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This was my fourth time interviewing Jay Duplass. Listening to Jay talk about making movies is eerily similar to what it would probably be like to talk about destiny with Jeff from Jay and his brother Mark’s latest studio film, Jeff Who Lives at Home. So if anyone were going to make a documentary about a musician like Kevin Gant, it would have to be Jay.
Talking to Kevin about the director is no different: “For me to have stopped performing and writing songs for nearly 15 years, only to discover that way back during my starving artist phase, a University of Texas college student and his brother heard me sing half a song and never forgot me?! I am truly honored and eternally grateful that someone of Jay’s talent and status in the entertainment industry would genuinely appreciate my art. What’s even more amazing to me is that Jay’s appreciation of my music comes from such a sincere, pure place: His heart!”
Kevin is the story of Kevin Gant, an Austin-based musician who had a strong following in the ’90s but then suddenly disappeared. While working on Cyrus, the brothers’ first studio feature, Jay returned to his low-budget roots to direct the documentary, which takes a look at Gant, why he left the world of music and his journey back.
Andy Young (MM): When did you first discover Kevin’s music?
Jay Duplass (JD): I came to Austin in 1991 to go to the University of Texas, and I had no idea the rest of the world wasn’t like New Orleans. I had a weird experience, because everyone there basically had all their friends from high school and I didn’t know anybody for the whole first few years. I didn’t have a lot going on; I was just studying and exploring town. But I went to the Chicago House and saw him play there. I didn’t know what to think of him at first: Here was this soul-singing, flamenco guitar-playing, OJ-looking, New Age musician. I kept going back to see him, and I noticed the same people would come out to see him every time. His following was fervent, and I was obsessed with his unbridled uniqueness and his lack of marketability.
MM: So when did you think of him as an interesting subject for a documentary?
JD: At first my brother and I were musicians, and I was obsessed with this idea of us having a semi-popular band where we could have him open for us to get him out there. But that didn’t pan out, so much later down the line [around 2008] I was wondering what had happened to him. I was doing studio work in L.A. and I missed Austin and making low-budget stuff, and a one-man documentary and reconnecting with Kevin reignited me.
MM: Did he feel any resistance at first to having his story documented?
JD: He was a little reluctant because he didn’t really have anything going on, and he was worried I’d come down and just think nothing was really happening. But he agreed, and I came back home the first day after filming him and he was as amazing as I ever remembered him [being], even moreso.
MM: So did you already have a narrative in mind for Kevin, like the trip to Spain, or did you intentionally let it play out as it went?
JD: There were 100 narratives in my head for how the story of this documentary could have gone, but the first day I was shooting/driving with Kevin, he told me about Spain and what it meant to him and his connection to it. This voice went off in my head that said, “You’re going to Spain with Kevin.” And of course my logical brain was like, “You’re not going to Spain with this dude!” But then three months later Baghead got invited to the Granada Film Festival, and I got to take Kevin to Spain.
MM: Were there any particular documentaries that inspired you stylistically?
JD: Not really. I generally just go on instinct when I’m filming. But American Movie has a huge influence over all our work. A very enigmatic lead character that’s his own worst enemy in a lot of ways but also has very purist ideals and is trying to accomplish something.
MM: This film has a peculiar running time (37 minutes). It’s not quite a short, it’s not quite a feature. Did that make it hard to market?
JD: I wanted a feature at first because I knew it would get more play and it’d be easier to sell. I definitely had the material for a feature, but I personally feel like the feature-length wouldn’t have been nearly as good. It would have just been stretching stuff out, and Mark and I are obsessed with economy in our work. The purpose of this movie was to make something honest and to reconnect with being inspired, so I found it best to stay true to that.
MM: You guys were one of the first success stories to come out of using a Kickstarter campaign. Was that always on the table for raising funds for Kevin?
JD: No. I didn’t know anything about it until someone from Sundance introduced me to the Kickstarter guys and I started thinking about Kevin as a possibility. I wanted to Kickstart not only finishing the film but also re-igniting Kevin’s career.
MM: A great tag to the success of the documentary is that it’s sparked Kevin’s comeback, with the festival circuit working as his comeback tour. Was that always one of your goals?
JD: Well, when we started applying for festivals we knew the running time was going to be a really hard sell. I really wanted it to premiere at SXSW as a one-time show, and I thought it was important to have Kevin play there. It was his first time playing in 15 years, so I knew his old fans would come out of the woodwork for it, I knew it would sell out and I knew that the Q&A would fill up the extra time, because when you have a great story and a great subject, people can’t get enough of the Q&As. Janet Pierson was excited about the idea, and I appreciated her letting us try it, because it’s hard to break the film festival mold. And, luckily, every other festival played it in that same format.
In a weird way, film festivals are the perfect venue for a singer/songwriter. When someone like Kevin plays, they usually tell stories about their life or what fueled each song, and that’s what the documentary and the Q&A did.
MM: What can people learn from Kevin’s story?
JD: What I’ve learned is that, as weird and obscure and inappropriate as it may seem, you just have to go back to what you love. Do what gives you fuel and inspiration, because at that point in my career my agents and family weren’t exactly pumped about me making a 37-minute documentary that was probably going to lose money. But it was necessary to me.
MM: There’s already a very documentary-esque style to a narrative Duplass film. Could you see yourself doing more documentaries?
JD: It has to be perfect. It has to be the Kevin type of experience, where it’s an interesting subject and somehow also critical to my own evolution. It would be ideal to make a feature.
MM: Any projects you’re working on right now?
JD: Mark and I are really just writing right now. We’re each heading a few projects and consulting each other, and if one of them flowers we’ll both circle it. So we’re working on those and coming up with new ones.
MM: Is Austin on the table as a place to shoot future projects?
JD: Yeah, I definitely have one or two projects I’m super excited about that I hope I can do in Austin. It’s really tricky, because any time you tell a studio you want to shoot in Austin, they’re just like, “Can’t you slide it over one state and save us $2.5 million?” And it’s hard to say no. But I have at least two ideas I want to do in Austin, and my goal is to spend as much time as I can here for personal and creative reasons.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of 21, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy also has experience directing for theatre, television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.