From DIY Decorating to Dave Grohl's Production Partner: The Therapy Story
Joe DiSanto, John Ramsay, Doobie White, and Wren Waters launched Therapy Studios in November 2005. Nowadays they’re basically best buds with Dave Grohl. (Well, kind of.) Here’s the topsy turvy story of how it happened.
LBB> How did the four of you meet?
John Ramsay> Joe and I were friends from college and had talked about doing something for a while. So we talked to two of the younger creative guys at the shop, who were really talented and were definitely going to be successful: Doobie, an editor, and Wren, an online/VX artist.
Doobie White> We all originally met at an editorial company in Venice. It was a young creative shop that had made a name for itself in music videos in the late ‘90s. The editor/partner was definitely considered one of the best and had done a lot of top videos. Videos were still a big deal at that point and most of us grew up watching them on TV and saw them as an awesome part of filmmaking. Because of this, much of our crew was drawn to that shop to get into some cool work, so it kind of collected our crew together.
Wren Waters> We all just clicked at the time, most of us coming to LA right from art or film school, and a few of us had migrated out from NY as well. The cool thing was that mostly everyone at that place had other friends they went to school with that were also in LA, from AASF, USC, UofM, SVA, SCAD and ad schools like Creative Circus and Portfolio Center, which helped us all get to know a really diverse creative community.
LBB> So you all got on well, but setting up a company together is quite a leap! What inspired you to make that jump?
John > The Venice shop was also segueing into commercials, as it was clearly the way you had to go if you were going to stay in business. The music video business was dying fast in the early 2000s; I mean it basically died in a two-year period (thanks, Napster). So we started focusing more on commercials as a way to do cool work, build reels, and make connections with directors and other collaborators. All that said, most of us wanted to make films at some point, too, but that wasn’t on the agenda yet… and we didn’t quite know how to make that happen.
Joe> I always knew that I wanted to start my own company, and as the ownership at our old Venice shop started to have problems, I thought that the time was coming to make a move and do it, or commit to working for someone else forever.
LBB> How did you make it happen?
Wren> Initially, we all had to come up with 10 grand each to kick things off, and I remember Joe telling me to sell my car to raise the money. So I sold my two-year-old Explorer for 15k. Then I bought a five-year-old Ford Taurus for 5K and handed in my funds. Joe can really turn on the magic when he wants 10K out of you.
LBB> What are your memories of the early days?
Joe> In November ‘05 we got the keys and started painting the walls. We were actually still young enough to think you painted your own walls, which was good, because we couldn’t afford to hire anyone to do it anyway.
John> I remember the first day we opened for business, a tiny place on Arizona and Lincoln in Santa Monica. We’d basically said to ourselves: If we’re ever going to do this, now’s the time. We have nothing to lose except our credit rating. And luckily America doesn’t have debtors prison anymore.
Doobie> We had just enough clients to scrape by at the beginning. Sometimes, I think it’s kind of a miracle we made it. But I knew we had the drive and, more importantly, a capacity to work really long hours.
Wren> We made it through our first year, thanks to some loyal friends that brought us commercial work, and by doing literally all of said work ourselves.
Joe> John and I were Wren and Doobie’s assistants – we’d do the actual work all day, then make the tapes and fill out FedEx’s at midnight. Don’t really miss that. But we at least had a receptionist, and by the end of the year, a dude in the vault to send those FedEx’s, thank f-ing god.
LBB> How did you grow the company?
John> In year two we were feeling a little accomplished but knew that we had a long, long way to go. Getting new work in the Los Angeles advertising community is extremely hard, even for the biggest names.
Joe> We had two goals at the time: 1) grow the business however we could, and 2) finally start working in filmmaking. We all agreed that the best way for us to get into making films was to just make one ourselves. No one was going to give us money to make a film, that was for sure. And Therapy Content, our development and production company, was born.
LBB> So how did you get into feature film?
Doobie> A director friend of ours had a fantastic idea for a documentary about a brilliant man named Ray Kurzweil. He had read Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near, and was obsessed with the idea that a documentary about Kurzweil and his ideas had to be made. We read the book and said, “Yes, this would be a f’ing amazing doc.” So in a very similar process to convincing ourselves to start the company, we committed to producing this film we eventually titled Transcendent Man.
LBB> What are your memories of making Transcendent Man?
John> Making Transcendent Man was a piecemeal process. At first we’d aim to put $10,000 a month towards it. Some months it was more, some less – whatever extra money we were making through our commercial jobs.
Doobie> We hired our good friend Meg Ramsay to edit it with me. It was a pretty huge learning curve, seeing as none of us except Meg had ever worked on a feature length anything before, let alone something that required a lot of story development and archival in edit. Meg was cutting full time and I was working on it whenever I wasn’t doing a paying gig and on the weekends. We were also taking turns going to shoots with our director and producer. I went as far as China!
Wren> I remember almost having a nervous breakdown trying to finish for the Tribeca deadline. I had just had my first daughter and was working without any sleep.
Joe> Two years after we decided to make it, the film premiered at Tribeca and it was a big hit. It would be another year, and a whole lot more money later, that we would connect with William Morris Endeavour as our distribution partner and take the film on a theatrical tour around the US and in London in early 2011. It finally hit Netflix and iTunes and did some pretty big numbers for a doc, making it all the way up to the number #2 documentary on iTunes, right behind that shitty Justin Beiber doc. Which it turns out was a pretty good doc.
LBB> What were the next steps for Therapy?
Wren> We were building enough momentum at that time to start thinking about upping the ante and moving into a bigger facility.
Joe> I had been looking for a space for us that could eventually accommodate our vision for Therapy, which included at least five edit bays, three online rooms, two mix bays, and a color room. Unfortunately our budget wasn’t huge, so we had to think outside the box.
Doobie> When Joe took us all to see the building he had in mind for the new Therapy, we thought he had lost his mother-f-ing mind...
John> It was a huge old metal warehouse, mainly used for storing lamps. There was no insulation, insanely uneven cement floors, one bathroom that looked like they bought it from the set of SAW and some rats and birds living in the rafters.
Wren> I was thinking, how the hell are we going to be able to paint walls this high? But Joe insisted that we wouldn’t have to paint the walls ourselves this time. We did hire my little brother to clean out the rats’ nests, though. It’s all about family with us!
Joe> I could see the whole thing already done in my mind. What I didn’t foresee was the economic crisis, losing our construction financing two weeks before the closing, our contractor filing for bankruptcy two months shy of completion, or our biggest client at the time, Saturn Motors, going belly-up practically on the day we moved in, all while paying rent at the old place and a mortgage at the new place.
LBB> So how did you survive all that?
Doobie- Miraculously 2008 ended up being a pretty good year largely because Wren won over some serious clients, and he got hired on a ton of spots. It was kind of amazing. So we were able to expand our staff to twelve full time employees, including many of the talented team members from our old Venice shop.
Wren> So of course we had to build out the second floor the next year to make room for more.
John- After the commercial side got some legs, it was only a couple years later that our good friend, Jim Rota, recommended us to Dave Grohl to produce a documentary he wanted to make about the famed Sound City Recording studio (aptly titled Sound City). Apparently, Dave had seen and liked Transcendent Man. We couldn’t believe it. The system was working!
Doobie> Sound City was huge for us because it was the first time we actually got paid to produce a film. And considering it was only our second film, well, that was pretty good. It was an amazing milestone that showed the hustle was paying off. We had probably had many mini-milestones to date, but that was one of those corner-turning milestones. We got some more industry notoriety from it, which was awesome. We were approached by some new agencies to do commercial work, and we had emails from industry friends and artists saying congrats… and sometimes asking us for jobs.
LBB> What was the reaction to Sound City?
Wren> Sound City premiered to rave reviews. Transcendent Man had received quite a bit of press, but it paled in comparison to Sound City. Don’t get me wrong, 99.9 per cent of the press was obviously for Dave Grohl. But John and Jim got asked a few questions, too, which was cool. Most importantly, John, Jim, and Dave had built trust, and that eventually led to us to collaborating with Grohl again when he wanted to make Sonic Highways, which became an 8-episode HBO docu-series that premiered in October of 2014. Definitely one of our proudest accomplishments to date!
John> A lot of people ask us how this small, kind-of-unknown post house has evolved to produce an HBO show with Dave Grohl from top to bottom. I often ask myself that question when I’m drunk and feeling proud. Well, interestingly, Dave’s group is similar to ours. Dave likes to work with people he trusts and keep things small and intimate. It’s a tight knit crew of long-time collaborators that operates like a family. His philosophy is to bring good, talented people together, establish trust and then let everyone do what they do best. I think that we share that same sentiment.
Joe> The truth is that Dave can work with whomever in the world he wants to, so we are extremely grateful that he calls us and hope he continues to do so. But I do think that we also share a genuine “do-it-yourself” philosophy about making stuff. The same feelings we had when we started the company without much to show but our potential, or when we set out to make Transcendent Man, Dave has when he sets out to make something. He can obviously do it on a much bigger scale, and we are lucky to participate in that, but he would do it regardless. And so would we. It sounds cliché, but sometimes it actually works.