STEVEN CANTOR: GETTIN’ RIPPED WITH WILLIE NELSON

I have to be honest with you, I have not seen your movie, so I’m going to have to bullshit my way through this interview. I hope that’s cool.
Sure.

So, uh, tell me about what attracted you to the idea to do a doc about Willie Nelson?
Actually, it was Willie Nelson’s idea. He’s at a time in his life where if he’s ever going to make a documentary, now would be the time. He’s contemplating settling down. He’s on the road all the time. I think he’s at a time in his life where he wants to do an experiential film of what his life is like.

What do you think would shock audiences to learn about Willie Nelson?
I don’t know that there’s anything that shocking, but he’s an amazingly open and down to earth and approachable guy. He waits outside his bus after every single concert and signs autographs for anybody who wants to meet him.

Do you think some people might be shocked to find out he smokes pot?
He smokes… a lot of pot.

Yeah, exactly. So do you have him on camera smoking pot, toking on some Mary Jane?
He’s got a joint in his mouth quite a bit.

So he’s open about his love of, uh, all things pot.
Yeah, he’s very open about his pot smoking. But I got a lot of shit from my editor because we’d be in the editing room and Willie would tell a funny story and you’d hear me saying, “Whoa man that must have been really cool. Can you please pass the Doritos?”

So, you were actually, uh, were partaking yourself.
I made the whole film…

In a bit of a stupor? That’s got to be kind of a first for a documentary filmmaker.
And surprisingly, it’s one of the best films I think I’ve ever made, so go figure.

Tell me about some of your previous documentary work.
I made a film called “Bounce” that was about night club bouncers that was released last year and Devil’s Playground, a doc about Amish teenagers I produced that and it was at Sundance and on HBO.

Let’s talk about the struggles of documentary filmmakers. It often takes years to get a doc made. What were some of the challenges you faced to get this film made?
Actually, with subjects like Willie Nelson, it’s not that hard. Willie Nelson actually contacted us and said he’s ready to make a film. And I thought American Masters on PBS. I thought it was the gold standard about bio documentaries. I called up the executive producer and she said, “Greenlight.”

Wow it was that easy. What about grants?
I’ve never actually gotten one or applied for one, but it is a great way.

When you’re asking for money for your film, what exactly do you say? You’re trying to get them to write a check for a couple hundred thousand bucks. What do you say to that person?
I’ve actually kind of found my own niche of networks that I’ve worked with.

What do you say, “I want 200-thousand for this movie,” so it’s as easy as that?
Yeah, even more than that.

What did you learn about Willie Nelson going through this process?
It’s actually amazing what a nice and approachable guy he is and how nervous people get around him. Even big stars like Dave Matthews come on the bus and right away he’s blushing. And he’s talking to Willie Nelson nervous and doesn’t look him in the eye and the same thing with Lyle Lovett. Ray Charles came on the bus and was playing chess with him and I was shooting it and I was, like, nervous while we were shooting thinking, “My God, this is historic.” Willie Nelson and Ray Charles playing chess and talking about Miles Davis, there’ll never be two guys like that again.

How is that different making a documentary as opposed to making a narrative feature film?
Making a doc is much smaller. Every time I’ve been in competition against features and won anything, I’ve felt guilty because docs, you go out with a camera, man, you and the sound guy and three of you just kind of document what’s going on. And features are so much more elaborate with 30 or 40 person crews.

How do you make that crossover?
I think for directing, what it comes down to is just really knowing how to tell stories, pacing and structure.

And that’s where narratives and documentaries are really the same – they both seek to tell great stories.
Well, Todd Phillips is another doc filmmaker that comes to mind as someone who transferred from doc filmmaking to narrative features with Road Trip. In the artsier side, there’s Terry Zwigoff who made “Crumb” and Ghost World and is doing another one.

And Steven cantor will be next.

Hopefully.




Posted on November 13, 2002 in Interviews by

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