Death By Williamsburg: Director of 'Goodnight, Brooklyn' on the DIY Life and How to Not Be Like VICE
The true story behind the true story of VICE's takeover of a beloved DIY institution.
For a brief period of time in the middle aughts, Williamsburg, Brooklyn was known for being the epicenter of independent art and music. Rotting warehouses and industrial factories whose former inhabitants had been mostly vagrant were quickly transformed into grimy venues and dwellings for a generation of "creative weirdos." Said weirdos were interested in a handful of things: making music, having that music be heard, and creating a space where like-minded people could come together and party. What they ended up with was a hipster version of Thomas Moore's Utopia, a scene where artistic boundaries were not only pushed to the brim, but also exploded.
In late 2014, after a series of DIY haven shutdowns, it was announced that the capital of this utopia, Death By Audio, would be closing its doors as well. As was the fate of the other shuttered venues, a blossoming media company called VICE would be found responsible. Founded in 2005 by A Place to Bury Strangers frontman Oliver Ackerman, DBA's original purpose was to be a dual artist space and effects pedal factory. By 2007, thanks to the tireless effort of a handful of weirdos, it had evolved into one of the finest performance venues in all of New York City.
One of those weirdos was Matthew Conboy, a dude just like many other dudes on the scene, who seemed to have simply fallen into the seductive lifestyle. His major passion, however, was film. So, when it was announced that Death By Audio would be celebrating its closure with a month of free shows featuring some of the biggest acts to have graced the venue over the past decade, Conboy decided to be there, documenting as it all unfolded.
Goodnight, Brooklyn lands somewhere between a concert film, a requiem, and a stirring piece of investigative journalism. No Film School sat down with Conboy after the premiere of his debut documentary to discuss where the DIY film scene and the DIY music scene collide.
"VICE and the way they dealt with this whole thing was really terrible for me, personally and emotionally, but it was just fantastic for the film."
NFS: When you shoot an archival documentary like this, there's so much footage I imagine you guys drew from, but there's also all the footage that was shot during the closure of Death By Audio in 2014. Who was the main DP?
Conboy: Jonathan Yi, who is New York-based, was our DP. He's done a lot of really awesome commercial work and music video stuff. He and Eden — one of the stars of the film, who runs the music venue with me — went to college together at NYU film school. When we found out that our space was ending and we found out how it was going down, I had a meeting with our producer, Amanda Schultz, and I told her the whole story. She was like, "We need to start making a documentary about this right now."
Jon actually hit me up and was like, "Hey, I'd love to film some stuff and be a part of this thing. It seems super crazy and an interesting story." Then we had a couple of meetings, talked about it, and were totally on the same vibe. Jon's got his C300 and his whole verité game; he just kills it. We decided he was going to show up and I'd schedule the days where he'll follow this person around and then that person around. I had my Black Magic camera that's just going to live in our practice space, [which we used as our] interview booth.
There are some really great cameras [out there now], and Black Magic in particular makes these really great cameras that are super affordable and super accessible. I own one of their pocket cameras and we ended up renting two more, and that was our main system for all of the live stuff. It's crazy that we were able to even film anything in there — it's basically a pitch black room.
NFS: It's also a notoriously rowdy venue. I was amazed that you were able to capture some of that concert footage in the pit without falling down or destroying your gear.
Conboy: It was crazy! Fortunately between me, those pocket cameras, and a Metabones speed booster, we were able to get what we needed to get. I don't think this movie even could have really been made without that technology. We would have had to light the venue for film and that would have totally ruined the vibe. Instead, we were able to keep that vibe alive and capture the shows in a way that made it feel like you were really there.
"It's way easier to start a band than it is to make a movie."
NFS: For DIY concert-goers, Death By Audio was like a church. Seeing shows there was almost a religious experience. You did such a good job of re-creating that feeling. What are some of the tactics you used to translate that onto film?
Conboy: I'm a big fan of finding collaborators — team members who get the thing that you're trying to achieve — and being able to just trust in them. We found these amazingly talented camera shooters who were showing up and just psyched and down. I would have conversations with them that were really abstract. I would say, "I'm into it being vibe-y, but I just want you guys to be in it." I wasn't trying to make it slick... I wanted to make it like we're there so you just get into the thing. We had so many awesome people who were just like "Got it, I know exactly what you want, this is going to be great." I think that there's a thing that happens when someone is actually having fun at their job: they do a really great job.
NFS: You're talking a little bit about the community, and it's obvious that DIY venues like that really serve as a place for members of the music community to come together to create and just have a good time. How did that community come together for this film?
Conboy: When everything became public that our venue was going to close and we're all going to have to leave our warehouse, everybody that we've ever done stuff with just came out of the woodwork and were like, "How can I help? What can I do?" That was so moving. I think in a sense a lot of that comes through in the film because we see all these bands that come back. They didn't owe us anything. Almost every band that is featured in the movie could easily have played a venue in New York that was two or three or 10 times as big. They just wanted to come back and hang out with us and do a thing. That's what the movie is about.
NFS: There's a line that ends the movie: "Every city has a great space like Death By Audio, and if you don't, then you should start one." Is there a DIY film scene in Brooklyn? How would one go about starting that or getting involved in that?
Conboy: That's a good question. I don't know the answer, man. There are the people who I know, who I've worked with, and there's obviously clearly a thriving scene of filmmakers in New York and in Brooklyn. It's more difficult to create a DIY community in the film world because — this is changing — but the barrier to entry is a lot higher. Maybe I'm totally wrong here and every filmmaker in the world would disagree with me, but I feel like it's way easier to start a band than it is to make a movie. I think the things that are required to create a DIY scene in the music sense are easier than what it would take for the equivalent in the film world.
"I hope that out of the ashes of a [film industry] upheaval, there will be a period of intense creativity and freedom and we'll all get to see awesome movies."
NFS: Even with all the new technology that's come out for cameras, it's still really hard to get something produced and funded, not to mention distributed and seen. There should be an easier way.
Conboy: Yeah. I don't know about you, but I do think it's changing. I can almost see the same thing that happened to music from, let's just say 1999 until 2009; basically the entire music industry just imploded. But then, it rebirthed itself. I could see that on the horizon for film. I hope that out of the ashes of a technology upheaval, there's something that's really freeing for creative people.
We are living in a renaissance period. Obviously, what's happening on television is more cinematic than most movies these days. There's more of an appetite for great filmmaking now than ever. For me, the heyday for American culture in general, and definitely film, is the 1970s. That came out of the initial breakup of the studio system. I'm really hopeful that if what we're talking about does happen and there is this insane implosion of the film industry, that it will lead to a period of intense creativity and freedom and we'll all get to see awesome movies.
"There are a lot of times where I meet somebody and they say, 'I want to produce movies,' but what they really mean is, 'I want to be rich.'"
NFS: Maybe the DIY filmmaking community doesn't really exist in a physical space. There's so much new technology that allows you to collaborate.
Conboy: My editor for this film lives in Los Angeles. 20 years ago we would never have been able to do this movie, where you have your editors living in a different city. He's sending me roughs and stuff via the internet. That's crazy.
He would put together an assembly of something and then send it as a WeTransfer or Dropbox or Vimeo; we definitely used a lot of different stuff. Then the general process was I went out to Los Angeles to his studio Plus Productions and we did the bulk of our first rough assembly in a month. I just basically moved to Los Angeles for a month and we worked every day. Then we'd present it to our producer who would normally say, "This is all wrong." It was really helpful.
NFS: I'd love to hear a little bit more about your background. This is your first feature, right?
Conboy: Yeah, it's my first feature. All I've ever really wanted to do with my life is make movies. Maybe this is going to sound weird, but starting a music venue was a total accident; it was not something I was ever planning on doing with my life, it just happened. I got into a couple film schools after I graduated high school and I was really tempted to go. It didn't feel totally right because I was taking community college film classes while I was in high school, and I was already pretty well-versed on all the technical stuff. When you go to film school, I think you get a technical education and you get a networking opportunity. I didn't really need the technical education. I ended up going to college for fiction and playwriting and having my New York experience.
I got a little turned off by some of the people that I was meeting who did go to NYU film. It didn't feel like a community; it didn't feel collaborative. It felt cutthroat and shitty. I was deeply bummed.
"Artists and musicians moved to Williamsburg and made their own weirdo little community, and that is over."
I found music as a little bit of a inspiration and a release; it felt like what I was looking for when I was hoping to meet a film community. It became this weird little accidental sideline in my life. I never stopped loving film; I never stopped wanting to make films. I think I've been collecting experiences through this, going on tour or meeting bands or having this venue where you're interacting with all kinds of crazy people that you never would have met in your life. I've been trying to suck as much out of that as possible for just research and inspiration for my films.
Over the last five years I've been like, "I need to get fucking serious about movie stuff." This, at least for me, feels like finally I'm starting.
NFS: How did you go about meeting your producing partner? Was she someone you met through Death By Audio?
Conboy: She and I actually just met in New York and it just really clicked. It's one of those things where she is really great at the things that I'm really bad at. It's so awesome to have a partner where I don't have to worry about the things that she has to worry about, and vice versa. Our goals are the same. Maybe that seems like no big deal, but I think there are a lot of times where I meet somebody and they say, "I want to produce movies," but what they really mean is, "I want to be rich."
NFS: Yeah, it seems like you're very focused on the work rather than the lifestyle associated with the work. Is that maybe a product of not going to film school? You don't have to have that competitive edge with classmates within the school system; you've just always been trying to create what you really want to create.
Conboy: Yeah, maybe. I know obviously the website is called No Film School, but I'm not trying to hate on film school; I think it's probably great for some people. Everybody's on their own journey here. I think it can be an amazing, powerful thing for people, if that's the thing they need. Maybe part of the reason why I'm not jaded and cutthroat is because I didn't go through that. Maybe it would have screwed me up. Who knows?
NFS: This movie is essentially being billed as a requiem to Death By Audio, but it also focuses on the death of DIY in Williamsburg, and the gentrification of Williamsburg.
Conboy: I don't want the movie to take away from the fact that there is this larger community of creative weirdos who are doing other stuff like this. There are other spaces in New York that are very similar to us and it's not like when we closed people were saying, "It's over, there's no music left in Brooklyn." I do think Williamsburg itself is over. Artists and musicians moved to Williamsburg and made their own weirdo little community, and that is over. There are other spaces in other parts of Brooklyn or in Queens or wherever, but there are no fucking crazy art or music venues left in Williamsburg.
NFS: VICE is like the Darth Vader of this movie (minus his redemption at the end of Return of the Jedi). They're very clearly the villain.
Conboy: I definitely think that VICE and the way they dealt with this whole thing was really terrible for me, personally and emotionally, but it was just fantastic for the film. We had a lot of conversations with our editor and producer about how we were going to address [the VICE issue]. I think we really tried to be as honest and as neutral about it as we could. The movie isn't about them; the movie is about us.
"I could have tried to surprise Shane Smith with a camera. That's not what the movie is about."
We definitely could have gone in a direction that was more confrontational. I could have tried to surprise Shane Smith with a camera. That's not what the movie is about. Obviously, yeah, what they did was really shitty and really goes against things that they pretend to care about. They say they're trying to present themselves as journalists or cultural tastemakers, and I think the movie demonstrates that some of those things are just not true. They really don't have any values; they're just capitalists. They make great villains.
NFS: VICE didn't seem to actually care about covering the closure of DBA, which is totally their beat.
Conboy: I think it's a fact that if VICE wasn't the cause of Death By Audio closing, they would absolutely have written multiple pieces about the situation. If they weren't a part of the story, they would have been telling the story. Could you imagine what they would have done if instead of Vice kicking us out it was Pitchfork?
NFS: With all this in mind, why should burgeoning publications, magazines or blogs aim to not be like VICE? What can they learn from VICE's ascent into this hypocritical capitalist regime?
Conboy: For anybody who's going to be making stuff in this world, I think it's really important to be ethical about the things that you're making and be transparent about your motives. I think that VICE makes good stuff sometimes, and they make bad stuff sometimes. If they have one fundamental flaw or failing, it's that they are duplicitous in nature. They are, in a sense, saying and presenting themselves as one thing when they're clearly in fact something else.
If you can live and work in a genuine fashion, you're going to be great. It's really not all that hard. It's actually pretty easy to not be a villain.
No Film School's coverage of the 2016 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by SongFreedom.