When Mike Woolf set out to make Growin’ a Beard several years ago, he had little experience with making movies, other than the commercial shoots he had been on as part of his work with the GSD&M ad agency in Austin, TX. What followed was a crash course in guerilla filmmaking. We sat down to talk to him about it.
Why did you decide to make the movie?
I had just moved to Austin from Baltimore, and I really embraced living in Texas. I had gotten this book called 52 Quirky Things to Do in Texas, one for every weekend, and for St. Patrick’s Day it said that you had to go to Shamrock, TX. It described the parade and the beard growing contest that goes from New Year’s Day to St. Patrick’s Day. I thought that would be a cool thing to film because it already has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has some drama. I figured it would be really easy to make.
I remember looking at my map of Texas for Shamrock and wondering how far it was from Austin, figuring it would be an hour or two drive. It’s 90 miles east of Amarillo, up in the panhandle. It’s a 10- or 12-hour drive. I thought, “Uh, this might be harder than I think.” (laughs)
But then I also knew the hairiest person I ever met, Scotty. So I thought it would be funny to get him to enter the contest and go up there.
Was there much arm-twisting involved?
A little bit. He was hesitant to unleash his follicles. I think he knew just how hairy he would be and the ridicule he would get, so he knew what he was going to create facially and was a little worried.
How did you decide who to follow in town?
We got lucky. The Chief Fuzzer that year basically hooked us up with the main people he knew were going to compete. It’s usually the same guys, more or less. “You have to talk to Bill Howe, because he takes these green pills. Richard only enters every ten years and he’s going to enter.” Roy had been entering three or four years in a row. Luckily we got all the main people. And then Scotty.
It was pretty obvious who was going to compete. You knew that Scotty and Richard were going to do well. At the time you’re like, “What am I doing on Main Street in Shamrock, TX with a camera?” (laughs) I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t understand the concept of microphones or tripods. And I had grown one, so I looked like a total dork as well.
I know with making documentaries, it’s very much guerilla filmmaking because you have to capture the moment. How did you learn to do that if it was all new to you?
It’s not that hard. We knew we had to be there at the actual judging, so we knew we had to have two cameras running. And we still missed stuff because we didn’t plan it out like, “You go for reactions, I’ll film the judge,” so there were times when both cameras were shooting the exact same thing. It was just so much luck.
And you picked up a lot of archival materials in the library, too.
They just have big books of the old paper, and I spent half a day going through it. I knew I was looking for pictures of Richard Smith from the years he won, and if I saw pictures of other people, like Bill Howe, we photographed that. Andrew took digital pictures of everything. And then the parade film was a blessing.
Where did that come from?
That came from this woman, Anna Ruth, who we stayed with when we were in Shamrock, because she has a bed-and-breakfast. At the time I was shooting a lot of Super 8, and I just kept asking everybody. And then literally the last night I was there, I went to bed, and she called me and showed me her closet. She had 22 rolls of Super 8 film. It was great. I transferred it at home and sent her a VHS tape of the film and we digitized it. We really didn’t even edit it much. We just let the edits go of the person who filmed it.
What was the process when you sat down and went through all the footage?
That took a year and a half of us working on it very sporadically. We just watched it and I had transcripts, so I knew where stuff was. If it was funny or interesting, and if you could hear what the person was saying, if you could see them and it was steady, it was in. We kept culling it down and culling it down, putting it in order. It was pretty obvious you couldn’t cut between the different times. You couldn’t cut to someone with a full beard and then show him without a beard. It was going to be linear, so that made it easy. We knew where we needed more footage, so we went out and got it. And then we cut the music up, and that helped us with the cut as well.
It seemed like 30 minutes was good. I was watching the outtakes and wondering why you didn’t make it longer, but there’s only so long you can watch a beard growing contest.
Exactly. I always believe you should leave a movie wanting more rather than thinking it got slow. That was part of the editing, too. Someone told us that a good way to do it was to not look at the picture and just listen to the audio. We really took that to heart, listening to the cut. If you listen to it, it moves very quickly.
I noticed you dealt a bit with how tough the town’s economy was with the shots of the hotels that closed when they bypassed Route 66.
Oh, definitely. What’s more American than Route 66? The way they all spoke of it, it sounded like classic Americana. They went to the drive-in, they’d drive up and down the street. It was literally bumper-to-bumper all the way up and down Route 66 in the fall and spring when the kids would go to school or people would go to California. That’s why I got the rights to have The Gourds sing a version of the song in the film.
I noticed that you still keep in contact with Roy.
He’s just so happy. When he came to the premiere, that was worth everything right there. The place erupted when he was introduced. He was so proud. We may go back up there for St. Patrick’s Day because they want to play the film up there then, and the Gourds may play the parade. I think I might be trapped into this for a while. (laughs)