Michael Tucker on His and Petra Epperlein’s How to Fold a Flag
With their latest film, How to Fold a Flag, documentary filmmakers Michael Tucker and Petra Epperlein have come full circle. Their first feature was 2004’s Gunner Palace, which told the story of soldiers in the Army’s 2/3 Field Artillery as they patroled the streets of Baghdad in late 2003 and early 2004. Told in a gritty style that threw viewers right into the midst of conflict, the film resisted an overt political agenda, focusing instead on the daily lives of the troops. The Prisoner: Or How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair followed, a chillingly Kafkaesque story of an Iraqi journalist who is sent to Abu Ghraib after being mistaken for an assassin sent to kill the British Prime Minister. Their next film, 2008’s Bulletproof Salesman, looked at the war from as sidelong angle, focusing on a German businessman who profited from the conflict by selling armored vehicles in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now, Tucker and Epperlein premiere at Toronto what they say is the final film in their series. How to Fold a Flag makes the natural journey from the Mid East to the States as it follow four soldiers, all featured in Gunner Palace, as they adjust to so-called normal life. There’s Jon Powers, who decides to run for Congress in Buffalo only to be attacked by his Republican opponents for “not having done anything with his life.” (And that’s after a tour of duty in Iraq and starting a charity for Iraqi war children.) Michael Goss returns home to his wife and family but struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as the military, who initially deny him the care and benefits he deserves. Wilf Stuart (pictured at top) is a bearded death metal singer who works in a Circle K and just wants to move on, which is hard to do with an anxious mother and a brother in Afghanistan. And, finally, there’s Javorn Drummond (below), a perpetual outsider unable to escape the low-wage rut, whose life is complicated when his mother is diagnosed with cancer. “We went to war as a unit and came home alone,” Drummond says.
Any written summary of How to Fold a Flag must necessarily focus on these characters, four men who served in the same unit but whose various socio-economic and racial divisions separate them when they return home to America. But what starts off seeming like a traditional “vets returning home” documentary subtly morphs into a nuanced portrait of a country trying its best to emotionally distance itself from the reality of its foreign policy. Filmed in the months leading up to the election, the psychic temperature of this movie is far from the “Yes, we can!” moxie of those days. Indeed, Tucker’s keen-eyed cinematography captures an anxious America, one wrapped in the language of patriotism but unsure of its future. How to Fold a Flag is a moving film that has as much to say about America’s future as it does its recent past. I spoke to Tucker by phone a few days before he and Epperlein took their film to Toronto, where they also premiered Gunner Palace.
Filmmaker: You’ve done four films in a row now that have dealt in some way with the Iraq conflict. How has your filmmaking changed during this time?
Tucker: Each one of the films offers a difference facet of the Iraq experience, but it’s always kind of a work in progress. You hope you get better, and you learn from audiences. When we did Gunner Palace, it was so fresh and so new. With this film, we had just moved back to America from Berlin, I had been gone for 12 years, and Petra had never really lived here. We had just come out of the experience of making The Prisoner. Both of us love that film a lot, but we realized a disconnect between its public and its subject. People watched the film as if it was happening on Mars. They didn’t connect with it. There was outrage, but it almost like knee-jerk outrage. It was kind of like, “Okay, next.” [With this film], the goal wasn’t to make a film about four guys returning from Iraq, it was to portray the way the country has changed and is changing. And was about being more cinematic, and trying to make people feel things, which we haven’t done before. One of the intents of the film was to capture an emotional texture. It’s a difficult film to talk about. On the surface it looks like one thing but the deeper you get into it it becomes about this texture. Also, the film was kind of necessary for us to make because it gave us a little bit of closure. One thing for me was coming to terms with loss and how indifferent the public has been to this event. Rather than being bitter about it and full of rage, we tried to offer the audience [a way] of understanding.
Filmmaker: How would you articulate the film’s vision of America?
Tucker: America is a very unique country, and that’s spelled out in the film by the presence of the flag. As much as we tried not to film the flag, the flag is everywhere. But if you had lived in Germany for 12 years, people would find that abhorrent. We’re just so wrapped up in this patriotic sense of ourselves. It comes out from the left and the right. It’s that manifest destiny kind of thing: “America is a very special place.” I don’t know how to describe it, and maybe that’s what the film is about. We just have such a unique way of seeing ourselves. Our ideology is very distinct, and it transcends politics. As an American, I too get choked up in my American-ness, and I don’t know many Europeans like that. We’re just sort of a weird bunch. That’s okay, but how do you harness that power, that feeling? It was harnessed in the election of Obama, but where has that gone? It’s evaporated. It’s so fleeting. I looked at the New York Times this morning, and the presidential approval ratings are crap. People feel lost. And then I watch Javon and his mother and think, “How can people debate health care reform when there are people suffering like that?”
Filmmaker: How did you find your subjects?
Tucker: All these guys were in the unit that was featured in Gunner Palace. We stayed in touch with soldiers and their families. John, the one running for Congress, he did a lot of press for us for Gunner Palace. The first time he spoke about the war was at the Toronto Film Festival. Through his exposure doing that, he found he had a voice, and he started getting backers who urged him to run for Congress. Now he’s a prominent voice about foreign and veteran affairs, which is a nice byproduct of a film. Because of the nature of documentaries, you often don’t find good things happening [afterward to documentary subjects]. Javon, he did some music that was in Gunner Palace, and he wrote me and said he was going to school down in Fayetteville. He said, “You should come down and see how I live.” He was frustrated at his life and his lack of opportunities. So I went down. He’s probably the person I spent the most time with when I was shooting. His fighting in the war did not make anything better for him. If anything it made it more complicated. Stuart, the guy with the beard, he was heavily featured in Gunner Palace. I’ve gotten close to him and his mom. To me he represents the most universal experience. He had no idea what he was getting into, he went to war, and now he wants to forget about it but can’t because his three brothers are all in the military and his mom is in continual state of panic. Yet his experience was so matter of fact. Like, “Yeah, I did that.” Deep inside of him he’s probably proud of his service but not necessarily proud of everything the military represents. Stuart and Javon probably think, we did [our service] and what did we get out of it? Why after service are we still rejected by the general population? But in general we don’t pick [our subjects]. They end up coming to us. We started filming a wider group of people [for this specific film], and these turned out to be the most articulate. Again, probably, there was something unique about them while we also felt that their experiences well represented what all these guys had gone through.
Filmmaker: It’s interesting how the film starts by focusing on individuals, and then their specific issues that partly arise from their role as veterans, but then, finally, it moves towards expressing a more complicated view of America. Even though it’s about veterans and their issues, I didn’t come away thinking of it as an “Iraq veterans film.” In fact, even though your photographic styles are quite different, I flashed on Robert Frank’s The Americans with its fascinated yet somewhat ambivalent X-ray of the American psyche.
Tucker: I actually have a copy of The Americans sitting right here. But, yes, it’s not a social issue film on post-traumatic stress disorder or vets committing suicide — it’s about all the other things that people are dealing with. We struggled to find a balance because too often vets are written about in a general sort of way. There’s a lot of mythology around veterans, especially since Viet Nam, and we are aware that the Hollywood version can become a revisionist history. Viet Nam films defined the conflict more than the conflict itself. You watch Coming Home, well, how much of that is based on reality? The Deer Hunter is full of this mythology that is kind of hurtful, that doesn’t represent the veteran experience. Nor did we want the film to wallow in pity. I don’t see these guys as struggling. I see them as guys trying to find their way.
Filmmaker: How do you finance your films?
Tucker: Up until a couple of weeks ago, we’ve always used our own money. Everything including this film to what’s been done with it to date has been with our own money. We did take a small loan from a friend who has a producer credit. But our films have been successful. We make a living. It’s not glamorous but we have a nice life, and we’ve always kept our expectations in check. If you can make a film every year or 18 months, that’s a living. Again, it’s not super glamorous, but I love what we do. My daughter is 14 now, and she was just down in Louisiana shooting with us.
Filmmaker: So you’re making a living off the sales?
Tucker: Yes. Mainly television, foreign television. We have a fantastic sales agent, Annie Roney, from San Francisco. Josh Braun has repped all of our films. Dana O’Keefe at Cinetic has repped them all. It’s a fantastic team. We’ve done well with the BBC, but in the U.S. the TV market is bad and the license fees have dropped so low. A couple of years ago you’d get offered $200,000, and now people will offer you $10,000 with a straight face. And of course, there’s theatrical, which some people out there are doing on their own with some degree of success.
Filmmaker: Are you tempted to throw your own hat into the DIY theatrical ring?
Tucker: I’m not a film distributor. I make movies. There’s also a whole business that has grown around DIY — a lot of consultants making money. DIY can empower filmmakers, but do you want to be selling DVDs out of your living room or making movies? I don’t want to sell DVDs out of my living room. And for every Valentino there is a film that doesn’t do shit. A film like Valentino or Every Little Step, those are films that have built in audiences, and they are also offering a certain level of entertainment.
Filmmaker: What about films like yours that can target not just film audiences but also political ones?
Tucker: There’s not just a DIY movement right now, there is also a social issue movement, but I don’t think the two go hand in hand. Not every film can be a theatrical film. You have to be realistic about it. [Having subject matter] that becomes part of the conversation is critical. You can’t think that you can just throw a social issue doc into theaters and people are going to rush to theaters to see it. That was something we learned on The Prisoner: people were not going to rush to see a film about a prisoner torture. But this film we hope will promote debate, and I think it has theatrical legs to it.
Filmmaker: What do you think about online distribution?
Tucker: We reject the whole online [free streaming] thing. It’s insane. The idea of people giving out stuff for free and ghettoizing the value of art is unforgivable. It’s horrible to see a film in a 320×240 window with Ivory Soap ads alongside. They say, “You’ll have your world premiere [online],” but what is the point? You see the numbers, that your film has been rated 25,000 times. Okay, that’s a sizable audience, but one would hope you get 200,000 people to see a niche movie. Gunner Palace did great numbers on DVD.
Filmmaker: So you’re against online delivery?
Tucker: No, I’d like an [online] platform where people can watch my movie for four bucks and I get 1.50. Like iTunes. That’s how we get our media. We don’t have cable. But I find it frustrating, all the elements to have a successful business [distributing films online] are there, but there are a lot of forces running contrary, having to do with greed, especially in the online world. It’s all about companies wanting to aggregate 500 titles and creating value for themselves.
Filmmaker: With license fees coming down and these new ways we’re being encouraged to screen our films, are you able to have hope for the future?
Tucker: It’s tough right now. [Independent filmmakers] still need critical champions yet critics are dying left and right. You need Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, people who understand film and can write about it and can champion it. But newspapers are dying. Bloggers are growing, but it will take a while for bloggers’ voices to grow to become trusted voices. Without those [newspaper] reviews and a theatrical release, it’s hard to do anything with a movie. But, right now, the technology [of production] is amazing. The level of image quality you can get with a $6,000 camera, the level of image control, is amazing. You can sit at a low-end workstation and color correct in your living room. You go to the IFP and see budgets for first-time documentary filmmakers, and they are crazy. There is no reason for that — you can make a film for almost nothing. You see filmmakers with all these excuses for not being able to make their films. Well, the time you spend writing proposals can be spent making the film. A $6,000 camera and a few thousand dollars of audio and storage is not a huge investment. Anybody with half a brain can come up with that money from somewhere, even if it’s just by doing paying work on the side. The price of admission has been adjusted over the years. Making a film is not the hard part. The hard part is distribution and marketing.
Filmmaker: What advice do you offer beginning filmmakers?
Tucker: I had somebody call me recently for advice. They were offered a low [TV license fee in a specific market]. That’s pretty standard these days, so be happy and move on. Don’t get uppity and greedy. People expect this Spurlock-ian success, but Morgan is the exception. Those little sales, those $5,000 here and there, add up. It’s nice for us to have enough films out there that every three months we get a check. The films exist, people are watching them and that’s how we make our money. If you can make $150,000, $200,000 a film — and that’s what we live off of — that’s a living. That’s the reality, not that that somebody is going to give you $500,000 and then spend another $500,000 on P&A.