When Eddie Guerriero and Mitch Deprey began taping their neighbors' drunken fights in 1987, they had no idea the tapes would become a cult phenomenon. But they did. Matthew Bate's documentary Shut Up, Little Man! An Audio Misadventure (opening today at the Denver FilmCenter/Colfax) chronicles the spread of the phenomenon, and in turn brings up questions of the morality of recording your neighbors without their knowledge. We spoke with Guerriero and Deprey about this accused exploitation, the subjectivity of documentaries and the death threat that was cut out of the film.
Westword: The film brings up the morality of voyeurism and taping people without their consent. Did you ever think that you were exploiting your neighbors?
Mitch Deprey: No, not at all. It's a real misconception I think in the film. When you think of our position, it's easy to judge when you're watching a film for ninety minutes. We were exposed to this for twenty months, relentlessly. They were ruthless, they were profane, they were completely the most insensitive, brutal people you can imagine. Absolutely no regard for anyone in the building. So it was a coping mechanism, it really was, to be able to just make something intolerable more tolerable.
Eddie Guerriero: The other thing is, if you get down into the definition of exploitation, it's someone basically making a deliberate intention to take advantage of somebody else. If you look at what happened with Shut Up, Little Man!, it's basically two young guys making these recordings as a private in-joke with themselves and a very small group of people, and then finding out three years later that everybody across the planet was listening to the recordings. Where does the morality lay when something unfolds and not only did you not intend it, you didn't even know about it? And once you did find out about it, you traveled across the country to try to find the original guys and have a conversation about it? So I've never felt guilt or remorse or anything. Other people clearly, and I think the film shows that, exploited them. I mean, making out with them and getting them to sign something for $10. We didn't do that. Someone else did that.
What was your reaction to the film?
MD: I love about 90 percent of the film. It was a little unsettling, because we were supposed to have more executive decision-making, oversight in the whole process, so ultimately what happened was, these folks scrambled to get this thing in the can in order to get it to Sundance, so ultimately, we were pretty much eliminated from the whole creative process for the final product. I absolutely love about the first 35 minutes of it. It's very enthralling; it tells the story. It's funny, it's gut-wrenching, people are laughing hysterically in the theater. And to me, that captures a lot of the essence of the whole phenomenon. The middle where it sags a lot talks about a lot of the legal wrangling, fighting over the material and who owns it. I don't know if the film is worthy of thirty minutes of that. Maybe fifteen. All in all, I really appreciate the film. It's very visually appealing. There are a few elements that are unsettling.
EG: I really thought that they made a really good film. Visually, it's striking and seductive; they use a lot of visual tricks that make it interesting. I think you really get the dark humor and kind of the snowballing of the phenomenon; I think they captured that very successfully. I think the second half, for me, is a little heavy-handed and moralistic. I remember one critic at Sundance said -- there were basically five documentaries that were screening and competing against each other, one was on Rwandan genocide, one was on child prostitution, one was about the AIDS epidemic and then you have Shut Up, Little Man! The guy was pointing out, really, do we have to get so heavy-handed and intense about a couple of drunk alcoholics who are already screaming at the top of their lungs? That really resonated with me.
I definitely went through that range of emotions watching the film. At the beginning, I was cracking up, but by the end, I was depressed. The interview at the end, where you track down the only living guy featured in the recordings, Tony Newton, was especially unsettling, because he's such a sad alcoholic.
MD: That brings to mind something else that's a little disturbing about the film. I pleaded for probably about thirty minutes in the hallway to get into his room. He first thought that I was a cop. And Tony has been incarcerated on so many occasions that he's very wary. He's not trusting of people, obviously, so he was convinced that I was going to get into the room and handcuff him. And I finally convinced him, he did let me in the room, and I think in the film it would have been nice to provide a little balance. And when I say that, he backed me into his room in the corner with a large hunting knife in his hand. He held a large knife, he tucked it in his belt loop and had his hand on it the entire interview and he was ready to pounce if we pulled anything. So do they show anything like that in the film? No, they don't. They show me talking to Tony and giving him a six-pack and $100 -- which, incidentally, did come from the director. I was committed to, for the legion of existing fans at the time, to get Tony's side of the story. It could have erupted to a really ugly, violent situation, but ultimately, I think he trusted me, but at the end of the interview, he pulls a knife out, and it has an eight-inch blade on it with about a four-inch handle, and he set it on his dresser. And Brian Mason, the cameraman, and I just kind of scrambled out of the room as quickly as we could. It was very awkward.
Another comment I wanted to make is prior to going into the room, and I think this really really sheds some light on Tony's history, when he thought I was a police officer he said to me "If you come in this fuckin' room and you pull any shit, there's only one man comin' out alive on top, and that'll be me." I was just shocked, and I said, "Pardon, Tony?" "You fuckin' heard me." So that was before I went in the room.
Why do you think the director decided to cut all of that out?
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EG: Every documentary captures some of the truth of its subject, but more accurately, I think, reflects the consciousness of the director. It seems to me that Matt enjoys and finds funny the Shut Up, Little Man! recordings, but it also seems to bother him -- as he puts it, he feels "naughty," and he said repeatedly in interviews that he wanted the audience to get swept up in the laughter and dark comedy, and then he wanted to push them into feeling bad about laughing. I personally don't feel naughty listening to the recordings, and a lot of people don't, but Matt did, and so I think the film reflects, as all documentaries do, his own experience of it and his own consciousness. I think it would have been a better film if more balance had been dealt with in the second half.