23 Jun Kids and Half-Cocked
In the winter of 1994, we made a road trip down to Louisville to shoot “Half-Cocked”. My girlfriend, Suki, had studied film in college and dropped out of graduate film school at NYU to make the film. I shot it, with the help of David Ford who rented us his 16mm camera. Peter Schneider came to record dialog and was helped out with music recording by James Murphy. Other than that, no one had any film experience and no one in it was an actor. We had almost no money to speak of. It was cold out. Cars died, relationships blossomed – some eroded – it almost fell apart numerous times, and the script kept changing. It was hard as hell, and I’m still recovering from it. Somehow, though, we got it “in the can” (that’s film speak for we got it all shot).
A few weeks later, after licking our wounds and repairing frayed relationships, we were holed up in Suki’s closet editing on a rented flatbed. Little strips of film flowed out of our footage bins and there was a sense of controlled chaos as we tried to make sense of what we’d shot. Linear editing is very different from non-linear editing on a computer. Since every cut takes a bit of time, and there’s a chance you might lose a frame if you try to do it one by one, each cut is more thoughtful. While the computer opens up a series of endless possibilities, linear editing leads to a more focused cut.
A couple of weeks into the editing, my band Sleepyhead had a show in Washington DC. In the dressing room, I recorded some sound with Ian Svenonious who plays the mean older brother of the main character Tara. I think in the script, he and his friends were supposed to track down Tara, who had stolen his van full of gear and take it back to end the film. He couldn’t stay for the whole shoot, so we re-wrote it with the cops showing up to take Tara away. Still, we needed a phone call from him near the end of the film in order to bring some closure. After our show, we ended up staying in his house and I shot some photos of him and James Canty – who was also in the film – at breakfast the next morning. On the way back from DC, I made a bunch of images on the Delaware Memorial Bridge. When I got the film back, I made the above collage and gave it to Suki who hung it over her bed.
A couple of weeks later, my band went on a short tour with Yo La Tengo (it was during this trip that Kurt Cobain died). While we were gone, Suki had to pause in her editing because a film crew had rented her room for a few days. Her bedroom became the home of Ruby, one of the characters in “Kids”. Our friend Dave Doernberg was assisting the production designer and he liked the collage, so he left it above her bed. I don’t think Ian (or Christina Billote from Slant 6) realized it, but they made it into “Kids”. The images also made it onto the gatefold of the soundtrack that was mostly recorded by John Davis and Lou Barlow as the Folk Implosion. This isn’t the only connection between “Half-Cocked” and “Kids”. I think we both had the impulse to capture the world that we were a part of, and both of these worlds were somewhat outside of mainstream culture.
In 1994, it wasn’t feasible to make a movie on video or without expensive gear, film stock, and processing if you had any hope of getting it in theaters (unless you were a genius like John Moritsugu). A family friend had offered me a bunch of unused film that she had stored in her refrigerator. I made a lot of photos, but I had never really worked with a film camera so I suggested to Suki that she drop out of film school and make a film with me instead. At first, she wasn’t sure she could do it, but after working as the director’s assistant on “Party Girl” – which entailed her shot listing the whole thing – she realized that she didn’t need film school. (If you ever get a chance to see it, I’m the drug dealer and Suki is the main extra in the party scene at the end of the film). Once we decided to go for it, we reached out to our wildly creative friends in Louisville, Chattanooga, and Nashville, and asked them to collaborate with us. Our main impetus in making the film was the time that we had both spent at the Rocket House in Louisville: an insane hotbed of creative energy. Suki and I, with the help of my roommate Steve Thornton and Suki’s roommate Cynthia Nelson, started to bang out a script. While we worked on that in Suki’s room, her other roommate Jennifer Sharpe was composing music for “Go Fish” which was a hit at Sundance that winter.
I had studied some anthropology and documentary in college, and that was kind of my impulse in making the film. I wanted to document the world I was a part of, and we were inspired by Penelope Spheris’ “Suburbia” and the Decline series as well as the Jamaican film “Rockers”. These films captured an ephemeral moment in time, but in a dramatic, story-driven way. Jon Cook, the owner of the Rocket House, where much of the film was to be made, wanted a much more punk rock film that wasn’t so tethered to reality. His ideas included kidnapping and torturing a pizza delivery guy. I tried to explain what we were going for without dismissing him, but he was still a little frustrated, and this carried over into the making of the film.
Once we had a script together, we realized that the film should be shot in black and white. The film stock that we have been given was color, so it lived in my fridge for many more years. At the time, I was in a band that toured quite a bit and we knew how to travel with almost no money. Our drummer, Rachel McNally, was a teacher and she was organized, so she became the producer. We put together a shooting budget of around $10,000. This had to cover travel, food, camera rental, film stock, processing, and the rental of a flat bed editing system. My band’s van was the production vehicle until it became the van in the film. Then Jon’s van became the production vehicle. Since our film was about the music scene, and I had done promo photos for a ton of bands, we reached out to friends to see who might be willing to give us a song for the soundtrack. We got a lot of support and went to Matador Records to see if they would put it out. Gerard Cosloy immediately agreed and cut a check that covered most of the shooting. Family and some good friends put in the rest. (In the end, the total was closer to 30K because mixing the sound cost about 15k. At the time the only way to do sound for a film was using magnetic mixing. We had to go to a place that had enough mag tracks to mix with and it took a while.)
I’ve written about the shoot before, so I’ll skip that because the reason I was inspired to write about the film today was that Larry Clark and Harmony Korine’s “Kids” is getting a lot of attention for it’s 20th anniversary screening. “Kids” was flashy and controversial. I haven’t seen it since it came out, but I remember thinking it was pretty good. I was also pleasantly surprised by how well “Half-Cocked” came out. We didn’t have the same kind of luck with our film. While “Kids” made a splash at Cannes we got rejected by dozens of festivals. Still, it garnered some attention for itself, so finally, we took it on tour in the same van we shot it in- playing it in rock clubs. Eventually, it played at both New York and Chicago Underground Film Festivals, but in terms of the film world, it really didn’t exist. Oddly, we got a rave review in Variety before we even applied to festivals. A friend brought Godfrey Cheshire to our cast and crew screening and he wrote about it, but we didn’t even know it was coming. We woke up one day to a dozen phone calls from Hollywood Studios requesting a copy. Unsurprisingly, we never got a call back.
In addition to touring with it, we showed it at Alleged Gallery on Ludlow Street over three weekends. We toured the West Coast with the band Fuck when the album came out. Gabe Soria saw the film at Jabberjaw and later wrote the liner notes for the DVD. That was the screening that led to a Manhola Dhargis rave in the LA Weekly – “Why wasn’t this film at Sundance?” she asked. In general, the film got a mixed response from people in the scene at the time. “Half-Cocked” is not very transgressive, and it’s slow, so I think a lot of people who lived it found it kind of boring. I don’t think people felt misrepresented, they just weren’t that interested in their own lives. A couple of years ago some kid put the whole film up on youtube. At some point, when we figure out a digital release for the film we’ll ask him to take it down. My favorite thing about it, though, is that up till now it has about 15,000 views and 180 thumbs up. No one has given it a thumbs down.