An Interview with Producer/Editor Andrew Napier
Sometimes the picture behind the music is not nearly as pretty as we would like, often exponentially so if what’s in front of the music is especially pretty. The ‘band’ in question in the new music documentary THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL is OF MONTREAL, an indie pop/psychedelic/electro/synth collective that sort of defies categorization but came out of the same low-fi movement as Neutral Milk Hotel in the late nineties. I am hardly an unbiased watcher: I’ve been a huge fan of the band since their 2004 album ‘Satanic Panic in the Attic,’ and have seen their ridiculously awesome stage show on more than one occasion. When I realized I knew one of the filmmakers involved in the film, producer and editor Andrew Napier, I made the ‘trek’ up to Dallas to see the world premiere.
Of Montreal is a difficult band for the casual fan. They seem, like David Bowie, to reinvent themselves every few albums so their development often takes sweeping right turns. Their music can be at times both deeply insightful and personal and also obscure and oblique. Their legendary performances — vaudevillian with a dose of Brecht and Grand Guignol – can even overshadow the music, and often the live performers, many of whom are phenomenal musicians in their own right with a variety of side projects. Behind Of Montreal from their inception, it’s guiding force and arguably ‘only’ force, Kevin Barnes is the classic artist. He is able to record every note of every instrument on an entire album, going as far as recording individual hi-hat hits one at a time, then the kick drum all the way through, etc. He also exposes his innermost demons to the world, committing incredibly personal pain to each record. Barnes has battled chronic depression and questions about his sexual identity. “He’s truly a classic tortured genius,” says producer Andrew Napier, “I don’t think this film falls into the cliché ‘behind the music’ bullshit, and it’s also much more then just a biopic about Kevin, or a “rock doc” about this band, I find the whole story both very inspirational, but also heartbreaking.”
He’s right, the film, like the music, is not an easy journey. Following the band from its inception to its current incarnation which features Kevin and a brand new collection of musicians – Barnes having essentially fired his entire band for the new album – THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL is less a historical ledger and more a character study of the one man who is actually Of Montreal itself. The project began years ago, as director Jason Miller started filming the band at their practice space and just kept going… for seven years. Napier would not describe himself as a “crazy uber fan” but he’s “liked Of Montreal’s music for years and was somewhat familiar with Kevin’s story which I found very interesting, so when I learned that this documentary was in the works I thought I could bring something to the table with my past experience in documentary filmmaking.” This distance from the band proves invaluable, as the film is hardly a fan’s puff piece. GROTESQUE ANIMAL, like the song it is named for, and much of Barnes’ lyrics, is brutally direct. “I think a lot of people were attracted to ‘Hissing Fauna’ [Of Montreal’s 2007 breakthrough album] by how honest and personal it was, and I wanted to dig deeper and explore those same issues in the film.” Before joining the project, Napier had only seen the band live once, “little did I know Jason was there at the same show filming,” he says. He was given a copy of ‘Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer’ by a friend and ‘loved it’ and has enjoyed every album ever since. “Some people might think I must be a massive fan to spend a year on this project (which is nothing compared to how much time Jason invested),” says the producer/editor, “but really I was more attracted to the fascinating story behind the band and Kevin, I thought it was very cinematic.”
Polyvinyl, the band’s record label (and one of the best to order direct from – they send you candy and free overstock cds with every order!), put Napier in touch with director Jason Miller in March of 2013 and they’ve been working on the film together ever since. “When I first came on board the film was about 4 hours long and I felt it lacked a lot of what I wanted to see,” admits Napier; “Jason had been filming for over 5 years, had a massive amount of footage, and he became close with Kevin and the band over that time.” Napier offered a fresh set of eyes and perspective on the project, which actually was funded in part by a band-supported kickstarter campaign. “I don’t know Kevin or the band,” says Napier, “but I knew only enough to know that there was more to the story, I just didn’t know what it was, but I felt we needed to find it.” Visually, the film already had a lot going for it. Of Montreal is an incredibly theatrical band, with elaborate stage shows and videos and evocative artwork (some of which is animated for the film, something that helps elevate the film above the typical talking-head music doc). “But I was more interested in the band dynamic and Kevin’s personal struggles, his severe depression and intense creative aspirations,” says Napier. He and Miller began to dig into the hours upon hours of footage amassed over the years, both by Miller and the band themselves. The various members of the band over the years are extremely candid, both during their time in the band and after their exit. THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL allows their discord to play against Barnes’ drive and the band’s success. Napier acknowledges, “making this film we also discovered the great toll and all the personal loss that comes when one person puts their art above all else.”The film is shockingly honest with moments such as former guitarist Bryan Poole expressing his disappointment when he realized that he was just a sideman in Kevin’s band, a former bassist discussing whether he quit or was fired, or long-time keyboardist Dottie Alexander saying she doesn’t feel like she knows Kevin anymore. Barnes comes off as a bit of a megalomaniac. After earlier interviews calling the band a family, he is found later confessing that he cares about the other bands members, but not enough not just move ahead without them. In fact, THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL became an eye-opening experience for me on just how little input anyone else in the ‘band’ has and how little Barnes cares about that. There is a great quote from long-time member multi-instrumentalist James Huggins (also known as James Husband) about being presented with a finished album – ostensibly record -by ‘Of Montreal’ that Barnes played every note on, finished and had pressed before any other member of the band had heard it. He says something along the lines of this is the music we were going to be playing and touring for the next few years and this is how he is first hearing it. Of course, he admits, the music is amazing, but… Napier was also surprised with the honesty of the footage. “I’m very happy his music exists but it was sad to see at what cost, and that was something I did not know about before diving into this project,” he says, “it was a fascinating dilemma that we discovered in editing and felt it was important to present.”
Andrew Napier has worked on both documentary and narrative features, serving as the editor of the SXSW premiere BEFORE I DISAPPEAR (which I profiled here: http://bit.ly/1qVXtTN), and does not approach documentaries any differently. “I really try to structure and edit docs as if they were narrative films,” he says, “I look at the story and all the characters that way.” In GROTESQUE ANIMAL he had only one major character, Kevin Barnes, and the rest of the band becomes mere side-stories just as they are sidemen in the band. This focus really plays on the audience as we cheer on Barnes’ successes and become entrenched in his vision for the band, only to find the position untenable as he continues to mistreat his ‘collaborators.’ With 12 terabytes of footage, there are a million ways this film could have gone, and it is refreshing that the director Jason Miller, along with Napier, chose to let it become this rather uncomplimentary portrait, and that the band… or really Kevin Barnes… seems to be okay with that. “Docs are difficult and time consuming because there is no script,” says Napier, “you are actually writing the film in the editing process. There are no set amount of takes and scenes; there is so much more footage and many directions to go in. You also have to be willing to take risks, try things, then be willing to scrap it and start over.”
With Napier and Miller finding the heart of the film, or I would argue, the lack of heart at its heart, the footage began to fall into place. “Jason and I started digging and we discovered incredible stuff, then together we spent the better part of the past year reworking the entire film into what it is now,” Napier says; “It was challenging and took a long time, but if it was easy it wouldn’t be worth doing.” As GROTESQUE ANIMAL makes its way into the theatres (and the almost instantaneous digital and vod release through Oscilloscope next week), Napier is already prepping the release of his next film, a feature documentary called MAD AS HELL about Cenk Uygur and his web show ‘The Young Turks,’ which is about to hit 2 billion views on Youtube. “There are actually a lot of interesting parallels between MAD and PAST,” says Napier of his new film, which this time he is directing, “I spent 5 years filming Cenk & ‘The Young Turks’ just like Jason did for ‘of Montreal,’ both films are character studies on very smart, talented, and larger than life people who are also surrounded and supported by a group of people who they have an interesting relationship with, [and]I had to also bring someone else on to edit with me.” Napier’s first cut of MAD AS HELL was over four hours long. He admits, “when you spend so much time on one project as both a director and editor (not to mention when you are very close to the characters and story) you really lose objectivity. I think this both happened to Jason and I on our respective projects.” MAD AS HELL premiered in April at Hot Docs, one of the premiere documentary film festivals in the world.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the way I actually met Napier, through a fantastic little short called GRANDMA’S NOT A TOASTER, a comedy thriller written by the writer/director of BEFORE I DISAPPEAR Shawn Christensen and directed by Napier. Making its world premiere at Tribeca, it was written in a day and shot in two, and can be seen online for free on Vimeo, where it was a staff pick. Find it here: http://vimeo.com/93050867.
So walking out of THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL I felt very conflicted. Of Montreal has been a band I felt personally invested in, which always happens when you discover someone before the masses. I buy every album, sight unseen (and unheard), and eagerly devour the journey that Barnes has charted for the band and myself on this particular record. However, now, I’m not sure I like him anymore. I can’t help but pity most of the band members that he has cold-heartedly discarded over the years and wonder what Of Montreal could be if the recording process was more like the collective image advertised by the stage shows and the (at least one-time) living arrangements.
One thing is for sure, THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL is a great film, one of the most honest and illuminating music documentaries ever made. I would put it on par with SOME KIND OF MONSTER [Metallica] and DIG! [The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols]. All three films had unheard of access to creatives in the band and revealed something more than just the what and why and how of the music. They exist as compelling statements on art and the artist. And not really being a concert film, GROTESQUE ANIMAL will be just as powerful on the home cinema as in a theatre. Afterwards you will probably do exactly like I did, pull out all my Of Montreal albums and listen to them again, maybe you’ll even do it for the reason I did, to purge my feelings about their creator and get back to the music I loved.
If you at all an Of Montreal fan, you have to see this film, and even if you are on the fringes of fan hood, you should. If you at all like great music documentaries, you should see this film. And as frustrating as I found Kevin Barnes in the film, I applaud him for being just as honest in the film as he is in his music, it is one of the reasons I have been so drawn to his records for the last ten years. And I applaud him even more for letting the film be what it ended up being, something far from the typical fan film. I began my interview with Andrew Napier with the simple question of if he was an Of Montreal fan. His answer was more illuminating that I could have hoped: “the real question should be, am I still a fan of their music now after working so intensely on the film? Yes. I still love the music.“
THE PAST IS A GROTESQUE ANIMAL continues its city-by-city tour tonight in Austin at the Alamo Ritz, then opens at ten theatres on June 19th, and five more on the 20th. Full details can be found here: http://ofmontrealmovie.com/#three. You can also pre-order the film if its not coming to your town.