With a background as an artist, a curator, a musician and filmmaker, it seems only natural Aaron Rose’s debut documentary Beautiful Losers would be about artists – but it’s so much more than that. The film not only profiles the unique collective of artists who influenced each other at the Alleged Gallery, but also explores their different approaches and philosophies about creativity. Easily one of the most inspiring films at SXSW, we jumped at the chance to talk with Aaron and his editor Lenny Mesina, who tell us about the origins of the film, the effect of money on creativity and one of the biggest lessons they took away about the creative process – learning to give in.
Have you worked on any other film projects before Beautiful Losers?
Aaron Rose: Yeah… I worked for MTV in on-air promotions for 2 and a half years in the 90’s… Actually, I worked with a lot of the artists that are in Beautiful Losers. I also worked with Harmony Korine on his first-ever film before he did Gummo…
Oh really? What was that project?
AR: He did a piece for MTV that we commissioned, and Rita Ackermann and Thursten Moore from Sonic Youth did a piece… I directed like thirty spots with our DP Tobin Yelland… for MTV2 right when that launched. So, I knew a little about how to construct a film from that, but those were one-minute spots. So it’s totally different than making a feature film. I was a total virgin on that. I knew my way around the editing room, let’s put it that way, but I didn’t know about constructing films or anything like that.
You’ve known these artists in the film for a while. At what point did you say, “I need to pull these guys together and make a film!?”
AR: It was a series of moments. It wasn’t a white light experience. It was just sort of like a sequence of events. There were actually different directors that I knew who had talked about it at different times, but it just never really got off the ground. There were shorter versions of the same idea that were done a little bit too early. Cheryl Dunn did a film called SPED… for this snowboard company in ’94. That was loosely about the same kind of thing, artists and that, but it was 10 years too early or 15 years to early for anyone to take it seriously.
So it really started in 2002 with Josh Leonard and I (who co-directed the film) going out and shooting with a DV camera – just trying to gather footage. Eventually we started meeting other people, got in touch with Sidetrack Films and got financing. Then the film took a very distinct left turn from what we were doing. It became something totally different…
Bits of Cheryl Dunn’s The Creative Life Store was in the film as well. Would you say all these previous short films also helped to inspire you to make Beautiful Losers?
AR: Definitely. Well, yes and no. One thing that was important to me was that this was not a documentary just about these people, but that it became part of the lineage of these people. So it’s not just an outsider making a documentary about this world – that it actually becomes part of the history of these artists… the way it was crafted… we pulled in so much collaboration from all the artists involved… even more than just interviews, getting us images, helping to do the graphics, or in the case of Cheryl or Tobin or people like that who have donated footage… so hopefully, time will tell, the film will fit firmly within the history of all these artists and their careers.
Lenny Mesina: Also that it’s not done after-the-fact.
AR: Yeah, that’s another thing. We’re lucky enough to have people
while they’re still active and they’re still working. When we started making
this film, a lot of people were comparing it to Dogtown and Z-Boys. I
think that’s what a lot of people expected, but the last thing I wanted to make
was a movie with a bunch of old fat guys talking about how good it was “back-in-the-day.” Nobody’s
like that yet, thank God! Someone probably will make that movie about these same
artists, but it won’t be me.
So you’re saying if you were to just end the documentary with the Alleged Gallery?
AR: Yeah maybe, because there was a little bit of “back-in-the-day,” but that was just ten years ago – you know ‘97 is “back-in-the-day.” [Laughs] It is not going back thirty years or something like that. So yeah, people are still young, still active, and in my opinion, haven’t even reached the peaks of their careers. I think the peaks of their careers are coming in the next five to ten years.
You mentioned getting Sidetrack Films involved, did they bring in a good chunk of funding to finish off the film? How did hook up with them?
AR: It was through a soccer game. John Barlow, who’s one of our producers on the film, was friends with this guy Matt Shattuck, who’s also a producer on the film… they are all soccer guys. They play amateur league soccer with this other dude Ravi who runs Sidetrack Films… They were just kickin’ it after a soccer game one day, yackity, yackity-yack and that’s how it happened! There was no meeting, no pitch, and there was no proposal. It was just guys talking after a soccer game…
Wow! That’s great!
AR: Yeah, but that was after we ran around to all different types of production companies hearing, “Well we really love it, but we don’t have any money. Call us when you have it done.” It was one after another, after another, after another. So we did go around and pitch forever, probably like twenty-five to thirty different companies… but the funding came through a soccer game – which is great!
So the sharp left turn you mentioned, was that when you got the money and you realized you really had to get this film finished up?
AR: No. When we got the money, that’s when the problems began. [Laughs] We cut an entire film [multiple times]. We were working in New York for nine months in a post production facility…
Didn’t you say that you re-cut the film four-times?
AR: Yeah. We were working in a situation that was very uncreative and very unhealthy with editors that were great editors, but it just wasn’t working. We essentially finished what we thought was the film and then just threw it in the garbage. It was just horrible! It had none of the power, none of the spark, none of the laughs, and none of the drama that this film has now. It was a straightforward documentary with voice over – the co-director did the most horrible voice over – it was just a very standard doc. You’ve seen it (motioning to Lenny). It’s fucking throwup!
LM: It was of those with expert opinions, facts…
AR: Yeah. We had all these experts chiming in about how important this is. We had Brian Grazier, curators from the Whitney museum, Jeffery Deitch, the New York Times art critics, Art in America and all these experts saying, “This is all so important!” It didn’t fit what the art’s about at all or the vibe of the film. So we left that situation and threw that entire cut in the garbage – nine months of work, everyday for eight or nine hours a day. We brought the whole production back to L.A. and found Lenny and Fernando Villena and it all clicked. From then on it was beautiful.
How did you guys connect? What was your approach as an editor that helped bring the whole thing together?
LM: There’s a long history of things, little coincidences that brought all the people who were involved together… For instance, I saw the show [Beautiful Losers the art exhibition] in Yerba Buena (San Francisco)… years before anything had happened. My friend sent me this link on YouTube [of something] that the Italians were doing to document the show. I said, “Ah, that’s great! Someone’s making a movie about Beautiful Losers!” Then two weeks later, Fernando calls me up and says, “Hey man, some people want me to edit this film Beautiful Losers. Do you want to do it with me?” I said, “Well yeah, duh! Come on, you have to do it!” and he said, “I don’t know if I can because I have another film coming up. You just may have to take it.” I said, “Let’s do that!” Next thing I know we’re cutting the movie.
AR: There were a lot of serendipitous events. Like we rented a house through a friend of a friend to edit out of – and L.A. is a big city – the house we rented, by sheer coincidence, was directly across the street from Fernando Villena’s place (the supervising editor)… It could’ve been anywhere in L.A., but we were just randomly across the street from each other. There have been things like that all throughout this editing process.
LM: We would just run from one house to the other and watch different parts. Even going further, when we left that house, we rented a house in Silver Lake – that’s when we brought Money Mark in, he had his own room, I was in this little nook where we had the Avid set up and it was literally like, “Hey Mark, come check this out. We’re going to need music for this,” and he would throw something together, bring it back on a drive or CD, we’d put it in the Avid, I’d tweak the cut to fit the music more and then we’d just sit in the living room and watch it!
AR: Yeah, the living room was set up with the monitor, Lenny was in his little nook and then Mark made his studio in the bedroom. Then Jay Buim, our post production coordinator, was living in the backroom – it was like a commune. It was really fun! In the movie, the emotion that people feel, all that energy comes from how we made the film. I totally believe that the situation you’re in when you’re being creative shows up in the art. Because that feeling that was going on there, is the same feeling you get when you walk away from the movie. It was a kick it pad too, people were constantly coming by and hanging out. Thomas Campbell, who’s one of the artists featured in the film, actually cut some stuff there and made some music there for a surf film he was making. So there was stuff going on, and all that energy from that house is in the film..
So it was almost like a variation of the Alleged Gallery?
AR: Yeah, not on purpose though. It wasn’t like, “Hey, check out this cool concept!” It was just the way it had to happen, because we blew so much money in New York. That whole debacle in New York cost us half our budget. It was like a massive machine that was running in New York. It’s funny because with all that, it just goes to show you money can’t buy you creativity. It didn’t matter. All it did was slow us down and hinder the creative process. It was when we had to work on a really tight budget, in this little house situation with everyone, that it started to work.
You mentioned before that the last time you edited the film everything seemed to come together like poetry. What did you mean by that?
AR: It was. The film was composed. There was a structure there for sure, but it was composed very non-linearly. I think the structure started to really come together towards the end. We started feeling like, “Ok, this is what it is!” The early part of the film kind of discombobulates you… for twenty-two minutes into the film there’s no narrative. It just bounces around, you’re in New York, you’re in Nashville, you’re in San Francisco, you’re in Portland, it just shakes your head around and then the narrative hits at twenty minutes. It’s actually a four-act structure. Which is totally not the way you’re supposed to do it… and it totally works. Which goes to dispel that whole myth that you have to have a three-act structure to hit the people emotionally, which is total bullshit, because we have a totally different structure that works just as well.
LM: That goes back to how… you couldn’t make it a factual sort of thing. You had to let these personalities shine through first. Then we get into the parts – those landmarks.
AR: That’s what we did. We actually cut the characters first… Then we went back in and tried to insert history throughout it, because we owe it to the audience to have a historical context for it all… We just cut the character, and then we placed them in time.
With your background as an artist, a curator and a filmmaker, what are your thoughts in terms of independent film as an art form?
AR: I don’t want to come off as a hater – because everyone is entitled to make whatever they want to make, and be successful at it or whatever – but the idea of independent film as it exists today is such a sham, because even the real indie films are just mimicries of Hollywood movies. Even the ones that don’t have stars, and they’re trying to be like, “We made this on a shoestring budget,” still mimic the structure. There’s still this aspiration of being normal, just being the same old film over and over again. There’s not a whole lot of experimentation, in my opinion… but I think that’s in everything. I think the music industry is very similar too. It’s just the times we live in. People have aspirations and they feel their way of doing it is to mimic what’s being done at the top. That’s sad. I guess that’s just what happens, because there was a big rise of independent film in the 90’s and it was a big deal. All these directors came up like Tarantino, Richard Linklater and all these people who were the indie directors. Now those guys are fully establishment. So everything kind of goes soft for awhile and then hopefully a new group of filmmakers will come through and just blow the doors off – or the film industry will collapse… which seems to be kind of happening. If the film industry collapsed, I think it could be the best thing that ever happened to film. Like if the studio system just eats itself, because they’re dying right now. They’re so fat and they’re running off of a model that was set up in like 1920 and makes no sense in today’s world. Chances are they won’t completely crumble, but I’d be the first one to dance on the grave if it did. [Laughs]
Since this is film is such a big part of your own life, was it strange to see those moments of your life on the screen? Was there a point where you felt like it was hard to step back and be objective?
AR: Well I hate seeing myself on the screen. I didn’t want to be in the film. We didn’t shoot an interview with me when we first went out to shoot. We shot everybody else and it was only when we got into trying to figure out the story. We asked all these people all these questions, we had all this information – we had all this information up to our ears, but we were trying to figure out, “Ok, now what’s the story?” We had these long story meetings and we kept coming back to, “Ok, well what ties all these people together?” We kept coming back to the damn Alleged Gallery. I kept trying to deflect that by saying, “Well this is happening too…” but it just kept coming back to that. So eventually for the sake of the film I just defaulted. I said, “Alright fine, we’ll do it like that.” It was important to me that the Alleged Gallery became another character, and it wasn’t like Aaron Rose is a character as much as it’s about an art gallery that was another character in the film. That tied it all together but I fought that all the way through. You know (motioning to Lenny). [Laughs]
LM: [Laughs] Yeah, I said, “Aaron, we need you to say this!”
AR: …and I said, “Just find anyone else! Someone else had to of said it!” [Laughs]
LM: One of the earliest laughs of the entire film was Aaron talking about how he wanted to be a garbage man, and he totally didn’t want to have it in film!
AR: But yeah, it was hard overall because I lived it. It was really hard to separate myself from it and that’s where people like Lenny, and our producers, Money Mark, our financiers, people from the outside, friends too who watched rough cuts of the movie [came in]… I listened to everybody and I asked people after every test screening, “Is it too insider? What do you think? Is this playing right? Does this feel authentic to you? Does it feel fake?” Because that was one problem I had with Dogtown, not to keep bringing that up again, but Stacy Peralta, it just seemed like such a puff piece for him. That was my biggest fear because I didn’t want it to be that. So I was asking everyone around for advice.
Now that you’ve been through this process, do you think you would ever jump over and do a narrative film?
AR: I’m thinking about it. There’s another project in particular that I want to do in the future, but we’ve got another year on this. I mean, this has just premiered four or five days ago, there’s a whole year of work just promoting this and getting it out to people in the way that we want to get it out to people – to youth groups, schools, theatrically, DVD and all that stuff. I can’t really think about another movie until all that’s done. But yeah it’s fun! If I can get together a crew and we can have a blast and work together for three or four years and pull something great together, then yeah, totally.
LM: He can’t really think about it right now, but I can think about for him. He’s going to have another awesome project!
AR: It’s just ways off – like 2010.
What do you think you learned by working on this film the last five years?
AR: One thing I got away from… because there were problems in
this production, it wasn’t like a big happy family all the way through. I won’t
go into specifics but, when you’re moving a group of people, things happen within
that group that are hard. I think the one thing I realized through this whole
process is the same message of the film – you have to be having fun. It’s absolutely
essential that you’re enjoying it, and if you’re not enjoying it, then get the
hell out. It doesn’t mean that it’s not hard, because there are hard days and
all that, but you can still be enjoying it when it’s hard. That was the one thing
probably from this that I realized the most. To really make sure, all the way
along, that you’re enjoying the creative process of making this thing – that
I was enjoying it. If not, either take steps to change it, so I can get back
to a place where I’m enjoying it, or figure out something else – but that’s
the key. I think it’s the key to this film’s success as a piece of art, the love
and the enjoyment that we put into making it is in every frame of the film. The
characters are obviously great, amazing people who are wonderful to work with
and inspiring… So that helps, to have a subject that’s compelling, but also to
make sure as the crew, that you’re not doing it to have a Oscar winning film,
you not doing it to sell it to Sony Pictures Classics, you’re not doing it for
any other reason than to just make something cool that you want to show to your
LM: Like Harmony says… It’s also about giving in…
AR: …giving in, which was a huge thing we did. At one point, we had to just give in. Once we gave in, it started to work – when we just said, “Fuck it!” [Laughs]
LM: That’s when it talked to us. That’s when the film talked to us in a way. Things would just kind of present themselves.
So when you stopped trying to control it, you were able to open up and be more receptive to what the film needed?
AR: Yeah. So hopefully other filmmakers take something away from that, because it’s true – that was big.