The basic concept of the Please Subscribe documentary (“Please Subscribe follows YouTube celebrites David Choi, Happy Slip, Daxflame, and Tay Zonday as they discuss how online media and YouTube has affected each of their lives and the face of entertainment.“) sparked my interest fairly quickly. The documentary, made by CJ Wallis and the Soska Sisters, hopes to play at several film festivals in the near to long term. I recently conducted an email interview with Wallis. In addition to this documentary, according to Wallis: “I recently directed/edited/conceived the forthcoming Sarah Slean music video and am currently in development on my debut feature film, Frank Flood. The girls are getting a ton of attention for Dead Hooker In A Trunk and are currently in development on two scripts. I also have some original music under the label Elective, which is also going rather well.”
Tim O’Shea: When you contacted the four YouTube celebrities featured in Please Subscribe, did any of them need convincing to be involved in the documentary?
CJ Wallis: The only real person that needed a little bit of a nudge was Daxflame, and is mainly because he is actually represented by one of the bigger agencies in Los Angeles, so there was a bit of looking into one another and the project before they could commit to it. He is also a bit gunshy as his YouTube experience with the public hasn’t necessarily been as positive as the other four.
O’Shea: How did you arrive on picking those four folks in particular?
Wallis: David Choi was where the entire project sort of started. One very late evening in 2008 I think, the Twins and I stumbled across David’s high energy DuckTales video and it shattered us. It is long and repetitive and I think everyone involved ran out of ideas and energy midway through, but that’s what made it amazing. I had featured David’s “YouTube Love Song” on the viral section of a youth tv show I used to direct/produce on and somehow David’s videos kept finding their way in front of me.
Early November 2009, the three of us were re-watching the videos and the idea came up about doing a documentary about these people. A casual internet search into the matter launched the project instantly as David was due to appear in Canada in under two weeks for the first time and play a show in our hometown of Vancouver – saving us the plane tickets, hotels and rentals elsewhere. We e-mailed him and he got back to us and was instantly onboard.
The second day of filming with David, we were driving someplace and in his usual humble manner quietly offered “i could prolly get you tay zonday…if you want…” and suddenly we had Tay Zonday.
O’Shea: Logistically what was the biggest challenge in doing the documentary?
Wallis: As with most filmmakers at whatever level of success we are at currently, it was money. During the time the documentary was coming to life, the girls and I had recently finished their debut feature length film, Dead Hooker In A Trunk, that was also primarily paid out of our own pockets so when Please Subscribe happened, the credit cards were already very much full and there wasn’t a ton left to draw from.
Daxflame needed to be flown to us because it is too dangerous for him to show his house and where he lives which is something we explore in the documentary. Tay Zonday lives in Hollywood, so we begged and pleaded and found our way down there thanks to sympathetic family members etc etc.
While already in Los Angeles (with no immediate chance of coming back within our timeline) we had a YouTube personality that was tied strongly to Daxflame’s story choose not to be involved. We learned they were involved in a previous documentary that is famous (in the wrong way) within the Youtube community and we suddenly needed a fourth subject. David suggested we message Happyslip, who we also enjoy, and she happened to be in LA for a day or two and she graciously gave up her free time on the trip to be involved. It saved the day a thousand times over.
All interviews or filmmakers tend to say things like this, but in all sincerity: all four of these people have rapidly become lifelong friends to the three of us. And the people surrounding them in their lives that we met are no different. Alot of people in this industry, in my experience, tend to only ask you a question so that they can eventually just answer it themselves back at you, so it is rare to find so many people at once who are so endlessly selfless, generous and kind. We stay in regular contact with David’s friends Peter and Sam and are planning to see them all in the middle of July. There is mumblings of shooting a music video for David while we are down there.
O’Shea: A great deal of your recent work has been for feature film, short film and music videos, was working on a documentary a form of returning to your roots of producing for local TV programming in Canada?
Wallis: Actually, it was more of a return to the way I learned filmmaking. My friend Jeff and I would always have a camera on us and would film friends and random events, either together or separately, and then cut them up into fully polished/structured mini documentaries with sound cues and intricate sequences and pass them around to our friends – as they usually could be enjoyed out of context. Those things allowed for a lot of experimentation and mistakes and were always fun to cut up.
So this is sort of the same deal in a way. We got our friends together, shot a bunch of stuff with an idea of where we were going, and now we have to sit here and sort it all out all the surprises and left turns that were thrown at us along the way. It’s wonderfully loose and fun compared to working on a feature or short but, as the film is in it’s second major overhaul now in as many months, it can also be a curse because there isn’t that structure or safety net of having a pre-written scene to work from to know when you’re finished. Obviously everything is up to us how it’s presented and that’s where the pressure and self-doubt can creep back in and infect the fun. You always feel like something can be cut or timed a little better.
O’Shea: Given your own musical background, did you find it easier to interview the musicians featured in Please Subscribe?
Wallis: I wouldn’t say it helped in interviewing them, but it did help with the bonding sides of things off camera. I think there was only one technical question I asked to any of them and it was to Tay, something about the structure or key of Chocolate Rain and he shrugged a “it’s a counterpointed song in Eflat.” It just wasn’t something that ended up being talked much about.
O’Shea: You are collaborating with Twisted Twins Productions on this documentary, how do your differing approaches toward this kind of work serve to compliment each other’s skillset? How did you and the Twisted Twins divvy up the work on this documentary?
Wallis: The girls and I have been working together on things for the last 3 years now, I think so everything is sort of blurred or second nature as far as official job titles go when we are on a project or set. And despite the fact that they make the crotch driven boy movies in the house and I make more mopey dramatic things, we have similar tastes so it’s not that difficult for us to mesh on things outside our comfort zones…
For Please Subscribe I was on camera and location sound so we’d figure out the nice areas we’d want to shoot and when I’d be setting something up on the camera, the girls would be putting the LAVs on our subjects as well as producing or acting as the AD’s and keeping everyone in good conversation and happy. Everyone did a bit of everything. I do all of the post production work for our stuff, so when it gets to that stage, the three of us huddle around our make-shift studio in the apartment and it gets done.
O’Shea: Not surprisingly, you’re using YouTube to promote the documentary–what’s been the response from folks at YouTube?
Wallis: David sent me an e-mail one day that he had sent the official trailer for the doc we posted to his main contact with the YouTube higher-ups. They got back to me that they all loved it and it was a hit virally within their head offices and there was talk of featuring our video on the main page of the site. There were a lot of questions about what we were going to do with it and if we were planning to release it on YouTube. I said we were planning to go the conventional route of festivals into a home video sale but would be interested in hearing what they had to offer (as they have recently started their film rental program) and I didn’t anything back and stopped getting responses from them. They recently celebrated their 5th anniversary where they got each of their celebrities and made little documentary-esque videos about each. The one they made for Tay, shot on the Canon 7d I imagine, that is pretty close to our trailer which was a bit frustrating/demotivating at first but could also just be a big coincidence…
O’Shea: Is it too early to discuss how many festivals you’re going to submit Please Subscribe for consideration?
Wallis: We had a goal of a major film festival in mind that had a hard deadline about a month after we finished filming. A cut of the film was slapped together quickly and we got it in in time but was, admittedly, a bit too scattered and not a proper representation of the footage we have. As a director, you always want to take the home run shot of submitting to a Cannes or Sundance wherever but the reality of the situation is, or what I think our thinking has evolved into over the last year or so with ‘Hooker’ as well, is get it any and everywhere that will have you.
The audience and responses may grow a bit slower but at least your putting yourself and your work in front of audiences rather than submitting to three or four major festivals and sitting on a project for a year or so waiting around, which is what happened with my short Last Flowers. The smaller and mid-level festivals I’ve gone to have been some of the best film experiences of my life and there is so much else going on with the major festivals that have nothing to do with the movies themselves, I think all I can suggest is save your entry fees for someplace that looks a bit more warm and inviting.
O’Shea: Sidebar question, as a fellow fan of Conan O’Brien–how frustrating was it for you to see NBC bail on him as host of The Tonight Show so quickly?
Wallis: Despite the lives being affected, it made for great fued TV. I sort of had a soft spot for Jimmy Kimmel that has grown substantially since he called Leno out on his show. On a selfish level, when I go to LA, I’ve always gone to tapings of things (game shows, late night shows, anything) just to watch the chaos or see how shows vary the way the crew operates and functions etc and with Conan in LA, I was finally able to go to tapings of something I actually enjoy. And as we speak, Leno’s ratings as worse than what Conan’s were when they dismissed him. I assume the TBS show in November will shoot in LA still, but that doesn’t help us on our July trip, heh. He got a big chunk of money – it’s not the Tonight Show but I’m sure it helped take the sting off it. And the Tonight Show hasn’t really been the Tonight Show since May 1992 and they just chased their best chance at getting it back.
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