In August 2011, Saskatoon ’70s-influenced rock band, The Sheepdogs (Sam Corbett, Ewan Currie, Ryan Gullen and Leot Hanson), catapulted to stardom status when they became the first unsigned band to grace the cover of Rolling Stone. The “Choose the Cover” competition, in which over 1.5 million votes were cast online, saw them beat 15 other bands. The band had been active since 2006, but were not exactly breaking onto a more national, or international, music scene. But winning that Rolling Stone cover changed their lives pretty radically. Not only were their faces on the August 18, 2011 issue of the venerable publication, giving them that instant global exposure, but The Sheepdogs also scored a record contract with Atlantic Records as part of winning the contest. The fairy tale-esque story sparked interest in filmmakers and producers right away, knowing the transition from free-spirited boho musicians to full-on recording artists would make for an interesting story.
This is when John Barnard from Far Point Films, a director from Winnipeg-based media production company comes in.
He received a call to direct the documentary on a Thursday and started shooting two days later, on a Saturday. There wasn’t much time for Barnard to get to know members of The Sheepdogs beforehand and he confesses he really got to know the band while shooting the biopic. BeatRoute caught up with the director on whether we’ll see him around at CIFF, some of the challenges he encountered during the months of shooting, and how he got to know The Sheepdogs around a pint or two.
BeatRoute: First off, John, how’s your day going so far? You mentioned you were going to be on planes all day. Where are you heading?
John Barnard: It’s holiday time. I’m headed with my kids for a week in New York. They’re one and four and love it. Finally, we’re settled in our hotel and the boys are all hopped up on airport lounge carbs. I’ll try and tap quietly so they can get to sleep.
BR: Give our readers a little run-down of what to expect from your documentary, The Sheepdogs Have At It. What’s it all about?
JB: The film follows The Sheepdogs for several months after they won this Rolling Stone cover contest in 2011. Suddenly, they had instant notoriety even though they’d been playing for years. Although nothing had changed for them aesthetically, there was suddenly more opportunities for them. What happens to a band in this situation?
And then there’s all the music industry stuff that happened around them. It’s hardly an exposé, but I like films that show the way things work. This film shows just a tiny slice of how some of the music industry works.
BR: I read somewhere you had no idea who The Sheepdogs were when you started shooting. What were your initial thoughts going into the project? What became the greatest challenge?
JB: The biggest challenge was definitely showing up with no introduction and convincing the band to let me into their world. Normally, there would be some introductory phase or negotiation, but I just started rolling. I was the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place for this film, which is the reverse of the way I normally work.
And I didn’t know their music because I hadn’t been paying attention. I wasn’t a fan of them or even the ’70s rock that informed and inspired their sound. Normally, there’s a little development phase beforehand where you can do some research but I didn’t have any time to do my homework.
BR: What were the band’s initial reaction to having you as a director? Were they cautious? Did they have ground rules for you to keep in mind?
JB: I like to think being from Winnipeg helped my introduction with them. At least there was some common prairie ground. Their only wish was that the process be truthful and not “stagy,” which is another opposite to my regular process. But, I really like staging things and making them my own. I’m not used to passive filmmaking. Of course, there’s no such thing, really, but that was to be our approach with photography. So, I guess, right away I had these two roadblocks: they didn’t know me (and weren’t sure they could trust me) and I needed to try a whole new “fly on the wall” approach to capturing them.
BR: What methods did you use to personally get to know and capture The Sheepdogs as a band and as individuals?
JB: In the end, it turns out you just need to go drinking with them.
BR: Having spent quite a bit of time with members of The Sheepdogs for this film, have you become a fan of their music?
JB: Yes, I’m a fan. That old, ’70s Southern rock has grown on me, too. It’s nice when your job shows you some new things about the world.
BR: Will you be attending The Calgary International Film Festival this year? What other festivals has the doc been screened at?
JB: I’m working on a food show that might be shooting in Calgary on the dates of the festival, so hopefully that lines up. So far, [the documentary has] been screened the closing night gala of Whistler Film Festival, screened at Newport Beach, opening night at Open Roof in Toronto and is set to screen in Cincinnati and Tenerife festivals. But yes, I’ll try and be in Calgary.
BR: Lastly, how does shooting this film project differ from other projects you’ve done? What made it stand out for you as a director?
JB: I like doing things outside my comfort zone, but this was a completely different way of working. But mostly, I’m proud of how quickly we worked. From the day I was brought on to the day I wrapped photography was only a few months and this was in a universe of complete strangers. It’s always a new strange world, but getting in and out economically is particularly tricky.
By Claire Miglionico