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

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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.

It can also be stressful. As the location scout, if the director decides to suddenly change a scene’s location, I imagine your day can change drastically. You have to find, vet, and negotiate for these locations well in advance.

Yeah. I think we love it and we hate it. We have to stay on our toes, for sure. The whole crew. The lighting guys don’t get enough time to light. The makeup artists don’t get enough time to do the makeup. The costume designers and dressers don’t get enough time to get everyone dressed. It pushes you to be better at your job since you’re operating in sometimes guerrilla conditions. I think it makes you better. It also makes you quicker, which is where improvisation comes in handy. I think that’s part of how we all learned how to get good at our jobs so quickly. We just had to be. Sure, you make a lot of mistakes along the way, but that’s true in music as well. You shouldn’t be afraid to make a few mistakes. You can’t be.

Is there a particular example that comes to mind? Of you and your crew scrambling to improvise changes on the spot?

There are a lot of examples. None of them are so amazing that they would stick out. Just little things. We start planning for all kinds of possibilities whenever we decide to shoot at a location. We’ll figure out what all is nearby in a certain neighborhood, for example. We need to know the sketch’s material, what might possibly come up during shooting, and things like that. We need to know where we are and what’s around it. It just requires a lot of homework in advance.

That’s true of improv in general, planning ahead. With music, you look at the Jazz musicians who practice eight or nine hours a day. They’re practicing so that when they’re improvising during a jam session or on stage during a performance, they have plenty of tools to work with. Plenty of different places to go. They don’t have to think as they’re playing. They already know all of these things. They just do. It’s a similar situation with our work on Portlandia, where the more information we have about what we’re doing on a certain day, the easier it is to break away on a moment’s notice in order to find something else. We already know what’s around us at these locations, so we’re often prepared for these kinds of last-minute changes.

Right, because without those foundations — be they chords and scales on a guitar, beats on a drum set, or possible locations for a shoot — improvisation isn’t possible.

Definitely. I mean, there are always going to be limitations and a lot of what the show is about is pushing everything to the limit. Pushing how much we can fit into a single day of shooting, how much we can fit into a single scene of sketch comedy, and so on. I think TV, in general, pushes everyone to their limit, at all times. That’s good and bad, of course, especially because it can be very tiring.

You’ve lived in Portland since 1989. I imagine your local knowledge of the area has played a huge role in your location scouting work.

Yes, it definitely has. I always pay attention to where I am whenever I’m driving around. I end up having a stockpile of places and things that I think are interesting, and I keep a mental note of them for possible use in the future. So when I go back to that particular neighborhood to scout it, I can remember what it was that first drew me to it. It’s basically this backbone of knowledge of things in my consciousness and subconsciousness that occasionally pop out. There was this one place that was a field, or not a field really, but a dirt lot with these really cool structures on it. At one point they said, ‘We need a train and a railroad overpass to film the final scene of this sketch.’ Then they decided they wanted it to not be at the railroad overpass, but somewhere with it in the background, and I just happened to know a place a block from there with this amazing railroad overpass in the background. So a few of us went over there to check it out, to see if it would work as the background for the scene’s final shot. Things like that, just knowing where certain things are at any given moment, can be really helpful. We literally hopped into a car and checked it out right then and there to see if it would work.

Even though filming has concluded, I suspect that mental notetaking practice won’t just stop. You’ll be thinking about locations next week when your running errands around town.

Yeah, I’m probably going to keep doing it by habit for a bit. It feels like you never stop doing it. I can’t really turn it off. It is more heightened during shooting or prep week — when I’m trying to find everything for the shoot — but it’s definitely still there.

On the flip side, has anything from your experience working on Portlandia affected your career as a musician?

I think mostly in regards to how the crew works. It’s a bigger group of people, sure, but it’s still a team with a similar mentality, which I really like. Being on a bigger crew gave me a new appreciating for seeing everyone doing their part and working as a whole. It can be very efficient when it works right. With bands, a lot of times they have a smaller number of people doing a lot of work, and I think it’s nice to learn that as it gets a little bit bigger, it’s okay to get help. It’s great for improving the morale and keeping everybody sane, especially during the busier times. Delegating tasks to a much larger support team can be really awesome.

I came from a very thrifty world of touring and record-making. You know, just doing things on the cheap. Sometimes it can be worth it to have a bigger crew, to have some more help, and that’s okay. It actually makes things a lot of fun when you have a few more people around to help gets things done, especially when it’s their specialty.

It gives the band some more time to relax, too.

We’ve always been very insular and preferred doing a lot of things ourselves. I think, after working on the show, it just became obvious that it’s so much more fun to have more people around you. It just becomes more like a little circus and, I don’t know, I just learned to enjoy it a lot. That aspect of the production.

Since this is the show’s last season, you won’t be scouting locations for them anymore. Plus, Sleater-Kinney and your work as a musician will keep you plenty busy. But is this something you want to do again?

I have done other projects, pilots, and commercials, so yeah. I still want to be doing this for as long as possible. I want to manage locations, too. During the five years I’ve done this for Portlandia, I definitely feel like I’ve gotten the hang of it. I have a pretty decent grasp on how to do it correctly, at least, and how to make everything better as a result. To help the directors move in and make their worlds come to light. I feel like I understand it now, so I’d love to do more.

The eighth and final season of Portlandia premieres Thursday, January 18th at 10 PM EST/PST on IFC. Meanwhile, Sleater-Kinney is hard at work recording new music.