Five Questions with Triumph of the Wall Director Bill Stone
Like many documentaries, Bill Stone’s Triumph of the Wall began its life as one thing and transformed into something else. Initially Stone sought to document the construction of a 1,000 foot dry-stone wall by Chris Overing, a young man with an impressively diverse resume that lacked one necessary skill for the project: masonry. Overing estimated the project would take two months and Stone decided to chronicle Overing’s effort. The filmmaker had at the time “a vague idea of the film exploring commitment.”
But Overing underestimated a bit: eight years later he was still constructing the wall and Stone was still filming him. During that time the film found its focus; Triumph of the Wall became about calling, work, and legacy. It is still about commitment, but by the film’s end the notion that commitment and completion are inextricably linked was dispelled. A commitment to the process, not the completed object, was the point. Triumph of the Wall isn’t much about the destination, but very much about the journey.
Triumph of the Wall opens May 31 in New York City at the Quad Cinema.
Filmmaker: The personal voiceover narration can be deadly or brilliant. I think Triumph of the Wall uses it very effectively. Was it something you intended to employ from inception?
Stone: Initially, the narration was not conceived as part of the project. I foresaw — vaguely — upon beginning the film a more detached, almost austere, “poetic” approach — like a film I enjoyed very much, Etre et Avoir, by Nicolas Philibert. Of course it didn’t turn out that way. The narration element came on as a kind of soft-revelation after viewing Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March and Time Indefinite in the early-mid 2000s; Agnes Varda’s Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse was also an inspiration. Those were lightbulb moments, when I realized this type of personal approach with narration could fill a significant gap that I felt was very evident. That being said, approaching narration of this sort at the outset is intimidating. You approach it like you would approach a wild animal, with some fear and respect. That process of developing the narration was certainly based on reams of writing, themes, and ideas I had conceptualized and observed over the years, so I wasn’t shooting blindly. However, turning that into a feasible, engaging, and coherent narrative flow was a longer process, with a great deal of trial and error.
In the end I’m glad it worked out that way. Had I conceived the narration from the beginning of the process, I suspect I would have approached it less with the vulnerability and honesty that (necessarily) occurred, and more with a more controlled and (arguably) egotistical faux-poetic approach, which, frankly, would have made the film boring. It was the lack of control over the process that gave it the effectiveness.
One thing I did do while recording narration — and I’m glad I did — was to get a good microphone and set myself at home to be able to record VO whenever I needed to do it. This is a decision I’m happy with, as I feel the tone of our expression and feeling has to be right, and having that mic right in front of me during editing allowed that immediacy to be captured. Sitting in a studio under a clock months later, trying to recreate that was not something I wanted to do, and I think the film would have suffered had I chosen to do that.
Filmmaker: One thread that goes through Triumph of the Wall is the subject-filmmaker relationship. There’s a wonderful moment where you admit that at times you were exasperated by your subject. I think the line is: “I want to throw a rock at him.” How did you temper those moments and not do some irreparable damage to the relationship, and therefore to the film?
Stone: That’s a good question. One of the frustrating elements while working on the project was Chris’s “niceness” or his almost perpetual positivity about, well, pretty much anything. When you’re out there — concerned about creating a dramatic or emotionally compelling experience for the viewer — you want to have friction through conflict, whether internal within the character or between the filmmaker and the character. And generally, it’s easier to work with conflict when it is seen or heard externally. Well, that didn’t happen. There’s a scene in the film where I’m (trying to) pillory Chris for not doing anything on the wall — but “trying to” is the key phrase here — and I say something to the effect of “We’re both trying to keep this enterprise from collapsing.” I, too, was confined by my own insecurities and “niceness” that kept me from being aggressive or overly challenging. Like him, I too was hemmed in by my niceness and a fear of rocking the boat. And of course my niceness had consequences for my film — something that really bothered me at times. So there was really little chance, despite my fears, of irreparably damaging the relationship. I did, at times, get shorter and sharper with Chris, but nothing anyone would consider aggressive. I guess I’m oversensitive in this regard, for one.
I remember listening to friends of mine and other movie-makers who seemed tougher and more direct, and wishing I could be more “aggressive” or “nasty” in my approach to Chris, to dig out something deep or whatever. I have that capacity in other contexts, but not in this one. In one sense, it’s kind of like being with family: you’ve established yourself as being understood as expressing yourself in some way, and if you suddenly switch gears, people sense that and wonder what’s going on because something seems phony and forced. In another way, I think I realized more intuitively that based on Chris’s character and the situation, getting “tough” would have just caused him to retreat more fully and would have, in the end, been counter-productive. Then there is the most important question – what could I get “tough” about? It’s like getting annoyed at a tree for not growing fast enough.
Filmmaker: You also began to find deep parallels, if not directly between you and your subject, then certainly with your effort to finish the film and his effort to build the wall. Throughout the second act of the film you seemed convinced that he needed to finish building the wall for you to finish the film. The world’s closets are filled with unfinished films because they reach a similar stage. I’m curious how you overcame those moments when maybe all you wanted to do was put the film in storage forever.
Stone: The answer to this has two dimensions. On one level, I was blessed by timing. I shot the film for the first two seasons on my own dime, applying for grants both times. After the first season, I was unsuccessful, but after the second season, I did receive some money to continue. And due to the way these things happen, I heard about the funding during the winter break after the second season was done. This was the first time I got any money like this to do a film, so there was a very practical element that said, well, of course I’m going to continue. I had much insecurity about how the project would turn out — certainly — or even if it would “turn out.”
On another level, there’s just the drive and determination to finish. Whether that is driven by foolish pride or more noble aspects of finishing what one has started is anybody’s guess. I have a habit, over the course of my life, of getting into projects that turn out much bigger than I anticipated. In film school, they’d ask for 2000-word essays and I’d hand in 70 pages; my final film project at the school was so ridiculously ambitious for the resources available that I was forced to eventually drop it. For Triumph of the Wall, there was still a fear of failure doing the project, despite my drive or desire to finish. But there is a time in life when, as the movie points out, you’re in too deep to quit. What else are you going to do? At the risk of sounding new-agey, there is as well an element of destiny and forming organically into one’s natural consequences at work here. The final film is a pretty clear expression of who I am and where I’m at — and where I was at. For many years this type of reflection and questioning things, for better or for worse, has been a big part of my life and character. So on one level I’m sure that deeper sense of things, or knowledge or whatever one wants to call it, was steering the boat. And in that sense, the loss of control, the conceit of my original idea that didn’t happen, the frustration and roadblocks — all of these things forced me to turn inwards in a way that I had been doing for a long time. I wonder sometimes about all those closets. There are some good films in there I’m sure — and a few not so good ones.
Filmmaker: Ending a film that is documenting an event or process that doesn’t have an ending is a challenge, to say the least. How much agonizing did you do about how to end Triumph of the Wall? Did you try out several different endings?
Stone: The ending was an open-ended question in my mind for a while — at least specifically how to do it. There were a few themes and ideas I definitely wanted to “come to,” meaning they were bigger ideas that I wanted to express but I knew I had to earn that right to address those ideas. The idea about “there is only work,” was one of them. The original title of the film was “Work In Progress,” so the open-ended quality of the film was probably always somewhere in the cards.
I did, however, struggle for quite a while realizing I had to finish the film before Chris would finish the wall, and this caused my consternation. It took me quite a while to come to terms with that. But in the end I realized, like much with this film, I didn’t really have a choice in the matter.
The way the ending came out, though, was one of those inspired moments that one really dreams of having. So much of what we do — particularly in the editing, it seems — involves a long, overly thought out, clumsily laborious approach that lacks the immediacy and inspiration of playing music, for example. It’s such a non-immediate art in many ways. Carl Freed, the editor — tasked at one point with trying to put together an ending that was, really, too much to ask him to do — had put together a more general, good-natured kind-of thing which was OK but didn’t hit it.
There were a few sequences in the film that just came out of nowhere, that were done fairly quickly and seemingly without much hand-wringing or discussion; they just came from a different place, and the ending was like that. I remember the day I had the first version of the ending done — it was something by this point I was editing myself — and I went to show it to Fred [producer Frederic Bohbot], and he just said, “Well, this is great.” It’s rare and wonderful and I feel very blessed when certain things come out that way; I like it too because you don’t feel it comes out that way because “I’m so brilliant,” but from a distinctly different place of bigger inspiration.
Filmmaker: Do you have plans to revisit your subject and the wall with camera in hand, or is this film truly over?
Stone: I have no plans to revisit it. It’s over, as far as I’m concerned. But what do I know?