The Reel Life Podcast with Dan Napoli
SEASON 01, EPISODE 01
Director Taylor Morden
The Last Blockbuster / Pick It Up: Ska In the ‘90s
Today’s guest is Oregon based filmmaker Taylor Morden. Taylor’s released two films in the last two years. Pick It Up: Ska in the 90s, narrated by musician Tim Armstrong, and his latest film : The Last Blockbuster, this past December.
The Last Blockbuster is a fun look at the once omni-present Blockbuster video chain, and how the last Blockbuster Video store in America, located in Bend, Oregon, has become a loveable underdog it’s community and around the world. The film has been critically acclaimed and recently received coverage on CNN and the New York Times.
Dan visits with Taylor on a day his other film – Pick It Up is back in the conversation as the internet has recently found out that acclaimed actor Oscar Issacs – famous for his role in Star Wars as Poe Dameron – was in punk-ska band in early 2000s.
Read the Full Transcript
What makes a real life movement or story interesting enough to become a documentary film? More importantly, how does someone even do that? Let’s find out.
Dan Napoli is an award-winning documentary director, and also the head of creative and post-production for Hurrdat Films. He down with other film directors and discusses the ins and outs of how their latest project went, from real world events to the film reel, in this limited series, monthly podcast, It’s Real Life, with Dan Napoli.
Today’s guest is Oregon-based filmmaker Taylor Morden. Taylor’s released two films in the last two years, Pick It Up: Ska in the ’90s, narrated by musician, Tim Armstrong, and his latest film, The Last Blockbuster, this past December.
The Last Blockbuster is a fun look at the once omnipresent Blockbuster chain, and how the last Blockbuster Video store in America, located in Bend, Oregon, has become a lovable underdog in its community and around the world. The film has been critically acclaimed and recently received coverage on CNN and the New York Times.
Dan visits with Taylor on a day his other film, Pick It Up, is back in the conversation, as the Internet has recently found out that acclaimed actor Oscar Isaacs, famous for his role in Star Wars, was in a punk ska band in the early 2000s.
I am super stoked to have gentleman who is produced a two of my favorite documentary films that I’ve watched during the pandemic, Taylor Morden. I originally was going to mostly focus on Last Blockbuster, and just dip a little bit back to Pick It Up …
After some stuff that I had seen the last couple days, man. Poe Dameron was in a ska band?
That’s incredible. When you did Pick It Up: Ska in the ’90s, did you legitimately know about that, and reach out to him?
Yes, yes. So that, it’s huge online right now, I think some of the bigger outlets picked it up. But a few years ago, it was circulating too, I think, just on Reddit, and a couple of the ska groups.
It was known at the time that Oscar Isaac, Poe Dameron, had been in this ska punk, early 2000s band, just like the bands I was in, and that he was the guitar player-singer, and they had played Warped tour, I think.
Immediately, my mind was like … I’m a huge Star Wars fan. Just for a frame of reference, there’s a Grogu behind me and a Stormtrooper over there, but a huge Star Wars fans, and a huge ska fan, so that news hit me like, “Oh, he’s one of us.”
This guy who flies X-wing fighters is also a ska guy. Actually, when we were attempting, there was a window before we landed on Tim Armstrong to narrate the movie, where we were just going out to actors.
We went pretty far down the road of talking to Oscar Isaac’s representation to get him to narrate our movie, which, in hindsight, may not have been great, because no one would have made the connection. But I would have known.
And I would have known, “Oh, Oscar Isaac? He’s this ska guy.” It’s not just like, “We got the guy from Star Wars to talk about ska.”
Right. No, that’s super crazy. So yeah, but sorry to sort of dive right in. But yeah, so I want to back up a bit. I want to see what your personal connection is to both of those topics.
Because it’s like, I know myself as a documentary filmmaker, you come from, in some way, shape or form. Being interested and/or connected to the material that you’re working with. Both for Pick It Up, and Last Blockbuster, I’m interested in where you came in on those things.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean, as you know, when you make a documentary, you live with whatever the subject matter is for years, and then, I’m assuming, for the rest of your life, if it’s any kind of a hit, and anybody watches it.
I’m still talking about stuff I worked on years and years ago. For me, it’s like, if I’m going to put in hundreds and hundreds of hours over the course of years and years, it’s got to be something that I care about, something that matters to me.
With the ska documentary, it was, I had finished my first movie, which is another music doc in 2016, 2017. It came out, and basically I was like, “Well now, I’m a documentary filmmaker, now I can make movies. I’ve done it, so I’m going to do something bigger.” I did a Facebook post that was like, “I’m going to make another movie. What should it be on?”
And it was overwhelming from everyone I know, that was like, “Well, do one on ska, you idiot, you play ska music. You’ve lived it for 20 years, and if anybody can make that movie, you can probably take a swing at it.”
So that’s what I did. And the person who suggested it was my old bass player from a ska band from the early 2000s. And when he suggested it, I was like, “Well, yeah, that’s huge, we’re going to have to narrow it down a little bit, because it’s too big of a topic for a 90-minute movie.”
Also, I had done my first movie almost entirely by myself. It was a small topic, an indie band that wasn’t really doing much anymore. So it was easy for me to wrap my brain around that whole thing, and produce and direct, and shoot and edit, and all that.
But for this one, I was like, “That topic is too big. So if I’m going to make it, you have to make it with me. You have to be my producer.”
And he’s a music guy that doesn’t know what film producing is. But I just told him, “Here’s the tasks you can do to help me.”
He and I spent years making that movie, but it was out of love. I love this music, and the same thing with the Blockbuster documentary. I grew up renting movies, I grew up going to Blockbuster, but also going to the mom and pop video store, to get the cool indie movies that Blockbuster didn’t have.
It was a big part of my life, growing up, and my teenage years and college years. That one is more of a real time, it’s happening now. It’s not a historical documentary. It is, because of Blockbuster Video, the rise and fall.
But it was also, I had moved to this small town in Oregon five years ago. When I found out there was a Blockbuster Video here, and that it was still up and running, it blew my mind. I had so many questions.
It was instantly, “How are they still open? Who is shopping there? What is going on? Where do they get their movies from? What is this place?” Again, I had just finished my first movie.
I started both the docs, kind of at the same time, and was working on both at the same time for the past few years. But I fancied myself a filmmaker at that moment, and walked into Blockbuster with a camera, and just said, “Hey, is it okay if I start filming here?” Then things just sort of happened.
But that one has taken, it’ll be four years, in a couple months, since I started it. And it just came out. To sit with something for that long is, it’s a good thing I love movies.
And I love going to Blockbuster Video, because I’m stuck now going there every week, dropping off more DVDs for them, or movie posters, or shooting content for Instagram or TikTok, or whatever it is I’m supposed to be doing. So I can’t imagine doing that with a topic that I don’t love.
So man, you hit on a Pandora’s box of stuff I want to get into there, that’s super cool. One of the things I’m really interested in, and you hit on it.
How is your approach coach different for an ongoing narrative, in a way, an ongoing topic, the Blockbuster doc versus the historical doc? Then a sub-question, and then I’ll just let you roll out, as I do my worst Jack Black in High Fidelity.
What did you start playing for in an end with, with The Last Blockbuster? What was, in terms of, as in your shooting?
I know at one point, they’re down to four nationally, or somewhere in there. I’m curious, in that kind of context, how you personally approached those two different elements?
Yeah. I mean, that’s a great question, because they are so different, doing a historical doc versus doing a real time doc. It’s like night and day.
With the historical one, I’m getting most of my B-roll and stuff from archival materials. And that’s coming from the documentary subjects, or old news footage, or whatever.
Part of that happened with Blockbuster, too, because we did tell an archival story, but a big half of the movie takes place in real time, and it’s about this last Blockbuster. For that, it was very much, so I had a producing partner on that movie, as well, mainly because I had another big topic, and I thought, “I can’t do this by myself.”
There’s a guy in town here, who was one of the only other film professionals who lives in this small town. I was hanging out with him early in the process and said, “Hey, I have this documentary going, I could really use some help.”
Basically he and I, for the past four years, have kept a camera bag packed with sound equipment, and by the front door. They know at Blockbuster to call us if anything’s happening, like if a famous person pops in, or if they’re doing an event, or if somebody’s in there for …
We got somebody in the movie from Spain, who was visiting, who had flown from Spain, just to come to Blockbuster Video. And that kind of thing, just, it happens because we were just ready to go for years and years and years.
That’s different with a historical, with a talking heads historical doc, like the ska documentary. That’s planned. That’s like, “Okay, we’re going to do this interview on this day and I’m going to get the archival material, and, oh, there’s a constant that I can go shoot for some modern day music footage. Great. And those are all on the calendar.”
But because they were both happening at the same time, that would be, “Okay, April 4th, I’ve got this shoot for the ska doc. But oh, I got a phone call that on April 5th, I got to be back at Blockbuster, because that’s the day they’re getting all the Russell Crow memorabilia from Alaska,” or whatever the thing is.
So it was very different, because one you could plan for, and one you couldn’t. And the second part of your question, about how our plans evolved, making The Last Blockbuster, it was very different, yeah. When I started making that in 2017, there were 12 Blockbuster Videos left.
I was just a guy who thought he could make movies, and had a camera and said, “Can I come film here?” They said, “Sure.” No one had ever asked them before, because they weren’t the last one. It wasn’t a big deal yet.
So I just started gathering footage, and I didn’t really know. When I found out there were 12, I thought, “Maybe I’ll go to all 12, and we’ll make a bunch of shorts that are about these different towns that still have Blockbuster Videos.” I really didn’t know.
It didn’t seem urgent, because there were still 12. So I called all the places, and started talking to the managers, and tried to figure out, “Okay, well most of them are in Texas, Oregon and Alaska. I could maybe get all the Oregon ones filmed, but I didn’t have a budget, or anything.”
So I wasn’t going to just fly to Alaska, to work on this thing about 12 Blockbuster Videos. And it wasn’t until they started … Well, basically I would call and say, “Can I come to the one in, in Dallas, Texas?”
And the guy would say, “Well, you could, but we’re closing next weekend, and it’s going to be gone.” And then the same thing happened in Portland, Oregon here. So I started to get this feeling, we were running out of time, and it was urgent.
That’s when I brought in more help, and started taking it seriously. And Zeke, the guy who had partnered with the movie, he’s more of a writer. He comes from the world of narrative and television and film writing.
So he kind of came in and said, “Well, if this is going to be the last Blockbuster, or at least one of them, here’s what kind of narrative we could do.”
We wrote an outline, as if it was going to be a film about a store becoming the last blockbuster. And then we got very, very lucky, that things happened that fit our outline, and …
The serendipity that goes with that …
I think, sometimes, is lost on folks. I don’t know if you’ve found this experience. I always tell people that it’s the 80-20 rule almost, maybe. I’m going to go in with 80% of, I think where I know what we’re going, but because it’s not done yet, meaning reality.
You don’t know exactly where that’s going to go. That’s really interesting, then, about your partner on that, Zeke. Is that the first time that you’ve worked with somebody from a, not as much a documentary standpoint, but somebody from more narrative?
Yeah. Technically, I started that as my second feature because I started it before the ska doc. The first one, I did pretty much by myself. People helped out with things, but it was my project.
This one I had for Blockbuster, I had this partner who came from the Hollywood world, and he wrote on TV shows, and did all that. Then on the ska doc, my filmmaking partner on that came from the music world, and had no film experience, and it was very different on each one.
But I don’t think I could have made two movies at the same time without those people. I had somebody for whom the movie was their main project, where I was split down the middle.
We would literally shoot back to back, because of the budgets being relatively low. We had pretty successful Kickstarter campaigns, but it’s not like we had extra money.
So I went to New York once, and I shot the New York interviews for both movies in the same five days. So, split the money.
You got, would it be, you got the Lloyd Kaufman, as well as then, the toaster stuff?
Yup. Lloyd Kaufman and the Slackers were on the same day.
Yeah, yeah. Wow, man. That’s, that’s awesome.
And the same in LA, and even so much so, that the guy from Smash Mouth is in both movies, because we just asked him about video renting after Ska, and we thought he had some great things to say about it.
That makes sense. Okay. I mean, his comment was totally solid, but that was the one, for a second. I was like, “Ah, the dude from Smash Mouth is in this, too. Okay, that’s cool. I just sort of put the two and two together.
Matt Pinfield from MTV was in both, but he ended up getting cut out of the last Blockbuster. He’s on the DVD.
Oh, no way.
He was actually in my first movie, too. It was going to be a Matt Pinfield trilogy.
What was your very first piece on, then? I don’t know that I’m familiar with that work, to be honest.
Oh, it’s a music doc about a band called the Refreshments that had a hit song in 1996.
Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers, is what-
…Yeah, yeah, yeah.
So you’re familiar. Yeah, you should check it out. It’s the story of how they were a one-hit wonder band in the ’90s, but then as the music industry changed, they became this independent band.
They were one of the first bands to put out music digitally, and figure out how to be independent, and have a mailing list, and do all this cool stuff. Now they have a music festival every year in Mexico that gets thousands and thousands of people at it, because Friends has gone to that.
Dude. It’s funny. I have some buddies that are a little bit more, you would say, whatever, musicphiles, the type that are almost, “Yeah, oh, Roger Klein and the Peacemakers.”
I know you’re thinking the Refreshments, but they’re almost, “They’re really, really awesome now,” almost apologizing for the-
Right. No, they’re great. That movie, I was kind of testing the waters of, “Can I make a feature?” If you’re making a music doc, Ska is huge, and there’s a ton of people in that movie. But if you do it about one band, you just need four or five people, you need that access. And we got it.
I spent a couple years doing that, hanging out with those guys. And because of that movie, I mean, it didn’t make me money, really, but it did better than break even. It never made minimum wage, but it made tips.
But that fueled me. That said, “Okay, I can make it, I can put it out.” We did some film festivals. We did a little indie theatrical run.
I sold it very DIY, because I come from playing in bands, and stuff. All I knew for that one, all I knew about film distribution, and the whole world of indie film and putting things out was what I knew from bands, which is, you make DVDs, and you stack them up in your garage, and you sell them to people through the mail.
Then, when you go to a film festival, you set up a merch table, right? You have posters and T-shirts, and … right? I’ve always treated it like being in a band, because it’s all I knew.
I just mailed out some copies of the Ska movie yesterday, because that’s just part of it for me. It’s very much, if I’m the person who made this, I’m going to sell it that way. But it did well enough to keep me going and make these other two movies.
No, I mean, I definitely feel like I come from a similar … I worked two different stints on Warped tour, ’99 and 2002, 2001, I think it was, pardon me.
So yeah, there’s very much that. It’s like, “I’m going to be at the merch table after the 3:15 set on the Kent Stage.” I want to go to The Last Blockbuster for a second, and I want to get your take on this.
The film has … I’ve been trying to find the correct adjective for two days, and I don’t know if this is the one, but it’s not meant to be dismissive.
Because I think it’s positive, but there’s almost a whimsicalness to it. Not that the ska doc is crazy heavy, or anything like that, but I really enjoyed that.
And I think it’s especially interesting, injecting that in. Because Blockbuster, at one time, was the corporate giant killing the whole concept, right?
So I’m just kind of curious. Was that a super conscious choice out of the gate? Where did that come from? Did it just evolve?
Yeah, it was super conscious and I try to think that all three of my movies have that same kind of tone.
In the ska doc, which you’ve seen, and in Last blockbuster, there’s a lot of information, But there’s also a lot of jokes. That’s just what I like in a documentary. I’ll watch an informative, a true crime one, or, “This is what kind of foods you should eat if you want to be healthy,” those docs. And they’re good.
But for me, and regardless of what other people like, I prefer a Super Size Me to a Forks Over Knives, tonally. If I’m going to learn something, make it funny.
That’s just been my mantra going into all of these. With Blockbuster in particular, I knew from the very beginning that we’re probably going to include this corporate history of the rise and fall of Blockbuster Video.
There’s going to be business people in our movie. And they’re going to talk business, and it’s going to interesting to people who like that.
But then, I wouldn’t like watching that movie, unless every single one of those business things was followed up by a joke, or some kind of silly punchline. And even so much so, that we got Lauren Lapkus to narrate it, because we originally had kind of a dry, informative narration that walks you through all of this.
“And then there were this many stores, and at one point, there was this. And then they made this bad decision, followed by this bad decision.”
We were like, “Well, if we can get somebody funny to put a spin on all that, it’ll at least lift the tone up to be, ‘Yeah, I learned something, but I was smiling when I learned it.'” That’s kind of what we were going for.
No, because I think one of the ones that jumped out to me. And I’m curious if you feel like sharing of how much of it was freelance improv, or did you guys write it, write it out?
But it stuck to me, the transition to the ’80s, where her narration says something. I’m paraphrasing, but it’s like, “Cue ’80s music, but we got no budget for that, man, so we’re going to do this.” I get it.
Did that come from you guys? Or did you cast her, if you will, to narrate, and give her some leeway to inject some things into it?
No, that was all written. Like I said, Zeke, he comes from writing, and he comes from comedy. He was a writer on the Weird Al Show, and Dexter’s Lab, Power Puff girls.
That was all written, because by the time we got Lauren to narrate, the whole movie was edited to the temp narration. There wasn’t a lot of room. She did a little bit of changing a few words around to fit her tone. But for the most part, that was all written.
Because again, from the very beginning, we were like, “It’s better if it’s funny,” and we’ve gotten some criticism for that, and I don’t care. Some reviews are like, “I like the business part and I don’t know why they have Ron Funches in their movie.” It’s because Ron Funches is hilarious, and I love his laugh.
Yeah, I saw. I think it was the Times, the New York Times was like … I thought it almost sounded like a backhanded compliment, which is honestly, not what I was trying to do about saying, whimsical. Because I did mean that as a compliment.
No, no, no. And I take it as a compliment, because it’s what we were going for.
The Times said something, I can’t remember what, to the effect of, “A good movie, but not …”
The word they used was “inconsequential.” “Pleasant, but inconsequential.” I’m like, “What did you want from this story? What consequences should we have gone for, New York Times? It’s a story about a small town Blockbuster Video.”
Yeah, that’s a good-
The stakes are pretty low.
… I thought it fit really nicely. The thing that I really appreciated about it too is, I love comedy, but that’s not my tone, as a creative. So that was awesome to see that. I was like, “Man, that’s fantastic.”
I would have never, I probably wouldn’t have approached it that way, because that’s not what I … Because, if you go back to the ska doc, there’s more punk hardcore, of my peanut butter, and the ska is like the chocolate, the little bit that goes in, or however it’s [crosstalk 00:25:27]-
… That’s what I always loved about … Ska’s just so fun.
Yeah. There’s an expression, I think it’s like, “It’s okay for punk rockers to have a little bit of sky every now and then as a treat.”
You’re hearing, “Okay, you can have the sugar cereal this morning, that’s okay.”
Right, right. Just once in awhile. You don’t want to overdo it.
Let’s talk for a second, while we’re kind of flipping back to Pick It Up: Ska in the ’90s. You mentioned earlier, the piece is narrated by Tim Armstrong. For listeners, this is the vocalist for the band Rancid.
I loved that comment that you mentioned about Oscar Isaac, because you’re talking in terms of casting the right person, and not just a big name that maybe doesn’t sort of connect to it. So I’m curious if you walk us down the path a little bit.
I know you said you were pretty far with his people, but how’d you get to Tim? Were you thinking about some other people? I was just kind of curious on that.
Yeah. I think one of our Kickstarter Stretch goals was, we’ll get a celebrity narrator if we get to this amount. So I felt committed to getting somebody that people had heard of. And I went down the list of actors that I knew had some tie to Scott, so Oscar Isaac was on that list.
Patton Oswalt had just done a hilarious ska improv rant on his sitcom, AP Bio, about the Pietasters and stuff. So we reached out to him, and one or two others. We had an offer out to Gwen Stefani.
I think Patton had passed. But we were in talks, still, with everybody else, and Tim Armstrong, I had been trying to get ahold of, just to interview about Operation Ivy. He’s the godfather of ska punk, had already spoken about how important that was, in an interview for another documentary about East Bay punk. It’s called Turn It Around.
I’m sure I’ve seen it.
I’m not sure why, but I think he didn’t like the way he looked in it, or something. He just didn’t want to do on camera interviews anymore. At least, that’s what he told me, and talking to him was a trip for me.
I just got a call one day from a California number, and when you’re making movies, you answer every California number that calls. You say, “Hello?” and it was, “Hey, this is Tim from Operation IV and Rancid.” I knew from Hey, because of his voice, it’s so distinct, who it was.
He introduced himself like that, and we just started talking about the movie, and he’s like, “Yeah, I don’t really want to do an interview, but do you have a narrator yet?”
I was, “Well, no, we’re talking. We’re trying to figure it out.” He said, “Can I audition?” I was like, “Let me talk to my producer, and just get right back to you.”
I called Ray, and I was, “We should have Tim, right? It’s perfect, right?” He was like, “Yeah, it’s perfect.”
We called him back, and said, “You’re hired, you don’t have to audition.” And that was it. He has a recording studio, so he was able to record it his own files and send them to us.
But he was super supportive too. Before he would fully commit, he wanted me to come down to LA, and basically vet the project, make sure I knew what I was talking about, that I was really into the project.
So I got to hang out with Tim Armstrong at his studio for a couple of days, and go through all his Operation Ivy photos. He let me play the Operation Ivy guitar, but it’s left-handed, so it was awkward, because he’s left-handed, but it was just super cool.
That’s part of what I love the most about making these movies, and why, again, it’s so important that it’s a topic that I love is because, that was my job that week, was just to go hang out with Tim at his studio, talk about ska music, which I love, and he loves. I would have paid a lot of money to do that, but instead, that’s my job. So it’s pretty awesome.
Dude. I think he’s a really good casting, in the way, like … It’s that fine line? I mean, I obviously, because he’s Tim Armstrong.
I mean, there’s that fine line, I think of … You want your narrative to help drive and lend credibility, but you don’t want them to so overshadow, or what you were saying with the Oscar Isaacs thing of, if most people don’t know that connection, right? Like, “Why are they doing this?”
Yeah. I mean, I think, if he had agreed to do it, we have added a thing, we would have added to the narration a line about, “I was in a ska band,” and showed a clip of his ska band …
Is the only way that would have made sense. Then it wouldn’t have just come out in the news this week. It would have been a thing since the movie came out, but yeah, I think you’re right.
Having Tim as the narrator, we get a lot of for it, because his voice is kind of hard to understand, and he’s not known for speaking well. But the people who get it, the connection, and the why of it all, it makes perfect sense. And I think he does a great performance. He really put effort in, and gave us different takes, and tried.
He thought of it as a vocal performance, like he’s singing a song, so that the professionalism was great, but we still get … I mean, half of the negative comments we get are, “Why did they have Tim Armstrong narrating? You can’t understand a word he says.”
But you think about it. I mean, I can’t imagine that you’re that film narrated by Ron Burgundy, or though maybe that plays into the humor, but that classic, you know what I mean? It would just pass so … I mean, he’s super iconic. I thought he did a great job.
One of the last things on Pick It Up, and then I want to jump back to The Last Blockbuster, but because it’s actually a section, I thought he did some of his best work in, I loved the way that you guys treated the backstory of reggae coming out of ska, that whole thing a lot of people didn’t know.
I love how you guys treated the story, Tim’s delivery, but then also how you guys treated the visuals for it, with the illustrations. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came together, and how you landed on that?
Yeah. The animation is one of my favorite parts in our doc, and that kind of came about … Well, in that section, it was twofold. There are archival photos from that time, and we went to license them, and I think it’s the Jamaican government, or somebody who owns the copyrights, and it was just going to be prohibitively expensive.
They wanted so much money for each photo, and based on how many seconds it was on screen. And it’s a long, it’s like, it’s a five-minute segment or a three-minute segment, because there’s a lot of history to get through.
So we couldn’t really afford that archival in there. And there’s no fair use existing footage, because it’s so specific, it’s in the hands of this one entity. So that was part of it.
But also, ska, ’90s ska is this colorful, bright, cartoony kind of thing, when you think about the Reel Big Fish, and the Aquabats, in particular, who have a cartoon, it’s just, that aesthetic lends itself to the music. And it’s huge in the background of cartoons, even to this day, on Nickelodeon, and Adult Swim, and all that. Ska and cartoons go hand in hand.
So very early on, I thought we should get an animator, who can do, not only this history segment, but there’s bits throughout that are animated. And I went, I forget where, but some website where you find creative people, and you look at their resumes.
I had picked out five animators, and I was going to contact them all and get quotes, and, “I’m just a lonely saxophone player, waiting for the fourth wave of ska.” And I was like, “Well, I’m not going to contact the other four,” I mean, because I had already liked her work.
Then, when I read her bio, I was like, “Okay, this is going to work out.” And she was amazing, and we couldn’t really afford her, she went above and beyond.
We probably could have afforded just that history segment, and she did all the other animation, she put in the extra hours, because she wanted it to be good, too.
I know she’s done a bunch of festivals, too, with that history segment as a standalone animated short, because it does work. It’s the history of ska up through the ’90s basically, but she was great.
And then, the writer? I’m no historian, everything that I know about ska came from playing it, and the conversations I had for the movie.
So we got this woman, Heather, who’s in the movie as historian, but also after her interview, we were just, “We’re going to have these narrated bits written. Can you write them? Because what you’re talking about. And also, when we finish our movie, can you watch it, and make sure we don’t get anything wrong?”
Then she was hired as the writer for the movie. I mean, she’s written five books on the subject, so pretty much the authority. So we got really lucky that we had really talented people, who were also ska fans, to help us put it all together.
I thought it lended a ton of credibility, and just immediately elevated … I was like, “Oh, man.” Because I think, over the years, just less as a filmmaker, as a fan, but it’s definitely gotten worse, as I’m a filmmaker, I get really excited about a band documentary.
And you’re like, “Ah, I love this band and I love the subject matter. But it’s just, it’s really not the execution isn’t …” You look at it from a different lens as people who do this now.
But that was definitely a moment that’s fairly early on, that I was like, “Oh wow, okay. I feel like we’re going to be on a pretty legitimate ride.”
Well, I’m glad you felt that way. I hope it was a legitimate ride. We tried our best.
That was a super solid piece. I’m really interested, a couple of things that you had talked about, too. How big did you scale up, just in terms of your team of collaborators to Pick It Up, versus your first piece on the Refreshments?
And then, sort of a sub-question, because man, you’re doing all of this at the same time. I know you’ve kind of split, you’re here, you’re at the top of the triangle, and you’ve got a co-producer on each.
But how are you guys handling all of the producer work that so many people don’t see and think about, where you’re talking about of, “Oh God, do I need to reach out to the Jamaican government to get photo … ” Are you, and just the other two partners, you guys all just handling that yourselves?
Did you eventually bring somebody, and then, were there … So I guess I’m triple layering you, man, I’m sorry, but on the Blockbuster, was there a whole bunch of extra ones I’m sure you had to deal with?
I’m not sure, but I’m curious. Did you have to deal with Dish? Can you speak on that stuff a bit?
Yeah, there was a lot. Obviously, there was a lot to do on all three movies that I’ve done. I mean, anybody who’s done any filmmaking, even a short, knows that the role of a producer is ambiguous, and it’s insane, and it’s the most amount of work and it’s crazy.
When you’re trying to direct and produce, and sometimes run a camera, and set up the microphones and all the things, and do some of the editing, and all this, it’s just a lot. But I do have a pretty good producer brain, in that I can keep in my head the running list of what needs to be done for each project.
What was great with having so many solid collaborators was yes, I am keeping that list in my head. But I was usually able to hand things off.
On the Blockbuster one. I had Zeke, who I could say, “Okay, we’ve got to get, I’ve got to get these music clearance paperwork things done. Can you work on that? And I’m going to clean up the edit of that part in the third act.”
On the ska one, it was the same thing. I handed off tasks that were finite, that were like, “Can you do this?” And then that’ll be done.”
You mentioned the pyramid and branching off. I was keeping track to make sure everything got done for the most part, but I didn’t have to actually physically do it like I did on my first movie. And some of the stuff never, never got done.
I learned about cue sheets after that first movie. So I just submitted that this year, to the organizations, but things like that, and subtitles, I just got from my first movie, so that it could go up on Filmhub, and just things I didn’t know about.
But yeah, there was a lot to do. And there’s just, when you have such a small team, there’s just all these things that you don’t think about that come up, that are like, “Yeah, we do have to negotiate that deal for whatever contract, to make sure you get that release back from this person, and make sure you do that.”
But you’re also booking the next shoot, and working on the creative, and the edits and the music, and the color grading. It’s a lot, but that’s kind of the fun of it.
It’s like a giant puzzle. And you get to, if you have people helping to put pieces together, then you can make a thing.
Now, I mean, we had a similar with any distro on our films. I, mean the sheet, some of the sheets that got back from Gravitas. “I mean, I’ve heard of this, but I don’t know what this thing is, okay?” But yeah, it’s a, that’s a whole ‘nother deal, so yeah.
We talked about the most current, we talked about The Last Blockbuster, a couple more things I want kind of explore. First thing I want to jump back into there is, which I’m sure you’re getting asked about to death, but is Lloyd Kaufman stuff.
My question is more, what was your expectation going in with him? Did you know you were going to interview him when you got to New York now, especially as you’re telling me, it was part of while you were hitting some other things?
I didn’t know. Somebody had canceled for the ska doc, and so I had a half a day open, and I was racking my brain for, “Who do I know, for both movies? Who’s in New York?” There’s New York ska, and then there’s New York film, and indie film.
I’ve been a Troma fan since I was too young to watch Troma movies, but it kind of clicked for me, “Oh, Lloyd Kaufman.” I think it was maybe the cinematographer that was there with me. He might have said, “Oh, Lloyd Kaufman’s in New York, you should hit them up.”
I literally just e-mailed email@example.com or something, and said, “I’m a documentary filmmaker. I’m in New York. I have time tomorrow. Is Lloyd available?” They were like, “Let’s check.” And it kind of came together like that.
It was very, fly by the seat of your pants kind of thing, “I guess we’re meeting with Lloyd Kaufman today, because, sure. Of course we are. Why not?”
Expectation wise, I thought he would be kind of anti-Blockbuster, but it was very early on in the process. I thought, at that time, that a lot of people would be anti-Blockbuster, because I had that stigma, thinking back about video rental places, Blockbuster was the big bad.
They were the Walmart of these things. They were the corporate giant that put all those small stores out of business. They were hated in the indie film world, to some extent. They were also the only place that guaranteed The Matrix was in stock, so what are you going to do?
I thought that he would be kind of angry, and he would give us that side of the conversation. I did not expect it to go the way it does in the movie. We basically just put the first five minutes of raw footage from that interview in the movie.
That was the genius of our editor. We did have an outside editor on this movie, and he was the one that put in all that stuff, where you can hear me talking to people, and that.
Because I wouldn’t have done that. That wouldn’t have occurred to me. But then when we back in the first rough cuts, we were like, “Oh, that’s actually genius. It shows you what it was to make this movie in the movie.”
They did a great job with that scene. I mean, I thought, huge compliment to you guys, talking about knowing what your movie is, and shaping things through that. Because you took what’s potentially super negative and super caustic, and we’re still [inaudible 00:44:22] with it, but framed it in a way that was super funny.
And for those that don’t know, just little bookkeeping in the audience, so to speak, Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Studios, from the ’80s and ’90s indie, is B-movie horror. I love Toxic Avenger, Class of Nuke Them High, Sergeant Kabukiman.
If you grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, and we’ll probably talk about this on a different podcast I have, which is called Yelling In My Ear, by the way, they were a staple of USA Up All Night in the late ’80s and ’90s.
But he is very old school indie, if you will. And is not probably somebody that would be super into something that is puts a positive light on Blockbuster. So it was very interesting to see him.
I honestly thought we would have more people complaining about the corporate side, and the Walmartartiness of Blockbuster. But it turned out most people just loved movies, and loved renting movies, and didn’t really care.
Like now, I think about if I have a choice between going to a local store and a Walmart, I’m going to go to the local store. But for whatever reason, back in the ’90s, people just, for the most part, went to the video store that was closest to their house. And I think it’s maybe because you had to go back two days later to bring the movie back, and it’s like, a whole thing.
So it wasn’t as much of, “Down with the corporation.” People tended to be happy, because blockbusters were everywhere. So there was always one that wasn’t that far away.
And that people in the industry, like Lloyd, who couldn’t get their movies in Blockbuster, and were on the outside of this monopoly, and this corporate thing that took over the industry, of course, he’s going to have negative feelings about that. I mean, we have an hour and a half of him ranting, and we used as much as we could in the movie, basically, but it’s …
What jumped out to me, man, was, is Paul [inaudible 00:46:34] part, and a lot of that stuff. And on some levels that’s maybe what was … Because I worked at an indie record store.
So again, it was that, High Fidelity guys, that I think maybe was different with the video stores, I mean, because there was less of them. Ultimately, if you were in high school or college, and you liked movies, where you got a job was at Blockbuster.
So the staff, a lot of times, if you were in, again, in some of those towns, the kids and the people working there loved movies as much as you did, even though the corporate setting above them was different than the indie setup.
But I think maybe that created some of that element to it. Then by the mid-200s, the early 2000s, it just was the game in town, if you really …
Yeah, and that’s sad, honestly, all the mom and pop video stores going out of business. We get into a little bit of how that happened in the movie, because the store that we follow was an independent video store that got forced out by Blockbuster, or forced to become a Blockbuster.
That really resonated with me when we started learning about the story of this store here in Bend of, “Oh, they were the underdog, and they became part of the big machine, and now they’ve outlasted all the rest.” It’s this beautifully poetic thing that, again, we couldn’t have written if we had tried to write.
“Okay, small independent store, a Blockbuster moves in down the street, it forces them to become a Blockbuster.” And then, through whatever sequence of events, all of the Blockbusters go away, and this one is the one left standing. That stuck with me, and that made me really excited to tell that story.
I was like, “This is cool.” If it was a corporate store that was still standing, and it was the polo shirts and the khakis, and the whole strict thing with the corporation, it wouldn’t be fun to root for them.
No. That dichotomy is really, I think, a key grip of it. So just a couple more questions, Taylor, and then we’ll [inaudible 00:48:53] you down on your way. How’s the staff’s reaction been, your talent and your lead, now that it’s out there? I’m always curious about those kinds of things.
Yeah, Sandi is awesome. My favorite part of making the whole movie was getting to be friends with Sandi. I now feel like I’m part of her family, as most people do when they hang out with her.
You see in the movie, her sit down interview was the first ever on camera thing that she ever did. She had never been interviewed, she had never been on camera.
She was very, very nervous, but we got to watch over the four years, as they became the last store, everybody was excited about it. She was on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, and on FOX News and CNN, and MSNBC and CBS, and everybody was interviewing Sandi, and they still are.
I mean, it’s, every time somebody finds out there’s one Blockbuster Video left, they call her, and they want her on their TV show. She was on Kelly Clarkson last week, I think. But she’s become this sort of celebrity, this quasi-celebrity.
I mean, she’s still literally putting in 80 hours a week, buying DVDs, repairing computers, knitting Beanies, doing all the day to day Blockbuster stuff. But she also is a press persona now. So we got to watch that evolution.
So then, by the time our movie came out, it wasn’t new to her. The fact that we were written up in the New York Times, she was like, “Yeah, but I was already in the New York times last year, man. To me, I’m super excited. I’ve never had a movie in the New York Times,” or on, whatever, on Nerdist or Buzzfeed, or whatever the things are that talk about her movie.
But she’s been doing that for years now. She is this celebrity figure, especially locally. Here in town, everybody knows who she is.
NoW that the movie’s out, it’s like, I think it’s way more exciting for me than it is for her, but they do have it at Blockbuster. It’s there for rent.
We were, I like to say, we’re the first Blockbuster exclusive DVD since 2011, which I believe is true. And I think, for the kids who work there, it is pretty cool. Some of them aren’t in the movie, because they just started working there, and some of the people in the movie don’t work there anymore.
But the ones who, we’ve seen them once a week for four years, and now, when I come in, they’re like, “Somebody rented the movie, and they brought it back, and they were going, ‘I saw you in the movie, and it’s so exciting.'”
I think they get a kick out of that, and it’s really fun. It’s cool to me, because we made a movie about renting movies that you can now rent at Blockbuster. So it’s weirdly meta, in that way of, you can rent it there, and you’re renting it from the kid in the movie who’s explaining how renting movies works.
Yeah. There’s a very Dan Harmon community, [inaudible 00:52:18], who circle into that process. That’s pretty great. Can you talk a little bit about, and I’ll back this out a tiny bit to be about both films, getting them to market distribution was … I’m guessing maybe one process was a little different than the other.
Did you have distro in mind and started to be set up before you started? Did it come in afterwards? Did it come in during the process?
Yeah, so these two were different from my first one, which, again, I sell DVDs out of the trunk of my car. And that was my distribution plan.
But after that, I started listening to all these podcasts, and watching YouTube videos about distribution, and joining all the Facebook groups, and trying to figure out, what am I doing wrong? Why is my movie not on Hulu or even Amazon>?
I didn’t know you could put your own movie on Amazon for a year after I made my first movie. But with these two, I knew that going in, and an interesting thing happened, because they were Kickstarter projects. And if a movie does well enough on Kickstarter, you start hearing from distributors right then.
So we had offers, weird, not predatory, but kind of predatory offers coming in, as soon as the Kickstarter was done. That’s years before the movies would be out.
We would consider them, and I was like, “Oh, cool. Worst case scenario, we can go with one of these distributors and the movies will come out, and that’ll be great.”
The ska movie was done first. That came out last year, and it was really such a personal thing for me. It was, ska was a huge part of my life, and making the movie was a really big deal for me. It felt so personal, that I kind of had a weird sense of ownership over it, and really didn’t want to give it away to anybody.
But I did have a lot of conversations with distributors. I think we ended up with five or six offers, some with MGs, some with decent terms, the kind you would hope for, but across the board, nobody understood the movie, nobody understood ska music.
I don’t know what I was hoping for, that there’s an indie film distributor that also loves ska music? That’s not going to happen.
They all would turn to me, and they would say, “Look, we can put this out. We can get it on all the platforms, we can help, with press and promotion, and everything distributors do, but we don’t know how to market this film. You’re going to have to market it. You know the audience, you are the audience, and you’re going to have to market it.”
What stuck with me about that is, “Well, if I have to market it, and I have to do all this work, because I’m the one who understands it, why am I giving you 20 to 30% of all the money that comes in?”
At that point, I knew about putting your movie on Amazon. And I also knew that I could successfully sell DVDs from the trunk of my car. So for that movie, even though we had offers from distributors, I chose to put it out independently, on my own, just because I didn’t think it would hurt sales.
I knew who the audience was, and I knew how to get to them. So why give away 20%? It’s not going to make much money anyway.
You’re back to life, anyway, at that point, right. The whole, back [inaudible 00:55:48], it’s like, “Okay, what’s so neat, we’re on Capitol Records. Wait, do they actually give … How big a priority are we?”
Exactly. And I knew that from playing in bands, that kind of, the record labels, it’s a double edged sword. They can help you, or they can really hurt you. So I think of distributors as record labels, because it’s what my brain understands.
The complete flip side of that is The Last Blockbuster, a movie that, from the very get-go, we were like, “It’s about Blockbuster Video. Fricking everybody knows about Blockbuster Video.”
It is not a niche target thing, and so much so, that we’re like, “Oh, we’ve got cool celebrities in our movie. Should we put any of them on the poster?”
No, the word Blockbuster on the poster is the hook. If you don’t care about Blockbuster Video, don’t watch our movie. And if you do, have we got a story for you.
Very early on, and with my partner on the film, too, we just decided, “Of course, we want a distributor who can get it out wide, and get it out on all the platforms, and has a good publicist, and can get it in the New York Times, and the Washington Post and NPR, whatever the things are.”
We very much wanted that for that project, even though yes, we’re going to make a little bit less money. I believe that a distributor who knows what they’re doing can get us more than 20% more money, and more than earn their fee. So it was kind of a different approach from the very beginning.
On that one, we did have several offers, and we were able to weed out the ones that were nonsensical or predatory. I think we had narrowed down to two or three, and we just kept saying, “Well, can you do a little bit better on these terms?”
We were in that lucky position of getting people to sort of compete for the movie, and then, we just chose the one that felt like the best fit. And now we have what I consider my first real release of a film, where, even though we kept our DVD rights separate, because we knew we could sell them at Blockbuster Video.
And we don’t need anybody else to do that, because they sell online. So if you want a DVD, you get it from Blockbuster. And that was just kind of a fun, hooky thing that I wanted to do.
Where did you guys land, then, with the distributor for Last Blockbuster?
We went with a company called 1091. They used to be the Orchard, and we liked their vibe. It was a good offer, and they get it, and also, they don’t put out a ton of movies every month. And we were going to be something that they really focused on and put a lot of effort into.
From what I’ve seen, it’s way too soon to know whether the checks are going to clear, whether the creative accounting is going to come into play, as it sometimes does with distributors. But from what I can tell, it’s going really well.
Their publicity, their publicist, their promotional team, has done a phenomenal job. I’ve met strangers who have heard of this movie, which is like, I don’t know how to do that. And that was another big thing with going with the distributors.
If you can do something that I don’t know how to do? Great. I don’t know how to get a movie reviewed in the New York Times. I’ve tried. It didn’t work. So it’s that kind of thing, and they’re doing social media campaigns that I wouldn’t have done.
So it seems like it’s going well, and it seems like it’s worth it, and I’m really hopeful that it’s going to work out. But again, we didn’t sign a super long term, and we kept some of our rights. So if it doesn’t go well, we’ll just do a different plan in a few years.
I’m curious at this point, man. Are you excited, motivated to do something else? Are you exhausted? Are you both?
Yeah. I mean, I’m really relieved to get this movie out and to be, I’ve cleared my slate of projects, pretty much. I just wrapped another commercial project I was working on, to where I get to take the next week off, question mark. I’m still monitoring all the social media, and doing podcasts like this and things, but I’m pretty much done.
I want to get into doing narrative features, I’ve got some scripts that I’ve been working on in the pandemic, and stuff like that. But everybody asks, “What’s the next documentary?”
And I don’t have a good answer, because I was doing two at the same time for the past three and a half, four years. That’s a lot. I’ve put out three feature documentaries in four years.
That’s a lot.
That’s a breakneck pace, yes.
I need, I need to take a break. And my hope is that The Last Blockbuster, enough people will watch it, where I can pay the bills for a little while, while I figure out what’s next.
Well, dude, people should absolutely watch it. I mean, if you’re a human being living on planet earth in the ’90s or the 2000s, like you have to, there’s no way you don’t relate to this story. Taylor, let people know, where are the ways they can watch The Last Blockbuster?
It’s out right now on digital, on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Fandango, Vudu, cable and satellite, video on demand. It’s as wide of a digital release as you can pretty much do for VOD.
It’s available on DVD and Blu-ray from Blockbuster Video, and you can order it. And the kid in the Blockbuster uniform puts it in little bubble mailer and sends it to you, and it kind of smells like Blockbuster when it gets to you.
Your other project, again, if you had the two-tone Doc Martens, or a wallet chain at any point of the 1990s, Taylor also has a previous project for you. Pick It Up: Ska in the 90s. Where all is that available?
That’s at skamovie.com. There’s links. You can buy the DVD from me, it comes out of my garage, and it’s available to watch, to rent, on Amazon or Vimeo.
You can link to all of my movies, including the Refreshments doc, if you go to popmotionpictures.com, there’s links to everything.
Awesome, man. I definitely will check out that Replacements one. If you order the DVD, and it comes out of your basement, then do we get the customary band sticker?
Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. There’s stickers. I mean, for Pick It Up, it’s all about the merch, man.
I mean, we did a vinyl soundtrack that sold out super fast. We did T-shirts, stickers, guitar picks and enamel pins, regular pins, posters, everything.
We still sell a bunch of that on our website. You can buy the movie, or the movie combo pack that even comes with checkered sunglasses. Because of course it does.
Awesome. Taylor, dude, thank you so much, spending some time with us. Congrats, man, best of luck on both of those movies, and whenever you do something else again, we can’t wait to see it.
Awesome, man. Thanks so much. This has been fun.