Movies & TV / Columns

411Mania Interviews: Brett A. Hart (Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles)

January 28, 2015 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz

411 Movies Interviews: Brett A. Hart, director of Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles

Back in late 2013 this writer interviewed Brett A. Hart, director of both the great low budget thriller Bone Dry and the well regarded internet show Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles, starring the Harry Knowles. Hart and company were in the midst of raising funds for a second season of the show via a Kickstarter campaign and were looking to continue with what they started with Nerdist. During that campaign, where the necessary funds were raised, the show was unexpectedly picked up by PBS for broadcast television distribution. And now, a little over a year after that deal was made, Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles is about to begin its second season, this time on KLRU, the PBS station in Austin, Texas. Hart was nice enough to take some time out of his very busy schedule to talk about the second season, its creation, and the “controversy” surrounding its production.

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Bryan Kristopowitz: How was producing the second season different from the first season?

Brett A. Hart: I guess I should start by first addressing the “Season” terminology. Though we did indeed do 30 12-15 min episodes with Nerdist on Youtube, we look at this as our “First” season on PBS since we are now a television show and no longer a web series. The show has grown and matured and it feels like an entirely new beginning. We now have seven 25 minute episodes that are more focused and thematic. That said, we’re immensely thankful for Nerdist for having given us the opportunity to cut our teeth and find the common ground that is the foundation of our show.

Producing this go around was much more challenging. When we first began our Kickstarter we were intending on continuing with doing a show on the net. When PBS entered the picture, it became a much bigger deal as we now had to double the length of the show without doubling the budget.

Having come from a background of advertising where only a few producers are involved with finances, we collectively had the interest of our 700 plus supporters at the forefront of our minds. We set out to create something special for them and that meant getting down into the trenches and working harder and longer than any of us ever imagined when we first embarked on this journey.

BK: What’s different about the show now that it’s going to be on TV as opposed to the internet?

BAH: First, the content is much richer and in depth. We had the luxury of spending more time with our guests and really exploring cinematic history, past, present and future. After our initial meeting with PBS to screen the pilot back in April of 2014, we were given notes on what they thought would make the show strongest. That meant going back into the studio and adding more content that would continue to be thematic to each episode.

Early on when we were shooting the pilot, I realized that it was going to be a challenge to deliver 6-7 25 minute episodes, so I made a conscious decision to get what we could in the can and see if PBS wanted to just go Digital or Broadcast. If we had done digital, we could have gone live back in the spring of 2014. But we were told they really loved what we had and would like to go broadcast. This meant we had to go back into the studio and do additional shooting to keep the shows more thematic. My original thought was to have them be segmented, start an episode with, say, Danny Boyle, and at the half-way point move on to Wes Craven as a guest. Though the decision to not do that made it much more time consuming and costly, I think it really did enrich the shows. I’m very proud of the results.

BK: Was it harder making the show for TV or was it essentially the same as making it for the internet?

BAH: Immensely! Now, if we had raised what I originally wanted for the budget, it would have been a lot less of a challenge. A typical show of this length, with these type of production values, is price tagged at $300 k to $400k. That’s just for one 25 min ep. We had 1/3 of that to produce 7 episodes.

In a traditional production, the above line would make that much as a salary. In this case, however, we didn’t make any money and even put our own money back into the show. That alone made it a monumental struggle. We had to make sure every red cent went to the production, the studio rental, insurance, crew, etc., and ended up on the screen.

Then skip ahead to final post production and delivery of the show to PBS. When we did Nerdist we were able to just upload to the net. There were no broadcast checks and balances. Those checks and balances for final delivery ended up costing us more than we ever imagined. Closed captioning, color correcting to make sure the show were all “broadcast legal” took loads of time. We’d do a pass at color correction and I’d have to go home and re-watch each and every episode. I think I’ve seen each show over 20 times. I never had to worry about that when we were uploading to Youtube for Nerdist.

BK: How has it been working with PBS?

BAH: Exciting, fun, challenging, and so on. Honestly, it’s a tremendous honor to have found a home with KLRU. The show has evolved from the basement to PBS. When I took in our first dub, everyone’s eyes lit up when we did final QC. They’re excited to be presenting our show and we’re thrilled to have a new family. The biggest difference between working with PBS vs. doing a webisode like with Nerdist is that we’d have to spend much more time setting up meetings for review and notes. This process is set up so that we can assure the most seamless transition from airing in Austin to nationally via NETA (National Educational Telecommunications Association) and it does take time.

BK : Is Season 2 more scripted than the first, or did you and Harry try to expand on the “make it on the fly” nature of the first season? And if there was a change how did that alter the way the show was made/conceived?

BAH: I find that when you work with artists that you have trust, respect and a short hand with you can work magic on the fly. We always entered the studio with a game plan, questions, execution in mind, but at the same time, I always encourage improvisation. For example, when Beau Willimon came to set, I found out that I actually had half as much time to film with him than I was told. And yet, that episode is actually a two part special. I saw the magic going on between Beau and Harry and decided to let the interview go longer. When we got into the editing room I realized we had to make this a two part episode. There was just too much great material.

Each episode has its own special panache. We try to emulate the genres we are discussing so there will be moments where it’s more of an interview or more of a visual dance between what Harry brings to the screen and what I do with my camera work. But we always know going in what we have to accomplish.

We, in fact, shot less days than the Nerdist season as we had to be frugal with every dime. I think that was the biggest difference. The days were longer, but we were getting more content. And since I was constantly calculating how much each day was costing, it was less fun for me than the first season. I felt the pressures of the business side more so than the freedom of an artist and I’m sure Harry did, too. He wasn’t getting paid and still had to endure those 16 hour days.

BK: Did KLRU/PBS come up with topics for you to discuss or was it pretty much up to you and Harry to decide what each episode was about?

BAH: The topics were entirely on us, but PBS was responsible for suggesting that the shows be more thematic, so their presence ultimately was felt. And I loved that challenge. I figured out ways of having fun with Boiler, making him part of the opening and closing of a few episodes or even shooting him more like an interview when we needed to dive deeper into a topic than we had the Nerdist season. Necessity is truly the mother…

BK: Were show topics dependent on what kind of film clips you could get access to?

BAH: Not at all. Honestly, there was much more time spent in post-production this go round and we did our homework to assure that each episode had its share of insightful material.

BK: There seems to be a more whimsical edge to the show on TV. Was that something that you and Harry wanted to do with the format change? Did PBS ask for that?

BAH: Funny. I know it’s matured, but whimsical isn’t a word I would have thought of. Yet, I think you nailed it. We did embark on making a show more accessible for a larger audience and you see it in things like Boiler’s demeanor. He’s not as angry, more akin to Oscar the Grouch now. And, of course, Harry doesn’t curse now. I think our Maltin episode really captures the love and childlike glee Harry has for animation. So, yeah, I think you’re right. It’s evolved for a wider audience and I feel the content is almost academic. And deeper. Richer.

BK: Was there anything you wanted to do on the show that, for whatever reason, you just couldn’t do? Was there anything that you were surprised at getting a chance to do?

BAH: I personally held back on cinematic panache not being the focus. I made the topics the focus and spent less time on self-indulgence. We didn’t do as many special effects set ups, but there were far more effects for the interviews through the use of the magic globe. I wanted to get Quint and Bruce our shark back into the season. I was only able to get Bruce at the very end of our Maltin episode. But, overall, I’m very happy with what we captured. I was surprised at the level of quality in guests we managed to bring in. I feel that credit goes mostly to producer Jaime Gallagher, executive producer Louis Black and, Harry himself.

BK: Why has it taken so long to put a second series together?

BAH: Fast, cheap or good are clichés… but true none the less. When we began the Kickstarter campaign our initial goal was to continue a second season on the Internet. However, after KLRU approached us with interest we felt that going on television would serve our show and our supporters the best. Given that, we found ourselves with a longer run time to fulfill and with a smaller budget than what we had with the Nerdist season. With a tighter budget it takes more time. We had to work around schedules like with Burt Reynolds and other guests like Beau Willimon that we are proud to have had involved with our show. And, collectively, we wore many more hats than when Nerdist was involved.

On top of handling the show and Kickstarter rewards, we had to work around equipment that was better suited for a web show than broadcast. There was experimentation between shooting 1080 i and 720p and, quite honestly, our post production wasn’t set up for 1080. It caused the editing to become much more of a struggle. And though we were shooting digital and we were able to keep costs down from the days of film and the lab you still have challenges like hard drives malfunctioning with priceless footage on them and having to be sent off and repaired. This not only takes time away from the schedule, but costs additional dollars.

BK: How hard has it been dealing with the “controversy” surrounding the show? Did it affect the show in any way production wise?

BAH: I had to focus on creating a positive environment for my host and crew. I never allowed myself to be pulled into the negative, dismal world of a handful of miserable detractors.

I think their agenda was transparent to everyone from the onset: to sabotage Harry every step of the way and not to actually get any answers. Wasn’t one of their biggest theories that Harry pocketed the money and a show was in fact never being made? Well, the show is completed. And there are 7 x 25 minute episodes; nearly 3 hours of content. You would think that would answer their questions, But, I’m sure they’ve moved onto some other asinine crusade. I don’t know and I don’t care.

What I do care about is the fact that Harry and the team were robbed of the joy of creating this season that we experienced the first go round. We weren’t taking a salary and we were investing all of our blood, sweat, and tears to create something special for our viewers. And yet caustic and libelous accusations to the contrary were being spewed. That’s a tremendous disappointment. Lesser men than Harry would have cratered but he continued to hold his head high and for that I applaud him.

Hiding behind anonymity shows their true agenda. It’s a form of cyber terrorism plain and simple. I really feel a bill needs to be passed to prevent future victims of Internet predators. The loss of income and quality of life from such attacks should be quantified and a judgment should be put in place to create restitution for those who are defenseless against cowardice attacks.

Freedom of speech does not include freedom of slander.

BK: Could you explain what “post-production” for a show like “Ain’t It Cool” actually entails?

BAH: It’s a tremendously time consuming process since we approach the show in a cinematic manner unlike other journalistic shows on entertainment. For example, if we can’t get a guest into the “Basement” we go to them to shoot. Then we go back into the studio and Harry has to repeat the interview talking to a globe or air. That alone is a challenge. Once those hours of shooting are in the can we have to go back and edit it down. But with several layers of footage. One with our guest, one with Harry and one with a globe. This goes on for say 7- 10 minutes, resulting in hundreds of shots that have to be uploaded and sent from Texas to Oklahoma where my FX guru Chuck Taylor starts working his magic. This, of course, takes a lot of time as he’s not getting paid what he deserves, and so we have to work around his schedule. But the results are worth it as we created a world of fantasy that I feel is unmatched. That’s just one of the processes.

Another is color correction. We never had to worry about that when uploading to Nerdist. To make things “broadcast legal” you have to finesse and finesse and finesse some more. I can’t thank my buddy, co-Producer Greg Hughs, enough for the monumental work he did with the show. I know the two of us have probably watched it more than 20 times over the past few months, and when the team at PBS put the first episode in the edit bay and checked it out their smiles made it all completely worth it. The production value is right there on the screen and then some.

BK: What is “color correction” and what kind of things are you looking for? Why is color correction so important for broadcast?

BAH: Color correction is a process of either altering your footage to meet a specific vision and or, as in our case, also make sure the video is legal to broadcast. Back in the day, some people might remember TV’s buzzing whenever white was in a shot. That was probably because it wasn’t legal to broadcast. There are multiple software programs to use to make sure the final footage you’re sending out is broadcast legal. On my end, using Avid Software, I felt the results were unacceptable. However, my producing partner Greg Hughs has the Cadillac of color correction software DaVinci Resolve. Greg and I spent months finessing the footage to not only make sure it was broadcast legal, but to correct technical issues you wouldn’t see in a standard webisode, IE compression in the blacks that looked like noise. We finessed each and every shot with a fine tooth comb.

BK: Will the show be available nationally?

BAH: That’s what our goal has been since the beginning and one of the reasons for running everything by the PBS team to assure compliance with NETA. The goal is to premiere on Austin’s KLRU-Q, then offer it to NETA for national distribution as well as PBS Digital. Ira Rubenstein, Senior VP and GM of PBS Digital has already expressed interest in getting the show out there. We made this show for our supporters and an all new audience that we aim to reach so we want everyone to be able to join Harry in the basement to celebrate and geek out on cinema.

BK: What can we expect for a potential season 3?

BAH: Another part of the process was finding new partners to team up with and indeed begin a third season with more exciting guests, a bigger budget and more magic in the basement. We have a great team in place who are working on that as we speak.

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I want to thank Brett A. Hart for taking the time to speak with me about Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles, a show that looks fabulous and will no doubt be a joy to consume.

Please check out my review of a demo reel of the show here and be sure to “like” the Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles Facebook page.

Ain’t It Cool with Harry Knowles begins its first broadcast season on February 7th on KLRU in Austin, Texas.