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indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Paul Rachman, director of “American Hardcore”

indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Paul Rachman, director of "American Hardcore"

Veteran filmmaker Paul Rachman has returned to his film music roots with his latest work, 2006 Sundance Film Festival doc, “American Hardcore.” Based on the book by Steven Blush (“American Hardcore: A Tribal History“), the film takes a look back at the flourishing punk scene of the early 1980s in the U.S. and Canada. The kids and bands, such as Black Flag, Bad Brains and Minor Threat, took part in a diffused social movement that was a reaction to the prevailing Reagan-era conservatism and conformity of the day. Music from the era helped spawn such later bands as Nirvana, Beastie Boys and Red Hot Chili Peppers, which, arguably, may not have gained their eventual notoriety had it not been for their more raw and “in your face” forebearers. Rachman, who co-founded the annual Slamdance Film Festival in Park City (coinciding with the Sundance) directed music videos for some of the bands featured in the film, and later became a top music video director, creating vids for Alice in Chains, The Replacements, Roger Waters and Kiss. His first feature film was “Four Dogs Playing Poker” in 2000, starring Forrest Whittaker and Tim Curry. Rachman shares with indieWIRE how his punk philosophy helped both him and Blush complete the film, and how an industry exec initially said ‘no’ to the idea of the film, but later came back on as distributor. Sony Pictures Classics opens “American Hardcore” at select theaters on Frdiay.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.

The first time I looked at and experienced a film in a totally new way was in 1978 or ’79 when I saw David Lynch‘s “Eraserhead” in a movie theater in Boston while I was in college. It was so radically different looking and sounding that it was almost hypnotic in the way it drew me into the story. It brought a new dimension to the way I looked at life. I’ve never looked at a radiator the same way since either.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?

On the creative side I’ve done a lot of directing , editing and shooting. I really don’t like to get bogged down with paperwork and industry-isms like development, meetings and lunches that amount to nothing but small talk. Every single film has it’s very own path and inner life as to how it wants or needs to be made. On “American Hardcore” we did everything. On my previous film I was hired to direct and that’s all I did, [and] my music videos and short films were done quickly. So making a film is a constant re-exploration of the process. You’ll learn new things about filmmaking and find new ways to express. I like to take on whatever is necessary for a particular project.

Please talk about how the initial idea for “American Hardcore” came about?

The idea firmly appeared in my head when Steven Blush told me that he had finally finished the book “American Hardcore: A Tribal History.” Even before I actually saw and read the book I had an image in my head of what it should be. I was very sure of it. Not many projects had ever felt that definite to me. When I started reading passages of the book I felt pieces of my own life pass by in some of the history that Steven had organized in such detail. I also knew that it wasn’t just my own personal history and life but many others. I always felt I was part of a generation that fell through the cracks. We were stuck between an old broken America from the Carter years and a new phony America that Reagan was trying to establish. The film version of “American Hardcore” could further humanize this experience with the story told by those who lived it.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film. What were your overall goals for the project?

The only influence I used on “American Hardcore” was the hardcore ethic I had learned from being part of the scene. You do it yourself. You don’t take any shit from anybody. You don’t let anybody stop you, and you never let down your peers. Those things are what was most important in the making of this film. The goal was first and foremost to make a film that could be both authentic and a reflection of the subject’s lives. Speak to the people and fans who were there. Also, educate those who weren’t there and try to show what it was really like to be a rebellious youth in 1980. The film needed to be an important legacy to the spirit of youth in America at a particular juncture in its history.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?

There was no development. Period. Development I’ve learned, is not filmmaking — it is anti-filmmaking. A documentary is easier to accomplish in some ways because you don’t have to rely on a cast and their schedules, but industry type development can slow the filmmaking process to the point that it sucks out the energy a project has in its early stages.

Black Flag frontman Henry Rollins playing a gig as seen in Paul Rachman’s doc “American Hardcore.” Photo by Ted Baron, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

I did bring the book around to a number of people, but none of them was at all interested in making a film about a 25 year-old underground punk scene represented by a cover photograph of a punk singer with a smashed bloody face. So we made the film ourselves in the DIY spirit that existed with the bands in the film. We made the film the way they made their music. Locked in a basement. The door shut tight. And not to be disturbed until it was done. The funny thing is that one of the executives who originally turned it down is the one who eventually acquired it for distribution. (Co-president) Tom Bernard at Sony Pictures Classics remembers me bringing the book to him. At Sundance [this year] I asked him about that meeting; he said I was right about turning the book into a film. Tom Bernard and (co-president) Michael Barker did not ask us to change one single frame of the film.

How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?

Steven Blush and I financed it ourselves. I edited commercials here and there in order to stay committed as director and editor of “American Hardcore.” Steven continued writing , DJ’ing and booking rock shows in clubs. Every few weeks we took our money and spent it on travel. We used very simple equipment. Mini DV cameras, standard mics, and a laptop with a bunch of external hard drives for editing. I already owned much of that equipment.

What is your next project?

I plan on returning to a narrative project next. I have a few ideas and a nearly finished screenplay. Steven and I also want to find another doc subject, but it will have to be something as visceral and vibrant as “American Hardcore” in order to stay in love with it for a few years.

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

Oh my god. What a nasty word that has become. What people now think ‘independent film’ is, is a project that is developed independently of a studio. Put together by some cool creative people who magically get paired with some rich people who in turn try to network themselves around a few players who are actually developing these films the same way the Hollywood studios do. Independent film is about taking an idea and disappearing from all those current “indie” people and coming back with something that blows them away.

What are some of your all-time favorite films, and recent favorite films?

I always hate this question. Too many to think of and choose. “American Hardcore” has put “A Clockwork Orange” back up there on the top of my list. I also recently liked “Syriana.”

What are your interests outside of film?

I’m always working so I always feel like I need a vacation, so traveling.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

Creatively only listen to yourself. Trust your gut. Do not fear your mistakes or failures and never ever give up. If you do you’ll never get to where you want to be.

Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?

Helping to create a friendly, supportive film festival called Slamdance.

Last thoughts: Always strive for over achievement and keep your pride in check.

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