By any yardstick you wish to measure it, you probably owe Nico Holthaus a drink. If nothing else. Mill Avenue Inc, his 2008 documentary chronicling the corporate invasion of Tempe, is a talking history time capsule of the faces and places that made the Tempe music boom of the '90s happen. But it did more than that. It raised awareness about what really transpires when store chains and greedy developers choke the life and soul out of an art community and it has spawned an ongoing series of Holthaus documentaries about similar struggles throughout the country. Last year saw the Tucson chapter of this saga The Avenue which told a happier tale of how the community fought back and won.
Now Holthaus is directing a fictionalized account of those halcyon days of Tempe jangle, based on former Refreshments bassist founder Art Edwards' 2003 novel Stuck Outside of Phoenix and he's using Kickstarter (yes, that again) to get the necessary funds and is auditioning actors SAG and non-SAG this Sunday at ASU.
We spoke to him about his hopes and some of his fears on going ahead with the project. And to see him make lots of "air quotes."
Nico Holthaus: It makes it both easier and harder, for different reasons. For one-- and I joked about this to my Film Studies class I taught at ASU -- I've been typecast [laughs], as a "documentarian"( air quotes) who tackles heavy, media-unpopular subjects. And I told them, "Hey, I signed in to film making fifteen years ago as an actor and writer! Not to be a 'social impact documentarian'." I've already seen some comments from people who've seen the Stuck trailer, and they ask if this is a documentary! I assure you it is not. But then there are also a lot of movies that blur documentary and narrative. I guess this could be considered something like a "docudrama or docufiction" because it is based on real events of a real time and real place.
Now, my history of these docs (and other works) is also good for Stuck because people know, first of all, that I do finish everything I start, no matter how many flakes, deaths, etc. that would normally derail a project. So even if we don't get the laughably low goals we set for the budget, I'll find a way to get it done. Another reason is a little more obvious-- more and more people are getting to know me and my projects, despite some attempts from others to hide them.
How closely will you cast these fictionalized characters to look their real-life counterparts?
This is a work of fiction, and all of Art's characters are fictional. But as the adage goes, "ya write what ya know." So of course there'll be audience members (and book readers) who, in the know, will say, "That's gotta be Doug Hopkins" or "That's gotta be Robin Wilson," etc. And they'll probably be partially right. I can't speak for Art on this, but I see multiple "real" characters in many of his fictional characters. If I see someone who happens to look like one of our "real life" musicians, and who can play instruments and can act, well, hell. Why not? It's all amorphous. Just adds to the fun of it all. There'll be lots of "wink wink"s and inside jokes, but we're careful to not do, "And then Doug said this to Jesse that night at the Sun Club after Brent Babb and Brian Griffiths did this or that..."
Who from that scene has expressed an interest in being involved?
Both Robin Wilson and Doug Hopkins's estate have given me the rights to use several of their rarer, and/or unreleased or unheard songs to use in this movie and soundtrack. Harry McCaleb and I will do mastering/remastering/re-recording if need be. And no less than 30 musicians, managers, and other "insiders" from that scene have offered to donate certain things, not to mention making cameos throughout the movie. I won't name names here, but you can safely assume almost every one of your Tempe '90s music heroes is involved in some capacity.
How much dramatic license are you willing to take? Will you at least promise as many fisticuffs as the typical Elvis movie?
Art and I (and Dean Mongan, our director, and Lee Lusby, the Director of Photography) joke about this all the time. I'm pushing for a nympho librarian character to be inserted somewhere between the car chase, explosion, and Van Damme. Kidding. None of those things...unless I really find a nympho librarian who can act -- and I can then test my producer skills to invent a good enough reason to, ah, insert her. [Chortles] But no, I promised Art that anything we add would be for texture and extra tension, nothing that would divert or subvert the theme, plot, or structure of the story. So yes, if it's something that is sound and will help add tension without becoming a distraction, I'm sure Art would approve. He already has on a number of things I've thrown at him. Like the legendary "dude on the train [intends to] jump off at Broadway but ends up in Tucson" deal. And even then, I plan it to be shot as something in the background. Kind of a yuk yuk to those not only paying attention, but as a gift to those ardent Tempe '90s music fans like myself.
This is your first project financed by Kickstarter? Are you worried you may run into financial backers who fancy themselves or their girlfriends as actors, like in Ed Wood?
Not at all. And yes, this is my first foray into any kind of "crowdsourcing." One of the attributes I have is the ability to get to know non-actors well enough, and them to trust me enough, to build on their own characters and induce believable performances. I get people to talk in front of the camera all the time by appealing to them on different levels; it's case by case, person by person. Usually, they just realize pretty quick that I'm nice, not going to ambush them later in the edit, and I can get them to laugh, which makes them relax and be themselves, and are then able to be nudged directionally to give the expected performance. Wow, that sounds kinda manipulative, huh?
Yeah, but that's what directors do. Manipulate.
Right. Besides, it's not like some millionaire's going to get his absolutely terrible-acting nephew cast as Hote because he made a higher-level pledge on Kickstarter. But I'll appoint or invent, if it works, a role if a case like that comes up. The "lawyer" [air quotes] in me made sure I used the right wording in the incentives so that it's open ended, that they'd get "a speaking role" [air quotes] and nothing more specific. And that's something else that made me realize many years ago that I can produce -- despite, again, my wanting to only act and write -- can make flexibility even on a no-or-anemic-budget project, and keeping it all legal, all on the up-and-up. And we all have fun, too. Win-win-win-win-loss somewhere, usually at my personal expense-win-win. [Laughs]
If you do not raise the financing through the site will you continue to try and get this movie made?
Yep. I never quit. I just eliminate dead weight and other project liabilities, and personal liabilities, for that matter, as soon as I can, and move on with another approach, new people. I still can be fooled by takers who present themselves as givers, but I've gotten better at sifting them out earlier and earlier. If we don't get the financing we need, I'll make it myself from my own wages as a professor; it'll just take 6 months to a year later.
That'd be breaking producer rule #1: Always use someone else's money. But once I say I'll do something, I will do it, no matter how much things change, even to the point it shouldn't be made because everyone's gone. That happens more often than not, but I always finish.
Can you name any films that have been made with 15 grand that might serve as a role model for this production?
First off, it's $30,000 we're going for. I set Kickstarter at $15,000 because that seems more feasible.I have to express this loudly: If projects don't hit the stated goal, the projects get nothing. And I can't assume we'd get any kind of exposure from Kickstarter. Plus, we do have a couple other tricks--like Indiegogo, a rich friend here and there pledging off-record to throw a couple grand toward it, plus selling my car if I have to-- to raise at least most of the remainder of whatever Kickstarter doesn't fetch us. But I'm optimistic; I've seen a lot of movies only ask for like $5000 and, poof, they get like $80,000. And I think because of all that this movie is--all the history and the musicians and '90s music fans behind it--we should be able to get Kickstarter "front page" exposure, and surpass our paltry little goal of $15,000.
I really can't think of any good, successful movies made for $15,000. I think by now most people know that the El Mariachi that people see was not made for $7000 or whatever number that gets thrown around. With reshooting, editing, post, transfer and correcting costs, marketing, etc, it was a lot more than that. But for $30,000 there are quite a few. Blair Witch, Paranormal, Clerks, and I think Swingers. Not sure. But as far as a "music movie" [air quotes] I don't know, either. Only one I can think of in this vein is Singles. And that was made with film, far more expensive than HD videocameras. Maybe Rock Star, but that was a film that I wouldn't consider indie anyway, not with those names, not with those dollars.
You always say you have some 33 projects you have on the back burner and in production stages now. Care to plug just a few?
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Oh, here we go. In no particular order. Dear America, the doc I've been doing for over three years with Chomsky, Nader, Senator Gravel--yes, the guy who drew the most laughs and feel-goods when he ran against Obama and Hillary, et al, in the 2008 DNC debates. He also ended, with Daniel Elllsberg, the Vietnam War--and a whole bunch of rock and movie stars. We hope to have that done by Fall of this year, when we also release Stuck in theaters. Also working on five other cities' docs in the national Main St Inc series. Plus, trying to find distribution for Mill Ave Inc, and its award-winning sequel The Avenue (Tucson's installment, aka "4th Ave Inc"). It's harder than anyone thinks, even those in the industry who've gotten distro. Lots more obstacles to my docs than the normal ones for documentaries. For obvious reasons.
It's 36 projects actually. Frak. People should just do a search for my name, since this would take too long. ("TLDR," right?) Or Wiki me. Which I think is way cooler than "Google me". [Laughs]