An Intimate Portrait of the 10 Year History of the Postal Service
Director Justin Mitchell follows the band on their sell-out 10th anniversary New York arena shows.
In a new documentary by filmmaker Justin Mitchell, The Creators Project takes an unprecedented look at The Postal Service and their 10 year history, from the initial long distance collaborations that created the 2003 sleeper hit Give Up through to the band's recent string of reunion dates at venues and festivals far exceeding original expectations.
This intimate new film follows The Postal Service's recent sold out show at New York's Barclays Arena from the perspective of the band and the fans—mixing performance, fan testimonials, and studio interviews with Ben Gibbard, Jimmy Tamborello, and Jenny Lewis in a multi-frame motion graphics format. This blend of perspectives relates the complex story of the band, who wouldn't exist without technology, and the one album that accidentally became the emotional soundtrack for millions of young people.
We fired off a few questions to director Mitchell to find out more about the techniques he used and his own relationship to the band and their music.
The Creators Project: A guy in the documentary talks about the music taking him back to his high school years. What are your own connections and memories of listening to the band's music?
Mitchell: I jumped on the road with Death Cab for Cutie for a month of touring of the Transatlanticism album back in 2004 to film the documentary Drive Well, Sleep Carefully and got to know Ben/Chris/Nick/Jason during that time. It's funny to think back because The Postal Service album was already out but we were so totally focused on just shooting Death Cab, that I initially missed the boat on Give Up even though it was sitting right in front of me. I remember hearing everyone talking about it but I don't remember getting into the album until I finally landed back home in Los Angeles and was editing the film.
So Give Up totally crept up on me probably the same way it did for a lot of people. What I remember most was me and my girlfriend at the time, now wife, Sarah, eating up every Give Up related EP release that followed. We played the Such Great Heights EP over and over and over again, just not being able to get enough. All those amazing bands and people doing covers and remixes of songs from this one album seemed so normal at the time, but looking back now, it was anything but.
And how did these connections translate into the feel of the documentary?
Over the years I had asked The Postal Service camp about shooting a documentary, but as time went on the chances seemed remote to tell the story. So when I heard that The Postal Service was doing a tour this year and doing a re-release of Give Up, I think all my previous connections and memories translated into a high level of excitement, energy, and persistence. I spent a week developing a treatment/pitch that I sent on to the band to let them know that if they needed me, I was totally ready and down. We didn't get to see them at Coachella but we went to their show in Pomona a few days later where I caught up with Jimmy and Jenny after the show and a few drinks later, heard myself exclaiming, "Why am I not filming you guys doing all this!?" So when I finally got the call that the band was down for me to film, I think I was primed to make something worthy of all the pent up energy and excitement not only that I had, but that a lot of people had in relationship to the album and the years gone by.
What is it do you think that people find so appealing about the band's music?
I think that the appeal comes from that the fact that the creation of this album was a perfect storm in so many ways, especially the method of collaboration. A lot of people have talked or written about the back and forth between Jimmy and Ben (sending CDs of music to each other in the mail) and they tend to focus on the quaintness of it all (especially all these year later,) but I think that the details of that process and the freedoms and limitations that it imposed on the two of them was a really defining part of the project. What audiences hear on this album is a lot of pure creativity and collaboration and that's a rare thing. There was no band. There was no label interference, no marketing plans, no big expectations. This was two guys who decided to write songs by sending ideas back and forth to one another because they dug and valued each other's vision.
Ben was coming from a place, with a certain group process of song-writing with Death Cab and on the other hand, here was Jimmy who operated in a virtual bubble with his own unique private process of music creation. They each had these totally different perspectives and approaches to making music. If I could have put them in a room for a week together to 'jam' and write songs, I wonder if we would have this album? You have them send CDs back and forth a few times and like that, bam, that is Give Up.
Looking back, 2003 was a pretty crazy year in terms of national and global events, do you think that plays into the appeal of this music?
I do think that the times and global events play a part but I think maybe even more important was that confluence of technology and the beginnings of social media. Friendster and MySpace had just begun to link people in ways that are now second nature for us all, but in 2003-2004, the process of discovery of music, art, relationships via this online world had its own freshness. When a friend sent you a link to something cool, it didn't necessarily mean it would go viral within a day or two. That all happened later. I think for a lot of people, Give Up was sort of the the soundtrack for that time. It just fit with what was going on.
Why did you choose to use a lot of spilt screen in the documentary?
Music documentary has a long-standing relationship with split/multiple screens that I love—Woodstock, The Song Remains the Same—and I felt that in this instance the technique could genuinely help to reinforce the idea that this album was a merging of perspectives and talent. Death Cab, Dntel, and Jenny Lewis all stand tall on their own but when you put them together you get The Postal Service and that's what this reunion tour is celebrating (and finally embracing!). It just made sense to visually emphasize that idea. Having my buddy Chris Kirk, aka Mindbomb Films, jump on board to create visual movement with the frames was just icing on the cake!
Can you talk about some of the photographic techniques you used to capture this process? Prisms, slow mo, etc and why?
I've been looking for a project to use prisms on for a while and much like the multiple frames, I think they help to support the story of the band. For me the prisms represent a gathering of all the disparate energies that propelled the album upwards and onwards during the last ten years. The band might be the center of the image and the focus but for ten years they allowed Give Up to live its own life and somehow, all that outside energy resulted in a platinum album. Now, as Ben says, they get to reclaim it and I think the prism (which just looked so much cooler in slow motion) helps to show that.
What was the most interesting thing you learned about the band's process of creating these songs?
I think the most interesting and amazing things I learned was, as Jimmy says, that "There really wasn't much back and forth." That idea just blows my mind because the album sounds so finely tuned that I had always assumed it took long agonizing hours of back and forth to create.
What's the most enjoyable and interesting part about capturing and following a band while they're on tour?
I genuinely love documenting music and artists in their 'natural habitat,' so to speak, and getting to film a band on the road gets you as close as you can. It also lends itself to a natural environment where the focus is only on music, like the rest of the world just falls away and the show that night is the only thing left. Once you're in that space, you find peoples' guards dropping as they get into their groove and you can capture moments that get at the heart of someone's creative talent, something they didn't necessarily mean to reveal.
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