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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).

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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