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New documentary 'Shut Up, Little Man!' looks at going viral before the Internet

The new documentary "Shut Up, Little Man! An Audio Misadventure" opens Friday in Los Angeles and New York after previously opening in the heart of the film's story, San Francisco. It tells the story of two roommates who decided to record the darkly funny arguments of their alcoholic neighbors, Peter J. Haskett and Raymond Huffman. I had the chance to speak with those two neighbors who made the recordings, who went by the monickers "Eddie Lee Sausage" and "Mitchell D."

A young Mitch D and Eddie Lee Sausage.

Eddie and Mitch moved from the Midwest into a bright pink San Francisco apartment in 1987. Their neighbors would get drunk and fight until the wee hours of the morning, and Peter shouting "Shut up, little man" became the iconic cry of those arguments. Eddie and Mitch began recording Peter and Ray and ultimately started distributing copies to their friends, which started a viral phenomenon in the pre-Internet, pre-social media, pre-YouTube era.

Their fights included many memorable turns of phrase. Peter: "You're a liar, Ray. You're a rotten little liar man. Lady. Pardon me, lady."

An exchange: Peter: "Goodnight!" Ray: "Don't call me 'goodnight,' you c---sucker!"

"Before we ever saw Peter and Ray, we heard them, and their fighting was terribly obnoxious and very profane," Mitch said. "It was so invasive in our space. The walls were paper thin, and not only did it bother us, it bothered everyone in the piece of s--- apartment we lived in."

Eddie and Mitch would pound on the wall to tell Peter and Ray to shut up. According to Mitch, Ray shouted back "Hey look you c---sucker next door, I will kill. I've killed before, I'll kill again. Come knock on my door, I dare you." The recordings started as a defense mechanism; Mitch said that they made the recordings as evidence in case anything violent actually happened.

"After a while, we finally saw who they were and realized they were pretty harmless as far as physically ever harming us," Mitch said. In the meantime, they became obsessed with the recordings. "It was so rich, and so absurd," Mitch said.

Despite their feeling that they were largely safe, Eddie says that he thinks there was a real threat. "The cops and paramedics, they made innumerable visitations to [the apartment.] In fact, the one day they came five times." Eddie added, "Each of them got dragged away to jail with some regularity. Now, I don't know about you, that's not really common in my experience."

Eddie said that he and Mitch were into spoken word recordings at the time, and their fascination with the material led them to start incorporating dialogue from the tapes into their daily conversations. "The truth is that's still there for me. I still find them compelling. I think it reflects a richness of humanity, the darkly comic, the penetratingly sad situation that they're in, the weird mystery of the dynamic between them."

There was also the question of whether there was a sexual aspect to the relationship; Peter was gay, while Raymond was strongly homophobic. While trying to investigate the truth behind that relationship years later, Eddie and match tracked down Ray and Peter's sometimes roommate Tony Newton, who explained that despite that drunken violence, they were quite nice to one another when sober, a surprising twist to what's heard on the tapes. Tony said that Ray was straight while Peter was "fruitier than a God-damned pineapple, but they were friends." Tony said that there was no sexual relationship between the two.

Peter Haskett.

The film attempts to humanize Peter and Ray; Eddie said he likes that because he thought the tapes made them into two-dimensional characters. However, "they're humanized, but maybe the weight is a little too humanizing, because you have to remember they were incredibly careless, obnoxious. They fought with a raging abandon and an absolute disregard for everyone," Eddie said.

On the tapes, "You can hear actual blows landing, Ray knocking Peter out and talking about how he'd killed before, it would be so easy to kill again," Eddie said. "One time, Peter threw Ray over the balcony veranda that we shared, and it was a 12-foot drop. On Christmas day. They were violent people. And it was disturbing."

Eddie and Mitch said that they felt there were some errors in the way both they and Peter and Ray were depicted in the film. "When you give somebody editing power, sometimes the end result isn't necessarily 100 percent accurate. So there's some slight misrepresentations in the film."

A large portion of the film is spent discussing copyright issues around the tapes, which were initially freely distributed before Eddie and Mitch decided to trademark and copyright the material when trying to sell their life stories to a Hollywood studio. Mitch said that he feels the film makes Eddie and Mitch look more greedy and exploitative than they were in real life. "The bottom line is we never, ever, ever intended to do anything with the material, we merely shared it with friends, and it had a life of its own."

Eddie compared the tapes to the Rodney King beating video, explaining that it's a state by state issue, but that in California, anything that can be audio- or videotaped in a shared space is owned by the person that records it, much like the person who originally shot the King video owns the rights to that.

"The truth is every single person who is shown in the film, all the rich people, all the people who are famous, etc., have used the material for free," Eddie said. "We did copyright and trademark the material, but we did that to protect how we wanted to deal with it, and what we did was give it to every single person who asked us to use it for free. And you don't get that sense in the film, and that really, it pisses me off."

Aside from what they felt wasn't an accurate depiction of their own character, another moment they wondered why it wasn't used in the film: When Mitch approached Tony to be in the film, Tony answered the door holding a knife. According to Eddie, Tony had been in and out of the prison system on charges including rape and beating Peter up.

Comic by Ivan Brunetti.

The tapes spawned comic books, official releases, music, a play and even an indie film called "Shut Yer Dirty Little Mouth." The tapes even made an appearance on NPR's own "This American Life."

Ray died in 1992, while Peter died in 1996. "I wish they were still alive, to be honest," Mitch said. "I wish I could go hang out with them. I think it'd be really funny. I think it'd be fun to be together."

You can read more about the story at Mitch and Eddie's official site, ShutUpLittleMan.com. The film opens in Los Angeles Friday and is also available on demand.

Photos courtesy Tribeca Films