This interview is part of an ongoing series covering films appearing in the 2017 Calgary Underground Film Festival, published simultaneously with Reel World Theology.
Karam Gill is the director of the SXSW documentary G-Funk. The film's a laid back and enjoyable chronicle of the early days of West Coast hip-hop, featuring and produced by some of the genre's most famous luminaries. The story revolves around the the career of Warren G., who was there at the beginning of the rise of the influential sub-genre. The film will have its international premier this week at the 2017 Calgary Underground Film Festival, so to learn more about the creation of this documentary, I reached out by phone to Karam. Here are six insights from that conversation.
1. Karam was remarkably young when this opportunity fell into his lap.
Karam just turned 23 on April 8th. He began his career playing college soccer before tearing his knee. "My buddy was like "hey dude, you need to stop [playing] and get your life together again."" This friend was an artist working his way up and told Karam he was opening for Warren G at a small venue. This friend had "always known that I shot photos and videos and said, "If you want to come shoot photos, I'll get you backstage." Karam agreed to give it a shot and while backstage he bumped into Warren G. "I had the camera around my neck and he was like "what do you do?" I was like "I shoot photos and video, can I shoot your show?" He said "yeah," so I shot a bunch of videos and used them to cut up this little promo video." Karam sent this video to Warren the next day and the rapper responded. "He's like, "Wow man, this is awesome. Can you do this for me all the time?" So over the next few months I ended up becoming his creative director, handling a lot of his branding content, as well as helping design album covers, doing everything for his brand, and flying to New York with him."
2. Other filmmakers wanted to tell this story, but Warren G. said no.
Warren's wanted to tell this story for a long time, but he was never satisfied with the creative visions proposed to him. "He told me there were so many people out there who wanted to shape it a certain way, or create... all these controversies in Warren's personal life that just weren't there." Karam on the other hand, first heard the story "while on these trips. We were around Snoop Dog and 50 Cent and all these huge artists. They would always have the utmost respect for Warren. I would always hear these little stories and anecdotes of their lives." Six or seven months in, Karam confronted Warren. "I was like, "Hey, you have the most incredible story... and nobody knows what you went through. So I'm going to write your life story." It took almost two years, but Karam eventually presented the script to Warren with a mandate. "We need to make this into a movie."
3. Another reason this took so long was Warren G.'s humble personality.
There have been many other hip-hop documentaries, but Warren's "never pushed to make this happen. He's just been like, "Yeah, it could happen." He's just a very, very down to earth, mellow dude. He'll be never be flexing his ego. I've learned a lot from him about how to be in the entertainment world." Unlike the other filmmakers, Karam wanted it to be organic. "It's all about staying true to what the story actually is. I didn't want to force anything; it's an interesting enough story without me forcefully making stuff up."
4. Warren distanced himself from the production.
Since Warren G. is listed as the film's producer, I wondered if his involvement influenced the story that was told. But Karam told me it exactly the opposite. "His role was [primarily] to set up the interviews. He was able to make a call to Snoop and say, "Hey, I need you to be here, at this time" and [Snoop will say], "No problem!" Or he can tell Russel Simmons, or Dion Sanders to do the interview and they would do it. That was his role because they have respect for him." But Warren purposefully distanced himself from the interviews and the majority of the editing sessions. "He wanted the story to emerge without him being there over everyone's shoulder, pressuring everyone to say something."
5. Telling the story took a crazy amount of preparation.
The story was "very, very mapped out. I had these two big six-foot cork boards where I mapped out every single story beat and what we needed to get that story across." This made interviewing these infamous rappers much less stressful. "We were prepared, knowing exactly where I wanted them to fit into the story" which allowed the celebrities to "give us enough time to ask the questions." As a result, Karam was able to relax in front of these hip-hop super stars. "When they were getting their makeup done, or while the lighting is being set, it was cool to just sit and talk with them, and see who these people really are." At one point, Karam was interviewing Ice-T in the rapper's house in Arizona "and we ended up talking to him for about 45 minutes about life and how traveling is so important. Just all these random things. I'm sitting there and half-way through [I realize], "Wow, I'm really talking to Ice-T about this obscure subject!""
6. Despite his early start in the industry, Karam still wishes he had entered sooner.
His advice to other want-to-be creatives is "start sooner. With these things you gotta just go and do it. A lot of people psych themselves out and they are like "this might not happen, and that might not happen." You are your own road block. There's no reason for not going for it right away. Just go ahead and do it."
Thanks to Karam's work and Warren's incredible story, we can now enjoy this triumphant documentary. It plays at the Globe Cinema on Friday, April 21st at 7:15 p.m. and Karam himself will be in attendance. You can learn more about the movie by reading my full review, and you can buy tickets here.