Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss On What ‘Portlandia’ Taught Her About The Art Of Making Mistakes

01.18.18 10 months ago

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During a visit to the set of Portlandia last year, I noticed Janet Weiss off to the side, watching the monitors as Carrie Brownstein and Fred Armisen prepared to film a sketch with Kumail Nanjiani. It was the final few days of filming for the eighth and final season of the award-winning IFC sketch comedy series, and plenty of visitors were on hand to witness the occasion. The thing is, Weiss — who makes up the riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney with Brownstein and Corin Tucker — wasn’t just visiting. She has served as Portlandia‘s location scout since season three, when Brownstein first brought her into the fold.

“I introduced Fred and Carrie,” Weiss told the Seattle Times while discussing her connection to the show in 2015. It’s true, of course. Yet I wanted to know what the 52-year-old musician turned crew member had learned from her six seasons on the Portlandia set. Had she taken anything to heart as she, Brownstein, and Tucker were in the midst of recording a new Sleater-Kinney album? Maybe. But according to Weiss, what stuck out about her experiences doing both was the life lesson that making “a lot of mistakes along the way” can be the best education.

How did the final weekend of shooting go?

It was great. It was emotional. I saw several grown men crying. It was heavy, the last day especially, but sort of without incident, which was nice.

I love that you’re still thinking in terms of a crew member, of wanting to get from point A to point B without incident.

It’s a lot of moving parts and the parts are moving pretty quickly. We were hoping for a nice smooth exit and that happened. We also had a really great wrap party that was awesome and fun. There was some closure after so many years of working on this project. It was a really positive finish to the show.

When we spoke on the Portlandia set, you said the show had a ‘rock ‘n’ roll mentality.’ Everything was very ‘do-it-yourself,’ even down to the fact that Carrie and Fred drive themselves to work. Could you expand on this, and what the possible connections are between your work as a location scout and your career as a musician?

It’s not like a direct correlation. I think it’s a mindset, more than anything else. It starts with who you hire and how they do or do not fit into the mainstream film community. I feel like we, the Portlandia family, grew up together while making this show from the very beginning. A lot of us started our jobs here without having any prior experience. In that way, it’s similar to how I got into music. I learned everything on the spot. I learned on stage when we were performing and I learned in the studio when we were recording. I didn’t go to school for it or study it anywhere else specifically. I just learned it on the fly. Of course, there are some very technical jobs in both businesses. But there are also many jobs that we all, on this show at least, learned how to do as we went along.

It reminds me a lot of musicians I’ve met or worked with over the years, especially the community I came out of. It’s all very DIY. It’s more about a person’s ideas than their skill level or educational background. It’s more about what your ideas are and what they could be. You’re basically a self-made person, and these communities really encouraged that in all of us. It’s a quality that was valued on Portlandia, just as much as it’s valued in many of the bands I’m familiar with.

There’s also the notion of improvisation, which both music and Portlandia share. It’s actually quite rare, from what I’ve come to understand, that so much of this show is improvised. Many changes will happen once the filming starts. They’ll find a new thread after the cameras start rolling and will go in a direction they hadn’t planned on going in. The crew has to be prepared for that. You may get to the location and when the director looks 30 feet down the street and says, ‘Let’s do something there,’ we have to get to work and make it happen.

There’s a looseness to the show, which just doesn’t exist on a lot of other shows. Most are scripted. They read the script, they have one or two cameras, and that’s that. We have three cameras at all times, just to make sure we catch whatever the cast decides to improvise in each moment. We’ll redo things for lighting and things like that, but it’s all very much centered on improvisation. The whole premise of for the show works is, to me, improvisation. It’s the same in music, and it can be very liberating.

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