If Stephen Stills had been more forthcoming with the rights to his music, Christopher Hanson might never have made a documentary about Widespread Panic. While Hanson put the final touches on his first feature film, 1998’s Scrapple, Stills’ camp turned down a request to include the song "How Far" in the movie. Scrambling for a replacement, Hanson and his co-writer brother, Geoffrey, settled on "The Take Out," a rolling, acoustic instrumental by Widespread Panic, then a burgeoning Athens, Ga.-based rock/jam band.
Panic’s management approved the request within two days. A Dazed and Confused-styled comedy based in Telluride, Colo., Scrapple went on to become a film fest favorite, earning cult status in ski towns across the western U.S. High on their movie’s momentum and forced by more red tape to set aside plans for a documentary about blues musician Taj Mahal (who composed Scrapple‘s score), the Hanson brothers approached Panic about following them on their summer tour.
Those were heady days for Panic fans. The group’s 1999 album ‘Til the Medicine Takes, helped to expand the band’s audience and pushed the musicians to the top of their game, culminating in a headlining gig at the inaugural Bonnaroo festival in 2002.
Sadly, at the peak of the band’s rise, founding guitarist Michael Houser was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away. The Earth Will Swallow You, the Hanson brothers’ documentary about the band, was released three months later. For fans, the film’s personal glimpse at Houser and served as a eulogy for the dearly departed guitarist.
A New Home in Charleston
Twelve years later, Hanson lives in Mt. Pleasant and works as a for-hire videographer and filmmaker. He recently helped coordinate shoots for Bravo’s Southern Charm, following his experience (including 10 weeks in northern Alaska) filming for the History Channel’s Ice Road Truckers and A&E’s American Hoggers.
After The Earth Will Swallow You ran its course in 2003, Christopher relocated to Denver and began teaching college and high school videography, eventually moving back to Telluride to work with Plum, a now-defunct start-up cable network. He won three Emmys there but found himself in need of a change, pushing the ski-bum lifestyle into his early 40s. He surveyed his options and settled on the Lowcountry.
"This is just the perfect size city to come to with a lot of energy and experience," Christopher reflects. Since arriving in 2012, he’s been recruited to produce promotional shorts for Ashley Hall, Enough Pie, and the American College of the Building Arts, in addition to his reality TV work. Christopher is quick to draw comparisons between communities like Folly Beach or Sullivan’s Island and the Colorado ski towns he left behind.
"I was at the polar bear plunge on New Year’s Day, and all these people are dressed up and jumping into the ocean," he says. "That’s the spirit of someone who would like Scrapple or The Earth Will Swallow You. I need to live in a place like that."
From Fan to Filmmaker
When Hanson sits down to watch The Earth Will Swallow You at the Music Hall this Sunday night, it will be the first time he’s seen his own creation on a big screen since its premiere in Colorado.
Although it’s true that most of the audience will likely be Panic fans, there to share in the camaraderie as they relive (or imagine) the spirit of being on tour 14 years ago, there’s plenty for a novice or non-fan to appreciate. Hanson conceived the film’s opening time-lapse sequence as a tribute to director Godfrey Reggio and his masterpiece Koyaanisqatsi, with subtle moments throughout the movie paying tribute to the Doors.
"Both Scrapple and The Earth Will Swallow You were made for multiple viewings," he says, citing films like Caddyshack that he watched over and over in his youth. "We knew we had to write things that people would say over and over and make the movies in layers so that there were things people would only pick up on the fourth or fifth viewing — intricate, detailed, weird stuff. There are underlying currents and themes."
Although Christopher didn’t see his first Panic show until 1997, he was a huge fan by the time the cameras started rolling.
"I was like, ‘Oh my God. I get it.’ I jumped in headfirst," he recalls. "We felt like kids in a candy store, being backstage or in the basement of the Warfield or in the dressing room with JB [singer John Bell] and Jorma [Kaukonen of Hot Tuna]. We were living the rock star dream."
When their footage hit the editing desk, the Hansons approached the movie like Panic would a concert, breaking it into nine scenes, an intermission, nine more scenes, and an encore. The schedule for the screening is not dissimilar, beginning with a set of music from local Panic cover band 54 Bicycles, followed by the film (the band’s intermission), and then another set of live Panic cover songs.
Hanson’s films are far from blockbusters, but he doesn’t judge himself by Hollywood standards, explaining, "If I make stuff and people find it and like it, that’s success for me." He cites dozens of encounters where people have approached him claiming Scrapple is their favorite movie of all time, or Panic fans floored by the fourth wall-toppling level of intimacy achieved in The Earth Will Swallow You.
As a filmmaker, his career approach stems from a comment Taj Mahal once made to him: "I don’t have to look for a job. I am a job." Nearly 20 years ago, that advice helped him leave his position as a wilderness instructor and hole up with his brother in a Wyoming apartment to write Scrapple.
"How do you just do what you want to do in life?" Christopher asked himself. And he’s followed that notion ever since, all the way to Charleston.
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