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Interview: Adam Yauch on “Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot”

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06252008_adamyauch2.jpgBy Aaron Hillis

Beastie Boys founding member and filmmaker Adam Yauch (that’s “MCA” to you, sucka!) isn’t giving up the studio and stage for a life in Hollywood, though he’s certainly passionate about the medium. Besides directing many of his band’s videos and the multi-camera Beasties concert doc “Awesome; I Fuckin’ Shot That!”, Yauch recently launched his own indie film label and sales company called Oscilloscope Pictures. Their first project? “Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot,” a doc helmed by Yauch himself, about the 24 high school b-ball prodigies who competed in 2006’s first annual “Boost Mobile Elite 24 Hoops Classic,” held in Harlem’s Rucker Park. With a predictably well-curated soundtrack of hip-hop and break beats, the film chases eight of the competitors down the court and behind the scenes, as the media, shoe companies, money-eyed advisers and coaches line up to woo them with future NBA dreams. I passed the mic to Yauch, who rapped about the new film, his relationship with the enigmatic Nathaniel Hörnblowér and how much Brooklyn has changed since his childhood. Ch-check it out…

Late in the film, some critics discuss the danger of hyping up these kids at such a young age, but those factors aren’t investigated in their backstories leading up to the game. Why did you choose not to pursue that angle more extensively?

I think we do demonstrate it for a second going into that section where [announcer Bobbito Garcia] screams out, “Come on, Tariq. You’re on the cover of a magazine, show me something!” Similarly, there’s a scene at the beginning where Jerryd Bayless is talking about Tariq and says, “He’s on the cover of what? Who’s on there?” He’s sort of annoyed. I guess we don’t explore it that in-depth, but there are things that elude to it. My personal feeling is that some of the press stuff is probably alright, and if these kids really are interested in pursuing a career in the NBA, getting a taste of media along the way [shows them] what their job is going to be if they make it into the league. [Someone in the film] says, “If a kid doesn’t do well, everybody says, ‘Oh, the kid didn’t pan out,’ but nobody blames the media. He didn’t ask to be on the cover of a magazine when he was in the sixth grade.”

It’s definitely an interesting perspective, but on the other side of the coin, these guys are pursuing an extremely competitive sport. It’s part of what they’re going to face, too. Certainly, the question is, what does it mean when they’re minors as opposed to being adults? One could say that we’re guilty of the same thing in making the documentary, but personally, I’m not trying to do anything that’s harmful to the kids. Just taking a little time to look at that world.

A few F-bombs get bleeped out in the film. Were you concerned about a harsher rating?

Yeah, we wanted a PG-13 rating. I thought it was a good movie for kids to see, so I did beep out a few of the curses here and there. You still know what they are. I don’t mind my daughter seeing it, and she’s nine years old. I think kids have their own censorship of that kind of stuff. If I’m driving my car and somebody swings next to me with the car and I say “Aw, fuck,” she’s like: “Papa, don’t say that!” I don’t think it hurts kids to hear a few exclamations, but that being said, you have to beep some stuff out if you want to make sure your rating’s right.

06252008_adamyauch3.jpgYou use them both here and in your early videos. Please sing to me your praises on why you love the fish-eye camera lens.

Alright, I’ve got a short list. [laughs] The main reason is I like the surreal feeling that it gives. It takes things that are close and makes them look bigger, and things that are further away look even further away, so you get this stretching effect. I also like that the focus is very even because what I like to do is very run-and-gun and experimental. By having that focal plane where everything is in focus, if it’s across the street or one inch from the lens, it allows you to let things happen — you’re more likely to catch the action. I grew up in the ’70s, and if you open old magazines from the late ’60s, early ’70s, every advertisement is a fish eye lens. Not every car ad, but there’s a lot of it. In the early ’80s, when we started making videos, there wasn’t any of that. I always remembered that look from being a kid.

Where did your nom de plume Nathaniel Hörnblowér come from, and why did you abandon it for this film?

I think the first time I used it was when I took the picture of the cover of “Paul’s Boutique.” I wanted to throw some credit in there for that photo, but I thought it would look weird if one of the band members were credited as the photographer for the cover of the record. It seemed strange, too incestuous. So I put a fake name there, and then I started using it for any record covers I was designing or video stuff I was doing. Then it became a whole persona. But since this was not a Beastie Boys-related thing, it just made more sense to set that aside for a minute.

What was the impetus for starting Oscilloscope Pictures?

It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, doing film distribution. I’ve been going to film festivals for a while, and I often look at movies and think, “Wow, it’d be cool to put that out,” or “I can’t believe that movie never came out.” Especially growing up around indie record labels, I had this idea of applying some of the principles to making a small indie film distribution company. As I was finishing “Gunnin’,” it just felt like this was the time to do it. I went to start the company rather than going out to another distributor. So I went to David Fenkel from ThinkFilm for his thoughts, and he was down. So he left Think, Dan [Berger] left with him, and they came and did it with me.

Criterion’s “Beastie Boys Anthology” was one of the greatest marriages of music and DVD. Do you have any further plans to innovate like this?

I don’t know, that one just felt like it made sense. When I first heard about DVD, like what DVD was going to be, someone was explaining to me that there are going to be multiple audio and video channels. It just sort of hit me, thinking about that: “Oh wow, I could sync up this outtake footage from videos, like whole takes, sync up remixes, and you could choose between different takes.” Once I thought of the idea, I couldn’t let it go until it was done.

06252008_adamyauch1.jpgDoes the wavelength animation at the beginning of that DVD’s menu screen have anything to do with Oscilloscope?

Yeah, I guess so. The oscilloscope is a machine that I’ve been partially obsessed with for many years. So I had the studio named that, but the Criterion disc pre-dates that. I even have oscilloscopes in other videos and things like that. It’s a cool machine; I’ve always liked it since I was a kid.

Are there any plans to get your Beastie brethren involved in your films? I’ve wanted to see Ad-Rock in front of the camera again after his comic sidekick performance in 1992’s “Roadside Prophets.”

It would be cool, yeah. It was great having them involved in this; they helped with some of the scoring. I think Adam is a really good actor and I don’t think that’s his best work. It’s a pity that he stopped acting. I feel like he kept getting typecast in these momma’s boy roles, these kind of wimpy roles, which I think is weird. He can play much stronger roles, but that’s neither here nor there. I think he’s sick of acting right now.

As a downtown Brooklyn transplant, I’d like to pick a native’s brain. You live in lower Manhattan now, but what do you think of Brooklyn in 2008 compared to when you were growing up?

It’s definitely really different. If you went over to [the now restaurant hotspot] Smith Street, it was rough. On Smith, when I was a kid, there were just a few bodegas with the plexiglass in front of them, where you were handed what you wanted through the [window]. Boerum Hill was much rougher. Not so much Cobble Hill, but even through Carroll Gardens and what-not. But I like where Brooklyn is at right now. I feel like Manhattan has gotten too gentrified in many ways, and I really enjoy whenever I visit Brooklyn, hang out at my parents’ house, or walk around, go to Prospect Park. I think about [moving back] all the time. I feel like Brooklyn still has the multi-cultural aspects that I love about New York. Manhattan just seems like a world of stock brokers. [laughs]

[Photos: Director Adam Yauch; “Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot,” Oscilloscope Pictures, 2008]

“Gunnin’ For That #1 Spot” opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 27th.

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