Ian Olds, Bomb
This article is part of Filmmaker’s Sundance 2007 Special Coverage.
It isn’t easy to glean a sense of Ian Olds’ identity from his films — they’re too diverse, too global. From Occupation: Dreamland (short-listed for an Academy Award), a breathtaking documentary that avoids simple political interpretation by opting to tell the story of the Iraq War from the perspective of the entire city of Fallujah — including both native Iraqis and U.S. troops — to Bomb, his most recent film, which explores teenage heartache against the backdrop of a decrepit bombing range and junkie malaise, Olds seems to be imbued with an unusual sense of humanism and empathy for individuals stuck in agonizing situations. Yet, as a storyteller, Ian doesn’t seem concerned with why these hapless characters wound up in dire straits so much as how they cope with the everyday details of their damaged lives.
Ian is currently working on a new documentary that takes place in Afghanistan (aided by a 2006 National Video Resources fellowship). Bomb screens at Sundance in Shorts Program III.
Can you say a little bit about your background? Where you’re from? Age? Education? Film experience prior to this film?
I’m 32 and grew up in a small town in Northern California. Before moving out to New York to go to the graduate film program at Columbia I was working in San Francisco as a video editor doing documentaries and some really bad corporate video. I’m not one of those people who always knew they were going to be a filmmaker. I was actually convinced for a long time that I was going to be a professional sailor. I worked on Tall Ships, got my captains license for 100-ton boats and then basically sank the first boat I ever skippered. I was captain of a 60-foot sailboat in Guatemala that some friends of mine bought off a couple of bank robbers. I’m actually not making this up! The FBI showed up and it turned out this couple had made off with a mere $500 and were running from the law in Central America. Anyway, the boat basically sunk, and I decided maybe I shouldn’t be a captain after all.
In terms of film experience prior to Bomb, I did another short that played a few festivals and also directed the feature Iraq documentary, Occupation: Dreamland with the late Garrett Scott. We spent two months in Fallujah, Iraq making that film, so it was a very different experience than making narrative work in upstate New York! But I love doing both doc and fiction work and for me each informs the other. I think making docs keeps me honest and engaged in the world, but fiction work gives me a chance to really explore the full potential of cinematic language.
Sadly Garrett passed away two days before we won a 2006 Independent Spirit Award for the film.
Can you briefly describe what inspired your film?
There were several distinct sources of inspiration for the film, but one of the keys was a story that my actor friend Michelle Maxson told me. Many years ago her mother had passed out on the floor of a strange house where someone proceeded to steal all of her turquoise and pewter jewelry. But the thing was is that she was still semi-conscious. Although she couldn’t move she could see them taking all her stuff as she lay immobile and helpless on the floor. This image haunted me and ultimately inspired one of the central scenes in the film. To top it off, Michelle Maxson, who I always love working with, ended up playing the role of her mother, giving the scene an extra layer of tension.
Can you talk about some of the people you collaborated with?
I can’t say enough about the cast and crew. It always amazes me to see people working so hard and often for free in order to bring my little film to life! Working with Melissa Leo was simply wonderful, and the two young leads, John Magaro and Naomi Aborn, where amazing. The whole cast worked incredibly unselfishly. It’s such a relief when you know you have great actors in every role.
Another pleasure was working with my d.p., Jarin Blaschke. All three of the short films he shot last year are playing at Sundance this year, and that’s no coincidence. I’ve never used a video tap when I shoot film, so it’s super important that I can trust my d.p. It makes it tricky, especially because I have such specific ideas about shot design. But Jarin was great and I found out very quickly that I could trust him to make my ideas better.
Were there any compromises you had to make on this film? Anything you’d do differently?
I think there are always compromises you make. Too much stuff is out of your control, and that, in a way, is the beauty of it. I try not to overwrite my scripts in order to leave room for a kind of magic or life to infuse the thing in the shooting. If all you do is render the script than ultimately you end up with a dead, lifeless thing. So hopefully those accidents or compromises surprise you and become the real life of the film.
Any film influences? (This could also include literature, art, music, etc.)
I am definitely inspired by the writing of Denis Johnson. One of my first short films was an adaptation of one of his short stories. He has such deep compassion for his misguided characters and somehow manages to infuse his dark worlds with a truly warm sense of humor.
Also I’ve been thinking a lot about Elem Klimov’s Come and See recently. When I first saw that film I couldn’t believe that something like that existed. Unbelievable. It is both this raw, almost out of control experience and simultaneously an incredibly stylized and operatic piece of filmmaking. I’m glad I saw it for the first time before I went to Iraq and not after. I think if I had seen it right after I got back it would have freaked the hell out of me! You see that film and you know that transcendent work is truly possible.
What are your expectations for Sundance?
I’m trying not to get too carried away worrying about what Sundance will or won’t mean. I’d love to see some great movies and meet fellow filmmakers. Somehow I’m not expecting people to see my short and suddenly hire me to direct Spiderman IV.
Any films you’re excited to see at Sundance?
I always love docs, so I’m looking forward to checking some of those out. I’m also excited about the new Hal Hartley and David Gordon Green movies.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve read or received about filmmaking?
Take great risks. Only through great risk can you make great work.
What’s your favorite/least favorite question to read in interviews with directors?
Shit, I’m drawing a blank on this one… This may not be exactly to your question, but whenever people start throwing the word “auteur” around, I know it’s time to check out.