I can only imagine what coming to SXSW with a project is like, the whole festival a chaos of possibility. Every morning brings a new chance for discovery and career, and every hour an new temptation to distract you from your mission. The new online serial documentary WARPAINT follows one such group of would-be next-big-thingers. Maxxe Sternbaum finds herself on the edge of the next phase of her life. Her father has recently passed, and left her with a significant amount of money, and she’s looking to invest. A boutique clothing store with a rock and roll attitude peaks her interest, Warpaint, located in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The proprietors, Derek and Travis, not only design shirts for the underground, they live it, with Derek’s band Pretty Black Chains offering the perfect outlet to show off their designs. She doesn’t even really know these guys, but after a quick meeting, Maxxe is hooked, she wants to bring this label to the world.
What plays out over the next 15+ episodes is veritable checklist of how not to go into business, poor decisions, mixed messages, and misplaced trust. The whole thing spirals out of control when Maxxe and her crew join Derek’s band for their SXSW gigs, a road trip ending in a night of drugs, disarray and disappointment. It’s a fresh method of story-telling from the team that brought SciFi thriller APT 3D to Other Worlds Austin last year, but one where the suspicions are much more based in reality.
“We wanted to show another side of millennials that popular culture hadn’t yet explored: the ambitious ones,” says producer Zack Imbrogno, “the ironic thing about watching a show like GIRLS is that it portrays these confused, languishing young people when, in fact, the makers of the show are all millennials who are extremely hard-working, talented, and business savvy people – they got a show on HBO for God’s sake!”
Zack and I traded questions via email – with SXSW fast approaching, I wanted to make sure to help publicize the film at the most appropriate time, during the festival where all those ambitions got… well, waylaid, we’ll say.
BEARS: What about the ‘business negotiations’ made you think this would make an interesting thing to film? What did you and Maxxe talk about that said ‘yes, this is cinematic.’
Imbrogno: Travis and Derek, the Warpaint guys, are real hustlers and we were impressed by what they’d done to get a t-shirt store up and running with very little start-up money. Yet when it came time to talk business they had no organization at all, no track of sales, taxes in a mess. The contrast is really highlighted in the negotiation scenes where Max comes in with her family’s business to discuss buying in. Their business does everything by the books and so we thought it made for a fascinating culture clash when it came to trying to form some kind of agreement between the two entities – one very corporate and the other totally free-spirited.
Imbrogno: That is an aesthetic that Jonah, our director/cinematographer, brings naturally. He sold a documentary he shot to HBO at age 19. The camera he chose to work with (the AF 100) also gives it more of a cinematic look. When it came to producing and post, we decided to shape it as much as possible with just the interactions of the subjects and avoid excess interviews and too many chyrons — the trimmings of typical docu/reality style TV. Our subjects had such depth, such heart, and a great sense of humor, which we had never seen on an unscripted show before. They were so open and giving with the camera. I think Jonah made them feel at ease but we never asked them to behave a certain way or say anything. We just felt the Warpaint world was so compelling and had so much nuance on it’s own, why ruin it by forcing it to be something less interesting?
BEARS: Talk about the choice to exploit the project as an episodic doc online as opposed to making it a film – what does this format allow you?
Imbrogno: This documentary has morphed into many different things. It started as a pilot that no one would buy because it didn’t fit the cookie cutter structure and drama-queen vibe of a typical reality TV show. For a documentary to really be successful as a film, it needs to confront something political, historical, humanitarian – or it needs to follow a person people already know of or care about (ie: Beyonce). But Warpaint was really a story about these quirky characters that felt almost written (we edited it scene by scene that way). And actually a lot of people we showed it to first assumed it was scripted. We were in between two opposing spectrums – too nuanced to be a reality show but not academic enough to be a feature documentary. The web series version was always in our back pocket and over the course of making this we were seeing more and more innovative shows heading the online route anyway. Since typical TV was what we were running from, the web suddenly seemed like the perfect home.
BEARS: Without revealing the ending… The film sort of ends in the midst of what it began to cover… Can you talk about the decision to turn off the camera at that point? How did you know the project was done? Or was it?
Imbrogno: Great Question! Having approached this as a half-hour pilot first, we had more than enough footage – we actually had enough for the first two episodes. So, it killed us to have to turn off the camera at that point because everything in the Warpaint world kept moving and being so damn interesting without us. We rushed to cut it all and try and sell the show before too much time went by. When the networks passed we were out of funding and pretty much left with what we had. We were bummed because we knew we had only scratched the surface of the depths our subjects would take us, being as raw and open on camera as they were and with the business expanding into more stores every month. But we had to work with what we’d shot so we tried to piece it together as a window into a very strange time in three people’s lives in which a romantic relationship and a business deal are sparked, but may or may not take hold for them in the end.
BEARS: Yes, in your trailer you hint that the film was ‘too much for television’ – do you want to tell us a bit about the process of pitching the film to television and what you came across?
Imbrogno: The documentary always had a certain edge to it that, again, was simply a matter of us not wanting to betray the world by censoring anything. When the subjects criticize organized religion we show it, when they smoke pot we show it, when they drink and the cops pull them over we show that too, and when our own producer/subject, Maxxe, goes missing on a drug trip (which was actually terrifying in real life), that’s all a part of the show. So, the first problem we realized when we pitched was that networks like MTV and IFC aren’t taking risks, period, no matter what they claim their brand is all about. They’re selling to the widest, most middle American demographic possible. There’s another level though that I think networks had the most trouble with. We got notes such as “characters too nuanced/not loud enough” and “shot too cinematically.” It was like they either couldn’t see – or didn’t trust – the show’s subtlety. This one hurt the most because it was something that we worked very hard to create. Our theory was, “Trust the audience. They’re smart enough.” HBO trusts their audience — but they don’t do reality. We never met with Hulu and Amazon wasn’t doing shows yet when we were pitching. So, by doing something original in the TV documentary space and trying to keep it elevated we soon realized we’d shot ourselves in the foot with the networks.
BEARS: Any advice to give filmmakers looking to do a serial form documentary?
Imbrogno: Look at what’s on TV right now and know that, for all intensive purposes, those are your rules. You can try and break them but unfortunately, as my colleagues and I learned, networks only want more of what they already have. Docu-series on TV are either procedural (testing out a scientific theory, solving a crime) or they follow someone with a really extreme job like cops or bounty hunters. On the other end of the spectrum are reality shows which showcase the loudest, most shameless people you can find. So, the ironic thing is that if you want to tell a story about the real everyday struggles of very interesting people and actually have a shot of it airing on TV, the best way to do that is still by sitting down and writing a script.
The first several episodes of WARPAINT are available now online on YouTube. Check them out and be inspired, possibly, as you approach your SXSW experience. The channel is here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbxdPuYSevViLJr6jzC-rpA.