|Interview with Director, Denny Tedesco
By Tommy Maranuchi, Jr.
What is The Wrecking Crew?|
The Wrecking Crew was a group of studio musicians in Los Angeles in the 1960s who played on hits for the Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, Nancy Sinatra, Sonny and Cher, Jan & Dean, The Monkees, Gary Lewis
and the Playboys, Mamas and Papas, Tijuana Brass, Ricky Nelson, Johnny Rivers and were Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. The amount of work that they were involved in was tremendous.
They were also involved in groups that I like to call the Milli Vanillis of the day. A producer would get the guys in and lay down some instrumental tracks. If it became a hit, they would record an album and put a group together to go on the road. This happened many times with groups like the Marketts, Routers, and T-Bones. The next day they would do the same thing and call it another name. Same musicians, but different group name.
The record industry was primarily in New York, London and Detroit in the late
'50s and early '60s. Then there was a surge towards the mid-60s that pushed the recording to the West Coast. So these musicians were recording around the clock for a good 8 years. The heyday for this group was in 1967 when the charts turned to the West.
When did you start this project?
I started this project in 1995 when my father, Tommy Tedesco, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. I guess it was a way of me dealing with what was going in our lives and at the same time wanting to let the world know about what impact he and his friends made in musical history.
Is it true that you actually stayed away from making a documentary about your father?
I had already done a 30-minute piece on my father with my producer Jon Leonoudakis when we were at Loyola Marymount. It played on KCET and I felt that I didn't need to do it again. But after a few years,
my friends started to pull me aside and encouraged me to find a personal point of view. I was very reluctant at first and it took many years before I felt I could find a voice that made sense.
I was so determined at first to actually say to the interviewees, "Please say 'Tommy' instead of 'Your Dad'." I really wanted to keep myself out of the picture, but in the end I came around and embraced it. The hard part was to tell the story of The Wrecking Crew and at the same time tell my father's story. Finally a friend said, "You really couldn't tell one and not the other, so you might as well literally acknowledge it." Once we did that, it was easier and felt right.
Did you ever expect to take this long?
I never thought it would take this long. The first 2 years, I felt I got a lot of stuff and I cut a 14-minute piece that I really liked. I was hoping to use that to raise money. And everyone that ever saw the 14-minute piece would always say, "Wow, I want to see more." But it was difficult to raise money from a 14-minute clip. It's a documentary and in the mid- to late-'90s, that was still a bad word for financers. "They don't make money and you'll never be able to license the music." Now things have changed. It's not the ugly word anymore.
But now I look back and realize if I had finished the project after a couple years, it would never have been the project that it could have been. I think losing my father and putting space between the loss and now gave me more insight into what it was like for these musicians.
What is it like for these musicians?
You have to realize, these guys and Carol, the only woman, were at the top of their game at the right place and at the right time. They really don't have much to complain about. My dad was thrilled to be able to make a living at guitar. To make a living at an instrument puts you in a small minority. But to record as many hits as they did, they were part of an even smaller minority.
So when years pass by and you still have your chops as a musician, and you're wondering why no one is calling, I think it takes its toll. Everyone has it in every career. Sometimes you last longer than others and some take it better than others. My father always said he was like a baseball player: You have your time in the minors, you make it to the majors and then you slowly move on out while the new guys come in. That's how he broke in. It's part of the cycle.
What was the first day of shooting?
I brought my father, drummer Hal Blaine, bassist Carol Kaye and saxophonist Plas Johnson together. Earl Palmer was the other great drummer of the time and was supposed to be there, but was unfortunately got sick. He was truly missed.
I was inspired to have a round table from the Woody Allen Film, "Broadway Danny Rose." If you remember, a bunch of old agents sit around a coffee shop and they just tell stories about this character, Danny Rose.
Well, that's what it was like when you'd get musicians together. I always loved listening to my father and his friends bullshit about anything and everybody. And at the same time, musicians have a certain dark sense of humor. So I wanted to set this round table up and try not to interview them. I would ask questions but they would take it for ten minutes and go to all kinds of places. It was gold. I wanted to be a voyeur, and wanted the audience to feel they were on the inside watching.
Had you ever directed before?
I've been working on shows for TV Land and A&E where I would be sent out to shoot and interview legendary TV stars. It actually helped me on my project. The executive producer, Robert Small who created "Unplugged," gave me the chance and I was forced into shooting and interviewing these stars. It helped me on my project because there were many times that I couldn't find anyone that was available to shoot so I would have to go and conduct and shoot the interview by myself. It's not my favorite thing to do, but sometimes I was able to talk about sensitive issues that I knew they wouldn't share with others in the room.
I also directed a jazz video for my father's song, "Impressions of Hollywood Blvd." His album of the same name came out and it was when VH1 actually had a jazz video show. And at the time, I was working on rock videos and my friends and I went out and shot it. It was fun. I actually used some footage from that video in the documentary.
I make my living as a producer for commercials, workout videos and other fun things. A few years ago, I worked on the opening of the Academy Awards when Billy Crystal hosted. In 2000, I produced the film segments that combined scenes from old movies with Billy. That was fun but difficult. Sitting in the room with Billy and his writers was like sitting around musicians again. Humor is wicked.
What was it like growing up with all these great musicians?
To be honest, we didn't hang out with musician families. I would see the musicians when they came to play cards or on the golf course. But it wasn't like we were hanging with the Beach boys or Phil Spector. My dad came from a modest background and we lived in suburbia. Even though I was 7-8 years old in "the heyday," I had no idea who he was recording with. To be honest, I don't think he often did.
What do you mean by that?
My dad would get a call from the answering service. "Are you available for such and such date?" The leader may be Snuff Garrett, Lou Adler or whomever. The answering service would tell him what instruments would be needed and he went to work. At that point they would just record and go onto the next gig. Many times, the artists might not even be there or maybe the artist was a newcomer that didn't really have any hits at all.
Did you ever go to work with your father?
Not in the '60s. I was too young. The first date I remember going when I was 5 or 6 was "Green Acres." We were going on vacation so we were all there. What I remember was watching a grown man, composer Vic Mizzy, swinging his hands up and down conducting. To a five year old, that was the funniest thing I had ever seen. To me, he was an out-of-control adult. Not knowing he was one of the greatest composers at the time. In the '70s I would go with my father if I had a day off from school. It was usually "CHIPS" or "Six Million Dollar Man." In those days, they projected onto a big screen and the orchestra would record. But it was boring to me. My younger brother, Damon, was lucky enough to work with him in the studio on "The Godfather: Part III." That was a thrill for both of them.
What formats did you use?
I started shooting it with 16mm. Our first shoot was a 2-camera shoot on dollies for the round table. I continued for a couple of years before I realized that I better start shooting video. I lost my father and in retrospect I wish I would have shot more of him on video. I was thinking too much about aesthetics. I really wanted to finish on film.
It's not easing shooting film without money. You always need a crew. Or at least I do. Cameraman, AC, sound man. And then you have the processing and telecine. Kodak was great. They gave me great deals and sometimes threw a few rolls to me for free. But once I started shooting video, a lot of stress was lifted. I wasn't worried at 8 minutes about the film running out and reloading at a precious moment. And there is nothing worse than a reload when you only have certain amount of time with your interviewee.
What cameras did you end up using after you left film?
When I started the video cameras weren't that great. But then director Mike Figgis asked me to shoot behind the scenes of his film, "Timeline." He suggested that I go out and buy the Canon XL and use it to finish my film. So I shot with that camera for a while. Then the TV Land project came up and they needed it to be shot on the Panasonic 100A camera. So I went out and bought it. I wish I had it sooner. I love that camera. It looks great against the 16mm that I shot.
How did you get to some of the stars?
With the session musicians, it wasn't a problem. My dad had a great reputation and wasn't a jerk. So they were very giving. Hal Blaine is like my stepfather. He is such a great guy and very giving. My father loved him like a brother. I couldn't imagine doing this project without him. There is no way it would have come together. Carol and Plas were also very supportive and they have such great insight and honesty. Amazing players.
When it came to the stars, I would find people that knew them or even went to their web-sites. I sent a request and they responded. With Cher, I knew her agent and we asked for the interview. I think she didn't really think it would happen, but Cher responded to her request. Years ago, I worked on a video of hers and when I introduced myself, this very focused star became that 16-year-old when I introduced myself. She had such great fond memories of my father, Hal, and Bill Pitman.
Do you play music?
I took every instrument possible. Guitar, piano, saxophone and even accordion. But I never practiced. Our father never forced us to play an instrument. He would be there to help but he wasn't going to force it on us. I regret it. My two producers, Jon and Mitchell, play and have bands. Mitchell just started to learn bass at 50. So he is my new inspiration. Jon is a great guitar player that loves playing. I'm so jealous of any musician that can sit in and play.
I even took sax to join the marching band and get out of typing class. I ended up carrying the banner. I was the "T" in "Notre Dame" High School. I started taking lessons recently, but I'ts still intimidating. I just need to practice.
Tell me about your producers?
My wife, Suzie, has been there from the beginning. She is so supportive and has great taste. She is a commercial producer. So she comes from the other spectrum of the business. When she produces a commercial, she has lots of money to play with vs. my projects that sometimes have three-man crews or less. Most partners would have given up on the other after so much time and money was spent. But she knew it had to be done and thank god for her. I couldn't have done it on my own.
Jon Leonoudakis is a friend from college. We did the original profile on my father in college but we knew it was ok. We didn't really have the chops at the time. Some of the footage of my father's seminars is used in this doc. It really works well. I came to a standstill after my father passed and I wasn't going anywhere with it. Jon kept pestering me and encouraging me to get off my ass and finish. Finally I asked him to come on as a producer and that got me going again. It might not have ever gotten this far without him.
Mitchell Linden is another friend for 30 years. He was with the BBC a few years ago and was in between projects when he volunteered to help me as well. He set up a short screening of the film at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, which really pushed us forward. I also trust his taste. I worked with him when he was a director in Hollywood, and is still one of those guys that is not just funny as hell but so good at whatever he puts his mind to.
Claire Scanlon is another woman in my life. A few years ago, she came on for month for free and started cutting for me. When Suzie and I met her, we knew she was the one. After a week, she really had a handle on the project. Sometimes it was difficult for me to explain exactly what I was trying to achieve and she found it. For a while she wasn't available so I worked with someone else and it didn't work out. So fortunately she became available between projects and we knocked it out. She's also very tough. When we banter, I have to really think about my reasoning to win an argument. She's an awesome editor and it wouldn't be as good as it is if there was someone else.
Other Crew Members?
My brother Damon and my mother, who aren't producers, have also supported me in so many ways. My brother is a music mixer and recorded the VO numerous times has never even questioned in helping. Whatever I needed he was there. He is part of the story as much as I am.
My mother is the first lady when it comes to support. She is in my film as well. I had to do something I never wanted to do and that was to borrow from your parents. I had already tapped out on credit cards. My mom didn't even question it. I needed to make hurdles and she was there to help. When she saw the first cut, she broke down and cried. The funny thing about my mother was she didn't realize she was going to be in the film. I said, "Mom, what did you think I was doing there with a cameraman, and sound man?" She thought it was for the family for years later. God bless her.
If my father hadn't had my mother, he wouldn't have been as successful as he became. She really kept it together.
My directors of photography were Rodney Taylor and Trish Govoni. They shot most of the material. And then, I had other friends shoot as well.
Rodney and I worked on IMAX films together and he started the project. We had a goal to make the musicians feel like they were "godfathers," especially during the round table discussions.
When Rodney was on the road, Trish, who is a New York DP, would come out on projects in L.A. and we would go out and shoot. She would force me into getting off my ass and finding someone to shoot. I went to Rochester, New York to shoot Gary Lewis and she flew herself to Rochester to help me there. Very cool lady.
My sound man, Mike Reilly, was another guy that was always there for me. It was great having him there. He was another one that kept encouraging me not to give up.
What was one of the most difficult things for you in the editing room?
I think the hardest thing for any filmmaker was to lose pieces that I thought were brilliant. Not that they weren't, but they didn't propel the story forward. When I say brilliant, I'm talking about the interviewee, not me. The first cut was over 2 hours long. We knew it wasn't going to stay, but I thought there was no way I could cut it under 100 minutes. Impossible. But as soon as a few things left, you didn't miss it as much.
One of my favorite interviews was with producer Snuff Garrett. He is such a character and no-bullshit kind of guy. He was my father's other brother in the business. The two of them were gamblers and would bet on anything. Snuff talked about how the business worked but in [an earlier] cut, we had to drop that storyline. Not enough time. So that's why God created the DVD.
When do you decide it's a labor of love?
Before I started. I was racing against time with this project. My father was dying and others had passed. I heard that Julius Wechter, the great percussionist, was sick. So I grabbed another cameraman friend, Vince Toto, and we went out and shot Julius with trombonist Lew McCreary. I didn't know at the time that Lew was also sick. Both died within a week of each other 6 months later. Two of the sweetest men you'd ever meet.
My father taught me one thing. We all have to make a living. And certain jobs are exactly that. My father used to say there were reasons to take a job. It had to have one of these things: a) connections to the future; b) learning experience; c) money; and d) just for fun. If it didn't have any of these you could walk away. And he would also say that there was the music and music business. Sometimes they would mix but for him, not always. This surely wasn't for the money. I would say it's been a great learning experience as well as a lot of fun. Hopefully the connections will lead to money sooner than later.
With documentaries, I think it starts with the idea that you're going to tell a story and hopefully enlighten people on a subject matter they know nothing or very little about. But at the same time, it better be entertaining or you'll lose your audience. It's amazing when you meet real documentary makers and crew members that actually make a living at it. That's like playing guitar and not having to take a side gig to pay the rent. I'm not knocking the work I do as a producer, but I'd rather be interviewing interesting people that have something to say.
Lets talk about the elephant in the room. Licensing.
Well let's just say, that there are over 100 songs in the project and you'll know many of them. The record companies have been very supportive. As we speak, we're working out the licensing deals. The companies know that it's a project that honors the musicians, the music and the artists. It would not be in their best interest to try to put the price too high. I would love to see some of this music reissued again. Let it be turned onto another generation. My daughter, Isabella, is 8 years old and she knows all the songs from this documentary now. She is the only kid in her class that can tell you the B-side of Be My Baby. I guess that could be a sad note.
The musicians union has also been very supportive. They're bending over backwards to help me get the film done. It's all about their union members.
Ninety nine percent of the music that you'll hear includes many of these musicians. The only time we use a piece without them is for a stock footage element that makes sense for the piece.
We're in the process of nailing down the final funds to complete online editing and licensing for festivals. If there are investors, we're still taking calls.
I wish my father had seen a cut. Even the 14-minute cut. He would have really loved it. I also wish I would have kept interviewing him. I should have used a camcorder or even just a vocal interview.
What was one of the most gratifying moments in the process?
When we went to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and showed 30 minutes, I took Hal with me. I hadn't showed him anything for years. Hal is one of those guys who has 1000 jokes constantly coming out of him. He is the greatest showman I ever met. When we showed the film to a packed audience, they gave us a standing ovation. At that point we went down for a Q&A. Obviously the moderator started asking questions with Hal first. After a couple of questions, he stopped and broke down crying. At first I thought he was joking, but then I looked and saw the tears behind his sunglasses. He asked the moderator to start asking me questions. He said, "I'm sorry, that got to me. Seeing all my old friends there." At that point, I knew I was telling the truth. If Hal, Carol, Plas, and the others are happy, then I'm happy.