Shut Up, Little Man!

Some Notes Toward a History of Shut Up, Little Man!

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“I Was a Killer Before You Were Born” — The Killer Films saga (2002-2006)

In 2002 I received a short simple email from another fan named Mark, inquiring about the film rights for Shut Up Little Man. In his email Mark noted that he was a music video director looking to branch out into feature film direction. He relayed to me that in his professional career he had shot videos for major label bands: “I have worked with The Eels and Nine Inch Nails.” He went on to say that he was going to forward to me a VHS tape that illustrated his directorial work. Via email I thanked him for his interest, didn't think much about it, and in about 10 days I received a package from him that included a videotape that featured his wares. I popped it into the VCR, kicked back, watched the 15 videos contained therein, and about an hour later, I picked my jaw off the ground. 'Mark' was Mark Romanek, indubitably one of the greatest and most highly regarded music video directors in the history of the industry. Mark was being humble in his email. Sure, he worked “with The Eels and Nine Inch Nails,” but the sampler featured videos by the most towering figures of the music and entertainment industry, including Madonna, Johnny Cash, and Michael Jackson. More importantly, the sampler featured famously innovative and provocative artful videos by Fiona Apple (“Criminal”) and Nine Inch Nails (“Closer”). Mark had also created the near-legendary video of Johnny Cash's “Hurt.” Mark was an artist. Mark had won over twenty MTV awards, three Grammy awards, three Billboard Music awards, and was the first director to win an MTV Vanguard Award for his overall contribution to the medium. His videos had something consistent - a hermetic self-contained world, a realm of inventive weirdness and disturbing beauty. They actually had vision and emotional depth. As you know, it would be difficult to use words like inventive, beauty, vision, and emotional depth about most music videos. Mostly, you think of bands lip-synching vocals on a fake stage or scantily-cload women pouring champagne on each other by a swimming pool. But, with Mark's work it was different. His work contained a melding of surrealism and edgy menace that I thought would be ideal and perfect for someone attempting to translate Shut Up Little Man to film.

Mark was working in tandem on Shut Up Little Man with the great independent film producers Killer Films. Killer had reached prominence producing difficult, dark, and provocative films in this period (Boys Don't Cry, Hedwig the Angry Inch, Far From Heaven, Safe, Velvet Goldmine, Happiness, I Shot Andy Warhol, I’m Not There). Films by provocative and visionary film-makers like Todd Haynes, Todd Solondz, and John Cameron Mitchell. The primary force behind Killer Films is Christine Vachon, and just so you can groove with me and comprehend my excitation at the prospect of working with these folks, here is an excerpt from her recent book, A Killer Life:

My strategy is to stay a moving target. I’ve got a reputation for "edgy," "dark" material — the kind of movie where you’re maybe rooting for the bad guy. I’m also frequently accused of operating with a political agenda. A gay agenda. An aggressive-New Yorker agenda. When I go to L.A. for meetings, sometimes I feel like I have to put on my "uniform" -- black pants, black T-shirt, combat boots — so that nobody gets confused and thinks I’ve come over to the bright side. Yes, I go for the kind of stories that challenge viewers, and I like to approach a story from an unexpected place. But my films aren’t all about gay people, they aren’t necessarily dark, and I’m not trying to peddle an ideology. I think that in order to realize the artistic possibilities of film, you’ve got to be in tune with the social and political realities of the times: the ravages of AIDS, or the complexity of gender, or social anomie, American-style. This is why I’m attracted to scripts inspired by true stories. When you stop retreading the conventional fairy tales — when you quit with the fairy tales entirely — you make better art. You also make people a little nervous.

You can see why we were excited and hopeful. We shared Killer's philosophy. We like art that is fundamentally provocative, emotive, real, and hopefully also redemptive - stuff that makes you think and feel, even if part of what you feel is uncomfortable. That’s why we made the Shut Up Little Man recordings in the first place. The stuff is intense. By this time our experiences with writers, directors, and producers had refined our sense of what we wanted in a film-making team working with the Shut Up Little Man material. We clearly did not want to prostitute Shut Up Little Man to a major studio that was going to crank out some watered down PG-rated bullshit caricature of Peter and Raymond.

We had encountered bottom-line producers who had an eye toward sterilizing the material (“Eddie baby, we’ve got to maximize the appeal here, so we’re going to have to lose all the bad language, the references to homosexuality, and the excessive drinking”). We had opportunities to do that, and we simply could not. In our past experiences there were a couple of times when the project began to veer in the direction, and frankly, we were broiling in discomfort. Decidedly, we were not going to lob the project over to some small-time wannabe director (ala Taicher) who would produce an amateurish half-assed straight-to-DVD movie that no one would ever see. That sort of maneuver would hang all the true Shut Up Little Man fans out to dry. What we sincerely hoped for now was to find a writer, director, and producer to harness the highly charged Shut Up Little Man material and transform it into a film that was rich, provocative, and impacting. A creative team that was not allergic to risk. So, we aimed to assemble a group that could capture the essential darkness and raw hilarity of the recordings, but also to humanize Peter and Raymond and give the entire story multi-dimensionality. And, we very much wanted to create a film that would truly satisfy the majority of all the great Shut Up Little Man fans.

Throughout 2004-2007 it seemed evident that we had found a promising marriage of Producer, Director, and material. And, we had. Mark was an ideal director (for his sheer inventiveness and the seductive menace in his best work), Killer was the perfect production company (for their fearlessness and specializing in raw subject matter). The only missing element in the team was a writer. And that proved to be a challenge. In this time Killer found and contracted writers. The first was a good novelist, Michael Zadoorian, who had never written a screenplay, and the second was the founder of satirical rag, The Onion. Throughout the process Mark Romanek would interview and pose questions to me. He would glean stories and true-life vignettes about our experiences living next to Peter and Raymond and suggest narrative lines to the writers for further development. But, for one reason or another, the writers could not successfully translate the material into a script that gave confidence enough to Killer to pull the trigger and film. So, finally, this year the Shut Up Little Man movie rights once again became available. (If interested in the film rights, please contact us.)