As a documentary filmmaker since 2002, Stephen Kijak has worked with some of the most iconic and artistic music artists of the 20th century, from the Rolling Stones to Scott Walker. On the 26th February his new film Show ‘em What You’re Made of is released, adding to that prestigious list one of the most popular and reviled groups of all time, the Backstreet Boys. Impact spoke with Stephen to find that there is more to their tale than first seems…
Hi Stephen, what was the genesis of Show ‘em What You’re Made of?
I was hired to do it, to be perfectly honest with you. My producing partner and good friend Mia Bays joined Pulse Films to get her advice and consultation on some projects and she eyeballed Backstreet, and they said she could have it if they got me to do it. I turned them down a few times because I was ‘too cool for the Backstreet Boys’ at the time. She convinced me, it was one of those situations where you assemble a great creative team. I was working with some people I’d worked with before and we’d done some really great films together so I jumped on it and I’m glad I did.
So what was it that really made you say yes?
Well like I said, in part the creative team was assembled. I knew we could do something great almost no matter what we were dealing with. Mia had really opened the door, they had already been shooting about a week before they had a director come aboard, they were really just exploring and seeing if there was anything there and so it was a combination of seeing what she had started and talking with them on the phone. It really changed my perception of what this project could be.
It started off looking great. They were in a very vulnerable and slightly questioning place in their lives and careers. They were just getting Kevin back in the group; they were financing the album out of their own pockets. It was really like picking up root in a real underdog space and with a lot of question marks ahead of them. Whether they could pull off an album and a tour, if the fanbase was still there, if there was anyone who would engage with them again. And their willingness to do something that was just telling a real story, rather than just promoting a tour, a 3D propaganda piece. The ingredients were there you know… and I liked them, I actually started to like them despite myself. So yeah it was great and I’m proud of what we did.
“I turned them down a few times because I was ‘too cool for the Backstreet Boys’ at the time.”
Would you say then that it has an appeal beyond the fans?
Well that was the idea. I mean specifically that was the idea. Yes, there came a point where you had to lean into the fanbase and embrace their needs by being true to the boys and what they are about. None of us were fans. We wanted to look at them, well first critically, but then as you get kinda sucked it, the idea is to bring the non-fan with you. We were always asking that question, especially editorially.
You know there are things the fans will always ask like “how come you didn’t talk about the two years that Kevin was gone?” Well a lot of the non-fans didn’t know Kevin was gone, and don’t care that he’s back. They just want a good story, it was balancing what would a non-fan be interested in versus what has a fan never seen before was sort of the part of the editorial juggling act. I specifically have the non-fan in mind while making this.
To me I just wanted to figure out how this fitted into my body of work. You know if you’ve been watching my films, not that I’ve made that many, but I’ve tried to zero in on some interesting musicians and subjects, and how does this fall in line? How can I make a film about something I don’t really care about and find something in it that I connect to and hopefully bring the audience along with it?
“There are things the fans will always ask like “how come you didn’t talk about the two years that Kevin was gone?” Well a lot of the non-fans didn’t know Kevin was gone, and don’t care that he’s back. They just want a good story…”
How long did the whole process take?
We started 2012 in the summer. It was about a two, two and a half year process. It wasn’t like a ten-year long experiment that logged millions of hours. I feel we shot an average amount of footage for a documentary, we filmed for a week or so with the guys on the road, visiting their home towns, some studio stuff for about a week, filmed a concert or two, it was a fair amount.
What was daunting was the archival research. What was ironic was at the height of their fame no one was keeping an eye on their archive so trying to track down proper master footage of some of their biggest concerts was nearly impossible, whereas we found a woman who had 30-plus hours of Hi8 tape of them before they were famous. In a way those things tell you which way to go with the movie, that’s why we have such an ample amount of early day stuff. In a way that stuff was way more interesting to me than when they were famous. We really compressed their fame into a small part of the movie. I mean we have hours and hours of them just as kids playing at high school and recording and playing some absolutely awful songs down in Orlando. It was great material. That was one of the biggest things to slog through, that material. It was fun though.
Have you been happy with the reaction the film has gotten so far?
Well yeah we showed it to fans and they scream and cry. It’s perfect. Who screams and cries at movies? I mean I’ve never experienced a reaction like that before. And critically we knew that an old white guy at the New York Times is gonna hate it. So, surprise surprise, we get a shit review from the New York Times. And the Hollywood Reporter. It’s like ‘this is not for you! Get with it’.
For the most part one of the most interesting things I experienced was when we released it online the trailer got more press than any film I’ve made. I was like ‘what the fuck, it’s just a trailer for god’s sake’. I think the reaction from the more… the snarky zones of the press were saying things like ‘wow this doesn’t look like it sucks, actually’ which was, I think, kinda gratifying. There’s been some really great think-pieces about it in the Voice and the LA Times… there’s definitely been a split if you’re gonna come at it as a hardcore film critic.
The biggest difficulty you’ll have is getting over the band itself and they told us that from the get go. They said they’ve struggled with that their whole career. People just want to hate them. And don’t want to give them the benefit of the doubt. And the critical confusion around them is kind of hard to overcome. But like I said it’s been fans first and if that’s the only way we’re judging this thing then we’ve knocked it out completely. They’ve been loving it.
Historically, pop artists have had a problem being regarded seriously, with most critical considerations happening through reappraisals years later. What do you or your film have to say on that matter?
Through my journey of discovery with this project, one thing that surprised and interested me was the level of artistry they bring to their craft, both vocally and the actual work ethic that it took to get them to where they are. I for example did not know they drove around on a bus playing to highschools for free for two years. You know, like any rock band driving around in a van playing shitty clubs trying to make a name for themselves. Yes, they had Lou Pearlman financing the venture but he kept them on a very short leash, and flouted I’m sure every child labour law in the book. These guys were grinding for two and half years just honing their craft. I developed an immense amount of respect for their work ethic.
“It was balancing what would a non-fan be interested in versus what has a fan never seen before.”
Whether you like the music or not their popcraft is unimpeachable, there’s just no way around it. And it’s a form of music… you can kind of put them in line with the great vocal harmony groups that preceded them. They can sing circles around New Kids On The Block. They are a vocal group and people have been interpreting and singing people’s songs since the beginning of the recording industry. Some of the greatest artists are interpreters but because these guys are sort of shoe-horned into category of ‘boy band’ they don’t get the respect that maybe a ‘proper’ vocalist is going to get.
Someone the other day was talking about my Scott Walker film [Scott Walker: 30th Century Man] and if you go back, the Walker Brothers were a form of boy band themselves in the early days. It was mostly covers. They were singing all other people’s songs. Completely produced by Johnny Franz and the team at Philips Records. It was a complete construct. And of course we see the complete genius that lied ahead of us for Scott Walker. Yes there isn’t a Scott Walker in the backstreet boys but they exerted a lot more control over things in the studio than I think people gave them credit for and it really just comes down to the interpretive vocal power of the band. Its undeniable. I still don’t like the music really, I was just completely fucking impressed by that.
You mentioned the Scott Walker film there. Walker and The Backstreet Boys are pretty much the antithesis of each other…
…so did your approach to filmmaking alter between the two?
Oh completely. I feel you have to slide into sympathy with the subject that you’re dealing with. If you just keep this locked critical eye or critical distance at all times then maybe your films are stylistically similar, but you don’t really get into the heart of your subject as much. [Documentary filmmaker] Al Maysles gave me a great piece of advice when I was making Cinemania all those years ago. We were talking about Grey Gardens and he said ‘you just have to love them while you’re making the movie. You just have to, that’s how it works.’ And I’ve never forgotten that. I’ve gotten the best results by trying to create something that is in sympathy with the subject and it changes how you work, obviously. With this the way we made it was very different. Yes there’s some archive and interview material but that wasn’t the priority this time around. We just wanted to try and find something a bit more alive. It was nice following them around in the field and seeing things happen and emotions starting to bubble to the surface so yeah, it was nice to have a different sort of directing tactic, something different for a change.
“They said they’ve struggled with that their whole career. People just want to hate them.”
Would you say then you approach a new film in a particular way and then adapt it depending on the subject, or would you say the approach is completely fresh every time?
I don’t know, it’s a hard question to answer because then you’re saying ‘what is your directing style?’ It’s just getting on with the job, really, of dealing with what’s in front of you. Part of it’s in the planning and orchestrating of the creative team and then I like to give everyone a good amount of freedom to work so I can just focus on the subjects. If anything is consistent it’s the method of building trust and being present and finding your way in. A lot of it is stuff like figuring out how to conduct proper interviews and keep them there an hour longer than they expected so you wear them down and get them into the right space, and just continuing to hone your skills.
You screw up every time. I was just in the middle of making another film and I feel that I missed this colossal moment where the subject was about to break down in tears and we had to wrap up so missed it by about an hour. Little things like that you catch yourself and think ‘shit I should have done that better’. But I dunno, it’s a hard question to answer really. The field is a big unknown, you just have to go with it and see what happens.
“BACKSTREET BOYS: SHOW’EM WHAT YOU’RE MADE OF is in cinemas nationwide on 26 February followed by a special performance by the band broadcast live by satellite http://www.backstreetboys.com/international