Former EW editor Neil Drumming talks about Slamdance debut
What happens to a dream deferred? The story could end up at a film festival.First-time filmmaker Neil Drumming, a former Entertainment Weekly staffer, is debuting "Big Words" at the Slamdance Film Festival.Drumming, a music geek, wrote a story about three friends once members of a hip-hop trio bumping into each other again and thinking about whether their once-promising career could be rekindled. When they meet each other again, in Brooklyn on the eve of President Barack Obama's 2008 election, they wonder if Obama's message of "Change" can mean something for them, too. Will the dream continue to be deferred?Besides having music as a significant thematic thread, the film's backstory is interesting. For The Atlantic, Drumming wrote a witty blog about the filmmaking process, with droll post titles including "Wait, Why Am I Directing a Movie?," "The Shoot Must Go On, But Not While There's a Burning House Nearby" and "The End Is Near, and My Crew Is Sleepy."Drumming talked to The Tribune about "Big Words," writing a blog about the filmmaking process and whether he would embark on a second movie, knowing what he knows now:What was your response to being accepted to Slamdance?I was excited. The Slamdance folks were immediately very supportive and said a lot of wonderful things in their acceptance email. Also, I was in Park City the year that "King of Kong" played Slamdance and I can remember that film's buzz building on Main Street. When Slamdance accepted us, I realized that this was our opportunity to gain that kind of organic groundswell.Have you ever visited Park City before?I've been to Park City several times, initially as a journalist covering the festivals for Entertainment Weekly and later simply as a fan. I have fond memories of popping Airbornes, chugging a Red Bull and trying to squeeze six movies into one day. I remember seeing "Half Nelson," being completely blown away and then having the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, two brilliant filmmakers. I remember running into Lee Daniels randomly on Main Street and him urging me to go see his movie, "Push" (which was released as"Precious"). When we finally got into the second screening, it was packed with people who had caught the buzz as well. Also, my birthday is on the 24th, so I have plenty fond albeit blurry recollections of testing the efficacy of tequila at high altitudes.What kind of response have you been getting from readers about writing about the process for The Atlantic?I realize now that it was a pretty silly idea to attempt to do those blog posts while actually making the movie. But the readers seemed genuinely interested in the process and also the film, so I was bolstered by that reception. It was also fun for the crew because they would read the posts, come onto set the next morning and tease me about it mercilessly "So when are you going to write about me?"Why does music lend itself well as an element or subject of a film?For many people, myself included, their lives are inseparable from the music that informed them. It shapes how they think, how they party, how they form social and romantic bonds. Depending on the person or, in some cases, the generation, music feels like the context for everything. So, if you're trying to create characters that feel and act like real people, music is an incredible tool for fleshing those characters out. Talking about music is just an easy and effective way to talk about people.What does music add to a film?From what I've seen and heard, you can use music in film to almost any effect to add a sense of atmosphere, to build tension, to flesh out character, etc. Music, like light or audio, is an incredibly flexible tool. In the case of "Big Words," we used music in part to evoke a feeling of nostalgia. Obviously, I'm indebted to movies like "Dazed and Confused," "American Graffiti" and "The Big Chill" for showing me the power of that approach. At the same time, specific songs both real and fabricated were weaved into our narrative. My friends and I talk about music almost constantly. So, for me, referencing great songs in dialogue and tying music to characters just felt natural. Hell, any downtime the crew had on set was spent debating things like which is the best Wu-Tang Clan posse cut and who is the most overrated MC. So music was integral not only to the film but to the filmmaking process.What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?There was this day we were about to shoot some quiet little scene in a room and just as I called "Action," the sounds of the city started flooding in through the walls and windows. My co-producer, Lenny, called out, "Cue Brooklyn." There are a lot of challenges making your first movie: expense, never having enough time, et cetera, but easily one the most shocking for me was discovering just how loud and unforgiving New York City is. Will you ever make another film?I've always thought of myself as more of a writer. But making "Big Words" taught me that I have so much to learn as a director and ignited a fire in me to keep going in that direction. So, yes I'd like to make another film as soon as possible. The good news is that, as a writer, I can generate my own material.
Slamdance Film Festival screening: 'Big Words'Tuesday, Jan. 22, 7:30 p.m. • Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main St., Park CityMore • Read Neil Drumming's blog at: http://www.theatlantic.com/neil-drumming.