INTERVIEW: Al Higbee (producer I AM THOR)

When I first caught wind of the documentary I AM THOR, the first person I spoke with about the project was producer Al Higbee. This guy wasted no time helping to get me a copy of the film as soon as it was completed. I’ve had a long-standing fascination with Jon-Mikl Thor and Al put me in touch with the legendary front-man, for that I’ll be forever grateful. When we finally talked on the phone, Al had no shortage of stories to spill about his time on the road with him. With the film finally complete and due to hit theaters and digitally on November 20 (courtesy of Dark Sky Films), the fifteen year journey he took with director Ryan Wise has now come to an end. With the film ready to be “Unchained” and Thor touring alongside it, Al gives us some insight on his exciting and crazy ride.

Corey Danna: Did you know who Thor was before you met him for the first time?

Al Higbee: I had heard of Thor years before but I wasn’t familiar with the music. He mentioned that his band was doing a show and he was making a comeback. I went back and researched him and thought he was awesome. I told Ryan (Wise) we had to go to the show. It was this dive bar with maybe forty people there and we thought it would be awesome if people started chanting “THOR” and our imaginations were racing with what we thought we were going to see. Sure enough, everyone was chanting and he came out. We hadn’t seen him before all dressed up with the hammer, shield, and all that shit. He played like there were 20,000 people in the crowd, just played his heart out. The songs were incredible and he had so much energy and by the end of the show we were like, “Holy fuck! This was the best show we’ve ever seen!” He went out on tour and Ryan and I filmed him. That’s how it started when we met him at a pizza place. Through pizza.

CD: There’s at least two times I’ve tried to see him perform and something always comes up.

AH: Oh no!

CD: The first time my car broke down on the way to the show and the second time I was in Florida on my honeymoon and couldn’t make the show.

AH: Maybe that will change for you this year. He’s amazing and such a fascinating guy. Every time you talk to him you’ll learn something new. He’s even writing a book. He sent me a couple of chapters and I learned all this stuff I didn’t know and I just spent fifteen years with him. I don’t think there’s anyone on this planet other than his wife that knows him better than Ryan and I and we still learn new things about him. He’s just so fascinating.

CD: So the documentary was your first foray into producing?

AH: We did a short a couple of years before but it was really small and we did it just for fun. We did a quick tour with Thor in 2001, I was living in Seattle and Ryan had moved to LA. When I eventually moved there in 2002, Thor was getting ready to tour from the West Coast to New York and that started everything. We went with him and when I got back I started producing some television but when we started, it was my first thing ever.

CD: You followed him for an unheard of fifteen years, how exactly did that work out?

AH: Basically, Ryan and I were working like three jobs waiting for Thor to call us and say he was doing a tour or making an appearance. We would use the money we had saved to go along with him and film. It was rag tag the whole fifteen years, we would just grab our stuff and go, whether he was officiating a wedding or a TV appearnce, we were there. When he toured, I actually played with him. It happened a couple of times, his band got stuck at the border in 2001 and I had a punk band. We learned the songs in a day and we ended up touring with him. He’d tell us he was playing at a kickboxing tournament and we were like, “Oh shit! We can’t miss this!” And we were on a plane right away and we were there to shoot it. Honestly, he did so much stuff, we would have to be with him 24/7 to get everything he does. I wish we could have been with him all the time, the movie might not have taken fifteen years to finish.
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CD: How does producing a documentary differ from producing a feature film or television?

AH: It’s completely different. It basically engulfs your whole life and you never know what’s going to happen. With a feature you have a schedule and your lines and that dictates when and how you shoot. With a documentary, especially with Thor, we did everything we could to NOT help him. We wanted to document, not help, so when he was lost in Sweden, we were lost too. We wouldn’t make any calls to find out what train we were supposed to get on or anything like that. It ended up costing a lot of money because when your lost and making the wrong decisions you tend to spend more money. The film controls your life because you don’t know what is going to happen. You might be sleeping in a car, a show might get cancelled, or things just don’t go the way you thought they would. It’s great for the movie but it was really stressful on all of us. When Thor was riding the train in Sweden, Ryan and I, we had a sound man and camera guy, but we had a ton of gear we were taking with us. We had like five minutes to get all of our stuff off one train and onto another while still following Thor. Shit like that was just really stressful.

CD: What was the most interesting or shocking thing you learned while doing the film?

AH: Good question! The most shocking is just how much energy he puts into a show and it’s shocking to see the toll it takes on his body after. We shot him so many times where he would walk off stage after a show and just collapse, he couldn’t even talk. To see him do that night after night just blew me away. I’d never seen anything like that before, at least not at that level, and he does it for his fans. That drive and dedication is something I’ll always take with me and apply it to my life now.

CD: When we spoke before, you mentioned there was tons of stuff you shot but didn’t include in the film. Was there anything specific you wish you could have included in the final cut?

AH: This is hilarious. It was on that first tour in 2001, his band was stuck at the border and my band had stepped in to finish it off. Ryan was interviewing us on the hood of my car and Thor was in the background working on a water bottle. He filled up the water bottle with something and was blowing into it. The next thing I knew, he made whatever was in the bottle look like he was projectile vomiting all over the place. It was just Thor being Thor. I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen but it just didn’t fit into the movie.

CD: Do you plan on including stuff like that when you eventually put the DVD together?

AH: I certainly hope so, especially since there are so many of those Spinal Tap moments. We filmed him in a metal shop looking for metal bars to bend and he literally gets lost in the metal shop. There are arrows everywhere pointing to where he needs to go but he can’t figure it out. I have no clue how he got lost but he was getting so mad and we just filmed the whole thing. I’m sure stuff like that will be in the Special Features on the disc.

CD: What sort of difficulties did you run in to trying to finish the film?

AH: Ryan and I both had busy lives while we were working on this. Ryan was doing all of the editing and we had close to 400hrs of footage. Just to go through all that footage and create a story out of it. There was just so much that had happened. When we did a rough cut, it just didn’t feel right, we had an industry screening and got notes from everyone then went straight back to the drawing board. Finding the time and telling the best story was by far the most difficult thing Ryan had to deal with. Another struggle was not having the money to hire anyone so we had to do it all ourselves. Even when shooting we wouldn’t have the money to stay in a hotel, we just slept in the car.

CD: Out of the whole fifteen year process, what has been the most exciting moment for you?

AH: At the actual Slamdance premiere sitting next to Jon watching him watch it for the very first time. He had not seen any footage except for a trailer so it was just incredible to share that moment with him where he’s watching the story of his life. We weren’t sure what he was going to think of it, we were pretty sure he would like it but he had no idea what we had actually shot and put together. It was just incredible to watch his reaction to it.

CD: That was something I was actually curious about, if he had seen anything you shot over the course of all those years.

AH: No, we were very careful not to. Ryan had put together a music video for one of his songs but other than that we didn’t show him anything. We didn’t want him to try and sway us one way or another, not that he would, but subconciously we didn’t want him worrying about any of that. And we didn’t want him to try and give us input on what to use or how to use it. There were a few things I know he didn’t want us to use initially but I know he’s super happy with the final film. It’s an honest story and we didn’t hold back. The thing I love most about the guy is his “never quit” attitude. No matter what happened, his band leaving the tour, whatever, he always made sure the show went on, which is great.

CD: That message really comes through in the film, the whole “never give up thing” and eventually, your dreams will true.

AH: Yeah, and I just remembered something I want included on the DVD and wish was still in the film. Poopy Arbuckle, the drummer for The Ass Boys, told this story about going to stay with Jon for a couple of days up in Vancouver, I think. Jon took Poopy to stay at this cabin he has in the woods, it’s way out in the middle of nowhere. Poopy thought it was strange but went along with it. Jon told him he had to go and take care of something in the city and just left him there. He’s stuck in the middle of nowhere in this cabin that has nothing in it. The bed doesn’t have a pillow or anything, just a U-Haul blanket. That’s it. While he was sitting on the bed he notices a pair of red boots in the closet and goes to see what’s in there. The only thing in the closet was a full Superman costume. So he’s stuck in this cabin in the woods and the only thing in the place is a Superman costume. Why the hell would he have that at a cabin in the woods? It’s such a funny story, especially how Poopy tells it.
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CD: So what do you want to see happen with the film now that it’s ready?

AH: Man, I just want to get it out there for people to see. I know rock and metal fans will love it but the message is universal and I think the story can cross over to a wider audience.

CD: It has that whole underdog vibe and people love to root for the underdog.

AH: That’s it exactly! The underdog vibe is it, that’s awesome. What do you think? Do you think it will connect with an audience?

CD: For sure! Music fans in general will love it but if a wider audience catches wind of the message in the film, then I think it has the potential to be pretty big.

AH: People can call it a rock-doc if they want but there’s so much more story there. It’s just really important for us to get it out there so people can see it.

CD: I can’t thank you enough for taking the time out to talk with me.

AH: No problem and thank you for everything you’ve done.

Don’t forget, the film will be released in theaters and digitally November 20. If you want the full experience, Thor is launching his latest tour where he will be screening the film then performing after.

TOUR DATES:
11.10.15 SEATTLE, WA at El Corazon 109 Eastlake Ave E, Seattle, WA 98109
11.11.15 PORTLAND, OR at Dante’s 350 W Burnside St, Portland, OR 97209
11.12.15 LOS ANGELES, CA at Whisky A Go-Go 8901 Sunset Blvd, West Hollywood, CA 90069
11.14.15 TBD
11.16.15 CHICAGO, IL at Reggie’s Rock Club 2109 S State St, Chicago, IL 60616
11.18.15 DETROIT, MI at Small’s Bar 0339 Conant, Hamtramck MI 48212
11.20.15 PHILADELPHIA, PA at PhillyMOCA 531 North 12th Street Philadelphia, PA 19123
11.22.15 BROOKLYN, NY at Saint Vitus Bar 1120 Manhattan Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11222

You can find out more about the film, tour updates, and more when you visit the official website here. I for one will be at the November 18 show in Detroit. You can order your tickets now. Please check back in a couple of weeks when the second part of my I AM THOR interview sessions go live with director Ryan Wise.
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