On Saturday, April 11 the Cinedelphia Film Festival celebrates the 10th Anniversary of locally produced documentary Rock School with a special guest-filled screening and post-screening live performances from School of Rock students and alumni! Director Don Argott (THE ART OF THE STEAL, LAST DAYS HERE) spent nine months documenting the Philly-based Paul Green School of Rock Music, the result was an entertaining and inspirational portrait of its charming students and “volatile but effective” (The Washington Post) headmaster Paul Green. Join us as we discover what the film’s young aspiring musicians are up to 10 years later!
Cinedelphia writer Madeline Meyer caught up with Rock School director Don Argott to chat about the film.
Cinedelphia: How did you first hear about the Paul Green School of Rock?
Dan Argott: I had a business with another partner for seven years. We had a production company here in Philly and my partner really wanted to move the business to LA and I really didn’t want to do that. I really wasn’t ready for a big move at that point. We were basically just in a position where I think we wanted two different things out of the company. And so he ended up moving to LA and doing his thing, and I stayed behind here. We set out to start a production company so we could make movies and then, ultimately what happened, was reality set in and we had to make a living doing corporate videos and a lot of more commercial stuff. So, at that point, I felt like I was really at a crossroads to figure out what I was going to do next.
I started dating Sheena [Sheena M. Joyce – producer] and we’ve now been together for 14 years, but at the time it was fairly new and getting serious. And I remember, it was so vivid, walking out of our offices at 11th and Walnut and I remember walking to get lunch one day. I was in a weird space because I was on my own with this idea of, “I don’t know what I’m going to do next.” I’ve always loved documentaries and because I’ve always worked with small crews, being able to pick up a camera and do anything I wanted, I felt like a doc would be a really great step for me, something creative and not have to involve a whole lot of people or not to have to spend a whole lot of money at that moment.
So I was walking down the street and I kept passing these show signs for the Paul Green School of Rock Music. Amazing, cartoony, signs that I felt like I’d seen before but I was really seeing them for the first time. I remember passing one that was like The Paul Green School of Rock does the music of The Who at the Union Jack, with cartoony pictures of The Who on it. They just had such a great vibe. They’re just very visually appealing. I always loved seeing them. And then, at that point, I saw that and I just went down another couple of blocks and there was another one pasted, an older one, where they did the music of Metallica and I was like, “I bet you this would make a great documentary.”
I remember going back to the office and finding information on Paul’s school and calling Paul up. I got him on the phone the first call and I told him who I was and what I wanted to do and he was like, “why don’t you come and check our school out and meet with us? And we’ll go from there.” So I did. The first meeting with Paul was really good. We sat down at the school, and at that point, it’s the building that, unfortunately, isn’t there anymore by Arch Street. It was like this weird kind of stand-alone building like that scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where everything around it had been decimated and there’s just one stand-alone, three-story, building. The whole thing had a great vibe to it. There were all these kids running around with instruments. Doors were closed and you could hear music blasting with kids practicing stuff. The whole thing just really worked out. Paul’s Paul. He’s a big personality. He’s really funny and the kids just loved him. He helped me identify the kids in the school to profile because my original idea was just to follow Paul. So, at the onset I knew we needed some kind of structure, an arc to start at point A and get to point B. My original idea was to follow a semester and see these kids perform at the beginning and they wouldn’t be very good and by the end they’d be amazing. And the school really doesn’t work that way. It takes years for a kid to develop, to be really good so they don’t get unbelievably better, certainly not for the purpose of a film. But then there was the stuff with the All Star kids doing the music of Frank Zappa and they got asked to play the Zappanale festival in Germany. So just all of a sudden, all of these things were just happening and I happened to be there at a really critical time of the school. A year later, Paul was getting into franchising and all that stuff. So it was just different. I feel like I captured a really amazing time in the school’s history and Paul’s history and obviously the kids that we chose to follow.
C: One of the things that definitely sticks with you as a viewer, are the students, and feeling invested in their relationships with their instruments but also their lives. Do you know what happened to those kids? Do you keep in touch?
DA: Oh, yeah. Ultimately, making a film is like, you’re in this really hyper-intense relationship for the making of the film. And then once the film comes out, it has it’s own trajectory. But then you’re friends with these people. You’re invested in their lives. You don’t just walk away. We became very close with the Collins family, and Asa and Tucker specifically, and their mother Andrea, who we became very very close with. She, unfortunately, passed away of breast cancer, a few years back. But those kids, Asa and Tucker, are now 21. Which is just crazy to think. When they called about this 10-year thing it was just like, “what?!” I remember being there with a camera. It’s so vivid. It doesn’t seem that long ago. It’s not that long ago in the grand scheme of things. It’s not 40 years but 10 years is still a long time, especially when you’re dealing with 10 year olds or 11 year olds. 10 years is like an 11-year-old to a 21-year-old. It’s a huge deal. It’s a lifetime.
Madi [Diaz-Svalgard] is in California and she’s doing really well. I follow her on Facebook and we’ve messaged eachother back and forth over the years. She did a profile on the Carson Daly late show thing. She’s blowing up. C.J. [Tywoniak] did what C.J. was born to do which is he’s a professional musician. He was actually used in Rock of Ages, the remake of the Broadway show. He’s like an extra part in I guess the main band, Tom Cruise’s band. He’s the guitar player in that so you can kind of see him in there. But he’s doing great. I believe he’s in California or Florida right now. I’m not sure. And then, Will is the only person that he really kind of wanted nothing to do with the film when it came out and I’ve never heard one way or the other about where he is or how he is since actually the film was released 10 years ago.
Me and Paul tried to do things over the years. We pitched some TV show-type stuff together and talked about doing initial documentary stuff, but nothing ever materialized. But I talked to him occasionally over the years. I’ll get a random phone call or I’ll call him out of the blue. But these people – you know them for the rest of your life. They were all part of this thing we did together, and I think, hopefully for them, it’s a good thing. There’s a very cool record of this small part of their lives that is kind of memorialized, which is pretty interesting.
C: That’s such a shame about Will. I feel like Will is the person that when you watch the movie, you’re watching all these virtuosos, which is hard to grab hold of, and then there’s somebody who’s normal and having to be around people like that, making him definitely the most relatable.
DA: At one point I heard he was working somewhere in New Jersey. It was a shame too, and I don’t think it had a lot to do with me as the filmmaker or the film per se. I think it had more to do with his relationship to Paul at the time. Obviously, we touched a little bit on some of the controversial things that had happened, with the Inquirer thing and his parents and stuff like that. But Will was a great kid. Again, I have such a special place in my heart for everybody that we met and, obviously, for all the kids that are in the film. I always loved talking to Will because he reminded me a lot of myself. He reminded me a lot of me growing up and not fitting in. There were parts of me in him and I know a lot of kids like Will that I grew up with too. So I could relate to him on a certain level. As much as I think he reluctantly came on camera, I think he also liked it as well. There was that side of “Eh, I don’t want to do it” but “Yeah, come on, let’s do it.” There was always that side of him that I knew was there. So I tried to always tread lightly with him and get him to feel comfortable and to trust me and to want to open up to me, which he did. I think he’s a great character in the film. He and Paul had a very interesting relationship. And I think they both kind of helped each other, in a weird way. And I think Will also kind of knew what Paul was up to. Clearly there was people like CJ, who could really get a lot from being in the music program part of it, but then there was other people like Will, and there was a lot of kids like Will, that were there because they didn’t fit in anywhere else and this place made sense to them. I loved that.
C: Definitely a really salient thread in the movie is feeling like this is a place for people where they get to be acknowledged and treated as important. I guess now that you’ve had ten years to sort of parse through your feelings about what was happening there, do you think that what you saw when you were filming – the way that you perceive it now, do you think that that’s changed?
DA: Yeah, I think so. It’s a really interesting thing because Sheena and I just recently had a baby and now I’m a father. So I’m on the opposite side of when I started this. I love Paul, and I think he’s really funny. But as a parent, I probably might look at things a little bit different now. And Paul’s never, I don’t think – personally, knowing him and being around him – I know he never meant the kids any harm, and I know that he would never hurt them. He was not like a father figure, more like a big brother figure. Having somebody like that in your life can motivate you by being in your face. It works for some kids, it doesn’t work for others.
Clearly some parents were cool with that type of thing, subjecting their kid to that kind of whatever you want to call it. Subjecting them to this kind of intense environment. Where Paul is going to be in your face and stuff. As a parent, that’s on you to say like, “is this a good environment for my kid to be in?” I think, again, if any parent thought that there was any kind of harm that was going to come from it, they would’ve pulled their kid. I don’t think that anybody really felt that way. Again, his tactics are what make him such a great character. Playing around with the kids and throwing the kid to the floor, stuff like that. That’s what your brother would do. But I mean they’re not brothers. I always felt that Paul was doing these things with the best intentions for the most part. I know that he really cared about those kids. I know what he wanted out of those kids. And he had his own style that got kids motivated and got them to be better versions of themselves, in some cases. In other cases those tactics didn’t work.
I think we did a five or six year Stranger than Fiction in New York. Thom Powers is the programmer there and had programmed Rock School. It had been a while since I saw it. I remember feeling different about it. Something I might’ve thought was really funny, wasn’t as funny. I felt a different reaction to it than I had originally. As you get older, just like everything, you hear things and look at the world a little bit different. But I think at the heart of it, it’s a film that I’ll always be proud of. It will always be the first child. It will always have a special place, just because it really started everything for me. It is the thing that really put my career on the map and established Sheena and I’s relationship as working together. It’s that. It’s always going to be that.
C: Between Rock School and Last Days Here, it’s obvious that you have an attachment to music. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
DA: My whole life I wanted to be a musician. I remember being as young as nine years old, hearing Kiss for the first time, and it just changed my life. It was like this is what I want do. I was always in bands my whole life. I started playing guitar when I was 14. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do is play music. When I got into my late teens and early 20’s, it was clear that being in New Jersey and working at a shit job, that I just couldn’t find that chemistry with four like-minded people that wanted to do the same thing. So, at that point, I was like I probably should think about Plan B: go to school and come up with another option in case the music thing doesn’t work out.
I ended up coming to the Art Institute of Philadelphia and they had, at the time, a Music Video Business program. So it was like audio engineering, film and video production, and a business component. It turned out that once I started taking the audio classes, I felt like if I don’t do the band thing, maybe I can be involved behind the scenes. But it just didn’t connect for me. I was not into it like I thought I would be. But I took a photography class and a film class. I took to that super quickly. It was like, “wow, okay. I like doing this. I really like doing this.” And from that point forward I was re-assessing. “Maybe film is a viable option for me.” So, going through that program, and really taking to film production the way I did… at that point I met my former business partner and we opened a production company. So by the time I graduated and started a business, and was doing of film production, I always had that burning desire to still be a part of music in some form or fashion.
And that’s why, at that moment, when my partnership was breaking up, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do… walking down the street and seeing these music posters was just like… it just all made sense. There it is. I can put it all together now. That’s where Rock School came from and then obviously, Last Days Here, and recently I did As the Palaces Burn which is about Lamb of God. I’ll always feel like I love music documentaries and I really get to do two things that I love most: Music and film and putting those things together. So I’ve been very fortunate to be able to make film stuff, make music films, make things for music people, and just be around it. I still play music. Me and Demian [Fenton] who is our editor here, we’ve been in a band for… we actually started it when we finished Rock School. So probably like nine years we’ve been in a band together. So I still play music. And I get to make movies. I’ve figured it out. It’s a Mary Tyler Moore moment. I can have it all.