We’ve had the pleasure of working with Scott Lazer, Tim Grant, Ben Premeaux, and much of the crew from the documentary on many occasions. We caught up with them this week to talk about how it all came together.
1. It was almost completely produced by Charlotte talent
Not only were Tim Grant (Producer) and Ben Premeaux (Co-Director of Photography) key players in the doc, the Director, Scott Lazer, was once a staple in Charlotte’s video production crowd, only leaving for Los Angles about two years ago. More Charlotte talent, making the dream(ville) happen was Assistant Editor, Gabby Obremski and local filmmaker John Mudder…
All of these players were brought together through their connections to each other, ultimately with Lazer at the nucleus of it all. Premeaux was actually one of Lazer’s high school teachers, having Lazer in his Graphic Design I class. “He was like no other student I have ever met”, Premeaux recalls. Beyond high school, and after Lazer came back from college in New Jersey, Premeaux was just started out with his own business (Smart Labs Studios) and ended up working with Lazer on a few projects. Lazer later connected Premeaux to Grant. “It was so cool to see people from Charlotte and North Carolina come together on such a world-class project”, says Premeaux.
The team, of course, watched the premiere together in none other than the Smart Labs office. “This was different than any other premiere that I had been apart of. Usually those are with lots of strangers and you don’t get to really appreciate what you just did. Having everyone that worked so hard to make it happen be able to re-live the experience all over again made it that much more special,” says Grant. Although emotional, there weren’t any tears shed, “no tears, but I danced really hard” said Premeaux.
2. Virtually zero lead time
When asked to describe the moment they both “got the call” to be on this project, they had similar stories.
“Scott called me [Grant], and told me that he was going to produce this concert film and asked if I wanted to produce it and I immediately said yes. Then it went away for a few months.”
Ben’s was told to “leave the last week in August open”, and willingly, Ben agreed but at that point, neither of them were totally positive that it was going to happen until right before go-time.
“We came in late in the game to do what we did”, said Grant. The concert was in August and I think we started working on it maybe 6 weeks out”. Grant explained how lead time was important mainly for the cameras above all. “It doesn’t necessarily take that long to get all the players involved to make the film. What made it difficult was that the tickets were already sold. You have to block off seats for your shooters to be in and it became really hard and really scrappy to find places for our shooters. We wanted two different cameras but were forced to choose one only because we couldn’t win the tickets to those seats.” Thankfully, they chose correctly. Although, if given the chance to do a Part II, they would definitely want to have both. “To get all those things, you need to get into the venue before tickets are sold and to produce something like this, you need to start a year out,” said Grant. …And they did it in about 6 weeks.
3. The interviews throughout the doc weren’t planned ahead
Grant and Premeaux arrived in Fayetteville a couple of days before the concert knowing that they needed to make something happen, but they weren’t sure exactly what. “We made a couple of connections at first but then it was off to the races, man-on-the-street style,” said Premeaux, “We knew the concept was based off the album, which was based off of J. Cole’s life growing up in Fayetteville, but the people we ended up interviewing came to us by total chance”. In fact, there were several times where their observations led them to a story.
Ben tells the story about how one day before the concert, they were eating lunch and Premeaux had a feeling that their waiter was a J. Cole fan. They were able to get an interview with him after lunch and what the waiter, Jimmy, ended up saying was so good that that footage shows up multiple times throughout the film.
There was a little shred of method to the overall madness. Grant and Lazer were able to identify the themes that they wanted viewers to experience, but that was it. Tim says that “Lazer knew the buzz that was going to be filling up Fayetteville when Cole’s tour stopped in his hometown and all we had to do was find it”. What is the secret to connecting the dots? “You just had to keep your eyes open,” says Premeaux, if you are open to it, it will come it.”
“The thing about working on documentaries,” Grant explains, “you have to be positive. We had no choice but to go out and find the stories.” Grant likens the experience to what actors go through when preparing for a role. Actors train so their gut reaction actually becomes that of the character. In the same way with documentaries, you have to get yourself in the mindset of ‘anything can happen’ so you can recognize the windows opportunity when they find their way to you.”
4. HBO came into play way after it was done
Judging by the production quality of the documentary, you would assume that this project was well funded by the network. While the production IS big-time network quality, the budget was not. “It was tough to get what we got for the money we had,” said Grant. But that didn’t matter, HBO saw the film’s potential and bought it. This came as somewhat of a surprise considering they wrapped their filming of it about 6 months prior to the purchase. Ben jokes about how he found out about HBO’s involvement, “Scott texted me and said ‘How does it feel to have your first HBO [Director of Photography] credit?”. Needless to say, it was a completely surreal experience.
Both Grant and Ben give Lazer the credit for developing that connection that with Cole while being on tour with him up until the point of the documentary. They knew that Scott had all this other content (that later turned into the first 4 episodes that culminate with the film) that was really spectacular so they had a feeling they were in for something good.
“HBO buys tons of content, but it was probably a little strange for them to actually buy a concert film,” says Grant, “most of their concert films they have had have been produced by them in the first place.” The ultimately backstage pass that this documentary gives to the viewer is so genuine that it’s no wonder HBO had to get in on it.
5. J Cole was extremely supportive of the creative process
As you have read, there is a lot that goes into making any film, especially a documentary. Before any footage is captured, you have to make sure all involved are cool with everything that a documentary entails. Especially the star of the show. You need their buy-in and complete trust so you can have the most genuine and personal experience. J. Cole let the team do what they do best and completely trusted their unique creative process. “I think it was interesting for us working on it to see J. Cole give so much freedom to Scott,” said Grant, “Scott created a documentary with J. Cole in it, rather than J. Cole made a film about himself. I feel like you can tell when you watch it.”
The cameras don’t get all the credit though, the editing squad rocked it out. Charlottean Gabby Obreski was one of the first ones to sift through the hours of footage after Grant and Premeaux were done. “Ben and I [Grant] can start that thread out in the field but it is the editors that have to carry it on and make it come alive in the final product,” said Grant. While editing is very meticulous and requires extreme attention to detail, there are perks. Talking about all the extra behind-the-scenes footage that doesn’t make it to the screen, Obremski jokes and says “I sometimes think about how I have seen things that other people will never see.” Lucky her!