Stephen C. Mitchell offers an intimate look at Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon, his new documentary now airing on Showtime
Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon is a frank, warts-and-all documentary that exposes the roots of the critically beloved rock band Kings of Leon, a family of musicians from a strictly religious, impoverished background who became superstars of Southern rock.
We recently caught up with the director of Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon, Stephen C. Mitchell. To read our conversation about this intimate portrait of a rock band at the peak of their stardom, see our interview below.
Talihina Sky is like flipping through a photo album. Its one of the most intimate rock exposes I think I have ever seen. How did you gain such close access to the band?
Stephen C. Mitchell: I met Nathan and Caleb ten years ago this past spring. I was living in Nashville, Tennessee at the time. I live in New York now. But I was working in music publishing, and I signed Nathan and Caleb to their songwriting deals, before the band formed. This was in 2001. In that next year, plus, I guess you could say, I got to hear stories about their family. And I got to hear a lot, when we would sit down in their garage at their mom's house, and we would all talk for hours. At night. They really confided in me, and told me some amazing things. It hooked me immediately. I always knew they were going to be a successful band, but I always thought, "This is an amazing story that people need to know." In 2002, just as the band was forming, they took me to Talihina for their family reunion. My brain exploded. I was blown away by these amazing people. That's when I knew I had to tell this story. I didn't know when I would get to tell it. But I knew it was a story that I wanted to tell ever since I first learned about it.
Is the footage we see in the movie all stuff that you've just kept a hold of for the past ten years?
Stephen C. Mitchell: Strangely enough, the footage I shot of them in that garage, back in 2001 and part of 2002, and from the reunion, and all around as this was all coming together...We had that footage stolen from us, believe it or not. Some of that footage might show up on the internet someday. Or someone is sitting on it. Maybe they will ransom it. Who knows? I do a lot of filming myself, the boys did a lot of their own filming with camcorders out on the road. We had a couple other people, as well as the record label, shooting some footage. And the family kept providing me with hours of VHS tape and pictures. Not only did I film a lot, but there were also a lot of incredible resources for getting footage on them as well.
Is there any chance that someone within the family stole that footage? Simply because there may have been something on there they didn't want the public to see? The movie is a pretty open affair. I can't image what they wouldn't want you to see...
Stephen C. Mitchell: That footage was supposedly in a camcorder bag when they were on their first EP tour. They were doing some smaller dates in the US. Someone stole that while they were out on the road. And its likely that someone dumped it in a dumpster, and that's the end of it. But I don't know. I have this weird feeling that one day, it's going to pop up. It will be like those hidden The Beatles tapes. Or some long lost demo. I'll be an old man, and there will be footage of myself on there, too.
Was there anything they were apprehensive about you showing in this doc? Or did they give you complete freedom in deciding what footage would go into telling this story?
Stephen C. Mitchell: They are the executive producers, so they have okayed everything. Obviously, it's their film. But, you know, it wasn't an easy process getting a lot of these scenes into the film. As you can imagine, it's hard to watch yourself being human, or making mistakes, or acting in ways you wished you hadn't acted. It wasn't a no-brainer getting them to approve a lot of these scenes. A lot of them took a lot of arm twisting, or time just to let it soak in, while we were encouraging them to show certain things. I really do give them a lot of credit, because they are very vulnerable song writers, and great story tellers. I think, once we were able to educate them on the filmmaking process, and how all of these things correlated, and helped arc the story, they really bought into it and were able to go for it. Which is pretty amazing, right? I think it's amazing that they put themselves out there like this.
In talking about what could and couldn't go in the movie, one of the final scenes we see is Caleb on the bus, just getting absolutely verbally berated. It's so hard to watch. Was that you talking to him from behind the camera?
Stephen C. Mitchell: No, that was Nathan, who was talking to him, and filming him at the same time. That is uncomfortable for me to watch. And I don't want them to ever watch it again. You know? The whole thing, I have told them to stop watching it. Our editor pulled that footage up, and we both looked at it, and we were like, "Holy geez! This film just changed!" We sat the boys down and showed them that scene. It was rough. It was awkward. It was not easy to do. Funny enough, at one of the film festivals, that scene came up, and Caleb was glaring at Nathan the entire time. I couldn't help but laugh.
There is such a scrapbook feel to this, in the way you edited the footage together. It is very fluid in motion. It drifts and moves at a really intimate pace. We actually feel like we're being including in the proceedings. How did you find that style in your editing process when putting this together? Because it's quite different from any rock doc I have ever seen.
Stephen C. Mitchell: A lot of that credit goes to two individuals. Casey McGrath, who was my partner and producer on the film. He always challenged me not to do the typical. We couldn't make the typical regular rock doc. Then there was Paul Greenhouse, who really helped me reign in this wild horse. He helped me find a way to stay on story design. Because there were so many scenes we had to lose, or couldn't include because they were off topic. It killed me to lose them. But you have to tell a story. You have to arc this thing, or you will just have a mess on your hands. After all that being said, I am really proud of it. It jars the senses, and it goes in and out of different time periods. It's a little hectic and a little confusing. But their lives are that way a lot of the time, too.
It is all of those things, but its, more than anything, comfortable. If that makes sense...
Stephen C. Mitchell: Yes. And that is something I am really proud of. Some people have said, "Well, this is your first film. You know them, so you had access to get to them..." Well, yeah, exactly. Right? What's a better way to make your first film than where you know the topic so well? You know the ends and the outs, and people are willing to trust you. I am very privileged and honored to be able to tell such an intimate story. Again, all due credit to the boys for letting me be able to do that, too.
It's weird that you say that. I didn't ever look at it and think, "Gee, this guy is a first time filmmaker. Lucky he had people he knew to work with..." This is one of the more accomplished documentaries that I have seen this year, and being a first time director shouldn't affect the audience while they are watching the material...
You have those scenes, like where you are walking down this old country road, and their uncle is just rambling, and you stay with him, and you listen to what he has to say...It gives the overall arc, as you say, a different flavor. How did you get some of these family members to open up to the camera in this way? They never seem to shy away from the camera lens, which could seem very intrusive to them in this backwoods environment...
Stephen C. Mitchell: That's Uncle Cleo that you're talking about, and Uncle Bud is his brother, too...We actually lost Uncle Cleo about two months ago. He passed away from that melanoma that we show you in the film, where he is in the hospital. I am really proud of those interviews with the family members. Cleo, particularly, was just magic on camera. I knew that back in 2002, when I met him. He jokingly called me New York, which is pretty funny, because I live there and he could never understand why anyone would want to live in New York. In 2008 or 2009, that took place. That is actually Casey McGrath filming, and I am walking beside Uncle Cleo. The day before we filmed that, I went over to him and said, "I really want to talk to you." I wanted him to walk me around the property and talk about the boys. He said, "Oh, okay." Then he went and hid from me for a good day or so. I couldn't figure out what I had done. I was worried. I didn't know. I didn't want to offend him, or scare him. But the next day, I went over to his cabin and walked in, "Hi, Uncle Cleo." He goes, "Oh, you want me to do that interview, don't you?" I said, "Well, I do. I really, really do." He goes, "Okay, I will do it. Are you going to put a mic on me?" I said, "Yeah, I am going to put a mic on you, and you are going to walk around and talk. Is that okay?" Finally, he goes, "Yeah, I will do that for you, New York. I just never thought that anyone would really care about what I had to say." Once I got him going, he was tearing it up. It was funny. A lot of people have mentioned his mumbling. The fact that he's hard to understand. I forget that sometimes, because I can understand him pretty well after all these years. We toyed with the idea of subtitling him. But the boys were like, "No, no, no, man! This is not a one time watcher. Let people figure it out over time."
In bringing that up, I have to say, I am glad you didn't subtitle him. I will see certain docs do that, when you can pretty much understand what the person is saying...
Stephen C. Mitchell: Its so funny...You don't know what he is saying, but you know what he is saying...If you know what I mean by that. You get what he is saying. He is such an honest, cool guy. He just puts it out there. And I am glad, too, that we didn't subtitle him. I like that we don't tell you where we are in this movie a lot of the time. It's an odd experience. I've had to watch the film recently for some of the upcoming festivals, and I hadn't watched it in a while. Even as the director, I find myself connecting dots and pieces, and things. Discovering, still, on my own film, which is so weird.
You really capture the atmosphere, too. This is a great late summer release. After watching the movie, I just want to grab a cold beer and head down to the watering hole. Which might just be the overall message of the film...
Stephen C. Mitchell: Yes, fishing, drinking beer, going swimming in the creek. Right! But as far as when this got released? I was just hoping it would get released. You know? That is the truth of the matter. When you do something that is so intimate, vaudeville...Given the timing of other events, and the things that are going on with the band. I said, "If I can just get this out there, I will call that a win!" But you are right, in the grand scheme of things, the whole release window has turned out to be great timing. I couldn't be happier with the timing. Kings of Leon have a way of doing that kind of thing all the time. They have always had an incredible overview that is not just about the 'now'. It is about the intermediate and the long term. They really have always impressed me with their ability to have that long road, big picture overview. I struggle with that capability. When it came to the release of this film, I listened to them. I said, "If they want it to go out now, then let's do it." Caleb told me at one point that he wanted to work on this for ten years. I thought, "I will just take whatever happens." They never gave me a guarantee that this thing would roll out. They just said, "Make it for us, make it for you, make it for our family and friends. We'll see what happens." That's what I did. I had to let go. I have always felt like I have had a place and purpose in these boys' lives, and this was another example of it. All I could do, all I could control, was the 110% effort that I had to put out there every day. To raise the bar on myself, and continue learning. It didn't matter that this was my first film. The boys didn't expecting anything more than first film result.
Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon made its debut on Showtime this past Sunday, and will continue to play throughout the months of August and September. For a list of upcoming airdates: CLICK HERE