Documentaries I Like Interview: "Girls Rock!" Filmmakers Arne Johnson and Shane King

Image credit: 

The new documentary Girls Rock! opens this Friday, March 7 in selected cities. The film follows four girls as they attend the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls, where they learn to play rock music and build community, forming their own bands and performing their own songs.

I sat down with filmmakers Arne Johnson (Producer/Co-Director) and Shane King (Co-Director/Cinematographer) to discuss the film. Check the end of the interview for info about the opening on Friday, or visit the Girls Rock! Screenings page for details about where to see the film, including opening night festivities. First check out the trailer and then let's get to the interview!

Mental_Floss: Give me the elevator pitch for Girls Rock! including when and where it's opening.

Shane King: Girls Rock! is the story of how four girls find out it's OK to wail like a banshee, beat the hide off a drum kit and be 100% who they are at the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls. It's opening in 7 cities -- New York, Los Angeles, Berkeley, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Portland and Seattle -- on March 7. It rolls out across the country after that.

Mental_Floss: Tell me a little about who you guys are, and what brings you to documentary filmmaking.

Arne Johnson: We both grew up in Portland, though I was actually born in San Francisco and lived there for my first 7 years before my parents fled to a commune in Washington. From that point on, we ended up in Portland where I was for my formative years. We've been friends for 28 years, and along the way have talked a lot about making a movie together, but hadn't really delivered a complete project other than a short Super 8mm we did when we were 14. I got into journalism eventually, doing mostly movie writing, and through that saw a bucket load of documentaries and began to feel like it was the most vital genre in filmmaking. I love that documentaries give you, as a filmmaker, an incredible opportunity to become immersed in your story -- you're not just telling other people's stories, but your own story is being altered as well.

Girls Rock! filmmakers
From left: Arne Johnson, Shane King.

Mental_Floss: What brought you to this subject? And what issues did you encounter as two men making a movie about a girls-only camp?

Shane King: I'm a big fan of Sleater Kinney, and heard about the camp through them...They all have taught there at least once, and Carrie Brownstein is one of the assembly MCs at every camp. She also co-wrote the camp theme song.

As we learned that the camp was about so much more than just girls learning instruments we questioned if we should just back off and let some women filmmakers tell the story of the camp, but the importance of the story had gotten its hooks in us and we became very passionate about sharing with the world the story of the important work these women and girls were dong. We also found that as outsiders to girlhood the interviews with the girls took on an interesting dynamic. Because we had so little understanding of their world the girls were like tour-guides for us and therefore for the audience.

Then at the camp we were aware that our presence both as men and as filmmakers could be disruptive to the camp so we thought a lot about minimizing our impact. First of all we wanted to make sure not to ruin any of the girls' precious week at the camp, so we were very careful to keep an eye on how our presence was affecting the people in the room and if we noticed anyone either cringing at the presence of the camera or playing to the camera we would leave the room. We also let the girls and staff know that they could ask us to stop shooting whenever they wanted and we would respect that. There were also certain situations where either we or members of the camp thought it was best not to have men around, so we were working with two women filmmakers for the week of the camp and they would shoot those scenes.

Mental_Floss: When you were kids, what kind of camps did you go to? How does the camp in the documentary relate?

Shane King: As a kid the only camp I went to was Communist camp, it was actually more of a conference for adults to exchange union organizing ideas and stuff, but there were a small handful of kids and we did all the regular kind of camp stuff like braiding keychains out of colorful strips of plastic, catching frogs, canoeing on the lake, you know all the stuff they do in the Friday the 13th movies before Jason shows up. Its relation to the Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Girls is that it is another avenue in which people are making very conscious choices about kind of world they want to live in and taking steps to do it.

Arne Johnson: I never actually went to a normal summer camp. In Portland, they have this thing called "outdoor school" where you go for a week with your 5th grade class and other classes and learn about nature and stuff. But it wasn't in the summer. My family lived on a commune for a year where I was "homeschooled" (which mostly consisted of wandering around with goats), so that was sort of like summer camp. It's part of the reason I enjoyed being at rock camp so much...Though not a participant, I got to experience some of those same bonds and emotional partings with the film crew.

Mental_Floss: Tell me about Doc Talk.

Arne Johnson: I managed to wheedle a pirate radio show from this ramshackle station that was operating out of a closet in the Mission. At first, Shane and I just played music and talked a bunch...for awhile we thought we might do an Ira Glass sort of thing, but never quite got it together. We started bringing friends on the show for variety, and began to realize that many of them were documentary filmmakers. All at once, we decided to do a show as a sort of mix of Car Talk and Fresh Air. As we started to formally (formal in only the most ephemeral sense) organize the show and invite people on, we realized what an amazing richness of documentary filmmakers there are in the bay area.

As we were starting out on the Girls Rock! Journey, we decided to use the radio show to not only ask about the filmmakers' films, but to solve specific problems we were having. It was like a free film school. The cool thing was how excited many local leading lights like Henry Rosenthal, Elizabeth Thompson, and Sam Green were about being on pirate radio. It was more the Pump Up the Volume concept than our fifteen listeners, I imagine....

Shane King: Doc Talk was in many ways Arne's and my film school. We are both a little undereducated (if you will). We have both have Bachelors degrees from a state school, so we had to be creative when it came time to learn about filmmaking. When I want to learn something, I often try to find a job teaching it. That has been a very good trick over the last 10 years. There didn't seem to be a ton of listeners so the interviews turned into very specific questions about problems we were having with Girls Rock!. It was a very fun way to help San Francisco build a little more of a sense of its rich documentary community and learn how to make one at the same time.

Mental_Floss: I'm a big documentary fan, as are many of our readers. What documentaries or documentarians are you particular fans of?

Shane King: Besides our local heros and friends like Judy Irving (Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill), Sam Green (The Weather Underground) David Brown (Surfing for Life), Tal Skloot (Freeway Philharmonic), one of the many great unsung docs I've seen recently is The Devil's Miner by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson. I'm also a big fan of Bruce Sinofsky who I met in San Quentin, Errol Morris who I don't think I want to meet, and the granddaddy of doc, Robert J. Flaherty.

Arne Johnson: There are a few folks I really love. Some of Frederick Wiseman's films are nearly unwatchable, but there are so many great films in his 30-plus filmography. He's the first doc-maker who showed me that editing can be a poetic exercise, a way of transmitting reality in the way writers do. He shoots a certain amount of footage and then weaves together intuitive associations that can be stunning. I especially love Primate and Basic Training, but his films were only just released on DVD a month or two ago so I've only seen a tiny percentage.

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control is also one of my favorite documentaries. Again, Errol Morris uses the substance of reality to fashion all kinds of beautiful dissonances and symphonies. When the movie starts out, you think it's going to be poking fun at these goofy folks, but by the end you're wrapped into some kind of meditation on who we all are. I guess in general I'm drawn to this writerly sense of documentary filmmaking, probably because of my background as a writer. I love that documentary films are being given more room to explore, though there are many critics who've yet to catch up and are constantly harping about a lack of journalistic objectivity. No one screams about the new journalists anymore for reporting their subjective experiences of historical events, it's an old and dead struggle. But images are powerful and people get angry when they feel fooled or unsure what's truthful and what's not. I'm not advocating for a complete blurring of the line, I just think to remove the filmmaker as artist is ridiculous. The funny thing is, people hold up Wiseman as a completely objective filmmaker and nothing could be further from the truth. Just because he has no narration or interviews or anything else added to the film, he boils down 100 hours of footage to the images that matter most to him. What could be more subjective?

Mental_Floss: If you had an unlimited budget, what documentary subject would you approach?

Shane King: Screw docs, I wanna make a zombie movie!

Arne Johnson: Wow, that's a tough one. I actually have a hard time thinking that way, I'm a big advocate for staying lean and mean. Even if I had more money I'd want to stay unencumbered by all of the dross that comes with added budget. More people, more expensive equipment you're scared of harming, more pressure to make something amazing, all of that stuff. I think I would apply the same process to any film I made. In fact, with a few notable exceptions (music licenses!!!) I actually think our low budget approach on this film was a strength rather than a weakness. We had to think about everything we did carefully, and improvise solutions that often ended up better. Though of course we will spend more money someday than we did on this film, the whole idea of an "unlimited budget" gives me the heebie jeebies. I'm sort of viscerally upset by the idea of waste and excess, so even if that was offered I'd probably search the web for bargains and stuff. Shane likes to tease me about how when we were kids I'd always get the dozen week-old donuts for $1, and be truly excited though they were nearly inedible.

Mental_Floss: In the editing process, you sometimes find a new story emerging that may not have been apparent while you were shooting. Did that happen on this project? And/or can you talk about the editing process in general?

Arne Johnson: Well, as I mentioned in my rather long-winded answer to the favorite documentary filmmaker question, I like to work somewhat associatively. But Shane and I have a pretty great working system that actually starts well before we even shoot that allows me to do that. Once we know a fair amount about the story we're covering, we do this whole process where we lay out all of the stories and themes we're going to look for, what kinds of stuff matters to us, all that kind of stuff. So, by the time we're done shooting, we have a fairly good idea what we shot that we want to use.

For instance, the four main girls were included in eight girls we focused on at the beginning of camp. But by the second day we had narrowed it down to five, because we watched them emerge in ways that exemplified themes we were hearing about from all the girls. So, in many ways, we were already editing.

Again, this is a very subjective process, you can't help but go where your heart and your eye leads you. Anyone who stubbornly stays focused on some abstract concept in the face of their own shifting feelings about a subject is doomed to either a boring film or a painful editing process. That having been said, there were definitely themes and associative connections that came to us later. Liz Canning's animations, for instance, which became such a crucial part of the film, helped us start shaping some of the internal tensions of the film. We started out trying to do a paper cut, or put some kind of three act structure on the film, and all of those exercises helped in different ways, but ultimately the bulk of the work was us intuitively working through the story based on what we had discussed the year before. Shane has a fairly different process and can better speak to that. He's the real editor of the two of us, in fact we took to calling me the "uneditor," because I would show him some associative and incomprehensible sequence and then explain to him what I was trying to get at and then he would somehow magically make that happen.

Shane King: Yes, we knew we wanted the film to be about the transformation of who we focused on. But what aspects of their transformation to explore and how to balance the stories was an ever-changing process. We spent about a year editing full time and showing versions to friends and our consultant Elizabeth Thompson, who make the doc Blink. And then we thought we were done. Little did we know we'd spend the next year and half refining the cut and each revision made it much better.

Mental_Floss: What's it like releasing an independent documentary? Did you have to hook up with a distribution company? Has it been expensive?

Shane King: We were lucky enough land our first choice for a distributor. Shadow Distribution "got" the film immediately and really believe in it. We are opening in more cities than any doc last year, except Sicko.

Arne Johnson: releasing an independent documentary is an insanely time-consuming and simultaneously glorious experience. We were lucky to find two wonderful distributors, Ro*co Films International, who operates as our foreign distributor and domestic sales agent, and Shadow Distribution, who is handling the domestic theatrical release and has sub-licensed the domestic DVD rights.

We actually took an unusual route to distribution, as we hadn't even had our festival premiere when we sent the movie to Shadow. The normal procedure is that you try to get into some big festival like Sundance and then generate enough buzz that distributors will bid on your film. We knew early on that it was going to take a special distributor to work with our film, so we started asking around. Two of our Doc Talk guests, Sam Green (The Weather Underground) and Judy Irving (Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill), had both been distributed by Shadow, and talked about "loving" their distributor. We had never heard that word used about a distributor! Other words, which I'll leave unspoken for now, were more common.

Once we looked into the careful way they released films and discovered they were in Waterville, Maine, the only distributor we know of that's not in LA or NY, we were hooked. We sent it to Shadow and another company we'd heard good things about, Zeitgeist, and Shadow wanted it. Done. That's definitely not a typical story! One of the only two companies we sent it to, wanted it.

While frustrating and exhausting and overwhelming, the process of opening an indie film is greatly enriched by having folks like Ken and Beth Eisen of Shadow and Annie Roney at Ro*co on our side. Every step of the way when we've been in some sort of difficult place they've backed us up in ways that I'll be forever indebted to them for. I consider them all good friends and hope our relationship stretches long past this film or any filmmaking for that matter.

Mental_Floss: How did you pick the soundtrack for the movie?

Arne Johnson: Well, the first criteria was that we wanted to represent a lot of great music that featured women, so every note on the soundtrack has the hand of at least one woman on it. It's also sort of vaguely sourced in the early '90s explosion of women in rock, but includes things outside that boundary. Really, it was mostly just bands that I loved! I had that same excitement you get when you're making a mix-CD for a friend who says they don't really know any classic country. If music culture was sort of my "friend" saying "Are there great bands with women?", this is our mix-CD in response. Not at all complete, not even thoroughly all of the women rockers that I love, like PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, The Pretenders, etc...but a sort of associative slice that fit scenes in the movie well.

Mental_Floss: Are there any special events associated with the premiere? Are you going to be in any of the premiere cities for screenings?

Arne Johnson: Yes, lots of events!

In Portland, the Rock Camp is hosting a VIP party and red carpet event around the opening, with roller derby escorts and the whole nine yards.

In San Francisco, where Shane and will be for opening night, there will be some live music (women, of course!) before the 7pm-ish show, and a party afterwards at a nearby restaurant.

In Berkeley, the first matinee (doors at 10:30am) will feature live music by girls from the film, instrument stations girls can try out rocking on, and other fun stuff for the price of a movie ticket.

In New York, on opening night, NOW NYC will host a panel after the 7pm-ish screening about the issues raised in the film. And I'll be there on Saturday night for Q&As.

In Los Angeles, a great org called WriteGirl is hosting a panel on media and girls Saturday night featuring women from the music industry. Shane will be there for Q&As on Sunday and Monday.

Seattle is also having some live music before various shows, and I'll be there for Q&As on the 11th and 12th.

I'll also be in Chicago on the 9th and 10th.

Then we'll both be up in Portland on the 13th for more Q&As and for the big concert the rock camp is putting on on the 14th.

Phew! There's lots going on, and the cool thing is, we organized only some of it. A lot of this is just people super excited about the film and wanting to participate. People can check out our website www.girlsrockmovie.com for all the particulars about where/when, etc.

Mental_Floss: Thanks for your time, guys. I'll be at the Portland VIP party on Friday, in case any Portland Mental_Floss readers want to say hello!

More from mental_floss...

March 5, 2008 - 6:30am
webby
submit to reddit