Director Philipp Reichenheim discusses Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr.

by - 6/03/2022

Director Philipp Reichenheim and Dinosaur Jr. guitarist/singer J Mascis 

This week I got a chance to discuss the documentary Freakscene: The Story of Dinosaur Jr. with director Philipp Reichenheim. The film is on cinemas in the United States right now and you can also stream it from your home.
Philipp, how did the movie premieres go in New York and Amherst?

It was really, really super fun. The first one was in Brooklyn, NY, in The Opera House, and it was combined with a live set from J. He played four songs and then we did a Q&A before the film. It was fantastic, we sold out, there were 600 people there. And in Amherst, MA, it was particularly crazy, since the whole band was there, under one roof, watching the film in their hometown. There was also a really long Q&A with all band members and me, and that was really fun and emotional, you know? Like, it was really crazy for me, to have everybody together talk about the film, as well as the conflicts within the band, and everybody was able to say whatever they wanted. All band members were very excited and were even saying that the film had a therapeutic effect on them, in a positive way.

That’s interesting. Can you tell me a little about how this project came about? Last year I had a chance to interview Murph and he told me it was already 10 years or so in the making, is that right? 

Yeah, there was no deadline or anything… In 2009, J and I decided, after doing a live DVD for the band, with interviews and bonus materials: “Hey, how about we make a documentary about Dinosaur?”. It took a really long time to get the funding together. But then I found my partners of Rapid Eye Movies, in Germany, and they made it all happen. In 2018, we basically started to get the funding and the film was done in 2020, right when the german lockdown started in Berlin. We were done with the movie and boom, we were not allowed to go out anymore. So that was kind of crazy. Also, it took time to get the movie to be played at festivals. We didn't want to do too many online streaming film festivals, so it was not easy for a while, but last year we released it theatrically in the UK, Japan and Germany. Now we teamed up with Utopia for the US and the rest of the world, and that is really exciting that finally the film is released on Dinosaur Jr.’s homeland, you know? We are getting great feedback from the audience. People are reminded of the energy of loud music. We made the audio lines for the film really loud, so when you're in the cinema there's an amazing 5.1 noise turbine the whole time.

How difficult was it for you to find footage from the band? Did the guys already have most of it or did you have to do a lot of research?

It was a mix of a lot of different things. I did, of course, research over the years and the band gave me their archive. And then a Massachusetts-born Dinosaur fan, who is also kind of a music video collector, he actually knew a lot of people who had original material as well. He even tracked down the scene where J and Lou have a fight on stage, in Connecticut. 

That was a really interesting scene.

Yeah, I think so too. It was insane. So he helped me with that as well. And Lee Ranaldo supplied me with really early tour footage of the band, when they were touring with Sonic Youth on the EVOL tour. So I was lucky that there were amazing sources of footage available — and photographs as well. And the amazing artworks of all the artists, like Maura Jasper, who made album covers, or the photographs of Johnny Vegas. I’m really happy that we all made it work out, and that people seem to like the film. It's a very fun time right now. They are showing the film in more than 80 cinemas nationwide. 

Tell me a little about your relationship with J. I mean, he is your brother-in-law, your sister Luisa actually appears in the film. But did you already know Dinosaur Jr. before they got married or their relationship was what made you get to know the band and become interested enough to make a film about them?

I was a Dinosaur fan from day one. We had the first album in Germany. When it came out, I loved it right away. It was the soundtrack of my youth, in a way, with other loud music. And I just loved it. And I was lucky, in 93 I met J through my sister. They were only friends at the time, and we connected right away. I did the artwork for J’s acoustic album Martin + Me, I did Dinosaur videos and live DVDs, so there's a long history of friendship and creative collaboration between us. Then, in 97, it happened that he and my sister got together. They were friends and somehow they became a couple. They're still happy together, they have a child and it's cool. He supports the project 1,000%. Although sometimes he was like, “I’m not sure if you’ll ever finish this”, but here we are now.

And how was it to make a film about someone who is actually in your family? Was it an additional challenge or did it put any more pressure on you…? I mean, did J have any input on what you could use or not, on how deep you could explore the conflicts within the band…? Did you have to get his approval or did he give you complete freedom to develop the project?

Yeah, it is a curse and a blessing. On one hand, it challenged me to be super professional on many different levels, from the contracts and licensing, we all had to work stuff out. And then the content. But J didn't have any demand. He didn’t ask for any early inputs or previews or anything. He basically saw the film when it was done, which was a big risk for me. But I thought the whole time that we gave our best, so I could stand in front of him with a good feeling about it. When he saw it, he liked it right away. But then I went on another tour with them, so we had some more additional edits into the film. But apart from that, it was total freedom. It was a long ride, but a really exciting one.

To me the film seems like it is almost an oral history of the band. I mean, you don’t have a narrator, nothing is really “overexplained” or shown in a more traditional way, except from what the band themselves and the other guests are saying. I mean, I believe someone who never heard of Dinosaur Jr. might not totally get what the band is all about just from the film, it seems like you needed some prior knowledge on the band before watching it. Was that intentional?

I think we might have tried, since the music and the characters are so unique — they're not narcissistic or self-orientated — so, we kind of left it a little rougher and raw on that side, as well as content-wise. I think that the movie explains the important things that people have to know, but leaves a lot of free interpretation, with the music itself. It's still a music documentary, but we decided to make it a little bit more mysterious. It’s the band itself. They're not the Foo Fighters, you know? And maybe the whole approach kind of projected back to the film. I heard from many people who didn't know them as well, people from completely different generations, people who are 85-years-old in the audience, and they were music lovers and they loved it, even without knowing anything about the band. So it's always a personal taste thing, what a documentary should transport for each individual. I think we left it loud and a little bit rough, and I felt that's good for the kind of band we are documenting as well.

You have a lot of people in the film talking about the band, from Kim Gordon, to Thurston Moore, to Frank Black, to Matt Dillon… Who was the hardest person to reach for this project? And is there anyone you wanted to interview but who wasn’t available?

Yeah, there were two characters… The hardest character to reach was my brother-in-law himself (laughs). He doesn't like to do interviews. And even though we spend so much time together — we're really close and we can talk about anything — it was hard to get him to do his interviews. I was able to do only two interviews with him, over all the years of making the film. I have to say, I wish I would have had him for more interviews, sometimes, about some topics in the film. I could have brought more light into it. But apart from that, I wasn't able to talk to Gerard Cosloy, who was the Homestead Records boss — he kind of discovered Dino and put out the first record. I think he's now a part of Matador. But somehow our paths never crossed, which is kind of sad. Also, Nick Cave — we nearly met one time, for a short moment. There were many people where, you know, suddenly there's a chance to talk to them, but something changes and it ends up never happening. So, yeah, I would say J and Gerard were the most difficult to get for the film.

It's funny that you say that, because most of J’s interviews that I've seen, he really kind of mumbles a few words and it's kind of difficult to really get what he's trying to say most of the time. It's interesting to see that you have that same difficulty.

Yeah, you know, the thing with J is he needs time to answer, and often people don't give him the time he needs. Then people maybe just think that he didn’t like the question, and they come up with a new one. And then when he's ready to answer, people have already moved on to a different question. Sometimes his approach is really weird, but he said it himself that interviews are, for him, an abnormal exchange of information, and that says it all about him.

Did you try to reach out to other band members, like Mike Johnson, George Berz, even Van Conner, from the Screaming Trees, who briefly joined the band…? Or was it intentional to focus just on the three guys from the original lineup?

We tried to reach Mike Johnson over different channels, but never got an answer back. I have no explanation why. When the whole project started, I knew that the main focus was on the original members, that it has a beginning and an end, and a clear storyline to concentrate on. And the moment I realized more and more that Mike is not responding, I didn't ask George, because I thought that there would be no balance, in a way. So I had J and Murph talk about these moments. I really never heard from Mike Johnson, even though I met him in the first years, when he was in the band. I was making my first 60 millimeter shots with the band in Hamburg and Amsterdam in 95 and he was there as well.

The film was already released in Europe and now in the US and Canada. Do you plan to bring it to South America and other parts of the world?

Yeah, I'm sure we will. The thing was, we started the film’s release last September in Germany. Then, in October it was in the UK, then this last March we put it out in Japan. So we will definitely bring the film to all Dinosaur Jr. fans’ territories, that's for sure. Now we have Utopia dealing with our world distribution and they're really fast and spreading the film. I’m very positive that this year or the next Freakscene will go more around the globe, including Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and more parts of Asia. There's even people from Russia writing to us — like, no Putin fans — so it's really exciting how many Dinosaur fans already heard about it and want to see it. It's so crazy, because as a filmmaker, you have an unconscious hope and vision for something, or you wish that something can happen with the film, but when it actually happens, that's so crazy for me now, to watch how the press and how many people were interested. It seems that the US release is going really well, so I'm just really happy about it.

Great. And do you plan to release it on DVD/Blu-ray as well?

Yeah, there is already a German Blu-ray with a lot of amazing “best of” footage. We have a full three hours of features on the disc, and I think there will be a US Blu-ray and DVD release as well. There are bonus materials like the whole 1987 Dinosaur live show in Germany, then additional stuff about the band. You know, Mark Lanegan, who passed away recently, he was interviewed many times, and I kept what he had to say for the bonus materials. After I finished editing everything, Mark passed away just five days later. So it's kind of sad that he never saw this. There are about 10 more minutes of additional interview footage with guests and the band, and two whole live shows, so it's fun.

What are you working on these days? Any chance you might make other documentaries about music or other alternative bands from that golden era of the 80s and 90s?

Yes! I am about to start a full cinematic documentary, like Freakscene, called Riot Zone. It's about the electronic punk band Atari Teenage Riot. Alec Empire (band founder) is my oldest friend and neighbor, and his career started when he was 12. Since the beginning, I filmed him and I have basically his whole career on tape, and there is a great storyline for the golden era of 90s electronic punk and rave culture. They were amazing. We toured with Rage Against The Machine and Wu-Tang Clan through the States, and Atari was quite big in the UK and Japan as well. There were riots, they played and got arrested, it’s all on tape. It's a really, really punk vibe and, of course, there’s other protagonists passing by, who were starting their careers as well, like Aphex Twin and Prodigy. So it will be a great document about the 90s. And I have a thriller written already for about two or three years that I’d like to do as well.

You May Also Like