By the age of 30, I was worried that I had really screwed up my life.
I'd spent the last two years with Kings of Leon in the beginning stages of their career -- I'd signed Nathan and Caleb Followill to their initial songwriting deals and watched as their younger brother Jared taught himself the bass by learning how to play "Is This It" (within a year they were actually opening for The Strokes on their tour). I saw them recruit their cousin Matthew as guitarist, who at that time only knew how to play a few classic rock songs. Caleb's fractious lyrics already showed the soul of a poet, while Nathan's breakneck drumming was fast becoming the backbone of their garage punk sound. They were poised for success.
And then the music publisher fired me.
I was immediately cut off from the band, who had become like brothers to me, and forced to watch from the sidelines as they skyrocketed to success. I was proud of them. I would take the haters personally and want to fight. However, I couldn't even bring myself to watch their first performance on Letterman -- for them a major achievement, but for me a painful reminder of how I was no longer along for the ride.
When I met back up with them during their first album tour, I was frozen stiff as they slammed through their set. Overwhelmed with personal disappointment, I couldn't enjoy the moment. Caleb saw every second of this from the stage (he hates a stiff crowd) and thought I wasn't into the show. "You stand there like you don't know us?" he yelled at me later that night. "We played our asses off and you don't even move?" Frustrated, I left the venue with even more distance between us.
Five years later, the Kings were huge overseas and the US was just beginning to take notice. I was waiting tables at a diner in the East Village and would sometimes hear their songs on the radio during my shifts.
Over a Christmas holiday in Nashville I bumped into Nathan and he suggested I meet up with Caleb to clear the air. I went over to Caleb's house to have a few beers... It wasn't an easy conversation, but I told him I meant no harm back on that first tour. I was just bummed I wouldn't be enjoying success with them. And, that I valued our friendship. We laughed about the old days in their mom's garage, and how even back then we'd sensed that something big was about to happen. I'd been filming them at the time on a cheap camcorder, but the tapes had been stolen on their first tour.
A few months later Caleb called to ask me what my work schedule looked like. I said I was figuring things out, but that I still wanted to make movies. He didn't say anything for few seconds. Then he told me the band wanted me to film them in the recording studio as they made what would become their next album, Only By The Night. They wanted to go super raw and be themselves. I got on the next plane down to Nashville.
And what began as a documentary of their album evolved into a feature length film about a world-renowned band that few people truly know. There is the obvious back-story that's been peddled in nearly every news article written about them: three sons of traveling Pentecostal preacher (and their cousin) reject holy rolling virtue for rock n' roll iniquity... But there was a greater story: the sudden rise to fame and consequent struggles within a band that is foremost a family, and the pressures of success that threaten this closely knit group.
A large portion of the film was spent at the band's family reunion in Talihina, OK where they vacation each year. Their aunts and uncles, cousins and second cousins, Granny Mildred and Grandpa "Pop" Leon (for whom the band is named) are as much a part of the film as the band themselves. It's a modest place -- they stay in small wooden cabins they built themselves, fish in the creek, play horseshoes at night. And it may be one of the only peaceful times in their otherwise hectic schedule of constant touring and recording, year after year.
A month after the reunion in '08, we were off to Glastonbury for their headlining set. I followed them around on their biggest world tour to date, glimpsing the highest echelons of success -- London's O2 Arena, backstage at SNL, dinner at elBulli... The pace of the band's rapid ascent was surreal to witness. And it was the ride of a lifetime for me.
With the inestimable assistance of producers Casey McGrath and Josh Levine, and editor Paul Greenhouse, we sifted though over 700 hours of footage to bring this band's story to life. I hope it is a faithful reflection of the band and the moment we have tried to capture. If in some small way I helped Kings of Leon in the early days, now ten years later, they have more than helped me find my voice as well.
And yes, Caleb still checks from stage to see if I'm rocking or not.
Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon premieres on Showtime on Sunday, August 21st at 10pm ET/PT.