05 The Impulse of Lance Bangs

For over 20 years, filmmaker Lance Bangs has let his instincts guide him to the subject matter of his work. The approach has consistently placed him in the right place at the right time to capture cultural breakthroughs, from music to comedy to skateboarding to film. Here, he shares the creative philosophy that fires him and discusses the guerilla style that allows him to meld truth to film. “There’s no point in me making something that someone else could have made,” he tells Jonah Bayer.

FTP_Issue_05_web-02Lance Bangs’ resume reads like a trip through the last 25 years of influential music, featuring, as it does, videos and full-length concert films for countless acts, from Nirvana to the Arcade Fire to Kanye West to the Black Keys. If the filmmaker has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, it’s due in large part to his innate ability for recognizing talent in its nascent stage and finding a unique way to complement the artist’s vision through his camera lens. Whether he was in Athens, Georgia, to document the ’90s heyday of Neutral Milk Hotel and the Elephant 6 Collective, or in Louisville, Kentucky, to capture the emergence of the enigmatic post-rock act Slint (the subject of his recent documentary Breadcrumb Trail), Bangs has been on the forefront of countless musical milestones.

Today, he remains firmly rooted in the music scene yet documents cutting-edge talent beyond that early passion. As a fearless cinematographer, he was instrumental in the shooting and production of MTV’s Jackass series, as well as the subsequent movies, the latest of which is the surprisingly touching hidden-camera comedy Bad Grandpa. More recently, Bangs has been working on a slew of diverse projects, including directing a comedy special for Brooklyn Nine-Nine star Chelsea Peretti, VICE’s Young Americans documentary series and Comedy Central’s standup series The Meltdown.

Despite his impressive resume, Bangs remains incredibly grounded as a person and deeply connected to his family—wife Corin Tucker (singer-guitarist for the recently reunited Sleater-Kinney) and their two children. To maintain that bond, he often brings his family on shoots around the world. In fact, on the day of this conversation, he was taking his 13-year-old son to Beaverton, Oregon, outside of the family’s home base of Portland, to explore a train yard.

Fortunately, Bangs found a quiet area with strong cell phone reception to discuss his creative journey—how he’s been able to cultivate his own artistic identity and what keeps him forging ahead to find and document that next new and exciting subject.

You work on a lot of different projects simultaneously. Where does that inspiration and drive come from?
I always get excited about new things that are happening and want to be present and a part of those things. Rather than having an impulse to stay home and watch television, I feel like, “Man, I want to go see Perfect Pussy on tour while they’re still playing these tiny venues.” I just always want to know what’s going on at the time it’s happening, as opposed to down the road.

You documented acts like the Elephant 6 Collective and Slint when you were younger, yet you seem to have the same level of enthusiasm today for newer acts like [rapper-producer] Earl Sweatshirt. How do you keep from getting jaded?
In the ’90s, I had these impulses with musicians that people want to know more about now, but I’m still really interested in hearing new songs come together and I want to collaborate with [the people creating them], as well. I find things that are exciting about Earl Sweatshirt—he can configure words in ways I never would have thought of and it’s fun to be around and watch his prime develop. I saw [indie punk band] the Screaming Females play on Sunday, and they have some amazing guitar stuff that I wanted to capture. I feel like I would never be like, “I saw this ten years ago,” because the combination of these newer people and what they’re doing is exciting, and it’s where I want to be.

How did you first get involved with filmmaking?
I made a lot of films on Super 8mm when I was a teenager, and at the time [R.E.M. vocalist] Michael Stipe had a group that was giving grants to underground filmmakers. He happened to see some stuff I made and started giving me grants for film and processing, and encouraged me to make things. Then he helped me get down to Athens, Georgia, where R.E.M. was based. I never went to a proper film school or worked on movie sets and that side of production; I just made films myself when bands would come through town.

Good Advices: The R.E.M. vocalist has long served as a patron for daring filmmakers via his production companies C00 Films and Single Cell Pictures.

What was it about Athens that made it so special for you?
Athens is a really magical place, so when bands like My Bloody Valentine or Dinosaur Jr. would come through town, they would want to see what was going on, and they happened to see some of my films and asked me to make stuff to project behind them when they played or to jump in the van and shoot live footage. I think Sonic Youth saw some stuff I shot, and they were going to have Spike Jonze direct the video for “The Diamond Sea,” and we ended up assembling it out of stuff that filmmakers like Dave Markey and I had shot. Then Spike dug into other personal films I had shot and he wove that into the video. And then he brought me out to Los Angeles to start making more stuff with him.

You’ve worked with so many incredible artists over the years, from Kurt Cobain to Elliott Smith. Do you see any common traits that draw you to work with them?
There’s definitely some energy or sensibility. The people who are normally interesting to me don’t deliberately seek much mass attention. I feel like there are always people floating around a music scene that are grotesquely self-promoting. I avoid the ones who are louder than they are interesting to me. That’s why you walk away from someone like [Smashing Pumpkins leader] Billy Corgan and go to see a Nirvana show instead.

Alternately, a lot of people you collaborate with could work with just about anyone, yet they choose you. Apart from your talent, do you think that’s because you don’t actively try to sell yourself?
That might be true. I’ve always just been myself and had a certain presence that people connect with. Because of that, they’ve wanted to have me jump in the van with them or be there in a way that they thought would help them express what they’re trying to get across.

Is there anyone you’ve dreamed of working with who you haven’t yet?
I regret not filming any documentary stuff with [Pink Floyd founder and famous recluse] Syd Barrett when he was still alive. I was hoping I would be the one who would get him comfortable opening up and telling stories, but that never happened. That’s one of the only real missed opportunities I can think of. Oh, and Prince, he would be another one. I haven’t worked directly with Prince and I think that would be fascinating.

FTP_Issue_05_web-06aIt seems like a lot of the material you capture on film, from documentary footage to live shows, can’t be manufactured or plotted ahead of time. Do you have to stay flexible to get the shots you want?
Yeah, especially when I’m shooting live performances, it generally has to be a band I have a connection with, so I can anticipate when they might turn back to look at the drummer or step forward to the mic and throw in something new. Having a fluid approach is vital, so it doesn’t always work with bands that aren’t as exciting to me.

I was a huge fan of the CKY skate videos when they first came out. How did you link up with the Jackass crew?
That came from [director] Spike Jonze. I certainly saw the CKY tapes when they were passed around and was excited about this energy of young kids just taking cameras and not following the typical expectation of what a skate video is supposed to be. So when Spike and Johnny Knoxville were putting together Jackass, there were occasions when Spike would throw me into the mix to shoot stuff, the idea being that I wasn’t a gnarly sports dude, I was someone who was more into shooting personalities. I was into catching the guys between gigs and exploring why they didn’t have the sense that they shouldn’t be doing something.

How did you translate that approach to a seemingly at-odds medium like a Hollywood film?
When we made the first feature film [2002’s Jackass: The Movie], there was a fear that an audience wouldn’t want to sit through 90 minutes of set-up/skit/failure, without something else happening, so we shot tons of footage from a personal documentary viewpoint. It turned out that the film worked without needing to go too heavily into showing all the behind-the-scenes stuff, but it added to all the skits and pranks and stunts to have them confiding to the camera or seen being nervous or not being tough guys. I think that made it more fully rounded.

Where the Wild Things Are: Lance with frequent collaborator Spike Jonze.

You’ve recently been directing more comedy specials. How did that come about?
In 1996, when I was first going out to Los Angeles and working with Spike, there were all these great comedians who were doing interesting stuff. Bob Odenkirk and David Cross were doing Mr. Show at the time, and that seemed like the place where smart, young, interesting minds were making content. I wasn’t officially working in comedy, but I would go to this venue called Largo where David Cross and Janeane Garofalo would test out new material. I worked on some stuff for David Cross and that extended to other comedians working on specials. This spring, we put out Todd Barry’s The Crowd Work Tour special that Louis C.K. sold on his website. That was a really satisfying touring experience that I think came out really well.

As a director of commercials, you’ve worked with huge corporations like Nike and Volvo, as well as indie record labels like Touch & Go. What’s it like living between both of those worlds?
I get different things out of both of them. Generally the budget on larger commercial stuff is what has paid for the personal interest projects, like filming things like Slint or Neutral Milk Hotel. I just take the leftover film, hard drives, camera equipment or editing budgets from some of the larger projects and use them to make personal work.

When you’re working within the tight parameters of a bigger project, do you always have the creative freedom you want?
Yes, because there’s no point in me making something that someone else could have made. I’m basically here to run around and make things that feel personal and distinct to me and have a different sensibility than standard content that other people could produce.

FTP_Issue_05_web-13Filmmaking seems like it’s gotten more D.I.Y. than ever, with young filmmakers doing amazing work on small budgets.
I think people are just getting more creative because of the access to digital cameras that can shoot completely convincing film quality in low light without needing a full lighting crew to set something up and control the situation. People like Jonathan Glazer are making feature films [like Under The Skin] where they can just have an idea and get an actress on board and shoot things at real locations like Glasgow, where they have Scarlett Johansson walking the streets, and pull it off camera-wise. He spent ten years trying to get Under The Skin together and he pulled it off.

We shot that Jackass film Bad Grandpa traveling around the United States in places where people wouldn’t think anything was being filmed, shooting from small hidden cameras, and that’s something that technically wouldn’t have been easy to do five years ago. The changes in digital cinematography have made a lot of breakthroughs in what you can pull off.

You’ve also filmed a lot of behind-the-scenes documentaries about the making of Hollywood films. What have you learned from those experiences that you’ve applied to your own work?
Just the way the minds of Spike Jonze or Michael Gondry work—where they can see something and bring it to life—is a fascinating process to be around and contribute to and document. There’s so much you learn by having smart influences around you—how to work with other people and push your ideas further, and how to fight for ideas and not let them get compromised by outside forces.

FTP_Issue_05_web-12How do you get people to open up to you on camera?
I think it’s my nature. I think I’ve learned to control the lighting without needing additional crew, so I don’t bring a bunch of dudes with boom stands and microphones, and I’ll operate the camera myself and make it feel more organic. I tend to shoot in a lot of unusual circumstances, too; I’ll shoot at three or four in the morning instead of bright daylight to make it feel more seductive. That can allow people to open up without having a bunch of lights, which can make them feel guarded.

You have a family, too. Is it hard to balance that with work?
I’ll take care of the kids a lot. For instance, I’m taking care of them today while Corin works on music, and I tend to bring them along with me as much as I can. When my son turned 13, I let him pick out whatever he wanted to explore and he picked Ireland, so we went there for a couple of days and set up screenings to show the Slint film and then went to England and let him run around, which was great. I’m taking my daughter down to California when I’m at Chateau Marmont and letting her hang out at the shoots, so I try to include them in my experiences, as well.

What advice would you give to someone who not only wants to be a filmmaker, but also wants to maintain the same type of creative freedom you’ve been able to cultivate?
I think it’s important just to do things that you would be proud to show to other people and not make work that’s only done for financial reasons. It’s better to struggle and sell your possessions and always make stuff you’re proud of, rather than just churn out whatever to sell for random clients.

Conversation edited for length and clarity.