HomeInterviewsSXSW Film Spotlight – 'Swamp Dogg Gets His Pool Painted' director interview

SXSW Film Spotlight – ‘Swamp Dogg Gets His Pool Painted’ director interview

A new documentary film, Swamp Dogg Gets His Pool Painted, had its world premiere at SXSW 2024. It’s a wildly entertaining documentary about the life and sometimes-bizarre career of soul pioneer Jerry Williams, aka Swamp Dogg, and the bond he’s formed with his housemates, Moogstar and Guitar Shorty.

360°Sound had the pleasure of speaking with the film’s directors, Isaac Gale and Ryan Olson. Both are Minneapolis-based pool-painters – excuse me – filmmakers, musicians, and producers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

filmmaker Isaac Gale
filmmaker Ryan Olson

360°Sound: I love this film. It’s got a very different feel from most documentaries. It’s got this cool, Southern California laid-back vibe. And Swamp Dogg is such a fascinating person. We caught his set at Cooper’s BBQ in Austin during SXSW. He is just as authentic as he comes across in your film. How’d you guys get connected to this project?

Isaac Gale: We got connected through music. Swamp actually cold-called Ryan about working on some songs with him that he had recorded for the album Love, Loss and Autotune. So Ryan came in, because all the autotune was actually out of tune. And I went out there to shoot a music video for the song “I’ll Pretend.” And it just started from there. So we went into this project really not knowing much about Swamp Dogg at all, which I think sort of guided the way we put it all together.

In the film, Swamp actually does get his pool painted, at his home in suburban LA. It’s a great framing device for the film. How did that idea come about?

Isaac: On that same trip when we were shooting that music video, we were shooting some stuff with our friend Jesse Willembring, who’s the pool painter in the movie. We were shooting some photos in his studio, and Swamp just casually dropped, ‘You’re a painter. Do you ever paint pools?’ And that idea sparked. We came up with the title immediately, ‘Swamp Dogg gets his pool painted.’ That’s always the best place to start a movie – just a good title.

Given what I know of Swamp Dogg, this project could have gone any number of directions. So it’s cool that you guys didn’t have a narrative structure in mind. Did you just rolled camera and let it fall where it may?

Isaac: We started from, ‘We love these guys and want to keep hanging out at their house with them.’ Just inviting people who actually are Swamp’s friends over, and the housemates, sitting around watching the pool get painted – seemed like a great idea at the time. Then we fucked up the pool painting, and had to come back and paint it twice. That extended the project by years. And then we started finding all this cool archival stuff in his house. The project has all these branches. We heard Moogstar stories and Guitar Shorty stories, and it sort of built the entire world.

All that archival stuff is gold. It’s fascinating, and fleshes out this character, Swamp.

Isaac: Totally. We found a lot of that stuff under his bed that you see in the movie, with the light-up headboard. He was like, ‘I think I I’ve got some pictures for you guys.’ And like, everything was under there.

That seems on brand for Swamp. You had these guest interviewers come in, Tom Kenny, Alonzo Williams, Johnny Knoxville. Was that pretty organic? How did that come about?

Ryan Olson: Yeah, they’re all his friends; they all actually do hang out. Alonzo’s there rather often, Tom Kenny as well. I know Knoxville has been at every Swamp show we’ve seen in LA.

Isaac: They’re like his friends, and fans. The casualness and sort of organic feel of people that he’s actually friends with felt so much better. Plus, we had permission from these people to throw them out there awkwardly and just see what happened. We didn’t really guide them in any way. We just turned the camera on in the hot sun and hoped that Swamp would say something that’s interesting or funny, and he always does.

And you have Mike Judge in there. Did he do the animation for the white owl sequence?

Isaac: No, Joe Mattoon is the animator for that. He lives a block away from my house here in Minneapolis. He hand-painted all that stuff – Mike Judge-inspired. That [sequence] came from Moogstar telling us that story, that he felt like he was in an episode of Scooby Doo. So we’re like, ‘Okay, let’s use Scooby Doo.’ But Mike Judge had Swamp in Tales from the Tour Bus. The first episode of that show, about Johnny Paycheck, Swamp’s actually in it. So Mike Judge is a long-time fan and became a friend.

Moogstar (L) with Swamp Dogg

You mentioned Moogstar. He’s the keyboard player in Swamp’s band. In the film, he comes off as a tender soul, and a really compelling contributor to the film. Tell me about getting to know Moog.

Isaac: Where are we going to start?

Ryan: ‘Tender soul’ is very, very true. He’s kind of a caretaker for the older guys in the house. He’s a producer, musical wizard, and computer genie. Like, he’s the one that emails.

Isaac: He helps them with all their tech problems. He can email for them. He’s sort of like their in-house producer and caretaker. He’s truly a genuinely beautiful person. He’s just kind of magical. All his stories are as interesting as Swamp’s, just a little more psychedelic. It was one of the pleasures of the movie, just getting to hang out with these guys and [create] this visual musical language.

Swamp’s daughter, Dr. Jeri, was at the gig at SXSW and she was just as you portray her in the film, lovingly looking out for her dad and his career. What role did she play in developing the narrative of the film?

Ryan: She filled in a lot of blanks.

Isaac: When we went to shoot with her in her neurology office in Bakersfield, she filled in a lot of story gaps, and helped us understand a little more about these dudes. She’s a neurologist, and she’s Swamp Dogg’s manager. She’s the one who does a lot of the business activities, when they’re out there doing wild and crazy shit.

It’s some really sweet background that you include about how Swamp wasn’t an absentee father, that he was totally involved in her life, and she loves him for it.

Isaac: That’s an important aspect of Swamp. While he’s doing all this out-there stuff, navigating this insane world of the music industry, he’s trying to live a normal life. He’s got a kid to put through school – and he did an amazing job. She’s a neurologist!

I love the bits where you have Swamp in front of a screen, reciting. Tell me about how you came up with that device.

Isaac: We were learning about Swamp’s lyrics – this dude’s an insanely great writer. We just thought it would be fun to put them up there. They’re poetry. Like “Synthetic World,” that’s one of his more popular songs that people know, and we ended up not using the actual song in the movie – just him reading the lyrics. They felt like really nice chapter dividers, after we had them. Everything we did just sort of felt natural to do.

It’s powerful. Especially the [blue] one where he’s like, ‘I was born blue.’

Isaac: Yeah, it’s a really serious, devastating reading of that. Some of those lyrics, like “Synthetic World” particularly, we couldn’t find a place that fit right, the way that that song’s groove is. But then the reading makes them have this totally other meaning.

The film has a ton of heart, with Dr. Jeri and the memories of Swamp’s beloved wife Yvonne, but Guitar Shorty is the emotional heart of the film for me. Tell me about Shorty.

Ryan: He’s just so genuine, and so sweet, so open. The way they discuss things… Shorty’d be like, ‘I’ve been living here for four years.’ And Swamp overheard that, and he goes, ‘Try 17 years.’ There was this running joke of him not paying rent, like he’s living off the system there. But come to find out that Yvonne had said, ‘I want you to come here and look after everyone.’ The part about Shorty unfolded itself to us as we were going through and getting to know the story. It was really natural.

Isaac: He’s a pretty quiet, reserved guy. Sometimes you feel bad, sitting a camera in someone’s face. So, with him we didn’t do as much of that, but we kept learning more about what Shorty was doing… constantly on the road, gigging.

Going on The Gong Show.

Isaac: That was the first archival thing we dug up, because we heard that he did flips on The Gong Show. So we tracked that down. It’s so amazing about him, singing that song so beautifully, and then the crowd cheers when he does this one flip. It’s really poetic.

Swamp says near the end, ‘This generation is more hip to my stuff than my generation. It was almost like coming back from the dead.’ Why do you think that is?

Ryan: Over time, you know, more people digging for records. And being around for 80 years, people are going to catch on to what you’re doing – if you’re doing some good stuff. And he has been; that’s true. So I think it’s probably that. He’s had a couple good pushes in the past few albums, and it’s gotten out there. Margo Price single-handedly got his last album out there – Margo Price is a big fan. But I think it’s more so that people discover Rat On and Gag a Maggot and other records.

Isaac: He wrote some fucking amazing, badass songs. That was a big pleasure of this too, discovering that some of these things are serious heavy hitters.

 Any word on distribution?

Isaac: Nothing yet. But we’ve got a ton of film festivals coming up now, after SXSW. Hopefully, in a theater near you someday.

Ryan: The trunk of our cars. 

Isaac: Yeah, maybe the trunk of our car. I mean, it’d be really fun to tour it. Swamp could play a show, and then the movie can play. We’re trying to make some things happen.

Check back with 360°Sound for updates on where you can watch Swamp Dogg Gets His Pool Painted. Until then, go grab some of the man’s records and experience the badass brilliance.

Keep up with Swamp on theswampdogg.com

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