"Big Winner" Turns A Music Video Into A Cinematic Americana Documentary
Having found himself at a midnight drag-racing event, film director Oliver Shahery set out to find a cinematic and empowering portrayal of America for Andrew Fox’s latest song, “Big Winner”. The result is an intermix of months worth of footage into a music video-style documentary that depicts an intimate journey into the radical lives of The Watson family, drag racers from Fort White, Florida (population 590). Milk visited the film’s launch party, then sat down with film director Oliver Shahery and songwriter & producer Andrew Fox to talk more about the film. First up, Shahery talks more about his journey to Florida and the many unexpected turns to the final composition.
Tell me a little about yourself. Where are you from and how’d you first get into filmmaking?
The first film I made was in 8th grade history class. I used to fail history, and when I would walk into a test everyone would avoid sitting next to me because they knew I would copy off of them. Then my teacher, Mr. Gaskin, assigned a video project. I made a movie about my aunt running away from Iran and fell in love with the process of making movies. For the following unit assessment, Mr. Gaskin assigned another video project, this time with partners. A bunch of people raised their hand to work with me. It was a weirdly empowering moment.
Specifically with documentary-filmmaking, I had a legendary professor in college, Mary Jane Doherty, who taught me the concept of filming a documentary that focuses on what people do rather than what they say. Anyone can tell you anything they want in an interview, but if you spend enough time with someone, and they trust you enough to let their guard down and be vulnerable, then the truth will come out through their behavior. This concept of capturing authentic moments of real people on camera inspired me to continue making character driven pieces like Big Winner.
What’s the concept and planning behind the mini-film, Big Winner? Why Florida and how long were you there for?
Andrew posted on Instagram that he was looking for a director to collaborate with so I reached out. He told me about this album he recorded in Germany that was more or less his interpretation of where America is at today. As soon as I listened to the song Big Winner, I was hooked.
Andrew wanted a music video that reflected an iconic piece of American culture so I decided to find a traveling circus and shoot a documentary on the experience.
I took a 22 hour train from New York to Jacksonville, Florida to realize that the circus I found was too pink and pretty to reflect contemporary America. So I went to bars, played pool, and talked to everyone I could to find out what people did for fun there. I met a group of streetcar racers who took me to a late-night Drag-Racing event. I saw this five year old kid named Mason riding down the ramp of his grandpa’s truck and doing donuts with his tricycle, and I saw his grandpa, GW, fixing the nitrous on his black 1950’s Chevy Oldsmobile wearing a T-shirt that said “Gearhead from Hell.” The entire movie just played out in my head so I pulled out my camera and started filming.
Their friends were definitely a little skeptical of me. I mean here’s this Middle-Eastern looking kid from New York they just met with long curly hair and skinny jeans trying to film them super up close and in their face. But that whole process of getting people who don’t know you at all to trust you enough to capture private moments of them on camera is one of the most exhilarating and rewarding aspects of documentary filmmaking.
What was your takeaway from spending so much time with the Watson family whose culture, background and upbringing might have contradicted yours?
My takeaway from this experience was how important it is to spend time with people who have a totally different perspective. The moment I met The Watson’s at the racetrack I felt different. We were from different places, we had different accents, and we drove different cars, but yet for that brief moment of time I spent in Florida, I became a part of their family.
We were all born. At some point we all learned how to ride a bike and tie our shoes, and eat ice cream, and suck at history class. We’re more similar than we know just by being human beings. That’s why I focussed on the father-son type relationship Mason and his Grandpa shared. Even if they spend time with each other in different ways than me and you do, their relationship and humanity is universal.
After hearing from Shahery, we sat down with songwriter & producer Andrew Fox to talk more about his single “Big Winner” and the concept behind American Duality.
Where are you from and how’d you first get into music?
I’m originally from New York. I’ve had a lot of projects, but this will actually be the first release under my name! I had a project called Visuals and toured around Europe but I mainly write music. I’ve been doing that since I was 11 or so. I’m ready for this record to just play the build up of all those lyrics.
How is the single “Big Winner” compared to the rest of the EP? Why this specific song?
The reason I chose Big Winner was because this video has a depth that I wanted to explore at the first release. It had enough to talk about to introduce the world this American mindset. This is such a strong, grounded vision of America right now that it’s only appropriate to open up the record this way. There is other songs that all reflect on American identity and draw on American music, but this one has a musical intensity and a power in the meaning in lyric and film that felt important in this very moment to lead with.
What was the collaborative process like when editing the music video?
Oliver and I have such a dynamic process of editing together where I found that we could create this bigger conversation around the song. It’s hard to get lyrics across just by lyrics. Songs go by so fast and there is so many of them out there in the world.
We have been meeting constantly since about May. We started by talking generally about film making styles and different techniques. I loved the idea of putting him on a mission to find some color in the American culture still out there in the world.
The idea of the American duality of winning came from living away from America. I used to live in Berlin and I spent a lot of time governing that part of the world by touring, and living away from this project in America. When I moved back to New York in 2015, I had a lot of thoughts in the project of America. Big Winner was written closer to election time. I felt like the word “winning” around that time started to take on its own duality–terror, and the possibility of change in unexpected ways. When you are away from this concept and this world of the American mentality, you start to see that you don’t have to have as many winners or losers, and you don’t have to think in those terms. Ever since I was a little boy, that has been the main idea about life here in America. Of course, there’s power and material winning, but that is an empty philosophy to me.
It’s opened up all these different avenues to see these lyrics and reflect on whose winning and who’s not.
Directed, Shot and Edited by Oliver Shahery
Produced by Andrew Fox
Music by Andrew Fox
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