Interview: The Sax Man of Cleveland

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Many Clevelanders know of the “Sax Man” as a mainstay downtown, belting out songs on his saxophone, but few know more about him. A group of local filmmakers hope to change that after they put their finishing touches on a feature-length documentary on Maurice Reedus Jr. — the Sax Man’s real name — due out early next year. We talked with director Joe Siebert about Reedus’s story, how the film evolved, and the challenges of getting it out there.

Doug Brown: So how did you first hear about Maurice, the Sax Man?
Joe Siebert: He first popped up because my friend John Pope, who’s the cinematographer for the film, went to a Dredg concert several years ago and the band I guess had a sax player who was ill or couldn’t make the show. They had a part in one of their songs that needed a solo so they decided why not invite the sax guy from outside on the streets to come up and play? They brought him on stage and Maurice played and John was just really taken by the character that was up on stage — the guy who just came up off the street and started wailing — so he approached him afterwards and said ‘hey, I’m a local filmmaker and I just was really intrigued by what you just did and you seem like an interesting guy, would you be interested in my friends and I doing a documentary on you?’ He said yeah, and that’s where it all got started.” The first time I met Maurice was at a pizza shop in March 2010, for an actual introduction and to sit down and talk with him about his life story.”

I saw you guys did a Kickstarter…
Yeah, so that first meeting was in March 2010 and it took a long time to get momentum going on it, but I finally got a producer friend of mine, Todd Bemack, attached in 2011 and so production began at the beginning of 2012 and the summer of 2012 we realized — from the beginning, we were only going to do maybe a 20 minute short film and put it on Vimeo or something and maybe a local festival, but it kept getting bigger, and the story of what we learned about him and what we realized we needed to do to maximize the story’s potential, we realized it was going to require a lot more financial resources, so that’s when we did the Kickstarter in the summer of 2012. We knew that we were going to need more than what we were going to be able to raise on Kickstarter — because it’s set up in a way that if you don’t hit a certain goal, you don’t get the pledges — so we had to find what we thought would be a magic number that would be both high enough to get us at least down the road a little further and reasonable enough to be possible. The goal was $35,000 and by the end of it cleared $38,000.

What is it about him that led you to want to make a full length feature on him?
Two things — two things about his story and then a third thing about who he is. First, we realized his past had a lot more richness to it than you would guess by just passing him on the street: his father was a Grammy award-winning saxophone player who played with the Robert Lockwood Jr All Stars and Maurice, himself, was a member of the Motown band Sly, Slick & Wicked who played together in the 70s, and they were playing stadiums in front of tens of thousands and Maurice was getting standing ovations. He had his time in the limelight where he really could have been a big deal in that world. Just finding all that out and realizing he wasn’t just some guy who had always been here, that there had been a larger-than-life component to his background, was the first thing (to expand to a feature length film). The second thing, storywise, was there was a time we came to a realization that there’s no small crowd of people you can pass in Cleveland that there won’t at least be one person who knows “the Sax man,” and they always say the same thing: that he’s been playing out here for years, when I was a kid I remember him outside the ballgames, he’s just a fixture in the city; there’s a kind of love and endearment the city seems to have due to him being out there for the past 20 years. It’s not just a story about a guy who had a history and looks interesting on the street, there’s actually a heart to it, and that’s what really set it off for us that there’s a lot more here for us to tell than kind of just a goofy profile piece. The third component is he’s just a genuine individual, he an open book, he’s transparent, he’s out there because he loves playing for people, he loves his saxophone — it’s his life — he’s not out there just putting on a show. He’s eccentric but he’s not a threat, he always smiles and gets his energy from being around people. Over time, we realized we had much more to tell than what we originally planned.

So where are you now with the movie?
Right now, we have our final cut locked and we’re working on post-production to finish as far as coloring and sound. Also, we’re doing a little bit of extra fundraising to get some money for music licenses. One of the tricky things with this particular project is by nature of what he does, he’s out playing other people’s songs on his sax, and the climax of the film is this concert where he’s playing other people’s songs on stage, so it’s just unavoidable so just kind of a consequence of that is an added expense for what we’re doing. We’re simultaneously trying to get the final polished and trying to get the licenses and rights all lined up and we’re starting to get our festival submissions right now. We’re hoping for it to come out at Sundance or some other big festival some time in early 2014.

So what’s your film background and how did you meet the people you’re working with on this?
We all met because we worked at a video production company in North Canton called StoneKap Productions and I graduated from Malone University in 2008 and immediately went to work there. That’s where I got in touch with my producers, our cinematographer, and a bunch of other guys — I worked with them there. We just did commercial work together for about five years and this past summer we all kind of dispersed, everybody’s doing a little bit different kinds of things, but we’re all still connected.

The trailer you put up kind of has a Searching for Sugar Man kind of vibe to it — discovering the wild background of a musician and then putting on a concert — what kind of docs are you into?
I’m one of those guys who watches those social, political, cultural issue documentaries. I actually started making myself watch more narrative documentaries because of taking this project on. Some of the ones that stood out as what we want to aspire to as far as telling somebody’s story: Man on Wire was phenomenal, Exit Through the Gift Shop was another one. Searching For Sugarman was actually really interesting: we were on the plane to L.A. to interview some of the guys from Maurice’s band back in the 70s, and this was before anybody had really watched Sugar Man, there was this woman I was sitting next to on the plane and we were talking and I told her about our project and she said ‘oh that sounds just like this documentary Searching For Sugar Man, you should check it out.’ I ended up reading about it, and there were actually so many parallels between him but I hope people don’t watch the film and think we took the idea from that.”

Oh yeah, I guess I didn’t realize you guys were working on this before that documentary was even known about.
Yeah it had just started coming out in more of the niche markets after we started this project and then I just kept hearing about it throughout 2012 as it blew up. Actually, it’s been a great inspiration for post-production and editing to watch that film because the way that its story is structured phenomenal. In editing, we would watch that film and try to get a gauge for like when their turning points occur, how efficient they were with the story, and helping to get a gauge for like how they get on to other points. As far as following a solid and really tight construct for their story, they were a really good inspiration.

So how many hours of footage did you have to edit down from?
Hours-wise, I don’t know, but I do know that we have six or seven terabytes of footage over the last year and half. It was one of the most harrowing tasks of all just sitting down with it. Fortunately there had been quite a lot of time spent of the front end developing the story and knowing — It was an interesting process, because it was a hybrid of a true documentary like let’s go out and just see how this develops; we knew where we wanted to take this story and where we wanted it to end up, so there was kind of a structure already in place that when we went out and shot we knew what we were looking to get. But at the same time, you just don’t know what’s going to happen when you’re out there shooting, so stuff pops up that ends up in the film that you never planned on, but you have to roll with it. There’s a balance of following the structure you set on the front end but then being adaptable enough to let it develop organically as you’re putting it together and realizing something that you may never even intended on make it in actually speaks to what you’re trying to say better than anything else than what you could have planned.

So how much money are you trying to raise to actually finish it?
That’s a difficult question at the moment. We’re actually working on trying to get the pricing from the different publishers (for music licenses) and such. We’ve kind of put the ballpark around 35 to 50 thousand, hoping that it covers that, but you never know. At the end of the concert, Maurice spontaneously breaks into a rendition of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ that was just a magical moment that captivated everybody and we end the film with that because it’s so powerful. That’s something that wasn’t planned, but it’s in there and god knows how much a license for that would cost. We’re doing the best we can to raise as much as we can to make sure we don’t have to compromise on moments like that.

Once everything is done, give me a pitch for why people should come see it.
For the Cleveland audience, people should come see it because what this film does is put Cleveland in a framework that really highlights the importance of community and togetherness in our particular city; he’s kind of the symbol of that in this film, for not giving up when you’re down and keeping up with your passion. For a city like Cleveland that has seen its share of hard times, I think he’s a good metaphor for how the city keeps moving forward despite the circumstances. Beyond Cleveland, it has a universal human message that true success isn’t necessarily making the millions of dollars and having your name known, it’s about finding a way to really take your deepest passions and meet the world around you to make the difference you can.”

For more inforamation on the documentary, visit saxmanmovie.com or facebook.com/saxmanmovie. To get in touch with director Joe Siebert, send him an email at jmsiebert@gmail.com.

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