Introducing Colin Hanks, Documentary Director - Vanity Fair
The actor’s debut feature, about the rise and fall of Tower Records, premieres at the SXSW Film Festival this week.
Sure, Colin Hanks—actor, Emmy nominee for Fargo, child of a Hollywood mainstay—is a fan of the film and television industries that keep him employed. But, he says, “It’s also my job. Whereas with music, I’m purely a fan.”
So, naturally, he’s now made music his job too. Hanks spent seven years trying to make the documentary All Things Must Pass, about the rise and fall of the once-behemoth Tower Records, debuting at this year’s SXSW film festival. Hanks comes by his love of music honestly—he remembers rummaging through Sacramento record stores looking for Public Enemy cassettes, and bought Tom Petty tickets at the Tower Records flagship on Watt and El Camino Avenues. But it wasn’t until 2006, the year Tower Records filed for bankruptcy, that Hanks learned of the story behind the record store that inspired his film.
Hanks had dinner a family friend, who had walked passed the Tower store on her way there. She remarked to Hanks how sad it all was that it was closing, and it was amazing to think that it started in a drug store.
“What?” Hanks exclaimed, retelling the story for me. “I hadn’t known that! She explained how Russell Solomon started selling used records out of the back of his father’s drug store, and a light bulb went off. If something starts like that and ends like it was ending, I thought, That’s an interesting journey for one dude to go through. That sounds like a documentary.”
Though All Things Must Pass is his first feature, Hanks has made a series of short promo documentaries for Los Angeles radio station KCRW, as well as shorts in ESPN’s 30 for 30 series. “The majority of the time, real stories are much more interesting,” Hanks says. “I also think real stories are more attainable, a bit easier to do. It’s easier to go off and shoot a documentary then it is to make a feature film.” He pauses and thinks for a second. “Which is really a stupid statement to make, because even making a documentary is not easy.”
He knows that firsthand. When Hanks and his producing partner Sean Stuart began searching for funding in 2008, they were (politely) laughed out of the room. Wall Street was going belly up, the auto industry was going down in flames, “maybe the whole world was about to go bankrupt,” Hanks teases, half-seriously. “And we wanted to do a documentary about a record store that had gone bankrupt in 2006.” Hanks can understand why everyone felt those other stories were bigger issues and more pressing at the time, plus there was the question of distribution.
“Where the hell [do] you watch a documentary?” he remembers asking himself back then. “You go to one of the four theaters in America that play documentaries? But as time went on, technology improved, camera equipment got better [and cheaper], and [fundraising platforms] like Kickstarter were created and Netflix and iTunes became [distribution] options, all of a sudden it wasn’t so crazy wanting to make a documentary.”
As he progressed in uncovering the story behind the story, talking to Solomon and getting introduced around to the other key characters from Tower, Hanks and his team began to realize that it wasn’t just about a company’s rise and demise, but more about a band of misfits who came together, formed a family and became successful beyond what any of them thought possible.
“They also had a fucking blast doing it,” Hanks offers. “Not only that, they worked for the company that so many hundreds of thousands of people were customers of and have their own connections to and memories from. Music is very personal in that regard. These people came together by fate, really, and the same interest in music. They spent their lives together and then had to fire each other. That’s a hard thing to wrap your head around.”
When I ask him if he sees any similarity in the transitions within the entertainment industry, he’s skeptical of my drawing a connection. “Obviously, the entertainment industry has been looking at the music industry for about a decade now and asking themselves how they can avoid that,” he says pensively. “They’re doing things differently though, like with Hulu or Netflix. That’s a big difference than what the music industry did. They just tried to shut [the technological advances] down, and didn’t embrace them at all, and that’s what really ended up hurting them.”