Sundance 2014 Interview: Dan Cutforth & Jane Lipsitz on Under the Electric Sky

Under the Electric Sky

The directors of Katy Perry: Part of Me are back with another music documentary. This time their subject is the Electric Daisy Carnival, a three day Electronic Dance Music (EDM) festival in Las Vegas. the film Under the Electric Sky follows several fans to EDC, including a girl with anxiety issues, a man with scoliosis confined to a wheelchair, a “Wolfpack” going to memorialize their friend, a group of ravers who want to have a group marriage, long distance lovers meeting up at EDC, and a family whose parents want to marry there. Some of the footage of EDC is in 3D as well. We spoke with directors Dan Cutforth and Jane Lipsitz at Sundance about their film, the day after it premiered at Midnight.


CraveOnline: Did you ever have a hard time keeping track of your subjects once the festival started?

Dan Cutforth: Yes, we did. We had a system in place. We were following about 21 different stories, not just people and we put a system in place where if we didn’t have a camera crew following people, we had these people we call Care Bears whose job it was to hang out with them and keep an eye on them and if something interesting was happening, let us know. That’s how we managed to keep in touch with everything that was going on but it was a lot of moving parts. At the festival, cell phones don’t work and if you have a walkie, it’s great unless you’re anywhere near a stage because you can’t hear anything so we did our best to stay on top of it.


Which ones got away from you?

Dan Cutforth: Ha! The rave family were a little slippery at times. The Boston boys sometimes but there were a couple of people who didn’t make the movie who were really slippery. For the most part actually, people were pretty excited about being subjects of the documentary and they wanted to play ball. Sometimes during the day they would disappear a little bit.


How did you choose the right subjects to follow?

Jane Lipsitz: We did a lot of outreach. [EDC founder and executive producer] Pasquale [Rotella] did outreach to fans of EDC. EDC is about accepting, everyone accepting. It’s all different kinds of people coming together and we wanted to represent a great cross-section of subjects to follow and stories. The Wolfpack was a great story. They were a bunch of guys from Boston. In terms of geography we found different stories and then also just in terms of what stories they were bringing to EDC because we wanted those three days to have a transformational quality to them, like something was going to happen to those people over the course of those three days.


Could you have known that one of them was going to get pulled on stage?

Dan Cutforth: No, you obviously hope for that kind of stuff and we knew that that was something that the band did, that Above and Beyond do at every show. There’s a lot of stuff that we could never have imagined would happen. This is the beauty of it. And there were all kinds of stories that we didn’t have room for in the movie as well. I’ve often wondered whether different filmmakers would have potentially made a completely different movie out of it.


Are the LCD lights in 3D okay for us?

Dan Cutforth: Yes, they are. We checked out the whole movie very carefully to make sure that nothing would be dangerous for people. Sometimes that stuff can throw you off a little bit but we fixed any shots that were in any way dicey.


Did you keep it shallow for montages with really quick cuts?

Dan Cutforth: A lot of the very quick cuts are 2D. So we had a mixture of 3D and 2D cameras so our 3D cameras were mostly fixed at the main stage and most of them weren’t getting close up audience shots. If you see close up audience shots, those are usually 2D. So what we tried to achieve in editorial was to create a mixture. If we went to a lot of quick shots, we used the 2D because your eye doesn’t really read 3D that fast. It was a mixture of both.


There’s still time. Is there any thought or talk of converting some of the 2D shots into 3D for the release?

Dan Cutforth: I think that’ll be a discussion for the distributors. It’s an expensive process.

Jane Lipsitz: On the Katy Perry movie we did convert a lot of shots from 2D to 3D. I think in terms of our budget and the time that we had, it’s also obviously a long process, so it will definitely be a distributor question.


Was directing always part of your career plan?

Jane Lipsitz: No. I don’t think we even thought about it. Paramount called us to produce the Justin Bieber movie so we did that. It was sort of a natural unfolding of events but we worked closely with Jon Chu on the Bieber movie. After that, when the Katy Perry movie came up with Paramount, they called us and the opportunity presented itself. We always like to do things that are challenging so we thought let’s do this, and we really enjoyed it so after that we figured we’d love to direct another movie but not in the same vein so EDC was the perfect opportunity.

Dan Cutforth: It’s funny, life is just full of beautiful surprises and we were very happy and reasonably successful doing what we were doing in TV and suddenly this opportunity came up. It’s very creatively satisfying to work on a movie. TV is wonderful. We love the shows that we do but there’s sort of a permanence and a timelessness to a movie. Even if it doesn’t do well at the box office, if you make a good film, people remember it for years. That’s been a really exciting thing, a sort of legacy to leave behind.

Jane Lipsitz: Story-wise, it was really interesting. We wanted to tell a story about culture, social fabric and cultural phenomenon but we love the music space. The two of those, but also to tell really personal stories that can be related to by lots of people, even if you’re not a EDC fan. That’s another reason we identified those particular stories. I think all of those stories, whether it be love, dealing with loss, subject to bullying and social anxiety, there’s a really widespread group of stories that are very universal. That truly just presented itself with lots of things that we are really drawn to.

Dan Cutforth: I think also we had been thinking for a long time that EDM and that culture presented a really interesting opportunity from a storytelling perspective to create a movie that was experiential, that felt like you were there, like you were part of it because the music is so powerful and visceral. We thought as a theatrical experience you could create something that really felt like you were part of the event because if you go to a rave or EDC or any kind of DJ driven music event, it’s not about watching a band on the stage. There’s a DJ that’s performing essentially, but it’s about the people watching. It’s about the people around you, the experience you have. For a theatrical experience as opposed to something you see in your home, to go and watch that with a group of people who are all feeling the same thing at the same time, it’s a good reason to go see a movie in a theater.


Do you go to Electric Daisy Carnival yourselves?

Jane Lipsitz: We had not been prior to this but we went to the one in Chicago to scout it and that was the first one we had been to. We’re certainly music fans.

Dan Cutforth: Yeah, house music hit really big when I was in college in the late ‘80s in England, so that rave culture was something I was very conscious of and somewhat interested in. So I had been to music events and been to see DJ sets and stuff like that, but for me Chicago is the first time I’d been to EDC. Even that didn’t really prepare me for what Vegas was going to be like. It was a really amazing, almost overwhelming visual experience as well as obviously aural.


So is Bieber really retired?

Jane Lipsitz: You’re going to have to call Scooter and ask him. I don’t know.


Where are your Under the Electric Sky subjects today?

Jane Lipsitz: Some of them are actually here.

Dan Cutforth: Three of them at least showed up last night.

Jane Lipsitz: And most of them are going to on to the Wednesday screening but I think that’s the thing about EDC. It’s like this magical moment where you come together for three days and then you go back to your normal lives and I think a part of you changes but you continue with your day to day.


Are the marriages still married? Both the group marriages and the traditional couples.

Dan Cutforth: You know what, that’s an interesting question. I heard through the grapevine that there was a breakup in the rave family circle, but Matt and Alli, I know for a fact they’re very much still married and very excited about the movie. They got to see a little bit of it. We showed them a little bit of it and they couldn’t believe. They were bowled over by it.


What didn’t make it into the film?

Dan Cutforth: Oh my goodness. There was one story that I would have loved to have got in. This young girl called Ayanna who’s 18, just old enough to go for the first time and her mom drops her off in Vegas and was very concerned about her and her whole experience through EDC was really interesting but we had this other story that was kind of similar and we decided to drop it. Just in general, there were lots of good stories about people who had a fun time but these were the ones that resonate with us most. There is a little bit of Ayanna in the movie. There are little moments where you can see her and where she speaks, but she’s not prominently featured.


Do you have any plans for a DVD yet that might have an extended cut?

Dan Cutforth: I don’t know about an extended cut but I think we’ve got a lot of good additional scenes that we’d love people to see, some really great characters that people would love. It’s just that their stories didn’t really unfold in as interesting a way over three days, but as individuals they’re fascinating characters.


It must be a visual overload of costumes and visual things. Were you overwhelmed by how much there was to shoot?

Jane Lipsitz: Did you see the girls last night wandering around in zero degree weather dressed as the monkeys in the little bikini? If that gives you any indication.

Dan Cutforth: We knew there was going to be way too much stuff happening for us to cover all of it, but we just had to try and stay on top of what was happening. It was almost like having news crews standing by to go out and cover the story. We just tried to be as on top of it all as we could but it was very hard. There was an overwhelming amount of stuff to shoot for sure.


Were there any wardrobe malfunctions with all the crazy costumes?

Dan Cutforth: I just had to think about that. There were a few things, the rave family showed up in a few outfits that one would probably not consider PG-13 and had to be asked to take it down a bit, or rather pulling it up a bit. They’re rather fond of the duct tape pasties and all that sort of stuff, but I think we never had an actual moment where the duct tape came flying off or anything like that.


Are the subjects a way into Electric Daisy Carnival for people who aren’t into this music or probably wouldn’t go to the event?

Jane Lipsitz: That’s exactly our goal in making this movie was certainly to provide an amazing and familiar experience for fans of EDC but it’s also we wanted to make a very universal, relatable movie for people who actually would never consider going.

Dan Cutforth: Or maybe would have gone years ago or might go in the future when they’re old enough. We really wanted to make something anyone could enjoy that were really about human stories, not just for the fans of EDM, not just for the EDC die hards because we knew that those people would be excited about the film anyway.


And they’re very anti-drug and take really good care of people who need medical assistance.

Dan Cutforth: I think that’s one of the big misconceptions that people have about this culture and probably the reason that parents wouldn’t want their 11, 12-year-old kids to go see this movie but the fact of the matter is the culture isn’t all about drugs. There’s certainly that component to it. It’s not the be all end all and I can tell you, I certainly was not on drugs during the whole experience. It is amazing how powerful that music is and the way that it affects you, keeps driving you through the night. It’s amazing. 

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.