An Interview with the Directors of ‘A Band Called Death’, Jeff Howlett & Mark Covino

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From left: Jeff Howlett, Mark Covino

A Band Called Death is one of my favorite films of 2013. It’s everything you could want from a music doc—great music, plus a compelling and unique story, told with love and care. I’m sure it will go down as one of best music docs of all time, right up there with Don’t Look Back and Gimme Shelter and Some Kind of Monster.

In a way, it’s not just a story about an interesting rock band, but a time capsule of the power of the time we live in—how music can be discovered nowadays, and how, through the power of the internet, and a generation of music lovers bent on discovering missing pieces of music history, a timeless band from the past who never had the right exposure can finally reach the audience they always deserved.

It’s a fascinating flick, and I’m honored to have had the opportunity to sit down and pick the brains of its filmmakers:

The first time I heard about the band Death was from reading a review of their album on Pitchfork, and I must have skimmed the review because when I listened to a few seconds of one of their songs, I thought they were just another new band trying to sound like a 70’s band, rather than an actual band from the 70‘s. So I wrote them off, because I don’t like that sorta fake throwback type of thing. But then a few years later the film came out, and I learned who they were and what their story was and actually really listened to their stuff, and I fell in love. How did you guys discover and fall in love with the band?

Jeff: I met the Hackneys about 20 years ago in Vermont when my rock band Slush/Five Seconds Expired was playing a festival with their reggae band Lambsbread. In meeting the guys, we immediately connected, and I would see Bobby Jr. and Bobby Sr. and his family over the years at shows and we would talk about our music and our families. In the summer of 2008, Bobby Jr. came up to me at a local punk rock show and mentioned he and his brother’s were in a band covering his fathers music and were playing at a local venue, and he mentioned I would really dig it. The Hackney sons called themselves Rough Francis, and my expectation was that they were covering Lambsbread—but to my surprise, they played some of the most amazing proto-punk I had ever heard. I thought to myself, ‘I need to document this, it is just too cool to not’, so I contacted Mark, who I had met on a music video, and the four-year journey began.

Mark: Yeah, for me it began when I met Jeff for the first time. I was working as an AC on a music video he was directing. We hit it off immediately. As soon as he learned of my experience with documentary filmmaking, he started yapping in my ear about his friend’s band Death and how the NY Times wrote this huge article on them. He then said he wanted to make a 20-minute doc on the band and asked for my help. At the time, I was all burnt out on doc’s—I hated the thought of making another one, not to mention everything he was telling me seemed a little far-fetched. So, I did what any rational human being would do in a situation like this—I told him to fuck off! But Jeff was persistent, so I told him to email me the Times article and the two MP3’s that are online and that I’d think about it. I blew that email off for two weeks before I was jonesing for a project to work on and finally checked my email. I couldn’t believe what I read in that Times article, and then I played the first MP3 of Keep on Knocking, and I was floored.

Probably the thing I love most about this film is that as much as it’s about a band called Death, it’s also about death. It’s one of those perfect, metaphoric things where like, if you wrote a fictional story about a band called Death, and they deal with death along the way and the theme of the story is death, it’d be too ‘on the nose’ so to speak, and would induce eye rolls. But these guys, all of this actually happened. It’s the perfect ‘more fiction-sounding than fiction’ non-fiction story. Was this something you were conscious of, when putting together the film?

Mark: I certainly was. It was uncanny how much like a narrative screenplay their story is. It even took me a while to believe what we were learning while filming. Once I realized it was real, the next big question was, ‘will an audience buy it?’ I think that worried me the most during production.  

Jeff: It was always in the back of my mind, but I was not aware of the extent of all the tragedy until we dug deeper into the story and the production process unfolded.

Over the course of watching the film, you really get a three-dimensional sense of David Hackney, the deceased founding member of the band. You almost feel as though you know him. Did you guys feel that way?

Mark: I feel like I’ve known David my whole life. 

Jeff: I really felt connected with David throughout. When we would have unexplainable moments throughout the process, we would call them ‘David moments’. His presence was strongly felt.

I’m always interested in the subject of ‘doneness’, especially when it comes to documentaries. With narrative films, you have your beginning, middle, and end all planned out, but with docs, you’re at the mercy of life, basically. And you could conceivably shoot forever. When did you know that you had shot all there was to shoot, and that the story you set out to tell was complete? 

Mark: Ha, probably when we got our 75th rough cut in. We literally were shooting till our world premiere at LAFF in 2012. I still don’t think we’re done!

Jeff: It seems like this documentary is still playing out in all of our lives. It’s great to see both Death and Rough Francis touring now, and how we have been able to help in some way to dig deeper and to tell the world about these incredible historic bands and their families.

One of the major themes of the film is pressure from outside forces to compromise your vision. In the face of studios who wanted Death to change their controversial name, the Hackney brothers stood firm, which cost them recording contracts. Did you yourselves deal with any outside pressure to change your film at all?

Mark: There was a minor issue with having to change the title of our film. It got resolved, and the title you see today is the end result. That’s all I’ll say on the matter.

Jeff: In the end, we landed in a place we collectively wanted the film to be. 

How was it working together as co-directors? How were the duties split, and did your visions for the film ever clash? It’s always interesting to me when films have more than one director. Traditionally, it seems like the type of job for one person, but there really are countless examples of great films that have multiple directors—I interviewed Gavin McInnes not too long ago for the site about his sorta-doc, The Brotherhood of the Traveling Rants, and that one had three directors.

Mark: Jeff and I became brothers within the first few weeks of shooting. Somehow we clicked. He was new to the format, and I guess you can say I was a little bit of a veteran, so part of the beginning of making this movie was me sharing my technique with Jeff. As filming moved on, Jeff eventually moved to South Carolina, so I took on the job of filming the rest either on my own or with my friends from film school. That said, there was never a moment where we didn’t communicate what we both wanted to capture before a shoot, and we always collaborated on what questions to ask.

Jeff: Mark was awesome to work with. Sure we would argue like brothers sometimes over this or that, but that is what really makes true creativity. You need your yin and yang. I am excited to get back in the saddle on upcoming projects with Mark. 

Tell me about your respective backgrounds. I tried to do a little Google snooping, but I couldn’t really find all that much. How did you guys get into film, and what’s been your path through the arts thus far? Jeff, I noticed that you had a punk band back in the early 90’s called Slush. 

Jeff:  I have been playing music since I was twelve, so my background is mainly in music. I was in several bands over the years, most notably Five Seconds Expired/Slush, which formed in 1993, and Non Compos, in 1998. I got into filmmaking when my band needed a music video in 2004, so I just picked up a camera and decided to do it myself. I loved the process so much that in 2008, after directing several music videos, I went back to college for filmmaking. In the process of finishing college, we started filming A Band Called Death.

Mark: Since age 9, I’ve wanted to make movies. In High School, I went to a vocational program that had a Television Production class. I cut my teeth there learning the ins and outs of video production. Soon after I graduated, I had a chance to work on a feature-length film as a crew member. It was a complete shit-show, but I learned a lot about what a production is like. It was on the set of that film that one of the crew members told me about a film college in Burlington, VT, and how anyone could get in, and that you can use all the film equipment within the first week of going there. With mediocre grades from high school and an urge to start making my own films, I signed up immediately. I learned jack shit at that school, but I did utilize all of their equipment to make my own films. It was while attending that school that I kinda fell into making documentaries. I never had any interest in making them—I wanted to make tits and gore movies—but life has a weird way of turning out!

Mark, I understand you were a production assistant on the HBO miniseries John Adams. I wasn’t a fan of the series, but I’m a huge fan of Tak Fujimoto, who was the cinematographer on most of the episodes. Did you have any encounters with him, or any stories from the set that you’d like to share with our readers?

Mark: Oh my god, talk about a shit-show. I was working with a 2nd unit crew, so no Fujimoto, no Giamatti. We filmed outside in the middle of butt-cold winter with waist high snow. My job mostly consisted of digging a mile long pathway for the horse of Paul’s stunt double to walk down, as well as building a bonfire, which woulda been fun if the local shit head Location Scout didn’t take full credit for it. The 1st AD/producer dude was a total douche and paid us less than what we agreed to work for. Then, they had the nerve to not put us up at a local hotel when the storm of the century came into town—it was a looooong ride home. I loved the actual miniseries though.

In recent years, there have been a lot of phenomenal first films from up-and-coming directors that have been documentaries—your film, Deceptive Practice, Strongman, Resurrect Dead, and Monica & David come instantly to mind, but the list goes on and on. In fact, I’d venture to say that if a filmmaker’s first film is a documentary, it’s got a better chance of being good than if it’s fiction. Do you see any truth to that? And also, what have been some of your favorite documentaries, in recent years?

Mark: Man, I’ve never really thought about that. I guess it could be true. I have seen more good documentaries than good narratives during our two-year festival run.

Hands down, two documentaries that have stuck with me in recent years are Jason Becker: Not Dead Yet and I Will Be Murdered. 

Jeff: I absolutely love documentary film, and the truth seen on screen, at least, in the large handful of films I admire.

Last Days Here, Exit Through the Gift Shop, Who is Harry Nilsson, The Other F Word, and Charles Bradley: Soul of America were some of my favorites as of late.

How about of all time—what are some documentaries that really meant a lot to you? 

Mark: Probably the ones that inspired me to even consider documentary filmmaking—Grey Gardens, American Movie, Roger and Me. New York Doll is just a gem of a documentary. 

Jeff: Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense was required viewing in my 9th grade music class in 1984—I would say that was when my love of documentary film blossomed. Other notable ones would be: Another State of Mind, The Decline of Western Civilization, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Crumb, and The Last Waltz.

Thanks a lot for sitting down with me. Before we go, are there are any projects you guys are working on now that you’d like to tell us about?

Mark: I’m currently trying to wrap up my latest doc, The Crest, about two descendants of an Irish king who journey to the island where he once presided—not to reclaim the land, but to surf the waves. Check out our trailer, and maybe consider donating a little something to help us finish the film: Crestmovie.com

Jeff: I am a photographer and my work can be found at Howlermano.com. I’m also currently in production on a film about the world’s hottest pepper: PuckerbuttMovie.com

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