Adam Yauch is best known for spouting his vicious poetics as a founding member of the Beastie Boys. In 2008, however, the devoted Buddhist ventured into the world of independent film distribution with an endeavor called Oscilloscope Laboratories. Normally when a noted musician decides to switch to movies, they’re met with skepticism and sometimes disdain, but with Yauch it’s film that chose him, not the other way around. In fact, Yauch has been a moviemaker for quite some time, having long directed music videos for the Beastie Boys and eventually graduating to features with his basketball doc Gunnin’ for That #1 Spot.
Under Yauch’s helm, Oscilloscope has not focused on any specific genre but the company has gravitated toward films with a socially conscious slant. No Impact Man, a documentary directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein about a Manhattan family headed by Colin Beavan that attempts to leave no environmental footprint, is Oscilloscope’s latest DVD release—available Tuesday, January 19—and models exactly what the company seeks to do. Yauch was able to answer a few of MM‘s questions about the origins of his company, what inspires him and how some recent events have changed his perspective about things.
Paul Tukey (MM): You’ve been in entertainment and clearly fascinated with video for a very long time, but you’ve started a full-blown independent film company, which is a somewhat radical departure of a music icon. Please talk about the origin of this idea, generally, and then more specifically address goals and differences about your company.
Adam Yauch (AY): I guess I first had the idea one year when I was out at Sundance watching films. I just went out there to check it out, see films (which was really nice, because usually when one is out there you have some agenda, something to promote or are trying to meet with people to get some project off the ground), so I was free to just wander around and take it in. I saw some films that I thought were great, that never got released, so that was part of it. The thought [of getting into film distribution] crossed my mind at that time.
Then part of it was that through the years in my dealings with film distributors, I got the feeling that they functioned differently than the indie record labels that I grew up around. Labels like Rat Cage, Dischord and Def Jam just seemed so much more hands-on. It wasn’t just executives in an office hiring out people to handle the creative part; with indie music labels the ads, record covers, publicity was done in-house and the creative was as much a part of it as anything. I imagined that one could create a film distribution company that functioned more like an indie record label, that it could have that informality.
The company was formed with the idea that if we just released films that we really liked, then over time people would come to recognize our name/logo as something that put out good stuff. Sounds obvious, and in the indie record world it is, but you don’t see it as much in the film world. Most distributors, certainly the larger ones, are for the most part just trying to find things that are marketable and make a fast buck.
Criterion is of a similar mindset to us; they are building a catalog of great films, but they are mostly releasing classic films and they aren’t concentrating on theatrical.
So in a nutshell, that was basically the idea, just finding films that we love, whether they are docs or narratives, foreign or English language, classic or new films… the main thing is to find films that move us, and then figure out creative ways to release them.
In terms of goals for the future, so far we’ve been acquiring finished films at festivals. I’d like to see our production side ramp up and start making films to distribute. It would be great to be able to back creative people, help them realize their vision and then get it out into the world.
MM: Some folks are optimistic about the independent film industry; others are nearly despondent about the state of a flooded marketplace where few people can get a foothold and make a living. Given your decision to start this company, is it fair to define you in the former category?
AY: Well in all honesty, we did start the company just before the economy tanked, and much of the pessimism has come about since then. But I do feel optimistic. There are very creative people out there making films, and there’s an audience who are sick of the same old Hollywood bullshit. It gets tiring seeing the same bad action, romance, comedy films over and over again…
So many of the problems, not just in entertainment but across the board, relate to homogenizing things. In an effort to get rich, everything is stripped down—like with our food. There are a few corporations mass-producing food, and in the process chemicals get added in and nutrients get stripped out. What’s happening with entertainment is similar: All of the concert venues and radio stations are being monopolized and it just makes the world a blander place. When my band used to tour in the ’80s and early ’90s, we’d deal with all these different promoters and all these different mom-and-pop radio stations, with DJs who had their own personalities and taste in music. There were tons of little mom-and-pop record stores. I miss that, and I imagine other people do too.
So yes, I am optimistic that there is a place for individuality and creativity, and that there are people who will want to see unique, creative films.
MM: No Impact Man is clearly an advocacy film, albeit with a great twist of humor and human interest. But you’re not limiting what you purchase to these types of eco-films, correct?
AY: Indeed. The ethic is just to find films that we are inspired by. The reasons for why we like them can vary—some might be sharing new information or presenting it in a new way, and some might make us laugh, but we are really just looking for films that move us in some way.
MM: Speaking of No Impact Man, that film seemed to generate an amazing amount of publicity for an independent. Was that a function of just a really great gimmick/idea, or because of Colin’s willingness to put himself out there, or something that your company managed to pull off?
AY: It’s funny you mention that. I know you are not saying it in a negative way, but people have given Colin a hard time about it being a “gimmick,” and I’m not sure why. I thought it was a brilliant experiment. He could have come up with any idea to write a book on. He could have decided that he was going to live on his fire escape for a year, relieve himself in the street instead of using a toilet for a year or eat nothing but McDonald’s, but he decided to trying something to help him learn about the impact of his own carbon footprint and to try to stop polluting the world. What better experiment is there? I thought it was a great idea and I learned a lot from it. I still think about it all the time when I go shopping. I’ll think, ‘How can I get this thing without the packaging? Colin managed to do it; I just need to put in a little more effort.’ Sometimes giving yourself rules or parameters pushes you to find new ways to do things.
But I think what really made the film work was his wife’s reluctance to do it. It added this push-pull aspect to it that made it entertaining to watch. I think there were as many people, if not more, who identified with her side. She was like the regular person who wants to help the environment, but is hesitant to give up everyday conveniences. I think if it was just some guy trying an experiment, we’d feel a little more like ‘Oh, he’s just an extremist,’ but watching the two of them is very sweet. They really care about each other, and their relationship is really the heart of the film.
MM: Talk about your perspective on that. Does being eco-friendly or planet-friendly enter into the decisions you make as a film executive, as a musician, as a human being?
AY: Yes, certainly. As a Buddhist, my objective is to do as much as possible that is constructive, and not to do anything that’s destructive. Of course, that is easy to say and of course I’m not perfect, far from it. But I do try to be as aware of it as I am able to be.
That being said, I do think that sometimes things that make us laugh are constructive simply because they make us laugh. It’s sometimes good just to laugh to relieve the tension and get your mind thinking in a more open way. So I don’t think every film we release needs to be about the environment to be constructive. And there are times that violent films can be constructive too—sometimes they make you think.
So there are no hard, easy rules on right and wrong. I just try to follow my instinct on what feels like a film that might make this world a better or worse place. I have actually passed on films that I thought were well made because I felt they would inspire copycat violence. It really just has to do with the overall tone of the film, how it leaves you feeling.
MM: You recently had a health scare with your diagnosis of salivary gland cancer and I’m glad to read that you’ve pulled through. Congratulations. Does something like that change/heighten your career choices or give you any greater sense of urgency?
AY: Well I’m not out of the woods yet. I’ll have to have a few years go by with no recurrence to really be out of the woods.
But yes, going through something like this certainly makes you think about what’s important. Before I was diagnosed I felt like, ‘I probably have at least another 40 years ahead of me.’ Then when I was diagnosed with cancer I thought, ‘Oh man, I might have less than a year,’ and that really put me on my toes. I started thinking ‘How can I make this time that I have count?’ From a Buddhist perspective, we should be thinking like that all the time, but it’s not easy.
In a text I read it said that it’s important to treat each day, each minute like it might be your last, so that you can value this life and make good use of it—not waste it. But it’s hard to do. Having cancer makes you think about what’s important to you. I have been spending a lot more time with the family. We just went to Hawaii together for a month, which was great, and I have been spending more time meditating and studying texts, which has been great as well.
MM: What will define success for Oscilloscope Pictures?
AY: Of course, having the company be financially sound is part of it—we aren’t running a nonprofit—but to be successful it needs to be a good company on all fronts. Profit can’t come ahead of other things. I don’t want to be just another shortsighted, shitty company that does destructive things to make a quick dollar. It needs to be constructive in every way that it can.
That means that it’s a good environment for the people who work there, that it’s a good creative environment for filmmakers, that the filmmakers are able to get involved with the marketing as much as they care to; when we use paper it should be recycled, when people are owed money they are paid on time… I think that every detail of the company needs to be constructive and creative.
And at some point I’d like to able to look back at the catalog of films we’ve released and feel good about the whole thing.