Our Country Interview: Producer Tom Neff
Date: September 2003
BMZ catches up with producer Tom Neff to discuss the country music extravaganza OUR COUNTRY.
BMZ Staff: Who are some of the big-name country music stars audiences will see and hear in OUR COUNTRY?
[Please see below.]
BMZ: How are their performances presented and organized? What's the story or theme that ties them together?
Tom Neff: "Our Country" shows how country music reflected the social and political development of America during the 1900's to arrive at a new century with its own challenges. Country music was never created in a vacuum: it has always been a mirror to its times, and we see and hear how country was there during the depression, World War II, post-war suburbia, the turbulent 60's, and so on until we arrive at the doorstep of the 21st century.
"Our Country" traces the development of country music from the last century to today using rare historical footage, spectacular Imax shots filled with today's country stars, and, of course, music that will range from the soulful tunes of Jimmie Rodgers -- the Father of Country Music -- to the jazzy influences in "16 Tons," to the patriotic climax of "Living in the PromiseLand" sung by Lee Ann Womack.
Over 50 of country music's top stars – from Alan Jackson to Dolly Parton to Dwight Yoakam – are spotlighted as they perform the classic songs of the past to place us in their relevant era. And don't forget Hal Holbrook as the incredible narrator, whose wonderful voice embodies American culture.
BMZ: Of all the country music stars appearing in OUR COUNTRY, who was your favorite to watch? When you met them, did anyone stand out as the nicest, or funniest?
TN: I have to say that Dolly is fond in my heart. Her performance is wonderful, and I think she simply glows in the scene of "Turn Turn Turn." She is gracious, focused, and supportive, and I just can't say enough about her. Leigh Nash in that same scene is also a standout, or knockout I should say.
Lee Ann Womack withstood 100+ degree temperatures to sing the finale "Living in the Promiseland," and never once complained, handling it all like a real trooper.
BMZ: What were some of the key filming locations? Which was your favorite and why?
TN: Shoots ranged from the Appalachians to Monument Valley, to NYC to the Midwest, to Nashville. New York stands out, as we filmed their incredible fireworks display the first 4th of July after 9-11, which was wonderfully inspiring.
BMZ: Why is OUR COUNTRY particularly suited to the Big Movie screen, rather than just a TV or 35mm documentary?
TN: I think the key to an Imax film is content and not scenery. I am not sure, truthfully, that this question is very relevant. What made "Kramer vs. Kramer" a feature film rather than a movie of the week? Or "My Big Greek Wedding"? Or "Lonesome Dove" a TV mini-series? It is always the use of the format and not the format itself. Rather than ask what film deserves a particular format, it is more important to ask what film deserves our attention, regardless of the format. The time we spend can't be retrieved, whether we watch Imax, TV, or a feature, and who is to really say what subject "deserves" one format or the other.
The use of visuals, the terrific sound, all lend themselves to "Our Country." But mostly it is a big theme: America through the 20th century.
BMZ: Were you a big fan of country music before working on this movie? How about now? What's your favorite musical act featured in the film?
TN: I am a very big fan of country, especially going back to it's commercial beginnings in the '20's and '30's. I wrote, produced, and directed a six hour series for TBS on country music in the mid-'90's called "Roots of Country," and wrote my first treatment for a film on the history of country music in 1980!
It's so difficult to choose which act, as they are all so different, and each has its special moments. One of my favorite scenes is "Turn Turn Turn," and another is the Alabama sequence with "16 Tons."
BMZ: Past IMAX concert films have included the classic ROLLING STONES AT THE MAX and more recently ALL ACCESS and N SYNC: BIGGER THAN LIVE. How is OUR COUNTRY similar to these other concert films, and how is it different?
TN: "OC" is ultimately not very similar to these films at all; these are essentially performance films. "OC" is essentially a film on the history of America in the 20th century, using music as means of getting into the history. Yes, there are some performances, but they are all placed in a historical context, which in my view has ultimate priority.
BMZ: How will the film be marketed to schools as an educational experience?
TN: The film has a very strong educational slant, and we have created a wonderful educational teacher's booklet to accompany the film that can be downloaded for free at . The book traces the nation's history in the 20th century, gives insight into the film's use of music and history, and has terrific projects for both younger and older students. Check it out.
BMZ: What was the best thing about working on OUR COUNTRY?
TN: "OC" was one of the most pleasant projects I've ever done. Everyone involved, from Gaylord Entertainment who financed it, to the crew was just terrific to work with. We all had a single notion: create the best film we can.
BMZ: You're an Oscar-dominated documentary filmmaker, but this was your first experience with Big Movies. How do they compare to other formats, and did this experience make you want to make more LF Films?
TN: I love LF for its big palette. There is a lot of screen space, and much can be done graphically with the images in terms of composition, division of screen, and so forth. "OC" did make me want to create other projects, as I think thinks are changing in the LF industry; there is more attention to content as opposed to the "gee whiz" aspects of LF: helicopter shots, throwing the camera out of planes, deep ocean, etc. In the most popular films, it is story, or content, that is king.
That said, LF is like any other format, ultimately: there are 4 sides to the frame, you have the cut and the closeup to distinguish the presentation from a theatrical production, and the basic rules of filmmaking still apply.
BMZ: What's your feeling on the widespread debate in the industry right now about re-purposing 35mm live-action Hollywood films?
TN: I'm perhaps less precious about reformatting than others are. I think the most important thing is to get people in the theatres: get their butts in the seats, and worry about why they are there later. In the last 10 years, it is clear that format is of little concern to the audience: thus you have films made from DVCAMs, mini-DV, HD, 16mm, 35mm, etc., and there is, in my opinion a free mix of mediums in film. And the audience doesn't care; they are completely unfazed by lousy production values if the story works. I think there is a lot of freedom in that.
The problem with the industry is not the format: the problem is the lack of exhibition venues. It becomes a simple economic problem: theatrical films open with 3000 theatres, and there are only 200 LF theatres anywhere. I'd like to see the industry work together to build more theatres: there should be one on every block, playing everything all the time.
BMZ: Do you have any personal standards for what an "IMAX movie" (in the generic sense of the word "imax") "should" be?
TN: I think the film should have "impact" and should be epic in concept. By virtue of the LF, it tends to do that anyway, but if the concept is epic, then the format will follow. And epic doesn't mean necessarily war, space, and whales: a "small" subject can have epic content. Why not a LF film on an inner city classroom? On a shoeshine boy? They would just have to be done differently, and the problems would be different. We all need to open our minds here. In the '50's, theatrical films were all of the "Ben Hur" sort, until "Marty" showed us that human values can be found in the life of the neighborhood butcher. Story, story, story.
Distribution-wise, it needs to have strong educational content. I think IMAX has tremendous educational possibilities to present information in exciting ways.
BMZ: Any new projects you're working on we can look out for in the future?
TN: I have a very exciting number of projects coming. First and foremost, I am doing a LF film on Elvis and the era in which he lived! This will be a real challenge, and I am looking forward to it. It is a film that will look at the world history of the '50's, '60's, and '70's, using Elvis and his life as a sort of "jumping off point." In many respects, the film is not about Elvis: it is about the times in which he lived, sometimes playing a part, and sometimes simply observing.
This film will present history in a new ways, and hopefully become a very positive teaching tool. We live in a media-obsessed world: what better way to educate than to use a media icon such as Elvis to get into history and content? We will certainly use archival footage, but we will also shoot much new Imax footage, as we go around the world to film where the epochal events of those decades took place: Russia, China, Viet Nam, Hawaii, Paris, etc.
I am currently looking for corporate sponsorship for the project, and think that this film can be that special project with high entertainment value and high educational value.
"Will the Circle be Unbroken"
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band
"Turn, Turn, Turn"
"City of New Orleans"
"Rawhide/Foggy Mountain Breakdown"
"Keep on the Sunny Side"
"Never No More Blues"
Older Stars (radio tower images)
Little Jimmy Dickens
Melvin Sloan Dancers
"Hey Good Lookin'"
"Walkin' After Midnight"
"You're From Texas"
Asleep At The Wheel
"How Great Thou Art"
"My Kind of Hat"
Jo Dee Messina
"Living in the PromiseLand"
Lee Ann Womack
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