‘Scouts Honor’ co-directors Mac Smith and Tom Tollefsen on “the circus behind the circus”

As it turns out, Omaha natives and co-directors Mac Smith and Tom Tollefsen first connected in Madison — but not over filmmaking. Smith and Tollefsen shared an interest in marching bands, particularly the kind of high-intensity, drill-oriented experience the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps could provide. The two met during the 1995 season as rookies in the Scouts, consistently recognized as one of the country’s top corps in competition. Since its founding in 1938, the Madison Scouts have developed a tradition of excellence, a rigorous work ethic and, as Smith and Tollefsen capture in their new film Scouts Honor, an everlasting “brotherhood” of respect and support.

Smith, now a sound editor at Skywalker Sound, and Tollefsen, who works as an attorney in Florida, returned to their musical alma mater in early 2011 to prepare for a documentary project that would follow the Scouts’ young men on the road for the 2012 summer season. A daunting, time-intensive project for anyone, the pair formed Gigantic Cranium Productions, hired a crew and set out on the road to document countless practices and competitions. By the end, Smith and Tollefsen had amassed hours of footage which meant a post-production process that would last several years for them and their skeleton crew.

Having played at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival as part of the “Wisconsin’s Own” program, Scouts Honor was worth the nearly three year wait. As a documentary, its fluid visuals explore and stretch the traditionally rigid formations and patterns of drum corps musicians. As a human drama, Scouts Honor: Inside a Marching Brotherhood is remarkable in singling out three corps members and illustrating the strength and support of the organization through their experiences. Before Scouts Honor plays at the Barrymore Theatre this Friday, Mac Smith and Tom Tollefsen talked with me via email about music, their visual language, and just how long a production can take.

So, a drum corps documentary?

Mac Smith: I have been heavily influenced by movies and music my whole life. I marched tuba with the Madison Scouts during the 1995 season. During the drum corps season you travel constantly. Essentially every day consists of rehearsing, sometimes 9 hours a day, doing a field show performance in the evening, and then traveling by bus overnight to the next location and doing it all over again. During that year, my seat partner on the bus, Tom Tollefsen, was also a rookie member of the Scouts and from Omaha, of all places. We quickly bonded over our shared passion for movies and have been close friends ever since.

Tom went on to march two more seasons with the Madison Scouts and is now a lawyer in Florida, while I went on to work in the film industry. We have always stayed in touch and in early 2011 Tom sent me a text about the idea of doing a documentary on the Madison Scouts. He had been watching PBS’s documentary on the Big Apple Circus and noticed the similarities between a touring circus and the drum and bugle corps. Both are kind of these hidden subcultures where the people who are in the know are extremely passionate about it. I immediately understood the connection: let’s show the audience not just the performance but the circus behind the circus, which is what no one ever gets to see.

Also, a few years before, I found out that a colleague of mine at work, John “JT” Torrijos was making these incredible 5.1 surround sound recordings of drum corps on the West Coast. [These are] notoriously difficult to record since it basically involves 150 people running around every inch of a football field while playing music at widely varying dynamics. I always felt a bit let down with the recordings of drum corps shows because they could never really capture the power that music being played that loud gives you, that in your face feeling. I thought that if we could combine state-of-the-art field recordings with a compelling story that gave an insight into the mindset and experiences of some of the members of Madison Scouts, that we could really have something. More than anything, Tom and I wanted to give back something to this organization that has changed our lives forever and has provided such positive experiences to the community for over 75 years.

I was absolutely blown away by the scope of this film, both conceptually and visually. You’re chronicling the Madison Scouts’ 2012 season, which meant you were on the road for months at a time. How do you even start planning such a demanding undertaking?

Tom Tollefsen: We always knew that in order to make the movie that we wanted, we would have to spend an extensive amount of time on the road with the Scouts. We did a “test run” in the summer of 2011 where we took a small crew on the road for about a week, just to see if it could be done since we weren’t documentary filmmakers at that time. We were satisfied by the results and realized that if we carefully coordinated everything, we could essentially embed ourselves with the group. We were also very happy with the results that our performance music recordist JT was able to get out of the field show, which was an essential goal of the project.

Were you on the road the entire time with the corps?

Tom: After deciding to make the commitment to record the Scouts over an entire season, we began by taking a small crew to various winter try-out and rehearsal camps for the 2012 season. After that, we made a number of trips to record the group as they prepared for the summer tour and eventually embedded ourselves with them for a few key moments of the tour, culminating in the drum corps finals in August.

We were very lucky that the Madison Scouts were so accommodating. They allowed us to share their accommodations (i.e. were they slept, ate, and practiced during the tour). I don’t know how much of that was due to the fact that myself and [Tom] are both alumni of the Madison Scouts, but I know that we all made every effort to be as less intrusive as possible. We certainly did not want to disturb their rehearsal or traveling schedules at all. It was a gradual process, but by the end of the summer, I think that the filming crew just blended in with everyone else.

You’re with the entire corps throughout the film, but the focus is really on three members (Jo, Brandon, and Hunter) and you capture such great drama in each of their stories. There’s one moment where Hunter, a young aspiring trumpet player, steps out of his comfort zone during a soli audition and your camera is just right there in the moment, letting things play out. Did you go into this project looking to sharpen your narrative around specific performers?

Tom: Absolutely. We knew that we were going to have to find personalities that an audience can relate to; after all we figured that a great number of people watching the film had never heard of drum and bugle corps. With that “test run” in 2011, we had our eyes out for “characters” we could use to move the story of 2012 along. We found Brandon during that time and were impressed with his intensity and drive. Ideally we wanted to find one person to follow from each of the three areas of the corps (drum line, horn line, and color guard), which we eventually did. The process was very organic and we looked at a number of people to spotlight, but in the end we couldn’t have been happier with those we chose. It was important that each had an individual journey, so that we could show all of the facets with which the Madison Scouts impacts the lives of young men.

The Madison Scouts recruit from all over the world. How did you get interviews with some of these members’ families?

Tom: In terms of the three “characters” that we followed in the film, we were once again fortunate that their families were all accommodating. One of the things that we did which I felt was important was, prior to the start of “spring training”, we spent a few days at home with the guys and their families. This meant a bit of traveling between Richmond, Atlanta, and Corpus Christi, but it was very much worth it. It was great to get to know the guys away from the activity and also to get a feel for how their families felt about the journey that their sons and brothers were about to undertake. As you see, these feelings may not be as universal as you might think, which again points out the individual journeys that each of these young men were taking.

I love the visual language. You circle around the group in a number of shots. There’s that wonderful moment where the crowd rises to their feet at the end of the Allentown performance. You even mount a camera on the end of trumpet bell. For a documentary especially, this has one of the more kinetic eyes I have seen in quite a while. What made you want to use such a fluid camera style during these practices and performances?

Tom: We wanted the audience to get a real feel for what it looks like when you are marching with one of these groups, from the inside. I can tell you from experience, there is nothing like the feeling you get when you see thousands rise to their feet in applause 30 seconds prior to the end of the show, and we wanted to share that. Using GoPro cameras on instruments and having a Steadicam guru like Nathan Haugaard were also instrumental in presenting the athleticism that is required of members of world class drum and bugle corps like the Madison Scouts. Nathan is also a drum corps alum and was really excited to be able to use his talents.

How did you get on the field with a camera mid-performance?

Mac: Many of the shows in the film [had] very limited filming access. We would set up at strategic places on the sidelines and in the stadium seats with long lenses. We also were allowed to film the corps from behind the field. Except for rehearsals, we were never actually filming on the field with the group.

Drum corps members are performers so there’s some inherent acceptance of constantly being in front of an audience. Did you find that adding cameras and a film crew added any pressure for them?

Tom: Not really. Again, our goal was to be as friendly and open about our process when the guys were off the field. We made it pretty clear that Mac and I were alumni and had been in their shoes and weren’t just some ordinary guys with a film crew. Once they were in rehearsal or preparing for a show, we tried to stay as out of the way. You are right about them being natural performers. After a few shows playing to thousands of people you tend to lose your stage fright.

This played at the 2015 Wisconsin Film Festival, almost 3 years after the 2012 season. What took so long in the post-production process?

Mac: So much goes into the post-production process. After you are done with principal shooting, you have to go back through all of the footage and attempt to find a movie in there somewhere. This was a very small production with a very tight budget, so I had to call in a lot of favors from my industry friends, which means you have to work around their schedules. There was a great deal of picture, sound and music editing, but there was also work on the various rights (music and otherwise) which needed to be cleared, and there were also follow-up interviews. The goal was to be able to present our first rough cut for attendees of the 75th Anniversary Celebration of the Madison Scouts in late 2013, which I am happy to say that we did.

That supercut of instructors calling out “Hunter” is hilarious but it’s also a testament to what I imagine was an absolute mountain of footage. How much did you end up with when all was said and done?

Mac: There was a tremendous amount of material. Luckily, I was present for every shooting trip, so I had a clear memory of the key moments that I wanted to include in the film. After the bulk of the filming was done we hired a number of post-production interns to catalog all the raw media and transcribe the interviews. This took many months, and once that was done I started piecing together key scenes that I knew we wanted in the film like the “Hunter Soli Audition.” The film developed in kind of an organic way from there.

Apart from the festival, where else has this played?

Tom: We have had the film in competition at other film festivals. We won the audience award at the Twin Cities Film Fest and best documentary awards at the Austin Indie Flix Showcase and the FLY Film Festival. Apart from that, we’ve been working with Gathr Films and utilizing their theatrical-on-demand distribution platform which allows anyone to request a screening at a theater in their hometown (or anywhere else for that matter). If enough tickets for the screening sell by a predetermined time, the screening will happen. It’s as simple as that. We are also encouraging people to utilize these screenings as a means to raise money for their local music and arts organizations. So far over 20 of these screenings have taken place.

Mac: We’re also in the midst of preparing material for the upcoming DVD/Blu-Ray release which is going to contain a number of bonus features including deleted scenes. We will continue with the theatrical-on-demand screenings and possible showings at film festivals, while also preparing the movie for video-on-demand and other home screening options.

What’s next for you?

Mac: I would like to adapt a novel that my father wrote, into a screenplay. You could say that it’s a departure from this project because it has nothing to do with drum corps or music, but there are certainly some subtle parallels.

  • Scouts Honor: Inside a Marching Brotherhood plays at the Barrymore, Fri Jun 26 at 7:30p. Admission is $10. More information on how to request a screening is at scoutshonormovie.com