We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The Seattle grunge scene—what a movie! Heroin, murder, suicide, overnight success, bitter rivalries. But “that film,” says Hype! director Doug Pray, “couldn’t have been made. The doors would have started closing within a couple of weeks. The attitude was always much more, ‘Let’s listen to them.’ ‘It’s your movie. You give us all this material, I’ll edit it.’ That was never said, but that’s kind of how it felt.”
Pray’s avoidance of Seattle-sound scandal in his good-natured new documentary wasn’t merely pragmatic. “We didn’t want it to be too insiderish. I’m not interested in backstage gossip; the private lives of prominent people really don’t do anything for me. That’s sort of what I’m assailing in the film,” explains Pray, in Washington for a round of promotional interviews. “We wanted a film that in 10 years could be pulled off the shelf and would be something of an accurate portrayal of something that happened in the city.”
At first, the young L.A.-based director recalls, he didn’t even want that. It was producer Steve Helvey who kept insisting that there was a movie to be made. “I just thought it was a really bad idea,” concedes Pray, then a recent film-school graduate who had already made videos for two Seattle bands, Flop and his college pals, the Young Fresh Fellows. “Because once any movement has made it into the Sears catalog, it’s pretty much over. Probably has been for years. It’s sort of like making a film about Haight-Ashbury in ’73, or something. Well, not that bad,” he laughs. “’68.”
Eventually, however, Pray yielded to Helvey’s enthusiasm. “I called my friends, and I just said, ‘I don’t know that we’re going to do this movie. In fact, don’t worry, we probably won’t. But if we did, if we even thought about it, in what terms should we think about it?’”
“I promise you, I’m not out to make the grunge movie,” he remembers vowing. “I really am not.”
Completed in January after almost four years of shooting and editing—and waiting for money—Hype! was already a little behind the curve when it began. That’s one reason the film is as much a post-mortem of the record-company feeding frenzy as it is a celebration of Seattle bands as well known as Nirvana and as obscure at the Fastbacks.
The latter, notes Pray, was “an example of the kind of band that had been overlooked. To me, they were really important to the story. They were representative of another side of the scene. By the late ’80s, Sub Pop had really packaged this Jack Endino sound and Charles Peterson photos and Tad, Mudhoney, Green River, Soundgarden, Nirvana—just boom! It was grunge. Yet there were a lot of bands playing in Seattle that had nothing to with that aesthetic.”
Though the presence of the lesser-known bands makes the film a Seattle-sound overview, a distinct theme soon revealed itself. “After a period of about three weeks,” Pray remembers, “it became Hype!. It just became clear that we had this opportunity to do this story of an underground scene becoming this big thing, from start to finish.”
“If it had been just a concert film, or just a showcase of bands from Seattle,” he adds, “there’s not a possibility that I could have finished that film.
“It’s a totally independent film,” Pray notes. “We’d get a little bit of money and shoot. It’s kind of sad when you realize that if you compressed the whole production it really would have only been about five weeks of shooting. But it also took about a year to edit. So many bands, and so many concerns.”
Under such circumstances, Hype! became a film shot on the fly—sometimes literally. At one point, director of photography Rob Bennett used his uncle’s frequent-flier miles to accompany the Fresh Young Fellows to Japan. “He took a bunch of short ends [of partially used film rolls] and he just went. And I sat in Seattle, thinking”—Pray slips into a slightly petulant voice—” ‘I hope they’re having fun.’ And I couldn’t even see it for four months, because it was in the lab, and they wouldn’t let us get our film out because we owed them so much money. Same with the Mudhoney footage. For, like, six months I had no idea if it was in focus. I’d never even seen it.”
The delays, Pray notes, allowed him to develop some perspective and gain new skills. “I’d never done a lot of interviews before, so I got better as it went along. Because we didn’t have any money, there were so many months when I could just study these awful interviews I did at the beginning. It became like Documentary Film 101. It’s just that I was in the four-year program rather than the six-week summer thing.”
Most of Hype! is remarkably direct and accessible. “You don’t have to be a fan,” says Pray. “You don’t even have to like Soundgarden to get the movie.”
He admits, though, that the film gets a little cryptic about the scene’s tragedies, treating the deaths of Andrew Wood, Kurt Cobain, Mia Zapata, and Stephanie Sargent in a quick montage. It’s also a bit murky on the distinctions between hard-rock Seattle and love-rock Olympia. “I really always saw it as a Northwest music community,” stretching all the way from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., Pray argues. “That being said, Olympia is a whole world unto itself, and I couldn’t possibly do justice to it. I’m glad that there’s some representation in the film, but it really would have been another movie. It’s kind of a different energy; it’s a little bit more insular—the whole K Records thing is a very different vibe from Sub Pop. They could have a whole movie made about it—although they’d never let it happen. If the Seattle people were cynical, in Olympia it’s off the chart.”
Ultimately, grunge’s bigshots—notably Soundgarden and Alice in Chains manager Susan Silver—decided that Pray was trustworthy. He was allowed to shoot live footage of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam, as well as an interview with Eddie Vedder. Nirvana was “really supportive,” contributing footage of the first-ever performance of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
“I would have given anything for a really great interview with Nirvana,” laments Pray. “But in ’93 and ’94, when we were filming, getting the stars to line up—like, there were cans of film in the fridge and they happened to be available—was so frustrating. And then things got so crazy for them.”
Things were crazy all over the grunge scene, of course. “Seattle was the perfect setup,” declares Pray. “All the pieces were there for it to happen.”
“A lot of people don’t think [a Seattle scene is] going to happen again,” he adds. “That there really will be a backlash against that happening again. But I kind of disagree. As soon as more than one band is coming from one location, there’s going to be a theory that there’s something new and different happening here.”
The film ends with the legend, “your town is next.” Pray laughs when asked if that means he’ll now make a documentary on the Halifax scene. In fact, his next project will probably be a low-budget dramatic film. But he’s also considering a documentary about the millennium—in a sense, another “hype” film.
“I want,” Pray smiles, “to interview all the people who think they’re going to die in a firestorm on the evening of Dec. 31.”—Mark Jenkins