Louder Than You Think is not only a film about Pavement percussionist Gary Young, but also a shattering exploration of destiny, creativity, and existence.
Music documentaries are a tricky medium to nail. The bar is low with long-unseen live performances, some new footage, and new perspectives of similar stories that have been retold time and time again.
However, filmmaker Jed I. Rosenberg’s documentary, Louder Than You Think, is essential viewing for fans of the indie rock band, Pavement. The film tells the story of the band’s original drummer, Gary Young, who was also the engineer of their first sessions at his Stockton, California recording studio.
The film doesn’t pull away from the complexities of Young and his time in Pavement and his career afterward. Throughout his interviews, Young sips on orange-soda-and-vodka while recalling the bad habits he had that eventually got him kicked out of Pavement. The film highlight’s the duality and contradicting nature of Young, highlighting his brief tenure in the band through editing concert clips, scans of long-forgotten zines, TV interviews, reenactments with puppets, talking-heads interviews with Young and the band members, and, of course, Young’s perspective.
Prior to Louder Thank You Think premiere at SXSW 2023, filmmaker Rosenberg and the documentaries puppeteer, Adrian Rose Leonard, sat down with No Film School over Zoom to chat about the archival digging process, how the film leans on puppetry sequences to provide visuals, and crafting a debut feature.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Congratulations on Louder Than You Think premiering at SXSW. Can you both talk to me about how this project came to be, and how your collaboration came into existence?
Jed I. Rosenberg: Jeffrey Clark, who's one of the producers, and Brian Thalken, who's another producer, they both are from the 1980s punk rock scene in Stockton, [CA], which as you could imagine is a pretty small community. They knew this older hippie drug dealer guy named Gary Young, who was a drummer and had a studio. People knew him, people loved him, but he was the type of guy that you just sort of knew locally. There was no expectation of anything happening beyond that.
And this is in the eighties and in the early nineties, Jeff was in London and he was walking by a kiosk with magazines and newspapers and things, and he saw this magazine with Gary Young on the cover, and he was like, "What the fuck? Gary Young, that guy is on the cover of this renowned music magazine?" He examined it closer and he was like, "Oh wait. He was part of this group Pavement with these other guys from Stockton." It was very confusing. That moment was the genesis of the film. It was kind of like, “How did this guy get to this point?” I think he kind of carried that idea with him for some years.
Then later on, I think he was like, "We should make a documentary about this, maybe a short film." He hired a friend of mine, David Nicholson, to shoot this project in 2007. They filmed for a couple of days. In our film, you can see some of that footage. Some of the things where it's in the 2000s and he's sort of in this between state from Pavement, post-hospital to a new kind of late sixties Gary Young. There's this kind of transitional period. This is when this initial attempt at a documentary had begun, then it wasn't really completed. It was just sort of on the shelf.
Then in 2019, Jeff decided to resurrect that idea and he and his good friend Brian Thalken, who again was part of that music scene, decided to produce this film. They reached back out to David, who shot that other attempt. David and I are good friends and we've worked together a lot, and he called me and basically asked if I wanted to direct or talk to those guys about directing.
The premise of it sounded super cool and weird and fun. So, I was like, "A hundred percent, let's do this." Once the film was in progress, we talked a lot about how to handle scenes in which we don't have footage to cover. In documentaries, archival is kind of king. If you have great archival, you can do so much with your storytelling. If you don't have that, you have to find ways to be creative. A lot of films do reenactments, they do animation. There are different strategies to produce visuals for parts of the story where we don't have it, and you don't really want to see talking heads for that long. We kind of went back and forth on some ideas, and Jeff had a really brilliant idea of using puppets. And that kind of opened up this window.
Adrian Rose Leonard: I directed the six marionettes... I guess technically there are seven because there's the band step at the end, so seven marionette segments throughout the film. I was brought on, I think Jeff and Brian originally went to a company in LA to sort of talk with them about puppetry. That company had a hand puppet made and it was a great hand puppet, but I think they realized it was a little too sort of happy because different puppets kind of can give off different tones or different moods. That character, the hand puppet character, was good for some stuff, but not necessarily for everything that they were wanting to do. They were also wanting to see full-body puppets, which is a lot more difficult to do with hand puppets.
I think Fawn Davis recommended our mutual friend, Sam Koji Hale, who's a director of puppets as well. Sam wasn't able to do it, so he recommended me. I came in originally just... It's crazy because it was actually the first phone call that I had with Jeff. I remember I was in my car because I'd just gotten off set at Crank Yankers. I'm sitting in the car and I'm talking to Jeff, and it started out as just sort of I was going to build the puppets. Then, we started talking about the ideas and what they wanted to do. They had this one scene where they talk about how Gary used to hand out vegetables and different weird items to audience members as they were waiting in line to see Pavement shows. That was one of Gary's things. He's like, "We're trying to figure out how this can come about," and I started just throwing out a bunch of ideas. At one point, I talked about maybe his head opens up and vegetables are inside of his head, and he pulls them out and hands them out.
Jeff just got really excited about these ideas. By the end of this sort of hour-long conversation, Jeff liked my ideas so much that he said, "We're going to need somebody to produce and direct these segments because we don't know anything about puppetry or directing puppets." I said, "I'd like to throw my hat in the ring because although I don't have a lot of directing per se, under my belt, I've done it here and there but I've worked on set with puppets for over 16 years professionally, so I know all the ins and outs and the complexities that come with building and shooting puppets and the puppetry and all of the stuff that comes with it."
By the end of that conversation, he was like, "Well, I guess you're producing and directing these puppet segments." That's how those segments started. Of course, it was a very long process to figure out exactly... you kind of have to start with the edit and know what those scenes are that you want to do. They were still figuring out exactly what those segments were going to be. Once they really decided that, I started brainstorming with Jed, Jeff, and Brian about what are these stories, how we visually tell these, and what kind of puppets are we going to use. Because again, there are so many different ways to approach it.
We decided on marionettes because you can get a lot of different moods out of marionettes. You can get really goofy stuff, you can get some really meaningful stuff, and you can get a full-body puppet and sets and all this stuff. That's how we came to work with puppets.
NFS: To what extent do these puppetry segments provide the visual language of the documentary that would be lost through talking ahead or archival footage?
Rosenberg: I've talked with other people about... They'll pitch me ideas for a documentary and they'll say, "What if we made a doc about this or that, or this or that?" and it'll just be a story that somebody tells that's about some weird thing that happened that they don't have any archival or visual information about it. I'll often tell them, "That would be a great podcast," because it's a story that might be compelling on some level. Without visuals, you really just don't have a documentary as far as I'm concerned. I mean, you really, really need to show what you're talking about. Even if it just means that it's a vérité piece and you're just following a character and they're just behaving and moving in the world. At least it's visual information that the audience is receiving. But if it's just talking heads, it just gets boring very quickly. Especially with Gary having these really wild stories about escaping from Mamaroneck and going to California and stealing a car and getting on a plane, it's so fun.
But imagine just hearing that from somebody just hearing it. There's just no way that you're going to capture the fun and strangeness and energy that you will if you have visuals. Obviously, we're not going to have a video of that happening, so we have to make it. What's exciting about this and working with Adrian is we got to set the tone. We got to say, “Okay, here's a thing and there are a million ways that you can show this.” You can create an atmosphere where it's really dark, but it's also really funny and fun and goofy and quirky. You can create a whole world that expresses the tone that you want to use to talk about this story, which is part of a larger story. So, everything had to fit as one organic narrative, but also they had to represent the mini scenes in which they were a part. I think working with Adrian was really great because we all understood how do you create one puppet world with various tones within it.
It didn't feel like this was a random one, and that was a random one. Hopefully, they can all feel like one connected world.
Leonard: We worked so much out during the storyboarding sessions. Jed and I would talk about these different segments, then I'd go home, create some storyboards, put together a really rough sort of animatic, and we would try to figure out exactly what shots we needed and what we didn't. And then figuring out what you're capable of creating in that world. When you're working with humans, you're already living in a human world. I think it's a lot easier to find locations or sets or you don't always have to build your sets, but with puppets, you kind of have to build their world as well. You're building your actors, you're building the world that they live in. You have to think of what is that and how we have almost a visual through-line of what Jed is saying that helps unify all of these segments.
We just really worked together to figure out what that was. I was able to find a great team of people to help us realize it. You think outside the box, then you get your box, and then the box helps you break things down and see what you're capable of doing, then you just work within that space.
The puppetry is also really fun in a way that Jed is saying, you can have these really fun things that happen and then some dark things that happen, which I think really encompasses who Gary is. He's kind of this clown on the outside, and he's, "Look at me, look me." But there's a lot going on in there. He's a complex person like most of us are. I think that the puppetry managed to capture all of those complex aspects of Gary. So I think it was just right. Once we saw that Gary marionette, it was just like, "Okay, yep, that's Gary."
NFS: There's a lot of archival footage used throughout the doc, and I did read, Jed, that you went on Reddit and asked f“Pavement performance or interview footage during Gary’s tenure (1989 – 1993),” “Photos of Pavement during this era” and “Fanzines or magazines that covered Pavement’s early years,” as well as commenting on Pavement YouTube videos. How much of that footage was usable? Do you have any pointers when it comes to crowdsourcing footage?
Rosenberg: I think giving pointers would only be applicable if you were successful in your pursuit, which I really wasn't, because most of the people on Reddit were like, "Oh yeah, I saw Gary one time at this show in 1992, and he handed me a page of a book, and that was my gift coming into the show." And it was like, “Oh, that's cool. Do you have any photos or...?" "No, I just have the memory of it." I can't use a memory, unfortunately.
I had a lot of those kinds of things, which was cool. It was really great to see that he touched so many people along the way with his antics and his music. Or sometimes people would just say, "Plant Man," that would be their comment or their contribution, and that's fine. But yeah, I think that the Reddit posts were not super successful. YouTube was a bit more successful.
The archival stuff that's in the film that I'm the proudest of is stuff that we got directly from Scott. He called me up or emailed me or something, and he was like, "Hey, I'm cleaning out my dad's storage space, and I found three VHS tapes. They say Pavement on them. I don't know what these are. Do you want them?" And I'm like, "Yeah, I a million percent would love to see them." And so he was like, "I don't know what they are, but take them."
We digitized them, and there was just absolute gold. I mean, there's something on there where if you remember in the film when there's a little kind of house party set up and Gary is hopping over the thing, and he grabs a beer and he runs in the house, and then Scott is being casually interviewed on camera and the person interviewing him is talking about how Gary's incredible, he's the best and Scott is agreeing with that and saying there's no one like him and he's the greatest.
Then, the guy filming is... and no matter what he does up there, even though he might not hit every beat, he'll never leave the band or whatever, and Scott's like, "No." And then we can use that to cut to another visual that we have of him in a current state where he's taking pills and stuff like that. There's a real power in that juxtaposition. But having that footage of talking about such a specific part of the Gary story that I think, in a lot of ways, those kinds of conversations are not spoken aloud, and to have it on video is that much more unbelievable. There were a lot of little things like that that were part of that collection that I just couldn't believe when we had it. Sprinkling those throughout really makes it a more special experience for the Pavement fans that are going to be watching this.
We've all had that experience where you watch a documentary about a band you like or something and you're like, "I've seen this footage, I've seen this interview, I've seen that interview." The docs that pull things that have never been seen before, can be really special moments for the super fans. I did think a lot about that when we were putting this together about the audience and what their reaction is going to be. Those archival bits in particular were things that made me really happy because I knew that those are going to 100% be things that Pavement fans are going to appreciate.
Leonard: Jed, was that the stuff that you got towards the end, or was that from Scott? I remembered that moment when you were like, "We just got all this stuff," and it was like a little gold mine. It was amazing.
Jed I. Rosenberg: There's actually a quick shot where I think Bob is on camera and he's filming Mark, and Steve West is behind him, and he is like, "Hey, have you met Steve West?" He turns, like, "Oh yeah, we just met," or whatever. That's the new drummer that we have on camera of them just meeting and asking if they just met. That's so bizarre that that even exists. I'm watching through the digitized footage and I'm just like, "How am I watching this right now? This is so crazy." So anyway, that's in the movie, little bits like that.
NFS: I love the way you both think about narrative when you're crafting these scenes together because you are thinking of both sides. How does that balance come to be, and what was the biggest challenge of finding that balance between providing new information for super fans and also access information for newcomers?
Rosenberg: I don't think that I thought about it as this is for super fans so much as I thought about it as this is something that that audience is going to appreciate. But more specifically, I think we had to think about the film as being open to those who never heard of Pavement before because most people don't know the Pavements. As much as I love them, and as much as they're a great band in the scheme of the population on planet earth, most people don't know who the band is. If we want this film to be seen by a lot of people, which we do, we have to imagine that our audience isn't always going to know. So you have to have that information in there. I think that we are able to give it in a way that's not excessive, but it's also not glossed over. It's organic to the story of Gary.
So even if you know the story of Pavement, I don't think that it will feel redundant. I think that you'll feel like it's necessary to have it outlined in the way that it is based on understanding the way in which Gary's story comes to be. But as I said, I would be watching the film and I would think about the super fans, but that was also just as a kind of the cherry on top, I think.
NFS: Definitely. I know that every project comes with a slew of challenges, but if you had to choose one, for both of you, what was the most difficult part behind this project, and what lesson did you take out of it?
Rosenberg: For me, the biggest challenge I think was trying to tell the story of a very complicated person and trying to tell the story of someone who has a dark side, has a bright side, is an addict, is someone who seeks attention. There's just every facet of a person. He encompasses that on some level. To portray that is very difficult. We had to have high moments, we had to have low moments, and we had to have moments of fun and humor.
I think that's part of how the puppets are really used in some way, because there's a levity to it where you could talk about certain things that Gary experienced and it could be very dark, and that's not entirely who he is, although it is part of it. So I think that that was actually part of the solution as I'm talking about this I think, that makes sense is that the puppetry aspect was a helpful tool in rounding out the tone of the film and making sure that we got everything across that we had to get across.
For instance, like him with the shopping cart and being goofy and silly, there is no footage of that, right? You need that. You need to show him being charming and endearing. And that was a really helpful way to get that across. Puppets make that shine in a way that I don't feel like even if it was animation or something, they would feel really phony. But because there's just this tangible element, it feels kind of more real than your traditional animation. You certainly don't... I don't really love reenactments because again, it's like things can feel really fake in another way. It's this hybrid world that we're not used to really spending a lot of time in as regular documentary viewers. Anyway, I'm just kind of rambling, but getting back to your question, the challenge was Gary being a complicated person and trying to figure out how to tell that story.
Leonard: I do want to mention that I came in on this documentary thinking about the puppet stuff, but then once I saw the first edit that Jed did, I was just blown away by the edit for many reasons. I think just the way he laid out the different people that come into the documentary at the same time that they kind of come into Gary's life and it just was laid out really well. But also the thing that struck me about the film from an outsider's point of view. I knew about Gary Young because of Plant Man before I knew about Pavement, but I was into punk rock at the time that Pavement was doing their thing.
I wanted to say that I've known a lot of Garys. I've been in a lot of bands, and I think I identified with this movie after I saw it because I was like, even though I don't know Gary, I know Gary, I've known so many people like him that are just so full of energy and life but are self-destructive and have laid a path for themselves that was not productive necessarily. But for Gary to have that sort of moment in the sun is really exciting. So I'm a fan of the movie outside of being involved in it. I just wanted to say that.
Puppets are challenging in general, but I love that, that's why I love working with puppets there's a lot of problem solving involved. Again, you're building your actors, you're building your sets, you're building your world. One character has to have one to three actual humans operating it at any given time.
There's so much complexity with that, but it's the challenges that excite me. I embrace that and I love problem-solving. But I think the thing for this was like, "Oh my gosh, some of these stories are so big." “Gary and Jerry Escape” is one of the segments where Jed was talking earlier about Gary's like, "I'm going to go to Attica if I don't do something." He just steals his grandma's credit card, they steal the car, they leave, and it's this big story that kind of takes... It actually existed in several months, possibly years, and you have to compress that into a minute and a half or two minutes and you have to really go, "Oh my gosh, okay, I have to pick very key moments to visually tell this story. What are the most important things to help convey this visually?"
I also think that, again, it's like you kind of shoot for the moon, but then you're given this box. And so sometimes the constraints are actually super helpful because you can't just do anything you want. You have to really decide what's important. So I think that was the most challenging aspect. And you think, am I telling this story right? Is this enough? Is this going to tell the story? Because the building the puppets, building the sets, and made some weird complex sets that rotate and do all kinds of crazy stuff. And that was challenging in its own logistical way, but it's telling the story in a very specific way that I think is the most challenging for just these little segments. Jed's got what, an hour and a half, two hours to tell this big story. And I'm like, "Oh my God, I've got two minutes."
It was so exciting and it made me think in a different way about how to tell a story really succinctly. And hopefully, we pulled it off. I think there are things that of course, I think we really wanted to do, and your mind goes to all the different realms and then you're like, "Okay, maybe we can't afford that." Or "We need to bring ourselves back down to earth a little bit." But yeah, I think just working with Jed and Jeff and Brian and them being excited about our ideas and just being like, "Yeah, that's a great idea. Go for it." I mean, you can't ask for a better situation.
Rosenberg: I'll quickly add that I learned a lot about puppets because I didn't know the first thing about it going into the project, and Adrian warned me, but I was kind of like, "Yeah, I know how to do stuff, whatever." But I remember on set, there's a piece where Gary is in front of a judge, and I remember saying to Adrian, "Hey, it would be really great if Gary the puppet looked up at the judge for this moment." And she was like, "That's going to take half an hour." And I was like, "What?" That was the moment when I was like, "Oh, this is not the same thing as anything else." It really takes a lot of work and a lot of craftsmanship and special talented people to run this whole ship and make things sing. And it is not something that an outsider can just come in and do. You really have to understand the language of puppetry.
I really had a newfound respect for it immediately because I could see that and how well everybody worked together and running around like, "Oh, you got to repaint this, you got to do this, got to have this." And everyone's helping each other. It's a special type of set to see all that.
Leonard: I really had an amazing team. I mean, I've been working with a lot of these different puppeteers and puppet builders and DPs that know how to shoot puppets. Even not your average DP knows how to shoot puppets. Everything's smaller and you've got a light around actual humans blocking the puppet, and there's so much stuff to think about. And so I really had a dream team of friends that came in and worked their tails off to make everything happen, and I just want to give them a shout-out. That's the only way I could have made this happen.