Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lord Battle's Interview with Jonathan Yi, Co-Director of Mad Tiger

Drumachine has been an active member of the Chip-tune community here in SF for as long as it's existed. His band Crash Faster used to contact acts all across the state (Disasterpeace, Fartbarf, etc) and have them come out and play at 8-Bit SF, which at the time was the mecca for a thriving underground scene. Well Drumachine's partner in crime Morgan Tucker, knew of this crazy punk band from NY and just had to make their first appearance in SF be apart of 8-Bit SF. Long story short, PeeLander-Z ended up playing several times in the bay and always to a packed DNA Lounge.   

San Francisco may be caught in the undertow of this current wave of gentrification, but if you look hard enough you can always something cool going on that's both cheap and amazing. We try our best to spread the word about these events on the Overlook and if you follow us regularly you may recall the week I'm referring to. The Residents and PeeLander-Z both had a documentary screening and show booked here in SF within the same week. Originally I was going to attend all four shows and write about how both bands are Avant-Garde pioneers and a punk vs art rock, Regency Ballroom vs DNA Lounge thing but the Residents doc was a totally puff piece VH1 propaganda film, whereas PeeLander-Z was an in-depth look behind the costumes with multiple privileged moments and a skillfully edited narrative. So instead of doing a one-sided comparison, I decided to reach out to the man who brought to life the amazing doc Mad Tiger, Jonathan Yi!

LordBattle: To start off, why don't you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into film.

Jon Yi: I spent my teenage years in the San Francisco Bay Area playing in a punk band and being obsessed with the local music scene. I ran a small record label when people still paid for music. My life changed when I transferred to Palo Alto High School and I had teachers who took an interest in me for the first time. They opened my eyes to other opportunities for my future. There was a video production class at that high school (which was very luxurious) and my teacher, Ron Williamson, submitted the work to some film festivals and picked up some awards. That eventually opened the door for me to attend NYU Film School. At NYU I initially thought I would work in the sound department, but I fell in love with cinematography when I shot my first roll of 16mm black and white film. I was a cinematographer throughout college but got a job as an editor when I graduated. I then left editing and worked at an ad agency where I ended up directing a lot of the spots I wanted to shoot. When I left the agency world, I continued to direct and shoot my own stuff, including some Peelander-Z music videos. I began directing documentaries for HBO in 2009. Since then I’ve split my time directing commercials and documentaries.

LordBattle: What are some of your favorite documentarians/documentaries?

Jon: American Movie and Anvil are my two favorite documentaries. I saw Anvil seven times in the theater, met the band, and probably freaked out the director, Sasha Gervasi.

LordBattle: How did you come to learn of Peelander Z?

Jon: My NYU classmate, Kenji Hayasaki, introduced me to Peelander-Z because he knew I loved punk rock. He took me to one of their shows and I was blown away by their performance.

LordBattle: How long did you know the band before shooting Mad Tiger and did you see this film playing out in any particular style (i.e. Cinema Verite, Direct Cinema).

Jon: I met Peelander-Z in 2008, right when Green stepped in and Blue stepped out. I began directing music videos for them a year later. In my mind, Peelander-Z was always Yellow, Red, Green, and Pink. That was my classic lineup. So when Red announced that he was leaving the group, I wanted to capture his final days in the band. Stories of big life changes are always very interesting to me. I left music behind abruptly as a teenager, so I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like to make that same transition later in life. Since we began shooting Mad Tiger in 2012, camera technology had gotten to the point where you can shoot a beautiful verite documentary with very minimal tools. It was our goal to show an active story rather than tell a story that had already happened in the past. But once we began shooting, our amazing editor, Hisayo Kushida, urged us to move our focus from Red to Yellow. She watched our footage as it was coming in every day and could tell that Yellow was going through a much bigger life change than even Red was. If not for her objective eye, the film would have turned out very differently.

LordBattle: How did you propose making a documentary about Peelander Z to a man like Yellow?

Jon: Since Yellow had worked with me before on music videos, he was surprisingly open to the idea of doing a documentary together. But it definitely took some time for him to realize the scope of what we were asking of him. Since Peelander-Z is famously secretive about their personal lives, it was a big adjustment for him and the band to be open and honest about their lives as human beings. It took several conversations to communicate what our goals were with the film and to get on the same page. Some of those conversations even made it into the edit. We included those to illustrate how difficult it was for Yellow to separate fantasy from reality.

LordBattle: Did Yellow get on board right away with the project? If not, what made him eventually come around?

Jon: Yellow is a professional. We respect the hell out of him as a performer and artist. In the same way, he too respects other artists. He granted us that respect as filmmakers so that we could tell his story. 

LordBattle: How big of a crew did you have while filming and what did they operate while filming?

Jon: For most of the film it was just me and my co-director, Michael Haertlein, running cameras and sound. For Red’s final show, we had two more camera operators (4 cameras total), an additional sound person, and a camera assistant. For Purple’s first show, we brought one additional camera operator (3 cameras total).

LordBattle: A documentary featuring Peelander Z could have easily felt exploitative or like pandering. What conscious decisions did you make to avoid these outcomes? Or did you simply discover your story early on?

Jon: These decisions are made in the edit room. For example, when Yellow and Red suddenly had a big fight, we had to include that scene in the film because it spawned a chain of events that followed. But at the same time, we included Yellow demanding that we not use that footage in the film. We included that demand because it illustrated that Yellow immediately showed remorse for his actions and was actively trying not to be that kind of person. I believe that everyone struggles with keeping their emotions in check, especially around those they’re closest to, and including these moments helps us relate to Yellow’s struggles. Becoming Yellow was his attempt to transcend those human weaknesses.

LordBattle: Marriage seemed to be the reason a couple members ended up leaving the band. This seemed to make Yellow bitter, since we learn that he is actually married to Pink. Do you think Yellow understood the need for a life separated from the band or did marriage ultimately seem like a poor excuse to him?

Jon: I don’t think any reason for leaving the band could have eased the pain for Yellow. Peelander-Z is his creation. To have your friends and collaborators move on from that for any reason would be a tough pill to swallow.

LordBattle: Part of the reason Mad Tiger works so well is it seemed like you caught a ton of "privileged moments", was this because the whole project was gold and everything just worked or did you dig down in the trenches and fight for every shot?

Jon: We filmed relentlessly and tried to anticipate as much as we could. Some days nothing would happen and some days were action packed. For example, we knew that the first day Purple arrived from Japan would be worth filming non-stop. But yes, we fought for a lot of it. We even included a scene where we were kicked out of the room for a very high stress meeting. Having the sound from that moment ends up being a crucial point in the film. We were lucky that Hisayo, our editor, listened to hours of nonsense and found that gem in the conversation.

LordBattle: How did the band and Yellow in particular react to seeing the finished product?

Jon: I gave Yellow a DVD to watch at his leisure. Days passed and then I awoke to a very serious sounding voicemail from him that simply said: “Jon. I watched the movie. I liked it.” Red also got a DVD and he texted me saying he loved it and would love to make “Mad Tiger 2” in 10 or 20 years.

LordBattle: Has Yellow returned to painting in any form?

Jon: Yes, he’s been painting a lot of murals all around the USA. He also has a lot of new art for sale at

LordBattle: You and Michael Haertlein recently accompanied a screening of your film in San Francisco. You also brought with you a picture disc featuring the amazing cover art used for Mad Tiger, exactly what a collector/fan would want. Are you yourself a vinyl collector?

Jon: Michael and I are both lifelong record collectors. We love vinyl. As a teenager I ran an independent record label, so I never stopped collecting. In fact, when I moved to NYC I only brought clothes, a guitar, and records. I’ve since sold that guitar and don’t wear those clothes, but I still have my records. I think Michael has even more records than I do though. His apartment is larger than mine.

LordBattle: What are some projects you have coming up? Please feel free to promote anything and everything.

Jon: I just directed the All That reunion for Nickelodeon. I also have another documentary I Executive Produced and shot called Goodnight Brooklyn - The Story of Death By Audio which we’re trying to get out into the world. (Read more about it here

You can find out more about Jon's projects by visiting his site 

-Lord Battle

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