The Life of the Party
How Writer/Director Greg Harrison Found His Groove
With his debut feature Groove, 31-year-old San Francisco-based filmmaker Greg Harrison has managed what many thought impossible: He's captured the vital heartbeat of an entire youth subculture, distilled it, and crafted the first honest, accurate, and nonsensationalist look at the burgeoning American rave movement at the very moment it has begun to gain mainstream recognition. Raves, those all-night parties fueled in equal parts by pounding bass rhythms, the DJs that relentlessly mix those selfsame beats, and the wildly popular designer drug ecstasy, have been around for more than a decade, but it's only recently -- with a massive (and massively negative) mainstream media blitz -- that they've become the center of attention for people outside their own incestuous scenes. Harrison's film, which spans the course of one night in the lives of San Francisco's game 24-hour party people, is remarkable not only in its attention to detail (glow sticks, map points, and cop hassles), but also for the entirely nonjudgmental tone it takes with its zealously passionate protagonists. And why not? It's the first "rave movie" created by an actual member of the scene. Harrison, who spent the better part of the last decade in the Bay Area editing and directing videos, commercials, and other people's feature films, is a longtime member of San Francisco's rave community, having attended his first party over seven years back while still in Los Angeles.
Groove may well prove to be a watershed moment in the history of this particular subculture. Just as George Lucas' American Graffiti and Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused aimed to illuminate those director's formative subcultures, so too does Harrison's film turn a blue-gelled IntelliBeam on the scene and speak to one particular moment in the ongoing history of American youth movements. A far cry from the rabid bad, bad press ravers have been getting from the national media, Groove almost feels like a documentary as it stutters through one night in the life of a Bay Area party. And to top if off, it's a wildly entertaining film whether you're in the scene or just wondering why on earth everybody's wardrobe suddenly got so baggy.
The Chronicle spoke to Harrison by phone from San Francisco and asked him about the film, the scene, and what's next for Rave America ...
Austin Chronicle:What kind of reaction did you receive from the Bay Area rave community when you announced your intention to make this film? I know the scene can be very insular -- was there any sort of backlash?
Greg Harrison: I got e-mail from people I didn't even know, saying, 'Don't do it, don't make this film, you're going to screw it up for everybody, I don't want you to make another Go.' I got numerous e-mails having to do with the movie Go. It was amazing how many people referenced that film. But they really didn't know me, and they didn't know what I was trying to do. I was careful in responding to everybody, because I was involved with the scene -- I definitely understood their trepidation and certainly the fears of being sensationalized and marginalized. I mean, that was the foundation of writing the script, those very notions of what rave is in the mainstream media.
So I wrote everyone back and told them who I was, and what my involvement in the scene was, and what I was trying to do, and ultimately that fostered a real trust in the project and that ended up getting the scenes involved very heavily in the production of the film. Early on, though, there was some worry on the part of the rave community, and even now, before people see the film, they're very afraid of it taking advantage of the scene.
AC: How did you manage to get British DJ John Digweed involved? He's probably the most popular DJ in the world today, and his cameo is so spot-on ...
GH: He had a relationship with Wade Randolph Hampton, our music supervisor, who's from Dallas by the way. Wade was hired on very early, even during the scripting stage, to handle the music for the film, and he had done early gigs with John in the early to mid-Nineties. So he was able to get a script for him while John was in San Francisco for a gig. I met with him, and we hit it off and he liked the script, but even more importantly he fit the character that I had written for the final DJ (because all the DJs were written as characters first). He's truly the kind of superstar DJ that everyone's waiting to hear but is ultimately very down to earth. I thought it was a very good match.
AC:How have you seen the rave scene in the United States change since you began writing the treatment for Groove in 1996?
GH: I think that while I tried to make sure that Groove didn't reference any particular year, I think that it ultimately does represent a certain kind of party that happened in San Francisco in the early to mid-Nineties. In terms of things that have changed there's no question that more people than ever in America know about rave and somewhat of rave culture and the music. I think that I was trying to be very specific, though it's hard for me to speak globally -- or even nationally -- about it because my main experience has been in the San Francisco scene. But just even there I think that the sort of party depicted in Groove is becoming scarcer and scarcer. There's definitely entities that are still perpetuating this kind of party, and I think that the underground scene in San Francisco is still alive, but certainly there has been some sort of superficial co-opting, I think, in America, of the rave aesthetic and of rave music. It'll be interesting to see what happens. I think I read that [director of Human Traffic] Justin Kerrigan was saying that America is now like London was in 1995.
AC:As someone from within the rave community, what are your thoughts on the increasing popularity of the drug ecstasy, which is now sort of infiltrating American pop culture?
GH: I think that the kind of experience that people have at raves and certainly the experience of being on ecstasy at a rave is something that everybody could ultimately relate to as human beings if they could somehow open their minds to it or talk to people about why they're drawn to this experience. Whether it's right or wrong or ultimately destructive, I think that might be what's happening. I think people are finding out more about what a real rave can be like, or what the underground scene is like, or what the sense of community is, or what the music actually means, through actually participating in a rave. I think that as the scene grows, aspects of that scene, like use of the drug ecstasy, is also going to grow along with it.
What's exciting for me is that I've been talking to a lot of press for the film, and I felt for sure I'd get skewered on the drug issue, but I'm finding that a lot of people are seeing that there is something more to raves than just drugs. I think that's what's interesting to me, that people are actually intrigued by the phenomena of the experience, and it seems to me that ultimately that experience is on the continuum of human experience. Most everyone could relate to it if they weren't so afraid of it.
AC: Let's talk a little about the production of the film. You had a totally down and dirty, renegade indie production on your hands -- did you ever run afoul of the SFPD or the city or anything like that?
GH: We were a totally independent production, and we did it for absolutely no money, and we did it extremely quickly -- we shot for only 24 days. Just to give you a perspective, that meant we had less than three days to shoot every last shot on the dance floor, and we had Digweed for five hours [laughing]. It was insane. The shooting schedule was crazy. We shot three out of the four weeks at the warehouse location, so we did have to get that permitted, because if we had been shut down the whole film would have been shut down. But all of the other locations we were pretty renegade about stealing shots and trying to keep a really small crew for some of the outside stuff because we didn't have the money or the organizational power to do it above ground.
AC: Alongside Justin Kerrigan's Human Traffic and the documentary Better Living Through Circuitry, Groove is one of three films to open in Austin this summer that deal very specifically with rave culture. Do you see this as an emerging trend of some sort or do you think it's just a cultural coincidence?
GH: It'll be interesting to see what happens. Certainly in the past couple of years there's been attempts to do this. Go was touted as a rave film, certainly. I've found it virtually impossible to make an authentic rave film within the system, and I think that anybody that attempts to make it from Hollywood, unless they've been involved in the scene, they're probably going to fail miserably. It's hard enough to open any kind of film, much less a rave film whose success is completely predicated on the authenticity or by its acceptance by the scene as a whole. And that's the core audience. So, yeah, I think that what will continue is the music, the co-opting of the music in soundtracks --
AC: -- and car commercials!
GH: Exactly. Perfumes, jewelry, right. And the fashion element, of course, you're beginning to see that in Mervyn's and K-Mart and so on.
AC:Do you think this is going to echo what happened to punk, where you had a vital, primal movement that was initially underground and then slowly we ended up with, say, [Bay area band] Green Day blanketing the national airwaves?
GH: I think that with any influential subculture it's almost a matter of history that that will happen. I think it's like echoes in a way, in that you'll have the initial blast and then there's these reverberations. If you look at any subculture, it's happened. Each generation had a subtle and vital ethos, and I think to some degree you're seeing that same superficial co-opting, but I think one thing that's not able to be co-opted and stays alive on its own terms is the spirit or the reason behind the scene. And whether that means it just stays underground and you can find it if you know where to look -- certainly I know that the underground scene is still very much alive in San Francisco -- or if it morphs into something else, I think it's still going to be present in one form or another. Something like the rave subculture is simply too influential and too vital to be entirely co-opted by the mainstream, and, you know, we should all be pretty thankful for that at the end of the day.
Groove opens in theatres Friday, June 30. See "Film Listings" for more information.