Paul Rachman is an American film director who directed the highly praised 2006 documentary on punk music American Hardcore, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was released by Sony Pictures Classics. He is also one of the founders of the Slamdance Film Festival. He started his career as a music video director with low-budget videos for hardcore punk bands Gang Green and the Bad Brains. He was later signed to Los Angeles–based Propaganda Films, where he directed music videos for bands Alice in Chains, The Replacements, Kiss, Pantera, Joan Jett, and Roger Waters. He lives in New York City.
I grew up in New York City, and I went to college at Boston University. I went to two summer sessions of NYU Film School. I knew I wanted to work in film, but instead of changing my major I started interning at these public access TV stations and studios around Boston. I was working on film shoots and really immersing myself independently into film. I learned how to edit on a very sophisticated edit system. Some of these studios had a lot of money, so I was getting a lot of access to great video equipment. I also bought my own Super 8 and a Bolex, and I was immersing myself in this nascent, hardcore, punk rock world. My roommate was like the promoter in town, so bands like Black Flag, and Minor Threat would sleep on my floor when they toured in Boston. I loved the scene. It was so different, and I wanted to be part of it, but I wasn’t a musician. So, I decided that I was going to shoot these bands. I just started shooting them on my own with a single camera, and I was determined to make this happen for myself.
The very first music video shoot that was notable, or important, or had any kind of big responsibility to it, was in my senior year in college. I had close to two years of getting this self-taught film experience. I was able to “borrow” this mobile van from Lexington Cable Systems right outside of Boston. There was a band in Boston called Mission For Burma, which was a big band, locally, and they were quitting. This was going to be their last show. My roommate was promoting the show in this big hotel ballroom, and there were going to be around 1,500 people there. So, I kind of silently borrowed this van that had four cameras, a switcher, decks and everything. It was a big deal, and I got my punk rock friends who went to film school to help me. We just pulled up beside this hotel in Boston, no permits, nothing, and we ran cables into the place, and we just shot the all-ages and the evening shows live. There were like six bands. It was awesome! I was in the van directing all of these guys, and the footage was amazing.
That first shoot taught me I could handle the responsibility. I just naturally knew how to direct. I decided that I was going to be a music video director. I moved back to New York, I applied to NYU grad school, and I actually got in. I was also applying for jobs at the same time just to find work in film.
Windsor Video was looking for a young editor to cut music videos and low budget commercials. They hired me on the spot. I was working for a few video directors for like a year and a half, and I got a call one day from someone I had edited for at MTV. He calls me and says, “I hear you have the Bad Brains and Gang Green videos. We’re starting this show called 120 Minutes, and we would love to play them.’’ So, I brought the one-inch masters to MTV, and that was it. Those videos were on the air. That got me signed to Propaganda Films. So, in two years or less, I had reached my goal of becoming a music video director, which brings me to my next first music video shoot with Epic Records, who hired me to direct the new Suicidal Tendencies music video.
Music videos and some short films. I got the bite with narrative about halfway through my music video career at Propaganda films. That led me to my very first independent film, which was a short film I wrote and directed called Drive Baby Drive. It’s a short, black-and-white film about two couples in a car that are arguing and end up crashing. That film traveled the world and went to eighty-five film festivals. I also showed that film at the first year of the Slamdance Film Festival, which I co-founded in 1995. That film gave me confidence that I could write and direct something.
No. Originally there were a dozen of us. Dan Mirvish, Peter Baxter, and I are the only founders from the first year who are still involved in the festival. In 1994, John Fitzgerald, Shane Cune, and Dan Mirvish met at the IFMM, which was a big independent market in New York City, and it had been a feeder into Sundance for many years. But in 1994, not one film from IFMM got into Sundance. I had Drive Baby Drive, and we all eventually got rejected from Sundance. So, the idea was okay, we didn’t get into Sundance, but we all love Sundance, and we all wanted to be a part of Sundance. We were kind of angry and pissed off, and felt like Sundance was changing. 1995 was the year Disney bought Miramax and Warner Brothers bought New Line and Fine Line. All of a sudden, independent film was becoming very Hollywood, and there were bigger actors and bigger budget films being programmed. The true indie people, like us, were getting less notice. So, in 1995 we came to Park City with our own films, and we just set up screening rooms in hotels, and we rented little rooms at The Prospector. We were able to show our films in any way possible, and they were all 65mm and 35mm – there was no video projection at all. We just set up these screening rooms around Park City, and the Hollywood Press fell in love with us, because we were the underdog story. The Hollywood Reporter and Variety gave us front-page stories about Slamdance. This is our twentieth year. Chris Nolan’s first film was here. Lena Dunham’s first short was here. So, a lot of the filmmakers who have success in Sundance today really came to Slamdance first. Slamdance is very small. It has a bit of an incubator feel here, because we’re all in one place in the center of town, and the filmmakers really get to know each other well. Most of our films are budgeted under a half a million dollars and are made by first-time filmmakers, so everybody is on the same level.
Most of the filmmakers, even the Sundance filmmakers, loved us. Steven Soderbergh reached out to us, and he came and loved it. He loved the vibe. There was some controversy from Sundance at first. They just felt that we were coming to Park City to steal their thunder and that we were parasites and losers. They really tried to make things difficult for us. They never thought that it would stick, but we came back and kept doing it. Then in 2006 I got into Sundance with my first documentary, American Hardcore, and that was a bit controversial.
They just liked the film. They didn’t connect the dots with my name and Slamdance. They were like “This film is great, we have to have it!” So, they accepted me, I got in, and then my friend from the New York Times said I should write about this – it’s a great story. So, on December 27th this New York Times article comes out, and it kind of shook everybody. But they liked the film, so they stuck to their guns, and it created a bit of a bridge where they appreciated us a little bit more. But there was never any collaborative talk between Sundance and Slamdance.
My first actual narrative feature was a work made for hire. I got it through my agent, which rarely happens. It was a two million dollar indie feature, and the investors were two guys from Wall Street. They wanted to come to Hollywood, and they were good guys. I liked working with them. They had never done anything in Hollywood, but they felt that they were so successful on Wall Street that they could take over Hollywood, and that rarely works. Matt Salinger was a producer working with them, and the film was called Four Dogs Playing Poker. It was this little noir LA story of four friends kind of double-crossing each other. This film had a real budget, so I ended up getting Forest Whitaker, Balthazar Getty, and Olivia Williams – I had a great cast. But the story was this kind of B movie story. This was back in 1999, so independent film hadn’t matured to what it is today. If Fours Dogs Playing Poker would have been made today, it could have been a DIY theatrical, but that wasn’t in place. So, the film ended up getting sold rather quickly to Showtime and Warner Home Video. So, it wasn’t a theatrical, but I learned so much on that movie about working with big actors and working with producers. I made some mistakes as a director in terms of not insisting on certain script changes, and there was an opportunity to get a really hot rewrite done by a screenwriter who was a noir kind of screenwriter. They could have gotten him at half-price for like forty grand, but the investors said no. I should’ve fought for those things, because it would have made the film better.
I started my career very DIY. I bought a Super 8 camera, and I was borrowing equipment I shouldn’t have been borrowing and just did it. I always believed there are opportunities everywhere. Now you have the industry at large with all this chatter about film is dead, this is impossible, there are too many films, it’s impossible to raise money… It’s not easy, but it’s not dead. You have to be incredibly focused. You have to be incredibly determined. If what you want is to be a big action director, then everything you do has to reflect that.
The way I think of things is first and foremost, this is my idea, this is my film, and I need to get my creative juices, my instincts, and my imprint into that story, because that’s what’s going to make it special. If it’s a story that is like so many others, it’s not so special. There’s a certain emotional imprint in filmmaking that has to be there – something from within you, because that emotional imprint transfers into your film. If you put this emotional imprint into the film, you feel it while you’re editing it, and the people in the audience are going to feel it too. There’s going to be something there, and that’s really important, and you can’t really do that by committee. So, what I would recommend is to get your story straight and start shooting it, edit it, and say this is the film. Yes, you do need to surround yourself with people who can help make it bigger, help create that atmosphere of ‘this is an important film’, and help you raise money, but it doesn’t mean that they have to come in and tell you what the film needs to say and look like to achieve that.
Choosing just one favorite movie is hard but today I’ll say A Clockwork Orange.
New York City, NY