Interview: Alice Gu films legendary sounds
Appropriately, the slate of films at SXSW 2022 featured many intimate stories about music. Among them was Alice Gu’s sonically soothing documentary Really Good Rejects.
Really Good Rejects focuses on Reuben Cox, a luthier (guitar maker) who is the mutual link between artists such as Phoebe Bridgers, Andrew Bird, Hand Habits, and The National — just to name a few. This documentary archives Reuben’s understated journey as a musical blacksmith, the introspective relationships these musicians have with their guitars, and the particularity behind a signature of Reuben’s instruments: the rubber bridge.
From the Intercom took some time in Austin to ask Alice about the joys of filmmaking, how the film came to be, and what her own rubber bridge moment was like.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
From the Intercom: First question for you, having seen the film, everyone has great musical taste. Who are you listening to right now?
Alice Gu: Oh, jeez, who am I listening to right now? I would say Madlib, because it’s been pretty heavy on guitars and all of these artists for the past like six months, and they still come very much into rotation. It was just Phoebe Bridgers on the way to the airport.
But it’s been Madlib, it’s been Wu-Tang. It kind of veered off course of indie rock and went into the hip hop space. Totally different space.
FTI: So there’s something idiosyncratic about seeing indie rock icons in an indie documentary about the luthier behind the guitars premiering at SXSW. What does it mean to you to have Really Good Rejects here at the festival?
Alice: Oh, it’s huge for me. I mean, I just have to say, on a personal level, The Donut King, which was here two years ago, didn’t get this big premiere, but I have a lot of love for SXSW. It was the festival who was going to screen my first film for me. So it was only natural to come back to SXSW, and with the music I felt like it was such a natural choice.
FTI: I read through a little bit of what’s already been written in the press release and some of the Q&A. You talk about joy. Joy is a central component of this film — the joy of music, the joy of process, the joy of listening. So what were sources of joy for you personally when you were making this film?
Alice: Oh, my god. All of it. Every conversation I had with everybody — from Reuben to Perfume Genius to Jackson Browne — every single second of making this film has been a joy. It’s been a pinch me moment even. It wouldn’t even register. It was so surreal.
It wouldn’t even be until we interviewed Jim James and after he left, I swear I saw him drive off and it was like moonbeams and rainbows coming out of his tailpipes because he has such good vibes. And I elbowed my DP and I was like, “That was Jim motherfucking James.” We just talked to Jim James, this huge rock star. He just met up with us on a picnic table in the park.
How cool is this? But there was so much delight in every day I didn’t know what was going to come out of it. Everyone has such a different personality. Carrie Brownstein is so thoughtful and a bit cerebral, so smart — like scary smart — and thoughtful in her answers. And Jim James is from another dimension in a really wonderful way. Andrew Bird is so intellectual. Perfume Genius is so funny.
Everybody had their different personalities. But what was also fascinating for me, and this is the joy for me as a filmmaker, is seeing how these very, very different people could all converge with one human.
In the film, they said the same things. That wasn’t me prompting them. They all honed in on this magic — that this guitar wrote the songs for me. Three people said this guitar is an Excalibur. It kind of boils down to the basics. Yeah, it’s very sublime, like, very dialed in. And it’s a little hard for me to articulate into words.
Every single second was a delight and the sound of that rubber bridge guitar for me, it does not get old. Ethan Gruska had a wonderful way of saying that when he heard “In the Valley,” in an instant, it took him to the woods. And for me it feels like a mother’s hug. It’s this warm and familiar sound that is just a delight to the ears all the time.
FTI: Reuben Cox, the subject of your documentary, comes across as so measured, considered and studied. Could you talk about what it was like meeting him for the first time and what convinced you there was a film inside him?
Alice: Reuben is overly humble, measured, a little shy, but very funny and very likable. It took a little convincing. And he’s like, “Oh, well, okay, sure, sure.” Honestly, this was meant to be a short film. It was meant to be a little short just to get creative and make something.
I had a little bit of time off last summer and I just know as an artist I felt the urge to make something and I had no intention of making it into a feature length film. And he’s like, “Oh, sure. You know, I’m like, I can hang out for a couple of days.” And it ended up being weeks and months. My first time meeting him, he was instantly likable. He had an aura about him. He’s different. He really has a different vibe.
Reuben says, “Oh, there’s no secret. You can just do it.” I don’t actually believe that. I think that anybody can take this raw material and do it. But he has something that is special. It’s his ear, it’s his touch, it’s his instinct that knows how to make a musical Excalibur. I feel like I’m chasing it in this film. It’s that X factor. It’s that mystery.
I’ll say this, at SXSW, where we are, Reuben walked into a party with me yesterday, and I met a producer for the first time, and I was telling him about the film, and he was like, I don’t know who he is, but as soon as he walked in, I knew I wanted to meet him. He said that Reuben had something about him. I was like, Oh, well, your instinct was right.
FTI: There are several blog excerpts narrated by Reuben actually in the film, really covering the afterlives of his guitars. And they were really beautiful. They were really powerful and they’re so short. Is he a pretty active writer?
Alice: You know, he was when he started the guitar shop and this was like in 2010, I think he even started blogging in 2009. So this would be like the time when people were getting their blogs started and I guess this is what people do. And he’s quite a good writer. He’s quite a good writer. But it’s funny, his blog entries drop off as the guitar shop got busier. No time to write or blog anymore. When I first started looking into everything, I said, Oh, maybe these blog entries are like a way to the film, with different chapters. And I was like, Oh, they stop at like 2012. I think he just got too busy and he stopped writing.
FTI: I live in LA, as I mentioned, and I’m itching to visit Old Style guitar shop now. In your own words, could you describe Old Style to those that haven’t been there yet?
Alice: It’s this magical place. I mean, I think even if you are not a guitar player, you can sense that it’s magical. I’m actually not a guitar player. I’m a musicophile, audiophile, but I’m not a guitar player. But I will be. And going in. Everything is so incredibly curated, you know, that you’re in some place that’s special and different. There’s a kid in a candy store feeling. Everything is cool and you’re going to get something that is unique and special there. So, I mean, my DP went in and left with a guitar. Our sound guy went in and left with a guitar. Composer went in three times and left with three different instruments. If you do play and you go in, it’s a bit of a dangerous place.
It’s a wonderful place. They closed for a long time during the pandemic and it was by appointment only, and now it’s opening back up again. So the in-store performances that really foster community and connection are there. It’s not just about the famous people or known people. It’s every type of person that goes in there. It’s like, oh, Fred Armisen just walked in or Marcus Mumford just walked in. Blake Mills is going to come and just post up and play for an hour. It’s really a place to hang out too.
We didn’t really get into this in the film but it’s a really friendly place for female or non-male guitar players. There’s no mansplaining. Madison Cunningham for how much she shreds and she’s incredible, she said every time she goes to Guitar Center, she has to mentally prepare herself. She makes sure she’s going in with pants. She said how she always somehow ends up leaving feeling horrible. At Old Style, there’s a respect there.
FTI: I noticed that between this and The Donut King, there’s that use of animatics and illustration. I really think that multimedia is exciting to see in documentary work. Could you speak a little bit about incorporating these elements in your work?
Alice: I knew right away that I wanted to include animation or something. I’m not following any of these guys to a concert or a tour or something. I just didn’t want to have too many talking heads. How do I make this more interesting? And I said, okay, animation, but very different from The Donut King animation. The Donut King was a very kind of literal animation.
I wanted to be a little bit more creative with this one. I felt like with the film it needed a different kind of animated spirit. And since we are talking about so much in that abstract, that unknown, I wanted the animation to represent something that was kind of unpresentable. So that’s how I approached the animation here.
I have an incredible creative partner in Lauren Mayer-Beug. She’s just a creative genius. I would bounce ideas off her and she’ll send a sketch and I’m like, that’s it, that’s exactly it. I wanted to convey that the guitars had some magic to it. We have little animated elements coming out of the guitar in a really simple way. We don’t want to take away from the performance or anything else, but just a little small flourish.
FTI: The rubber bridge revelation blew my mind. So many of the musicians expressed how their guitars unlocked potential to play new songs. Have you had a parallel experience in your filmmaking career? Was there a rubber bridge moment for you that unlocked the potential to film new stories?
Alice: I can’t say that in film, but I would say still photography. I’ve had magic cameras that I could take, and it didn’t matter. This was my way of understanding and connecting. I have Leicas and really expensive, incredible cameras. But my magic camera is a $150 camera that my dad bought for me with a little simple lens. It’s a Pentax K 1000. It’s everybody’s starter SLR camera, old school film. And that camera was like my Excalibur. I was able to capture moments and people and places. I was quick with it. It felt like it was an extension of me. It saw what I saw in a way, and was able to capture the unexplainable, the intangible.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort, in-person at SXSW 2022 in Austin, Texas on March 15th, 2022.
Really Good Rejects is currently on its film festival circuit.