Director Craig Zobel Talks To This Recording About Sharking, Scams, Strongbad, And Cheerwine
by George Ducker
Mean Old World – Sam Cooke: mp3
Craig Zobel was an internet pioneer when we were still ploughing the playground sandbox. He invented the character of Strongbad from early e-meme explosion Homestar Runner, and worked on David Gordon Green‘s films before directing his own, The Great World Of Sound, released in theaters today.
THIS RECORDING: How do you like New York, as a place to live?
CRAIG ZOBEL: I like it a lot here, it’s really good. I mean, it’s been really humid and kind of miserable-feeling, but overall I really love New York, it’s great. Really awesome.
TR: And you picked it over LA? For any specific reason?
CZ: Yeah, I tried living in LA for awhile. For eight months back in 2000 or 2001. The big problem is that I’m not really into driving very much. I’m from Atlanta which is this massive driving town, and moving out to LA was just a larger version of that same phenomenon. It makes me ill to drive more than an hour to get somewhere that I know is really far away.
Wide World – Alton and Hortense Ellis: mp3
TR: Driving into Atlanta is the closest thing to hell I can think of. When I was seventeen, coming in on I-85 just terrified me.
CZ: Yeah (laughs) it was bad.
TR: No! It was literally the scariest experience of my youth.
CZ: At least in LA, there’s city streets and you can get around the freeway stuff, but in Atlanta…I think there’s something fundamentally not right about sitting in the car for a really long time. It isolates you and makes you less considerate of others. You develop this sense of entitlement, because you’re just by yourself, in a car, trying to make sure you get somewhere faster than everybody else.
TR: There’s a whole different behavior pattern when people are forced into reacting with one another physically, like walking around on the street.
CZ: All that talk about people in New York being mean is hilarious. Try untying one of your shoes and walking a block and you’ll have three people stop you and say, Hey man, your shoe’s untied.
Digital World – Kelis: mp3
TR: If you had your way then, you’d abolish the car?
CZ: No! I’m not the guy who runs around going to political activist bicycle rallies. I just think that from now on, wherever I move, I just don’t think a car should be essential to getting myself around. Public transportation is key.
TR: I imagine you had to do a bit of driving for the film. You guys went to Birmingham and Biloxi, right?
CZ: (Laughing) We didn’t! We faked all that. It was all shot in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s movie magic. We tried to pick places that were not really identifiable as any specific town. Mostly we shot in these run-down hotels which are the pretty much the same everywhere you go in the South.
The World’s A Mess – X: mp3
TR: In the film, Pat Healy’s character is stuck spinning his wheels in Charlotte, but you make it seem pretty charming and likeable as a place to be stuck in. I say this because I don’t like Charlotte at all, but…
CZ: I don’t like Charlotte either. I set it there because I don’t like Charlotte. You just get this vibe that the whole town rose out of the ground in like, 1979. Or even 1990. It just became this big city from pretty much out of nowhere. And they brag a lot. In the local newspaper they’re all the time comparing themselves to Atlanta. About how much cooler they are. I mean they have this downtown arts district that they just created like five years ago. They’re so proud of themselves, like We made this arts district happen.
TR: Your father worked for a record company similar to the one in the film, right?
CZ: He was a DJ on AM radio for a long time. When he moved to Atlanta, Georgia, he got a job at a producing company for a short period of time. That was basically the kernel that became the story line for the film.
TR: Did he go out and recruit?
CZ: Yeah. He got into it, but he wasn’t as naïve about it. My dad figured out what was going on and got out pretty quickly. The funny part is that these kind of music scams aren’t really illegal. Most of the time, they’re just promising people things that they shouldn’t be promising.
There’s A World (Live At Massey Hall 1971) – Neil Young: mp3
TR: And if you don’t sign on the dotted line you don’t owe them anything?
CZ: They’re promising you that they’ll send your song to a bunch of radio stations, and that they’ll press X amount of copies of your CD. A friend told me a story the other day—he was working as a recording engineer in New York City studio. These song sharks would come in and record an act and then once that act left, they would just tape over that performance with the next act that came through the door.
TR: And so the acts would come in, pay and then leave?
CZ: Back in the day, these companies would print up a few 45’s and mail them to the radio stations, but the problem was that the radio stations wouldn’t have asked for them, so they’d just end up in the trashcan.
Strong Bad doesn’t care how you spell things on the internet and neither do we really
TR: So you placed ads in the Charlotte paper, saying that a company called “Great World of Sound” was looking for new musicians…
CZ: Yeah. The musical acts would come in and audition for the two actors (Pat Healy and Kene Baker) and we’d tape them as they played. Afterwards, we would stop and sit down and explain to them that we were actually making a movie and that the audition had been fake. We wanted to let them know where we were coming from and obviously, we didn’t want them to feel cheated or made fun of.
Livin’ In A New World – The Roots (ft. John-John of Nouveau Riche): mp3
TR: So this would take a lot of time, right?
CZ: Yeah. Sometimes the debriefing would take longer than the audition. Most of the musicians that showed up were more than happy to let us use the footage, after we’d explained things or shown them the cameras behind the two-way mirror. If they didn’t want us to, we let them go happily. This one guy spent a good part of his audition bad-mouthing the band he was in, and then after, he was like, Well, I’d rather you not use me, ‘cause I have to still be in a band with these guys.
This Whole World – The Beach Boys: mp3
TR: You didn’t want the sheen of reality TV.
CZ: No. Not at all. Making a documentary was not the point of it. I felt bad certainly for maybe wasting somebody’s time. But then again, they were all going out to audition for something that is a scam. I never brought this up at the time, and I certainly don’t want this to come across in a negative way at all, but I hope people won’t pick through those newspaper ads anymore. I hope that they realize the kind of surface BS about it. And I really felt this in my heart –that they should know these scams still happen all the time.
TR: Except the scam ads are coming through Craigslist now.
CZ: And the ads are mutating in a bunch of different ways. And here’s the thing. I don’t know enough about all these different kinds of ads to just point my finger and say “Oh that’s a scam!” I’m no expert and I don’t want to go around saying that everything is bad because I don’t know, specifically. But there is some stuff I’ve seen on the internet that uses the same vocabulary and the same tactics as the traditional song sharking scams.
Chicago (We Can Change The World) – Graham Nash: mp3
TR: What’s the vocabulary?
CZ: They promise that they’ll help you be “discovered,” that they’ll increase your “fan base.” They talk about selling music online and introducing you to a stable of other musicians. But the trick is you have to invest into it. Now it’s We’ll make you huge via the internet. And maybe some of these ads are legit. I don’t know for sure, but you see the same vocabulary popping up and it starts to make you wonder.
TR: So they’re just using the same old tricks in a slightly new way?
CZ: The more traditional song sharks, like the people in this film, have mostly retreated into the Christian Rock scene. People know more these days about what mainstream music business is like, but with Christian Rock world, you’re less likely to know the name of some recording company that wants to put out your music. It’s the same thing in Nashville, with singer-songwriters. The way that usually works is that they get singers who don’t know how to song-write and they get song writers that can’t sing and they put them together to cut a record. A record they won’t ever do anything with. And of course, there’s money down up front. It’s easy to hide when there’s so many people putting out music on a small scale in places like Nashville.
World Keeps Going Round – The Kinks: mp3
TR: Did you create The Great World of Sound website before you put the ads in the paper? To make it more realistic?
CZ: (Laughs) No. That was after the film was done.
TR: You’ve got 2800 hits right now, on the website. According to your wonderful circa-1997 webcounter.
CZ: It’s an amazing invention, the webcounter.
Fuck The World – 2pac: mp3
TR: Did you design the website?
CZ: It was me and Matt Chapman who also does the voice of StrongBad in homestarrunner. He didn’t really know too much about html so I think he used this program from the early 90’s.
TR: I have the word “Bojangles!” written down here all by itself.
CZ: Getting Bojangles was a pretty big deal. The only thing I regret is not getting a shot of that enormous Bojangles’ sign. I would have loved to put that in the movie, but we had three locations and we were shooting four or five pages a day and so we had to hustle. I really wish we’d gotten that shot though, it would have been the perfect way to transition into that scene.
TR: And the next word I have here is “Cheerwine!”
CZ: Yeah! Well, I never had Cheerwine until I went to college in North Carolina, but man, that and Nu-Grape. They changed everything. That’s what the next film’s going to be about.
AM World – Loudon Wainwright III: mp3
The Great World Of Sound opens today in theaters
George Ducker is a displaced Southen writer currently living in Los Angeles. He runs on Cheerwine, Oreo Pizzas, and Trader Joe’s burritos.