Only in Hollywood can a Q&A with indie filmmakers from Colorado turn a schmooze-fest/pitch meeting straight outta Entourage. Producer/director, Haylar Garcia, came to the Arclight theatre - where the Dome hosted this year's Hollywood Film Festival- to present Do It For Johnny, a documentary as much about chasing those Hollywood dreams (almost literally), as it is about the way Hollywood can squash them. No, the film does not contain Matt Dillon's famous line from The Outsiders, but it does focus on another screen heartthrob, Johnny Depp, and the filmmakers attempt at getting him to read their screenplay and star in the movie.
The script titled, Narcophonic, is a biopic revolving around the life of Scott Baxendale, a custom guitar builder whose troubled and amazing story could play out like Crossroads-meets-Leaving Las Vegas-meets-Frankenstein, and after coming up with a list of actors who could play a convincing guitarist they decided that Johnny Depp was their man. Baxendale's (who also produces the doc) tale recounts a rough and abusive childhood, his escape into the world of music where he developed a name for himself restoring/building custom guitars (for the likes of Billy Gibbons, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., Roy Acuff and others), to his descent into a rock and roll drug hell; and of course, Narcophonic would highlight Baxendale's long road toward redemption. After coming to the conclusion that there was no way they would be able to get Depp's representation to read their unrepresented concept, they came up with an ingenious gimmick to get his attention. Baxendale would build a special guitar, one made of different vintage parts, each with it's own story - but if you turned it over you would see the wood has been carved out just enough to hold an inserted script. It came out so swell, they called it an art-guitar, but then realized it was way too precious to just give to anyone but the actor himself - or at least someone close enough to be trusted with it.
This leads us to Do It For Johnny, because after they determined that--if they couldn't personally meet Depp--they would relinquish the guitar/script only to a few important people (Johnny's sister who works for his production company, Infinitum Nihl; Johnny's agent; and last but not least, Mr. Mariachi himself, Robert Rodriguez whom Johnny worked for in Once Upon A Time In Mexico) it also became obvious to them that they should be filming their mission. Haylar Garcia's fiancée, Darcy Grabowski, already had experience producing his previous projects, so she came on board and helped devise a plan to make Do It For Johnny happen. First thing she did was decide that they couldn't afford to fly back and forth to sunny Los Angeles from snowy Colorado so they would have to make due in a beat up RV they affectionately dubbed, "The Turtle." This vehicle is the perfect setting for some fine reality-TV kind of fun. As they knock on doors, get doors closed on them, jump through flaming hoops, and pound the pavement of Hollywood Blvd., will they hook up with the real Johnny Depp, or are they resigned to chat it up with a Jack Sparrow look-a-like in front of Grumman's Chinese Theatre?
While Baxendale and Garcia are off "stalking" Johnny Depp, they become increasingly comfortable in front of the camera, and we see them in various states of emotion, from elation to dejection and back to an uneasy sense of satisfaction. Taking Rodriguez' book, Rebel Without A Crew to heart, they heed its advice and call and call his production company's office only to get the classic runaround -- which is as hilarious as it is discouraging. With their sound and camera guy with them, and Darcy back at home on the computer working out the logistics and feeding them information, they drive from Colorado to Texas to Los Angeles, and back to Colorado several times over. It's at Woody Creek, Colorado, at a tribute event for Depp's hero, Hunter S. Thompson, where they finally cross paths with their target; but since he's only allowed to read scripts given to him by his agency, they agree to give him the guitar sans script, and accept his offer to send the paper through more official channels.
Will the guitar and script reunite? Will Johnny Depp love the script and insist on producing and starring in Narcophonic? Will they go broke trying to finish the documentary? All this and more is addressed, and with its South Park style effects and irreverence, Do It For Johnny must've been the feel good flick of this year's festival. At least the near-capacity audience felt that way, which consisted of a busload of friends, the "Woody Creek Contingent" (the Great Gonzo's close friend's who took a liking to the filmmakers), and potential money-people who were invited.
Back at the Q&A, an almost vindicated look was on Garcia's and Baxendale's faces as they were now being greeted like ambitious indie filmmakers, rather than hobo pests; and instead of being asked how much was the budget or if it was shot on HD, this in-crowd threw out lines like, "Hey, how about Bon Jovi? I could get you Bon Jovi!" and, "I read scripts for (x), so get it to me fast!" and, "Do you guys see Narcophonic being something like Easy Rider?" Perhaps they didn't come back as Oscar Winning, heroes, but DVD Talk had to ask the filmmakers what they felt about the experience, and the very different kind of reception Tinseltown gave them this time around. We caught up with Haylar Garcia and Scott Baxendale the day after the screening, and this time they got to sleep in a hotel. This is their first "Hollywood" interview.
DVD Talk: Your screening turned out to be the feel good film of the festival, how did it feel to get such a warm reception?
Haylar Garcia: We're getting a pretty good response and it's been a great experience. The feedback has been really positive, so I think people really liked it.
DVD Talk: As funny as it is, it's really an education about Hollywood.
Garcia Exactly, but it started out that we were just following what we thought would be a good plan for our future, and what we really did was kind of an expose on what it's like to break into Hollywood. How things work and don't work, and how difficult it could be if you're coming from the outside.
DVD Talk: How different does it feel to be back in Hollywood under different circumstances - like not stalking this time? [laughs]
Scott Baxendale: Yeah, it was very different, because there is a lot less work involved this time, and we're not sleeping in a van.
Garcia: When you're in the heat of it, and you really want to get things done, you're willing to weather the storm and deal with all the slamming doors. To come back for the first time for the purpose of showing as opposed to trying to make it, is very different. I mean, it's the same town, but this time we're getting a totally different reaction from people that at one time were like, "Are you crazy?"
Baxendale: There's people coming up to us now saying, "Oh, I could've gotten that script to Johnny in about five minutes."
Garcia: Yeah, it's sad but I tell them, "If we met you then, you wouldn't have known anything about us then, so you probably wouldn't have been any different." But after seeing the documentary they see how we don't come across as stalkers, so that's why they can tell us that.
DVD Talk: One thing you guys relay so well, is how it feels to be so close, yet so far: You're making phone-calls, and it looks like you're getting closer, but then it looks like it's slipping away.
Garcia: That's exactly what happens, you feel like you're getting closer and you're getting positive feedback, and then all of a sudden it just stops. That's the hardest thing about it, really, when the communication just disappears. We had already resigned ourselves, early on, to accepting no's when they came our way, but the hardest thing is when they don't say, "hey I wish I can help you but it's not going to work." It leaves you hanging and wondering if you did something wrong or if it's a scheduling thing, or what?
DVD-Talk: It seems that your mojo is changing fast, a few months ago you're getting thrown out of offices and now you're getting offers at a Q&A. It's kind of like when you don't have a girlfriend and you can't get laid, but then you get the girlfriend and then you start to get hit-on by other chicks.
Garcia: You hit the nail on the head. Ever since the documentary was completed and hit the festival circuit there's been a 180-degree change in the way we are being greeted, to the point where it's surreal. To have people go, "Oh! Come on over here!" After the screening we had an extremely famous photographer invite us to breakfast and he gave us some amazing contacts, especially for Scott, because this guy has done the album covers for some amazing musicians, I mean just ridiculous.
Baxendale: As a person who's always loved and lived a rock n roll life, it's weird to finally get noticed, and through a documentary? The way I look at it is that maybe there's a lot of reasons that I didn't make it to where I should have early on, like my drug addiction, but now that I'm older and my hearts in the right place, I see the doors opening up for me. I feel like I not only got a second chance of life, but a second chance at a career.
DVD Talk: How did you convince Darcy to help you finance the documentary on her credit cards?
Garcia: Darcy figured out a way to use the credit cards, even though that route is considered a no no. As close as Darcy and I are romantically, the fact is we didn't really have to convince her to do anything because she really believed in this project, and figured out a way it could happen, financially. What happened was that we came up with this idea and then we approached Darcy to ask her if it would be feasible. She's produced for me in the past and she helps me in a lot of ways, so when she took us on the first thing she did was figure out all the ways it could fail; the first things she came up with was by travel and lodging. She immediately said: "We don't know how long it's going to take to find Johnny Depp, and we don't know how long he'll be in town, or how fast he'll move; he's got an amazing amount of disposable income and we can never keep up with that, so the best we could do is to try to time it perfectly. So that leaves out hotels, motel, and planes, and even rent-a-cars. That's how we decided that the Turtle was our best option.
DVD-Talk: Tell us about how you went from pitching a project to making another project about the project?
Garcia: We did tremendous amount of research on guitar playing actors, not just Johnny, but he was the most rock star-ish actor that could play. But then we started to think about it and as we started to research how we were going to intersect with him, and we were like, "You know what? We're nobody. We can call his agent but no one is going to talk to us, except for some assistant's assistant," and that was a turning point for us because we realized that we could either scrap the idea, because it would be too hard, or we could take on the challenge. Then, as filmmakers we said, "Wait! Shouldn't we be filming this?" I think filmmakers have an innate sense of documenting things, especially if it has an uphill battle. It just crystallized; we decided that it was a huge task and we'd better film it.
Baxendale: We also had no idea, half way through, that it was going to be this hard or cost this much, so we felt like, "hey we gotta' keep this thing going somehow. We gotta' come up with some more or we gotta' quit." And that was a constant thing that was going on for about a year.
Garcia: Even with Darcy putting us in the Turtle and us agreeing to live and travel in it, after a year and a half the bills started piling up, and we had no idea it would take two and a half years.
DVD Talk: You must've felt like Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, begging like, "You gotta' believe me!"
Garcia: Yeah, I was making a Johnny Depp sculpture out of my mashed potatoes! [laughs]
DVD Talk: How tough was it to get a reality check from someone at Robert Rodriguez' office? What do you take from getting shut out from an indie icon?
Garcia It's hard to blame Robert Rodriguez, because maybe he really is that indie person he's supposed to be, and maybe it was just his spokesperson. But our message to other indies would be that it's extremely freakin' difficult, but if you could carve out your niche and don't hurt anyone along the way, then you could build a routine of standing up. It takes about a year to get used to being knocked down and standing back up, but once you do that you'll become unstoppable.
DVD Talk: Can you tell us about this Hunter S. Thompson connection?
Baxendale: When we made to Woody Creek I got the feeling of this weird Hunter S. Thompson connection between us and Johnny Depp. We adopted the idea that our doc was a lot like one of Hunter's stories in that he became the subject of his own stories, and we became the subject of our own film. We adopted this gonzo attitude and I think it was a heavy influence on how Haylar edited his film.
Garcia: Before we came to Woody Creek we still hadn't met Johnny, and we never knew Hunter personally, but the second we pulled in we became friends with many of his friends. In fact, we got tight with all of his discreet staff-the only people allowed to wait on him for nineteen-years-and when we told them what we were doing they gave us so much positive feedback. They'd say, "Hunter would love this!" Which was totally different than the discouraging feedback we'd be getting in L.A. They said if Hunter was alive he would hook you up with Johnny immediately, and they even began to try to hook us up with Johnny. It was such a contrast to the experience we were getting from the "industry," where they were laughing at us and shrugging us off. When we experienced those peoples energy it totally reenergized us, because these people surrounded an incredibly intelligent artist like Hunter S. Thompson, and they didn't think we were crazy!
DVD Talk: Did you ever think that trying to get close to Johnny's friends and family would backfire and maybe freak him out?
Garcia: Sure, it's easy for people to mistake who we are and what we're doing because they don't know us from anybody. Darlene Cates (Johnny's friend and co-star in What's Eating Gilbert Grape) loves Johnny Depp as a person more than you can possibly imagine. She's very protective of him and very vocal about it. It took Darcy three months of courting her before she would agree to an interview. She had to know everything about us.
DVD Talk: But I could also imagine that Johnny Depp could possibly get pissed-off and protective like, "Why are you contacting my friends?"
Garcia: Absolutely, and Darlene was a perfect example of that, partly because she's heavy, and even though that's partly why she was cast in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, she's always being asked to play "fat parts." She's an amazing actress, but she's constantly approached for that, so she's very weary about it, and Johnny Depp sort of looks out for her. She's also very sensitive, but we let her make the decision and we luckily won her over. In fact, I called her and told her how much we loved her and how well the audience received her and she totally broke down in tears. She's one of the most genuine ladies you'd ever meet.
DVD Talk: Did you delude yourself for a minute that Depp would get the Hunter connection? Did you possibly feel his presence thinking of you?
Garcia: That's a weird question but it's very interesting. When you start to form mental connection between you and Johnny Depp you feel a little funny about it, because, let's face it, that's kinda what a stalker does. But we did feel those feeling, not to the extent that we felt we were connected to him, but in the sense like, hey it's going to work out, he's going to get it, and he's going to get the guitar and go, "Wow! These guys just did it like Hunter would have done it or like a maverick does it." So we thought he would get it and have an understanding.
DVD Talk: What about when he told you that he was admiring you're guitar from afar?
Baxendale: In Woody Creek we walked right up to him in the back room of the bar and said, "Here we are! " His first words to us, were, "I've been worshiping this guitar from afar for a long time."
DVD Talk: What do you think he meant?
Baxendale: It felt like he knew about the project and maybe he was secretly watching us or following us on some level.
DVD Talk: That's what I'm getting at. It makes it like a mystery in some way.
Baxendale: Yeah, and we had some mysterious things happen, because the Christmas before we had some things from the movie on E-Bay and we had this cryptic bid that we though might be his; and so in our own mind we always had this kind of mystery in our own minds, and we still don't know if he saw the script.
Garcia: It's a mystery how much he really knows, or if he followed us at all . . .we all know he's got this notorious and mischievous sense of humor, and the way his friends describe him, we wondered if we were being subject to his joke. Maybe he was trying to build it up. By virtue of what we were told about his nature, we can't put him past him. And even after the documentary is done, we still are and may always be speculating.
DVD Talk: Where does Do It For Johnny stand now?
Garcia: The Hollywood Film Festival screening was also our acquisition screening, and we have a producer right now who is trying to help us recoup our money. We're working with Ostrow & Company, and soon they'll make some "screeners" to send out to potential distributors. Eventually we hope to equalize our debt, maybe we won't ever see the money, but at least the film will be seen. After the screening in Hollywood, our producer is accepting offers now, and we're hoping for a summer release. We really would like to take this opportunity to thank our crew, cinematographer, Jeff Deel; Darcy, who has gone beyond the call of duty for us; and people like you who have taken an interest in this story.
DVD Talk: What about the script for Narcophonic?
Garcia: Our ultimate goal is to get the movie made and what I think what the documentary does, ultimately, is make people ask us about the script. We really didn't know how much it would be a catalyst for the script, and we're hoping it follows through.
DVD Talk: So what's the fate of the "art-guitar?"
Garcia: We don't know where the guitar is. It could be in anyone of Johnny's houses, we have no idea how he stores his collection, and quite frankly, we don't even know if he has it. We assume he does, but maybe he gave it to someone to store and they lost it. Maybe that's why they can't "reunite" the script with the guitar, because they don't know where the guitar is?
DVD Talk: Any crazy guitars for you in the future, Scott?
Baxendale: I've got one in the works which I hope is going to be the subject of a Drive-By Truckers video, but the ultimate art guitar will be for Narcophonic because that will have to compare to the "Warner Brothers Guitar" that I built for Travis Tritt; it's the most ornate and exotic guitar you ever saw. You can check it out on my website, Colfax Guitar Shop.
Scott Baxendale and Haylar Garcia
Read more about Do It For Johnny.
Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?