“I’m Really Interested in Expanding What We Call ‘Political Cinema'”: Brett Story on The Hottest August
Where Brett Story’s previous feature, The Prison in Twelve Landscapes, interrogated the US’s carceral system in twelve formally and thematically distinct segments, her new film The Hottest August approaches climate change, in its broadest sense, through a freeflowing diaristic chronicle of a summer month. Over August of 2017, Story and her crew traveled to all five boroughs of NYC, capturing a broad polyphony of voices that, pleasingly, refuses to stay strictly on-thematic-task. The film just premiered at True/False before proceeding to SXSW; the first screening there is today. Over FaceTime Audio, I spoke to Story about working with a small crew, redefining the meaning of “political cinema” and avoiding the cliches of “New York movies.”
Filmmaker: On the way to True/False, I got into an argument with a friend who wanted to remind me that all movies are political, and all the movies I like are political. I’ve been on this kick about being really against documentaries with URLs for further action at the end and all that kind of jazz. He forced me to clarify my terminology a little bit; I’m not necessarily against films that are political or didactic—quite the opposite—but I think I’m saying I’m against “awareness-raising” documentaries now. Obviously, your films are extremely political. This one does not propose solutions, in part because it seems no solutions are to be found. But in conceptualizing how the film acts politically or what its goals might or might not be, how did you think about that? In The Prison in Twelve Landscapes there are certain things that can be actively reformed, specific initiatives that can be followed-up on. Here, not so much.
Story: For me, the stakes are in rethinking what we mean when we call something “political.” I think the term “politics” has been already so reduced to government or, in your formulation, to causes and solutions. When we attach that to cinema, the reduction—for me, anyways—undermines whatever potency cinema and art has. So, for me to call something “political” is just to say that it in some way grapples with power. I think of all of my films as political, in really direct ways, because I’m interested in how power circulates, the ways in which it micro- and macro-confines us and can liberate us. I also think that, sure, we can call all films in some ways political, insofar as they’re made within certain power structures and get launched into the world within existing power structures. They can either reinforce the status quo, because they do very little to shake up our understandings of how the world works, or they can enable us to grapple with things differently.
That’s all to say I’m really interested in expanding what we call “political cinema.” I also dislike message-y films, or whatever you want to call the films that see their role as delivering a particular policy line and/or demanding that people respond in very narrow terms to whatever they’re seeing. I’m much more interested in how cinema can reawaken the senses and our critical capacity to be in the world differently. That, for me, can have longer term results. It’s both much more interesting and effective politically than just getting this or that person to join this or that campaign, and then trying to measure the impact of that campaign. Also, why use an art form, right? If you just want people to join a campaign, probably an online petition or something is more productive. So yeah, this film doesn’t necessarily propose solutions or even very narrowly define the problems. I think it is an invitation to reengage the terms with which we think about how we, as a society, are organized, and how the organization of people—in relation to each other, our jobs and the structures that we work within—has led to this situation in which we are systematically and very rapidly killing the planet we rely on for survival.
We call it a film about climate change. It gives you very little data on climate change, very little evidence of ecological destruction, but it does, I hope, recognize that that information is already out there and that we’re taking it in all the time, and then invite us to try and think about how news about the collapse of our planet is being mobilized and translated into how we live with each other. Trump is rarely spoken about in this film, and yet he’s everywhere in this moment in which we see rising xenophobia and the rise of white nationalism. Deepening inequality is very much part of the fabric of the film. The hope is that people will think about how these things relate to each other in critical ways—not just “Oh, they’re all interrelated,” but “We feel terrified about the future. We feel terrified for ourselves and our ability to survive.” Some of us are responding to the idea that we can scapegoat other people, or that some people don’t deserve those diminishing resources and other people do. I think the political hope for this film is that people think differently about what our collective response to those fears should be.
Filmmaker: There’s four POVs being synthesized here. The voiceover has some material I believe you wrote, and then there’s three cited texts—Zadie Smith, Karl Marx, Annie Dillard. Those voices are both yours and not. Then there is the POV of your DP, who just moved to New York the week before, so it was a wild introduction for him to the city. Then there’s the final POV, working with Nels to put all of this together.
Story: I was toying with the idea of what it means to make an archive film in which the archive is not from some distant past but is actually happening now—not to wait 50 years for the kind of hindsight that comes in a lot of traditional archival films, but also [to make] something that could last and transform as a document for future generations. What will it be like for people in the future looking back at us? What do we have to tell them? There’s something absolutely absurd about living in a time in which we’re knowingly hurrying our own extinction. For creatures that are supposed to want to survive, how is it that we can possibly be doing this? I wanted to find out the answer and provide something meaningful for whoever’s left in the future. In the edit room, Nels [Bangalter] was trying to collect all of these testimonies, encounters and conversations, almost like a group therapy session. These people aren’t actually sharing an immediate space, but we put them in the same space by putting them in a film. One of the huge advantages of having an editor is the perspective of someone who doesn’t have a lived memory of the production process, and so isn’t attached to, “That was such a wonderful day, that was such a beautiful conversation, I just really liked this person.” [The editor] has the perspective to say, “I wasn’t in the room with them, so based on how they’re appearing on the screen, this is how I’m interpreting them.” That’s a distancing effect that can be really useful, that then has be squared with the living memory that I or my cinematographer have.
Filmmaker: In the voiceover, it’s apparent that there is some narrative polyphony going on there, but you’re using these texts to express things that are directly on your mind.
Story: I didn’t go into the film knowing that there would be any kind of narration. I’ve never used narration in any of my projects before. It was proposed partly because, with the cacophony of voices and scenes, having a narrator could be a useful way to enact some tentpoles—less a guide track or explaining voice, more like something that would provide a couple of anchor points around which the footage could pivot. Once Nels and I started thinking in the edit room about a narrator, my first impulse was to feel very nervous, because I think the standard for writing is very, very high when it comes to film. You can’t get away with any wrong word or unnecessary phrase. I started thinking about how to create this third voice that could be an invitation for the audience to take a step back and see the footage not from the immediate space of relating to me, the filmmaker whose voice you hear sometimes, but from a third space. But without overdoing it—I didn’t want to invent a whole character that would be a distraction from the scenes, nor did I want it to be an expert voice. Part of the conceit of this film is that all the people you meet are experts over their own lives, and also unreliable narrators. That’s sort of what it means to be human: we know what we know, and we know things constantly, but we’re also having to find ways to make sense of our experiences, and the terms in which we make sense of things is, by definition, inadequate at the same time as it’s honest. So, the compromise that we found was that this would be a narrator with some kind of distance. She’s older, has a slightly ambiguous accent and speaks in the past tense. She seems to know something that we don’t. We don’t know if that’s because she’s coming from some far off point in the future or just a few years off, but she’s overseeing this archive from a knowing position.
In terms of providing extra material around which some of the themes of the film could come to the surface, I found the work of other writers a really powerful mechanism, better than anything I might’ve been able to write. I considered the texts you hear in the film as part of this archive. It’s as if someone from the future has found this cache of footage, knows what’s about to happen, is meditating on it, and also reading pieces of literature that are also part of the found archive. The footage gets emptied of its immediacy and you’re invited to have a wider view, temporally and spatially.
Filmmaker: In terms of actually recording the voiceover, were there certain things that concerned you about inflection or rhythm?
Story: The temp narration was my own voice for a long time. We recorded the final narration so late that when we would send cuts for feedback screenings or festival submissions, my own voice was the narration track. We got a lot of feedback from people that the narrator should be me, and I really wanted to push back on that—not just because I didn’t want to hear my own voice, but also because I wanted there to be a distinction between the voice you hear off-camera asking people questions and the voice that’s inviting you to have a different relationship to the footage. Maybe you’ve heard me say this elsewhere, but the film is partly inspired by a Chris Marker film from 1962, Le Joli Mai, shot entirely over the course of the month of May in Paris. It becomes a meandering treatise on modernization and capitalism, but it’s ultimately about the the French colonial war with Algeria and underlying anxieties Parisians were facing as that war comes to a close. It has a narrator, like all of Chris Marker’s films, that of course can’t be imitated—his writing and narrators are too good—but what I like about them is that they managed to offer a wise authority that isn’t cold. That’s really what we wanted to go for. I knew that I wanted it to be an older woman, and I knew that the voice needed to hold enough authority that you trusted her and trusted that she knew things, without it coming across as a clinical expert that’s there to define things for you. There needed to be something generous about the voice and its meditating and observing quality. I don’t come from theater, I don’t have any idea how to direct actors, so it was this struggle to figure out how to translate that with the woman we worked with, a Canadian theater actress named Clare Coulter. We recorded it in one session. She had a terrible cold, she didn’t want to do it; it was all very stressful, but I think it subdued some of the theatricality that I really didn’t want to have, so I actually really like the quality of her voice.
Filmmaker: Did you literally shoot every day in August?
Story: We literally shot about, I’d say, 30 days of August, almost every day. We had to take some rests. We also had to shoot a little bit before in order to put together a teaser, and we did a couple of days of pickup shoots. The film is an experiment: it’s as much me trying to figure out how people are coping and dealing with this moment as it is any kind of thesis on that. In order for that experiment to bear out, we really did have to shoot most days of August and respond to what people actually said and what happened over the course of the month. It’s the kind of film where you have to plan. You have to have something to do every day, but you don’t want to plan too much because you want to leave room for things to spontaneously happen. It’s a small crew: myself, my producer, Danielle Varga, cinematographer Derek Howard, and a sound recordist, Michael Correa. Very rarely, we would have an assistant to help—usually with the driving, because we were driving my 2001 Toyota Echo, which is a shitty little car and the trunk doesn’t open. There were various disasters having to do with the car. Half the time we’d take the car and half the time we would cab or take the subway. I don’t like working with big crews because it announces the whole production too much. For anything intimate or to capture anything magical, you have to be both quick on your feet and light in your footprint.
Danielle and I spent a long time trying to brainstorm off-theme. What were places and situations where interesting things could happen? So, on our list was “Oh, there’s a sand castle building contest in the Rockaways. Well, who knows what’s going to happen? It’s not like sand castles are a theme of the film, but at the very least there will be funny objects for us to take images of. People will be at the beach and maybe they’ll have time to chat to strangers.” It’s about imagining situations which might express something, like the Wrecking Club, a basement dungeon in Manhattan where people pay to smash office furniture as a way to get their stress out. The symbolism is already clear and has the potential to be really cinematic. Our production calendar often included one or two anchor things—an event that was happening or a place that we wanted to go, whether it’s a street corner or an actual event space. Maybe a pre-arranged interview, but even [with those], we tried not to pre-categorize people. Before we started shooting, I sent out a massive email to everyone I knew and said, “Listen, I’m making this new film. It’s made up of conversations and encounters. I don’t want to tell you too much about it. I just want you to all email me one or two people you know that you think would make for an interesting conversation. I’m not going to tell you what type of person I’m looking for or what kind of thing I want them to say.” So, people sent me the names of their car mechanics and aunts and astrologists. That helped anchor things, especially since there was so much that was spontaneous and outside of our control that we had to respond to as well.
Filmmaker: I want to ask specifically about the couple that I think of as the anchor couple, who you return to three times. They’re sitting outside of their garage and they talk. The first time you see them, it seems like this is going to go into Trump territory. It does during the second interview segment, and then you come back to them again.
Story: There wasn’t anything systematic about how we decided who would be recurring and who wouldn’t. I didn’t want to create a film in which anyone was scapegoated, especially when the thematic of racism and xenophobia emerges. For me, they’re a couple who come across in ways that make them easy to stereotype. The hope is to complicate that a little bit each time they come back. So, [first] we understand them as a prototypical working class Italian American couple in Queens. They talk about the work that they do, the Zumba classes she teaches. Then, we come back and they say something that echoes across the rest of the film, dancing around why they’re feeling uncomfortable with certain people coming to their neighborhood, echoing with other expressions of racism that we hear in the film. Then we come back to them at the end, to hear them talk in pretty vulnerable terms about feeling afraid about the future and then, within the same breath, deflecting that fear. Janet says, “I’m afraid of the future. I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to live in this house. I’m afraid that there won’t be any Social Security left.” Then, immediately, she does the work I think a lot of people in the film do, which is finding a way to say, “I’m not going to let myself be afraid. I’m just not going to think about the future too much.” So yeah, as a couple in their multiple iterations, they allow us to think a little bit about how we are all having to navigate, in pretty shaky terms, the anxieties of living right now, and trying to find terms and vocabularies and ideologies that help calm us down, some more destructive than others.
Filmmaker: In terms of thinking of this as a New York film: you go to all the boroughs, covering literally a lot of ground, so the imagery isn’t necessarily what’s associated with a “New York film.”
Story: We were thinking about how it would be unavoidable that people would think about it as a New York film. So, we were trying to think about how to both take advantage of, and also push back against, the iconography of New York.I do think that the fact of New York makes it already a symbol, and that’s useful. It’s a symbol of wealth, of global power, of massive density, of different kinds of people and immigration. It’s got its iconic buildings, and it’s surrounded by water. So there’s ways in which its New Yorkness becomes an important vessel, but also I’m loathe to do something that might be mistaken for a love letter to New York. I mean, I love New York, I love the city, but there’s a way in which New York pride can also invite all sorts of gross sentimentality that I was really interested in avoiding. And also, just avoiding clichés. Clichés in general are abhorrent to me, so we had to work really, really hard to think through that. Part of that was spending a lot of time in the [outer] boroughs.
Filmmaker: How did you film the eclipse? You had so many cutaways to people responding to it, but there’s only one camera.
Story: The eclipse is symbolic on a couple of different registers. Obviously, as the film suggests, it’s already a metaphor for apocalypse, and the idea of this thing happening that you can’t look at directly is itself a really good metaphor for climate change. Also—this is a subtle theme—the film is a lot about the tension between aloneness and the collective. There’s something really beautiful about the way that an eclipse happening becomes this social occasion for people to all gather in one spot, kind of like lemmings. They take an escalator down to go outside of buildings and walk into streets and stare at something. I was thinking about the film Melancholia in that respect, of being awestruck by a thing that’s happening to all of us. We had two camera people. One of them was Derek [Howard], our DP. He filmed at Pioneer Works, [at] this huge party where you had a mass of people staring at the sky at the same time. And then, we sent off a cinematographer named Martin Dicicco with Danielle to go and find people who were alone and looking at the eclipse, often with these makeshift things that they made. That’s the footage we ended up using—images of people who weren’t joining a big party, who hadn’t taken the day off work, but who were curious about it, who found some glasses or made a box. He both captured people in the moment and then also would see someone, like sitting on a bench with this homemade box. You’re pretty sure what they’re up to with it, and he’d ask them, “Could you put your box on and look up at the sky?” We made sure to get a variety of those moments.
Filmmaker: How long was the editing process? Did you start with ground rules and then refine them as you went along? There’s some linkages that are visual, like cutting from a jazz lawn party to people filing into housing court, and there’s also jumping around thematically.
Story: I am a person who doesn’t have a plan, necessarily, for how a film is going to unfold before I started shooting. In this case, even after shooting I didn’t have a sense of how it could unfold. There was a possibility that we would structure things chronologically, and there was already a way in which the chronology of the month was interesting. We started out thinking people were going to express anxiety. Instead, many of them expressed optimism, but their optimism was often in entrepreneurial terms. Then, about halfway through the month, Charlottesville happened. There was a tonal shift and suddenly that was the undercurrent of everything people said. So, there’s a way in which we could’ve just structured the film in the edit room along the lines of our experience. We were working with Nels Bangerter, who’s I think most well-known for editing Cameraperson, but he also edited a film that I think of as a real masterpiece, Let the Fire Burn, about the bombing of the MOVE compound in Philadelphia. That’s a proper archival film. He was game to take on this footage and see how he responded to it, without his experience being colored by what we were telling him had to be done with it. I left him alone with the footage for maybe a month and a half. He started cutting it into a rough cut right away. I think we edited for about 11 months, but it never went through the traditional assembly process that a lot of films go through, partly because the structure is it’s a mosaic, but also [it’s] a structure that’s just about arrangement and juxtaposition. There’s no necessarily right starting or ending point. It’s about what the pieces should be and what those pieces mean once they’re put next to each other, and what things mean when they’re put in a certain chronology.
There was a time in which there was a section in the film in which you see all this cloud footage and you hear the narrator read this excerpt from an Annie Dillard essay about the eclipse, which really reads as being about dread. For a while we had that as a preface. That was really powerful, but then everything related back to that. It was a balance between Nels and I working really closely together, me spending time in San Francisco and being in the edit room with him, and also stepping back and letting him play around with things. I remember the first time he sent me a cut that had the zoom into the moon and then the moon starts spinning. I was like, “I’m not sure about this. It’s a little hokey.” Then it grew on me and I was like, “Oh no, it’s not hokey, it’s actually just the right amount of weirdness, this tiny little turn of sci-fi in the film that hopefully doesn’t take itself too seriously.” He was really good at building that into how the film works.
Filmmaker: The last question is the big broad one. We’re going to be seeing a lot more movies about, in the broadest sense, climate change. The two prominent ones from the last year and a half are First Reformed and Downsizing. First Reformed is this existentially fraught movie about guilt and accepting the unimaginable, which I find extremely relatable. Downsizing has a completely different perspective, which is basically “Let’s just be decent humans and help each other out,” which I find completely useless on some level. I don’t want to say you’re in the middle, you’re neither nor. It’s obviously a movie made by somebody who likes people and is curious about them, but you keep coming back to this anxiety while operating within a tradition that has yet to be defined.
Story: It’s really wild to me. I clip out news articles all the time in which apocalypse and destruction and there being no future have just become part of zeitgeist. I’ll read the “Style” section of The New York Times and it’s like “Apocalypse Fashion: no future. This is what it translates into in terms of interior design.” Screening at True/False, a lot of young people, especially a lot of millennials and people younger than millennials, came up to me after screenings and were thankful to have watched something in which they could recognize themselves so deeply and feel not alone. That was part of it for me, too. I feel dread a lot of the time. I can’t plan long-term because I’m not sure long-term exists. I want to not feel alone in that feeling. I think that that can be one useful role of art, giving us this place to have our experiences recognized and not feel alone in them. But I also think that can be really inadequate. Again, even though this isn’t a film that proposes solutions, I do hope it invites us to think about the existential emotional zeitgeist—not just about the way the world is, but also an opportunity to think through the structures that have brought this into being.
For me, the film is very much about capitalism, in which we’ve come to this state because of economic and political priorities. I’ve been thinking a lot about this project in relation to this famous axiom by the ex-British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from 40 years ago: “There’s no such thing as society. There’s only individuals and their families.” It’s very subtle in the film, but for me, the film is a meditation on how we live with 40 years of that idea translated into politics, how we’re being asked to face this uncertain future as individuals for whom the infrastructures of society have been totally delegitimized and dismantled. If it offers a thesis at all, I think the film suggests that we have to remember we are a society. We’re more than just individuals and our families, and we will only have power over our circumstances when we re-embrace the fact that we are in something together.