Jefferson Waful Talks Directing Umphrey’s McGee Doc ‘Reel To Real,’ Phish Mexico & More

first_imgUmphrey’s McGee just released their documentary film, Reel To Real, online. The film is a look back on the band’s history, using rare footage, recordings, and journal entries to create a nostalgic video that was originally created for a unique performance for some of their most hardcore fans this past January. What started out as a small project took on special meaning, as the project grew into this full length telling of the band’s path towards making their dreams come true.Reel To Real takes the viewer on a roller coaster ride through the career of Umphrey’s McGee, starting out as a green group of college kids chasing their rock star fantasies and taking us into Umphrey’s present as Progressive Rock gods. The documentary touches on some emotional moments, and certainly shows a private side of Umphrey’s McGee. Specifically, the documentary spends a lot of time focused on the Umphrey’s relationship with former drummer Mike Mirro, his difficult departure, and their subsequent re-birth after Kris Myers joined the band. That portion of the film is emotional, and the band does a good job delivering their honest feelings about the subject. This heavy material is offset by excellent stories about the band on the road, showing us the creation of their famed “Jimmy Stewart” improv segments, an explanation of the genesis of their infamous Halloween mash-up tradition, and lots of excellent footage, specifically a segment later in the film where the band rips it up at Abbey Road Studios during the recording of their The London Session record.This film is a treat for anyone who ever wanted to peak behind the curtain of an up-and-coming band, and gives the viewer an idea of just how difficult it can be to “make it” in the music business.  Certainly, if you are an Umphrey’s fan, you’ll love this film and the stories it tells; who knew that “Miss Tinkles’ Overture” was about keyboardist (and good sport) Joel Cummins accidentally peeing on his pillow in the back of their van?Reel To Real was directed by the band’s beloved lighting designer Jefferson Waful.  While Waful joined the band in 2008, about halfway through their story, he shows a keen eye in Reel To Real, plucking iconic moments from throughout the band’s career and setting their story up with a flowing narrative, turning the rise of Umphrey’s McGee into a real story with complex emotions.Mr. Waful was kind enough to sit down with L4LM to talk Reel To Real and more, see below for the full Q&A!L4LM: The band is so lucky to have so much footage, recorded material, and journals from their past.  Was it a deliberate decision on their part to archive as many moments as they could?JW- A little bit of both.  I wasn’t working for the band in those early days, between 2001-2008.  I think it was just a function of the technology of the time, which now seems a little out of date, but at the time having handheld camcorders was popular, and an easy way to document things. I don’t think they envisioned any specific use, but knew that archiving those moments could be useful one day.L4LM- It must have been difficult sifting through all of this footage and so many years worth of stories.  With so much to choose from, how did you decide which of their stories were the most important to include in the film?JW- The project started with [Umphrey’s Manager] Kevin Browning and Brian Walsh weeding through all this footage.  Kevin had an idea of what the important footage was and what clips would work.  For example, he immediately knew that the “Miss Tinkle’s” footage was perfect for this project, it jumped out because the story was funny and the song was important to the band and to their fans. Anyway, when they first presented the footage to me, it was about 2 Terabytes worth of content.  I took one look at that and it just seemed like an insane amount of footage, so Kevin and I had a discussion mid October, and I asked him if he could go back and whittle some of the footage down since he has the details and the memories that I don’t have from those early years.  So he went back and catalogued everything for me and that made sorting through the content a lot easier.  They made it very easy to go through the folders they’d created and find specific clips.Since they weren’t consciously filming a documentary at the time, it was frustrating that some of the footage was too short or not perfect.  I’d find a clip that might seem perfect, but then the recording would stop after only a few seconds, and that was certainly frustrating, because for the purpose of telling a story I’d have to present clips that were long enough from a narrative perspective.  I ended up sorting by time so I would only look at shots more than 10 seconds long; I wanted to be sure all the clips I used were good story telling devices.  It was definitely a challenge, and very time consuming.  All the credit to Kevin and Brian to whittle down that pile of footage at the beginning.  Not to say that I didn’t go back and look at the raw footage, I definitely stayed up until sunrise and beyond some nights looking for some very specific shots.L4LM- It seems like quite the undertaking,JW- One shot I’m particularly proud of finding is of Brendan opening the back lounge window of the bus, the scene where he screams at the sunrise, and it’s probably my favorite shot of the whole movie.  It encapsulates the experience of being a young band on the road, and I believe that clip is from the first night they ever had a tour bus, so they were so excited to be on the road living their dream.  Even though that clip is only 3 seconds long, it tells that story so perfectly.  That’s one of those shots I never would’ve found if I hadn’t dug through the catalog of footage for hours on end.It was a long process, but worth it to find clips like that.L4LM- You began working with Umphrey’s McGee in late 2008.  What was it like to join these best friends in the middle of their journey and what has your experience been joining such a tight-knit group?JW- They were and have been very welcoming.  I knew them because I had worked for moe., and they do Summercamp together with Umphrey’s every year.  So we did those festivals together and had been on tour together a bit.  I’d interviewed them a bit and I used to manage a band called Uncle Sammy that toured with them as well, and we were the same age, so we felt like peers.  They were very welcoming and made me feel right at home when I joined the team.  There was an instant chemistry with their playing style and improvisation and my style of lighting design. I definitely had an idea of how I’d light the band, having been around them so much, and it came kind of effortlessly because I wasn’t around for so much of it.L4LM- Was it fun telling the stories behind some of Umphrey’s most iconic songs, like Miss Tinkle’s Overture and Plunger?  Are there any other songs with interesting back stories that didn’t make the film?JW- Not really, not anything that significant.  I was really proud of that Plunger scene, even if it is really short.  The story acts as a narrative device, with the song bridging what was going on with the band at that time to the next chapter of their lives, and it moves the film to it’s next chapter simultaneously. We just happened to have the footage of them recording the song, and happened to have the footage of their “Storytellers” performance, and together it acted as a great plot device.  I had heard that song hundreds of times and never knew that’s what that song was about.  I’m so busy concentrating on the lights that I don’t listen much to the lyrics anyway, but I was surprised to learn the lyrics in this song, and just goes to show you the insight and meaning in some of their song writing.L4LM- To hear the band members talk about Mike Mirro leaving the band, it’s clear that moment in their history was very difficult for everyone involved.  You could tell they all still had complex feelings about it.  Was it difficult to cover that part of their story?JW- It definitely was the most sensitive topic, but also the most interesting topic, as far as a story telling device.  Without conflict you don’t have much of a story.  I didn’t want this to come off like a puff piece or promo, since I am a salaried employee of the band in the end, so from a journalistic standpoint I wanted to bend over backwards to make it seem like an unbiased telling of their real story.  I wanted to let the interviews tell the story of what we wanted to include, and in the end they didn’t ask me to take anything out of the film, band or management didn’t make any changes.  It was one hundred percent honest and it came across that way.  Part of the point of this project was to show the real side of their stories, and that’s why we decided to call the film “Reel to Real”.  Having the word “Real” in the title set the tone for the whole film.L4LM- Was there anything else in Umphrey’s story that you wish you could haveve included in the film, but got left on the cutting room floor?JW- There were hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage and so much that was great that I wish I could have included, but in the end didn’t fit the overall flow of the film.  We wanted it to be an hour or less, because the original vision of this film was to create a video the length of one set of Umphrey’s music. The whole point was for this video to be set 1 and a traditional set of UM music as set 2 for this special show we did on January 1st in Denver.  As we were editing the film, it became more of a documentary, but it still needed to fit in as a first set for this.  I credit a lot of my friends for giving me a lot of advice, specifically Clayton Halsey, and also Steve Brandano from The Howard Stern show.  They watched it with me and told me to cut the film from 75 minutes to 60 minutes.  In this ADD-era of the Internet we wanted to keep the flow moving pretty quickly, so I went back and found the weakest 15 minutes and cut them out.  The things that got cut were the things that were not essential to the chronology of the band and the Mike Mirro plot and all the other things that we had mapped out for the story.  There were countless fun and funny scenes that were great footage, but just didn’t move the story and were, in the end, unnecessary.L4LM- Will we see any more Umphrey’s McGee classic footage released in the future?JW- I would think that at some point we’ll see more of it, there’s certainly a lot more footage and we keep shooting more footage.  We have no specific plans today to release any more footage, but I love doing it and we’re certainly an organization that likes to interact with our core fans, so I can envision us continuing to do more projects like this one.L4LM- Do you have any other special projects that you can talk about that you’re currently working on?JW- At the moment, no. I just finished editing the final version of “Reel to Reel” four days ago, so it feels great to have zero things hanging over my head as far as film projects.  I’m happy to take a little breather, since I started working on this project way back in August of 2015.L4LM- Switching gears, I know you recently got to work with Chris Kuroda as part of Phish’s run in Mexico. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?JW- I could talk about Phish Mexico for hours, and it was definitely one of the highlights of my life, without a doubt.  I remember walking home from the Saturday show, and I made a pact with myself to never complain about anything again.  I got to work with my favorite band and my biggest influence while lighting up the ocean, and it happened the same week that the original version of Reel to Real was finished, which was quite serendipitous. Thanks to Umphrey’s, Phish, CID Entertainment, and Chris I got to accomplish two of my lifelong dreams in such a short period of time, so complaining about anything just seemed a little ridiculous…but I could go on about the TSA lines at LaGuardia Airport!last_img

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