IAN OLDS. PHOTO BY RICHARD KOEK.
We put director Garrett Scott on our "New Faces" list in 2002 following his accomplished short documentary Cul de Sac: A Suburban War Story. Ian Olds edited that film and would later partner with Scott to direct the 2005 feature documentary Occupation: Dreamland. That feature won the Truer than Fiction Spirit Award, and just a day before the ceremony, Scott died suddenly of a heart attack. At the Spirits, a shaken Olds accepted the award for the film.
"After Garrett died I really thought I would no longer make documentaries," says Olds. "The thought of starting a new documentary project without him seemed too painful and too fraught with the history of our working relationship to contemplate. Working with Garrett on those projects is where I really learned how to pay attention to the world. Garrett was a compassionate man with an incredibly sharp mind, and his emphasis on approaching the world with a cold eye and a warm heart is something I've tried to embrace in my own work."
After going to Sundance with a fiction short, Bomb, in 2007, Olds decided to explore documentary again "as an experiment." His film Fixer: The Taking of Ajmal Naqshbandi, which previewed at Rotterdam, premiered at Tribeca, and was bought by HBO, was set to be a doc about "the mechanics of war journalism," but when Olds's interpreter, Naqshbandi, was kidnapped and murdered by the Taliban midway through shooting, the project took on a new urgency. "Telling Ajmal's story became an obligation, and I was forced to simply rely on whatever sensitivity I have as a human being and a filmmaker to tell it with the complexity it deserved. During months of editing alone and trying to walk the line between staying close to the personal story of Ajmal while evoking the web of history and power that came to bear in his murder, it became clear to me that this film was in many ways a continuation of the work Garrett and I had done together."
Citing the industry trend of trying to "suck every last ounce of drama out of the image" when shooting in war-torn territories like Iraq and Afghanistan, Olds says it's important for him to slow things down so he can "recognize the human beings caught in the middle." He'll try to do the reverse in upcoming fiction work, hoping "to invest what's inside the frame with a kind of raw, unconstrained life." Olds says he's now focused on a thriller set in an expat community in Guatemala as well as a new script set in Northern California. — Scott Macaulay
Contact: Craig Kestel at William Morris Endeavor Entertainment: (310) 285-9000
ELEANOR BURKE AND RON EYAL. PHOTO BY CHRIS OWYOUNG.
Eleanor Burke & Ron Eyal
"At some point in her life my grandmother was a bit of a wanderer," explains New York City-based but U.K.-born Eleanor Burke. "She was attracted to the beach and the seaside, and she was itinerant at different times of her life." Says Burke's partner, Ron Eyal, "We thought about that idea and then imagined Adeel [Akhtar] in that role [of the wanderer]." With Akhtar, another lead actor, Bridget Collins, and a small house belonging to a family friend near Hastings, U.K., Burke and Eyal riff on the themes of homelessness, loss and human vulnerability in their delicately beautiful debut feature, Stranger Things, currently in postproduction.
Stranger Things tells the simple story of a vagrant, played by Akhtar, who breaks into the home of a young woman's (Collins) recently deceased grandmother. Of course, a friendship follows, but Stranger Things' best qualities can't be captured in a plot synopsis. It's a small-scale story sensitively attuned to its fine actors as well as broader themes of responsibility, loss and community.
Burke and Eyal, who are engaged, met at NYU Film School in 2003. "We've worked on a lot of projects together," Burke says, "like documentary things I shot and Ron's directed. This was the first time we co-directed something, but we were always on the same page." "Before we shot," continues Eyal, "we got advice from the faculty at NYU, who all said we should split it up," with one director handling actors and the other overseeing the camera. "Eleanor's background is as a d.p., and we knew we wanted her to shoot it, but really quickly we learned that things didn't have to be that strictly divided. We both worked with the actors and I was involved with setting up shots. It was very fluid."
The couple worked at a homeless shelter in England while preparing the film. "There were people who were very vulnerable and who were in poor mental health and then there were recent immigrants who didn't have a place to go," says Burke. "We would prepare meals for them and just sit and talk." "It's stuff you just take for granted, like people enjoy eye contact and don't always get it from people," adds Eyal.
Burke and Eyal say they have other films to do together, but first they've got to finish Stranger Things, which recently completed the IFP's Rough Cut Lab. "We both like to tell stories about people on a very human level," says Burke. "We were hoping to make something that would deal with real emotions and real moments." Concludes Eyal, "It's kind of a tiny drama but we hope it can connect with people." — S.M.
NAT SANDERS. PHOTO BY KITAO SAKURAI.
When editor Nat Sanders attended the Independent Spirit Awards in February, he shared a table with his two most recent collaborators, Medicine for Melancholy director Barry Jenkins and Lynn Shelton, director of Humpday — who happened to be competing against each other that night for the Acura Someone to Watch Award. (Shelton won, for her second feature, My Effortless Brilliance.) Sanders was happy to be the common link between the two nominees. "These two films have actually been a perfect microcosm of how I'd love the rest of my career to play out," Sanders writes from the Sundance Directors' Lab, where he's working with 25 New Faces alums Benh Zeitlin and Andrew Okpeaha MacLean. "We alternate between helping to bring more traditional auteur-driven narrative films to fruition, and to also tell stories in this very spontaneous, collaborative way where the editing is incredibly crucial."
Years after meeting Jenkins at Florida State, Sanders quit his reality-TV editing job and moved to San Francisco to start cutting Melancholy concurrent with production so that the film could be ready for the 2008 SXSW submission deadline. At SXSW Sanders met Shelton, who was gearing up to shoot Humpday in her hometown of Seattle. Sanders again quit a job and relocated, cutting as Shelton shot, partially to make the Sundance submission deadline but also to facilitate Shelton's process of working with actors without a script.
"Medicine was a much more traditional narrative editing job," Sanders writes. "The material was already very tight, so a lot of the work was more subtle and craft-oriented. Humpday is packed full of [improvisation], so it was far more about storytelling. Lynn's method of shooting is incredibly gratifying for an editor. It almost combines documentary aesthetics with narrative. There are so many different directions the film could go in that in the end the editor really is one of the writers of the film."
Sanders was keen on grounding Humpday's improvised performances and camerawork with tight, invisible editing. "I felt from the very beginning that this film had some potential broader appeal, and I was very interested in cutting it almost like a Hollywood comedy. If you've already captured that feeling of naturalism in the footage, it's going to be in the finished product — you don't need to further emphasize it in the editing in a way that might alienate viewers with less patience."
Sanders is currently cutting The Freebie, the directorial debut of Kathryn Aselton, co-star of The Puffy Chair and wife of Humpday star Mark Duplass. Another feature shot sans screenplay, the film stars Aselton and Dax Shepherd as a married couple who agree to a mutual "one-night get-out-of-jail-free" card for infidelity. And after that? "I guess I'm greedy, because I just want my friends and I to keep making films on a bigger and bigger scale, with all the stories being humanistic, meaningful and important and told in fresh and real ways." — Karina Longworth
Rebecca Fayyad at Sheldon Prosnit Agency: (310) 652-8778; [email protected]
JESSICA ORECK. PHOTO BY RICHARD KOEK.
Jessica Oreck works days in the American Museum of Natural History's live exhibitions department, preparing gourmet meals for visiting sugar gliders and poison dart frogs. There she witnesses firsthand the changing ways of how we interact with science. Hand-painted dioramas gather dust while touch screens proliferate; students study aspects of biology so minute that it's nearly impossible to relate them to whole organisms, and it becomes harder and harder to grow up feeling a real connection to the natural world.
Finding that connection is made a bit easier by watching Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo, Oreck's first feature, which premiered this year at SXSW. Its subject is the historical and current fascination for insects in Japanese culture, and it takes a "three-dimensional" approach to the topic, mixing together beautiful images of the insects themselves, individual stories of workers in various sectors of the insect business, interviews with historians, b-roll of swarming crowds, all draped in a Japanese voice-over that delves into science, poetry, folktales and pop culture. "My main goal with anything I work on is to create a sense of wonder," says Oreck, and she succeeds.
Oreck's path has been straight and clear ever since she saw David Attenborough's The Private Life of Plants in a ninth-grade science class. The documentarian Jean Painlev was also an influence, and until the recent Criterion release of his 1930s underwater photography, Oreck had to import foreign-region DVDs from France. But Oreck has never wanted to make traditional nature documentaries, which tend to take an omniscient view of an environment, leaving out all traces of human life. "People usually do nature films by geographical section, or by type of animal," she says, "but what really interested me was why — why these people were so interested in a part of the natural world that the rest of the globe ignored or thought was disgusting."
She is planning her next feature, about the role of mushrooms in Eastern European life and mythology, but can't shoot it until the mushrooms come in the fall. But that's just one of a dozen projects. Others include museum exhibitions of strange and esoteric living worlds, science-based interstitial Web content, and episodic survival guides she films on custom-built miniature sets that take place in a postapocalyptic landscape of her creation. She says, "Almost all of them are about ethnobiology: how humans relate to plants and other animals. I think people sometimes forget that humans are animals." – Alicia Van Couvering
D CIANFRANCEIMA. PHOTO BY DAVI RUSSO.
If you don't believe the independent film business is a marathon, not a sprint, talk to Derek Cianfrance. He's making our "25" list while in production on his second feature, Blue Valentine — 11 years in the making.
A searing drama that chronicles the lead-up and aftermath of a bitter divorce, Blue Valentine has, to observers in the New York City indie scene, almost seemed fated never to shoot. "The best explanation is that it just wasn't ready," says Cianfrance. "I wasn't ready, the cast wasn't ready, the money wasn't ready. But for those 11 years, I always thought I was going to be shooting the movie 'three months from now.' After awhile you start feeling like a crazy person. Family and friends start thinking you are delusional."
Cianfrance, who directed a small, well-regarded first feature, Brother Tied in 1998, and has since directed commercials as well as television documentaries for Radical Media, says Blue Valentine derives from fears he had as a child. "When I was a kid, I had two nightmares: nuclear war and that my parents would get a divorce. I was 20 when they did divorce, and it caused me to question things. What's the point of falling in love? What happens to love over time? I needed to confront that thing I was so scared of when I was growing up. And to not repeat the mistakes my parents made."
Despite the 11 years of feeling like a crazy person, Cianfrance says it's good that it took so long. "My grandma always told me, 'You can't force things to happen.' I have a wife and kids now, and I could never have told a story about being married with a wife and kid [when I started]." And fortunately, in the middle of production, Cianfrance isn't at all bored with his material. "It feels alive!" he says. "It's surprising me; it's going places I never thought it could go. And it's a dream working with [stars] Ryan [Gosling] and [Michelle] Williams."
Next up for Cianfrance is post ("I let the film be improvised a lot — we have these incredible moments, but it's the script plus 70 percent. It's going to be hard — I only have a 10-week director's cut") and also finishing another project, a feature called Metalhead, about a heavy metal drummer with tinnitus. Shooting bits and pieces "every two or three months," Cianfrance says, "that film should be done in two more years. I'm good at these long films that take forever. I guess I have patience." — S.M.
Contact: Craig Gering at CAA: (424) 288-2000