Independent Filmmaker's Guide
November 17, 2020
How to Capture Authenticity in a Documentary: Justin Staple's American Rapstar
Creating a story for your feature length film sometimes develops along the way. That is certainly often the case when filming a Documentary. We speak with this filmmaker about the importance of having access to the talent, staying authentic when representing them, and digging in on long edits, while creating his Documentary Feature, American Rapstar.
Steven Pierce: How did you come up with the concept for the piece?
Justin Staple: American Rapstar, I’ve been working on it since around 2018. I had done 21 episodes of the show The Therapist, Viceland. I don’t know if you guys are familiar with that, but in that I saw how we could talk about social issues affecting young people and minorities and all people in the States through the lens of musical artists. Especially rappers, because rap music is the new pop music these days.I hit a stride in The Therapist of talking about issues like gun violence, mass incarceration, the opioid epidemic, and just realized how much stress and how much PTSD and how much general anxiety was flooding young people in the States right now. At the same time, this young group of kids were bubbling up out of the SoundCloud scene, called SoundCloud rap at that time, who were breaking all the rules and looking super scary for the adults in the room with their face tats, and their colored hair, and their blatant drug use, and their pill-popping. I thought that scene was really exciting. From the jump I had never seen anything like that, and it was starting to break into mainstream culture, and also garner huge label deals, which I always pay attention to. A lot of these kids were getting signed for one, two, three, four million dollars to the major labels. I just started meeting a lot of them, whether it was XXXTentacion or Bhad Bhabie, or Lil Pump, and filming the whole time as I was hanging out with them, not really knowing what I was going to do with it.
Originally I had seen Defiant Ones and wanted to make a mini-series Defiant Ones for SoundCloud Rap that was talking about two things. The streaming revolution in the music industry, which we talk about in the film a Lil bit how the emergence of Spotify and Apple Music has really invigorated a music industry that was on the down after CD sales plummeted. And the other thing was how these kids were making it out the slums of north, south Florida, and through drug addiction and making it to become real celebrities.
As I started forming the mini-series, a lot of people told me maybe this is a feature documentary instead of a mini-series. Start with the doc and maybe flesh it out bigger to a mini-series. So I was like that’s way easier for me, because instead of four or five hours of content, that’s just 90 minutes of content. And rounded it out by interviewing Jon Caramanica from the New York Times, who is a friend of mine and just great pop critic, who was really early on recognizing that this could be a mainstream trend in the SoundCloud Rap world. Then-
Steven Pierce: So you started with the artists?
Justin Staple: Yeah, definitely. Definitely. Maybe the earliest shoot is where you see Lil Xan in the car, and showing me the pills, and taking me to Red Lynne’s in California. That was as early as 2017. I hosted, if you know Beats 1 Radio on Apple Music, I hosted a show for them for about 230 episodes, and through that interviewed hundreds and hundreds of rappers. At the time, it’s hard to imagine now but at the time, people like Lil Xan and Lil Pump were actually some of the biggest rappers out. So it just made sense for me to spend time with them and build that verite footage out. I truly believe each one of those kids could make their own feature length documentary. There could be a Lil peep-stype documentary for Lil Xan or Lil Pump or X, but I felt that it would be a stronger statement about the state of society and the state of the music industry if I grouped them all into one film and were able to talk about the issues. And at the same time take the viewer through a really visceral, wild ride of what it’s like to be in a scene with them-
Steven Pierce: So you started this in 2017, 2018 even, so talk to the overall timeline. How much did you shoot, and when did you decide all right, now’s the time to start cutting this?
Justin Staple: I had shot, obviously a lot happened while I was shooting. We had X get murdered in broad daylight in Broward, we had Lil Peep overdose on his tour bus. These were friends of mine and these were people I was collaborating with, so a lot was happening, it was a very fluid timeline. But after I got the Caramanica interview, which took me six to eight months to even get our schedules to align, he’s a very busy guy, I decided that this was festival ready. I’ve been doing feature length documentaries for five, six years, and go to Sundance every year, been to South by the last six years, and decided I was going to go the festival route with this one. We took that Sundance deadline that was, if you get the extended deadline it’s closer to late September, early October of, I guess that would have been last year.
Steven Pierce: That would be 2019, right?
Justin Staple: Right, so just last year. And I decided that is when I was going to finish the fine cut, which was a great process. I’d done a film before about Tim Kinsella from the band Cap and Jazz, I don’t know if you guys are familiar with him. But I edit all my films myself, so I’m very able to shoot, add more, see what’s missing, see what fits. Which is kind of isolating, because you don’t get a lot of creative notes or story beat notes, but it’s very freeing in the sense that you can just grind out for 100 hours and finish it for a deadline. I’d say around July, August of 2019 I stopped shooting. I’m actually on the Emmy producer committee as well for my work on The Therapist, so I was going to a lot of FYC events for the Emmy’s throughout the summer, and just meeting everyone from that scene and getting really inspired by them. Just sat down and edited the whole film myself, every day for three weeks straight.
Steven Pierce: Wow, that’s pretty lonely. That’s a pretty long session by yourself.
Justin Staple: Yeah, it was crazy. My schedule is usually so filled with shooting and directing that I really have to work hard to clear my schedule for that amount of time. I turned my lifestyle into just waking up, working on it, my edits station’s right here, and then going to Emmy events in the afternoon. I signed up for as many as I could go to, and just went to one every day. That included Bandersnatch and Escape from Dannemora, so I got to talk with the creator of Black Mirror, and Ben Stiller and a lot of these people, and Euphoria the cast and crew, and some of those people. Just absorbing and trying to take my work to that level, and then coming back and doing what I learned, and just edit, edit, edit. The cut I came out with was closer to two hours, 10 minutes, I really let it breathe. Caramanica I had interviewed for six hours, and he’s so smart. One of the struggles was to find people who could eloquently talk about the scene. There’s not many reporters that reported on the scene on that level, there’s probably only four or five. A lot of them either weren’t interested or just didn’t think it was worth their time. But once I got that Caramanica one, that helped me just form the through-line and take it from what was kind of a scrappy indy film to a more accessible-
Steven Pierce: Documentary, actual format. He gave you the skeleton on which you could hang the beats, right?
Justin Staple: Exactly. And I had those beats going into it, and a lot of it I wouldn’t say based on, but a lot of it was influenced by his early reporting. The similarities between SoundCloud Rap and punk, and the opioid epidemic and how that relates to these kids. A lot of that he had reported on through his podcast Popcast and also in the New York Times. So we had those beats, but it was just about doing the grind work with not a lot of money. I have a lot of great editors I work with, but I just felt like I could edit it myself. Yeah three, four weeks-
Steven Pierce: You started editing in July you said, August?
Justin Staple: Yeah.
Steven Pierce: And the extended deadline was September, October. It’s not a lot of time to get a cut ready to send to the festival at all.
Justin Staple: Yeah, I think people were nervous that I wouldn’t be able to do it, and maybe surprised that I was able to do it all myself. I like to make it more collaborative, that’s why we brought in animators and title designers.
Steven Pierce: Right.
Justin Staple: We have original music by Nathan Williams from Waves, and we formed this group of cool, aesthetic people, and that’s thanks to Braxton Pope, who really saw it as this bigger film. He came from doing City of Gold with Jonathan Gold, and The Canyons with Paul Schraeder and the Source family for Showtime. He’s a really great documentary producer and he kind of trusted me to just do my thing with it as an expert on the scene where a lot of editors don’t even know what I’m talking about with these kids. It felt a little rushed but… when you back-schedule it you’re going right up to that deadline day, so we were doing color and sound and final delivery the last few days, before that deadline.
Steven Pierce: That was one of my questions I wanted to talk about later is, how do you do color? How do you approach color for a set, for a documentary because a lot of what you are shooting is just straight up verite. I mean you are in an R.V. with probably different cameras each time, limited audio, how do you approach that?
Justin Staple: I actually used the same camera throughout the film, the Sony FS7. My go-to lens on that’s the Canon 16 to 35, and then I’ll have the 70 to 200 millimeter if they’re about to go live and I need to really push in. So I had the benefit of using that Sony color space throughout it, and then we rented them in New York as well when we did Caramanica. From the beginning, even though I didn’t know I was going to be a film, I had been shooting in 2K anyway, which really helped us in the end. But yeah, I think it would have been tricky… I helped with a Lil Peep film where they’re pulling stuff from archival and trying to find the right color space, it was a little easier because from the jump I had been shooting on S log three on the FS7, and that was the color space we had throughout the whole show.
Braxton’s good friends with our buddy Quin Alvarez at Apache Color in Santa Monica, and he colors a lot of my music videos as well, and he’s done work for Travis Scott and big commercials and big films work. We went in and had a bunch of great sessions with him in Apache, where he laid out what he wanted the look and feel to be. That’s kind of crunchier, high contrast, boosting the colors of the tattoos, boosting the colors in the air, in the hair. I’ve been shooting 16-9 the entire time, but I made the decision to just go 2.39–
Steven Pierce: Punch in and make it anamorphic? Yeah.
Justin Staple: Punch it and make it anamorphic, and a lot of it, what you see the verite is 16 to 35 lens, so I’m actually pushing in on the 2K frame to frame out Pump or some of the other artists. But Quin did magic on the verite stuff, just to make it feel grimy and gritty. I think they would have looked great on the big screen, when we were working at that time we were thinking about the theatrical experience with it, whether it was the music supervision, the music mixing, or the color correction, we always had the big format in mind. Maybe I would have approached it differently if I had known it wasn’t really going to be shown in theaters, but it came out really good. We love the films of Harmony Karin and just the dirtier, grimy stuff. He did a good job of punching up the contrast and making it feel gritty and grimy. Less polished.
Steven Pierce: I think what might be unique about your film in particular, is whenever you’re shooting with the kids and the stars of the doc itself, they’re not scared of the camera, lets say. A lot of it is about their personality and their presentation. Were you approaching it in any way to get them in an authentic place, or were you just coming in and being a fly on the wall and trying to just stay out of the way?
Justin Staple: Yeah, I think it differs from star to star. A lot of people in L.A. are like, “This is a film that only you could make,” out of all the directors, because I’m actually friends with all of them and I’ve known them since the beginning of their careers when they were 16, 17. In Matt Ox’s case I met him when he was 12 and I’m actually friends with him, I know their families, I know their managers, I know them inside and out. So access is very hard with these kids. Bregoli is very private because she’s all over TMZ and the paparazzi, Peep was very private at that time because he was starting to get huge, and X because of the media just through and through, just trashing him in every publication didn’t do any interviews ever, that’s why there’s no X interview in it. But Diego was more open, Lil Xan, I might get backlash for saying this, but he’s a genius in the sense that he wants to show his struggles and his story to help other young kids who are dealing with pill addiction so he was very open to show me the pills and talk about press fentanyl, and talk about the dangers of fentanyl, and talking about doing fentanyl, and it’s just a reality of his life. But he uses those stories to help show kids that there’s others like him and it’s going to be okay.
So yeah, I think we struggled for access for a long time, and it’s a mixture of catching them on a sober enough day, if you can believe it, where they’re actually going to be able to string sentences together, and then catching them when they’re in the right mood to do interviews. These are kids who get hated on social media almost every day, and hated by adult critics whether it’s New York Magazine or Culture, Pitchfork or what have you, they’re going to get a lot of negative attention and that wears on a young person’s mind. They’re like, “Why would I do an interview, why do I want to be in a documentary?”
Justin Staple: Smokepurpp for instance, he wanted to talk, we got him right after Coachella, he had just done the main stage at Coachella as Gucci Gang with Pump and Gucci Mane, and flew back to L.A. in a helicopter and just pulled right up on me to get it done. So you have your go-to crew that, when you get the word, and it’s like this with other rappers too- I’ve interviewed Migos, Future, the big guys, 2 Chainz. Their schedules are what they want to do in that instant. They could have something scheduled for six months, $100,000 music video budget, and bail an hour before just because they’re not feeling it. It’s just how it is, they’re like rock stars that way. So we had a go-to crew that were going to be on call, and as soon as we got the word that they were ready to go, set up the two angles, set up the lighting, get them all going. A lot of it, the Pump stuff and the trailer, and Lil Peep’s verite moments are at the Day and Night Music Festival from 2017, backstage there. I was shooting a lot of content, and 2017 is the birth year of that SoundCloud Rap scene, where they’re just starting to get big but not hitting a lot of mainstream coverage. So there’s even more from that day that I have with Post Malone, and Uzi Vert, and all these stars.
Post Malone for instance, was king on the level of those kids, maybe a little bigger, but now he’s one of the biggest artists of all time by the numbers and shows the growth. So it was timing mixed with me being friends with them, and them trusting me, and knowing I wasn’t going to do a hit piece or anything like that.
Steven Pierce: That’s huge, being able to have that relationship before you go in. I think that’s probably, exactly why you got so many interesting, true, real honest moments from them.
Justin Staple: Yeah. There’s a lot that hit the cutting room floor that might have been just too shocking to show. I might do a sequel, I might do a t.v. show based around these themes, just to show how gnarly these kids’ lives really get. I think we give you a taste of it in this, but every day in their shoes is a wild, wild story.
Steven Pierce: Yeah, on that note, how did you decide in the edit, how do you edit yourself with what you want to use? For instance, these are kids taking pills in the back of the car, they’re talking about a lot of really, really intense stuff. Where is your line, and when do you use that versus not, in how you make that decision?
Justin Staple: Not showing the shocking stuff and punching in on it, and doing really corny music cues. It’s a very serious topic that I take very seriously, and try to approach it with maturity and seriousness and not undermine what these kids are trying to do. There’s a lot of stuff that could be put in to make them look like jokes, or be like you need Jesus, or you need rehab, or you need your parents, where were the parents. We heard that a lot with the Peep one. It’s just finding the fine line of pushing the same themes that they’re talking about in their music. So X in his music is talking about kids that are super depressed and he did a lot of time in jail as a young man, and really wanted to be a mentor to kids and have people look up to him. That’s not the light that every other person in the media shows him in. Obviously he’s got a slew of criminal charges that are super violent and super insane, and that’s usually the light that’s placed on him. So while that is interesting, and more along the lines of what a mainstream narrative would look like right now amongst a cancer culture vibe or whatever, I was more interested in showing the themes that he wanted to show. Like what was X really trying to say to his fans?
And for Danielle Bregoli, for instance, I don’t know if there’s ever been a serious look at what she was able to accomplish. She has her Snapchat reality show that’s just her yelling at her mom all the time, and then the Dr. Phil stuff and then her music, while super successful, is obviously critiqued very heavily and kind of passed off on. But I approached that with how did this 14 year old become a millionaire? I’m not a millionaire, I’m 30 years old, how are these teenagers getting these millions of dollars, and really wanting to dissect the work ethic and the mind state and the genius that goes into trying to get to that level. When I approached them with that seriousness, they approach me with seriousness, and they say things in my interviews that they would never tell anyone else.
When I’m in the edit, I was trying to find the right line between shock value and something an adult could stomach, I didn’t want to make it all shock value. But a lot of people watched this film and watched early cuts and thought that it was even too dark. They were like, “Lighten it up a little bit, show the, in the studio making platinum records, and buying the cars and buying their moms houses, lighten it up, it doesn’t all have to be dark.” So I made it, I didn’t think it was that dark, but a lot of people thought this was as dark as it could get. I just keep my audience in mind, try to make something for everyone. I know the fans of these kids, there’s a huge fan base for X, and Peep, and Lil Xan even. So I knew I was going to find an audience with the fans no matter what, just because they like to get closer to the artists and get to know. So it was really about trying to capture the adults. This was going to be like an explainer for adults who had no idea what their teenage kids are listening to
Steven Pierce: There are lots of licenses, news footage, there’s music in here, there’s new clips, you’re using likenesses of people. Did you have to do any rights and permissions work with that?
Justin Staple: Yeah, that was the biggest haul was trying to do the rights and permissions. There was a lot of stuff that hit the cutting room floor because of the rights and permissions. There’s a Kevin Hart VMA clip, where he, if you remember the year that Lil Xan and Lil Pump went to the VMAs and Kevin Hart calls them out in his opening monologue, he’s like, “This is why your cousin’s getting face tats,” and then they zoom on Lil Pump who’s sitting there with Desto Dubb and they’re laughing, and Xan’s there with Noah Cyrus. It’s an amazing clip that just showed SoundCloud Rap busting into the mainstream. I tried very hard with MTV to get that clip, and it didn’t work out in the end. There was also Lil Xan on TRL with a supermodel, Tyra Banks, she’s teaching him how to smize, and it’s this super awkward… if you remember Tyra Banks smize, it’s like smiling with your eyes. There’s this super awkward interaction between Xan and her that I had in the movie. It played really well, but we just lost that because we couldn’t clear it.
A lot of what you see we had really expert archivists who had worked in many other music films who we selected with our production partners and they told us, they did a reading on what would be possible for the budget, what wouldn’t be possible for the budget, and from there I utilized a lot of Pond 5, a lot of Getty, a lot of the news clipping services. For the X getting shot, there were some private people who were there covering it who just sell it to news clipping services. But we spent tens of thousands of dollars on the archival, because I knew the movie needed that, it couldn’t just be ride-alongs with all the kids. You have to show the scale of their impact, you have to show what they’re saying. As far as the likenesses of the artists, they all… with X it’s a constant relationship that I’ve maintained for years, we have another project coming out with him in a few weeks, and their whole team is very close to me because they knew X was close with me. So I was able to come to an agreement with the licenses on everyone. It sucked that we had to lose a lot of archival that’s just unclearable, but that’s the name of the game when you’re doing documentary.
Steven Pierce: So when you’re assembling a piece, how do you start breaking down okay this story’s going to be in this part, this act, we’re going to go to this act, and then we’re going to pay off in the end with this. Is that just something you’re keeping in mind the whole time, or is it just assembling in the edit itself?
Justin Staple: That’s the hardest part. From the beginning I was like, “Look, I’m going to be the editor on this, but with Therapist I had a story producer, and I worked on Noisy through Viceland, if you guys have ever seen that show we had a story producer. What’s nice about having your producer and then your story producer is that the story producer is the one transcribing every interview, and then piecing together the transcriptions to find pretty much into book form to make sure there’s a flow that would read like an article or a documentary. That’s the hardest part. We went back, we sound-mixed it on an eight channel huge screen, and after watching the theatrical experience we had to change a bunch of stuff because things will flow on a small screen and not flow on the big screen. I had no story producer on this one, because I always trust them. It’s just another set of eyes on the story beats, so it was up to me to choose that arc. I know that’s one of the most important things, so generally when I approach it I try to stick to a few rules. I’m working on new movies right now, and I’m even bringing these rules to that.
I really believe, especially with the ADD attention spans people have right now, the first 20, 30 minutes of any feature length film really has to hit and really draw you in. So I’ll work on those first 10 minutes really hard, first 10, 15, 20 minutes really hard to make sure that even if we’re not getting super big ideas across, we’re making something entertaining, where you can laugh and you can be shocked. You know the opening scene of the film was Anne Frank, just cold open on that. I do a lot of cold opens like that. So I’ll bring that, I’m like okay, first 20, 30 minutes, those first 30 you’re going to lose your audience if you’re not just like banging them over the head with cool, shocking stuff or what have you. And then once I’m past 30 minutes, I can try to see where my story’s at. What am I trying to say with this film, how am I going to carry the audience’s hand through the next 45, 50 minutes?
And with that, I did it artist by artist. So each artist comes with its own theme. I think Diego and Peep, I’m talking about drug addiction and opioid abuse, X I’m talking about media outrage, how he related with his fans and also gun violence. So it is kind of in chapters, I gave each artist their own 15, 20 minute section. Which like I said I could have probably made 90 minutes on each artist. But each artist gets their 20 minute section, and that’s how I formatted it.
Justin Staple: I think it ended up being Bhad Bhabie first, because it enables how a star like that can come in American culture today through media attention and the Dr. Phil stuff. Then it gets into X, which is just great cinema, it’s just a compelling story and such a tragic ending, and then compounded with the Peep death and our time with Peep in there. Then people are getting really upset and worked up, by minute 40 they’re like, “Fuck, all these kids are dying, how are we going to stop this.” I got that reaction from a lot of people watched it, just panicked and what have you. And then we round it out with Smokepurpp’s interview, which is a little slower and him talking about how he got sober, and how he’s giving up the drug life and calming down a little bit. So that’s how I approached it. I didn’t want it to be formed by theme and then mix all the artists in for that theme, I wanted to take it artist by artist. By the end there, so then that takes us to an hour and 10 minutes. In the cut that I think you guys saw it is only about 85 minutes, it really wraps up at the end there with the tribute to Mac Miller and Juice World. A lot of people, when I showed it in L.A. they were like, “Man, that ended really quick.” I don’t know if you had the same reaction, but we just wanted to round it out with an eight minute, 10 minute all-encompassing, this is what we’re trying to say with the film, this is where we’re at, in the state of all these kids.
And then just end it with those tributes, these kinds of overdoses are happening every week today, and I wanted that to be the main take-away. What are we going to do, how are we going to change it, what’s the label’s responsibility, what’s the parent’s responsibilities. So that’s how I approached it. I don’t know if it worked out or not. I’ve gotten a lot of great feedback, I think a lot of people feel like it ends abruptly, and I struggle with a lot of my documentaries, what the ending is going to be. Because if you don’t have an event, it’s not really a follow doc, right? It’s not like where Larry Nasser gets arrested or Michelle Carter convictions.. Or like some of this true crime stuff where you have an ending, or Raf Simmons walking out of the Dior show, or the Free Solo guy peeking the thing. We don’t have an event like that.
So I wanted to leave people with a feeling instead of any closure. The feeling of dread about the opioid epidemic, or the feeling of sadness that all these kids lost their lives so soon, or the feeling of inspiration for young rappers who are in Florida with a shitty mic being like, “Oh, I can make it like these guys, I’m the next American rap star.” The ending is definitely what I struggled with the most. We played around with a bunch of different endings that went back to Anne Frank, or… I like that too, using a device like Anne Frank who kind of symbolizes how crazy all these kids are. And show him in the beginning, then you don’t see him the whole film, and then bring him back at the end. When it came down to that final cut, which I think you guys watched, we felt like okay, we have the South by audience in this room for 80 minutes, they gave us State Street, at the Alamo, 150 cap theater, they’re not going to want to sit there for two hours, they’re going to want to be out 85 minutes in, go to the after party, drink. So the cut you all saw was really tailored to that 85 minute experience, in and out, and didn’t want to drag it on.
Steven Pierce: What’s the plan now, because obviously South by, how’s that going to affect the future of what you’re going to do with the film, and what are your plans with it now that South by went down with COVID?
Justin Staple: Yeah, I was super bummed about that. I think there were obviously bigger problems in the world to be concerned about than the cancellation of the film festival. But for me personally, we had put a lot of time into tailoring that film for that audience, and tailoring it to that theater specifically. I’ve been doing this so many years I knew what it would take to make a splash there. We were going to bring some of the kids out, maybe stay through the music weekend, do a whole thing. It was going to be really great, and it was something we were looking forward to and had shaped the whole thing around. We also got into CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, which is one of my favorites, and then I was going to go out there and do a few Q&A’s there. So I was super bummed, but there’s bigger things in the world to be concerned about right now. How it affects the future of the film, I think everyone would agree it was completely devastating to have every film festival canceled this year. For indie filmmakers I think it just, what those festivals provide is the exhibition, the audience reaction, the press that you can get, the PR run you can do around it, and all attention was shifted away from any of that. And rightfully so, these films will come out eventually and people can enjoy them. And then Amazon partnered with South by, which was a great partnership to do the 10 day window above the paywall to exhibit some of the films. They had approached me for that, and I decided that I wanted this to be more like cult and couture, and not above a pay wall really.
Steven Pierce: Right.
Justin Staple: I could just put it out on YouTube for free, but-
Steven Pierce: That’s an interesting question of why, because we’ve spoken to another film that chose not to do it as well. I think that that was an interesting move by Amazon that seems good to people that don’t make films. Because you’re basically ruining your opportunity for any other form of lucrative distribution if you do that.
Justin Staple: That’s the feedback I heard, is that distributors didn’t want people to do that. That’s understandably, because look, from the film maker’s perspective I was like, “Oh, huge global audience, they can see it for free on every Roku AppleTV device, what else could you ask for that’s great.” The problem there is that it’s the 10 day window. Which during those 10 days, I was like, “Oh, we should have done it, this is everywhere, TFW, NoGF, those are our boys who made that movie.” Those kind of films are really picking up steam. Then those 10 days end, and you’re like, “Oh, wait. Maybe it’s for the best.” It’s the problem with that 10 day window. If Amazon had been like, “Oh, we’re going to host these all on the platform,” I would have been like all right, that’s awesome. But those 10 days end and then you’re like, “Well, was my film only worth those 10 days?” And then like you just said, I heard feedback from distributors saying if you guys opt in to that it makes you feel less valuable because everyone’s seen it, or downloaded it, which I think might have happened with a few.
Steven Pierce: Are you planning to still find distribution, try and go to subscription services?
Justin Staple: Yeah, definitely. I got a lot of good feedback from acquisitions teams and studio executives who liked the film, and that’s great for me. I’m not going to name who, but it’s the top guys you would think of in documentary. Just having those conversations with those people and seeing that they responded to it is really great for me. And we have a great sales team. A lot of really talented documentary producers like the movie, so it’s like job well done on my part there, and now they’re going to do their job. I think the acquisitions climate right now is super messed up because you’re getting the bottom lines closed down by the impending recession, and changing economic patterns, and then you’re getting the market flooded with hundreds of premium documentaries from the cancellation of Tribeca, South by, Full Frame, and some of these. Cannes went virtual, and I think Toronto’s going virtual. But the Tribeca and South by alone getting canceled flooded the market with amazing films. Obviously every doc at Tribeca is amazing, so super competitive, mixed with not a lot of buying power for the streamers right now, mixed with that I have pretty adult themes in the movie when people are more on the True Crime, Tiger King side of things in this moment, because they need a little lighter fare. So it’s not the best time, this is not something I saw coming. I made this last year when the Travis Scott film had came out, and the Lil Peep movie we were killing it with that one. We were just ready to have that be in that lineage of big rap movie and now you’re not seeing a lot of those coming out. There’s going to be the Ava Duvernay Nipsey Hussle one, and there’s the big $25 million Billie Eilish AppleTV movie, and all that. But yeah, great feedback. There is movement, and I think everyone will be pleased when we announce the partner that we’re going to do, but it wasn’t easy. And it’s taking a long time. South by was in March, and then Copenhagen could have opened it up to European distributors, which I was really interested in how this would play overseas. I think American audiences are one thing, but in India and China and Russia and Europe and Brazil and North Africa, kids love these people, so I had made the movie with that audience in mind as well.
But all those opportunities were taken away, so fighting off my back right here.
Steven Pierce: Trying to figure out where to go next.
Justin Staple: I think it will find a home. Figuring out where to go, obviously exhibition was something I like, as a film there we had a lot of offers to show it at Rooftop Films in Brooklyn, or Chinese Theater in L.A., or obviously South by. Being able to really bring people out, have that after party, watched it, talk about it, all of that stuff is not going to happen for another year I guess. They’re looking at AMC trying to open, but I don’t know if indie films will be able to exhibit that way. So now trying to put together a smart plan for streaming, what’s that going to look like, will it be good, or should we just wait? The problem with the movie, people feel like it captured a zeitgeist that was from two years ago. But I really view it now as kind of like a document of that moment. With the Peep movie, people talked about that punk documentary that I’m forgetting the name of. But just documents of these moments that happened in music and are timeless because of that. They don’t have to be timed with a 2018, 2019 release, but we’re working any era, and that’s what I’m focused on now.
Steven Pierce: I’ve got a couple technical questions. I know you used the FS7, you used EF lenses which is a real good standard doc kit, and really versatile. How did you do audio? Just because there’s lots of group scenes, and their things are just happening, it doesn’t feel like you can control it all, but you’re needing that for some form of interview. Were you trying to be like, “Hey, yo let’s find a quiet spot,” or how did you approach that?
Justin Staple: Yeah. You’re never going to be able to find the quiet spot with those kids, because they’re so famous everyone wants to be around them. And then they never want to put on a lav mic, just from the I’m wearing a wire, what are you guys the feds? That’s still a thing. So obviously I would have liked to lav everyone in the verite scenes, wasn’t an option, so shout out my sound guy Joesh Wright out in L.A., he’s been doing documentary sound for 15 years, he’s really the best. We’ve known each other a long time, he just works with me, synergy-wise where he’ll get in the right position no matter what’s going to happen and try to get the boom, it’s all boom, so try to get the boom as close as he can. The Lil Pump scene in the trailer, you had the pounding base from the music festival right outside that trailer, you had kids talking all over the place while I was filming, and then you were in a trailer too with 10 people, so it was super tight. So Joash was right behind me, he didn’t have enough room to do the standard boom move, so he was just pointing that boom in that direction, and really trying to monitor as carefully as he can. If you were to get a behind the scenes of that one shot, there were 10 people standing right behind me. But that’s where that 16 to 35 millimeter lens really comes in handy, I can get right in Pump’s face, I was probably three feet away from him, go all the way out and we have a salvageable scene. It was a-
Steven Pierce: So you were just a two man crew right, most of the time? Just you and the sound guy?
Justin Staple: Yeah. My co-producer Tyler Benz, Braxton. He’s there with me, we do everything together, we run a production company together called All The Smoke, and he knows all the guys as well. Just having both of us helps so it’s not just me. I’m behind the camera. You actually catch, in the Bhad Bhabie Smokepurpp where there’s a mirror behind them and they’re like, “South Florida, bitch.” You see me and Tyler in the mirror standing there, we’re just like a movie set.
Steven Pierce: Yeah I saw that.
Justin Staple: Yeah. But that scene, super tough to salvage the sound. The X live scene where he’s giving that speech, that’s timeless footage for his fans, but obviously I’m right by the sub woofer and that’s clipping the whole time, so we took fan iPhone footage and tried to piece salvageable audio from different fan footage in the crowd. Ditto with Lil Pump running out and doing Boss at Day and Night, the first time you see him rocking that big crowd he runs out. That was super, we took footage from different angles to try to salvage the audio there. Lil Peep-
Steven Pierce: How did you go about finding the crowd?
Justin Staple: Well, they’re big enough that if you YouTube Lil Pump Boss-
Steven Pierce: Oh, you just found it.
Justin Staple: I mean hopefully I’m not going to get in trouble for saying this, but yeah, you can just find that. It’s his song, so I think it’s clearable, but yeah, you just look up Lil Pump Boss, live at Day and Night 2017, you can find five, six different angles including a leaked version of my angle which went because Lil Pump called me that night and said, “Send me that snippet, I’m going to put it on Instagram.” He put it on Instagram and that scene is actually on YouTube now because people ripped it from that.
Steven Pierce: Wow. That’s pretty funny.
Justin Staple: X and Pump we did that. Peep, we were right next to an air conditioning radiator, and I don’t even think we had the boom on for that, that’s just off my onboard mic on the FS7. I had a little shotgun mic one there, which is also I should say that too. We had Joash, but I also had my shotgun mic, and I’m pretty good at doing that. I was also monitoring with my AT50s. So when you get Peep, you know anything you’re going to get with Peep is going to be special. So we tried for two days to try and get him to go into a trailer and do an interview, but you were just like this is our moment, this is what we’re going to do, and there’s tons of background noise, there’s helicopters, there’s music, and we just salvaged it.
Steven Pierce: You just have to take it for what it is, because the content is what it is at that point.
Justin Staple: And then fortunately we had Ben Wilkins, the Oscar-winning sound mixer of Whiplash who is friends with Braxton, had worked on many projects with Braxton, come in and do my re-recording and sound mix for eight channel theater. He’s a maverick.
Steven Pierce: I thought it sounded amazing for what we were watching. I was telling someone like, “This is really crazy that you were able to get such decent audio out of all of this.”
Justin Staple: Yeah. The two-source. And I forgot, the shotgun mic, I think in the Pump stuff probably was the primary, because the boom was probably far away.
Steven Pierce: What is next for you, what are you up to now? You just waiting and dealing with distribution of this?
Justin Staple: We’re seeking distribution for this, hopefully news on that soon. I would have loved to line up some exhibition of it, but it’s just not the right time right now obviously, for a number of reasons. So maybe exhibition when exhibition happens again, closer to Thanksgiving, Christmas. We’ve got a lot of offers to show it, so that’s really cool. COVID hit but we figured out ways to direct music videos during it. I did three new videos for Smokepurpp, one featuring Lil Pump. Tons of rap videos, I’ve signed on for a few new feature documentaries, I’m super excited about. I do not think I can talk about them right now, but they’re going to be sick. And then just quarantine, man. Just writing music and working on these films.
Steven Pierce: So when it is available, where can people find the information about that? Should they follow your Instagram, or your website?
Justin Staple: Yeah, definitely follow my Instagram, @JustinStaple, @allthesmokepictures. Go watch the Lil Peep movie, Everybody’s Everything, out on Netflix, out anywhere documentaries are seen. You’ll see my name in the credits there, some of my footage is in that. Shout out Ramez Silyan who directed that film. And then wait for American Rapstar, I think the fans are ready. Fans of X and Bhad Bhabie and Diego and Pump are really for that film to come out. We’ll make sure that we do it justice and bring it to the biggest home. I think I’ll do some press too, so hopefully you’ll hear about it. I’ll do, maybe Caramanica will do something in the New York Times, I don’t know. Hopefully we’ll do some press.
Steven Pierce: Well Justin, thanks for taking the time to chat with me man, this has been great. Loved getting to hear about the film and how you made it.
Justin Staple: Thank you guys so much.
IFG is created by Framework Productions. This episode was directed by James Allerdyce, produced by Matt Mundy, edited by Audrey Rae McHale, and hosted by Steven Pierce. The music is by Glass Boy. Find his music on freemusicarchive.org.