Putting The Clinch on Bonnaroo: Danny and The Film Crew Travel 270 Miles From Graceland
Danny Clinch is one of rock and roll's best-known photographers. He's worked with everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Ben Harper to Neil Young to Phish. If you don't recognize his name, you'd likely recognize him as the greasy-haired figure scurrying around on the edge of the stage at a given concert or large-scale festival. He's developed a personal relationship with most of the musicians with whom he works, and has established a level of trust that ensures him complete and unfettered access, which few members of the media are granted. Some of his best work portrays artists in intimate settings, alone with a guitar and a set list in an empty room; a moment in time captured forever.
Recently however, he started exploring the realm of moving pictures and delved into the world of film. He directed the 2002 Ben Harper documentary, Pleasure and Pain and then began work on this year’s Bonnaroo DVD, 270 Miles From Graceland. What follows is a conversation with Clinch, who gives Jambands.com a detailed account of the production from pre to post, and describes his initial vision for the project.
JW: Take us back to when you first learned you’d be working on the Bonnaroo DVD. Did you pitch the idea or did Superfly approach you?
DC: What happened was I had done some still photography the first year. I was the still photographer for the event and Jonathan [Mayers], who’s the promoter at Superfly, had asked me about the film the first year and I don’t think I was quite ready and I think he maybe wanted to have someone with more experience do it. In the end, he said if I wanted to bring my Super 8 camera down, he’d put me in touch with the director and maybe he’d use some of my footage. So that’s how I participated in the first film and they used a lot of my film because I had portraits. Not only am I documenting the event as it’s happening – the best I can given the size of it but I have a portrait area backstage near the artist tents and I bring over whoever has the time to sit for a portrait. Being as I have a good relationship with a lot of the artists as well as the publicists and the managers, I get a fair amount of people to stop by and have their portraits taken.
So the second year, I guess Jonathan decided he wanted some other people to make a proposal as well as the guy who did it the first time. Jonathan came to us and said, You know, I love your Ben Harper film and I really love the soul that your photographs have and I’d love for you to consider putting a proposal in for this film.’ Myself and my producer, Lindha Narvaez, looked at each other and we thought that we’d love to take a crack at it. Neither of us had ever worked on anything of that size. So we put together this proposal of the idea- we loved Monterey Pop, we loved Gimme Shelter, we loved these films that were handheld like Don’t Look Back, like the classic documentary style. We said we wanted to go in that direction and have a sort of loose, handheld style and try to shoot it all on film. I’ve done a lot of festivals photographically, so we put together like a handmade book that included photographs and included our proposal. In the end, we felt like we made 150% effort to make a good proposal and they wound up giving us a shot at it.
JW: So how much lead time did you from the time you found out you had the gig until the actual festival?
DC: It was probably around three months.
JW: It seems like the planning would have been overwhelming. With so much music and so many possible angles, it seems like there are endless possibilities. How did you approach the pre-production?
DC: Yeah, plus all of the film projects that I had ever done, I had been the cinematographer. So one of the struggles I had was to find some cinematographers who are like-minded shooters, people that understand what I like about film and photography and try to get those people together. Given the budget that we had, which wasn’t huge, it was a real challenge. One of the other challenges was that we shot on film. The majority of the film like 95% of it was shot on 16 mm film, Super 16 and Super 8. There’s a very small percentage of digital video because it was things that we felt were essential to telling the story. Even though we were really trying not to use any digital video, we ended up using some of it because we felt like it would help the story and the vibe. So that was one of the other things. So I think that we really did a film on what I think was kind of a digital video budget.
JW: It’s interesting because it seems like a lot of these concert and festival documentaries use the feeds from the crews that are already there shooting for the video screens, so you have that master shot from the soundboard and you have the cameras in the photo pit as well as the swinging jib arm. Because you went with film, you didn’t have any of those shots, which I assume made it a lot more challenging.
JW: How large was your camera crew?
DC: We had eight camera people. There were basically four stages and we had two per stage. We called each band and asked them to give us two songs from their set that they would definitely be playing and they would consider one of the two songs for the DVD. So we didn’t shoot the entire set and that helped in two ways. One, we could shoot entirely with film and two, we didn’t have to sit through someone’s whole entire set and decide which song was the money song after having shot the whole thing and having to load all that film and having to go through all that stuff. Given the turnaround time that we had, which was really like two months, which is just ridiculous for a two-hour feature length film, it helped us be more to the point. There was a main stage and a second stage and then there were two tent stages. On the main stage, we had a producer whose job it was to make sure that we knew what songs they wanted us to film and when they were in the set. He was to tip off the shooters when those songs came up. A lot of the bands never gave us a heads up until they were walking up on the stage. So, my producer would have to go to the tour manager and go, Okay, what’s the deal?’ Because the bands don’t know what they’re gonna play until they get there. So they might tell us that the two songs would be first and tenth in the set list and we would shoot those songs completely with two cinematographers. Then we would shoot another song or another couple of songs, not in their entirety but in the moments that there was some blissful stuff happening; some cutaway things that we could use as sort of a cheat, where you don’t see the fingers on the guitar, but you see the person from the back and you see the crowd. We would also maybe shoot some shadows or people’s feet.
JW: Yeah, there certainly were a lot of shots of tapping feet.
DC: Yeah I was in to that, just those little details. A good example of taking some liberties was the Ben Harper thing, where he’s sitting down for that whole song doing Temporary Remedy.’ But, we have him getting up and dancing all around because he did that in the set and it was so dynamic and it went to the music and we felt like we were trying to capture this whole person’s set in one song.
JW: Plus, the band talks about him spinning around in their pre-set powwow.
DC: [laughs] Yeah, I wonder when Ben sees that if he’s going to be embarrassed. I guess people can’t expect that that’s a spontaneous thing, but it’s a thing that he does that I think is very effective. It really conveys how into the music he is and that’s his way of just cuttin’ loose and given it back; leavin’ it all on the stage. As a matter of fact, I have some still photographs, and I was sorry that we didn’t have any moving imagery of him, but when he got off the stage he was just spent. Ben totally left it all on the stage.
JW: You mentioned your relationships with a lot of these artists and obviously Ben Harper is someone you’ve worked closely with, both with film and photography. As a photographer, you have a ton of experience being in intimate situations where you sort of need to blend into the background like a fly on the wall, such as Harper’s pre-set huddle. Is it different with film, where you’re constantly rolling? Were you the one shooting that scene?
DC: I wasn’t physically shooting that one, but I shot some of the Jack Johnson [scene]. No, I had my guy who I really trusted. Interesting enough, I think that my relationship with these guys was really important. I don’t want to pit this year’s versus last year’s for several reasons. But last year’s [DVD] was missing some backstage moments. I think fans want to see their favorite musicians and what they’re doing beforehand and what their deal is. What happened was, I had talked to Ben ahead of time and I had talked to Scott, who’s his tour manager. I tried to get some backstage access with Widespread Panic, but they weren’t into it. Medeski Martin & Wood, I know those guys and as a matter of fact I shot their new album package last week. And they were like, Yeah man, whatever you want.’ So for the Ben Harper thing, my guy who I sent to wait for the opportunity to film backstage was waiting outside their tour bus. They don’t know Ben and they don’t know his tour manager and they were kind of waiting for someone to give them the go ahead. I just happened to be walking by in the moment and saw them standing there and they weren’t sure what to do and didn’t want to go barging on the bus. So I went in and was like, Hey Ben, I got my crew outside. Are you cool? Are you guys gonna work on the set list?’ And he told me to just bring them in and I just sat there and we were all quiet and let them do their thing. Something tells me that if I had not happened to walk by that way, it just would not have happened.
JW: Any time you do a project like this, it seems like there’s always an accidental moment of greatness. Do you recall anything that made it into the film that was a total fluke?
DC: One of the cool things that happened was with Medeski Martin & Wood. They’re freestyle, those guys. They just go with whatever feels like the moment. They felt like they couldn’t tell me what songs they wanted to be on the DVD. They felt like they couldn’t say, You know what? We’re gonna do this song with the horn section fourth song in.’ We wanted to tie in that we had gotten the footage of them practicing with the Antibalas horn section. We had gotten them rehearsing backstage with those guys and we knew we wanted to tie it in to their thing. I’m really tight with the band and their manager, Liz Penta, and she really wanted to work with me on it cause she knew it would be a good thing for everyone.
So they had done their first set and we were off shooting The Flaming Lips. When that set ended, I ran over to Medeski Martin & Wood and all of my crew is standing out there and were telling me how they didn’t know what song they wanted to do and they didn’t know what to shoot. I just felt some real tension. So I went back there and they were all looking at me like, Dude, you know, we hate to tell you, but we’re really not sure.’ I just said, Listen, we just want to shoot something that’s got the horn section in it and we have an idea for your thing anyway. It’s more abstract and not quite so literal.’ Because they don’t have a vocalist, their music lends itself to the abstract craziness. My editor, my producer and I had talked about running the parade footage in the Medeski Martin & Wood piece. The band was so relieved.
So we waited until the horn section came on to film their song, but we shot all the film that we had allotted for their set before they played Univisible,’ which was the last song of the set at like 4:30 in the morning. Meanwhile, we were shooting our cutaway stuff and we were hanging out listening to their set because it was so awesome. My credit goes to my editor in doing their piece in such an avant-garde or freestyle way. None of the footage is from the song Univisible.’ I’m holding back from using the word cheated,’ but none of it comes from that song [laughs]. One minute Chris Wood’s playing the standup bass and the next minute he’s playing the regular bass. There’s just all kinds of craziness going on in there. We managed to sync it up and give the feeling of this nocturnal set. It was a great set. Were you there?
DC: Were you at their set?
JW: Yeah, I was running around shooting photos for the Bonnaroo Beacon. I’m actually in the movie, sort of. I’m the guy who asks James Brown that question in the press tent. [Editor’s Note: there is a scene in the film when Brown interrupts Waful when he asks, "If you walk out in the parking lot at a lot of these festivals around 4 a.m., you’ll see hundreds of white hippie kids dancing to James Brown. What is it about your funk that is so accessible and how does it make you feel to be able to move so many people?"]
DC: You’re kidding! [laughs] Dude, I found out afterwards and I was a little disappointed, and it’s due to the fact that we have to put this thing together so quickly, but somebody told me after the fact that there was footage of you asking the question.
JW: Yeah, it made it into the extra features disc.
DC: Because I thought it would have been so cool to show you asking that question [laughs]. I’d like to see the look on your face [laughs]. I really would.
JW: Well in the bonus features, they left in the rest of my follow-up question, but in the film I get cut off after James interrupts me.
DC: Oh man, that was one of my favorite parts of the movie.
JW: You had mentioned the Flaming Lips. Are they not a photographer’s dream?
DC: Completely. Although with the Flaming Lips, nobody answers your phone calls. So the two months prior, when we were trying to ask them which songs we should shoot, nobody called us back. I was calling people at the record label. I was calling people that knew their tour manager. I was faxing them. It was insane. Nobody got back to us. So I went over to their set like a half-hour before they went on, found Wayne Coyne, and told him what I was doing. I said, I’m doing the film for the DVD. You and I met when I did photographs at the Grammys. You guys were psyched when you saw the Polaroids…We’re doing this film and we’re shooting it on Super 16 and Super 8 and we’re shooting it like Monterey Pop and Gimme Shelter, like classic rock and roll films.’ And he got all jazzed about it and in like fifteen minutes we had it all worked out what songs we were gonna shoot. Then when we started doing it, I took one of the 16 mm cameras and they just went off, throwing their confetti and swinging that light and all that shit on the screen in the back. I mean, what a dream shoot that was.
JW: What was the interaction with Neil Young like? He seems to have not made it in the film.
DC: You know, I have somewhat of a relationship with Neil. I’ve worked with him before and I know his manager, Elliot [Roberts] and I know all of his crew and I know his tour manager [Eric Johnson] because he used to work with Pearl Jam. I had asked Elliot a bunch of times to see if he could get the songs that we should shoot and he said he couldn’t help me. So I saw Neil standing over by his bus and I said to myself, You know what? I’m just gonna have to walk up there and ask him myself.’ So I walked up to him and I said, Hey Neil, you know I’m doing this film and I’m really excited. We’re shooting Super 8 and Super 16 and we’re really excited about. But, the thing that would really help me is I’d like to know what two songs you might think would be the ones that you might consider putting on the DVD.’ He looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder and said, Danny, I’d love to help you out, but I can’t. I just have no idea what’s gonna come out which way.’ And I said, You know? I knew you were gonna say that.’[laughs] He just smiled. His eyes are unbelievable. It’s scary. I got a really cool portrait of him at Bonnaroo where he’s got these wild sunglasses, but you can’t see his eyes. The money shot is where he’s holding this paper plate with the set list on it.JW: Yeah, it wound up in Relix.
DC: Oh right, so I don’t have to tell you that story.
JW: But if he knew the set list, why couldn’t he give you the two songs?
DC: Well here’s the deal. He tells me that he can’t help me out and he walks away. But his tour manager comes out with that same paper plate and brings it over to me and goes Listen, here’s the set list. I think you should just pick a couple of songs off the set list, but if I were you, I would film "Be The Rain" because it’s probably the single off his new record and it’s a really cool song.’ So I said to my producer, I want to shoot at least three songs of Neil’s set instead of just two, like we had with everyone else.’ I wanted to give myself a third option for him because I know he’s particular.
JW: Plus, it’s Neil.
DC: Plus it’s Neil, right. I have to preface this with, Neil’s my guy. When it comes down to the nitty gritty, I keep my Neil Young records and I throw the rest of my records away. So this means more to me than anything else in the world and I can’t believe that I’m about to get my shot at shooting Neil Young on film before I’m forty years old. So his tour manager shows me the paper plate and told me about Be The Rain’ and then said to just pick whatever else I wanted. So I look down the list and it’s like Sedan Delivery,’ Rockin’ in the Free World,’ Cortez,’ Hey Hey My My,’ Fuckin’ Up’ and I just can’t believe that I got this list. So in the end, I chose Cortez the Killer,’ cause it’s one of my all time favorite songs. I chose Be The Rain’ and I chose…um…
JW: Hey Hey My My’
DC: Yeah. How’d you know that?
JW: Well, with the big light show and the Rock and Roll can never die’ line, that’s what I would have picked.
DC: Right. So those were my choices. So we shot those songs and we made our cuts and straight away we started hearing word back that Neil didn’t like how it sounded. He didn’t like how the band played. I just started getting all this feedback and they asked to see the cut that we did. We spent several days doing the cut of Be The Rain’ and dude, it was awesome. It was unbelievable. I thought Neil was gonna love it because it was Super 8 and it was bold. We took a lot of chances. To make a long story short, he just said he didn’t like it. We offered any song in the set and we would make it work. He almost let them use Fuckin’ Up’ on the CD, and in the end he pulled out of the CD and everything.
JW: What are your future plans as a filmmaker?
DC: You know it’s interesting. As a still photographer, you’re counting on yourself pretty much and you’ve got a small backbone of assistants. You’re looking for one moment. When you come away in the end after a still shoot, for the most part all you need is one money shot, you know? As a director, you’ve got a whole crew of people that you rely on and they need to rise to the occasion. I realized just by default, how much I enjoy rallying people together and trying to pump people up and get the idea that I have in my head across to them and trying to get like-minded people who are just as passionate and are willing to stay up and put in the extra effort. I really enjoy that.
JW: Do you have any specific plans on the horizon?
DC: You know, I might do next year’s Bonnaroo, which if it’s up to me, I am doing it. Let’s just say that I might do it. I have a couple of projects on the backburner that I’m working on. One of them is on the rock and roll photographer, Jim Marshall. He did Johnny Cash flipping the bird; he did all the old stuff with Janis Joplin with the Jack Daniels bottle. He’s photographed anybody and everybody in rock and roll: Hendrix, The Doors. He’s a real character. He’s a really amazing guy. I started a documentary film on him and my interest has been recharged and I think I’m going to continue on that project.