“The Pendulum Can Only Swing So Far Before the Industry Realizes That There is More to Film, and Life, Than Celebrities and Murderers”: Frances Henderson on Her Essay Doc, This Much We Know
“I think the reason we’ve never pinpointed the real beginning to this genre is because we’ve never agreed on what the genre even is. Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art? It’s not very clear sometimes… I am here in search of art.” — Jon D’Agata
When I interviewed documentary filmmaker Frances Henderson for Filmmaker‘s 25 New Faces list in 2014, she discussed the above quote from author Jon D’Agata, noting that it held pride of place on the moodboard that hung above her desk. ” I am very much in agreement with that for my doc-narrative-hybrid film,” she said about her then titled — after D’Agata’s nonfiction book — About a Mountain. Like the book, Henderson was making a work that would find narrative and emotional correspondences between the 2002 suicide of a 16-year-old, Levi Presley, who leaped from Las Vegas’s Stratosphere Hotel, and political controversy surrounding the nearby Yucca Mountain nuclear waste dump. Melding the intimate (the grief of the Presley family) and the sociopolitical (our culture’s difficulty in imagining the future implications of our present-day actions), the work was positioned to be at the forefront of a new wave of formally experimental essay docs.
Currently in release from Oscilloscope, Henderson’s film — now titled This Much We Know — has arrived nearly a decade after that profile, a lengthy postproduction that speaks to both the current state of non-fiction (that new wave of formally experimental essay docs never really crested amidst an ensuing marketplace slew of true-crime and celebrity docs) and the filmmaker’s patient evolution of her own project. As she discusses below, mid-way through its post Henderson inserted herself — specifically her grief over the suicide of a close friend — into the project, and she continued to experiment with the many different ways to plumb multiple meanings, and emotional affects, from these intertwined stories. The resulting film is spellbinding testament to creative perseverance and the embrace of audacious, poetic non-fiction strategies.
This Much We Know is currently playing at New York’s DCTV Firehouse Cinema. On Thursday, November 16, Henderson will participate in a post-screening Q&A moderated by Cameraperson director Kirsten Johnson.
Filmmaker: Filmmaker selected you for our 25 New Faces list in 2014, and your film, then titled About a Mountain, was a work-in-progress then. Take us through the project’s journey since then. What different stages did it go through both from a production point of view and a creative one?
Henderson: In 2014 my film was a work in progress and, as a filmmaker, I was too. This film is representative of my creative growth over more than a decade. And I’m so glad I persevered because I’ve now developed a stylistic approach that truly speaks to me. Back when I was first starting this film, I knew the feeling of what I wanted to create but I had no idea how to create it. I went through many iterations of the film, from a screenplay with actors to a hybrid with narrative and documentary scenes, to a personal essay that combined archival, voiceover, narrative scenes and documentary interviews. The film is stylistically a combination of many different filmmaking techniques — all of them actually. I’m told that’s what makes it an exciting and unique engagement for viewers.
Filmmaker: Six years into the project you incorporated material dealing with a close friend who died by suicide and your own grief. Tell me about that decision and your film’s ability at that point to contain that footage. Did your use of the previously filmed material shift in any way? How did your point of view on the project shift?
Henderson: Six years into making the film I was very stuck. I was trying to make a film with narrative scenes and documentary interviews, and it just felt too forced and inauthentic. Then one of my producers asked me why I wanted to make this film in the first place — what made it personal to me? Which is always an important question to ask and re-ask oneself. It was only then that I made the connection to my own friend’s suicide. I was still trying to make sense of her suicide — to find answers — even though it had been 12 years since she passed. I had been stuck in this murky consciousness for so many years, and I quietly obsessed over what signs I missed in my own friend. Once I started incorporating my own story the film started falling into place. Before I had just been making a curiosity piece about Las Vegas, but incorporating my own grief allowed for me to deepen my connection with the Presleys and expanded the consciousness and style of the film in all kinds of amazing ways.
Filmmaker: You’ve discussed wanting this film to reflect on documentary ethics. One of the criticisms of the D’Agata book was its compression of time, bringing temporally closer together two events for the sake of narrative. But what was controversial in the realm of nonfiction essay writing is actually something that occurs quite a bit in documentary filmmaking. How did this story around the D’Agata book play into your filmmaking approach, if it did? And has D’Agata had any input into this film?
Henderson: Part of what I found so interesting about D’Agata’s work was that reaction to his artistic bending of the truth. It’s actually what made me want to read his book in the first place. His representation of the truth does take certain artistic liberties, but his conveyance of Vegas, suicide, nuclear waste was so striking and arresting because of that stylistic treatment. That’s what documentary does often — shapes the story, creates a cinematic experience with cinematography choices, editing choices, music, etc. But it’s also a manipulation of reality, and there’s a very fine line one has to walk as a director to not sensationalize or take advantage of someone else’s life story. A director can insert their views so much that it takes on a completely different interpretation than that person’s real experience. I mentioned that I had originally started out thinking I was going to make a narrative film. During some test shoots in Las Vegas with actors, however, something about dramatizing a real family’s tragedy made me feel morally icky. I wanted the Presleys to be in control of the narrative, not me. Working with the parents of Levi Presley and engaging in discussions around how to make a film together felt much more ethical and true. Together we created various recreations that conveyed their grieving process in a safe way.
Filmmaker: Yours is an interesting film dealing with grief because you are filming recreations with the Presley family so many years after their son’s passing. How do you think the passage of time made its presence felt during these scenes?
Henderson: After my friend Sarah took her life I felt that nothing made sense anymore and that the world I thought I knew could not be trusted. It threw me into this void of meaninglessness. I tried to claw myself out of that void by trying to piece together things I knew about her and things I couldn’t. How we find answers to great unknowns, how we derive meaning in our lives after such a tragedy, was at the center of my exploration in the film. However, I realized that asking the Presleys to re-engage in their grief was a very fragile situation. At the time of filming, it had been 11 years since he had passed. Both Gail and Levi Senior were in a good place, and that laid a healthy foundation for us to discuss hard subjects with some perspective. The Presleys were able to talk about their grieving process as simply that — a process. I found it was similar to crafting a story with an already figured-out beginning, middle and end. I remember even drawing a simple three-act structure “valley and hill and valley” for Gail and asking her to describe where she was in her grief at various points. From those discussions, we came up with scenes to film. Still there were some precautions to take to avoid emotional triggers. I came up with ways to convey the reality of their experience but keep them safe. For example, after Levi died, Gail, his mother, would go into her son’s room and look through all his things — trying to find clues or signs of what led him to jump. She would also sleep curled up in his bed often. For that recreation, we designed a room with items from another highschooler and used that highschooler’s textbooks, class notes etc. We did this because we didn’t want Gail to have to actively engage with her deceased son’s items. It created an interesting safe zone for Gail where she felt more like an actor than a grieving mother. The same went for Levi Senior who shared with me that he didn’t cry for the first few months after his son passed. He held in his emotions and was very private. I wanted to capture that on camera — that tension of holding in emotions — and so when he stood outside in the backyard I asked him just to stare at one spot and grit his teeth with his mouth closed. It created this facial expression of someone trying desperately to fight back tears. It allowed us to capture a moment and for him to not have to engage in any difficult memories.
Filmmaker: With regards to the storyline around nuclear waste disposal, how did the film have to adapt to news events and developments during the film’s making?
Henderson: Since the film takes place at a certain time I kept my focus on that specific year and the decade it existed in. Certainly there is more nuclear waste now than there had been in 2002 but the overall messaging about how the mountain was studied and limits around knowledge remain the same.
Filmmaker: What led you away from a more traditional score and towards a more layered sound design? Could you discuss the various elements of the sound design and your approach to the mix?
Henderson: I try to be very spare with melodic scores in general. I am super sensitive to sound, and I believe that sound effects and certain drones can be equally effective. When working with composer Ali Helnwein we initially had to discuss these parameters. I was even wondering if I should be working with a sound designer instead. I described to Ali that I was more interested in sound design than traditional instruments and melody. He referenced musique concrete — a French music movement that originated around the 1930s which experimented with sounds from the surrounding environment, everyday items and sound modulators. Working with that as an inspiration, Ali recorded certain sounds with Chas Smith, a “structural musician” who creates sound sculptures out of different metals and who has collaborated with Hans Zimmer as well. Ali then took those sounds, layered them and added some composition to create certain moods for various parts in the film. Another unique piece we worked on was a piece that used a technique called a Shepard Tone — which has a cascading effect that has no end. If you listen to it for a while it can actually be very anxiety-provoking. This film expresses a certain anxiety around the obsession of needing to know, and so a Shepard Tone was a great way to convey that sonically.
Filmmaker: In addition to being a creative and personal odyssey for you, the 12-year making of This Much We Know has been a journey through a shifting documentary landscape. You began with Cinereach support, went to various coproduction markets, and have now emerged at a time when star-driven documentaries and true crime are ascendant and more creative approaches to documentary, such as the kind championed by Sundance’s now-shuttered Art of Nonfiction, are having a harder time finding support. After the long journey of this film, what’s your take on where we are today, and where projects like yours may find support in the future?
Henderson: It’s a great question and I don’t know. I know I am incredibly lucky to have landed a distribution deal with Oscilloscope. I know how many artistic films don’t have distribution, and it’s so sad to me. The talent in American documentaries is so vast, and our industry often favors the ones that have major commercial viability. I actually remember sitting down with a rep last year from major documentary platform. They had seen my film and wanted to meet. I was assuming that they wanted to acquire it. But after praising the film and talking about it for a while, I asked if he thought that the company would acquire the film, and he responded that they would never touch it because it’s not true crime and doesn’t have any celebrities and is not based on current events within the past year. It was a bit of a tease, but I also felt kind of sad for him because he went on to admit how it’s just not the same world out there for documentary films anymore. However, I don’t think it’s a dire situation because films like Ascension, Cameraperson — to name only two off the top of my head — have been very successful. There is still interest in more “experimental” films in the mainstream though slim. Documentary focused festivals and theaters are our only havens. It’s very frustrating and also humbling. My film is screening in a small venue in NYC that seats about 100 people. At each screening I don’t expect to see more than 20 people. But it’s not really about the quantity for me — it’s the quality of the experience and the discussions had afterward. It would be nice if the industry celebrated more artistic documentaries — it would help to shape our culture in really great ways and open up audiences’ minds to other storytelling approaches. I think engaging in the European market and building a co-production entourage is maybe the backdoor way to go right now. Or finding an investor who just believes in your work enough to support your vision. But, in regards to the commercialism of documentaries, I think the pendulum can only swing so far before the industry realizes that there is more to film, and life, than just celebrities and murderers.