A chat with James Rayburn, one of the folks behind Filmage: The Story of Descendents/All
Filmage: The Story of Descendents/All (screenings are set for Friday, January 24 through Sunday, January 26 at 7th Circle Music Collective) is the documentary film about the beloved, pioneering pop punk band and its associated project All. Starting in the late '70s with drummer Bill Stevenson, Descendents took the energy and visceral quality of punk and injected it with humor and incredibly catchy melodies and a broader emotional palette than just anger.
Made over the course of three years, Filmage is as engaging as its subject, capturing, through interviews with everyone in the bands and their fans, famous and otherwise, a vivid portrait of what made this band not just significant to its fans but important in the history of rock music.
We recently had a chance to speak with one of the film's co-creators, the thoughtful and friendly James Rayburn about how the film came together, the back channel way the filmmakers took to interview Dave Grohl and how making this film gave Rayburn an appreciation for the talent and drive of one of punk's most influential bands of the last thirty years.
Westword: Were you involved in this project from the beginning?
James Rayburn: Almost from the beginning. My filmmakers and I have been friends for a long time. Deedle [LaCour] and Matt [Riggle] came up with the idea but I got involved really early on.
You did a good deal of the editing on the film?
I was the lead editor, but the four main film makers, which are Deedle, Matt, Justin [Wilson] and myself, are all editors by trade. We all have a little bit of that in our background to varying degrees. I was the editor, but by no means, was it a one-man show. We had multiple copies of our drive in multiple locations at any one time, so I might be working on one section of the movie, while Deedle was working on another. For the most part, the dialogue and the story was crafted by myself with Matt Riggle sitting with me and we'd work evenings and weekends outside of our normal day jobs cramming as much time in as we could to get it done.
You guys were lifelong fans of the Descendents?
Yeah. Again, to varying degrees. But we all grew up fans of punk rock. I'm the only one of the four that isn't a musician, as well. Those guys all played in punk bands and a common thread we've had all our lives was the original connection we had that got us directly involved with the band was when Deedle and Matt, who were in a band together in 41 Gorgeous Blocks, and that band went to Tulsa to record at Stephen [Egerton's] studio, and that's when they developed the relationship with Stephen.
That was in 2004 when Stephen first got to Tulsa. They kind of pitched the idea to him shortly after that and subsequent visits to Stephen created a relationship that eventually led to the film actually happening.
One description of the movie describes it as centered a bit on following Bill Stevenson around. Would you say that's the case, or would you say it's more evenly balanced?
I would say we didn't do a whole lot of following the band around, in the sense of getting a sense of their day-to-day lives. I would say the films is more the Bill Stevenson story, so there's definitely a heavier weight put on Bill in the film. Overall, there are interviews with everybody with sort of a one day interview. It took place as short as twenty minutes, depending on who we interviewed, and as many as three and a half hours with what we put in with Bill.
We got a little bit of behind the scenes into Bill's life, in the sense that the day we interviewed him, he had us over for dinner and we shot some B-roll at his house. But we didn't have a whole lot of following Bill to the studio and watching him work or any really of that with any of the other guys.
There's so much footage of these guys doing their music over the years. We went through a lot of archival stuff to find that. So there's not a whole lot of behind the scenes into what they're up to now.
Did you get the archival footage from the band and from friends of the band?
Yes, and yes. When we got started, we put a call out online saying, "Hey, we know they have decades' worth of fans out there so feel to send us stuff." So we accumulated some stuff that way but a large percentage of it was actually from a big old box Bill has in one of his rooms full of Descendents tapes. Half of those Bill probably hadn't watched in decades, or never watched. It would be people who would record a show and told Bill they would send a tape and did. He kept it all.
One thing you may not know about the Descendents is that Bill didn't like that. For years he didn't want people filming the shows. So even in the '80s and early '90s, Bill would send Bug, their roadie, into the crowd if he saw anyone recording, and told him to take the tape. So it's hit or miss finding that stuff, but we dug and dug, and found a ton of it.
We even had somebody who had an All show that he wouldn't let use in the film because he said that the next time that All came through town he tried to record another show, and Bug came and took the tape from him. So he was like, "I'm never going to do anything that'll help support that band."
I think Bill did that for the purity of the performance. I can't speak for Bill, obviously, but if I could guess, he didn't want his music consumed in any way but a live performance of an album that they put out. I don't think he thought a VHS recording of their set was a good depiction of what their band was like.
It's not the same thing as being there, especially something just from a camcorder or anything like that. You're not seeing the whole thing for one, and the feeling in the room you don't get from a recording.
You obviously came out to Fort Collins to film the Bill stuff.
Yeah. We came up to Fort Collins and were up there a few different times. I guess when we interviewed Bill was maybe the first time we went up there. And we went up there a few months later, and went to film a show they played at The Fillmore. Then we saw All the night before in Fort Collins, a small set. That's where we met Aaron Saye, at the Fillmore. We didn't know who he was. He was there with a camera and offered all of this footage and some of it made his film. We've made a lot of friends along the way, a lot of great people.
Speaking of Aaron, are you trying to screen the film at DIY venues or punk houses or the like?
You know, we don't have a set standard. We've shown it anywhere from theaters to...We screened it at this punk venue in Scotland with a hole in the wall, under a bridge. But we've been all over the world in different places. Honestly, most of the screenings have been through people that reached out to us -- lifelong Descendents fans who want to share it with people. We've been accepted into this community that's very large.
Obviously you interviewed people of varying degrees of fame who knew the Descendents and were fans of the band like Dave Grohl, Mike Watt and Brett Gurewitz. How easy was it to coordinate interviews with those guys?
Everyone had different levels of difficulty to track down. Obviously Dave Grohl was the hardest to get. We had the film pretty close to being put together by the time we actually finally got Dave's interview. We knew he was a fan, and we tried various routes to reach Dave with no success, and ultimately, of all things, it was Bill.
Bill was like, "Let me see what I can do." Bill has a connection to Foo Fighters. He's met Dave before, obviously, but Karl [Alvarez's] ex-wife is the Foo Fighters' tour manager. It's a small world. So Bill managed to get an email over to Dave and said, "Hey, would you be down to do this interview." Dave replied back, "Of course. Love to."
Then it was months of trying to coordinate with his handlers to set up a time to do it. Finally, they gave us a window, and we hopped on planes and flew to L.A., and did the interview with him, and did the interview with him the night after he wrapped up production on Sound City. He came out very hung over and an hour and a half late for our interview, but was just a rock star and super gracious and super apologetic for being late and gave us a hell of an interview.
The Bad Religion guys we caught in the studio. They were busy, and we very much recorded their recording of their latest album by going to the studio that day. But we got in there, and they gave us an hour, and they were great. Everyone with Bad Religion and Epitaph have been just super cool to work with through this whole project.
How long did you work on the film?
We did the first bit of footage in October 2010. But we didn't really get rolling until Punk Rock Bowling in 2011. We started interviewing some fans, and we did interviews with other key people in the early years of the Descendents. We got some great live footage of the band, and that was the year that the Descendents and All played, and All played with all three of their singers. It was really great.
In terms of editing the film together, did you have a framework? Did you just film interviews and other footage and a story emerged from all of that?
Matt Riggle, who is one of the biggest Descendents fans I've ever met, knew a lot about the band. He had heard through Stephen, and read some stuff online, that the band had gone through some turmoil in the last few years with some of Bill's health issues. So he definitely had a framework and had it kind of written out in his mind.
Once we got all the interviews, he transcribed almost every single interview with pages and pages of that stuff. Then, basically, he started to build the whole movie on paper. It was incredible. Then he would sit down with me and assemble the framework. Matt was very thorough and had a good vision. Of course there were changes along the way, but there was definitely a framework going into it.
In editing, you have a lot of footage, and as fans of the band, it may have been a challenge to cut things down to a manageable size.
That changed over time. We also learned a lot about filmmaking and festivals and ultimately distribution. I would say our first completed edit was at two and a half hours. You get so married to certain things, you can't get rid of them. Over time, you learn that some things have got to go. We told ourselves we had to get it down to two hours, and we got it down to two hours, ten minutes.
We're all editors, and then Justin came in and spent some time with the film and got it down to the ninety minutes it's at now. He came in, and chopped thirty, forty minutes of my hard work down the drain, and it was totally needed. It's what we had to do to get the film to where the pacing and the timing and everything moved. We are definitely happy and set on the ninety minutes we landed at.
Is this available to buy? Are you doing the screening first and doing that later?
We've been under the radar and have tried to get attention of distributors. It's not available to buy yet, but we probably haven't been ready until about now. We finally got all of our licensing taken care of. As you can imagine with a band that's been a band for over thirty years, we've got hundreds of songs that span several different record labels on there.
Going into it, we didn't know what to expect. We thought maybe some studio would show up with a large check to help pay for all of this, but that didn't happen. So we kept self-funding things, and now, we're finally getting the attention of people who want to help us with the film. We hope to be paid back one day, so we're looking into all our distribution options now, and we're talking to international sales reps, and we're excited. I would say our target now is mid-2014 to have this thing out. Can't come soon enough.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about the band in making this film?
I learned a lot. But I was probably the least knowledgeable of the four of us about Descendents and All. One thing that was interesting to me is just that anyone that has ever been in that band are all incredibly talented and driven individuals and all great, great songwriters.
You can look at the liner notes on any of their records and they're all contributing and they're all bringing something. You can listen to a song and think, "That's awesome! That's a Stephen song!" Or "That's a Karl song!" They're all so incredibly talented and bring something to the table. The fact that they're all in the same band together creates the juggernaut that they are.
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