I was asked to interview David Schendel, director of Yank Tanks, because he’s working on a documentary about stand-up comedy called The Comedy Club and I just released (with director David Munro) a new film called Stand Up Planet. We met at my office in the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto near South Park and when he noticed the props from an earlier film, Full Grown Men, he thought he remembered trying to help us raise money for it. In the small world of Bay Area indie filmmakers, it’s very possible this happened, and also that I have no memory of it. David raised money for Yank Tanks and The Comedy Club from investors, so he knows a little something about the topic. He also knows quite a bit about cars and no small amount about comedy. We started out with the history of Yank Tanks and worked our way up to his new film, which I still maintain was not pirated and given to me in advance of our meeting. Though I would gladly watch a pirated copy, I think we’ll all have to wait until the fall. In the meantime, here’s my conversation about cars, Cuba, and Cobb’s comedy club with David Schendel.
[Editor’s note: Xandra Castleton is co-creator (with David Munro) of Stand Up Planet, a television documentary that follows an American comic to Mumbai and Johannesburg to find the funniest comics, follow their jokes and learn the truths behind them. International comics then travel to LA for a comedy showcase, meeting comedy legends like Bill Cosby and Norman Lear along the way. It’s followed by the Stand Up Planet Showcase comedy special. It airs on Pivot TV, LinkTV and KCET and is available for streaming online at: www.standuplanet.org/watch.]
Keyframe: Yank Tanks is coming out on Fandor ten years after you first finished and released it. Tell me about where it was seen the first time around.
David Schendel: Well we had a great premiere at the Cinequest film festival. It sold out every screening and won the audience award for best documentary, and then all of these other film festival invitations started pouring in. Eight national festivals and five international, including the Moscow film fest and the Havana Film Festival.
Keyframe: Was the Havana film fest the first time people in the film had seen it?
Schendel: Yes. It was crazy. It was like a screening that I’d never seen before and possibly will never see again. Everyone brought everyone in their family and everyone they knew to the screening, so when one of those people would come on the screen that entire section would stand up and cheer for the next five minutes. It was like a family reunion.
Keyframe: What do you think the film meant to the people in Cuba who saw it?
Schendel: Everybody liked it. It’s not necessarily a hard-core criticism of Cuba, but I also didn’t want to shy away from the obvious facts that the embargo and the communist system has kept people in poverty for a long time. You can’t blame it entirely on either one, because they support each other. Without the embargo chances are that the communist party wouldn’t really rule Cuba anymore.
We did get into politics a little bit. There is that discussion with the three guys at the end. I use the cars as a vehicle (no pun intended) to bring out the discussion of the future. ‘What’s going to happen with the cars?’—well replace the word ‘cars’ with ‘what’s going to happen to Cuba?’
Keyframe: That was a perfect end to the film, but I also felt you had some genuine concern about the fate of these cars if the embargo continues. There was no sense that you were thinking ‘This is a good metaphor.’ You were sincerely interested in these cars. What’s the genesis of the project?
Schendel: My big brother is a surgeon [who] does reconstructive surgery and he said ‘I’m going to start a foundation and I need some video for my website. Why don’t you come follow us down there and film me with the kids?’ I thought this was a great chance to see Cuba, but as I was shooting we were standing on the corner one day smoking cigars and we saw all these American cars going by. I thought, ‘this is ironic, these are all old American cars and these people love them like they’re children, and yet we’re in this country that abhors capitalism and the system that made these cars.’ So I went out the next day with my associate producer and interpreter, Javier, and we just went to the Capitolio where all the cars park and the men preen themselves. We interviewed some of the drivers about how they keep these things running. I mean, you can’t get spare parts. What do you do? They all made the lip-zipping sign.
Keyframe: They wouldn’t tell you?
Schendel: Nope. It’s completely black market. So I thought, ok, this is something nobody has seen before; this would make a great documentary. So I took that footage back with me, and edited some little snippets and showed it to investors and the money came through pretty quickly, actually. I was surprised. I hired a scout in Cuba to find these places where they fix the cars and get into the underground—build trust with these people, that I wasn’t going to out them. Each time we went back we got deeper and deeper into these backyard mechanic shops where they keep these cars running. Literally tooling, dyeing pistons, making parts….
Keyframe: Finding scrap metal….
Schendel: Making brakes with raw asbestos. That one and the windshield guy who has an oven in his backyard where he melts glass and makes them into windshields—that guy was the hardest to find. Oh, and the one woman who works on her own car….
Keyframe: The way you cut it together there’s a sense that you started off on this one journey, but then you kept going deeper. You don’t explain that one person led to this other person; you just go into the layers of the making of the car parts.
Schendel: I have to credit my genius editor, Jean Kawahara, for putting this together. The narrative originally was supposed to be a timeline. We found a guy who had an old car and we wanted to film this car going from a rust bucket in stages, but we came back and the car was done. Amazing. So that was out the window. Jean and I—Jean mostly—figured we could make it into a mosaic, really, so that’s where that structure was born.
Keyframe: I could relate to the admiration you have for people creating parts out of nothing. I grew up in countries where everyone bought VWs and Mercedes because you could take them apart easily and they’d run forever. When I was ten years old living in Senegal we took a VW van down to the Gambia and my father lost the key in the surf. After a long night sleeping in the car someone found a mechanic in the next village that just took the ignition apart and stuck a cork and a sardine can opener in, and that was our key for the next two weeks.
Schendel: Ha! Necessity is the mother of invention. That’s what Cubans deal with on a daily basis.
Keyframe: This may age me, but I learned to drive on a stick shift and still feel that people who learn to drive on automatic cars can’t drive as well as those of us who learned on a stick.
Schendel: I totally agree.
Keyframe: OK, so we’re connecting about cars, and we’re both coming out with docs about stand-up comics.
Schendel: It’s very curious that we’re both making films about stand up right now.
Keyframe: Yes! So tell me about the timeline of your new film, The Comedy Club. Cobb’s Comedy Club burned down in—2002? Were you still working on Yank Tanks then?
Schendel: I was just at the tail end of the festival and publicity for it. It had premiered on the Sundance Channel and got great reviews, and was shown on PBS for about a year, then I just had this other film fall into my lap.
Keyframe: Did you have a connection to comedy?
Schendel: Yes, I’d been working with the Meehan Brothers for a few years—they call themselves the Irish Catholic Marx brothers. We were experimenting and developing different ideas, and Howard Liam said ‘they’re rebuilding Cobbs, let’s go over there.’ So we went, and Tom Sawyer, the owner and manager of Cobbs—that’s really his name—was sitting there arguing about glassware and it was one of the funniest scenes I’ve ever seen. Then there’s this incredible cast of comedians that he’s helped launch: Jim Carrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Maher, Paula Poundstone, Kevin Pollock, Dana Carvey…then W. Kamau Bell…and it was actually over twenty years, and they were all connected to this one guy. So I knew he had to have some secret formula, and just like with Cuban cars I thought, ‘What’s the back story?’
Keyframe: I saw your trailer, and I’ve been to Cobbs, but I had no idea that all these comics helped build the new venue.
Schendel: Not just the new one, the old, one, too. They did it in exchange for stage time. Paula Poundstone said that Tom Sawyer loved her because of her OCD. She would literally turn the tables over and scrape off the gum. Spick and span! Paula was the one credited with bringing the stage in there, which was the first one in Cobb’s.
Keyframe: It’s a good space, but it surprises me that comedians built Cobbs because the green room is terrible. We went there a few times looking for hosts for Stand Up Planet. That’s not where we found him (Hasan Minhaj), but we saw lots of good comedy, and even got to judge the Iron Comic show at Sketchfest. That place has cred.
Schendel: Yeah, even people like Robin Williams and Jim Carrey put money into the club to reopen it. And you would assume that people like that would come back to see the opening. So we get to the opening night and nobody showed up. The local guys did, but none of the bigger comics that [Tom Sawyer] helped showed up. And he became very depressed. So the climax of the story was no longer opening night. I continued to follow his struggles with opening the club and keeping it open. And that’s as much as I’ll say about the film since it’ll come out in the fall. It rolls out in the second act in a very surprising way.
Keyframe: So where are you in the process?
Schendel: We’ve locked picture, with another genius editor, Lasse Jarvi. I’ve really gotta hand it to him. It was like a Rubik’s Cube where the pieces kept changing. The editorial was really long and very complex. We kept literally tearing it apart.
Keyframe: Putting the patient back on the operating table. It’s so hard. Have you shown it to comics?
Schendel: A few comics have seen it. They think it’s a great testament to their craft. And I think it’s really beyond that. It’s about anyone who tries to do anything creative in this world today and who helps them along the way, how do they do it, how hard is it. Why does it look so easy on stage…To go back to Yank Tanks, you know, the cars are so beautiful and polished, but you open up that hood and it’s plastic bottles filled with gasoline taped together.
Keyframe: It’s a good analogy to comics, who famously deal with so much shit inside.
Schendel: Well, we all do. That’s one thing I learned in this process. ‘There are no jokes, there’s only truth.’ That’s a Freud quote. What the comics are doing is being so honest that they’re getting into that place inside us that’s ticklish.
Keyframe: That’s exactly what made us feel like we could pull this off with Stand Up Planet. The challenge was: How do we make the problems of the developing world entertaining to American audiences? We said, we have an idea: let’s go to the stand up comics, because they’re always the ones telling the truth or on the bleeding edge of telling the truth. People think it’s somehow not OK to talk about serious subjects through comedy. Then they see some comedy from George Carlin or one his descendants. They see one of the comics from India or South Africa in Stand Up Planet, and it hits them hard.
Schendel: But it’s a brilliant way to do it. I like to say ‘laughter, oxygen, truth.’ When you laugh it causes your blood to oxygenate your brain, so you’re more aware, and you’re more open to the truth.
Keyframe: You just articulated so clearly what happens to our bodies when we laugh. I’ve been trying to explain for a while. When you’re laughing you can’t clench.
Schendel: Certainly Aristophanes was using the same tool: make people laugh, then talk about it. Somehow it desensitizes it, makes it OK to talk about.
Keyframe: So this is maybe getting a little geeky, but there’s this love of craft in Yank Tanks and is there some connection or something specific about small comedy scenes and people who came into their own as comics in San Francisco as opposed to LA? Just like us as filmmakers choosing to be here—
Schendel: You snuck a copy of the film and saw it, didn’t you?
Keyframe: I did not! Is this question in there?
Schendel: OK, we’re definitely on the same channel. That’s a big part of it: where do creative people come from? Musicians can wail away in their basement and then become Eddie Van Halen. Comics need an audience. They need a feedback loop. So where are those clubs that nurture those young comics? They’re not at the Warfield where Bill Maher is now, but he started at Cobbs when it had 100 seats. A lot of the small venues are disappearing.
Keyframe: The comics in Mumbai are basically going from restaurant to restaurant saying, ‘we’re cheaper than a band.’ Kind of like how Bill Cosby started at the Hungry I – after the stripper and before the magician. So for these comics it’s so hard to get a set, and to get the practice in.
Schendel: That’s why SF was so popular with all these guys. LA was really about getting TV shows. The comics even have to pay to get on an open mic in LA. SF is going to have its comedy resurgence.
Keyframe: Sketchfest has gotten huge. There’s even comedy in the basement of Lost Weekend Video. So what happens now with your new film?
Schendel: We’re going to do an Indie Go Go campaign to pay for all the archival footage, finish the film and premiere this fall at one the film festivals in the U.S.