Matt Boyd on A Rubberband is an Unlikely Instrument (+ Exclusive Teaser)
In the quickly gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint during the mid-aughts, Walter Baker — a collector of sound, a street musician, a man of many talents and eccentricities — lives with his wife Andrea, a poet, and their adolescent son Sidney. Baker spends his days rummaging through barren lots and decaying Greenpoint docks recording sound, or lurking in the subway, using an extra large rubber band to make unearthly yet remarkably compelling quasi-music. Baker’s skills on the rubber band improve throughout Matt Boyd’s singularly self-possessed, unforgettable doc-narrative hybrid A Rubberband is an Unlikely Instrument, while his home life becomes more troubled.
Filled with exorbitantly long takes, this heavily stylized look at the Baker’s existence stretches the boundaries of documentary form. Uniquely framed, with sound design that transcends anything you’ll likely encounter in the indie sphere, it is a shrewd stunt by longtime doc cameraman and editor Boyd, making his directorial debut. The film, which world premiered at Hot Docs in 2011, bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Allan King’s 1986 classic documentary A Married Couple, but it has a deliberate pace, style and form all its own. Its largeheartedness and shrewd, unsentimental observation of this irrepressibly odd, distinctly American family mark Boyd as a voice to be reckoned with.
The film, distributed by Factory 25, opens at the reRun Theater this Friday.
Filmmaker: How did you first encounter Walter Baker and his family?
Boyd: I met Walter by accident, through my neighbor at the time. Turns out we lived just around the corner from each other. He said he was going to the subway to play but he didn’t have anything on him; we were inquisitive and he pulled out a thin piece of rubber. Strangely, I think my neighbor was satisfied with that, but I was baffled so I had him demonstrate. It was pretty amazing. From there we just started bumping into each other on a regular basis, began talking about doing something collaborative and figured we’d put some of his recordings to some abstract footage I’d shot of the city at the time. That actually never really materialized, but at some point, somehow, I agreed to shoot a music video for him. I wasn’t really keen on the idea in general and then one day we got into a really ridiculous debate about red sunglasses; once I realized how serious he was about these sunglasses, it occurred to me I should rethink this collaboration. From there I started to consider making a film on him.
Filmmaker: Were Walter and his family interested in doing the documentary initially? If not, how did you convince them to let you make the film? Did they have any idea how intimate a process it would be?
Boyd: There was actually a large gestation period from the time I thought about making a film to the actual shooting. I think I broached the idea with him soon after that argument and he was totally down from the outset. He’s a very open person, probably more so than most anyone I know. He was telling me very personal things about him and his life while only knowing me for a brief time. It’s just his way, and that really stuck with me. One day only a few months after meeting him, he disclosed, in a very emotional way, his situation with his estranged first son, who is only spoken of in the film. This was actually before I’d considered or discussed the possibility of a film. These moments just accumulated over time.
It just so happened I was at a place where I needed to make my first film, something that was a step above the typical vérité documentary stuff I was doing for hire and commission. I wanted to make something more personal and deliberate, with more control that spoke more directly to my sensibilities, something where I could evolve my own language. So I didn’t enter the idea of making a feature on Walter or the family lightly. I spent about a year mulling the idea over, having repeated conversations with him and Andrea to convince both myself, and them for that matter, that we should do this. I also made it clear I didn’t want to make a music documentary; the music would be included, but in a more natural way, something that just existed within the fabric of their lives. It could have been carpentry or wool sweaters for that matter, though I’m very lucky it was music. They were far more on board from the beginning. They had their limitations, there were definitely places we couldn’t go, but ultimately I felt they were about as open as you could get.
Filmmaker: Were you unnerved by how honest Walter and Andrea were willing to be in front of your camera?
Boyd: I’m not sure “unnerved” is the right word, but yes, it was pretty surprising, and fortunate, how at ease they were in front of the camera, him especially. But that was essentially the point of entry, though. I had to be convinced they’d both be comfortable in front of the camera, or what I wanted to achieve wouldn’t work.
Filmmaker: For someone with such a keen interest in sound, perhaps Walter isn’t the best listener?
Boyd: I’ll leave that one up to interpretation.
Filmmaker: Was there ever tension between you and the family? Did their egos, so evident in the film, ever clash with yours?
Boyd: Not really. We had our moments of frustration or misunderstandings from time to time. I think we’re both very strong minded about what we do, so occasionally there was overlap in not feeling like we were heard properly, or there were needs not being met. I think making films with non-professionals in general, and documentaries especially, is incredibly difficult. Making films in general is a thoroughly unnatural process. It demands an insane amount of time, energy and focus. Each time I’ve made a documentary, whether short or long, I feel like there’s a certain amount of “rewiring” in order to establish the same emotional and physical rhythms of said subject. You have to be under their spell. Some are just more dramatic than others. All said, the family was generally lovely; as heavy as a lot of the subject matter was, there was a surprisingly great amount of humor throughout. And his family in Texas was so great to me, very very sweet people, incredibly warm and hospitable.
Filmmaker: Do you consider this film a documentary in the strictest sense? I feel like it pushes the formal qualities of the genre to the limit. So much of what you include in the film feels like it must have been premeditated.
Boyd: In my mind I was making a narrative with documentary subjects; plugging real people and their personal lives into a narrative context. It was obviously never lost on me that at the end of the day it was a documentary, I wasn’t irrational about that. But I had no interest in making a traditional day-in-the-life vérité film. While I like specific documentaries, my interests and influences are rooted more firmly in fiction. I think I love the idea of documentary, the immediacy and that rare truthfulness, far more than the practical ways in which its often captured. In the end, when you set a camera up there’s always a layer of self consciousness which can often lend itself to a level of deceit. I never intended nor could I have ever kept up with a traditional vérité documentary; those kinds of films are so incredibly time-consuming and you end up shooting far more footage than you’ll ever use. The story is typically figured out in the edit. So, I decided to do that on the front end.
I knew from the start the kind of film I wanted to make in terms of narrative, how the narrative form would take shape. I firmly believe in subtlety and the art of suggestion; what’s not said is often more potent than what is. The traditional nature of documentary is to establish backstory, motivation, and a visible goal or resolution; but if you look at many narratives, the best films in my opinion have little of either. They’re open-ended which offers an opportunity for the audience to actively participate in the process, it gives them the space to come up with their own conclusions and/or apply specific elements to their own lives.
As far as premeditation, a good bit of the film was blocked, but that was achieved by way of a very natural process. On a regular basis they would brief me on what was happening in their life and from there I would ask questions and decide what was important and where to take things. Then we would schedule a shoot; in the interim I would conceive of how I would shoot it, how it would look, feel, sound, how it would possibly cut together with another scene.
Filmmaker: How long did you film the Bakers in total? Was there a moment when you thought you wouldn’t be able to endure it?
Boyd: Ha! I’m not sure you could find a filmmaker who didn’t have one of those moments in the making of any film! The shooting was very intermittent, sometimes months would go by without shooting anything, but that was in line with the overall approach. That said, I think we shot over roughly 3 1/2 – 4 years, about 60 hours of tape. That’s really light for documentaries, but again, I was after something very specific and essentially pre-edited a significant amount, being very selective about what and when I shot.
Filmmaker: As you were editing, what were the most difficult aspects of making the film — which predicated often on incredible long takes — work? I imagine it was an extensive process, finding the very peculiar rhythm you did.
Boyd: Yes. The film was edited in stages almost as long as it was shot. Very early on, 2006 I think, it was invited to the IFP market. I had only been shooting for a very short period of time but had to throw something together for submission, so in a sense the editing began at that point. As far as the long takes, it was obviously a tonal decision. It’s definitely an approach that speaks to my sensibilities, it’s a specific way of storytelling that I think strips away artifice, even if ironically, many accuse it of being overly arty. It was also a kind of storytelling that lent itself to the Bakers’ life in general and specifically to Walter’s physical, emotional, and creative rhythms. It was in time with the mood and tone of their life.
Unfortunately that didn’t make it any easier to edit! It’s definitely a slow burn and I didn’t take any one scene, or the overall length, lightly. Michael [Carter, the film’s co-editor] and I pored over those longer scenes in particular, and basically had to justify them to each other in order to validate their existence. The coffee scene, one of my favorites, was on the chopping block probably until picture lock.
Filmmaker: The sound mix for the film is one of the most intricate I’ve ever come across. What was the process of working with mixer Brendan Anderegg like?
Boyd: Brendan was amazing. He brought exactly the level of technical, creative and perfectionist neurosis the film needed. I’d say in a lot of ways we’re two sides of the same coin, at least from the crazy perfectionist standpoint. It was funny because we’d labor over a particularly difficult section of sound and the general feeling would be, “Well, this is as far as its going to get, chalk it up to excusable doc sound.” And then I’d come in a day later and he’d be sitting there with bags under his eyes and a crooked smirk and be like, “Yeah, I couldn’t sleep so I stayed up all night fixing that piece, I think it worked,” and it would be amazing.
He scores a lot of documentaries for TV, but first and foremost he’s an accomplished musician; he’s the other half of the band Mountains and regularly records and tours. That was what I was looking for, someone who was both technically minded but incredibly creative and intuitive, someone who could tap into what I was after, both the quality of sound and the specific language. Most of the sound cues were already in place before he got the film, but he brought it to a level I wasn’t sure we could achieve. When it screened at TIFF Lightbox I was floored. We all were. At that point I’d seen it far more than I’d liked, but ended up staying for the screening, I was so enamored with how it sounded.
Filmmaker: How did the Bakers react when they first saw it?
Boyd: I can’t really say for sure. They had seen different pieces of it over time, but I was very careful about how much, or what specifically I’d let them see, just to keep a level of separation and authenticity. I didn’t want to allow them the space to ‘look in the mirror’ and become self conscious in any way. When the film was actually finished it was a particularly difficult time for them. Their relationship was in bad shape so I’m not sure either one of them really properly watched it at that point. Since then they’ve seen it through and have a deeper appreciation for how it was done and that particular period of time.
Filmmaker: Are you any good at playing a rubber band?
Boyd: I’ve actually never tried it.