When Demian Fenton and Don Argott were nearing the end of their arduous four-year shoot for their latest film “Last Days Here,” they realized they had one small problem.
“What’s really funny about the opening title sequence is we had everything paced out with temp credits in there…” said Fenton. “And we didn’t have enough credits to fill it.”
It isn’t as though the Philadelphia-based filmmakers ordinarily employ such a large crew, but to capture the story of Bobby Liebling, the lead singer of the influential doom metal band Pentagram, Fenton and Argott, along with producer Sheena Joyce, would have to have the kind of patience that few can afford. In between the productions of “The Art of the Steal,” their startling 2009 film about the dismantling of the Barnes Foundation art collection, and the recent Sundance premiere “The Atomic States of America,” Argott and Fenton would spend their off-hours trudging to Maryland to visit the ailing 50-something rocker at his parents’ house where he was being fed Fig Newtons by his mother and urged on by super-fan Sean “Pellet” Pelletier to get the band back together.
Pelletier’s quest to restore Liebling to his rightful place in rock history gives “Last Days Here” a traditional narrative arc, but after drugs and a mercurial temper have left Liebling a shell of his former self, it could hardly be described as predictable. While Fenton and Argott reap the benefits of this as filmmakers, they also had to cling onto their cameras as Liebling’s life goes through some incredible twists and turns on his road to recovery. Needless to say, they survived to tell the tale, yet as they explained when I sat down to speak with them recently, it wasn’t easy.
How did you guys meet and was it was movies or music first that sparked the collaboration?
Don Argott: In a weird way, kind of both. I started making “Rock School” on my own in 2003 and I was shooting Paul [Green] at his school for probably a couple months. One night, I remember Paul came to me and said, “Hey, there’s a guy that approached me the other day about making a documentary and I told him that he was too late because you were already doing it. But I got his number, you might want to talk to him.”
I was just doing this as a total passion project on my own with the idea that I was going to shoot it and edit it myself and Demian, I think I called you, right? I remember the meeting because he came in one late night at my office and we just met and instantly started talking about metal and music growing up. I think from that point forward, we haven’t really stopped and looked back.
Demian Fenton: Plus, we were both willing to work for free. [laughs] But if you share a goofy metal bond with somebody, those are strong ties.
Even hardcore metal fans might not know who Pentagram was. How did you first discover them?
DF: We both love old ‘70s rock. We actually play in like a ‘70s rock-inspired band together, which is funny, so once you start digging into those old obscure ‘70s records, you always run into Pentagram. Some friends of mine who are in a band that was passing through had played me some old Pentagram stuff way back in the day and then as soon as those Relapse re-releases of the old stuff came out, I was totally aware of it. When you hear Pentagram and then you also start to do a little research, you start to hear the tales of Bobby Liebling, that he died on stage and was revived and that he lives in his parents’ basement and he’s always kind of this looming, wacky character in the underground. I had always heard those rumblings and when I met Pellet and knew he was a conduit to Bobby, it seemed like something to try to start sniffing around.
Even with the due diligence, what kept you there with Bobby? From the initial moments in the film, things are so grim, I imagine you might’ve thought about turning back.
DF: The footage you see in the beginning is from our first day of shooting and we left and had a long discussion on the way home about how we thought there was probably no film here. We certainly didn’t want to document some guy destroying himself in his parents’ basement. There were a couple things that propelled the project forward. One was even that first day, when Bobby started talking about music and he started playing tunes for us and he started playing air guitar and his eyes started getting big, we saw life in there. Then we realized that Pellet was just so driven and he had such goals for Bobby that we started to realize slowly a little bit that it was his story as well and we kind of were sitting on a “Searching for Bobby Fisher” and less of a “Anvil- type movie.
Was it any different for you to make something that was so concentrated on one person?
DA: The films we’re really attracted to are these very character-driven pieces. One of my all-time favorite docs is “American Movie.” That film just opened up my eyes to what documentaries could be and that they could be funny and heartwarming and all the things that fiction films could be, so those are the films that we gravitate towards. I think “Rock School” was the first of all our sensibilities coming together.
“American Movie” actually is an interesting touchstone for “Last Days Here” in terms of the feeling that it’s against all odds and even having a lighter tone at times. Again, you couldn’t have known at first it had that potential.
DF: Once we started envisioning Pellet actually in the camera, we knew he would provide certain functions and one of those things was he would add humor to it. We had cuts of the first act that were devastating and tough to watch. And I don’t think that was true to the situation because Pellet and Bobby would joke around. It seems odd to even comprehend how that could happen when you first see Bobby and he’s at death’s door, but part of that goofiness and humor and love for music …Pellet says he sees this fire in Bobby and even on the first day, we could see that fire as well. So we had always hoped, again, that we had lighter moments in the film, but we didn’t know.
Was it scary not knowing what was going to happen? Ordinarily, that’s probably part of the excitement.
DA: I wouldn’t say it was scary because unlike some of our other films, [there were no] investors and people involved that have a stake in it. This was really us, this was our company basically saying we’re going to stick with this thing and we’re going to make this thing without anybody’s involvement and do it on our own. That freed us up a little bit to not have any fears or concerns that somehow we were wasting people’s money or time. It was really just our time, which of course is valuable, I guess. [laughs] But we don’t look at it that way.
At the end of the day, whatever was going to happen was going to happen and hopefully it would turn out into something that was really cool. Because we were able to take our time and we didn’t have the pressure of getting it done for anyone other than ourselves, I think that really helped make it the film that it is.
DF: That being said, on that level, it wasn’t scary because there wasn’t a lot of pressure. The only pressure came from us internally. But there were certainly scary moments when my cell phone would ring and I wasn’t sure whether Bobby was dead or alive.
Demian, it was telling at the premiere at SXSW when you said, “You can feel the fatigue in the film.” I must imagine this felt different as it weighed on you emotionally and over such a long period of time.
DF: There were definitely moments of fatigue, not related to filmmaking in this film. The line between friend and filmmaker and therapist and babysitter and whatever else, it gets all blurry. So the moments of fatigue in this film weren’t actually from the filmmaking process, but from [when] by eight in the morning, I’d have three calls from Bobby’s mom, who was terrified because Bobby was lost somewhere in Philly. Certainly, I wanted to make sure everything was alright and I couldn’t just ignore that stuff. We were spending a ton of time with these guys, so we felt the same type of fatigue that someone living in an addict’s world would feel. We [also] want the viewer to feel a bit of fatigue, but we don’t want them to check out of the movie.
There are a few moments where you’re onscreen as well, or at least your offscreen presence is alluded to. Was it ever a consideration that you were involving yourself in this story?
DF: It was never anything I considered, but it was not something I’m afraid of. I love movies like “Sherman’s March.” I don’t mind when that wall comes down and I think to be true to this story and realize how immersed we all became in it, that helps. The voicemails from Bobby’s mom, there was a moment when I realized this is part of this. My voicemail became this modern day confession booth.
DA: I think all that lends a kind of another layer of intimacy where in the other films maybe not so much. There’s that to an extent in “Rock School,” that people become self-aware that the camera’s there and listen, it’s 2012. People know when there’s a fucking camera on them, no matter what. People are savvy to that. When you do hear Demian’s voice asking questions or specifically that whole crack contract [where he and Pellet deal with Liebling to give up his record collection if he uses again], which is a really a heartwarming scene in the film, it gives you another clue into like how close we are in this subject, that we’re not this far removed force in Bobby’s life, but we’re actually in there with him.
Before I go, I had to ask if you’ve been keeping up with the Barnes Foundation since finishing “Art of the Steal.” The tortured saga of the Barnes Foundation doesn’t seem to be going away, so I’m wondering if you’ve considered a follow-up?
DA: Not at the moment. We feel like we told the story that needed to be told and the new building’s up — the new Barnes Foundation. It’s a hideous looking building on Parkway. [laughs] Regardless if I agreed with what was going in there or not, it’s a hideous looking building. But I think we feel like we closed a chapter on that whole story and we like to move on. We’re not going to make “Art of the Steal 3.”
DF: That’s when they have to move all the art back to the Barnes.