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The Great World of Craig Zobel

The Great World of Craig Zobel (photo)

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The personals are full of them; want ads promising easy fame and fortune for people with undiscovered talent. Music industry neophytes show up, audition, and receive every promise under the sun, if they put up a little of their own cash first “as a show of good faith.”

The practice is called “song sharking,” and though the scam’s potency has faded in recent years, it still exists in smaller communities, on means to prey on people’s dreams and finances. Writer/director Craig Zobel, a longtime producer and production manager for David Gordon Green, heard about song sharking from his father, a lifelong salesman, and decided to turn the subject into his debut feature, “The Great World of Sound,” which has toured the festival circuit to widespread acclaim and opens in limited release from Magnolia Pictures this week.

Beyond its intriguing premise, “Great World” has a killer hook: though the story starring actors Pat Healy and Kene Holliday is fictional, Zobel placed song sharking ads in newspapers to bring in real people to play their unsuspecting victims. Healy and Holliday would conduct the interviews while Zobel and his crew captured the whole thing on hidden cameras. Zobel discussed the fascinating results with me at Magnolia’s New York offices.

You’ve exposed this scam — any shady characters coming after you as a result?

[laughs] For half a second I was worried about that, but then it occurred to me that people more often than not are like “Well that’s not me. We’re different. We really are going to help your career!”

So once you decided to make a movie about song sharking, how did you come to use real people singing their own songs in the movie?

Practically, the reason I wanted to do it was I wanted to get an unaffected performance, and when I put actors into this situation, I found that there was a different vibe. It didn’t feel like these people were really sincere. Honestly, it was mostly that.

It makes for a less splashy, dynamic article but, in all earnestness, there’s a range [of people who knew and who didn’t know they were being filmed]. There are certain musicians who knew it was a movie. The gospel singers in that scene with Kene knew they were in a movie; they didn’t read the script, they just came in and knew they were supposed to be in a movie and just react to whatever happened.

So it was a combination of things. I wasn’t doing it so I would have this great gimmick. That wasn’t my intent — it wasn’t “Borat.” It was, “How do I make this movie feel this way?” And I decided “Well, I’m not making a documentary, so I can break any rule and just do all sorts of different weird things!” [laughs]

How do you direct your actors in those hidden camera scenes? Are they wearing ear pieces?

We wrote a cell phone specifically into the script so that I could call them. They’d be in the middle of an audition and I’d ring them. They’d go, “I’m sorry, I have to take this. It’s my boss.” Which wouldn’t be a lie! And then I’d be like, “Try to start talking about this…”

More often, we wouldn’t really know what was going to happen, but we’d look at who was coming in and go “Okay, the next person is a rapper named Ganja. So Pat, no matter how good or bad he is, you need to be really uncomfortable with the fact that his name is Ganja and that that might not be marketable.” And they would just run with it. We’d sit before and go “What do we want? What haven’t we done that’s interesting?”

Hollywood’s standard way to make movies about con men is to glamorize them; just this summer we had “Ocean’s Thirteen,” for example. Your movie is about con men, but it’s the total opposite — the con men’s lives are almost worse than the people they are conning.

Yeah, I was very conscious of that. I mean, wouldn’t they be miserable? I can’t imagine that it’s a glamorous lifestyle, being a con man. Nobody wants to be a Machiavellian bad guy. So you have to think that you’re either doing something not that bad or you have to be rationalizing it constantly.

It’s not the same thing, but I worked as a phone sales operator for a while. Pat worked as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. When you’re doing those jobs, you’re doing them because you need fucking rent money, like, next week. You’re not in a glamorous place in your life when you have to go non-legit. Rich people don’t sit around going “How do I do something ethically weird?”

Was it sadder when someone came in to audition and they were really good or really bad?

It’s an interesting question. I think… when they were bad. I felt like the really good people knew that they were good and probably had a ton of people around them supporting them. Maybe it’s rationalization on my part, but when people were really good I’d think, “Well, they’re gonna be okay.”

You hope that talented people will eventually rise to the top.

Yeah. Which did you think was sadder?

Well when I was watching the good people, I’d think “This person is really talented!” and yet I look around and see lots of people who are successful and are untalented.

I’d been thinking about it like that, but I guess I’d intellectualized it by the time we were shooting. I also tried not to put the untalented people in the movie. There’s one person who sings really badly in the beginning of the movie who’s a ringer, so I wouldn’t be making fun of anyone.

What was the percentage of people you saw that were actually talented?

Certainly over 50 percent. I’d say that of the people who came in, only 30 percent of them made me feel uncomfortable because they weren’t good enough. Everybody else was good; it was just that they hadn’t been able to crack the code of how to become a professional musician. And that’s what the scam attracts — not stupid people, and not naïve people even, but people who want to figure something out and just don’t know. And they, for one reason or another — self-esteem or financial circumstances or family problems — haven’t been able to just jump in and be like “My whole life is going to be about me trying to be a musician.” So they’re trying to figure out a shortcut that works.

Let’s give someone a plug, then. Who was the most talented person who came in to audition?

Gosh. I fell in love with this woman who’s a teacher and who has a very small part where she hands out the lyrics to her song. She came in and played a banjo song that I thought was the most amazing thing. I think Alison Krauss fans the world over would love her. Her name is Mindy Spainhour. And I still keep in touch with her.

“Great World of Sound” opens in New York on September 14th (official site).



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.