certainly have written about filmmaker’s Rueben Atlas’ superb documentary feature
film Brothers Hypnotic on S & A – most recently in Jai Tiggett’s rave review of the film last month (HERE).
film chronicles the jazz/funk/hip-hop brass band group, who are the sons of
Chicago based jazz legend Phil Cohran, not only their performances in concerts
and on street corners, but as Jai said, the film very much deals as well with the
band’s “conflict between independent
ideals and mainstream success”.
the film is going to be broadcast, starting next Monday April 7th on
PBS on their weekly documentary series Independent Lens (as they say, be sure to
check your local listings). But this past Monday, I had chance to talk to Atlas,
who is also a lawyer, about his documentary, which was his first ever feature
film, about how it came to be, what he learned during the arduous four year
process of making the film, and what similarities he found between filmmaking and
So the most obvious question first, how did you come upon the idea of making a
film about the group?
I was in my third year of law school in New York and I had a couple of friends
who kept telling me that you’ve got to hear this band, you’ll love them. So
serendipitously I was just walking down the street around Union Square and I
heard this sound in the distance. I tracked it around three corners and I came
upon them and was just l blown away by their music and their talent like
everyone else, and how their music represented brass band tradition, but in a
way that no one has ever seen before. It combines jazz and hip-hop and funk and
soul, and how it all came together on that corner was very inspiring. So I just went up to them and told them that
I wanted to make a video of them of some sort.
Now I’m sure that they’ve had plenty of people coming up
to them promising and offering them all sorts of things, and they were like “Yeah,
yeah you can support us. Just buy a CD” (Laughs). So I bought a CD and
showed up the next day with a camera and that’s how it’s started.
So had you ever made a film before?
at the time I was making short videos for people who I thought were unfairly
incarcerated by the Rockefeller drug laws, short advocacy pieces for them to use
in their cases to review their sentences and to reform the Rockefeller drug
laws in New York, but I had never made a feature films before. But my mother is
a filmmaker so the idea of making a documentary was always in my head and
something that I knew I was going to do at some point.
I don’t need to tell you how hard it is the make a feature let alone a documentary.
What kept you going through the process of making your film despite all the difficulties
you no doubt faced?
I stared it I didn’t have a strong sense of what it was going to be. I was sort
of up for the adventure and I think, in a weird way, that allowed me not to have any great
expectations about when it would end or whatever I had to go through to finish
it. But there were also a couple of practical
things that pushed me along. One was that, apart from the brothers and their
family and their story and being so captivating at every turn, I had my mother encouraging me, but also
mentors such as filmmaker St Clair Bourne (John Henrik Clarke: A Great
and Mighty Thing, Let the Church Say Amen).
He was mentoring me in the
beginning, but unfortunately he passed. But before he did, had introduced me to Sam Pollard (Slavery By Another Name)
who has mentored so many filmmakers; but he really made me feel as if I was on
the right track. He has this nice way of being very critical, but at the same
time he was pushing me forward.
And then also I was getting grants along the way and all the
grants I got seemed to come at very opportune times. I was like” “Where
am I going to get the next $10 grand to do this shoot or to get the better
sound for this next shoot?” and then I would get it. It sort of felt like winning the lottery. So
even though the film wasn’t done, it was super exciting to get another step
forward and I think that really helped push me along.
For the record, from the time you first came up with the idea to make the film
until final completed doc, how long did it take to make it?
was about four years on and off of shooting, and I think half of that time was
about fundraising and about another year editing.
And I’ve been told by other documentary filmmakers that usually the film you
have an idea of making turns out to be something that is completely different
by the time you finally finish the film. Did you find that true in your case?
I think to some degree. I always knew that the central tension of the story was
about the sons’ desire to carry on their father’s legacy, but in their own way.
And I didn’t know exactly what that meant, I think, in the beginning, or what
it would mean in the film, but that I always knew was the theme in the
story. But in the beginning what I
wanted to do was much more cinema verite stuff and really shoot inside the
music scene and get their meetings with Atlantic Records and stuff. But when I wasn’t
getting access to that I realized that the bigger themes that had a strong emotional
cord had come from the family’s story. So, in a sense, I realized that I wasn’t
getting great emotional scenes with their music industry story and that it had
to be rooted in their family story. That was the big change.
So were there other documentaries and filmmakers who inspired you or just the
opposite you didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else from their work and
wanted to find your own path, your own vision?
I was definitely inspired by the great music documentaries such as Don’t Look Back,
and Gimme Shelter and there’s a photographer who made a bunch of music film
named Danny Clinch who definitely
inspired me cinematically in terms of what I wanted to do visually. But as far
as having my own vision, I think as a first time director, as someone who
especially at the beginning. I really did not identity as a filmmaker, I wasn’t
sure if I ever had and I think it was sort of process for me during the making
of the film. When I started out I didn’t have enough confidence where I would
I going to take my voice and insert it into the story.”
That was never
a sort of part of it for me or even really my motivation for doing it. And especially
with this film because it was a collaborative process and I wanted to work with
the brothers to tell their story especially when it came to their family stuff.
I really wanted them to set the guidelines and the boundaries for what we were
getting into and what parts of the story they wanted to tell and felt
comfortable sharing. So I guess when I realized that I actually had a vision for
it, I was sort of influenced by a lot of people (laughs)
So do you consider yourself a filmmaker now?
I guess so (laughs) hey at least I made a film so I’m a filmmaker.
So what are you planning next?
I’m now working as filmmaker full time I am now in production about the
community organization ACORN which I’m
co-directing with Sam Pollard and I’m also in production in film on sort of the opposite end of the
spectrum, thematically, about the world or rather subculture of old rare and
expensive wines. You know the stuff that can go for hundreds of thousands of
dollars per bottle
Finally you’re a law school graduate and have even passed the bar so let me ask
you have you found any similarity between filmmaking and practicing the law?
guess when I was doing research. Law school, if it really does one thing, teaches
you how to meticulous really organize lots of information. So I think when I
was doing research for the film I would organize my outlines the same way I would
organize torts of contracts The way I would organize briefs would the same way
I would organize certain scenes. So in that sense there is a similarity for me.
What is the issue is always the central issue that is something that you always
have to figure out. What is the legal issue? And you have to distill very complicated
legal cases into these single issues and I think that’s similar to film in that
sense especially early on when you’re pitching to people. This is the broad
theme that I’m exploring, but this is the story that I want to tell.