This is part two of an exclusive two part interview with director Brett A. Hart (read part one).
The Nerdist Channel is a new YouTube partner channel aimed at (and produced by) those who are “passionate about comedy, gaming, music, comic books, puppets and magic”. Not only is YouTube behind the show, but also the very impressive line-up of The Jim Henson Company, Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video Entertainment and Nerdist Industries. The channel was founded by Chris Hardwick and Peter Levin – its aim is to deliver content straight to those who want it, bypassing the traditional television route.
The Nerdist Channel has been a major success since its launch last month-one of the stand out hits being Ain’t It Cool With Harry Knowles. The show is a spin-off from Harry Knowles’ immensely popular site, Ain’t It Cool News, which many consider to be the ‘granddaddy’ of all internet movie sites (yes, even this one). Knowles is an enigmatic character who has become as famous (or is that infamous?) as those he reports on. The Austin-based new show, headed by Knowles, is effectively Pee-wee’s Play House meets Siskel & Ebert by way of the Tales from the Crypt’s Cryptkeeper, something which sounds bizarre (and is) but it simply works.
Aint It Cool With Harry Knowles is directed by Brett A. Hart, the man behind 2007 cult hit Bone Dry, a thriller starring Lance Henriksen and Luke Goss. Hart’s background is in advertising where he has created some astonishing and visually impressive adverts (winning an Emmy in the process). I first got to know Brett back in 2007, when I interviewed him about Bone Dry (read it here), we became fast friends, due to a similar taste in movies and television, which led to us collaborating on a variety of writing projects. Brett is a true visual stylist who knows how to command a camera, delivering beautiful images which are reminiscent of Tony Scott in his heyday. His work on Knowles’ show offers an innovative new style to the traditional desk based chat show, infusing it with a frenetic cinematic energy.
I caught up with Brett to discuss his work on Aint It Cool With Harry Knowles and how the show (and The Nerdist Channel) is breaking new ground by using the Internet to bring its content straight to the consumer. As always, Brett offers some fascinating insights into the filmmaking making process, detailing his work with Knowles and what it is like venturing into a new digital frontier.
There’s a heightened reality to Ain’t It Cool With Harry Knowles, with the talking boiler etc, is this something that you brought to the table? After all, a large part of your work – even your ads is narrative driven.
The idea for Boiler came about from Harry. It’s just one of a hundred he can throw at you while he’s having creative brainstorms. It just happened to be one that both our set designer and I both recognized as something we could do that would be really special.
My background in filmmaking and advertising quickly turned it from a possible CGI effect to a practical effect on set. I was inspired by “Return To Oz” and the idea on how to shoot it with Dolly’s and Dutch angles had come to me when thinking about shooting different guest. Our first show nearly had Edgar Wright on it before the set was completed. I started thinking it would be nice to shoot their interview with Dutch Angles, and Dolly moves if they had opposing views-even some suspenseful music. In other words… how to not do a boring talking head interview. The interview didn’t happen… and on the day of our first shoot it hit me that what I was doing was envisioning a style of executing “Boiler’s” interaction with Harry. My training in advertising and films is definitely part of my second nature while working on each episode.
What challenges do you face when bringing a “blog to the screen”?
One of the reasons I always liked shooting commercials versus music videos is you were telling stories with actors. It really pisses me off when I see Hollywood studios hiring Music Video directors and then they wonder why the film looks so great… but there’s no emotional connection with the actors, and no story telling for the audience to relate to. So I was excited about doing a webisode series. In essence it’s a little like producing a short film weekly. And because we don’t want it to be stale and want it to continue evolving it makes each shoot a new challenge, and a bit mentally exhausting. Thankfully we have a great crew and effects team.
With commercials you’re channelling your energy on something that’s much shorter. You get in. Play and it’s over. Then you take off some time and move onto the next challenge. With a feature you may spend years getting it made and deliver your brain child for the world to see… but you get a chance to breath and reflect afterwards.
With a webisode series… it’s very much like television. You have to perform weekly. Just as soon as you’re putting one to bed… it’s time to get back up and start all over again. And that’s a bit new for me. And no disrespect for the big shows in L.A., but with a webisode series you don’t have the luxury of just shooting and walking away. To pull off high end production value… I’m currently wearing a lot of hats. So I haven’t had a lot of time to step back and reflect on what we’ve just created. I just continue marching forward onto our next show.
The show is relatively short – what sort of pre-planning goes into it? Also, is there much that ends up on the cutting room floor?
In the beginning I was pretty sure 5 minutes was as long as anyone would want to watch a webisode. But we keep getting requests to deliver longer and longer shows. With that in mind… I do my best to not shoot a single set up that doesn’t make it into the show. As the longer the show goes… the longer our crews work. And these shoots are pretty exhausting.
We’ve only shot one element that wasn’t seen in the episode… but was held off to a later episode. IF you look through the shows you’ll see an “Easter Egg” – a foreshadow of that episode as we shot out of order before pulling that element.
I’ve not seen the response from viewers to Harry’s outtakes…. but I really wanted to post that. I felt the three takes I had with Harry interacting with Boiler showed his whit, charm and genius. I’m sure it’s not unlike working with Robin Williams. You lay a perimeter of where you want something to happen… then he just takes off and fills in the gaps.
Harry’s background is writing online. Was this a big leap forward for him – what did you have to offer him?
What’s funny is that I was familiar with Harry and I always admired that he was doing his thing in my favourite city in the world, but I only read a few of his blogs. I recently read something of his that was immensely insightful and intellectual. But he’s a natural story teller without written word. He’s a natural showman… with substance. And it seems to me that this was and natural evolutionary step for him.
I think I’ve offered a similar aesthetic. When talking with his father about the show the other night at a premiere, he mentioned they never thought the show would look as good as it does. And my response was that it’s more than a “pretty looking show”… it has substance. Jay agreed. It’s not a music video -but entertainment with stories. And I think that’s why Harry was looking for a filmmaker to collaborate with.
The show has a quick turnaround, what are the problems of bringing a show in on such a schedule, and does it have its advantages?
I would say the biggest advantage is that I see this show as a renaissance. A new frontier. And I’m proud as hell to work with guys like Seth and Chris at Nerdist as well Harry. Because they’re producers and artists as well… and when you feel they support you… have your back… it really drives you to do better. I’m a loyal mother fucker. If you’ve got my back. I’ll get yours tenfold. And I’ll work my ass off to make a good producer a success. After all they’re sticking their neck out for you… and allowing you to create.
Is the aim to keep the guests on the show special – rather than the usual celebrity types shilling their new product?
Yes I’d say that’s an accurate assessment. Harry would be better to ask since this has been his brain child from the onset. But I can say that we’ll be looking at people who are a good fit with the show. We just had Douglas Trumbull and I’m in discussions to bring an equally exciting celebrity that transcends many entertainment arenas… who will be an interesting juxtaposition.
You’ve mentioned a 30 episode commitment to the show – will there be another series?
Though I can’t predict the future… I’d say by the amazing response to the show and our combined enthusiasm… that I believe the show will not only go beyond 30 episodes, but will grow in length as we move forward and continue to find our audience.
What direction do you see the show heading in the future?
We have a lot of exciting things in store for future episodes. Already we have alluded to a “cave” that you don’t see on screen. Douglass Trumbull actually exits upcoming episodes through the cave. The audience doesn’t see it. But they can imagine it. “Theater of the mind” will eventually be revealed to everyone. The set will continue to grow like a magical Heronimous Bosh painting. More characters will be revealed… and more celebrities will visit our magical basement.
Based on the fans response, I think the biggest evolution that will occur on the show will be that the episodes will continue getting longer. The internet is uncharted territory-much like early television. And as we get feedback, we’ll continue to try and give viewers what they are looking for. But as showmen… we’ll do it with a few “aces up our sleeve” and with “sleight of hand.” After all, in my opinion, that’s what everyone wants – something fresh, new, collegiate and something outside the box…and hopefully inside Harry’s basement.
What freedoms (and restrictions) do you have when creating a show for online?
I really haven’t discovered any restrictions thus far. If anything I think it’s all uncharted territory and you can go as far as your imagination will take you.
Do you see the internet as a new frontier for entertainment?
Absolutely. Hulu and Netflix were some of the first to do this. But given the track record of Google and YouTube… I think this is just the beginning. These guys are marketing geniuses… I think this is the shape of things to come.
You’re now Austin based – the city is becoming something of a filmmaker’s hub – why do you think this has happened?
I’ve lived in this city three times already. Once while attending film school. Once while working on the groundwork for my debut film “Bone Dry” and now. I love it here. Originally I felt I had to move to L.A. because everyone kept saying ‘that’s where they make movies’. I’ve got L.A. out of my system for a lifetime… because that’s bullshit. You can make films anywhere. And I see Austin as almost being like what Hollywood was a hundred years ago when artists were leaving the overpopulated, union run New York… to find their creative voice and vision in a new land.
What’s next for you? Do you plan to keep developing ideas for online content or do you want to focus on features and adverts?
An artist creates. I’ll create in any medium that I think I can contribute to. Harry and I are currently working on 30 episodes. We just completed three more special episodes with guest Douglass Trumbull. But yes. In addition to making this show a great success… I am interested in developing another feature. But once you’ve committed to a feature it generally takes years… and I’m looking for the perfect one that will emotionally reflect “The vision” I most relate to. And eventually shooting that here in Austin.