Lance Bangs is a filmmaker with an incredibly diverse body of work. He began his artistic career as a kid in New Jersey with a Super 8 camera and a cassette recorder. When Bangs was still a teenager, Michael Stipe asked him to create visuals for R.E.M. Soon he began documenting the burgeoning Athens, Ga. music scene, and his subjects expanded exponentially.
Over the last 20 years Bangs’ projects have taken him from rock clubs to comedy stages, from private celebrity enclaves to third world villages as countless notable artists and activists have entrusted him with telling their stories. He’s created music videos and documentary footage for a daunting list of indie rock luminaries, including Sonic Youth, Sleater-Kinney, Pavement and The White Stripes. He’s followed notable directors such as Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry as they tackle their films, and he launched a cultural phenomenon by capturing the masochistic stunts of Jackass.
Bangs’ recent projects have included the Maurice Sendak documentary Tell Them Anything You Want (with Spike Jonze), which was filmed over many successive visits to Sendak’s home in Connecticut, and The Lazarus Effect, which chronicles the radical improvements in health that antiretroviral medications have brought to AIDS patients in sub-Saharan Africa.
Bangs consistently manages to be at the forefront of culture while showing remarkable range, driven by a deep and genuine interest in the complexity of people striving to express themselves through art and life. No matter what he turns his camera on, Bangs’ work always feels intimate, honest and surprising.
HEATHER LARIMER: You’re often at the forefront of the zeitgeist. Do you think you’ve had a lucky career, full of right-place-at-the-right-time moments, or do you create those moments yourself?
LANCE BANGS: I’ve made a lot of those moments happen. I have a very strong ability to run around and go to different places and insert myself. I didn’t grow up in one place—I was in a military family that relocated all the time—and once I started being able to drive as a teenager, there was this freedom. Like, if there’s a Sun Ra and Sonic Youth show happening this weekend in Trenton, New Jersey, then that’s where you should be. Or if there’s an art opening in New York, then just be there for it. That’s still a big part of how my brain works. If there is something interesting happening or bubbling up in some part of the country, then I think you should find a reason or excuse to go check out those bands or whatever seems interesting and worth documenting.
HL: You’ve created such a varied body of work. How do you explain that range?
LB: It’s mostly me wanting to go put myself into the places that seem the most interesting. Getting to know the people and getting a sense of what’s actually going on emotionally, and then reflecting that in a way that is interesting to other people. Going off to shoot portraits of people, showing the changes in AIDS treatment in Africa, or repeatedly going to upstate Connecticut to spend time with Maurice Sendak. Once you meet someone like that and realize that they’re in this isolated existence, you want to get there and film that and show it to people so that it exists and doesn’t disappear.
HL: So you choose your subjects intuitively, rather than logically?
LB: I am traveling to whatever at that time is catching my interest or feeling exciting. And sometimes it’s things that aren’t my own aesthetic or taste, but just things that are clearly going to be interesting or weird. For instance, I’m not from the tough guy, cool dude, extreme sports background like those guys in Jackass, but I realized that Johnny Knoxville is a very charismatic, complicated, funny person, and that it was going to be interesting to shoot whatever mayhem was happening around him. And then that turned into the footage for all the “Jackass” stuff. Even though I wasn’t someone chugging Mountain Dew or whatever, I realized that the way that I would film it and make it personal or relatable or human could help it to work as footage.
HL: It seems like you were destined to be an artist, but that you could have ended up working in a totally different medium. Why did you choose a camera?
LB: I clutched onto a Super 8 camera when I was having a hard time in my youth. The easiest thing at that time to shoplift from drugstores was Super 8 film. That [Super 8 film], and a cassette tape recorder to talk about whatever you’re going through—those were the easiest outlets to prove that you existed and to make dispatches with.That work was the thing that Michael from R.E.M. saw when I was still a teenager. He recognized something in me and started bringing me down to Athens to shoot stuff and make visuals to go along with R.E.M. projects. And then other bands that respected them, or would pass through Athens, would see that and start having me go on the road to shoot footage and tag along. I never went to film school or worked on sets or was a P.A. or anything. If it hadn’t been film, I would still be making things or working with creative people.
HL: The list of bands you’ve worked with is like a pedigree of indie credibility. Do you think you have a special radar for artists?
LB: I feel like the musicians that I respond to the most are ones that over the course of time people tend to solidify their opinion around as well. There are very few things in the archive of what I’ve done that I would not still listen to. Regardless, I still feel like when I get excited about music now, people around me don’t pay attention. I still have a hard time explaining why I like certain things. And then, later, people are like “Oh, that Jay Reatard record was good.”
HL: Over the span of your career, you shifted your interest a bit from music to comedy. Does comedy have some of the excitement right now that belonged to the music scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s?
LB: In the mid- to late-‘90s when the music scene was in a bit of a lull—outside of Sleater Kinney, which I was really excited about—I was going to a lot of weird small comedy events in LA that David Cross and Patton Oswalt and Janeane Garofalo were making appearances at. I was hanging out and shooting footage. And back then it was hard for me to explain to anybody that this guy Zach Galifianakis was really interesting, like, “Don’t let the beard throw you off, the last name is difficult…” And then everyone was like, “Oh yeah, that’s that guy you were trying to get me to watch the tape of!”
HL: What’s your current work in comedy?
LB: I’ve been directing a lot of weird comedy stuff lately. I just co-directed this shot-for-shot recreation of Simon & Simon with Adam Scott and Jon Hamm. It was crazy. Really meticulous, like closing down bridges and hanging out of helicopters type stuff. And I’ve directed a lot of stand up comedy specials. I’m executive producing some TV shows for Adult Swim, and I’m going to do a talk show with John Hodgman at the Chateau Marmont.
HL: Do you have a longstanding project that confounds you or seems just out of your reach?
LB: I have a personal film I’ve been assembling footage for and tape recording from when I was very young, trying to make it coherent and watchable. I’ve been piecing this thing out of scraps of film from my youth. I’m getting pretty close to being able to start showing that around.
HL: How did you get to Portland?
LB: It was probably 1992 that I first came to visit. I got to tour with Lollapalooza in 1993 and had a pretty miserable experience with the first couple of shows. I was completely disillusioned because I had come from this sheltered indie culture in Athens that was very ethical and moralistic. But then we got to Portland and it was suddenly this band Hazel who were local and it was like, “Ok now these are the people I relate to, writing stuff that’s genuine to them.” They were talking about how great their scene in Portland was—the bookstores and the people and the characters floating around here. So I started leaving Athens to visit them and just check out the city. That was also around the time that Gus Van Sant was making his films. So I befriended him and would come visit while he was doing stuff. I’d just explore Portland and it seemed like this great, really inexpensive place that had a mix of drifters and transients, and a working class kind of sensibility to it. And I started going back in forth in this weird, tilted-axis version of bicoastalism.
HL: What’s a recent moment when you thought, “I can’t believe I get to do this for a living?”
LB: Paul McCartney was spending a week in Los Angeles prior to the Grammys this year, figuring out what to do at the Grammys and getting his star on the Walk of Fame. And he brought me down to spend the week documenting all of that for his archive.At the rehearsal for the Grammys, he was trying to talk Bruce Springsteen into playing with him, doing the end of Abbey Road to close the show. It was this last minute thing during rehearsal. We’re all standing around as Nicki Minaj is rehearsing some giant thing with an exorcism, pyrotechnics, people flying around, dancers. And Bruce Springsteen is watching this absurd spectacle. He looks at me and says, “Man, I’m so glad I don’t have to think this kind of shit up. How do you even begin? I’m so glad I just play guitar.” In that moment I was like, “How did I end up here?”