The next Artist Interview Project installment features Paul Camarata and Chris Weaver, the filmmakers behind the short documentary films, Holly Bowling: Distilling a Dream and NFL Films Presents: Phish and Russell Wilson. The first part of this post includes a student’s reflective summary. It is followed by the full interview text.
Learn more about the Artist Interview Project course assignment in Dr. Jenkins’ introduction to the series. You can follow the Philosophy School of Phish on Facebook, Twitter (@phishedu), and the course’s public website.
Paul Camarata and Chris Weaver have achieved what very few working adults have: they have figured out how to get paid to follow their passions and do what they love. As part of my final assignment for my philosophy class, I had the opportunity to interview them via email. It quickly became apparent that Chris and Paul have a strong relationship– both professionally and personally– but are very different people. Paul is a writer at heart and has a direct, straight-to-the-point approach. Chris was a cinema major and has an excitable and detailed writing style. They have worked together for almost a decade and are best known in the Phish community for their documentaries Holly Bowling: Distilling a Dream and NFL Films Presents: Phish and Russell Wilson.
Chris is the hardcore Phish phan of the two, having attended 60 shows over the course of his lifetime. Describing the passionate nature of Phish phans, Mr. Miner writes:
At their best Phish are able to explain the secrets of the universe by transmitting a signal that we spontaneously comprehend down through to our pores, to our very particles, the basis of our existence.
Chris channels his dedication to Phish into his work as a filmmaker. The short documentary, Phish and Russell Wilson offered him an opportunity to combine his love for Phish with his passion for football. Additionally, the fact that guitarist Trey Anastasio is a huge football fan only makes a film about Phish and football that much more fitting. It also makes Trey more relatable to fans like Chris and Paul. In their film, Chris and Paul depict the rituals, excitement, and values that bind the Phish community.
When I asked Chris what makes a film a good piece of art, he mentioned engagement and uniqueness. Paul echoes these same themes when he responds, “For me, the best art is the art I remember – and think about unexpectedly – long after I’ve consumed it.” Philosopher Jeanette Bicknell explains this intense connection to art in the context of music. In her book, Why Music Moves Us, she writes, “What we seem to require in order to explain the potential of certain musical works to induce chills is some sort of narrative that spells out an underlying emotional scenario.” If we swap out “musical works” with “film” in that sentence, the same concept still applies. Chris and Paul create films that illicit emotion and interaction from their audience.
Good art, Chris argues, engages its audience in a positive way. In his Critique of Judgment, philosopher Immanuel Kant states:
If we wish to discern whether anything is beautiful or not, we do not refer the representation of it to the object by means of understanding with a view to cognition, but by means of the imagination…we refer the representation to the subject and its feeling of pleasure or displeasure.
A strong emotional response is a unique form of engagement with art. Holly Bowling uses her artistic talent and imagination to recreate music she considers to be beautiful. In doing so, she caught the attention of these two filmmakers. By “distilling” Phish’s live performances into solo piano pieces, her music creates a new form of art. Chris and Paul’s film not only captures the beauty of her music, but also documents and transmits the pleasure, excitement, and dedication of Holly and other Phish phans to a new audience.
These two talented men are living their dreams, which is inspiring to me as a college student. As filmmakers, Chris and Paul do what they love about subjects they are passionate about (Phish and football), with co-workers they respect (each other). My hat is off to you, gentlemen. Thank you for sharing your talents and helping my class learn more about the “Phish phenomenon.”
How did you originally get into filmmaking?
It was a happy accident that resulted from my lifelong love of writing. When I began searching for jobs during my senior year of college, my entire focus was on the world of print: magazines and newspapers. I had the good fortune that NFL Films was hiring that spring, and had associate producer positions listed in my college’s career center. Films was interested in applicants’ writing samples and knowledge of football ; the company believed in a philosophy that it could take someone with an aptitude in writing, what Films considered a fundamental skill in storytelling, and teach that person the rest of the production process. Applying as I did without either a background in production or the thought of pursuing it, I was the beneficiary of the Films approach toward identifying storytellers and developing them into filmmakers.
Not sure if you mean “get into” as in become interested in filmmaking, or “get into” the industry, so I’ll answer both:
I’ve loved movies since I was about 5 or 6, but the first time I ever considered making films was when I was 15 years old. Pulp Fiction became available on home-video and I saw it for the first time. I was blown away by the film. It was not quite like anything I’d ever seen. I thought, “I want to do that!”
A few years later, when I arrived to college, I was initially reluctant to pursue an artistic career, knowing it’s typically an unsteady and financially difficult path. But during my freshman year I realized there are indeed people who are successful at making films so it’s possible that I could too, and the world would need more filmmakers, so I can fill that need. During my sophomore year I decided to major in Cinema/TV (and minor in English).
While nearing graduation I reached out to a classmate who graduated a year ahead of me, and who’d just finished an internship at NFL Films. I grew up playing and loving sports—especially football—and I grew up loving NFL Films, so it was a company I really wanted to work for. I applied for an internship at NFL Films. I was accepted and began in September 2002. The next year I was hired to log incoming football footage, and the next year I was hired into the Producer department. I soon began making football films for a living. It was a dream come true, and it’s still a job I love. I can’t imagine doing anything else.
I loved a lot of movies along the way, so maybe a different film could’ve nudged me in the direction of filmmaking—but it’s interesting to look back and say that Pulp Fiction was a major influence on my desire to pursue filmmaking.
How long have the two of you been working together? What inspired you to collaborate?
PC: I’ve been at Films for 14+ years, and Chris and I have been working together in some capacity for as long as I can remember. Our collaborations have grown in frequency and ambition over time, likely because we work so well together. As much as anything, I believe that’s a result of the highly productive balance between us in which we see eye to eye and bring distinct viewpoints to projects. Our styles and skills both mesh with and challenge one another, which makes for a great team.
CW: Paul and I have teamed up on several projects at NFL Films over the last 8 or 10 years. We’ve always had fun working together and have become good friends in the process. So “fun” is the major inspiration behind our choice to collaborate.
Over time we developed a productive creative chemistry. We do a lot of brainstorming—on collaborative projects, individual projects, ideas that never fully form, etc.—in which we constantly bounce ideas off each other. That steady, collaborative, creative thinking has generated some great ideas the last few years, including the Wilson and Holly Bowling films.
Also, I trust him creatively more than anyone I’ve worked with. So even if I’m not sure about an idea or technique, I’m willing to try it if Paul is confident in it.
That combination of fun, chemistry, and creative trust has made for results I like.
What is your role in the Phish community as artists? How long have you been fans and how many shows have you attended?
PC: It’s been a fun and rewarding experience to make contributions to the Phish community in the form of the films we’ve made. The stories have brought me places I might not have otherwise gone, and the passion of the artists we’ve covered and the audience that follows them is the kind of special stuff that always inspires creativity.
I’ve been to two Phish shows, one in my hometown of Albany, NY, and one at the Rosemont Horizon in Chicago. Having grown up so close to Vermont, I was always aware of Phish through friends who were big fans; both shows I went to were in the context of tagging along with real Phish fans. One of those friends, after the Chicago show, made me a compilation of 20 or so Phish songs. I liked all the music on that burned CD, which was eventually joined by A LIVE ONE to form my entire Phish knowledge base for years. Later my knowledge grew, mostly by increased exposure to Phish through Chris.
CW: That’s funny I’ve never thought that we have a role in the Phish community. When I see “role” it makes me think there’s an expectation from the community for us to fulfill. I’ve never thought there’s an expectation of us or our films from Phish fans, beyond what I think are their usual expectations: fun and engagement. I hope we are making films that Phish fans think are fun and engaging. I’d gladly accept that role.
How long have I been a Phish fan? I fell in love with music at a very early age but didn’t hear Phish until I was 14 (I was in a photography class, printing photos in a dark-room when a fellow student put on the album Junta. I was quickly captivated by the opening track on the album. The song Fee was just unusual enough to sound like nothing I’d heard before, but the wheels stayed on the tracks enough for me to “get it” and enjoy). However I didn’t listen to much Phish until a few years later, during my freshman year of college in 1998. I dove further into the albums, then became aware of their live shows and archive of recordings, then finally saw them on 9/24/99 in Austin, then Houston the next night. Austin was very, very good, but the “David Bowie” they played in Houston was when I “got it.” I’ve been a staunch fan ever since.
I track my Phish shows on phish.net, so I’m geeky enough to know I just saw my 59 and 60th Phish shows this past June at the Mann in Philadelphia. (Paul’s not nearly as big a fan as I, but he likes to remind me that he saw them in ’97, before I did.)
It’s not an overstatement to say seeing Phish was a major influence on my desire to pursue an artistic career. Much like my encounter with Pulp Fiction, that pair of concerts in ’99 dramatically shaped my future. Seeing and hearing Phish’s improvisational creations in-person strongly urged my desire to be creative and pursue a creative career. The next semester is when I committed to majoring in Cinema.
What drew you to making films about Phish?
PC: One of the skills that has been honed in me at NFL Films is to always be on the lookout for good stories. The explicit task at work is to find and tell great football stories, but the sport is so broad, it takes you into all sorts of realms that intersect with football though they may not be inherently part of it. As a result, it wasn’t long into my career before I started recognizing potential “football” stories where at one time I might not have seen them. That practice, of looking for and/or developing football stories – sometimes on my own, sometimes through collaborations with other filmmakers — is what led me to first working on a Phish film. In particular, hearing from Chris about the evolving relationship between the Seahawks and Phish in 2012, and our subsequent frequent discussions of that relationship, ultimately resulted in the film “Wiiil-sooon!”
CW: The short answer is, my love of Phish and their music.
As a storyteller and filmmaker my mind is always measuring what I think would make a good story for a film. Phish is a band with a rich, relatively long, interesting and fun history. Combine that with good visual elements and a massive (both in quantity and style) soundtrack of music. That’s a strong draw for a filmmaker.
It’s still a dream of mine to make a full-length profile documentary about Phish. But there are also a LOT of potential short films (like “Wiiil-sooon!”) about Phish. I’d love to make every one of them.
Why did you select the Phish and Russell Wilson connection for a documentary?
PC: The evolving intersection of Phish and the Seahawks was something that Chris brought to my attention. He was aware in real time of everything that was happening with the song WILSON being played at Seattle home games in 2012, as well as of the peripheral layers of the story like The Gorge performance in which Trey ended up wearing a Russell Wilson t-shirt. The more we talked about all these topical events in which two different worlds – Phish and football – were colliding, the more clearly we could see the story.
CW: Since I started making films, I’d wanted to make a film about Phish. The dream scenario was to have a Phish/football connection so that I could produce a Phish film for NFL Films. So when I became aware of Trey’s request at the Gorge to have Seahawks fans chant “Wiiil-sooon!” for the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson, my wheels started turning and I dug a little deeper. I initially thought the story might be too thin to make a film, and, I couldn’t trust my own judgement about something I was that close to: Phish. So I laid it all out for Paul, he laughed at me and said, “Of course this is enough for a film!” NFL Films is a company that’s excellent at identifying interesting stories, even unusual ones like the Phish/Russell Wilson connection. So the showrunner of our series NFL Films Presents, liked the idea enough to for us to reach out to the band’s management. They quickly got back to us with a positive response. My mind was blown.
Making the “Wiiil-sooon!” film was a surreal experience, and a career highlight that will be extremely tough to top.
How did you come to focus a second film on Holly Bowling?
PC: The Holly film unfolded in a similar fashion as “Wiiil-sooon!”: Chris’s passion for all things Phish led him to Holly’s story, and he told me about it. The more it evolved – through her on-going concerts, social media, and recording efforts – the more Chris and I followed along and realized what a rich story it was, and once again, became excited that it was happening in real time. We saw it as an opportunity to document history in the making, in the form of a singular story that brought together something as epic as Phish and as intimate as one woman’s artistic dream
CW: Again, I’m always thinking about what would make a good film—especially as it relates to my favorite subjects, like football, Phish, or music in general. And I usually keep up with what’s happening in the Phish world. When I became aware of Holly’s Tahoe Tweezer rendition on YouTube, I looked further into her story and thought it was really good, and there was a good film to be made. But I knew her location—on the other side of the country—would be a tough hurdle to overcome without a budget. So I just filed away the idea like many other ideas that never get produced. Then she announced she would be performing in Philadelphia (near me) which meant making a film about Holly was reasonable.
What, if any, emotions do you hope to convey in these films?
PC: I hope to create films that leave the audience with a sense of wonder: about the subject of the film, about the richness of and possibilities in the world.
CW: I’m not sure how to best answer this. Making interesting, engaging films that people enjoy is always my goal. I suppose with these two specific films, I also want to show the world what I think Phish is, or what I think it is that makes Phish special.
I indeed want people to feel emotions when watching the films, but I’m not necessarily sure which emotions. For example, in the Holly film I wanted to show people a dream that came true. I truly admired Holly chasing her dream and achieving it. I hoped to convey that in the film, and I think there’s an emotional component to that, but I’m not sure what emotion I’d attach to it. Hope? Joy? Admiration? Amazement? I’d love it if people felt any of those emotions.
Would you say that you were first football or Phish fans? On a similar note, what are your favorite teams?
PC: I was a football fan first, having started rooting for the New York Giants when I was 6.
CW: I was a football fan first—started playing at age 6. I didn’t become a Phish fan until I was 18. That said, I was a music fan before I was a football fan. It just took me a while to find Phish.
My favorite NFL team is the Dallas Cowboys. I do a lot of films with and about the Cowboys, which is another dream come true for a football fan that grew up in Dallas loving the Cowboys.
What do you think makes a film a good piece of art?
PC: For me, the best art is the art I remember – and think about unexpectedly – long after I’ve consumed it. It comes to mind without warning, triggered from the past by some present moment experience, the connection between the two points in time being a common, or occasionally contrasting, emotion. Therefore, the films that make the viewer feel a feeling that never fully fades away are to me the best films.
CW: I don’t really have a definition for art, so I’ll translate “art” to mean films I think are special. And so many factors can make a movie special to me…and those factors can change for documentaries versus fictional narratives, for example. So this is a hard question for me to answer succinctly.
But one constant is the word I keep using above: engagement. I have to care about what I’m watching. And if a documentary, for example, can make me care about something I didn’t know I cared about, that’s a high level of engagement. I don’t care about penguins, but March of the Penguins was a special film to me, so I’d call that good art.
Another major factor is uniqueness. Not until this interview had I really thought about how influential Pulp Fiction and Phish were in my life and career path. And the common denominator that really set those two apart from the rest, for me, was they were a unique take on two types of art I already loved. I’d seen a lot of movies, I’d heard a lot of music. But, I’d never seen a film like Pulp Fiction and I’d never heard anything like Phish. So they were both stirring for me. When you get saturated with an art form, something has to make a film or song stand-out. So bringing a new angle, or a new way of executing something goes a long way..and Phish does that every single show through their improvisation. That’s probably why I still love Pulp Fiction, but not nearly as much as Phish.