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Colin Hanks taks Tower Records documentary in new interview

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Jeff Vespa/WireImage

Colin Hanks is known for his memorable turns in movies (That Thing You Do!, Orange County, The House Bunny) and TV shows ranging from Mad Men and Dexter to his Emmy-nominated role on Fargo. But with All Things Must Pass (in theaters today), the Life in Pieces star turns director—tracing the rise and fall of iconic music chain Tower Records, which grew from one small California storefront to nearly 200 outlets worldwide before the last location closed its doors in 2006. The 37-year-old actor-turned-director (and son of Tom Hanks) sat down with EW to talk about helming his first major project, landing stars like Dave Grohl and Elton John, and why he made a movie about a store that wouldn’t hire him in college.

Tower actually started in your hometown. Is that part of why you’ve put so many years into getting this movie made?

Yeah, growing up in Sacramento, Tower was always this point of civic pride. It was founded and based there, and never was headquartered anywhere else. Growing up, I didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, so I would just spend all my money buying music. When the stores were closing I was living in New York, and a friend of mine from Sacramento was visiting and we were talking about what a sad thing it was.

She said “I can’t believe it all started in that little drug store!” I was like, “What are you talking about?” She told me that Russ Solomon, the founder of Tower Records, started selling used 78s from the jukebox in his father’s drugstore in 1941, and I said, as clear as I am talking to you right now, “That’s a documentary.” If he starts selling records in 1941 and then closes 192 stores around the world 40-something years later, that’s impressive.

When I started doing research and finding out what a unique place it was—that people spent 40 years of their lives working there—that’s a special thing, and it just so happened to involve the music business, which I’m fascinated by, being a huge music nut. So it just struck me that it would make for a good documentary, and I spent the next seven years of my life trying to convince other people of the same thing.

You got some great people to participate, aside from Russ himself and at ton of former employees—Bruce Springsteen and Elton John both talked to you about how much the store meant to them. And Dave Grohl says in the movie that it was one of the only places that would hire him because of his long hair.

Yeah, Dave Grohl, you may have heard of him, he used to drum for this band called Nirvana [laughs]. Now he’s the frontman for Foo Fighters and a documentarian filmmaker himself.

But you never worked there, right?

I applied! To two different Towers in college. They said “Okay look, we can give you this application and you can fill it out, but we’re gonna tell you right now, there are about 50 people ahead of you, and we’re not hiring anytime soon.” And that was even with a friend of mine who worked there. So I filled it out anyways, and watched them place it on top of a stack that was probably finger-length long.

To music fans it’s a pretty fascinating story, but I’m guessing the shutting of a record store chain isn’t the easiest subject to get funding for.

Without sounding like a history teacher, when we started making the movie the economy had just gone in the tank, and there wasn’t streaming or Netflix or things like that. So when we started, people said a) people don’t watch many documentaries, and b) there are much more important companies that are going bankrupt now, no one’s gonna miss Tower Records. It was only two years after the stores had closed, so it wasn’t anything that anybody was celebrating or mourning yet.

But we took every single meeting we could, we meet with financiers, and eventually we went on Kickstarter. We just never gave up. It ‘s hard to explain, I just wanted to see the movie finished. And the more I got to know Russ Solomon and all the other people that worked there, I wanted to make the definitive Tower Records documentary. I don’t know why, I just felt compelled to do it.

So does this mean you’re going to make a requiem for Blockbuster next?

Ha, no, I don’t have a deep connection to Blockbuster. But as we were finishing this, RadioShack announced they were closing all their stores. So I pretty much got a barrage of texts saying, “You gonna make the RadioShack documentary now?” [Laughs]

What did making the movie teach you about the music business?

I learned how young it really is. When you think about it, the music retail business started off with sheet music. In terms of businesses, it’s a relatively new one—it started in late ’20s, early ’30s and changed and evolved over time very quickly. You have these windows of four or five years where all of a sudden technology changes and something comes in. Sometimes those technologies stick, sometimes they don’t. It’s not just, “Napster killed Tower.” It’s not that simple. There are things that happen within the music industry as well as things within Tower itself that affected the outcome.

Really I think that the greatest thing that I learned was not to overanalyze or over-manage things. Russ was very adamant that they never had any plans and goals, and they figured things out as they went along—because in documentaries you don’t write a script and then film it, you don’t know what it is you’re going to get. You can study as much as you can, but the greatest lesson I learned was just to trust your gut and believe that you are going to be okay, until you’re not.

Do you feel like you got a taste for directing now?

Oh yeah! I’ve made a bunch of shorts, and in the time that we’ve been making this, I directed a short documentary for ESPN 30 for 30 called The Anti-Mascot, and produced a couple of other documentaries, including one that Gillian Jacobs from Community did about a woman named Grace Hopper as well as some other ones. [Making a mock serious face] My real passion is directing. [Laughs]