‘Believer’ Director Don Argott on Working with a “Vulnerable” Dan Reynolds

     June 25, 2018

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From director Don Argott, HBO Documentary Films and Live Nation Productions, the documentary Believer delves into the fact that the suicide rates in Utah, among members of the LGBTQ community, have skyrocketed since 2008, as a result of the Mormon church’s official stance on same-sex relationships. Looking inward at the affect these teachings were having on some of his own friends, Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds has decided to shine a spotlight on the culture he grew up in, in the hopes that through dialogue and conversation on a very human level, some changes can be made that will help save lives.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Don Argott talked about the challenges of telling a story in real time, whether he’d given any thought to what he’d do, if everything hadn’t come together the way that it did, the way that Believer evolved into what it is now, how much he learned by making this documentary, and having a subject that was ready to be honest and vulnerable. He also talked about co-directing DeLorean with his wife, Sheena Joyce, and making a half-documentary and half-narrative movie, with Alec Baldwin in the title role.

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Image via HBO

Collider: This documentary is very beautifully done. I’m always very impressed with documentaries because you have hours and hours of footage and you don’t know exactly where you’re going to end up until you get there.

DON ARGOTT: You know, we talk about that, all the time. There was this renaissance of documentaries that caught people’s attention. And then, for a long time, there was this lull and nobody wanted to watch docs, or and they certainly weren’t getting the same amount of love that they used to get. And then, the past couple of years has been a boom again, with things like Making A Murderer, and that kind of stuff. One of the things that makes docs so challenging is that, like you said, you don’t know how they’re gonna turn out. When you watch most Hollywood movies, you kinda know where it’s all going. You know it’s all gonna work out, in the end, and the story is gonna resolve itself. But with a doc, you’re following real life and things don’t always work out as planned.

Did you guys ever have any conversations about what you would have done, if LoveLoud had just completely fallen apart?

ARGOTT: We tend to make docs fairly quickly. The longest was a film that we did, called Last Days Here, and that took about four years to make because the story really needed to evolve and take its time. We were doing it as a passion project, so there wasn’t any pressure to finish it. With Believer, we started filming in April, and as soon as Dan [Reynolds] had the idea to turn this into a music festival, we knew that we’d be following the day-to-day of trying to get this festival off the ground. It was so intense because every day was literally a make-or-break moment it seemed. It was a pretty limited budget, so when Dan left to go to Europe, we didn’t have the budget to be with him the whole time he was on tour in Europe.

There were so many things that were happening with the story. There were moments where you felt like the festival was falling apart, and then there was what happened with his assistant. I would text him and tell him to just shoot it on his phone and give me a day-to-day update ‘cause I couldn’t be there and I didn’t want to miss it. Everybody was basically saying, “Why don’t you just hold off and take a beat.” It was all happening very quickly. Money wasn’t coming together. It would have just been good for everybody to put the brakes on and regroup, and do it next month or next year.

Dan had so much momentum and he really wanted to do it. As he was on this journey, there was no turning back for him. It became something that really just had to happen. Dan is somebody who’s very impulsive when he gets an idea, but there was a moment where I thought that we were not gonna have a third act and we were just gonna have to sit on it. I can’t force it. I can’t make anything happen that’s not genuine. Maybe we could have finished the film with another ending, essentially with him waiting, but thankfully the audience didn’t have to wait around for a year to see what happens. There were definitely a lot of moments where I felt like this thing just might linger until there was a real ending.

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Image via HBO

That whole experience must have been so crazy and frustrating and scary, as a filmmaker.

ARGOTT: Yeah, ‘cause we were off to the races. So many things came together, with Aja [Volkman] and the roommates, Tyler [Glenn], meeting the people in Salt Lake City, and really just immersing in this issue in the story, and it all was just coming together so beautifully. As a filmmaker and storyteller, seeing all these things fall into place, that don’t seem forced and that you don’t have to work really hard to make connections from A to B to C, we then had a moment of having hinged everything on the festival being pulled off, and we didn’t even know if it was gonna happen, at all. It was touch and go, for a minute.

Before making this, did you know anything about Dan Reynolds or Imagine Dragons, or even about what it means to be Mormon, or did you just learn a lot from making this?

ARGOTT: I learned a ton making this, on multiple levels. I did not consider myself a big fan of Imagine Dragons when I got the phone call. The manager called and said, “Hey, Imagine Dragons want to do a documentary.” And I was like, “Okay, cool.” I thought I knew Imagine Dragons, and then I listened to one of their songs and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I know that song.” And then, I listened to another song and I was like, “I know that song.” All of a sudden, I realized that I knew 15 of their songs because they’re literally everywhere. It’s on the radio and it’s on when you walk into a CVS, so that was cool. But I came into it so cold, on all of those fronts.

I certainly didn’t know about Dan. We had a meeting at the beginning of April, when he was talking to potential directors, and originally the idea for the documentary was that Dan wanted to do something about the characters on Fremont Street in Las Vegas. It was this idea that he and his brother had come up with, but it wasn’t very fully formed. I think one of the reasons he was looking for a filmmaker to partner with was to see if there was anything to this idea he had about telling other people’s stories – people who are living alternative lifestyles in Las Vegas, where he’s from. When the manager called and pitched me this idea, I was like, “So, is he gonna perform on the street? Is there a music component?” He said, “Well, I’m not sure, but he met with several directors and hasn’t really clicked with anybody yet.” I’d made some music documentaries, so I thought, “I’ll talk with anybody, and if the project is cool, we’ll figure it out.”

And so, I met with him, under that pretense that he wanted to do this Fremont Street documentary, which was great and we could have tried to figure a story out there, but I really needed to know why he wanted to do this and I need to know more about him, as a character, and why he was the right person to tell other people’s stories. And then, through that initial conversation, he started to talk about, “Well, I grew up Mormon and I’ve been struggling with depression. I’ve had this faith crisis, the past several years, trying to balance this feeling of being in a band and being a Mormon, and all of this other stuff.” I was like, “Okay, that’s interesting. Let’s drill down on that a little bit.” We went into it with that spirit of discovery, to just be open to the story, and to him discussing his past and his religion, and all that stuff. All of those things really started to unlock many things in Dan, that he was suppressing and not really wanting to confirm.

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Image via HBO

What you really see in the film is really this real journey that we went on. Everything that’s happening is happening in real time. The way the story turned, he had this epiphany about Mormonism and how he couldn’t be silent anymore. That was all really exciting to be a part of. I learned a lot about Mormonism. I certainly learned a lot about Imagine Dragons and Dan. It was cool. It was a really, really rewarding experience. We’ve gotten to meet so many incredible people, like Tyler Glenn from Neon Trees, who’s like a beautiful person, and Alyson and George [Deussen], with their son Stockton, and Lance [Lowry], Dan’s assistant. We made so many amazing connections with people that I hope will sustain, for the rest of my life. These are hopefully life-long connections and friends.

One of the things that I really loved about this is the fact that Dan Reynolds is just so vulnerable, at times.

ARGOTT: Very vulnerable and very raw.

Did he realize just how vulnerable he was being?

ARGOTT: That was really what was so rewarding about making the film. He was ready, and that’s the best thing, from the filmmaker’s perspective, when you’re making a documentary. The most important thing that you can do, when you’re making any documentary, is to have the access, have a great story, and have great characters, and with this film, we had all of those things. Dan wasn’t afraid to not have the answers, and that’s a hard thing to do, as a human being. He was ready to learn and listen, and not have to talk, and kudos to him to be able to put that out there about himself. I think that’s why people gravitate toward the film, in that way. Very easily, the criticism can be, “Here’s the white, straight savior of the gay population. Great, thanks so much for being such a hero and being so brave.” But I think one of the ways that we battled that was because Dan is humble. He is not somebody who’s seeking the accolades and who’s trying to take all of the credit. He realizes that he’s one small piece of the puzzle, and that everybody needs to come together to make a change. People have responded to that.

Where do you go from here? What’s next for you? 

ARGOTT: Next up for us is that me and my wife, Sheena Joyce, co-directed a John DeLorean documentary, which is basically half-documentary and half-narrative. There are some narrative scenes spliced throughout the film. We have this amazing cast, with Alec Baldwin playing John DeLorean, Morena Baccarin from Deadpool, Josh Charles, and Dana Ashbrook from Twin Peaks, basically doing re-enactment scenes in this DeLorean documentary. For a film like DeLorean, which is about a historical figure, there’s that trap you fall into, which is talking heads, archival footage, photos, and that kind of stuff, so it’s about making it more interesting. So, we took this approach, and we’ll see how people react to it. It’s definitely different and maybe it won’t be for everybody, but I’m excited to get it out there. We’re currently finishing that up, and we hope to have it out by the end of this year or the beginning of next year. Then, we’re just trying to get the next ten things off the ground, which is typical of trying to get the next project going.

Believer premieres on HBO on Monday, June 25th. To learn more about the LoveLoud Foundation, go to www.loveloudfest.com/.

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Image via HBO

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