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Peter Bogdanovich and the Four-Hour Tom Petty Doc

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photo: Tom Petty and Peter Bogdanovich during the filming of “Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” East End Management, 2007]

Hey, isn’t that Dr. Melfi’s shrink from “The Sopranos”? Maybe that’s all he is to a younger generation, but to anyone with half a clue about Hollywood history, the 68-year-old Peter Bogdanovich is sooner noted as the director of film classics like “What’s Up Doc?”, “Targets,” and two bona fide masterworks: “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon.” Plenty’s been written about the bespectacled, scarf-wearing icon (His encyclopedic knowledge of John Ford and Howard Hawks! His affair with young Cybil Shepherd! His life-long friendship to Orson Welles!), so what more needs to be added now, except… How in the world did he end up helming a 253-minute documentary (yes, over four hours) about aging Southern rocker Tom Petty? “Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” which screened at this year’s New York Film Festival and which will be released this week as an extensive four-disc box set, is unmistakably the most comprehensive document ever recorded on the underrated, 17-time Grammy nominee. And to be perfectly honest, that running time breezes by quicker than a dissipating cloud of pot smoke, thanks largely to some well-curated performances, sharp editing and surprisingly intimate footage that the masses have never before seen. I was fortunate enough to sit down with the quite-avuncular Bogdanovich to talk about Petty and the director’s newfound appreciation for rockin’ out.

The film’s extended length may have been unavoidable since you seem to have made two full films in one: the artist’s portrait and the concert doc. Why not one or the other?

I felt that here we are telling the story of a guy and his band over a period of 30 years. What are they doing? They’re making music. Well, how can we really do a definitive work about this band without showing the result of what they were doing? In some cases, I felt the performances warranted being seen from beginning to end because that’s part of what Tom is. The songs aren’t just great, he’s a terrific performer. When you see him singing or the band playing their instruments, you’re interested because you get to know them. “Oh look, it’s Benmont, he’s really playing up a storm.” Or Mike, who’s so cool he hardly makes any expressions, listen to what he’s doing. It’s like if you’re making a film about a great filmmaker and you say he’s a great filmmaker, you have to show some sequences. You gotta let them run sometimes so you can see what you’re dealing with. That’s how I felt. You couldn’t really make a movie about a man and his music without showing a lot of the music. If you like rock and roll, I don’t see how you can resist it. I really wanted it to be comprehensive, the full monty.

Still, four hours might be a tough sell considering it’s more a celebration than a critical exploration. How do you think this will play to those who aren’t fans?

I don’t know. We were really thinking of the fans, people who like Tom Petty. That was our main concern, as was: how much did it interest me? I could have added another half hour, probably — songs that I would have liked to play longer, like “Crawling Back to You” or “The Best of Everything,” which is a song I love. But we kept saying while we were making it: If it plays, it doesn’t matter how long it is. And if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter how short it is. The only way you can tell is if it flows, and the only way to tell that is to sit through it, and see if there’s any place where you say: “This isn’t working.” We talked at one point toward the end about making a shorter version for easier distribution. But Tom and I both felt that here we knocked ourselves both out to make this complete… how could we do that? If we could’ve made a shorter version that worked, we would have. And if we make it now, we’ll always be saying, “Well, you should see the longer one.” [laughs]

You were pretty unfamiliar with Petty’s work prior to jumping onboard, no?

Right, I wasn’t a fan. But I’m not of the generation. When rock and roll came in, I was into Sinatra, then I got into jazz and Armstrong, and then I got into country because I did “The Last Picture Show.” I did get into rock and roll, sort of, with The Beatles and then later, in the ’80s, with Bruce, because I knew him. So it wasn’t alien to me, but it wasn’t something that I was chasing after. I think that’s one of the reasons there’s a certain freshness to the movie, because it wasn’t old to me. It wasn’t like I knew any of the songs well. I had heard a few of them, but I didn’t know the story nor the music.

But I did use quite a bit of rock and roll in a film I made called “Mask.” In fact, we had Bruce Springsteen’s music and then we had to take it out. But now it’s back in the DVD version of “Mask.” We have the full Springsteen score, and Little Richard, Gary Bonds, and I got into some ’60s rock.

It’s funny, I find this collaboration so fascinating because of your tastes. I’d sooner associate you with Cole Porter than Bruce Springsteen.

That’s because I did a lousy movie with Cole Porter music… “At Long Last Turkey.”

Are you really that down on “At Long Last Love?” I usually find that the most notorious commercial bombs tend to be better than the masses like to give them credit for.

Well, you know, it wasn’t good enough. It should’ve been better. I’m going to see if Fox will put it out in a correct version, because there have been, like, six versions of it. But I’m not dying to put it out. It’s okay, it’s a curiosity.

What did you learn about rock music itself through Petty?

Size. It has enormous size for me. The concerts start kind of intimate, then build, and it finally has kind of the size onstage that you get from grand opera, a really great opera performance, which there aren’t very many of. But when they really get big, really good, they have a size to them that’s colossal, the music and the voice, it’s the best. I felt that with Tom, and I said that to him. He said, “I’ve never seen an opera.” I said, “You don’t have to, I’ll tell you.” The audience gets that lift, too. There’s enormous precision to the music and yet, it’s instinctual. It has to be a certain way. I don’t know if he could even analyze why, it’s just the way he works.

Petty’s sold the records, won the awards, and remained uncompromised. But in the rock pantheon, he’s fallen through the cracks compared to many of his peers. Did you feel that while making the film, like you were unearthing a treasure?

Yes, I felt he was underrated. He’s very popular with the people, but the critics seem to take him for granted. Or they seem to not understand the profundity, or depth of humanity, he brings to the work. I think they will, and maybe this movie will help. It’s an amazing career when you look at it. He’s kept the nucleus of that band together for 30 years. It’s extraordinary. As Warren Zane says, “Name me another.” The fact of the matter is, he has many loyal fans. They understand him and the work, and that’s what it’s all about for him. The more I worked on it, the more I said: “This guy is really top notch, you know?” He’s a very important artist.

You originally bonded with Petty over a single dinner conversation, ironically about four hours long. What did you two have in common to talk about?

Well, Tom’s a big movie fan. He watches Turner Classic Movies all the time. When he goes on tour, the hotel has to have TCM or he won’t stay in the room. One of the first things we talked about was “Rio Bravo,” which is the first clip [shown in the doc]. He loves that movie, and I do too. I think westerns, Hawks and Ford were a bonding element. He also loved the documentary I did on Ford, and volunteered to do a promo for it on TCM. He liked “The Last Picture Show” and “Paper Moon.” Those are a couple of his favorite films; that was why he had asked for me. The conversation, I’m told, is that [legendary producer] George Drakoulis brought my name up as a possibility to direct this, and Tom said: “Can we get him?” George said: “Can we get you?” I said, “You got me.”

But you’re not a guy who needs to take work-for-hire. Do you have personal projects in the works?

Yeah, I’ve got a bunch of things I want to make. The vagaries of the business are such that I can’t say necessarily which film I’ll be making first, but I’ve got a thriller — kind of a trailer-trash melodrama — that I’m working on called “Killer Joe,” based on an off-Broadway play by Tracy Letts, a very good writer. He’s adapted the script and I think we’re going to do that in the early part of next year. Where are we now, ’08? The ’00s have gone by so quickly. I have more things I want to do now than I think I ever have, it’s just a question of whether I’ll survive to make them all. I think so… I’m in pretty good shape.

“Runnin’ Down a Dream: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” will be available as part of a CD/DVD box set on October 16th.


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



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.