Tony Pemberton and Roberta Friedman

Montclair State filmmakers wrap up two feature-length films, including a documentrary on DEVO

By Amy Wagner

When he’s not teaching, Montclair State Filmmaking Professor Tony Pemberton successfully straddles the worlds of documentary and feature filmmaking, sometimes at the same time, with this guiding conviction: “You need fiction to make facts and facts to make fiction.”

Tony Pemberton and Roberta Friedman
Montclair State University filmmaking professors Tony Pemberton and Roberta Friedman

Named one of “10 Directors to Watch” by Daily Variety in 2000, when his film Beyond the Ocean garnered critical acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, Pemberton currently has both a documentary and a feature film in post-production. Are We Not Men—the  first-ever authorized documentary about the edgy, influential New Wave-era band DEVO—is slated for completion this summer. The award-winning filmmaker is also putting the finishing touches on Buddha’s Little Finger, an adaptation of Russian author Victor Pelevin’s eponymous novel. “I’m hoping to ready them both for the big film festivals,” Pemberton says.

Band of brothers

“I first saw DEVO as a teenager in Ohio,” Pemberton recalls. He was drawn as much to their humor and cutting-edge qualities as to the fact that they had made it out of Ohio. “When I saw their debut performance on Saturday Night Live in 1979 and heard them sing ‘What’s round on the ends and high in the middle, Ohio,’ my jaw dropped. It was the first time the strange culture of subversion that my friends and I found interesting was right there in front of America.”

Pemberton’s documentary shows there’s more to DEVO than its mega-hit “Whip It.” Powered by two sets of brothers—Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh and Jerry and Bob Casale—the band came together in part as a response to the 1970 killings of anti-Vietnam War protestors at Kent State University. While rock legend David Bowie dubbed them “the band of the future,” the group took its name from the belief that society is moving backward instead of forward. As in DEVOlution.

‌“DEVO is interesting and layered. They wanted to be subversive yet mainstream,” Pemberton explains. A sensation on early MTV, the group’s trademark blend of techno-pop sounds, political messages and stylized costumes and imagery has lately been rediscovered online by a new generation that finds fresh relevance and power in its message.

Pemberton’s documentary combines rare archival and recent concert footage with exclusive new interviews with band members, as well as with cultural icons—such as rockers David Bowie and Iggy Pop and skateboarder Tony Hawk—who embraced DEVO from the beginning.

Pemberton, who followed the band for about four years to make the film, especially enjoyed working with DEVO leaders Mark Mothersbaugh and Jerry Casale. “Mark is a true eccentric who loves to play. He loves masks and creating characters. He’ll ask you about your dreams. Jerry is a theorist who loves politics. He’s playful, too, but in a soulful way,” Pemberton says.

A Montclair State film crew

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $70,000, the Are We Not Men? crew includes a number of Pemberton’s Montclair State colleagues and students. “It all began when former Montclair State wrestling coach Viktor Sveda asked me to help him produce a DVD of DEVO footage that he had. I started to wonder why no one had made a documentary about the band and took it from there,” says Pemberton. Sveda is an associate producer on the film.  

Fellow filmmaker and Assistant Professor Roberta Friedman, who did special effects and post-production work on such blockbusters as Star Wars, Ragtime and Hair, plays a major role as the film’s producer. “She did everything from bringing in funding to facilitating shoots,” Pemberton explains. Cinematography Professor Joe Foley and Editing Professor Dan Loewenthal also worked on the film.

“A producer on a low-budget film does everything to make the film happen smoothly, on time and on budget,” says Friedman. “This includes brainstorming ideas and being a sounding board for aesthetic issues that come up. It can involve contracts and liaising with lawyers and distributors—and negotiating jobs and credits with some thorny personalities.”

A number of Montclair State’s aspiring student filmmakers have gained valuable pre-professional experience by working as crew on the film. “Students went on shoots, did camera work, helped out as production assistants, did transcription and helped with editing,” Pemberton says. Students Kaitlyn Plum, Josh Echevarria, Adrian Romero and Monika Kolodziej were the camera crew, while Ryen Tetzlof, William Joel and Kaitlyn Plum worked on sound. Plum, along with Felia Mano, also worked as an assistant editor.

Chelsea Smith, who graduated in 2012 with a BFA in Filmmaking and a BA in English, was a production assistant and started work on the film as a research intern. She traveled to Ohio in October 2008 to shoot an Obama rally featuring DEVO and the Black Keys. “I’m a huge fan of DEVO,” Smith says, “and working on a documentary about a band that helped shape my world views was one of the best experiences I had as a student at Montclair State.”

Pemberton and Friedman are currently working on the film’s final edit in Manhattan and at Montclair State. Once all post-production work is completed this summer, Pemberton will enter Are We Not Men? in Sundance and major European film festivals. Are We Not Men? has already gotten one nod from Sundance, when it was accepted this year. But the filmmakers didn’t want to screen it until it was completely wrapped up.   

A decade in the making, Pemberton also optioned the novel Buddha’s Little Finger from his friend, celebrated Russian novelist Victor Pelevin, more than ten years ago. Having lived in Russia for five years, Pemberton found he could relate firsthand to the novel’s surreal, satiric vision.

Set in 1991 and 1917, the film is about a writer who dreams about the Russian past. “What I did was try to make these two different times more valid in the sense of politics, so I focused on 1991 and the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev—that poetic moment where Russia decided to release itself from the Soviet Union.” The film is also a love story.

“I am a Berliner,” says Pemberton. “I was made a German resident so that I could make my film there.”

Buddha’s Little Finger stars noted German actors Andre Hennike, a star of Downfall, and Stipe Erceg, who appeared in The Baader Meinhof Complex. Canadian Karine Vanasse, whose credits include Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and ABC’s Pan Am, plays the female lead.

The English-language film, which is a German, Russian and Canadian co-production, was shot entirely in Germany—with a little help, again, from Montclair State. Thanks to an Academy of Motion Pictures grant, Josh Echevarria, a 2012 filmmaking graduate, was able to join Pemberton’s crew in Germany as a second assistant cameraman.

“We’re editing the film in Montreal,” says Pemberton, who aims to have it ready in time to enter in the summer’s Venice Film Festival.

Having previously shown films at The Anthology Film Archives, the Kino Museum in Moscow and New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art, as well as other major international film festivals, Pemberton looks forward to the release of his two new films.

When these films wrap, Pemberton has a number of narrative scripts on the drawing board for his next venture, but is keeping the titles close to the vest. “I feel it’s too early to mention any by name—I don’t want to jinx them,” he says.

Like Buddha’s Little Finger and Are We Not Men?, his next project—whether fact or fiction—is sure to tell a compelling story.

Montclair State filmmakers work on Buddha's Little Finger in Berlin.‌