Steve Hanft"I got to rework his script and put some weird ideas in there... like Kate Moss making the guy eat Fruit Loops."
I was introduced to Steve Hanft's work when I was about 15. I remember watching a compilation show on MTV, something like "120 Minutes Flashback" on music videos of the 90s. Beck's video for his song "Loser" stood out—flaming squeegees, aerobics in a graveyard. It was all good. I ended up finding a bunch of other videos he directed for Beck, L7, ICP. Eventually I was lead to his feature film, Southlander: Diary of a Desperate Musician, the story of a guy who loses his white Monotron synthesizer and journeys through LA to find it, coming in contact with a bunch of weirdos throughout (Beth Orton, Beck, Hank WIlliams III, Ross Harris, Mark Gonzales), most giving great and strange performances. It seemed like it had been shot freely and retained that raw sensibility and humor I loved from his music videos. The drunk dream sequence of Ross Harris playing guitar and lip syncing his song in a diner is still one of my favorites.
Did you study filmmaking?
Well, I started out with photography— black and white, printing, and everything. At some point I wanted to break away from just doing stills and get into moving imagery—some dream stuff. I went to California Institute of the Arts. I studied experimental live action film. I received a BFA and a MFA because I went for five years.
You’re originally from L.A.?
I was born in Ventura, and I also lived in Fillmore and Simi Valley. Little, tiny towns in Ventura County.
I read that before you started making music videos you made a full length movie.
Yeah, my MFA thesis feature was Kill the Moonlight.
What was the film about?
The main character was named Chance. He was a stock car racer who was not a winner. He was a loser. There was this area called the Saugus Speedway—his environment, and I wanted to see what it was all about.
What was the vibe of the movie?
There was just no romanticism involved in that film. That was the experiment, to make a feature narrative film with a story that doesn’t have a moral. It was just anti-romantic, it’s just like, it’s just what it is.
Beck is on the soundtrack. How did you guys meet?
I was working on Kill the Moonlight in about 1990, and going out to a lot of shows—Nirvana, The Melvins, the whole grunge rock scene. I’d see Beck, and he would jump up on stage. He wasn’t on the bill, but he would just play a song. I liked his songs, and so I asked him to do some music for Kill the Moonlight. Then we started to collaborate. He liked the film a lot. I think the song Loser is based on the film Kill the Moonlight.
Asher told me that you were in a band called Loser.
I had a band called Loser before I met Beck. It was with Steve Hillenburg, who’s the creator of Spongebob. He was the guitar player with our friends Clare and Carlos. We would all jam at CalArts. After I graduated from CalArts, my band broke up, and I just started jamming with Beck and some of his friends. And we just kept the name Loser. Beck got a little record deal with Bong Load, around the same time that he was jamming in our band.
What other bands were you in?
Liquor Cabinet. Arrowhead Man. Sexy Death Soda. Tommy & The Demons. Several others, Mime Crime. That was all silent.
Yeah. Like air guitar.
We recently played at the Troubadour. We opened up for That Dog.
You guys just get on stage and like mimic a band? With your hands?
We take it pretty seriously. The audience laughs a lot, but we try and get real serious about our timing. We have songs with different mimes in them. At the end of the show, we always chainsaw something. With a real chainsaw.
Like a cake. One time we chainsawed the coffin that we used in the Loser video. I think Mime Crime was in the Loser video. Some of the guys.
How did the Loser video come about?
Well like I said, Beck had got a deal from Bong Load records, and they gave us $300 to make a video. I had some film in my fridge with a bunch of different stocks—black and white, color, fast, slow, different speeds. I thought it would look cool to have a music video with 16 different stocks of film. I made a storyboard that had a coffin moving through town.
There’s this one film by Luis Buñuel where there’s this moving coffin... Simon of the desert?
Yeah, I was referencing that film, which was actually referencing some other film from 1914 by this surrealist... I forget her name. I would see so many experimental films at CalArts that I don’t remember.
Were there lots of screenings?
Well, my mother was a film librarian at CalArts, and so we were always projecting experimental films in the living room, and all the way through my life. We were always projecting films instead of watching TV. Experimental films.
That sounds cool.
Yeah, it was. But, oh yeah, that coffin in the video was originally made for the band Loser. Beck would play most of the first song inside the coffin and then would kick it open, come out and play the solo.
After Loser came out you started directing a ton of music videos, right?
How were you getting the projects?
The first two years, I only did music videos where I liked the band. Then, around ’96, I had this huge stack of CDs of people that wanted me to do videos. I figured I would write treatments for all of them.
So you stopped being discerning by your personal taste.
I mean, I did the L7 video, the Blues Explosion and the Beck videos. They’re my friends, I loved doing it, but it wasn’t a way to get big budgets and start shooting on 35- millimeter, which is something I wanted to try. They might be the worst band in the world, but they were popular. I decided that was a good reason to make a video. It really changed my entire way of thinking.
I really like the Insane Clown Posse video.
I really liked working with them. They were very creative in an original way.
So those films were both your concept?
Hocus Pocus was my concept. The other one, How Many Times was theirs.
Were you into both?
I like directing somebody else’s concept. I didn’t get to do that that often. I normally write my script. The Primal Scream Video I did was written by Irvine Welsh, who wrote Trainspotting. He wrote the treatment for the video, and then he started to direct it, but didn’t wanna finish for some reason. I jumped at the chance. They were like, “Kate Moss is gonna be in it. And Devon Aoki.” I got to rework his script and put some weird ideas in there... like Kate Moss making the guy eat Fruit Loops.
This reminds me of that documentary you did for Elliot Smith. It starts out as this typical portrait and then goes really bizarre.
That was so weird. I was hired to make a documentary on him. I went over there to Portland and met with him before, without any cameras. We just talked for like two days. What I got out of it was like he wanted it to be fucked up. That was his words. I was like, “Well, what if you wrote down some of your dreams?” He said he didn’t remember any, but the next day when he was driving me to the airport he told me he had had a bunch of dreams. We sat there at the Starbucks and wrote them all down on the napkin. That was the script.
This sounds really different from making something for Hootie and the Blowfish.
Strange Parallel was like a return to my roots with experimental filmmaking. My documentaries are like my features: they are all a diary in the form of film, not some straight voice of god type film. With Elliott’s film the script was a dream come true. He was a huge Beatles fan and wanted films like the Beatles—rock and roll films that are weird and funny.
How did Southlander start?
Propaganda Films was a production company that was begging me to sign to do music videos. This was at a point where I was trying to break into Hollywood to make features. I noticed that they had produced a couple of really great features: Barfly and Wild at Heart. I told them that I would sign with them if they put it in in the contract that they would produce a film down the line.
So that was how you started it?
Well, a couple years later they were going bankrupt. I brought up the feature and they said they didn’t have much money. I told them to “give me what you have and I’ll make it.”
That was Southlander?
Yeah. I was working a lot at the time so it took a couple years to edit. That’s why it didn’t come out until 2003. It was written and shot in just a couple weeks. There’s no real script, it was just a six-page treatment.
I was wondering about that.
We wrote a lot of the dialogue, but there would just be pages that we’d bring. It wasn’t a complete script.
Southlander co-stars Ross Harris, who’s acted in a lot of your videos. What’s your relationship with him?
I work with him all the time. He directs, too. He just directed a Vans skateboard commercial.
He kind of steals some scenes he’s in.
You know he was also the little kid star in Airplane.
Ha, so he’s been acting a while. How did you meet him?
I met him at Greenpeace, we were both going door to door asking for money to, you know, help ecology. He had this house in the valley where he’d have these crazy parties. Beck and I would jam out there.
I saw those Ray Ban commercials you made recently. They’re awesome.
My friend Benzo directed those and I produced them. When he told me about the first one I was like, "I could produce the shit out of this video." I ended up starring in it, too. We just focused in on his concept which was a magic trick, and somehow hammered it together with camera tricks and tests and things.
Are you guys using reversal?
I’m not allowed to reveal it. There’s one guy named Captain Disillusionist on Youtube and he’s got this video where he explained every shot, how it was done. He’s got most of them right, but he’s got a couple wrong, and we’re not gonna let him know. If you make the trick so hard to figure out people with silver spray paint all over their face will analyze it for like, 30 hours. Then it just gets more hits.
I like them for that reason too.
It’s funny because I was trying to get into Cannes Film Festival my whole life. With my features and short films... And when I finally get in, it’s for the sunglasses ads.
What else have you been working on the past couple years?
Mostly squeegeeing out improvised no budget films. Making videos, shorts, producing and acting in friend’s films. For a year or two I slowed down on directing music videos to take care of my Ma. During that time I finished two feature scripts. I kind of went back to the drawing board on how to write a movie. Now I'm back to shooting and editing music videos every day. Which is wicked. Seeing how people respond on the regular kind of proves my theory that a film made less commercial is actually more popular than something made by the squares in the commercial world.