‘The Earth Will Swallow You’
When Geoff Hanson was putting together the music for 1997’s “Scrapple,” the first feature film he would produce, Hanson wanted badly to use Stephen Stills’ “How Far” for a certain scene. But where the other musicians – Taj Mahal, J.J. Cale, Jorma Kaukonen and the Radiators among them – had adjusted their fees downward for the low-budget “Scrapple,” Stills wanted his standard payment. The money Hanson and his brother, director Chris, would have paid Stills would have equaled the amount they paid for all the other music combined. The Hansons passed on Stills’ “How Far” and went searching about for other music. They eventually settled on Widespread Panic’s “The Takeout,” an instrumental piece from Panic’s “Space Wrangler” album. Geoff Hanson proclaims himself a big believer in serendipity, and not just because, as Hansen puts it, “The Takeout” “worked perfectly in the scene.” The use of Widespread Panic’s music led the Hanson Brothers to their latest project, “The Earth Will Swallow You,” a digital video feature about the Georgia-based Widespread Panic. “The Earth Will Swallow You” shows tonight, Friday, June 7, at the Wheeler Opera House. The two screenings, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., will benefit KDNK, Carbondale’s community radio station. Geoff Hanson had long been a music fan. While living in Telluride through much of the ’90s, he had been a concert promoter, music journalist for the Telluride Times-Journal and the Daily Planet, and a DJ on KOTO. In fact, it was a music event – the Bill Graham Mid-Summer Music Festival that featured the Allman Brothers Band – that convinced Hanson to stay in Telluride. By 1997, however, Hanson was focused on filmmaking. With “Scrapple” – a ’70s-era story of drugs, hippies and a pig in a Colorado ski town, which Hanson co-wrote, produced and starred in – Hanson wanted to join the ranks of Kevin Smith (“Clerks”) and Edward Burns (“The Brothers McMullen”) as truly independent filmmakers making names for themselves. But Hanson quickly realized the power music can have, even for a filmmaker.”[‘Scrapple’] didn’t really catch an audience until Widespread Panic fans started talking about it online,” said Hanson, who now lives in Baton Rouge, where his wife recently completed veterinary school. “I’d fill all the ‘Scrapple’ orders and they’d all be from Spreadhead@yahoo.com. And we’d get orders to play it throughout Georgia.”Word about “Scrapple” eventually reached all the way to the members of Widespread Panic. “Dave Schools, the cinephile of the band, became a big fan of the movie,” said Hanson.Schools and his Widespread mates were impressed enough with the Hansons that they invited the brothers to shoot a concert documentary of the band. “Live at Oak Mountain,” a DVD shot by the Hansons at a Panic show at Alabama’s Oak Mountain, was released in October 2001 and quickly achieved gold status with 25,000 copies sold. While Geoff Hanson was pleased with “Live at Oak Mountain,” the experience of making it only whetted his appetite to do something more ambitious with Widespread Panic. He and his brother had grown up admiring films like “Gimme Shelter” and “Don’t Look Back,” which, though about the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, respectively, were not simple concert films. They were films that examined the musicians and their music, and put the artists in the context of their times. “I wanted it to be like the old-school rock ‘n’ roll movies,” said the 34-year-old Hanson, two years younger than his brother. “Chris and I have always been interested and influenced by the genre of the rock ‘n’ roll movie. Those have been our big influences, like ‘The Grateful Dead Movie.'”Hanson realized quickly that having Widespread Panic talk about themselves wouldn’t make for good cinema. “It would be a real short movie if Widespread Panic had to talk about themselves. They’re very humble,” he said. “So we had to get other people to talk about them.”The Hanson ended up taking a cue from “Rattle & Hum,” a film centered around U2. That film revealed much about U2 by putting the band together with the likes of B.B. King. “‘Rattle & Hum’ was a big inspiration,” said Hanson. “The scene where they hook U2 up with a gospel choir – that scene is so moving, and it speaks to the power of music, that Bono and a group from Harlem could get together and play powerful music.”Much of “The Earth Will Swallow You,” shot during Widespread Panic’s 2000 summer tour, focuses on collaborations between the band and other musicians: longtime Panic associates like the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Col. Bruce Hampton and Vic Chesnutt, and musicians like Taj Mahal and Jorma Kaukonen, whom Widespread Panic had never met. There are some onstage jams, backstage scenes, studio sessions, and several relatively spontaneous bits in parks and front porches. All of the musicians talk on-screen about Widespread Panic. The film contains only a few extended sequences of Panic playing in concert, mainly from a Red Rocks show that was the first show shot by the Hansons and their 30-person crew.One rather unique aspect to “The Earth Will Swallow You” is the use of the title track. The song “The Earth Will Swallow You” is an instrumental piece performed 24 times in 1990 – Hanson, like other Spreadheads, can be extremely precise when it comes to Panic facts and figures – and then quickly retired. Hanson saw it as ideal music to build the movie around.”It’s kind of spooky, ethereal, cinematic piece of music,” he said. “Widespread has these great light and dark moments in their music. Of all the bands that have grown out of the Grateful Dead mold of jam bands, it’s Widespread Panic that has the Dead’s mix of light and dark. Widespread can get spooky at times. That’s what I’ve always liked about them.”And [‘The Earth Will Swallow You’] is a great name for a movie – it’s kind of spooky and weird.”But Hanson wasn’t interested just in using “The Earth Will Swallow You” as a title and as theme music. When the project was underway, Hanson proposed that the band re-learn “The Earth Will Swallow You,” in the studio, in front of the camera. “You never tell Widespread Panic what to do. You just make suggestions,” said Hanson. “So we suggested they re-learn it for the cameras. And that became a focal point of the movie; it keeps coming back to their re-learning the song. The movie’s about making music, and that’s where we actually see them doing that.” In addition to using a 1990 version of “The Earth Will Swallow You” and the studio footage of the band re-learning the song, a 2001 live version of the tune plays over the closing credits. “It’s the musical sandwich of the movie, in Widespread lingo,” said Hanson.Hanson sees in himself and his brother, and their Colorado-based Sweetwater Productions, something of a mirror image of Widespread Panic. The six-piece band formed as a raggedy college group, playing a repertoire big on Grateful Dead songs, in 1985 at the University of Georgia. Panic played locally and toured, usually for tiny crowds and even smaller paychecks. Word started to spread, and they found themselves with a bit of a following. Panic signed and stuck with Georgia-based Capricorn Records, a smallish label that wouldn’t push the band for a hit single or MTV appearances and was happy to let Panic go on touring incessantly and building an audience. In 1992 Widespread hit pay dirt when they joined the H.O.R.D.E. Festival. The tour, which also included Blues Traveler and Phish, brought together thousands of fans more interested in spontaneous jams and band-audience interaction than MTV videos and staged concerts. Instantly, the H.O.R.D.E. bands found themselves with bigger audiences than they could have imagined. Widespread Panic has found itself one of the bigger touring acts in the business, with a wildly devoted following, without the benefit of a major label or much radio play.In the mid-’90s, the Hansons saw the success enjoyed by independent films like “Clerks” and “The Brothers McMullen.” “These movies really influenced my brother and I,” said Hanson, a Yale graduate who comes from a media-oriented family that includes a radio station manager father, a magazine publisher grandfather, and an uncle who produced “The Cosby Show” and “Soap.” “It was the first generation of independent filmmakers who showed their films in multiplexes. “But it was a fluke. Hollywood went and co-opted the independent-film genre. We made our expensive 35mm film, and the multiplexes weren’t showing these cool little independent films anymore. They were playing cool independent films by big directors and backed by big studios.”Geoff Hanson learned his lesson when he booked “Scrapple” to play at Carbondale’s Crystal Theatre. The film drew sellout crowd for its scheduled two-night run; when Hanson inquired about extending the run one night, he was told no. Postponing the run of a studio film would anger the distributor.So the Hansons decided to keep as much control as possible over “The Earth Will Swallow You.” Shot on digital video, “The Earth Will Swallow You” is firmly in the hands of the Hansons. Instead of showing the film in standard movie theaters, the Hansons are screening the film in handpicked music clubs and art-film houses. (The Wheeler Opera House is an exception.) At venues like Atlanta’s Roxy Theater, the Boulder Theatre and Trees in Dallas, the Hansons are bringing their own digital video screen to show the film, and following the movie with a live music performance, often by a Widespread-affiliated act. (Aspen will have two post-screening shows: Cecil “Peanut” Daniels, a frequent Panic collaborator who appears in “The Earth Will Swallow You” is at the Double Diamond; local band Likewise, whose repertoire is filled with Widespread covers, is at the Grottos.) “Now, with my digital movie, I can say screw the multiplexes,” said Hanson. “We can put up our own digital screen in a cool venue, put on a live music performance, and make a really neat evening out of it. And we’re selling shows out. We’re at the forefront of this new movement. We’re optimistic that this will be one of the first self-distributed film success stories.”
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