Project Moonshine armed Reno teens with video cameras and set them loose to discover the essence of Artown—and of Reno
For two months during the summer of 2006, seven Reno high school students were equipped with digital video cameras and set loose (with adult project coordinators) on the town. They were part of the new summer filmmaking program Project Moonshine. Their initial assignment: film an independent documentary of Artown, Reno’s month-long cultural event, over the course of July.
Scene 1, June 28: Moonshiners discover
the unrelenting positivity of PR
It’s three days before the official Artown kickoff. The Moonshiners walk from the Nevada Museum of Art over to Artown headquarters, located in a small, rectangular office building on Flint Street. They’re unaware, or maybe just dismissive, of professional codes—a leopard print bra strap peeks out of a tank top; a wristband reads “party time"—though some seem to have spiffed up a bit in a dress or button-down shirt along with jeans and trendy tennis shoes.
”This is where Artown is?” one of them asks upon entering the nondescript, musty ground-floor lobby.
The Moonshiners don’t know exactly what they’re looking for. In the past month, they’ve studied many different forms of documentary filmmaking with Moonshine founder Michael Albright. They’ve interviewed each other but no one else. They came up with a list of questions to ask during their interviews with the Artown administrators, such as, “What organizations are funding Artown this year, and do they have any influence on which artists and events are selected?”
There are seven Moonshiners and three new Panasonic Leica digital video cameras, so they pair up, with one person as interviewer and the other as cameraman.
“If I had my druthers, I’d rather film than ask, but I can do either,” says Charlie Hayes to Noah Conrath. Charlie, 17, is in a broad-striped, button-down shirt with striped wool shorts and loafers. He has floppy hair, dark eyebrows and alert eyes. Noah, 17, is irreverent, goofy and a self-proclaimed attention-deficit case, wearing rolled-up black jeans and tennis shoes with no socks. He has curly, blond hair and a smirking, wide-eyed look on his face, as though he’s just played a joke on someone and is waiting to be found out.
The group walks up the stairs to the second floor with their cameras and list of questions. “Doesn’t it smell like oatmeal in here?” one of the girls asks while walking down the blue-carpeted hallway to office 281. They fall silent as they wait in a line to enter the Artown offices.
Marketing director Natasha Bourlin welcomes them with her usual bubbly manner. A giant Artown logo hangs on a red wall behind her.
Albright reminds the Moonshiners to watch their battery levels, to stop the interview if the tape runs out and then restart, and to have the subjects state their name and title for the camera during interviews.
Charlie, Noah and Ali Alonso go to interview Artown director Beth Macmillan in her office. Ben Kolton and Nathan Lower enter Natasha’s office, and Danielle Hauser and Allana Noyes are assigned to Annelise McKenzie, Artown’s development and finance director.
The girls are nervous with McKenzie, and Danielle reads questions off the prepared question sheet as Allana holds the camera. McKenzie answers with a professional smile. The words “richness,” “culture” and “diversity” are common throughout her dialogue.
“Artown started the revolution—the Renaissance that Reno is going through,” says McKenzie.
This is the girls’ introduction to the world of public relations. Albright had warned the group no one would likely say anything negative about their institution—especially on tape.
Danielle, with blue hair and purple shoes, asks why Artown doesn’t seem to offer much for teens, to which McKenzie answers, “You can’t start out being everything to everybody.” They’ve started with their core, she says—kids, seniors and the “arts community” and are now reaching out more to twentysomethings with Artown after Dark, held at the Green Room. She says Artown helps “foster identity” and enhances Reno’s national image, so what they bring to its stages has to be “tasteful, entertaining and of the highest quality.”
Danielle and Allana thank her for her time, leave the room and go in the hallway.
The first thing 15-year-old Allana says is, “You were too easy on her. You read straight off the page.”
Danielle slumps against the wall and sits down. “That was really hard,” she says. “She kind of twisted some of my questions around. She made it sound like it was a good, positive question.”
“But that’s, like, her job,” says Allana. “You need to be more manipulative. You accepted all her questions without asking anything. … You can be controversial, but you have to be nice about it.”
Danielle says McKenzie frustrated her about the age question—from Danielle’s point of view, there’s not much in Artown for people her age, between the ages of 14 and 21.
“I was so angered,” she says. “The next interview, I’m just going to ask what’s in my head. I’m so mad at myself. This was my chance to grill her and get her to say what I want her to say. There were so many chances where I couldn’t get her to say what I wanted her to say. I have to be meaner.”
“I’m glad you went first,” Allana says.
Scene 2, July 1-7: Go-Carting with Sonic Youth
The Moonshiners spend the first week covering everything from ballet to African world music. Then the unexpected happens.
Sonic Youth is set to play the then-Reno Hilton (now Grand Sierra Resort) on July 4. So Moonshine project coordinator (and RN&R contributor) Brad Bynum sends a shot-in-the-dark e-mail to the band telling them of Project Moonshine and requesting permission to film them while they’re here. The 25-year rock veterans welcome them with open arms.
On July 4, the Moonshiners are go-carting with Sonic Youth on the Hilton’s grounds. They play basketball with them, get exclusive interviews and discuss Cheetos, the term “Skeno” and tacky Reno T-shirts with lead singer Thurston Moore. And of course, they shoot the concert—a rock ‘n’ roll alternative to what they’ve been filming with Artown. Nathan, a tall, quiet 19-year-old with a professor’s voice, has his summer made by getting to do the band’s sound check.
Thus begins a second project for Project Moonshine: the Sonic Youth concert documentary.
Scene 3, July 7: Dreaming of Moonshine
Tapes Shot: 24 Artown, 12 Sonic Youth
It’s been one week of filming. Albright, 24, sits in his room in front of his computer, editing. He’s the film’s director and editor, as well as the frontman of Project Moonshine. A Reno native, Albright was inspired to start the program after an internship with direct cinema pioneer Albert Maysles in New York City in 2004. There, he helped Maysles, in both the field and the editing room, work on a documentary about Christo and Jean-Claude’s The Gates—a huge, controversial art project of orange saffron fabric that, after 26 years in the making, was finally installed all over Central Park for 16 days in February 2005. The documentary is scheduled to air on HBO this fall.
“We were interns with more responsibility than we probably deserved,” says Albright. But by doing, he learned. With Project Moonshine, he wanted to give kids in Reno a similar opportunity, even if on a smaller scale.
The “moonshine” refers not to homemade alcohol but to the concepts of the independent and homegrown.
“The idea,” says Albright of the project, “is to build a core with the young and unsculpted and make sure they have the opportunity to find their own style and use that later on to make movies their own way.”
But today, he’s tired, bleary-eyed and a bit out of sorts. He’s been dreaming about Artown at night, all the images unloaded on him and into his computer blurring in his mind. He thinks about it driving to the grocery store, walking down the street. His schedule for the past week has been to go with the kids as they shoot footage all day, then edit all night.
“It’s not a bad job,” he says. “But at the end of the day, when you’re handed all these tapes, well, it’s really fucking with my head. … You’re constantly trying to make sense of it, thinking, ‘How am I going to put it all together?'”
The tone of the documentary is shifting. It began with focused questions about Artown’s growth and impacts on Reno. But now, Albright is trying to figure out how to turn that into an intriguing film.
“These are interesting events, but they’re not that interesting,” he says. “And these are interesting people in Artown, but they’re not that interesting. How do you make a beginning, middle and end out of that?”
At this point, he thinks the film will be more about the Moonshiners and their progression—the making of the making of an Artown documentary.
“To create a narrative, you have to have something that stays with you the entire time and see change and go through ups and downs,” says Albright. The only characters that describes in the film so far are the kids.
Brittany Curtis also asked the Moonshiners to film a 10-minute promotional film for the youth arts and community center she’s trying to open, called Holland. She needs $200,000 to do it, and she thinks the film will help her raise that money. Filming is scheduled for mid-August, adding yet another unexpected project for the Moonshiners.
Then there’s the Sonic Youth project. The music in the footage is indecipherable and distorted. Albright needs the soundboard from the band in order to continue. He’s preparing a 25-minute sample video to give to Sonic Youth when they come to San Francisco for their July 18 concert with Pearl Jam. He hopes they’ll like what they see enough to give him the soundboard. After that concert, the band goes on tour in Australia and is unable or too busy to respond.
Scene 4, July 15: Loving and dogging Artown
Noah and project coordinator Ryan Bartlett are standing in the hot sun at Wingfield Park getting chorizo sausages at the Basque Festival at the end of week two. Ali is filming Basque dancers on the stage.
Now at the mid-way point of Artown, Noah thinks the project is going better than before. “When we first started out, we weren’t sure what to do,” he says. “We hadn’t had much experience walking up to people, saying, ‘Hi. I’m from Project Moonshine. Can I ask you some questions?’ But I think it’s going well. I think we’re actually going to make a movie.”
They’ve been asking everyone they meet their views on Artown—from Artown and unaffiliated artists to audience members, homeless people and beer vendors.
Noah says people either dog on Artown, or they love it. “Most of the people who don’t like Artown are artists,” says Noah.
Bartlett says he thinks Artown has become too commercialized, but he doesn’t blame organizers. “The underground scene would have to be more prominent for that to happen,” he says. “As much as people our age would like to see better bands and more risky art, Reno’s not ready for it. They need to feel comfortable.”
Case in point were two letters to the editor in the Reno Gazette-Journal following Artown’s opening night with the Sean Curran dance company, during which two women dancers briefly kissed, and two men embraced. The letters said the performance was “homosexual,” “sensual” and “obscene.” It was not art, not Reno and not beauty, the letters said.
But Albright thinks Reno is ready for more edge. “I don’t think they [Artown administrators] have a clue what people in their teens and 20s want and like,” he said earlier. “We’re in that age group where we create things and make things happen ourselves.”
Scene 5, July 23: Alleyway reflections
Tapes shot: 65 Artown, 15 Sonic Youth
The underground scene appears to be alive and well at the (con)Temporary Gallery—an alleyway south of Vassar off Virginia St., the walls of which graffiti artists have been given free reign.
It’s a Sunday night, and a crowd of people mingle through the narrow alleyway. A dummy is propped on the roof, looking eerily down on the crowd. Bubbles, projected onto a wall as they float in front of a light, drift over the crowd, playfully popping among them. The sound system projects strange voices and conversations. There’s a carnival aspect, with performance art mingling with visual art.
This Artown event feels spontaneous and truly different. It’s one of the few events to draw a predominantly young (18- to 35-year-old) crowd.
The Moonshiners are here, but they also shot earlier in the day, when the artists were painting the alley’s walls. Shooting behind-the-scenes has become more of a focus than shooting actual events.
The teens have now learned to transmit their footage onto the computer and into digital files. They’ve also had the chance to sit with Albright and critique their work. It’s apparent that their individual styles match their personalities, and, by now, Albright can tell who filmed which scene:
Charlie has a steady hand and patient eye that begins with one subject and branches out to capture a scene. His footage will be a large part of the final product, providing depth and patience.
Noah finds interesting camera angles and injects them with his humor.
Allana and Danielle have shaky footage—the camera follows the sense of how they look at the world—scanning rapidly, fixating on something for a moment, then moving on. They’re interested in the artistry of common objects, and they find things no one else sees. Their footage will add details and connecting threads.
Ali, the youngest Moonshiner, who just turned 15 in mid-July, is a well-composed interviewer. She, too, can be shaky with the camera, but she also catches some surprisingly good moments.
Nathan is learning to jump into a scene more. Previously, he relied heavily on the zoom button.
Ben, 18, asks some of the best questions in interviews and offers a mix of the quickly observed and the pointed.
The (con)Temporary Gallery was a creative event that begged for creative shooting, so they shot odd angles—up on the roof and below.
Danielle is sitting against a brick wall with a friend. It’s her last night filming with the Moonshiners before she flies to Germany to visit her grandmother.
She doesn’t think her interviewing skills have improved since that first day at Artown headquarters. “It’s hard to ask questions because you can’t offend anybody because you’re supposed to be unbiased,” she says.
But she’s become more attracted to direct cinema—the technique of capturing something as it happens without interviews or voiceovers—something she never experimented with until becoming part of Project Moonshine.
The end of the project is drawing near, and while the Moonshiners say they’ll continue to work together on other projects, they know it will never be the same as this first experience.
“I’m just sad that it’s over,” says Allana. “I wouldn’t even care if the entire movie sucked. It was like a really great summer camp but not so lame.”
Scene 6, July 31: Closing night
Tapes shot: 75 Artown, 15 Sonic Youth
It’s the last night of Artown, and Charlie is sitting at a table outside of Dreamers Coffeehouse, waiting for the other Moonshiners to show up. By now, the members of the project have gotten to see for themselves what Artown is about.
“I had a preconceived bias because a lot of the PCs [project coordinators] thought Artown was going away from the local and getting more commercial,” says Charlie. “I don’t think it’s accurate that it’s commercial or corrupt. I see faults but also benefits. I think the problems—there are a few that could be avoided with a more diverse, younger board. They have well-known people in the community [both artists and business people], but they don’t have the local guy who knows what’s going on in the youth scene. Other things are only going to be fixed by doing this year after year.”
The project has changed some of Charlie’s views of Reno: “I used to see this town as having nothing progressive—nothing happening but drugs and prostitution and gambling. That culture’s still happening. But there’s a new wave happening, and people are getting behind it. It’s a counterculture without so much of the rebellion.”
The rest of the group shows up, and they gather their cameras to shoot Artown’s closing act, DBR and the Mission.
Ben, an obsessive movie buff with long, curly black hair and an intense expression, is also feeling reflective. “I went into this not knowing anything,” he says. “By doing, you get better. That’s part of what Mike’s trying to teach us—to just go out there and try it.”
Scene 7, Aug. 22:
Sonic Youth approves giving the soundboard to Project Moonshine, which in essence, is a go-ahead to do the concert documentary.
Scene 8, Sept. 7: Wrapping it up
Hours of footage: +100
Tapes shot: 94 of Artown, 15 of Sonic Youth, 6 more expected for Holland project
Albright has only a couple weeks to finish editing before he begins his masters program in filmmaking at UCLA. He’s been having doubts about grad school. He wants to finish the Artown and Sonic Youth documentaries, the Holland promo, as well as work on a film all his own, documenting San Francisco-based singer/songwriter Sonny Smith. “Why go to school for something you’re already doing?” is one tempting rationale. But he’s going.
He’s still not sure what the final cut of the Artown documentary will look like, but it will likely be as much—or more—about Reno as it is about Artown. The Moonshiners are bound to make appearances, as will people they’ve met on the street. There will be backstage and onstage footage of Artown events.
“Overall, I think it’s going to be a really weird film, “says Albright.
He’s not sure what will happen when the film comes out, or when exactly that will be, though he’s aiming for late December. At a bare minimum, there will be a premiere at the Nevada Museum of Art. He’ll submit it to film festivals and educational workshops.
“But realistically, it’s hard to get it out there,” he says. “I don’t know if it will have the muscle to make big waves, but if it does, we’ll be ready for it.”
He has tentative plans to film a musical festival in Portland for Project Moonshine next summer. But his real goal, he says, is to send the kids to the moon, though it may be in 60 years or so—after all, he’s a practical man.
“I’m actually sort of serious about that,” he says. “But that would be the last film. That would be Project Moonshine.”