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By Kakie Urch
The director who says he went to film school at the Kentucky Theatre is bringing it home to roost. On February 16, he’ll sit in Lexington’s Main Street landmark and watch the screen flicker, not with Nights of Cabiria or Nosferatu, but with his own work.
The last film to be shown at The Kentucky Theatre before its shutdown for major renovation will be the much-anticipated Lexington premiere of Pleased To Meet Me, directed by Lexington native and Henry Clay grad Archie Borders.
John Doe, the longtime lead singer of X and The Knitters, is the leading man in the film that sprung from a “This American Life” radio piece called “Everyone Speaks Elton John.” Aimee Mann, the brilliant and beautiful singer-songwriter, is the leading lady (in her first full-length feature role).
But the music is the star.
Doe, Mann, Loudon Wainwright III, Karin Berquist of Over The Rhine, Joe Henry and a host of Louisville musicians from bands including Squirrelbait, Shaking Family, Love Jones and others create a real city music scene and sound — in which action of a day in the studio — Louisville’s LaLa Land — and a story of music biz dreams, buffed, bartered, flat-out broken.
John Doe plays Pete Jones, an aging punk rocker with some real success, real name recognition, real trouble finishing his latest project and a real ego. Aimee Mann is a record producer and former flame who seems to be somewhat more on the beam. The project — to gather musicians from the want ads for just one session and record a song for “World Cafe,” on public radio. (WFPK is named in the movie.)
We talked to Director Archie Borders about making the film, about Louisville’s role in it, about the music and about the reception it has gotten at the music-oriented film festivals where he’s shown it, with his cast in tow. The film opens on Feb. 15 in Louisville, on Feb. 16 in Lexington, and then will be distributed more widely in April.
“The Combo,” as the contract often calls it, was a “real mix,” Borders said in an interview on Super Bowl Sunday. There were “seasoned pros (John Doe, Loudon Wainwright, Morgan Nagler) and complete novices (Karin Bergquist and Adam Kramer).” Doe has scores of acting credits over the past several decades — including playing A.P. Carter in Ring of Fire, and roles in Carnivale, Roswell and Boogie Nights. Morgan Nagler, acting since she appeared on Punky Brewster, is known for American Pie 2, Clint Eastwood’s Bird and Borders’ film Paper Cut.
Borders said “I think what Aimee had to do, coming from a couple of funny cameos in movies or videos into a full blown lead performance was pretty incredible, for any actor. And Tim Morton, who has done some other small films, stole every scene he had. He really gave a smart, thought-out performance. The trick was getting all these different artists room to mesh into a genuine ensemble.”
The shoot lasted 15 days, with “not super long days by filmmaking standards,” Borders said. “It wasn’t, believe it or not, a technically grueling shoot. I had a good and experienced crew and we knew going in how to get what we needed. Mike Fitzer did an amazing job shooting this. We had a deliberate style worked out. The opening scenes are shot very standard, very mainstream, little or no movement. But as the film gets into the story, it takes on a more raw, documentary approach. But the minute someone picks up an instrument… the camera starts to glide and float.”
Indeed, Laura Stein (the producer played by Mann) literally mics up the characters as they enter the rundown Funtown studio, where Pete Jones has recorded before and where his name is a graffiti curse across the front door. The session within the session begins.
Borders has two favorite scenes. “One is an opening scene with Loudon and John Doe, where we first hear the Theremin. It kind of sets the tone for the movie; a bit eccentric, sort of odd but with a strong heartbeat.” Indeed, in this scene, the audience holds its breath along with John Doe’s character, as the reclusive Theremin player powers up to play “Danny Boy.” Is this going to suck? Umm…….no, no not at all.
And that’s the first instance in which the music really steps forward as the star of the movie. Borders says his other favorite scene in the movie is also with John, when he shows Adam Kramer how to do an open G.
Pete Jones is a fictional character, and the movie’s title is a Replacements reference, but he’s posited in a real music scene in Louisville, Kentucky and played by a real musician. In fact, before Borders even shot the film, he told Ace (in an early story about the project), he was looking for musicians who could act, not actors who could fake until the cutaway.
The Louisville scene is in the movie as a character and as a sound. Borders says it is there “in subtle ways. Peter Searcy pops up, but also in that scene is Charles Ellis, who Kentuckians will remember from Shaking Family. Also in that scene was Barry Thomas from Love Jones. And the film is shot in Kevin Ratterman’s La La Land studio, where My Morning Jacket and Wax Fang cut tracks. Jim James popped by the set on a couple of occasions. Aimee also gives us a rundown of bands like Slint, Babylon Dance Band, towards the end of movie.”
The music as played in the sessions and the concert scene shot with a full house of actual fans in Louisville also sounds true, throughout the film. “Having Joe Henry, a Grammy Award winning producer, on set at all times gave the film its authenticity. I always asked Joe to check everything I set up; if the mic placement was correct, that the recording style would be realistic; Joe was the ultimate in quality control. Also, Dave, his brother who co-wrote the script with me, has been around music all his life. He’s heard the conversations between musicians for years so that also helped keep it real,” Borders said.
Legendary producer and singer-songwriter Joe Henry has worked on the soundtrack with Borders. Part of the post-production of the soundtrack was paid for by a Kickstarter fund. “The soundtrack business has changed with iTunes. It used to be, record the songs, put out an album, watch the thing sell. Now, it’s different. We’ll start with release-a-tune first, then another, then another. The first one out will be John and Aimee’s duet of ‘Golden State.’ Then we’ll move on to the Joe Henry songs, ‘Time is a Lion’ and ‘This Close to You,’” Borders said.
Music has played a starring role in how Pleased to Meet Me has been presented to audiences, and potential distributors, Borders said. “Our consultant’s focus was always music/film festivals, with the hope that, if it was successful with its original niche audience, we could cross over to a more mainstream one. So far it’s worked perfectly; we’ve played the WXPN Music Film Festival in Philadelphia, Sound Unseen in Minneapolis, and CBGB Music and Film Festival in NYC. We’re playing another in Chicago in May. After Philly, we were immediately given offers by a number of distributors. We really liked Virgil Films out of NYC. They got the movie, loved the musical aspect and could see how that could help sales, and, they had done a great job with Super Size Me. We signed a deal with them on Thanksgiving. They’ll release the film in April or May of this year.”
While the sound of Pleased To Meet Me rang true, the visuals of the production were also scene perfect. Which means, a damn mess. “James Wise, our production designer, did a herculean job,” Borders said. We originally were going to shoot in a different studio, but about a month out I called Kevin Ratterman who was in process of building La La Land. I went in to check it out…it was literally a shell.”
“Bare walls, floor was unfinished, a complete construction job. I told James that this was the place. And after I’m sure he considered strangling me, James went to work. He only had a few weeks to turn that into what you saw in the movie. The walls themselves were beautiful and they had to be believable as a punk rock ‘shithole’ to quote Aimee. Mike watched Sid & Nancy and noted all the studios back then seemed to have that horrid wood paneling so James covered the place in that stuff. He and Mike lit the place with China Balls and that gave the room the warm glow seen in the film,” Borders said.
Which scenes resonate most with audiences so far? “It’s a crowd pleaser; the “off color female anatomy” part scene always gets big laughs, and any of the scenes where John Doe picks up a guitar. But I think the scene that draws the most gasps is Tim Morton’s ‘do you think he’s on something’ scene. Lots of laughs and gasps in that one,” Borders said. “The scenes that surprised me were just about anything with Tim Morton. He was fearless and watching him go mano a mano with Loudon was thrilling, as a director.”
“The only time I felt a little starstruck was when Jon Langford (the artist and former member of The Mekons who was in the “Everyone Speaks Elton John” radio piece) was on set. I’d heard the radio piece so many times and it had moved me so much emotionally, that to have him there was a bit surreal. He’s the most fun man in the world, by the way.”
“What really moved me was having a true life experience similar to the original radio show. In that piece, Jon Langford and Starlee Kine (who both cameo in the film, along with David Dye from World Cafe), had this great day, one of those days where you get this completely odd group of folks together and it turns into an experience that each participant never forgets. The film completely inhabited that vibe. There are so many memories — talking with Joe Henry about movies in between takes, listening to Loudon Wainwright and John Doe go into impromptu jams, Tim Morton completely nailing his character…It was a completely fulfilling, creative experience.”
Archie Borders and Ace Weekly invite you to come see the product of that experience Feb. 16 at 7 p.m. at the Kentucky Theatre.
“We’re going to celebrate us some Kentucky film. We had a panel at all the festivals, and at the WXPN Music Film Fest, Loudon and John broke out the guitar.”
Kakie Urch is an assistant professor of multimedia in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky and an Ace contributing editor. She saw X in the UK Ballroom on the “More Fun in The New World” tour, wearing mini pinstripe black and red pedalpusher jeans from Deja Vu.
DIRECTOR ARCHIE BORDERS ON THE KENTUCKY THEATRE
“The Lexington Premiere is special to me because it also doubles as a fundraiser for the Kentucky Theatre. We’re the last film they’re showing before they close for renovation. I grew up in that theatre. At the time, we’re talking the late’70s, mid-‘80s, you could see everything; Woody Allen’s films, foreign film, Fellini, Truffaut, midnight movies and cult movies. It literally was my film school. And Fred (Mills), taking such care of the place and really curating a remarkable program. There was nothing better than leaving high school and running downtown to see the 4:00 showing of Casablanca or Nashville. So, to be able to bring PTMM to the Kentucky will be wonderful.
ABOUT THE PREMIERE
On Sunday, February 16, 2014, the Lexington premiere screening of the new film Pleased to Meet Me will be held at the Kentucky Theatre. This is the third feature film written and directed by Kentucky native and filmmaker Archie Borders and co-producer Michael Fitzer. The film was produced by their newly created production company – 180 Degrees.
The evening will begin with a VIP reception from 5:30 pm – 7 p.m. at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar. Tickets are $40 per person and include premium reserved seats to the film screening.
Proceeds benefit Friends of the Kentucky. Prepaid reservations are required for the reception. Movie tickets are $10. Adapted from Starlee Kine’s, script, “Everyone Speaks Elton John,” featured on Public Radio International’s “This American Life,” Pleased to Meet Me is a look into the unfulfilled dreams of making it in the music industry.
It’s the story of musician Pete Jones (played by X’s John Doe), lead singer of a seminal punk band, who experiences a slump in both his professional and personal life. Struggling to complete his latest album, he’s approached by former partner and Indie producer, Laura Klein (played by Aimee Mann, Academy-Award nominated for her music), to appear on a segment of the syndicated radio show, “World Cafe.” From the classifieds, Jones will unite an eclectic group of musicians who have never met, to produce their one and only song in one day of studio magic.
In addition to John Doe, the cast includes singer-songwriter Karen Bergquist from the group Over the Rhine, actor and Grammy-winning musician Loudon Wainwright III, singer-songwriter/actress Aimee Mann, and Grammy award-winning musician, producer, and music supervisor Joe Henry.
The Lexington Premiere is sponsored by Ace Weekly as part of Ace’s 25th anniversary celebrations throughout 2014, and will feature a panel discussion with the director and some of the stars after the show.
Ticket info: kentuckytheatre.com.