When Kings of Leon showed up on the rock scene a decade ago as a collection of shaggy-haired southern pretty boys who played taut, dirty-guitar rock and told reporters they’d been raised on the road with their Pentecostal pastor father who helped true believers speak in tongues, people were exhilarated but skeptical. Could this band’s story be for real? Turns out, they’ve been underplaying it. In a new documentary, Talihina Sky: The Story of Kings of Leon, which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, it becomes clear that Kings of Leon’s backstory is as wild and weird a southern gothic fairy tale as anyone could have imagined. You can watch an exclusive clip from the doc here (as the relatives relate the moment when they knew the band had made it: when a picture of their Rolling Stone cover popped up on The Price Is Right), and then read our interview with the filmmakers, director Stephen C. Mitchell and producer Casey McGrath, who discuss their unprecedented access to the extended KoL family for this unconventional film, a blend of intimate biography, debauched tour documentary, and sweet home movie.
Can you introduce people to the project?
Stephen C. Mitchell: I had known the band for ten years. I befriended them when I worked in music publishing and they told me a lot about their story. I got a chance to meet their family and as the years went by, I knew this was really a story I wanted to tell. About three years ago, Nathan and Caleb [Followill] asked me to come down to the studio while they were recording Only by the Night and film. Then I met Casey and we did a project called Home Movie Series. We took a bunch of the footage I shot during that time at the [Followill] family reunion and it exploded on the Internet. I think that’s when the band realized, Wow, the more we show our true selves and let our fans see that, the more they’re gravitating toward our music and really becoming die-hard, long-term fans.
Were there any moments in the film that you had to fight to make sure got in?
Casey McGrath: It wasn’t about fighting, it was more that they really cared a lot about being accurate, about getting the details correct. They were very vocal out of respect for their own story. Once we started getting our hands on tons of stuff [archival footage], then they’d be like, “Where the hell did you get that?” Some of their initial reactions were, “Nobody can ever see that.” But then we’d talk about it and they’d be like, “Okay, fine.”
Where did all the archival footage come from?
McGrath: Not only has Stephen known the band for ten years, he’s known the family for a long time. They were so young when he met them — Jared was 14 years old. Stephen’s one of the first people to go to their family reunion. So when people started catching wind of this [documentary], their uncles and other people would call us up and say, “We have these tapes you should see.” I think in the end, there was like 750 hours of footage.
McGrath: That’s exactly what our editor said: “Good Lord.” She watched every minute of it. It’s funny, because last month Jared said, “Hey, my mom found a whole other box of tapes at the house.” We were like, “We’re pretending that we never heard that and I don’t want to ever see what’s on those tapes because I know there’s something awesome on there.”
Some of the characters in the film could easily be portrayed as caricatures, they could easily be mocked. Like Uncle Cleo: He has a seriously thick accent, hangs out drinking beer by a creek all day, and tells tall tales. How did you avoid exploitation?
Mitchell: It all comes down to respect. If you spend a minute with these people and you have an ethical bone in your body, you would never want to do anything to disrespect them. It would have been easy to exploit certain moments; there are certain things about the family we could have put a twist on and people would have been interested in hearing about, but we just decided it’s the band’s story, it’s not our story — so it’s not important. Obviously everything got run through the final filter of the band and they said they felt everyone in their family was being respected.
Along those lines, I wanted to ask you about the concluding scene with Caleb, which is very intimate. He seems really exposed as he stares down the camera talking about songwriting, the band’s history, its future, his future. Talk about that moment.
Mitchell: I hadn’t planned to interview him that night. I was in Nashville, Caleb called and said, “Come over to the house, Steve. I want to interview tonight. I’m ready to go.” And I thought, Oh shit! — I didn’t have questions ready. I wasn’t prepared. He and I sat in the back porch and got drunk and we talked. When he makes that last goofball wisecrack [about having tried everything over the years except for gay sex] — if you could see me, if there was a camera on me, I had tears running down my face, I was covering my mouth so that my laugh wouldn’t go over the mike.
McGrath: Paul Greenhouse, the editor, and I saw that specific moment and knew it was the end of the movie. It just fits so perfectly. How long was that interview, Stephen?
Mitchell: We sat there for I think two and a half hours. Let’s put it this way, I would not want you to hear me asking the questions. Because I was like [makes slurring sounds]. I was drunk, stoned, out of my mind.
McGrath: That interview became the backbone for the whole movie. It’s the most honest I’d heard him talk about anything, was that night. The moments of the movie that made it feel so real and honest and intimate and insider are the interviews with Betty [Mrs. Followill] and with Ivan [Mr. Followill], and then that interview with Caleb. We had one shot for Steven to get those people in the right state of mind to talk about their sensitive things and their whole life stories, basically. And we just wound up getting them on the right days. As soon as you walk away from those interviews, you’re just like, That was it.