Groove along with Director Greg Harrison
by Joel Cunningham
Someone once said that half of filmmaking is luck. Well, maybe. If they didn't, then they should've. The point is, sure, it takes hard work, determination, and love of the craft to get a film made and released, but sometimes it also takes a lot of luck to get your project off the ground.
Greg Harrison knows all about that. In creating the Sundance smash, Groove, he had to find the cash, hire the talent, and tell a story that was very personal. Sounds like a lot of hard work, doesn't it? Maybe a bit of determination in there as well? Oh, and did I mention that his career began with a chance encounter? Yup. Always be on your toes, because you never know who's going to walk into the room.
Groove follows a night in the lives of several people attending a rave (an all night warehouse party, complete with DJ and nifty lighting, for all you un-hip people out there). There is the new guy out for his first, the long-time ravers who don't call it a night before 4 a.m., and the first time DJ desperate for just the right beats. In the film, Harrison attempts to capture an accurate piece of the culture that has emerged around the rave scene.
dOc: Groove was your first full-length feature as well as your first script. Where did you get your start in the filmmaking business?
Greg Harrison: Well, I really got involved in the film industry through editing. I went to school at Michigan State University in their film program and ended up at an internship at a studio that cut and edited film trailers. During off-hours I would hide away in the editing rooms, putting together my own trailers for various films. One day, one of my trailers (for the Bette Midler film Scenes from a Mall) just happened to be playing when a higher-up walked by and saw it running on the monitors. He was impressed, and it actually ended up being used for the film's promotional run. From there, I went on to editing and various other jobs on independent films.
dOc: Obviously Groove was a very personal project since you wrote, directed, and edited it. Where did the original concept come from, and when did you decide to take it from the realm of ideas into reality?
Greg: Well, Groove definitely came from a personal place. I moved to San Francisco to learn how to write at the same time I got involved in the rave scene. It was a great time to get involved in that group personally, because I had just met a lot of other people that were being personally creative, whether they were musicians or DJs and I was really struck by the creative atmosphere of the scene. It was a great group of people to be involved with while I was trying to work out what I was going to do as a filmmaker. Also, it was a very vibrant time in the San Francisco scene, with tons of parties going on. I'd go out a lot and help organize parties. I was actually writing a road movie script at the time and it quickly became apparent that I wasn't writing what I knew. It was totally fictional and also it was going to be waaaay more expensive than a first film could likely be. So it was at that time (1994-1996) that I really looked back on my experiences in the rave scene and said, "Wow, this would make a great indie film." I guess I really got serious about it in Nov. 1996 when I started writing the treatment for Groove.
dOc: How did the storyline and cast of characters develop?
Greg: I really based it on my own experiences and people that I met. All the characters in the film have real-life counterparts. Also, the situations and the relationships are really drawn from things I saw in rave culture, and I really tried to have the script emerge organically from the culture and what was happening at the time.
dOc: Do you think producing the film independently gave you more creative license, or were you sort of hampered by the lower budget an indie film brings?
Greg: Well, it's really a trade-off, because definitely by choosing to go independent, you have more creative control (in fact you have full creative control). I think I really wanted this film to deal with some of the more controversial issues in rave culture not with a moral hand, but as life. Present them rather than judge them. It was tricky to make that kind of film with traditional funding routes (like the studios). But that was key, to have that control. But on the flipside, you are going to make the film with a lot less money and limited resources. That's when you have to be a bit creative in dealing with not having any money or time!
dOc: Groove was released to theaters by Sony Classics. How did you become involved there?
Greg: Well, we wrapped the film in Oct. of 1999, then we rushed to submit it to Sundance, with about two weeks to submit the first cut. We got in, finished the film about three days before the festival, and it was screened on the first official day. It was literally just after that screening that we had four offers on the table for distribution. It was there that I met Tom Bernard (one of the presidents of Sony Classics), who was at that first screening. I remember that people were cheering, clapping, and dancing in the isles as the credits rolled, and he came over to me and said, "I love your movie. I'm going to buy it." So, after about 24 hours of looking at other deals that were on the table we went with Sony.
dOc: As the rave culture becomes more well known, it risks becoming commercialized. In that sense, did you prefer the limited release the film was given, where it was most likely seen by those already familiar with the culture, or would you have rather had a wider release, so it would've made more money and reached more people?
Greg: Well, I think we knew what kind of film we were making. It was perfect for the indie paradigm because rave culture is a fairly niche market. We knew our core audience would be people that definitely knew what the scene was about and wanted to see an accurate representation of it on-screen. Of course, we knew there would be interest from people only curious with the scene, and I wanted to direct the film in such a way that there would be access for the people like that, who didn't necessarily know the ins and outs of a rave.
dOc: I noticed you included all the elements of a rave, like a map-point where people go to find directions to the party and all the little code-words for drugs that the dealers used. It did seem like you were providing an intro for those not familiar with a rave.
Greg: Absolutely. But at the same time I knew that that could only go so far. An indie film has a generally small audience and we knew that all along. That was why we went independent. It's important to make whatever film you are making for the right amount of money—considering what it might make—so you have a shot at actually turning a profit to have the chance to make another film. I don't think we had any illusions that this was going to be released in multiplexes around the country. Sony knew that, too. They were careful about the ad money they put down. And that made a lot of sense, because we took it to Sundance for under $500,000 and we sold it for $1.5 million, returning a profit to investors before we hit theaters. Off of theatrical, Sony is close to breaking even, and with foreign grosses and video profits and such, they'll turn a nice profit. So the absolute numbers are low, but the relative numbers look good, and that was why a small release made the most sense.
dOc: How do you feel about how the film performed critically versus how it did financially? With a limited release platform and good reviews, did it do as well as it should've?
Greg: Well, it's my first film, so it's so hard to tell. I was excited that a lot of major entertainment press did give us positive reviews. I mean, we got a good review in Entertainment Weekly, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Rolling StoneŠ Those were really helpful, not only for the film but in exposure for our production company. It definitely opened up doors in the industry for us. Of course, not everyone in the press loved it. I read some reviews that started, "The music in this movie is the worst music I've ever heard," and right away, it's likeŠ
dOc: "This is not the movie for youŠ"
Greg: [laughs] Exactly. And that just goes back to the fact that this film is a niche film.
dOc: Speaking of the musicŠ This film reminded me of Run Lola Run, another Sony Classics film, in that a lot of the success of the picture comes from the constant soundtrack driving the action. How did you go about putting together the soundtrack and getting the rights to the music?
Greg: Well, making a rave movie I knew the music was going to be essential, so prior to filming we hired music supervisors that had been involved in the underground scene for years. I knew the specific feel I wanted for a scene and they were able to translate that to specific artists. We were really after the underground music made by smaller artists out of their home studios. I'd say 80 percent of the music in the film was made at home on someone's Mac. Licensing was a real challenge because we have 42 tracks in the film. It involved a lot of hunting down! And with electronic music you're dealing with sampling, you're dealing with re-mixing, and you have to get signatures from everybody! Sometimes with a single track we'd have someone from Florida, someone from Washington, and someone in Germany, and you have to get signatures from them all.
dOc: How did you approach the use of music from a creative standpoint?
Greg: Well, creatively I felt like the music should operate emotionally. There is no score in the film, but I wanted it to operate emotionally like a score, and mesh with the emotional arc of the film. To that end we listened to hundreds and hundreds of tracks to end up with our 42 in the film.
dOc: How did you get the real-life rave DJs involved in the film?
Greg: Well, I wrote them as characters first, and then I set out to find real-life counterparts. I had a real idea of the progression of music stylistically in the film. John Digweed [one of the DJs], for example, really fit the bill as a superstar DJ who was really down to earth, which I felt underscored the theme of the film. He got involved through one of the music supervisors, Wade Hampton, who had been instrumental in getting him one of his first gigs in the early 1990s. Digweed read the script when he was in town to DJ a local club and he really liked it, so he fit us in for about five hours on the set before he had to go off and play.
dOc: So did you find that the rave culture and the different DJs in the film really supported what you were trying to do?
Greg: Yes, and I felt that was key. Early on in the process when people didn't know who I was they were telling me not to do it, thinking I was going to take something they loved and cared about and cram it into a moneymaker. I had to convince them that I had, really, a more subtle interest in the scene, and that I wanted to show the human experience at a rave. I mean, for me, it was a way to process my own experiences, and once they knew that was where I was coming from, people from the scene really came out in force. Not only the DJs and musicians, but the costume designer, lighting designers, projectionist artists, even the ravers who acted as extras in the film really supported the project.
dOc: There is quite a bit of drug use in Groove, some of it shown with consequences, some shown without consequences. Anyone who is familiar with the scene knows that drug use (specifically Ecstasy) is a very important part of the culture. However, in society today, there is this idea that the "say no to drugs" message must be hammered home to kids at all times. Just recently, the film Requiem for a Dream was given an NC-17 by the MPAA for portraying drug use too realistically. Did you catch any flack from them for all the drug use in the film?
Greg: Surprisingly not. We submitted it to the MPAA and got an "R" immediately. I was a bit surprised, and I think we may have gotten in just under the radar before a lot of these issues started. I also think, however, that the humorous, light-hearted spirit of the film may have counteracted some of the "drug use without moral consequences" aspect present. Some press did feel it glorified drug use, but the bulk of the press didn't.
dOc: Watching it, I felt like I was seeing a realistic portrayal, because of course, lots of people do drugs and don't become addicted and don't die of overdoses.
Greg: Well, also, this is a film that takes place in 24 hours. I tried to imply the lasting effects. I mean, you have the kid who's been taking every drug in the book and the best a friend can muster is, "Why didn't you eat before you did these drugs?" I think that kid when he goes to the next ten or twenty raves will face some problems. Harmony and Colin [a couple in the film] represent another angle, as they get lost in the false sense of happiness that drugs provide, to the point where you stop looking at your life as a whole. I think that those issues are much more prevalent that someone dying at a party. I mean, certainly that does happen and is a tragic thing, but it isn't the only negative thing that can happen.
dOc: The internet plays a big part in the film's opening, with people e-mailing back and forth invitations to the party, and the film's website is very well designed and interactive. How important was the web in making and marketing this film?
Greg: Well, the web portion was something we had going even in the financing stage. We've had an evolving website since 1998, for business purposes, and then to get the word out about what the film itself was about. It was also a way for us to have a front end for our new company, to show we were for real and organized. It was an early way to get inexpensive buzz on the film. Once Sony came on board and developed it even more, we ended up with a couple million hits a month. It was perfect for our core audience, since ravers primarily get their information from e-mail and the web.
dOc: As a first time director, what difficulties did you face in getting the picture off the ground?
Greg: Well, the most frustrating part was getting the money. We spent six months trying to find money through a traditional, Hollywood route, but they all without question wanted to add a gun, or a drug overdose, to give the film a more traditional story progression. My focus was so much more on making the rave a main character rather than a backdrop to other dramatic events, as I said I wanted it all to emerge organically from the scene. So translating something that wasn't necessarily plot oriented was a problem for the larger companies, and it was then that we decided to raise the money through our own production company.
dOc: Moving to the DVD release for Groove, which is Dec. 5th, 2000Š How do you feel about the DVD format in general?
Greg: I am definitely a DVD fan. I was cramming before I filmed to get in as many behind-the-scenes clips and commentaries as I could, just to get into the mode of filmmaking. I knew directing for the first time was going to be tough and I wanted to feel like I was surrounded by other directors, and the commentaries really allowed that to happen.
dOc: I am a big commentary fan myself. Usually I'll listen to them if the movie is anywhere near halfway decent, and a lot of times I've noticed, especially if it is the first track that a director has done, that the tracks tend to be really boring with longs gaps or they simply tell you what's going on in the plot. I was pleasantly surprised by your commentary for Groove. It moved fast and there was a lot of information in it, as well as some nice play between you and the other commentators. What was it like recording it?
Greg: It was great fun. I must say that recording the commentary for me was a way to get a sense of closure about the whole process and to reminisce about it. There was definitely a personal process involved. I mean, we did the commentary nine months after we finished shooting, which is an insanely short amount of time, and it helped me to really get my head around that whole period in my life.
dOc: How did knowing about the DVD impact the shooting process?
Greg: Well, there was always the dream that we'd have a DVD release so we had a camera on set to shoot footage for a behind-the-scenes featurette. Then during editing, any time I'd cut a scene (and I cut almost a half-hour), I'd put it in a special bin labeled "deleted scenes," so I knew when it came time to do the disc I'd have my deleted scenes right there, ready to go.
dOc: Did the studio give you a lot of leeway into what was allowed on the DVD? For a low budget feature, there is a ton of material on this disc!
Greg: The studio was really supportive. Columbia TriStar came down and said, "What do you have?". We threw everything at them. The only limit was what the disc could hold. We really maxed it out. We actually had to lose a few items because we just didn't have space. I was directly involved in it, I edited the behind-the-scenes footage and deleted scenes myself. For a low-budget film and a small release film, they were very supportive.
dOc: The disc has an isolated score on it, and I watched a bit of it and it almost plays just as well without the sound since it is the music that drives the story. Was the inclusion of the isolated score important to you?
Greg: I really wanted to highlight the music. So much of it was done by little-known artists, and I do feel it is so powerfulŠ I wanted to introduce a type of music that a lot of people don't know about. In general, music is an inextricable part of film, and to really finish a movie you need the music just right. A lot of times people wanted to see screenings of the film before the mix was done and we absolutely refused, because the music adds context, subtext, and tone essential to the film. I was happy that we got to name them in the song index. The ideal goal would've been a full isolated score for the entire film, but we just didn't have the space, so we highlighted just 10 tracks.
dOc: You have your own production company, Mappoint Pictures and Groove LLC. How did you form your own company?
Greg: Well, when I couldn't find funding for the film in more traditional ways, I came back to San Francisco and grudgingly became an entrepreneur. I took a break and learned all the business stuff over four-six months, struggling to form a company with a real business plan. That was the foundation of Groove LLC. With the success of Groove, my producing partner and I branched off and formed Mappoint Pictures.
dOc: What projects do you have in the pipeline right now?
Greg: Well, Groove really opened some doors for us. We are interested in expanding budgets and doing something at the studio level, and we just optioned a book on the beat generation. Plus I am currently writing a script called Left, about a kid growing up in suburban America. We are also developing a script on the studio level written by Gary Trudeau.
dOc: The Doonesberry guy?
Greg: Yeah! It's a political satire (go figure!) on government-level disease research. Groove has really allowed us to pursue all these things. From the beginning, we wanted to be filmmakers making a film about the rave scene, rather than ravers making a film, and we're trying to define ourselves as filmmakers.