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For decades the eccentric songwriter Daniel Johnston has been a cult icon, but some surprisingly mainstream friends recently made themselves known in a big way. Earlier this month, pop star Lana Del Rey and rapper Mac Miller each donated $10,000 to a Kickstarter campaign for a short film called Hi, How Are You, directed by Gabriel Sunday. Now executive producers on the film, Del Rey and Miller both contacted the young filmmaker to express their support and, he says, offer any help they can give him with the project.
The film stars Johnston, with Sunday playing a younger version of the musician, fully entering the songwriter’s off-kilter creative mind and bringing his illustrations to life. The production team initially launched the Kickstarter campaign to cover its post-production costs including animation and CGI. But after reaching its minimum goal of $35,000 in less than a week, Sunday says they may decide to film more.
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To promote the Kickstarter, they sent emails to Johnston’s mailing list, and soon Spin picked up the story. Word spread quickly, and Miller and Del Rey caught wind. Miller reached out to the filmmaker directly just a couple of days after the crowd-source fundraising campaign’s Nov. 12 start, and Sunday said the rapper seemed outright angry that more people didn’t know about Johnston’s work.
“Mac’s a huge Daniel Johnston fan, and he told me he’s always trying to talk to people about Daniel but is sick of having to explain who he is,” Sunday tells The Hollywood Reporter. He said he hopes this short film will be a way to bring Johnston’s music to a broader audience.
“I’ll never forget the first time I heard Daniel Johnston,” says Miller. “When I heard about the movie, I immediately wanted to be involved. One, because for creative reasons I am so excited to work with the team who has already been working hard and do what I can to make this movie as good as it can be. But, two, I want to do anything I can to re-create that same moment I had in discovering Daniel Johnston for as many people as possible. Few people have approached arts with as much rawness and pure emotion than a Daniel Johnston. Few people deserve to have a legendary legacy. Dan is one of them. I’m excited to take people inside of his head and show them what that world is like.”
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Del Rey took a somewhat more sly approach and started following Sunday on Twitter, which Sunday said started bringing attention his way through her 3 million followers. Then, on Nov. 17, she and boyfriend Barrie-James O’Neill called Sunday, he says, saying eerily at first, “Gabriel, we’ve been watching you … You’ve been doing cool things, Gabriel …” And then they offered him whatever help he needed, pledging $10,000 to the project while they were on the phone.
“[Johnston]’s fighting the long crazy fight,” says Del Rey. “He’s a genius. And more human beings have to know about his crazy good songs and talent. His spirit is golden. This film will only prove to show that.”
For their contributions, Miller will receive Johnston’s “Keep on Rocking” chord organ and Del Rey will receive his “Sorry Entertainer” Smurf ukulele.
On Wednesday Miller tweeted the news:
Me and @LanaDelRey are both executive producers on a movie. That’s tight.
— Mac. (@MacMiller) November 20, 2013
“I’m still in my twenties but been in LA making independent films for a while now,” says Sunday, 28. “And I know it’s rare for anyone to offer support to a project, especially pretty much unconditionally like this.”
That Sunday even has the chance to make the film is a bit of a surprise. Amid the massive attention Johnston received following the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Sunday says Johnston and his family had some of the biggest production companies courting them to acquire life rights. Meanwhile, Sunday had just finished working on the indie feature Archie’s Final Project, and was looking for a new project. A massive fan of Johnston’s, Sunday says he knew that was the next role he wanted to play, so he and his writing partner traveled to Austin, Texas, knowing it was a long shot. Simply, Sunday says, Johnston liked him and his work and the animation in his film and signed a deal to work with them.
Thus began the creation of the surreal short film that would have Sunday playing a younger version of Johnston opposite the real one, fully entering the songwriter’s off-kilter creative mind and bringing his illustrations to life. The film is centered on Johnston’s performance at this year’s Open Borders Music and Arts Festival as he reflects backstage on the making of his seminal 1983 album, Hi, How Are You. “But as Daniel tells his stories, the rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper and time and reality begin to bend,” Sunday says in a promo on the Kickstarter page. “What starts out as this interview spills into a world where Daniel’s art and characters and music come to life.”
Sunday says the short film has been six years in the making, through creative discussions and brainstorming with Johnston. Even when they settled on the premise and began filming, the script kept changing as Johnston’s thoughts would drift and meander while filming, leaving the volunteer cast and crew improvising to keep up.
“With someone like Daniel, you just want to get him on camera as much as possible because you don’t know how much longer he’s going to be around,” said Sunday. Johnston is 52 and has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and manic depression.
“We still intend to make a feature about him, but this is the story that seemed like it needed to be told now,” says Sunday.
The Kickstarter campaign ends Dec. 8. So far it has raised $45,000. Sunday says he hopes the film will be finished by March 2015.
Watch the Kickstarter video below.
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