Thursday, May 24, 2018
  • Friday, Apr. 1, 2016
Firsts Last At South By Southwest
William A. Kirkley
Festival highlighted by debuts of features, TV, directorial talent

The South By Southwest Film Festival is a place for world premieres—and for that matter the debut of major directorial talent. Testament to the latter is SHOOT 's Directors Series in which our rundown of Up-And-Coming Directors, Spring edition, introduces us to Kasra Farahani, whose first theatrical feature, The Waiting, was rolled out at the recently wrapped SXSW as part of its Narrative Spotlight program. The Waiting is a thriller about two high school filmmakers, portrayed by Keir Gilchrist and Logan Miller, who try to convince an unsuspecting neighbor (James Caan) into thinking his home is haunted.

Farahani came up the art direction department ranks on assorted features, working with the likes of Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, Tim Burton and David Fincher. Farahani cut his directorial teeth on a pair of short films, Noon and Concerning the Bodyguard before graduating to feature-length fare with The Waiting. He is also on the directorial roster of Chromista, the commercialmaking/branded content production house launched in 2013 by director Darren Aronofsky, and exec producers Sandy Haddad, Ted Robbins and Scott Franklin. (For more on Farahani, see The Spring Collection story which will be posted on SHOOTonline and featured in the Special Directors Series>e.dition on April 4.)

As Farahani is a newcomer to SXSW, so too is William A. Kirkley though he is no stranger to the festival circuit. His first feature-length film Excavating Taylor Mead, made its world premiere some 10 years ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. Mead, who passed away in 2013, was a poet, actor and performer best known for his collaborations with Andy Warhol. Kirkley’s documentary, narrated by Steve Buscemi, interviewed Mead in his legendary cluttered apartment in NYC.

Fast forward to today and Kirkley has made the SXSW cut, quite a difficult feat. Orange Sunshine, which he wrote and directed, was one of 10 world premieres in the Documentary Feature competition. Those 10 films were selected from 1,013 feature documentary submissions in 2016.

Orange Sunshine, which was nominated for the SXSW Documentary Grand Jury Prize, delves deeply into the never-before-told story of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a spiritual group of surfers and hippies in Orange County, Calif., who became the largest suppliers of LSD and hashish in the world during the 1960s and ‘70s. This story, though,  is ultimately about friends, deftly told by Kirkley who put many years into the project, the most daunting challenge being to gain access to the married couple who headed a band of idealistic, almost communal families, smuggling hashish from Afghanistan to fund manufacturing of LSD which they would give away for free or at minimal cost.

“They were not-for-profit drug smugglers. They even paid rent for people in their community,” said Kirkley. “They had families and were trying to change the world. It’s a multi-dimensional story. I knew it could be so much more than some sort of fun drug smuggling tale. It’s a story I’ve always been fascinated with. I’m from Orange County. I grew up in Newport Beach, with Laguna Beach as an artists’ colony that had a magic quality for me.

“I had heard stories about the Brotherhood of Eternal Love when I was in high school,” continued Kirkley. “It was strange that they came together and all this happened in Orange County which has been known as a kind of conservative region. My wife is from Laguna Beach. We moved to New York together to do Excavating Taylor Mead. While there my father-in-law would write me letters telling stories about when he was in Laguna in the 1960s and ‘70s. He knew some of the Brotherhood guys and told me this has to be your next film. After Excavating Taylor Mead premiered in 2005, we moved back to California to pursue the Brotherhood as a documentary film.”

Kirkley said it was particularly gratifying to have Orange Sunshine gain inclusion into the SXSW showcase. “It’s the perfect fit for us as a festival. We have a documentary that plays like a narrative feature. In addition to the content which I hope connects with audiences, the music plays a big role in our film. Composer Matt Costa, a fantastic musician from Orange County, did an incredible score, creating 40 original pieces of music. It’s a score that’s not a hippie cartoon caricature. I wanted something that felt contemporary and relatable. There’s ‘60s folk rock that sounds contemporary, some old West Coast early ‘60s jazz stuff. Music is a driving force for the film just as it was in the artists’ community in which the story is set.”

Orange Sunshine was produced by Kirkley with executive producer Mike Manser and producers Debra Maniscalco and Andrew Fuller.

Additionally Kirkley collaborated with Master of Shapes, a Venice, Calif.-based company, to produce an offshoot 3D virtual reality experience tied to the origin of the Brotherhood. Titled The Beginning, the Kirkley-directed VR piece played in the interactive section of SXSW, placing viewers into the high-stakes drug trade before transporting them into a psychedelic desert retreat.

Kirkley said his commercialmaking experience over the years (Heineken, Chevrolet, Petco, Reebok, Amazon) helped him with Orange Sunshine which entailed “a lot of lifestyle and capturing people, intimacy and beauty. Also pretty much all of my crew has worked with me on commercials.”

Kirkley, who’s handled for spots and branded content by New York-based Washington Square Films, cited as an example Rudi Barth who’s served as a production designer on many of the director’s ad assignments. For Orange Sunshine, Barth additionally was a DP, lensing all of the interviews. “But when it came to re-creations and additional visuals,” noted Kirkley, “we decided it would be best if Rudi were production designer on these sequences while I DP’d them.”

Kirkley tapped into another spotmaking collaborator, Chris Catanach, to edit Orange Sunshine. Catanach is with editorial house Stitch, which has shops in Santa Monica, Calif., and London.

Soundbreaking TV
Television fare was also part of the SXSW mix, a prime example being Soundbreaking—Stories from the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music. The first two installments of the eight episode PBS series were screened for festival audiences as part of the SXSW’s 24 Beats Per Second program which showed the sounds, culture and influence of music and musicians, with an emphasis on documentary.

Soundbreaking was directed by Jeff Dupre and Maro Chermayeff who maintain Show of Force, a production company which has produced assorted documentaries for the likes of HBO and PBS. Additionally, Chermayeff and Dupre are represented as individual and co-directors (a duo with the moniker Show of Force) for commercials and branded content by Superseed Content, a production house headed by EP Pola Brown.

Dupre said of Soundbreaking, “We explore the art of music recording, how it has evolved over time, how technology has transformed the sound of pop music, record making and producing. We cover a hundred years of artistry and technology but the sweet spot is the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s when so many innovative things were happening in recording studios.”

Some 250 artists were interviewed for the documentary series (including such notables as legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin, who recently passed away at the age of 90, Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell). Anywhere from 50 to 100 songs were cleared per episode. “We went for storytelling from the artists themselves,” said Chermayeff. “And the depth of the archive of music in this series is huge.”

For Soundbreaking, Show of Force entered into an international partnership and distribution deal with Fremantle Media. The series is being broadcast in Europe and is scheduled to premiere on PBS in November.

Dupre and Chermayeff are no strangers to SXSW. Dupre attended SXSW in 2014 to debut Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace, which he directed and Chermayeff exec produced. The documentary short focuses on what was then the latest project of Wiley, a New York-based visual artist known for his vibrant, larger than life reinterpretations of classical portraits featuring young African-American men. Wiley, whose portraiture has taken the art world by storm, took a new turn in this documentary, his first series of classical portraits featuring women. Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace documents this project as it unfolds, tracking Wiley’s process from concept to canvas, including his scouting for and finding women subjects from everyday life on the streets of Harlem, Brooklyn and Queens, NY. Like Wiley’s prior works, his models were street-cast in NYC and posed to resemble 18th and 19th century portraits of society figures. But for this initiative, instead of posing the women in their own clothing as he’s done with his male subjects, Wiley envisioned each of his female models in an original couture gown. He joined forces for this project with Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, bringing together the worlds of art and haute couture.

Kehinde Wiley: An Economy of Grace won the Grand Jury Award at SXSW in 2014 in the Documentary Short competition. The film went on to become one of eight documentary shorts to make the Oscar shortlist announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in late 2014. Kehinde Wiley marked Dupre and Chermayeff’s return to the art world. Earlier Dupre produced with Chermayeff and co-directed with Matthew Akers the lauded documentary Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, which scored numerous honors including Best Documentary nominations from the 2013 Independent Spirit Awards as well as the 2012 Gotham Awards.

Soundbreaking continues a track record that Chermayeff and Dupre have built with PBS. Chermayeff, for example, directed all 10 episodes of the PBS series Carrier, which chronicles life aboard the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier the USS Nimitz. She was also a co-creator and co-executive producer of that series which premiered on PBS in 2008 and was honored with a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography/Reality Programming. Chermayeff additionally served as one of the producers/directors of the PBS series Frontier House, in which three modern families become homesteaders, experiencing life as it was in the American West circa 1883. Chermayeff and Dupre also created and directed Circus, a six part documentary series which debuted on PBS in 2010. The show followed a season with Big Apple Circus, a traditional European style one-ring circus, delving into its subculture, shedding light on the performers and crew and what it takes to be part of the big top. And Chermayeff directed and produced the two-hour feature documentary Julliard which aired as part of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series American Masters.