“You Might as Well be Selling Drugs”: Robert Greene on Actress
“I consider the industrious Robert Greene a friend, but that makes me no less cautious in deeming his new film Actress a big deal,” I wrote after seeing the film at True/False this year. The quick takeaway:
This collaborative psychodrama follows and subjectively sculpts his friend/neighbor Brandy Burre’s attempt to simultaneously separate from her longtime boyfriend and return to the acting world she left for suburban motherhood. Sliding from seemingly straightforward self-presentation to ambiguously unfeigned snapshots of daily life, director and subject collude, not so much valorizing her attempts to jumpstart her career and finances (“I have to make a living to get my freedom”) as sympathetically heightening her existence — providing her, indeed, with a worthy comeback role within a confining matrix of daily responsibilities. It’s a film of big gestures, formally mirroring Burre’s transitions from one actorly mode to another, always courting the possibility of total failure or over-the-top silliness.
I don’t have more to add about the film as such on the occasion of its release by Cinema Guild, which starts tomorrow at Lincoln Center. It’s a logical follow-up to Kati with an I (three days in the life of his half-sister as she graduates high school) and Fake It So Real (a week spent with a cousin on the regional wrestling circuit) — shot with more time and without d.p. Sean Price Williams, but another woozy, intentionally unstable disruption of the line between verifiable “documentary” and staged fiction. There’s certainly no shortage of interviews with Greene, a tireless self-promoter (I recommend the one conducted by Adam Nayman, though maybe after you’ve seen the film), but I wanted to do my part to promote this excellently ambitious film and also to pick Greene’s brain a bit more. He’s about to move to Columbia, Missouri to teach at the Missouri School of Journalism and next summer he starts work on his fourth film. I wanted to talk about the business of being Robert Greene, but when I sat down he had cameras on the brain, so we started there.
Greene: I was checking the DCP today, and looking at DV images turned into a DCP is kind of hilarious. I’m starting to think about why I’m so attracted to the rawness. Obviously there’s two sides to this. If I was really good at the 5D, even though I hate the look of a 5D, I probably would have shot with a 5D. But I’m not good at it, I don’t care about it, and I don’t own one. I’m really good with the DVX, I had one, I know how to shoot with it. I had access to the HVX, which could shoot native slow motion really beautifully, and I knew that.
I think there’s something about rawness that I’m really attracted to, and I think it has to do with some big theories I have about the way people watch documentaries. I think I’ve said other places that documentaries structure chaos. It’s a tension between structure — which is directing, shooting and editing the film — and chaos, which is reality, either good or bad. You miss something or you capture something you can’t believe you captured, you were in the right place at the right time. There’s also a bullshit version of this, which is “Oh, it’s rough and handheld,” like Dogme 95 or Pieces of April, like that bullshit – “Oh, it’s got a documentary quality.” DV for the sake of giving it reality is bullshit, but checking this DCP today, I was like, “There’s a raw quality to the sound, there’s a raw quality to the image, I think it makes it more exciting to watch.” I think it works with a film as directed as my film, and with performances like Brandy is giving, which is a very mannered performance. I was thinking about that. That’s what I wanted to talk about, so have a good day.
Filmmaker: OK, so why do you hate the 5D? Or let me ask you this: where did you go to film school?
Greene: I went to City College uptown.
Filmmaker: So when you were there, did they make you do 16mm and flatbeds?
Greene: No. When I was in undergrad at North Carolina State, we used Media 100, and then Final Cut had just started happening then. By 2000, it was Final Cut 3 when I went to graduate school. We edited some on Avid, but I chose to edit my feature on Final Cut, and my wife, who I met at film school, I edited her thing on Avid.
Filmmaker: So this has been your entire career, you’ve never been like “I want to shoot 16, why can’t I shoot 16?”
Greene: No, no. I’m writing that book, and the cover is The Cruise. I remember in 1998 I wanted to write a book about The Cruise, because when I watched it, the DV quality of that thing really inspired me. It wasn’t just that Bennett Miller could get it done, it was that the look was unique and video had its own aesthetic. Julien Donkey-Boy came out the next year, and I love that movie still. The point was to embrace that aesthetic, not say, “Oh, it needs to look like film.”
Filmmaker: That’s why people get excited about Michael Mann movies, because he’s not trying to use digital as a makeshift substitute for 35mm. He never pretended for a second he wasn’t using the camera he was using.
Greene: One of the great movies made in the last 15 years is Miami Vice, the theatrical version. The poetic qualities of the nighttime stuff in that movie — I would never want to see that movie shot on film. The Insider is 35 and looks like nothing you’ve ever seen before, but how terrible would a Miami Vice movie be if it was pristine? In fact, we know how terrible it would be, because they cleaned it up for the DVD release. I don’t know if they cleaned up too much, but the opening shot is this super high-end looking boat thing that got lopped off for the theatrical. In the theatrical, you’re just in this grainy, crazy space that’s super exciting. Of course, that movie flopped completely. To me, it was one of the best things I’ve ever seen in a movie theater, but most people hated the move tremendously. But I think that’s changed now. I think you can make that film now. I love it not just because it’s raw and noisy, I love it because it has a poetic quality. Bennett Miller shot on the PAL version of the VX-1000, so that he could transfer to film, and the transfer to film is what made that movie look so beautiful. But it’s a noisy transfer to film. We don’t have to do that anymore.
Filmmaker: Inland Empire too. You have to be looking at it transferred onto film, or you have to look at it in a way that accentuates the gap between the video and film.
Greene: Yeah, and I love that. I think that there’s something to the way we see something captured that way. Me and my two friends in college used to be called “The Young Brechtians,” because we cared about the apparatus and all that other bullshit. So now hopefully there are more interesting, subtle ways to reveal that there’s a camera recording this all, and DV cameras reveal it. It was new, and now it’s gone, because these high-end HD cameras, I don’t think you have a video look anymore. I think the video look is now dead because it’s all compressed into one thing, so it turns out that was about a ten-year span of time when you could make that work. The new video look is cell phones, and that’s a whole other thing.
Filmmaker: So tell me about your documentary conversion moment. You made a doc I haven’t seen that you don’t talk about much, Owning the Weather, that was a fairly conventional thing, and then you were like “No, I’m not doing this anymore.” So what was the shift in thinking?
Greene: I was working at 4th Row Films with Doug Tirola and Susan Bedusa, and I was like, “I just want to make something.” The movie that I wanted to make was about ideas [about weather modification]. I was entranced by the ideas, and I think at the time I was not confident enough to think that I could just take a camera and go film a story. For time’s sake, for money’s sake, for everything, I just didn’t think I could pull it off. I didn’t think I had the chops. Fake It So Real, the idea was years and years prior to that, and my new movie, that I’ll start shooting next summer, is something I had years and years before Owning the Weather, but Owning the Weather was the first one where I was like, “OK, I can see how to do this: interviews with scientists, landscape shots, watch the weather as much as we can.” And gradually the story and journalism took over, and I felt this responsibility.
I feel like a lot of documentary filmmakers feel this responsibility to the subject, and so at some point, they stop thinking like filmmakers and they start thinking like “It’s too important for me to be an artist.” And in the process, they destroy whatever possibilities they had. I can pinpoint the exact moment where this was clear to me. It was basically a long revelation until I made the leap to change, but I was shooting with Tommy Shearrer, who’s a cloud seeder from Pleasanton, Texas, who sadly was shot and killed a couple of years ago. He was going place to place in this town, and he was like the king of the world. He had all these businesses he was working on, and cloud seeding was one of the things he was working on. And I needed him to be talking about cloud seeding, because he was the former president of the Weather Modification Association, so it was important that he represented that. Ella, my child, was four months old and with us. Deanna, my wife, was with us and helping us shoot and PA’ing. We were shooting, and we had to get back to my mom, who was taking care of the baby. And I was like, “Yeah, but I’m not done. I need to be with this guy and his family. I need to watch this guy wake up in the morning. That’s the movie.”
I got so angry and frustrated by the process of filming this guy for a two-minute scene in a movie that I knew needed to be the whole film, or at least could have been the whole film, and I should have been following this guy for five years. Which meant to me that I’m basically saying “I can’t have a family, I can’t have a movie about ‘ideas,’ I have to plan it in a different way, I have to think about it in a different way.” It was super scary, because I didn’t know if I could pull that off. But that was the moment, this revelation that I can’t just be making two-minute scenes with people, “I have to figure it out now, or otherwise I’m going to be stuck in this trap and I’m never going to be happy.” And then Kati with an I was like, “OK, we’re going to give it a shot, it’s three days, and we have this other footage, and it’s [d.p.] Sean [Price Williams], and I can rely on Sean to find magic.”
Filmmaker: But could you just throw it away if it wasn’t working?
Greene: Yeah, it was either going to be a present for Kati’s graduation or a movie. We almost scrapped the whole thing, because we liked the movie as it was before the ending. And Owning the Weather‘s fine. I like it. It did exactly what I wanted it to do, it got out there. It’s the kind of movie where if I lower people’s expectations enough and they watch it, they’re like “Oh, that’s a really good movie, it totally works,” but it’s obviously not the kind of thing I wanted to be doing.
Filmmaker: When I was watching Actress, I was looking at the end credits and realizing that I wasn’t seeing any grants from the Sundance Institute or anything like that. So you had a job; how did you set up the time and minimal amount of money to make sure you could do this yourself?
Greene: For the first three, I was an employee at 4th Row Films. That meant that I had a salary, which was reasonable. I could’ve probably left and gone to make more money doing commercial editing or something theoretically, but they supported me as a filmmaker. I shot and edited An Omar Broadway Film, then I worked on my film, then I edited Making the Boys, and then we worked on All In: The Poker Movie, and then we worked on Hey Bartender!, and then in the middle of that I would work on Fake It So Real and Kati with an I. So they supported me and produced these films as I was being paid.
So now I’m freelance, basically. I make cash money from working on freelance gigs or features or whatever it is, so I don’t have a standard salary. Part of the reason I’m going to Missouri is I have to say “yes” to five things at once, as any freelancer does. But 4th Row still supports me. I had to make a choice to find time to edit Actress, and they found a way to give me something that would offset what I would lose if I took that time. So it’s all 4th Row Films, they have been the backbone for the whole thing. Also, the style of making the movie — I was obviously a little reluctant after making a movie with my half-sister, and then making a movie with my cousin, it was like “Do I really want to make another movie about someone who’s close to me? Is that just the thing that I do?” But we started working and it was too good, so I borrowed 4th Row Films’ mic, their HVX to shoot the slow-motion stuff, I had my own camera, and those were the shooting requirements. If I needed tapes, they paid for tapes.
So we kept the production part super low, because of the nature of it, but without them there’s nothing. Without them, that backbone and support, and also creative support — Doug has been a screenwriter for years, so we think about the story in a very narrative way, both of us, and he’s influenced me that way. Once the movie’s done, it’s like, “OK, we have to pay for this music,” and they led that charge. The reason we had to do a crowdfunding thing was it was just too much at some point. We negotiated for such a long time to get those costs down. They didn’t want to see those songs go, I didn’t want to see those songs go, and it was like, “Let’s just try this.” We got a price that I felt not so bad about asking for so much money.
Filmmaker: Did you realize when you got picked up that that wasn’t the end for you?
Greene: Yeah. We knew the whole time that if we want these songs in there, we have to pay for them.
Filmmaker: Yeah, but I assumed that was built into whatever the deal was.
Greene: That’s what I was nervous about people thinking, but someone still has to pay that bill. Cinema Guild is great, but they’re able to put out movies that we all love because they’re able to find these margins and ways of making it work. But they’re a small company. At the time Cinema Guild picked up the film, we knew we had the rights to the music, but the costs were exorbitant. And we knew that worst case scenario, we’re taking out credit cards, but we really weren’t in a financial position to do that. So if we had to, we would cut the songs, but we kept working those prices down. We brought a music supervisor on who had experience doing that, and she volunteered her time. And once it got to a manageable cost through creative things that I didn’t even understand, it was like “Here we go. We can do this.”
Of course I’m worried about the perception that this process diminishes the movie in some people’s eyes, and maybe for some people it does, but for me it elevates the movie. The thing that I was surprised about was that instead of losing support, the movie has gained support through the crowdfunding from people who would normally not have been seeing the movie, because it actually found a new audience. So I think in the end, everyone’s really happy that we did it. I wouldn’t want to do it again though. It’s very stressful to have fallen in love and have the proper movie not be mine until literally a week ago.
Filmmaker: So what’s the learning curve on starting a Twitter account and saying “I’m Robert Greene, I have a Twitter account and I talk about wrestling, I’m balancing my personal tweets and what I need professionally to get attention at the right moments without annoying people”?
Greene: I don’t know. I think there’s probably plenty of people who’d say I’m really terrible at it.
Filmmaker: But if you were, you wouldn’t have gotten the money.
Greene: That’s true. I didn’t even have Facebook. I went to True/False in 2010, I was like “Oh my god, I like talking to all of these people, might as well keep doing it.” So I joined Facebook just to not lose contact with everybody, because I felt finally a part of something. And someone was like “You’re embarrassing on Twitter, stop acting that way.” And I’m like you’re crazy, I’m just being myself, and people usually like me at parties, so I’ll just be myself on Twitter — talking about kids, talking about wrestling, get really mad about documentaries, and talk about myself. That’s what I do. At some point, I realized this was actually working and I could see that people would pay attention to the more serious things I was talking about. It’s just like editing. Having a Twitter is just like being an editor: a little of this, a little of that, and hopefully not too much of this, and if you do too much of this, you better acknowledge that you’re doing too much of this. It’s all pacing and placement.
I have to believe that if my writing was terrible, no one would be reading it — I don’t think it’s that good, but it’s not terrible. If my editing was terrible, I wouldn’t be hired and Listen Up Philip or Christmas Again or Approaching the Elephant wouldn’t be where they were. These are movies where I’m proud of the editing on all of them. And if the movies weren’t good, if people weren’t responding, then it would be like “This guy won’t shut up,” but I think the quality of work justifies my voice.
Now I have all these people paying attention and asking me to promote things, distributors asking me to tweet about films or write about them. I’m being treated like a possible promoter. Some people are listening to me, so I need to a) be smart and b) be funny, at least sometimes. Because if you’re not funny, you should never Tweet, and all jokes half-work anyway, so if you can get a quarter of your jokes to land, then you deserve to Tweet. So self-awareness, whatever that means, quality of work and being able to funny a quarter of the time. And yeah, it’s super important, because I feel like movies like Kati with an I, Fake It So Real and Actress — thankfully to a lesser extent, I think — they don’t have access to the world. Fake It So Real would never have been a New York Times feature. Maybe if I’d made it after Actress, it could have been, but they don’t have access.
Filmmaker: Why don’t they have access?
Greene: Because no one’s going to make money off them for you. Factory 25 put out Fake It So Real and did a fine job, but they’re not getting rich off it, so there’s no need to put all this oomph behind it.
Filmmaker: What about festival access?
Greene: The reasons why something doesn’t get programmed don’t surprise me. On Kati and Fake It I had so many programmers say “I like it but” –
Filmmaker: What’s the “but”?
Greene: The “but” is — a very, very well-known programmer programmed Kati with an I and stood in front of a room and it sounded like he was apologizing to his audience for the suffering that they were going to have to go through because of my lyrical film. The audience responded. The very, very few people who saw it said things like “This doesn’t feel like a documentary, this feels like a feature film, this feels like x, this feels like y.” Audiences have always responded — not always, because they don’t tell you when they hate it. I’m not under any illusions. Independent films are made for a small amount of people. This is a tiny audience you’re trying to get, so it doesn’t surprise me when programmers think that that audience isn’t going to come, because they’re probably not going to come.
Filmmaker: When I listen to you talk, it’s like you came along at exactly the right time — you were interested in video aesthetics and that’s what your training pocket was, you have this tool to hype yourself that you wouldn’t have 15 years ago, and — lucky you! — you have the hybrid wave on the rise. I know some people don’t like that word; when I talked to Stop the Pounding Heart director Roberto Minervini, he said it seems like a matter of fashion, it helped him get programmed but he’s not comfortable with it. You have all these things that came together to help you make these movies.
Greene: Well, I’m poor. I come from no money. My mom can’t pay her bills, she just moved houses because she couldn’t afford to pay the electricity, or her husband got a new job and they’re moving again. I’ve hidden under my bed avoiding the guy coming for the bills. So that teaches you to be really resourceful. These ideas about how to make movies, I’ve had from the beginning. The things about films that mix fact and fiction, it’s annoying that it’s trendy because then it becomes like, “Oh, you’re just doing it for that reason.” But this is what I’ve been obsessed with from the beginning. This is all I’ve ever cared about in movies, is that line between reality and staging. That’s what I think is exciting about movies.
And then Twitter is a hustle. I think there’s a lot of ways to try to be a working artist, one of which is to have someone give you a whole lot of money and then you go and think and do whatever you properly feel like. The other way is to hustle. You might as well be selling drugs, it doesn’t make any difference. Unlike drugs, there’s very few people who care about my hustle, so it’s just trying to figure out a good way to beat it. I think if you’re resourceful in whatever time you’re born into, you can make the most of it. Having said that, Final Cut 7 is dead, DV images are dead, what do I do now? I may also have been able to maximize a specific moment, and then I have to figure out how to go on. I know we’re shooting the next film on a camera that Sean’s really great at, that he shot Heaven Knows What and The Black Balloon on.
Filmmaker: And this time you’re going to production forums and doing it more conventionally.
Greene: We already have some funding. This is the first time I’ve had up-front funding in my life. 4th Row have always been like de facto up front funding, because they were there for me, but this is the first time we have something up front and the first time, really, we have expectations. I think some people might have anticipated Actress, but not that many. I like the idea that I was born at the right time. That “I’m a poor guy” stuff is a little bit bullshit, but it’s true, it just sounds like bullshit. This is one of the reasons I’m excited to have a university job, because that hustle can lower a little bit and I can think a little more clearly. If I wasn’t able to do that, I would have to stop making movies entirely and go get a day job. Part of being resourceful is you value independence, and you understand that when you’re freer, you can make more money and you can make more life happen. So I’m not above commercial work. I like it actually, I like editing so much that it just makes me very, very happy. I hate writing, I hate shooting, but I really, really love editing. I could do it all the time. I could be sitting in a dark room editing, 15 or 20 hours a day, and be happy doing it.