That is, Death: the 1970s punk trio from Detroit who found surprising success years after they disbanded, not Death: the inevitable result of the temporal condition called Life.
The documentary has been a festival sensation this past year and was picked up for distribution by Drafthouse Films during the Los Angles Film Fest.
I was a programmer at the 2013 Lake Placid Film Forum and worked to get A Band Called Death into the line-up. Mark worked hard to do that, too – the distributors were afraid the film would be over-screened before its release two weeks later. But Mark was able to convince them, since Lake Placid is a special place to him.
He’d been there before.
I met Mark along the edge of Mirror Lake. He had first been to the region as a student attending the Film Forum eleven years before. Now he was 33 years old, with a shrubbery of dark hair tucked under a baseball cap that read Rosie’s Vermont Beef Jerky. He wore a black t-shirt over a white long-sleeve shirt and said to me as I shook his hand, “I look like a bum.”
Maybe he did a little bit. But that’s how filmmakers sometimes look. He also looked like the survivor of a year-long festival tour that was ending in Lake Placid – a place Mark’s filmmaking journey had, in many ways, begun.
It was the closing of a circle. This final festival screening in the Adirondacks signaled the end of one path, and the doorway to another. And there was this intriguing back story about Mark’s personal “Escape from Long Island,” and his long road to Death.
So, after the Film Forum was over I decided to ask him some questions. What follows is an uncensored interview, filled with expletives and experience. There have been hundreds of articles written about the film. This is not one of them. This is about Mark, and where we all go from here.
How did you end up at the Lake Placid Film Forum in 2002?
I was a film student at Burlington College back in 2002; and that year our school hosted a class trip to the Lake Placid Film Forum. I believe it was the first time our school sent students to a film festival. Barry Snyder was our school advisor at the time and headed up the trip.
What is one of your best memories of attending the 2002 Lake Placid Film Forum?
Oh man, there are so many. It really was my first full-on experience with being at a legit Film Festival. It was filled with tons of movies, celebrities and alcohol…and alcohol…. Think I might have puked on the flowers in front of the Palace Theater on the first night I was there…. Sorry Palace, no disrespect, just drunk. But yeah, the celebrities were all over the place. I remember meeting Tony Shalhoub, Cliff Robertson, John Cameron Mitchell, Paul Schrader, Kyra Sedgwick, Ray Harryhausen, David S. Goyer and Guillermo del Toro, to name a few. But my fondest memory would probably have to be hanging out with my idol Lloyd Kaufman and the Troma team. We tore the town up…literally! I think we broke a few laws that weren’t even in place yet.
What did it feel like to be back in Lake Placid all these years later with a feature length documentary?
It felt surreal, yet very sentimental at the same time. I remember being that bright-eyed/snot-nosed film student back in 2002, meeting all those amazing filmmakers, watching their films with them, hanging out with them and in some instances getting into trouble with them. All I wanted from that point on was to be in their shoes, and to be on the other side presenting a film that I created and to be able to talk about the process of making that film. Here I am today having accomplished that goal, and it’s a great feeling.
You worked hard to help me program the film and make sure A Band Called Death (ABCD) got into Lake Placid. What drove you to lobby on our behalf for the film’s exhibition here?
Yeah, my distributor really wasn’t into playing Placid because it was so close to the theatrical release, but I let them know how important this was for me. It goes back to my personal connection with the Forum. As I mentioned above, it was my first film festival experience. Back in 2007 I participated in the Sleepless in Lake Placid competition, so I’ve had nothing but fond memories of LPFF. When I was asked to not only show my film and do a Q&A, but to be a judge for this year’s Sleepless in Lake Placid, I immediately said yes. Not because I wanted to be a judge, but because it was a chance for me to interact with young, aspiring filmmakers and share my own experiences and knowledge with them, to teach them what I’ve learned making ABCD. You see, every kid I meet reminds me of me when I was there age. Only now that I’m on the other end, I know 100% that the person they’re talking to is being honest and cares about them. I used to be in their shoes and I know how jaded people in this business can get, so to be able to be real with them and share my passion of filmmaking is a very rewarding thing.
What was your first film gig? / How did you start to become a filmmaker?
I’ve known since the age of 9 that my calling was to make movies, so it wasn’t too hard for me to set a career path at a young age. My first film gig was right out of high school. My dad had answered an ad in a local Vermont newspaper looking for high school students to be crew members on an independent feature film. It was a crash course in what it’s like to work on a film set with a bigger crew than I was used to. It was on the set of that film that one of the other kids had mentioned Burlington College to me. They told me you didn’t need good grades to get in and that within the first semester you were allowed to use all of their film equipment. I was sold! From that point on I just started making my own movies.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers? Is it “all who you know?” To what do you attribute your success with ABCD?
Well, my first bit of advice is: DON’T DO IT!!! Run, because this business will suck the life (and money) out of you. But…if you hate yourself as much as I do, you might have a shot at success.
Is it who you know…? I guess so? Jeff (my co-director) and I started making ABCD out of pocket, and after about a year and a half in we were at the end of our ropes. We even had a conversation about putting the project on hold. That same day, a friend of mine who’s a Twitter whore found some off-handed tweets that producer Scott Mosier (“Clerks,” “Good Will Hunting”) had made, referring to a promo that we had cut and put online. I told my friend to write Scott directly and give him my e-mail address so we could talk some more. That night he essentially became our producer; and from then on, he brought in his producing partners Matthew Perniciaro & Kevin Mann.
But, even for a while after that we still didn’t have any money. Hollywood got hit by the economy just as bad as everyone else, and putting cash into a documentary is a huge risk. Then one day, Matt was on the set of Entourage and showed his friend, Jerry Ferrara (who plays “Turtle”), a trailer that I had cut. By the end of that trailer Jerry was like, “Say no more!” and cut a huge check to help us finish the film. It was at that point that we hired Rich Fox to edit for us. He had worked with Scott in the past. We also hired Jeff’s friend Sam Retzer and his partner, Tim Boland, to score the film. Hell, we were even able to have ABCD mixed at Skywalker Ranch because some of Scott’s friends worked there. There are many stories like this about the making of our film, so I think it really was about “who you know,” and I definitely attribute that to its success.
Ira Deutchman (who hosted a State-of-the-Industry presentation at the Film Forum) said to me that there is a glut of material out there and a dearth of good stuff. Is that why ABCD has “made it?” Is it simply a cut above? Or is there something else, too, some X factor?
Hollywood has basically given up on trying to make good, original, thought-provoking movies. Everything is about beating out box office records, which means a good story is incidental. Listen, I enjoy mindless popcorn movies just as much as the next guy, but there used to be more of a balance between the fluff and the art. It’s no better on the independent side. Everyone’s a filmmaker now. The cameras and equipment today are so cheap and easy to use that we’re getting the biggest flood of independent films anyone’s ever seen. You’d think this was great news, but no one’s taking the time to discipline themselves and learn the craft properly. Story suffers the most because of this and results in what I like to call, “hipster films.” Basically, hipster films are movies that leave you empty, have no story and no resolve. They are just simply there. You might as well be watching a video of a dog taking a shit, unless that’s your thing (and if it is, I’m sorry). But hey, all movies are subjective. One man’s dog shit could be another man’s iPad, so what the fuck do I know…?
Has ABCD made it? Is it a cut above? I don’t know if I can really answer that. Why does any film succeed? Who decides if it’s a success? Is it the amount of money it takes in? Its cult following? Its reviews, maybe? I was told the other day that we were at 94% on “Rotten Tomatoes.” Apparently that’s a big deal, but I wouldn’t know because I’ve never been into critics’ reviews or ratings systems. All I know is this- ABCD was made by a bunch of really passionate filmmakers whose only goal was to make a great film. I think we succeeded in that, and that alone makes our film a success to me.
Your reaction (if you remember) to Ira Deutchman’s presentation – you talked about how they “never taught us this shit in film school,” you learned it through the process of making your film, and that it was great stuff for the students in the audience. I thought that was awesome and too true. Can you elaborate on this just a little?
Well, if I remember correctly, Ira was talking a lot about modern film distribution. Speaking from my own experience as a film student alumni, not once was I taught the business-end of filmmaking- raising money, selling your film, marketing your film, etc. If you intend to produce or direct films, I think it’s one of the most important things to learn before going out into the real world. Theory classes were pointless for me; all I did was argue with my instructors, and that dominated the bulk of my classes.
Production classes were informative as I learned how to use the equipment, but they were few and far between, and there was nothing on the business-end of things. Maybe it was just my school, maybe it’s most film schools, I don’t know. What I do know is that most of my teachers had absolutely no experience with producing or selling a feature film, which in turn limited our knowledge of how the business works.
It really wasn’t until ABCD came along 3 years after my graduation that I started getting a crash course in all of this stuff firsthand. For the past year now I’ve been learning how the distribution side of things is handled. However, Ira was able to condense everything I learned from this year into a 2 hour presentation, which blew my mind. I wish that man had taught at my school when I went!!!
Speaking of school…You’re from Long Island. How did you end up at Burlington College?
Oh boy, are we really going there??? Nah, it’s cool, I love telling this story. I ran away from home at the age of 17 after my mom flipped out and attempted to kill me. I tried soooooo fucking hard to stay on Long Island, going so far as to sleep on my friend’s bedroom floor to finish off that semester of high school. But my friend’s parents must have talked with my dad or something, because out of nowhere he was on my case about moving up to Vermont with him to finish my senior year at Harwood Union High. Needless to say, I reluctantly moved up to the sticks. That’s how I ended up in Vermont. As for the story about Burlington, see question # 4.
What about your wife of thirteen years? Can I mention her and how you met? If so would you share with me a little bit about that?
Certainly! We met in a Turkish bath house in Mexico City…. Oh wait, not that one. Yes, my wife of 13 years, of course! We met in a television production class in Brookhaven, Long Island. It was part of a vocational program offered by B.O.C.E.S. that would take high school kids from surrounding school districts and give them a jump start on their desired career paths. Basically, whatever they wanted to be once they were in college. We were from competing high schools that happened to be in the same town of Centereach, so geographically we should have hated each other! However, we shared a love of horror films and B-Movie cinema, particularly the whole “Renaissance Pictures” team that consisted of Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Rob Tapert. So, essentially, we were both film nerds.
ABCD’s world premiere was at the Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) last June, where it was picked up by Drafthouse. It’s been a year-long voyage for you. What were the highs and lows of your festival run? Which one was the best? Which one sucked your soul away?
It was a trip, man. That festival really treats its filmmakers right. For starters, Jeff and I were flown out to Skywalker Ranch in Marin County for three days to hang out with all the other feature filmmakers who had films in the fest. Words can’t describe how beautiful it is there. All the food was grown and raised on the ranch and cooked by the best chefs in the country. One of our guest speakers was William Friedkin (“The Exorcist,” “The French Connection”), and he basically just chilled with us, shared stories of his experiences and gave advice about the business. It was the first time in my life that I felt like I had finally made it as a filmmaker. That I had overcome whatever hurdles there were to be considered a colleague amongst so many other greats.
After Skywalker, we were all flown down to Los Angeles, put up in a ritzy hotel and given the full red carpet treatment at the Woody Allen premiere of “To Rome with Love.” From then on it was like a party every day. ABCD had two sold out screenings, so they added a third one. The first screening was filled with celebrities. It was crazy.
Another highlight was that, while we were at LAFF, Jeff and I finally got to meet all of our producers and our editor for the first time. Before that we had just communicated through e-mails and telephone conversations to piece the film together. So that was a special moment for me, as well. It was also when Evan Husney (creative director at Drafthouse Films) came across our film and fell in love with it. He immediately brought it to the attention of James Shapiro (Drafthouse Films COO), and soon after an offer was made.
Anyway, we didn’t have another film festival until October I think, then out of nowhere they started flooding in. Jeff and I- and sometimes the band- make it to screenings for Q&A’s and concerts. We’ve been to Texas, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, Calgary and Amsterdam, to name a few locations. The Lake Placid Film Forum was our last fest. So yeah, been traveling nonstop for an entire year. I won’t name names about which festivals were better than others, but there were some that definitely sucked my soul dry.
But shitty festivals aside, we had a great run, filled with sold-out screenings, standing ovations and audience awards. I still can’t believe we won the audience award at SXSW for our category. That’s one of those things that this pessimist never saw coming. I’m proud of our film, and I’m very happy and honored that all of these festivals (good and bad) believed enough in our film to take it in.
Do you hate question marks by now?
YES!!! …But I do like “? & the Mysterians.”
Can you list a couple of your favorite films?
It’s very hard for me to list my favorite films. I have so many, and at any given time some films become less or more my favorite depending on the mood I’m in. But I know that’s not the answer you want, so here’s what’s on my mind right now as my Top 10: “Cheap Thrills,” “Glory,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (‘74), “Dawn of the Dead” (‘78), “Ghostbusters,” “Alice in Wonderland” (‘51), “Ed Wood,” “Deliverance,” “Straw Dogs” (‘71) and “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.”
How about a couple of your favorite bands?
Ha, same situation as above, but if you insist! Death, Metallica, AC/DC, Talking Heads, ABBA, Nine Inch Nails, The Who, Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd.
An early working title of your film was “Where Do We Go from Here.” So, where do we go? Are we a gluttonous, materialist, capitalist culture with a reckoning coming, or are Things Gonna Be Just Fine?
Yes, the end is nigh, the human race sucks and we all deserve what’s coming. Put your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye…. Sorry, I’m a pessimist.
What’s next for you? Think you’ll ever get a boob job?
I just finished a successful Kickstarter run for my new film, “The Crest.” It’s a short documentary about two Irish American cousins who live on opposite coasts in the U.S. They recently learned about each other’s existence via a family invitation to come retrace their family’s heritage in the Blasket Islands, right off the west coast of Ireland. They’re also both surfers, and ironically, one of them shapes surfboards while the other paints them.
Considering their ancestors are from the islands where the surf is a crucial part of living and crossing the water, their plan was to take some boards there, paint a couple of them right next to the house of the islands’ king (also a relative), and go surfing. We just finished filming all of that, and essentially it’s another film about family. Check out our website, and please donate if you can: www.crestmovie.com
Also, I’ve thought about getting a boob job in the past, I’m just not that big a fan of silicone.