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Forest Whitaker

A Conversation with Andrew Shapter (continued)

PM: Now, Forest Whitaker, he's one of my favorite actors of all time. How did he come to be involved?

AS: We wanted a voice that was distinct, and we wanted somebody to help deliver some powerful words, and a good actor. And we were trying to think of all the actor/musicians out there. We were thinking about maybe we'd get an actor/musician, or get a real good musician. Then the middle of the night, Bird came on--

PM: Right. [Bird is the 1988 Clint Eastwood film in which Forest Whitaker plays Charlie Parker.]

AS: And I thought, well, now, there's the guy. That's the guy that has to do it.

PM: Yeah.

AS: And so we called up agents and the managers and made it happen.

PM: Wow.

AS: And because he liked the project so much, he seems to be for real, really behind it, that he did it without sending us to the poorhouse.

PM: Right. So did you have some significant budget to work with, or were you operating on a shoestring, or how was that?

AS: Let me put it this way. I left a pretty lucrative job as a photographer to do this. And I wound up nearly losing my house. I put everything I had into it. And Joel put his money into it as well. And then we had to constantly go out there and sell, sell, sell pieces of the film, to keep it moving. And so it was an incredibly taxing process that nearly cost me my home.

PM: Wow.

AS: And I continued to work on it and promote it without a paycheck. So you have to love what you do to take on something like this, and to go through with what I just went through.

PM: But by all appearances, it's going to pan out for you. It's going to actually get quite a run, and get into a lot of theaters. Is that right?

AS: Yeah, it's an amazing distribution idea these guys had.

PM: Who are these guys?

AS: B-Side. You know, "The audience is never wrong." [www.bside.com]

PM: Right, B-Side.

AS: Yeah, their whole idea is that, look, people in this day and age are buying more DVDs than they're going to see movies in the theater. Why don't we just make sure that we get the word out about the DVD, because this is more of a collector type of movie than just your average movie, because it's got so many performances in it. So they said, "Maybe we'll put a feeler out there around the country and see who wants to screen it, just as a test." And we did that this summer, and we had an overwhelming response. So by the time the film was ready to be put out, we had hundreds of screenings, people screening it at places like Martin Luther King Chapel, Morehouse College, NYU, Circus Theatricals in L.A., and the Independent Theater in downtown San Francisco, the Paramount Theater here in Austin. And I was just like, wow, these are great historic music venues.

PM: Did anybody in Nashville, where I live, pick it up? Do you know?

AS: From what I understand, there are a few screenings coming up in Nashville at the beginning of '07, like in January or February. So it's coming there. It played to a packed house and an overflowing crowd in Memphis in October.

PM: Amazing.

AS: So it's finally getting its way to Nashville. And we shot some of it in Nashville, of course. [There's a schedule of upcoming screenings here.]

PM: I was talking with Vicki Lucero of Propaganda Media Group in Austin. She was working on a screening, either at Grimey's or at the Belcourt Theater here. [Don't know about the former, but it did screen at The Belcourt just last night.]

AS: I think so. I don't think the record executives would go crazy for it, because that is really where the formula lives.

PM: Oh, yeah.

AS: But the people in the streets that are playing those clubs there, that are living there and taking their shot every day, I would love to find out their reaction. Because all of a sudden we have this whole new internet world where people--and the film spells this out--where people can literally record an album in their living room, and then sell it directly to the audience on the internet, and become an internet darling. I think, especially in rural areas, where people have computers and they don't have record stores, this is a great opportunity for real good, genuine country music to get out there. So I hope the film serves as an inspiration for those musicians in Nashville.

PM: Yeah, there's no doubt about it that it will. Most of my friends are songwriters. And I'm sure they'd have a universally strong response to this film. Will we be able to say, Andrew, that the film is available for purchase for Christmas?

AS: Absolutely, right now. There's sort of a sneak preview commemorative addition that XM asked us--pressured us, I guess we can say--to put out in time for Christmas for their listeners, because they are doing so many interviews and so many features on it. So now we have this special edition to commemorate the national tour that it just went on. So people can go to beforethemusicdies.com, and buy the DVD right now.

PM: You know what I find really upsetting about XM--and I'm an XM subscriber--is that their new device called the Inno allows you when you're listening to a song to press a button and download it, and nobody gets paid.

AS: Really.

PM: It sounds like piracy, if I understand it correctly. And people I know who are going to Washington, like NSAI [the Nashville Songwriters Association] to protest the release of this product, tell me that XM is calling songwriters who are trying to get paid for their work "terrorists who are standing in the way of technology." What a load.

AS: Right.

PM: Otherwise, I'm a big XM supporter, but it's a really alarming dichotomy. It's to keep up with the iPod, basically. It's a radio with recording capabilities. Yeah, it'll be interesting to see where that all ends up, for sure.

Branford Marsalis

I thought Branford Marsalis was unbelievably intelligent in this film. He had to be a lot of fun to work with.

AS: He was a lot of fun, and surprising. I thought I was throwing him a soft question. The guy is a professor, down in North Carolina. I asked him, "Branford, tell me, what have you learned from your students?"

PM: [laughs] And he just belted it out of the park.

AS: Yeah. And he gets applause in the audience every time, because it's so true today, this self-appreciation has gone a little too far.

PM: [laughs]

AS: It was on the cutting floor at first, and it was Erykah Badu that said, "Oh, got to put that in there."

PM: I was also very moved to see that the essence of the message of Les Paul and Hubert Sumlin was identical!

AS: It was. And the L.A. Times criticized that, and called him a wizened old Negro, which I thought was really distasteful.

PM: What!?

AS: Yeah, yeah, the L.A. Weekly magazine--

PM: You have got to be kidding me!

Elvis Costello and Hubert Sumlin

AS: No, no, they criticized that part. But you know what? Music critics out there--a handful of them are resentful that the film got made without them, or something. But anyway, you're right, they're in parallel with each other, which it's just, "It's got to come from the heart."

PM: Yeah, that's all they were saying. What's wizened about that?

AS: Yeah, I thought that was really interesting language, especially in the Michael Richards climate today, why he would write that.

PM: Exactly.

AS: But music critics, generally they remind me of a Jack Black character in High Fidelity.

PM: [laughs] I love that jazz band from Austin, Blaze, they were like the jazz quartets of the '60s.

               Blaze (and dig Andrew's assistant)

AS: They are. And they live in that realm, too. And I, as a photographer, got to know them, because it reminded me of these old photography books that are out there in the bookstores that feature like these old beautiful vintage classy photos of Miles Davis and Coltrane. And those guys always wore those classic suits. Well, Blaze is the same way. They're always just dressing the part. They keep that tradition alive. There are only a few groups like Blaze, but they're out there.

PM: Right.

Ephraim Owens


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