Behind the Scenes With Keven McAlester, Local Boy Done Reel Good

Keven McAlester, at right, with Roky Erickson. One day we'll get a different picture of Keven. One day.
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Couple weeks back, we posted the new Old 97's video for "Dance With Me" off the band's latest, Blame it on Gravity. It's an impressive piece of work, not only because it stars Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer, but because it signals a pretty remarkable evolution in the work of its director, Keven McAlester. Till now, the former met music editor, who I brought out to Los Angeles to replace me at New Times Los Angeles during my brief tenure there in the mid-1990s, has been best known for his Spirit Award-nominated documentary about Roky Erickson, You're Gonna Miss Me, and his videos for the likes of The New Year, Spoon, Vashti Bunyan and, yes, even solo Rhett Miller.

Keven's more or less done with his latest documentary, The Dungeon Masters, described here as "an exploration of the subculture of role-playing games, specifically Dungeons & Dragons." He hopes to get it into festivals this fall -- perhaps the Toronto International Film Festival, fingers crossed. And though he directed an earlier 97's video, for "In the Satellite Rides a Star," the new promotional short suggests a marked change in Keven's directorial style -- from static and simple to what amounts to more or less an extended action sequence, only hinted at in his video for Spoon's "The Underdog." After the jump, Keven talks about making the new Old 97's video and what comes after that. And, a highlight reel.

Where did the concept for the "Dance With Me" video come from?

When I first started talking with Rhett about what we wanted to do, it was basic, run-of-the-mill music video ideas. And it struck us that this is a pop song, and to try to make anything more serious would be sort of ridiculous. I started thinking abut overtly pop premises, and the first thing that came to mind was A Hard Day's Night, people running though the streets, but it seemed just as ridiculous. At some point, it came to light that Tricia Helfer would be in it, and that changed the whole thing.

The Old 97's, "Dance With Me"

How did that come about?

Tricia and Rhett's wife are good friends, so Rhett contacted her manager and said, "Would she be interested?" And she said yes. And since Battlestar Galactica is the iconic sci-fi TV show of the past, I dunno, in quite some time, and not only that, but women on that show are iconic pop-culture figures, when the opportunity to work with one came up, I was incredible excited. And I think Battlestar Galactica is an incredible show, but it was less interesting for me to us her in the way she's used on the show. I wanted to come up with something here where we could acknowledge that iconic status.

Rather than, say, having her ride on the hood of a car?

Exactly. So it was her playing herself, and to me the whole idea of the stunts and the unexpected stunt guy came out of wanting to embrace a pop idea. I was thinking of things where they have the pop sensibility and work on a different level. i was thinking of movies like The Host or Kung Fu Hustle, where they're comedies but have this other thing going on. The Host is a horror show, but it's almost indescribable. So those were the sort of much much better ideas of what I was trying to do on a smaller scale.

But what really impressed me about the video was the use of choreography -- and the decision to feature the band as little as possible. How'd you get Rhett to go along with that?

Well, with this video and the Spoon video, in which the band isn't the star either, both times nobody every really complained about it all, least of all the band, because in both cases they were involved in the conception for the idea and understood what was good about it and what would work and what wouldn't. And to cut to the band every now and then would have detracted from the quality of the choreography and the sense that this guy was getting exhausted from all the fighting he has to do go get to Tricia.

Spoon, "The Underdog"

Who is that guy, anyway?

Corey Marshall, a stunt man-actor from L.A. We hired a stunt coordinator, and I told him I was looking for someone who looked as little like a stunt man as possible -- and as you could imagine, it's hard not to find someone who's not insanely in good shape. He showed me this guy, and he's perfect -- because he's in very good shape and reads a little softer than he is. We had to put him on a steady diet of Snickers and Dr Pepper, because he didn't look a soft as he did when we shot the video. And obviously, he looked great, but the thing that was most surprising to me was how good an actor he was. He kind of reminds me of Danny McBride.

You're right. I hadn't thought about that. He also does the best Belushi eyebrow raise since Belushi. That was certainly a lesson to me about the importance of casting. He made this better in a way I couldn't have thought of.

Which doesn't answer the question: Why an extended action sequence? Because you've hinted at it before, but never done anything remotely like this.

It was definitely spring out of wanting to do the most ambitious thing I could. This is clearly something I've never done before.

How long did you and Rhett go to St. Mark's together?

Six, seven years?

And you've known each other ever since then. Does it make it easier to do something this ambitious when you're doing it for a friend's band?

Yes, but in a different way. Whenever I try to pitch something for a band I don't know, I try to pitch the most ambitious thing I can, and some work and some don't. But it's easier for a band to trust an ambitious idea if they know you. They know this guy isn't going to schmaltz it up. With music videos, I find a band tends to hire a director they've worked with already or have a long track record with. So to me it's more about the band being able to let you do what you want. But it's about their image and their music, and for them to hand it all over to you requirest substantial trust.

Trailer for You're Gonna Miss Me

Given there are so few places that show videos, except blogs, is there ever consideration given to the venue in which it will be screened?

That's a valid question, because in a way, it's easier for them to get seen these days precisely because of the proliferation of blogs. But it's certainly a different monster [than films], and what keeps me interested is the fact I love music. I would do music videos foe free if I could. It's not a means to some other end. I love directing and music, and to combine the two is all I can ask for,

There's also a reference to The Dungeon Masters in there, if I am not mistaken.

I thin of the video as more of a campy companion piece. The "level-30 alchemist" is a reference to the D&D movie, yes.

So how's it coming?

We've finished the cutting, and we're scoring it right now -- and submitting it to festivals.


That would be the ideal premiere place.

Because I am terribly bitter about the fact you've left behind the dying industry of journalism to become a brilliant, award-nominated filmmaker, I hope it doesn't get in.

Thank you.

No, thank you. --Robert Wilonsky

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