DID YOU READ

Interview: Josh Koury on “We Are Wizards”‏

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11202008_wearewizards1.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Even if you’re the rare bird who has never heard of a Muggle, Hogwarts or Lord Voldemort, you won’t feel left out while watching “We Are Wizards,” a heartfelt and hugely entertaining doc about the Harry Potter fan phenomenon. Directed by Josh Koury (of 2002’s “Standing By Yourself”), the film isn’t just about groupies but what the Potter-verse has inspired among a few chosen subjects, including wizard rock bands like Harry and the Potters, Draco and the Malfoys, and the pint-sized Hungarian Horntails. Self-made activist Heather Lawver chronicles her successful fight against Warner Bros. over their persecution of Potter fan sites, and eccentric artist Brad Neely explains his “Wizard People, Dear Reader,” a hilarious audio commentary to be played in conjunction with the first “Harry Potter” film. Koury, who also teaches on the film faculty at NYC’s Pratt Institute, spoke with me between classes about his own Potter fandom, the ambiguities of copyright infringement and his decision to abandon the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival.

You yourself are a “Harry Potter” fan. What do you think it is about the series that has roused you and this legion of super-fans?

The books are very well-written, and everybody likes the underdog story. When it comes to the fan base, we try to let the people in the film speak for themselves. It’s always a personal relationship. What I think is significant about the series is that it’s been a part of people’s lives for so long. Let’s take [The Leaky Cauldron fan site founder] Melissa Anelli, who is 26 right now. The first book came out when she was 16. They were still an important part of her life back then. This film is about these people and their personal stories, but at the same time, it’s about using this inspiration as a stepping stone for other creative endeavors.

But how did this subculture get so big? We’re so inundated with media, viral successes are still typically fleeting, and yet this series continues to appeal to kids and adults of all demographics.

It’s the scope; it reaches people all over the world. What’s different about this particular tale is that “Harry Potter” was the right story at the right time and place. There’s also “Lord of the Rings” and “Chronicles of Narnia”; this isn’t the first great piece of literature that’s captured a generation, but it came out at a time for the communication age to grab hold of it and move it in an interesting direction. The wizard rock scene and the Harry Potter fan base don’t just stay concealed in a room. These aren’t nerds hanging out in their parents’ basements and going into chat rooms. They get their guitars and groups together and take it to the streets. It’s almost like a family.

11202008_wearewizards2.jpgDo you think wizard rock is a legitimate rock subgenre, or a novelty that will eventually wither?

It will fade in time. I’d like to be optimistic and say it’s going to last forever, but it’s not. Look, the last book came out a year ago, and it’s still as strong as it’s ever been, but you can tell that over the next year or two, things will start to slow down. But some of the more popular bands are just excellent musicians. Recently, I went to a wizard rock show where Draco and the Malfoys, the gentleman from the Whomping Willows, and some other fellow from a band that’s not in the movie all got together and played different songs. Man, they just wailed.

With such a wild array of possibilities, how did you track down and curate your subjects?

The process for finding our characters was basically Internet research. Also, people we interviewed would lead us into interesting directions. It would be pretty impossible to make an 80-minute movie that’s truly a retrospective of Harry Potter since the fan base is so long, and there’s an infinite amount of wizard rock bands and fan sites. From the beginning, we didn’t want to make a “Trekkies”-style documentary where you make fun of the nerdy kids. We wanted to focus our efforts and energy on finding people that we felt had something great to offer: real musicians, or Brad Neely, [who] is a great artist and a comedian. A lot of these are people that I was excited to hang out with, not just because we made the movie or in reference to the movie. Paul and Joe DeGeorge of Harry and the Potters are two terrific guys and great friends of mine now, and Brad Neely is a terrific guy to hang out with. That’s what inspired us.

The film chronicles the story of Heather Lawver and PotterWar, the fan organization that campaigned against Warner Brothers’ copyright bullying in 2001. Wouldn’t it be in a studio’s best interest to allow fans to grow the myth?

Yeah, it does, and that’s what they figured out. We make Warner Bros. a bad guy for a few seconds, but at the end of the day, we do try to paint them as a progressive company. 2001, which was only seven years ago, feels like a century in the Internet world. I think they were developing their attitude towards the fan base at the time, and realized quickly that it’s probably not in their interest to turn off the fan outlets out there. Warner Bros. has definitely pulled back and opened their arms to the fans out there. With the recent exception of J.K. Rowling and Warner Bros. versus RDR Books, which was in the news in the past six months, they have a really terrific relationship with the fans. They probably wouldn’t admit this, but my opinion is that it mainly came to develop because of this PotterWar instance.

Is there any concern about using the words “Harry Potter” on the packaging of a film not sanctioned by Warner Bros.?

11202008_wearewizards3.jpgWe’ve taken it to a copyright lawyer, and it should be cool and the gang. Warner Bros. is obviously a huge company and can do whatever they want, but as a documentary filmmaker, you have certain rights. We’ve also been very careful in making the movie. There’s no music, we don’t use any [licensable] fonts, and there’s no footage involved. We tried to be as respectful as possible, and that helps a lot. We do have to express that this is not a Warner Bros. or official Harry Potter product, which we’re more than happy to do.

Brad Neely’s “Wizard People, Dear Reader” is hosted on a site called illegal-art.org. Do you think its underground mystique helps it grow, or does it only limit its potential audience?

Brad is kind of a minor celebrity at this point. He does a lot of work these days, [like] that George Washington movie and [animated shorts] for Super Deluxe. But what that Web site does is promote work that’s in the gray areas of copyright. Brad has every right to distribute his audio. I think where they got into problems was when venues would rent the original “Harry Potter” flick and play it along with it. I don’t know what the solution to that is, whether everybody just brings an iPod into the next screening [or not]. “Wizard People, Dear Reader” is just really funny. It’s good comedy. The guys who do “Mystery Science Theater” released their own audio track to play with the first “Harry Potter” film, and it’s available for download, very popular, and they’re making lots of money off of it. So why is Brad’s illegal but theirs is not? The easy answer is, neither are, but if you’re a tiny artist like Brad, you can get scared and pushed around easier than some of the bigger dogs can. Once Warner Bros. started to shut down those screenings, that’s when people became interested very quickly about his audio release. He was on NPR and in Time. Everybody wanted a piece at that point. [laughs]

Do you think it was a cop-out when J. K. Rowling announced that Dumbledore was gay after the series ended, instead of on the written page where her influence could’ve opened minds?

To a degree, it was. But I also believe that she probably didn’t have to say anything. That was blurted out at some sort of convention, where the question wasn’t “Does Dumbledore have any sexual interest?” There was nothing that led to that [directly]. I’m glad she said it, because it does open up people’s minds. Those who are upset about Dumbledore being gay are not really fans. They’re the people who think they have the right to tell people what to think and what they should read. There are wizard rock songs that make light of that issue, playing with it and having fun. That’s great because that’s what being open-minded is about. It’s a great reflectance when the fan community embraces it and celebrates.

11202008_joshkoury.jpgYou were the programming director for the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival, which ended in 2006. Why is the fest no longer around?

Well, the film festival is no longer around because the two founders, myself and Miles Kane — who’s actually the editor of “We Are Wizards” and helped develop the film with me — decided to close it for two reasons. One: It was difficult — you only have so much spare time in your life because we both have full-time jobs. We wanted to spend that time doing something creative. Instead of spending it on Brooklyn Underground, we decided to make a new movie. Two and a half years later, we have “We Are Wizards.”

The other reason is that we started the Brooklyn Underground Film Festival [because] we felt that there was sincerely a lack of venues for smaller films, and I think that’s been eradicated. Talking about the internet and communications, for a lot of great films — thanks to YouTube and other festivals that have emerged — there’s just less of a need. If you have a good work, it’s short, and people want to see it, they will see it. At a certain point, the reason for having a film festival becomes just to have a party, and that’s not what we were doing. Also, film festivals in general are more open to this work. Every year at Sundance, you see films that are getting more and more experimental, even the narratives. Hollywood films are getting more open-minded as well. What do we need another underground festival for?

[Photos: Harry and the Potters; Draco and the Malfoys; the Hungarian Horntails; director Josh Koury – Brooklyn Underground Films, 2008]

“We Are Wizards” is now open in New York.

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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

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

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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