Alan Berg on his SXSW documentary
As I prepared for this years South by Southwest film festival, I was happy to get an early start with a documentary about the festival itself. Outside Industry chronicles the beginning of SXSW as a music festival, to the major event that it is today. I spoke with director Alan Berg by phone the day before I left for Austin, and you can see his film premiering on March 15 at the festival.
CraveOnline: Was there every any doubt you’d play at SXSW Film?
Alan Berg: Well, the whole thing started because I’ve known those guys for years and taped a bunch of footage there in the late ‘90s. It’s sort of been sitting around gathering dust so Roland Swenson called in August and just said, “Hey, do you want to do something on the 25th [anniversary?]” I said, “Yeah, the only thing is I’ve got to have editorial independence because it doesn’t do either of us any good for me to do a vanity piece.” So they agreed to that and gave me the latitude but I honestly didn’t know how they were going to react to the criticism. I assumed we’d premiere at the festival but I wasn’t sure how they’d react to the screening, but they didn’t ask me to change anything and they accepted. A bit of a delicate walk. They didn’t offer for me to be in competition but I didn’t want to be in competition because there’s no upside. If you win the festival or win an award, it’s because you’re the South By film and if you don’t, then it’s you can’t even win the festival you did it about. So it’s perfect from my perspective that it’s the opening night of music that they’re showing it and they’re tying it more to the music side of the festival since that’s really the focus of the film.
CraveOnline: Was everything Mojo Nixon said gold?
Alan Berg: Yes, yes. We’d be editing and just going along and it’s like oh, we need a little context or we need a little bit of levity. Oh, let’s look at Mojo’s transcript and see what he said. He’s hilarious and I knew he would be. I’ve been a Mojo fan for years. We flew to San Diego to interview Mojo because we knew he’d be good.
CraveOnline: You got footage of Iggy Pop, the Fugees, Katy Pery. Was there any footage you were not able to include either for time, or because rights to the artist were a problem?
Alan Berg: I can’t think of any. We were looking for stuff. The White Stripes, everyone talked about The White Stripes performing here and there’s one little clip we were able to track down, but you’re hoping to find that person that was in there like they were at the Johnny Cash show where you get some really good video. It would’ve been nice to have found some video of Nora Jones upstairs at The Clay Pit in the small room the year that she broke. It would’ve been nice to have found something of The Strokes when they played The Iron Cactus before anybody knew who they were. It would’ve been nice from a historical perspective to find video of the Hansons wandering around singing a cappella to whoever would listen to them.
CraveOnline: Even in the still photo you found, I didn’t recognize them.
Alan Berg: Yeah, they were young.
CraveOnline: Younger than even when we knew them.
Alan Berg: Right. The thing is, you dig and you find what you find and just move on.
CraveOnline: If there’s one thing we can take away from this documentary, should it be that even obscure bands made cheesy ‘80s videos?
Alan Berg: [Laughs] I guess so. The nefarious thing about that is the melodies will stick in your head. The Vertigo song just manifests itself from time to time and won’t leave. The hook worked.
CraveOnline: We love the cheesy ‘80s videos. It’s almost a shame when they got high tech.
Alan Berg: Yeah, yeah. That one from Pool if you watch the whole thing, they’ve got roller skating girls with legwarmers on and the whole nine yards. And the ‘80s dance where you sort of bob from the hip.
CraveOnline: Over the years when you would shoot these concerts, were you as interested in shooting the audience as much, or even more, than the artist on stage?
Alan Berg: Well, to be clear, I was a political reporter for the ABC affiliate in Dallas so I rounded up friends. I wasn’t the shooter. I was the producer/director so I had three friends of mine that were news photographers. We were trying to cover it from a journalistic perspective knowing that we want to get the performance, but you’re reacting to what you see. So when you see Iggy Pop on stage, he’s very interesting but the people going bananas in the crowd are interesting too. That’s part of just documenting that scene.
CraveOnline: The women flashing on stage.
Alan Berg: Can you imagine? The thing that still amazes me every time I see it is that guy that does the flying backflip into the crowd. That’s a certain amount of faith.
CraveOnline: I wonder if those people will see this movie and realize they’ve been captured for posterity?
Alan Berg: Who knows, but it’s a shot from the back. It’s fairly modest as far as topless shots.
CraveOnline: Do you miss the days of cassette tapes passed around?
Alan Berg: Yeah, I do. There’s something tangible about a cassette. I’m happy that vinyl’s coming back because I like the art of a good cover on an album. We lost some stuff when it’s just CDs.
CraveOnline: Did the end of record stores make festivals more vital for exposing new music?
Alan Berg: Wow, that’s a great question. I don’t know. I think Roland said it better than I can in the film, where it’s like what constitutes a band’s career these days, right? Bands now have to come down and play 10 day parties and blog about it and tweet. Maybe they can pick up a corporate sponsor, maybe they can pick up some sort of booking as part of a tour but I just think it’s less defined than it ever was. Bands just have to be super creative on how they can earn a living if they want to be artists.
CraveOnline: But you can’t even go into a record store and go, “Oh, what is this playing?”
Alan Berg: We’re lucky we still have Waterloo Records here.
CraveOnline: What great SXSW stories did you have to leave out?
Alan Berg: The funniest line I heard and I wish I would’ve recorded it was Lewis Black, one of the founders, editor of The Chronicle, we were standing around at an exhibit last week that they did at the Austin History Center, the 25 years and he’s reminiscing. He goes, “Yeah, in the early days we’d sneak away to go smoke pot. Now we sneak away to take a nap.” I wish I would’ve had that on tape.
CraveOnline: I think I relate to that. If I don’t really know much about music, who should I go see this week?
Alan Berg: I’d encourage you to look at the website and just make some choices. I know personally my son is very interested in Matt Miller and Wiz Khalifa. These are rap artists and I’m going to go see them just to expose myself to something I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. I want to see some of the comedy. A few years ago Zach Galifianakis came. We’re getting the reputation of finding some new comedy. There’s a Danish film that’s playing that I think won the Oscar for foreign film this year.
CraveOnline: What venues do I have to check out regardless of who’s playing there?
Alan Berg: I think you need to go over to Emo’s. It’s been around forever. I think it’s worth going to Stubbs just to see Stubbs. I wish Liberty Lunch was still here but it’s not. Gotta go down to South Congress, go into the Continental club and just wander around down there. It’s just a really neat area of town. If you want to see one of the original old venues that’s sort of out of the way a little bit, I think Hole in the Wall’s a venue this year. It’d be worth going to. The Mohawk is an interesting venue. If the weather’s nice it’s really cool because they’ve got an outdoor stage and they’ve got an indoor stage. They have like a courtyard but it’s also built into the side of a hill so you can get up on a balcony and sort of look down on the acts playing as well.
CraveOnline: Did you ever imagine film would almost overtake music? It’s 10 days now.
Alan Berg: I had no idea. That’s one of the things that’s interesting to me. They started the interactive and film festivals in ’94 just to flesh out the week a little bit. Then they started taking off and I don’t think anybody could’ve predicted they’d have grown the way that they have.
CraveOnline: Did you have more material on the film side than you included?
Alan Berg: No, we really wanted to stick to music since that’s what began. That’s the roots of South By. It would start feeling fairly fragmented if I went too deeply into interactive or film. Not to dismiss their importance. They’re tremendously important.
CraveOnline: Of course you have to focus. There could probably be a follow-up if people are interested.
Alan Berg: Yeah, and we saw some fascinating old footage of this early panel. It had to be ‘95/’96. You’ve got Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez and Mike Judge all lined up. Independent film, right there, in the early days. It sort of shows you why maybe it began to get some momentum.
CraveOnline: What is next for you, the filmmaker path or back to traditional journalism?
Alan Berg: We have a company, Arts and Labor, that I run so we do a lot of social media and advertising stuff. We’re producing a film. There’s a film called August Evening that won the Los Angeles film festival and then it won the Cassavetes award at the Indie Spirit Awards two-three years ago. Chris Eska directed it and we’re producing his second feature. They just wrapped shooting two days ago so we’ll be fairly involved and helping get that film put together and out. Beyond that, I’m just trying to keep my head above water at this point. It’s been a pretty condensed and fast moving seven months.