With the recent cancellation of the remainder of their U.S. tour due to “vocal issues and exhaustion,” a move that could cost them a cool $ 15 million, it’s been quite an interesting week for the family band from Nashville, Tenn., Kings of Leon. It’s hard to say what’s really going on behind the scenes with the Followill boys these days, but with the upcoming release of their rock doc ‘Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon,’ we got a chance to speak with director and longtime friend of the band Stephen C. Mitchell to get his take on the whole ordeal and some insight into a band that most of us never get to see.
From having Kings of Leon as the stars of his first movie to what the boys are like when they’re out of the spotlight, go ahead and check out an exclusive clip from the movie along with our conversation that covered tons of ground about one of the best rockumentaries we’ve seen in a good long while.
Moviefone: So was film something you were always interested in? Because it’s such an extensive movie in terms of music as well, was that always something on your horizon?
Stephen C. Miller: Well, I say this kind of jokingly to people, but when I was a kid I liked trying to write books at a young age or putting up puppet shows for my cousins and telling people, “I’m gonna makes movies one day!” And you know, who knows what you’re saying when you’re that age, but when you go back to the root of it, it’s probably who you are and what you really want to do. I started in the music business actually — that’s where my background was coming out of college — and it was never really something I had planned to do, I just kind of stumbled into it, and the next thing you know, years and years go by. Then when the music business downsized, I thought, “Maybe this is the point in my life where if I’m ever gonna go for it, I’ve got to do it now.” So that’s when I kind of challenged myself to reinvent myself a bit.
And I always had fun filming the boys — the Kings of Leon — when I’d first met them, so that’s what really got the bug in me back in their mama’s garage with the old camcorder out. That’s what really stoked my fire I guess you could say.
Were there any rock docs or movies in general that you used for inspiration when putting this together?
Funny enough, [lead singer, Caleb Followill] and I sat and watched a lot of rock docs, every one that you know of or could think of or could mention in a list. We did it partly to see what was out there and to really understand what people had done in the past and then at the same time really challenge ourselves not to do what everyone else had done. And so a lot of that credit goes to Casey McGrath who produced the film for us and really challenged us to have a unique story design, be super raw with it, and not fall down the line of a typical rock doc, because what’s typical about Kings of Leon to start with?
Exactly, that’s a good way to put it. As far as your history with the band is concerned, this is an incredibly extensive movie in terms of their careers and their lives and capturing it all on camera, and it seemed like you were there from really early on at least. How much of it were you there to film yourself?
Just to give you a little historical background, when I had met [drummer, Nathan Followill] and Caleb first, I was living in Nashville, Tennessee and was working at a music publishing company and signed Nathan and Caleb to their initial songwriting deal. They weren’t a band or anything at that time, but during that time when they were finding their legs and finding their way, I did get to know them well and know their family well. So all during that era of watching [bass player, Jared Followill] learn the bass, getting [lead guitarist, Matthew Followill] recruited in there and going to my first family reunion with them in 2002 … this is gonna baffle you, blow you away, but they had all those tapes in a camcorder bag on the first tour and it got stolen and we lost the footage. So it’s either in a dumpster and gone forever or it will be on the internet one day. [Laughs]
But to answer your question, yeah, I got a chance to know them before they put their band together, so I think I have a pretty good bearing on who they are as people or who their family is. And I think a lot of the reason our friendship that we had developed all through the years and the trust that was there … I mean, I’m their biggest fan, I jokingly call myself “Kings of Leon Fan Number One” because I got to be in the garage and hear some of those songs for the first time before anyone in the world did. Not to overuse the word again, but that’s a bit surreal looking back on that.
When did you decide to stop filming and what made you decide to stop filming?
It was a combination of things, really. I had stayed friends with them all through their various album cycles and so forth, and there have been some other great people … you can obviously see some of the footage that we were able to acquire from Patrick Daughters, Doug Biro, the label gave us some stuff, and of course their family loaded me up with an unbelievable amount of VHS footage and rare footage and what have you. But the boys brought me in right before they started recording that ‘Only By the Night’ album and we were talking about some things — where they were going and what they wanted to do — and they asked me, “Would you want to come down and film us while we’re making this album?” And of course I was on the first plane down there and dove right in and footage was amazing, it was raw, it was real, it was exactly what they asked me to capture.
And the next thing you know, we all just decided we should just pull the trigger on what we’ve always talked about is that their story would make a great doc film, we just didn’t know what the time was to put it out. But the time when we decided it was time to wrap it up, I kind of think once that album took off and was soaring around the world and I got a chance to travel with them everywhere and all over, that thing just got big and I was like, “Okay, we’re done, that’s it.” Because from here on out, people are going to have extreme access and know about these guys now, but everything up to this point, you know, some people in America didn’t even care about the band.
Yeah, that was the “Use Somebody” album.
Yeah, our tour manager Ivan Kushlick said to me one day, “Now that this thing’s gone, there’s no reason to keep running around jamming cameras in their faces.”
That’s interesting that you say that that was the album that you all decided to wrap it up. There’s that one scene in the movie — I don’t know whether it was just a moment of frustration over the direction the band was going in or what — where they were putting together “Use Somebody” and Caleb says, “This is our last album together.”
[Laughs] So dramatic right?
[Laughs] That was mighty dramatic, but hey, it all got worked out. But by the same token, do you think that played into it whatsoever?
No, I just think that’s just … I mean, that was just the beginning of filming, I filmed for another two years after those sessions. Going into early this year, we were still getting into this and that and what have you. I think that it’s amazing that Caleb let us show this stuff and be so vulnerable and put it out there like this, but I think that just goes to show you that that’s how much he cares, really. He wants to raise the bar and do otherworldly work, and you’ve got to admire that about the guy, even if it leads to human frustrations like we show on camera.
With that being said, how was it for them and their families to watch this, especially with the contrast between their sex- and drug-fueled rock and roll lifestyle and their God-fearing families who were wondering whether their kids are gonna go to Hell or not?
Well when I first showed it to the band — they’re the executive producers of the movie, so there isn’t one piece of it that they didn’t approve or creatively have their hands on — it’s really as much their film as it is Casey’s or mine. So all those scenes, you know, it’s difficult to show them many of those scenes or encourage them to allow us to use them, and some of that was a battle, that process of, “Here’s why you should put yourself out there like this or like that.” But I think again, in all due credit to the guys, they’re great storytellers, they’re very vulnerable in their songwriting, and I think they saw this as another avenue to really reach out to people and say, “Hey, we’re not those fashionista rock diva guys, we’re just people like you are, too.”
Yeah, there’s this fine line that separates them as good ol’ boys and also as rock stars.
That’s the contrast that makes it such a whirlwind and a bit confusing at times, and I think the family in general has sort of pulled away from that Pentecostal world more or less in these latter years. The family’s grown and the band’s getting bigger, but their mom’s still pretty devout, she gives me a hard time. [Laughs] She’s like my second mom, but it’s hard to show them as well and many of the family members trusted me and Casey immensely, but they were nervous and rightfully so. So when we did get a chance to show this to mom and dad and uncles, they were ecstatic, now they call it “Our documentary.”
They’re super proud of it, they text me all the time about how much they love it. We immortalized their special family, in particular Uncle Cleo who just passed, too.
Oh, man. I’m sorry to hear that. But still, you couldn’t have asked for a better reception than that from the family.
No kidding. Besides Kings of Leon fans loving this — which was our goal, obviously — the family giving me that big thumbs up and that hug and that “Man, you did it and we’re just so happy, and we knew you were the person to do this and thank you,” it means more to me than to win an Oscar, it really does. To get this opportunity from the family to just open themselves up and to be so involved, I don’t take that privilege lightly.
That’s something else. And like you were saying, they’ve changed so much over the course of five albums not only in image but also in sound, what was it like watching them evolve from an insider’s perspective?
Yeah, it’s amazing, because in those early years it’s all just … talk about energy. I would just stand in the middle of them in that tiny garage and they would play “Molly’s Chambers,” and it would just make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I mean, it’s just the energy and that pure force that they were channeling. You know, they had left the church world and had always performed growing up, particularly Nathan and Caleb as well, and I think it was just a matter of, “Okay, now we’re out in the real world, where do channel this performance energy?” And once they found their legs and found their sound as Kings of Leon, I’ve told people before, it’s like a rocket ship exploded off a launching pad and it just hasn’t stopped since.
In light of the scenes where Nathan starts chewing out Caleb on the bus …
[Laughs] And filming him at the same time. Who does that? We did a voiceover commentary the other day and Caleb asked him that, “Who films while they’re yelling at somebody?” And Nathan just said, “I’d had enough of you that day and I just figured I’d get the camera out.”
[Laughs] Well in regards to that and Jared’s Twitter feed recently in regards to Caleb …
[Laughs] Yeah, what did he say? I don’t even know.
Something about how there’s more going on the band than just not drinking enough Gatorade. But were you surprised by what happened at the Dallas show last Saturday and their decision to cancel the rest of their tour?
Well, I wasn’t there at the show and I haven’t even had a chance to talk to any of the boys yet. I really probably shouldn’t comment on that since I wasn’t there and didn’t really know what happened. But I will say this about them: they care a lot, they care about their fans really, really hard. It’s unfortunate that this has happened, but they’re family, they’re gonna get through this. They’re strong and they want to continue to grow and be a good band, and I think they’re tired.
You know, it’s easy to sit back like an armchair quarterback and say, ‘Oh, you should be getting out there and do this or do that,’ but they never stop, period. I don’t think people understand that about them. From the time we signed them to those initial song-writing deals, then they go and form the band and that rocket ship takes off as I said before, they just haven’t stopped. If they’re home, they’re doing an album or they’re doing press interviews, or they’re filming this show or they’re doing that. I just think that, like all human beings, you reach a point where you’re just tired. You can’t play a great athlete an entire game, you’ve got to give ‘em a breather.
So no question about Kings of Leon coming back from this?
Not in my mind. I think they’re gonna come back out and kick some people in the ass.
What gave you the idea to use The Velvet Underground’s “Jesus” when they played that show in Nashville with their family in the crowd?
That was our editor Paul Greenhouse who’s one of the most talented people in the world. That was amazing.
Caleb originally sparked the idea to use outside music because one day on the tour bus he said to me, “I want you to try to use as much non-Kings of Leon music as possible in the documentary.” At first I was like, “Well, we are making a documentary about Kings of Leon after all.” [Laughs] But once I thought about it, I started understand what he was saying. So we dug deeper and started listening to music that their fathers knew or Grandpa Leon [who the band is named after] … the bluegrass music, that’s their grandpa playing at the beginning of the film.
So to answer your question, when we got to that particular scene, which we knew was going to be a special scene in the film, and I was telling Casey and Paul, “I just see this big, epic, slow motion thing with their family and I really want it to land there.” And I came to the scene when we were cutting the film one day and Paul pulled up what he was showing me and had that already tempoed in, and I just said, “Paul, geez, don’t change a thing.”
I’m glad [The Velvet Underground] let us use it too, which was very cool of them. Great context for the scene.
So what is it that you hope people will take away from this movie?
I hope Americans, particularly, will realize that this is their band.
Yeah, I agree. I never understood why they blew up in England before they blew up in America.
Right! I have people ask me all the time, “Oh, are they from London?” No! They’re from the deep South, these are American kids that are coming from the region of America where rock and roll started. That’s truly their roots — in the church and in the deep South — and I want people to realize that this is a great band. I’m proud of them, I think their greatest days are still ahead, and it would behoove Americans to really take these guys under their wings and make them their own. There aren’t really that many successful American rock bands out there right now. They have an amazing body of work in this short first start to their career, and they’re pretty neat, special guys with a really special family, and hopefully we’re gonna get a lot more special albums out of them too, because I sure want to hear ‘em.
Same here. So do you have any new projects on the horizon?
I do. I don’t want to give my cards away or jinx myself just yet, but I’m very excited and interested in sports, doing a documentary about sports, and particularly football is my favorite sport. So I’ll leave it at that.
Sounds good. Alright, last question: what’s your favorite Kings of Leon song?
[Laughs] That is a tough one! I’d have to say it’s a close call between “Taper Jean Girl,” or for whatever reason — when they play it live I can’t get enough of it — “Knocked Up.” If you’re putting a gun to my head, I think “Knocked Up.” It’s an amazing song.
‘Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon’ can be seen On Demand from August 22 to September 18 and will premiere on Showtime on August 21 at 10 PM.
So are you guys excited to see ‘Talihina Sky?’
Photos courtesy of CBS.