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indieWIRE INTERVIEW | “Great World of Sound” Director Craig Zobel

indieWIRE INTERVIEW | "Great World of Sound" Director Craig Zobel

Director Craig Zobel‘s “Great World of Sound” revolves around Martin (Pat Healy), who answers an ad to train as a record producer, where he’s excited by the prospect of signing undiscovered artists. The company, called Great World of Sound, partners shy, unassuming Martin with the gregarious Clarence (Kene Holliday) and sends them on the road, visiting southern towns where the company has placed newspaper ads, and turning motels into makeshift audition studios. Though an unlikely duo, they sign more acts than anyone else at the company. But when Martin takes a special interest in a young girl’s “New National Anthem,” putting up his own money and following her progress, he discovers that something’s amiss with the enterprise… The film won the best male actor prize (for Holliday) at the Newport International Film Festival and took the critics nod at the Sarasota Film Festival. Magnolia Pictures opened the film last Friday.

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

As trite as it sounds, I’ve just always been into movies. According to my mom, I used to make up elaborate new alternate versions of “The Empire Strikes Back” in my room when I was five or six. I don’t specifically remember that, but I’m pretty sure my mom doesn’t lie, so I suppose I’ve wanted to do it for a long time.

As far as how my interest has evolved, I think that since before directing, I’ve jumped around to and worked in a few different departments of movies, and I’ve been able to see how fun and amazing and important every part is in contributing to the final product. From the work of the prop assistant to the guy who hires the caterer. Now that I know how detailed and crazy filmmaking is–and you have to pay attention to ALL of that in order to make a halfway decent movie. I’m at a loss to think of anything cooler to try and do. Except maybe like, ya know, join the Peace Corps and try to make the world a better place or something… But I’m not that cool. Unfortunately.

Director Craig Zobel, photographed at the 2007 New Directors/New Films Series in NYC. Photo by indieWIRE

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

I like to imagine that in a few years I’ll be able to help other friends produce their films, in addition to continuing to direct and write myself.

How did the idea for “Great World of Sound” came about and evolve?

The idea for the film came out of stories my dad told me about a crazy job he’d had. In the late Seventies, he had been working as an A.M. radio DJ. When he first moved down to Atlanta (where my mother lived and where I was eventually raised), he couldn’t find an opening in a radio station. But he did find this job working as a “record producer.” It was for a company similar to the one I ended up creating for the film–they went from town to town sharking people for money under the promise that they would make people famous in the music industry.

The thing that I was really drawn to initially, was that the company also manipulated their “record producers” into thinking they were helping the people. Once you sit down and start thinking about a story surrounding that stuff, it’s pretty easy to imagine all the ways that people justify things they do that may not be, um, noble–and the story kinda grew out of that.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences?

I was really inspired by the 1968 Maysles Brothers documentary “Salesman,” about door to door Bible salesmen. That movie felt like the appropriate tone for the movie. Most movies about scam artists (and movies about high pressure salesmen, like Glengarry) do things to sorta glamorize the guys. I wanted to look at the guys who are getting the short end of the scam.

“Salesman” was the first time that I felt I really saw the other side of the sales pitch–watching the men and women who were pressured into buying Bibles–mostly just so that they could get the guys out of their house. I didn’t (and still don’t) think I could capture that same spirit in my film with actors, which was the main thrust in my deciding to do the audition sequences in the documentary style.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project?

I initially thought I could make the film through a more traditional route: going to producers and pitching the project, having them fundraise as we cast–that sort of thing. But pretty immediately I started getting people saying to me, “It’s really interesting, but we have to pass. It’s just very execution dependent.” I thought that was a strange saying. I mean, isn’t EVERY independent film execution dependent?

Producers also said no because they were skeptical over whether the general premise would be believable. A lot of people would argue that no one would answer those ads anymore. Of course that’s totally wrong. Many smart, gifted people would answer those ads, they do all the time. That’s what the movie is about. It blew my mind. I was surprised that I received that response at the time, but I now just attribute that to the fact that I was talking to people who regularly work in movies. Those guys are around so many shifty types that they always have their guard up, and it was hard for them to imagine how there are people out there that don’t have their guard up.

Ultimately, even though it was seriously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, I’m very happy that me and my friends were able to just do it ourselves. We were able to tell the story the way we intended to, and that’s awesome. All of us were doing it not because it was a job, but because we all sincerely believed in the idea and wanted to make a film about it. In the case with this movie, I feel strongly that it could’ve never gotten done unless we did it the way we did.

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

Um, obviously the strict “not made by a giant, multinational movie studio” definition of Independent Film is probably the best. But it makes me feel weird when to see things like “The Passion of The Christ” being defined on indieWIRE as an independent film. I mean, maybe there could be another category: Technically Indie Film. Or studio-esque film. When mid-level movies that have $5 million budgets and big name actors get a lot of press as being “Little-Indies-That-Could,” that’s something I privately squirm about. But truthfully it’s just as hard (if not harder) to raise the money for those movies as the ones like mine with budgets of $14.37. So I tell myself to get over it when I start feeling like that.

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

My all time favorites section is always a hard one. I quit filling that out on my MySpace profile. That question is too stressful. Generally, American movies from the Sixties and Seventies, and European movies from the Eighties and Nineties are what I watch when I’m not trying to catch up on new films.

As far as new movies go, um…. “This Is England” was really cool. I like everything by David O. Russell, even though he’s apparently a crazy person. Alexander Payne, Michael Winterbottom, but I sometimes don’t like his stuff. He’s always taking risks and making TOTALLY different types of movies though, which is way cool. I am a recent convert to Paul Greengrass. Last week, I ended up watching a Netflix of “United 93” on my laptop while on an airplane. True story. Dude next to me thought I was a complete asshole.

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