Punk the Capital’s James Schneider on the Doc’s Rare Footage
It's a busy week for D.C. punk nostalgia. Tomorrow night at the Black Cat Backstage, Punk the Capital’s D.C.-based directors James Schneider and Paul Bishow will screen rare D.C. punk footage and clips from their work in progress to raise funds for the rest of the film's post-production work. And on Wednesday, at the DC Music Salon at the Shaw Neighborhood Library, Scott Crawford will present an early look at his nascent film project with Jim Saah, Salad Days: The Birth of Punk in the Nation's Capitol.
Punk the Capital will focus on D.C. punk’s beginnings in the 1970s and continue through the origin of the ‘80s hardcore era, ending in 1985. Salad Days will take a later view, starting in the early hardcore days and proceeding through the end of the ‘80s. Although D.C. punk has been featured on film before (American Hardcore, Bad Brains: A Band in D.C.), Punk the Capital and Salad Days mark a new wave that includes Dave Grohl’s upcoming effort for HBO and Robin Bell’s recent Positive Force: More Than a Witness.
Schneider, who has been going to local punk shows since a 1986 Rites of Spring gig, has directed several documentaries and a sci-fi film, The End of the Light Age. Bishow managed the Biograph, a long-gone repertory theater, and shot lots of late '70s footage of bands at the Madam’s Organ artists collective (at a different 18th Street NW location than the current bar of that name). I spoke with Schneider via email about the inspiration for Punk the Capital, his favorite footage, and what younger viewers will find in the film. (Full disclosure: Schneider recently filmed me speaking on WMUC radio about my work on Thrillseeker, an early '80s D.C. fanzine, and my memories of the D.C. punk scene.)
This interview has been edited for style and clarity.
WCP: When did you first meet fellow director Paul Bishow?
Schneider: We met at one of the I Am Eye film screenings that Paul was a part of organizing. Those had been going on since the early 1980s, mostly at d.c. space. This one was at the Black Cat. He was showing films and I gave him a manifesto I had written. Our friendship began.
How did the two of you together develop the idea for the movie?
Paul and I had worked on some film projects—for example, he helped out a lot with the film Blue is Beautiful I made with the Make-up in 1996. Then we started discussing the D.C. punk project together in the late 1990s. I moved to France in late 1999, for what was supposed to be a year [but turned into 14 years] and Paul's been here throughout.
Why did the project get put on hold, and what led to its more current active state?
The project never stopped. I came back to work on it with Paul for one or two large blocks of time every year, collecting archives, interviewing, etc... When you work on documentaries, there are usually several going at once. Some are done fast, some take a decade. They have a life of their own, and they also feed off of each other, and the ones that take the longest have matured the most. In the case of Punk the Capital, it's a great thing for the film. Recently, I looked again at the poster for Jem Cohen's film Instrument and had to smile when I noticed it proudly states "Ten years in the works." That poster was made about 15 years ago, and I wonder if someone would put that kind of statement on a film poster now. Somehow our sense of time has changed, and the idea of 10 years being a positive thing seems incongruous with the pace of life today. It's interesting.
Tell me about Paul's Super-8 footage.
We've actually collected footage from about 10 different people who were shooting Super-8 back in the day. The majority of it has not yet been seen. Paul was filming all the time with the Bad Brains, but there's also Teen Idles, Da Chumps, Untouchables, Tru Fax and the Insaniacs, Trenchmouth, and Enzymes. Other folks shot the Slickee Boys, Government Issue, The Razz, Urban Verbs,and Half Japanese. These come from friends, or friends of friends, or people that hear about our project and want to help out.
What are some bands that wowed you in the footage?
I love nearly all the band footage, especially of bands that I never got to hear even recorded, like the Enzymes. But also, what I get really excited about is the footage of D.C. at the time, too: downtown and driving around the city. Also some daily life activities in d.c. space [and] in Food for Thought in the early '80s.
How has this project differed from your earlier films?
This is the largest project I've undertaken in terms of scope, and has more seated interviews than other films I've done, but otherwise it is solidly in the continuation of previous films I've directed. It's about people who work to push culture in new directions, whether they know it or not. That's something that most of my previous films were about, as well. For example, the film I directed in Chile is about a band which is largely composed of the children of political exiles. They record an album by interacting with the natural environment in what I consider a revolutionary way. Another film is about an avant-garde filmmaker named Jean Epstein [who] was a rebel to the core, and I believe remains the greatest film philosopher of all time.
Did the D.C. punk history book Dance of Days and the Banned in DC photo book influence the movie?
Mark Andersen shared his Dance of Days manuscript with us in the late '90s as we were first discussing this D.C. punk project, and it was part of what inspired us to get the ball rolling. Banned in DC is a fantastic snapshot of the D.C. punk scene at the time. It carries a lot of the excitement and creative explosion from the time, since it was made only a few years after the period it covers. That's a useful thing to sense and transmit.
Who conducted the film's interviews?
A film is all about perspectives—the kinds you see and the kinds you don't. Even though I have conducted the majority of the 100 or so interviews we've done, and Paul has done some, it's turned out to be vital to our film to bring in perspectives other than ours. It's only through all those mirrors that we get a grasp on what was going on at the time. For example, we have organized and filmed a large number of radio shows in the area where the participants discuss D.C. punk. These are filmed events where, once the framework was in place, they were out of our hands and the unexpected would always happen. Same thing with some of the interviews. Sometimes we'd ask someone to interview for us, like Mark Jenkins or Jeff Krulik, who did several. They'd conduct the interviews in a different way from us. If you know what you want to get out of an interview, great, but if you let the unexpected happen and broaden the perspectives in a film, even better.
With the Crawford/Saah movie already funded and the Grohl film's HBO backing, are you worried about meeting your Kickstarter goal and being able to convert the Super-8 footage to digital?
The production phase of our film has been done over such a long period of time that we didn't feel the budgetary pain so much until we hit the post-production phase, which is really where the cost kicks in for documentaries. Now we are at a point where we can't finish the film without additional funds. These need to cover the editing, hardware ($10,000 alone for hard drives), travel for the last interviews, those transfers you refer to and other things. Paul and I decided to wait until we knew what the nature of our film would be before doing the Kickstarter campaign, even though other D.C. punk projects were moving ahead with theirs. I'm glad we did—we really wanted to be able to show what it was that people would be supporting. It seems to be working, and I'm confident that we will reach our goal.
You're covering the beginning of the D.C. punk scene—an era before your time—and covering some bands that are not just three-chord punk. With those factors at play, how difficult has it been to cover the period? Will teens and 20- and 30-somethings still find it interesting?
Paul, the co-director, was there in D.C. in 1979, and I came of age in the D.C. punk scene of the mid '80s, where our story closes. In other words, our perspectives are complementary. Also, with our central focus being on 1979-1981 and a generational shift or split, any younger person will be able to relate to that moment in at least that way. I think that when people watch the film, they will be surprised at all the connections that there were between the generations. Hardcore might have been a totally different animal, musically speaking, but there is also real continuity in other ways, such as a shared DIY ethic.
Photo of James Schneider and Paul Bishow in 2003 by Jeff Nelson
Tuesday June 10: Punk the Capital preview fundraiser at 8 p.m. at the Black Cat Backstage, 1811 14th Street NW. $10.
Wednesday June 11: Salad Days preview at 7 p.m. at the DC Salon at Shaw Library, 1630 7th Street NW. Free.