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The Independent Critic

 Aengus James Interview: Director of "American Harmony"  
Aengus James is bringin' down the house as director of "American Harmony," his wildly popular first feature film that enjoyed a limited nationwide theatrical run with distrib Area23A and has just hit home video with Breaking Glass Pictures. A documentary about barbershop singing, "American Harmony" charmed and entertained audiences nationwide with its terrific blend of winning music, interesting characters and quite a few moments of genuine heart. While this was James's first feature film and he is a relative newcomer to the business, he's already building quite a name for himself having served as D.P. on Barry Levinson's political doc "Poliwood" and serving as co-creator and Executive Producer for The History Channel's "Madhouse" doc series. He's working with Levinson again on a documentary about the obesity epidemic, and as creative director for This is Just a Test Productions he has created commercials or marketing campaigns for the likes of Pepsi Refresh Project, Dove, Bausch & Lomb, National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Coalition and a variety of political efforts.

With "American Harmony" hitting home video, Aengus James recently chatted by telephone with The Independent Critic about the film, his career, giving back to the community and much more.
The Independent Critic

Let's start off simple. Tell me about American Harmony and why this is a film people should see. I love that a good portion of it was filmed here in Indianapolis at Conseco Fieldhouse. I'm based here in Indy.

Aengus James

Yeah, the whole film led up to Indianapolis. We were there for eight days running eight cameras (Editor's Note: Indy played host to the International Championships of Barbershop Singing in 2006).

The Independent Critic

I was amazed. I knew that barbershop singing existed, but I was really amazed at the crowds. Conseco Fieldhouse was really packed.

Aengus James

Very big crowd and very loyal crowd. The momentum sort of builds throughout the week. You definitely have some performances where there's some muffled snores. There are some people we talked to who said "This is our vacation every year." There were people I talked to who'd been there 15 years in a row. There was one who had been there something like 40 years.

The Independent Critic

That takes us back to the question of "Why would someone want to see this film?"

Aengus James

What drew me originally was just how passionate these guys were about it. I'd never heard of this before. I stumbled into it. I was making a different film in Kansas that ended up never going anywhere. On Sundays, I would go and hear this barbershop quartet singing at this little motel to Canadians. I just thought they were the best. They were hysterical. Everybody had a lot of fun. After a few weeks of going over there on my Sundays off from filming the other film, I started filming this quartet. They said "You're kind of freaking us out. We're really bad barbershop quartets. If you want really good barbershop quartets, you need to go to the international championships." I went. That one was in Salt Lake City (2005). It was really just me and one other camera person. So, initially it was really the passion in these guys who went out and did this every weekend. In today's culture, celebrities are just so far away from the everyday. Here were guys who during the week were a dentist or a teacher or whatever, and on the weekend have this massive following of people. There are even groupies. On the weekends, they're the biggest things since sliced bread. On Monday, they're back to living lives like the rest of us. I really fell in love with that idea of weekend celebrity, and the fact that they get to experience that but also get to be grounded.

In terms of why I think people should see the film it's that we're so obsessed with stars being born like on "American Idol." We celebrate one person who has a certain talent. These guys are putting themselves out there every week. The nature of what they do is to make harmony. You can't make harmony unless you match perfectly. I thought that was really cool.

The Independent Critic

You mentioned the idea of weekend celebrity. I'm wondering how they responded when you reached this point of saying "Hey, this would make a great film."

Aengus James

I followed 10 groups. In the film, you'll see four. I shot 550 hours of tape on these guys so I was with them a lot. They were all over the place. There were some guys who thought it was the greatest thing in the world and were hamming it up to others who were a little bit reluctant. Generally speaking, these guys don't have that immediate concern about their image like rock stars would have. These guys are all really approachable. I think most of them got a real kick out of it, and by the end everyone was really happy to have been a part of it.

The Independent Critic

It seemed like it. There's a really positive energy to the film. I really loved how you balanced the different aspects of the film and these people. There were the human touches, the obvious discipline required to become really good at barbershop, the scenes with the coaches at the championship.

Aengus James

It's hard work for sure and a real talent that these guys have. They are the best in the world at what they do. They're super passionate about winning, but there's also a humor about it all. It's not going to take them out of being garbage men, they're still going to be garbage men or whatever they do in their daily lives. So, it means everything to them but at the same time there's this really nice lightness to it almost until the last rounds. When you get to the last rounds, I'd say that lightness and that comedic side goes out. Before that, it's sort of like ... I don't know if you've ever watched any of those Christopher Guest movies? It felt a lot like that.
The Independent Critic

This was your first feature film?

Aengus James

It was my first feature film completed. I had the one before, the one in Kansas that just didn't end up working out. This was the first one that I saw through to completion, which was an amazing experience. I thought it would take me a year. Instead, it was three. It took me a long time.

The Independent Critic

You've experienced a lot of success with it. A lot of docs will end up going the cable route or PBS or something along those lines. You've had tremendous success with this film on the festival circuit, with a theatrical run and now on home video with Breaking Glass Pictures. For any documentary, those are amazing accomplishments. For your first feature, that's really outstanding.

Aengus James

It's all because of the fans. We tried to get into the top tier festivals like a Sundance, Tribeca or Toronto. This is not an edgy film. Those film festivals tend to look for things that are provocative. The editor who worked on the film, Kate Amend, said "I've got to work on this film. I've just worked on two films... one about genocide and the other about rape."  She's worked on two films that have won Academy Awards. I think there's a perception out there among docs, especially at the top tier festivals, that it has to be edgy and provocative. The film played a lot of second tier festivals and won Best Doc at San Diego Film Festival. We set it up on the website so that people could log in and tell us that they wanted the film in their community. When enough people in a certain area requested it, we brought it to them. That caught the attention of the distributor. All of a sudden, the film was playing in 35 cities. We had no marketing budget at all, but in a lot of those cities there were lines out the door and it was packed every night. It was awesome to see. I still feel and would tell people vehemently that there's an audience out there for these kinds of films.  Don't get me wrong. It's not an agenda for me... I like provocative films. I happened to make this film because I liked the subject. It's always nice at the end of the day when others like it, too.

The Independent Critic

I love provocative films, but there's something to be said about a film that shows you a part of the life experience you don't know about and manages to simultaneously entertain you. By the end of American Harmony, I was really invested in these people's lives. I mean, I really wanted to know if Max Q ever won. I kind of felt bad for those guys.

Aengus James

Did you watch the "One Year Later" part at the very end? That's part of the reason it took three years, because I stayed with them. This ending is what I really think makes the film.

The Independent Critic

Hmm. I guess not. I suppose it references that question, huh? I guess I'll have to go back and watch it again!

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