One of the most exciting films playing at Revelation Perth International Film Festival this year is Wheedle’s Groove, a documentary on Seattle’s hidden history of funk and soul music. Director Jennifer Maas shared with me her inspiration for the doco, how she became producer of Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, and what it means to be ‘Quincied’.
Jennifer Maas was kind enough to answer some of my questions via email.
SM: I understand that you graduated from The University of Texas with degrees in math and computer science before making the move into filmmaking. Firstly, what about math and computer science do you find enticing? Secondly, what about filmmaking did you find more enticing than math and computer science?
JM: I loved the rigor of the kind of math and computer science that I was studying. By the end of my studies I was pretty much only interested in proofs, and I was taking classes where I could do them as much as possible. I enjoyed trying to deduce more interesting things from a very simple set of rules. I think I would have enjoyed an academic life, but I got a job in industry right after school. I also really enjoy the problem solving of filmmaking although the problems are usually a bit more open-ended and relationship-based, but I think that more than anything I enjoy the community and the culture. I’ve made amazing friends through film.
SM: Was it a difficult decision to jump into producing and directing movies, or did it feel like you were embracing the inevitable?
JM: I got a well-paying salaried job as a project manager right out of school, and I was really unhappy with it. I worked for a wonderful company with amazing supportive bosses and frequent trips to Paris, but at the end of the day I really missed making my brain work the way it was working in school. And as much as I did truly like and respect the people that I worked with, I didn’t feel like I fit in. I spent three years trying to change my thinking about that job, but deep down I knew I had to do something else. It just wasn’t the right place for me. I had several ideas about what I might want to do, and documentary film was at the top. I had a year left of contractual obligation to stay at my job. I didn’t even know where to start with film, so I took a six month documentary production certificate program from the University of Washington. I fell in love with it. It was so amazing to find something that I wanted to stay up all night to work on. I bought everything you needed to make a documentary: microphones, a Sony PD150, a mac with Final Cut Pro. I bought a badge for the SXSW Film Festival and Conference that year and went to every panel I could. Without really any prospects, I quit my job. I remember sitting at my going-away party at work and telling my incredulous boss and coworkers that I was quitting to make documentary films. But when you are 25 with no financial commitments, it’s easier to do something like that.
SM: You were a co-producer on Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, which is one of my favourite films of the past couple years (so, thank you for that). How did you become a part of that project?
JM: After I quit my job, I very magically fell into doing corporate video editing, which paid well and came in spurts. I used my free time to volunteer for every film project that would have me. One day I got a call to see if I could bring my camera to a casting session for Lynn Shelton’s first film, WE GO WAY BACK. I remember feeling totally stretched and just barely being able to pull it off with what I had going on that day, and thinking that I really needed to start saying no to things. I’m glad I made it work, because Lynn and I hit it off and became fast friends. She was my first AD on a music video I did, and then I was her first AD for a web series she did. A few projects later, Lynn was developing the idea for Humpday, and she asked if I wanted to be involved. At this point I was three years into Wheedle’s Groove and feeling totally torn up about it not having finished. I had just hired my editor, and I wasn’t sure that I should take the time off to work on something else. Again my predilection for over-commitment was vindicated.
SM: I think Humpday captures (among so much else) that deep desire to create something of worth, whether it be a piece of art, or just an interesting life for oneself. It’s something I (as I assume many others) have certainly felt. Is this something you relate to?
JM: I can absolutely relate to that, especially the part about creating an interesting life for yourself. There have been times where I considered that to be a major character flaw, but it’s definitely a major motivating force in my life.
SM: You’re making your feature-film directorial debut with Wheedle’s Groove. What drew you to the hidden history of soul and funk in Seattle?
JM: I’ve always loved music. I had quit my job eight months before and had decided that I needed to just go out and start working on something. A friend and I decided to make a documentary about how a music scene works behind the scenes. We were interviewing radio DJs, record store owners, bloggers, and record label owners in Seattle. I interviewed Matt Sullivan at Light In The Attic Records, who was a week away from releasing a compilation of this Seattle soul music called Wheedle’s Groove. I was shocked that the scene had even existed, I was fascinated by the fact that the city seemed to have completely blocked out the memory, and I felt very compelled to right the wrong. One of the first things I noticed about Seattle when I moved there is that it had a much smaller black population than where I had moved from. The interesting thing to me is that Seattle is known for music, but most people are shocked to hear that there was a soul scene there.
SM: Did you find the music community receptive to your quest to unearth this lost history? What was it like to make this film, and score interviews from Quincy Jones and the like?
JM: Light In The Attic had already done most of the unearthing by the time I became involved. The compilation had been a success, and most people were super happy to be a part of it. The Quincy Jones and Kenny G interviews were more difficult to obtain of course. It took about three years to get them on board. Quincy was a difficult interview. I usually have notes, but I don’t often need to look at them. Quincy is extremely charismatic and I really got caught up in the conversation and lost my train of thought. I like to say that I got Quincied.
SM: How does it feel to bring this film all the way to Perth, Western Australia? What does your involvement in the Revelations film festival mean to you?
JM: It’s absolutely an amazing honor. Screening in Perth really does feel like one of the film’s greater accomplishments. One of the big struggles in this film was balancing the details and the local history with a more universal story. I think we had to sacrifice some universality when we decided that regardless of what else we accomplished, we wanted to tell the history and have the film be an historical document. I’m too close to the film to really gauge how well we did on either side. My feelings about the film are totally swayed by the audience I’m seeing it with. Being accepted into Perth certainly made me feel like we had achieved universality.
SM: Earlier this year you produced the film Treatment staring Joshua Leonard. When do you think we’ll be seeing that film?
JM: We will finish it this summer and then be taking it to film festivals next year.
SM: What is next for yourself?
JM: I’m working on a couple of short documentaries including one about a Los Angeles singer-songwriter named Jim Sullivan. He made a haunting album with themes of highways and deserts and death called U.F.O. in the early 1970s that never really got any traction. In 1975 he was driving from Los Angeles to Nashville to try and make it as a songwriter there. He was pulled over by a cop for swerving in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. The cop realized that he was tired and told him to check into a local motel. The next day, his car was found 28 miles outside of town, his guitar was found in his motel room, and he was never heard from again. I just spent a four days following his route from Los Angeles to Santa Rosa and then interviewing his family in San Diego. It was an amazing experience, and I’m really excited about the film.
Wheedle’s Groove makes its Australian debut at Revelation Perth International Film Festival on Thursday 15 July. It screens again on Saturday 17 July. Humpday is now available on DVD.