In May 1973, a group of nine college students, bound by their love of music, spent a week at a rural recording studio documenting their songs on tape and film, living communally and generally having a high old time. On the night of May 19, they said goodbye to the recording engineer and hopped in a well-worn Chevy van to head back to campus. Tragically, the kids were involved in a collision with a truck shortly after and seven of the nine died that night. The other two only survived for a few days.
The master tapes of the nameless group’s recording sessions, labeled “Novem songs” by the recording engineer after the Latin word novem, for nine, were lost for over 30 years, collecting dust on a shelf somewhere until March of 2004, when a college student uncovered them while shopping for old records at a garage sale. He shared the music and the 16mm film footage with some friends, who were all quite impressed with what they saw and heard. After a bit of investigation, the students were stunned to learn that they and the remarkable Novem group were from the same school.
The feature film Novem, opening Friday at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema, incorporates lots of footage from the 1973 recording sessions, along with the story of the present-day students and the surpising things that happened when they set up a Web site (www.novemsongs.com/) to share the Novem music with the world.
Or so Evansville, Ind., filmmaker Brad Kimmel would have you believe.
In fact, Novem is a quite convincing faux documentary that has been generating buzz on the film festival circuit. In a recent phone conversation, Kimmel explained that the genesis of the project came to him while he was in high school in the ’70s. “A couple of pretty talented friends were in a garage band and one night they were coming back from somewhere — they weren’t playing music or anything — and one of them fell asleep at the wheel and they were both killed when they hit a tree at 3 in the morning. Kind of in the back of my mind, I thought, ‘What would happen if some great musicians, or entertainers, or for that matter anybody, if fate takes them before they get a chance to prove who they are in life?’ We never would have seen their full potential. When I got in the position to make my first independent feature, I just used that idea and came up with the storyline.”
For a project like this to work, the period atmosphere must feel authentic, the characters must be convincing and relatable, but, most of all, the music has to live up to the hype or nobody will buy the premise. After struggling over how to approach the music, Kimmel ended up checking out unsigned talent in Nashville, Tenn., with music producer Brian Reed. “I went down there and had some auditions with, basically, kids that either had some regional success or were just starting in the music business. And that’s when I thought, even on a budget, this thing can be done where the music will carry the storyline, and that’s pretty much what happened.”
The four youngest guys in Novem are actually a young college band in Murfreesboro, Tenn., called Overzealous (www.myspace.com/overzealousmusic). “We took them as the nucleus of the band,” he said, “not only on camera but for the tracking sessions for the actual album. The others did not know each other and came into the group. Some of the songs in the movie were actually written before I met these guys, they were just adapted to the film. Several songs were written for the film from scratch over a three- or four-week period. Brian Reed and the kids really did a great job of capturing the flavor of the early ’70s.”
So how does one go about securing talented musicians who can also act? Turns out it happened naturally. Kimmel said, “As we worked with the kids it became obvious they could probably star in the film. That wasn’t the direction we were going at first but they convinced me that they could handle it, especially since the film was shot from a script outline and not a hard script, so they were improvising most of it. That’s kind of the secret of why the film looks so real. These kids aren’t really acting, they’re playing themselves in the context of 1973.”
The 1973 portion of Novem was shot south of Nashville, while the contemporary portion was filmed on campus in Evansville. Both were shot in chronological order, so the actors could more easily keep the goings-on in context, making it easier for them to relax and be natural. Kimmel kept the two sets of young actors separate; most of them did not meet until the finished film was screened.
Searching for distribution
Like all independent filmmakers, Kimmel has fought an uphill battle for distribution of his creation. “One of the reasons a bigger distributor hasn’t picked this up is that they don’t know how to market it,” Kimmel said. “It’s way, way out there in left field. It’s got no stars in it, it’s not a genre film, it’s not going to sell itself.” Hence the Blair Witch–style Web site (www.novemsongs.com), which presents itself as if the story was true, although a link at the bottom of the home page leads to the facts behind the fiction. “The tack is to tell a good story, let the music stand on its own, get people into the theater and when they find out how the film was done, hopefully it enhances the experience.”
With Friday’s opening ahead, what does Brad Kimmel have to say to the Indianapolis audience about Novem? “I just would encourage people to attend — it is an Indiana film and an Indiana filmmaker and I think it’s important that people understand that there are quality films being made in Indiana. You don’t necessarily see them at the multiplex usually and that’s unfortunate, but that’s the way life is in the film business.”
Not this week, though.
Listen for Brad Kimmel on the Bob and Tom Show on Friday morning; Kimmel, along with actors from the film, will be at the Friday premiere and will host a Q&A after the 7 p.m. showing of Novem at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema.