Interview with Director Matt Muir

Matt Muir’s THANK YOU A LOT is hard to sum up. It’s a film set in Austin, very much drawing from the Austin music scene, but it’s not cloying, or ‘look-at-me.” It’s a film about a musician, but not really about music. It’s a film with lots of great acting and conflict and drama, but it’s not that dramatic. Mostly, the indie gem THANK YOU A LOT is about people, who happen to be in the music scene, and happen to live in Austin. The relationships between father and son, between artist and audience, between industry and cog are all universal, and what is at the center of this film, heart, is purely original and honest. It’s sort of a film about failure and it’s really refreshing to see an indie filmmaker delve into that, and yet still come out with something uplifting and hopeful.

Black DeLong plays Jack Hand, a struggling manager willing to do just about anything for his last two clients. The higher-ups at his firm give him an ultimatum: sign his father, a reclusive country singer, and a man he hasn’t spoken to in years, or lose his job. Muir began writing the script after working with Delong on his thesis in grad school (at UT). The role of Jack, a “shady and not that redeemable character” according to Muir, was always intended to be for his childhood friend from Canyon, Texas. Setting Jack in the music scene here in Austin seemed like an easy choice but Muir was “afraid of making it a just a young film – ‘oh, he manages this indie rock band’ – I fucking hate movies that are obviously trying to be cool.”

THANK YOU A LOT began to take life when Muir discovered James Hand, who ‘plays’ James Hand in the film. “I saw James playing at Ginny’s,” Muir remembers. Ginny’s Little Longhorn on Burnet Rd is far from the music capital epicenter and more so, this was a Tuesday night. “He was just incredible, he had written his own songs, he had an album coming out on Rounder Records, and I was like ‘what’s this guy doing playing at Ginny’s on a Tuesday,’” says Muir, who just started writing the script for him “with this perception of who I thought he was.” Muir “gave the script to [James’] manager and I was like ‘I have this script that James might be right for, it has this country music singer in it, would James be interested in trying acting?’” Of course the script had a character named James Hand, who sings a bunch of James Hand songs, “and the rouse was over.” Blake and Matt talked about the possibility of James saying no, “we didn’t want to get an actor to play a musician – James’ songs and his persona” holds the film together. Also, having a character so out-of-step with current trends, and his relationship with his son who is trapped between two worlds, this is what makes the film not just another hard-luck country singer story.

“Living in Texas, and making a Texas film, there is always this idea of what masculinity is and macho culture … we were definitely playing with that.” – Matt Muir

Muir relates “These are creative people who are really insightful, sensitive emotional people and that was the most interesting thing to us, especially in a father and son story, you know men relating to each other. I feel like that’s rarely treated in a realistic way.” This was something that Muir and DeLong were familiar with “growing up as teenage kids in Texas that like to skateboard and listen to hip-hop and you know our dads were like listening to Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings and we’re like ‘oh fucking country music, terrible’ and now we’re like ‘that stuff is obviously amazing.’” One of my personal favorite moments of the film is this terribly subtle thing where Jack ‘the manager’ arrives at his father’s house in these boots that he has obviously donned for the occasion, and then decides to take them off and walk in his own man. It’s a perfect visualize of the tension of growing up in your father’s shadow: “you don’t want to admit and you don’t want it to be your identity,” says Muir, “modern, grown up masculine dudes in Texas relating to each other is easy to write in a cliché way.” Certainly, this intergenerational conflict plays across the whole film, not just in their relationship. The management company has this really telling internal discussion of whether to bill him as a Country artist or a Folk artist, because ‘County’ isn’t as cool. “People our age, who are in the business of entertainment, it’s like monetizing authenticity,” say Muir, “and that was one of our goals, not to write it off or say its necessarily bad, but people find James compelling for a reason. You could say that I’m doing that. I wrote this script for him trying to make money. But its an honest – hopefully – piece of art or film or whatever that James is excited about.”

Part of what makes Hand’s ‘performance’ so complicated it that many of his scenes involve a documentary an eager female film director is shooting while living out at his house. In these scenes, more than ever, Hand is just himself. “I did a lot of research” Muir says “there were a couple of great articles in the [Austin] Chronicle about James that had some really interesting ideas that I’ve heard him repeat since, and I was really inspired by those and [also]my conversations with James.” When it came to filming, “I had some things written out that were directs quotes from him and then some other things that were more character based… some kind of foreshadowing stuff that is revealed later on” Muir explains, “and I was like you know the character, you know what’s happening.” They just asked him the questions over and over with Hand having the leeway to change his answers, say something different “because whatever bullshit I would write, he would change it and say it in his own unique way.” Muir says they never really had a conversation about the separation (or lack there of) James Hand the person and James Hand the character, saying “I kind of like waited for him to bring it up” and he never did. “He’s so great, I didn’t want to come up with a bunch of different character names that were just like terrible,” it is his own music after all. James told Muir “I trust you, whatever you want to do,” so this fictionalized version of James came out of the script and the role became basically a “tribute to James.”

Jack’s other clients also get to show off their musical and acting chops. Muir had directed a music video for the band Hundred Visions earlier. He had known the guys for ever, like 12 or 13 years, even under different band names, and knew that, even though they weren’t actors, he could get a very real group interaction between them that would play as convincingly as James Hand playing James Hand. However, Hundred Visions is most definitely not the same as The Wintermen. “The band for sure was like a different band, they have a different name, because they’re doing some shitty stuff,” Muir says, “the actual band’s very sweet and organized and seasoned.” According to him, “they’re all creative guys who are kind of in the film world too … and so they were much more excited about being a fictional version.”

Jack’s hip-hop artist Desmond D, played by Jeffrey Da’Shade Johnson, came through producer Chris Ohlson (producer of current festival favorite Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter). Ohlson met him on a slam poetry documentary he had worked on years ago (SLAM PLANET). “We met with Da’Shade,” Muir says, “and right away I was like this is obviously our guy.” Again, they were worried about all the pieces falling into place with schedules and commitments: “we were really nervous like if he couldn’t do it, you can’t get a hip-hop guy, like an actor being a hip-hop guy – Because [Da’Shade] brought the music he’s using, his own DJ.” The film becomes a sort of publicity piece in a way for all these musicians. This was fundamental to the plan for the film, Muir says: “I just feel like any music, no matter how great it is, if it’s like written for a film, usually isn’t as personal and you can tell.” He told the artists, “I want music that is important to you, that’s gone through this process creatively that you go through.”

Despite the film being about Jack’s attempt to sign his father as a client, it is his work with/for his other two clients that really show the kind of wheeler-dealer he is, including a great bit where he steals equipment from the Mohawk so his band can finish their album. In fact, my favorite scene in the film is a radio interview with The Wintermen in which they refuse to reveal any musical influences and break up on air. “To me it was like the big practical culmination of what his struggle was,” Muir says. Yes, he needs to sign his father, but this is the band he signed himself, that he has years invested in, that he believes in, that he knows the company will drop if he leaves his job. This is the artist who needs him. The band basically implodes and Jack unleashes a parade of obscenities, forcing the host to hit the ‘dump button’ every few seconds to protect them from FCC fines. Adding to the hilarious chaos is a great cameo from real life KGSR DJ Andy Langer. Filming took a whole day in a working radio station, and, even though it was the station’s extra studio, Muir says “ultimately we found out … that when you hit the dump button that no matter which studio you are in” it kills the feed at the whole station. “After awhile they were getting calls, ‘hey you guys keep going off the air for like 10 seconds’” but they quickly fixed the problem and filming continued. About Langer, Muir says he was a “super pro and he read the script and he showed up and he said ‘you know I would never do this, right? Let them curse repeatedly and let this train wreck happen on air and I was like ‘I know. Can you be a fictionalized version of a radio DJ named Andy?’”

Other recognizable Austin faces in THANK YOU A LOT include slam poet (from the same documentary) and one-man-show superstar Zell Miller III as a club promoter and local stage legend Babs George, who plays Jack’s mom (and James’ ex-wife). Delong had suggested George for the role as they already had a relationship from doing theatre together. “She had such a great look, such a different energy,” according to Muir, “and you get it right away. She’s beautiful, you could see her and James being together a long time ago but now you’re like ‘that obviously didn’t work out.’ We wanted that to happen visually right away, because her character’s only on screen for like three minutes in the whole film” but she is at the center of so much of what is going on with James.

With all these faces and places (such as the management firm being in the Frost Fortress of Solitude), Muir was careful to not let the film become some sort of homage to his adopted hometown: “we really wanted to write it for Austin but not like pat ourselves on the back.” THANK YOU A LOT is more than just an Austin film; it’s a Texas film. The pacing and the shot selection of these long drives out of the urban area into the ‘ranchland’ where James has hidden himself really captures a Texas aesthetic. “Is this the sound of people falling asleep in our movie?” Muir said he asked himself while editing, “but that was always a big thing for us, the specific visual difference from the cramped urban spaces, fast pace for [those]scenes and the move to the country and James’ world.” Muir cites Malick and Bogdanovich and Eagle Pennell films as influences, “those films are our favorites, real, regional specific Texas movies.”

THANK YOU A LOT made its world premiere at SXSW last March and arrived on VOD yesterday. It was important to Muir to get the film out fast. To him, the long festival route is sort of “detrimental to your momentum … the fact that people are talking about it and seeing it at festivals, it’s more exciting if they can buy it on DVD or VOD a month later.” He was excited to work with Gravitas Ventures on the release because “they really do VOD better than anyone else.”

Matt Muir’s THANK YOU A LOT is available on VOD from nearly every cable provider, on iTunes, and as an actual physical DVD from Amazon.



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