411mania.com Interviews: Brett A. Hart, director of Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz on 09.02.2013
411mania.com’s Bryan Kristopowitz sits down with Brett A. Hart, director of Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles, for an exclusive interview! See what he has to say about working with Knowles, the Kickstarter campaign for a second season and more!
Aint It Cool with Harry Knowles, the popular internet show based on the Aint It Cool News website created by the Harry Knowles, is in the midst of setting up a second season via a Kickstarter campaign. I recently spoke with the director of the series, Brett A. Hart, about his involvement in the show, his devotion to the world of cinema, and what he wants to see from a bigger, better, and crowd sourced second season.
(Brett A. Hart with Pops, Harry's father)
Hart, the director/co-writer of one of the best B-movies of the last twenty-five years, Bone Dry (check out my review of that flick here), is also an EMMY award winning commercial director and owner of Sweat Equity Productions, a production company based in Austin, Texas. He was nice enough to take time out of his incredibly busy schedule to talk with me. He also helped make me a true believer in the show and its future potential. I think he'll make a true believer out of you, too.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How did you get the job directing AIC?
Brett A. Hart: It's actually serendipitous. I had just left L.A. the day after Christmas and planned to relocate near my friends and family in Texas and Oklahoma. My focus at the time was to start writing a webisode series to pitch to the Youtube channel. About two weeks into the process I got a call from Seth Laderman at the Nerdist channel. My work had come across his desk and he wanted to know if I'd be interested in doing a "webisode series for Youtube?!"
He then told me the budget and asked if I thought I could work with it. Since I was already working with budgets in mind for a webisode series I knew I could pull off almost anything. He then told me it was to star Harry Knowles and wanted to know if he could set up a meeting. I, of course, agreed. After all, Knowles once posted an article about me and Dan O'Bannon on his site and I really liked his demeanor. What little I knew about Harry I respected. He was doing his own thing in my favorite city in the world – Austin, Texas.
About a week later I got a text late at night from Harry asking me if I could meet him in Austin for lunch. What nobody realized at the time was that I was up in Okc. I was in fact asleep when I got the text. So I had to cancel all my prior engagements and be out the door in less than 5 hours to make a meeting that would be 9 hrs later.
When we met it was immediately evident that we were birds of a feather. We had so much in common.
By the end of our meeting, Harry and I knew exactly what show we were going to make. And everything you see on that show was brought up in the span of that first few hours that we met.
Honestly, what I loved about season one is that I found a friend that grew up in a similar time that I did, where internet wasn't around, where you could actually read a magazine. And you really had to dig deep for the answers to film magic.
It was within this meeting that I discovered I was what Harry coins - "a film geek!"
Bryan Kristopowitz: Was it the plan from the beginning to have you direct every episode?
Brett A. Hart: Very much so. But I'm sure Nerdist would have let me bring others in if I wanted. However I made it a point to make the show my life. And quite honestly you really needed one director to steer that vision. Harry and I knew what we were setting out to create but, like a jazz band, we also created on the fly. Rarely scripting. Not many people could do this. Honestly, not many people could actually collaborate on the level that Harry and I do. You have to have the knowledge and experience to pull it off on the fly. Harry's schedule was so busy that we'd be forced to conceive the shows on the day of production. We'd come into the studio with notes on what we wanted to do. Harry would have his points of discussion. I'd have my thoughts on how we could execute those points in a cinematic way and we'd just go from there. Rarely did we have a full script that we were working off. We simply had notes that we'd either bring to set or sketch out while the set was being prepped. I don't know many filmmakers that could do this.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How is an episode put together?
Brett A. Hart: At that time both our schedules were packed. I was working 6 day weeks to get the show out by delivery date, and he was busy focusing on the site and events, which in itself is a full time job.
So generally about 4 hours after I'd finally shipped off that week's episode he'd give me a call late at night, less than 8 hours before crew call, giving me notes on what he wanted to focus upon for the next morning's shoot.
I was actually doing much more than directing each episode. I was also helping Harry shape the content into the desired length that Nerdist was striving for.
On top of that I was also the Director of Photography, establishing the look and feel, and I probably edited 85% of the show. And last but not least I produced the show.
On the surface it would appear that I did this because our budget was so tight. And, yes, I did multi-task to make sure that all the production value was on the screen. But honestly I did this because I was helping Harry create something new. And as an artist I wanted to nurture this vision to fruition.
Everyone on set actually had this same ownership of vision. Our Production Designer, producer Suzette Soucie, came back every episode after the set was built because she wanted to help us achieve our vision. The entire crew, though severally underpaid, became family and everyone gave the show their all.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How much direct input do you have in writing the show and picking topics for each episode?
Brett A. Hart: Harry always had a "master plan, this stream of correlation that was six degrees of separation. So I always deferred to him on what he wanted the topics to be. I nearly steered the content with him. Since we had to work off notes and a lot of that happened on the fly, it was necessary to figure out what in his treasure chest of ideas were manageable within a "webisode" time frame.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How much direct input does Harry have in the direction of each episode?
Brett A. Hart: Harry and I had complete confidence in each other to perform our tasks. I think that's why we were always able to walk on set and make magic together. I trusted him to bring an overall concept to set and he trusted me to figure out how to execute that within the parameters we had. And since we both came from the same childhood inspirations we'd both conspire on how to pull off something unique and celebratory to the topics and genre we were discussing.
Sometimes he'd have an idea and he could see by the look in my eyes that there was no way in hell we could pull it off. Yet I loved that he still had that childlike "What if" quality. And I embraced it with open arms. And he never had a problem with me keeping him on set for as long as 16 hours to assure a great show. No matter what happened we both were resigned that we were in this together and we're going to make the best damned, unmatched show on the celebration of film ever seen, regardless of budget. And quite frankly my hats off to Nerdist for giving us that chance to experiment within the uncharted territories of the net.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How long does it take to create one episode? Do you work on one episode at a time, or are you essentially working on all of them at the same time?
Brett A. Hart: Due to the nature of the show it was difficult to do more than one episode at a time. We had topics that were time sensitive, and each episode was tailor made to feel like different times of day or night. The set dressing was always being changed by Suzette and the crew.
Sure, we could have arranged the show to be more like a traditional entertainment show but that's not what we were about. And I never looked at it as traditional, or following a formula. In fact I kept thinking of Ernie Kovacks and how he was experimenting with this new medium called "television". It stirred my soul with excitement at the possibilities.
We did shoot a few interviews that were broken up into multiple shows. The producer in me always got excited about those as that meant more money for other shows. The director in me, not so much. I'll always prefer channeling my energy into creating something very special and unmatched. So, generally, it was one episode at a time. And when I say that I mean starting at 7:00 or 8:00 a.m. on a Thursday and wrap, if you're lucky, by 9 or 10:00 that night. Then go into post and deliver on Wednesday night the following week only to be back on set Thursday morning.
To paraphrase Suzette, "that kind of dedication is love." Because in addition to what I was tackling she was putting out just as many fires making sure the set was ready for us to arrive a week later and create more magic in the basement.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How is show length determined? Does it all depend on what an episode is about and you sort of figure it out in the editing room, or do you have a good idea from the start of an episode how long it will be? Do you strive for a particular run time? What is considered the ideal?
Brett A. Hart: Very good question, and paramount to the new arena of internet viewing. Coming from an advertising background I personally feel less is more. But I do love having fewer constraints to experiment. Two of my favorite episodes of last season are the first and the last. I think that's because we poured everything into those since they are hallmark moments. Interestingly enough the first one is the shortest, and the last is one of the longer. When Nerdist saw the first episode they immediately wanted to up our budget. The only note they had was they wanted to see if we could lengthen the episodes. I bet in retrospect they wish they hadn't because Harry ALWAYS wanted to go longer form. And I always had the attention span of our target audience in mind. So, quite honestly, what transpired was me cutting down some elegant moments of Harry into a length that we felt was a good compromise for the internet.
The beauty of the internet is that it's the new frontier, an arena to experiment with. But my past advertising experience tells me that viewers will continue to want shorter and shorter content. With this new immediacy to 24/7 access to content on your phone, your computer, streaming viewing… we won't be able to hold as many viewers past 5 minutes.
Bryan Kristopowitz: Where is the show filmed? I noticed that part of the Kickstarter appeal is for you to keep the set where it is. How important is your current location to the show?
Brett A. Hart: The evolution of discovering the studio space and how quickly the elements fell in the place is pretty amazing in retrospect. I had just moved from L.A. I was in Oklahoma with my daughter, friends and family after having been gone for a long time. When Nerdist called I was asked to find studio space that was appropriate to create "the basement". But at the same time we had a tight budget, which meant I had to work hand in hand with my location manager Bob Crain and find this location before the impending delivery date of our pilot episode. The pressure was on. I was bouncing between Oklahoma and Austin Tx. for a few weeks.
90% of the studio space we found that could be rented within our budget was utter rubbage. Just impossible to work in. Noise pollution. Too little space. Too awkward of space. You name it.
And on top of the budget, we had Harry to consider. He's in a wheel chair. Most of the handicap accessible locations presented to us just were not close to being in the running.
Then I remember sitting outside in the rain in my vehicle staring at Highland Mall. Not less than 5 minutes later my location manager contacted me saying that he was also looking into that location. We both predicted in advance that major changes would be occurring at the mall in time as it was turning into a bit of a ghost town.
We were shown a few locations the next day, and I remember going from very excited to utter disappointment. They didn't show us one single place that I could film in. I could feel the meter ticking and wanted to check on another place that Harry liked. So I was literally stepping out of the mall when I was asked to come in and check out one final option.
It's a bit of a fog because, once I saw this location, I realized "This is it!". An empty Lane Bryant store. The space was amazing. Room to shoot. Room to grow. And all within our budget. The same amount of space in the studios in Austin that are used for most features was 8 times our price tag. We had hit our gold mine.
The really great thing about the space is it's down the road from Harry. His wife used to work at this mall. I even visited there when I was living in Texas a decade prior.
Since then the mall has been purchased by Austin Community College and we're excited by the potential of bringing some of their passionate young film students into our studio and building the AIC family as we help part some knowledge towards their bright young minds.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How much of the stuff in "Harry's basement" is actually Harry's? How much, if any, is stuff you've had to track down from other sources?
Brett A. Hart: All of it is Harry's or his fathers. But IF we didn't have it, Harry would take his fee and turn it around to purchase more memorabilia for episodes he had in his mind's eye. When you walk into the studio it's almost like walking into a world that Hieronymus Bosch and Forest J. Ackerman would envy.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How different is directing/putting together an internet TV show compared to directing a feature film?
Brett A. Hart: That's another interesting question. I'd say quite a bit different and, at the same time, very similar. That sounds like a paradoxical response but, ultimately, I have a visual vocabulary that I generally reference from instincts, instincts developed after years of growing from a film lover to a film director. And I love all genres. Season one allowed me to play with genres that as, a film maker, I might not choose to channel all my energy into bringing to the light as a full length feature. I think the difference is that with the show, you're serving the end product, and with me on a feature it's even more of a commitment. You're actually driven by a vision within that aspires to be seen. You're a slave to that vision. I HAVE to be able to commit to a film 110% before going into the trenches as I never want to take on a project that I won't bare part of my soul through. If you look at my short films and debut feature they are much darker than our show. They are bitter sweet. Tragic. And that's what I relate to, that's what I gravitate towards. But with the show I'm serving something beyond myself. I'm serving Harry, I'm serving the show, and, ultimately, I'm serving cinema. And that's what I'm most proud of, preserving film history and hoping, one day when we're gone, some student might see our show. Be moved by it. Learn from it. And in a way carry on the torch.
Bryan Kristopowitz: Is your commercial directing experience more valuable with a project like AIC, or is it all pretty much the same?
Brett A. Hart: I'm very proud of my background in commercials. Hell, that's where I received my EMMY. I think I always loved commercials because it allowed me to put my own stamp on the work. Telling stories with actors that were like mini-movies. I pretty much detested music videos because, at the end of the day, it was about this machine that really wasn't much more than fashion photography. The visuals were always amazing but the content was always superficial to me. Yet, there was always that one director that you could tell was trying to tell as story. And that's what I was doing by choosing commercials. Telling stories. And, quite frankly, I was VERY fortunate that so many people believed in my instincts.
I remember when Chad Stalcup, the Executive Producer of Bone Dry, and I were first building his advertising agency, Skyline Media, he asked me "Wouldn't it be fun to do a Tornado Promo?" I instantly knew I could kick ass on something like that. He was in fact a featured extra in Twister and I had an option with Gerald Molen who produced it. So that was a conversation that echoed through my head for a few years. Then an opportunity came and we were asked to do a spec weather promo for a local news station in Oklahoma. I remember airing that promo to the station before going off to do post on my feature film in L.A. People were visibly moved by the promo. It was radical. Our very own sales guy nearly fucked up the deal by saying that his kids would be scared if it aired?!
Two weeks later after the station and the agency backed me up and slightly altered the commercial (my original was more intense) we were showcased on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show.
That's when I realized every move I've made through my gut instincts were spot on. Being an artist can be feast or famine at times. I had friends, family and security at the agency, but I had to take the gamble and move on. And that journey led me through some trials and tribulations in L.A. at times but brought me back, 360, to Austin, Texas, the city where I went to film school, and the town where the basement would come to life. Where Harry Knowles and I would create magic with an amazing support team of film lovers.
And it's here where I used ALL of my tools of filmmaking. Whether a kernel of knowledge I gained at age 7 reading a Harryhausen book, or my many years in advertising, or my unmatched journey in the desert with a cast and crew of 30 in Death Valley to create my debut feature film, I brought all that experience to the show on each and every episode.
Bryan Kristopowitz: Anything weird happen when doing an episode that you decided to keep in or take out?
Brett A. Hart: Well, there are inherent challenges to shooting a show within a mall. First off, we locked down the entrance. Everyone had to come through the loading dock. Then you'd have noise coming in through the mall, which was slowly losing tenants and was pretty quiet, but you'd still have the mall music to contend with. So we built this tremendous sound proof barrier between us and the entry way out of insulation within plastic sheeting. Originally we were so concerned about the noise that we put that soundproofing all the way up to the set, which didn't give me as much room to put my camera where I always wanted it. Eventually we realized that we could move the sound proofing all the way back to the entrance and it would work just as fine. That move opened up the entire 7,000 + square feet.
Then you'd have issues with AC. You'd have to coordinate with the management and security. And if you changed dates of shoots that could be a problem after hours. You could be sitting in a hot studio if you didn't reach someone in time. What was even more frustrating was shutting off the AC to shoot and still hearing the AC from Radioshack running next door and bleeding through the dressing rooms! So, yes, we got a steal on the location, but we did have to improvise a lot.
On camera the one thing I remember happening was an "Easter egg" moment as Harry called it. I'd call it a screw up because we decided to change tact ¾'s of the way through the shoot. We had Boiler spit out a burned up Bumblebee toy from Transformers while screaming "F%$@*! Michael Bay!" And then I believe in the same episode we had him spit out a mask of Michael Myers. We did all this really exciting camera work and practical FX on a melting mask of Michael Myers and then realized the show really didn't need it. And then when I'm in the editing room and the camera Dollys back and Harry's signing off… I see that damned Michael Myer's mask off to the left of frame between Harry's desk and Boiler. Nobody ever caught it.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How important is the "style" of the Aint It Cool website to the show? Is that something you want to expand on in a second season or change?
Brett A. Hart: I personally wanted to use the site as a launching point to create something inspired by but also a departure. I think we kept the spirit with the opening and closing title animation. At the same time I think you can see a bit of homage to Amazing Stories. That was fun to bring to life. I actually found the title music months in advance and knew just the type of title sequence I wanted to create. I wanted to open with Pops, Harry's father, and create this mood of a mad scientist behind the projector, setting the stage, so to say, and opening each episode with a magical grand entrance.
While our graphics wizard, Brian Behm, for season one was working on the titles, my buddy and I went to the studio, fogged the set and he proceeded to fan a light with his hands while I had the camera push into the light. Three guys created that last section of the opening titles on a shoestring budget yet I feel it's got a larger than life epic fantasy feel. We did try to keep the style of the site whenever we did a title for the guest. Overall, we were going for something new and exciting yet almost retro at the same time.
Bryan Kristopowitz: This is a potentially weird question, but did you ever consider casting someone as "Harry Knowles" as opposed to actually using the real Harry?
Brett A. Hart: Amazing. I forgot about that. I personally never thought about that, but Harry was approached way before I was brought in about the show and HE actually suggested that. I think that's how the Harry puppet came to be, as he didn't want to travel to L.A.
I can tell you this, now that I know Harry, it would be impossible to do the show without him. He's IRREPLACEBLE. He's one of a kind. One of the last showmen. He gained that knowledge through his father who is also a treasure chest of knowledge.
When they made Harry Jay Knowles they broke the mold.
Bryan Kristopowitz: Where do you want to see the show go? Where do you think it can go?
Brett A. Hart: I originally was happy just bringing back a second season on the web. But as we started the Kickstarter we discovered there were many others out there that were championing us evolving towards television. And we instantly found that PBS was excited by the possibilities of airing our show and the series. So that's where our focus is. It's a perfect fit as our show was always meant to not only entertain but to educate. With supporters like Louis Black (founder SXSW) and PBS behind us we're excited to see this show evolve and find a larger audience. It's pretty exciting to think our show may end up in the same arena that Siskel & Ebert's At The Movies began!
Bryan Kristopowitz: Outside of AIC, what else do you have in the pipeline that you can divulge here?
Brett A. Hart: Well, Bryan, I'm thrilled that you're the first person I'm sharing this news with, as I'm so very thankful for your support of my debut thriller Bone Dry. I'm proud to announce that Scott Christian Spencer and I just wrapped our first draft of Dead Wrong, a script that was originally written for me 20 years ago by Steven T. Miller, Bob Welty and Brad Murano.
The script was inspired by an incomplete short film I did back in Film school with my ex-wife and pretty much was the calling card that broke me into the world of professional directing.
Dead Wrong is a tight thriller about a woman being stalked by a man madly in love with her. Fearing for her life and a victim of the legal system she takes the law into her own hands, killing the man hours before her sister and fiancé arrive for the weekend. She manages to dispose of the body in the attic just before her sister and fiancé arrive. When she's introduced to her sister's fiancé, the woman's heart nearly stops as the man she's staring at is the same man she just killed.
And so that sets the stage for a tight three handed thriller of cat and mouse and sexual tension within a home that's been turned into a prison to keep her stalker out, but now he's within.
Shelly thought she had killed the man of her nightmares, but she was wrong. Dead Wrong.
Gregh Hughs (Producer Bone Dry) and I have joined forces again to bring this passion project to the screen.
Thanks once again to Brett A. Hart for his time and commitment to a great show and for his special announcement about Dead Wrong. Holy hooey that movie sounds awesome.