The Music of Collaboration

The men behind McMillion$ and the new Apple TV+ true-crime docuseries The Big Conn on how being in rock bands shaped them as filmmakers.
James Lee Hernandez (center) playing lead guitar and singing in one of his bands.

Track 1: “In L.A., People Didn’t Think You Were Nuts for Wanting to be an Artist” – James “the Beast” Lee Hernandez (Omega, Lithium, Carnal Bliss)
In the 2000s, I was in bands called Omega, Lithium and Carnal Bliss. I was usually in two bands; I would sing and play guitar in one and play drums in another. They were mostly hard rock or heavy metal groups, because it’s more fun to play drums in a band like that than for Jack Johnson! Music was the reason I moved to L.A., partly because many of the shows I was playing were in L.A. and also because in L.A., people didn’t think you were nuts for wanting to be an artist for a living. Though I loved music, when I was growing up I would see every movie and TV show I could and memorize every aspect of them and the people who made them. That’s what finally led me to realize, “Oh my God, I can actually have a job in filmmaking,” and I pursued making that a reality.

Brian Lazarte (right) playing guitar in Rockets to Mars.

Track 2: “Nothing Will Take Away Your One True Love: Music.” – Brian Lazarte (Rockets to Mars, Blue Sky Audio)
I played bass and guitar in a number of different bands, including Rocket to Mars, who were based out of Cincinnati, Ohio. The band played SXSW in 1997, got signed to a Boston-based indie label called Lunch Records and recorded a few albums. I was probably 18, and remember going through a breakup with my girlfriend and my close friend Jay Hopper, the band’s lead singer, told me, “Nothing will take away your one true love: music.” At that point, I really felt that was true, that music was my life. I loved the creation of it: getting together with my friend, hashing out ideas and bringing songs to life, and then working with the band to build on them and record them. It was just such a fun process, having an idea and then bringing it to life.

But at a certain point, I realized that if music didn’t work out, my bandmates – who were five or six years older than me and had all graduated college – would have jobs, but I, who had taken a couple years off after high school, would not. I felt there was more I wanted to do or was capable of doing, so I started going to college, where I got bitten by the film bug. It was an immediate transfer of creative energy, as my passion shifted 100 percent from music into telling stories and bringing them to life. So I guess I just added that to my true love. And now, of course, my wife and two girls have been added as well.

Track 3: “I Got to Eat a Piece of Dave Grohl’s Birthday Cake with His Face on It” – James Lee Hernandez
I used to work for Brian’s wife at Hallmark, at the very beginnings of the company’s VOD service, when it began making original movies and shows. I started out as a staff editor and visual effects artist and worked my way up to producing, directing and writing. We were a really tight-knit team; we would have dinners where people would bring their significant others, which is where I met Brian. We hit it off immediately. We’d always talk about movies, TV shows and music we liked, and we were always on the same wavelength, with similar tastes and thought processes.

I was so jealous of Brian working with Dave Grohl on the Seattle episode of Foo Fighters: Sonic Highways. I was obsessed with Dave Grohl – he played drums and sang and played guitar, the same as I did. Brian got me backstage at Dave’s birthday show, which was the fucking coolest thing ever. I even got to eat a piece of Dave’s birthday cake with his face on it. It was a magical night for me.

When it came to McMillion$, Brian had a phenomenal history of doing these huge, complex documentaries that I didn’t have, so when I first started to learn about the story, I immediately went to him, we started working on it and everything flowed. And then we partnered up, eventually teaming up with Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson and Archie Gips, went to HBO and were off to the races!

Track 4: “Now We Push Each Other” – Brian Lazarte and James Lee Hernandez (FunMeter)
Music has had such an effect on our storytelling, and we’ve had the pleasure of working with some really fantastic composers and music supervisors over the years, but especially on our two most recent projects, McMillion$ and The Big Conn. We always put a lot of thought into how the music will affect the mood and tone, and how we shift from one tone to the next. When we’re actually bringing on a composer and talking through how we want to affect the scene with the music, it feels like they’re very much in lockstep with what we’re trying to achieve. And the times we’re not, it’s a really healthy challenge. We’re not precious about our ideas and always find a way to land on the best ones. It’s utterly collaborative.

We each have different ways of working through creative problems. Brian will stay focused on the issue and just grind out a solution. James needs to step away and do something else, like playing something familiar on the guitar, to make his subconscious connect to the problem in a new way, so the synapses crack open and an epiphany can hit.

What was really telling about the two of us coming together and starting to collaborate was just how easy, effortless, egoless and creatively rewarding it was. We each used to be the person who always pushed ourselves the hardest, and now we push each other. We come together and it’s such a seamless back and forth, as we push each other to things we otherwise wouldn’t have thought of. It’s a rare chemistry to find.

There are so many lessons we learned as musicians that benefit our collaboration as filmmakers every single day. Playing in a band, you appreciate the talents of everybody around you. If you’re receptive, hopefully it just feels like you’re playing, which is what music is: play. Making movies and TV shows is hard work, but it can be really creatively rewarding if you treat it like play.

Being a musician also teaches you how to write – to get out of your own head for a second and just get your idea out, so you can continue to shape it until it becomes the thing you want. You don’t have to nail it on your first shot, as that never happens. It also teaches you it’s a team sport, that you have to incorporate other people’s creative contributions, that you have to be open to directions you weren’t expecting to take your work to a higher level.

James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte in front of a McMillion$ billboard.

Hilariously, the two of us have never played music together, although we’ve talked about it a ton of times. Instead of forming a band, we formed a company, FunMeter.

Recently, we’ve been toying with the idea of bringing instruments into the office so we can just jam out in our conference room whenever we’re in the mood. Hopefully that will happen this summer!

All images courtesy James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte.

James Lee Hernandez is a multi-Emmy® and PGA Award-nominated filmmaker and critically acclaimed podcaster who with his creative partner Brian Lazarte wrote, direct, and executive produced the Apple TV+ original documentary series The Big Conn, which is now available to stream. Hernandez and Lazarte recently directed, wrote, and edited the five-time Emmy® nominated HBO original documentary series McMillion$ (Sundance 2020), and their upcoming project, The Jet, another Apple TV+ original documentary series, is forthcoming later this year. Hernandez is a founding partner of FunMeter, a TV & Film production company specializing in stranger-than-fiction scripted and non-scripted content. Hernandez is a self-taught filmmaker who began his career in the industry writing, editing, and directing content for Hulu, Hallmark, and other major, national brands.

Brian Lazarte is an Emmy-nominated filmmaker and editor whose new four-part Apple TV+ original documentary series made with James Lee Hernandez, The Big Conn is now available to stream. His credits include a variety of award-winning documentaries and series, most notably McMillion$ for HBO, which he wrote, directed, executive produced, and edited alongside James Lee Hernandez. Additional notable credits include Katy Perry: Part of Me 3D, HBO’s Emmy award-winning Sonic Highways, Fed Up, ESPN’s Emmy award-winning “30 for 30” Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau, The Price of Free (Grand Jury Prize, Sundance 2018), and Showtime’s Time of Death, which won IDA’s Best Limited Series in 2014. A recipient of the Panavision New Filmmaker grant, he is a founding partner with Hernandez of FunMeter, a TV and film production company specializing in stranger-than-fiction scripted and non-scripted content. (Photo courtesy HBO.)