Formats, Licensing, Creative Fundraising: The Epic 19-Year Making of Music Doc The Wrecking Crew

How Denny Tedesco spent 19 years making The Wrecking Crew, a documentary about ’60 musical legends—and tribute to his father, Tommy.

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When I was born in 1961, my father, Tommy Tedesco, was just starting to break into rock and roll recording in Los Angeles. During the ’60s he recorded with Phil Spector, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, Sam Cooke, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sonny and Cher, The Mamas & the Papas, the 5th Dimension, Elvis, Zappa, and many more. Then years of smoking three packs a day in the studios took its toll, and in 1996 my father was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

I started my filmmaking career in the art department of low-budget films, working my way to being a grip on music videos and then on IMAX films. Eventually I became a producer of short films on Comedy Central and TV commercials. I knew it’d be my biggest regret in life if I didn’t record this important story of my father and his friends—the session players in Los Angeles known as the Wrecking Crew.

At a recording studio in L.A. we set up two cameras on dollies for a roundtable discussion. Sitting at the table were drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye, saxophonist Plas Johnson and my dad.  Even though I had not spent much time in recording studios, I knew the banter these musicians had and I wanted to capture that on film. They didn’t disappoint! The day we spent with those musicians was so inspiring, I knew I had the seed of my film. I continued to do interviews with other musicians and artists when we could afford it. Luckily for me, our friends were always there to donate their time when we needed them.

Then my father passed away in 1997. He sadly never saw a frame of the film. I thought I could use the 14-minute teaser we’d made to raise money and finish the film. Unfortunately, the cost of the music rights was so high that no one was interested, even though they loved the idea. So I continued to borrow equipment whenever I could and beg crew members to help me out.

Denny (left) and Tommy (right) Tedesco

Denny (left) and Tommy (right) Tedesco

Formats, 1996-2015

My wife, Suzie, is a TV commercial producer and we put together a great crew for this project, starting with my friend from our IMAX days, DP Rodney Taylor. We set aside a very small budget from our savings just to get started, and went to all the vendors we had both worked with for years in production to ask favors. Free camera, free sound and free crew! All we had to pay for was film, developing and transfer costs. Yes, 16mm film! At the time (this was 1996), I thought film was my only option. Other than Beta or Digi-Beta, there were no other video formats that we could use for a feature-length film. Also, I guess my ego got the better of me—I really wanted to have a “film” look so I refused to use any video at all, something I later came to regret.

In 2000, my friend Mike Figgis asked me to shoot behind the scenes of his experimental film Timecode that he was shooting entirely on digital video. Mike told me to buy a Canon XL video camera to shoot for him, and then use it to finish my film. He forced me into not having an excuse to put off shooting, because now I owned a camera.

I still tried to shoot film whenever I could and used the Canon XL as a second camera. Then one day our primary Arri camera had an issue—but I had the XL with us, and shot the interview with that. That’s when I realized what a relief it was to not run out of film at 11minutes. I could run a whole interview for an hour without interruptions for reloading! That’s when I regretted not interviewing my dad more during the last year of his life. I should have used a home video camera or even a cassette player—anything. I realized that the message can be more important than the look.

Editing the World’s Most Expensive Home Movie

In 2006, Suzie felt we were making the world’s most expensive home movie. We had so much footage, but no story. We had maxed out our credit cards, but in order to finish the film, we had to cross the line… so we re-mortgaged our house (for the second time) to edit the film. We brought on the fantastic editor Claire Scanlon, and for over two years, we worked on sculpting and finishing the film.

Half way through this period, we had cut about 30 minutes of the film when our friend editor/director Grady Cooper came to see what we had. His observation was that it looked like a film anyone could make. He asked me why I wasn’t giving the audience the insight I had: “You’re hiding the fact that you’re the son.” He was right.

Another problem was deciding who to focus on in the film. Claire told me when we started working together to stop interviewing people because we can’t put everyone in. She was right—but I carried on anyway. (“That’s why God gave us DVDs!”) I wanted to try to get everyone’s story recorded, so I shot over 75 interviews. I’m still praying that we can release the ultimate DVD package. Our first screening for friends and family was at Musicians Institute in Hollywood. It was nearly two and a half hours long. Cutting seemed an impossible task.

Another comment we were consistently getting was, “Is this a story of your father or of the Wrecking Crew?” It was both, I felt—but that wasn’t coming across. Finally a friend suggested we just add the line “This is the story of my father and his extended family, The Wrecking Crew,” to convey the dual focus. A simple solution!

Around the same time I entered a rough cut to Sundance. We weren’t accepted but they liked the film enough to recommend it to the Los Angeles Film Festival and HBO. Wow! I managed to speak to the guys at Sundance (mainly to thank them for the recommendation) and they had the same issue with the storyline. But their encouragement really helped us to keep going.

Brian Wilson and Hal Blaine in The Wrecking Crew

Brian Wilson and Hal Blaine in The Wrecking Crew

Licensing Music

The music for the film was always a challenge. We started talking to record labels early on in the process and the initial rates would have made the music budget alone nearly $2 million. Then the Phil Spector catalogue was frozen during his murder trial, and I thought I would have to re-edit the film without any of his music. I met with a lawyer to see if I would be covered under “fair use” if I used Spector’s music anyway… but luckily we never had to do that.

Once again I broke the first rule of Hollywood and took out another loan to pay festival rights for 100 songs in the film. It took some negotiation, but with the help of music supervisor extraordinaire Micki Stern, all the labels and publishers agreed to grant “Most Favored Nations” for festival use and a price for film rights when the film was picked up.

In 2008 we were accepted to SXSW for both the film festival and the music festival. Reviews were amazing and other festivals picked us up. We had standing ovations at screenings and won 15 audience and Best Documentary awards on the circuit. Why can’t a distributor be at these screenings?

In 2010, I spoke to a publisher who was a fan and supporter of the film. They told me I should restructure the original deal I’d made with the labels and publishers, and offer new terms that were better for me to bring the music budget down.

I had the idea for guitar, drum and bass companies to sponsor chapters of the DVD, but had no takers. Then someone suggested a “Dedication Chapter” where fans could put their dedications on the website and the DVD for $1,000 per song. The International Documentary Association became our fiscal sponsor. Now we had a chance to get the music bill to zero and hopefully find distribution! As funds came in from the dedications, I paid the label or publisher I needed the most. In the meantime, I was still re-negotiating with the all parties involved.

From 2010-2014, I held fundraisers and traveled to various cities where I would find sponsors. The sponsor would pay for the costs of a screening, and ticket sales paid off the music companies. I was barnstorming with the film. I’d put the sponsor company logo up on the screen in the pre-show and on the website, and let the sponsor “take [their] client to the movies”—any company, from music stores and dog groomers to hotels and hearing-aid shops!

I was gradually able to pay off the music licensing, but one large cost was to the American Federation of Musicians, or AFM. Musicians receive a “re-use fee” when the songs they played on are used in another medium like a movie or TV show. When I first introduced the project to the AFM in 2006, I told them that as the filmmaker I needed the best price possible, but as the son of a musician, I wanted them to earn as much as possible!

A still from The Wrecking Crew

A still from The Wrecking Crew

It took a long time for the union to figure out how much they wanted in re-use. By 2013, there were 110 songs in the film. I had paid off 75 percent of the music licensing by then, and the final price from the AFM was $200,000. It was a big chunk, but I felt was fair. At least the money was going to the musicians themselves.

We turned to Kickstarter. We decided to try for a goal of $250,000 to cover the AFM and final finishing costs. Everyone was in a panic: Only one percent of projects over $100,000 had been financed through Kickstarter. But I had a film that was almost completed and a fan base of 23,000 on Facebook, plus a mailing list of another 20,000 amassed from traveling and private screenings. All for a film that hadn’t been released yet! We reached our Kickstarter goal well before our end date and raised $312,000. That allowed us to make some changes to the cut, add Leon Russell to the film, and pay off the remaining music. We were not turned down by a single music label or publisher.

Finally, 19 years after starting this film, we have been picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures. MM

The Wrecking Crew opens in theaters March 13, 2015, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.