Justin Mitchell | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Justin Mitchell

Director of Drive Well, Sleep Carefully: On the Road With Death Cab for Cutie

Aug 02, 2005 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Justin Mitchell is the producer and director of the Death Cab for Cutie tour documentary Drive Well, Sleep Carefully: On the Road With Death Cab for Cutie, which was recently released on DVD by Plexifilm. Mitchell followed the band around during their summer 2004 U.S. tour. The film captures the band perform 13 of their songs in different cities along the tour, as well as behind the scenes footage and interviews with the band. Under the Radar makes a cameo in the film, as Mitchell was filming while we were photographing Death Cab holding their own protest signs for last summer’s Protest Issue.

Mitchell is a Los Angeles-based filmmaker who was born in Hollywood, CA. His first film was 2001’s Songs for Cassevetes. Later that year Mitchell moved to New York to make his second film, Dirty Old Town: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists vs. Coney Island. He then moved back to LA to make Drive Well, Sleep Carefully. We spoke to Mitchell a few days after the film’s premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Under the Radar: So you had the big premier the other night?

Justin Mitchell: Yeah, it was a great weekend. I don’t think we could have picked a more perfect way to show the film. It was the right city, you know what I mean?

UTR: What was the response like?

Justin: It was great. People actually just sat! And they watched and they were quiet and didn’t leave. And they laughed at the right places and got into the songs. It was packed. It was sold out, almost like 750 people. I had no idea that it was going to be in a big theater like that, so it was a different experience. The band was there and their parents and friends. It couldn’t have been a better premier.

UTR: So when did the idea come about to do a documentary about Death Cab?

Justin: Let’s see. It was February of last year. Initially, I made a film with Plexifilm on Ted Leo, and that was the beginning of this idea to do a series of concert films. And I was moving from New York back to L.A. I had been to all of the Coachella music festivals, and when I looked at the list of bands, Death Cab was the obvious choice as far as bands that I was interested in and liked and a band that represented this blurring of underground and mainstream. They’re definitely a band that has taken the indie/underground thing as far as they can take it, and the fact that they were playing Coachella was pretty interesting. So we looked into it, and we found out that there was a Coachella film already being made, and they’ve actually been making it for three years, and it became obvious that we were not going to be allowed to film there. At that point, it wasn’t totally dead in the water, but we didn’t know how we were going to find a place to film them. And then I looked at their tour schedule, and their tour almost perfectly coincided with when I was planning to drive from New York back to L.A., so I had this idea of catching the last three weeks of the tour, since it seemed like kind of a hinge point for them, in terms of a marker in their career. There were a lot of little connections that I had through people that knew the band, too, so it was easy to get a hold of them. They played a show at Irving Plaza, and we pitched them the idea. Nine days later we were on the road with them.

UTR: Wow.

Justin: Yeah. We had a few weeks before that of thinking about the film and doing some pre-planning, but it happened really fast. I got a sound guy and a second camera, who was my friend Jesse who was planning to do the road trip with me anyway and luckily knew how to shoot. We started off in North Carolina, with a show that actually didn’t make it into the film, but we just jumped in my truck and tried to follow their van. And we shot almost every night. Initially it was just supposed to be a concert film, like one show focusing on a set of music, not so much a documentary kind of thing. It’s not a very dramatic narrative or anything, but ending up on the road with them allowed us to get to know them and do sets of interviews that go a little more personal that got to the point where they were comfortable enough to do on-camera interviews. It was a great way to ease into the more personal aspects of how they do things.

UTR: So what was their original reaction when you pitched the idea to them?

Justin: I think…at the time they had maybe even been thinking about documenting what they had been doing. And it helped that I was working with Plexifilm, who had been executive producers of the Wilco documentary, so I think they were familiar with their work. I think they had maybe seen the Ted Leo film, as well. We met with them, and they were pretty open to it, so we did a kind of test shoot in Philadelphia a few days later, and we set down with them, and the first question was, “What kind of film are you going to make?” And that’s a hard question to answer right off the bat, because I had so many ideas going through my head. But they didn’t want some kind of reality show documentary where someone was following them 24/7 with a camera, and I was never interested in doing that anyway. But we had to communicate those kinds of things, to let them know that that wasn’t what it was going to be and that it was going to focus on music and we’d just see what it was like to be on the road with them. When they agreed, they just said, “Alright. We’ll see you in North Carolina!”

The other cool thing was Chris Walla got really excited about the idea of recording the live shows. We got really lucky that the tracks were actually recorded on this hard disc recorder that he owns. Our sound guy would help facilitate every night, but Chris actually helped set up and he was really involved in the process of listening to things and seeing how they sounded. I think, for him as a producer, it was really an interesting to record it live. And then they released The John Byrd EP, and John and Chris basically recorded all the live tracks. And those live tracks that are in the film are tracks from that time. So that was a motivation for them, too, to capture what they sounded like live and analyzing that. And that was another lucky thing, that their interest in doing that coincided with us wanting to make the film.

UTR: Were you surprised by the access you eventually got to them?

Justin: Not really. Like I said, we didn’t know each other beforehand, but I definitely had a sense of how they worked very quickly. Every day, they’re on it, working very quickly at a venue, trying to make sure that the best show happens. I think our work ethics matched up really nicely, and they saw how we worked, and we were working in a similar vein, paying attention to detail and giving each other space. There were very few times that they asked us not to be somewhere or asked us not to film something. But we had an understanding, and we all knew this wasn’t going to be like reality TV. That set up a stylistic approach to the whole thing. We would load film backstage in their dressing room, and we’d walk in and they’d stare at us loading these magazines because it was so foreign to what they knew. And their crew is so great, and their tour manager, Mark Dustin, he made the whole thing happen. Every venue we wanted to shoot in, he’d coordinate it with the venue. Their crew is such an extension of them, and everyone is so professional that it runs very smoothly.

UTR: So, for you, what makes them such compelling subjects for a film?

Justin: What was compelling to me was that their music is their driving force behind their success. It’s not their onstage antics or backstage drama. Their live shows are really intense and the music on their albums is totally different. Just the idea that this was a band really pushing themselves forward over the past seven years at this indie, underground level, and then becoming that successful – how that happened and how that’s a reflection of how things have changed over the last ten years, that made their story compelling. Things have changed, and bands can sell a lot of records and be on Barsuk. That, for me, was the main draw.

UTR: How did you find them as interview subjects, individually?

Justin: Individually, I definitely got the vibe that these guys have close friends and people they will talk to and reveal things to, so we couldn’t really just sit down and get right to the bottom of it. We actually just spent the first couple weeks on the road, every other day, I would take one guy and we’d just to an audio interview where we’d just talk. And a lot of that audio is what ended up being used in the film, just as voiceovers. But that allowed us to find the questions that aren’t working and the ones that are, and you get to the point where it’s not just a question and answer session, but a conversation. And then the trick, for the documentary side, is just shutting up and letting them answer and not realize that they’re putting an answer out there. Finally, a couple of weeks into it, we had developed a trust, I think, in terms of the things that we were talking about and the things I was interested in. And that’s why we waited until the end of the tour to do the on-camera in interviews, so we sat them down backstage and talked about a bunch of different things. And we had gone through a lot of questions and we’d been through these three weeks of touring, and that kind of counts for a lot. We definitely had to take some time to develop that relationship.

UTR: Did you learn anything about them that surprised you?

Justin: Probably the thing that surprised me the most was how professional and finely tuned their whole production was, to deliver this great set of music. Not that that was surprising, but I’d never been on the road with a band for more than a few days. Just the intensity of their shows and how they made sure that would happen was a pleasant surprise.

UTR: Having interviewed them all, I’m taken by how well they all get along and how they seem to be genuinely friends with each other.

Justin: Yes. For sure. They’ve been through some rocky times when tours weren’t going so well, and things were clashing a bit, but because of who they are, they’ve worked through it as a band, and it’s a testament to just how close they are as friends. Now, when they’ve hit this point when there’s so much more attention on them, they’ve already been through this stuff. They’ve been through all the knock-down drag-out stuff that would be fodder for a good article. That stuff just isn’t going to happen now. It was interesting to me how they recordedTransatlanticism, and they hadn’t played those songs to death. Ben had these demos, and then started to tweak them and take them apart. They didn’t just take them out on the road and play them into a solidified shape. But that shows how they work and trust each other. It’s not like Ben records something, and Chris says, “I’m just going to take that out.” They’ve gotten to that point in their relationships where they trust each other. They’re not just people who play music; they’re friends. And Jason McGerr isn’t really their new drummer anymore, and you can tell he’s someone that they’ve known for a long time, and that he’s really rock solid and gets along with everybody.

UTR: I talked to Ben after the documentary, and he told me he had to leave because it was so real that it unnerved him. It’s so accurate…

Justin: [Laughing] Yeah! We talked afterwards, and the one thing I didn’t know was that they had just finished mastering the new record, so for the last few weeks they’ve been listening with such a narrow focus and fine-tuning everything. And I can’t imagine what that must be like, considering this is their first major label release, but for them to literally finish on Thursday, and then on Friday night to watch footage from over a year ago, with footage that captures that tracks are well as possible, it’s still live music. And as a musician, you’re still analyzing every little thing. I thought, “Well, that makes sense that they’d be uncomfortable.” And that’s not to mention that documentary side, where you see yourself on screen in front of so many people. It didn’t surprise me to hear that, just because I can’t imagine how I’d react if it was me. They’d seen it [when I] had my close to final cut, and I hadn’t really even contemplating them not liking it. But I think they were genuinely surprised by the amount of information, and how it was a concert film, but that it had documentary elements of them on the road. They were genuinely into it, and there wasn’t a ton of stuff they wanted changed from the original cut. It was cool to check out on a big screen.

UTR: I get the impression from Ben that he’s really happy the film exists because it captures a really crucial moment for them, and it’s a moment they can never really go back to.

Justin: We met in Philadelphia, and we had met in New York, and we did a test shoot. We shot on film, on 16 millimeter, which is kind of a strange choice, and we didn’t really get to see any footage until we got to Seattle. That’s just the way that labs work, that 16-millimeter is not treated as a priority. So we didn’t see anything until the end of it. It’s really worth it, though, because that kind of film stock allows each concert, because of the differences in lighting and whatnot, to have its own unique look. It has a lot more texture and feel to it than shooting digitally. But, anyway, we met the band, and there were questions about how we were going to do the film, but also because they were co-headlining with Ben Kweller, and they thought it might be better to wait until the fall tour, because they’d definitely be headlining then. They hadn’t made up their minds, but they thought that might be a better tour to capture. But it just seemed that everything was just falling into place. They were playing bigger shows and selling more records, but it was still early on, and they were still grappling with all of that. So, I told them, “Well, if you really want to wait, it’s your call. But I think this is the best tour to document, as far as the one to look back on ten years from now.” And, in terms of why to make this film, I’ve always loved getting documents of shows and people and songs that are going through pretty interesting things, even though they don’t have to be the focus of the film. We knew a major label was something that was being discussed at the time, but it wasn’t like every day we were going to go, “So, tell us about where you are with the major label deal?” But anyone who knows them, they know that this was underneath it all. I was really happy that was the tour we ended up getting, because the fall tour was wrapped up with the Vote for Change stuff, and we did a lot of footage about that, and I gave a camera to Mark Dustin to film the band as they got on the plane with Pearl Jam and took off, but it didn’t make sense to make that the focus of the film. It meant a lot [to the] guys to be doing that, and it’s one of those things that is better left off the DVD and as a memory.



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January 10th 2011

Justin Mitchell has a good eye. It was an interesting choice to shoot the entire film on 16mm film. It gave the film a very personal touch. He incorporates a lot of unique camera shots, often including extreme close ups on the faces or the instruments. The footage allows the watcher to truly experience what it’s like to be up on the stage in the band, as opposed to a member of the audience. At times, the camera work was a little too shaky for my personal taste, but I realize that he filmed it all without a tripod.
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