Winner of the 2010 Audience Award for Best Feature Documentary at the SXSW Film Festival, Mark Landsman’s “Thunder Soul” follows the alumni of Houston’s Kashmere High School Stage Band, who return home after 35 years to play a tribute concert for their 92-year-old band leader, Conrad “Prof” Johnson.
It’s a rousing true story that’s been generating steam on the festival circuit since its SXSW debut. Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx is a fan. Upon first seeing the film, he agreed to come on as executive producer, as Oprah did for “Precious.”
We caught up with Landsman to find out how he caught wind of this great story and what Foxx’s seal of approval means to him. The film opens in limited release Friday, September 23 through Roadside Attractions.
This film’s been on the festival circuit for over a year now, winning over audiences and critics at every stop. What’s the ride been like?
It’s been surreal. When you’re in it, it feels like it’s taking a long time. But then you look back and it seems to have just flown by.
When you make any indie film, you’re excited about its festival life. And of course you hope that it has a theatrical life. The fact that Roadside believed in the film, that was incredibly exciting for us. It all just makes you realize that timing is everything. There’s a whole set of circumstances that are relevant to the success of your film.
When I first caught the film at last year’s Dallas International Film Festival, Jamie Foxx wasn’t attached. How did you snag him?
It’s kind of amazing. Right after the Los Angeles Film Festival last summer, we decided to do industry screenings to get word of mouth. At one of those screenings a woman named Jamie King – she was Jamie’s manager – cried during the movie. She wanted to get a copy to Jamie and we did. It took a few months after that to get a meeting.
When he met him he said, “This is my experience. I want to take on this project.” He grew up in Terrell, Texas. He studied music at an early age, first in the church and then with his grandmother, who basically said to him, “Your education is going to involve music.” In return she made sure he would study music.
The movie just hit him deeply and that was it. As a producer, he’s really been leading the charge.
So how did this whole project initially come about? It’s quite the story.
I was listening to NPR in LA at the end of 2006. I heard this tremendous music coming through my radio, really hard-hitting, big funk. I just assumed it was a monstrous band from that era. But then the reporter came on saying, “Can you believe those are 14- and 15-year-old high school students?” I just got the chills.
Prof came on and described his story (he was 90 years old at the time) and I started to Google him. I got his phone number. It took me a week to get the courage to call him.
At the time I thought I was going to be making a fictional film. I didn’t know about the reunion. When we were down there, he had arranged for some of his students to come to his house. They took me out to lunch and told me about the reunion concert they were going to put on in his honor.
They asked, “What do you think?” And I said, “I think we have an amazing documentary here.”
Were you worried that the band wasn’t going to pull it off in the end, given how they weren’t great from the get-go?
Honestly, it was actually a relief that they kind of sucked in the beginning. If they were great, where were we going to go? I mean they didn’t suck, but they weren’t super tight. We had a trajectory because of this… Something to shoot for.
Now you have experience tackling both documentaries and narrative (the 2005 short “Skylab,” which aired on PBS). What do get the most kick out of?
I get the most kick out of great stories and rich characters. That’s really what pumps my blood. That’s what excites me.
Filmmakers that straddle both mediums are the ones that I admire the most. Scorsese, Spike Lee, Herzog. I feel like there’s so much great information to glean as a filmmaker from real life. It only helps you as narrative filmmaker to explore real life, as opposed to only fictional worlds.
Your next project is a narrative project. What can you tell me about it?
We’re transforming “Thunder Soul,” focusing on the 1970 school year. It’s serving as the frame for a fictional feature we’re doing. We’re early on in the process, but it’s happening.