Sheldon Schiffer, Director and Co-producer

Relating to the Band

Why make a documentary about a lounge-punk cover band?

Sheldon: People my age went to high school at a time when music and youth culture were divided into two camps: stoners and jocks. That was the early ‘80s. Then there were these kids in the ninth grade, who one day showed up with colored hair, grungy clothes and chains and boots. And I wondered what gave them the idea to do that and where they got the courage.

Then I went to my 10-year high school reunion and met up with a few of my classmates: the punks as well as the stoners and jocks. What I found was so interesting, but not so surprising. A lot of them were married, had kids, owned houses, went to college, got divorced, and had jobs - the usual middle-class stuff just like their parents. Most of them did not end up dead from a heroine overdose like Sid Vicious (Sex Pistols), nor did they become professional counter-culture artists, like Exene Cervenka (the band X) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag), or political activists, like Jello Biafra (the Dead Kennedys). Most of them just went on living a lot like their parents. No surprise. But what went when we grew-up is the public space to express problems. The will to subvert and question got buried, often in booze, drugs and consumerism. Or it got displaced by kids, job and a mortgage.

When I heard Black Velvet Flag, I thought, "Wow, these guys got it." They understood and reacted to the contradictions of their lives. Two of the three were punks as teens, who were then becoming yuppies because they didn't know what else to become. And they were conflicted about it. They couldn't give up their lifestyle of becoming more and more middle class, yet they couldn't stop mocking what is truly disturbing and dysfunctional about U.S. society.

So at the moment of Black Velvet Flag's premiere to the New York club scene (1994), young people were smoking cigars and sipping martinis in clubs all over town - picking up the signs of the generation that influenced their parents - cheap booze and speed were traded for expensive gin and tobacco. Sadly, the trade only showed the impotence of Punk and Grunge at changing most anything in the world. That was worth documenting. That is a universal process that today still happens.

How did you meet Black Velvet Flag?

Sheldon: Jeff Musser [bass player] and I went to high school together. I moved to New York City in 1994. Jeff lived there at the time, and he told me about the band. He really liked my last documentary film (Memories of Tata), and he invited me to shoot a public performance of BVF. I didn't have a job. I had just arrived in the city, and had nothing much else to do.

So, without knowing anything about the band, other than that Jeff was in it, I got on the subway with my Video8 camera and made my way to Brownies [a nightclub] in the East Village. I was blown away, and so was the audience. The punk lyrics of my youth were being sung by Fred as clearly as a Sinatra-esque voice could, but with a case of paranoid anxiety. Jason's guitar relentlessly gave everything a softer edge, so as to swallow the lyrics with the gin a little easier.

After that, I was in for the long haul. And it was a very long and curious haul. While I met Fred [singer] and Jason [guitarist] while making the movie, it was through Jeff that the relationship began.

When in the history of the band did you get involved?

Sheldon: They had done one private show and two public shows and already had a score of press in the New York scene. Clubs all over the city had heard of them, and getting a booking for them was pretty easy by the time I got involved. By their third show, they had already been booked at CBGBs. That was astonishing to me.

Would you say this is a music documentary or a documentary about youth culture?

Sheldon: Really, it's a comedy. Seriously. As far as the content goes, no matter how entertaining the band was on stage, they were still a clever idea more than a trio of great musicians. So for the film, the entertainment is not in the music as much as in the behavior of the band members; humor is a result.

I wanted people to watch the trials of three men as they ride their wave of fame and question what the hell they are doing, and what the hell they want to do next. And, I wanted people to watch and ask, "Is all this worth it?" Most of us wish we had the guts to try, and whether we tried or not, it is a kick watching someone else trying.

So to answer your question: I suppose I would say it's a youth culture documentary with a lot of music. You mentioned Penelope Spheeris in the film and the credits.

Who is she?

Sheldon: In 1980, she made a documentary called The Decline of Western Civilization. The film launched the image of what punk was into the public sphere; some of the important early clubs were depicted and bands were interviewed and seen performing. Every teenager who cared, lined up for midnight shows around LA for years after that movie was released. Black Velvet Flag's record, Come Recline, is a parody of that film.

Back in the mid-'90s, I had heard through the network of college radio DJs and music journalists that Ms. Spheeris thought BVF was a cool idea. I hope Penelope sees the movie some day, even if she hates it. I thanked her in the credits for being an inspiration.

Making the Film

It seemed that during part of the tour, the band was filming themselves. How did that work?

Sheldon: Well, this was an experiment by necessity. But at the time, I could not take off for weeks to cover their tour. There is that Heisenberg theory about uncertainty that says that the very act of looking at something changes its behavior. So, call it justifying your strategies retroactively, I don't care.

But, I think that giving your subject a camera to film themselves for part of a documentary, is a great way to work. Self-portraiture has as many limitations at getting at truthfulness than does portraiture by another person's hand. But the combined representations increases your chances that the material you get is even more potentially truthful in that you get more perspective, more points of view. American High, [the PBS-aired documentary] used the same technique.

Talk about the variety of music in the film.

Sheldon: The band played lounge covers of hardcore New York and LA punk classics. Those riffs are a given - well-crafted but intentionally cheesy jazz instrumentations with clear lyrics that anyone who knows North American punk would recognize. But then those lyrics hit you and you go, "What did I just hear?" That's not just a gimmick. It's also another subversive way to get under people's radar to get them to think.

By the mid-’90s, a punk band could blow themselves up on stage and no one would care. But to lull an audience with cool jazz while singing softly, "I don't care about you. Fuck you." Now that got your attention. Then when we got into postproduction we needed to extend the riffs and the rhythms over the motion graphics, the animations and the interviews.

So Jeff Wilson [the sound and music editor] went through every recording of every performance of the band and sampled many little riffs and rhythms he thought he could use. And from that, he made dozens of loops. We used about six of them, which I think are amazing.

Also, the band wrote and recorded as many originals as they did covers. But in the spirit of the concept, BVF would attribute the songs to fictitious bands. A lot of people were fooled. What does that tell you about how memory is dissolved by media?

For how long were you shooting the band?

Sheldon: On and off over a period of three years for most of the material, from '94 to '97, which was the lifespan of the band. Then I shot wrap-up interviews in late 1999. I did the final interviews after I had begun really working with the material in postproduction. After that, it was a long and arduous process to get the film down to a viewable 85 minutes.

How did you get so intimate with your subjects?

Sheldon: The camera is an extension of my eyes and my heart. To take from my subject, I must give something. That something needs to transcend the film. For me it is an interest in everything about that person, whether the camera is rolling or not. Once a subject trusts the sincerity of my interest, then that person gives a story. But while we all may want to tell our story, we don't want to tell it to everyone. We want to tell it to those we trust, to those who have something to learn from us, those that might understand us, and to those who will retell our story with respectable intentions. To gain that trust takes a lot of time. The honesty is not just in the accuracy of the material; it is in the honesty of identifying my own point of view as separate from the subject's. The band understood that whatever I would make out of the material they helped me create, my own point of view would not be hidden. I can best do this when I collaborate with the subject.

How did they respond to your intruding into their lives with your camera?

Sheldon: Usually the band members respected what I was doing, and cooperated. But sometimes they got annoyed when I would ask questions where I doubted them, or noted when their actions contradicted their words, or intentions. What sometimes worked was when I made a mistake with the camera and missed something, left the mic unplugged, that kind of thing. By showing I was fallible, it allowed them not to take me too seriously, which allowed me to get other more truthful moments. The whole time I think they doubted anything would ever come of the film. And that worked. The less they had invested in performing for the camera, the more they just relaxed and ignored me, even cracked jokes about me behind my back.

Did you work with others to get the film finished?

Sheldon: The collaborative efforts of Greg's [Brayton] picture editing, Jeff's [Wilson] sound work and [Jeff] Musser's graphic design, enabled the project to get done as a coherent work. The digital technology enabled Musser, Jennifer Solow [Associate Producer] and Greg to remain in the West Coast with Jeff Wilson and Jessica Denton [Associate Producer] and myself in the East Coast here in Atlanta. We just had duplicate dubs made for the project to live on Avids on both ends of the country. We used the internet to transfer small sequence files back and forth. But, we absolutely had to fly out to see each other several times.

Describe your postproduction process.

Sheldon: Well, let me say that I am a very systematic filmmaker in postproduction. I create complex relational databases to really give every image and sound I got, a chance to make it into the film. Some filmmakers work on instinct and they use the database in their brain to divine out of the dozens of hours, the story they are trying to tell. I do a bit of that. But, I also believe strongly in a pseudo-scientific method of cataloging data to test against my hypothesis and to question my instincts.

With a database, I was able to log more than 42 hours of video footage into hundreds of moments with keyword attributes. From this database, it was very efficient to first do character editing. I cut the 40 hours down to three and a half. Then I developed a story structure on paper and brought it to Greg Brayton [editor] to make what became the first story cut. That first cut was around the same length the film is now. We just had to argue about some sequences leaving and getting replaced by others through the subsequent three cuts. Greg did a phenomenal job. Then, I worked the important details of sound, and animation. That took hundreds of hours and a lot of learning of new software and hardware.

Let me say that this was my first digital feature project. I made a few shorts with the digital tools, but never a feature.

Other than digital tools used for organizing your material, were there other benefits from the computer that you used in your filmmaking?

Sheldon: Considering that I learned filmmaking in the mid-eighties using a flatbed and a 16mm camera, the benefits of digital photography and computerized postproduction are enormous. I will never go back. I don't romanticize celluloid anymore. But what was wonderful beyond the obvious benefits of non-linear editing was the motion graphic animation of documents. In my last documentary, I used a copy stand and shot stills and documents while panning and zooming across their surface with a zoom lens. Using animation software, and scanning my documents at very high resolutions, I was able to zoom, pan, spin and slide documents with great precision, all digitally, without a camera. Granted, all of this was 100 times more time-consuming than setting up a copy stand. I would say that for the aesthetic of this film, I think I made the right choice. But still, the copy stand is a wonderful tool that is perfectly useful for a lot of document photography.

I only used a digital camera for the wrap-up interviews, and that was because I felt that since the band members were older, I wanted to give the last interviews a look that would date it with the current technology of the day. I converted the interviews to black and white to put the emphasis on the voice and facial expression of the speaker, and color was corrected to emphasize the more subjective qualities of the documents and the veritè footage.

The Filmmaker Relates to Punk

What is your own history with punk?

Sheldon: I was never really a punk as a teen. I had one older cousin and one older step-brother who went to the shows that I couldn't go to. They went to the Starwood [Los Angeles] and the Palladium [Los Angeles] in 1979 and '80, and told me stories about slamming and pulsing in a crowd. Stories about fans who would cut themselves open with broken glass. It sounded interesting. When I got to be old enough to actually look like the driver's license picture of one of my 18 year old friends, I snuck into a show and saw X, which was my favorite band. I pushed my way to the front at the foot of the stage and reached out to touch the hand of Exene Cervenka as she pointed the microphone to the few of us who could take the pulsing pressure of the slamming pit behind us. Our voices screamed out her lyrics, "We're desperate, get used to it." And she just smiled and trusted that we wouldn't maul her. We were all of course in love with her.

Later I saw Penelope Spheeris' The Decline of Western Civilization in a theater in Orange County and found myself among a crowd of tense posing teens, all clamoring to see themselves in a movie about the music that captured their identity. These were the days when I believed that in spite of the record companies and the stadium concerts, something secret and truthful was being made by teens. One of the saddest days of high school was when we learned Darby Crash [The Germs] had died. That was proof that our heroes were mortal.

But to hear people you knew on KROQ (LA radio) talk to people you could see playing at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go or see in a film, that was amazing to me. In 1982 I saw The Who and The Clash at the L.A. Colliseum with 100 thousand people and I thought, "OK, that was cool, but that was such a fabricated and alienating spectacle compared to what I had seen up close with just a few friends at the Boys Club of Orange County - Agent Orange, The Adolescents, Social Distortion, DOA." Now, the kind of excitement of seeing a garage band in your hometown at a club is just a normal thing that people do. Then when I got older, I read The Boy Who Looked at Johnnie, Subcultures, Lipstick Traces, I bought issues of Punk fanzines. Then I wrote this project that attempted to merge a lot of ideas about politics, cultural theory and music history. Since then, a lot of people have written books on the subject. So this movie is really my second investigation.

What is your point of view?

Sheldon: I appreciate the contradictions and the eternal negotiation between that part of us that is beholden to our youthful activist subversive ideals and that part of us that lazily accepts and even longs for the middle-class security that our parents regard so highly. The two coexist and contradict. It was a strange moment when I opened up a retirement account. Small as it may be, the thought of participating in the economic system that thrives on conformity and predictable behavior gives me a chill. But somehow, these two poles co-exist in all of us. We want to see ourselves as becoming rock stars who question and subvert, and we want to one day live in a cozy safe neighborhood - the usual bourgeois desires.

What other films have you made or are making now?

Sheldon: I made a film called Memories of Tata, which was about manhood, and how it played itself out in my family. It was about my relationship with my grandfather, and his relationship with his wife and two daughters. The stories evolved as I, caught in the middle of an unearthed mystery of hate and resentment, had to take care of his dead body. It's a pretty grim little movie, personal, yet a common story.

And, presently I am making another movie called Comeuppance, about ethnic tensions in the Southern U.S. exurbs -those neighborhoods on the far edges of the suburbs that used to be white and rural, and that are now becoming Latino, Jewish, Asian and African-American. This one is fiction, but it is told from the point of view of a spoken-word African-American woman poet who gets caught in the middle. And, it references real historical events - the Crown Heights riots.

How does The Rise and Fall of Black Velvet Flag fit in with other movies you have made?

Sheldon: My documentary work is really about my experiences, and the questions I have of them. All of my films are personal in the sense that you can be sure that I have lived through something that you are seeing. I make these movies because I want to understand the subject. Filmmaking is such a gigantic process - with all of the collaboration around technology - it has a way of making you think about the subject, even if you don't want to. I don't really deeply understand things until I at least begin to take pictures of them or begin to make interviews.

If I actually start to shoot film or tape, edit and listen to the sound, then I may begin to have knowledge that otherwise would have escaped me. I must admit, it's a disease that filmmakers have, to which I am not interested in a cure.

The Film's Audience

Who do you think this film was made for, and why do you think they should see it?

Sheldon: I made it especially for people about my age, give or take 10 years, who were entertained by and perhaps identified themselves as punks. It's made for people who lived through youth culture of some sort or another, and who found them selves wondering what to do next with their lives. For some of those people, it meant accepting the values of their parents. For others, it meant negotiating those values. The band members each had different takes on what they would do with their futures.

Their dreams of a future is what every 29 to 39 year old experiences - they wanted an exceptional life, and they wanted things their parents had. This struggle within the band and in each band member was what made their story worth making a film about; there was conflict built-in. Black Velvet Flag allowed themselves to want the fame, and yet they did ultimately discover if they wanted that or not. That's real, and that's what most people can identify with - the struggle to find out if they want it or not. For the few brave souls who make bands and go out into the world to find their destiny, I made this film.