Interview: Director Brett A. Hart Talks The Nerdist Channel And AIN’T IT COOL WITH HARRY KNOWLES – Part 1

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.

Read the exclusive interview below. Enjoy!

What is The Nerdist Channel?

The Nerdist Channel is an exciting new venue on the internet. Spearheaded by Chris Hardwick, Google and YouTube, it’s a natural progression from Hardwick’s highly successful podcast into the new future of entertainment…. The Internet.

How is Ain’t it Cool with Harry Knowles different from other entertainment and movie shows?

Well first off it is Harry Knowles! The one and only. They broke the mould with him. He’s possibly one of the last true showmen. And he gets that charming old southern style of weaving tales partially from his father… and partially from some cosmic ID. He’s one of the most creative people I’ve ever collaborated with… and a true joy to work with.

Our show in many ways is both a nod to classic shows like Ernie Kovacks, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers and to a large extend Pee-wee’s Play House. And similar to shows like “Kovacs” who were experimenting with a new medium called “Television”… we’re experimenting with an equally exciting new medium called “The Internet”.

But we’re also like an Austin version of Siskel & Ebert or The Actor’s Studio. Meaning while we shed light onto film history we also have a definite Austin vibe to the show. You have to visit this fantastic city to know what I’m talking about. Our set is inspired by Austin Found Art, Bohemian Artists, Hippies, and it looks a bit like what you’d imagine Harry’s imagination to look like if it were allowed to physically come alive… and it is on our show. What people are seeing is ¼ of what we have in store.
How did you come on-board the show?

I truly feel that it was serendipity-Kismet. As I had just spent the last two years “existing” in L.A. and travelling back and forth to the Midwest directing exciting video projects but also living the typical artist’s “feast and famine” years. Near the end of 2011 I decided that I’d had enough with Los Angeles and wanted to regroup back in Austin, near friends and family. I intended to start creating a webisode series to pitch to YouTube… when an actor producer buddy told me about a posting for directing a weekly webisode series. I almost didn’t apply, but I did and it was then that I was introduced to Seth Laderman. A true gentleman and scholar – he’s spearheading production for The Nerdist Channel and we really hit it off. I think the guy’s solid gold. And when he told me more about the project it all fell into place.

Harry took a look at my reel. I believe there were three of us they were considering, but he was impressed by some of my advertising. In particular I think it was my Tornado promo and Jon Stewart’s reaction that really got everyone excited. He was also looking for a filmmaker and Ain’t It Cool had actually run an article on a project I was working on with Dan O’Bannon.

So we spent a couple of days trying to coordinate a meeting… I got a text while I was asleep from Harry about meeting the next day. I jumped on the opportunity. Cancelled all my obligations and jumped in the car to drive to Austin and meet with him. Harry, his lovely wife and I met at a great Austin restaurant and proceeded to talk about film for almost two hours. It was clear we were truly birds of a feather. Half the things I’d mention actually kind of freaked them out… as they would tell me that either a film I’d bring up was something they had just watched or a director I’d reference had just emailed.

I really think the stars had aligned for this show. Because we are 100% committed and see the true future of entertainment… and we are focused on making this show something really special.

How has your background in adverts and film helped you in creating a show for the internet?

I’ve actually used that experience to make this show work. I’ve helped build two ad agencies, and the last time I found and assembled a talented team. We always strove to get great production value no matter the budget… and by selecting the right team you can find artists that are capable of multi-tasking and you recognize their passion to create something special. I myself am directing, producing, lighting, shooting and editing this show.

My advertising background has helped me with quick turnaround. But I will tell you that I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. With advertising you’re talking about thirty seconds, sometimes a minute of content. But in a month you might produce a dozen commercials. This show started out at 5 minutes long-the response was amazing. Everyone wanted more-starting with our tremendously supportive producers out of L.A. So we’re now around 10 minutes a show and in a month that’s equivalent to tailor making around 80 commercials! And it’s weekly. So although I’m used to delivering high end production on a tight schedule this is a completely new beast in itself.

Not since the days of me juggling directing and editing my debut film while producing Emmy winning commercials have I worked this feverishly. And you know…. it’s not really work if you love it. And I most certainly do.

The show has a Tales from the Crypt and Pee-wee’s Playhouse vibe going on – what are the inspirations?

Harry is the mastermind to the show. Harry pitched the idea to me as being a little like Pee Wee’s Play House and I immediately fell in love with the show. I also realized this was going to be a lot more work than what Nerdist and I had realized. This isn’t a talking head show like a lot of the current internet programming. It’s almost indescribable.

Since we both grew up on a lot of the same films and shows we both throw in ideas and see what sticks. He mentioned the Boiler to me and our Set designer Suzette Soucie at a production meeting. I was initially thinking of doing some CGI on a heater. But before returning home sent her a text about creating a practical boiler that could be manipulated on set. The Boiler has been one of our most well received elements of the show. And it was only a small portion of ideas we have for characters. But it wasn’t until after our meeting and an afterthought that we decided to make it work practically on set.

In a weird way he’s kind of like Harry’s side kick. But also his alter ego as well. The Oscar the grouch of the basement. And that’s a nod to shows like Pee-wee. But we have inspiration from films like Jean Cocteau’s Beauty & The Beast. Directors like Joe Dante came to mind to me when I was devising lighting and visual style. When you look at the basement it reminds me a bit of the cover to Harlan Ellison’s Essential collection. And we’re inspired by Austin itself.

To me the show has that Brett Hart style – what is it you bring to it aesthetically?

But I don’t think it feels anything like my debut thriller. I think I do have a specific style of frenetic camera work and dramatic lighting. However, I feel that as a director your role is to execute, steer and serve the material first and foremost. Our approach with this show is more fantasy, a bit tongue in cheek. But the show will continue to have different emotional beats. One of our upcoming episodes will be a bit more nostalgic. Another more collegiate. So our inspirations are all degrees of art and education… and it’ll reflect in the show as it grows…. like Harry’s basement.

Harry Knowles became the first real “internet celebrity” – why do you think this happened?

Because he’s a genius. He told me a story about how he and his father were doing events, trading, selling comics, film posters when he actually stumbled upon a way of getting more immediate access to an audience through the internet. He sold a poster online for thousands (that he has since purchased back) to someone within minutes before the days of eBay. His father was amazed they didn’t have to go set up stands, pay for booths etc. A light went off for both of them. They recognized the power and immediacy of the internet.

In Part 2 Brett discusses the challenges of making a weekly webisode series and the future of Ain’t It Cool With Harry Knowles.