Movies

The Director of HBO’s Woodstock ’99 Documentary on Why It All Went So Wrong

Organizer John Scher blames the media, the victims, and Fred Durst. The movie has other ideas.

Beyond a mud pit an enormous crowd of people pressed up against a stage at Woodstock ’99
HBO

The first installment in HBO’s new documentary series Music Box examines the notorious 1999 Woodstock festival, an attempt to re-create the defining moment of the 1960s counterculture that instead led to rioting, multiple sexual assaults, and at least one death. In between footage from the actual festival, Woodstock 99: Peace, Love, and Rage tells its story through interviews with organizers, attendees, journalists, and musicians such as Moby and Korn’s Jonathan Davis. Slate spoke to Woodstock 99 director Garret Price (who also helmed the documentary Love, Antosha about late actor Anton Yelchin) to find out more about how the documentary came together and how much things have or haven’t changed. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Marissa Martinelli: You open the documentary with a talking head of yourself—

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Garret Price: That was not my choice.

It was not your choice to appear?

No, that’s part of the series. They are doing that with every director to kind of introduce the films. But go ahead, I’m sorry.

Well, you say in the talking head at the beginning of the documentary that it would have been easy to make this a comedy, but the events of Woodstock ’99 were much more like a horror film. So, I was going to ask, what led to that disclaimer?

Well, those were my words. Going into this story and coming off Fyre Festival and these stories of these festival follies, the late ’90s feels really easy to poke fun at, the way we all dressed and the music that was popular at the time. You hear some of these stories of the festival itself, like kids jumping around in what they thought was mud but it really isn’t.

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But I saw some of the bigger issues at play and some of the tragic events that unfolded that week. I was like, man, this shapes up more like a horror film as the weekend progresses. You have a bunch of kids basically going to the woods—in this case an Air Force hangar—for a weekend of drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll. Just like a slasher film, each day, each night, worse and worse things start to happen. That’s how the story in those days unfolded naturally. This is more of a horror film or disaster movie than a festival movie.

There are already some infamous details of Woodstock ’99 that have made their way into our collective cultural memory. What details did you feel were missing that you felt the documentary was able to include?

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I think the cultural context of all of this was really important, and what really excited me in telling this is using this as a lens to all these sociopolitical and societal and cultural things that were surrounding it. People forget that this festival was plopped in right between the Columbine massacre and the Y2K hysteria. This is the time of the Girls Gone Wild phenomenon and lad mags like Maxim, where it really was a time where women were being objectified and felt really disposable. You have the Lewinsky and Clinton scandal going on also, and his impeachment. All these interesting cultural things happening around this festival, and that’s what I thought was so fascinating. I’m not saying those are the issues that caused some of the horrific things that happened there, but it in a way explained a lot of the things going on, not just singular to this festival, but in our culture altogether.

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It was like, this festival really is a mirror to what’s going on in America at this time. As I started learning more about this festival, also, you start to see a lot of the issues at play that were preventable. It was just a big bowl of things going wrong, and a tinder box was created, and it exploded.

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How did you find the attendees featured in the documentary, and how did you decide which ones to feature?

I was partners with Bill Simmons’ company, and they had done a podcast years before with a music journalist named Steve Hyden on the same subject, on Woodstock ’99. So, when I came up with this idea of Woodstock ’99 as a documentary, they’re like, “Hey, we actually had someone that has done a lot of research on this already.” So I teamed up with Steve. He came on as consulting producer, and he introduced me to a lot of the gets he had found in his research. Then we reached out to all the musicians and eventually landed also John Scher and Michael Lang to be a part of this too.

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What were your interviews with the organizers like? I’m particularly interested in Scher, who blames pretty much everyone else for the chaos. He blames naked women. He blames Fred Durst. He blames the media—that’s you! How did you handle that distrust?

Yeah, it’s hard not to see them as the antagonists of this film. They say some really tone-deaf statements, specifically John. [Editor’s note: At one point, Scher says of some of the women who were assaulted, “They shouldn’t have been touched, and I condemn it. But you know, I think that women that were running around naked, you know, are at least partially to blame for that.”] But I don’t think they’re awful people. I do think they fit this theme of the power dynamics. Some of the things John said aren’t singular to just him. A lot of people from a certain generation believe some of those things. Unfortunately, John said it on camera and still believes that and hasn’t quite self-reflected enough. I’m really hoping now, seeing this film, the way it’s framed, they’ll realize there were some big issues at play happening under their watch.

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You haven’t heard from either of them? You don’t know if they’ve seen it yet?

I haven’t, and I don’t know if I will. I told the story that I set out to tell, and they say what they say. I can only hope that they understand the perspective I told the story in.

You mentioned Girls Gone Wild earlier, and there’s a lot of footage of topless women in the movie, some of whom are being groped on camera. How did you navigate showing these women being exploited while avoiding the risk of exploiting them yourself?

This is something we were very, very sensitive of and went back and forth hundreds of times between us and our producers and outside forces. We brought women in to talk about it, and ultimately we landed on, as documentary filmmakers, our focus was telling the story as it happened on live television that weekend and to not gloss over these things that were happening in the wide open, you know?

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That was the most difficult thing in this whole project. It’s hard to watch, I know. But it’s leading to these conversations that are really important. This is a time I came of age in. I was 20 years old during Woodstock ’99. I watched that pay-per-view all weekend long in Texas, not really understanding what was going on. I had more of a sense of FOMO, and it wasn’t until years later that I realized all these issues at play.

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You draw people in with nostalgia, and you’re engrossed and engaged with the story, but you self-reflect on that time and maybe reckon with how you might’ve acted specifically as a male during this time. That was really important to me to get that across. I feel like that’s happening, which feels really positive. There are discussions happening about this time again, which gets a little bit glorified as this great, carefree time in our culture, and there were a lot of problems going on.

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You talk to Liz Polay-Wettengel about Fans Everywhere and the outreach that site did to women who did have bad experiences at the festival. Did you talk to any of those women who had bad experiences or that we see in the documentary?

We tried. We tried. We tried to get so many people to speak, and no one felt comfortable coming on camera. But Liz was a great get because she was an attendee, and she was so scared she went home immediately and started this website for women that were assaulted at the festival. Also with Maureen Callahan, who wrote an exposé for Spin magazine in 1999 and had a lot of sources and victims that were assaulted. They both felt like the second best thing to get, as filters to some of these just horrific stories.

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I’m sure I’m not the first person to ask you this, given the timing, but recurring throughout the documentary you have these diary entries from David DeRosia, the festivalgoer who died there, which are read aloud. Given the controversy around the recent Anthony Bourdain documentary, which used A.I. to re-create his voice, I’m curious how you handled sharing that voice of someone who’s no longer with us.

It’s a device I used when I did the Anton Yelchin doc also. I would only do it with permission from the family. In Anton’s case, it was his mother who asked me to reach out to Nicolas Cage to read Anton’s diaries. In this case, this was David’s best friend. For me to use this as a device, it has to be someone emotionally connected to this person, and his friend, who has the same name, David [Vadnais], was that person. He was the one that went to this festival with him, that lost his friend.

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As horrible of an experience as it was for David [DeRosia] losing his life, it was also a horrible experience for [Vadnais] to be at a place and see your friend for the last time during this festival and not know where he was. So having David [Vadnais]’s brother, who was there with him also, read the diaries I thought really added a perspective to this experience through these journal entries and really adds another emotional level through this film.

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Did you talk at all to David DeRosia’s mother? I saw that she had filed a lawsuit against the festival years ago, but I wasn’t able to find out that much about her.

I did, and she declined to be a part of this. But she knew David’s friend David was going to be a part of this. So, she understood that. She actually participated in the podcast that I worked with on this, but she did not want to participate in this film, which I totally respected.

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The documentary ends with Coachella presented as this kind of idyllic new alternative to Woodstock ’99. How much do you think festivals and festival culture have or haven’t changed in the time since then?

I think they have changed in regards to security and having potable water everywhere. I think a lot of these things were learned because of Woodstock. I don’t think there aren’t sexual assaults that still happen at modern-day festivals. This is still prevalent, and a lot of work can be done still to prevent this. I also make a point that Coachella is changing also from what it set out to be originally. It’s VIP tents and ticket tiers and glamping now. So, there’s another power dynamic at play. If you have a lot of money, you’re having a much different festival experience than someone with general admission.

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But people still die at festivals, right? At Bonnaroo, someone dies almost every year.

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, a lot of these festivals are similar to Woodstock, but using it again as a cultural reflection is what I intended to do originally with this, you know?

You see some of these threads culturally at the end of the ’90s to where we are now. That was really interesting to me, too. All the discussion around the #MeToo movement, things like that. I think you see a lot of these issues that were so out in the open in the late ’90s, and it shows you why this movement was needed. I think white male toxicity, which wasn’t really, I think, a coined term at the time in the late ’90s—I don’t even bring up that word at all in this whole film—but I think people just draw that parallel to just looking at the crowds at Woodstock to where we are now.

I didn’t want to be didactic in telling the story. I just wanted to lay out all the facts. It’s amazing the parallels people are drawing on their own. And discussions are happening. That’s when you know you’ve made something that’s affecting people. That’s what I set out to do.

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