It’s always a treat when great documentary filmmakers are as prolific as Don Argott and Demian Fenton are. Since their first feature, 2005’s Rock School, they’ve churned out another four films in only six years. Their highly engaging art world doc, The Art of the Steal, was one of my top 10 of 2010. And their surprisingly uplifting crack-addicted rocker film, Last Days Here, was listed among my picks for best docs to look for in 2012. And they’ve already unveiled their next film, the nuclear power expose, The Atomic States of America.
I’m excitedly anticipating that new doc, which is currently on the festival circuit, but for now I’m primarily excited that Last Days Here is finally hitting theaters this Friday (I saw it literally a year ago this week). The doc is about the fall and rise of little-known heavy metal legend Bobby Liebling, singer for the influential yet forgotten band Pentagram, and it’s the rare film of its kind that captivated and moved me.
This week I talked with Argott and Fenton about this transcending “rock doc,” the problems and benefits of nonfiction films being lumped into classifications and compared to narrative works, and how they’ve been so successful with such varied and obscure subject matter. Here is our conversation:
How did you guys find this subject and project?
FENTON: Don and I am both huge rock fans, heavy metal fans, and totally been digging into ‘70s rock. And when you start to dig into more of that second-tier ‘70s rock you run into Pentagram. I heard Pentagram, thought they were awesome, and when you do a little more digging you hear about the legendary Bobby Liebling. And you hear all these stories about how he’s maybe going to have his arms amputated because he was doing heroin so much. Or you hear that he died on stage at one point and was revived.
So I’d always heard about this guy, and I had a couple beers one night at a metal show outside of Philadelphia and met Pellet, which is Sean Pelletier, the guy in the film. We got into talking about what it would be like. He was in contact with Bobby, had been helping him for a little while with his career and trying to get the music out. We just started chatting about making a movie. We were just eager to make it on our own terms and we just started shooting a little bit.
I like that it’s as much a film about Sean as it is about Bobby. Was it always your intent to have these two levels to the doc?
DON ARGOTT: Early on when we started shooting with Bobby, the first seven, eight or nine tapes maybe were just Bobby and his parents, who we interviewed. Pellet was involved as someone on the other side of the camera, a guy who had this idea, and we were working with him and he was helping us out a little bit. It wasn’t until things started to come together that we realized how much Pellet was deeply entrenched in this story and that it also needed to be about him.
We had done some sit-down interviews with Pellet. He was filling in some of the blanks as far as Bobby’s history and some of the things he was involved with. Pellet was instrumental in getting Bobby’s music rereleased. But at that point we didn’t envision Pellet as a big character in the film. So that was a big turning point in the filmmaking process for us, when we realized that Pellet was really the guy pulling the strings and trying to make things happen. His story was just as vital.
FENTON: Like you say, it operates on two levels. Pellet, early on in the film, talks about Bobby being almost dead already, saying we need to get one more record in the history books. You start to realize there are two sets of goals in this film. Pellet has these goals that are music related, and Bobby has these goals that really, whether the music is there or not, to just live a life. He had been so beat up for so long. Most of the film follows those two trajectories until they come together around the hour mark, where they both need to realize what it is one another needs and how music plays or doesn’t play a part in that role.
That’s why for us this was way less of a rock doc and something more like Searching for Bobby Fischer, something with universal elements. So many people on the festival circuit have checked into this movie from various places, from 60-year-olds who don’t listen to heavy metal at all to people who totally love Pentagram.
It definitely transcended the rock doc genre for me, as someone who isn’t always a fan of all these films about aging rock stars who are now mentally unstable or washed up or whatever. A lot of them are all the same. There’s also now a popular doc that just premiered at Sundance titled Searching for Sugar Man, which I haven’t seen but wonder how it will compare.
ARGOTT: Yeah. We didn’t see that at Sundance this year, but I heard about it and as soon as I read the description I said, “That sounds vaguely like the film we made.” You know, there are a lot of these types of films out there and there will be more for sure. These old rockers who are obscure, there’s always someone who’s intrigued by their story and wants to make a film about them.
I feel like we went into this always with the idea that we were not going to make a rock doc. We weren’t interested in making a Pentagram historical documentary. Someone can do it, and I’m sure they’ll do a great job, but that wasn’t the film we were interested in making. It took us a very long time to understand the type of film that this was going to be, but it paid off in our waiting for the story to unfold the way it did. We knew we had something that was very different than the “rock docs” that are out there.
It is tough on the marketing of this film. I haven’t read one review that doesn’t mention Anvil!, which is fine, that’s what people do, they want to lump it into a category. And I like the Anvil film a lot. But I think this is totally different on just about every level. It’s a shame that things have to be put into these boxes and categorized in a certain way. That’s just the nature of how it goes. But to me this has always been more about relationships and life and bigger existential things than it has ever been about a typical rock doc of a guy trying to get his life back together.
FENTON: I think with all of our films, from day one when we sit down with them, whether it’s The Art of the Steal or The Atomic States of America, which is about nuclear power, or a film like this, you want to boil it down and get to the root of the universal elements that everyone can check into. There’s the commonality where people across the board who don’t feel like, “I’m going to jump into this movie about an old rocker,” I guarantee you when they come out of this film there’s something they can relate to in it.
In addition to the Anvil! comparison, people like to relate your films to fiction stuff. Rock School was called a documentary version of School of Rock, and The Art of the Steal is like a nonfiction heist film. So when you’re putting your films together, do you think at all about narrative, or fiction film, structure? And do you ever look to other kinds of movies as guidance for how you want to lay out your story?
ARGOTT: When we structure our films they have a three-act structure to them. Within that structure there are plot points at 30 minutes and 60 minutes, and at the hour mark is a turning point. A lot of filmmakers do that whether with fiction or nonfiction. In terms of stories, we’ll always watch movies while we’re making a movie just for inspiration or ideas. Dem has already pointed out that the closest thing — certainly we talked about it — was Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s got that vibe.
Pellet is really the guy who’s trying to pull all this stuff together. And Bobby is, at the point that we find him in the film, not doing a whole lot. So you need someone, as a device, to be doing something. It wasn’t until later on that Bobby, because of Pellet and other forces in his life, started doing stuff. That’s when we realized how valuable Pellet was going to be as a character in helping to keep the journey moving.
FENTON: Yeah, it’s just storytelling. I love that sometimes we’ll sit down and watch fiction films when thinking about how to structure our docs.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that Bobby is still alive. But I don’t want to spoil exactly how the film ends, although I want to ask how surprised you guys were with the direction the story ended up going in. You must have initially been thinking that you’d be filming his actual last days.
FENTON: We didn’t want to do that. After the first shoot we didn’t want to come back and document this guy destroying himself. And we often say it, we would never ever have dreamed of where he ended up. If this were written in a script it would be sent back for revisions because it’s just too wacky.
ARGOTT: No one would believe it.
FENTON: It’s so unbelievable. There are many times when we felt this film was going to end up nowhere. There was never a time when we thought it would end up where it did.
And you must have had other concerns while filming Bobby at his worst. Did you guys have any ethical dilemmas or fears?
FENTON: It wasn’t something we had a lot of debate about. We’re first and foremost pretty ethical when it comes to things, and we’re also very honest when it comes to making films. Clearly, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction film, there’s always going to be the thing about how much is too much. And that line is subjective depending on who you talk to. I’m sure there are people out there who say, “Oh, you didn’t show enough drug use.” We were certainly conscious of it. But that’s Bobby’s world and it’s very important for us to not go into it with any judgments placed on it. We’re not going to say, “Hey, maybe you shouldn’t do that on camera.”
When you’re making a documentary and you’re getting to know characters and getting them to trust you, that’s a long process. For Bobby, he just dove right in. That first day we shot with him it was warts and all. He was smoking crack and knew there was a camera there. It was one of those situations where you have somebody willing to be that honest and show how vulnerable he is early on. That’s an honorable thing and a pretty exciting thing for documentarians, because sometimes you never get that kind of trust. Sometimes it takes days or weeks or months to gain that level of trust. For Bobby it was there right off the bat.
Do you know if he has any regrets now about how he let himself be portrayed on camera?
FENTON: I don’t think he’s regretful of how he was portrayed. I think he has regrets about how he’s lived his life. So when he sees the film, that’s tough stuff for him to watch. As it would be for anyone with a little bit of perspective. As a document of a period of time in his life, if we had walked in there and not documented him using drugs, that would not have told the true story of what was happening in his life at the time. So it’s not a portrayal thing. I’m so proud of him for where he ended up. I remember times when we sat in the edit room and we would hit the first frame we captured, where you see him first in the film, and then jump to the last frame, and you just can’t believe it. I’m so proud of him for that and I’m glad the journey is captured.
Tell me about your new film, The Atomic States of America, which has already debuted just as Last Days is about to be released.
ARGOTT: It just premiered at Sundance 2012, and it’s a film based on this memoir by Kelly McMasters called Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town. The book is about Kelly growing up in this small town in Long Island and realizing she lived in the shadow of three working nuclear reactors that had leaked into the ground water and there’s all these unexplained cancer clusters in the area. Rare cancers and things. We read the book and were really moved by it, and at the time when we were shooting it in 2010 nobody was really talking much about nuclear power or the issue in general. So we decided to extend from her small town to reactor communities around the country and we found a lot of similarities and a lot of amazing characters that were all battling the same thing, asking questions and not getting sufficient answers.
We were working on the film for a year and then Fukushima happened in the middle of it. And that changed the entire film for us because that event changed everything in terms of how people thought of nuclear power, what it meant to live in a reactor community here. The film is really a great document of the debate before Fukushima and post Fukushima. I’m really proud of the film and anxious to get it out there. Now is a good time to be having this debate about nuclear energy, especially when it’s being touted as a clean and green alternative to fossil fuels.
That reminds me that I wanted to talk about how all your films are about such different subjects and stories, aside from the two involving music of course. So what is it that draws you to a project?
ARGOTT: That’s probably really good in one way and probably really bad from a marketing standpoint, that we don’t make the same kind of film. But for us it keeps things fresh and interesting, and we get to move in really interesting circles and learn about things and dive into things that we wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to. Music stuff is definitely our comfort zone. With Rock School and Last Days Here, they definitely play into things we’re really passionate about. But just being able to tell really great stories is equally as important. With the Barnes [Art of the Steal] we got into the art world, with Atomic States we got into nuclear power, and with our second film, which not a lot of people know, called Two Days in April, we got involved with the NFL draft. We have range, I guess.
Is it a conscious choice for you guys to look into subjects or topics that people aren’t really thinking about, such as how you mentioned nobody was talking about nuclear power when you started Atomic States?
ARGOTT: As storytellers, there’s always that challenge of finding a story that hasn’t really been told before, finding this hidden story in a part of the world nobody’s really paying attention to. That’s definitely something that intrigues us, especially in the business that we work in. There tends to be a lot of documentaries about a certain subject, i.e. the War in Iraq or Afghanistan. There are 40 or 50 titles. If you’re going to do another one of those, you’re going to have to find another great story that hasn’t been told before. So the stories that really intrigue us are the ones that are a little bit hidden and that we can put our personal touch on and our creative spin on it and get it out into the world. That’s exciting.
FENTON: You’re also talking to the folks who made Rock School. It was our first film that came out, and we started way before [School of Rock] started, and then halfway or three-quarters of the way through with production we hear about this fiction film that’s coming out. So we might be a little more sensitive to that. Even though no matter what we seem to get pigeonholed.
ARGOTT: “If you like Anvil! you’ll love Last Days Here! If you saw China Syndrome, you’ll love Atomic States of America!” But what are you going to do? I totally understand why people make the comparisons, but it does get a little tiresome when you’re constantly compared to something that’s not necessarily a great comparison.
Given your productivity over the past few years I assume you’re already working on another doc. What’s next for you guys?
ARGOTT: We’re going back to music a little bit. We’re working with this heavy metal band called Lamb of God. They’re embarking on a world tour that we’re documenting. The film is less about the band and more about their fans around the world. Places including more troubled spots like Israel and India and Mexico. We’re in the early stages of shooting but we’re really excited about it. We’re just happy to keep working, frankly.
“Last Days Here” opens in NYC this Friday, March 2, 2012.