to OUR community the way we wanted to all along.

At Fest

How did you gear your crowdfunding campaign? Meaning, did you specifically target your inner circle or network to raise funds or did you reach out to the folk music community?
As you know production is a long process.  As we moved through that process our target audience changed.  To start off we were definitely confined to a smaller universe of people, but the more we moved along and the more progress we made the more the word spread.  We went from having 50-100 Facebook Likes to 1000, which is pretty good for an independent film.  We have our second version of the trailer up to 5000 YouTube views.  Again, something remarkable for a project with $0 advertising budget.  When you ask what our crowdfunding strategy was it simply was to just keep working.  We could not be concerned about the money if we were not getting the movie done. Ultimately we are at the point now where we can premiere the movie, but a number of positive things have happened along the way to help.

Vimeo, for example, launched its streaming platform.  This is huge because you cannot stream on Netflix or Hulu without spending thousands of dollars.  Amazon will take months to get on the platform, plus their processes are not primed to work with “one-off” independent filmmakers.  What do you have left?  Up until Vimeo launched the platform you had nothing.  You kind of had YouTube but there are strange partnership agreement to even be able to stream on there.

You will be premiering in New York at Brooklyn Bowl on August 12.  With 4 walling and things being essential parts of the new landscape of independent distribution, as its stands now, what is your strategy (read: GOALS) going forward?  Also, how (if) has your distribution strategy evolved from conceptualization to this point?
I cannot even begin to tell you the planning that has gone into this.  We had a great intern who fashioned out graphics and one sheets who really went out to organically distribute, at least awareness to the film.

Personally, I went to the American Film Market 2 years ago to get an education in distribution for documentary.  People hear about Toronto or Sundance, but AFM is the largest film market in North America.  Hollywood is not big on independent documentary though.  Most people there would say it is just a reflection of the market, but what is so funny is audiences ARE actually interested in documentary.

It seems somewhat counter intuitive, judging that documentary is the film medium most POSITIVELY affected by the new accessibility of filmmaking technology.  I feel as though the budgets are significantly lower in documentary, therefore with the right target marketing, slews of independently financed documentaries can ultimately be “lucrative” to the Hollywood Studio system, but…
…I would mention the documentary ‘Side by Side‘, which is a great look at the transition (and debate) from emulsion to digital.  Basically the argument against this evolution is that now there will be a lot of “crap” out there.  I say this is a very shortsighted approach.  It is not about filtering “crap”, but rather about who are YOU willing to empower.  Yes, there may be more product and a lot of it might not be worth watching, but that is why we make decisions as human being.  Let the human make the decision and not the omnipotent entities.  There are a thousand ways to sift through that which maybe you do not want to see, but at the end of the day someone is going to come out with something that is creative, important and would have been looked over under a more traditional distribution route.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson (via Skype)

At Fest

Monday, August 12, 2013
Mastodon Films presents
‘AT FEST’ – NY Premiere + LIVE PERFORMANCE by HogMaw
@ Brooklyn Bowl
61 Wythe Ave
Brooklyn, NY

www.atfestmovie.com
Facebook: /atfest

 

 

 

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