Wednesday, July 18, 2018
  • Monday, Mar. 27, 2017
Director Perspectives On SXSW, Tribeca
Amir Bar-Lev
Backstories on feature documentary and narrative entries

Film festival exposure has been a consistent dynamic in the career of lauded director Amir Bar-Lev, whose commercialmaking/branded content roost is Chelsea Pictures. His Grateful Dead documentary Long Strange Trip, which has Martin Scorsese among its executive producers, made its world premiere at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and then played to more acclaim this month at the recently wrapped (3/10-18) South by Southwest Film Festival.

Bar-Lev’s festival run has spanned varied documentaries, even branded content. On the latter score he helmed Re: Generation Music Project which debuted at the 2012 SXSW fest. Made in association with the Grammys and sponsored by Hyundai, Re:Generation followed five noted DJs—DJ Premier, electronic duo The Crystal Method, Pretty Lights of dub-step fame, Grammy winner Skrillex and producer Mark Ronson—as they remix, recreate and re-imagine five traditional styles of music.

Sundance has also loomed large in Bar-Lev’s filmography, starting with My Kid Could Paint That in 2007 and The Tillman Story in 2010, both nominated for a Grand Jury Prize. The former looked at the work and unexpected success of a four-year-old girl whose paintings have brought in hundreds of thousands of dollars, buoyed by comparisons to the likes of Picasso. Later, The Tillman Story introduced us to Pat Tillman who left a multi-million dollar pro football contract on the table to serve in the nation’s military. The circumstances of his tragic death in the line of duty, though, were covered up by the military, which instead used his passing as a propaganda tool. The Tillman Story chronicles his family’s struggle to unearth the truth.

Bar-Lev returned to Sundance in 2014 with Happy Valley, a documentary that delves into the year after Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky’s arrest on child sex abuse charges. Bar-Lev described the documentary as "a great moral fable," exploring the culture at Penn State and raising moral questions about the folks around Sandusky.

Bar-Lev’s 12.12.12 for executive producer Paul McCartney chronicled the Hurricane Sandy relief concert featuring performances by The Rolling Stones, The Who, Roger Waters and Bruce Springsteen, among others. 12.12.12 premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.

Fast forward to today and the latest festival exposure for Bar-Lev is the aforementioned Long Strange Trip, presented as part of SXSW’s 24 Beats Per Second program, billed as showcasing the sounds, culture and influence of music and musicians. They don’t come much more influential than the Grateful Dead, a motley crew which emerged from the Bay Area’s Haight-Ashbury counterculture scene in the 1960s. The Dead generated a unique sound that sprang from a blend of influences: bluegrass, folk ballads, R&B, free-form jazz, classical, and jug band. While Long Strange Trip shares the backstory of how the band came together and found their sound, the narrative moves into the emotional, human areas of the band, their successes and foibles, the burdens of fame. It’s these elements that have a universal resonance that is getting those who aren’t fans of the Grateful Dead to appreciate the band’s members more and to see the relevance of their story.

As for what drew him into taking the Long Strange Trip, Bar-Lev related, "You can’t beat the Dead’s journey from a storytelling perspective. It’s got everything you want in a great rock and roll saga, but it’s also animated by big ideas that are more relevant today than ever before. And yes, I’m also a fan—and like any music fan I’m up for the challenge of convincing skeptics to give something I love a chance. So far I’m pleased that it appears we’re winning people over with the film."

An innovative visual language courses through Long Strange Trip. Bar-Lev explained, for example, "We wanted to make something formally inventive, and have the film be psychedelic not in the typical cartoon-like fashion (trails, dopey lettering, etc.) but rather in the way Spike Jonze or Michel Gondry’s films are. One of the ways we did this was volume, volume, volume. Rather than pay for individual stills, we bought out many photographers’ entire lot—so we could have not just their iconic photo but the photographs taken in the seconds before and after. There’s also a lot of echoing in the film. By its end a symbolic language has been created, so visual motifs take on secondary and even tertiary meaning." 

Bar-Lev finds the inclusion of Long Strange Trip at SXSW as being especially gratifying, particularly since it is a perfect fit for the music culture there. "Austin is a great music town but more importantly, its motto is ‘keep Austin weird,’" noted Bar-Lev. "I could say the same about what I was trying to do with this film. ‘Keep The Grateful Dead weird.’" 

The director is now eager to take on opportunities in commercials and branded content. He said of Long Strange Trip, "This film monopolized my last six months or so. I’m coming up for air now, and have a bag of new tricks I’m excited to bring into the commercial arena." 

Bar-Lev has directed multiple ad projects for 72andSunny, and his "Call of Duty: Endowment" PSA earned industry recognition. 

Meanwhile as he re-enters the commercialmaking orbit, Long Strange Trip will connect with people outside the festival circuit. Amazon Studios has acquired the four-hour Grateful Dead documentary and plans to debut it in May on Amazon Prime Video in the U.S. and U.K.

Moorhead & Benson
Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson—a.k.a. the directorial duo Moorhead & Benson—are no strangers to the Tribeca Film Festival, and they’re most grateful for that fact. Moorhead and Benson first met as interns at RSA years ago and put their DIY filmmaking chops together to turn out spec commercials, some direct-to-client low budget spots, and then raised enough money to shoot their first feature, Resolution, a genre-defying horror/mystery which was selected for the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival. The darkhorse film was sold the night of its Tribeca premiere and nabbed various honors on the festival circuit, including Most Innovative Film and Best Screenplay distinction at Toronto After Dark, and Best Directors at both the Macabro Film Festival and the Fantastic Planet Film Fest.

"We made the movie on a micro-budget. We were encouraged to enter it into film festivals but were warned to be mentally prepared for rejection," recalled Benson. "We wound up getting in. It was huge for a big festival like Tribeca to take a chance on us. Tribeca in some ways gave us our careers as feature filmmakers." 

Moorhead & Benson went on to direct another feature, Spring. The atypical romance picture debuted at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival where it was acquired by Drafthouse Films. Spring too fared well on the festival circuit, garnering Best Film at the Paris International Fantastic Film Fest, Best Male Actor for Lou Taylor Pucci at Fantastic Fest (he portrays a man in personal crisis who leaves the U.S. for Italy where he becomes involved with a woman harboring a dark secret), Best Screenplay at the Ithaca International Fantastic Film Festival, and special jury mention at the Sitges International Fantastic Film Festival.

Toronto also loomed large for Moorhead & Benson in another key respect. During that fest, the directors were introduced to Rich Carter, executive producer/founding partner (with director Ted Melfi, now of Hidden Figures fame) of branded content and commercial production house brother. Moorhead & Benson are now on the brother roster, having helmed select work there.

While their early festival success has generated much behind-the-scenes groundwork for prospective projects, Moorhead & Benson got itchy to make another film rather than wait for the other shoe to drop. Benson penned a script for The Endless and their DIY instincts kicked in—and Tribeca again responded. The Endless is now one of 10 films in the fest’s U.S. Narrative Competition. Those films will vie for the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Actor and Best Actress.

While Benson wrote the story for The Endless, the division of labor had Moorhead serving as DP. The duo co-directed, co-edited and handled effects—and shared another key capacity for the first time in a feature, starring as the lead actors, portraying brothers Aaron and Justin who years after escaping a cult end up returning to their former home. The brothers grapple to adjust. However, neither can deny it when strange events begin occurring that seem to mirror the cult’s unusual axioms.

As for what prompted them to get in front of the camera for The Endless, Justin related, "Aaron and I have appeared in our own promotional videos and sketch comedy pieces. We acted in them and by doing so developed our acting abilities to a certain extent, particularly in the sketch comedy videos."

Also behind the decision to make themselves actors were the budget constraints of The Endless, and knowing it would be hard to have performers hang out for an extended period if a better paying gig came along.

For Moorhead, The Endless story is about the danger of history repeating itself, in this case "repeating past mistakes." Benson portrays Justin, the older brother, who took the initiative to pull his sibling out of the destructive cult. But the temptation to go back remains. Now living a destitute, dreary life, younger brother Aaron recalls the cult as being his family, making for an existence that seems better than where he’s fled to. The film is an intensely original thriller/drama/suspense genre hybrid. And the cult has some dynamics and elements reminiscent of the Heaven’s Gate group. Back in 1997, 39 members of that cult had committed mass suicide in order to reach what they believed would be a pioneering extraterrestrial existence.

Now that The Endless has come to an end, hopefully another door of opportunity will open up for Moorhead & Benson. "We were pretty much consumed for a long stretch by this film and couldn’t take on commercials and branded content projects," said Moorhead. "Now we can. We’d like to resume building our commercial reel."

The most notable ad entry on that reel thus far is a quirky comedy spot, titled "DSL-Arm," for Olympus Cameras out of Boston agency The Fantastical. Produced by brother with Moorhead and Benson directing, this mockumentary spot, as well as a mini tongue-in-cheek online documentary, chronicled the dangers of DSL-Arm, a "serious" condition in which the heavy weight of DSLR cameras cause users’ arms to grow significantly longer. Thus we see a man with one arm far more outstretched than the other—at a restaurant, for example, he tries to put his arm around his honey only to have it wrap around a woman at another table. And a beach volleyball teammate attempts to high five our DSL-Arm afflicted guy but to no avail; DSL gent’s hand is far higher than the volleyball net. These and other vignettes make the case for Olympus’ new OM-D E-MF Mark II DSLR light-weight camera.

The Tribeca Festival runs from April 19-30.