Column 38 — The Story of Creek… on DVD; screening this Sunday at The Dundee Theater

Category: Blog — @ 12:34 pm August 18, 2005

There was a few more things from my interview with Jason Kulbel and Rob Walters about their film, Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek, that I simply didn’t have room for in this week’s column. A few out-takes:

— Jason started talking to Plexifilms, who is releasing the DVD, a few years ago. Part of their initial discussions involved a Bright Eyes documentary that was in the works at the time — anyone who went to a show during the Lifted tour probably saw the film crew. Well, the Bright Eyes film has been officially “shelved.” Kulbel said he met with Plexi while in New York for last year’s CMJ and showed them a rough cut of the Cursive section of Spend an Evening... Things naturally progressed from there.

— Kulbel said that 95 percent of the performance/archive footage came from him, Walters and members of The Faint and Cursive. The three or four minutes of Commander Venus footage was provided by artist Zack Nipper, who also did the artwork for the DVD’s sleeve. Nipper has become the sort of the defacto album artist for Bright Eyes releases (He’s the guy Oberst is singing about at the beginning of “Waste of Paint”). Nipper had purchased a bootleg live video of a Wrens show that Commander Venus just happened to open for. Whoever made the boot had filmed the Commander Venus footage merely to test his video equipment, and never deleted it from the tape he gave Nipper. “There was also often-rumored live Robb Nansel footage that Robb avoided giving us,” Kulbel said. “He wouldn’t let us have it. I don’t know why.” The Slowdown Virginia footage came from the old Trout Tunes public-access cable program. Some of the footage is included as part of the DVD’s “extras.”

— “What I didn’t like about doing this (project) was working for 14 hours at the office and then coming home and putting in three or four hours on this and then waking up the next morning and throwing it away,” Kulbel said. “It was almost all done on nights and weekends. We considered bringing in an outside editor but decided not to. When we started, I didn’t think we would ever have a finished product.”

— Though most of the movie focuses on the “Big Three,” there are small, five-minute sections about all of the other bands toward the end of the film. “One of the hardest things to do in the editing was find a way to present everyone outside of Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint,” Kulbel said. “We didn’t want to gloss over them, but we didn’t want to make the film too long. Son, Ambulance certainly has its place in the label’s history, but you don’t want a 15-minute section about them.”

— What about Rilo Kiley and their defection from the label? Why not show that? “We presented the label from ’93 to 2003,” Kulbel said. “That was the timeframe, and at that time, they were just another band on the label, having just put out their first record. The first cut of the movie was four hours long. Then we cut it down more and more until we hit the 2-hour mark. We thought about doing more interviews and touching on Rilo Kiley leaving or adding more Bright Eyes stuff, but thought the better decision would be to make it like we originally intended.”

— “It seems like way more stuff has happened in the past couple years,” Kulbel said. Does that mean there could be another DVD in the future? Kulbel just nodded.

Column 38 — My, Look How the Kids have Grown
‘Scrapbook’ Movie Documents Growth of a Label

First-time filmmakers Jason Kulbel and Rob Walters never said they were trying to create the “Great American Documentary” when they were making the DVD Spend an Evening With Saddle Creek.

On the contrary, they know their 90-minute telling of how Saddle Creek Records emerged from being a tiny tape-centric label called Lumberjack in ’93 to one of the leading indie rock labels of today is more a labor of love than a concrete examination of the trials and ruminations of the record industry. And that’s fine with them.

“It’s probably better viewed as a scrapbook,” said Kulbel before Monday night’s sold-out Faint concert at Sokol Auditorium, where he, Walters and a small team of cameramen were filming the show for an upcoming live Faint DVD. “It’s not the great documentary that will appeal to everyone across genres, like a movie about penguins.”

“It’s a fans’ movie,” Walters said, “made for people that already like the music. I think it’s going to be hard for my parents’ neighbors to sit down and watch and get something out of. A huge question that everyone asked was, ‘Why is anyone going to care about this?’ I don’t know if I have an answer for that. From our perspective, we’re huge fans of the music and that’s what we wanted to show.”

And from that perspective, Spend an Evening with Saddle Creek succeeds. Through interviews conducted over the winter holidays of 2003-2004 and live footage provided by the bands and their fans, we see it all unfold before our eyes, starting with Conor Oberst’s brother, Justin, releasing the first cassette — Conor Oberst’s Water — to the label’s “100k party” held at the Henry Doorly Zoo celebrating the sale of the 100,000th copy of Bright Eyes’ Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground.

The film primarily focuses on the label’s “Big Three” — Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint — but the most telling parts are about the bands that preceded those acts — Slowdown Virginia, Commander Venus and Lullaby for the Working Class. It’s here that we see footage of a geeky Conor Oberst, dwarfed behind a flailing guitar, and wide-eyed behind wire-rimmed glasses. The image is juxtaposed by current-day interview footage of a suave Oberst wrapped in a knitted shawl smoking cigarettes. Even without the glasses, if you look closely you can still see the lovable geek hiding deep inside.

But beyond baby Conor, fans will learn just how important Tim Kasher and Ted Stevens were in creating the modern-day Creek scene, as somehow all paths start from their doors. “No one knows about those early bands,” said Walters, whose connection to Creek spans from the days pal-ing around Lincoln with Stevens when he was still in Polecat. “I really wanted to show what Lullaby for the Working class was all about, and to let people hear Polecat music that you can’t find anywhere. Someone from New York who’s a huge Bright Eyes fan might not care about that.”

But the folks at Plexifilm thought otherwise, enough to make Spend an Evening… their 23rd DVD release after such films as the Wilco documentary I Am Trying to Break Your Heart and Five Films about Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

With a budget of $10,000, Kulbel and Walters sifted through more than 40 hours of interviews and 250 hours of archival footage, including more than 100 tapes of Faint performances.

In the end, I would have preferred more performances and fewer interviews. I would have spent more time explaining how a place like Omaha could spawn an internationally known music scene. I would have liked an outsider’s perspective rather than all-Creek interviews. But that’s quibbling. Like I said — and like they said — this ain’t a documentary and was never meant to be one. As a scrapbook glance at times gone by, it does just fine.

You’ll get a chance to see it on the big screen Sunday, Aug. 21, at The Dundee Theater, when Spend an Evening… will have 7 and 9 p.m. screenings. If you miss them, you’ll have to pick up a copy of the DVD when Plexifilm releases it Aug. 23.

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