Celebs.com Original Interview: Kings of Leon’s doc filmmaker Stephen C. Mitchell

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When Kings of Leon front man Caleb Followill walked off stage in Dallas a couple of weeks ago citing “vocal issues and exhaustion” (a move that pre-empted the canceling of the remainder of their August US tour dates), music fans everywhere were forced to wonder whether this was going to be another tale of a band who burned brightly before burning out.

Winners of Best Rock Performance (“Sex on Fire”) at the 2009 Grammys, and Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song and Record of the Year at the 2010 Grammys, the uniquely American band from Talihina, Oklahoma, found UK success before US audiences fully embraced KOL’s fourth album.

Premiering this week on Showtime – Sunday, August 21 at 10PM ET/PT Stephen C. Mitchell’s skillfully-crafted documentary “Talihina Sky” chronicles the band’s rise from bible-belt beginnings and a devout Pentecostal upbringing through to mega-success and their annual return to familial roots.

Told from the perspective of a true insider (Mitchell started filming the Followill’s a decade ago, well before the band was formed), the film is an incredibly honest sharing by the band’s members of how and where they grew up, the musicianship forged from evangelical beginnings, the bonds of family, the struggles of poverty and personal demons, and their eventual rise to rock-star status.

Celebs.com chatted with Mitchell about his first film, “Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon,” and delivers some insight about the band.

Celebs.com: When was the first time you met the guys?
Stephen Mitchell: Ten years ago, this past Spring. I was living down in Nashville, TN, working for a music publishing company. Basically, my task was to find anything that wasn’t country-music related. And I met Nathan and Caleb and we signed them to their initial song writing deals before they even formed the band. So just super early, and then during that process while they were finding their legs and getting their little brother and cousin in the band, it was during that time that we became friends. They really opened up and I learned their backstory, about their childhoods, their family. I was excited for them musically but thinking to myself, “Man, this a story I wanna tell.”

Celebs.com: Just because of the inherent conflict between their religious upbringing and the world of rock and roll?
Mitchell: I think there was that element, but I also think they’re just very charismatic and interesting people. It’s hard to put into words but I just knew that they’d be magic on tape. And their family as well, just very honest and raw, truthful people. And when you’re surrounded by that you can feel it. There was just never-ending doubt. I was like, “People need to meet this family and hear this story, this is great stuff!”

Celebs.com: Have both of Caleb and Nathan’s parents seen this?
Mitchell: They were at our premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere this Spring. I’d shown it to their mom before that, but it was the first time their Dad had gotten a chance to see it. And then, recently, we went to Dead Center, an up-and-coming festival in Oklahoma City. That’s where their family is based, so we went and had our Oklahoma premiere there, which was really neat too. We had 100+ family members come out that hadn’t seen it yet, and a lot of them were in it. Man, was that rewarding, they just had a blast, loved it, and they’ve blowing up my phone with texts.

Celebs.com: There is that kind of naïve beauty about Talihina. Here these guys are, rolling around with huge successes under their belts, playing sold-out stadium shows, and the locals don’t seem to have any concept of just how big KOL are.
Mitchell: There’s a real contrast in their world; that’s really captivating to people. You know, one minute you’re at the Talihina property with them for a reunion and the next you’re at Glastonbury, and your brain is thinking, “What in the world?”

Celebs.com: And their Dad shares so many things about his own demons. What was his specific reaction to the film.
Mitchell: Like the boys, too, I think it’s hard for him to watch the film and rightfully so. But it seems they’re all really proud of themselves for having the courage to step up and talk, and I think ours might be the only interviews ever done with him and I really appreciate that opportunity. He has a great story, he’s a great man, he was an incredible minister, and look, he’s human like the rest of us. And that was a hard lesson for everybody in the family to learn and go through that. But I know the boys value their relationship with him and are really rooting for him to do well in life, so I think that family bond is there.

Celebs.com: It seems, despite where they’re headed and what they’ve experienced in terms of drugs and alcohol, which is obviously something they didn’t grow up with, that they still put their heads together and pray before each show. Does that faith practice still exist or have they now let that go?
Mitchell: Oh yeah, they do that every show. They actually do a chant, Johnson’s Old Grey Mule is the name of the song. It’s an old folk song, that may not be the right title, but they’ve taken an old song and made it into a chant to get themselves fired up and they do the prayer circle. It was pretty cool of them to let us show that to everybody, you know get under there and stick the camera underneath their faces with them praying down over me on the circle. While I was filming it I was like, “Oh man, damn!”

Celebs.com: I mean obviously the possessive natures of religion and music are both incredibly powerful.
Mitchell: Yeah, it’s like that genre of rock. You’re talking Jerry Lee and Elvis, and all those guys, and their lives were very similar in many ways.

Celebs.com: And what about the whole art versus business concept for them. Obviously, you’re showing them driving around in a Mercedes and going to visit their old house in what I could only imagine is a fairly poor area. Is money something that you see has affected them?
Mitchell: I mean, I think anybody that goes from their background of that cloistered world, being impoverished and struggling, and then being in the shoes they are now…Who would handle that well? Maybe it’s a process of learning how to do that, is what I really mean to say. I think any human is not going to handle that process perfectly.

Celebs.com: There are so many issues in the film. Even the footage showing Caleb voting for Obama, I’m sure when you showed that in Oklahoma it got a laugh.
Mitchell: Yeah, you know, and that their Mom told them to vote the other way; it’s partly funny and really cool of them to reveal that stuff. Not all the family members will agree with the things the band members say or do in the film. Some of that journey is difficult, I think, for a lot of those people to watch on screen. I am very grateful that we landed in a spot at the end of the film that feels positive and inspirational. The family is so pumped up about it right now. They’re calling it “Our documentary” and they’re loving seeing it at theatres and on Showtime. It’s an exciting time for them right now.

Celebs.com: Yeah, and to state the obvious of them taking a break from their tour right now, that gives the documentary a different outlook. Have you gone back and watched the film again knowing what you know now?
Mitchell: I haven’t watched it much lately. And I always learn something new when I watch my own film, which is a weird thing, it’s hard to put that in words. But I sort of see it as pieces and puzzles, it’s very elaborate. We wanted to make it that, not a one-time watcher, maybe something you would refreshingly want to go back to and continue to watch and learn from. But I haven’t watched it recently, it’s hard, I’m ready to creatively move on to new things, so to keep circling back is a weird thing and at some point you gotta let it go. And I even told the boys that, too, you know, “Don’t watch it for a while.”

Celebs.com: The first time I saw it was before Caleb walked off stage in Dallas. Then I watched it again, and you start giving greater relevance to little statements that Caleb makes, especially at the end, talking about his struggles. There’s a guy at the beginning of the film giving the band advice, saying “There’s a constant battle that applies to all great achievements.”
Mitchell: Yeah, I love that speech. Ivan Kushlick, he’s the worldwide tour manager and he goes in there and gives them that speech at the five-minute mark and I love it when he does that. That’s a very apropos speech he gave that night, that’s the first time they played at O2 Arena, so it was a big show for them over in London. Ivan’s speech is so on point, he says it’s a battle, that success is not handed to you. I think it’s very admirable for the boys to show you that it’s a struggle. It’s not easy to do what they do, even though there is a glamorous side of it. They’re really putting their honest truth out there and I hope people will appreciate the fact that they were willing to be so vulnerable.

Celebs.com: Right I mean Nathan continues to seem vulnerable, even with his Tweets and the way he communicates with the fans.
Mitchell: He loves his Tweets.

Celebs.com: And that moment when Nathan’s standing there with a camera and filming himself telling Caleb that the rest of the band has made Caleb who he is and that they’ve carried him. Was that blowout something that’s occurred many times, or was that a one-off?
Mitchell: That was one night where we had the camera rolling. But, they’re brothers, man, and brothers say anything and everything to each other. And sometimes you say things you don’t mean, sometimes you really mean it and others times you’re being a jerk or you’re mad. But brothers’ relationships are close, they’re vulnerable relationships. I have brothers, I say awful things to those guys and I love ‘em to death.