By Don Simpson | January 19, 2012
A series of tapes featuring two bickering San Francisco men with a penchant for profanity so flamboyantly profane that even Jack Rebney (Winnebago Man) might blush at the sound of it were recorded in the late 1980s by two young punks, Mitch Deprey and Eddie Lee Sausage. The unaware neighbors of the audio misadventures, Peter Haskett and Ray Huffman, could be heard verbatim through the paper-thin walls of Deprey and Sausage’s crappy apartment and the surreptitious recordings began as a means of documenting the obscene aural hell that kept Deprey and Sausage awake all through the night, but quickly evolved into a means of bitter revenge. Deprey and Sausage began to invite friends over to their apartment for Haskett and Huffman listening parties. They then began to pass around dubs of their lo-fi tape recordings to friends and soon the analog recordings went viral, developing into an underground sensation. This was before the Jerky Boys, and certainly before the Internet and YouTube; the audio cassettes were dubbed and distributed the old fashioned way, from one friend to another, by hand and occasionally by mail.
Shut Up Little Man! An Audio Misadventure joins up with Deprey and Sausage some twenty-odd years later. Besides recreating the past (via archival photographs, animation and reenactments) and discussing the ethics and copyright issues that still haunt the recordings, Shut Up Little Man! follows the fully matured duo as the estranged friends reunite in San Francisco. We also meet several cult personalities and fan-boys who discuss their recollections of the Shut Up Little Man! craze. Matthew Bate’s documentary covers a lot of pertinent topics: looking back at viral marketing in the analog age (from the digital age), ownership and copyright of audio verité recordings (the same goes for YouTube videos that are filmed without consent of the subject), the fascination that our society has with the profane outbursts of anger by others, and the one major downside of urban living (noisy neighbors). Don Simpson recently chatted with Matthew Bate for a conversation about his audaciously fun film from True/False 2011. (Note: Shut Up Little Man! is scheduled to be released on DVD and VOD by New Video on January 24, 2012.)
Don Simpson: In your opinion, what defines Documentary cinema and how does Shut Up Little Man! match up with that definition?
Matthew Bate: I’m not sure anything defines documentary cinema. I think if it was definable I would expect that someone would immediately make a film that smashes that definition to bits. Art will continue to do this to ‘definitions’ forever. Shut Up Little Man! certainly doesn’t break any barriers in the documentary form, but it definitely plays with a lot of toys in the box. I’m in awe of, and aspire to create something that defies genre. I look at films like The Arbor, Bombay Beach and the musical-docs of Brian Hill and only hope I could be that brilliant.
DS: What role does the truth play in Shut Up Little Man!? Can you talk about your approach to recreating the past and how you perceive those techniques as effecting the truth of the documentary?
MB: I believe in the Rashomon theory — that truth is completely subjective. There are as many truths on this planet as there are people. So the idea of ‘capturing truth’ is a road to nowhere. In Shut Up Little Man! I wanted to spin the audience’s moral compass and ask them to consider where their’s lands. What is your truth? Who do you believe? Are these recordings art or exploitation? What I love is that there are so many opinions stirred up by our film.
Once you are aware that one truth is unknowable, the use of archival material and actors playing the part of real people was simply a means to an end — that end being to tell a story as cinematically and as interestingly as possible. Often the use of these techniques is driven by pragmatism as much as anything, especially faced with the dilemma of having to tell a story about an audio recording. The use of actors, archival film and animation then, was a way of bringing these recordings to life and to tell our version of the Shut Up Little Man! story/‘truth’.
DS: How much directorial influence did you wield while shooting the current day footage of Deprey and Sausage in San Francisco? Were you merely a fly on the wall or did you orchestrate any of the scenes?
MB: Yes, I orchestrated most things. I’m not sure I could make a fly on the wall documentary. In fact I’m not sure that anyone can make a purely observational documentary. This is an age-old argument — but I do believe the presence of a camera influences events. And then there is the editing process and the millions of decisions that get made there. I read today that this guy is getting a camera put in his eye socket so he could record whatever he liked — so maybe that could lead somewhere toward being an actual human-fly on the wall?
But as far as ‘orchestrating’ events, I think that is what a documentary filmmaker must do. I wanted Eddie and Mitch to visit their old apartment, to show me how they made the recordings and so on. I flew them to Australia and interviewed them on a set, then asked them to re-enact how they made their recordings. You have to put your subjects in situations that will provoke them, inspire events and highlight the themes you are working with. You have to ask the right questions at the right time and in the right location. So the entire film is orchestrated down to what font was used for people’s names.
DS: Shut Up Little Man! juggles the recreations of past events with current day footage of Deprey and Sausage with the talking head interviews of cult personalities and fan-boys. At what point did the final structure of Shut Up Little Man! come into being? Can you discuss some of the trials and tribulations you went through to get there?
MB: We flew Eddie and Mitch over to Australia where we had built a very detailed re-creation of their original apartment. I wanted to put them back into the same environment that they were in while making the recordings. We spent 3 days interviewing, using the Errol Morris ‘Interrortron’ set-up. I also asked them to re-create how they had made the recordings. We did this first so that we had the spine of the narrative of their story before we went to the US to shoot the rest of the film, which was very helpful.
During editing we laid these interviews down first — finding a rough story arc around which we could weave the complex narrative of the Shut Up Little Man! phenomenon. The spanner in the works came when we were asked to submit a rough cut to Sundance. We had decided originally not to apply to the festival, as our timeline didn’t match up. When events conspired and we were asked to submit a very rough cut and were subsequently accepted, we were faced with finishing the film in under a month. The film is very layered, uses a lot of motion graphics and so on, and we still didn’t have an ending or anything near a finer cut. It was one of the most harrowing months of my life getting the film finished — from rough cut to sound-mixed lock off. So the final structure was coming together right up until the last weeks before we had to get to sound-post. But maybe there was something in that kind of pressure that forced us to make the film we did.
DS: Shut Up Little Man! has a lot of messages and I am curious if you had an initial intention when you took on this project?
MB: Yes, I saw the recordings as a way to explore a lot of things I saw in the recordings themselves, specifically about the nebulous boundaries between art and exploitation, the cannibalistic nature of entertainment and how technology and privacy are currently colliding. I ingest plenty of pop-culture, have emailed Star Wars Kid and other internet sensations to my friends, and have also laughed along at Pete and Ray — the unwitting stars of Shut Up Little Man! In a way, the film was about exposing my own, and our collective guilt at enjoying this Shadenfreude-as-entertainment that permeates our pop-culture.
DS: How do the audio recordings collected by Deprey and Sausage serve and/or benefit society? Is there any ethnographic or socio-political merit to this material or are the recordings merely for entertainment?
MB: I think this is also subjective. Some people listen to Pete and Ray and can’t stand it, while others are life-long fans. Some people see nothing in the dialogue and others hear this Beckett-like human drama. I think it’s very hard to judge how 95% of ‘entertainment’ or even art benefits us. I will say that Pete and Ray nourish my inquisitiveness, intellect and funny bone more than a Paris Hilton docu-soap.
DS: Finally, what is your opinion regarding the ownership (copyright) of reproduced material, specifically verité recordings recorded without consent of the subject?