I used to hang around a friend’s record store, and one day another loiterer, a maven of obscure pop-culture knowledge named Ron, told me about this bizarre recording of two old men fighting called Shut Up Little Man. I went home and started listening to it, and it was so shocking and compelling that I couldn’t stop. As I researched the recordings I found that the writer Dan Clowes (Ghost World) and Devo, among others, had used Shut Up Little Man to inspire their art. I knew quite quickly that I wanted to make a film about the recordings. That film would become my first feature film, the documentary Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure.

The story of the recordings began in 1987 when two young students named Eddie and Mitch left the Midwest for San Francisco, where they rented an apartment in a bright pink slum they nicknamed the “Pepto Bismol Palace.” The boys were quickly “introduced” to their next-door neighbors Peter Haskett (a flamboyant gay man) and Raymond Huffman (a rampant homophobe), the ultimate odd couple whose drunken fighting terrorized the students. Fearing for their lives, Eddie and Mitch began to record the arguments coming through the paper-thin walls. One of the tapes accidentally leaked out into the world, where it went “viral” in the pre-Internet era, making Peter and Raymond underground pop culture celebrities.

When I first listened to Peter and Raymond’s vitriolic arguments, their foul-mouthed insults and the absolute, pure hatred they had for one another took me into a world most people never have access to. There’s a Beckett-like horror to their situation and a genius illogic to the dialogue that even Hollywood’s greatest scriptwriters could never make up (at one point Raymond shouts “If you wanna talk to me, then shut your fuckin’ mouth!”). They argue about inane things–like cutting toenails or stealing vodka–but their unique and violent diatribes rise above trivialities to become a matter of life and death. Their situation–a gay man living with a frothing homophobe–is such a bizarre dramatic conceit that their tiny apartment becomes the stage for an existential drama, and the tapes allow us to spy in through an audio peephole.

Listening to the tapes is voyeuristically captivating, like traveling past a bad road accident: You can’t help but look. It also presents similar moral questions. Should I be fascinated? Should I listen to this? Should I be laughing at their banter? Is this even legal? The recordings hover on the boundary between art and exploitation; Eddie and Mitch call them art, but they also sell Pete and Ray death certificates and assorted merchandise to their fanbase. There’s an interesting moral murkiness about the whole thing.

As a moviemaker, I’m interested in the kinds of grey areas this story exists in, and I wanted to make a film that walked the same precipice between art and exploitation that the tapes balance upon. I like the idea of spinning the audience’s moral compass and asking them to think about where theirs lands. It’s the same question that faces us, the moviemakers: Are we exploiting Pete and Ray by making them even more famous than before? Are we as morally guilty as anyone else?
I think that by making Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, we’ve opened up a discussion about privacy, technology and the nature of art. As the film shows, Shut Up Little Man was an early warning sign that pointed toward the increasing loss of privacy that’s come with the rise of the Internet. We can now film one another at our worst moments, upload the video to YouTube and create overnight viral sensations that get seen by millions. So while the film asks us to judge some of the players in the Shut Up Little Man story, it also suggests our voracious appetite for illicitly recorded schadenfreude, making us guilty as a society.

Its amazing to think that Eddie and Mitch’s tapes went viral in an analog world. They were dubbed and redubbed, put in the post or swapped by hand to create an underground sensation. I get asked a lot whether I think Pete and Ray would have been just another quickly-forgotten YouTube sensation had they been recorded today. I think the difference between the Shut Up Little Man recordings and overnight YouTube hits has to do with the sheer volume of material (over 14 hours), which gives a far more complex insight into humanity than Christian Bale’s on-set rant or another celebrity sex-tape. Pete and Ray’s world is a glimpse into the dark heart of love, hate, alcoholism, friendship and the nature of existence. I always saw the film as a love story. These guys needed one another; it’s as each of them was kept alive by their obsession. Like many old couples, they died within a short time of each another, having lost the vitalizing force in their lives.

People have said that watching my film makes them laugh, but it also makes them feel a bit dirty. I couldn’t be happier with this. It means that the viewer has been on a journey, that they were made to feel various emotions and question their relationship to what they have just experienced. Others have reacted vehemently towards Eddie and Mitch for their role in commercializing Pete and Ray. Some have felt the same toward us for making a film about two sad old drunks. Again, I welcome that. It encourages discussion about what art can be, about the morality of the current Zeitgeist and, particularly, about a documentary moviemaker’s relationship with their subject.

Ultimately, I want Shut Up Little Man! to restore some humanity to Pete and Ray, who had become cartoon cutouts. As the film’s director, I think the revelation of the humanity of the two men is the most confronting and satisfying element in the entire film.

Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure comes out in Video on Demand on August 25th and in selected theaters on September 16th. For more about Shut Up Little Man!–including its trailer and information on its VOD availability, visit www.shutuplittlemanfilm.com.