Director and cinematographer Don Argott formed 9.14 Pictures with producer and director Sheena M. Joyce in 2002. Together with editor Demian Fenton, they created ROCK SCHOOL, the companyʼs first feature-length documentary, about the Paul Green School of Rock Music in Philadelphia. After screening at Sundance and South by Southwest, and given rave reviews by Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, and Ebert & Roeper, ROCK SCHOOL was released worldwide theatrically in June 2005, on DVD in September 2005, and on A&E Television in 2006.
Their latest project is the docuseries Spector which they stopped by to chat with us about.
Through the lens of a notorious crime and the media hysteria following the case of Phil Spector, this major four-part documentary series uncovers the hidden layers to tell the story both of Lana Clarkson and the man who was convicted of her murder. SPECTOR re-examines the life of one of the most important, yet mysterious, cultural figures of the 21st century in a way that has never been done before.
I’ve watched the entire series, and I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m a music producer. I grew up with Phil Spector, and I was a huge fan of his growing up. For me, a lot of the appeal on seeing this was kind of peeking behind the curtain and the whole mythologizing Phil Spector. Was that your intention whenever you first set about doing this project?
Sheena: I think our intention in doing this project was to re-examine the life and legacy of Phil Spector through a post #metoo lens and make sure that his victim, Lana Clarkson, was more than just a footnote in the Phil Spector story. We wanted to try and contextualize Phil’s behavior and his actions by getting to know who he was and where he came from. I think on the bigger scale, to kind of reexamine how you separate art from the artist.
Don: Yeah, and I think it was a good opportunity to look back with having this much time apart. The thing that is undeniable is his talent, those songs. There is a reason why people love those songs. There’s a reason why they’re the soundtrack of so many people’s lives. Obviously, he didn’t write every one of those songs, but what he brought to them I think is something very special and very cool. I think that’s what’s so interesting about why we’re fascinated by celebrity culture in general and putting everybody on these pedestals, because they create art, that makes us feel a certain way. But then once there’s a betrayal in that person, how does that affect you? And I think even one of the musicians, Carol Kaye, says that the musicians were kind of on trial, too. I know that she didn’t mean that literally but the figurative part of that was everything’s being reexamined now. Everything’s being looked at very differently. My contributions to this are now not what they were intended. I think that’s all very interesting and fascinating to look at, especially with the hindsight that we have right now.
To what you were saying, Sheena, I thought it was very interesting because I certainly felt that in a post #metoo world that was very much an examination of abuse of power, and people were afraid to speak out. Would you have said that you would be making a slightly different documentary a few years ago before that happened or has it impacted your approach to how you would go about making this documentary?
Sheena: I think it’s given us permission to reexamine things through a certain frame and especially now, looking at Kanye West and his behavior. Do we dismiss mental illness as artistic genius? What are those things that we mythologize or dismiss as eccentricities, that they somehow contribute to the artistic genius of a person and not address that behavior? I think these are all questions that we as individuals have different lines for and we, as a society, are talking about right now. I was grateful to have the opportunity to revisit the trial and figure out who Lana Clarkson really was. It was certainly hard to find anything about her death that wasn’t preceded by “B-movie actress, Lana Clarkson” which creates this narrative around her immediately and paints her in one color with one brush. We wanted to make sure that we contextualize her in the story as well and made sure that she was fully fleshed out.
One of the things that I always find fascinating in this kind of situation is that you have split directorial duties. How does that work? Do you have certain things where you go This is my area. This is your area. Or do you just both go “No, we’re handling this all together” but it’s a certain split skill set?
Don: Well, I think if we did that, we would definitely not last if we were doing the same thing the same way. I came up as a cinematographer so my focus is very strong in the visual sense. Sheena gives me that portion of it when we’re working together. Most of the time, Sheena conducts the interviews and has the rapport with the subject. There are certain times that call for me to do that. I think that’s an interesting benefit to having two dynamic people approaching material differently. Sheena’s experience with it is completely different than my experience with it, especially when you get into Lana Clarkson and what it’s like to be a woman in the entertainment industry and all the pressures that she felt. Sheena obviously lives that, I don’t. I think when we’re talking specifically to women for the story, I think that’s helpful that they can connect with her in that way. Then, unfortunately, there are chauvinistic areas, especially older people. There might be a better situation where I might sit in and do the interview just because of that energy. I think from that standpoint, we divvy up things really nicely and in the edit room it’s not always fun when we don’t see eye to eye on things (laughs) but it’s always for the benefit of the project. We are obviously both passionate people and care very much about our point of view. I think that is the tricky part of co-directing something because you are kind of splitting a vision but, I think the positives outweigh the negatives, ultimately for the greater good of the series.
Was there a great deal of debate before you even got started on the project? I imagine there was just a vast amount of research involved in the whole thing.
Don: Yeah, it was a massive undertaking because when you start to figure out how you’re going to tell the story and what is important. It was very important to us early on that the angle was really understanding who Lana Clarkson was. There was a lot of work just to get to that point of getting the family on board and thus being able to have additional material that wouldn’t be available to us otherwise. There’s all that aspect of it. But yeah, it’s research. When we started the project, Phil was still alive and I think a month and a half into us developing this with LightBox, who had brought us on, Simon and Jonathan Chin are the owners, and James Marsh came on as an executive producer. We really worked hard early to develop what this was going to be. The question was, oh, can we get Phil? Is that even a possibility? Then about a month into it, he had passed away. Just trying to get in there and making the relationships and the inroads to the key players in this, was everything. I mean, it’s very rare, even in documentary today, to get both sides represented. By nature, one side usually doesn’t want to talk because there’s not a lot of benefit to speaking. It was great that we got the prosecution and in the defence we got the Spector family and the Clarkson family, we got the lead detectives. It really felt like we had all the firsthand accounts that we could do the best that we could to retell these two life stories of people that, sadly, aren’t with us anymore.
The thing that I thought was compelling was that it was going in different directions each time, it was hearing different sides and different stories. It was fascinating to hear Spector’s daughter talking; Paul Schaeffer as well, there’s almost this unwillingness to accept that this happened.” It’s like still grasping and holding on to the myth of what was created all those years ago.
Sheena: For sure! Even when you look at Phil’s music, it’s so full of hope and love and dreaminess when there was such darkness in his life.
I think there’s an inherent creepiness that comes across in that kind of music these days. I don’t know if it’s the David Lynch effect or something of that nature, but any of these late fifties, early sixties songs, especially with the theme music, I was thinking, that’s got this creepy Lynch vibe.
Sheena: I love that you said that as that was our goal.
Don: We did a film a few years ago with Dan Reynolds from Imagine Dragons and got to know him and his wife Asia very well and as they’re amazing musicians we wanted to collaborate with them on another project. Then when this came about, we really knew music was going to be a big component of how we approached this and we wanted to work with composers that kind of thought outside the box a little bit. We brought them into the mix and asked them “Hey, this is what we’re looking to do and I know you’re not traditional film composers, but we like that”. We like that aspect of it. We gave them To Know Him Was to Love Him as just a reference point, to do something haunting in that kind of style. Not a song, but a cue just to get a vibe, a score, like a score cue. They sent that track back, which is Daydreaming, which we were completely blown away by.
Sheena: Within 24 hours, because we just said, “what’s a modern pop star take on a Phil Spector song?” and they came back with that.
Don: Then we used that before we started shooting all the kind of atmospheric stuff. We would play that when we were in the house with the Steadicam. It just helped create this vibe that cemented what the series could feel like which was very cool.
Sheena: We wanted to do that Rock Doc meets true crime.
I think you really feel that. It’s interesting you said that you used that when you were shooting certain parts because it feels so embedded in the DNA of how you put it together. There’s a real sense of that tone. What was the one thing that you found out along the way about Spector that you didn’t know and you were really surprised about whenever you did the research?
Sheena: I didn’t know that his father had killed himself when Phil was nine and to just see how that event changed the trajectory of Phil’s life and really set him on this course. Also, Lana, losing her father at a very young age, changed her family dynamic as well and sent them to Los Angeles. It was interesting for us to see how these two people from different generations that are seemingly on different tracks collide together that one night. We keep coming back to this issue of timing and timing was something that Phil thought about a lot. There are all these moments, these little timing moments, throughout each of their lives where small things happen, little decisions are made that set them on this course for February 3rd, 2003.
What would you say is the one thing that you’d like people to take away from watching this documentary?
Don: It’s a good question. I don’t really approach things that way. For me, it’s just we’re storytellers at heart and we try to tell a good story. I think that there is something interesting because the arts are so important in our life. I think we realize that more and more when all these people that we continue to put on pedestals inevitably disappoint. Some disappoint not so bad and some really disappoint (laughs). I think that’s an interesting conversation specifically to be having at this time. How we look and treat celebrities. I feel like no matter what, we’re never going to change. We’re never going to walk away from train wrecks. We’re never going to walk away from celebrity, because I think we need that level of escapism. I don’t ever see it changing but I do think there’s an interesting moment in time happening where we can reflect on it and reckon with it a little bit more and maybe make some changes moving forward so that mental illness doesn’t go unchecked in the arts specifically because these are places where if tomorrow we’ve found out that Kanye West went off the deep end and like killed somebody, would anybody be surprised?
I don’t think so.
Don: Exactly. So, that’s where we’re at and that doesn’t mean I’m saying he should be locked up. I’m just saying we must stop just pointing a camera at it and saying “look at this. It’s insane”. We’ve got to do better than that.
Sheena: I am grateful to have had the opportunity to reintroduce Lana Clarkson to the world as her friends and family saw her, not as a victim on the wrong side of 40, a washed-up actress, but as a smart and savvy and vibrant and loving friend. I’m grateful to have had that opportunity and in terms of Phil’s life and legacy I’m grateful to have been able to talk to Nicole about the man that she knew and reexamine the music. But really, I just hope that people get to know Lana a little bit better too.
I think that very much comes across from watching it. That’s it for me, guys, thank you very, very much for your time.