How the Director of HBO's 'Woodstock 99' Doc Cut Through the Chaos of the Infamous Festival
An ugly chapter in alt-rock history gets the retrospective treatment from filmmaker Garret Price and executive producer Bill Simmons.
Director Garrett Price wanted his new documentaryWoodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage, a deep-dive chronicle of one of the most disturbing music festivals in pop-culture history, to kick off with a song that evoked the mood of a '90s road trip movie. He settled on Lit's alt-rock radio hit "My Own Worst Enemy," the type of blaring guitar anthem that, for Price, brought to mind images of "Jason Biggs driving upstate with his friends in a car for a weekend of partying." If you know anything about Woodstock '99, a four-day descent into Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock soundtracked chaos in Rome, New York that ends with human waste pouring out on the ground and flames rising in the sky, you know the good vibes will not last long.
Premiering on HBO Friday night as the first entry in Music Box, a series of documentaries produced by sports media impresario Bill Simmons and The Ringer, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage has a difficult task for itself. Over two hours, it attempts to tell a tick-tock narrative of the festival—which was reported on extensively at the time by outlets like Spin and MTV, and recently explored on a Ringer-produced podcast hosted by writer Steven Hyden, who appears as a talking head in this film—and connect it to larger cultural events of the period, like Bill Clinton's impeachment, the Columbine shootings, Y2K anxiety, and the transition from the vaguely progressive aspirations of early '90s alternative rock to the often hopeless nihilism and vile sexism of the nu metal era. It's a lot of (muddy) ground to cover.
By relying on footage from the festival, along with interviews with attendees, music journalists, festival staff, and artists like Moby, Jewel, Korn's Jonathan Davis, Creed's Scott Stapp, and more, the film paints an often unsettling portrait of white male anger, misogyny, and violence. Price, who previously directed Love, Antosha about the actor Anton Yelchin, spoke about the challenges of tying all the threads in the story together, the musicians who declined to tell their side of the story, and his own complicated relationship with the festival.
Thrillist: You're about 40 years old, I believe. Do you have a personal connection to Woodstock '99? What do you remember about that time?
Garrett Price: I was a sophomore in college at the University of Texas, glued to the pay-per-view feed that whole weekend with my roommates. It was interesting because, yes, we saw the chaos unfold over those three days but it was more like, "Man, I wish I was there." It was more of a FOMO than really understanding the issues at play and the tragedies that occurred. It wasn't until years later when I started doing a deep dive back into the festival and seeing it's never really been told and it kinda got swept under the rug a bit. Even more fascinating, a lot of people confuse Woodstock '99 and Woodstock '94 to this day even. They're like, "Is that the one with the mud and Nine Inch Nails and Green Day?" And I'm like, "No, this is the one that ended much differently."
So, this gave me an opportunity to do what I like to do with my films, which is use these micro events to think about some macro ideas. The cultural context and the socio-political context surrounding the festival of a time when I was coming of age is really interesting to go back to, especially when you start to see some of the threads to how things are today. That's what excited me about this whole project.
So, you were not a big nu metal fan? What were your musical allegiances?
A lot of indie rock. But I listened to it. I mean, I grew up in Texas in the suburbs. I watched MTV. This was the music of my generation. I was really interested in exploring what it was about this music that, for how short-lived it was, made it very popular. It spoke to a lot of people at the time and I wanted to see why.
I'm glad you mentioned the pay-per-view aspect of it. How much footage is there, and what was the process like as a filmmaker culling through all of it and trying to find what you wanted to use?
There was a ton. It was covered for three straight days, so we had access to that. But more important to me was we found all these attendees who had Handycams or mini-DV cams that whole weekend. We wanted to really capture that point-of-view that hadn't been seen before, that boots on the ground experience as those three days unfolded. That's what I got excited about. The pay-per-view was great for the performances, but it was really using those different experiences that kids were capturing on their cameras. Also, just the way it looks, the graininess of it, really speaks to the time. That's my vérité footage in the movie, what they captured and what they saw unfold in real time.
How did you find that footage? What was the process for reaching out to people and getting access to it?
I had an amazing archivist and researcher who basically Twitter-stalked and YouTube-stalked these clips they would find. Tape-trading communities, also. There's all this stuff. These tapes were sitting in their parents house somewhere and they'd be like, "I haven't thought about this in a long time." So they'd retrieve it and mail it out to us. It was gold. It really helped tell the story I was starting to tell. And there was a lot of it.
Given the scope of the story and the runtime of the movie, was there footage you really wanted to include but had to cut?
Yeah, there were a lot of stories and moments that were really interesting that we didn't have the time for. In the beginning, we were asking, "Would this work better as a series than as a film?" I was like, "No, this has a three-act structure." It takes place over three days. I don't think I could handle more than one episode of this story. I think it works as a film, as a single sitting experience. And, truthfully, Woodstock films have always been films versus series, so it always felt like the right format to tell the story in.
In addition to the festival footage, the movie has lots of interviews with artists. We know who said "yes" to participating in the movie because, obviously, they're in the movie. But I'm curious about the artists not in the film. For example, did you reach out to Fred Durst?
I talked to Fred a couple of times. We had conversations, and ultimately he decided he didn't want to participate. He's kinda moved on from that. I respect and understand that. But at the same time, I wanted to give him a platform to tell his side of the story. It was funny because, as I started making this, it's so much more about Limp Bizkit, this story. They got a lot of pushback throughout their career because of this, and I don't think that's entirely fair. There's a lot of factors that lead to the downfall of this festival.
What I did find fascinating was, what was it about Limp Bizkit that spoke to this generation of attendees so much? That's something I was more excited to dig into. Yes, the performance is very visceral and it's crazy to go back and watch, especially from the eyes of the present COVID moment. But what was it about this band that spoke to this crowd and made them so locked in? Why did they have a meteoric rise at this time? And it was a relatively short-lived genre of music. Those were the things that really excited me in telling this story, and that's what I told Fred. And he seemed interested, but, ultimately, he decided it wasn't for him and that's totally fine. I'm very happy with the people who did participate in the film.
I assume you reached out to Kid Rock and the Red Hot Chili Peppers as well?
Yeah, we reached out to everybody. Again, I wanted to give them a platform. I'm sitting back objectively. It's everyone's story to tell and their experiences. Everyone has different experiences, from John [Scher] and Michael [Lang] putting the thing on, to the attendees, to the musicians. I just wanted to create a platform for everyone to tell their story and what they remembered from it and then lay it all out there.
John Scher, especially, seems still very frustrated with the way MTV told the story at the time. How did you pitch this movie to him when you were talking to him about participating?
Yeah, it was the same way. I want to use the story of Woodstock '99 as a lens into the culture of the time and raise this question: Was the festival a victim of its time? That thesis of mine changed as I got deeper and deeper into this. I think there's faults everywhere. I also said, "We're making this film whether you want to be a part of it or not, so this is a chance to tell your story." And it's a story he's stuck to since the beginning. He hasn't changed his mind over the years. Anything he's said in this film, it's stuff he's been reported on saying in the past.
I like John and Michael a lot. I think they're really interesting and they've been successful with what they've done in the music world. But I do think they represent a culture of people and a generation of people in some of the things they believe and say. That's one of the themes of this movie. There are these power dynamics between generations, along with gender, race, class, and other things. Those were some of the things that excited me about using Woodstock '99 to explore and talk about.
I think you could potentially make an entire film about the sexual assaults that occurred at Woodstock '99 and the culture of misogyny of that period. What were the conversations you had in the filming and editing process about how to present that aspect of the narrative?
There was a fine line between being exploitative in showing what it is and still making it feel like you're boots on the ground there, and feeling the toxicity of the environment that was created. There's an inherent danger in marketing the ideas of the late '60s and the free love movement to the culture of Girls Gone Wild, FHM, and Maxim of the late '90s. That's what I wanted to come across. As far as telling stories, it's important because, yes, the festival got a lot of press about the assaults that happened, but to put images to this and see how it unfolded and see how if things are treated this way in the beginning, it's going to result this way in the end. That was really important to me. There are lots of tragedies that happened. I got close with David Vadnais, who lost his best friend there. I can't imagine going to a festival like this for the weekend of your life, and, without cellphones, not being able to find your friend and the way that ended.
These tragedies deserve their day in court because it's a polarizing event. I talked to a lot of kids who had the time of their lives—or so they thought, until you start talking about some of these issues at hand, including some people who worked on this film who were there. I think they always thought of it as this incredible weekend and they have nostalgia for it, but as we started making this film, they started to question what they were a part of, and I hope that happens with the audience because it happened with me. I think you pull people in with the nostalgia of this event, it's an engaging story and you can be entertained, but at the same time, you can reflect on the culture of the time and the culture that's coming out with things like Britney Spears right now and just how people were treated. It's important to go back and look at this as we try to move on because the threads of where we are right now are there.
I wanted to ask about the presentation of some of those elements. Were there ever considerations about blurring faces or blurring the nudity in the film?
Yeah, but it felt like we were hurting the story. David Derosia [an attendee who died a day after the festival from heat stroke] talks about it in his [journal]. His first entry is, "There are boobs everywhere, this is so cool." And then even he's getting tired of it. I needed people to feel that. That's important, I think, in telling this story. It felt like this oversaturation. But, again, without being exploitative. We were very careful of trying to find that fine line and making you present there. But this was in public. A lot of this was on the pay-per-view feed. This has been out there all along. It makes it that much more horrifying, I'm sorry to say, when there are faces involved. That's the point of this—how horrific some of the events were that happened.
The movie blends interviews with artists and attendees with commentary from culture writers like Wesley Morris. How did you attempt to find that balance between the story and the analysis?
Finding that pace and rhythm of going back and forth with our A story and our B story, and going on these culture dives, that was important. I'm a longtime editor and I write by editing. I throw things up and I see what sticks. I had a great co-editor on this one, too.
You don't want to stay in those too long because you want to keep moving forward as the festival progresses. I think something we were able to lean into was the performance of music in this. Every song is chosen very thoughtfully and methodically. Every song in this doc should be working on two levels. There should be an amazing performance going on and the subtext should be suggesting something deeper. That was really calculated as we were making this film.
The film ends with a parallel between the failure of Woodstock '99 and the success of Coachella. What was the intent of drawing that comparison?
I wanted to show the baton being passed over to the next big festival. But I think there are some faults in how Coachella is progressing and I wanted to bring up some of those. There's a pendulum and a cycle to these things, and I think some of these things are starting to crack as other festivals start to come along. It's also just fascinating that two months after Woodstock '99 there was this new event that basically took over the world of music festivals. Things are now described as "the Coachella of something" when they used to be described as "the Woodstock of something." I think it's really interesting.
Also, I sympathize with the town of Rome, New York. I think they saw this as something that could put them on the map. They went through this loss of the Air Force base and it's hard not to see the success of Coachella and wonder what could have happened if [Woodstock] had become an annual, or every five or 10 years, thing. So, yeah, there was a lot of reasoning for that.
This is the first Music Box documentary that Bill Simmons and The Ringer are producing for HBO. What type of feedback did you get from them and what was it like making the first entry in a new ongoing series?
They were great. They were completely supportive the whole time. It was probably, as far as working with producers and EPs, one of the smoothest processes I've ever gone through, making this film. They were excited and enthusiastic and really pushed to get this airing so quickly because we all thought of it as a summer movie. Look, we're premiering on the 22nd anniversary of Woodstock '99, which is a dream come true, getting this story out there so quickly. Bill tells the type of stories I like to tell. It's kinda in the mold of 30 for 30. The strongest 30 for 30's were about these events in sports that had something to say about the world, and that's what made me excited about working with them because those are the stories I like to make and watch.