“There is a sense of being called,” agrees Jerry White Jr., Royce’s co-producer and chief subject. “Of not having a choice, ultimately.”
Royce: “I can never go back at this point. It’d be like meeting the love of your life, and then breaking up, and for the rest of your life knowing that they’re out there still.’”
The pair are talking about—what else—moviemaking. That the art can be both curse and redemption—in short, madness—is a central idea in 20 Years of Madness, a film propelled by all manner of irrational forces: heady emotions, gloriously untethered creativity, and the ironic hand of fate.
I meet Royce and White at the Treasure Mountain Inn in Park City, Utah, late January, where their film has just premiered at the Slamdance Film Festival (it goes on to pick up Jury Honorable Mention for Documentary Feature). The premiere and award are a career peak for both filmmakers, though one that comes on the tail of years of professional and emotional strife—the cause for Royce and White’s complicated relationship with filmmaking.
Royce fell into making 20 Years of Madness after getting to know White, his USC film school roommate. In mid-’90s Detroit, the teenaged White had led a gang of high-school friends—misfits, theater kids, Goths, charged by a unconventional wit, an explosive youthful energy and the stick-it-to-the-man rage of the recently canonized Kurt Cobain—in producing the public access television show 30 Minutes of Madness. After 14 episodes, the group dissolved through a series of fallings out, in particular the fracturing relationship between White and best friend Joe Hornacek. Now, two decades after 30 Minutes of Madness’ original run, the former friends—activated by White, documented by Royce—reconvene to make one last episode of the show that anchored their teenaged lives.
The richness of the subject matter lent itself to certain structural conceits. “[The group] had documented getting to know each other the first time around,” says Royce, “and now they’re going through that same exact process again—a direct reflection of the entire history of the show, recreated in the span of a month.”
Death of a Television Show
On one level, 20 Minutes of Madness is a post-mortem, investigating the lifespan of both the show and of a certain kind of teenaged friendship, the kind that feels like it could never end. 30 Minutes of Madness was weird and original and—if you believe Royce’s doc—actually pretty good, a collection of comedy sketches that, with their manic non sequiturs, free-associative cultural commentary and amateur in-camera effects, contained flashes of SNL, John Waters, Monty Python and Liquid Television. (The show’s spiritual descendents include such touchstone American comedies as Jackass, Robot Chicken and Mr. Show with Bob and David). White estimates that the original viewership was “150,000 homes” in Oakland County, Michigan (“but it was all pre-Internet so I never got a great sense of it”). Its makers fervently—probably naively—believed that the show could one day take off on a major network like MTV. So how and why did they let it die?
Another question the film poses—the one that, at least initially, piqued Royce’s storytelling sense: Was it the crazy of its creators that made 30 Minutes of Madness, or 30 Minutes of Madness that made its creators crazy? Royce’s and White’s talk of addiction, heartbreak and other psychological maladies isn’t just figurative—30 Minutes’ cast, now in their late 30s, have seen more than their fair share of trouble. Some are unemployed, some homeless; others, like musician John Ryan, struggle on and off with substance abuse. Many, like Hornacek, have been diagnosed with some sort of mental illness. Of the 16 people who participate in the doc, the financially and psychologically well-adjusted are few and far between.
“It was just fascinating to me,” says Royce, “that here was this show with these kids acting crazy, and then 20 years later, three-quarters of them are struggling with mental illness.”
White himself hasn’t entirely escaped adulthood’s degradations. Though he always wanted to direct, he met with all the usual roadblocks on a roundabout journey to his current career, crewing on productions in Los Angeles. 20 Years sums White’s young-adulthood up with an efficient, and poignant, device: clips from a series of “video memoirs” White makes every birthday—“my state of the union for myself,” he says. From the age of 19 onwards, his “This is me at [age]” montage charts changes both mundane and dramatic: one year he’s in Germany, another he’s in Japan teaching English; one year he’s applying to grad school, then rejected, then busy at work at USC. It’s a curve of optimism, depression, and renewed optimism, and plays all too familiarly to anyone who’s indulged in grandiose dreams of being an artist, only to have to scale them down, and down again.
The Time Traveling Powers of Friendship
White gave full access to Royce to use these birthday videos, though he himself hasn’t watched any of them yet. Royce also dove into the “300 or so hours” of footage that White had kept, and diligently digitized, since the ’90s—not just material for 30 Minutes, but hours and hours of personal footage: kids hanging out, expounding on their views on life.
In more than one prescient moment, the young White asks his friends to predict where they’d be as adults; the answers range from eerily accurate to heartrendingly misguided. Royce deploys these clips as a motif throughout his film.
“Jeremy had this great idea of using the archival footage to comment on different moments in the present day. It’s much like [Michael Apted’s] Up series or [Jonathan Caouette’s] Tarnation, which are touchstone films for us,” says White. “You have these people young and full of dreams, talking about the future, and then you cut to them now.”
The way friendship factors into a life over time is the major theme of 20 Years of Madness. While the group’s closeness provided a safe space for 30 Minutes’ remarkably unself-conscious skits (including one where John Ryan plays a tantrum-throwing infant), it also ended up rubbing unproductively against said creative process—and 20 years later, the same happens.
Hornacek and White’s disastrous late-teen rift is presented as the crack that splintered the entire endeavor, though the intricacies of the falling out are a little vague (perhaps Hornacek’s spirituality clashed with White’s single-mindedness; perhaps things simply got too rivalrous). When the two reunite with their cohorts for the first time in years, everyone’s edges seemed to have, for the most part, smoothed over.
Yet old patterns within the group cast shadows over the present in the form of buried resentments and jealousies, which threaten to boil over the month-long new shoot. Coordinating everyone’s schedules over the course of a month is a constant challenge, which exasperates White to no end. His USC-honed directorial technique jars some of his cast, like Ryan, who complains that “having a script doesn’t leave as much room for collaboration.” Shouting matches take place between White, Ryan and fellow cast member Jesus Rivera, who feels like White sees his cohorts not so much as equal collaborators, but as “puppets.” Within this volatile mix of personalities the threat of mutiny looms large, as White tries to restrain his possessive tendencies.
“It was the same old arguments that we always had, like creative control… them thinking I’m being too controlling, or me feeling that they aren’t being supportive enough,” says White. “People can change, but I don’t think we become entirely different people. I think we learn to compensate for our weaknesses—that’s what wisdom often is.”
A layer of guilt, too, underpins many of the group’s new interactions—in times of individual need, “we all walked away,” says White during a private conversation early in the film. As he tells me at Slamdance, “There’s a certain amount of personal responsibility for no longer being a part of a support network for friends who have slipped through the cracks.”
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