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Episode 06: Jeff Cerulli – Tasteless, Hungry

On this episode, New York City based stand-up comedian and documentary filmmaker Jeff Cerulli joins host Dan Napoli to talk about the craft of documentary filmmaking.

Jeff shares an unfettered look at creating two of his signature works Hungry , his film about the world of competitive eating and the famed Nathan’s hotdog eating contest,

and Tasteless, a movie of exploring the origin & impact of the controversial book series from the 1980s, Truly Tastless Jokes.

Dan and Jeff explore the difference between documentary directors cutting their own films vs working with editors, how being comedian influences Jeff’s point of view, and the upcoming transition from director to producer on his project involving Mark Wahlberg’s new production company.

Read the Full Transcript

Speaker 1 (00:05):

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 for Hurrdat Films. He sits 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 The Reel Life with Dan Napoli. On this episode, New York City based standup comedian and documentary filmmaker, Jeff Cerulli joins host Dan Napoli to talk about the craft of documentary filmmaking.

Speaker 1 (00:41):

Jeff shares an unfettered look at creating two of his signature works, Hungry, his film about the world of competitive eating and the famed Nathan’s hotdog eating contest, and Tasteless, a movie of exploring the origin and impact of the controversial book series from the 1980s, Truly Tasteless Jokes. Dan and Jeff explore the difference between documentary directors cutting their own films versus working with editors, how being a comedian influences Jeff’s point of view, and the upcoming transition from director to producer on his project involving Mark Wahlberg’s new production company.

Dan (01:11):

Yeah, here we are. Another edition of Reel Life. Jeff, thanks for coming on, man. Appreciate it.

Jeff (01:16):

Yeah, thanks for having me. Looking forward to it.

Dan (01:18):

Yeah, I’m really excited. I want to talk to you first from your background perspective. I’m really, really intrigued with a documentary director who does standup, who comes from comedy. Can you give us a little background on that?

Jeff (01:40):

Sure. Well, I’ve been doing comedy for 15 years in the city and so I have a standup comedy background, and around 2011, my buddy, we had this idea to do a documentary and it was on competitive eating. We were very enamored by the 4th of July hotdog eating contest that’s this big spectacle that everyone goes us to. Yeah, spectacle’s the good word, I already said it, said the good word for it, but it’s such a thing that people go, and they get excited, and the announcer brings everybody out, and it’s America, it’s 4th of July, and we’re overeating, and it’s American excess. So we were interested just in general that we’re like wow, this is so interesting.

Jeff (02:24):

And then it was the year that Kobayashi, he got arrested, where there was a controversy where people thought it was fake, but what it was, it was a contract dispute, because the guys who run it, the Shea brothers, they control everything. They act as your manager, your agent, and they’re also the commissioners. So he wants to do his own thing and they were like, “No, if you want to eat in Nathan’s, you got to sign the contracts.” It was a whole thing. He goes on stage, he gets arrested, and then we were like wow, this is a documentary. There’s something here. So we pushed it, we got Kobayashi on board, and we just filmed for a year these eating contests. We were eating because we were like well, maybe it’s interesting if two outsiders doing it.

Jeff (03:04):

And then when it came time to edit, we’re like no, the characters are there. You don’t need us as two schlubs eating hot dogs just to show that it’s hard. Everybody knows it’s hard. You can watch it. Everyone’s like Jesus Christ. Everyone knows what it’s like to be really full. So everyone can watch it and be like I don’t need to see what would an outsider, if he tried it. Obviously, they would do terrible. These guys are pushing it to the max, they’re doing water training. So that was my in in just doing films. We did this thing just on the fly, just the two of us, and just every step of the way, just filming it. We’d have two or three camera guys that we used and just pushing to get this thing made. And it was ’11, ’12, ’13, with everything on it.

Dan (03:54):

So you and your partner, did you work with an editor? Were you guys doing the edits yourself?

Jeff (04:03):

Yeah, we had an editor at first and then he left to go do another job. We had a producer on board and then he left, and then we had an editor, and it was like we were running out of money, but then he took a job that got him, I think it was a union job. So we couldn’t really blame him, but it just left us in a hole. So then we just finished it, the two of us just edited it. And then I eventually became an editor. I was freelancing and the other doc, I edited the whole thing. So it actually gave me the chops just on the fly of just seeing him work, and also just watching documentaries and films, you pick up the speed of how things look and how they don’t look. So we had to just finish it ourselves. So everything fell apart and then we just put it back together.

Dan (04:52):

How was that in retrospect? So I know for me, I’ve always come through small indie productions. I’ve never worked with an outside editor on a piece. I direct our stuff and I edit it. I’m curious for you, in retrospect, because I know sometimes there’s the thing, the director’s like, “We’re the keeper of the story.” Was it almost a blessing? Obviously, not diminishing your editor’s skill, but because you guys are so close to this and maybe know where you want to go, was it a bit of a blessing to get your hands in there yourself or what?

Jeff (05:28):

Yeah, 100%. At the time, I didn’t see it that way because it just really sucked, but because we didn’t have a ton of money and also just figuring out how to do it, it was a blessing. And just going forward in my own career of just getting the chops, I cut dumb comedy videos I did at that point, but nothing where it’s a real narrative and a dramatic kind of thing. So yeah, it was a blessing to just have to just get in there. We had a post studio for a minute and then we couldn’t afford that anymore, so I was just cutting in my apartment with my buddy.

Jeff (06:05):

And then one of the things I really loved, the opening of that movie, we saw something in another film we liked and we were like we should try to do something like that. Behind the scenes, you see the food, the eater’s going to come out, and then you put a bunch of quotes, and we replicated what we liked. And that was something that we came up with that was a game changer for it because we submitted to a few festivals, we didn’t get anywhere, and I think it wasn’t a coincidence that when we finally got in one, it was because we had the new beginning and it just unlocked the whole thing.

Dan (06:40):

Jeff, dude, you said something there that I love to hear because we do it too, and I don’t think it gets discussed enough times of you’re not being a mimic or a copycat, but you see something somewhere that you’re like oh, you know what? Okay, I want to do something in this neighborhood. I think sometimes young documentary filmmakers almost feel this oh, I have to have this insanely original idea that no-one in the history of the universe has ever thought of.

Jeff (07:15):

Yeah, I mean we’re all borrowing, and any great director, like Quentin Tarantino is going to talk about how much the films that he liked watching in the ’60s and ’70s influenced him to what he became. So you’re going to see things you like and you’re going to be like oh, let’s do something like that. Let’s try to replicate that. And you have your own stuff that you’re working with, it’s obviously not going to be the thing that you’re watching, so there’s things that you can take. And I would think that’s the best thing. I think when people bring up the film school question, it’s like just watch things, just watch, and make mistakes, and figure it out, and just get a feel for the styles you like, what you don’t like.

Jeff (07:52):

You can watch docs now, and I did a short, it was a comedic short, and I made fun of the thing that, it’s all the time in docs now where you have the person, you have the chair, and then the person sits in the chair. And so many Netflix docs do that over and over again. So I did a short during the pandemic where it was on the Mandela Effect. This thing where people were like, “No, I’m not wrong. No, it’s some stupid shit. Obviously, you’re wrong.” So I was very influenced by Glitch in the Matrix. Did you see it?

Dan (08:29):

No.

Jeff (08:30):

It was this movie, I really enjoyed it, but I feel like it’s not for everyone, which is a good thing because you want to do things that are for the people that really like it, and it was these people that think this world is a simulation.

Dan (08:46):

Oh, dude, I have heard of this. Okay.

Jeff (08:47):

Yeah. I thought it was really good, and he lets the people talk, and I think that’s why some people didn’t like it. I forget the guy’s name. He did the Shining doc, The Room.

Dan (08:56):

Oh yeah. Okay.

Jeff (08:57):

This guy’s really good. I’m blanking on his name. I apologize. But what I liked about this doc is he let the people talk, as the people who carry this theory that we’re in a simulation are people on Reddit boards and the insane people who are like, “No, this is why.” And they didn’t have any proof. It was like, “Here’s why I think it’s a simulation, it’s because when I was a kid, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” And I think some people read it wrong that they were like, “Yeah, he let these people talk,” and I’m like but that was the point. Let these people talk because these are the ones who have it. And he also put them, which I thought was really interesting, you didn’t see their face, they were an avatar.

Dan (09:31):

Okay.

Jeff (09:32):

So I really liked it and I was like I want to do something like this, but for the Mandela Effect, people that think it’s real. So I did some of those parities, like here’s the chair, and then you sit down. So that’s a style that I don’t particularly love that’s been used a lot now. So find things you like, find things you don’t like, and I think that’s the best advice for someone who’s starting. You didn’t ask that.

Dan (09:57):

No, we were kind of on that tip, for sure, because it was talking about there’s that thing for young filmmakers that you don’t pull stuff from someplace. And I mean that’s part of what we try to do with the show. It’s just one of those things, I mean I’m a huge proponent of figuring it out yourself. Even though I’ve been doing this forever now, DIY, punk rock guy, I went to journalism school but not film school.

Jeff (10:21):

That’s awesome.

Dan (10:22):

But I think there’s not a lot of great resources for this whatever, inside baseball, you want to call it. You make documentaries of talking to other people, you know what I mean? You can watch eight million, whatever, Inside the Actors Studios, or there’s all kinds of interviews with Tarantino about what he did, or stuff like that. But documentary stuff, you don’t have. So no, I think it’s good, we try to have a tone that young production or film people could listen to it and be like oh, okay. Cool. I can take some stuff out of this, I can take some stuff out of that. Because it’s very much its own beast. I want to go back to what you said, you had been editing a bunch of comedy shorts, but then sustained 90 minutes of a narrative that’s real life but is your take on it, that’s just this whole other thing, right?

Jeff (11:17):

Yeah, I couldn’t have done it at first. And our editor, he was good, and I was watching him work and I was seeing him put the B roll and then roll in the dialogue, and simple stuff that I’ve never done, and I felt comfortable when it was done that I’m like okay, I could edit. I’m not great yet, I still might not be great, but I can do this and I just need more practice. Whereas going in, I was like we need an editor. And my partner, he was an editor too, but he didn’t want to do it. I think it just felt right, that’s what you do. It’s your movie, we’re directing, you get an editor, but I like just getting in there. Like you said, you know the source material the best, and I like editing. You have so much control when you’re editing over crafting scenes and I think it’s so important, obviously. I enjoy it. It’s tedious at times, but I like editing when it’s my own thing.

Dan (12:17):

Yeah, you really get to shape it. So I want to talk about Tasteless a bit now. First, how did you come to that material? Did you know that okay, now I’ve made a doc and I’m obviously a standup, what from my world … Because that’s another thing that folks tell you is make things from the world that you know or the world that you’re curious about.

Jeff (12:44):

Yeah, and I think that makes so much sense because competitive eating, we’re not in that world, but we’re so interested in and fascinated by it that these people harm their bodies, and at the end of the day, it’s like anything else, it’s like what do you care about? You’re going to put in the extra work. And these guys are super competitive and they also like the spectacle of it. They like the gross out nature of people being like oh my God, you did that. A lot of them get off on that. It’s awesome. It’s like a freak show aspect. So this was a world I’m in, obviously. It wasn’t a problem to get anyone in it because I knew pretty much or they were an email away of any comic. But my buddy Matt was like, “Do you remember Truly Tasteless Jokes?” And I was like, “Yeah, I remember those books.” Everybody had them or they were just around. And he’s like, “Did you know that a woman wrote it who was a big feminist? And she speaks about ageism now.”

Jeff (13:40):

And I was like that’s interesting. Now, that’s a story then that you wouldn’t think that the person who wrote this book is not who wrote it. So I’m like if we could get her, let’s shape the story around it, let’s get her. Because I wasn’t going to do it without her. I was just like it’s not interesting to me, a bunch of comics talking about this book. “Oh, I remember this book.” To me, that’s a 5 minute, 10 minute internet short. But I was like if you can get her and we’ll shape the story around, I’m in. And we got an interview with her and then the rest was I wanted to relate it to comedy now, how there’s cancel culture but a lot to times it’s not, it’s people just upset about things and it works itself out.

Jeff (14:22):

But then sometimes there are things. My friend did a joke about a gun control and she got hammered online, and it becomes an extra step when it becomes death threats. “We’re going to find you.” And this is why online is online and you can log out, but it does become scary when you’re a comic, you have your schedule up, and people are like, “I’m going to fucking kill you.” So it crosses over. So there is something to it that really bothers me about how people get online, that they’re just this mob mentality for just either jokes or we’re looking up old tweets and it’s a whole thing. So she talked about what happened.

Jeff (15:00):

We had a guy in Canada. Canada’s a little different, but he got sued because he made this joke about this young boy, and he got sued by the family. This was a public figure, it wasn’t just some random boy. And then he lost and he owes them money. I don’t know what’s happening with it now. So we wanted to put it to now of when this person did these jokes in the ’80s, no-one really cared. There was no social media. What are you going to do, write a letter to Penguin? There’s not really much that can be done, you either like it or you don’t, but now there’s more consequences for what you say, and I wanted to have the dynamic there. And I think it worked, it’s a tight movie, it’s an hour, and I think it works pretty well.

Dan (15:48):

The author of the books, was she game out of the gate? Was she like, “What do you want to do with this?”

Jeff (15:57):

Both.

Dan (15:58):

Okay.

Jeff (15:58):

Yeah, both. She was game and she’s like, “All right, I’ll do an interview,” but she was also nervous because now she’s putting a face to these awful jokes. Because it’s interesting, you look back at them now, and some of them are dad jokes, they’re just lame, edgy dad jokes, and some of them are legitimately awful and you’re like this is terrible. So she didn’t like that she contributed to that discourse, but at the same time, you got to look at it through the lens of when it was. We’re not where we were in 1985, we’re way more sophisticated, way more mature than this stuff. So she was a little nervous about that, but she was also willing to do the interview, and she came to the screening, the premier, and she did a Q&A after. And she’s been really great.

Dan (16:47):

What was the reaction from your world? Because now you’re, in a way, one of those folks that are, like I mentioned earlier about coming from skating, or punk rock, or whatever, it’s like Stacy Peralta I mean was in Dogtown making a movie about Dogtown, so there’s this pure thing of oh man, did I get it right? Because you’re a comic, what that like for you? Was there any bit of that?

Jeff (17:16):

I didn’t get any backlash. I think people were okay with it. I didn’t see anything bad from comedians about it because I think it was because I’d done this for so long that I think it was faithful to comedy and that. I tried to do a smart look at a really dumb book. I was like this book is really dumb, but let’s get a bunch of smart comedians. Jim Norton is not someone who you think is really smart but he is, he’s a really thoughtful guy. So he’s someone I’m like I want to get Jim Norton in this. Myq Kaplan, obviously very cerebral, very smart. Justin Williams, he’s a African studies major, he’s written books and he’s a professor.

Jeff (17:58):

So it was just really smart people to talk about this dumb book. And I think that was just what I was going for with that. So I think the reaction to it was fine. And it’s on this site docplus right now, which I really love that they’re doing some great things, that they have not as many films, obviously, as someone like Amazon, but they’re pickier about what they have and they’re doing really good things. And a lot of people don’t know about it, and I’m really happy to be on that site and included in 100 docs they have or how many they have.

Dan (18:28):

That’s a great segue, Jeff. You’re reading my mind. No, but I was going to next talk a little bit about distribution and release, and it’s funny that you bring up Amazon, because again, I know we’ve got two films on there, but the flip side is, and don’t get me wrong, I mean we’re stoked, we’re honored to be on there, it’s the biggest platform available in streaming, but there’s also roughly nine gazillion titles out there, so it’s very difficult. So I’m curious, with the docsplus, as you go on and you make more films, and you can talk specific about Tasteless or about some of your upcoming projects, are you more cognizant of not just get a deal, get the right deal, of you want to see things go in certain places? Are you thinking about that at all as you start to create something or are you just creating first and figuring that stuff out later?

Jeff (19:32):

I think when I started, it was like let’s just do it and then see what happens. With Hungry, I think we were slow out the gate with the distributor, I think they did a poor job. It was FilmBuff, it’s not around anymore, they’re now Gunpowder & Sky, and Gunpowder & Sky was way better. I think one thing I’ve learned too is if you have a distributor, it’s really on you to do the promotion and to do the PR, which I don’t think we knew, and they talked a big game and then when it came out, it was nothing, and we were disappointed. And then over time, they got a bunch of deals, and it was on Hulu for two years, but that was Gunpowder, that was not them. So that was disappointing. And then with Tasteless, I felt the same thing, we’ll just do it and then someone will pick it up if we do a good job with it.

Jeff (20:25):

And it’s on a few things, but this docplus, like what you’re saying about Amazon, it’s great to be on Amazon, but it gets so lost in the shuffle. Nobody knows, unless they have the link or to search for it, but the flip side is docplus is so small nobody really knows about docplus yet, but we’re featured on it and they have maybe 100 docs. So I just want to get the word out for docplus, because I think they’re doing so great that I think that could be the specific thing that people know. I want to watch a documentary, I think it’s Netflix now, Netflix and HBO, because Netflix just has so many docs, but I hope one day that docplus is like, “Hey, let’s watch something. Let’s go to docplus. I trust their selection.”

Dan (21:10):

Yeah, dude. So the couture or the curation is something. Again, you think about, I’m making the music references, and I didn’t get it either, what was interesting with us, but as soon as we got in, I’m like oh, this is all my friends’ bands have been saying for decades, where you’re like, “Yo, we’re on Capital.” And then you’re like oh, so are eight million bands and they really don’t care. And to be fair to those folks, I get it, that’s a game of numbers, of we’re going to have this really broad swath because the four U2 records pay for everything else. And it’s just one of those things where so they’re hedging their promo bets that when it’s like oh, okay, this is going off. And then again, in the music setup, as soon as a genre has died, it’s like oh, new metal’s not in anymore. It’s whatever, it’s back to boy bands. Something like docplus has an interesting way to be, and we may see a rise in some of this, like couture labels.

Dan (22:25):

If you get a record on Motown, dude, you know it’s going to be super quality. Again, and there’s a billion punk rock equivalents that you’re like, okay, cool. Whoa, they signed to Epitaph out in LA? Okay, maybe sounds like this versus your other places, again, super dating us or dating myself with CDs or whatever, but it’s like oh, there’s a Best Buy that’s got CDs on every corner. Right, but there’s eight billion. And so you’re just hoping that somebody finds you on accident versus the High Fidelity experience where you’re going to walk in and Jack Black’s going to suggest that you listen to the Beta Band.

Jeff (23:12):

Oh my God, what a scene. I love High Fidelity. That was my joke during the pandemic, by the way, where I was watching the Disaster Movies at first, and everyone’s like, “Why would you watch that?” And it was like well, it’s because it’s not as bad as what’s going on. I was like the worst movie to watch is High Fidelity, where it’s going to give you the idea to go look your exes, try to reconnect. I mean it’s so good. I didn’t watch the show.

Dan (23:35):

I just started. It didn’t click with me at first, but oh gosh, Zoë Kravitz is the lead, she’s amazing.

Jeff (23:47):

Oh, she’s great.

Dan (23:49):

But it’s weird for me because this would be my third slash generation revision of it. Because I read the book from Neil Hornby first, which is original and is set in England. And then the movie with Jack Black and John Cusack is spin on it, so I just had to put myself in a spin. I recently had gone back at the recommendation of a friend and was like oh yeah. Okay, this is actually awesome. But you’re right, what a bad pandemic to be like I think I’m going to call all my exes and see what went wrong here.

Jeff (24:23):

It’s so good. And you’re spot on with your thing. You want the niche. That’s the thing, I don’t know, I don’t think you want to make things for everybody. Documentary’s so specific anyway that you want to just do stuff that really resonates with people. You want the Jack Black to be like this is a good film. That’s what you want. I mean how much has it changed, don’t you feel in your lifetime, documentary filmmaking? I think it’s changed so much from 2013, the idea of it just being profitable or being a mainstream thing, I feel like it’s changed so much.

Dan (24:57):

And just in my lifetime. I remember growing up, it would be like ugh. A doc would be this thing on PBS, my dad was watching until I was like, “When is this over so we can watch something else?” Yeah, it’s definitely changed. And then as it’s spun into docu-series now. Yeah dude, even like you said, from 2013. I think you make a great point though about how do you make … I don’t even know what that answer is. Like hey dude, make me the Avengers of documentary in terms of broad appeal that will do whatever, literally a billion dollars at the box office. And you’re like ugh. I don’t know that that’s a thing really. I mean documentaries, as much as you do broad out character arcs, so to speak, at the end of the day I don’t know that there’s something. It’s just different than a feature.

Jeff (26:01):

Oh, 100%. I mean I guess the closest would be a murder doc on Netflix that’s insanely popular that just becomes a thing that trends, that everybody’s talking about, and who do you think did it?

Dan (26:12):

Yeah, Tiger King, I guess, would have to be the answer.

Jeff (26:15):

Making a Murder or Tiger King, or something that really just captivates everybody that they go all in.

Dan (26:21):

Yeah. Although I mean it’d be interesting, I haven’t pulled the numbers myself, but I bet the numbers pale in comparison to a box office themed. Because again, when you talk about scripted, there’s the whole international appeal, which is another reason why superhero movies have done so well, and I’m a huge comic book, superhero fan, again, think about, I don’t know man, does Hungry, does the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest resonate in Brazil? Maybe. I don’t really know.

Jeff (26:57):

I think it did a bunch of overseas sales and I think it was because it was to laugh at Americans. I remember it was in the Germany food museum or something, it got a lot of little international sales that I think it was mainly to be like look how ridiculous Americans are. I was pretty sure.

Dan (27:14):

And the spectacle of it, as you say. There’s definitely that element of it. So Jeff, talk, as much as you can anyways, because I know you’re just getting going, but you’ve got something new and exciting that you’re going on next. Can we chat about that a bit?

Jeff (27:29):

Yeah, definitely. So it’s in pre-production, so there’s not even much to talk about, but it’s exciting, I’m doing this with my girlfriend. She’s a journalist and a writer, and she had an idea of to do something on the milk carton program, which was a thing that everybody remembers in the ’80s, they would put missing kids on milk cartons. So we were like oh, that was interesting. No-one’s really ever done anything on it. And if you Google it, if you do research, you don’t get much. All you get is one person and that’s really it.

Jeff (27:58):

So we got this person on board and then it turns out that the number’s not one, but it’s not much higher. It’s probably about 12 or 13 kids were found in total that are adults now of the hundreds and hundreds of kids that were on milk cartons. So it’s not one, but it’s very low. So we have a story we’re doing, it’s four kids that were on a milk carton. They’re going to tell their story. We’re executive producers on it and the exciting thing is we have two production companies involved and one of them is Mark Wahlberg’s company, which did McMillions, which I loved. I thought that was really-

Dan (28:35):

Super good.

Jeff (28:36):

Yeah, really captivating, really interesting documentary. So it’s in pre-production now and we’re just excited to just get the ball rolling with it. We have the people on board, we have a production company. We have the director, he’s this guy, Rudy Valdez, who did this thing on HBO called The Sentence, he did a thing on Netflix called Brooklyn Saints, which was a high school football team in Brooklyn, and we’re just excited to get going and just tell the story because they’re all very different and very unique. And it’s also just a look back, it’ll have the nostalgic value of the time of the ’80s, and how different it was before the internet of trying to find missing kids.

Dan (29:13):

Right. Yeah, I’m sure my daughter, who’s 19, if she’s listening to this one, would be like, “What? Are you guys idiots? Why would you put stuff on milk cartons?” And you’re like, “Hey kid, no internet in 1987. There’s no TikTok ads to be circulated, but we’re all sitting down with milk in the fridge or milk at school.” [crosstalk 00:29:37].

Jeff (29:37):

And I think it works on both levels of if you remember and then also someone like your daughter that you’re just like, “What? You put on milk cartons? That’s insane.” So yeah, I’m just so excited to just do this, and this is just a completely different experience than gutting it out, the first two films where we’re just budgeting ourselves, and just trying to get it made. This is going to have everything, budget, and where it’s going to be seen. It’s going to have everything up front so it’s very exciting to work this way for once, and this is the first time I’ve done that.

Dan (30:10):

Nice. Yeah, dude, I want to drill into that a tiny bit, again, as much as you can, but first off, can you talk about at least what you anticipate, if you guys are in the exec producer seats now, you’ve got some of this stuff coming at you as far as budgets maybe and stuff like that, to approve and come in on versus you are not necessarily building it from scratch in the way that you would as a pure indie doing it all yourself, right?

Jeff (30:41):

Yeah, and I’m looking forward to not struggling to get licensing footage. I mean you know, which is like, “Hey, you want this clip? Okay, cool. It’s going to be $10,000.” What these networks asked for when you’re a small production for a clip, and then 9 times out of 10, you usually just end up using it. And you’re like it’s fair use, go fuck yourself. Especially with news clips. I’ll tell you the difference, my first film, the lawyer we had, it was a list of 100 things. You guys got to move that, you got to move that, this can’t go. And then you meet in the middle, you get rid of some stuff, some stuff you risk.

Jeff (31:18):

And then the second go round, it was a note of four things and I was like this was so much better. For Tasteless, it was four things. It was get rid of Alex Jones, he sues everybody. And we’re like okay, we don’t need him. It’s fine. And then it was two other things and I was like this was so much easier. And it’s one thing I like about docs too, you’re pretty protected with news clips and stuff that usually it is fair use. You’re trying to tell a story here, usually you need the clip. Yeah, so I’m excited to not struggle to worry about that, and there’ll just be a budget, and it’s going to be great.

Dan (31:52):

Also, at the very least, it’s somebody else’s responsibility to send 13 emails to whatever you’re trying to license. It’s 10 grand assuming they answer you in the first place. When you’re just trying to send those as a little guy or girl, producing a piece that you’re like, “Hey, we’re this production company with no rep, I’m this director that you’ve never heard of. How much to license this clip?” And it’s just crickets coming.

Jeff (32:22):

Isn’t it crazy how much they ask for? It’s a bargaining game, it’s all haggle. I told my buddy Matt when we get some pretty ridiculous prices on Tasteless and I’m like they just want to haggle. You just got to go back and forth with them because they know they’re probably not going to get that, they know this is not a huge production, but they’re going to ask for it.

Dan (32:41):

Yeah, they’re going to ask for 10 and if they get 4, they’ll feel like they won.

Jeff (32:44):

Yeah.

Dan (32:45):

Because if they asked for 4, you’d give them … I’m a music licenser also, that’s actually the first thing I ever did, so I know it’s very similar in that [inaudible 00:33:00]. “This Pixie song is 10 grand.” You’d be like okay. And so you start taking pieces off of it like, “Well, what if we do three years and not five? Oh, okay.” And they can just pull it back down.

Jeff (33:12):

Same idea with music, yeah. Same idea of just trying to get stuff. I mean it’s going to cost you. That’s the thing with docs, you got to have a budget for some stuff. As much as you can cut corners and do it yourself, you’re going to need a budget for clips, and legal, and people forget about the insurance, you got to get insurance on your movie. There’s just a few things that you just have to have a budget for.

Dan (33:40):

Yeah. Jeff, couple other things and then we’ll let you scoot out of here, but talk to me a little bit about, so you said you’re in pre-production, what’s some of that process look like for you?

Jeff (33:55):

Just talking to the people, figuring out their stories, and just getting a pitch deck ready to see who’s interested. And obviously someone like Wahlberg’s company, everyone’s going to be interested. You’re going to have everyone open to you. So just getting everything together and just getting it ready for market.

Dan (34:18):

Yeah, can you tell us how did this get on the Wahlberg radar and how did that come to be? That’s super exciting, man.

Jeff (34:25):

My agent. My agent’s really great and we got a production company, one, and then we got the second. So just got the ball rolling, and I think just because it was such a good idea that it got everything in motion.

Dan (34:39):

Also, I don’t know why, maybe just because of the age, but that connection makes sense to me, that lineage of what this is about and the fact that they would be interested in it, besides it’s just a cool idea, but I don’t know, there just seems to be a fit there. Again, for other folks making docs, do you think some of that makes sense either in some of those partnerships or even those “castings”, to try to have a big name behind something, that it’s got to make sense.

Jeff (35:16):

Yeah. I mean for us, McMillions was fantastic. So it wasn’t just oh, this is Mark Wahlberg’s company, McMillions was awesome. It was just great, it was really well done. The story was there, they had the characters, these people know what they’re doing. So if you can get into a business partnership with someone that you respect their work, I mean jump at that. And then the other companies, this is the start of their documentary. They do a lot of reality programming and this is their division of premium doc content.

Dan (35:50):

Nice.

Jeff (35:51):

And they have a few things coming out. They did a press release and they have a few really interesting docs. Beyond this, they have five or six that sound really good.

Dan (36:01):

Do you recall what are some of those [crosstalk 00:36:04]?

Jeff (36:04):

One was on Marge Schott and then a few other things.

Dan (36:06):

Oh, wow.

Jeff (36:07):

Yeah, she was the racist owner of the Reds in the ’80s. So I don’t know, some doc ideas, when you see it, like you ever see a trailer or an idea and you’re like this is so obvious and so good, but it’s also just having the resources to do it because there are certain docs you’re going to maybe want to do that you’re just not going to get to tell that story at this point in your career because there’s just a disconnect. They’re going to want someone else to do it who has a name, so there’s just-

Dan (36:39):

[crosstalk 00:36:39].

Jeff (36:39):

Yeah, just keep chipping away.

Dan (36:42):

I can’t remember, there was some music piece like that, that we were talking about that was in those kinds of it’s like yeah, we just don’t have the pedigree for that. And that’s okay, even though it’s obvious to tell the story. I was just going to say, dude, McMillions was great too. I love the infusion, I mean it’s really prevalent in the trailers, but it’s prevalent in the show, I think, too, it’s almost the infusion of a narrative concept, the wacky caper tone to it. Because it’s just so insane, and once again, even as somebody who lived during that time, I don’t really remember the scandal. I remember the play game stuff. I’m just watching this unfold and it’s just insane to me that you’re like what? The CIA is following this? It just was really crazy story.

Jeff (37:39):

Yeah, I barely remembered it, and I remember I read a long article 10 years ago or whatever, and that was the extent to it, and then I forgot. And then when it was coming out, I saw a trailer, I was like oh yeah, I remember this. And it paid off, it was a really satisfying doc. You know what else I think that was really satisfying? Did you watch the QAnon doc?

Dan (38:04):

No, I haven’t seen that yet.

Jeff (38:05):

Excellent. Yeah, I mean the guy, Cullen, he just does an incredible job of journalism. You want to see a doc that’s good journalism? And it was do it yourself for most of it, it wasn’t like HBO was in from the start, he just started filming, he infiltrated this world, he gets really deep in this world. It’s six episodes, really compelling every episode, it’s edited well. And he gets in this world and then I believe he got Adam McKay involved because he had the goods. He had the goods, he had the footage, he had the characters, and then McKay, I think, got it to HBO.

Jeff (38:45):

But it was one of those where he just put his own money in, which you’re doing stuff, I’m doing stuff, you just respect it where it’s not always going to work. That’s the thing, there’s no guarantees for anything, so that this guy just put his head down, did the work, got it, and then got it on HBO and people loved it. And the ending was satisfying and you don’t usually get that in docs because a lot of times it’s just open ended. It’s just like we don’t know what happened. Right. But there’s a few, every now and then, that they just nail it. So that’s one that I highly recommend as a piece of journalism. As a piece of investigative journalism, this very complex story of QAnon, who it is, why are people so into this shit? And he really just gets it all.

Dan (39:31):

Nice. So talk a little bit, as we wrap up here, after the milk carton doc, which I know you’re just starting on, but is your purview then starting to be wider and wider from the types of stories that you are interested in taking in? Do you gravitate back towards something that has a comedic or it’s high in comedy? I don’t mean comedic to be funny, but it’s tied to comedy because that’s obviously your world.

Jeff (40:06):

No, I’m excited to do dramatic stuff. I mean that was one of the things I loved about Hungry, it’s not funny. There’s humor in it. I forget who said it, I think it was Jim Cummings, who does a lot of indie movies, and I think he said the line where he’s like, “You have to put laughs in your film because if you don’t, the audience will just find stuff to laugh at,” if it’s too serious. So Hungry, one of the characters, Brad, is the source of humor because he’s nicknamed The Lunatic, and he’s this wild card. So the humor was with him, but that was it. So I like just doing dramatic stuff because it’s not my world, so I’m looking forward to the milk carton and then whatever comes after it of just keep going this way.

Dan (40:53):

Nice. Jeff, do you have a ballpark release date on milk carton? At this point, a projection?

Jeff (41:04):

Probably in ’22.

Dan (41:06):

Cool.

Jeff (41:06):

Yeah, probably, I would imagine, hopefully it’s out in 2022.

Dan (41:11):

Nice. Well, dude, this has been super fun, man. Thanks for taking a few minutes and stopping by.

Jeff (41:16):

Yeah, thank you.

Dan (41:17):

If people want to keep track of you and of progress on the milk carton doc, where can we send them?

Jeff (41:23):

Just go to my website, jeffcerulli.com.

Dan (41:26):

Sweet. Awesome, man. Well dude, we appreciate it. Good luck. Keep in touch, I definitely want to see how this progresses. I definitely want to see it when it’s done.

Jeff (41:34):

Thanks a lot, man. Thanks for having me.

Dan (41:38):

Thanks, dude.

Speaker 4 (41:41):

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