Matthew Bate, who directed the film about an audio experiment gone viral, on sleepless nights, the psychology of the "man-boy," and how we must question EVERYTHING.
By Katharine Relth
Upon moving into their new apartment in San Francisco, Midwestern punks Mitchell D and Eddie Lee Sausage were warned that their neighbors were "sometimes a little loud." After several sleepless nights listening to their two elderly neighbors spew hateful drunken words at each other, they did what any normal person would have done: they got out their audio equipment and started recording.
After several tapes were filled with cursing, bigotry and alcohol-fueled arguments, they invited their friends over to listen in on the fun. Those friends copied the tapes and sent them to their friends, who sent copies to their friends in other cities... And before Mitch and Eddie could say, "You shut your mouth when you're talking to me!," their tapes had become a viral sensation across the country.
Wait. Did we mention that this was all in the late 80s? You know, that time before the Internet was everywhere? That time before YouTube? How did this small piece of pop culture gain such a massive following without access to hyperlinking and Facebook?
This question and more is explored in Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure, a documentary by Australian filmmaker Matthew Bate (who also just so happens to be a record collector). He first stumbled on the Shut Up Little Man! recordings almost 15 years after they were created, and his fascination with those tapes and the people involved in their dissemination led him to tell the story of its creators, enthusiasts, and stars. We sat down with Bate to discuss inheriting sleepless nights, the psychology of the "man-boy," and how we must question EVERYTHING.
Tribeca: I understand that you first came across the SULM recordings thanks to a suggestion from a fellow record store patron. Can you describe that first listening experience?
Matthew Bate: I collect records, and I was in a store with this older bloke named Ron, who’s one of those guys that know about very obscure things and turn you onto music you've never heard of. He just wrote "SHUT UP LITTLE MAN" on a record bag and said, "You've gotta go home and listen to this." I remember going to Eddie Lee Sausage's website, and he's got a few audio clips on there. I'd been told that these recordings were two old guys fighting, but it didn't prepare me for the brutal nature of Peter and Raymond's relationship.
It's a very complex thing. I think you start off and it's quite funny. You're intrigued, and it's like seeing a car accident: you're kind of compelled to keep watching. You go through different stages listening to it. It's funny, and then you start to realize how tragic it is. You start to think, who were the guys recording it? What was the story behind that? What's the morality of what they did? And where's my place in this voyeuristic tryst that exists between the recorder, Peter and Raymond, and you, the listener?
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film
Tribeca: Part of this film focuses on the intellectual property rights behind these tapes, in particular the race toward developing the story into a narrative feature film. What made you think that the story behind these recordings was best suited for the documentary format?
Matthew Bate: The people who tried to make the film version of Peter and Raymond all told me that they wanted to make a Beckett play. They wanted to make a film about Peter and Raymond specifically, and none of them really wanted to make a film that involved Eddie and Mitch and their part in the whole thing, which I think is one of the most crucial elements of the story.
More than that, a documentary allows you to open up a discussion about the morality of the recordings. It opens up this whole other world to explore, and to me that's much more interesting than making a story about two old blokes fighting in a room. I think [the Peter and Raymond thing] is kind of a dead-end, in a way--it's just too old guys arguing nonstop, and I think it's a hard film to make.
Also, if you make a dramatic film about it, you'd have actors playing the part. The beauty of the recordings in my documentary is that they are real. You're listening to unadulterated reality, and it's completely fascinating. If you have two actors doing the lines, to me it just doesn't work. The fact that these two old men were speaking in this incredible language using these turns of phrases like, "If you wanna talk to me then shut your f***in' mouth!" You could have 20 of the greatest Hollywood scriptwriters working in a room for a year, and no one would come up with that line. There's something beautiful about their reality. Plus, I'm a documentary filmmaker and not a drama filmmaker, so there was that!
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film
Tribeca: I thought it was fascinating that something like this could happen without a platform like YouTube or the Internet. It made me wonder if the whole mythology behind the SULM recordings would have been as great in the age of YouTube and this flash-in-the-pan, of-the-moment memology?
Matthew Bate: It's hard to say in a way. I think that there's every chance that it would appear and I would email it you, and you would email it to your mate, and we would only spend two minutes listening to it and think, "This is some crazy stuff," and we'll go on to the next one. I think possibly we've become used to these things. Also, the fact that it's audio. We live in an age where see a lot of video--YouTube's filled with video tapes where we can actually see someone being humiliated or a celebrity going on a rant or whatever it is. Maybe we're hungrier for visual stimuli now.
The actual recordings are much more than a two-minute video clip. It's much more than Christian Bale ranting for 5 minutes. This is 14 hours of material. I think it's actually far, far more complex, and you can read a lot more into it about the nature of humanity or relationships or love, or whatever it is you want to read into Peter and Ray's relationship. 14 hours--I mean, that's a kind of monolithic thing. These memes we're talking about are often 2-minute video clips or 2 minutes of audio. This is 14 hours of someone's life distilled down, which I find amazing. Having listened to all 14 hours and digested it all, it really is a quite amazing thing.
Tribeca: Do you think that our attention spans couldn't handle it today?
Matthew Bate: Possibly. I can't use myself as an example, because I listened to it because I was making a film about it. But there are people out there on the SULM Facebook site who do know everything. I mean, these guys quote it religiously and seem to know every detail, and have these pop quizzes about intimate details of Peter and Raymond's life that they've taken from these recordings. Like anything, there are these freaks and weirdos out there who do listen to this stuff and pore over the lore of Peter and Raymond.
Image courtesy of Tribeca Film
Tribeca: As an audio verite enthusiast, are you envious that you weren't right there alongside Mitch and Eddie during the illicit recordings of their neighbors?
Matthew Bate: Not really. I can understand why they did it. Having been in "young men" apartments before and living in share houses, we had really noisy neighbors. You have to think about what they went through, which is what I think a lot of people fail to remember. They went through hell; living next door to these guys would have been really, really terrible. Literally, they couldn't sleep.
It's an interesting reaction to record [Peter and Raymond]. In a way, it's kind of a stroke of genius. It's not until later on when it becomes commercialized that it becomes kind of insidious. At the time is was just a private joke, this private thing that they shared with one another. This tape gets out and accidentally leaks in the underground and becomes this sensation. I think they were innocent for a long time. It wasn't until they started to commercialize it, and Hollywood got hold of it, that it becomes a much more insidious thing.
Tribeca: I heard about a strange filming experience while you were in San Francisco. Can you tell us more about that?
Matthew Bate: I remember leaving [Australia] on a Friday morning, traveling for 30-odd hours, and then arriving on San Francisco on a Friday morning. So it's really backwards! I was of course hyped and excited about this film and worried and all that stuff that you are when you set out to make a film--wondering if things were going to pan out. I was in this hotel in San Francisco and I just couldn't sleep. And it was like day one, day two... and I thought, "Two days of sleeplessness. Surely, tonight I can sleep." Day 3: still can't sleep. [We were] filming each day [and] I had no sleeping pills.
We went to O'Looney's, which is where Pete and Ray would buy their alcohol. Pete used to drink this sh***y vodka called Royal Gate Vodka, and I bought a memento bottle of it. I went home that night and again, I couldn't sleep. So I started to drink this rotgut vodka--it's like paint stripper, this stuff. I remember drinking this horrible vodka with this cheap orange juice that I bought, stuck in this horrible little hotel in San Francisco, feeling very much like I was Peter: staring through these blurry eyes, mumbling inanities at the television and swearing at myself. I think that I became Peter Haskett over the course of these four days of sleeplessness.
You have some great drugs in America though. This Ambien stuff that we ended up getting totally knocked me out. I wept with delight and relief!
Photo courtesy of Tribeca Film
Tribeca: What was your relationship with Mitch and Eddie like before the project started? How did that change over the course of filming?
Matthew Bate: It's a learning curve for me. That relationship you have with your documentary subjects is always quite interesting. With this film in particular, I knew all along I was going to have to ask these guys certain questions, and question their morality, and have them explain it to me. I wanted to understand whether or not they thought that some of what they had done was wrong, basically.
We became friends--I traveled to Wisconsin to meet Mitch, and I hung out with his family for a week for this preliminary shooting and research mission. We had Eddie come over, and then we flew them to Australia. We got along really well. They're both great guys and we have a lot in common; we shared a lot of musical interest and all that stuff, and we became friends. But then of course you have to do your job, which is to question them and make them question themselves.
Tribeca: Who do you imagine will be influenced or affected by this story?
Matthew Bate: I knew there was a fanbase of SULM fans out there, and that they were going to want to see the film, but I also knew I knew I wanted to make a film that appealed to people who had no idea about SULM, which is the vast majority of the audience. It's a film that I hope would appeal to SULM fans but will also make those fans question why they are fans and why they laugh at the material. People seem to enjoy the film and enjoy the journey that it takes you on. As a voyeuristic audience member, it makes you laugh, but it also makes you question why you laugh.
It's definitely a fantastic look at pop culture in a much more complex way, and the nature of new media and new information technologies we have. I think privacy is one of the most important issues of our time, more than ever. Given that we have YouTube and access to phone cameras and that kind of thing, it comes with that moral responsibility. I think the film questions that, and uses Peter and Raymond as an example. It's almost like Peter and Raymond were like an early warning sign of what was to come. They're an early meme, if you like. A pre-Internet, pre-digital age meme.
But look at what can happen now when a similar thing occurs. When Star Wars Kid films himself in a broom closet being a Jedi and 60 million people watch it, what detrimental effects does it have on that kid? I think there's a lot to say about the nature of media and popular culture, and the way that we ingest it. There are a few films that did this recently: Winnebago Man and Catfish. I think it's captured a certain zeitgeist about this kind of media, which I think an audience will appreciate.
Catch Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure at IFC Center beginning Friday, September 19. Q&As with subjects Mitch and Eddie will follow the 6:25 & 8:25 pm screenings on Friday and Saturday (9.16-9.17), with special guest Patton Oswalt moderating the Q&As on Saturday. Tickets on sale now.
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Watch the trailer: