“Hot Sugar’s Cold World” opens as all filmed character studies should, with its lead character in a room full of mirrors. In this case, the person at the center is Nick Koenig, better known to the masses as the musician and producer Hot Sugar, feeding a woman Pop Rocks to record the crackle they make as they trickle down her throat. It’s a performance in pursuit of something pure, as Hot Sugar creates an original beat from the sound and pointedly, something that can’t be replicated digitally, which ironically, as many things are in Koenig’s whirlwind life, is what makes him a darling of the Internet.
It makes sense then that director Adam Bhala Lough has the same aim in capturing Hot Sugar, albeit from a different angle. A departure from his previous nonfiction efforts “The Carter” and “The Motivation,” which both tirelessly followed Lil Wayne and a selection of skateboard prodigies such as Nyjah Huston and Ryan Sheckler, respectively, in their drive to be the best in their fields, Bhala Lough tails Koenig from the Catacombs of Paris to the back alleys of Los Angeles in search of sounds, but gets at the essence of the artist by initiating scenarios that illuminate his creative process.
Inviting a bedevilingly random group of guest stars that comes to include Neil Degrasse Tyson, Jim Jarmusch and Martin Starr (who joins Hot Sugar for that aforementioned LA fireworks that resembles a drug deal), the film unfolds as a series of vignettes that lightly profiles Koenig as a person – his relationship with a fellow musician Kitty Pryde and the fallout from when things go sour is a starting point. But it is far more interested in the place he’s carved out for himself as an artist, feeding off the ambient stir of curry bubbling in a pot at a friend’s house or the rumble of trucks from under an overpass to express what he’s feeling in the moment.
Given to wearing ironic Mickey Mouse sweaters and never feeling all that worldly despite his considerable travel, Koenig could be dismissed as a poseur, but “Hot Sugar’s Cold World” argues otherwise, finding gallantry in his quest to capture the exact sound of silence as if it will bring him a sense of peace. Whether or not he succeeds, the film cuts through the noise as an unexpectedly poignant portrait of an iconoclast that’s equally rebellious in form and as it makes its way into theaters and online after a premiere earlier this year at SXSW, Bhala Lough spoke about why he thinks the project was just meant to be, pushing the limits with the film’s sound and color and what keeps him going as a filmmaker.
How did this come about?
There was an amazing video that Nick made that became a bit of a calling card for the film where we could just send it to people who we wanted to get involved and say, “This is who Hot Sugar is.” Then in a couple minutes, you knew who he was and what his world was and that was the start of something. But when you spend this much time with a guy, it’s deeper than just making a movie. There must have been a reason for us to cross paths and create this piece of art together. In a way, it’s like a painting that we collaborated on, but stretched out over a couple years.
Since Nick was a film student himself, did he have ideas that you could incorporate on how he records things?
He has a multitude of ideas. Nick was never short on ideas and that really made the project just continue to move forward during slow times where I was personally in doubt that we’d even finish it. He did go to the same film school I did, but he was there 10 years after me, [so to answer your last question], maybe that was part of it. I recall him saying he saw “Bomb the System” while he was there, and he was really inspired by it. That was my first film, so definitely we initially connected on that and I remember from the very beginning [when] he told me he lived in the East Village and it turned out he lived a block away from my old apartment, I remember getting this feeling of immediate kinship. Here’s this young, idealistic incredibly creative artist living in the East Village, and just doing it, living the life as I had lived 10 years prior. I remember thinking, “Wow, its amazing there’s actually an artist who can live in the East Village.” That’s part of the reason why I left New York because I couldn’t afford it anymore. I remember being initially really intrigued by that.
How much of the film was just following Nick versus how much it was constructed? Because there are these interludes with famous friends throughout.
Quite a bit of it was following Nick, even the constructed parts. There were levels of construction I was really excited about, as I’d been through projects — “The Carter,” for example — where I was told that I had to be a fly on the wall. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I just had to sit there and blend into the background. With this, it was very much the opposite, and I’d recognize that early on, then really start to push toward experimentation with the documentary form, which Nick was totally down for. It started to blend more and more in through narrative. We’d be in LA together and I was like, let’s go to this cave in the desert that I had been to with my daughter a bunch of times, and see what happens. Then we’d go, and these magical things would happen that we didn’t even construct at all. We didn’t know that we would run into that opera singer — this weird guy in this cave just sitting there by himself just waiting for us to leave. He finally got fed up with us and said, “Look, I want you guys to leave because I want to scream.” We were like, “Well, shit can we record you screaming? Can we film that?”
There’s so many different levels of construction that its hard for me to even put my finger on it, but it was really exciting and unique because it was experimenting and I was finally starting to push myself to levels where I wasn’t feeling totally comfortable with what was happening. I didn’t know if it was going to be okay. Some of the people involved are still like a little bit freaked out and skeptical of what we did and if it was good or not. That was exciting to me, because I had just come off three films in a row where it was more of a pure verite and there wasn’t any opportunity to do things narratively speaking. It was thrilling but also scary.
What was it like to do sound design for this film?
That was a real pleasure. When you have a movie where you can actually do things fun with sound rather than just spend your time cleaning stuff up, it’s incredibly fulfilling and fun process. The basic direction of the sound design was from Nick and for me, [the job] was continuing to just push our sound designers April and Shawn to stop cleaning it up and keep pushing it into this experimental realm that Nick wanted to take it because he was going so far out there with the sound design and I loved it so much. Obviously, you can’t go too crazy experimental because it would be [imperceptible], but we tried to push it as far as possible, and I feel like if we had another year to work on it, it would’ve been even more amazing than it is now, but I’m really pleased with it.
The colors also seem to be an area you pushed to extremes.
Nick pretty much colored it with our colorist Charles V. Haine. Nick basically presented him and I with a set of stills how he wanted it to look, and it was extremely controversial. About half the people on my creative team loved it, the other half hated it. Ultimately, I just went for it because again, I just wanted to push everything out of my comfort zone and I think it was the best decision because I got a phone call from the distributor, like the [quality control] department freaking out. They were like, “Hey, we just got your file for the film, but the color’s all screwed up. Something happened.” I just laughed, and was like, “No, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.” I knew we’d done something right.
You’re able to convey internet culture in a visual way, which could be boring if not done right. Was it a challenge?
A lot of the “internet” in the film came from Nick’s Tumblr page, so it wasn’t so much that I made a decision like this is how we’re going to do it. It was more like we were pulling from his Tumblr page and the GIFs he creates to allow the viewer to see into his head, just in the same way the music is a perfect representation of what’s in his head. All that stuff that you see in the film is very much meant to put you in the mindset of Hot Sugar. It appears to be random and it might seem a little confusing, but it’s all extremely specific. None of the events in the film come from Nick. It was all entirely representative of Hot Sugar. [The internet visuals] are just another way of just layering in his world into the movie and to put you in his world even deeper.
Were you surprised the places that this wound up taking you, either physically or creatively?
I wasn’t surprised by that aspect of it because I knew who Nick was and as soon as I met him right away, I knew that this could go as wacky as we wanted it. There weren’t going to be any barriers or guard up creatively speaking — obviously there were personally in his life — but creatively as Lil Wayne says, there would be no ceilings. Which was different with Wayne. He boxed me into a specific set of rules, which in the end was the best thing for the film — it reminds me of that Lars von Trier movie “The Five Obstructions” where he’s challenging [his mentor Jorgen Leth] to do certain things. Sometimes you get super creative and the best stuff happens. I loved that about working on “The Carter.” It also made it easier where I could just shut up and be the guy in the corner with the camera.
But with Nick, it was also great. I think it’s just how you approach it as a filmmaker. When I was first starting out, I was really beating my head against the wall trying to do what I thought needed to be done, trying to get my idea of the film completed. It was a horrible way to work, and you end up just being stressed out, getting an ulcer and losing your hair. It was because of Wayne I was thrown into the situation and I switched my whole perspective where it was no longer about forcing my idea to happen, come hell or high water. It was just letting things happen and giving space for things to happen and room to breathe. At that point, I became so much happier as a filmmaker, and things started to work out much better for me and also for my films. That’s why what keeps me going and what makes me really inspired every single day is that each film allows the opportunity for that. You just have to recognize it as a filmmaker. Each film is a totally different approach in that regard and comes out different, but [they’re all] a great learning experience, and a real pleasure just to continue to make these projects.
“Hot Sugar’s Cold World” will have special screenings on November 20th-22nd at the Texas Theatre in Dallas, the Facets Cinematheque in Chicago and the Arena Cinema in Los Angeles. It is also now available online through VHX.