Interview: ‘Brothers Hypnotic' Filmmaker Reuben Atlas Talks To S&A’s Sergio About The Making Of His Film (And A Few Other Things)
Photo Credit: S & A

Interview: ‘Brothers Hypnotic' Filmmaker Reuben Atlas Talks To S&A’s Sergio About The Making Of His Film (And A Few Other Things)



certainly have written about filmmaker’s Rueben Atlas’ superb documentary feature

film Brothers Hypnotic on S & A – most recently in Jai Tiggett’s rave review of the film last month (HERE).


film chronicles the jazz/funk/hip-hop brass band group, who are the sons of

Chicago based jazz legend Phil Cohran, not only their performances in concerts

and on street corners, but as Jai said, the film very much deals as well with the

band’s “conflict between independent

ideals and mainstream success”.


the film is going to be broadcast, starting next Monday April 7th on

PBS on their weekly documentary series Independent Lens (as they say, be sure to

check your local listings). But this past Monday, I had chance to talk to Atlas,

who is also a lawyer, about his documentary, which was his first ever feature

film, about how it came to be, what he learned during the arduous four year

process of making the film, and what similarities he found between filmmaking and

law school.


So the most obvious question first, how did you come upon the idea of making a

film about the group?


I was in my third year of law school in New York and I had a couple of friends

who kept telling me that you’ve got to hear this band, you’ll love them. So

serendipitously I was just walking down the street around Union Square and I

heard this sound in the distance. I tracked it around three corners and I came

upon them and was just l blown away by their music and their talent like

everyone else, and how their music represented brass band tradition, but in a

way that no one has ever seen before. It combines jazz and hip-hop and funk and

soul, and how it all came together on that corner was very inspiring.  So I just went up to them and told them that

I wanted to make a video of them of some sort.

Now I’m sure that they’ve had plenty of people coming up

to them promising and offering them all sorts of things, and they were like “Yeah,

yeah you can support us. Just buy a CD” (Laughs). So I bought a CD and

showed up the next day with a camera and that’s how it’s started.


So had you ever made a film before?


at the time I was making short videos for people who I thought were unfairly

incarcerated by the Rockefeller drug laws, short advocacy pieces for them to use

in their cases to review their sentences and to reform the Rockefeller drug

laws in New York, but I had never made a feature films before. But my mother is

a filmmaker so the idea of making a documentary was always in my head and

something that I knew I was going to do at some point.


I don’t need to tell you how hard it is the make a feature let alone a documentary.

What kept you going through the process of making your film despite all the difficulties

you no doubt faced?


I stared it I didn’t have a strong sense of what it was going to be. I was sort

of up for the adventure and I think, in a weird way,  that allowed me not to have any great

expectations about when it would end or whatever I had to go through to finish

it.  But there were also a couple of practical

things that pushed me along. One was that, apart from the brothers and their

family and their story and being so captivating at every turn,  I had my mother encouraging me, but also

mentors such as filmmaker St Clair Bourne (John Henrik Clarke: A Great

and Mighty Thing, Let the Church Say Amen).

He was mentoring me in the

beginning, but unfortunately he passed. But before he did, had introduced me to Sam Pollard (Slavery By Another Name)

who has mentored so many filmmakers; but he really made me feel as if I was on

the right track. He has this nice way of being very critical, but at the same

time he was pushing me forward.

And then also I was getting grants along the way and all the

grants I got seemed to come at very opportune times. I was like” “Where

am I going to get the next $10 grand to do this shoot or to get the better

sound for this next shoot?” and then I would get it.  It sort of felt like winning the lottery. So

even though the film wasn’t done, it was super exciting to get another step

forward and I think that really helped push me along.


For the record, from the time you first came up with the idea to make the film

until final completed doc, how long did it take to make it?


was about four years on and off of shooting, and I think half of that time was

about fundraising and about another year editing.


And I’ve been told by other documentary filmmakers that usually the film you

have an idea of making turns out to be something that is completely different

by the time you finally finish the film. Did you find that true in your case?


I think to some degree. I always knew that the central tension of the story was

about the sons’ desire to carry on their father’s legacy, but in their own way.

And I didn’t know exactly what that meant, I think, in the beginning, or what

it would mean in the film, but that I always knew was the theme in the

story.  But in the beginning what I

wanted to do was much more cinema verite stuff and really shoot inside the

music scene and get their meetings with Atlantic Records and stuff. But when I wasn’t

getting access to that I realized that the bigger themes that had a strong emotional

cord had come from the family’s story. So, in a sense, I realized that I wasn’t

getting great emotional scenes with their music industry story and that it had

to be rooted in their family story. That was the big change.


So were there other documentaries and filmmakers who inspired you or just the

opposite you didn’t want to be influenced by anyone else from their work and

wanted to find your own path, your own vision?


I was definitely inspired by the great music documentaries such as Don’t Look Back,

and Gimme Shelter and there’s a photographer who made a bunch of music film

named Danny Clinch who definitely

inspired me cinematically in terms of what I wanted to do visually. But as far

as having my own vision, I think as a first time director, as someone who

especially at the beginning. I really did not identity as a filmmaker, I wasn’t

sure if I ever had and I think it was sort of process for me during the making

of the film. When I started out I didn’t have enough confidence where I would

say: “Yes

I going to take my voice and insert it into the story.”

That was never

a sort of part of it for me or even really my motivation for doing it. And especially

with this film because it was a collaborative process and I wanted to work with

the brothers to tell their story especially when it came to their family stuff.

I really wanted them to set the guidelines and the boundaries for what we were

getting into and what parts of the story they wanted to tell and felt

comfortable sharing. So I guess when I realized that I actually had a vision for

it, I was sort of influenced by a lot of people (laughs)


So do you consider yourself a filmmaker now?


I guess so (laughs) hey at least I made a film so I’m a filmmaker.


So what are you planning next?


I’m now working as filmmaker full time I am now in production about the

community organization ACORN which I’m

co-directing with Sam Pollard and I’m also in production in  film on sort of the opposite end of the

spectrum, thematically, about the world or rather subculture of old rare and

expensive wines. You know the stuff that can go for hundreds of thousands of

dollars per bottle


Finally you’re a law school graduate and have even passed the bar so let me ask

you have you found any similarity between filmmaking and practicing the law?


guess when I was doing research. Law school, if it really does one thing, teaches

you how to meticulous really organize lots of information. So I think when I

was doing research for the film I would organize my outlines the same way I would

organize torts of contracts The way I would organize briefs would the same way

I would organize certain scenes. So in that sense there is a similarity for me.

What is the issue is always the central issue that is something that you always

have to figure out. What is the legal issue? And you have to distill very complicated

legal cases into these single issues and I think that’s similar to film in that

sense especially early on when you’re pitching to people. This is the broad

theme that I’m exploring, but this is the story that I want to tell.

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