August 18, 2008

Meet the Filmmakers: Denny Tedesco--'The Wrecking Crew'

Over the next week, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 22-28 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Denny Tedesco, director/producer of The Wrecking Crew.

Synopsis: You've heard them back up the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, the Monkees and Frank Sinatra, and they were Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. They performed on more number one singles than the Beatles. Most likely, though, you never heard their name. If you knew who they were, you called them The Wrecking Crew. Prior to his father's death, Denny Tedesco set out to film Tommy Tedesco and other members of the Crew to capture their story firsthand. The film also features conversations with Brian Wilson, Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Mickey Dolenz, Herb Alpert, Dick Clark and Jimmy Webb.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Denny Tedesco: I've been in the film business since college. The first film I worked on was as a set decorator on Eating Raoul; it was a cult film in 1982. After many years of working in production, in the late 1980s and early '90s I found myself working on IMAX films. That was my first real entry into the documentary world.

IDA: What inspired you to make The Wrecking Crew?

DT: I grew up in Los Angeles during the time my father, Tommy Tedesco, was one of the top session guitar players in town. When I was growing up I heard stories about conquests and disappointments in everyone's musical careers. The stories showed a group of musicians who had so much fun and respect for each other. When my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1995, I made it my goal to record his history as well as that of his friends. My dad was so well known behind the scenes among musicians and composers, but I realized that his accomplishments, as well as the work of his peers, was completely unknown to the general public. When I looked at his discography, I realized the sheer magnitude of the range of music he had played on over the years. Putting that together with the other musicians who had played in the studios with him in the 1960s, I saw the potential of a film that could open up a world that few people knew existed.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

DT: Time was a challenge at the beginning. My father was very sick and I wanted to make sure I could put him on film while he still felt and looked well. When we first started, my wife Suzie, who is also my producer, put together a crew of our friends and great people we had worked with on commercials. She also managed to wrangle some free camera, lighting and grip equipment so we could shoot on 16mm. On our first shoot day I put together the roundtable discussion with my father, Plas Johnson, Carole Kaye and Hal Blaine. I knew this would be the best way to start the film by just letting them reminisce and tell stories to and about each other. I didn't know at the time that some of the other guys were sick too. When I found out that percussionist Julius Wechter was sick, I grabbed a camera and crew and went to interview him and trombonist Lew McCreary together. It was a wonderful interview even though Julius was weak and going through chemo. I was delighted to be able to capture their memories, but unfortunately six months later both Julius and Lew died within a week of each other. Since finishing the film, we have also sadly lost Al Casey and Larry Levine, both of whom were integral parts of the story.

The other major issue, as it is with most filmmakers, was finding money to complete the film. We made a great 14-minute teaser when we first started 12 years ago that was wonderful. I hoped it would help find the money, but it didn't. So I continued to just shoot and build my interviews until we had to finally just start the edit. Over the years Suzie and have taken out loans and maxed our credit cards. When we hired editor Claire Scanlon, within a week she understood the story and was able to figure out what I was looking for. But then she got a proper paying job, and we shut down for a few months until she was able to continue with us.

I believe the main reason it was so difficult to find someone to finance the film while we were making it was the fear of the cost of the soundtrack. We have 120 songs in the film and 110 of them are huge hits. It's wall-to-wall hits, actually! People were afraid of the costs and reality of this situation. One person suggested that I pick only 20 songs, but that wouldn't work. The whole point of the story is that these musicians could go from Frank Sinatra to the Chipmunks to the Beach Boys in one day. I felt I had to be able to illustrate that by hearing the original music. There are so many other hits that I didn't even put in.

Over the years, the record companies were aware of the film and were very supportive, but we weren't ready to make any sort of deal until I had a locked film and knew exactly which songs we needed. That took quite a while. We had a fantastic music supervisor, Micki Stern, who would not take no for an answer and persevered to make a great deal for all the music. The labels knew this was a special situation and that this film highlights a great time in music history. It honors the musicians, artists and producers. So they came around. It's a very fair price considering what we were able to license. They knew that if they didn't make a fair deal for the music, there was no film.

It may be politically incorrect to say, but if you know a record company executive or publisher, please give that person a hug!

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

DT: When I set out, I wanted to tell the story of this group of musicians as a whole. I didn't want to do a story on my father alone, and I surely didn't want to be a part of the storyline myself. Even when I interviewed people, I asked them to say "Tommy" instead of "your father." Then after we had cut the first 30 minutes, an editor/director friend of mine looked at it and was quite blunt and said the film had no soul. He was right. I had been avoiding so much. Once I came to the conclusion that I had to integrate more of my father's story into the film, it made it easier to accept. There is no Wrecking Crew without my father, and you can't tell his story without the Wrecking Crew. They're intertwined and are his extended family.

Once I made the decision that it was from my point of view, I was relieved because it gave me more freedom. I felt that this would make the story more compelling for audiences and give it more heart. I'm thrilled I did it.

The other major decision was, what to shoot it on, film or video? I started in 1995 and shooting in film was our goal, so my DP, Rodney Taylor, and I decided to shoot in 16mm. We talked about creating a look by making the roundtable like a scene from The Godfather, and all the artists would be filmed differently. Shooting in film is expensive, and although I was able to beg or borrow cameras when I needed them, I still had to pay for film stock, processing and transfers. Over the 12 years of making this film, video cameras have changed enormously, especially when the Canon XL came out, and then later the Panasonic 100A. I realized that in order to finish the film, I had to just keep shooting. These cameras gave me the opportunity to shoot an interview at the drop of a hat and not worry about a crew. It's not the best way to shoot, and sometimes I had to do it by myself, which I hated. But then, having less crew there gave me more intimate moments and real honesty from my subjects that I may not have experienced with a bigger crew.

When we went to Arizona to interview Glen Campbell, Kodak gave us some stock for free. I also had the Canon as a second camera. But when we tried to load the film into the mag, the camera assistant was surprised to see a 400' daylight spool, so most of the film was useless for that interview. We shot the first half on film and then had to shoot the rest on DV. When we started shooting on DV, my anxiety about running out of film after 11 minutes and worrying about changing mags went away. We only shot film a few more times after that. I realized it was more important to hear what they were saying and not lose their interest or run out of time. It also became less of a stigma for the look of the film to be consistent. A lot of filmmakers started working with different mediums, and we felt that would just be part of the "look" of the final film. We eventually stopped being film snobs and accepted that DV was great and allowed me to finish the film.

My biggest regret of the whole film was not taking time to ask my father more questions. Even a cassette interview would have been great. A cheap consumer camera is better than nothing, and I wish I'd taken advantage of the time with him and not been so concerned with shooting him only on film.

IDA: As you've screened The Wrecking Crew-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

DT: We showed the film to different friends for notes over a period of time and had great feedback and made a few changes here and there. Then the first time we saw the finished film at SXSW with an audience, it was a completely different experience. You live with these interviews and the film for 12 years, and you become numb to it. But when an audience sees it for the first time and people laugh in the right places and then unexpected places, it's really gratifying. For a long time it felt like we were making the world's most expensive home movie, but when an audience of complete strangers responded so well, we knew we were on the right track.

I guess the surprising part of the audience reactions has been that people respond to the different personal stories of the musicians and how that relates to them. For instance, one of my favorite lines is from Plas Johnson when he talks about how the work took over his life, he says, "I'm a better grandfather than I was a father." That's very heavy, and you don't have to be a musician to understand that pain of regret; it's part of our lives in this day and age. Every day I deal with it with my own children. Hal Blaine had many divorces and great difficulties later in his career, and that's also a part of life.

I describe the songs in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way by calling them the "soundtrack of our lives," but surprisingly the music itself affects people. I thought maybe it was only for people of a certain age like the baby boomers, but so many other people relate to it too. In fact, all audiences across the board are amazed at the amount of different songs these musicians played on and that they are songs that everyone knows so well.

Of course, the other thing is that losing a parent is something everyone has to deal with in their lifetime, and that resonates with an audience.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

DT: I love Errol Morris and his Fog of War, and I've always loved Michael Apted's Up Series. I thought working on my film for 12 years was long, but Michael is up to 49!


The Wrecking Crew will be screening at the Arclight Hollywood.

To view the DocuWeek schedule in Los Angeles, visit http://www.documentary.org/content/docuweek-los-angeles.

To purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the ArcLight Hollywood, visit www.arclightcinemas.com.

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