Pras Michel in "Sweet Micky for President"

Slamdance ’15 Interview: Karyn Rachtman on Joining the Campaign for “Sweet Micky for President”

As there is in nearly every film Karyn Rachtman has been associated with, there is a perfect needle drop in “Sweet Micky for President” to introduce Michel Martelly, the highly unlikely candidate who sought the top office in Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake that devastated the country. Clad in tight-fitting women’s clothing when he’s first introduced, the man who could only be called a serious candidate for president by virtue of bringing the millions of fans of his socially conscious compas music to the polls struts into the film to the score of Linda Lyndell’s “What a Man.”

“When you get to that shot of Martelly, I wanted something that said ‘He’s the man,’ and I was just thinking what’s a funny song that we can put there?” says Rachtman, who rose to fame for her eclectic and provocative work as a music supervisor on such films as “Clueless,” “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” “We did think about using the Salt-N-Pepa version, but it was too expensive, so we got the original version, which I think is very cool”

Rachtman didn’t only serve as the music supervisor on “Sweet Micky,” but for the first time was a full-fledged producer and after seeing the wildly entertaining and utterly improbable story of Martelly’s rise to power, it isn’t hard to believe she’s the only person who could pull such a film together. Having once assembled the likes of Beck, Patti Smith, B Real and Iggy Pop to sing on the soundtrack for “The Rugrats Movie,” she was the ideal person to work with director Ben Patterson to make sense of the unbelievable footage he shot as he accompanied former Fugee Pras Michel on a quest to turn Martelly into a credible politician in a country that still suffers from political oppression in spite of running their third president election.

At once a rollicking comedy and an unconventional, insightful look at the role international intervention can have on democracy in third world countries as Michel raises both financing and awareness of Martelly largely from his home in New York, “Sweet Micky for President” has even more drama than a full Fugees reunion when Michel’s former bandmate Wyclef Jean announces his own presidential candidacy, leading to a showdown between the two that needs to be seen to be believed. Then again, it’s just one of many astonishing things in the film, which energetically chronicles a race filled with one twist after another.

Befitting of the topsy-turvy nature of the production, it’s only in the high altitude of Park City, Utah that Rachtman has been able to catch her breath after an audience lost theirs at “Sweet Micky”’s Slamdance premiere this past weekend and basking in the warm reception, she took the time to speak about stepping into the production midway through its four-year gestation, traveling to Haiti and where she’s been in recent years and where she’s going.

Pras Michel and Michel Martelly in "Sweet Micky for President"How did you get involved in this?

Pras Michel and I worked together on “Ghetto Superstar” for the “Bulworth” soundtrack and it was so fascinating because “Ghetto Superstar” was an uphill battle. Warren Beatty asked me to put together a hardcore hip-hop soundtrack. He wanted the gangster style and I had the Wu-Tang Clan, I had Ice Cube, Canibus…I had everybody. Then at the end, Warren said, “Well, where’s the song for my people? My people aren’t gonna listen to this,” and I was like, “What? You asked me to do a gangster hip-hop soundtrack.”

So I met Pras at the studio where he was hanging out with Clef, who was producing the Canibus track, and I told him about this problem and Pras told me he had this idea of using the melody from “Islands in the Stream” that Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers [sang], and from there, he wrote these brilliant political lyrics that included the hook, “Ghetto Superstar, that is what I am,” and I said, “Pras, all the lyrics are perfect for the movie. The only thing you need to change is you need to say, ‘Ghetto Superstar, that is what you are’ and you need to call Warren Beatty and tell him that he’s the ‘Ghetto Superstar.’” He did that and Warren loved it. “Ghetto Superstar” was actually the second single [off the album], but it was the big international hit and because Pras and I had that experience of really having to fight for what we believed in, we formed a really good friendship.

I consider Pras one of my best friends. We’ve always stayed in touch. Over two years ago, [Pras] called me about something else and we got talking and he reminded me of this doc he had been working on and I asked if I could see it. I saw a very rough cut of the movie. They didn’t have an ending per se, but I was like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this story and was blown away by the footage. I made it clear I wanted to be involved in this. I started off as an executive producer, but we realized they really needed somebody to produce the movie. None of the archival footage or music was cleared. They didn’t have a proper budget or schedule. They needed some help with the story. I had the connections, experience and new passion they needed to get this movie done. And I got along great with Ben [Patterson, the director] as well. We made a great team.

I assume you might’ve been the one to bring on Steve Oedekerk, the “Bruce Almighty” and “Nutty Professor” writer who’s credited as a mentor to the production, since you worked together on “Barnyard,” but he seems like an unusual person to turn to for a documentary. How did he come into the mix?

What we had in this movie was great, but it wasn’t complete yet. Ben Patterson is a fantastic first-time filmmaker and I believe we will all work together again, but he and Pras were on this movie for almost three to four years and I just felt like getting a new perspective on the structure on the story [was important], somebody who could really help us with the comedic timing because this movie’s story is hysterical. Who better than Steve Oedekerk? That’s why I called him and asked him to see it and he loved it. He just came on and he did a phenomenal job with helping us to recognize a few little things that we needed to pull away from the film and little things we needed to add in. They made a big difference.

Was most of the filming done before you got involved?

I was involved in quite a bit of the filming of Pras interviews because [while] a lot of the interviews were done as they were shooting the movie, we felt we needed some new info to help Pras clarify the story. We also shot the footage of Pras going back to Haiti to meet with the president, which only showed up in the very, very, very end of the movie. We figured it best to end with a triumph.

That is an interesting decision since so much happens after the election ends, which of course you acknowledge. Was it tricky to know when you wanted to stop?

It was very tricky and that’s why the cards [explaining recent events] were put in. I’ve gone to Haiti three or four times and shown the movie to pro-Martelly supporters and Martelly haters and honestly, it brings tears to my eyes to [see] how wonderful the response has been. They don’t have a problem with it whether they’re pro-Martelly or not. They’re proud that there are people out there making a movie where the Haitians are not portrayed as victims. They’re not being talked about [in terms of] cholera or HIV or as earthquake victims living in tents. They’re resilient and they’re very proud that the world is going to know their history. People here in the States are a little bit concerned like, “Is it a pro-Martelly movie?” But it’s really about Pras’ involvement in getting this guy elected and democracy [as a whole].

This is actually one of the few movies you’ve worked on in recent years. Did you make a conscious decision to step away?

Besides music supervising film, I did executive produce another movie called “Archie’s Final Project,” which won an award at Berlinale [in 2009] and I also had a line of children’s books and CDs. But like a lot of people in Hollywood, I fucked up and I finally put myself in rehab almost three years ago. I think I hit my bottom just as the music business was changing and I got an attitude, which comes along with being an addict. I didn’t do [another big movie] after “Barnyard.” It was a downward spiral where I got to a point where I finally went and got help.

Really, working on this movie and being sober has been such an amazing journey for me because before I cleaned up I really was isolated. Come to think of it, right when Pras started making this movie, he was reaching out to me and asking me questions. The way our relationship works is that if I would’ve said, “Pras, let me get involved,” then I would’ve been involved earlier on, but I was out of it, so I didn’t. When we got back together, I had the clarity to follow up and recognize that this was a great project. If you’re not going to be present for the things that are fantastic, you’re going to miss them. I probably missed a lot of good things that could’ve happened, but here I am now, really excited to be a part of this movie and be working with both Pras Michel and Ben Patterson.

I’m also working with HLN, CNN’s Headline News Network. Although they’re most famous right now for Nancy Grace and Dr. Drew, they’re doing a relaunch/rebrand where they’re going to be a significant network for the digital generation. They want music to be very relevant to the network, which I think is fascinating because that’s never been done.

Plus, you had so much success with HLN President Albie Hecht when he was running Nickelodeon [when “Rugrats” reigned supreme], right?

Yes! I’m over the moon to be working with Albie Hecht again. The things he’s doing there are groundbreaking. We’re going to do some exciting things with music and the news there.

So after all of this, how was the premiere?

Let me tell you something, I’m with Pras a lot in the streets and people are coming up and literally stopping us and telling us, “This is the best movie.” The audience buzz is phenomenal. It’s a special documentary and I’m so honored that Pras and Ben let me be a part of this project.

“Sweet Micky for President” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It plays once more at Slamdance on January 29th at 6:10 pm at the Treasure Mountain Inn.

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