Craig Zobel, Great World Of Sound
Previously best known as David Gordon Green’s right-hand man, Craig Zobel has effortlessly emerged from his friend’s shadow and established himself as an important presence in American filmmaking in his own right. Though born in New York, Zobel grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, and stayed in the South for his college education, studying film at the North Carolina School of the Arts alongside Green and a number of other future collaborators. After graduation, Zobel worked on Green’s first three films — George Washington (2000), All the Real Girls (2003) and Undertow (2003) — as either co-producer, production manager or second unit director, and as well as a handful of other films, such as Adam Bhala Lough’s Bomb the System (2002), in a similar capacity.
Though Zobel’s previous work in film was mostly conducted in the ostensibly non-creative area of production, his debut feature as writer-director shows an innate cinematic sense as well as a keen ability to engage his audience’s emotions. Great World of Sound focuses on a pair of hapless salesmen, straight-laced Martin (Pat Healy) and his streetsmart partner Clarence (Kene Holliday), who unwittingly find themselves working as “talent scouts” for Great World of Sound, a company that scams wannabe musicians out of their savings. A well-written and thought-provoking film, Great World of Sound is even more impressive given the technical demands of the shoot: Zobel shot all the audition material in a hidden camera set-up with real auditioners, placing extreme demands on both his crew and two leads in order to get the realism and immediacy he wanted.
Filmmaker spoke to Zobel about working with Terrence Malick, his love of I Heart Huckabees, and his desire to make the seventh Bourne movie.
Filmmaker: What influence did your childhood in the South have on you as a filmmaker?
Zobel: It was definitely very formative in ways, like I knew I wanted my film to take place in the South. I’d always seen how the movies portrayed the South in a very singular way, and it’s so not like that. That stuff just isn’t in the South, it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s just a fabrication of the movies. As far as racism, people say the South is racist and there is definitely that there, but Atlanta’s had a black mayor forever. Moving to New York, this town has a lot more weird stuff going on in it than I feel like’s going on in Atlanta. Personally.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like a Southern filmmaker?
Zobel: I would be fine if somebody called me that, but I would also like to make a movie up here in New York. There’s this book I’m trying to adapt right now, and none of it takes place in the South, it’s much more in the suburbs of the world.
Filmmaker: You studied film at the North Carolina School of the Arts, alongside people like David Gordon Green and your co-writer, George Smith. What was that like?
Zobel: It was awesome. I went to school down there because North Carolina wanted to promote filmmaking so the school was relatively well-funded, with new equipment. They would pay for the movies. It was great because it’s in Winston-Salem where there’s not much going on. It’s a very tiny town, and that ended up being a very good thing because it created this thing where there was nothing else to do except watch movies. It was a tiny conservatory, so you quickly got to know everybody there. It wasn’t just David and George, there was David’s cinematographer, Tim Orr, my cinematographer, Adam Stone, and the sound guy and production designer David and I both use, Chris Gebert and Richard Wright. There was a whole group of us, and our friends were Ben Best and Jody Hill and Dan McBride who made The Foot Fist Way. And Paul Schneider who was in All the Real Girls, and just directed his own movie. We were the second and third graduating classes so it was kind of unexplored territory, and the emphasis of the school back then was “Go out and shoot something!”, which was cool. It was an energetic time.
Filmmaker: What was it like working with Terrence Malick on Undertow?
Zobel: It’s so awesome the day you get to meet Terrence Malick — you’re like, “Wow! Hi!” It was amazing and it was also really cool because we quickly realized that Terry — I’m not actually comfortable calling him Terry… [laughs] — Terrence Malick is a normal dude who is a passionate, cool, excited guy and it was great to be around him for that short time.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with the idea for Great World of Sound? It seems a bit like your take on the American Idol effect.
Zobel: Well, in the 70s my dad was a radio DJ, and when he moved down to Atlanta he ended up not initially being able to get a job in radio and so got a job as a talent scout for this record company and over time slowly pieced together that it was a scam. It’s funny because I had this idea before American Idol really. I think it was a fun, interesting way to talk about [the fact that] I didn’t think my dad was a bad dude, but he did something that I would think a bad guy had done. I thought making a film about that and trying to get that across in a way that people could feel compassion for him, I thought it could be an amazing journey. That was the initial impetus, and it’s fortunate [for the film] that American Idol has become what it’s become.
Filmmaker: You ended up writing the script with George Smith.
Zobel: He went to school with us and he’s one of my closest friends. He’s an amazing writer and I had written an original draft of Great World of Sound that was just mine, but it was too long and I felt it had problems that I couldn’t see because it was about my dad and I was trying to include all these scenes in it that I thought were really important just because they really happened. I needed perspective, so I asked for notes from George, but one of his main notes was that I should write out the song that Kyndra Kent sings, which I hadn’t done and had just said, “We’ll make something up on the day…” I was living in Washington Heights and he was living way down in south Brooklyn, and on the train ride to my house he wrote this song. It was like, “This is the song!” When he came and showed me that song I pretty much immediately said, “Hey, do you just want to write this with me?” He’s now working on another adaptation of a play and a script that I really want to produce for him to direct. It would have to be a smaller movie, but it would be really cool.
Filmmaker: How difficult was it from a technical standpoint to shoot the hotel room scenes and not have it be obvious to the people auditioning that they were secretly being filmed?
Zobel: It was very hard. I didn’t want it to look like one of those hidden cameras things where the camera’s in the bush. We had a production office that was attached to a warehouse, and then we cleaned out the rooms in the front of the production and hung up gold records and stuff — it’s the office that’s in the movie — and then we built a fake hallway and put down a carpet and a drop ceiling and then built these sets that were off the hallway that were completely fabricated. You could walk from the office into the fake hallway and into one of these rooms and not know that you were in the middle of a big warehouse. In those [rooms], we set it up with two cameras on dollies perpendicular to each other, and one stationary camera opposite one of those, and all of them were operated. It was crazy because the two-way mirrors were too soft to shoot through, so it had to be really, really bright in the room in order to make it work. It was really hot, and all the camera crew had to wear all-black or else you would have been able to see them through the mirrors.
Filmmaker: Presumably the sound aspects were a challenge too.
Zobel: Chris Gebert had to hide the sound in unique places, and in addition to acting and selling the whole thing, Pat and Kene had to steer people to certain places in the room, make sure that they weren’t blocking the people, make sure that people were in front of the mics — [laughs] there was a lot going on! That was one of things about the cellphone [the characters have], because I could call [Pat and Kene] at any time and say, “Hey, move that water bottle,” or give direction by text message, or say “Leave the room and let Kene hit on that girl.” Technically, it was like a crazy, unscripted live television show vibe, but none of us had experience of that ever. I vividly remember Richard and Adam and me sitting around the day after we finished all those scenes, drinking a beer and saying, “Wow, I can’t believe we just did that!” I remember Richard saying, “At this point, I think I know how we could actually do this again and do it totally right and nail it — but I don’t want to!” [laughs]
Filmmaker: You had to fool the musicians who thought they were auditioning for a record contract in a similar way to actual scam artists — except that you came clean at the end. How did you feel about that from a moral or ethical standpoint?
Zobel: One of the main points of making the movie that way was to get these performances. In any movie you see about a scam artist, there’s something sexy and cool about being a scam artist and it just never fully lets you empathize with the person on the other side of it, and I wanted the movie to be about those people. They’re the heart and soul of the movie.
Filmmaker: You wanted to be like the anti-David Mamet.
Zobel: [laughs] Exactly! As far as ethics, I came back last week after I showed the movie to all the people that were in it, and that was one of the best experiences of my entire life. Everybody really responded to it and everyone that I talked to really felt that what it had to say meant something to them and that they were proud to be a part of it.
Filmmaker: Were there people who auditioned who didn’t sign release forms?
Zobel: Absolutely, and we didn’t use those people, but we apologized profusely for wasting their time. But there weren’t a whole lot.
Filmmaker: What are you working on at the moment?
Zobel: There’s a project I had before Great World of Sound which is called Turkey in the Straw. It has a bigger budget, and it’s a dark comedy. It seems like the right time to get behind it because people like this movie [Great World of Sound] and now it’s just about whether the [WGA] strike gets in the way of people’s schedules.
Filmmaker: What’s the closest you’ve come to a religious experience while watching a film?
Zobel: I don’t want to say a Terrence Malick movie, but honestly The Thin Red Line is an incredible, incredible movie.
Filmmaker: Which film do you wish you’d directed?
Zobel: There’s something really, really cool about I Heart Huckabees. I know that’s a funny answer, but I was just laughing all the time. It’s so smart and so dumb at the same time, it’s like completely the stupidest movie ever and it’s really smart. And everybody has a good performance. And this is so film school to say, but Five Easy Pieces is such a good movie. Five Easy Pieces and Dog Day Afternoon are like the most immaculate movies to me as far as the construction, the acting, the direction.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst film you’ve watched the whole of on an airplane?
Zobel: It was that new Jim Carrey movie — I can’t even remember the name of it, it was so bad.
Filmmaker: The Number 23?
Zobel: Yeah, The Number 23. That movie is a very bad movie. But there’s a movie I watched on an airplane and talked about for three weeks after and was obsessed with, called Shooter. I had a lot of fun. It’s in the realm of The Parallax View and those movies where the government’s against them, and I was like, “Wow! Shooter!” I’ve been at so many film festivals showing art films that I keep watching Paul Greengrass movies and I really got into Breach. It’s like [Tom] Clancy-esque stuff.
Filmmaker: Maybe that’s a new direction for you.
Zobel: [laughs] Maybe so. I could do that. I’d love to do The Bourne Part 7.
Filmmaker: Finally, who are your filmmaking heroes?
Zobel: Hal Ashby, Michael Ritchie, Robert Altman, maybe Arthur Penn — that’s pretty good to start.