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Tribeca: What inspired you to tell this story? When did you first meet the band?
Stephen C. Mitchell: I met them before they formed the band; I’ve known Nathan and Caleb for about 10 years. I was working for a start-up music publishing company in Nashville run by Ken Levitan, who is now their longtime manager. We had signed Nathan and Caleb to songwriting deals, but they knew they wanted to form a band eventually.
We would sit in their mom’s garage in Tennessee, where they would tell me the stories of their Pentecostal childhood and their family members, and I knew immediately that I wanted to tell their story. I was working in music at the time, but as a kid I grew up saying that I wanted to make movies someday.
Nathan and Caleb’s stories were so captivating that at first I didn’t know whether to believe them or not. I didn’t think they were lying, but I was just incapable of understanding some of things they had gone through growing up. So in 2002, they took me to their family reunion, and I think I may be one of the first outsiders who has ever been invited.
Stephen C. Mitchell: Yes, it is! It actually changed my life. It was a really neat reunion that year, because the band hadn’t formed yet and they were trying to talk Matthew’s dad, Uncle Cambo, into letting Matthew join the band. They had already told Betty-Ann—Nathan, Caleb and Jared’s mom—that Jared wasn’t going to be starting the 11th grade, even though he was an honors student, so she was crying and upset. It was a little nutty there for a minute, but when I got to go to that reunion and meet everyone, it all clicked. I knew those kids were the real deal and that theirs was a story of true American rock 'n' roll.
Tribeca: Their music really does overlap with classic rock & roll bands like The Rolling Stones, who drew inspiration from blues and country singers of the Deep South, such as Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry.
Stephen C. Mitchell: In terms of style, a lot of those bands, like The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin, drew upon the region of America that the Followills are truly from. The boys have had the chance to meet Robert Plant, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Bono, and the members of Pearl Jam, and it really amazes me—these established musicians have a true respect for where the boys come from and why they make the music they make. People who recognized this in the Kings of Leon’s music started appreciating the band much earlier than most people in America. It took a long time for America to catch on to this band.
Stephen C. Mitchell: When they put their first EP out, it did OK in America, but people in Europe, particularly in the UK, were really fascinated by the story that we are telling now. The band’s background and southern culture were interesting to fans in Europe, and it became such mania over there for a while that one reporter wanted to do DNA testing to see whether the band mates were really brothers. Another important point, which is not meant to be a slam on Americans, is that they really listen to music in Europe. They are a little more open-minded there.
Tribeca: The band’s southern blues/rock influence is particularly clear in a scene in the film that shows their Uncle Cleo and some other family members performing a soulful, backcountry rendition of Johnny B. Goode. The boys are just some of the many talented performers at their family reunions.
Stephen C. Mitchell: It’s amazing. The whole family is so proud of the boys, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop taking out the trash or running the errands. When you’re there, you’re not super special. When I get there, they usually give me a list of things that they need me to help them do. You need that grounding—and an uncle that doesn’t care that you’re in one of the biggest bands in the world.
Tribeca: Or an uncle who doesn’t know his nephews are on the cover of Rolling Stone until he sees a copy of the magazine on The Price is Right! [Yes, readers, that actually happened.]
Stephen C. Mitchell: What’s funniest is that’s how the whole family found out Kings of Leon was on the cover. They were all watching The Price is Right rather than working, or doing anything else that day. It’s really awesome that the family equates success to an appearance on The Price is Right, and not even an in-person appearance at that.
Tribeca: The band is very open about everything in this documentary, from family life to drugs to girls. Was it your prior friendship with the boys that allowed you to capture this raw honesty?
Stephen C. Mitchell: I think trust probably was the biggest factor, and that goes for Casey McGrath, my producer who I made the film with, too. The guys did trust us, and their story gets told so often, especially in Europe and around the world, and people don’t get it right or they’re suspect of it. So I think a real motivating factor internally for the band was to tell their story accurately. They allowed us to film the worst of the worst, but they also knew that I was Kings of Leon fan #1. I have the title belt, basically! So they knew I wanted to see the band handled well and to tell their great story properly, and I think them knowing me as a friend first was the only reason they agreed to make this film. I didn’t take that lightly because it was a big responsibility.
Tribeca: Has the family seen the documentary, and what were their reactions to it? I would imagine some of the scenes would be hard to watch since they are, for the most part, still strictly religious.
Stephen C. Mitchell: Yes and no. Angelo, the producer that’s been with them since the early days and who you meet in the film, says it very well. He says they seem to have God on one shoulder and rock 'n' roll on the other at all times, and these are conflicting ideals to reconcile. I think their family is immensely proud of them and that they always knew this story was going to get told, so with this documentary it was just another issue of trust. The family knew we were not going to take advantage of them and that we woul portray them accurately. And that’s the best that you can offer somebody.
Tribeca: Their moms must know what’s going on on the road, though, because the guys are still very close with them.
Stephen C. Mitchell: They are, and Betty-Ann, who is mother to Nathan, Caleb and Jared, is really a key factor in the whole equation. Their parents divorced, and when I met them, they had just moved to Nashville. Betty-Ann had watched her boys grow up in the church and become great singers and performers, and I think she always thought they would go on to be some big country act. Caleb says she’s “the coolest mom on the planet,” because how many moms are going to let their boys start a rock band in the garage with who knows what else going on in there, and then allow her youngest son Jared to leave high school? So in all due credit to her, she got it, and had some faith in the process, but I think it would be fair to say she turns a blind eye every once in a while. She knows she can’t stop them at this stage, but she sure would like to take a belt to them occasionally! She’s a really incredible person who has an amazing story of her own. She was raised Pentecostal in Memphis and got married to their dad [Ivan Leon Followill, a United Pentecostal Church preacher] when she was 17.
Tribeca: After which they traveled around the South with the boys in a purple Oldsmobile?
Stephen C. Mitchell: Since the boys were little, they traveled all around the Bible Belt, as they call it, doing revivals and going to churches mostly in Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. At first, I wasn’t even sure the stories the boys had told me about traveling around were real, but when I dug in and got to know some of their peers in the church, it became a reality to me how incredible and impacting a minister their father was. The boys were somewhat famous in the Pentecostal circuit. Girls liked them.
Tribeca: So their father was a big name on that circuit?
Stephen C. Mitchell: I don’t know that he was a big name, because they weren’t preaching at a lot of the big churches like those that Betty-Ann talks about in the film, but they were almost like that cool indie band that certain people knew about. I think everybody knew how talented Nathan and Caleb were, though. Nathan was playing drums while his mom played piano, and both boys were singing in choirs, so I think it was obvious that they were extremely talented.
Tribeca: It’s interesting that when Nathan and Caleb finally got a record deal and the label told them to hire a band, they chose to hire their brother Jared and cousin Matthew, both of whom could barely play an instrument.
Stephen C. Mitchell: I think Jared was teaching himself to play Caleb’s acoustic at the time, and their cousin Matthew could play guitar, but I think it caught a few people by surprise. Now it makes complete sense, but I think they always knew that the choice to stick with family was going to the make their road to success longer. They are so competitive with one another internally, and I think that chemistry is the reason they have been so successful.
Tribeca: They are extremely hard on one another. If one of the guys isn’t pulling his weight he takes a lot of heat for it and one instance of this in the film, where Nathan berates Caleb, is particularly hard to watch.
Stephen C. Mitchell: And I give them a lot of credit for being so open. We made this movie first and foremost for their fans. A couple years ago we did a series for the band called Home Movie Series, and we learned very quickly how powerful their Internet fan base was. The more that the band opened up and showed who they were on camera, the more fans gravitated to them and listened to their music in a different way. So though it’s daunting to show your warts and faults in the way the band members do in this film, they are humans too and have struggles in their own lives. Nobody is perfect, and there is a lot of pressure being in a band this big.
Tribeca: There is a somewhat controversial montage in the film that juxtaposes footage of Pentecostal worshippers “speaking in tongues” with shots of the band in performance. Is this sequence meant to draw similarities between their childhood performances in churches and their adult lives as rock stars?
Stephen C. Mitchell: That was one of the things our editor, Paul Greenhouse, put together in the early stages of editing. The boys didn’t want us to go into Pentecostal churches to film, and I’m not so sure we would have been welcomed, so we pulled it from several films: Holy Ghost People, Joy Unspeakable, and Marjoe, which won an Oscar for Best Documentary in 1972. I don’t have the same religious background as the boys, but seeing that montage for the first time made me nervous. When we showed it to the band, I remember Caleb saying, “Wow, that makes me so uncomfortable. I don’t want you to change a thing.” So I knew that we had nailed it. It reveals the DNA of rock. I think the reason the band exploded so quickly overseas early on was because they had been performing in churches their entire lives. They were old pros when it came to performance. The challenge was how to channel that into the secular band they had put together.
Stephen C. Mitchell: [laughs] When wasn’t it crazy?! What really inspired me recently was our release of the trailer online. It’s been mind-boggling. It was on Access Hollywood and it’s been exploding on the Internet, which we thought it would, but the enormity of their fan base is still surprising. The band is getting big in America now, but overseas they have been huge for years. It’s amazing. I don’t like walking around in Dublin with Nathan or Caleb. It’s a mob scene! So like I said, we made this film for their fans, but I’m hopeful it will reach other people too, as it’s a story you can make your own. There are also a lot of people who are just getting to know the band in these last few years, so I think this film will help them understand the vivid history behind the band and to discover their full discography.
Another lightning strikes moment regards the editing process. I live in the East Village, and we set up our own little renegade editing office in an apartment suite there. Everyone worries about losing footage, and we were careful to make sure we were backing everything up and storing it properly, but I was always worried about the building catching fire. So one night, early in the editing process, I was lying in bed at 2 am and something just told me I had better go down to the office and make sure nothing was going on. I got to the building at 3 am and the boiler room right below our office was on fire, just smoking away. I was totally panicking, and I called 911 and the super and fortunately, they arrived soon thereafter and were able to prevent the fire from spreading upstairs, but it was all because of a feeling.
Tribeca: It seems this film was mean to be. What’s the biggest thing you learned while making Talihina Sky?
Stephen C. Mitchell: That I have a lot to learn when it comes to making classic art. This was my first film, and I had not done any work in film before this. I have a tendency in life to just jump in and do things that I have no background in. I had filmed the band back in their mom’s garage in the early days when they were first forming, and right before they went in to record Only About the Night, Caleb said to me, “Hey, do you want to do this, and do you know how to do this?” And I said, “Oh yeah, yeah. Sure I do!” But you fake it until you make it, and I had to roll my sleeves up and learn everything from the ground up. Then I was able to meet Casey McGrath, Paul Greenhouse and Josh Levine, a co-producer, who are all very talented people who put 100% plus into this film. You can’t do it by yourself. It takes an army of talented people to make something great, and you have to keep pushing yourself to learn.
Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from Talihina Sky?
Stephen C. Mitchell: This is a great American rock band with a great story that needs to be shared with American fans and people that love music here in the States. This band is going to go down in history as one of the biggest bands of the decade, and they are from America. American rock bands have not done that well in the last 10 years.
It’s also a coming-of-age story that reveals no matter where you are and regardless of your upbringing and the challenges confronting you, you can make something of your life. There is a path for you out there that’s meant to be—you just have to go find it.
Tribeca: What are your hopes for Talihina Sky at Tribeca?
Stephen C. Mitchell: When they told us that we were selected for the Festival, we were all extremely excited. The film was produced here in New York, and all the people who worked on it are here, so it feels perfect for us. It’s also great timing, as we are ready to get it out there, and we’re hopeful that it will really make a positive impact at the Festival.
Tribeca: What's your advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Stephen C. Mitchell: You’re going to have to throw caution to the wind and go for it. Caleb talks about that in the movie. You are not going to be perfect, and you are going to make mistakes, and you have to just go for it. Most importantly, find a good story and something that’s meaningful to you. If you do, your work will be great.
Stephen C. Mitchell: John Hughes, because whose life didn’t Ferris Bueller change?! When I was a youth, that was the guidebook on how to handle your life. All of his work was fantastic. He just reeled them off there for a minute, and it was stunning what he was accomplishing. My second would be Alfred Hitchcock. I’d love to get into narrative films and a lot of the research I’m doing talks about how meticulous he was in his planning and how he would say he had a film finished before he even started it. A lot of that type of creative planning has bled over into the great filmmakers of today, like Joel and Ethan Coen. I think being able to talk to someone with that capacity for creative planning would have been fascinating.
Tribeca: What piece of art (book/film/music/TV show/what-have-you) are you currently recommending to your friends most often?
Stephen C. Mitchell: I saw a film called Senna about Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One world champion. He was popular in the ‘80s in Brazil, and he was killed in a crash while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. He was a national hero, and they shut the country down for his funeral. His life was such an amazing journey, and the film is very spiritual—Senna described racecar driving as a way of feeling closer to God. It was one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.
I think that film’s goal was similar to ours with Talihina Sky. Whether you like the band and their music, or whether you like Formula One racing, the story is impacting. Being a racecar driver or being in a band is just a backdrop for the people whose lives are being explored in these films.
Tribeca: What would your biopic be called?
Stephen C. Mitchell: “Man, I was lucky to meet Kings of Leon.”
Tribeca: What makes Talihina Sky a Tribeca must-see?
Stephen C. Mitchell: Come watch it now before we take it across the pond and they go crazy. Claim it now, America, because they are chomping at the bit over there!
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