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Groove a Dream Come True for Filmmaker Greg Harrison
By Betsy Bannerman
Greg Harrison broke the sound barrier last year. The 31-year-old Noe Valley resident wrote and directed the smash hit Groove, a low-budget, independently produced film depicting one night in the life of the San Francisco rave scene, with all its pulsating music, colorful characters, and ecstatic partying and dancing.
The very first night Groove screened, in a world premiere at the Sundance 2000 Film Festival, representatives from four major Hollywood studios scrambled over themselves with offers to Harrison and co-producer Danielle Renfrew to buy the worldwide distribution rights. Sony Pictures Classics won, with a bid of $1.5 million. "That's pretty uncommon, if not almost impossible, for an indie film," Harrison says in a definite understatement. "We felt really lucky."
But as with most "overnight" success stories, Groove's instant celebrity was caused by more than just luck.
Harrison grew up in Michigan, and made his first movies in high school using his dad's video camera. He took off for Los Angeles soon after graduating from Michigan State University in 1991.
His first job in L.A. was as a writer and editor of "coming attractions." He then acted as assistant editor on such feature films as Six Degrees of Separation and The Perez Family. Finally, he worked as an editor of documentaries and music-based projects, including The Life and Times of Ricky Lee Jones, for Warner Brothers Records.
In 1994, Harrison decided to stretch his legs and take a break from L.A. "While editing got me into the film industry," he says, "it didn't get me any closer to directing, which was what I wanted to do all along."
He moved to the Bay Area and among other things inaugurated and played trumpet in an acoustical music trio called Combing Dolores (referring to a friend who had been desperately searching Noe Valley for housing). He also started going to raves, all-night dance parties held in clandestine locations around town, with music electronically programmed by deejays. He rented a room in a house on 28th Street known in rave circles as "the Blue Cube," for its small, boxy (and yes, blue) appearance. "I lived very simply," says Harrison. "I bought bulk foods at Rainbow Grocery, ate beans and rice, and scraped by for over a year, writing every day and trying to develop my voice."
Mostly he wrote in coffee shops--Martha's on Duncan and Church, and later at Spinelli's on Irving Street. It was at Spinelli's that he worked on the treatment for Groove.
"I would go to my 'office' every day," Harrison says, "and plug in my laptop. I figured eventually they'd notice I was buying just one cup of coffee and staying there for six hours." (Actually, they got a kick out of the situation and started supplying him with free coffee.)
He finished the first draft of Groove in 1997 and began looking for financing. He approached the producers he had met in L.A., but it became apparent that "although they all wanted to do a youth culture rave movie, they didn't want to do the movie I was interested in. They wanted to add a gun or a drug overdose. I just wanted to present the rave scene in an authentic light."
Groove does deal with drug use, sex, and a police bust--which basically come with the territory--but mainly it explores the personal relationships and experiences of the rave revelers during their long night of experimentation and techno-partying.
Trying to raise funds was, as Harrison remembers it, "extremely daunting." He was an artist, not an entrepreneur. Still, he and Renfrew managed to sell shares in their newly formed company, mostly to under-30 types in both the Internet and rave communities. He made his investors limited partners, with no creative say in how the film was made. Most people invested money, though some donated office space and equipment in return for profit participation.
Despite being novices at going after venture capital, the two partners managed to raise what turned out to be the budget for the movie--$200,000--in a year's time. (P.S. The investors later realized a profit of about 43 percent before the film even hit theaters.)
With the money in place, casting was carried out in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The young performers, including Lola Glaudini (NYPD Blue), Rachel True (The Craft), Denny Kirkwood (Never Been Kissed), and newcomers MacKenzie Forgens and Hamish Linklater have received uniformly good reviews. Extras were pulled right out of the local rave milieu and were paid in pizza. The internationally famous deejays--Wish FM, John Digweed, Polywog--all played themselves.
Making Groove in AugustSeptember of 1999 was a well-planned, tightly scheduled adventure. Main photography was completed in just 24 days. "In general, independent filmmaking is like a war," Harrison maintains, "and 24 days doesn't afford you a lot of leisure time." All the scenes were storyboarded ahead of time, and shots were executed as quickly as possible, often in one or two takes--not easy when most of the cast were not professional actors.
Remarkably, there were few logistical problems during shooting. But one incident happened a mere two days before production began: Almost the entire wardrobe for the 20-person cast was stolen from the warehouse set (Pier One at Fort Mason). Ironically, as Harrison was telling two of his cast members that rehearsals would have to be postponed because of the theft, they informed him they'd just been offered clothing for sale--including some of their own costumes for the film!-- in the Haight-Ashbury District. Police quickly recovered the missing wardrobe from the used clothing stores and got the names and addresses of the thieves as well.
On the second day of shooting, what Harrison describes as "a very San Francisco event" occurred. An earthquake shook the building, shutting down production for half a day. Ever the filmmaker, Harrison laughs, "I was half hoping the camera was rolling at the time. But unfortunately we were between takes."
Besides Pier One, his crew shot on Fillmore Street, China Basin, and for four hours on the Bay Bridge. They also captured a slice of Noe Valley.
"I really wanted somebody in the film to be from Noe Valley," says Harrison, so he created two characters who would get lost trying to find the rave site. The exterior of their apartment was shot near Chloe's Cafe, at the corner of 26th and Church streets.
In addition to the staged scenes, Harrison and cinematographer Matthew Irving did some guerrilla-style shooting on their own. One night they grabbed a shot of a partygoer on the Muni underground carrying a huge, mirrored disco ball.
"Going to raves is a very urban experience," says Harrison, "and there's a certain color palette, which I've noticed when sneaking around the city at night, that comes from the sodium vapor streetlights." All the night exteriors were lit with gelled lights that simulated the warm, orangeish glow of the streetlights.
Harrison and Irving also agreed on a camera style, which starts out static and well framed, then as the night continues and the excitement increases, the super-16mm, hand-held camera moves in and out of the dancers. The camera is next set on a moving dolly, so that it floats around the scene, then goes onto a crane above the crowd, and in the final sequence, "breaks through a time barrier where everything goes into slow motion." This progression was intended to demonstrate both the intense energy of the music and dancing and its calm elegance as well; Harrison describes it as "an odd grace amidst the chaos."
When the party ends and the sun comes up, everything changes, including the characters themselves.
"Often when you leave a rave, you feel like you're entering back into reality," notes Harrison. "We wanted the morning-after scenes to have a real clarity and a kind of normalcy in the visual style."
Postproduction for Groove took place in L.A., at the studios of one of the film's investors. Harrison edited for only 21/2 weeks ("an insane schedule!"), but the rough-cut was accepted into Sundance. Then, he had just six weeks to finalize production.
Richard Hyms, who won an Oscar for sound editing on Saving Private Ryan and Jurassic Park, was hired on as sound consultant. Wade Hampton's S.F.-based recording label Domestic Recordings supervised the soundtrack. The film was blown up to 35 mm and arrived in Park City, Utah, a scant three days before its first scheduled screening.
The audience reaction on the three days the film was shown at Sundance was loud and enthusiastic: "Through the roof," Harrison exults, "dancing in the aisles, standing ovations, and general Groove mania in the streets."
After its theatrical release, critics praised the film for capturing the underground rave community in the same way American Graffiti portrayed the end of the 1950s youth scene. "Unlike other films built around electronica song scores," the New York Times wrote, "Groove settles assuredly into a spartan look at the world of the rave." The S.F. Weekly applauded the movie's "thoroughly likable characters...occasionally beleaguered by self-doubt and bad party directions, but never by the slightest hint of meanness, stupidity, or violence."
A writer for the New Yorker observed the "blast of sheer happiness...movie audiences should bring their own glow sticks to wave joyously in the air."
Close to a year later, Harrison is still reeling from all the media frenzy. But thanks to the Sony sale, he and Renfrew are now ensconced in their new production offices, Map Point Pictures, in the South of Market area. They plan to produce commercials and music videos and are currently working on a film written by Garry Trudeau. Harrison describes the script as a story about "government-level, tax-funded, experimental disease research--which could not be more different than Groove."
He is often asked, especially on his web site (www.groovethemovie.com), if he plans a sequel to Groove, but he insists that it was a personal project which just worked out perfectly as a first film--"because I was writing about what I knew, and it was a way for me to process that experience and put it in perspective."
It is an astonishing feat. Groove has been shown in theaters all over the world, and has been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best Film under $500,000. The soundtrack has sold well, and the video rental market opened up last fall. (Go rent it, if you haven't already.)
Harrison characterizes the journey as "an amazing experience, a dream come true." But he swears, "We didn't have time to think about any of it, we were just trying to survive."
And survive they did.