Director James Marcus Haney on No Cameras Allowed
An Emerging Director/Photographer Shows Just How Far You Can Go with Basic Gear, Guts of Steel, and a Big Heart
James Marcus Haney's slightly wide-eyed yet big-hearted world view in the documentary No Cameras Allowed is infectious, mostly because the young filmmaker has also captured the true spirit of the music festivals he gate-crashes to attend, with and without his friends. The resulting concert footage and backstage interactions he nimbly chronicles, interwoven with Haney's own coming-of-age story, becomes its own kind of celebration. The road to Coachella (twice), Bonnaroo, Ultra, Austin City Limits and England's Glastonbury gets him not just in front of the stage but welcomed backstage and on the tour bus by headlining bands like Mumford & Sons, Young the Giant, Jay-Z, Moby and Skrillex.
No Cameras Allowed premieres on MTV tonight, August 29, at 10 p.m. Watch the trailer, below.
Bolstered by early, staggering success, Haney heads to successive festivals with a gaggle of cameras draped around his neck and his confidence swaggering. "If you walk a certain way and talk a certain way," he soon discovers, "I can get close to the stage." Trained in high school and at USC Film School before dropping out to finish his film, he admits to first using his cameras as props and decoys to get into each festival for free. But once through the gates, he says he quickly became the director he wanted to be. "I used to drive my professors crazy because I ignored their rules but I didn't care about bad grades," he says. "I only cared about making the film I wanted to and that film will get me a meeting or my next gig. I intentionally broke rules so I could use the camera I wanted to use and I could shoot what I wanted to and cast who I wanted." This may not be Haney's first film but it is the one that will get him noticed.
No Cameras Allowed, in fact, does feel a bit like a 2014 retelling of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous. But there's nothing "almost" about Haney. He's all-in, all the time, and despite the ballsy bravado necessary to crash so many festival gates, his generous spirit infuses every frame and endlessly delights his merry band of minstrels—the professional musicians he quickly befriends, the friends slipping through the gates with him and, of course, the viewing audience.
Haney says it wasn't until he was in the edit suite with his friend and editor John-Michael Powell, who cut the film on Final Cut Pro 7, that he realized his concert film had a deeper narrative thread. "I originally wanted just to make a rock doc and show the music," he says. "Then we started to weave in more and more of the sneaking in into the film, and that brought up the bigger questions, like why did I sneak in, and that led me to explore my personal story, which I eventually let seep all the way in." Recreated scenes are touchingly animated by by Abbey Luck, who also animated the Davis Guggenheim documentaries U2: From the Sky Down and Waiting for Superman (with her Awesome + Modest team).
For a film student of the digital age, Haney is decidedly old school: he loves shooting film and primarily shot Super8 and 16mm (on a "borrowed" camera from USC) on the road. (And with all those iPhones snapping and shooting crappy video at live concerts, his equipment becomes an important differentiator in the final footage.) His go-to digital cameras, namely the Canon 5D (outfitted with EF 24-105mm and 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye lenses) were used alongside a 35mm Canon AE1 SLR to shoot stills, a GoPro he used during his run-and-gun entrances and as a satellite cam attached to a remote-controlled drone during Coachella, and his iPhone. Haney wasn't the only one with the camera, either: his friends, including "Grim Grim," the Welsh deliveryman he befriended on the way to Glastonbury, all got a chance to hold one of those cameras for unique POV shots.
Haney's first short film to come out of his early gate-crashing experience, "Conaroo: How Broke Kids Do Bonnaroo," was a mix between 5D and Super8 footage. "To be honest, I still really shoot with the same stuff today," he says. "Those old cameras just don't become irrelevant like digital ones do. I also really love the way the footage looks, the way it feels. It's obviously not the efficiency of it or the price of it or anything else. In that sense, I hate film: it's so expensive, it's so inefficient, it's so clunky and it takes so much more time. Digital is really lovely in that sense—it's cheap, quick and fast. It's very manageable. But there's still something about film, both in stills and in motion, that I can't get away from. I end up spending more per month on film developing and everything related to it than I do on rent."
He never expected or assumed the Mumford & Sons road technician he passed "Conaroo" to (after a concert he actually paid to see with his girlfriend Kelly Teacher) would actually watch it, let alone give it to the band members themselves. The film explores what happens next.
Shooting both stills and video during these heightened moments on stage had its own challenges for Haney. "Every single moment I was always thinking, 'I want to capture all of this on every camera.' When you shoot on film, you're telling a larger story in sequence. My photographs, I guess, are telling that same larger story but conveyed through a single frame. In my mind, I would often think, 'this piece that I'm seeing right now would be a great piece of the puzzle for the film,' whether a set-up point or lead-in or answer to another part of the narrative. Whereas if I saw a singular moment that could tell a story on its own, summing up everything in one frame, that's when I shot stills."
As word spread about his photographs and Conaroo video, HBO sent him to Pamplona to shoot the dangerous and deadly Running of the Bulls. That's where he wished he captured more than he got (and suffice it to say he got more than most). "I had two 5Ds strapped to each other: one shooting video and the other one to my eye snapping stills, so when the bulls fly by, I was able to get both," he says.
In another crazy setup, Haney strapped the GoPro to his 5D, facing backwards, to get both the forward and backward view of his fence-jumping escapades at festivals. "People couldn't figure out why there was a GoPro going the wrong way strapped to my 5D," he says. "I looked a little weird." But that never stopped fellow festival goers, famous musicians and even bouncers and guards from welcoming him into the fold.
Though Haney may be the one chasing the scene on screen, he also has a true gift for creating a party wherever he goes. By the time the film premiered at the Wiltern in Los Angeles on July 23, a sizable crowd also wanted to be a part of Haney's moveable feast. "We weren't allowed to tell anybody what band was playing, so we were worried that no one would show up for a little movie nobody's heard about yet," he says. "But we ended up selling out 1600 seats. Young the Giant played after the film and Q+A, and it was an absolute blast." Grim Grim flew in from Wales to join Haney, Chen and Acid Chris on the panel. "The weirdest part of that whole experience for me was seeing the film with my name beneath it on the marquee and the red letters 'SOLD OUT' beneath them," he says without a trace of hubris. "And the lines around the block, and my own dressing room, instead of me trying to be a fly on the wall and really minimal as I snapped photos or shot footage of other bands? That was just nuts. I didn't have to steal any beer that night, but I was the one handing it out to the band."
Haney is currently working with several promoters to create a similar music-and-screening event to take on the road. "The plan is to replicate what we did at the Wiltern in 15 to 20 cities across North America, hopefully very soon," he says. "We basically want to create an experience that's bigger than just watching a film by blending it with a festival-like event. I also want to keep the ticket prices as low as possible for everyone, and in order to do that, I've got to get a brand involved. Anybody out there reading this right now and want to get on board?" He's also in talks to bring his still photos to gallery shows, or perhaps, pop-up exhibits part of his screening road shows.
His next project, the feature-length documentary Austin to Boston, will enter the film festival circuit in late September. He's still at work editing yet another doc, about a "rather prolific piano player from London." But he's more than ready, he says, to return to directing narrative features. "I wrote and directed my first feature-length film while a junior in high school." That project led directly to USC Film School, but as his film so clearly explains, he ultimately had to choose between his new-found career and a final degree. As his father says on camera, "We learned early on the boy was not meant to be put in the box." On screen, Haney keeps the familial, collegial and romantic tensions humming as he follows his dream, resulting in a narrative with plenty of emotional heft.
His experience on the road has been "so much more meaningful than a degree would have been," he says. "I think my education started when I got on that train and drove away from college. I learned so much more as a filmmaker, got so much more travel experience and learned so much more about how the music industry works. In the past three years alone I learned far more than I did in film school. There's a lot of bullshit you have to go through in the real world of filmmaking and they didn't go into any of that when I was in college. All the critical studies stuff we got back then never told me anything about how agencies or studios work, or how to navigate lawyers and your first steps."
Haney found all of that—and more—in the course of making this film. Scroll through the "Special Thanks" in the credits and you'll recognize industry heavyweights like Judd Apatow and Spike Jonze among the handful of Haneys and devoted friends and colleagues. This all makes perfect sense after watching the effect Haney has on his famous and not-so famous new friends. He's not only a rising talent; people really get a kick out of this kid and his unadulterated lust for life. Be sure to hang on throughout the credits for Haney's gate-crashing trump card and reunion with some of his newfound musical friends.
Does he want to warn young filmmakers off university or film school completely? "There is a lot to learn at those places, but honestly? If you want to be a director, shoot as many things as you can in college, both for class and outside of class. Don't waste your time and all your extra energy on written work and papers. Just go and do it. If you want to direct or be a cinematographer, the only thing that's going to get you there is your experience and what you can prove you can do. No paper is going to do that for you. And if you get to a point in school where you can't achieve what you want, then screw it."