Last week ended on a sad note for millions of Beastie Boys fans when Adam Yauch, aka MCA, passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. But Yauch’s influence extended far beyond the music community. As the co-founder of indie-film distribution company Oscilloscope Laboratories, Yauch applied a quality-based approach to the distribution game at a time when a lot of filmmakers were struggling to find the right home — or any home — for their work.
In a few short years, Oscilloscope quickly established its prestige, landing several Oscar nominations, a fancy DVD label and even a subscription service. Filmmakers were largely happy with Oscilloscope — and some speak of their experience as if they had been adopted into Yauch’s family. Indiewire’s chief critic Eric Kohn asked a few of the filmmakers who were pulled into the Oscilloscope orbit to share their thoughts on the late musician and entrepreneur. We encourage others touched or influenced by Yauch’s work to add their own reminiscences in the comments section.
Co-writer-director, “The Messenger”
I met Adam at an IFP reception celebrating the DVD release of “Wendy & Lucy.” I believe the official excuse for the party was that Adam was joining the IFP board, but I had no official excuse to be there. Ira Sachs convinced me to go, and he introduced me to David Fenkel and Adam. Adam seemed very modest, especially for the night’s star attraction, and he told me, “I hope one day to distribute films like ‘The Messenger.’ ” It just so happened we didn’t have distribution. He was shocked, said he was told our film sold at Sundance. “No,” I said, the agency clowns selling the film were saying all kinds of things, “but,” I said to him, “if you hope to one day distribute films like ‘The Messenger,’ why not now?” I gave him our producer Lawrence Inglee’s phone number and, frankly, I didn’t expect much; he felt like a real gentleman, but I refused to believe that our distributors could show up and save the day at a random party, intentionally misinformed and yet still eager.
He called the next day. He pitched Oscilloscope to us. Along with Fenkel, he actively went after the film and he showed me he meant what he said. Oscilloscope took the film far, and walking down the Kodak Theater red carpet for the Oscars with MCA was probably more thrilling than any other thing that happened that improbable night. He never talked to me about awards or even the business of the film. He seemed to be about the “message,” the intent, the filmmaking. At every introduction to the film he spoke from the heart, just pouring love, not just for the work he was presenting but also for the potential of cinema, even in these dark, tentpoled days of behemoth events/products. He spoke about independence, and he lived independence.
When he got sick, it didn’t seem possible that he would succumb to the illness. There was a light to this man, a beauty of soul that made him seem invincible to me, as if he could take a grave death sentence and turn it into a joke, a journey, a challenge he was up to.
Well, what can I say, this is fucked up. We lost a champion of independent cinema, but, more than anything, we lost a damn good man. Damn good.
Director, “Meek’s Cutoff,” and writer-director, “Wendy and Lucy”
My producer Anish Savjani was the first person to bring Oscilloscope to my attention. I met Adam and David Fenkel in June of 2008. From the very start, Adam was involved and excited to weigh in on all things. He’d offer up ideas and be extremely cool about letting those ideas go if I had something else in mind. I basically had my way with all the artwork, the trailer, I got to put the emphasis on a theatrical run and even chose the theater I wanted to open in. What film company lets a filmmaker do all that? Adam, having somewhere back in time strived for those same artist controls, was used to not following all the prescribed rules. In fact, often I would end up being the square in the room — worrying about the re-styled TOHO-SCOPE, DayGlo green bumper (it’s an oscilloscope screen, which is a cathode ray tube, showing waveforms), or when in Oscilloscope’s first press release for “Wendy and Lucy,” Adam, the co-president of the company, referred to me and Michelle Williams hooking up as a real “Wu Banger” (it’s a joint sprinkled with crack).
Adam used his creative juices, his money and his influence to pass the power on to the filmmakers he represented — letting us have a huge say in how we both present and preserve our movies. That just seemed to come as naturally to him as keeping fun in the mix. The Beastie Boys’ rep for creating a great vibe is legendary. I’d heard about the basketball courts they set up behind their trailer at Lollapalooza and the coziness of their recording studio. Adam brought his scene-making skills to Oscilloscope’s headquarters, located way west on Canal Street. You take the elevator up to the 6th floor and the doors open onto a paneled wall full of oddball art. Make a left to the recording studio and straight ahead is the film office — a large loft, all wood and old glass — nothing extravagant. Kind of utilitarian with its desks full of young people in their suits and skirts (O’Scope dress code) in a semi-communal space. People working there know they are part of something special. The gentle buzz of creative energy was very much of Adam’s making — that strange combination of professionalism, creative ambition, fun and generosity all at once. A worker-friendly, artist-embracing, cool, non-exclusive, dog-friendly world. He was a totally unique captain and he ran a very groovy ship. Adam let you know you had a team behind you. And Oscilloscope isn’t just a company that distributes your films; it’s a place you become a part of.
The last time I spent with Adam was in a tiny chemotherapy room in Manhattan. I was there with my friend Dave Doernberg, whose chemo days happened to line up with Adam’s. It had been just a short time before that the three of us were together on a windy night on a beach in Venice for the opening of “Meek’s Cutoff.” Totally incredible to me that they are both gone. I’m very grateful to have gotten to experience Adam’s generosity and humor and to have had the chance to take a short ride with him.
Last night I dug up my emails and text messages with Adam and reread them all. The thing that hurts the most about his passing is I feel like there was so much more to be done with him. We were just getting started. This guy believed in us (Coatwolf Prods.), and he gave us a huge opportunity in showcasing our work to the world with “Bellflower.” It changed my life, and I will never forget it.
In just one year’s time I have a bunch of memories of Adam: dinner at the Salt Lick in Austin, TX; joyriding in the Medusa car with Evan and I during SXSW (which I have video of); the premiere of the hilarious “Fight for Your Right: Revisited” short film that he directed; the Oscilloscope “game night” party at their offices on Canal Street… These are just a few things that come to mind. I also have this image of him sporting a bad-ass cowboy hat stuck in my head.
You can be angry at the notion that age 47 is too young. But wow, if you step back and look at the amount of people he affected personally — those he influenced with his music, inspired with his charity work, everything he accomplished in his lifetime — he lived more in those years than most would in several lifetimes.
I am grateful I got to know him on a personal level and share in some good times, even if it were only for a short while.
Writer-director and producer, “The Exploding Girl”; Producer and writer-director, “Treeless Mountain”
So and I are torn over how to describe our feelings about Adam. So wants to honor his dedication to independent cinema, including our films, which are not exactly easy movies. I am obsessed over my impression of him as a gentle and wise soul vs. his public persona as MCA.
We’ve also been listening to the Beastie Boys and remembering the moment when we first heard each song. So recalls how she was too goth to really follow their early music, while I remember people who liked “License to Ill” used to pick on me at school. I actually mentioned this to Adam at one point. He kindly apologized, saying those songs were meant as a joke, but instead they ended up being embraced by jocks.
The first time we met Adam was at Sundance in 2000. We ran into him with a friend getting pizza, and nervously asked if he wanted to see my short film. To our surprise he actually showed up the next day. It was an honor to be sure, but could someone really love cinema so much that he’d show up to some stranger’s short at a morning screening?
Years later we saw Adam at a food court at the Toronto Film Festival which was showing So’s second feature, “Treeless Mountain.” Timidly, we recounted that we had met him before and asked if he might be able to see our film. He was in a hurry, but said he’d try. I don’t even think we got the name of the film out of our mouths. Just after, we ran up to our screening and one of the volunteers came to us and said, “MCA is watching your movie! I didn’t even ask him for a ticket, cause you know… he’s MCA!” Fortunately, Kelly Reichardt had recommended that he catch it. We were deeply honored that he selected the film as the first foreign-language addition to his family of films.
We remember the first trailer for “Treeless Mountain”: It starts in space. Lightning comes out. A HUGE BUZZING ELECTRICAL BLAZE CRACKLES as the Oscilloscope logo is unleashed. Then gentle music begins and two little Korean girls walk onto the screen. We mentioned to Adam that while we dug the logo, the “spirit” of the noise was a bit in conflict with the general approach of the film. He chuckled and took the sound out of the opening.
After picking up our next film, “The Exploding Girl,” Adam said that he hoped to support all of our work. His confidence in us is part of what kept us going.
Adam was a gentle spirit, a knowing and kind soul. But still he’s a force of nature in front of an audience with a microphone. That artistry, and his general sense of play, is what made him so impressive. He had a gift of impacting popular culture while supporting momentous causes. In between, he left his mark in so many other ways. One of our most prized possessions is a copy of Grand Royal Magazine on electronic music.
He was fun, smart, and he deeply believed in alternative cinema. His soul will be missed and cherished by us and the millions he touched through his work and devotion to the creative spirit.