Before we dig into the fantastic story behind the making of your film, Charlie Louvin: Still Rattlin The Devil's Cage, I'd like to start by asking if you could share some of your own personal experiences as fans of Charlie and Ira Louvin, as well as your previous experiences as filmmakers.
First, can you discuss your own history with the music of the Louvin Brothers? When and how did you discover their music, and what has their music meant to you?
Keith Neltner: I worked with Hank III on his album Straight to Hell in 2005. The opening prelude is "Satan is Real", so it definitely peeked my interest. I was looking at inspiration and lyrics thematically of the devil, so I was immersed in it at the time. Their music is such a time capsule from that era and to hear lyrics that really contrast the innocent stereotype of that time has always appealed to me.
Blake Judd: The first time I heard of the Louvins I was really into (and still am) this duo from Madison, Wisconsin, called Those Poor Bastards. I was looking at their site and they had their influences on there and The Louvin Brothers were one of their main ones. From there, I just started digging in. I picked up Satan Is Real the next time I was in Nashville and it blew me away. From there, I was hooked.
Let's move into your own film-making experiences. How did you both connect and decide to make a film on Charlie Louvin?
Keith: Blake and I met in 2007 while he was producing an art & music show in Lexington. Our commonality at the time was Hank III and eventually we worked together on Reinstate Hank, which was a 14-minute short film. It was our first project collaborating. We've since worked on other projects, both commercial and music focused. Being able to help Charlie was an easy decision, and using our art form to do something for such a legend just made sense.
Blake: Keith and I have been friends for several years now. We have worked together on several projects for Hank III, Scott H. Biram, Shooter Jennings, and several others. For me, it had been almost three years since we finished our first feature documentary, Seven Signs, with JD from Th' Legendary Shack Shakers. I always said that I would not rush into anything next, but wait to see what feels right. This one felt right, and when I approached Keith about the project, there was no hesitation on his part either. He felt that it was something right as well. So, from there, we were off!
How and when did you get the idea of making a film on Charlie Louvin? When and how did you meet him?
Blake: Keith and I interviewed Mr. Louvin in 2008 for another project we were working on at the time. It was one of the best experiences to date being around him. He invited us to his home where we sat around and talked for over 3 hours. He let us hear his forthcoming record, which at the time was Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs and he gave us pecans from a pecan festival in Georgia he had just performed at. He was just very nice and humbling person to be around.
We stayed in touch over the years, and when I found out he was diagnosed with cancer and that a benefit was being organized to help with the medical bills, I called Keith about trying to film an upcoming show in Nashville. The show celebrated the 50th anniversary of Satan is Real. We discussed releasing a live DVD that Charlie could keep 100% of the income. Keith pulled in Brian Steege who was moving from still photography into motion and I spoke to Todd Tue about editing. At that point we had the foundation for a crew. Jeff Chambers jumped in to help write some of the early synopsis of Charlie's life. From there, we raised start up funds on Kickstarter to pay for the initial production expenses.
Keith: Once we finished in Nashville with Charlie's interview, we realized quickly that we wanted to broaden the story. Charlie had so many friends in the business that ranged drastically in genres, and he talked at length about them. Less than 2 months later, Charlie passed away at his home. The project took on a whole other weight and importance at that point. We realized his story had to be told, he was such a gracious person and so influential, much more than the mainstream would make you aware of.
What was it like developing the project with Charlie Louvin?
Blake: Charlie was so supportive of the project. I talked to him on the phone on many occasions before we started, and all the way up until his passing. He helped us get in touch with George, Marty, and Emmylou. He was, as always, a pleasure to talk to and would have done anything for us and the project.
Keith: When we first saw Charlie at the Foobar on December 3rd, he was very weak (or so it appeared). So we had no idea what to expect when he got on stage. He remembered us from 2008, and Blake's many conversations leading up to the night. We exchanged polite hellos. At that point, we just waited for the show to start and thought that we would give him some time to prep and rest. A handful of minutes later someone said that Charlie was playing pool with some fans, so we rushed over to the pool tables and there was Charlie playing pool. He had a slight grin on his face as fans were snapping photos and watching a legend play a friendly game.
Once the show began, the cameras rolled and Charlie somehow pulled the energy of a younger version of himself to power through the set. There were times where he was catching his breath in between the high notes, sitting for a short time, and then standing and belting it out the next moment to a sold out show. It was amazing.
The next day, we didn't know if we would get to interview Charlie at his home. When Blake called Charlie, he picked up, and said, "Boys, come on down, and we'll put a pot of coffee on." So that morning we filmed what we know now as Charlie's last formal interview. He shared stories about war, family, and the ups and downs of his career. Honestly, at times it was hard not to tear up hearing a veteran of war talk about those hardships. Charlie was always honest, because he didn't know any other way. Its something I'll never forget.
Can you describe your experience using Kickstarter to help fund the project?
Blake: Kickstarter was great. We raised the initial 3K to get the project off the ground. We had great responses from our friends and fans of Charlie. It was a great cause that a lot of people came out to support. I do not think Kickstarter is something for every project, nor is it something you can dip into often. But if the right project with the right intentions is there, it can be a very beneficial tool to get something off the ground.
Keith: It is a great tool that requires a lot of commitment, and rightfully so. Supporters step forward and make a leap of faith, but it really did "kick start" this project and get the ball rolling. We went into it with a modest goal and met that goal to get to Nashville. After that, we were on our own paying for travel, resources, and pulling in whatever and whomever we needed throughout the year. The poster sales helped generate some much needed production funds.
That is awesome. In the beginning of the process, what was most exciting to you as you began making the film?
Blake: I think it was just the energy of the group. We had the opportunity to meet and talk with the legendary names that were inspired by Charlie, and we spent a lot of time with him. We all were always upbeat and excited to work together, whether it was going to the home of George Jones, or just editing as a group in Chicago or Camp Springs, KY. Ultimately, we formalized the group, and we began calling ourselves Devil's Cage Productions. That's what I'll remember most.
Keith: I think for me it was the experience of getting to sit down with Charlie, and getting to hear the stories first hand. Blake and I touched on a few similar topics in 2008, but Charlie was healthy and actively recording then. In 2010 he had been diagnosed, and although he was still performing and recording, he seemed a lot more reflective about his life. The strength and determination was so visceral when we talked to him.
What was most challenging, and / or most surprising to you while making the film?
Blake: We are all over the place geographically. Todd is in Chicago, Brian and Keith are in Cincinnati, and I am in in Lexington. So that caused some challenges. It took a lot of Skype, conference calls, and emails. But it was surprising how well we made it all come together, which is a testament to the drive to get this film done from everyone. A lot of extra hours were involved on everyone's part.
Keith: We started the project as a smaller celebration of Charlie's live show. The fortunate thing was that we were able to capture Charlie performing, and his interview up front set the foundation of the film. Given the circumstances, we had a lot of raw material, but the story took shape organically as it grew. More folks came on board, like Alison and Emmylou, and we added crew members, as we needed more talented people to support the project. We all worked on this in between other projects, as well as family obligations and such, in order to push through and finish the film within a year's time period.
What was most memorable from the experience, both as fans of Charlie's solo work and of the legendary Louvin Brothers?
Blake: All of it. Every trip sticks with me. All the celebrity interviews, being at Charlie's home, The Louvin Museum in Mount Eagle, just ALL of it. To have the honor of putting this together for someone who's music will last the test of time, all we can do is hope that this tribute we put together for him can do the same, and add something to that legacy.
Keith: For me, it's the trips to Charlie's home. The first trip getting to spend the day with him, Betty, and Sonny. There were some moments looking back at the footage, like when he knew things were coming to a close and he wanted to share them with us. He trusted us.
Our second trip was after his passing and his wife Betty was so gracious. She allowed us to capture so much of Charlie's personal items that she so attentively had collected throughout his career. She sat with us and talked the whole time about those memories. She's quite a character and we enjoyed that time very much.
Our last trip was December 2nd of this year, almost one year exactly to when we visited the first time. That trip was to share the finished film with her and Sonny. We watched it amongst friends, and Betty stood the whole time, tearing up, smiling, and then telling us more stories after it was over. I think knowing that we impacted the family is something I'll always remember.
What would you say was most rewarding for you artistically, as filmmakers, making the film?
Blake: Just seeing it all come together and everyone's reception. We did a good thing for a good cause. When you have almost a dozen people all working together too for the same goal, pushing each other to make this better it can't do anything but help each of us grow positively as artists and as people.
Keith: This is my first full length film. I learned an insane amount working with our group and pulling in industry experts to craft every step. Seeing something come from an initial title idea like "Rattlin' the Devil's Cage" that Jeff wrote, then collaborating to make it take shape at every twist and turn was exciting.
I've primarily worked in digital and print applications, and storytelling is much different: the idea has to be communicated much faster. Having motion, and to bring to life those stories weaving in and out of historic americana to motion graphics, or the texture on a record player arm, can be daunting. Taking a tight visual approach from start to finish in a 45-minute piece with no detail untouched was amazing and worth all of the effort. That process has changed and opened up my mind to so many opportunities.
How do you feel the music of the Louvin Brothers continues to inspire new artists?
Keith: I think their reach and lineage of influence is so vast, and sometimes its even a couple steps removed. If you look at the cast we talked to, which was a small group of artists, they are some of the most influential singers and songwriters in the world and they've touched so many artists. They speak directly, lovingly about Charlie and Ira, and their influence on their own successful careers.
With the new book coming out, there seems to be more of an awareness of the Louvins and new artists dipping back into classic country music, discovering Cash, Hank, and Waylon. I think Charlie and Ira are right there. Hopefully, our film will help tell that almost untold story. This appeared in Newsweek's year-end "Minds We'll Miss" and right below Steve Jobs, is a photo of Charlie Louvin and it said "Without him, there would've been no Everly Brothers, without whom there might have been no Beatles."
What would your advice be to newcomers who are discovering the Louvins' music? Which recordings would you personally recommend to new listeners?
Blake: This music is real. It's powerful. So Be ready! I'd say people should start with Satan Is Real. Listen to Charlie's first solo one, Less and Less. Then get Ira's first solo record The Unforgettable Ira Louvin. You can see how great these two men were alone just as much as they were a duo. And then, my personal favorite, is one of Charlie's final records Charlie Louvin Sings Murder Ballads and Disaster Songs. It's a little darker Charlie, but very much like the Johnny Cash American Recordings era. I'd tell anyone to start with those 4 records.
Keith: You have to listen to the craftsmanship of their music and their voices. Then just try to imagine the reality they were living while those songs were being recorded: Ira was fighting demon's, Charlie was fighting to keep them together and feed their families. It wasn't easy. If you listen to their music like that, you will start to appreciate a deeper sense of the music.
I think Satan is Real and Charlie's self-titled Charlie Louvin release in 2007 are on the top of my list, not to mention the song "Alabama" which was the Louvins' first recording. Then fast-forward to 2010, and it was Charlie's last recording. Both of these versions open and close our film. To hear his voice, with all of those years and experiences under his belt is just so powerful. You can hear it in EVERY note.
Now that the film is completed, how has the music by the Louvin Brothers changed for you, as opposed to what it meant to you before working on and completing the film?
Blake: Oh, it really has, for sure. It's one thing to know songs, but it's another to really learn about the people who write and sing them from such a deeply personal level. These songs were from inside Charlie and Ira. To know the people and where the songs came from as their influence, it just takes it to a whole other place. I mean, I just appreciate the music so much more now. It's very special.
Keith: I's describe it like this: Imagine reading something in a history book, and then meeting that person and talking with them. It forever changes it.
Can you talk about the limited edition print and artwork for the film?
Keith: The first print for the Foobar show was created to commemorate the night. I wanted to elevate Charlie to the American legend he is, and bring in as many aspects of him as I could. His patriotism is represented with the stars and stripes, losing Ira and the lyrics about missing him, the Satan is Real celebration, etc. There's something about the polar opposites of this sweet elderly man and big bold type that says "Satan is Real".
It was an honor to present that to him and talk to him about all those aspects. The graphic feel of the film began from footage we shot of Charlie thumbing through his bible which was very rich and moody. The typography and the gold leafing of an old embossed bible became the inspiration for the motion graphics, and the packaging and title sequences. I always try and distill something down to its essence, like he crest that has two crosses that meld into the pitch fork. That really spoke to the battle Charlie raged all his life to be a good man.
The film poster is based on a photo by Joshua Black Wilkins who supported our project, and in 2008, had an amazing session with Charlie. That stoic profile was quiet and proud, and it gave the movie poster a reverence that felt like the story. Everything was hand crafted: the inkings, pencil sketches, and then the final prints were hand pulled by the BLDG in Covington, KY.
It was important for everything to feel hand-done and for it to have that wear and texture that matched the journey that Charlie took. You'll discover elements if you study each piece, that the packaging has a subtle layer of text pulled from Ira's eulogy. It is a powerful set of words that applied to Charlie's life as well as Ira's.
What's next for you? And new projects in development and or on the horizon?
Blake: JuddFilms has several things coming up. We're rolling out a handful of music videos in the new year for Shooter Jennings' upcoming album Family Man, which is something I'm really excited about. There's a couple others in the works with some well-known artists too. I'm also pitching a show in February that I'm really looking forward to, and is a project I believe has some real potential. Devil's Cage Productions has done something special with this film. We're a unique group, and I think within the first half of 2012 we'll have a second project under way. The world needs to rattle the Devil's cage.
Keith: We're taking the film to multiple film festivals and we hope to do some screenings across the country. We feel strongly that the film taps into the human spirit. As Blake mentioned, Neltner Creative is rolling out Shooter's Family Man album in March, which will include vinyl and some limited edition artwork. I'm stoked to be working with Shooter. He's wildly collaborative.
We're also wrapping up shooting of the Kentucky Struts' video for "Country Road", along with a short documentary about home brewing called Ferment, which should be released in early 2012. We're also currently discussing projects with Blackberry Smoke, Muddy Roots, Eric Church, and the Black Keys, just to name a few.
On a final note, I'd really like to list everyone's contribution, and to thank the Kickstarter supporters and everyone else who graciously helped us make this film:
CAMERAS BY BRIAN STEEGE, JACOB ENNIS, TODD TUE,
JOHN ERHARDT & CODY MEEK
SOUND BY KURT STRECKER & MATTHEW O’PRY
EDITED BY TODD TUE
MOTION GRAPHICS BY THERESA BUNKE
COLOR GRADING BY TATE WEBB
SOUND DESIGN BY TIMOTHY DUTTON
DESIGN & ART DIRECTION BY KEITH NELTNER
DIRECTOR OF CINEMATOGRAPHY BRIAN STEEGE
WRITTEN BY JEFF CHAMBERS & KEITH NELTNER
PRODUCED BY BLAKE JUDD
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER DEVIL’S CAGE PRODUCTIONS
FIRST ASSISTANT DIRECTOR BRIAN STEEGE
SECOND ASSISTANT DIRECTOR TODD TUE
DIRECTED BY BLAKE JUDD & KEITH NELTNER
Readers can visit http://www.louvinfilm.com/ to read more about the film, and to connect to the site's online store to purchase the DVD, as well as the limited edition "Foobar Gig Poster" and "Movie Poster". Donations can also be made via the online store to directly benefit Mrs. Charlie Louvin and her family.