Thursday, April 18, 2013

Deep, Dark Jersey Romance - An Interview with Director Kevin Slack

Kevin Slack and crew preparing for
a shoot in the woods of
Northwest New Jersey
Recently, I had a chance to chat with Kevin Slack, a critically acclaimed film and music video director who's done notable work for bands like The Gaslight Anthem, Bouncing Souls, and Dave Hause.   Kevin's work focuses in great detail on the growth and hardships of people, with a very solid, dark background of place.  It's impossible to miss, and I figured I'd ask him about it.
RM: Kevin, tell me about your hometown.  What do you remember most about it, and what made it a place that either pulls you to return to it....or not. 

KS: My hometown is Roxbury, New Jersey which is in Morris County.  I think for the most part it was your run of the mill American town. It's fairly crowded, like most of New Jersey, with lots of suburban neighborhoods, strip malls, chain restaurants, malls, movie theaters, etc....   There are some small wooded areas in pockets throughout the town, but no major areas of untouched land.  I used to ride BMX pretty seriously for a few years into high school so some of my best memories are hanging (trespassing) in a small wooded area near this park called Horseshoe Lake.  I didn't realize it at the time, but I think I really enjoyed the isolation and quietness of the space.  It was a beautiful escape from everything else.

RM: I've spent much of my life traveling in, or near, the places in your videos, throughout New Jersey. Yet I've never lived in Jersey.   Ever. I have my own thoughts about the hidden value of the state's "special places," but this is where I'd like to delve into your mind and your work.   What makes New Jersey special to you?

NJ Pine Barrens - photo by Mike Medici
KS: New Jersey is special to me because it is SO hated by people that don't live there.  It's like I get to enjoy the things people don't know exist.  People think they know New Jersey from stereotypes and what they might see on TV.  In reality New Jersey has gorgeous neighborhoods, tons of open farm lands and wildlife, beaches, mountains and everything in between.

Again, like I said before, although the state has a lot of things I love, mainly it is special to me because of the people.  Besides some social and political views, I really think people and places are similar throughout America.  I remember complaining about being bored in high school because there was nothing to do in town but realistically, every high school kid across the country has had those same thoughts.  Maybe the grass really is just greener on the other side.

RM: Jersey is known for being challenging to work in, from a rules-and-regulations standpoint.  It's a "permit for everything" kind of place.  Yet, you continue to use Jersey to tell your stories on film.   What draws you to keep going back to the same old neighborhoods, shorelines, and boardwalks for very different shoots?  Two obvious are Bouncing Souls' "Coin Toss Girl" and The Gaslight Anthem's "I'da Called You Woody, Joe."

KS: I have actually shot four music videos in Asbury Park.  That place is just so damn romantic.  When I'm there I can imagine so easily what that place was like in its prime.  I like seeing it getting rebuilt and imagining what it will be like in 15 years.  There is this great contrast of complete ruins like the casino against this beautiful beach and massive ocean.  It creates this really wonderful balance which I think comes across on screen.  It's also just become a comfort to me.  I know that area now and I like it.  Also bands like The Bouncing Souls, Gaslight Anthem and Dave Hause all have connections to that neighborhood so they all love shooting there as well.  

In regards to having to get permits for everything, I just....don't.  Run and gun baby!


Dave's video was really fun and pretty stressful to shoot.  We shot on the beach at Asbury Park at night.  One of my favorite things is hanging on the beach at night.  As a kid my family would go stay on Long Beach Island or Wildwood beach and I'd love to run around at night and hang out on the lifeguard chairs.  I still climb those chairs today if I see them.  However I don't really love the beach during the day in the summer.  I have too much english blood and pale skin that anything over 70 degrees and I'm a sweaty mess haha.

But yeah, that video was fun.  We didn't get bothered at all (we had no permits, so fingers were crossed) and it was fun to just beat Dave up over and over.  All of that fighting was totally choreographed though which was the tough part.  I don't think Dave or I really know how complicated that can become to make it look real without actually hitting someone.  I'd be lying if I didnt think someone was going to get hurt.  I just held my breath for each take. Dave is awesome though and was totally up for the challenge.



Dave Hause's "C'mon Kid," filmed in Asbury Park by Kevin Slack

RM: When you're writing, what part does "the individuality of place" figure into your work?   How does that differ when filming someone else's story, whether a short film or a music video?

Kevin Slack works with Elisha Cuthbert
at the shoot for The Gaslight Anthem's
"Here Comes My Man"

(video at end of this post)
KS: Well, location is everything.  You can have the best camera, best actors, best cinematographer, etc but if you are shooting in a room with 4 blank white walls it will be incredibly boring to look at.  If you have a great location, everything else can suck but the video/film can still thrive.  So anytime I'm writing a treatment for a video or a script for a film I'm always thinking about location.  It's usually one of the first things I imagine.  Unfortunately, I can't always get what I want but finding the right location is a huge part of the job. 

RM: Do you spend much time outdoors, other than scouting for future productions?  What do you like to do outdoors?  What's your favorite place to go, where you live now (and do you still live in NJ)?

KS: Most of my time outdoors these days is spent wandering New York City.  I used to be a huge snowboarder riding 3 or 4 times a week.  Before that I was really into riding BMX and would ride every day after school.  I hate that I'm not out in nature as much as I want anymore.  I live in Jersey City now but work in New York City everyday so most of my life is spent in an urban setting.  I remember a couple years ago I went to Texas with my fiance for vacation and we found this spot outside of Austin where nobody was around and we were able to wander this wooded area with a big open field.  I remember feeling so happy being lost in Texas and being completely alone with her.  I wish I could trap that feeling in a bottle and keep it with me.  Sometimes, even though I'm outside, I feel quite claustrophobic.

RM: Describe the place - the spot on earth - that most influenced you to become the person you are.  That most influenced your way of thinking about life and work.
KS: I guess that would just be childhood home in New Jersey.  I lived there for 19 years so that has to be the place that influenced me the most.  My Dad still lives there today, going on 29 or 30 years in that house now so it is still a part of my life.   
RM: Tell me a little more about the Banquets video for "Sometimes a Wolf."  Specifically, the context and the place.  I've got the lake scene pegged to maybe Passaic County, where my family has had a cabin for 75 years.  Am I right?  And I'm not going to lie, that makeup job pretty much freaks me out.


KS: Ha ha! That video was fun to shoot.  The lake is my older brother Keith's backyard on Lake Swannanoa in - yes - Passaic County.  The rest of the video was shot in Sussex County in a field and a wooded area.  Unfortunately I couldn't tell you exactly where, because I'm not sure.  We just drove until we found things we liked and shot them in that moment.  This was an incredibly small production where I played every crew member and my fiance played the ghost, ha ha.  It was fun to shoot a video that way, though, and it was extra cool to have my brother Keith helping out and letting us use his backyard, boat and lake.

Stills from the above video...not at all creepy!
RM: "Every Word Handwritten" is a pretty ambitious undertaking - I love it .  Did The Gaslight Anthem initially ask for the video, the short film, or did one evolve from the other?  Everything in that video is meticulous.  What can you tell us about it, and the places that the characters move through?


KS: Thanks. It was ambitious, we had lots of locations and moving parts for a few days of shooting.  We had to create a short film and music video during the shoot.  Benny, the drummer, came to me with the concept for the video about following the vinyl record.  We then developed the idea more together and as we were doing that we realized we had a lot of story that we wanted to tell.   We also knew we had to include band performance in the video so we only had like 2 minutes to fit that story in.  I wanted that story to breathe and move slow and that couldn't happen with the music video.  Luckily the band and record label were both on board for the film.

The locations were personal for me.  We shot in New Jersey in the suburbs so I felt really comfortable there, it's what I know.  I love portraying the suburbs in film and some of my favorite films are all about the suburbs in a small town.  Brian does conjur up tons of imagery in his lyrics and some of those visuals have made it into the videos but I really wouldn't say they had much to do with the locations.
Asbury Park's Stone Pony
 What - to you - is the role of individual places (outdoors or urban) - in understanding who we are and from where we come?  Would you still be doing what you do if there was no Meadowlands Diner, no Stone Pony, no Pipeline.  No pine barrens, no Great Swamp.   If it looked like the media presents it (as a Turnpike Service Center).
RM: 

KS: I think we can't help but be influenced from where we come from.  It is all we really know while we grow up.  As a kid and a teenager, New Jersey was the world.  However what does growing up in New Jersey mean compared to someone who grew up in Georgia or Idaho.  I'm not so sure it affects a person beyond maybe social and political stances.  I think I would absolutely be doing what I do no matter where I live.  It's much easier being close to New York City and having access to different types of locations but I didn't become a filmmaker because of New Jersey.

You mentioned the Meadowlands Diner and the Stone Pony which are both great Jersey spots but I guarantee in Juno Alaska they have a great diner and a cool music venue that has a great history to them.   It's all relative I think.  We all know what we know, but are we really that different? I'm not entirely sure but my gut tells me we are all more similar than we think.


10 comments:

Federico said...

As for every blog post that does it, would it be possible not to have a video playing auto-magically without my intervention? The fact I have to listen to music I did not choose to listen is annoying beyond words, especially if I am reading another blog post on the same page. I trust I am old enough to decide if I want to have a video playing or not...

Kirk River Mud said...

Automagically? That sounds serious! None of them automatically play on my browsers. Which one plays automatically for you? I'll just use another clip if needed.

Kirk River Mud said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kirk River Mud said...

Ahh now I see. Both of the Vimeo vids. I will get those fixed up so they don't automatically start.

Kirk River Mud said...

fixed...

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Federico said...

Thanks! As I read your blog for articles other than music (i.e. environmental restoration and hunting) I found it a bit grating having music start up unexpectedly, especially because vimeo seems to set the default volume as LOUDEST.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Kirk River Mud said...

Ha ha. Thanks for stopping by and continuing to stop by. Thanks also for letting me know about the glitch. I haven't linked to Vimeo too often so it's a new problem to me...

Kirk @ River Mud

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