A Conversation with Colin Hanks (All Things Must Pass)
(Colin Hanks has been defining himself as a solid character actor over the years and his feature directorial debut All Things Must Pass, a documentary about the lifespan of the iconic Tower Records franchise, made it’s debut at SXSW 2015.)
Colin Hanks is really started to ramp up his career. He’s a Golden Globe and Emmy Prime Time nominee for his solid performance as Gus Grimly in the Fargo TV mini-series. He’s still in movies, and stars in one of the smartest comedies of all time, Orange County.
Hanks now has another successful move in his career: documentary filmmaker. His first feature directing effort, entitled All Things Must Pass, covers the rise and fall of Tower Records. It’s a funny, heartfelt, sincere, and inspiring film that reminds you that no matter what, if you tried something and it didn’t work out, it’s not a failure.
This film hit me hard because the story brought back memories of the site I built (GordonandtheWhale.com) that was ultimately shuttered. It’s not easy to close down a business you poured your heart and soul into. But All Things Must Pass will hit you hard because it’s a great doc on one of the pioneering businesses, if not the pioneering business, that made vinyl records so successful.
All Things Must Pass had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival and I spoke to Hanks about the doc and we dive into the process of making it. We also touch on which song perfectly captures Tower Records and its legacy. Enjoy.
HTN: First of I want to say, thanks for making me cry a lot.
Colin Hanks: Oh good. I’m glad. Did you hear that?
Darrin Roberts: No. What?
CH: He said, thanks for making me cry. Darrin Roberts is our editor.
HTN: Thank you for making me cry, Darrin.
DR: I’m sorry, but I’m not. (laughs)
CH: Now, did you just see it or had you …
HTN: I couldn’t make any of the screenings so I had to watch an online screener. I hate watching movies for the first time on a screener. Movies should be seen the first time in a theater obviously, but sometimes when it’s just not possible and you got to do what you got to do. I’m just glad I was able to watch it and able to discuss it. I love Tower Records, and the doc did the company justice.
CH: That’s right, man. Thank you.
HTN: To start it off, there’s a really great moment in filming when Russ [the owner of Tower Records] tells us his very first record that he got. Do you remember the first vinyl that you got?
CH: Well, I always referred to everything as records [CDs, eight tracks, vinyl, etc.]. I remember the first CD that I purchased, but I had been buying stuff on cassettes for much longer years before I was getting around to CDs. Because I really grew up with cassettes and then they made the jump to CDs. We didn’t have a lot of vinyl in my house, growing up. It was really mostly cassettes. The first CD was Squeeze Babylon and On. Which is a random one for a CD. I remember going and buying Public Enemy’s Fear of a Black Planet. I remember buying that on cassette at Tower Broadway in Sacramento.
HTN: How old were you then? Because I…
CH: I was probably 13, 14?
HTN: Because I tried to get a Snoop Dogg CD at 12 and they were like, “You’re not old enough.”
CH: Yeah. I remember trying to- I got turned away from buying the 2 Live Crew tape. I bought a lot- I remember buying all sorts of stuff.
HTN: Your passion for Tower Records and sympathy for the people in front of the camera who helped bring the company to life glows throughout the film even though you’re behind the camera. One thing that comes to mind is when you corrected Elton John when he’s talking about an employee and you said, “That’s Stan!” I really love that scene a lot because it shows you truly care about all of the employees and not just Russ. I jotted in my notes, “This made me smile.” This also showed you spent a lot of time with each person and did a lot of extensive research which really shows in the documentary. How long did it take to gather all the proper materials that you needed before shooting?
CH: Well it was never…we didn’t do it like we’ve gathered everything and then we show up. We shot that movie piecemeal over the course of about, really about seven years. I’m trying to remember the difference between the idea and when we started shooting. Roughly six, seven years. We would secure a little financing, shoot a little bit and then try and get more financing and then shoot a little bit, try and get more financing and shoot a little bit. We did that repeatedly, quite a bit. Basically, what we did is we would just collect as much information as we could online and conversations that we have with Russ and with the people he told us to speak with
We would do pre-interviews in some cases with those people just so that we got a better understanding of how they fit into Tower and what it was that they did and the context. Then pretty much we said, “Anyone who’s got photos or video just…we’ll digitize it, we’ll put it on the DVD, we’ll do whatever and when the process is all over, we’ll give you all the stuff digitally so that it could live forever and ever.” It wasn’t until we really started editing in August that everything started to actually really come together. We were pretty good in terms of knowing what we wanted when we were there for the interviews for sure. We definitely done our homework for all of that.
HTN: It’s really well pieced together film and you’ve touched upon the structuring. Following up on that, you had all the material you needed — everything you needed and you started shooting. When did you know you were done filming and it was time to start putting it together?
CH: Once we had started the editing process, we had a few more interviews that we needed to get. We did the Bruce [Springsteen] interview, we did the David Geffen interview and we did the Elton John interview and then we shot the end of the film. Once we had that ending, which was always the ending that we had hoped we could get, once we had that, I remember distinctly looking at my producer Shaun [Stuart] and said, “Okay we have a movie here.”
We have our ending that we’ve always wanted. Everything else worked pretty well up to that point, where it’s just always how are we going to end this? How are we going to do it? What’s the thing that doesn’t end this on a downer, but lifts everybody up a little bit. Once we got that ending I said, “Okay. We’re good. I don’t think we need anymore.”
HTN: There are a few scenes in the film that discuss the hard truths of Tower Records that you could easily cut out to hide some of that. One …
CH: We wouldn’t be making a good production of the film if we hid that.
HTN: Exactly. One comes to mind is all the bad blood once things start to decline and go downhill. You can tell that everyone on camera had a lot of faith in and trust in you. My question is, how did you gain the trust of everyone in front of the camera, most importantly Russ, that you would tell all their stories raw, honest, and real?
CH: When we first met with Russ, he said two things. He said, “Okay. First, you’re crazy. Second, it’s really not just my story. You got to talk with these other people that started this [like] clerks and really helped build Tower up and made Tower what it was.” When we got that, we understood that. It was good for us to here because it just widens our tail a little bit, so to speak. Not tail, like cat tail. Once we did that, I think we didn’t really have to convince Russ. I think he was just like, “Yeah all right. You’re crazy, but let’s do it.” It’s like he is in the movie.
We were just very open and honest in him. Saying, “Look, we want to be able to celebrate the company. We want to be able to properly tell its story, its history, because there’s a lot about the company’s history that they don’t know.” I want to explain why it’s really gone because I didn’t really understand why it was gone. Russ was very kind enough to tell, introduce us to everybody else and he told them just to tell the truth. They don’t have anything to hide. They didn’t do anything bad and I mean that in good versus evil.
Ultimately, Russ is very open about it. It’s not a sore subject for him. All of the people that we interviewed, they love Russ so much I think once we got that blessing from Russ then they were open to talking to us. Then it’s just about connecting with them, speaking with them before the interview, talking to them and putting them at ease because it is nerve wracking. If you’ve never been interviewed before, you have these two cameras and these big lights, that’s a big deal.
HTN: The film focused at one point on how one medium kills another. With all the mom-and-pop stores still selling vinyl to keep it alive, do you think there’s a great chance that records will continue to survive?
CH: I think the records will survive, but it’s always this question of, in what capacity?
HTN: And how long?
CH: Well, I don’t necessarily look at it as long. I look at it as there are still record stores. They still exist. They’re still out there. They’re not what they once were and that there’s never going to be another Tower Records that has 192 stores around the world. You don’t need 192, you’d have 1 that’s pretty awesome. You got 1 Sunset Store, that’s pretty rad. You look at records store now, they’re not chains. A majority of them are not chains, but there still are some. Really, what you’re talking about is a Waterloo. An Amoeba in L.A., Rough Trade in Brooklyn, and those kinds of things.
They still exist. They still do very well. They had to evolve, they had to start selling used CDs. The vinyl resurgence is up, obviously pretty big. They sell DVDs and stuff like that too. Those are still big stores. Those are big stores that are still around, still able to do it because they really represent their city. That’s the big thing.
CH: That’s a good one. I like that one. I like that one a lot. Oh God, that’s a Sophie’s choice. That’s so hard to do. I’m going to cheat and tell a story here to avoid answering the question. The bit about the reason why the film was called All Things Must Pass is because of the billboard. That was initially just a theme that we were working on within the film, that all things got to … Great parties got to end. That was put up by an employee and that really seemed to sum up a lot about that, all things. Even the things that you love the most have to go away. In my brain, Tower represents that.
That I think was funny. It’s funny because on Sunset location, on their marquee, they put “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It. RIP Tower.” The next line of that song is, “And I feel fine.” No, I don’t. I don’t. I don’t know if I could pick a song, but I like your suggestion a lot, by Talking Heads, “This Must Be the Place.” That was good. I like that a lot.
HTN: Thanks, man. Glad you like my pick. We’ll go ahead and end there.
CH: All right, brother.
HTN: Thanks for your time.
— Chase Whale (@ChaseWhale)