By Don Simpson | April 14, 2012
Jonny Mars’ directorial debut, America’s Parking Lot (which premiered at SXSW 2012), is a multi-faceted documentary about the renowned Dallas Cowboys’ Gate 6 tailgaters. In terms of its narrative arc and development of conflict, America’s Parking Lot is damn near perfect. Mars’ astute understanding of the documentary form astounds me. If I didn’t know any better, I would have assumed America’s Parking Lot was directed by a seasoned veteran, not a first-time director.
Smells Like Screen Spirit caught up with Mars over a couple of beers at the Black Star Co-op during a brief respite in his last minute preparations for a trek northward to the Dallas International Film Festival (April 12 – 22, 2012) in support of America’s Parking Lot (and Hellion). (Oh, and be sure to check out Linc Leifeste’s 8 out of 10 review of America’s Parking Lot and my 8 out of 10 review of America’s Parking Lot from DIFF 2012.)
Don Simpson: You lived in Dallas for a long time before you attended your first Dallas Cowboys football game in 2006 — that was also your first experience with the Gate 6 tailgaters. What was that experience like?
Jonny Mars: I always felt like football is better to watch on television. It is so hard to watch a game live. You can’t see the ball. You usually can’t see the plays unfold. You usually watch the game on the monitor anyway. Its just easier to watch from the comfort of the bar or your house, right? That was a bit I had as a bartender for years and years. I would stick it to my friends who were going to the Cowboys’ games — I would say “When you get back, I’ll tell you how the game was.”
A buddy of mine, BL, made a bet with me. He had been telling me for years that I wasn’t doing it right, and I didn’t know what that meant. He said, “You gotta go three hours early and tailgate before you go in — that’s the point.” So I went to a game, and I went three hours early. I saw all of these tailgating traditions taking place outside of Texas Stadium. All day BL had been talking about the Gate 6 tailgaters, about Cy and his amazing food and Tiger’s amazing pep rally. They charge everybody up and you walk into the stadium and cheer on the team. I had never seen anything like it. I saw what Cy was doing. There were throngs of fans. Then Tiger did his pep rally. All of the hair stood up on my body. It was just one of those moments. Something was telling me that I had to document this. I didn’t know what it was going to be, but I knew this was very special and there would be a market for it. There would be people who would be interested in this story.
I literally came up with the title of the documentary, America’s Parking Lot, on the spot. Heavy Metal Parking Lot has always stuck in my brain. It is a spectacular short doc. It is hard to beat something like that. It is a special time capsule for a specific group of people at a Judas Priest concert. I saw a lot of those same things outside Texas Stadium, and I also knew that the stadium was going to be imploded; they were moving the team 20 miles west. In 2006, we knew all of that was going to happen in two years. That is inherent conflict. I knew these guys were going to have to try to overcome it and repair their traditions somehow, so I introduced myself to Cy and Tiger that same day and asked if I could come back and film them. They wanted to know if they had to change anything and I said, “Absolutely not.” They didn’t care, but they also didn’t know that I would be following them for the next five years. I don’t think they knew what they were getting into.
DS: How did you approach developing your relationship with Cy and Tiger to gain their trust?
JM: From very early on, I told them that we were also filming other people besides them. I didn’t want them to be able to hold me hostage, right? You’ve seen the film. I do show other fans. I had other units who would interview people for me. Cy and Tiger never knew that I was just focusing on the two of them. I didn’t tell them until yesterday that I had lied to them. They thought that was pretty fucking funny.
I had to be very careful not to put all of my chips on the table right away. I didn’t want to bombard them with questions or address any difficult subject matter during year one because I didn’t want to chase them away. They are out in the parking lot drinking and having fun — so they were worried how they were going to be presented. I had to get them to trust that fact that it wouldn’t benefit me to make fun of them. That was never my goal at all. I thought they are interesting because they are real. I didn’t want to taint that.
It wasn’t until I went to Green Bay with Tiger that they realized how serious I was. That is when I got to get to know Tiger and his wife very well. We were in the same hotel in Green Bay for five days. We got to hang out and drink beer. It was cool. Whenever I was in the Texas Stadium parking lot, I had just driven in from Austin. They were long days — 18 hour days. If it was a noon game, I was waking up at 5:00 am, filling up the car with people — the list of camera people that helped me shoot this movie are exceptional directors from Austin — then we would shoot for about five hours doing interviews and getting b-roll. Sometimes we stayed until the end of the game to shoot more footage. So I wasn’t tailgating with Cy and Tiger. Green Bay was the first chance to really let my hair down. Tiger liked that. It took a little longer to get Cy to break down his walls.
I was raised in the south. I have great parents who taught me manners. I respected Tiger and Cy. Eventually they forgot that I was even there. They just saw me as a normal guy. It just took time.
DS: When did you first become interested in directing documentary films?
JM: It is arguable that documentaries are what got me into film as a kid. There was a great show on television, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. It had a great host, Marlin Perkins. I moved around a lot as a kid. My brother and I went to a lot of different schools. No matter where we lived, Wild Kingdom was always on the same time on Sundays. Looking back, I think it had more to do with [Perkins’] voice. He could read the phone book and you would be mesmerized. The way that show was made was also the way that I approached America’s Parking Lot. Some of the footage in America’s Parking Lot is a little shaky because we were far far away on really long lenses. Cy and Tiger were wearing wireless microphones, and the point was, if we were far enough away then they wouldn’t know we were there. That’s how you film wildlife. You can’t let them know you are there, or else they would take off.
As I got more into cinema and started to take it very seriously, I have been drawn to documentaries — even as an actor — because it represents real life. My career as an actor seems to be going more towards being a character actor, and for me to do that I try to draw ideas from real life. I try to create three dimensional characters, make them real, honest, true… I am more interested in real life than I am in aliens taking over Manhattan — but I would love to see that doc. I’m a storyteller no matter if I am in front of the camera or behind the camera.
DS: At what point did you decide what style of documentary America’s Parking Lot would be? For example, you seem to have purposefully removed yourself as a “character” from this film.
JM: Even with verite filmmaking, the minute that you turn the camera on, you have tainted the place and the subject. But putting yourself in front of the lens, you are only deteriorating the conditions more so. That is not interesting to me. The advice I got during the making of this film was: 1) avoid the politics, no one cares; 2) be in front of the camera. So that was something I had to fight for a long time. Even during the edit, my fantastic editor Robin Schwartz and Jason Welling (producer) fought a lot with me about my presence in the film. I did not want myself to appear on frame at all, but what little I am in the film seems to work.
I kind of feel like it is cheating to insert yourself. Is that still a documentary? I don’t know. And since I’m an actor, I think that might have been used against me if I had inserted myself in front of the camera; because they would think that I am fake. Also, I was shooting it, so I couldn’t also be in front of the camera. I didn’t have any money, Don. I was borrowing cameras. I only had so much room in the car, and I needed two people to run camera and sometimes another unit in the lot.
DS: I also like how you limit the amount of talking head interviews and you rely mostly on a purely observational style of shooting.
JM: And I wish there was even more of that. It was 200 hours of footage that was turned into a 70 minute film. There is some really great verite stuff, just of the parking lot. I like those kinds of movies, where you just sit and watch real life.
DS: How does the finished product compare to the film you set out to make?
JM: It is really close. Honestly. I dialed back a bit on the politics and the economics. Though I wanted to go farther with the economics, it is palatable now. That is what is most important. Just trying to boil down very complicated things into very simple terms and ideas is hard. But I feel like we did a good job.
What is new to me — and I didn’t realize this until we were very close to the end of the edit — is that I always thought the film was about an individual’s identity but I think the film is about family. However you want to define family, whatever it means to you. Whoever those people are — or whatever that place is — that makes you feel warm. For Cy, the Gate 6 tailgaters are — arguably — his family. Tiger has a conventional family. Sometimes Tiger puts that on hold to be with this other family, but his conventional family is okay with that because they are part of that bigger group also.
I hope the film speaks as a larger metaphor. I think families are under attack, especially in the middle class, and this is a loose example of that. America’s Parking Lot was a chance for me to talk about that.
The movie really exceeds my expectations in terms of the way it can connect with people. I think it is a better movie than I set out to make, but everything that I wanted to discuss is in there.
DS: What impresses me is the strong narrative arc and sense of conflict — it sounds like you were aware of the narrative structure and elements of conflict from the very beginning.
JM: I never knew how it would resolve — or even if it was going to — but I knew where the conflict was, I even knew the date it was going to happen. Some very interesting things happened at the new stadium that make the story so much richer. I had no idea that it was going to take four years to tell this story either. No idea. I didn’t know until halfway into the first season at the new stadium that I still didn’t have an ending. It was not until the Thanksgiving game, when Tiger’s tailgate was being messed with, that I realized that there was more to this. The story had to tell itself.
DS: I am very curious about your own personal opinions on the NFL’s relationship with its fans.
JM: Well, what America’s Parking Lot speaks to in terms of the financing of new stadiums, is not specific to the NFL. It is all major league sports — around the globe. I find that troubling. I can’t speak to all of the other leagues, so I will focus on the NFL.
They get hundreds of millions of dollars in public tax money. They get breaks on their taxes. Then they turn around and charge the fans PSL’s, which is a chance for them to avoid the high interest rates on loans from a bank. So, they are using your money against you. They are double-dipping.
During the “almost strike,” the players’ union only wanted one thing. They wanted to see the owners’ books, to see where the revenue goes. The owners’ refused to do it. They have an anti-trust exemption. The U.S. Congress allows them to have an anti-trust exemption. They use public money and they still do not have to open their books. I could not find anyone anywhere to back up any amount of math or research on how much money is generated on game day. They don’t have to tell you. That’s fucked up, man! It is a multi-billion dollar industry, that they use public money to fund, and they don’t have to tell us where the money goes.
These PSL’s are basically the calculated value of the tertiary black market, or scalpers. If owners go onto StubHub.com, they see an $80 ticket is going for $400. So they got greedy. If that is what the market is demanding, then they were going to supply that price because people are willing to pay for it.
Here’s the problem. The PSL is a derivative — what happened to the U.S. economy while we were shooting this documentary is a great metaphor for what is about to happen to the NFL and a lot of other professional sports.
The mortgage banking crisis, that required $700 billion of public money — a.k.a. the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) or Welfare for Billionaires — was because of derivatives. Wall Street figured out a way to create loans on mortgages. Triple-A rated mortgages which — based on their rating — were always going to get paid back. U.S. debt that was Triple-A rated had never been faulted on, in the history of ratings. It was a done deal. So they started creating derivatives off of these loans and it went crazy. It became a global phenomenon. Now they had created so much demand that they needed more derivatives to feed the market. People weren’t buying homes fast enough, so they lowered their standards on mortgages without lowering the credit ratings. They gave mortgages to people so that they could make money off of the derivatives; but the people they gave the mortgages to could not afford to pay them back. In doing so, they forfeited on Triple-A rated loans. That created toxic assets that shut down the banking industry globally and we are still paying the price for it. We had to bail them out, that’s fucked up. The banks don’t have to show us their books either. Interesting.
The market was never intended to be a get rich quick scheme. Some guys found a perverted way to make money, and it fucked everything up. Citizens globally had to bail out the banking system.
Sports has never been intended to be a get rich quick scheme either. You want to institute PSL’s and use our public money to make a quick buck on the golden goose of the people who grew up with your franchise? You know where you are fucking up? Kids can’t go — families can’t go to games. Mom and dad can’t take their kids to the games, and that is your future revenue stream. If the future revenue stream does not exist, what is going to happen to sports? It isn’t just about watching it on television — there has to be a crowd. We’ll see what happens…
I grew up a Rangers fan. I went to games when no one else was there. They sucked. What do you lose when no one shows up to your games? Home field advantage.
Oh, and not only are you hurting future revenue shares and the franchise’s future fan base, but the new fans who are coming out to games don’t give a fuck about the sport. They are not the die hard blue collar fans who know what you are supposed to do on defense. Right? So, again, you are losing home field advantage.
It’s all under attack. They are choking out the middle class and the working class. Why does football have to be the ballet? We already have the ballet. Football shouldn’t be about status, it should be about family and friends. That’s what the tailgaters are.
DS: Exactly. In a way, this is class warfare. They are replacing their working class crowd with the upper class who are just going to the games for status.
JM: That is what seems to be the case. The fans are telling me that. Its sad.
Make your money owners! Make your money! And that’s their explanation — it is Capitalism. But it is Capitalism gone unchecked. That was the problem with the mortgage banking crisis. Capitalism has to be checked. Capitalism is a great thing and entrepreneurial spirit is an amazing asset to the American dream; but it has to be kept in check, especially when public money is involved. If it is so great then show us your books? Or at least explain why not? I just don’t understand.
America’s Parking Lot is not meant to be a character assassination of Jerry Jones. He is just the face of a broader monolith.
DS: So what can fans do?
JM: Not go. Don’t buy tickets. Besides that… I don’t know.
DS: I was surprised that Tiger and Cy continue to go to games.
JM: They are die hards, man. They are being taken advantage of, and they are going to continue to go to games until they die or are physically unable to leave their house. What are you going to do? At some point you have to stand your ground.
DS: But then if too many fans boycott, then the televised games will be blacked out.
JM: That is where the NFL is genius.
I don’t have any answers. I just want to start the conversation. And I hope it works. I hope that people want to see the books, and that they become more protective of their tax money.
When we were shooting this film, Obama was running for office. He was talking about universal health care and I got a lot of shit for wanting that — for thinking that my tax money could go towards my health insurance. That didn’t make sense to a lot of people, but no one gives a damn about giving their tax money to a billionaire owner of a sports franchise to build a new stadium. It is very confusing to me.