We took in a few films at the Phoenix Film Festival last weekend, including local doc “Play the Documentary,” a paean to the power of music and music education that is poised to make a splash nationally with screenings from coast to coast and participation in other film fests.
We sat down with director Matty Steinkamp of Sundawg Media and producer Tracy Perkins of Strawberry Hedgehog (partners in creative endeavors and in life) to talk creative expression, ditching footage and the personal yet universal nature of music.
What was the genesis for "Play"?
Matty Steinkamp: In January 2014 I had a music video that was officially selected by the Idyllwild Film Festival. It was the first time it opened my head to, “Oh wow, there's a music video portion of film festivals.” It was one of these things that kind of changed both of our lives, in a sense, where it was, “This is such a cool way of living – making films.” It felt like the people at the film festival were people we really liked.
Tracy Perkins: They were all really passionate and creative.
MS: It felt like they were all doing something that was great, even if it wasn't an issue piece. They were doing something that was really great to them, and they were really putting their all into it. We saw a documentary called “A Man Called God” that is still, to this day, one of the best documentaries I've ever seen, and I think we both feel that. The director and writer was in the audience and the story was about him. There was something about thinking to myself while watching, “Man, I would love to have a film in a theater like this.” It was a small theater kind of like Filmbar. It was this vintage-y, really cool theater, an old-fashioned popcorn machine. There was something about that that was like, “I really want to do this. I want to have my film in something like this.”
TP: He'd already started filming, though.
MS: I wanted to do an online video as it was. I didn't have a film in mind, but then after going to the film festival and being a part of that, I definitely said I wanted to down the road. I didn't know at this point I was going to make a full-length documentary that would be selected by film festivals.
TP: You were making cinematic adventures, just for you.
MS: It was doing travel things where it was like, “I want to get them out of my head.”
TP: They were like elaborate home videos. Beautifully edited, just for our own enjoyment, and he happened to post them on YouTube.
MS: People started liking them a lot... [and then he saw the documentary “His Way,” about producer Jerry Weintraub, a pivotal experience] I think there was something that inspired me about doing something bigger than I'm capable of, and at that point I was like, “I don't think I can ever make a movie. It would take too long, it's too big of a thing, I can't handle that.” When I saw that film, I think there was something that clicked that said that I could. I started taking things that I already had. I had these musicians that I was filming and I said, “How do I turn this into a film?”
We started researching music education. How does music education work in America? How does it get funding, who are the important parties involved? [Ken Clark, Phoenix City councilman, was instrumental in helping early research for the documentary.] He really opened up a can of worms that was awesome. He said, 'You're not going to like what you're going to find.” … We basically formulated the movie right around the summer of 2014. Fall of 2014 we started filming, and we were done editing it by August of 2015.
TP: When we were in Ireland we were getting a feel for how we need to do this. Matty was filming street performers all over Ireland. Really cool performances. And that's how we got a feel for how does the sound need to be, how do we need to get permission from these people to record them in order for it to be legal? We had to ditch probably 15 performances from Ireland and we ended up with just two, but those two were by far the most spectacular performances.
And what about your personal musical backgrounds? Matty, it was so cool seeing your dad, a singer, in the film.
MS: I sang with my dad's chorus from the age of 10 til I was 18. I sang in a barbershop quartet from 15-20. and then we pretty much morphed into doing a cappella/jazz stuff. We traveled around for about two years, sang at Disneyland, had different recording contracts that we did, commercial jingles. We sang at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City for 40,000 people. It was a really different time in my life, that's for sure. We broke up pretty much because we all got older... from there I went right into rock 'n' roll, was in a rock band in college. Played piano, guitar, percussion, many different string instruments, always backup vocals. I did a lot of harmony singing for bands. There was a good part of my life where people would call me to help with harmonies.
TP: I played the coronet in elementary and middle school. That's my musical background. But I'm a huge music fan. I met him at a music venue. I'm a show-goer for sure. I love supporting local music. I don't even have thoughts that don't contain music. My life has a soundtrack in my head, so I'm definitely a music lover. What's funny is, after Matty completed the film – and I've watched it so many times – every time I watch it, though, I think, “Man, I really want to play music again.” I don't remember how to read music. I remember physically how to play a trumpet, but I don't think I could just pick it up and play it, but I really want to. That will be my fifth career: coronet player again.
MS: We've already talked about having a duo band. That's down the road. To be announced.
TP: Matty will sing harmony with my coronet. It'll just be him scatting and I'll be playing a trumpet.
What did you learn throughout your experiences making the film? Anything surprising?
MS: Definitely learned a lot about the system, how it all works. It was an eye-opener to know how many consecutive years billions of dollars were subtracted [from music education budgets]. And when you add it all up, it's kind of unquantifiable to think about. We didn't really talk about that too much in the film except in the beginning with the real news. The main thing that we learned was music really is – if not the most important thing in the world, it's one of them. It's like, there's love and there's music. We got to see all these different people tell us what music meant to them. The second we got to that part of the questioning, “What does music mean to you?” and finish this sentence: “Music is...” their whole body language, their face, everything about them completely got involved, emotional, passionate... You really see the power of music through the world the way we did. I think it shows in the film. We learned that you don't have to prompt someone too much to let them tell you how they feel about music. That was one thing that was interesting – we didn't have to do much, we just had to say “Tell us what you think about music,” and it was all the gold in the world for the film.
TP: But it was a matter of choosing the right people... I think Matty became a much better interviewer by the end. He learned what questions to ask to draw this stuff out of people. That's an art.
MS: We watch a lot of documentaries. Man, the really good ones, it is because the director is the best investigative reporter. When you're looking at “20 Feet from Stardom” or “Sound City” – you can tell that they are asking question after question after question and then coming back to it because they're getting the same conversation in multiple locations. It takes a lot of patience and a lot of understanding to be able to get that out of someone that doesn't really know you.
TP: I feel like the biggest thing I learned – and I guess I already knew it, so it was more validating – if you're passionate about something, now is always the time to do it. There will always be what you perceive to be a better time to do it, but it'll never get done if you don't start right now, whether it's playing an instrument or creating a documentary or writing an article or building a business, if you feel passionate about something, get started on it right now, because you could put it off indefinitely.
MS: There's a lot. It all has to happen this year for various reasons.
TP: But first, the place people can see it is Thursday at 12:35 [p.m.] at the Phoenix Film Festival as part of medium-length documentaries. Before we get into the infinite possibilities [laughs].
MS: Immediately next is we're waiting to hear back from several film festivals. We think we have a really good chance at one of them that we've been retweeted by. I like to tell people my Twitter game is on point right now because almost anything major or positive that has happened outside of Arizona has been directly from Twitter [producer, film festivals]...
It's about music education. I need this to be able to be viewed in schools so the kids can see all these instruments. One of our initiatives that we're working on is we're giving the film to organizations that are in cities all over the country that are already benefiting music education. We're giving them the film for them to throw their own screening so that all the money from that screening goes to their organization. We haven't figured out a date yet, but we are doing a screening with the Arizona School of the Arts. We are going to do two full weekends at Filmbar. Our world premiere will be at Filmbar. It will be completely open to the public, and tickets will be available in advance. The same thing is going to happen in Salt Lake City; St. Paul, Minnesota; Los Angeles; San Diego; and we're working on a screening in New York right now. After this summer we're going to do a heavy online push.
TP: So that teachers can show it in their class.
MS: If we get someone who's interested in distribution, cool, but the whole goal is to be able to give it to politicians that support music education in public schools to use it as a piece to help them get elected. Not only that, but also to really show people that this is the kind of thing we need to be supporting.
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