Phase9 Entertainment

HOMEMADE HILLBILLY JAM - Q&A with director Rick Minnich

Germany 2005 Director: Rick Minnich - 80 mins

The brothers and cousins who make up the band Big Smith are proud to consider themselves Hillbillies. They combine traditional roots of Scots-Irish jigs, church music and folk songs handed down over generations, with more modern elements of country and western and a sensibility they describe as 'neo-hillbilly'. Minnich's beautifully shot film celebrates Missouri's Ozark countryside and the way music can transcend conflicting attitudes, to bring and hold generations together.

What's your background in film and how did you get into filmmaking?

I started making Super 8 films of my baby brother when I was twelve years old, and have been at it ever since. I ended up starting film school at CalArts near Los Angeles, and finished at the Film & Television Academy "Konrad Wolf" (the former East German state film school) in Potsdam, Germany in 2001.

What was the basis for the idea for your film?

I met the guys from the band Big Smith through the making of my previous film HEAVEN ON EARTH in Branson, Missouri several years ago. They seemed like the antithesis of the pseudo-hillbilly showtown Branson. After drowning in Branson's flashiness, I was eager to discover what lie beyond the town's borders. What I discovered was Big Smith and the extended Bilyeu family.

Did a particular incident/event inspire it?

The husband of one of Big Smith's cousins Joy Bilyeu gave me a copy of the band's debut CD. I listened to it once, and didn't think much about it. But when I gave it another shot about a year later, I knew immediately that there was more to the story than meets the eyes and ears. I had to meet these guys, and once I did, I was hooked. The deciding moment was meeting Grandma Thelma on her deathbed, and filming her and her grandson Mark singing together only days before she died. I knew at that moment that I had to make a film about this family. One-and-one-half years later, I was doing it.

What aspect of the filmmaking process was most enjoyable/challenging and why?

Hanging out with Big Smith was loads of fun. They're a bunch of ordinary guys with a ton of musical talent. Whenever they get together, they can't help but break out into song. The Thanksgiving dinner scene was one of the highlights, and definitely the most wonderful Thanksgiving celebration I've ever been a part of. The most challenging part of the film was trying to find a way to mould my fascination with hillbilly culture into a tangible form with somewhat of a storyline. Most of this happened in the editing room thanks to the help of my co-writer and editor Matt Sweetwood (also an American residing in Germany).

How did you crew it/cast it?

I met my DP Axel Schneppat and sound recordist Raimund von Scheibner in film school in Germany. We've worked on numerous projects together, and HOMEMADE HILLBILLY JAM was one we were especially eager to do together. I knew I wanted to focus on the guys in Big Smith, as well as the Baldknobbers show in Branson as contrasting views of hillbilly music (homespun vs. commercial). All the other characters emerged as a result of my encounters with Big Smith and The Baldknobbers.

What was the budget (if you can say) and how did you apply it?

The film was budgeted at around 200,000 Euros, but we only came up with around 80,000. Basically we deferred most of our salaries in order to make the film, and are hoping to make up for it through sales.

Was any one thing a great indulgence financially?

Shooting on film (Super 16). For an underfinanced film, this was suicide, but we all knew it was the only way we could get the aesthetic we were looking for. We stayed within our shooting budget by shooting only eleven hours of film, which blows away most documentary filmmakers, who are used to shooting hundreds of hours of video. (Who can ever watch all that?)

How did you raise the money (if there was any!) for it?

My producer Olaf Jacobs raised the money from two German film funds: Medienboard Berlin-Brandenburg and Mitteldeutsche Medienförderung (Central German Media Fund), and the MEDIA Program of the EU.

How long was the shoot? Was that too long/too short?

Four weeks in one chunk. It was just right.

Did you have to compromise anything for the schedule?

I would have liked to have returned to the Ozarks to shoot a few more things I didn't realize were missing until I started editing, but there was no more money available for this.

What are your influences?

I'm American, but most of my influences are European: Jean Renoir, Louis Malle, Pier-Paolo Pasolini, early Krzysztof Zanussi, early Truffaut, Johan van der Keuken, but also American filmmakers like Ross McElwee. I have a pretty eclectic taste, and have probably been influenced as much, if not more, by fiction films than by documentaries.

What's your favourite scene in a film?

In HOMEMADE HILLBILLY JAM, I would have to say the final song "I Feel Like Travelling On," which Big Smith sing together with their parents at a benefit concert in the Spokane (Missouri) High School Gym. It's a terrific song, and a great way to leave the film.

As for other films, I'd say the long opening tracking shot of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil" is pretty hard to top. But for a film lover like me, it's hard to chose a single favourite scene.