Interview: Brett A. Hart On Bringing AIN’T IT COOL WITH HARRY KNOWLES To PBS

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Movies In Focus was lucky to see 50 minutes of PBS’ forthcoming Ain’t It Cool With Harry Knowles. The Kickstarter funded show builds on the webisode series that Knowles had on Nerdist, opening it up to a whole new audience. I spoke with the show’s director-producer Brett A. Hart about bringing the movie show to life and how it developed from its original concept.

So…a new series of Ain’t It Cool With Harry Knowles …what’s changed and what’s stayed the same?

The show’s matured and become more focused. Each episode is more thematic and we found ourselves with more time to fully explore interviews with guests as well as content.

We also straightened our act up so to say. Back when we began on the Nerdist Channel the internet was like the Wild West… so we cut our teeth on this new undiscovered territory and there was quite a bit of “mature language” that narrowed our audiences.

This time we set out from the beginning to change that and open up the show to a wider audience and I think the results are that’s it’s evolved and I feel the content is almost academic. Deeper. Richer.

Tell me about the Kickstarter campaign– how did that come about?

After Nerdist, Harry kept the studio afloat for more than 6 months out of his own pocket. I was off working on other projects and he contacted me to let me know he couldn’t continue to pay for the studio and he sadly was ready to let it go. After some talk, we collectively decided to give crowdfunding a go.

What challenges did you face when making the new series?

Where do I start? Now if we had raised what I originally wanted for the budget, it would have been a lot less of a challenge. After all a typical show of this length, with these type of production values is price tagged at between $300 k to $400 k for just one 25 min episode. We had 1/3 of that to produce 6 episodes and we even managed to make 7.

In a traditional production, the above line would make that much as a salary. In this case, however, we didn’t make any money and even put more money of our own back into it.

That alone made it a monumental struggle. We had to make sure every red cent went to the production, the studio rental, insurance, crew, etc and ended up on the screen.

Then skip ahead to final post production and delivery of the show to PBS… when we worked with Nerdist, we were able to just upload to the net. There were no broadcast checks and balances. Those checks and balances for final delivery ended up costing us more than we ever imagined. Closed captioning and color correcting to make sure the shows were all Broadcast legal took loads of time.

We’d do a pass at color correction… and I’d have to go home and re-watch each and every episode. I think I’ve seen each show over 20 times each.

I never had to worry about that when we were uploading to Youtube for Nerdist.

Harry’s like a living cartoon character – how much of what he says is scripted and how much is ‘off the cuff’?

He is actually a lot like his Muppet isn’t he? Correction he’s actually more animated than that Muppet ever was. I had to stare at that mug for 14 months in the editing bay…

Honestly we have notes, but it’s not scripted. There’s a lot of encouraged Improvisation. That said, it does get challenging if the topics veer from one shot to another. So we have to stay focused. And we know each other so well, that we have a short hand. I let him know what part of the pie I want to approach while he shares with me his portion. It’s a great balancing act between content and execution. There’s talk of possibly doing a teleprompter the next go round. But that would only work for portions of the show. Interviews would be a different ball game.

I imagine it’s probably akin to what it was like to work with Robin Williams. To suppress that charm and child like glee would be a disservice to the show.

How did you make the show fit PBS guidelines?

With a lot of meetings, notes and fine tuning. After our initial meeting with PBS, where we screened the Pilot back in April 2014, we were given notes on what they thought would make the show strongest. And that meant going back into the studio and adding more content that would continue to be thematic to each episode.

Early on when we were shooting the pilot, I realized that it was going to be a challenge to deliver 6-7, 25 minute episodes. So I made a conscious decision to get what we could in the can and see if PBS wanted to just go Digital or Broadcast. If we had done digital, we could have gone live back in the spring of 2014, but we were told they really loved what we had and would like to go broadcast. This meant we had to go back into the studio and do additional shooting. My original thought was to have them be segmented. Start an episode with say Danny Boyle and at the half way point move on to Wes Craven as a guest.

Though the decision to not do that made it much more time consuming and costly, I think it really did enrich the shows… and I’m very proud of the results.

What does the new series have in store for viewers?

I think the guests are amazing. And that’s all due to the hard work of Producer Jaime Gallagher, Executive Producer Louis Black and Harry, himself. I really love each and every episode. The interviews are in-depth, fun, and I think audiences will learn a great deal of background to filmmakers and cinematic anecdotes that haven’t been discussed before.

I love hearing Leonard Maltin and Harry talk about Disney and Song of the South, and Willimon talk about his evolution from politics to plays to one of the hottest and intelligent EMMY winning shows out there as well as his insight into this new world of digital streaming. And finally, who couldn’t listen to Burt Reynolds for hours? We, in fact, DID have almost 2 hours of an interview that I had to cut down to 7 minutes.

I’m also very proud of PBS for not censoring some of our instincts. Like making Willimon a two part special, letting us tackle issues about ethnic stereotyping in history of film… as well as our in-depth insight into the world of Horror with Wes Craven.

The show faced a few delays in making it to the screen – what was the hold-up?

When we began the Kickstarter, our initial goal was to continue a second season on the Internet. However, after KLRU approached us with interest, we felt that going on Television would serve our show and our supporters the best.

Given that, we found ourselves with a longer run time to fulfill and with a smaller budget than what we had the Nerdist season.

With a tighter budget, it takes more time. We had to work around schedules like Burt Reynolds and other guests like Beau Willimon that we are proud to have had involved with our show.

And collectively we wore many more hats than when Nerdist was involved.

On top of handling the show and Kickstarter rewards, we had to work around equipment that was better suited for a web show than broadcast. There was experimentation between shooting 1080 i and 720p and quite honestly our post production wasn’t set up for 1080. It caused the editing to become much more of a struggle.

And though we were shooting digital and were able to keep costs down from the days of film and the lab, you still have challenges of hard drives malfunctioning with priceless footage on them and having to be sent off and repaired, which not only takes time away from the schedule but costs additional dollars.

Do you want to talk about the many conspiracy theories surrounding the show from Harry’s legion of Talkbackers?

It would be my pleasure Niall. Those sad souls are truly a cancer that attack anything affiliated with Harry and attempt to intimidate and sway anyone with a heart.

I think in situations like that you should let the work speak for itself… and that’s exactly what we did… worked. Busted our asses off. While internet predators did their best to discredit Harry every step of the way.

I had to focus on creating a positive environment for my Host and crew. I never allowed myself to be pulled into the negative dismal world of a handful of miserable detractors.

Let’s be frank their agenda was transparent to everyone from the onset: to sabotage Harry every step of the way and not to actually get any answers. Wasn’t one of their biggest theories that Harry pocketed the money and a show was in fact never being made? Well… the show is completed and there are 7 x 25 minute episodes; nearly 3 hours of content. You would think that would answer their questions, but I’m sure they’ve moved onto some other angle to discredit all of our hard work. I don’t know and I don’t care.

What I do care about is the fact that Harry and the team were robbed of the joy of creating this season that we experienced the first go round. We weren’t taking a salary and were investing all of our blood, sweat and tears to create something special for our viewers. Yet caustic and libelous accusations to the contrary were being spewed. That’s a tremendous disappointment.

Lesser men than Harry would have cratered… but he continued to hold his head high and for that I applaud him. I don’t actually know how he managed it. Fake Twitter accounts were created by a handful of haters that had nothing better in their life to do than to obsess on Harry… and spread defamatory scuttlebutt.

At the end of the day it’s obvious most of these people are afflicted by the green eyed monster.

I’d say anyone that spends that much time and energy stalking something that makes them obviously filled with hate, has many skeletons in the closet and their fair share of neurosis.

Hiding behind anonymity shows their true agenda. It’s a form of cyber terrorism plain and simple.

And I for one feel a bill needs to be passed to prevent future victims of Internet predators. The loss of income and quality of life from such attacks should be quantified and a judgment should be put in place to create restitution for those who are defenseless against cowardice attacks.

Freedom of speech does not include freedom of slander.

How do you feel about the many people who supported you and helped you meet your target? 

We are forever grateful to our Kickstarter Supporters. They are the ones that made this happen! Without their belief in, Harry, the team and the show, we would have never managed to have this wonderful opportunity of airing on PBS. It’s with them that we collectively persevered and elevated this show from a webisode to a full-fledged 25 minute television show.

I think Harry said it best recently to our supporters: “Thank you so much for your patience and amazing support. I wish I could hug, shake the hands and give you the personal geek out that I think every last single one of you deserve. Again, bless you for all you’ve done… “

What do you enjoy most about making the show?

I’ll be honest every shoot or project has its own life. The Nerdist season was a real joy. It was fast and furious. This all new Broadcast season on the other hand was a monumental challenge. I think we naively took on something many production professionals would have walked away from. And that’s because of the tremendous pleasure we experienced during the Nerdist Channel season. I wanted to wrap this up within 6 months. IF we had gone digital, we could have done that. However, we persevered to do what was best for the show and supporters by creating a longer show for broadcast.

Some shoots come so naturally you’re amazed at the end of the day how fast the time went by. Others like this season are like breech births that you have to patiently work hand in hand with to finally release to the world.

I loved working with Harry and the crew, but this second go round I felt like I had to wear my producing hat before my directing. I had to censor some of my creative drive and only focus on what was most important. I think the results are a more mature show, with less self indulgence.

But ultimately what I love most about directing, filmmaking, production is that moment when you reveal your baby to the world and see the eyes light up. When I took our first episode into PBS for the QC check, everyone’s eyes lit up… and the smiles were undeniable. The room was electric. You could finally see that all that hard work and sacrifice was worth it and that we now have a home and family at PBS… and soon a much larger audience.

What’s next for you?

Niall, I can’t even fathom where the past 14 months have gone. When I have a vision, I’m like a pit bull and won’t let go. I can’t really see the world around me… and since wrapping I’ve started to feel like I’m coming out of a cave… into a brand new world with so many possibilities. We’re working on a 3rd season that we’re all excited about. I have a great team and there’s a lot of exciting possibilities on the horizon.

What I want to do while they are being explored is to catch up on life, spend much more time with my friends and family and get back to reading scripts.This past year has been the biggest sacrifice of my professional and personal life… as well as the team’s.With that said, this show has proven to me the level of quality one can create if they only care enough. And after having suffered in 130 degrees in Death Valley for my debut feature film with a million dollar price tag, and now 14 months with a budget 1/10th of that… but with a longer running time, I can see the possibilities for independent filmmaking from different eyes now.

I think our Wes Craven episode may be my favorite, for Craven truly inspired me. You see what he’s done in his career and the struggles with censorship and tight budgets… and yet he found a voice and an audience.

And ultimately, I want to do both… more episodes with Harry and the team, as well as ambitious indie features that I’ll be proud of… just like I am our show.

Ain’t It Cool With Harry Knowles hits Austin screens on the PBS affiliate KLRU-Q on Saturday 7 February (before going national on NETA). The season runs for 7 episodes, with each episode being 25 minutes in length.

  • pud

    Yep

  • Tamzin Stone

    I’ve just re-read this entire interview and am still astonished about Hart’s comprehensive inability to understand why there was so much disquiet about the project.

    Let’s review things; Harry does a KickStarter to raise funds for Season 2. He floats about having hit the target and then…. nothing. No substantive updates, just a few tweets and one or two photos on Instagram and nothing on his own site at all. People who pledged funds report not getting rewards, or lies being given by production team (a girl called Jamie I think?). And despite promises that the show would definitiely air in 2014, that came and went and still no sign of Season 2.

    Now given all of those factors, any rational person would fully understand why there was such an under-current of negativity and doubt about the integrity of the project and the producers behind it. But no, Hart just goes off into a tirade about “slander” over the Internet (sic) and how cyber-terrorists ruined Harry’s enjoyment of making the show. What a moronic things to say.

    Any professional film maker recognises the need to keep both backerss and protential audiences appraised of a production at all stages. That’s why studios spend so much on promotion, especially to key demographics (say Comiccon for genre movies, for example) and yet Hart and his team did nothing at all and are now blaming people for not having blind faith. But then Hart is hardly a professional film maker is he? Anyone who saw Season 1 of AICNWHK would have worked that out for themselves, having seen his poorly composed camera moves, dreadful lighting, hatchet-job editing and an in-ability to reign-in the host.

  • Mark Collins

    The show is TERRIBLE. A lot of work for nothing. All the segments are obviously out of date and
    shot a long time ago. Watching a spoiled man-child play with toys is not good television. There are you tube videos made by fans that are more entertaining than this.

  • Mark Collins

    also, to say it would normally cost 300 to 400K to produce an episode like this is ridicules.

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