Filmmaker Interview by Chris Olson
Previously the guitarist for The Boxer Rebellion, Todd Howe is about the release his first feature film, a documentary about another band Augustines. Having reviewed the documentary recently for UK Film Review, I was eager to catch up with him about his journey into filmmaking.
What is your connection to the Augustines and William McCarthy?
I was a huge fan of Pela back in 2008, having randomly come across their music when I was living in Berlin. William and I started communicating back in the Myspace era, and I'd actually contacted my agent in Germany who ended up booking Pela's first German tour.
As the story goes, Billy broke his wrist or his ankle on stage in the US and they had to cancel. I honestly thought they would be the next band to break out of NYC, and they should have been, but back then I had no idea what was going on behind the scenes.
When The Boxer Rebellion had our own success with 'Union' in the beginning of 2009, we ended up meeting in NYC at a pub and my friendship with William and Eric grew from there. I just happened to be in NYC a few times in August 2009, I caught up with William the week before James died and we kept in touch more often after that.
When William and Eric had finished Rise Ye Sunken Ships they sent it to me. TBR were recording The Cold Still at the time and I'd just returned from Real World Studios for the weekend. I played it and it blew me away. My girlfriend at the time was working for a management company and ended up managing them for the first few years. She did a masterful job assembling a passionate team behind the scenes - champions who really believed in the band's music.
I have a lot of fond memories of that time and it was a magnificent thing to both witness, and be a part of.
For me, it was an obligation to my friends that their music deserved to be heard by a much wider audience. Taking Augustines on a few early tours with The Boxer Rebellion was my way of contributing to that.
We've all been close friends now for over a decade and are bound by so many experiences. I will say this: I still don't think people realise how close Augustines came to never happening at all. The challenges, the struggles, the industry bullshit that I'd left out of the film was relentless for them.
Why did you want to tell this story?
The elements for a great documentary were all there - it was an incredibly compelling story, the band members would be more than able to hold and articulate themselves on camera. The music was amazing, their live shows even more so.
My friendship and history with the guys made me the the right man for the job, but I'd also been through the ringer with the music industry and experienced that period I can only refer to as "the wilderness years". I still had to convince the band though. I spent the day making a concept trailer and sent it to them. They loved it and the next day we started making plans.
So even though I'd never made a documentary before I felt I knew what constituted a good documentary, and I had my own benchmarks and standards. I just had to learn the process, accept I had no idea what I was doing, make mistakes, keep pushing and learn the craft.
There was also the factor of this being my first creative project since leaving The Boxer Rebellion. I had a lot to prove to myself that I was capable.
How difficult is it to get a movie like this made? What were the challenges?
I don't know if I could tell the entire story but it is, without question, the most difficult thing I've ever done.
The biggest issue was the length of time it has taken to make and the stress it put on me to deliver, but when a cut you've been working on for months comes back and the responses are luke warm, you simply can't release luke warm.
Documentaries are expensive to make and I'm enormously thankful to the community who supported the film and waited patiently for four years. I made this film through some incredibly tough personal circumstances as well.
I also had to put up with a producer I'd enlisted early on attempting to take over the film and push me out. That's only half the reason Chapel Song doesn't appear in the film by the way. These things feel like a huge kick in the guts at the time, but they are the experiences that ultimately teach you resilience.
They also teach you to how to avoid dealing with fuckwits in life.
As a musician yourself, what are the musical documentaries/biopics that have influenced you?
I always watched a lot of docs, but I wasn't so much of a fan of music docs, even as a musician.
I'd always felt the majority of music docs are too shortsighted and cater far too much for their immediate audience and I knew I would be selling the Augustines story short if I'd done that.
The docs which resonated with me at the time were Senna, Finding Vivian Maier and The Last Days In Vietnam. If you analyze those films they each have incredibly strong human stories attached, which are explored and resolved.
Jiro Dreams Of Sushi was another one. To understand what is at the core of the human being, what makes them so passionate that they dedicate their existence to their craft and to being the best - it's powerful stuff.
Searching For Sugar Man had also won an Oscar and (the late) Malik Bendjelloul's creative process was inspirational to me, and he was just a regular guy who made a film, decided to edit it himself and won an Oscar.
Where can people see your movie?
The film will be out on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vimeo On Demand August 2nd.
What's next for you?
I've been actively developing a docuseries for the last few months around a series of serial killings in California in the mid 80's. I really can't say more than that other than it's another incredible story which has flown under the radar for a long time. So the last few months has been balancing the release of RISE: The Story of Augustines and talking to victim's family members, investigators and journalists.
Just yesterday I spoke with the man who was responsible for putting an enormous part of the case together. To hear his first hand account, one-on-one on a preliminary call like that is a real experience, it's an adrenalin rush. I'm looking forward to planning, researching, and writing multiple episodes and seeing where it all goes.
What would you say if you were a dolphin?
We're all fucked!