November 13, 2013

Spotlight on Jim McKay: Director's Career Spans R.E.M. to Breaking Bad

Editor's note: The University of Georgia's Spotlight on the Arts festival includes more than 60 performances, lectures and exhibits. Please see our calendar for a full listing.

Thirty-two years ago, Jim McKay was a college student home in New Jersey for the summer, heading into the city to catch Gang of Four. The opening act was some unknown band called R.E.M. "I was just completely flabbergasted by their show," McKay says, speaking by phone from Los Angeles, where he's working on a pilot.

He struck up a conversation with band members afterwards, leading to a lifelong friendship and business partnership with singer Michael Stipe and a career as a writer, director and producer in film and television. His work will be the subject of a retrospective later this month as part of the University of Georgia's two-week Spotlight on the Arts festival.

McKay bought a copy of R.E.M.'s 1981 Hib-Tone single "Radio Free Europe" and played it on his radio show at Boston College. After graduating, he moved to California and reignited his friendship with Stipe when the band came through San Francisco. At the time, he was planning on driving cross-country, and six months later, Stipe called and asked him to meet him on the Life's Rich Pageant tour in Michigan, where they took road trips together on days off.

"They somehow trusted that I would bring him back in time for the next gig in the next town," McKay says.

When McKay—by that time an aspiring filmmaker documenting a Boston nursing home employee who brought in new wave bands to perform for the elderly residents—ran out of money in 1987, Stipe suggested moving to Athens. 

"Michael said, 'Come to Athens,'" McKay says. "'It's cheap. You can get a restaurant job and edit your documentary down there.'"

McKay lived in Athens on and off for the next six years, washing dishes at Bluebird Cafe and forming the production company C-Hundred with Stipe, making music videos for local bands like Pylon and Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, with whom McKay also played. With Tom Gilroy, they filmed public service announcements (alternative versions of Nancy Reagan's "Just say no" spots) on topics like environmentalism and organic farming. "They were just weird little pieces," he says. "Again, we didn't know what we were doing."

In 1989, McKay accompanied R.E.M. on its Green tour. The resulting concert documentary, Tourfilm, will be screened at Ciné at 8:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15, with a reception an hour beforehand. The $50 ticket fee will benefit the education nonprofit Whatever It Takes. If the price is too steep, even though it's for a good cause, a $5 screening is at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17.

Tourfilm shows R.E.M. playing at a time when they had just left I.R.S. Records for major label Warner Bros. and were on the cusp of superstardom. But McKay doesn't remember it as much different from the band's previous tours, when they were merely college-radio darlings.

"I guess it was big in retrospect, but it still seemed kind of funky," he says. "We were just winging it. It's an incredibly, incredibly un-slick film. It's also a reflection of Michael's credo in a lot of ways… one of collaboration and development."

Slowly, C-Hundred "began to lose less money," as McKay puts it. Any profits were invested in beginning directors to buy equipment or fund their projects. "The basic premise was neither of us gets paid. If we made money, that means we can give away more money."

In 1993, McKay moved to New York and enrolled in an acting workshop. Out of it grew his first feature film, Girls Town, about a group of high-school girls dealing with a friend's rape and suicide. Ciné will screen Girls Town at 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 16, followed by 2004's Everyday People—the story of a diner owner struggling with whether to shut down his business—at 7:15 p.m.

Our Song, also about a group of New York high school girls and released in 2000, will be screened at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17. Angel Rodriguez, the 2005 tale of a homeless Brooklyn teenager, will follow at 4:30 p.m. 

Three of McKay's four critically-acclaimed feature films are about teenagers, which he attributes to studying to be an English teacher. "That definitely started my interest in youth and social issues involving young people," as well as feminism, another key theme in his movies, he says.

Everyday People and Angel Rodriguez were both financed by a short-lived HBO division formed to produce films for theatrical release, although they both aired on the cable network. Through that connection, David Simon hired him to direct an episode of his HBO drama "The Wire," launching the third phase of his career. In the past seven years, he's probably directed one of your favorite TV shows—"Law & Order," "Breaking Bad," "Gossip Girl," "Big Love," "In Treatment" and "Treme," to name a few. A "Treme" episode he directed will be shown at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15 at Little Kings Shuffle Club. Afterward, Quintron and Miss Pussycat, a retro New Orleans swamp-rock duo that appears in the episode, will perform.

Although he's worked on some of the most prestigious cable dramas, McKay disputes the notion that we're living in a golden age of television—something he plans to talk about during a panel discussion with editor David Daley at 1:25 p.m. Sunday. Nov. 18 at the UGA Fine Arts Building's Balcony Theatre.

In addition to the hundreds of channels on cable, websites like Netflix are now producing original programming. In fact, the pilot McKay's working on is a detective show based on a Michael Connelly novel for Amazon. All that content will eventually lead to a decline in quality, he says.

"There's just so much stuff being made, it's absurd," he says. "It's great that it's being made, it's great that people are working, but there's no way it's sustainable. People just can't watch that much stuff."

He enjoys TV work, he says, but he'd prefer to be making movies. However, it's much harder to raise money than it was a decade ago, he says. The '90s and early aughts were a time when Sundance buzz could lead to multi-million-dollar bidding wars among distributors. But the indie bubble burst. 

Now, McKay says, studios have "become like big, fat Wall Street hedge fund people," churning out profitable explosion-laden blockbusters for overseas audiences at the expense of more modest, character-driven films. He cites David Byrne's recent essays in the British newspaper The Guardian about how economic inequality and the Internet are stifling creativity.

"If the kind of super-capitalist equation is the only thing that defines the creative world, we're doomed," he says. "If a whole generation of kids grows up and never pays for a song, what happens to singers and songwriters?"

Still, McKay has an idea for another film he hopes to somehow find the money to make. He won't say much about it, other than it's "a script about a female singer-songwriter who's in her mid-career, sort of, and is just having a rough time of it."

And he remains at least somewhat optimistic that indie filmmaking will bounce back. "Maybe we'll have an entire new generation of wonderful small films," he says. "That's the hope."