“Connecting the film to an audience is half the process.”
Finding your passion and focusing only on it can be a good thing -- but so can taking what you learned while chasing your dream and teaching others about it. That’s what longtime filmmaker, Jon Reiss did following the release of his third feature film, 2007’s documentary, Bomb It -- writing and releasing his first book, Think Outside the Box Office. The book was an effort to teach others what he wish he knew when making the film -- namely the hybrid strategy for film distribution he used while releasing it.
Since then, Reiss has gone on to lead numerous filmmaking workshops, on top of teaching, writing books and producing more feature films. Not only that, but he is constantly coming up with new strategies for filmmakers and musicians alike on how to connect their work with audiences everywhere with his agency, Hybrid Cinema.
Curious to learn more about his immense and varied experience, we caught up with Reiss to discuss getting his start in film with music documentaries and videos (including Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness in Slavery,”), what successful collaboration looks like, and how filmmakers might be able to engage audiences through music.
Marmoset: How did you get into filmmaking?
Jon Reiss: I got into filmmaking basically through working with a punk rock documentary collective, way back when in San Francisco. It was called Target Video and we shot a lot of California punk bands (Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Dead Kennedys, X), but we also did The Cramps, Throbbing Gristle, Iggy Pop etc. Then I kind of got more into industrial culture and worked with a group called Survival Research Laboratories, who were originally part of that whole underground scene in San Francisco. And then I went to film school, and out of film school I actually started doing music videos. I kind of hated music videos in the ‘80s, so I stayed away from them. But then Trent Reznor was looking for someone who hadn’t done music videos before and he liked my short films, and so that’s when I did the “Happiness in Slavery” music video. A lot of my early videos were banned from MTV. But I found it hard to make a living off of videos that are banned from MTV, so...I did some that weren’t banned and then got tired of the music video thing and wanted to make features, so I quit videos cold turkey and made a couple of features -- Better Living Through Circuitry and Cleopatra’s Second Husband.
With Bomb It, I ended up handling the release on my own with a hybrid strategy, doing some of the distribution myself and doing some in collaboration with a few companies, and then I wrote a book called Think Outside the Box Office. Since then, I’m more working with filmmakers and helping them with their distribution and marketing. But we’re also starting to expand into musicians and helping them with their brands.
It seems like you do a lot -- you have this experience as a filmmaker, you work in strategy, you’ve written books. What attracted you to working in all of these fields vs. just being like “Nope, I’m only going to make film”?
It is interesting because I wrote the book to help filmmakers, hoping they could use the book as a guide and do what I did. I wrote it as the book I wish I had when I was distributing Bomb It. But then it seemed like more and more people needed help beyond the book, so I started doing workshops and realized I enjoyed teaching and working one on one with filmmakers helping them figure out how to get their films into the world and find an audience. I do want to get back in filmmaking -- I just haven’t found the right project yet. We’ll see what happens.
What role do you feel music has in a film?
The role music has is primarily helping support the emotion of the story being told – wether fiction or non-fiction. It can also be for pacing and also to help indicate mood and tone. I think you have to be careful with how it’s used -- it’s a very powerful tool and so it needs to be taken very seriously and handled with great care.
I recently worked with a film where I thought that they had wall-to-wall music and I said “Look, try dropping out 20 percent of the music and see how the film feels.” It was too much. I think it can change the feeling of a scene, or even of a whole film. It’s very, extraordinarily powerful, and so it needs to be taken very seriously and handled with great care.
The other role I think music can play that I teach to filmmakers in my workshops is that music can be a part of the expanded release and audience engagement of the film. For instance, there is a film that I wrote about called Ride the Divide. It takes place in the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico, and the filmmakers found bands that lived in the areas where the film took place and where they intended to screen the film. When the film came out, those bands performed in support of the events with the film.
You can take that one step further where a band performs while the film is playing. For Bomb It 2, we created a dialog and effects mix (a D&E mix) so the music could be dropped out and a DJ could remix the music live to the film as it was playing.
You mentioned that you’ve directed many music videos, and got your start in the punk scene and filming that. Good or bad, what are five words you would use to describe making a music video?
Hopefully artistic. Creative collaboration. And, you know, hopefully fun. That’s six words.
What does community and collaboration mean to you? How do you know when it’s successful?
I think you know collaboration is successful when you’re feeding off the other person. They have ideas and you riff on that and say “What about this?” and they say “What about this?” and it progresses in a really positive way. So the end result is greater than the sum of the parts.
When I did the video for Trent [Reznor], “Happiness in Slavery,” he said, “I want something that has consensual S&M and gears grinding flesh.” I came up with some ideas and he was like “Oh, this is not really what I’m looking for, I’m looking for something kind of like this.” So then I went off and wrote something and he liked it and just kind of said, “Go ahead.” We showed him edits, he gave great notes. We even did some additional shooting based on those notes which really helped the piece. I think it worked out really well. It was probably the first and best creative collaboration I had in music videos.
If you had to pick the best piece of advice for a filmmaker who’s just starting out, what would you say?
Think entrepreneurially. There are so many different kinds of work available today. Be expansive about the what you consider is filmmaking. Go out and participate. Work begets work. Just get started doing something. It’s a pretty good time to be an up and coming filmmaker these days there's so much demand for content and content creation.
The other thing to understand is that connecting the film to an audience is half the process. It’s similar to music in a sense that creating the work is half the process, but connecting with an audience is as important.
You probably know the rebellious anthems and ear-splitting acoustics of the likes of Mötely Crüe, Van Halen and Guns n’ Roses -- but they weren’t the only ones founding the metal institution in the 1980s. Formed in the glory days of the Sunset Strip and hair metal, Geronimo! is a four-piece outfit encapsulating all of the ‘80s classics -- vibrant vocals, loud, enthusiastic solos, raw lyrics and tons of hairspray.
With songs focused around love’s hard times and self-proclamations of grandeur -- not to mention some killer guitar solos -- Geronimo!’s timeless ‘80s rock ‘n’ roll will leave you riled up and ready to take on anything. We’re proud to partner with Fervor Records to release a piece Geronimo!’s songography, primed and ready to leave you headbanging at your desk.
It’s true -- some genres of music never go out of style. Portland’s four-piece psychedelic disco band, Gold Casio, takes full advantage of this. Bringing together the dance floor rhythms of nu-disco acts like Holy Ghost and the fun, idiosyncratic attitude of groups like Of Montreal, you can trace a few of Gold Casio’s inspirations -- but they add their own unique style to their debut EP, Fever Dreams. With bold dance beats, shimmering synths and alternating male and female vocals, this new album is dripping with gold.
Portlanders Ela Ra, Forrest Grenfell, Brock Grenfell and George Schultz form Gold Casio, delivering emotional truths in the form of high energy songs about being young and free. Their music is the meeting point between bright, upbeat energy and an outer space experience -- a feeling perfectly captured in their latest music video “Last Song,” which is brought to life through chopped video segments and bright colors. In an interview with Billboard, Forrest Grenfell explains: "It is a declaration to ‘leaving it all behind’ and the pursuit of self-truth, which is a present theme throughout the EP. I rarely write lyrics that are this literal, but in this case they ring true."
Full of creative flare, we are happy to have Gold Casio as part of our Marmoset community and to represent Fever Dreams, released today.
Don’t forget why you started making music in the first place. This basic sentiment is what led Atlanta-based multi-instrumentalist, Feverkin, to begin his Calendar Project, work that sees the composer and producer releasing one song and an accompanying music video per month.
Featuring his signature balance of intricate, ambient electronic arrangements and organic, natural recorded sound, the project has yielded five songs so far this year. This is a comparison he is quick to make to his output last year, when he released his first EP, From Your Window -- a five song record that was a year and a half in the making. In an effort to speed up his songwriting process with the self-imposed deadlines of one song per month -- while also giving a peek into his creative process behind writing a song -- the Calendar Project was born. And, we think it's pretty neat.
We caught up with Feverkin as he was preparing his next song, “June,” to discuss the origins of the project, the challenge of striking a work-life balance and how imposing deadlines can help let go of perfectionism.
What made you want to become a musician? And when did you get your start?
Well, my mom made me do all sorts of things when I was a kid, and piano lessons was one of them. That was when I was 6. I took lessons, but I quit after a couple years. But, I got back into music when I got into electronic music. Like, you remember Limewire? I was using Limewire and I was downloading a whole bunch of electronic music I was hearing. I got into a program called Fruity Loops. That's where it all started and it kind of went from there.
So you have this project, Feverkin. How did that get started for you?
Feverkin. So, this would have been a project that's been going on for 6 years now. I didn't really start taking it seriously until a few years ago. But, it was basically just a fun thing I felt like I could run with to try to make a certain style of music I felt like I could call my own.
Your music is a really cool blend of electronic sounds and organic sounds. You use samples from nature sounds that you find around. Can you tell us about that?
Yeah, I like to record sounds that I feel belong to me. I think one of my favorite sounds is this piano that's at my parent’s house. It's out of tune and it's really old, but it just feels like a sound that sounds like home to me. It's really important for me to use sounds that I can attach memories or experiences to with my life -- even something as simple as crickets chirping at night, or wind blowing through the trees. If I was there recording it, it can put me in a place. So, I wanted to see if that transfers over to the music.
I like blending organic sounds with acoustic sounds, because it's hard for me to be inspired clicking my mouse all day on the computer. A lot of electronic music can be made with synthesizers but, conversely, you can also use software and program a chord progression to be played, or sounds to go in. But when you play a guitar, piano, or whatever wacky instrument you might have on hand...like my Aunt gives me this lily harp -- it's super hard to keep in tune. But sometimes you get these surprises, where the string goes out of tune and it plays this note you didn't expect. That's just not something that can happen in a very calculated environment like a computer. So, I like keeping the blend between the two. One I have a lot of control over, the other, a lot of surprises can happen. And I'll know when they come together, it feels correct to me.
You started something called the Calendar Project. Can you tell us a bit about it?
The Calendar Project is, basically, a self imposed challenge I put on myself. Last year, I released a five track EP and it was pushed to vinyl, which was a goal of mine. It was really exciting. But to make those five songs took me so long. It took me probably a year and a half to finish five songs, just because I was putting so much pressure on myself to make five songs that I felt would be really, really good. I think in that process, I lost sight of why I did music to begin with, which was basically just to have a dialogue between me and the listener. So, I was totally just having a conversation with myself. It wasn't fun anymore. I think that process left me a little exhausted and not creatively energized.
I started the Calendar Project as a way to just lighten up a little bit and just get songs done whether I deem them perfect or not -- which they never are. Every song I've released so far is...I could tell you exactly what I would have done to improve it. But that's not the point. It's been a learning process. Because if you want to say, "I love you," to someone, for instance, you wouldn't think too hard about what words can you say, the timing of the words, what context you would need to say it in. It's just something that's supposed to come out naturally when you want to tell someone that. With music, I feel it should be the same thing -- I shouldn't get in the way of myself. Self-imposing deadlines through releasing music, it's kind of made music fun for me again. Which is the point.
What would you say has been your favorite thing about this project so far?
I think my favorite thing so far is I didn't know just how much music I could create. I don't know if other artists can relate to trying to plan something out from start to finish before they even put the paintbrush on the canvas. But, I think, I had some creative dilemmas to sort through and one of them is I have a big, beautiful blank canvas, so I usually never start. This project has forced me to commit to a deadline, which I think is very important. It's like when you're back in school, you're gonna get whatever done, because it's due. I had no idea that I was capable of doing this. Because I've already finished five songs in half a year -- as opposed to last year, it took me a year and a half to finish five songs.
On the opposite side, what would you say is the biggest challenge so far with the project?
Probably finding a work-life balance. As I've gotten more into doing music as a career, it's been one extreme or another -- either I'm hanging out with my friends too much, or I'm just working so hard that I tune out reality, and people won't hear from me at weeks at a time. So, the biggest challenge is figuring out how to take a break.
Is your songwriting process for this project the same every month? On the first day of the month are you like, "All right, I'm gonna sit down and start on this," or how does that work?
Yes, at times it's just like that. I'm trying to take the first week off to just soak in the month a little bit. Just drive around and check out spots that maybe I've never seen. Or hit up people I haven't seen in a while to just soak in life outside of the studio, so that when I do come into the studio, I can work, and it usually rolls around the second or third week of the month. Usually, by then, I start putting brain power towards what I'm going to do. And as I start working, the ideas come and then usually wrap it all up by the third or fourth week of the month.
Is that similar at all to your usual songwriting process outside of the Calendar Project? Or is it different?
Yeah, I guess you could say it's different, especially considering how fast I'm finishing these songs. I think if I were to give myself a longer time per song, I could come out with something a little bit more, I don't even know the word...intricate. I don't know if you're familiar with a song I've put out some years ago -- It's a song called “Sinking,” and it's got a vocalist named Nori on it. This might be embarrassing to tell you, but that song took me probably a year to finish. And it’s like, "Dude that's not good." I was doing other things too, but to get that song from its creation to its release, yeah, probably a year. I think it's because I didn't have a deadline, I didn't have a goal, I didn't know what intention it would be for. So I think I just went in circles pretty much for the most part of the year.
I know myself better now and I know my sound better. And I think I know how to stick to a scene better -- especially, since I've already released a body of work once before. And, like I said earlier, the work-life balance, getting out of the studio to soak in life, so that when I come back, I actually have something to say.
Awesome. So you also release a video with every song each month, too. Do you ever think about the video when you're writing the songs? Or think about how it will accompany the music?
Sometimes, the video idea comes to me before the song. And then, vice versa. This month, I think, the video idea is happening before the song, because I have a location I think I want to film it. Usually, I'll get a hunch or I'll just get this idea of something I think would be cool. That gets me excited to work on the project. And then I just go ahead with it. So right now...I was actually gonna do it today, was drive out and check out the location and just chill there for maybe a half hour. Just kind of soaking it in, seeing how it feels. And then if it feels right, I'll try to write sounds or a song that I think could match it. But sometimes the other thing happens. I got lucky in January -- it snowed and I was walking around with my microphone.
What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given?
Aw, dude, I've got journals. I'm looking at a stack of five right now of just wisdom I've received over the years. So if I had to boil it down to one … it's something like, "The world doesn't need another perfectionist, it needs people who get things done." As a rule. If you get tied up in how things should be executed, you usually forget your intention, which is the reason why we do things to begin with.