A Conversation with Breaking Bad's RJ Mitte
Mike Ragogna: Hey, first of all I wanted to congratulate you on your run on Breaking Bad. You played a great character and you enlightened a lot of people on CP.
RJ Mitte: Thank you. It was fun. A job's a job and it was an amazing opportunity. Breaking Bad gave me a career. It gave me the ability to work with the organizations that I work with. It keeps me going. I'm not stopping any time soon.
MR: And you're a DJ, too?
RJ: Yeah! Well, I wouldn't go that far. I love music, I have a lot of friends in music, a lot of friends who are DJ-ing and I got the opportunity to do a couple of sets and I took it. It's going to be fun. I'm excited that they're allowing me to do it. I think it's going to turn out nicely.
MR: Nice. A lot of DJs have their own trademark style, what is RJ's version of that?
RJ: These sets are going to be a little bit different from what people are used to hearing. It's not going to be heavy tech, it's going to be a mixture of old and new styles back and forth. I'm going to be incorporating a little bit of the Breaking Bad music in it, too.
MR: Did you ever participate in any of the musical choices in the show?
RJ: No, there's a whole music team for Breaking Bad, but I'm very good friends with them. I've talked music with them for over seven years and they're rad. I didn't have to participate in that, they do it on their own. They're already good enough, they didn't need some sixteen year-old saying, "Maybe you should play this."
MR: RJ, what are your favorite styles of music? What are you listening to right now?
RJ: I listen to everything across the board. I listen to eighties rock, I listen to nineties hip hop, I listen to modern tech, everything. I enjoy music, my little sister's a singer, I have friends that are into music, I've always been around music. I enjoy it, I enjoy what people can do. Music is something amazing that I like to see because it can impact emotions. Music can make people feel things. Yes, actors on television can do the same thing, but music does it in a matter of seconds. You can listen to a song and you can feel things, you can see things, you can feel emotions that without it you can't do on your own. I love music for that. It inspires people, it gets people up, it gets people moving, it gets people dancing and it brings people together. I think it's an amazing piece of art.
MR: Did you ever consider becoming a musician?
RJ: I did, I've tried, I taught myself a few things on piano--actually I moved down the street from a piano teacher and I'm talking to her about taking lessons, but because of my CP it takes a lot of muscle control to get my fingers in place. It's not that I can't do it, it's just going to take a very long time. I've been wanting to learn a few different instruments, I don't know if this counts but as a kid I used to be able to play the washboard and the harmonica.
MR: Do music and acting come naturally to you?
RJ: It's interesting. I've been thrown into positions where I'm given the opportunity and I kind of go with it, like, "Well this is what I can do and what I can bring, let's see how I can work with that." When it came down to acting I was given an opportunity. My little sister was chosen to have a part in a campaign at Universal and I just kind of fell into it and it took off from there. It started growing and growing and I was able to land Breaking Bad from it. Same thing with everything else, I kind of get thrown into it and I always try to rise to the challenge. I love it. I love the arts. I love acting, I love music, I love working with the camera in front and behind. I think there's so much to it that people take for granted and people try to go into so many different aspects of fame and all kinds of things. I love creating something that people can feel. People can feel these things, people can feel the vibrations of music, people can feel acting and what they see on screen, the emotion of being put into a situation that they'll never normally be in, but it will take them on a ride to another place they didn't know they could go.
MR: How often do you watch the show?
RJ: I don't watch it. I've only seen the first and last episode of every season because I had to go the premieres. I can't stand my voice, I don't like how I look, if you see me at a premiere I'm usually plugging my ears and closing my eyes during my part.
MR: Wouldn't you watch out of curiosity, to see how the heck you did?
RJ: I don't want to, I don't like it, I just can't stand it. I don't like how I sound, it's not my thing. I'm not going to sit there and pick my performance apart because if I do that I'm going to dwell on it. If I continued to do that I probably wouldn't be acting.
MR: So you like being in the moment of doing it.
RJ: Yeah, that's what I love about it. I don't mind seeing the final product and seeing what other people were doing and how they were doing it, but when it gets to me I'm like, "Uh-uh, wait a minute." I enjoy being on set, that's what I love doing. I love being on set, I love creating a character on set, I love being a part of the cast and crew, that's amazing, but the final product is not for me, it's for everyone else.
MR: You mentioned you enjoyed working behind the camera as well. Are you picking up an education in production along the way? Are these shows that you work on your school?
RJ: Always. You're never not a student. We're always learning, always growing. You can not plateau. If you plateau in this industry you'll never grow as a performer or a person. Taking risks and challenges is a part of growth. I worked on Breaking Bad for seven years, I would see how set worked, I would see what everyone needed to do to get to that position to do their character or set up lighting or where the camera angles would go or what direction they needed, how to shoot a three-shot or a four-shot, how long it needs to be before we're over budget, how long we have before we have to get going, what we could take away and what we needed to take the time on. I'm always studying, I'm always learning.
MR: I imagine you've developed good friendships with various people behind the scenes. Have any of them been meaningful as far as mentorship or your growth as an actor?
RJ: Always. I take something away from everyone I meet. Everyone I work with, everyone that's part of my life, I learn from them, I grow from them, I see what they do and I see how they behave and I can take that away from it. I'm very observant, to a degree. I like to see how everything comes together. I've always been like this. It's always been part of my training. I'm a learn by doing and a learn by watching kind of guy, I'm not one of those guys who sits and reads a book all day, I'm one of those people who likes to be on set. I like to be there doing it hands on and seeing firsthand experience. That's where the real learning comes in. People don't realize, you can learn all day from a book or take classes all day, but at the end of the day when you're on set it's a whole different interval. When you're doing any type of performance you can sit there and practice all day, yes it's important to practice, but you won't learn unless you get out there. You won't ever know until you send it into the world and people give you the feedback.
MR: You were also GAP's main model for 2014. What did you take away from that experience and were you surprised by getting that gig?
RJ: I was very surprised by even the opportunity that they were giving me, and the honor. It's one of those things where you're always in shock and awe, but I couldn't imagine my life in any other direction. I think this is where I need to be and what I need to do. I think it's interesting to see where and how this road takes people. It's definitely a shocking road.
MR: And look at the string of really cool programs you've been associated with! Breaking Bad was cultural phenomenon. Weeds, to a degree, was the same. Vegas...
RJ: ...Vegas is kick ass!
MR: And now you've got Switched At Birth. Have you figured out what it is about you that's fitting into these iconic series?
RJ: I have no clue. They keep hiring me. I don't know why, but apparently it's working out. I'm very lucky in a sense. I've always been given amazing opportunities and I'd always like to be able to run with it and learn from it. I think it's interesting that I'm able to be a part of Breaking Bad and Switched At Birth and Vegas and all these shows that are giving me an opportunity to stretch my wings and stretch my abilities. I'm very lucky in a sense where every time I go to a set I'm always treated with respect and kindness. I've never been on a set where I was ever treated badly. I'm lucky that on every set everyone is so welcoming and warm and they welcome me with open arms. It's a family dynamic. I can only hope I can continue forward with that. I can only hope that they'll continue hiring me for these roles.
MR: It's really commendable that you're also the ambassador for United Cerebral Palsy of Oregon And Southwest Washington.
RJ: Yeah, I'm lucky. My disability gave me this opportunity. Without my CP, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have the ability that I have today, I wouldn't be able to use the knowledge that I have. I wouldn't even have the knowledge that I have. I'm lucky to have it. A lot of people are like, "Wouldn't you want to be normal?" I'm like, "I'm more normal than most people." I love it. I'm lucky that I have it and I'm lucky that these organizations allow me to work with them and allow me to be a part of them. UCP is one of many that I work with. I'm very lucky to see the world for what it is. I'm in a position where I'm allowed to see these people, I think it's really rad that I'm able to grow from it and I'm using it to my advantage and learning from it.
MR: I ask everybody this question, what advice do you have for new artists, whether they're musicians or actors?
RJ: You know, I say make sure it's what you love, because once you're in it you'll never want to leave it. Just always remember it's a business and you have to take everything with a grain of salt., so love it, make sure it's what you love and who you are, and if it is, go for it whole-heartedly. Don't be afraid of making mistakes, don't be afraid of taking that risk, because if you don't take a risk or put yourself out into a vulnerable positions you'll never grow and you'll never flourish. I think people take too many precautions. They need to set those fears aside and not let themselves be manipulated by their own fear and the fear of others looking at them.
MR: Hey we almost left out your film House Of Last Things.
RJ: Yeah, it's funny because I filmed that movie probably about five years ago now, it's really cool that it's out, it's on Netflix, it's rockin'. I haven't really seen too many bad things, I'm happy people are enjoying it. It was fun, it was quirky. We had a lot of fun. I have two movies that will be coming out hopefully in the near future that I shot last year. We just keep trucking along. If it's not one things it's another. I'm really looking forward to this DJ gig because this is a way for me to have a bit of a vacation. We're going to have a cool little bit here. I'm excited.
MR: How do you envision your future in the DJ world?
RJ: This is probably just going to be a one or two time thing. I'm auditioning like crazy right now, I just keep moving forward. I want to learn a couple of instruments, I've been working on them for a couple of years now, I taught myself the Harry Potter theme, I've taught myself a little bit of Journey, I have a couple songs in my piano repertoire. I just keep on moving forward, I just keep on working, that's all I can hope for, to keep hoping and keep pushing forward. I have a really good team, I work hard and they work hard, I'm excited to see what the future holds.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
ALEXZ JOHNSON'S "COLOGNE" EXCLUSIVE
According to Alexz Johnson...
"'Cologne' is one of my favourite tracks off my new album Let 'Em Eat Cake. I wanted the essence to be kind of french-new-wave, and literally like a cologne commercial. Having just been on tour with the amazing Breezy Baldwin documenting, it was the perfect opportunity to use that footage along with some extra outside scenes to put the video together. Being independent, you find ways to capture an essence, simply."
A Conversation with Chris Bliss
Mike Ragogna: Chris, you're one of the pillars of the Bill Of Rights Monument Project that, among other things, is trying to raise awareness about the principles contained within the document. Also, there'll be a benefit concert in Washington, D.C., headed by Lewis Black, but let's start with the project itself. What are its origins and what motivated you to pursue such a mammoth project?
Chris Bliss: It started from a comedy routine I was doing about the endless fights over displays of the 10 Commandments on public land. My solution was that instead of taking those down, we should put the Bill of Rights up next to them so that people can comparison shop. Because the Bill of Rights give you such an amazing deal. It says speak freely, bear arms, pursue happiness, and then it presumes that you are innocent, which is a much better deal than my religion offers me!
Then one night, I Googled "Bill of Rights Monuments," and was shocked to find there wasn't a single one, anywhere. At that point I made the fatal mistake of thinking to myself, "How hard can it be?" That was 9 years ago.
My motivation was to find a positive, common ground project that all Americans could embrace, and that championed the ideals and aspirations that made America great to begin with. Not that democracy is ever quiet or harmonious, but I was and am pretty well fed up at the increasingly senseless divisiveness and finger-pointing of our national conversation, I figured there had to be higher ground and there it was...the Bill of Rights!
MR: There's been so much pandering and manipulation by politicians when it comes to documents like the Constitution and Bill Of Rights that many have become disillusioned and misinformed. Multiple interpretations of the right to bear arms is a perfect example of how these documents' original intentions have been skewed to mean anything anyone with an agenda wants it to mean. Is it your Bill Of Rights Monument Project's mission partly to reverse the large scale misinformation and abuse as well as educate about its essentials?
CB: The document stands on its own. It's less than 500 words, which is pretty remarkable, considering how much ground it covers. So the idea is to put these monuments front and center at the heart of our civic life--State Capitols--and let the Bill of Rights speak for itself.
The reason we chose monuments is that they have a unique way of connecting us with our heritage, making history visible, tangible, and unforgettable, especially for younger people, who are the reason we chose to focus on State Capitols - because every school kid takes a field trip to his/her State Capitol at some point. That's several million impressionable young Americans, every year for the next 100 years, experiencing the Bill of Rights in monumental form. I'm not naive enough to think these monuments will leave an impression on all or even most of these kids, but the ones it does impact are the ones most likely to end up working in those buildings, and Washington.
MR: What goes into the physical creation and transportation--if that applies--of these monuments?
CB: The public monument process is different in each State, but follows the same basic template. First you get legislative and/or agency approval for your monument. Then comes the site selection process, followed by the design development and design approval processes. And then of course you have to raise the money. It's pretty straightforward, but it's still a lot of process. Then again, when you're advocating for one of the ultimate process documents, it's kind of hard to argue against process.
MR: Does it surprise you that millions of people don't know the difference between the Bill Of Rights and the Constitution or even know their origins?
CB: It's not surprising that many Americans are largely ignorant of these documents and their history, since we currently spend so little time teaching civics and basic citizenship, and since they have almost no presence in our public square. We figure that addressing the public square deficit will act as a catalyst for the educational one.
MR: Did you like history in general when you were in school and what is your personal education relative to historical government documents?
CB: I've never been that interested in history. I was always more into literature, and the power of ideas. That's why I'm attracted to the Bill of Rights. It's proven to be one of the best and most effective ideas in the brief history of human freedom, and, I'd argue, is just as critically important to its future. If I didn't think freedom of expression, equality under the law, and the presumption of innocence--to name a few of the freedoms and principles in the Bill of Rights--weren't essential to finding the best solutions to the challenges we face today, I'd move on to the next thing.
MR: On a lighter note, Lewis Black, Dick Gregory, Tom Smothers, and others will be The Bill Of Rights Comedy Concert. How will the night's proceeds fund your project and raise awareness?
CB: This concert is mainly about raising awareness, which is why we're thrilled that it's being taped and turned into a special for Mark Cuban's network (AXS). The proceeds will go toward establishing our new matching fund endowment, which is designed to help other State efforts organize by guiding them through the monument process and offering matching funds. It's based on the lessons of our successful effort in creating America's first monument of the Bill of Rights, which we dedicated at the Arizona Capitol in 2012.
We calculate that we can create monuments on the same scale as Arizona (it's quite beautiful, incidentally) at every State Capitol in America for roughly the same amount of money that is would cost to build the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington today--in the neighborhood of $24 million. Since nothing motivates good deeds like a giant pool of money, the goal of the matching fund is to ultimately raise half that amount--$12 million--to seed new State-by-State efforts.
MR: Will there be any surprises at the concert? Any appearances by, oh, I don't know, a certain president or vice-president?
CB: I think President Mugabe might stop by. Does that count? Seriously, you never know in Washington, and we've certainly made those invitations, but from the start this has been a grassroots project. The Arizona monument's dedication reads "From the people, to the generations that follow..." There's not a single name of a single donor anywhere on the site - no corporate credits or logos--because the Bill of Rights is America's logo!
MR: Political jabsters such as Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert and others have had such an influence on the culture. What's your theory on why comedy works to energize and address serious issues?
CB: I've actually done a TED talk on that very topic, called "Comedy Is Translation." When comedy works the way you describe it, it's because it sneaks past people's walls and preconceptions, and gets them to look at something from a new and unexpected perspective. You get the joy of discovery and the endorphin rush of laughter, and it's very liberating. Also entertaining. And, like any valid art, it also leaves room for the viewer/listener to value add from their own experiences. In that sense, it's collaborative. The best comedians lead their audience to new questions, not answers.
MR: Have any politicians or government branches offered support for the project?
CB: As far as government support, our by-laws stipulate the funding be privately raised, so that's never been a temptation. Our mission is also nonpartisan and common ground, so we keep arms length from serving politicians, outside of getting the authorizing resolutions. That said, I do owe a shout out to Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat from Arizona, who was our original sponsor in the Arizona Legislature, and is now a second term Congressperson. After getting our authorization passed, she stayed with the effort in Arizona for the better part of four years, well after everyone else had forgotten about it and when there was no indication it had much chance of success, until we finally got the site we wanted. That kind of commitment, from a handful of people like Kyrsten, Lewis, Tom, and Mr. Gregory, along with ongoing support from Newman's Own Foundation, is the only reason we completed our first monument, and are now launching the matching fund with this great event at the Warner Theatre in Washington.
MR: What advice do you have for anyone wanting to get involved with this project beyond fundraising or donating funds?
CB: If you're interested in helping put together a project at your State Capitol or in your community, email me at chrisbliss@MyBillofRights.org, and I'll be happy to walk you through the first steps of the process to get a project rolling. That said, I'd also advise anyone interested in this to identify possible funding sources as early in the process as possible. It costs nothing but time to get an authorizing resolution, and possibly even a site. But everything from that point on--design development, approval, fabrication, and installation--costs money, so you will need to find those people. I personally knew no one and had very limited fundraising experience when I started, so it's not impossible. It just takes persistence and determination. And you're working with a great brand!
MR: How will you judge how successful the Bill Of Rights Monument Project is?
CB: I figure that if we can get 5 or 6 more projects underway at other State Capitols, then we'll have the critical mass to where people in other States decide they want the Bill of Rights, too. And we're really close to that. We've put our best foot forward with the Arizona monument, and with this show, and with a very solid and workable proposal for the matching fund. All we need is for a handful of people of prominence and reputation to come forward and add their names to this effort, by sponsoring their State or helping underwrite the matching fund. We've already proven we can take it from there. So I'm going to keep knocking on doors, because I know if I can just get in the room, I'll make the sale!
MR: When you've completed this project, what's next?
CB: I'd like to get back to writing and being that kind of artist. I'd also like to do more talks/shows at colleges and universities, and currently working on a show with a Pulitzer Prize winning friend of mine, Joel Pett. Our working title is The Liberal's Guide To The Apocalypse, because what's funnier than the End Times? I do have one other Great Big Idea, about how to counter the influence of big money in politics. But we better save that for the next interview...
MICHAEL STEC'S "PARTY DRESS" EXCLUSIVE
"'Party Dress' came to fruition somewhat over night while I was playing with my brother and cousin around 3am after an evening out. It has a contemporary surf-rock theme that gives way to a 'shoutout' chorus that urges the listener to sing along with its simple melody. We really enjoyed creating this song and the moments where we could just play it together."
A Conversation with Woody Allen Expert Robert Weide
Mike Ragogna: So what is this fascination you've got with comedians?
Robert Weide: I remember being a kid and seeing the last couple of years of The Ed Sullivan Show, the Johnny Carson era of The Tonight Show, I just love both standup comedy and film comedy. I have certain tastes, it's not that I love everything, but in the case of Albert Brooks and Woody and Mort Sahl and Kurt Vonnegut, you get to meet these people and hang with them and it's very cool.
MR: Breakfast Of Champions was an essential when I was a teenager.
RW: You know what's important to me? Lost In America.
MR: What a great movie, though I think the problem may be now that America might have taken a cue from that movie.
RW: Yeah, talk about prescient.
MR: Robert, what's your opinion of Woody Allen being a pioneer in comedy?
RW: That's an interesting question. I'm not the best one at essay questions like that although it's very legitimate. Personally, I just dote on originality. He was a unique voice, an original voice when he emerged. I think maybe what he did that hadn't quite been done before the way he did it was the neurotic New York Jew. They didn't really have a voice in standup. The contemporary urban Jew. He gave voice to that. My criteria is just what makes me laugh. Like I said, when I was in junior high and high school watching Albert Brooks on The Tonight Show he really made me laugh. Steve Martin made me laugh, Woody Allen just made me laugh. I was nine years old when Take The Money And Run came out, which was his first feature as a writer/director. There's nothing about that film that a nine year-old can't appreciate, so I saw it and I loved it and then the next year he did Bananas, which was a great movie for a kid and then Sleeper and Love & Death, so I grew up with his films. Annie Hall changed my life.
Once my interest in him accelerated to that next level, then I wanted to go back and learn about this guy and read about him and know other things that he did. This was before the internet, so back in those days, I would go to the library and they had The Readers' Guide To Periodical Literature. But I didn't just look him up. I looked up The Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce, I was the kid in the library reading about all of these things. Around about that time I discovered that his standup albums were reissued, so I bought what were then the current issues of his standup material and I thought it was some of the funniest standup comedy that I'd ever heard. It really made me laugh. Now everything is digital, our music is very portable, but back then when you had vinyl I would invite my friends over and we would just put on a comedy album. That was a thing you did back then. All my friends loved the stuff, too. It was hysterical.
Once I really started to look at Woody's full body of work, it was easy to see the connections between his standup bits and the bits that appear in his films and even his prose pieces from New Yorker and other magazines. There's certainly jokes and situations that repeat themselves and I found it interesting to play connect the dots with all of those. I just thought his standup was great. What's interesting about Woody is that he is very, very hard on himself in both his films and his standup--when he made Manhattan, he thought he'd botched it so badly that he offered to the studio to make another movie for them pro bono if they would not put out Manhattan. Who doesn't consider Manhattan a classic? But that's how he feels. He's very hard on himself.
MR: You mentioned connect the dots. For Woody's brand of comedy, where do the dots begin?
RW: The guy who changed it all was Mort Sahl, the subject of another of another one of my documentaries for American Masters. Mort just changed everyone who came after him. You could say that Will Rogers did political humor back in the thirties, but it didn't quite have the fangs that Mort Had. When Mort came along it was really jokes about your mother-in-law or your wife's cooking and woman drivers and the nightclub comedians all wore tuxedos and they were very polished and very brash. Mort just changed all that. Suddenly, he was doing not just political humor but all sorts of satire and looking at our daily lives and talking about things that really mattered. Mort created that wave, and on that wave came Lenny Bruce, Nichols & May and Second City. Then the next generation out of that was Woody and Bill Cosby and Joan Rivers and The Smothers Brothers, then the next wave was Robert Klein and David Steinberg.
There's a line through all of that, but it really starts with Mort Sahl. It was sort of a double edge sword because on the one hand, Mort inspired Woody to do standup because he was so brilliant. It's like what people say when they first hear Bob Dylan, "I didn't know music could sound like that." When Woody heard Mort it was like, "Oh, I had no idea that standup comedy could be this." It inspired him but at the same time it intimidated him because he said, "I'll never be as good as that guy." I think in an odd way that's still what holds Woody back from acknowledging how good his stuff is in the same way that with his movies he compares himself to the great world directors like Bergman and Fellini and others he admires so much.
MR: So like musicians, comedians, in general, are inspired by established comedians in a similar way?
RW: Yes. Mort was considered a political comedian and Woody did not do politics, but if you look at the early reviews of Woody when he first started to emerge in the early sixties, many of these reviews cite the Sahl influence in terms of delivery and pacing and phrasing and that kind of thing. I think Louise Lasser told me that at one point Woody's manager Jack Rollins said, "Back off of the Mort thing a little bit, you're starting to sound a little derivative." We're all an amalgamation of our various influences. When Woody was writing his early short pieces for the New Yorker he was very influenced by Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman. If you're going to be influenced by somebody, why not the best? I seem to recall he got a couple of very early pieces rejected by editors who said, "Can you make this a little less like Perelman?" But he certainly found his own voice eventually, to the point where other comics came along who started to sound like Woody. Every generation begets the next.
MR: It was almost like they took what he had but left his character. When you assembled this collection, did you come to any new revelations about Woody Allen?
RW: After such a great question I wish I had a great answer. I don't know that I do. I guess the big revelation for me is simply how well the stuff holds up. I know this isn't quite what you were getting at, but being a connoisseur of this thing I'm acutely aware that some comedy ages well and some doesn't. Look at Seinfeld, you can watch that now and it's as funny as it was, but if you watch other shows from the same era that were hugely popular then, Alf or something and you say, "Wow, people were really watching this not that long ago?"
A lot of standup and movie comedy dates very poorly. Again I say this just as somebody who takes the long overview of standup in general, I think Woody's standup just holds up very well. I make the comparison in the liner notes. Woody would actually hate this because he's no fan of sixties music at all, but I do make the comparison with The Beatles. Woody started his standup career in 1960, which is basically the same year that The Beatles started performing as a group with Pete Best and then Woody's first standup record came out in '64, which is when the Beatles came to America. Woody pretty much called it quits with standup around 1970, which is pretty much when The Beatles called it quits.
But the other comparison I make is that the work holds up. If you liked The Beatles music back in the sixties, chances are you'll like it now. If you thought that Woody Allen's work in the sixties was funny, chances are you'll find it still holds up. That was the big revelation, how sharp stuff is. It's both of its time and timeless. The things that he talks about are the sixties' thinking about dating and your parents and growing up and yet it doesn't feel dated at the same time. I should clarify, though: This wasn't my project. I didn't produce the record.
MR: No, but you had to focus on it for the assembly of the liner notes. Did you notice a growth across his three albums?
RW: I think basically you should jumble up the tracks from all three albums and pull them out at random and not really know what came from which album. I'd say he's pretty consistent. This isn't a long time, '64 to '68 is only four years, so it's not like his movies where you can compare Bananas to Match Point and see over decades how he's changed and evolved. I think if you really start to get into it you can hear in those later years that he's just a little more relaxed. Woody has told me--and he's said this elsewhere--he did not enjoy performing. He did not enjoy doing standup, he was pushed into it by his managers. He just wanted to be a writer but his managers thought he had a very funny stage presence and he would be great as a standup doing his own material instead of writing for others.
So they talked him into doing it but Woody was very, very hesitant. He finally got to the point where he was performing every night, but he said he would wake up in the morning and realize that he would have to go up on stage that night and it would just kill his whole day. He would have no appetite, he would be nauseated, he was not a born performer. He did say that once he got out on stage and the audience started laughing, then he was fine, but he still had all of this anxiety beforehand, pacing and even throwing up backstage.
As his movies became more successful he did less and less standup, but in around 1972 he had some contractual obligation to play Caeser's Palace. Eric Lax, who has written a number of biographies on Woody Allen, was backstage with him before he went on and said Woody was as calm as he could be, playing solitaire or something and not fretting about his act at all. I asked Woody about this and he said that by that time, it was nothing. Also I think the fact that he wasn't making his living as a standup anymore, the fact that he was making movies now sort of took the pressure off him.
MR: You've been looking at comedians doing standup and movies for years, where is comedy heading? Where is Woody heading?
RW: Professionally, he's in a very, very rare situation. In fact, I can't name you one other person who's in this situation, at least in the United States, where he gets to do a movie a year, he's got people lined up to finance the movies, he doesn't have to answer to anybody creatively, the people who finance his movies don't even see a finished script, which is outrageous. He doesn't spend a lot on his movies, they're all in the eighteen million dollar range which is peanuts by most standards, but it gives him creative freedom and year after year he knocks out a movie. If you saw the documentary you see he's got a whole drawer full of ideas, he'll never run out during his lifetime. Some movies come out great, some not so great, but he's just relying on the law of averages. If you get to do a movie year after year eventually one will come out that's pretty good. People made a big deal over this Amazon thing, I spoke to him subsequent to it, he said he doesn't have any idea what he's going to do, it's just that Amazon pursued him and pursued him.
He doesn't understand the whole concept of a miniseries. He watches very little, he really just watches movies and sports and news on TV, not serials. He didn't even really understand quite what Amazon was, but they kept pursuing him and they said, "Look, you can do whatever you want, there's no approval process, I think they threw a lot of money at him and typical of him he resisted. I think the people around him said, "Come on, what's the harm? Do this." He's not an internet person, he's never gone online or searched the web or anything, so all of this is quite confusing to him, but what's funny is he finally agreed and there was all this press that said, "Woody Allen is signed to do something with Amazon" and he told me the really funny thing was that people were actually congratulating him. "Hey, congratulations on your series!" and he shrugs and says, "Thank you, but I don't know what I'm doing." I talked to him on set one time about his creative freedom and I said, "Even Martin Scorsese has to defend himself creatively," and he said, "That's because Marty does pictures that cost seventy or eighty million dollars. I do mine for fifteen to twenty, that's why I don't have to argue with anybody." It puts him in an interesting situation, he's a brand name now. It's like if Chaplin was still alive and young enough to make movies. People wanted to be in the Chaplin business, people want to be in the Woody business. I just read yesterday that apparently Woody's coming back to LA to direct another opera.
MR: I saw his last one, is it revival?
RW: I don't know if he's doing the same one again or something new, it's just something that flew by me on the internet. But that's what he does. He can't sit still like a normal person and finish a movie and go on vacation or something. Once he finishes a movie, he'll take a few days or maybe a week off to just putt around, but after that he gets eager to get working again. If he's between movies, he'll tour Europe or write a screenplay or whatever. He's a guy who can't not be working.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists, in this case, comedians.
RW: I guess the nice thing about doing standup is it's like being a writer in that you can practice your craft without needing any money or other people. If you want to be an actor somebody's got to hire you for your gig and do the audition process and all that, but for a writer all you need is some quiet. That doesn't mean that anyone's going to buy what you like, but you can practice your craft. I've been out of the scene for a long time, I used to live at the improv during the eighties, all of my friends were comedians and I would sit at the round table with them and it was my hangout. It's been years and years since I've done that but I assume the process is still basically the same in places like The Comedy Store or The Improv or Gotham, you go up during an open mic night and get to practice your craft that way. You may only get five minutes but if you do well and you're there consistently enough they might have you come back. I guess that's still the route, but of course people get discovered on the internet now, too.
Back in the day when I first started making my films and documentaries, everything was film and it was expensive to buy the equipment and get film processed and edited and all that. Now you can spend a couple hundred dollars on a camera and edit something on your laptop, that's the other way people can go. The problem is that it's easier and easier to create something and put your work out there and it doesn't cost a lot to do so the problem is everyone else is doing it too. When you tell people you're going to make a video and put it on the internet, how do you make it pop out against the tens of thousands of other people doing the same thing? It's not something I know much about because I'm an elder statesman now and I don't have to worry about breaking in. I don't know enough about the scene now to pretend to give anyone advice, but the old tenets still hold, stick with it and don't let people shake your confidence or talk you out of it.
MR: If a Woody Allen had been born in the nineties, how would he or she stand out? Does anyone like that come to mind for you?
RW: Well, I do think the people who really make their mark, like a Woody or an Albert Brooks or a Bob Hope or a Mort Sahl, I think those people have something very, very special. I don't think it's just being able to write decent jokes and perform them decently, I think there is an element of something that you're born with. I think that applies to writers and artists. A friend of mine made the analogy that it's pretty much like tennis. Anybody can play tennis really, but only a few people can play tennis really well. I think that's true of comedy or any sort of creative endeavor. Anybody can do it, but there are a few people with a so-called, God-given talent who are just born with the gift. I think it's what Woody's managers acknowledged about him when he came to see them to talk about hiring him as a writer. They said, "This guy is just inherently funny. He should be on stage performing this." What you get with his standup is the early iteration of the screen persona which would eventually be so recognizable. That's one thing that's exciting about the standup, you see it forming, the earliest version of Woody Allen that we see in those first films, at least up through Annie Hall or even Manhattan.
MR: It seems like he's hit another stride that includes Midnight In Paris and other recent films. If he's not going on the internet, where does he get this inspiration to focus on subjects so currently relevant?
RW: I don't know, he's very old school. Everybody knows his wife is a few years younger than him, I think she keeps him plugged in a little bit. I know when he did Whatever Works, Soon-Yi suggested Evan Rachel Wood for that role. Woody's got his casting director Juliet Taylor who keeps him tuned in to young performers. There are few actors working today worth their salt who wouldn't love that call from Woody's casting director. He gets the best and brightest, he's now worked with Emma Stone twice, Joaquin Phoenix is in his new picture, I think he's surrounded by people who keep him more plugged in to contemporary culture than he would on his own. I don't think Woody knows anything about music post 1960 other than Sinatra. His music is jazz and classical, he's never cared about contemporary pop music, he doesn't stay on top of TV, I think he tries to see new movies every now and then, Diane Keaton is still very much a taste maker for Woody, she'll say, "You've got to see this movie." In his last collection of short stories, Mere Anarchy, there was a short story called, "This Nib For Hire." I read it in a Starbucks and it had me laughing so hard that I became very self conscious of being the laughing guy in the room. I had to put my hand over my mouth to keep from laughing and then my eyes were tearing up. I told my wife, "You've got to read this piece of Woody's, it's the funniest thing I've ever read."
That night, I was in my office working and I heard her in the bedroom, I thought she was crying or screaming or something. I go in there and she was reading the piece and screaming with laughter. The point I want to make in this is there's actually a joke about the internet and it surprised me that Woody knew enough about the internet to even make the joke he did. I think of him as being sort of a luddite. He still types on that manual typewriter he bought when hew as sixteen years old, he's never used a computer or word processor. On the one hand, he's very, very old school, but on the other hand, I think he has enough people who can keep him plugged in to the current culture so that he doesn't come off as one of those guys who are totally out of touch.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Anne McCue
Mike Ragogna: Anne, your latest album, Blue Sky Thinkin', started with a different musical intention until you wrote the title track. What's that story and how did it set a paradigm for the rest of the project?
Anne McCue: People have always urged me to make a blues album and I thought that this was going to be it. My mind decided to make a swampy blues record, but my heart decided otherwise! I went out to L.A. to record the album with Dusty Wakeman, Dave Raven and Carl Byron and I came back with 6 songs from the pre-rock era--speakeasy-style swing--and another 6 from all over the joint--Stonesy, Albert King-ish etc. As a whole it didn't all fit together. I was perplexed and then made up my mind to write and record 6 more songs that would fit into the 1920s, '30s and '40s feel. I'm glad I did. "Blue Sky Thinkin'" was the first song I wrote in that style, with my good buddy Bob Saporiti, aka Reckless Johnny Wales. It really set the tone, especially with its optimistic, cheery outlook--something I haven't necessarily ever written before.
MR: When the album started taking shape, did things change along the way? Were you aware of its evolution as it was happening?
AM: I was trying to force myself to play and write in a style - blues rock - that I just didn't really want to. It was quite strange because I love playing that style of music. Also, my friend Regis Jnr.'s song 'Knock On Wood' kept going 'round my head for some reason, so I decided to learn it and record it. It sounds like it was written in 1933. There was no going back after that!
MR: What was the recording process like?
AM: We recorded at Dave Raven's Honky Abbey in Los Angeles. He lives in an old rectory - a gorgeous 1920s house which we took over, upstairs and downstairs. We had cables running all over the place. We used ribbon microphones where we could - to get that old, warm sound and we would all play the songs together. Carl was downstairs on the piano and I was upstairs in the library. I was totally blown away by Dusty, Carl and Dave, at their understanding of the music and what was required. I guess we all had Swing in our back pockets. I then took the tracks back to my own studio--Flying Machine--in Nashville and there I recorded the clarinet, trombone, saxophone, trumpet, violin and some more upright bass. A shining light on this project is Jim Hoke who arranged the horns and played clarinet. Deanie Richardson's violin captures the spirit of Stéphane Grappelli and Randy Leago had the brilliant notion to play the solo on baritone sax for "Save A Life." So classy.
MR: Your last album was released in 2010. Why the five year wait?
AM: I hit one of those transitory points in my life a few years back. I have driven through 46 States playing music, thousands of miles on the road, most often alone... and one afternoon I woke up at a friend's house in Podunk, USA and I thought, "I don't want to do this anymore." It was time for a break! I took a step back from the whole business and started looking for the reasons I was playing music in the first place. Why had I ever picked up a guitar? I felt like I was on a kind of treadmill, making albums so I could tour, but there wasn't a lot of time to dwell in the silence and find the music that was coming down from the ether. In a thrift store in the middle of Nowhereville, Pennsylvania, I found a vinyl box set called The Swing Years. I bought it for a dollar and took it home and played it. We had had that exact same collection--Cab Calloway, Fats Waller, Benny Goodman, etc.--when I was a kid and I had loved it. Somehow the spirit of those recordings took over my soul and voila, I was "Blue Sky Thinkin'"!
MR: Nice. What is it about your music that keeps you energized to keep creating?
AM: I suppose, really, it is an uncontrollable urge. If I don't play music for a week or so, I start getting edgy and I feel a bit mental. It's my therapy and my medication and my life source. And also, part of me is an eternal optimist about music and art. At the moment I feel a clarity I have never felt before. I am foregoing all the distractions that in the past took my attention away from music. Everything is clearer and I'm much happier and I think that translates to the music and the performance. I have totally changed my lifestyle in the last couple of years and I am a much lighter, less confused person.
MR: You co-wrote "Dig Two Graves" with Bob Saporiti and Brent Moyer. What is the co-writing experience like for you? What was co-writing with them like and how does Confucius enter this mix?
AM: Bob, Brent and I had been playing some of the dives around Nashville as a trio called Reckless Johnny Wales, Moonshine Annie and the Global Cowboy, more just to get out and play than anything. So we are good buddies and have played a lot together. Bob had the Confucius quote and some great lines. When I got there they were writing a somber blues song and I suggested we write something more up-tempo. I love Django, Brent started playing these chords and we were off in the land of Film Noir. I call it, "a light-hearted, murder ballad."
MR: Are there any other contemporaries who you admire that you'd like to record or write with?
AM: There is a band from Washington DC who are great, called The Bumper Jacksons.
MR: "Little White Cat" was written as a response to Howling' Wolf's "Ain't Superstitious." How did you approach its creation and what are some other songs out there that you'd like to reply to?
AM: I guess I've been feeling much lighter these past couple of years and I wanted to write a song about good luck. There are so many blues songs about bad luck. I thought of a little white cat and how that must bode good fortune. It was just a fun idea and I went with it.
MR: What do you think of today's music scene?
AM: I think most artists are earning about the same or less than they would have 20 years ago, which can make things difficult. It's a bit of a sh*t fight out there - the amount of artists is greater than the demand. Although sometimes I get the feeling that the live scene is getting healthy again. I'm feeling optimistic about the whole thing!
MR: What advice do you have for new or emerging artists?
AM: Oh, I don't know. Don't waste time copying other artists. What you hear today on the radio was probably recorded a year ago. Find your own thing. Be healthy, your body is all you've got. Don't smoke, don't waste time getting drunk. Practice every day, try to get better at your instrument, you can learn something new every day. Don't bash away at your guitar arbitrarily and please, get rhythm! Try being a vegetarian. Strive for world peace.
MR: What's next in The Big Plan?
AM: I hope to establish a firm touring base that will hold me in good stead for years to come. I will release my children's book this year and I have another project I'm working on that's for 'tweens - an album and animated cartoon. I'd like to produce some more artists, and build up my recording studio and record label--Flying Machine Records. I'd like to go to Hawaii. I'd like to have a vacation. I'd like to play at The Hollywood Bowl and The Ryman Auditorium. Stuff like that!