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By Chris Gore | April 13, 2002

Arthur Borman and Steve Danielson set out to make a documentary about the subculture of karaoke. The film follows the highs and lows of six hopefuls in a contest with $15,000 dollars and a recording contract at stake. The result can only be described as the “Survivor” of Karaoke competitions. Co-directors Arthur Borman (“And God Spoke”, “Shooting Lily”) and Steve Danielson spent a year and a half following the six subjects, each letting out their inner Elvis or Sinatra. The film is touching and hilarious all at once as we see hope fulfilled, dreams realized and others crushed.
Film Threat caught up with co-directors Arthur and Steve to discuss how they caught “Karaoke Fever”…
How did you to two get involved with this project together? ^ STEVE: I first met Arthur right around the time he was casting his second feature “Shooting Lily,” because my roommate was up for a role. We got to know each other better on a paintball outing, and found we both shared an interest in documentaries. ^ ARTHUR: Well, we both went to film school, but different schools. I went to UCLA and STEVE went to AFI. We are both from the mid-west (I’m from Detroit and Steve is from Cleveland). We both can’t carry a tune, but wish we could. We’ve never had any formal singing or vocal lessons, because we are completely tone deaf.
What led you to decide to make this film together? ^ STEVE: This is my first feature film. Although in Chicago I worked on several documentaries ranging from AIDS to Police Brutality, both heavy subjects. My experience with “Karaoke Fever” has been very exciting as I’ve finally gotten the chance to put everything I’ve learned to use in such a funny and entertaining way. ^ ARTHUR: Well my first feature film “And God Spoke” was a mockumentary about filmmaking. My second feature film “Shooting Lily” also included many documentary-ish scenes in it, but this is the first time I’ve done a real 100% non-fiction work. I think my narrative background really helped in making this film work because though it’s a documentary, it feels like it could be a narrative.
How did you come up with the idea to do a documentary about a karaoke competition? ^ ARTHUR: In 1998, I went to watch a friend compete in a Karaoke contest on the Santa Monica pier. He didn’t win, but I realized just how many people took Karaoke very seriously, a career hobby. I also learned about this annual contest, which I thought was a great way to explore the subculture. We weren’t interested in making fun of these people, although there is a lot of humor in the film, we wanted to understand what drives these people to do what they do, and maybe even give them a bigger platform by putting them on film. ^ STEVE: When Arthur told me about the idea, I could immediately relate to the hope of chasing after a dream that these people go through. I think we all desire to do something great or memorable with our lives and these people really go for it. I admire that and knew it would make a wonderful story. Also by the fact that it was a contest, I knew it would give it a narrative drive I felt other documentaries lacked.
Have you guys ever sang karaoke yourselves? ^ ARTHUR: I sang Karaoke once – it was a Pearl Jam song, and I was awful. ^ STEVE: To sing Karaoke you have to know the tune and the only tunes I know are Beatles songs, so I mostly stick to Hey Jude. Although now I find myself singing along with the characters in the cutting room. ^ ARTHUR: Steve is a great singer, and now that we have made a Karaoke documentary, we won’t be able to enter a Karaoke bar and NOT sing, so we have both rehearsed songs for that surprise occasion. I do Bad, Bad, Leroy Brown.
How did you go about finding the real people in the film? ^ STEVE: The contest has over 1500 entrants, and we began by filming everyone. We burned a lot of film. As we got to know these people, we started narrowing our search down to only those people who had fascinating stories to tell outside the bars. While we must have followed over twenty people throughout the duration, the final film only follows six from beginning to end. But there are another six strong supporting characters that we also come to know. ^ ARTHUR: Ironically what we discovered was the people who had the most compelling stories were also some of the best singers. We wanted people who were more than just drunks in a bar; we wanted people who live Karaoke nightly, people who believed in the dream that you can be discovered doing this. We also found that the songs most people sang were thematically linked to events in their own lives. I guess that’s what really sells a singer, when they have a passion for the songs they sing.
How did you keep the budget so low? ^ STEVE: The great thing about shooting in DV is that it allowed us to shoot 150 hours of tape, not film. Also Sputnik Pictures owns all the cameras and editing equipment, so there were very few hard costs. Even the crew worked for points of ownership. Most of the film’s budget went toward blank tapes and traveling costs. ^ ARTHUR: I think this is a trend that indie film will see more and more of as all this great equipment becomes affordable to the low budget filmmaker.
KARAOKE FEVER TIMELINE ^ October 98 – Santa Monica Pier – Arthur went to a Karaoke contest to watch a friend. He thought it would make a great idea for a doc. ^ July 99 – Pitched the Idea to Vince DiPersio and Adam Bardach of Sputnik Pictures, a new documentary company they had formed to finance quirky doc ideas. They love it. ^ August 99 – Started researching, and interviewing singers at local clubs by attending Karaoke shows and introducing ourselves to the Karaoke community. We also started filming the preliminary rounds. ^ September 99 – Continued filming preliminary rounds. Intensive filming Karaoke shows seven nights a week. We spent the days filming our characters in their homes, job, schools, etc… We filmed the semi-finals at various venues around Southern California. ^ October 99 – The Karaoke Fest finals were October 10th. We spent the days before following our characters and preparing for the big shoot. The finals were a massive 18-hour shooting day with 11 cameras. At the end of the evening, the awards were given away and production was over. ^ November 99 – March 2000 – It took us literally five months just to view and log all the footage, as well as find an editor who was up to the challenge of taking our 150 hours of film and assembling it. ^ April 2000 – August 2000 – These five months were spent just getting the story worked out and the film assembled into a massive eight hour cut. For us, that was a major event. ^ September 2000 – We cut the film down to two hours. We rejoiced when we watched it because we could finally see our story begin to emerge. ^ October 2000 – We spent the month refining the film, cutting another thirty minutes out and really working on the humor and narrative structure of the film. We started to have weekly screenings for friends. ^ November 2000 – We locked the picture and began sound post, credits, etc…
Here’s how the cut broke down: ^ August 15th 8 hours (everything and the kitchen sink) ^ September 7th 3 hours (all our characters and more) ^ September 15th 2 hours (at last! a story) ^ October 20th 90 minutes (fast, funny, and furious) ^ It was really hard to get the film down in length because even at three hours there were great moments that we knew would have to come out. Fortunately in today’s world of DVD’s and deleted scenes, we hope to be able to show those scenes to interested viewers.
Check out the official Karaoke Fever web site.
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