Quint interviews Don Argott, director of the awesome ROCK SCHOOL!!!
Published at: June 13, 2005, 3:12 a.m. CST by staff
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with a little chat I had with the director of the insanely entertaining ROCK SCHOOL, a doc that premiered at Sundance and got stellar word. It has been making the festival rounds for quite a while now and just went into limited release this weekend. If it's in a city near you, I couldn't urge you enough to go check it out. Fun, involving and full of characters you'll be happy to have in your life.
The documentary is about a class taught by Paul Green, a kind of crazy dude that is in charge of a group of kids. His goal in life is to teach them the greats. Zappa, Black Sabbath... essentially any classic rock or cult favorites from the '80s or below. But the twist is his goal isn't to educate these kids about these bands, but teach them how to play like them. The Zappa stuff is so off the mark, so unconventional that to show these kids tackling it (and eventually overcoming it) is a joy to watch.
So, you have the brief synopsis. Here we go with the interview! Enjoy!
QUINT: First and foremost, the music. When you're going through films at film festivals typically you'll find lots of indie punk or unknown bands that the filmmakers got for free. I was wondering how you cleared all the well known music for ROCK SCHOOL without having to rob Fort Knox.
DON ARGOTT: It was a fucking nightmare! (laughs) It was a very, very challenging film. This was a first time documentary feature for myself and for Sheena (Joyce, producer) and Demian (Fenton, editor)... basically 3 people made the movie. We self-funded it. I knew a little bit about music licensing because I actually have two '70s Porno CDs out and I've actually licensed it to big films, so I know how much money is involved with it. It's a lot of money, which is good for me when I'm getting it, but it's bad for me when I'm going out the door.
I knew from the get go that this would be a very challenging film to clear music for. There's a lot of big, popular classic rock songs. It was hard. We had to cut a lot of stuff because we couldn't get the rights to it. We had to cut really powerful moments because the music was just...
QUINT: Do you remember any specific examples?
DON ARGOTT: Van Halen, unfortunately... I don't know if you're familiar with Van Halen, but the first Van Halen record there's a guitar solo called ERUPTION that goes into YOU REALLY GOT ME. CJ, the little kid, played ERUPTION before YOU REALLY GOT ME. It was note-perfect, amazing... showed what a talent this kid is. We tried to get the rights to this song and Eddie Van Halen just... There's a publishing issue between Van Halen and David Lee Roth and it was just a mess there, so ultimately they wouldn't give us the rights to license it. We had to take it out and put all of YOU REALLY GOT ME in, which is a Kinks song so we were able to clear the music for that.
That was a tough one because all along that was one of the stand-out moments of the film that ultimately no one will ever get to see because of the rights issue. It was a lot of that. It's hard when you do a documentary because it's not like doing a narrative film and you come up with this wishlist of music you'd love to put in and then just put it in there to see if it works and someone says, "No, you can't have it. Take it out."
For this, it becomes another character in the film. It becomes a central part of the film and when you're kind of forced to put the things in that work and you basically try to clear them afterwards. When you don't get the clearance for 'em, it's very... unfortunate.
QUINT: Well, that moment in the movie still works. I think this is the first time the audience really gets a grasp on how talented the group is, especially CJ. It's the first time this little kid is unleashed.
DON ARGOTT: Yes. Yes... Black Sabbath was very, very easy to clear. They were one of the first people that granted us permission for not a lot of money.
QUINT: How did Paul Green's School of Rock pop up onto your radar in the first place?
DON ARGOTT: He's been in Philadelphia since 1998... You can see it a little bit in the film, but the posters that he puts up around town to advertise his shows... That's what initially caught my eye. Day after day it would seem like I'd just pass more of these posters. It was like calling out to me, "Find out about me!"
So, one day I was really kind of hellbent on doing a documentary and I walked past one of the posters, so I called him up and I was like, "I'd love to do a documentary on your school. What do you think?" He said, "Have you seen any of our shows?" I said, "Well, actually I haven't. I would love to." He said, "We're actually doing a Zappa show tonight. You should come check it out." So I did and it absolutely blew me away. I was like, "Wow... this would be amazing to do a film about this school."
Luckily me and Paul met the next day and really hit it off. I think Paul had been approached by a couple other filmmakers and I know VH1 had approached him to do a reality show the year before. It's been out there for a little while, but I think Paul took a chance on me, being a filmmaker from Philadelphia. We kind of shared the same vision and the same taste in music and I think that was a big deal for him, so he was like, "Yeah, sure. Go for it." I think the next day I showed up with a camera and started shooting. So, it worked out.
QUINT: Were the parents receptive to you shooting a documentary around their kids?
DON ARGOTT: Yeah, I think so. I really did very little research on the school. I mean, it wasn't the traditional way you'd do a documentary. It's not like a Michael Moore thing where you do a year's worth of research and then you go and show up with a camera. I mean, I just showed up with a camera, then figured it out along the way.
Because of that I leaned on Paul to help me out with kids that he thought would have good stories. So, he gave me a list of 8 kids, who I contacted. We followed 8 kids ultimately. When I contacted them and told them what I was doing, they were all really receptive.
The other thing is I basically shot the film by myself. It was me in the school with the camera and it was a very non-threatening type of set-up. It wasn't like VH1 coming in with boom poles and two cameras. In that respect it was very easy for the kids to be comfortable because it was like I was never there. I mean, I was there, but I wasn't always in their face with the camera.
QUINT: If they had anything else on their mind, they'd probably just forget you're there.
DON ARGOTT: Right. Exactly. And that's how I ultimately got some of the moments that I got. I was there for so long people just got used to me being there and they trusted me... I had good relationships with everyone. I think that's key when you're making a documentary film is that you don't want the camera to impose. You don't want it to disrupt the situation. You want the situation to happen and you want to document it. I think that that comes across a lot in the film. I got some really, really candid moments because people just kind of forgot I was there.
QUINT: Especially with some of those arguments.
DON ARGOTT: Yes!
QUINT: What was the most amazing thing that you witnessed, whether or not if you caught it on film or not?
DON ARGOTT: Probably the most amazing thing as far as emotional was when we were in Germany and the kids hit the stage. They played an hour set. We had to obviously condense it to, like, a 15 minute highlight thing, but it was so powerful. I don't have kids, but I kind of got the sense of what a proud parent would feel like when their kids are up on stage, like, really doing it.
Me and Sheena, the producer... we both traveled together and she shot one of the cameras and I was kind of the handheld camera on-stage... we were crying our eyes out the whole time because it was just so powerful. It was so emotional to see the audience react the way they reacted. Their jaws had just dropped. They were so moved by it that it was just like this wave of emotion that they kept just giving back to the kids. When Napoleon (Murphy Brock, ex-Zappa band member) comes out and bows in front of them... you're just like, "Jesus Christ!" You can't write that.
QUINT: Yeah, if you scripted that into a movie people would go...
DON ARGOTT: "This is so sappy and cheesy." But this happened! It wasn't prompted or anything. He was genuinely blown away by these kids. To me, that was probably the most powerful moment was being witness to that.
QUINT: Besides Paul, obviously, who was the best interview subject?
DON ARGOTT: In their own way, they all had very good stories. I think the Collins twins were just always so much fun to be around. They were unfiltered, you know what I mean? I felt like all the kids that we chose to put in the film represented a good cross section of what Paul's school was all about.
The Collins twins were kind of the unfiltered, unjaded... getting-into-rock-music-for-the-first-time thing. Then you had somebody like Madi (Diaz-Svalgard) who totally has talent, but doesn't necessarily have the rock star thing going. That's where the Paul thing comes in. In fact, she's a Quaker. That extra added weirdness...
QUINT: Who hangs out with rappers, no less.
DON ARGOTT: Yeah, Quaker rappers (laughs). And CJ was obviously that just guitar prodigy that you come across every once in a while. This kid is either going to be a fucking genius or he's going to be, like, an accountant or banker or something that just totally not going to do music at all. But I think he'll go far.
Then there's Will (O'Connor) who is not a good musician, but really kind of finds a home in this school. He finds a place where he fits in because he's fuckin' weird in his school. He doesn't fit in or have friends, but he comes here and everybody's like him, kinda. Everybody's an outcast, you know what I mean? To me, all those kids made sense to what the school is about. They're not all amazing musicians, but there's a lot of really interesting characters.
QUINT: Where is everybody now?
DON ARGOTT: Madi is at the Berkley School of Music. The Collins twins are still at Rock School, not much better than when we first started following them. Actually, Asa is apparently a very good drummer... that kid with the mohawk? He's apparently a very good drummer. I don't know if that's good for his age or a good drummer.
CJ is probably 10 times better now than he was then. They played at Sundance... A&E Indie Films bought the TV rights, they threw a party for us at Sundance where Alice Cooper came and performed with the kids. That's actually the new ending for the film. We cut in that performance from Sundance. But they did probably the best set I've ever seen them perform. They did, like, 21st Century Schizoid Man, they did White Lines, they were just like crazy! They did Hot For Teacher! CJ had every note perfect. It wasn't sloppy, it wasn't "good for a kid." It was fuckin' spot on. He's scary, how good he is. It's really very scary.
Will, last I heard, I think he's applying for colleges. He was at one point developing a line of urban wear... t-shirts or something? I don't know... he's a bit of a mystery to me. Because there was a distance between the shoot, when we were done shooting, the editing and now with the film getting picked up and everything... he had called probably 2 months ago and he was just like back to his old self. Very tentative... like, "Hello, Don. This is Will O'Connor." (SAID SOFTLY) "I would really like to see the film..." I was like, "Yeah, sure. Come on over."
Then he was asking me all these questions like, "Is my artwork in it? Is there any reference to such and such a thing I was talking about?" I was like, "No, Will. You told me not to put that stuff in." He's just very nervous because I think he sees that it's going to be seen by a lot of people and I understand. Must be kind of weird. And that was a time in his life and I think he's moved on from that, but this is like a time capsule of who he was.
QUINT: How have you been handled since being picked up?
DON ARGOTT: New Market has been absolutely amazing. They get the film. Bob Yari from New Market was one of the first people, distribution-wise, who had seen the film at the LA Film Fest at the first screening. He was was just hellbent... "I have to have this film, I have to have this film..." We had a lot of other offers and a lot of interest from other big companies... But I think... Well, what one studio had basically said, "We really like the film, but if you take out the cursing and put more popular music in it, I think we can do a lot more with it." And we were like, "Yeah, I bet you could, but that's not the film we made."
And New Market... they never asked for one cut, they never asked us to take anything out. Again, from the get-go they've been so supportive. It's so nice to be with people who respect the film you made and who want to keep that vision intact. I think that's very rare, especially in the indie world where you're really at the beck and call... If someone says, "I want your film" you basically have to do anything they tell you to do because you want people to see it and who the hell are you? I think we're with the right people.
QUINT: What's next for you?
DON ARGOTT: I actually have two kind of dream projects in the works. They're probably long shots that they'll actually happen, but one's a Led Zeppelin documentary and the other is a Misfits documentary. Do you know them?
QUINT: I know them, but I don't know them well.
DON ARGOTT: If the film gets made, then you'll know them a lot better.
QUINT: Well, I know Zappa a lot better than I did before I saw ROCK SCHOOL.
DON ARGOTT: Me, too. I wasn't a big fan of Zappa when I first started out. I didn't know a lot about him.
QUINT: My girlfriend is a big Zappa fan and every time she tried to play me some I just thought it was a little...
DON ARGOTT: Weird?
QUINT: Yeah... I didn't know if it was my cup of tea, but honestly... after watching ROCK SCHOOL I have a much larger appreciation of how he turned music on its head and made something totally his own.
DON ARGOTT: It's very complex and its still considered rock. There's a lot of stuff, again, we didn't get to put into the film because a lot of it was extraneous information that wasn't moving the story forward. But there was a thing about Zappa that we didn't put in where Paul talks about the history of the Zappa thing and how it came to be and Paul is a huge Zappa fan and saw it as a really unique teaching tool for kids. It's got blues, it's got jazz, it's got rock, it's got every kind of element in it. And it's got weird time signatures and stuff like that...
But he said the first time they did Zappa the kids fuckin' hated it. The kids didn't want any part of it because they were doing Led Zeppelin and Metallica and then Paul is like, "Next show we're doing Zappa." And they hated it. It wasn't until they really started to try to play it and they were like, "Oh, this is really fuckin' hard." If you can master a Zeppelin solo that's awesome and that's its own thing, but if you master a Zappa solo or a Zappa time signature, you can pretty much go down the gamut of anything else you want to play. You know what I mean?
If you learn how to play AC/DC you're kind of on this level of playing that kind of music, which might be cool, but if you learn how to play Zappa you can basically figure out just about everything and I think that's the whole point of it. I think once the kids started to get into what the music was all about, they really became big fans of theirs.
QUINT: What's your favorite dirty joke?
DON ARGOTT: My favorite dirty joke... Does it have to be a long one?
DON ARGOTT: Have you heard the penguin in the desert one?
QUINT: I don't think so.
DON ARGOTT: So, there's this penguin driving down the Arizona highway. It's really hot, like 120 degrees and the car start to overheat. So, he sees a gas station up ahead and pulls off. The penguin gets out and says, "I don't know what's going on with my car." The guy goes, "Yeah, it's probably something under the hood... I got a bunch of cars ahead of you. This has been happening all day. If you want, there's an ice cream shop up the street. You can go up there and cool off while I work on your car."
The penguin says, "Great." He goes into the ice cream shop and orders a big thing of vanilla ice cream. He's eating it, but since he doesn't have any hands it's getting all over him. He's a fucking mess of vanilla ice cream. Fifteen minutes goes by, he decides he's going to go back and check on his car. He walks back down the street and the mechanic's working on his car, under the hood.
He turns and sees the penguin coming and says, "Oh, yeah. It looks like you blew a seal." The penguin goes, "No, no... this is just ice cream!"
There you have it, squirts! What a way to end an interview about a documentary on children, with an old fashioned cum joke. Anyway, go see this flick if it's playing anywhere near you. I'm not bullshitting when I say it's one of the best films I've seen this year. Enjoy, squirts!