Major Organ and the Adding Machine Pt. I: The Movie: Interview
Eric Harris: “It was the single project that had the most Elephant 6 participants ever. I’m proud of that.”
PART I: THE MOVIE
While it seems an unlikely place to start, the 25-minute short film Major Organ and the Adding Machine was a baffling event in and of itself, as nobody involved expected a movie to emerge from the music of that mysterious album. But, in chatting with director Eric Harris, who also drums for Elf Power, we discover the motivations behind the film and the origin of Major Organ himself.
As an idea, what came first: the film or the album?
The film. But the film never got made. It was sort of a great, unfinished project. So, the album came from the idea of making a film. But we just didn’t have the time or the technology back in the 90s to make it happen, and the album became a consolation prize. But I still think it was a good record. [laughs] But it really came from a desire in us to make a film.
What was your goal when you had begun this project?
Actually, it was 1997. The goal was just to get together and combine forces to do something really interesting visually. It was mainly [co-director/writer] Joey Foreman and myself. We were working with just dinosaur equipment at the time, and it just wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t have the money or the time to do it. Back then, you couldn’t just load a program on your computer and edit video easily. I’m sure there were people doing [it] then, but they had a hundred-thousand dollar budget, and we just didn’t have that. So we couldn’t do the things we wanted to do and were frustrated. We kept trying to figure out what format we wanted to do it on: We tried with video, and it was impossible to edit. It was just really hard.
The defining moment was when Joey, who has always been on top of technology and stuff, he gets Final Cut Pro on his computer, and we were like, “Okay! Now we can make a movie!” [laughs] Now it was possible. We just revisited it, and we actually started from scratch. But the idea was always there, for this to be a movie.
“I didn’t want to make a movie that people were like, ‘Ugh, it was just a bunch of surreal bullshit.’”
Well, even in the context of having that technology, it still took you three years to film this. Why the long production time?
It took three years because everybody was so busy. It took even longer for it to be completely finished. It was a frustrating process, but one that had to happen. Plus, working with Orange Twin to get it released, though in that case it was the most expensive package that they have ever put out: A DVD and a CD. They had to do it right, and they had to have the budget for it. Yet we didn’t want anyone else to do it. So, it’s finally coming out, what is it, a month from now?
Yeah, September 14.
Right. It seems like another lifetime ago when all of this began. It’s crazy like that. The kids [Sophie and Kiran Fernandes] are way older now, and it’s really strange. I’m sure it’s strange for them too, because when you’re a kid, a few years is really magnified. So when you look at something you did when you were 5 and now you’re 9, you tend to go “Oh God! How embarrassing!” [laughs] So they aren’t going to be that into it, but they’re wonderful and they were great in the movie. I hope they’re not mortified by the years since they made it.
Well, I mean the commentary they provided seemed to suggest they enjoyed it to a certain extent.
Ah, you listened to the whole thing. That’s amazing. They rambled. I just set them up in front of the movie, mic’d them, and just let them ramble. And I made them do it a few times. I did coach them just a little bit, saying stuff like “Maybe you could talk about this scene and what it was like when we did it.” But other than that, they were both such creative kids that I didn’t have to help them very much. They just came up with such hilarious stuff. I took a few passes at it, had them watch the scenes a couple of times, let them babble over the top, and then edit it. They’re great kids, they’re just so funny. And they will go on to do wonderful things because they are so creative. My prediction.
You attempted to implement a lot of tracks from the album, and this reissue basically does the reverse. Was it your intention that the film be somewhat an extension of the album?
Well, I guess we knew what we wanted some of the songs to do, and we knew what they were designed for. Some of the songs had lyrics that had a lot of the exposition in them. Other songs were just instrumental and fun, and we found places for them that maybe we would have never thought of when we recorded them.
As I said, the album was what was left when the film project collapsed. We decided it was good, and we all put a lot of work into it. We really had way, way more material than what we knew what to do with. So we took what we had, and I remember going over to of Montreal’s studio and taking all these hours of DAT tapes that people had contributed. There was an open call for everybody to contribute tracks. Thus, there were a lot of them. A lot of the tracks got passed around: It would start with, say, Will Hart, and then it got passed to Julian Koster or Kevin Barnes or any number of people who might have added lyrics or added some touch to it. It was this great game of “Pass the Tape.” We had a lot of material left over, and some of that material is getting put back into the expanded album.
So all the music was made for the movie. Now, in the end, it became an album project because we knew we weren’t going to do a movie. But the idea of the movie never went away, and when it came time to get to work on it, the music spoke a lot to what the movie was going to be. So it kind of went back and forth like that.
“It was a children’s movie because we wanted to do something that we knew was going to be a little bit silly and surreal. If we had made this an adult’s movie with a bunch of surreal stuff, and tried to be serious about it, and tried to be artsy about it, we would have fallen flat. “
As Kiran noted in the commentary, this film does not make much sense, though what the kids theorized actually shed a little light on things. Did you intend to really weave in a plot?
It’s supposed to leave you guessing to a point, and that’s totally intentional. We didn’t want a cut-and-dry story. We wanted people to think about it when they were done and say, “What was that about?” But on the other hand, we didn’t want it to be just a bunch of surreal images with no connection. So we were trying to walk that line. And we also wanted it to be for kids. Honest to God, it’s meant to be a kids’ movie.
The idea for the plot really came out of a lot of random lyrics that were in the album. The movie, if we had made it in the 90s, would have been a lot more surreal. It might have gained focus over the years, but we didn’t want a straightforward answer at the end of the movie. The motivation of the characters is supposed to be a bit obscure, and we don’t really know what’s going on in the movie either. But at the same time, it’s supposed to be a lot of fun, and we hope that you ponder it a little bit. Do you understand what I mean?
Yeah, I do. I was in film school. Once.
[laughs] Yeah, it’s a movie for the whole family to ponder together.
Now, watching this again, that was the first thing that sprung out to me: that it was a children’s film. Given that was your plan, why make it a children’s film?
It just made a lot of sense to us. There’s something magical when you’re a child, and seeing a movie. You could probably think of some movies that you saw when you were a kid that blew your mind. We wanted to capture that a little bit. We also just happen to have two fantastic kids to be in it who seem to be born for the part.
It was a children’s movie because we wanted to do something that we knew was going to be a little bit silly and surreal. If we had made this an adult’s movie with a bunch of surreal stuff, and tried to be serious about it, and tried to be artsy about it, we would have fallen flat. I don’t want to make that movie. I didn’t want to make a movie that people were like, “Ugh, it was just a bunch of surreal bullshit.”
But when you suddenly free yourself from that artiste pretense by saying, “It’s a children’s movie,” and you go on that tack, and you start thinking of it as a children’s movie, you realize that you can really conjure up some magic and be as absolutely absurd as you want to. I think that was very freeing. Originally, that’s really what I wanted to do, was to make a children’s movie. That’s just the way it came out. That’s where I’m going with that: If this was a movie for adults and it was serious, it would have not been nearly as fun to make or to watch. So, make it for kids, make it fun on purpose, make it as goofy as you want it to be, and throw in as much surrealism as you want, and it’s not going to have to stand on some ridiculous surrealist level of art. I mean, I hope it stands up on some way on that level, but at the same time, we wanted it to be a fun project and a fun movie.
I definitely see how you were trying to make it as goofy as possible, especially with that one bit involving the experimental film crew. The way you explained the movie then, their placement made sense.
Well, that was a fun scene, and that was the silliest scene in the movie, to the point where I was like, “Oh, do we really want to be that silly?” But I think it was a great scene, and we managed to squeeze a bunch of our friends [in] there. [laughs] We grabbed a bunch of people and told them, “Okay, we’re going to make you into a film crew. There’s a film crew that’s filming the movie being filmed!” It’s an old joke that’s been done before, but it was a lot of fun. We really did have a whole lot of fun making the movie.
It was a lot of work too. If you’ve ever been involved in a movie production, it’s extremely tedious. It’s a lot of standing around and trying to get things right and setting up lights and setting up cameras. It can be very boring for the people standing around waiting for something to happen, waiting to be in a part. Especially when those people are 5 or 7 years old, and it’s hard to keep them focused. Poor Kiran was 5, and it was definitely something where you had to catch him when he was ready to go. After a few hours of him waiting around for us to get the lights right, he was done. He didn’t want to be there anymore. [laughs] Of course, you couldn’t get mad at him because he’s 5 years old. But, generally speaking, I could take him aside and remind him that this is how movies are made, and if he wants to be in a movie, etc. He really wanted to be in the movie very badly, so he listened to reason. He’s going to be an amazing adult when he grows up. He’s already astonished everyone with his artistic skills. He’s going to be a real interesting kid. Sophie’s amazing too. I can’t say enough good things about the hours and hours they put in, and how good they were about it.
The movie took a long time to make; it was a lot of fun to do. The computer work at the end, which was all Joey… really, my role in the movie was that I was the director in the sense that I was the guy with the clipboard who told people where to stand, and what scene we were filming, and Joey was the guy behind the camera, setting up the shots. Then, when it was done filming, he did all the computer editing and special effects, and I did the soundtrack because we shot it silent. That took him hundreds of hours. He did a great job.
You noted making changes from the original plan, and one thing does stand out in that regard: The album references Francisco saving the children, i.e. “Francisco’s Victory.” But when Francisco comes to save the children in the film, turns out they didn’t need saving.
Yeah, he was kind of useless in the movie. [laughs] Andrew [Rieger of Elf Power, who plays Francisco], of course, contributed that song to the record. We had a loose rulebook about contributions to the album. For example, either take a character that somebody else came up with and run with it, or make up a new character, but stay with the theme. Well, he came up with something brand new there, introducing this character Francisco, and we just decided that the story he describes on the album is one of his other adventures. I suppose saving children is his stock and trade. But it didn’t go quite as well in this adventure, because the children are having quite a great time. They’re not even aware that they’re in need of saving. So he’s a bit of a comic character in the movie.
“We had a loose rulebook about contributions to the album. For example, either take a character that somebody else came up with and run with it, or make up a new character, but stay with the theme.”
Of all the casting and appearance, there’s one that is especially interesting: Kevin Barnes’ appearance as a Constable shortly before being beat up by the 8-Track Gorilla. What was the idea behind that?
There isn’t a grand idea. We had that scene sketched out, and we wanted the 8-Track Gorilla in there. Basically, we just asked Kevin, “Will you be in the scene where you’re attacked by the 8-Track Gorilla?” It just kind of came out of our imaginations one day writing scenes, and we went, “Well who can we call to be the Constable? Let’s call Kevin!” Kevin had a big role in the album, and we wanted him in there. A lot of people are in there as a cameo, and we didn’t want to exclude him. We wanted him in there somewhere, so we thought, “Well, he can do the Constable.” That’s the way it came around.
You put in quite a bit of references to Elephant 6 outside of the casting, such as Static the Talking TV. Did you intend to mark the film as part of Elephant 6’s lore?
Yeah. If there ever was a project that deserves that Logo, it’s this one. Everybody was involved. It was the single project that had the most Elephant 6 participants ever. I’m proud of that. We did something interesting, and it took a long time, but we did it.
This film was screened as part of the Elephant 6 Holiday Surprise Tour two years ago. How was the overall crowd reaction?
Most nights, the feedback was fantastic. We got huge reactions. I was really nervous about it, of course, but people seemed to laugh at the right times, and they enjoyed it very much. Of course, there were some nights where people were impatient to see the bands. You’re playing a rock club, and people weren’t expecting to have to sit and watch a movie. In a lot of environments, that doesn’t really work, especially in a club where people are there to socialize and you can’t expect them to shut up for half an hour, be attentive, and watch a movie. So, some nights went better than others. But in general, 75% of the time we got great reactions.
We sort of looked at it like the opening band for the Holiday Surprise Musical Show. We felt that, well, it’s shorter than most opening bands, but it’s always on time, and there isn’t much setup. It’s kind of great because we had the giant portable screen, and while the movie was showing, the band could be behind the screen getting ready. So it served a lot of purposes, and it worked really well. I’m sure there were a lot of people who were just impatient to see the music and weren’t really up for sitting still for half an hour watching a children’s movie, but for the people who enjoyed it, it was a grand success.
Did you enjoy working on the film? And did everyone else involved do so too?
I sure hope so. It was a long and arduous process, and you can try to warn people, “We’re gonna need you on this set for eight solid hours. You can’t leave, you can’t get out of your costume.” That’s a lot to ask for your friends. But they did it, and everybody was really really happy with it in the end. I am really glad that we did it. I sure hope that we get to do something like that again. Although, coordinating it… oh my God, it took so long, it might be another 20 years before we ever get around to it. But maybe we’ll make a sequel someday.
And then there will be people in the Ye Actuale Olde Folks Home.
Right, it’ll be us for sure. We’ll have real beards, and it’ll be filmed on location at my house.