Interview: Harry Knowles Talks AIN’T IT COOL And The Nerdist Channel

aint-it-cool-with-harry-knowles

Harry Knowles is the Godfather of internet movie news. Ain’t It Cool News set the standard for what has come along since and Knowles has managed to stay ahead of the curve and take part in the world which he once critiqued. He has produced films, befriended the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez and become a celebrity in his own right.

Knowles recently teamed up with YouTube, The Jim Henson Company, Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video Entertainment and Nerdist Industries to bring Ain’t It Cool With Harry Knowles to the screen.

The show is a live action interpretation of Knowles’ unique writing style, directed by Brett A. Hart (read parts 1 & 2 of my interview with him). The Austin-based show, is effectively Pee-wee’s Play House meets Siskel & Ebert by way of the Tales from the Crypt (with Knowles as the Cryptkeeper).

I spoke with Knowles about Ain’t It Cool, and the site’s new show on The Nerdist Channel. The webmaster has a true passion for film, and this is not only evident in his work, but also in this very frank interview. Enjoy…

You got movies in your blood – it’s in your family’s blood. Did you ever imagine that you’d have the sort of career that you now have?

No. My life is unimaginable. To love film, share that love and for that to sustain me… it is purely incredible. Although – long before Aint It Cool – and for my entire life, my father raised me to love and be articulate about film, in order to sell the collectibles, which in turn sustained our lives. So in a manner of speaking, nothing has changed. I shared films with every friend I’ve had in my entire life. I presented screenings for friends and family as I do today at the events I throw. The scale keeps changing. But it all comes from that same place of love. Film is inherently cool.

AICN became the first major movie news site on the web. Why do you think that your site captured the fascination of readers?

I think it came from the passion that I and the other writers on AintitCool.com have given. For years folks have read all their news about film, from the perspective of journalists that tended to be ASSIGNED to write about film. Most of those people feel like they’re in the ghetto of their newspaper, but occasionally you’d find the passionate writers. Folks like Roger Ebert, Leonard Maltin and Pauline Kael – where you read writing that dripped with passion. I grew up reading them and folks like Joe Dante & Forrest J Ackerman’s writings in CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN and FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. When writing AICN, I write like I speak. Start a thought, be interrupted by another thought, because that thought was more exciting – and that’s how FILM CONVERSATIONS go with friends. We enthusiastically discuss films with knowledge and passion. I brought that to AICN and it resonated. I had no idea how that would grow, but I love seeing lots of people living off of their passion and I’m proud to still be a part of it.

You’ve gone from being a spectator, (a voyeur if you will) to becoming part of the machine that you one critiqued. Do you feel that your years of commenting on films and television have helped you creatively?

I feel like a voyeur at every step of my journey. I always look at my life from a viewer perspective. Amongst friends, I always say that I like to look at my life as though it is an inspirational tale. A happy story. One that makes people smile – and the reason is that I just love to understand film more thoroughly. I’ve been watching movies every day of my life, for pretty much the 40 years I’ve lived. I’ve read biographies, magazines, film histories, period film reviews, film marketing Press Books going back into the teens… and yet I still want to learn more. People wanted to make movies with me, approached me to be a producer – and I have served in that capacity for the last 8 years – and only have the COMIC CON: EPISODE IV: A FAN’S HOPE as a finished credit, but over that time… I’ve worked with Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo Del Toro, Kerry Conran & Jon Favreau through pre-production on JOHN CARTER OF MARS at PARAMOUNT… then worked with Paul Dini on my own GHOST TOWN at the doomed Revolution Studio. Through all of that, I’ve been itching to get filming, just so I could understand the problems that face productions and films and to see why it is that good movies kick ass and bad movies suck dick. I’ve come to find that it takes more than passion, you actually need to understand the tone of what you’re communicating and a vision for the microscopic detail that you can achieve given the time and money you have to spend. The best filmmakers thrive and will kill themselves trying to make their perfect film. The care passionately about the frame and about the final product. But having written about film production, scripts and the final product. Having the access to filmmakers and film craftsmen that I’ve had over the last 16 years. Yeah, it’s helped me. Living on the set of LORD OF THE RINGS for the final two weeks of principal photography and see how much those people loved doing what they were doing. It’s infectious. Watching Quentin Tarantino in China for two weeks shooting KILL BILL. It’s inspiring. It makes you want to dream, to share their love and passion in an infectious manner. This show is a perfect outlet for that.

Why do you think that you’ve captured the attention of so many readers on the internet, and sustained longevity? I mean this from a positive and a negative perspective.

I think, for better or worse, I am who I am. I’m a 40 year old man-child that lives life enthusiastically and communicates the passion that I find in a darkened theater in a way that makes people long to sit in the same room and love what’s on the screen at the same level. AICN has always had a knack for throwing cool events and gaining cool access to filmmakers and their audience. We do not censor ourselves or our enthusiasm and that freedom is something that I think people react to. The ability to speak one’s mind in a passionate forum for film discussion and enthusiasm – it’s what keeps people coming back. That and the fact that I allow all my writers to pursue the stories that they genuinely want to cover and present. Nobody HAVING to cover anything that they don’t WANT to write about. That’s a pretty unique situation.

The internet has changed a lot since you first broke onto the scene, where do you think it will go next?

Into contact lenses that you wear and control with thought.

How did the concept for Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles develop? Was it your idea or did the Nerdist Channel come to you with a pitch?

Nerdist asked if I’d like to do a show. They told me they were working with Lorne Michaels and Jim Henson’s Creature Shop – and I said, I’ll do a show if I get a Henson made puppet of me. A deal was struck – and then I had to figure out what I was gonna do with this Harry Puppet. Then I had to find a director – I was presented with 3 options, but Brett was the only possible choice. He’s a filmmaker. One that understands the language of cinema that I speak. Not only that, but the precise dialect that I speak. He’s a perfect partner. Then came time for me to go to the space where we were to create the basement. I wheeled into this ex-Women’s Clothing Store space that had more mirrors than ENTER THE DRAGON – and they looked at me and said – SO WHAT DO YOU WANT IT TO BE… and then I sat in the middle of the room looked at the hole in the ceiling and said, That’s where the teleporter goes. BOILER goes over there. My desk is a drive in movie theater – and My dad is the projectionist inside the minature projection booth, that is way bigger inside than on the outside. I had been buying movie cars for months prepping for what would eventually be built for them. But when I showed up on set that first day – nobody knew what the show was gonna be. We’d never made Boiler work – I’m his voice – but when I showed up I didn’t know what he sounded like. I decided that Boiler would be pissed about Ninja Turtles and Michael Bay – I looked at him, he was lit up, blowing smoke and I decided he sounded like my HANOVER FIST voice from HEAVY METAL that I try to do when I’m playing like a pissed off angry steroidal geek. We spent 10 hours making it all up. Coming up with the scenarios and making it make cinematic sense. I’d told Brett I wanted the look to be a cross between Richard Dreyfus’ family room with the train set from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND combined with Keye Luke’s basement collectibles shop from GREMLINS. Thus we have alot of smoke on set – and we sculpt with light – and the show will become increasingly cinematic in future episodes – especially as we continue to reveal more of the Basement.

Apart from the obvious (nerdist qualities) what was it about The Nerdist channel that appealed to you?

I was gonna get a Jim Henson Creature Shop Muppet – and they would pay me to make the show I wanted to do. That’s what did it for me.

How much input did you have into the development process? How much of it is Harry Knowles? On the flipside – how much do you have to rein in?

It is 100% my brain – as Brett Hart films it & Suzette builds it.

The show is an extension of your site – how you go about expanding a site (a blog) into a show? What is easy (and difficult) about bringing AICN to the screen?
AICN was always conceived as a fictional universe of spies and magical devices. Read what I was writing 16 years ago – I’m just bringing it to life. What’s hard about it? Me doing it right when the camera moves right and the smoke moves just right and everything stays lit perfectly and nothing is fucked up in the shot. That’s alot of elements that gotta work. And I’m the least dependable of them all. But luckily everyone believes and loves what we’re doing. And that’s what brings AICN to computer screens as well as to this new YOUTUBE venture.

The show has an inherent playfulness – was that important for you, rather than it being a straight up entertainment show?

I feel that film is reflected in those that love to discuss it. As a film geek I love all the tricks that you can do with film – and I hate most Entertainment News shows… except for Jonathan Ross’ work. Everyone else does it wrong. I honestly believe that. Ross’ INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW was genius. Absolute genius. If I can be 1/10th that awesome, our show will be better than anything that’s currently out there. But that’s now in other hands to judge and categorize.

How do you balance working on the show with maintaining the site, or do you just see the show as being another facet of it?

I’m currently trying to figure that out. And yes, I definitely see the show as part of the site now. It all works together.

Where do you see the show going? Will it further incorporate other elements of the site and expand? Will you open it up and go on the road, or will it forever be basement bound?

The show will be watched in the Star Trek future we humans will be a part of. Along with the neon Los Angeles of the future. Anything that can happen in film can happen in that basement. We have big dreams and we’re just starting to introduce characters from the site as well as from my imagination. There’s a lot more to come. We’re just 4 episodes in.

Guests like Douglas Trumbull indicate that you won’t be going down the normal “celebrity” route. Is this important and who else might we be seeing?

At this point, it’s just whomever I can interest in coming down and playing for a few hours on set. But if I have to do it alone, I can do that too. The show doesn’t have a budget of any real significance. Just enough to do what we’re doing, but there’s zero travel budget right now. So I can’t fly guests in. People have to WANT to come to the Basement. But once there – we can discuss anything and explore all avenues. That’s exciting. The only way it gets on the show is if I like it. As people love to point out, I like everything. There’s no special interest controlling anything. This is just me doing the things I wish other shows would show me. The Harry Muppet is going to things I wish I could go to, but I’m busy going to rehab learning how to walk again. So, like on this week’s show – Harry goes to KNB and talks with my friend Greg Nicotero and checks out the digs. Very INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW style.

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Will the show continue expanding in length and will there be another series beyond the already planned 30 episodes?

The show is pretty limited on budget at this point. The folks that control NERDIST are absolutely in love with the show – so we’ll see. I’ve also heard that some Cable channels are interested – but I’d be fascinated if they’ll give me complete autonomy.

The director of Ain’t It Cool, Brett Hart has keen visual sense, but he also has a feature film under his belt. Was it important for you to choose a creative partner that understood movies?

It was the paramount concern. The show would be nothing without Brett’s capacity to understand exactly what it is we’ve been going after. He’s awesome to work with – and we both take the shit out of each other – by ego checking each other constantly, while also playing with the whole crew. Laughter is common – so is talking like Christopher Walken… as everyone on set has to riff as Walken at some points. Of course, when I did Roger Ebert’s show with him, I had to play Paddycake.

The show is shot in Austin, a place which has become a Mecca for filmmakers. What do you think that this has happened? What does the city offer?

The Austin Film Society as put together by Richard Linklater and Louis Black created an initial atmosphere of cinematic discovery, long before the Alamo Drafthouse came on to the scene. I’ve been going to premieres here in Austin, my entire life. The first? A BOY AND HIS DOG in a theater with beanbag chairs and marijuana smoke in the air of the old Dobie Theater. Austin has been the coolest city in Texas for a very very long time. The town is filled with artists, musicians, filmmakers and technology companies. It also is a great food town. It has a beautiful Barton Springs that is one of the most miraculous of human experiences. AUSTIN is a miracle – where geeks have always been in charge. So, sensible people migrate here.

You’ve dipped your toe into the producing waters with an aborted attempt at making John Carter (when he was still with Mars). Do you ever see yourself doing that again?

Well, I produce AIN’T IT COOL with HARRY KNOWLES, there’s also 5 other projects that I’m working on right now that I’m not at liberty to discuss, yet. Then there’s all the events that I do with AIN’T IT COOL NEWS – and then there’s the writing I do on the site. I also have to help all my writers and editors to get the access they get and to keep them inspired and loving what they do. Through it all – I have a personal responsibility to live my dreams. Right now, I do that with the show, but when I come home from set, I plug into bigger dreams and keep chiseling away at those monuments of imagination. SO – yeah, I’ll be producing things that folks will be ungodly impressed with. At least I hope so. The filmmakers that I work with have crazy talent. In fact, I’m going to share one script with Brett because I think he might actually be able to do it. But we’ll see if he likes it. It’s pretty crazy. But right now, I like fighting for my show. Trying to figure out how we can do more and get more resources to do it. Tonight, Brett had a new idea on the show and I’m intrigued, I have to respond so I’ll call this to a close. But just realize that what Brett & I are trying to do is come up with something a bit more than the standard Entertainment show. We want to reflect on the cinematic possibilities of even something as silly as a weekly YouTube show. I don’t know about you – but I watch my favorite YouTube shows on my big screen. We’re trying to make a show worthy of it. One day it’ll be 1080p. But in my heart, I want to bring some things I’ve always dreamt of putting on the screen. I’m working on some of those things now. But what I love most is doing this show and figuring out how to make it just a little more magic. My nephew, age 11, is my biggest fan and I love dazzling him. And teaching him a love for film. He loves that Grandpa is in the show, and frankly it means everything to me. Dad has been threading that exact projector for most of my life. Showing films in 16mm. It was always more special when it was on film. And I love that the show begins with film and him. Dad is responsible for everything. Just wait till his voice comes into play.

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