In August 2001, Charlie Todd and his friends decided to pull a prank in a New York bar. While he hung out inside, his friends came in separately, each one pretending that Todd was the musician Ben Folds. Everyone bought it, and eventually the whole bar was buying Todd drinks and asking for his autograph. The next day Todd posted that story on the Internet and his global movement began. Twelve years later, what has become known as Improv Everywhere organizes happenings that include thousands of people, generates videos with tens of millions of views, and inspires a plethora of imitators.
The journey of Improv Everywhere was recently chronicled by NYU filmmakers Andrew Soltys and Matt Adams. Their documentary We Cause Scenes will premiere at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin on March 8. We caught up with Andrew a couple of weeks before the premiere to preview the film and chat about it.
The making of We Cause Scenes began three years ago when Soltys met Adams, the film’s director. Originally, said Soltys, “it started more as a student film,” and they planned to “make a short video, maybe a sixty minute movie.” But they soon realized that wouldn’t be enough. “We sort of had an insider track into making this” said Soltys. “We got a box with 100 tapes and watched them all back to back.” The tapes were the personal videos of Todd, who had documented all of his pranks since 2001. They knew from the hundreds of hours of footage that they couldn’t compress Improv Everywhere’s story into just a short film, and instead decided to make it feature length.
After raising enough funds for production, they hit the ground running with what Soltys described as “sixteen hours a day of working on it nonstop.” Though they sorted through the hours of tape Todd gave them and filmed their own interviews, they were struggling to find a way to cut it all together. “It’s one thing to go out and shoot all this material,” said Soltys, but it was hard for them to find “a traditional beginning, middle, and end.” Ultimately, he said, “it’s very much [the story of] this cumulative growth,” and it’s a film that “relies a lot on vignettes.” Through these vignettes, the viewer gets an acute sense of Improv’s growth and its compelling story.
For the filmmakers, the rise of Improv Everywhere is a distinctly twenty first century story. “We’re trying to show a perspective on the history of the internet,” said Soltys. This is what makes the film so effective–it tells the human story of the rise of a movement and the larger story of the rise of the Internet all at once.
We Cause Scenes will debut at SXSW this Friday. Click here for the trailer.