Playing music impossibly ahead of its time, Death is now being credited as the first black punk band (heck…the first punk band!) and its members — Bobby Hackney, Sr., Dannis Hackney, David Hackney, and Bobbie Duncan — are finally receiving their long overdue recognition as true rock pioneers. Directors Jeff Howlett and Mark Covino speak about the making of this surprising film.
Before Bad Brains, the Sex Pistols or even the Ramones, three African-American teenage brothers formed a band in their spare bedroom and played proto-punk music. In this era of Motown and disco, record companies found Death’s music — and band name — too intimidating, and the group disbanded.
Released by Drafthouse Films, A Band Called Death chronicles the journey of what happened almost three decades later, when a 1974 demo tape stored in an attic found an audience several generations younger.
Debra Kaufman: How did you find this story and what about it made you want to make a movie about it?
Jeff Howlett: I knew the family for about 20 years. I was introduced to them in the early 1990s when I was in a rock band and we played a festival with Lambsbread, Bobby and Dannis’ reggae band. Bobby Jr. told me that he was in a band, Rough Francis, covering his father’s music, so I went to a local venue in 2008, thinking I would get some Lambsbread.
When I heard the band’s music, I was completely blown away. I was shocked — just like Julian was when he says in the movie, Dad, why didn’t you tell me you played punk music? In fact, a lot of us music guys in and around Vermont were completely shocked about the whole Death thing. Right after the concert, I downloaded the song and Ben Blackwell put the songs on the chunklet website.
Fast forward a few months, when the Death album was re-issued on Drag City records. It was about the time the New York Times article came out in March 2009, and that’s when I started documenting what was going on. I sent my friend Mark [Covino], with whom I’d worked on a music video, the New York Times piece and the two-track chunklet, and asked if he were interested in getting involved.
Mark Covino: I had just met Jeff on this music video and he was yapping in my ear about Death and this New York Times article. I’d come off three years, spending $25,000 of my own cash to make my own feature doc, and I was burned out on documentaries. So I told him I wasn’t completely interested, but when he said it would only be a 20-minute documentary, I said, sure, send over the article and two audio tracks. Then I didn’t look at his email for 2 weeks. I ignored it. I didn’t know who Jeff was and thought the story didn’t sound real.
I was having one of those “I’m a filmmaker not making the film I want to make” moments. My other doc was about hip-hop and couldn’t get finished. Then I finally read the NYT article and it stopped me in my tracks. Everything Jeff told me about the band flooded into my mind. I played the track “Keep On Knocking” and couldn’t believe how perfect a movie this would make. I called Jeff and said he was out of his mind to do a 20-minute doc. This had to be a feature story.
Jeff: I was just finishing film school, at Burlington College in Vermont, and I had never made a documentary before. The first interviews we did were with Bobby and Dannis at their practice space, and we knew right away from those interviews that there was something special about this…that it was going to be way more than just 20 minutes.
Mark: From those interviews, we got names of people and friends of theirs. We’d read online about celebrities talking about the band and we compiled a list of them to interview. We made it our mission to interview everyone connected to the story. At a certain point, we became aware that it was less about the band and more about David, and his love for his brothers. Once we got into that, it became a whole different movie and a better movie than the one we first thought we were going to make.
We knew we had to tell this story by any means necessary. There was no Kickstarter or Indiegogo then. We got to a place where we were completely broke, at the end of our rope. About a year- and-a-half after we started, we talked on the phone about putting the movie on hold since it was killing us. We even talked about abandoning it, because it was destroying us financially and at home. We thought, let’s shoot every now and then, and make it a 5-year project. It was a pretty depressing phone conversation.
Two hours after that conversation, a friend of mine in Vermont who follows celebrities texted me that Hollywood producer Scott Mosier was tweeting about our movie. I called my friend and asked what the hell he was talking about. Apparently Scott had come across a promo Jeff and I had cut and put online, and Scott was raving about how he wanted to see the movie. I asked my friend to write Scott a direct message on Twitter and send him my personal email and the trailer, which is way better than the promo. And to tell him that we’re in desperate need of a producer. Within an hour, Scott emailed me, and later that night we all had a phone conversation. He became our producer the same night we’d had our conversation about stopping the documentary.
Debra: Tell us about the logistics of shooting the movie.
Mark: At the very beginning of the project, Jeff was the sole director and he just asked me to light scenes. I own all my own gear, and once I was sold on the story, I told Jeff I’d be the full-time DP and use all my gear for free. The more we got into production, the more I got into directing. Then Jeff and I talked about being co-directors.
Jeff: I had to buy additional Panasonic HPX-170 cameras when we went to Detroit in 2009. It was ideal that we had more than one camera. On that trip I said, Mark, you’re going above and beyond, I want you to co-direct with me. It was a pretty emotional trip, just going back to the roots of Death. It made the bond tighter between Mark and I as filmmakers and friends. Up until then, we hadn’t hung out that much. On that trip, we were in my little car packed to the roof with gear.
Mark: It was a lot like going on tour with a band, and Jeff and I were the band members. It was a tremendous bonding experience: two guys stuck in a car for 16 hours, going to Detroit and filming all this emotional stuff with their family.
Jeff: There were many heavy moments. The thread of the interviews with Bobby and Dannis are all the scenes where they’re wearing their blue jackets with the Death emblem on it. I think those interviews were 10 to 12 hours each, straight, in a hot, sweaty room with lights blazing. It was very intense, as we knew it would be. We had quite a few pages of questions to ask them. We really needed them to just lay it all out there. We got some great stuff from those interviews. It was definitely a process for them to get used to us, and this took place a year-and-a half into it.
Mark: We did four interviews each for Bobby and Dannis. For the most part, they were very open, but they were very protective talking about their [deceased brother] David, especially his drinking. It was hard to talk about David’s dark years. The interviews with [David’s widow] Heidi were all one-on-one. We did the first interview with Heidi in Vermont when she was visiting because Bobby Sr. wanted to be in the room, and this was just before they started opening up about David’s dark side, so we weren’t 100 percent satisfied with the interview.
Debra: How did you get the celebrity interviews?
Mark: The first one we got was Jello Biafra [San Francisco-based punk musician, spoken-word artist, political activist and founder of the band Dead Kennedys – ed.], which was through Jeff. And then he threw my ass to the wind and made me do it alone because we couldn’t afford the airfare for both of us. It was a trip. Jello’s publicist didn’t give me the address until the last minute and by that time, I was far away from the location. I rushed to get there and ended up forgetting my tripod. I got there 15 minutes late and, as lots of Jello’s fans know, I got a lot of his eccentricities for 45 minutes. He was very gracious but also very Jello Biafra. I was very traumatized. It was an awkward interview. I had to set up the camera on a ladder and I was nervous, because he was making random remarks; I wasn’t sure if he was pissed at me or trying to get me out of there.
From that point on, Jeff and I had a conversation about how we needed to start interviewing these celebrities who love the band’s music. We compiled a list, mostly of musicians from Michigan or Detroit, which also included Alice Cooper, Don Davis, Kid Rock, Iggy Pop, Wayne Kramer, Ben Blackwell and Mick Collins.
Mark: We had two Panasonic HPX-170s, which was our main interview camera. I used that with a Red Rocket attachment to add lenses, and we used all Nikon lenses. We recorded 720p at 24FPS onto P2 cards.
At the very beginning, I edited the movie. But from previous experience, I knew that if I were directing, shooting and editing that it would completely burn me out. I was always hoping we’d find money to finish the product and we found Scott Mosier. When he asked, do you want an editor, I said hell yes.
We still had a lot more to shoot when Scott came in, and even after he came in, we had a month or two when we didn’t have any more money. Scott was mainly giving advice. Then Scott’s producers Kevin Mann and Matthew Perniciaro of Haven Entertainment came in and their job was to help us find money. It was hard to find money in Hollywood, which had been hit badly, and nobody wanted to put money into a documentary about three black punk rockers. We were getting worried. Then Matt called us and said he was visiting the set of Entourage and Jerry Ferrara, the actor who played Turtle, immediately wrote a check for $50,000. If it wasn’t for Jerry Ferrara, we wouldn’t have been able to finish the film.
Our editor was a friend of Scott’s, Rich Fox, who he met because he edited some things for Kevin Smith. Scott told me Rich broke into the industry with his own documentary Tribute and knew a lot about documentaries. What sealed the deal for me was that he had just come off the documentary God Bless Ozzy Osbourne. I thought, if that guy can cut a movie out of random clips and different formats/codecs, that’ll work for us. In our movie, the A cameras were all Panasonic, but all the B roll and concert footage of the 1970s came from many different cameras. We had about 12 different codecs.
One of the interesting things was that we never met our editor or producers until the worldwide premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Everything was done over the phone or through email conversations. Almost every single night, Jeff and I and our two producers and our editor would get on the phone and talk about what we wanted to do with the latest edit. He’d send us little low-res videos, we’d look at them and break down the timecode sections we wanted changed. Rich gave us the rough cut in a little over a month.
Jeff: The biggest takeaway for me from having made A Band Called Death was to get these guys out there, to get their music to the whole world, to push them to the next level with this film. It was basically a big advertisement for them as a band, to turn people on to Death, not just a great musical group, but a great family, expressing love and spirituality.
Mark: I agree.
Released by Drafthouse Films, A Band Called Death is available for purchase or download here.