Michael Toubassi moved to Los Angeles from Tucson about eight years ago, but something about the Old Pueblo keeps bringing him back. Toubassi is the writer and director behind High and Dry, a documentary delving into Tucson's music scene during a roughly two-decade time period. He's also the director of the third annual Tucson Film and Music Festival, starting Thursday, Aug. 30, and running through Monday, Sept. 3. The Weekly caught up with the former Tucsonan via e-mail to talk about where he's been, where he's at now and where he's going. For more information on the festival, visit the Web site.
Tell me about the Tucson Film and Music Festival.
The TFMF celebrates the past, present and future of the Tucson music scene and filmmaking community. The focus of the film festival is on music-related content, like documentaries and music videos, as well as films and filmmakers with a connection to Arizona or the Southwest. It's also about using these films as a platform to promote music artists that capture the spirit of the festival and its films. Past incarnations of the festival have seen once-in-a-lifetime reunions from Tucson bands like Green on Red, the River Roses and Pollo Elastico. This year, we're excited to bring back former Tucsonans Friends of Dean Martinez on our opening night for a special live film-score performance. Newer bands like Ph8 will be playing the festival for the first time alongside a thrash-metal documentary. Plus, we have music videos and performances by Love Mound, Brad Brooks, The Dusty Buskers and Dameon Lee (with Vicki Brown), who appears in the documentary Rural Rock and Roll.
Tell me about your documentary, High and Dry.
High and Dry focuses on the personalities and music artists that have shaped the Tucson sound from the late '70s until today, like Bob Log III, Giant Sand, Rainer, Sidewinders, Al Perry, the River Roses, Pork Torta and Calexico. I wanted to make a film that shows the amazing diversity and the talent that has emerged from Tucson, and expose others to some of the music that I came to love when I lived here. And, well, the music business is a struggle at any level, and whether it's drugs, alcohol, relationships or illness--successful or not, this dusty pueblo has seen it all over the years.
You work in Los Angeles, right? But you do all these projects that involve Tucson. What brings you back here?
Although I moved to Los Angeles from Tucson many years ago, directing/producing High and Dry brought me back and even closer in many ways to Tucson and the music scene. I find the canvas of Tucson easier to work with, and it's a more creative place to be a filmmaker. I've shot in so many places in and around Tucson I know so well that Tucson feels like my own back lot. Since I've been spending my time promoting the film and talking about Tucson music at various film festivals over the past few years, it just felt like a natural progression to bring that experience back to Tucson--which is why I am doing the festival there. The Tucson Film and Music Festival allows me to keep in touch with the city, even though I no longer live there.
I hear people talking about the Tucson rock 'n' roll sound. I'm wondering if you can describe it in your own words for me.
Well, the Tucson rock sound has a blues or country foundation, layered with a beat you can dance to, drizzled with some dirty indie-rock guitar, sprinkled (with) jazzy piano or keys, then (combined with) some lyrics you can sing along to, and topped ... off with a little harmonica. ... to me, that's the Tucson rock sound.
Who's your favorite director?
Hands down, it's Martin Scorsese--the finest American director of our generation. Because filmmaking is the ultimate collaborative artform, it's not only how he pushes the envelope with craft and storytelling, but it's his fantastic crew, like Michael Ballhaus and Thelma Schoonmaker, as well as the amazing actors he has worked with, from Robert DeNiro to Leonardo DiCaprio. I recommend Goodfellas, After Hours and Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (shot in Tucson to boot).
Do you have any other upcoming projects you can tell me about?
I hope to next direct a true-crime family drama entitled In Need of a Heart. The screenplay is based on a short story by Tucson author and UA English (Department) faculty (member) Beth Alvarado, and her son, actor Michael. The plan would be to shoot entirely in Tucson and utilize many local actors and crew.