Interview: Noah Wilderman, Phish-Scene Documentarian

[caption id="attachment_1250" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Noah Wilderman"]Noah Wildman[/caption]

Filmmaker Noah Wilderman's Maybe So, Maybe Not could be your life. Inspired by Phish's reunion, Wilderman grabbed his camera and took his production skills into the joyfully reconvened fan community in order to document a scene on the run. Funded through donations and love, Wilderman's project is a free-ranging, inevitably improvised film capturing a most multifaceted milieu. He recently filled us in on the details of his ongoing project via email.

Richard Gehr: What's the back story to Maybe So, Maybe Not?

Noah Wilderman: I wasn’t looking for a passion project, nor did I expect to suddenly launch into production on one; but that’s exactly what I did. In fall 2008, I was as clueless as you could be about what was going on in the Phish world. I was completely caught up in the daily grind of television production when a younger friend of mine, who turned me on to Bisco, asked me if I was going to Hampton. I was like, “for what?”

I didn’t really react initially when he told me the news that Phish was back. It took me a little while to thaw out and process, but when I did it seemed like me being clueless about Phish represented a lot more changes in life than simply my interest in Phish. I started pondering my personal evolution, and all of the sacrifices made in the name of mainstream tradition started jumping out at me. The sacrifice of Phish was the one I could not bare, like sacrificing that which embodied hope and the pursuit of joy. I found myself listening to my favorite live shows again and as I slid beneath the ice, I woke up and something turned on inside of me. I was 23 again and there was a whole world outside my door.

Strangely, many people echoed the awakening that I felt. People wanted Phish back in their lives. I started looking for deep connections between my generation and the music of Phish as well as the Phish scene. Almost overnight, I had my plan. I wanted to give a voice to the three-dimensional fans that make up this amazing music community and reveal some of these connections that tell a story about my generation and the world we’ve lived and grown in. I am one of these people and I know that I don’t fit in any hippie box that we’ve seen get played out over the years. It was time to break it down.

With a career in television and documentary production, I realized that I had all the resources at my disposal to make a professional quality HD film that doesn’t rely on anyone but the fans. This is our story [caption id="attachment_1255" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Wigman in Asheville"]Wigman in Asheville[/caption]to tell, and who better to tell it? In my mind, the missing ingredient for a project like this had always been time and maturity. Luckily, the passage of time brought many of us the maturity and distance from Phish we needed to reflect on what Phish meant and still means to ourselves and other fans.

I started putting out my feelers, networking, put up a basic website, and just plugged away. The message started to resonate, and through friends, family and the Phish network, the message got out and suddenly filming at Hampton was a reality.

RG: I understand the Phish community has really embraced this project and is supporting it in many ways. Could you tell us about that?

NW: The support the film has received from the Phish community has been unbelievable. Let’s be honest – there’s no film without the fans. While fundraising hasn’t been as successful as could be hoped – especially understandable in this economic climate – support has come in many forms. From the simplest “keep up the good work” email to extensive networking done between music and entertainment professionals, the Phish bond continues to amaze and astound. I regularly receive offers to carry gear, do interviews, for free tickets to use or miracle, places to stay, and, most importantly, invitations to film events where the community comes out to play. With so many creative and technical people involved in the Phish community with stories and experiences to share, my own efforts to capture our realities would be impossible without people willing to open themselves up on camera. That has been the most humbling contribution of all.

As for grassroots support, Facebook initially seemed like a great place to use as a home base while the watchtower-at-star-lakeweb page developed in tandem. I reached out on boards like Phantasy Tour and Reality Tour to network with fans and drive people toward the website and Facebook group for info. It was slow going, but the word steadily got out and I started getting more and more emails, offers to talk on camera, etc.

At the same time I started making contact with other fans who share a preoccupation with the live music community – people like Andy Bernstein and Andy Gadiel, who took it a step beyond fandom. As the network grew, everyone was incredibly supportive and willing to both participate and promote Maybe So, Maybe Not, simply for the love of the music and scene, and to get behind something positive.

Once filming in Hampton was wrapped I started planning for summer filming and working on the video teaser. I thought that support was strong before the teaser, but it almost doubled after I released it. It was as if the perceptual hurdle of “is this film real?” was finally overcome. Once people had something visual to connect with, the doors opened even wider. The FB group climbed to over 1,000 members and web traffic on the site increased.

As a community, Phish fans have a strong oral tradition. What I mean is that many of us, myself included, discovered Phish through a noncommercial source like a close friend, roommate, relative, friend’s older brother or sister, etc. We didn’t listen to Phish because the TV said so. Our vetting process doesn’t rely on marketing statistics and promotion by a major sponsor, but more likely upon the strong recommendation of someone you trust. In this respect, I couldn’t ask for a more solid publicity campaign than the good word from fans. It’s this assumed bond that has brought many wonderful faces to the film and many more into my life personally.

RG: Has the doc's "angle" evolved as the project has progressed, or is it still pretty much what you originally envisioned?

NW: Every time I press the record button the story changes a little. I think that my earliest notion of the film was that it was almost like a road piece following fans as they reconnected with themselves and each other on the way to Hampton. I thought I’d get a couple crews, do a 4-5 day shoot there and back and see what I got. That lasted about five minutes until I decided to reach beyond that. My feelings for the subject matter ran much deeper.

Both as a filmmaker and music fan, I felt at odds with a project that examined a music community without context, or only in one context. A film on the lot seems to me like just that. I think that many people’s perception of phans starts and ends on the lot as if they blink out of existence when they step off the lot - like leprechauns sliding down our tie-dyed rainbow back to some imaginary land where everyone has dreadlocks and the streets are paved in marijuana.

These thoughts led to me to ask the question, why hasn’t this project been made by Phish. My simple answer was that Phish could not make a movie about their fan base with objectivity by filming at venues. My solution was to get away from the lot and tell the story of real people, families, and friends - not just fans on the lot.

Luckily, this grew organically as the project gained support, and I was invited to film events and gatherings off the lot (not ocelot). This is where I’ve found this “community” manifesting itself in many tangible ways. Perhaps my approach differs from many fan documentaries in that I don’t believe that the community I’m seeking exists predominantly on the lot. The lot is an interesting scene for sure and there are communities on the lot, like vendors, but I don’t believe that this represents the core of the Phish fan base or the pinnacle of the Phish fan experience.

Community support also increased my awareness of how this community actually manifests and documentable real-time events in the fan world began to come to my attention. Capturing the Trey Ross Compressor story was a great example of this and more recently I filmed with the wig-wearing live-streaming personality “Jason Wigman,” who pioneered the use of an iPhone to stream the live Phish shows this summer.

One thing that hasn’t changed is my desire to place the Phish community in the context of other American musical communities. Many of these interviews and events to film outside of the Phish world are still shaping up, but I plan to film with people who can shed light on the role of music communities and what they reflect about their fans. This includes music community members (hopefully going back to the '20s), musicians, and academics.

RG: What are some of the more interesting things you've learned or filmed so far? Any surprises? Highlights?

NW: What has surprised me the most is how strong the pull is after all this time. Everywhere I go there are a midthirtysomethings or later pulling out all the stops and road tripping like the old days. It’s what I hoped to capture, but almost can’t believe. Actually, scratch that – that’s the second most surprising thing. The most surprising thing is that I seem to run into Fat Jesus within two minutes of arriving on any lot.

What I’ve learned is that we are everywhere and doing it better than ever! From the ERs of your local hospitals, to poets in residence, and just folk – it’s unreal how far the network extends and what it’s capable of. Most of us grew up, got jobs, houses, the resources to really squeeze every drop of joy out of the experience, and the capability to do it all responsibly and safely.

Every day of filming is packed with talking with amazing people so it’s hard to quantify it all. I really enjoyed spending the day with Kat & Dave as we wrangled up their kids, Lyric and Anastasia, and drove kat-in-erie-morning-of-star-lakefrom Erie to Star Lake for the day. It was great to capture fans just being mom and dad while at the same time gearing up to vend sodas, introduce their kids to the lot, and dance all night as a family.

It’s the little moments that might not even make it to the screen that are my highlights. Like how I was filming in the car, on the highway driving through Chicago (to Alpine), when a fan I’ve been trying to interview for months coincidentally drove by my car and gave me a sound bite through the open window. In Jones Beach a fan literally stumbled on camera and fired off a story about being kidnapped in Alpine a decade ago, tied to tree, and forced to subsist on burnt marshmallows for three days. There are tentative plans for a dramatic reenactment in the film. I’m still looking for my Canadians, who've been following the whole tour since Phish wouldn’t come to them. We met in Jones Beach, made plans to talk more on camera once it all sunk in, and recently got shut down moments before filming with them at Burgettstown (only happened once, courtesy of Live Nation). One of these days we’ll connect. I expect they’ll have much longer hair by then.

RG: What's the timetable? When do you think Maybe So, Maybe Not will be completed?

NW: I hope to have the film ready for air and distribution around the spring of 2010. I plan on wrapping all Phish-fan related filming by the end of 2009. I’ll continue to sporadically travel and capture key perspectives throughout the fall when things settle down a bit. As for filming around shows, SPAC gives a logical bookend to Phish’s first tour back, but perhaps Halloween or New Years might get in there. Post production will determine a lot, or rather post production support. If it’s a completely grassroots effort, postproduction may be fast but lacking as many high-end elements as it will have if distribution stays on track and we can spend some money finishing the film. However, I’ve always said that with no corporate interest and pressure driving the completion of the film, it’s done when it’s done. Just to be clear, I mean that it’s done when the story has been captured, not when I get off my ass and finish it.