Five Questions with BAM150 Director Michael Sladek
This June, the Brooklyn Academy of Music presents the fourth annual BAMcinemaFest, featuring a lineup of some of the best emerging voices American cinema has to offer. And CinemaFest is just one of dozens that the Brooklyn institution presents each year, as BAM consistently shines a spotlight on the best in theater, dance, music, film, and more. Now, as the venue celebrates its staggering 150th anniversary, filmmaker Michael Sladek (Con Artist, Devils Are Dreaming) explores what it is about the Brooklyn instituation that has lent it such longevity in his new documentary BAM150.
Filmmaker: Why BAM? What is it about this cultural institution that motivated you to tell the story of its history?
Sladek: I grew up in and around live performance and spent a good part of my life studying, acting, and directing in straight and experimental theater before segueing into film. When I landed in Brooklyn in 1998, I started seeing productions at BAM and immediately fell in love with the place, mainly because of the astonishing array of international artists, performances, and movies they program. So, in the spring of 2011, when I was asked to write a pitch for a project marking BAM’s 150th anniversary, I decided to be very selfish and propose an intimate experience so I could, with camera in hand, get behind-the-scene of the ground-breaking productions that were coming to town later that year.
BAM was looking for someone to make an hour-long TV program marking their 150th anniversary and a colleague of mine threw my name into the mix. Admittedly, having just finished a four year stretch on my documentary Con Artist, I had no plans to make another doc right away and was, instead, concentrating on getting a few fiction narratives in the pipeline. Happily, however, the production schedule for this film mandated a very fast, nine month turn-around (as well as possible distribution through Ovation TV), so I didn’t feel like I’d be stepping into an open-ended, multi-year project. I submitted my idea to interweave verite with history, and to do so as a feature length documentary instead of a one hour TV show. BAM liked my pitch, promised a solid amount of creative control, put together a small but workable budget, and offered the commission.
While the leadership at BAM liked the idea of showing things from the inside out, they also wanted the institution’s exceptional back story to be told. This was something that also appealed to my interest not only in the history of performance but in the history of Brooklyn and New York City itself. The resulting film, BAM150, weaves all of these elements together along with interviews with iconic artists, some of which I’ve admired since high school.
Being allowed these inside experiences as well as an amazing level of artistic freedom and trust to tell BAM’s story was a chance I simply couldn’t pass up.
Filmmaker: Obviously, a near infinite number of artists have performed at BAM over the years. How did you decide which talent to feature?
Sladek: In terms of the verite sections of the film, we tried to cover an array of performers, performance types, and events to reflect BAM’s eclectic programming. All of these had to be shot in late 2011 and early 2012 in order to finish and then premiere the film on Ovation during BAM’s 150th celebrations this coming spring. Because of our tight budget, tight schedule, and dedication to a tight run time, we did have to pick and choose what we shot and, in the edit, slimmed down to just four current productions. These four ended up being not only eclectic but really spectacular examples of what BAM does best. We also covered numerous angles of the institution and its inner workings, from day-to-day operations to special events and gala openings, in order to give the viewer a taste of some of what BAM does outside their live theatrical performances.
BAM’s history, on the other hand, is essentially the history of live performance in the United States from the mid-1800’s on, so we truly had an astonishing amount of ground to cover. Amongst BAM’s first performers (back when it was just called the Brooklyn Academy of Music) were international stars like Edwin Booth and Sarah Bernhardt and speakers like Mark Twain and Frederick Douglas. Moving forward through time, BAM hosted and often introduced such greats as Enrico Caruso, Merce Cunningham, Jerzy Grotowski, The Living Theater, Robert Wilson, Laurie Anderson, Peter Brook, Pina Bausch, and beyond. But we wanted to avoid making the film into a simple laundry list of astonishing names, so we truly had to concentrate on the best stories and turning points without slighting those important artists who made BAM their home over the years.
Filmmaker: Do you have a favorite interview from the film?
Sladek: All of our interviews were really great but if I had to choose just one favorite, I’d have to say our interview with theater legend Peter Brook would be it. The first of our many interviews, this one had a personal allure to me as Mr Brook is someone whose books and ideas and productions I’ve admired for years. At 86-year-old Mr Brook’s energy, presence, intellect, and kindness just oozes out in a way that makes one want to spend every possible moment in his orbit. His voice in and of itself is enough to lull anyone into a wondrous place and, moreover, he’s the director every actor should want to work with and every director of actors should study. Although our time with him was cut short (he was in town with a new production), it was an honor to sit and chat with him even for just a little while.
Otherwise I should mention that my second favorite interview was with Mark Morris, because of his hysterically snarky bits of insight, most of which we couldn’t include in the film for fear of being sued for defamation.
Filmmaker: What was your research process like? Were there facts you discovered along the way that surprised you?
Sladek: Most surprising was learning that BAM’s history from the very beginning until just recently was exceptionally rocky, and that right from the start it was not only an underdog but a rabble-rouser in terms of the art and speakers it featured. The place was built in the middle of a terrible recession, just as the Civil War was starting, and was immediately embroiled in a battle between high art, low entertainment, and “experimental” culture. The venue achieved great success quickly, and then it burnt down. It was re-built, and then went on to achieve more great success over the years. And then it went bankrupt. Then more success, then bankruptcy again. Time and time again it ebbed and flowed from success to failure and back to success like this until the 2000’s when the current leadership managed to steady the ship, all the while wrestling with it’s avant garde nature and the difficulties of surviving to become the country’s oldest performing arts center.
As for our research, the recently published BAM: The Complete Works, was a valuable referential starting point. We also got a lot of help from BAM’s archive which provided much of the historical record in video and still images. We did have to do some serious footwork and research to fill in some performance and esoteric historical gaps as well as to find additional materials to tell the back story of Brooklyn and its rivalry with Manhattan. These resources were augmented by interviews with accomplished historians and cultural experts, including BAM’s archivist Sharon Lehner, critic Philip Lopate, critic John Rockwell, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author Mike Wallace. And of course we interviewed BAM’s former director Harvey Lichtenstein who ran the place from 1967-1999, as well as it’s current President Karen Brooks Hopkins and it’s Executive Producer Joe Melillo, both of whom started at the institution in the late-70s/early-1980s. On top of these we shot interviews with the likes of Meredith Monk, Mark Morris, Laurie Anderson, Peter Brook, Robert Wilson, Isabella Rossellini, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Alan Rickman and many more who added first person accounts to the narrative.
Filmmaker: With technology rapidly changing the ways in which the public consumes art, how do you think the role of a venue like BAM will change in the coming years?
Sladek: I think that there will always be an inherent need in all of us to attend live performances and group events. Something in our DNA pushes us out to participate in person, collectively, and to experience others doing things that are risky and emotional and fascinating right in front of us. When we do this we feel like we’ve been part of something larger than ourselves that can challenge our way of looking at the world, provide spiritual catharsis, or simply provide a chance to escape from reality for a while. While technology attracts more and more attention, I do think that now that BAM has become a world class institution, it’s place in this milieu is pretty solid. The real trick, however, is for those smaller institutions (the ISSUE Project Room’s, the New York City Operas, the indie art house cinemas, the hole-in-the-wall punk clubs, and dance companies, experimental theaters, etc) to survive and really push the edge of things in ways that challenge the need for big ticket, mainstream appeal. BAM’s inner workings and history provide a great template for experimental artists, administrators, and art lovers to see how to start off bucking the system and end up re-working it from the inside out.