An Interview with Chris Wilcha, Director of ‘The Target Shoots First’

Chris Wilcha (Center, Glasses) in The Target Shoots First.

Chris Wilcha made one of my all-time favorite documentaries, The Target Shoots First.  I feel really cool for having seen it since it hasn’t been released yet, and I saw it by borrowing a VHS version from a friend who knows him—which is how I connected with Chris for this interview.  

The Target Shoots First is a collection of footage shot by Chris while he was working at Columbia Music House in the early 90s, which he guides you through with his own narration.  It sounds simple, and it is, but the story that unfolds is unassuming and profound.  It’s like Office Space, but for real, and a lot more personal.  Like many films of the 90s, it explores the life of a post-college twenty-something, and how they fit into the workforce as a Gen-X’er.

The entire movie should be available online sometime soon. When it is, we’ll link it here.

You actually talk about this a little in the movie, that you started recording on a lark and that it was kind of a video diary. But, while you were shooting, did you ever have plans to edit it later? Were you looking to the future?

Over the course of the two years that I worked there, I recorded a ton of footage. At first, it felt like anthropological field work, almost like I was documenting this office culture to help me understand it, with no clear intent to edit it into anything. I gave myself an assignment to try to shoot something in the workplace every day. Running around with a video camera gave the day a sense of purpose. Instead of dreading the company Christmas party, I looked forward to shooting it. But, at some point, when I actually started to get some real responsibility, I felt like there was an actual story unfolding and I was determined to try to turn all of this disparate footage into a coherent diary documentary. I left Columbia House to attend the California Institute of the Arts and it was there that I finished the documentary.

Along those lines, was there ever a moment while you were shooting that made you think, ‘this would make a great documentary’?

I don’t think I had a sense that it would make a great documentary that an audience might be interested in. I think my ambitions were more modest. This was the era of all things lo-fi—albums being recorded on answering machine tapes, xeroxed zines with subculture level circulation, and movies being shot on Fisher Price toy cameras. I remember thinking that some of my friends might really find the experience I was having at this job kind of funny and interesting, and I hoped to share it with them.

What made you go back to the footage and put it together, and what was that process like of building the narrative for it?

When I first got to Cal Arts, I was at a bit of a loss about what to do with the footage. I had hundreds of hours. So, the first thing I did was transcribe all of the tapes, writing out all the scenes, conversations and situations, attached to timecode. This took a long time. Then, I started to string together highlight reels of footage, just to see what my favorite moments felt like when strung together. I was doing this while simultaneously taking classes, writing papers, and doing other assignments. At some point, I decided that rather than shooting a new thesis film, I would edit my Columbia House footage together as my graduate project. After my advisors signed off on that idea, I got much more focused, and it was the only thing I worked on, so then I had the motivation and deadline to finish. Graduating hinged on finishing the documentary.

As for building a narrative, I’d string together footage and write voiceover. I’d record the voiceover and put it over the scenes to see what was working, and do it again, and again, and again. I had no idea what I was doing. It was a very slow process, helped along by many friends and faculty, who would suffer through awful rough cuts and give me notes and advice.

I was totally in over my head and had no model or system for how to deal with this much material or how to shape the story into something coherent. I just kept trying things. The process was glacial.

When you had the movie together, what was the initial reaction? Did you show it to anyone who was in it, and are you still in touch with any of them?

Deafening silence. Ha! There was no initial reaction. I finished the documentary and got my graduate degree. My Cal Arts friends and teachers were happy that it was done. I moved back to NY and needed to get a job. Over the the next bunch of months, I sent it out to various film festivals, micro-cinemas, and curators. Gradually, it started getting screened at festivals and alternative media spaces. But it was all totally off the radar—this was pre-internet, so nobody from the Columbia House world knew that it was circulating or being screened. Then, it started to gain some momentum, and got programmed at some bigger festivals—South By Southwest and Slamdance, in particular. It won some awards, and started getting some publicity. From one of these festival screenings, someone at HBO saw it and offered to broadcast it as part of a documentary series on Cinemax.

This is when things got much more serious and real. In order to broadcast it, I had to get releases and music clearances for everything. So I started reaching out to the various people who appear in the film—my old boss Rick, my office mate Marie, and on and on. A lot of time had passed since we’d all worked together, and most of the Columbia House people thought it was a really interesting document of that era and were surprised I’d made something at all. For the most part, everyone was pretty supportive. The documentary isn’t really a harsh exposé of the company, it’s more of a coming of age story. There were one or two tense moments where the lawyers at HBO were talking to the lawyers at Columbia House, but I think Columbia House realized it would be worse publicity to try to sue me or prevent the movie from being screened than it would be to just let it circulate.

This might be kind of a crappy question, and I hope I’m not hitting a sore spot, but, why hasn’t it been available?

It’s kind of complicated and had mostly to do with some music clearance issues. But I’m happy to report that I’m going to post it online in the next month or so, so you’ll be able to see it in its entirety very soon.

What did you do after the film? Did the process make you realize you wanted to be a filmmaker?

After I finished the film, I moved back to NY and briefly worked at an online music site before the internet bubble burst. By this point, yes, I wanted to be a filmmaker. I still had no idea how to make a living doing it, but continuing to make things was the goal. After it was broadcast on Cinemax, I met with a woman named Lauren Lazin at MTV. She really liked it and I pitched her a few documentary series ideas. She let me shoot and direct them, and those were the first projects where I was getting paid to make things.

I was lucky enough to see Second Hand Stories, which you did for PBS in 2005, and I really liked it. This predated American Pickers, and the sort of TV re-emergence of buried treasure culture. What inspired that, and what was it like out on the road?

Thank you. Me and my friend John Freyer bought a decommissioned ambulance on eBay and decided to thrift our way across the country. The idea was to buy things at garage sales, thrift stores, military surpluses, wherever, and to have sales out of the back of the ambulance to subsidize the trip. We documented the entire experience, and we wanted to make the show using the analogue artifacts we were buying, so we’d shoot with Super 8 cameras or old video camcorders we bought on the road, and use music we’d scavenged along the way.

I showed it to someone at PBS, and they broadcast it as a pilot episode of what was supposed to be a series. The pilot was well received, and we were looking forward to doing more episodes. But PBS doesn’t have money—they go out and fundraise the money they need to pay for shows. So a full two years went by and PBS didn’t raise a single dollar to finance the show. It was a debacle. I was so disappointed with how PBS handled that whole thing. And yes, it’s crazy to see how many different second hand shows there are on TV now, from Storage Wars, to Pawn Stars, to American Pickers, and on and on.

How did you end up working on the show This American Life? I always thought The Target Shoots First itself is a great, This American Life-type story—did Ira Glass see it and recruit you?

Ha! I was definitely not recruited. I met Alex Blumberg, a producer on the show, at a mutual friend’s birthday party. They’d been developing the TV show in fits and starts for a while, but hadn’t made a ton of progress. A couple of weeks later, I went in for a formal interview with Ira, Alex, and Julie Snyder, another lead producer on the show. Adam Beckman, who was the DP for almost every episode, was also at the meeting. I jumped up and down and tired to explain how I thought we could turn the radio show into a visually compelling TV show. They took a chance and hired me. We were just supposed to do a short ‘test tape’ for Showtime, like a 10-minute sample of what a segment might look like. Instead, we did a full-blown half-hour pilot with multiple stories and a pretty elaborate, animated show open. With almost no budget, it took a long time to do, but we pulled it off and Showtime subsequently greenlit the series. A slightly shortened version of that pilot ended up being the first episode. I don’t think Ira has ever seen The Target Shoots First, and I can’t remember ever talking to him about it.

This American Life really seems to gel with your sensibility on Target, where you’re combining filmmaking and storytelling and journalism all together. Tell me about working on it.

It was an amazing experience and I learned so much from those guys. It was also really hard. I don’t think they loved the arduous, physical labor, and fiscal expense of shooting a TV show. Everything takes a lot longer than radio—there’s so much more gear, and people, and anxiety involved. Making radio is just such a brilliantly self-contained exercise—the producers take their mic and their tape recorders and conduct these intimate interviews, whereas we show up to shoot with equipment, and we need to get location and appearance releases for everyone who even walks through a frame of footage. They can edit and score their stories on their laptops in solitude—they don’t have to check in 26 pelican cases at the airport, and drive around with ten people in a cargo van all day. I felt like part of my job was helping them sustain the belief that making a TV show was even a good idea to begin with. But I think they were ultimately happy with what we made over the two seasons of the show.

By the way, do girls in real life really love Ira Glass as much as they say they do on Facebook?

The ladies love Ira. Many friends and relatives were disappointed to hear that he’s a married man.

What are you working on these days?

I’m doing a weird mix of documentary projects and commercial directing work. I just did a concert documentary for the Coen Brothers, called Another Day/Another Time, and I just did an iPad commercial, which was kind of an insane experience.

Lastly, what is your favorite movie?

Oh man, I’m terrible with lists. How about my favorite movie this week? I just rewatched Los Angeles Plays Itself by one of my Cal Arts teachers Thom Andersen. I love that movie.

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