The Barnes Brothers Call ‘East Nashville Tonight’ Their ‘Hypothetical Documentary’
East Nashville Tonight, co-directed by brothers Todd and Brad Barnes, is hilariously summed up in the film’s official synopsis:
In February of 2013, the Barnes Brothers attempted to shoot a documentary about the lives of Todd Snider, Elizabeth Cook and other touring songwriters residing in the burgeoning East Nashville neighborhood.
Instead, drugs and booze took over
They ended up with: East Nashville Tonight
The drunk docu-comedy follows the talented musicians as they get drunk, stoned, and make killer music together on the streets of East Nashville, blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction. The film releases today on eastnashvilletonight.com as a part of a unique partnership with VHX and Bond360, delivering the boozy hangout movie to fans directly. The Barnes brothers can monitor the number of people buying the film, who they are, and where they come from, all in real time, making the connection from filmmaker to viewer more immediate than ever. With the tectonic plates of film distribution constantly shifting and evolving, this setup could very well be the way of the future for independent film.
Todd and Brad spoke with us on the phone (along with an unexpected guest appearance by one of the film’s stars) about the film being best experienced at home with friends, shaping the film in the editing room, their partnership with VHX and Bond360, and much more.
You can watch the film right now at eastnashvilletonight.com
Most films are made to be watched in a theater setting, but yours feels like it’s best viewed on a living room couch with a few of your buddies and some cold 40’s. Was that your aim from the beginning?
Todd: Maybe not when we first started making it, but I like it as a movie that you can pass around and show to people. I don’t even mind if people see it in bits. It can be funny in that way. I don’t know if it was intentional, but I’m happy about it. I just like the idea of people passing it around, watching little clips…any of that stuff.
Brad: Maybe it wasn’t planned out to be a “living room hanging out” experience, but we definitely went down to Nashville and made sure that whatever we made can’t be shown on TV. We definitely knew we didn’t want to do something aimed at an acceptable market.
Todd: Hold on…Todd Snider wants to break it up a bit
??? [A mysterious voice on the telephone]: I just wanted some quotes in the piece. These guys bullshitted me again, and I think they went out of their way to make me look like a jerk…AGAIN! That’s my statement.
Was that Todd Snider?
Todd: Yeah, that was Todd. (laughs) We’re in his living room trying to record commentary for a DVD. He’s absolutely outraged that we’re talking to the press. (laughs)
Brad: These are very fragile, gentle relationships when you try to make a film like this! (laughs)
You guys got a wide variety of footage, from conventional doc stuff to staged stuff to musical numbers. How did you piece it all together in the editing room?
Todd: Honestly, it really told us what it wanted to be. I just sat down, started cutting it, and stuff fell into place. It just kind of chained together in an insane, sort of inspired way. People ask all the time, “How did you plan it out?” We had musicians show up, they started singing songs, and we didn’t know what they’d do. Either things got stuck in our heads and we added it to a scene, or it came together cosmically.
The film feels elusive as to what it actually is; it seems like a straight documentary at times, fictional at others. You’ve previously described it as a “hypothetical documentary.” What’s that?
Brad: When we were mixing this movie our sound mixer, Tom Paul, suggested that term and we latched onto it immediately. We felt like, sure, there are documentary elements there, completely unplanned, but some things we had to plan a little bit in terms of who was going to be there, what the theme was going to be. We were looking for a way to describe it, and I think that’s a good way to talk about a movie that has people performing, but they’re also performing as themselves, using their own names. It clearly has documentary elements, but there are elements in there that are certainly not things you’d expect to happen on any given Tuesday. I think “hypothetical documentary” explains that pretty well in two words.
Is the film a good representation of what it’s like in the East Nashville music scene, with guys playing tunes around a poker table with mason jars and cigarettes on it?
Todd: That’s the “hypothetical documentary” thing that I like a lot. I think it’s actually the most truthful format we’ve worked in. In documentaries, you’re going to interview people and they’re going to present to you who they want to be. In this film, with people playing themselves, you get to see what they’re actually like. I’ll tell you what; I don’t know if [what you see in the film] is actually how it is [in East Nashville], but we didn’t do any set design. That’s how it was.
There are a ton of country musicians in the film; how did you arrive at Todd and Elizabeth as the leads?
Brad: We’d been working with Todd for a long time. We made a music video with him over a decade ago, and a bunch of short films, and that’s actually why we’re sitting in his living room right now. We’re recording commentary for stuff we made in 2002 and 2008. We’ve been making stuff with him for years. He’s always talked about his circle of friends. We’d met some of them on trips down to Nashville, but some of them were totally new to us. I do think that’s something about this neighborhood that we’ve come to understand and love about this place. There’s a guitarist two houses down, down the street is a famous bassist. When people get together around here, the guitars are going to come out. People have stories and songs. To me, it’s amazing the talent that’s down here. We didn’t know who was going to show up some days. It was really down to Todd and Elizabeth who they happened to be able to call in.
I have to ask: What was the song that Todd and the fellas sang at the Poker table?
Todd: Was that “Dope is Dope and You’re High Up On It?”
Todd: I actually don’t know if that’s the title of it. (laughs) They call it “Dave Roe Blues”, and it’s about a bassist in East Nashville who, when he was 19, went on the road with Johnny Cash. When he came home, his mom found a bag of weed in his bass case. She confronted him about it and said, “I found your heroine!” In the song she says: I found your hair-on! No momma, that’s just marijuana! Nope, it’s dope it’s dope and you’re high up on it!
Brad: It became the unofficial anthem of the movie. We heard it, and we were like, “Holy shit!” That tied it all together.
I love that song…
Todd: I love it, too! Once you hear this song, you’ve got to love these people.
I think I replayed that scene about five times last night.
Todd: That’s awesome, man!
Talk a bit about your partnership with VHX, Bond, and the way you’re distributing the film.
Todd: It feels like a moment in time. We were talking today about how the chips fell and we lucked out. We jumped in to make this movie last February, but we didn’t even know it was going to be a movie at the time. We just started shooting, and it took the shape of a movie. We knew we wanted to have control of it. We had a movie before that we went to Sundance with and sold, but we thought this was more interesting. When we started doing research with Todd Mcdonald, my lifelong friend and third member of Barnes Brothers Unlimited, we looked at Indie Game: The Movie and some other things.
First, we found VHX, and they were saying all kinds of things we were interested in. Then, we talked to PR companies. I sent an email to Bond. They “got” our movie and really liked it. It felt like the right time for them to put their energy behind it. They want to experiment, we want to experiment. It’s the kind of movie that suits [this model.] We’re going to split the profits with everyone in the movie, for example. If people are going to buy this thing–which they’re already doing in pre-sales–we get to split it with people, and we get to be really transparent about all that. It’s all these things happening at once to where it’s a perfect situation for us right now.
You can see, live, how many people are ordering the movie. What’s it like to watch the numbers in real time?
Todd: It’s exactly what you’d imagine; total drug addiction, refreshing every two seconds. And, it’s coming in with people’s names and their location, which is an incredibly human thing to happen while the machine is ticking up. The first guys that bought the thing got it while we were setting up the site, so they didn’t get the right email and all this other stuff, so I emailed him. I looked his name up, and I saw that he played guitar and he had some songs up on the internet. So, I watched some of his songs to acquaint myself with him. (laughs) I said, “Hey man, did everything work out alright? By the way…I liked your music!” That was the human side of it, but the electronic side of it is watching the numbers go up and this incredible feeling you get. Maybe people want to see something I made! It’s real, and it’s happening.
Before, when we sold to a distributor, it’s just a black box of information. Every quarter, you get some kind of report. With this setup, we can do something about it. If an article is written about us and Todd wants to put it up on his site, people click through that and buy! And we know when that happens! It ignites something inside you and it makes you go, “I want to show it to everybody!”
If you’re the 20-year-old “cool kid” in college, you have to have this movie first if you have any self respect! (laughs) Hopefully it has legs in that way, man. It’s a stoner musical, and we hope people can enjoy it that way.