Documentarian Nathan Christ
Recently at the 33rd Denver International Film Festival, Nathan Christ’s first documentary Echotone played. The film examines the live music culture in Austin, particularly looking at the struggles that young artists go through to share their creations with a growing city. By following Austin bands like Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears, Sunset and Belaire, Christ looks at different approaches to making art to feed your soul and your belly. We here at the Donnybrook Manor wanted to know more, and using our extensive means, we have decided to contract a Blackwater Special Unit to hunt down and hold Nathan Christ until he’s answered some of our questions.
You share a last name with a certain Lord and Savior; was it easy to get funding when related to the guy who started the Catholic church?
The screening process was very, very intense. Such a last name requires proof, paperwork, magic tricks, wine, money, and a pure heart. I had none of that. But the Echotone idea was good enough, so I could sail on the laurels of that.
The Donnybrook Writing Academy enjoys Austin. In fact it’s a regular vacation spot for us. After your extensive look into everything that makes Austin great, what have you learned about the city that you didn’t know before the project?
Unbounded wealth like you is moving in all the time. In fact, you’re one of the biggest reasons there’s such drama happening in ATX right now. Loads of people from all over the world are moving to Austin in large part because of its cultural cache. Massive, towering high-rise condominiums now loom over the music venues downtown, threatening their existence. So, while you puff on a pipe and fine dine, there’s a very real threat to the very culture that made this city so creatively rich.
Kudos to your team of editing slaves (I assume that’s how movies get edited) – the film looks great and flow is nearly flawless. Could you talk a little about the editing process, specifically how many hours of raw footage did your team wade through to get an hour and half film? What’s your favorite transition in film? And talk a little about your choice to use the static filters over some of the footage.
This film is rare, because I edited it with my director of photography, Robert Garza. That usually doesn’t happen. It was partially out of a lack of cash and partially because we knew the footage so well, all the tiny moments. We had to constantly question and challenge our conflict of interest. There were close to 300 hours! I wish we had slaves. We had an amazingly helpful man named Nate Ferrone help us lock, capture, and sync all the footage, as well as troubleshoot when the computers would dramatically crash.
One of my favorite transitions in the film is the cut from the sweeping cityscape of Austin (as shot from the tip of the tallest crane in the city). The shot is spinning around the city and it’s cut together with a shot mounted on the hood of Black Joe Lewis’ fish truck, as he rounds a corner, eventually revealing the crane in his window’s reflection. It was pure harmony. We were able to blend the city and the musicians living in the city thanks to shots and cuts like these.
The static filter was used sparingly, but helped accentuate the grittiness of the story and the scene, as well as accentuate some of the more dramatic moments. It’s probably undetectable to most viewers. Most people probably feel the effect more than see it, and that probably lends itself to the creeping undercurrent of drama underneath every scene.
We know that Denver has the greatest film festival in the world where French isn’t the official language; what proved this to you during your trip here?
I must say, they treated me famously. They were so professional, so accommodating. I felt like, if I had just needed a big hug, they would’ve stepped up to the plate.
Your film deals with struggling musicians. As a beginning (code for struggling) filmmaker, how did you relate to your subjects and how did that come across in the film?
It’s actually comforting to hear myself being referred to as a “struggling filmmaker.” It is just that. It requires tremendous patience, drive, and tenacity to keep going. I think we’ve made a great film here, one that could act as a historical document, but it’s just been such a slow, grassroots effort to get it on people’s radars. My production team at Reversal Films are an astounding group of workers. I wouldn’t be anywhere without them. Right now we are all running arm-in-arm to market to self-distribute the film. And if a studio comes along and gives us an offer we like, all the better. But we aren’t counting on it.
In so many ways, musicians have taught me this ethic. Do It Yourself. Without a mountain of money or an angel investor, you have to be smart in so many ways. You have to learn to be a leader and still learn to collaborate. Documenting the struggles of the musicians has helped me make sense of my own struggle and pursuit.
It seems that these days everyone has been to Austin, so in your travels with the film, what has been the best non-question-personal-story about Austin someone has asked during a Q&A?
In every screening across the country, there’s inevitably someone in the audience afterward, yelling from the dark, bemoaning Austin’s threatened and/or fading culture. It seems that the city really electrifies people. So the Q&A space sometimes just becomes a safe zone for people to give impassioned speeches about how Austin has changed them and how we need to fight to protect it.
In the film you suggest that the economic growth of Austin is clashing against the city’s creative roots. Why do you think we, rich people, shouldn’t be able to do whatever we want, if we have enough money to do so?
My job isn’t to tell people what to do. I’m not Michael Moore. My job is to present the correct questions. I’m sure you rich folks have your own stories of struggle and hardship and that it’s taken a long while for you to gain this lot in life. All I’m trying to do is raise a giant red flag and let everyone know that the City of Austin is truly at a crossroads. Money is a big economic driver for the city (over a billion dollars a year). When giant buildings move in, the street value rises. When people move into a music neighborhood and complain about the noise, the music is put under a scrutinizing microscope. I just ask anyone that moves into Austin to spend an entire evening with some records: Willie Nelson, 13th Floor Elevators, Janis Joplin, Townes Van Zandt, Stevie Ray Vaughan. After your mind is properly blown, realize that these artists were bred in Austin. They might be long gone, but there’s a whole new generation afoot, and their output is every bit as interesting. It would be very sad if these younger musicians were forced to move elsewhere because they were no longer accepted in their community.
What are the next steps for Echotone?
The dream is to sell the idea as a miniseries and expand the idea into a nationwide tapestry, focusing on similar struggles in other major American music cities.
Please share with us one completely made up element that you wish your film had.
Musicians and developers squaring off in the streets with switchblades, with song and dance, a la WEST SIDE STORY. Too bad.