Since their humble beginnings in New York City in 2001, Improv Everywhere has grown from a small gang of restless jokesters into an internationally recognized prank collective and a viral video-making machine. From the No Pants Subway Ride to Frozen Grand Central to the MP3 Experiment and beyond, their publicly staged scenes of chaos and joy are beloved by the hundreds who witness them, the thousands who participate in them, and the millions who watch and share the videos online. We Cause Scenes: The Rise of Improv Everywhere is the inside story of this groundbreaking group and its founder, Charlie Todd, who has turned the world into a stage, inventing an art form for the Internet age.
The feature-length documentary film about Improv Everywhere, We Cause Scenes, is officially set to premiere January 7th, 2014 for direct download online and on iTunes presented by FilmBuff. Anticipating the film’s VOD release we interview Director Matt Adams about the films production and much more.
Buy or Rent ‘We Cause Scenes’ on iTunes, presented by FilmBuff – HERE
Why was this topic something you wanted to explore through a feature length documentary?
I had been coming out to the events where I met Charlie Todd around the time I had graduated from film school and was looking for something to document. This was something I really believed in and found what Charlie was doing to be interesting and fun. I was at one of the MP3 experiments and I could not believe I was watching all these adults, essentially, playing. I contacted Charlie and told him that if he ever needed help with the videos to let me know. I began shooting them; then editing; then shooting, editing and producing; then pitching ideas. I quickly found myself being the key filmmaker behind the group. There were a lot of videos being posted but none was professionally done. They were more like montages. When I came on board it was really important to make high quality content, shoot in HD and have original compositions for every video we were posting. I realized there was more than a YouTube video here. Since I had access to all the people I decided to make a full length documentary on the group.
As a documentary filmmaker, what was the most difficult part of the production? Consequently, was there any aspect of the production you anticipated as being difficult yet turned out easier than expected?
The most difficult thing was the sheer amount of footage, which was thousands of hours worth. Even before I stared there were hundreds of DVDs and Video tapes to go through. When I first talked to Charlie I was considering getting a Master’s in film but then I thought that I had so much footage for this documentary I could just put this together in 6 months. Instead it took over 4 years.
Also, since Improv Everywhere was so beloved online I did not want to be the one who made a documentary people did not like.
Another difficult aspect was being able to capture Improv Everywhere objectively. I hired an editor who had minimal affiliation with the group. I wanted an experienced documentary film editor to assist me and collaborate with.
The interviews went a little easier than expected. I wanted the people of Improv Everywhere to discuss the group in the way I would have but did not want to be the person to make them say it. I thought that would be cheating. As a director I wanted to convey what I felt and what, I thought, people wanted to learn about it through the agents of Improv Everywhere.
Did you draw from any influences in constructing the narrative?
It is an interesting film because it is more interview based than many documentaries. Some of my favorite documentaries are interview based, but many are not. You can take something like ‘Man on Wire‘ which is interview based but they also have such beautiful dramatization.
We played with so many different formats; cutting back an forth between the present; dealing with Charlie Todd’s personal life more; discussing his relationship with Improv while cutting to performances he was currently engaged with. We started to do all that but it was not as interesting as the story of the group so I wanted to hold myself close to that story. One of the first things I did when I knew I was going to make this film was go to the website and read every comment. This took nearly a month. I knew I wanted to tell the stories people were most interested in. A good example of this was “Even Better Than the Real Thing”, which turned out to be such a monumental moment in the history of Improv Everywhere.
Do you have a personal favorite story?
There is one story I love that did not make it into the documentary. I would have loved to get this into the film but it just did not fit. If a screenwriter would have written this no one would believe it, but it really happened. In 2006 there were the no pants arrests and there was one officer who did not know how to handle it. That particular arresting officer’s name was Officer Panton. It was something I found so hilarious.
Through my own experiences shooting video in and around New York City I know there are several locations where it is quite difficult to do so in a guerilla style. As many Improv Everywhere events in the film take place in Grand Central, how difficult was it to shoot there? For example, the final sequence.
That was the interesting thing about the film, because I was not only the Director but I was also a producer on that particular video. Grand Central was having their hundredth anniversary and they reached out to us to plan something. Of course we had to go through the same processes like bomb sniffing dogs and comprehensive bag checks but they were the ones who asked us to plan the celebration. In the film I discuss how we went from getting kicked out of places to being invited to such momentous occasions as this. We all worked together as to how to make this into a quality video, as well as a positive experience for everyone there during the day.
Is there any story where the crowds or law enforcement had an adverse reaction that particularly stands out?
“King Phillip” was like that. You can’t shoot video at The Met but we are still living in a time where (some) people don’t think you can shoot HD video on a DSLR camera. We had 3 people filming, a lavalier microphone on Charlie and I had a mixer down my pants. We got kicked out after a few minutes but no one even knew we had a video.
What advice would you give to a guerilla-style filmmaker in New York?
I always am from the school of shoot first and ask questions later, or even shoot first and ask for forgiveness later. Sometimes you can get in and out and you do not have anything to worry about, but sometimes there is. It has been amazing that throughout the years I never have mentioned I am part of a group. I say I am a Master’s student and happen to have a camera. Obviously, if I have a bigger camera and we are in a small space it looks like I am with them, but if the equipment matches the situation I play the part of the student.
Other times, because flash mobs have become quite popular, people are generally excited about it. I know it sounds strange but over the years no one has ever told me to put my camera down, unless we were inside a store. I think in this day and age people are generally accustomed to cameras all around them that they become somewhat complacent to it.
In putting this film together, how much mind did you pay to its distribution?
When I first started I did not think about distribution in any capacity. It was a film I was going to make and throw up online. After 6 or 7 months I realized it was something bigger so I needed everything shot and lit the best it could be; I knew I wanted to make it something that more people could see. I would say I started thinking about distribution within the first year. One of the things about working with a distributor is that they can help get your film on iTunes, Netflix, Hulu and the likes. These platforms are not going to deal with independent filmmakers directly.
We are also doing direct downloads through VHX along with downloads on iTunes and VOD through FilmBuff. For us we want to get the film out to as many people as possible so, for example, if we just did it on VHX we would be limiting the eyes on the film. I want as many people to see the film and also to see it via the platform they feel most comfortable using.
How was the experience premiering the film at SXSW?
It was amazing! We played in the biggest theater and were almost sold out for 3 screenings. It was a very nervous experience for me as my parents had flown in and my brother lives in Austin but the film was extremely well received and I could not have had a better experience. Through the films screenings at SXSW I was able to bring the film to other festivals as well. It was amazing.
– Interview conducted (via phone), edited & transcribed by Steve Rickinson