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The Complete History of Seattle
2016, 74m, documentary, experimental, musical
The Complete History Of Seattle is an experimental take on the overwhelmingly pathetic rockumentary genre. In it, the Raft of Dead Monkeys story is mixed with personal and surreal digressions that explore the larger social/artistic/religious implications of the band within its specific historical context of the City of Seattle at the turn of the millennium—including the part they played in the founding of Mars Hill Church, one of the biggest and most controversial mega-churches in America.
10 questions with The Complete History of Seattle director, Nick Toti at the half-way mark.
Saturday, July 23rd, 2016
1Hi Nick! Thanks for being a part of our 2016 Summer Film Festival! First, what was the initial seed that made you want to make this film? This interview: http://www.interestingproductions.org/blog/2016/1/27/from-the-archives-2001-raft-of-dead-monkeys-interview
I read that interview probably 15+ years ago without ever having heard the music of Raft of Dead Monkeys. It's a strange interview. It mostly consists of complaints about cheap beer, Seattle music gossip, and shit-talking about other band members (or ex-band members). But there's a lot of tension and that's what stuck with me and got me interested in the band. When I started making movies around 2010, the idea of making some kind of documentary-ish ~thing~ about Raft of Dead Monkeys was always there bouncing around my head. Eventually I reached out to them and...now there's a movie.
I recently found out (from Jason Dodd, the author of the article who also appears in the movie) that the article in question was largely fictionalized. Lol. I think that's appropriate since the movie is also full of lies and exaggeration. Something about Raft of Dead Monkeys apparently brings the trickster out in people.
2I've seen lots of documentaries that focus on bands but I've never seen one that also focuses on the historical context in which they helped shape a city. Was that something you wanted to do from the beginning or did you discover that as you were making the film? I didn't go into this thinking I'd like to make a movie about Seattle and use this obscure band that no one's ever heard of as a microcosm to explore larger themes. The socio-political context (i.e. the "complete history of Seattle") was a structural necessity that became apparent as the movie was coming together. When I was interviewing Jeff and he told me that the band considered changing their name to "Seattle," I knew that I wanted to call the movie "The Complete History of Seattle." From that point on, the title became the "vision" of the movie and every decision we made had to fit that "vision" and make it stronger. What we ended with was a triply-ironic title: ironic because it doesn't sound like a music doc, ironic because it unexpectedly ~does~ contain a "complete history of Seattle," and then finally, to tie everything together, it's revealed that the band itself is LITERALLY Seattle!
Everything about the band was both very funny and highly ironic but then also oddly serious and illustrative some major theological themes. Taking such a sweeping historical context offered a poetic way to demonstrate the theme of grace without actually saying it.
3Raft of Dead Monkeys seems to have played a major part in shifting the perspective of what christian music was. What are your thoughts on that? I disagree! Raft of Dead Monkeys was a cultural anomaly that came and went with very little recognition. My interest in them wasn't because of their influence, but for the dramatic/cinematic potential in their story.
I don't have any interest in the Christian music industry or insight into how it might have changed after Raft of Dead Monkeys. Raft wasn't a Christian band, but its members had all previously been in Christian bands. They were still Christians, but they were creating a very anti-Christian spectacle. The only musician I know of doing anything similar is Kanye West. He's one of the most vocal Christians out there but that doesn't stop him from displaying 12 naked celebrities displayed like the Last Supper in his "Famous" video! I doubt, though, that anyone would argue that Raft of Dead Monkeys was somehow an influence on Kanye West. (I'd love to hear him sample them though! "United States of Kiss My Ass" might as well be his theme song.))
4Did you ever attend a Raft of Dead Monkeys show? If so, what was it like? If not, what was it about their shows that makes you wish you saw them? No, the band had been broken up for over a year before I ever heard their music. There are some videos of their concerts on youtube, but there's no video of most of their crazy performance pieces.
Raft started out as sort of a band/performance art mash-up. They dressed in neo-fascist uniforms and had women dressed as zombie-nurses stand silently on-stage with them holding giant pictures of AK-47s and butterfly knives. They hired male strippers and female gogo dancers to perform with them, a guy in a monkey mask would drop acid and assault people in the crowd, and Seattle artist Ben Beres would eat a crate of bananas and then puke them into a fishbowl.
This all sounds great, but very little video or photographic evidence exists of any of it. We had to recreate these elements for the movie, which we did by modeling our re-enactments off of classical religious paintings like "The Last Supper" or "Martyrdom of St. Sebastian." These re-creations were another opportunity to capture something ironic but also sacred.
5I loved the part in the film where it sheds light onto how the band helped turn the Mars Hill Church into what it is today. Essentially the band started making music that made christian kids expand their perception of what being christian could be, but then they used that influence to recruit christians kids into a new type of church. What are your thoughts on that? The band's connection with Mars Hill Church is very complicated. That section of the movie was the hardest part to edit and went through a number of iterations. Ultimately, what mattered about the connection between Raft of Dead Monkeys and Mars Hill Church was the irony of it. Tooth & Nail Records had a charismatic father-figure who had signed these young punk rockers and let them make a career of their creativity. Mars Hill had a charismatic father-figure who utilized these same creatives to build his evangelical empire. Control begets chaos; chaos begets control. It's a beautifully frustrating story.
I wasn't making a movie that looked to expose some shameful backstory to Mars Hill -or- to expose the hypocrisy of Christian punk rockers. Raft of Dead Monkeys was a reaction against the limitations of expression inherent to the very concept of "Christian rock" and, more importantly, what it meant to BE a Christian. Their story is a tragedy: in the end the rebels lose. But the historical perspective suggests that these stories, though tragic, are part of a larger, ongoing story.
6What are your thoughts on the Mars Hill mega-churches? One of the most consistent critiques I've had from viewers is that they wish that I'd gone further into what the "controversy" of Mars Hill was. I think that they're expecting something dramatic--like Mark Driscoll having been caught in a sex scandal or something--but it's actually much more mundane than that. Driscoll was a manipulative bully who used charisma and a natural talent for effective strategizing to convince thousands of Christians to put their faith in him. It took years for enough of the Mars Hill churchgoers to realize that his machismo posturing and conservative ideology had effectively brainwashed them and done cataclysmic damage to their community and personal relationships.
What the movie DOESN'T get into (because it happened after we had completed our interviews (though I've written about it here: http://tinyurl.com/ze6poft)) is how two members of Raft of Dead Monkeys became pastors at Mars Hill, but then later helped lead the resistance against Driscoll that resulted in his resignation and the collapse of the church. Mars Hill no longer exists. Unfortunately, there are thousands of people in Seattle who are still recovering from the damage it did.
7Can you share a war story from the shoot? Our approach to the technical side of making the movie was pretty minimal, so all of that went fairly smoothly. I was sick when we did the interviews (which were all conducted in a hotel room in downtown Seattle over the course of three days) and the "reenactments" were all shot in one long, very hot day in the middle of a Texas summer. And the epistolary segments were written while I was living out of my car for a month, driving around the American West reading books on Christian mysticism and the history of Seattle.
But the biggest "war stories" probably had more to do with the interpersonal relationships that I developed with the band members. The movie was complicated from the beginning because no one from the band wanted to participate. Jeff, the singer/bassist, reluctantly agreed and helped me convince everyone else. Matt, the band's first drummer and a crucial part of their story, was the hardest to convince and, from what I've gathered, has somewhat regretted participating. Ethically, this made things complicated for me but I chose to go with the decisions that worked best for the project. Situations like this are always quite dull and depressing.
8What's the film that made you want to become a filmmaker? I never really wanted to become a filmmaker. I just started making movies...probably because I was too undisciplined to be a writer. Something about the collaborative process motivated/shamed me into actually seeing projects through to completion!
I can better answer the question with some of the movies that continuously inspire me to keep working in the medium. Zachary Oberzan's work is staggeringly brilliant in ways that no one else is even coming close to. Jacob Graham and his Workshop of Experimental Magic & Light are doing great work, especially with their "Creatures of Yes." My friend KOKOFREAKBEAN consistently shames me with his untouchable creative madness. And then there's the entire history of obsessive oddballs who have ignored the business of making movies to instead marshal their limited resources toward ponderous, idiosyncratic works that break down the medium and rebuild it in their own ugly, broken, human images. Those are the dummies that make me want to keep making this junk!
9You also produced a film I really liked in our last festival called You Are Your Body/You Are Not Your Body by Matt Latham. Do you prefer producing or directing? That's a tricky question for me. I think that directing is a fundamentally selfish act, so it has unique/immediate gratifications. Directing is (or should be) entirely creative. Producing requires selflessness, which, to risk sounding pretentious, makes it a more sacred act. A producer's job is to serve both the director (by keeping logistical distractions off her plate) and the project (by ensuring that whatever needs to happen actually happens and being the person accountable for anything that goes wrong). I don't know how other people define these roles, but this, in broad strokes, is my approach to the work.
If I had [someone like me] to be my producer, I would prefer directing. I'm better at producing, though. It isn't fun work, but it's crucial.
10What's next? Right now I'm making music videos on spec for bands that don't want them... Also experimenting with making movies the consist entirely of text or with mixing text and image in unexpected way. Lot's of little experiments. It's an exciting and creatively fruitful break between bigger projects.
More formally, I have two documentaries that are shot but unedited. One is about the late dream/sleep scientist Dr. Ernest Hartmann, who I interviewed back in 2011. I've sat on that footage for five years now, but I think I might have figured out a way to turn it into a movie! The other is called WHITE JESUS and tells the story of 70,000 Vietnamese Catholic pilgrims in Southern Missouri. It's structured around color, like a children's book, and has a twist ending involving Precious Moments figurines and an ecstatic madman who built his own church. We shot it two years ago but finding the time to edit has been...complicated.
About the Interviewer: Ben Hicks
Ben Hicks is a writer/director and co-founder of Fandependent Films. Ben is currently working on making Fandependent Films awesome and is finishing up his first feature film entitled Kids Go Free to Fun Fun Time which was selected for the 2017 IFP Narrative Lab.
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