Interview: Jeanie Findlay

The Great Hip Hop Hoax - Hot Docs 2013

When you’re white, Scottish, full of talent, and, again, white and Scottish, it’s hard to break into the hip hop game. Such is the plight of best friends Billy and Gavin, a pair of emcees who can’t catch a break thanks to their perceived images. In director Jeanie Findlay’s 2013 Hot Docs selection The Great Hip Hop Hoax, the duo’s half comedic and half tragic ruse to pass themselves off as California area bros gets documented. It’s a funny, touching, and interesting look at how far people will go to make it in a field that they love and how sometimes the long term consequences come back to bite them in the ass.

Dork Shelf sat down with Findlay to talk about the film and the incredibly journey of the rebranded group Silibil n’ Brains.

Dork Shelf: Hello Jeanie, thanks for sitting down with me today. I wanted to start by asking how you managed to get involved in this unique story and film.

The Great Hop Hop Hoax - Hot Docs 2013 - Jeanie FindlayJeanie Findlay:  I ran across the story in the newspaper, and as I was reading the article I remarked to myself ‘oh my god that’s a film, and that’s a film I want to make’. I discovered there were lots of other documentary filmmakers going after it so it took a couple of years of deliberation to settle the rights. But now the film is finished. And here we are about to show it at Hot Docs.

DS: So what was the condition of the friendship between Gavin and Billy when you started filming? They seemed to have been very much apart from each other.

JF:  Yeah, it’s been a bit surprising the last few weeks actually because at the premiere at SXSW in Austin in March both the boys came out. When I was making the film they never spoke with each other at all, they only spoke to me; they weren’t on speaking terms and  their relationship/friendship was destroyed and in tatters. But after they both saw the film they realized how each other saw the events, they talked through stuff and are reunited as friends again after not speaking for 5 years.

DS: That’s really great that the film could bring them back together.

JF:  Bit weird for me (laughs)

DS: Yes, I imagine it would be! Can you tell me about the great animated sequences you have in the film? They really add a lot to the film.

JF: Thanks. When I first met Billy I just thought he seemed like a Jon Burgerman drawing come to life, his whole style, the way he walks and acts seemed to fit perfectly.  Jon Burgerman is an illustrator and friend of mine from Nottingham, where I live in England, and I approached him and asked him if he would be interested in doing some kind of doodle reconstructions for the film. When the boys came up with these fictional identities for themselves they felt like they were 2 dimensional cartoon characters, so that’s what we did.

DS: That was one of the things I picked up on, in a lot of ways they became caricatures’ instead of just personas. So portraying them as animated characters seemed fitting.

JF: Oh yeah totally, every element of the film whether it’s the soundtrack, the animation or the graphics has to help tell the story, so there seemed like a real narrative thread to using the animation. It allowed us to could tell and stage events that had happened in the past and heighten the humor and the drama. Also, one of the best things about doing the animations are they are able to get quite dark that was really enjoyable for us.

DS: Yeah, I could see that getting to that dark side of the characters could factor in your decision to use them the way you do in the film. In my opinion one of the main reasons the story works is that the boys are very talented, I don’t think the hoax is impactful if they are faking the talent as well. Do you know what the boys have planned for their music?

JF: Well they both have independent music projects, Bill a.k.a. Silibil is now a dance music character called Lance Carter and Gavin’s got his band, Hopeless Heroic, so they are both trying to do stuff separately. But you know there’s a guy in the film, Jonathan Shalit, who has a quote, though he says it very cruelly, but he says ‘together they were brilliant, but apart they were worthless’. Sadly he’s right as they have not had much success trying to go it alone. So when they reunited at SXSW they actually started recording together again, so I think they have a new album coming out when the theatrical release happens here in the UK in July.

DS: Well that is great news. I often wondered during the course of the film how much of their material was just them and how much was born from the personas the put on every day?

JF: I think they just lost touch with who they were as people.  It was a story that had a kernel of truth to it and then just became exploited with time, so they behaved badly because that’s what they thought people expected of them and then they just couldn’t control the lying.  I think Billy started to despise Gavin for adding on to the story all the time, embellishing the lie and making it bigger. I think they just became other people and just lived that out for the whole time they were pulling off the hoax and that’s what really drew me to the story.  I mean what happens if you lie about whom you are but invent characters you despise and hate? Then you are trapped in this character? That just seemed really delicious for me as a filmmaker.

DS: So Jeanie, what is the future of the film at the moment, you mentioned it was getting a release?

JF: It’s been picked up by Vertigo Films in the UK so it’s going to have a cinema release, they currently have Spring Breakers out in the UK but I think we’ll be their next release. We’ve also been picked up by Kaleidoscope Entertainment for worldwide sales and we’ll go out on BBC Storyville later in the year. So who knows, there’s some broadcastings coming up and the theatrical release but we are also looking to put the film out elsewhere.

DS: Well at least the ball seems to rolling already. And what about for you personally, the last couple of films have been set in the music industry, what’s on tap for you? Are you going to continue in the film industry for a while?

JF: I currently have 2 films in production at the moment, one of them…. I mean let me just say I didn’t set out to make films specifically about the music industry but all the stories attached to it always seemed so intriguing and I’m just seduced by them. Of the 2 films coming up one’s called Orion: The Mask of Elvis.  The film is about a singer that was signed to Sun records in the months after Elvis’ death then given a mask to wear and hundreds of thousands of people believed he was Elvis back from the grave. It’s a film about the ghost of Elvis really, and what’s it like to live your live as someone else, it’s kind of the brother film to Great Hip Hop Hoax though it’s more tragic. The singer’s life ended tragically 15 years ago when he was murdered in Alabama, so it’s the whole rise and fall. I’m also making a film called Pantomime, not to be confused with silent mimes, Pantomime is a British tradition of family aimed stage productions from small acting companies focused mainly around the Christmas season, about the great British tradition of Pantomime and about a very low budget Pantomime in Nottingham where I live.  It’s an amateur dramatic company putting on Puss n’ Boots in a time of recession and then just about holding it together.  It was really fun; I worked with war photographers to help film this in the wings and behind the scenes and the film turns into a series of micro dramas.

Great Hip Hop Hoax screens again on Friday, May 3rd at 11:45pm at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema, and Saturday, May 4th at 8:30pm at the ROM Theatre.

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