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Greg Harrison III - Director of Groove

Groove typifies the dream of independent filmmakers: get a great film made with a low budget, get into Sundance, and get picked up by a major studio, and then of course have a great DVD! We spent a good amount of time talking to Groove's Director Greg Harrison III and talked about the Indie dream as well as the incredible influence that DVD had on his first film.

Do you own a DVD player and if so what are some of your favorite DVDs?

I've owned a DVD player for about three years now, and I would probably say one of my favorites is the double DVD pack of Boogie Nights, which I thought was fantastic. I am way into Soderberg DVDs and his commentaries; I've got all his stuff. I was also really impressed with the Fight Club DVD; I hope that it represents the future of some of the bigger DVD releases.

Has DVD had an influence on you as a first time filmmaker?

Absolutely, it was like cramming for the test. I rented and bought a ton of DVDs, listened to the commentaries, watched the bonus materials. It felt a lot like brushing up on Film School. Listening to all those commentaries allowed me to get into the head of many directors on the set. While I've been a film editor for a long time and felt confident about what the film was going to be, I was not prepared for the shear logistics of being on the set. It was very helpful to hear how various directors addressed the challenges they faced on their sets.

What role do you think Sundance has in launching independent film careers?

To me Sundance is really two things. On one hand Sundance is still very much a place for film lovers to go to see films they might not see anywhere else in the world. And in that respect it's very insparational to go and be surrounded by a community of filmmakers and film lovers. I think it still retains that core vibe. Which is what I think was intended from the very beginning. Sundance has also evolved simultaneously into the best place to promote and sell your film, because it's the highest concentration of industry people and press people at any one event. While people might call that the "Death Knell" of a once independent film festival, I think it's more complex than that. I think it's a much-needed aspect of the industry that needs to be embraced and Sundance is a great place to embrace it. For us it was obviously great. I can tell you we went to Sundance 1999 with a postcard that had Groove on it, and said 'we are going to make this film'. We found a lot of filmmakers that were ahead of us by a year that were really trying to sell their films and told us their war stories, which was really inspirational. We came back a year later and experienced it ourselves and certainly took adavantage of the concentration of industry people there, to not only to sell our film but also to start our careers.

What kind of opportunities has a film like Groove provided for you for future endeavors?

Wow, that's a huge question. It literally in no small way just manifested our dream of being able to be filmmakers for a career. We finished Groove only three days before the festival. It was an insane schedule. We took it there, screened it our first night and we had four offers on the table for distribution. Press started coming out of the woodwork and we closed the deal with Sony in 24 hours. We had great responses at the screening. It was like walking through the looking glass. We got agents at William Morris out of the deal, we obviously got national theatrical distribution, video distribution. Through the success of Groove we also returned at 43% profit to our investors even before we hit theaters, just off the advance. That also supplied our company with profit enough to start a new company for all our future endeavors. We now have new office space. We have some strength to option new material with. We just optioned a book on the Beat Generation that we're adapting for the screen and our investors are ready to go again on a totally independent production, which is a huge advantage. But at the same time we're not against doing a studio film, it's through our agents and the success of Groove that we're pitching at the studio level as well. We've got two scripts that we're very interested in, one that we're in the latter stages of pitching which we're hoping to mention in the next couple of weeks. So we have all this opportunity which allows us to make films we can care about. Literally that's what Danielle Renfrew (my producing partner) and I have dreamed of. It's happened much faster than we thought it would. Groove was successful beyond our wildest dreams.

Let's talk more about Groove. You really made it at the apex of the rave scene. Do you think rave has crested and had it's moment in the sun and now it's something different?

It's a complex issue. I think there is a sense that raving has come and gone, but you could say raving came and went in 1994 when the word "electronica" was created by the large record labels. Then when that didn't work, it was like rave was dead. But I think what you have is two separate things going on - the underground spirit which stays alive on its own terms really throughout history, and then the press coverage from the mainstream media. It's really the public attention that's what comes and goes. Really the underground point of view stays alive on its own terms and I'd argue it's the same basic point of view that can be stitched back through the youth culture of the hippies in the 70s and 60s, the beat generation of the 50s, even back to the lost generation of the 20s. There's a perception in the mainstream culture that if it appears in the press it's hot and if it starts dying in the press then it somehow has died. The underground thing is word of mouth. You're not going to hear very much of what's going on but it is still very much going on. I think it is morphing and changing but I think it's much more of a constant than people think.

You have a number of very well-known DJs in Groove. How did you get them to participate in the fictionalization of the rave world?

There certainly was a stage of convincing people. But I think it was fairly easy once they realized that it wasn't what they would traditionally think of as a "film version" of the rave scene. Everybody has been gun shy especially in the rave scene itself about the film industry coming in and making a film about their scene. Early on in the process when I was writing the script, word got around the scene that there was this guy making a film. I got emails from people I didn't even know saying you shouldn't do this, don't ruin it for all of us, you're just going to make another exploitative piece of media. But when they realized that I had been involved in the scene heavily and that I was basing the script on my own experiences, that I was involving people in the scene to help make the film, that I was even interviewing a lot of DJs and ravers for anecdotal information to help bring the script alive in terms of details, that's when people realized that I was doing something that they care about. That's just a ripple effect - I met with people, I told them what I was going to do, I had them read the script, and more often than not people totally were supportive.

How autobiographical is the story?

It really came from a very personal place. I've been a film editor and I wanted to be a writer/director, and the best thing is to write what you know and hopefully think of a project that is logistically simple enough to do for little or no money, which is exactly what we did. So really I didn't want it to be the voice of the scene or a zeitgeist film or anything - I was just really looking at my own experiences. Primarily between 1994 and 1996 was when you could really call me a raver, going out all the time and helping put on raves. I really used that set of experiences as the basis for the film and all the people in the film have real life counterparts as well, and all the situations really come from direct experiences, whether they're mine or somebody else's.

Now that we know that you've played the role of putting on a rave, how similar is producing a rave and producing a movie?

The independent world is very similar to the underground rave scene in terms of producing an event. The best rave collectives see it as event production. They're incredibly organized, incredibly diligent and resourceful, and those are exactly the qualities you need in film. We gathered not only independent crew people who've been on other films that have that point of view, but we also went right into the rave scene and found people who put on raves on a regular basis and really tapped that creative community. I think the film is a testament to the creative vitality of the scene. The person who did costumes comes directly from the scene, all the DJs and the music that we licensed come from small independent labels of people making music in their home studios on their Macs. We got the video projection artist to do it at real raves, the specialty lighting design, even the ravers themselves who appear as extras all came out of the scene. I think there were times when there was this really cool blurred line between the film crew and the rave crew, and I think the vibe on the set, while there was an extremely high work ethic and focus going on, was really positive, that we were all doing something we care about, that we're all doing it to see a great film get made to the best of our ability with the best of our resources, at its core the ethos of a real underground rave.

The marketplace for where films are shown is so diverse; it's hard to define what success is for a film. How do you measure Groove's success?

You have to say, successful compared to what? It's all relative and you have set your terms down. There's this unfortunate misconception in Hollywood that an absolute box office number is a sign of success, like if your film broke $20 million or something. It's really irrelevant. You have to know what it costs to make, what it costs to market. I think from an independent standpoint, you're looking at other things that could be a success. We could call Groove a success if it started our careers, which it has. We could call it a success if we return money to our investors, plus profit, before it hit the theaters - we did that. We could call it a success because Sony's about to break even off the theatrical and then we'll be in profit for all the ancillary markets. That looks like a really positive thing that going to happen. Even though our absolute numbers are very low compared to the industry, I think that you can consider Groove a success because we made it for under $500,000 and sold it for $1.5 million. Whereas maybe Coyote Ugly isn't successful even though it made $60 million at the box office, because of all their overhead. It's strange how the simple notion of profit margins goes out the window when all the big numbers and hype of Hollywood are involved. The bottom line is that a lot of huge films with big numbers at the box office do not have a profit margin. For us, we knew the kind of film we were making - it's a small film, it's a niche film, and we wanted to make it a certain way, which in some ways may have limited the size of our audience but we also knew we were making it for the right price, and we sold it for the right price. Sony is really smart because they know the right price for the marketing, and they put a marketing cap on it. We followed that and it could still be successful on its own terms.

After seeing the DVD, I think the film is really going to find quite a life on DVD.

I'm excited about that. I think it very well could. Unfortunately, in some of the smaller markets that we went into, we only ran for maybe 2 or 3 weeks, and by the third week people were just hearing about it. Now we are getting flooded with email from people wanting to know when the DVD is coming out. People missed it and really wanted to see it. It's really fun to see how the word of mouth goes.

You obviously have Columbia Tri-Star's support since you and I are talking!

Yes, they've been tremendous. Not only in the production of the DVD, which they fully involved me in - in fact we had to cut stuff from the DVD because we maxed the disk out and we had even more bonus material. They were really open to whatever we had and have been doing a great job with marketing and the promotions. They are very supportive of this disk and that was great, since it's my first film, and it's a fairly small film in the grand scheme of things for the titles that they have. I think they're seeing the potential for it in the audience that it was created for.

Now that you've produced a DVD, will it affect the next time you go into production, like looking at the trims from your dailies, your outtakes, or taking opportunities to interview people on the spot? Does that change the way you'll be a filmmaker?

I think so. I think that's starting to happen. I did think as much as I could about that stuff. At a certain point there was such a survival mode on the set, we were mainly concerned with getting through the film because we had no money, but to what degree I could I thought about the dream of "what if this does go somewhere", let's have some bonus material. To that end we had a DV camera on the set and I had a friend on set who shot all the bonus material for behind the scenes. When I was editing the film, I had a bin in the avid where I put deleted scenes when I cut them out of a particular version, I would segment them and put them in a deleted scenes bin, knowing that would be the easiest way to get them if we got a DVD. So I thought about it as much as I could, but with more resources and more time to plan and a little more breathing room I'd love to almost have someone on board who is thinking about bonus material from the very beginning. The most exciting aspect of the DVD is producing DVD specific bonus material as opposed to just putting on what ever is laying around the marketing office. Often times you get the EPK which is press fluff. It's much more interesting when you got to a DVD like Magnolia and you see a 70 or 80 minute documentary that's exclusive to the DVD. For me that's exciting as a filmmaker, selfishly because I want to archive the few years of my life that I put in to something, but also I think for film buffs and aspiring filmmakers that's really what they want to see.

So what's next for you? What comes after Groove?

We started a new company called Map Point Pictures, we just optioned a book on the Beat Generation which we've adapted for the screen. I'm also back to writing, which is exciting, I finally have some time to write again. I am writing a script called Left, a fantasy story about a kid growing up America. Also we are developing a script that's kind of a film noir in the horse-racing world. Probably our main focus would be at the Studio level, we are pitching a wonderful script which is a political satire/drama about governmental experimental disease research which takes place in Washington DC. That's a perfect example of the kind of material we're interested in - it's intelligent yet entertaining and emotional. This is exactly what Groove has opened us up to, that we have a shot at. That's one of the biggest thrills, to have access to good material.

With Groove you did a fantastic job with a group of independent actors. Now that you've had success with Groove and might have your pick of who to work with, do you plan to stay with lesser known actors or go for more brand names?

My philosophy is this, creative comes first. What ever is right for the project you are doing is most important. Of course what comes right behind is the business of film making. One of the things that unfortunately happens in Hollywood is films get retrofitted, where target audiences are picked and a film can be cast from that. The business is important but I think it's possible to satisfy the needs of the business and the creative need of the film. I don't think they're mutually exclusive and I think there's a smart way to make this happen.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

My first piece of advice is: Don't ever make a film! And if you ignore me, you're meant to make a film. It requires that much diligence, that much focus, that much long term sacrifice. If you ignore my advice and decide to make a film my biggest piece of advice is to learn to love the business and legal side of the film as fast as you can. A real naive position which I certainly started from is that Independent film is a refuge from the cancer of the business and legal world. I am going to be creative and protect my vision while all these other people are selling out. Quite honestly no film is ever going to see the light of day if you don't have some sense of the business and legal side, it's too expensive of an art for to ignore that. Unfortunately what most people love about film and film making is this small piece of iceberg above the water and what you need to learn to love this massive thing underneath the water which is the legal and business side. That's just a sobering fact; the sooner you can realize that the better.

How influenced was the film by the raving culture?

My goal was to infuse the experience of the film with a sense of the emotion of the rave experience and put a human face on an often marginalized subculture and help to address why people are drawn to it. I just wanted it to feel emotional without ironic distance and just present it as is. I really tried to express through a mediated experience what the point of raving is. It was very intentional for me to make the climax of the film without any dialogue. Because I think the point of raving really is this non-verbal, non-intellectual, visceral, emotional, communal experience on the dance floor. That's exactly what I tried to show visually and musically in the Digweed sequence.

How true a representation is Groove of the Rave scene in San Francisco?

This film represented my personal experience of raving in the Bay Area, so your mileage may vary, depending on where you raved, what year you raved, what your attitude was, what parties you sought out. The film is very specific about portraying a certain kind of underground party that occurred in San Francisco, so there's a very specific flavor. Within that I feel really strongly that it represents my experience of that time, it looks back at my intense raving experience. The process of making this film for me was a way for me to try to make sense of what it all was. I think looking at the film today, it really captures a time and place in my experience of that part of youth culture history. I'd like to believe that other's believe that too. When we had the premiere in San Francisco we packed the Metrion, which is like a 600 seat theater, I would say that more than half of the people were ravers. We really tried to get a lot of people from the local scene there. There was a huge positive response, and I think there was actually a relief that the film actually represented their experience. I got something that I didn't expect, which was a lot of people thanking me for representing something that dealt with an important experience in their lives but never had seen it reflected on the big screen.

So you got the nod?

I got the nod. It's funny, some of the first things that came back to me after the first Sundance screening was exactly that. People were saying "You get the nod". That was one of the crowning moments for me creatively. There's all the spoils of success, of being able to have my career now and my new business, but for making this particular film that was the most meaningful thing to me.

How involved were you with the film transfer of Groove?

Matt, my DP and I were extremely involved with the film transfer of Groove. We spent a little extra money focusing on the video transfer. Part of selling to Sony was that we had to deliver all these pieces of material, one of which being the video transfer. So it was really in our hands to deliver a video transfer that they would use in the DVD release of the film. For us it was important since this is where it's going to live in archive, in film history if you will. So we figured we'd make it as good as possible so Matt actually worked over the course of four or five days with a wonderful colorist over at Laser Pacific, and he was there every single day for the transfer. I think it really represents what we had intended to shoot. On the audio side, it's great to have the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. Funny enough, I think that DVD will be the best place to hear this movie because when it was in theaters it showed in the art house circuit, and unfortunately a lot of the art houses don't have Dolby Digital. For the first time, I think a lot of people will get to experience what the mix was really like which we did up at Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas' audio facility in Marin. We got this AMAZING Dolby Digital mix for this incredibly small budgeted film. So that's really exciting that technically both the picture and sound are archived the way the film was intended to be.

How many days did it take to shoot Groove?

We shot it in 24 days. It was like running one or two takes, running and screaming. It was very stressful, it was just a game of survival. Once we entered in to production, we had to be as prepared as we could it was like an execution of a war, we had to just go in there and do it to try and get something in the can. One important point was that 75% of the actors had never acted before, nor did they aspire to be actors, they came from the scene or had particularly great charisma that matched a character. So while the leads were people who had acting experience, and that was definitely necessary for those particular roles, the bulk of people onscreen are non-actors, so that was another issue. Having to work like mad and be really efficient, while brining a bunch of first timers, myself included into the fold. I was just thankful that we survived production. We hoped that we had a film when I was cutting it together, and of course it became much more than that.

At what point did you realize you had it?

I think when we were doing the mix, and we were at Skywalker, and everyone involved at Skywalker hadn't been to a rave, and the entire mix team would always be bobbing their heads and smiling. The tech guys who live in the back room, who switch out all the hard drives and do all the patching, they would always come in and sit in the back and watch the mix, which is not something they do very often. So that was a good sign. As we continued the mix, word got around the building and more people, sound designers and technicians, would stop by to say hello and sit in for a reel and see what was going on. I thought that was a really good sign because there was really no preconceptions of what the film was. When new people were getting exposed to the final product in the mix there was a really positive response to it. I really felt excited when I was at Photo Chem and we looked at the final answer print, three days before we were going to fly to Sundance. It was myself the color timer and Matt Irving the DP and we were checking the print for the Dolby Digital, and the rafters and lighting fixtures were vibrating so much that people in the next room had to come in to tell us to turn it down. That was my first experience with the final version of the finished film and I think I was on cloud 9, it was a crazy weird experience. I walked out of there thinking: "I think this is going to make it".

Buy Groove Now

- Geoffrey Kleinman

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