Growing up in Atlanta, first-time writer-director-producer Craig Zobel had a bevy of artistic inspiration around him. Enough, in fact, to help launch the popular online site HomestarRunner.com with friends Mike and Matt Chapman and land production positions on three films by southern moviemaking darling David Gordon Green. In 2005 he channeled the area’s long music history into his first feature, Great World of Sound, a largely improvised, highly diverting tale revealing the southern tradition of sound sharking. The movie, about two aspiring music producers who are inadvertently brought into a scam company, played at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival and just recently brought home the honor of Breakthrough Director from IFP’s Gotham Awards and a nomination for Best First Feature from the Independent Spirit Awards. In the midst of this renewed interest in the film, Craig Zobel took some time to answer a few of MM’s questions.
Mallory Potosky (MM): Great World of Sound is your first feature film. What was it like having it screen at Sundance–THE premiere venue for independent film in America?
Craig Zobel (CZ): I feel very fortunate that the programmers were into this movie. The programmers at that festival truly are film lovers and I think it’s a testament to them that Sundance continues to be important. It’s an undefinable experience. I’d recommend it!
MM: The film has received renewed interest and a few awards in the past few months. What’s it like to have this happen so long after the film was made?
CZ: That’s an interesting question–it’s very weird, actually. Having gone through principal photography in the late summer of 2005, I have been living in the film for a lot of years now. After the theatrical release I felt like the experience was at a nice bookend on the experience. I finally felt available to start thinking about other projects. So when this renewed interest in the movie happened I was very much caught off guard. It’s been awesome–I would say that it’s been even more flattering and emotional to know that people are still talking about it, because it was so unexpected.
MM: Before making your own movie, you had been producer on a few of David Gordon Green’s films. Did the experiences you had on those films help you to get through pre-production on your own? Do you think being a first-time director helped or hurt the situation?
Most definitely. I don’t think I could’ve made the film if I hadn’t worked in the production department on David’s and other’s films. We made the movie on a shoestring, and it took the experience of having made prior movies on small budgets to know where to (and where not to) spend our money. And when I finally got to direct a movie, it made me understand when I was asking for something that would put stress on a particular department–which forced me to decide whether it’d be worth it or not to attempt this or that shot or whatever. That ultimately saved us time, which on film sets is the most important thing you could do. I wouldn’t have been thinking like that as a director my first day out of school, so I think it’s super important to work on other’s films and learn. But there are many brilliant filmmakers who have never crewed on anyone else’s films, so…there goes my argument. I guess I should just say it worked well for me.
MM: Parts of the film are largely improvised with real, non-acting, hopeful musicians–how did you go about getting these people to participate?
CZ: Yeah, there are a few sequences of the film where musicians are auditioning for the two leads, who are record company talent scouts. We used a combination of actors saying scripted lines, non-actors who knew it was a film, but didn’t know what they were supposed to do/say and other non-actor musicians. For the latter, we placed ads in local newspapers saying “Record company coming to town one weekend only!” and had musicians come in initially assuming they were to audition for a record company. They would meet the two lead actors and perform for them cold. All of the scenes (with actors and non-actors) were filmed “Candid Camera” style. We would then reveal to them that it was a film and ask if they cared to participate.
MM: How did you break the news that it wasn’t really an opportunity for a record deal?
CZ: After they would audition and talk with the actors for a while, we would invite them into another room and explain what that we were actually making a film on “song sharking”–a scam in the record business. We would outline the plot of the film and explain how we imagined their performances being used in the final edit. We would show them around the backstage, and be as truthful and sincere as possible about the how/why of what it was we were trying to create. If the musicians felt comfortable after that, we would ask them to sign releases. A few people were not on board, and with those people we apologized for wasting their time, but out of about 70 artists only about six were not into it, and most people acknowledged what we were doing as interesting and wanted to be a part. We screened the film specifically for the musicians in Charlotte before the release, and it was an amazing experience. Several of the bands performed at a party after and we all had a blast. I feel very connected with all of them, they truly are the heart and soul of the film.