SEVERE CLEAR'S KRISTIAN FRAGA AND MIKE SCOTTI By Alicia Van Couvering
Severe Clear premiered at SXSW this week, five years to the day after the US invasion of Baghdad. Back then, Kristian Fraga was just one of millions, watching events unfold on cable news. First Lieutenant Mike Scotti was crossing the Iraqi border in an artillery tank, and he had a video camera.
Severe Clear is a chronicle of the Baghdad invasion culled from over 60 hours of this footage, edited from a pure first-person perspective to ensure that the viewer goes through an experience as close to Mike’s as possible. We first meet Mike and his unit in a desert camp, where they drink too much, curse too much, make gay jokes and fart jokes, shoot guns at stuff and otherwise prepare for war. It’s unsettling to see these men acting like such silly meatheads because, like the happy couple at the beginning of a horror film, you know what’s coming for them. Fraga deliberately used horror film techniques to tell this story, but despite three years of careful editing, it never feels like anything but Scotti’s personal story. Danger, bloodshed and chaos escalate by the minute as they make the battalion makes their way towards the capital, but Mike almost never stops filming. The story is framed by Scotti’s letters home, personal diaries and notes for the book he’s planning to write when he gets home.
The Iraq War is probably the most-photographed and most-filmed conflict of all time. Soldiers have taken thousands of hours of personal video and millions of pictures; we’ve seen the results of some of them. Severe Clear doesn’t preach or explain, and it can be hard to watch, but you ignore it at your peril.
FILMMAKER: Kris, can you talk about the process of editing all his material into a coherent story?
FRAGA: Well, I mean the key to making the film work, for me, was to tell Mike’s story. I wasn’t interested in just taking this very raw, intense footage and kind of throwing a movie out there and saying, “this is what they went through.” It had to be a narrative. There had to be something for the audience to really connect to. Because there have been a lot of wonderful films about the war, and actually wonderful books, but I felt that a lot of times after the first twenty or thirty minutes all you have is, “wow, it sucks for them to be there!” Although to be fair this movie was about the invasion more than the occupation, and most of the other films have been about the occupation.
FILMMAKER: And you have a built-in narrative structure: the journey from Kuwait to Baghdad.
FRAGA: That was the key. I felt that if I could capture to some degree the Mike that I had met, warts and all -- his philosophy, his humor, the way he handled himself on the battlefield, the story about Beth and his connection, the personal connection… his whole journey, from the beginning of ‘hey, let’s just go in there, do our job, and get out,’ to the middle of ‘alright, geez, now we’re killing some of these people, not on purpose, things happen, but man this is kind of rough,’ to ‘okay now that we’re here, what the hell do we do?’ and then back to New York: ‘I don’t know if I defended my country but I’m a marine and that’s all I got to hold on to.’ That arc to me was the key to making the film work.
FILMMAKER: Personally, I went from being almost annoyed at Mike, and mystified as to how we responsibly sent these guys into battle, to being utterly shattered by the tragedy of the whole endeavor.
FRAGA: That’s really gratifying to hear. I mean, not that we want to shatter everybody and destroy their movie-going experience, but when we made the film the idea was to put the viewer in the shoes of these troops. To me it should be irrelevant whether or not you disagree with them or have any moral objections to war. It was more like, ‘how can we have you walk in their shoes, empathize with them, and raise a number of questions?’ And we realized that, you know, it’s not going to be a pleasant experience.
FILMMAKER: You don’t reassure the viewer initially that Mike or any of the soldiers have any insight into what they’re doing, or into the war in general – did you want the film to avoid a political point of view?
FRAGA: I felt that if you know what my politics are after watching this film, then I’ve kind of screwed up. I didn’t want to stand on a soapbox for ninety minutes, I wanted to tell Mike’s story. We never see Bush, we never Cheney, we never see Rumsfeld – we do see Powell, briefly, but we hear them. The idea was for the movie to be about the blue collar workers who actually have to get up in the morning and perform this mission. I can sit back in New York, watch the war on TV and analyze what’s going on with all the information and commentary I want. Mike is in another world. He’s the one actually doing it. These are everyday, American kids out there, who when they’re in the middle of the battlefield and they see two heads appear on a rooftop, they say, ‘we see dead people,’ because they’ve all seen The Sixth Sense. In the middle of a war, they’re betting money whether or not Jack Black was in Twister. This is their lives and their livelihood. It’s the stuff that you would never see on cable news.
FILMMAKER: Mike, do you feel that the film accurately reflects your experience?
FILMMAKER: What was it like, watching the edit develop, giving your footage over?
SCOTTI: My initial suspicion that [the film] was pretty much perfect was supported by Jeremy Davis, who was the Sergeant sitting next to me for most of the war. We went to dinner [after the premiere yesterday], and he was pretty shaken up, and he said, ‘you know, it was spot on.’ He especially connected with the ending – the last voice over, which says that one of the first things you feel when you get back [is anger.] That was very, very, very, important to me, that guys that were there, who were with me, were proud of the film and thought it was accurate. The [entire process] was actually pretty cathartic. I spent all this time getting everything down on paper, shoveling all this raw material over to Kristian so that he could get it inside my head. Making the film really helped me deal with these things.
FILMMAKER: Mike, something that was interesting to me is your persona in the film as a storyteller, your diary entries [employed as voice over] that start “notes for the book” – how important was it for you to record this experience?
SCOTTI: When I first bought the first video camera, I was twenty-three years old and a brand new Lieutenant. The times that we were living in, going to artillery school, going to the base school, graduation from Kansas, all these things, I thought, I’ll never do this stuff again. I have to capture it on film. In the Marines, we would hit places like Thailand, Australia, Kenya, so I just had a video camera like you would if you bring a video camera on vacation. When September 11th hit, we were the forward deployed marines to Afghanistan. When I got back, I showed the footage to some civilians and my family the footage after we got back, and I realized how powerful and hard-hitting it was. So, when we were gearing up to go to Iraq, I grabbed one of the other Lieutenants in my Battalion Jamar Baxel and said, “go get a video camera, because you’re going to want to tape this.”
FILMMAKER: It seems like this is the first war with so much personal video and personal photos taken by the soldiers.
SCOTTI: Well, when you think about it, the military is really an extension of society. You’re recruiting young marines that are eighteen and nineteen, right out of high school, the officers are right out of college. So you have the leaps in technology for digital capturing of images and a more technically savvy military, because these guys grew up playing video games and had camera cell phones, so it’s natural.
FILMMAKER: Do you see Lindy England / Abu Ghraib pictures as part of this?
SCOTTI: There’s the concept of “the strategic corporal,” meaning, that if a corporal (which is a mid-level marine) does something that’s caught on camera, it could change the strategic direction of the entire war. There are things that have happened in former wars like that, which were pretty bad.
FILMMAKER: Really, like what?
SCOTTI: (laughs) You should google it. If somebody takes a sniper shot and takes out a commander of the opposing forces, that’s going to shake things up – and it’s just one bullet, you know.
FILMMAKER: There’s a theory about the Abu Ghraib pictures [described in the book Men Who Stare At Goats and elsewhere] – that the photographs was their mission, and were designed to be used as psychological propaganda, and when they were leaked there was a top level conspiracy to deny that and pretend that it was just a few errant soldiers. But I’m not a conspiracy theorist.
SCOTTI: I am not either.
FRAGA: Nor am I. (laughs)
FILMMAKER: (laughs), OK, well, Mike, I have a procedural question, in terms of how you were able to film this at all. I’m surprised that the military allowed it, and also don’t know how you got footage during battle – did you tape the camera to your chest or something?
SCOTTI: First of all, I wouldn’t do anything that would have violated the uniform code of military justice. So if they had said, no filming, no video cameras, no pictures, then I wouldn’t have done it. I am not going to disobey orders. But, anyway, my job as artilary officer is to be an observer, looking through the glass to talk the rounds onto the targets. So, if we drop some artillery and it’s off a little bit, I adjust the artillery fires until they are where I wanted them to be. If I didn’t have the video camera in my hand I would have a set of binoculars in my hand, and I could do my job as effectively with a video camera as with binoculars.
FILMMAKER: That’s amazing. Those are such unique circumstances.
SCOTTI: I mean there’s times when I throw the camera down and have to do other stuff, you can see that in the film. I thought about it, I was like maybe I could get a helmet mount for my camera and like stabilize it, but I was too concerned with getting the equipment and the Marines all squared away to deal with that.
FILMMAKER: Because a lot war journalists talk about the psychosis of viewing violence through a camera lens, of the disconnect that occurs and the post-traumatic stress reckoning that inevitably follows. But that doesn’t sound like what you were doing.
FRAGA: No, that was actually what I was going through for the last four years, living with his footage.
FRAGA: There are moments in the film where he is actually being asked by his commanding officers what he sees through the video camera, when they’re pinned in a city. [The camera is zoomed as far into the distance as possible], and he says, “I think they’re flags sir, I don’t believe they’re personnel.” which I thought was so interesting. He doesn’t get reprimanded, in fact it’s, “What do you see?” That was just wild, to catch the reality that even through the video lens he’s being proactive and thinking, “okay, what information am I getting through this video camera.”
SCOTTI: That goes back to one of the basic tenets of being a Marine, is that you always, always, always need to maintain situational awareness. That’s the mark of a well-disciplined unit: they are always facing outward. Their weapons, their eyeballs, everything is focused on the enemy. So, if anything, [filming] enhanced my ability to focus outward. I would have been looking there anyway, but I am just doing it through a camera lens.
FILMMAKER: And yet, to get back to your persona as a storyteller, you do seem always to be working on the book, the film, the historical record…
SCOTTI: Well, it’s really like multi-tasking. When Colonel Meier – who was a phenomenal leader – when he says [on the eve of the invasion], “these people are waiting for you to set them free. The actions that you take are going to echo throughout eternity. You are a part of history.” You’re always thinking on all these levels. On a tactical level, I am trying to stay alive, because there is a tank on the other side of that house that’s ready to blow us away. On the operational level, I’m thinking that our objective is to seize the bridgehead at Al Quuf. And then on like on a more introspective level, on the higher level, you’re thinking, “Wow, I’m a part of history here.” And you start seeing that in the film where we’re in [the ruins of ancient] Babylon. You think of how many armies over the thousands of years have tried to conquer this city. War is timeless. There’s so many layers to it, you know.
FILMMAKER: So when you describe those introspective thoughts in voice-over during the Babylon sequence, you were really thinking about that when you were there? It wasn’t retrospective?
SCOTTI: Absolutely, absolutely. Everybody loves that part because it’s funny, like when you hear us say, “I thought this only existed in Led Zeppelin songs,” you know, “is Babylon all that crumbly shit in the middle over there,” I knew that Babylon existed at some point but it wasn’t really something that was ever on my radar screen. But when you’re there, I was like, “I am walking through the same gates as Alexander the Great.” That’s why war is what it is. It’s timeless.
FILMMAKER: Speaking of historical record, in the film you talk about the news crews and the media a little bit. How do you feel that they misrepresented the war?
SCOTTI: As far as the news coverage goes, I mean, they can’t be everywhere, and there are some places they can’t go, and they might have corporate responsibilities or biases. It’s never truly objective. If you’re involved in the actual fighting, you are truly objective; you’re just trying to stay alive.
FILMMAKER: Can you explain the scene in your film where you say you’re getting news about the war from the BBC?
SCOTTI: And when you think about being on a battlefield at a higher level of command, knowing everything that’s going on in the whole war is not really a priority. We are maintaining high situational awareness, in the areas that affect us from a tactical standpoint, like five blocks away. But as far as where the army’s divisions are or it’s not too important for the guys that are at the squad level, it’s irrelevant. And, there’s also the element of, you don’t want to risk everybody knowing exactly what’s going on, in case somebody gets overrun or captured.
FRAGA: …which is crazy because for me as a civilian, because I am sitting there watching CNN with all this information, connecting all the embedded reporters together and trying to make sense of it all, and the Marines who are actually doing it only see one little section of the situation.
SCOTTI: You know, when I finally was able to make regular phone calls home or emails or whatever as we got closer to Kuwait and flying home or whatever, ‘were you there when they pulled down the statue of Saddam?’ you know, the big famous moment. I didn’t know anything about it. And it happened like three miles away from where we were, in the U.N. building and I had no idea that it even happened, I didn’t know what the hell anybody was talking about.
FILMMAKER: I’ve never served in the military, so I’ve never done anything because I was ordered to, or without knowing what the larger context of it was, let alone put my life at risk. The mindset of a person in service is something I think your film vividly illustrates – that to serve is to relinquish the responsibility of your life over to someone else.
SCOTTI: Right, and that’s where the bond comes from, that’s why the brotherhood is so strong. It really doesn’t exist anywhere else, unless you start studying fire fighters or something.
FILMMAKER: What do you do when start to lose faith in the decisions, which appears to happen in the movie once you’ve invaded Baghdad, now policing an Iraqu people who suddenly don’t seem to want you there. What do you do when you lose faith in the wisdom of the authority that’s dictating your life or death?
SCOTTI: That’s not something you really think about when you’re there. You don’t have time to think about it. You reflect in short spurts, but you kind of file things away for later. If somebody’s wounded or killed, of course you’re sad, but you have to worry about getting through the next town, and the next city; I have to get this bridgehead, make sure that the machine guns are placed correctly, make sure that the targets on the map are related to the guns on the targets. So you’re worried about survival, and you just file all that stuff away for later.
FILMMAKER: You do seem to have a lot of forced downtime in the film, but I think what you’re saying is that even when you’re sitting around waiting for orders, you’re still in survival mode.
SCOTTI: Yeah, it’s not until you come back home that you reflect, really. They say that war is defined by long periods of boredom broken by short periods of terror, and that’s exactly correct.
FRAGA: Which I wanted to capture, but I thought that if we had long sections of boredom, it wouldn’t be good for the film.
FILMMAKER: I think you do capture it – and it’s something I’ve never seen, really – that they spent so much time just sitting there for days, roasting in the sun, covered in flies, with no information.
FRAGA: One of the first things that Mike said to me, which kind of governed the entire way I cut the film, was “You don’t know fear until another thinking human being is trying to hunt you and kill you.” That’s what kind of dictated a lot of the almost horror film techniques we use: going from quiet to loud, using sound and flash frame images. The ideas was always, to whatever degree a film could, put you in Mike’s mindset. There might be an abrupt cut, throwing you right in the middle of action, so that you don’t even get a chance to breath.
FOR THE LOVE OF MOVIES' GERALD PEARY By Alicia Van Couvering
Gerald Peary is not a cell phone person. He has witnessed a quarter century of films and criticism, from when Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris drew their lines in the critical sand to the currently expanding blogosphere. Gerald Peary is old school. A working film critic for 25 years, his work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Toronto Globe and Mail, The Chicago Tribune, Film Comment, Cineaste, Sight and Sound and Positif, to name a few. He is the weekly reviewer for the Boston Phoenix, one of a rapidly diminishing club of alternative weeklies as paper after paper fires their local critics and relies on a small cadre of nationally syndicated reviewers. This is the “crisis of criticism,” as Peary calls it, but his new film isn’t only about the crisis. For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism is a tender and detailed documentary spanning the art form’s beginnings, middle, present and future. Interviews with print critics like Roger Ebert, Elvis Mitchell, A.O. Scott, Lisa Schwartzbaum, Kenneth Turan, plus bloggers like Karina Longworth and Harry Knowles mingle with classic film clips and voice over by Patricia Clarkson. From the pitfalls of trying to have a relationship with a non-critic to an expose of “junket whores,” reviewers who sell their movie poster blurbs for studio-sponsored hotel suites at foreign festivals, Peary is a man compelled by love, telling the story he knows best.
FILMMAKER: Do you ever blog?
PEARY: No, no, never, no. Never blogged in my life, no. I’m a print person, I mostly read newspapers and magazines. But I’m learning. Here at SXSW, so many people that I respect are doing blogs that I’m considering a change in my habits. I read books. Remember them?
FILMMAKER: Books… books… oh, I’ve seen stores for books…
PEARY: Yes, that’s where you can find them.
FILMMAKER:Do you feel that technology has changed criticism?
PEARY: The people I know are like me, old print critics. But they’ve been taking me through how their lives have totally changed doing all these things. [Here at SXSW I’ve seen] Sean Levy, for instance, who has been the print critic for the Oregonian for years. He’s now twittering and doing blogs every day, and he told me that his life is divided into these three personalities. But what’s really interesting to me is that he actually enjoys blogging and twittering.
FILMMAKER: I feel like that form of publishing is much more about opinion than criticism. What do you think the difference is?
PEARY: We actually had a big discussion on my panel here about the difference between criticism and opinion. Scott Weinberg, who’s an eminent web critic, kept talking about the “opinions” of reviews, and I kept interrupting -- to me the opinion is the least interesting part of the review. Whether you like the movie or don’t like the movie, that’s the consumer part, and that’s what reviewers do. But a critic is much more interested in contextualizing the film and educating the audience. Criticism is about relating the film to the other arts, to literature, to politics; knowing about the director’s career.
FILMMAKER:Do you feel like you personally have a specific critical point of view? Like Armond White, for instance, writes from a race and class-conscious, highly-politicized point of view… did you ever pinpoint where you were coming from?
PEARY: Everybody’s criticism is subjective. Armond is somebody who’s subjectivity is glaring, is madly subjective. He’s a crazy, wonderful writer – when I agree with him, he’s the best, and when I don’t, I don’t know what he’s talking about. It would be really boring if every review you just had a rote opinion that you just plug into everything, that would be like being a communist critic or something. I guess I’m somewhere left-of-center, a critic who considers the meaning of films and the responsibility of cinema. At the same time I’m interested in feminism and women’s rights. I’m aware of the Hollywood factory and I feel alien from Hollywood today, which is just total cynicism as far as I’m concerned. I’m interested in transgressive cinema and cinema that challenges what I believe.
FILMMAKER: Why did you decide to make this film?
PEARY: It started about nine years ago. I had a friend, Ron Mann, who’s a Toronto documentarian that I worked with. He told me, “You should make your own film,” and volunteered to be the executive producer of something I would direct. We met in a cafeteria and I said, “I would like to make a film about barbecue. I love eating barbecue and I love all the crazy stories of the people who make it.” He said, “Oh I don’t know… you know all the film critics, why don’t you make a film about film criticism?” I was skeptical and a little disappointed. I told him, film critics don’t do anything -- we’re going to film people typing at their computer and coming in and out of a movie theatre? But somehow we decided to do it, and later my wife Amy Gellar came on as producer. So we’ve been trying to raise the money and to figure out what the story is, what the structure is, and figure out ways to tell it that are cinematic. We found this way to weave some very good talking heads of critics saying wonderful, interesting things, with film clips, and also film critic’s anecdotal stories about the first movies they saw and how they got to be critics.
FILMMAKER: I want to talk about the Pauline Kael / Andrew Sarris feud, which is given a great look in your film. What is your personal allegiance?
PEARY: What do you think? Could you guess?
FILMMAKER: I would guess that you came down with Kael?
PEARY: Oh good, I’m glad you said that, because I actually am up with Sarris first.
FILMMAKER: Really? You know that makes sense. I take it back.
PEARY: It’s sort of a generational thing. I lived in New York when the Village Voice was the greatest paper in the world and Molly Haskell was writing a feminist column. One of first Americans who died of AIDS, Stuart Byron, came out in the paper and talked about getting his wallet stolen while getting a blowjob; that was part of his review. I just thought, wow, this is great. I read Sarris’ book American Cinema, and that’s how I grew up. Then Kael came along, and I loved her first book -- although I’m not a Paulette, the two times I met her she was very, very nice to me.
FILMMAKER: What was the difference between their two perspectives?
PEARY: There are strange similarities, except a very different style of writing. It’s so weird to consider now that what they were doing, which was choosing the most important directors, that those choices could anger you so much. John Ford means nothing to Pauline’s crowd and was the center figure for the Sarrisites; people like Steven Speilberg was a central figure for Pauline’s people and means nothing to the Sarris group. But for the movie it’s just too complicated issue to go through each director and catalogue them to one critic or another.
FILMMAKER: Have you seen critical styles change, or the job itself?
PEARY: The main change is that you have to write shorter and shorter and shorter. The Boston Phoenix, where I work, used to four or five 2,000 word reviews. Now we have tiny little blurb review, because the entire paper has shrunk. My paper is privately owned and just trying to stay afloat any way it can, and making smaller reviews is unfortunately part of what [the publisher] needs to do. I do sympathize. There are a lot of really good critics right now. The crisis in criticism is not about the quality.
FILMMAKER: What is the crisis of criticism?
PEARY: Simply that if you are a print critic you are in danger of losing your job at any moment. Newspapers are dropping dead, and it seems like film critics are a particular target. The film begins by saying “there are 24 critics who have lost their jobs in the last several years,” and since we finished the film, many more have lost their jobs. A lot of people are identified with a title of ex-critic, but they were not “ex” when we filmed them just a few years ago. You can work on the web, but if you do that you’re not getting paid much, or at all. And critics should be paid -- this isn’t an amateur thing to do, it’s not like Sunday painting.
FILMMAKER: How did you pick which critics to interview?
PEARY: Well, when we started with Ron as executive producer, we had more money, as he was funding it. So we started out very purposefully: we went to New York to film some people in their apartments, and then we went to Chicago to film some critics there. Then later in the process, we had no money, so we developed a kamikaze style. I would be in a place where there were critics, and when one walked by, I would corner them. So it’s a bit arbitrary who is in the movie. Some of those critics have complained and asked why they’re not in the movie, -- I have to say, “it’s just that you weren’t standing there when we had the camera!”
FILMMAKER:Were there other things you couldn’t keep in the movie?
PEARY: Oh, thousands of things. So many wonderful things. John Waters talking about his favorite critic, this crazy gay critic named Parker Tyler, who wrote in the 1940’s and who John Waters called on the phone before he died. We found out that in Chicago there was a boot camp for the summer teaching little kids how to be critics, so we went to Chicago and filmed all these six and seven-year-olds writing film reviews… but it couldn’t stay in. That’s for the DVD.
FILMMAKER: Have you ever looked back on reviews and disagreed with yourself?
PEARY: Oh, sure. Films change and you change. That would be completely absurd if you had the same ideas decades later. The first David Lynch film, Eraserhead, I gave a one star review. I thought it was utterly stupid. I saw it again a couple of years ago and now I think it’s a great movie.
CREATIVE NONFICTION'S LENA DUNHAM By Alicia Van Couvering
There is an actual college Creative Nonfiction class in Lena Dunham’s Creative Nonfiction, which premieres in the Emerging Visions section at SXSW this week. There is also the actual Dunham, who plays both Ella, a college student trying to get a grip on an ambiguous non-starter romance, as well as the heroine in the 16mm-filmed representation of the John Waters/fairy-tale screenplay Ella is writing. Dunham wrote the script, about her own real-life ill fated dorm-room non-romance when she couldn’t concentrate on her own fairy tale/John Waters script, which she was completing for writing class. In Creative Nonfiction we meet this boy when he claims that mold in his room has compelled him to sleep in Lena’s bed; he’s bewildered when Ella thinks this is an invitation to make out. Unfortunately for girls everywhere, you couldn’t make this stuff up. Reality, thy name is fiction. Or vice versa.
The DV-reality portion was shot at Oberlin College in Ohio over one semester; the 16mm film-within-a-film uses sound stage sets and New Hampshire wilderness for a backdrop. Creative Nonfiction employed several members of the team that brought you The Pleasure of Being Robbed, including d.p. Brett Jutkiewicz. Eleanore Hendricks stars as a fictional punk-rock drifter in the movie-within-a-movie, and so does producer Sam Lisenco, who also served as Dunham’s art director. Just 22 years old, Dunham has made dozens of short films as well as Tight Shots, a web series for Nerve.com and Delusional Downtown Divas, a web series on index.com concerning the deluded misadventures of three absurd New York art-world hangers on. Dunham comes by her knowledge of such divas naturally, having been raised by art star parents in downtown New York. From them or elsewhere she also picked up a raucous vocabulary, preternatural self-awareness and tack-sharp wit. This is important to mention because Dunham’s work floats on her infectious personality, turning everything you might expect to be deadly (a college girl making a movie about her non-romance??) into insight and charm (a college girl making a movie about her non-romance!!)
Below, she speaks with Filmmaker about the funny-naked vs. scary-naked, feeding her crew money sandwiches, the fine line between filming your friends making out with you and making a porno, and the sad but inevitable truth that boys are dumb.
FILMMAKER: Was this the first time you’d ever starred in your own film?
DUNHAM: I’d been in other things that I’ve done, but nothing so long or so personal. In my web show for Nerve, I had even taken my shirt off — but it was, like, funny getting naked; not scary, emotional getting naked. I think I just decided to be in it because I couldn’t think of anybody else. My big worry for the audience was: how are people going to feel about watching this annoying, confused girl move around for an hour.
FILMMAKER: But there are great depths to her confusion. You think she’s going to find true love and then she has this meaningless encounter with someone she doesn’t like and afterwards doesn’t at all disguise how disgusted she is.
DUNHAM:I wish that I could say that I just thought that up, but it was just my experience. You’re waiting for it to happen and you’re waiting for it to happen, and then you’re like, “What? I asked for that!? That was horrible!!”
FILMMAKER: Were the scenes scripted or improvised? Like that virginity-loss scene, for example?
DUNHAM:It was scripted, but I figured if you’re dealing with non-actors they should be allowed to play with the dialogue. That scene, he said some of my lines wrong and it was just amazing — like he added the word “yo” a bunch of times and it was just perfect. But, speaking of that scene, I really wanted to die the whole time. It was just one camera person, me, and my friend Jeff [who plays the love non-interest] naked in Jeff’s room. I was like, “This is just like making somebody do porn with you! What makes this okay? Why have I organized this? What have I done?”
FILMMAKER: Well it’s definitely not shot in a particularly flattering or porno-sexy way. How did you approach the cinematography?
DUNHAM: The whole movie is as “not” shot as it could be. Like, “I’m just gonna put the camera here and we’ll do it a few times and if we get it, we get it.” Part of that was style — I definitely wanted to establish a dissonance between the two parts of the film. Part of it was just inexperience and desperation to get the thing done.
FILMMAKER:What’s interesting is that even though it’s your story, it’s not actually shot from your point of view – there are no POV shots.
DUNHAM: There is one POV shot in the movie; it’s the shot where I discover the boy and my neighbor in bed together. I was really stressed about that; I kept thinking, “Consistency! We cannot have just one POV shot!” But I decided if there was ever going to be a moment for a POV shot, that was it.
FILMMAKER: What were some early reactions to the project?
DUNHAM:I showed it to my teacher at Oberlin, and he said, “Well, I guess if I had to compare this to some style of cinema, I’d say, low-budget porn. Like the kind you would see on YouTube if YouTube let you have porn.” I was really upset, crying.
FILMMAKER: What was the budget of the movie?
DUNHAM: It was initially $10,000 and it ended up, as it always does, costing a bit more than that. To me it feels like way too much money, because when you look at it you must think, what was she doing, peeing onto money?
FILMMAKER: What are you talking about! That’s nothing to spend on a movie.
DUNHAM:Yes, some people are like, “Are you an idiot, that’s no money at all.” But other people, such as my parents, are like, “What did you do with all the money?! It looks so cheap! Were you feeding your crew money sandwiches?” And I say, “Yes, we had the best shoot, we ate money salad every day for lunch.”
FILMMAKER: You can kind of tell that there’s another college student in the room, behind the camera.
DUNHAM: I’ve realized that despite the fact that those choices were mainly made out of ignorance. I also like to think that the camera mimics the weird surveillance feeling of college and that time of your life. The camera is acting as an observer. I think that ultimately [the camera work] is a good thing because [it reflects the fact that] there is no privacy. No privacy in the whole movie, or in their lives. I was used to having all this time to think and dream and read and like suddenly that’s just gone. At the beginning of school I thought, “I’ve never been so far away from myself my whole life.” I hope that the camera style does that, and that the studied-ness of all the 16mm footage (shot by Brett Jutkiewicz) makes the DV-shot scenes feel more intentional.
FILMMAKER: That’s an excellent segue to the film-within-a-film aspect. Can you talk about that?
DUNHAM: The embarrassing thing is that I had actually been writing that screenplay, the one about the girl and her teacher-rapist [shot in 16mm and intercut with the main storyline] -- but it was going terribly, because that screenplay was just NOT good. Meanwhile I was obsessed with this ill-fated “romance” I had just had and couldn’t stop thinking about all my rage and pain. Then I had a light-bulb moment, and [the 16mm story] became a really good framework from which to hang my actual story.
FILMMAKER: The two stories don’t juxtapose as perfect metaphorical parallels – how did you figure out that balance?
DUNHAM: I thought that direct mirroring would be too cute. In fact, I hoped that the character wouldn’t even be aware that the two things were mimicking each other. I’m glad that people have laughed at it, because I was worried it would be too girly and emo. When I shot those things with the wigs and everything, I was thinking about John Waters and all the weird campy gay movies I like.
FILMMAKER: What other films and artists were you influenced by?
DUNHAM: For the 16mm story, I was thinking about the movie Party Girl for some reason, because it’s such a weird urban fairytale. I really love girl coming-of-age movies like My Summer of Love. Those were some things that were in my brain. Also, I had picked up Funny Ha-Ha at the video store when I was sick with mono. I had never heard of Andrew Bujalski. I wasn’t, like, up on film-festival stuff, and I watched it and it really rocked my world off its hinges. I didn’t want to make that movie, but there was like a good mix of humor and sadness and an immediacy in that movie that I wanted not to replicate but to tap into.
FILMMAKER: You were raised by artists, correct?
DUNHAM: I was. I was raised by artists [Laurie Simmons and Carroll Dunham.] So, oh, I thought about Cindy Sherman, when I did the stuff with the wigs. I used to borrow Halloween costumes from her when I was little. It was the thing that I lived for. My mom’s a photographer too, and lady photographers all know each other. [Cindy Sherman] gave me wigs and fake boobs and stuff for Halloween so I think I was, like, getting back in touch with that dress-up. I love her work.
FILMMAKER: So you grew up in New York.
DUNHAM: A Soho child.
FILMMAKER:So you were probably raised with the expectation of sparkling creativity and great accomplishment.
DUNHAM:Sometimes when I was little I would say, “What if I want to run a gas station when I grow up?” I felt like, of course, I could do whatever I wanted, but it did place a certain amount of pressure to produce some kind of creative output, which I’m now recognizing. That combined with going to private school where there was a glass case displaying the accomplishments of students and alumni, like, “Look at [student], she’s on the cover of New York Times Magazine!” The Glass Case Culture.
FILMMAKER: This brings up the common criticism of movies by and about white liberal arts college students. The navel-gazing issue.
DUNHAM:For a second I thought you said, “Men Abusing” and I thought, Yes! There are some issues of Men Abuse in there. Emotional abuse, domination... But, no, I have certainly had moments where I thought, okay, definitely some people are going to say, “Why does she think I want to see this?”
FILMMAKER: But any artist must feel that way. Why would anyone want to see anything anyone made?
DUNHAM: Yes. There’s a level of assumption that your worry is unwarranted. To share something feels like you’re assuming something. I don’t think I’m so interesting or that people want to see me naked. But it’s like what my dad says about his paintings, “If I could not do this, I would not do it. It’s embarrassing to me and it gives me anxiety.”
FILMMAKER: What kind of artists are your parents?
DUNHAM:My mom’s a photographer, and she’s made a film too, a short called The Music of Regret, which is a crazy puppet-musical starring Meryl Streep. My dad’s a painter, he makes kind of figurative, sort of abstract, semi-comic paintings. My dad watched the movie and he said, “I was such an idiot.”
DUNHAM:He said it reminded him of all the crap he pulled on girls. He said, “I’m a pretty nice guy, but even I did stuff like that.”
FILMMAKER: A favorite line of mine is when the guy says, after you confront him about his confusing behavior, “You assume that I think.” It totally elucidates the havoc wrought by boys setting up these ambiguous relationships with girls as self-aware and articulate as your character.
DUNHAM:Yeah, I mean I have this experience still with guys that I date, which is that I torture myself over his behavior, and then I realize that it is all simply non-behavior. Someone actually said that to me, “You assume that I think,” and I couldn’t believe it — it made so much sense. I had been thinking really hard, and they hadn’t been thinking at all.
FILMMAKER: It makes you feel crazy.
DUNHAM: It’s funny because the guy that this is about, he heard that the movie was about him and asked to see it, so I sent it to him. He wrote this really nice email like, “Lena, I’m so sorry, I was such a jerk!” It was just the best, nicest review ever. It’s on my website now.
FILMMAKER: Did making the movie actually help you process the experience?
DUNHAM: Well, now I’ll get into a relationship that has that same weird nebulousness, you know — “Does he want to kiss me or just be my friend?” And I’ll think, “I can’t have this issue anymore, I already made a movie about this!” You can’t do things that you already made a movie about. So yes, I think it has helped me.
FILMMAKER: What else do you have to contend with making such autobiographical movies?
DUNHAM: People judging you. If people don’t like this movie, then it’s possibly because they don’t like ME. That had never occurred to me before. I was thinking about I Am A Sex Addict by Caveh Zahedi, and that movie’s amazing because even though he does such hate-able things in it I still find him pretty charming. And he doesn’t even change his name, so he’s really going balls to the wall with that one. I hope that there’s something universal about this. Like I was hoping it went beyond just my experience. Finding love, losing your virginity. I felt that [her having sex] had to be the big climax — but also the anti-climax, because it kind of turns out to be, just, nothing. She’s learned nothing from it. She felt nothing.
FILMMAKER: Her quest to lose her virginity is so frustrating for your character, because it’s something she has no control over. It’s not a decision that she is allowed to make for herself, and people are so patronizing about it.
DUNHAM: Yes, exactly. Like, “it should be special, it should be with someone you’ve dated for six months and you should maybe even love them.” Well, great, where do I find them? Like you can’t be a waitress without experience but without experience no one will hire you as a waitress without experience. Boys are so dumb.
THE IMMACULATE CONCEPTION OF LITTLE DIZZLE'S DAVID RUSSO By Alicia Van Couvering
David Russo’s The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle is not your average Seattle-based, night-shift janitors eating self-heating cookies as unwitting test subjects male pregnancy special effects-peppered butt fish movie. The film’s official synopsis is: “When Dory’s life seems like it’s going down the drain, a strange ‘new life’ takes shape inside him and he learns that sometimes you don’t have to find meaning; it grows in you.” But this is a film that defies description and transcends its bizarre title and bizarre-er premise to take you into a strange and beautiful place you never knew you wanted to explore (but are finally glad you did.)
The film stars Marshall Allman as Dory, the new young janitor; Natasha Lyonne (The Slums of Beverly Hills) as a sexy employee of the test-marketing company that he is employed to clean; Tania Raymonde (the French woman’s grown-up daughter on Lost) as Ethyl, one half of a nympho-maniacal janitor couple working with Dory; Tygh Runyan; Matt Smith; and Vince Vieluf. Russo is a past recipient of grants from Creative Capital and The Rockefeller Foundation whose short films, including Pan with Us and I Am (Not) Van Gogh, have played at past Sundances and elsewhere. He was one of Filmmaker’s 25 New Faces in 2003. In addition to live action, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle uses rotoscoping as well as compositing techniques by renowned Dutch animator Rosto, and it is scored by the collective Awesome. We spoke to Russo just after his Sundance Premiere.
FILMMAKER: How was the premiere at Sundance?
RUSSO: It was just… cacophonous. It was really amazing. That first scene in the third act, you wouldn’t have believed the freakin’ orgasm in the audience, it was wonderful. Oh my god… then just two minutes after that, there’s a prayer, and it was so neat to see people like starting to get misty, and quiet, and reverential. It was so neat to see it work how I always imagined it working – today it was like, Was I imagining that? Were they not laughing and crying and giving a standing ovation? Amazing for a butt fish film.
FILMMAKER: So you had never played it for an audience before?
RUSSO: No, never. I didn’t want a test audience or anything like that, because everyone has input about what to do, what they like, what they didn’t like, what to change, how to make it better… after a while you just feel like Frodo with the Ring. Everybody wants that Ring, and you’re just like “No, this is my burden. This is not your burden. Just write a check or shut up.” I still have a whole file of input from investors and potential investors, like 16 pages of notes from the various screenings that have happened, and I haven’t read a single one. They’re in a file for my scrapbook when I retire.
FILMMAKER: When did you have to compromise?
RUSSO: The one time I did open it up for committee thinking was when I wanted to cast a certain somebody, and the investor said, “Sure, you can cast that person, and we’ll take away hundreds of thousands of your dollars.” I’ve spent time making up for those times when I couldn’t go with my instincts.
FILMMAKER: How did you come up with the title?
RUSSO: Well, it used to be called Number Two, and then there were a couple of movies released with that title. I had to come up with a working title for casting, and I wanted one that made the actors’ agents have to put it in a special pile. And with this title, I think we reached the kind of actors we were looking for faster, because anyone who’s going to open up a script with that title and read it is probably closer to our spirit anyway. But then it just stayed as a working title, and I meant to change it before we released it to film festivals. But I just plum forgot. Believe me, I got an earful from investors who were just livid about it. I would have been happy to change it, but, well, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, it’s sort of self-referential to the miracle of how it got made: a little tiny idea struggling against the odds of everything. Having to sell a film with this premise is very difficult. Very difficult.
FILMMAKER: When did you decide to make this film?
RUSSO: I was watching my [short] film Pan With Us at Sundance in 2003 in the Eccles, and I saw the film taking hold of the audience. At that moment, I don’t know what happened, but this memory just took hold of being a janitor and finding a miscarriage in one of the women’s toilets. So I just went home, and with the help of my wife, the script just bloomed really fast. I was a janitor for 11 years so I knew that world inside and out.
FILMMAKER: Wait, what happened when you found the miscarriage in the office bathroom [a scene that is paralleled by a more surreal discovery in the film]?
RUSSO: I was pretty new as a janitor, and I just called one of my bosses in a panic. “I th-th-th-think s-s-s-s-something might be d-d-d-dead somewhere, there’s blood” – and he came down. He’d seen it all, right? He’d seen it all. But he was im-pressed. He was like, “That is flesh, look; There’s the placenta, look.” He was getting into it, and I just wanted to die. And then he just flushed it. He flushed it! He says, “What, am I gonna call 911?’ And that was it.”
FILMMAKER: Holy moly.
RUSSO: It was interesting because there was a porn addict in the men’s room, which was right next door. So there’s a miscarriage in one bathroom and a bunch of porn mags in the next. Out of that discrepancy the script idea sort of came about -- what it meant doing that job, having to deal with such hard biological realities, and how it would change a person.
FILMMAKER: How does it change a person?
RUSSO: It’s like being an alien. You inhabit the same places, but there’s this whole parade going on that you’re not a part of, and your perspective on that parade is unique because it’s from the end where they scoop up the shit.
FILMMAKER: So you worked in big office buildings?
RUSSO: Yes, I worked for a place that was very similar to Corsica [the fictional company in the film.] It was the product development and gift-marketing hub of the country. So I got to see all kinds of weird products that got perpetrated on the public. Very few of them take, and the ones that don’t are the most hilarious.
FILMMAKER: Were the characters all based on people you knew?
RUSSO: The job of being a late-night graveyard janitor attracted very edgy people. Some of the most creative people I’ve ever met were janitors. Some of them were borderline criminals, a lot of them were drug addicts, a lot of immigrants — quite the potpourri of misfits. People who are trying to be good citizens but are still sort of outside the culture. And their perspective I found very interesting and it informed how I look at the world with everything.
FILMMAKER: I loved your portrayal of Vince as an artist, which is very funny but very real at the same time – his overwhelming joy when he wins an $8500 grant; his art show about toilets and janitorial discoveries...
RUSSO: Well, he’s a side of me, definitely. I remember getting my first art grant as a janitor and just feeling like, “Oh my god, my life has opened up and turned into a glorious flower-filled meadow, I am going to run off and prove to the world how wonderful I am.” I love that scene for its beautiful naivete. You can’t make that shit up.
I think Vince Vieluf [janitorial shift leader & unwitting fellow butt fish carrier “OC”] is a genius, and I’m so proud of him. I came up with that character to basically carry us through the movie’s parts where we establish motifs that are necessary to establish, and he just invites the audience in. He introduces us to what a bathroom is, and you like him so much that you go with him.You’re not grossed out so that when we get to the birth, everyone’s ready for it. Everyone wants it.
FILMMAKER: How did you work with the actors? Did you rehearse a lot?
RUSSO: I had no rehearsals with the actors. They’d fly into town, we’d run lines a little but and then throw them in front of the camera.
FILMMAKER: So it was a fast and furious shoot?
RUSSO: It was a 126 page script shot on film in 19 days. It was trial by fire. The biggest, hardest, most special effect-ed, multiple camera, tons of extras scenes, those were my first two days. We shot 13 pages my first day, and I’d never even been on a feature film set! I liked it though, because it just strips you down to pure instinct. I never wanted to be an animator for that very reason. You can’t get down to that flow that you can get into with theater where you carry that audience’s imagination over a two-hour period.
FILMMAKER: What’s your theater experience?
RUSSO: We janitors started our own Shakespeare Company back in 1991 in Seattle. It’s still one of the most successful amateur theaters. It’s outdoor Shakespeare in the Park, green stage. That’s where I learned to work with actors and what a performance is. We couldn’t raise a dime for the movie until we went to L.A. and came back with a tape of auditions that proved to investors that I wasn’t nuts, that I do know how to work with actors.
FILMMAKER: How DID you find investors?
RUSSO: Oh my god, it was so hard. Do we have to go there? It was so hard. It was so hard. All I know is that I probably had to give a speech to 250 people to find the eight people who actually made it happen. We were always out of money, always raising money, always, always, always. I tried to enjoy it but it’s so hard to focus on creativity when you’re so busy being P.T. Barnum. You’re standing in front of a curtain, you don’t know what’s behind it and you’re trying to sell it, like… whoa, it’s hard. And you know, wealthy people tend to be slightly anal retentive by nature — that’s just a Freudian psychological fact. Our film comes from the opposite tendency. Trying to get them to let go was very difficult. My main part of the fundraising speech was, “Give Us Your Tax Cut.” Religious people tithe to the cultural causes they believe in but I think us bleeding heart liberals often forget to do that. It’s not about writing a check to the DNC, it’s actually personally supporting the arts with your dough. This would be a different country if we tithed to the things we supposedly espouse. This is part of a cultural battle as well – believe me, I know a butt fish movie isn’t gonna do it, a hundred butt fish movies aren’t gonna [win the culture war], but beautiful things can come from very unintended places.
The hard part is getting the industry to believe in it. I was told last night after the credits rolled [at Sundance] that Australia already bought it – that’s how I always imagined it would go, that outside the United States people will figure it out, and then in six months or so hopefully we can make a deal in the U.S. My sales rep [Visit Films] was saying that hardly any of his invitees came to the screening. It’s a bummer because they need to see it work on an audience. Our sales rep has a long term view about carving out the audience over several months and many festivals. [They believe] people will start paying attention and seeing that there’s a real movie there.
FILMMAKER: The animation – can you talk about your background as an animator? Did you ever think of making an animated feature?
RUSSO: No, no, I don’t like animation and I’m not an animator. The reason I do frame control, and I do what is respected in the animation community as animation, it’s really just a very efficient way of remaining a professional film artist. Frame control allows you to make very powerful, impactful little movies for very little money because you’re never rolling the camera. So I make movies on 35mm film for $5,000 and that’s just how it’s been for the last 11 years or so.
FILMMAKER: What was the design of the fish?
RUSSO: That evolved. At the outset I wrote a $1,500 check of my own money to get the special effects on that going, and it was so stupid because it looked like a stupid lure and it didn’t go. So I went and bought a red snapper, gutted it, sewed its fins to its stomach and blued it up and it looks beautiful. We made it move with a very complicated effect where I tied some fishing line to it and jiggled my hand.
FILMMAKER: The shower sequence?
RUSSO: The shower sequence I wrote for my favorite digital artist, a Dutch animator named Rosto. And he’s your glorious, stuck-up, pretentious master – he’s very disdainful of taking work like this that’s not his own work. But we had become friends and I wrote it for him, and sure enough it ended up looking exactly like I knew he could make it. So I don’t know all the processes involved, but I knew I wanted my film to go off the rails in a way I couldn’t quite take it, and so I commissioned somebody. It was written all the way down to the tiniest details. He would send me storyboards and I would send them back and then I flew him in on the last day of production, we did some shower shots and greenscreen, he took it home and did his magic. It’s this weird vision that just flashes out at you and then goes away.
FILMMAKER: How did the edit process go?
RUSSO: I also want to put a shout out to my editor, Billy McMillan, who saved me creatively. I was a beginner and so I made so many mistakes during production. I let a lot of mistakes be made, and our first editor quit the project because he said, “This is depressing me. It’s out of focus, I don’t like the performances, and I don’t know where this is going. “He just up and quit. But Billy came on board, he studied the script, and he lashed everything we had done back to the script. It wasn’t like he sat down and said, “Oh, I’m gonna make some other movie.” He actually took the pieces and gave me very specific assignments about what was missing and how we could make it up. It was the first time in my whole life I experienced true, true creative collaboration and it was wonderful. So now I want to remake Tommy with Billy as my editor.
There is almost no dialogue in the first half of David Lowery’s feature debut, St. Nick. A young boy and a girl enter an abandoned house, clean it up, build a fire, forget to open a window and fill the house with smoke, figure out a chimney and watch the embers turn into flames. They sleep, they forage for food; somehow they survive, until reality starts bearing down on them. It’s not clear why they ran away, or if anyone is looking for them. The film is stark and the house feels haunted, but you can’t stop thinking: this was my fantasy when I was a kid. This was all I wanted, to run away and survive on marshmallow sandwiches and sleep in pillow forts.
Texas-bred Lowery is no stranger to SXSW, having showcased his short A Catalog of Anticipations here. He is credited as “Right Hand Man” on Joe Swanberg’s latest Alexander the Last, a title that describes his work as a ubiquitous d.p./Everything on most of Swanberg’s latest films as well as dozens of other for-the-love projects. Funded by Texas non-profits, Lowery and his skeleton crew shot for 18 days in the coldest time of year, exploring that moment in life right before the moment you accept that you’re growing up.
FILMMAKER: How did you find the kids, and how did you describe the film to them?
LOWERY: At our first auditions, we didn’t have them read lines or anything; I just talked to them. “If you were to run away from home, what would you do?” Very pragmatic questions about the process they would have to go through to run away. I got a lot out of that. In call backs, I went deeper, like, “What would make you do it, why would you run away?”
FILMMAKER: How did Tucker and Savannah Sears, the siblings you ultimately cast, respond?
LOWERY: Savannah likes nature, she likes animals, so she was like, “I just want to be out in the woods.” That was reflected in her character – at one point in the film her brother says, “What would you do if I wasn’t here?” And she says, “Oh, I’d just go back home.” She’s there because he brought her. Tucker’s answer was about going away, about being alone, not wanting to be around anyone. I think he feels that way sometimes. What ultimately sealed the deal with Tucker was that I sat him down with the camera facing him and I said, “There’s a scene in the movie where you get arrested for shoplifting. The cops try to find out who you are, and you don’t tell them anything.” I interviewed him as a cop for thirty minutes, trying to get him to give me an answer. The way he dodged the questions, what was going on in his face – I was like, OK, that’s him.
FILMMAKER: And they’re really brother and sister?
LOWERY: We got so lucky. They would just start doing things that brothers and sisters normally do, such as fighting. We came up with code words we would say when we wanted to surreptitiously film them and everyone should get quiet, like, “Ninja.” But they totally caught on. By the end it was just a joke’ we had ridiculous words: “Rhododendron.” But we did catch some amazing scenes of them taking jabs at each other – very few of which are in the movie.
FILMMAKER: How much was improvised – like how specifically did you direct their building of a sheet fort?
LOWERY: The tent – that’s a funny story. That’s in the script that they build a sheet fort, because all kids build tents. One night, the art director and I stayed late to build this tent; we were like, let’s build the perfect tent that kids would love. And it was just retarded. It sucked. We shot scenes in it the next day and I just hated it, it looked so stupid. I said to James M. Johnson, my producer, “We have to reschedule this and reshoot it.” So we tore down the tent, and a day or two later we gave the kids all these sheets and said, “OK, build a tent, we’re just gonna film it.” And it was awesome. It’s beautiful. That was a turning point in the movie for me, because when I realized that we should just let them build it and film them, I think that’s when we really hit our stride. It was about three days into filming and it was the point where I let go a little bit. The next morning we had a quick production meeting and we were all like, let’s start rolling secretly and stand back and let them do their thing, and let’s do that a lot.
FILMMAKER: It brings up one thing about your movie I think is rarely portrayed accurately – kid play is not fun. It’s not a game. When you make a fort like that, it’s serious business.
LOWERY: Right, exactly – and there’s a very pragmatic thrill when you finish it. That’s what I wanted to see, the pragmatic procedural aspects of playtime, hammering sheets to walls and figuring out the best way to do something. Afterwards it’s not like, “Now let’s play,” it’s more like they’ve finished a hard day’s work. They’ve accomplished something and are maybe a little bit older and more mature.
FILMMAKER: Personally, I thought the whole thing was a metaphor for building adult relationships.
LOWERY: It could be. That’s not what I set out to make but that’s valid. I did want to make a film about how the emotional side of childhood involves dealing with very adult things, which is my memory of being a kid.
FILMMAKER: How did the script develop?
LOWERY: It was like shooting a documentary. The script was 30-pages long, and some of the scenes were just one line – “the kids walk through a field.” Some of the script was very specific, and a lot of it was incredibly loose and we threw away. You’d be hard pressed to find sides while we were shooting.
FILMMAKER: That’s pretty amazing to be able to communicate your vision without much of anything on paper...
LOWERY: I’ve kind of developed that as my way of working. I’ve done shorts entirely by myself, and when I’m working by myself the script is entirely in my head. I think my shorts feel structured and precise and formalist because that’s my aesthetic, but I don’t feel the need to put it into words first. For the sake of having a crew, and actors and needing a production schedule, I wrote this 30-page document. It was helpful but I don’t know how much you could get from it as far as conveying what the movie was gonna be. I would just talk to people. The kids never saw that script, not once.
FILMMAKER: Did they know what the movie was about?
LOWERY: They knew what it was about. I told them that I didn’t know why they ran away from home. I told them that it didn’t matter. I would tell them what was going to happen before a scene, and sometimes they’d say, especially Tucker, “That’s stupid, I wouldn’t do that.”
FILMMAKER: What specifically did he think was stupid?
LOWERY: The scene where they get kicked out of the house, Tucker had very clear opinions about how that should go, which was not how I thought it should go. They knew that was going to happen, but they didn’t know how it was gonna happen. Barlow [Jacobs] came to set, and he had decided not to talk to the kids beforehand. Now Savannah is like the friendliest kid in the world and kept trying to like, go hang out with him – “Ooh, the new guy on set.” He just ignored her, which was really disconcerting for her, really made her uncomfortable. Barlow had talked to contractors he knew in New Orleans who had run into similar situations. He was going to be compassionate [but he was going to throw them out with no mercy.] It really upset them. By that point we’d been shooting in that house for at least a week, and they were allowed to do whatever they wanted to that house, and they had sort of adopted it. I think they really felt like it was their own. So getting kicked out of it was not fun. We did three takes of it. Tucker was saying, “I really hate this scene.” After we finished it we did a little scene at the back of the house and Tucker was just throwing rocks at the house and writing curse words on the side of the house in the paint with a knife, about to cry. They were really taken by surprise.
FILMMAKER: How did shooting other people’s films affect your work?
LOWERY: Workign on other films made me more confident as a director because it made me reconsider my own choices. Being frustrated by someone else’s choices made me aware of my own vehement sense of how film structure should be. Oddly enough, working with Joe Swanberg totally confirmed my own thinking, even though our stuff is so different – his stuff is so unscripted and not really production designed. But because he edits his own films – we feel the same way about how composition affects pace, for instance. Joe came down for a few days to shoot 2nd Unit on this, and that worked out great.
FILMMAKER: You let other people shoot when you’re not there, even though you’re a d.p.?
LOWERY: It was partially out of necessity that I decided to have 2nd unit people on board. Because we were working with children, and could only work them a set number of hours per day, I really wanted to maximize the time we had. And I felt free to let other people shoot because I knew I was going to be editing the film myself. But we’ve got a pretty tight knit group. You find people you trust creatively, who have your back -- then you don’t need to micromanage them. I can tell Clay Liford, my d.p., what I want a scene to look like, and I can go off and work with the kids somewhere else, and know that when I can come back it will be exactly what I want. I think it’s really vital to have that level of trust with your crew and find people who are on your same page. There wasn’t a shot list. There were shots I knew I wanted to get very particularly, but there were a lot of other things that are all handheld and shot verite-style. That allows other people to capture things and add things, although since I was the editor it’s up to me to put them in there.
FILMMAKER: So there are scenes in the film you weren’t present for?
LOWERY: One of my favorites is the marshmallow sandwich. I knew I wanted to have a scene where the girl would eat one — it was a reference to Calvin and Hobbes, which was an influence on this film. But it was just a marshmallow sandwich. I had to go shoot another scene with Tucker by myself at the next location by the train tracks. So I told Clay, “While we’re gone, why don’t you shoot this scene.” Now I knew she would make a marshmallow sandwich, but she makes a double quadruple sandwich that’s stuffed to the brim with marshmallows, puts the entire thing in her mouth, makes a huge mess of her face and wipes her face off with more bread. It’s just hilarious. She was on a massive sugar high the rest of the day followed by a huge crash, but it was worth it. The moment when she’s outside barking with the dog, that was just a wonderful moment for her character and it was something she and Joe [Swanberg] just went off and shot together.
FILMMAKER: So, am I right, you’ve made five features in the past twelve months besides your own?
LOWERY: Yeah, I’m a little exhausted and burnt-out, actually. [laughs]
FILMMAKER: It gets harder and harder to do it when you know how hard it’s gonna be...
LOWERY: Exactly, like I was talking to somebody else and said, “I’ve hit a wall. I’m tired of movies. I don’t love it anymore.” And my friend gave me a pep talk and said, “Look, you just need a break. And you’ve hit a level of the profession where there’s a certain level of quality you want to demand out of the things you’re working on.”
FILMMAKER: But if your standards and ability are rising and the budgets are staying so small, that must be frustrating. Like, “Nope, still can’t have any lights.”
LOWERY: Yeah. I shot two movies in the last six months each with a light kit comprised of five lights. [laughs] But I wouldn’t trade any of it.
BROCK ENRIGHT'S JODY LEE LIPES By Alicia Van Couvering
When Jody Lee Lipes set out to follow his friend Brock Enright prepare a solo art show for the prestigious Perry Rubenstein gallery, he knew he wasn’t going to change anyone’s opinion about contemporary art. If you hate the art world, you might still hate it after watching Enright’s strenuous, stressful and altogether bizarre chronicle of several months putting a solo show together. But you have probably never seen art-making this up close; probably never witnessed the day-to-day negotiations for resources and time between an artist and gallery; probably never seen someone try to justify their art to their girlfriend’s brother while naked and covered in white paint. Shooting verite-style with seemingly limitless access to his subjects, Lipes has created a document of how it works and what it means to be a working artist today.
Enright came to the attention of mainstream media in 2002 when he created a "designer kidnapping" service called Videogames Adventure Services, which staged false abductions on a contractual basis. Enright woud stay in his kidnapper character for days on end, relentlessly upping the ante of violence and fear for his captives. In Lipes’ film, shot in 2007, Enright finds out he has been given a gallery show, and moves with his girlfriend Kirsten Deirup to her family’s remote California cabin to make the work required for it. He promptly runs out of his gallery’s money and the Deirup Family’s goodwill. By day, he fabricates props and costumes for his piece, The Blackgoat; each night, he works himself into the state of animalistic frenzy, pulling everyone around him into the insane vortex of performance.
Lipes is an NYU graduate and cinematographer by trade, who shot the Cannes-entry Afterschool by Antonio Campos (nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature and Gotham Award for Breakthrough Director and Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You), as well as Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, a documentary by Matt Wolf, one of this magazine’s 2008 25 New Faces. Brock Enright: The Good Times Will Never Be The Same is premiering this year at SXSW.
FILMMAKER: So how did you meet Brock Enright?
LIPES: There are two answers to that question. One is that when I was in high school in Pennsylvania, I went out with this girl, and when we broke up she started dating Brock. The better answer is that I shot some of his artwork, art films, and some of his Videogames Adventure Services projects - I started working for him as a d.p., in 2002, and we became friends.
FILMMAKER: How did you decide to make your own film about him?
LIPES: When he got this show, he asked me to shoot a feature length piece called Black Goat, which is one of the things you see him making in my film. I turned him down and decided to make my own film about the process of preparing for this show.
FILMMAKER: How did Brock and Kirsten react to your plan?
LIPES: Well, Brock likes challenges in any way, shape or form. He likes things that make him uncomfortable; he likes obstacles. So I think he was just excited about how awkward it would be for him, having his whole thing exposed – I think he thought that was a good obstacle. Kirsten was more worried about her family, that they would see into Brock’s work and not be able to accept it or understand how she could choose to be with him.
FILMMAKER: Wouldn’t that be a validating force? Like, my crazy artist’s boyfriend is not a fraud, because someone is making a film about him.
LIPES: Maybe, but I think when documentaries are being shot, most people don’t think they’re going to go anywhere. [laughs]
FILMMAKER: How did being a d.p. affect your approach to directing?
LIPES: Shooting taught me a lot, but I’ve never shot a long-form verite film before, even for somebody else. So this was a new experience for me. The fact that a lot of it is locked off – part of the reason I did that is because the usual documentation of Brock’s work is so messy and dirty; I wanted to provide a little bit of aesthetic help for the uninitiated. Also, shooting on a tripod makes me a lot more patient. If I’m holding the camera, I’m gonna start adding shots and following people, but putting it on sticks allowed me to just relax and concentrate. I can just sit there and listen and watch, and then there will be a moment where I’m like [snaps fingers], that’s what this scene is about. And then I can add coverage which will help the scene in that moment; I’ll get a reaction shot or an insert of whatever. I’ll start thinking about editing and the film in a larger sense.
FILMMAKER: Some of my favorite scenes are between Kirsten’s brother, Keith, who is completely baffled and offended by the insanity going on in his backyard, and Brock, who continually tries to win Keith over (sometimes while naked and covered in white paint.) How did you personally relate to her family?
LIPES: I think Keith really balanced things out, because he provides that voice of, “this is ridiculous.” At the same time I found myself getting a little frustrated with Keith, and I think that informs how I was trying to tell the story and how I shot him. At one point [in editing] I was concerned that I had painted this evil portrait of this guy, but people don’t respond that way. Most people feel he’s totally justified.
FILMMAKER: Well, their interaction makes a larger point about what’s going on – Keith is 100% removed from the world where Brock’s work has value, and his reactions to what Brock is actually doing (which includes building a stage and filming himself all night long, defecating on camera, painting Kristen up as a mouse, speaking in funny voices...) reflect that.
LIPES: What made Brock’s relationship with Keith really interesting to me was that Keith did ultimately get involved, entirely on his own accord. Ultimately Keith gets up there on stage with Brock, and it says a lot about how far Keith came -- from being entirely skeptical [about Brock’s work] to becoming involved in it.
FILMMAKER: Speaking of getting involved in the work, can you talk about the episode with Nicelle, Brock’s gallerist?
LIPES: Nicelle comes up to Mendocino from New York for a studio visit. Before she comes it’s very clear that Brock feels like he hasn’t gotten far enough, that he’s really concerned about how she’ll react. So when she gets there I think he’s overcompensating a little, trying to convince her that all this amazing stuff is happening, and it’s a little uncomfortable. Eventually people have some drinks and the night gets a little out of control. Nicelle eventually gets involved in some sort of performance, and then tries to leave, and Brock restrains her, physically prevents her from leaving, because... he... I don’t know… it really goes out of the realm of logic. I can’t really say what he was trying to do.
FILMMAKER: Was he restraining her as part of the artwork?
LIPES: I mean the Videogames Adventure Services kidnappings were a business. There were contracts and lawyers. You could draw some parallels to that and say, this is how he made art in the past and he’s falling back into it, but I don’t think that was conscious. It’s really difficult to deal with Brock when he’s being that way because he wants it to be difficult for you and he wants to push you and see how committed you are to him. As Nicelle says, he is testing her. In light of those circumstances I think she did a pretty good job of staying cool.
FILMMAKER: Do you think she wanted to stay, that she was complicit in this?
LIPES: I think the fact that it happened to her makes her closer to Brock and makes her more able to communicate his whole aesthetic. It gives her some sort of credibility with him., and his potential collectors.
FILMMAKER: When she’s trapped in that room with him and trying to convince him to free her, you really understand that she is also thinking on his higher-plane, artistic level. You realize how seriously she takes his work.
LIPES: I think it shows that she really, really supports him, which she did. If she didn’t really support him, that scene would have ended in a much worse way and their relationship would have ended, which it hasn’t; he’s now on her roster at her new space [the Nicelle Beauchene Gallery.]
FILMMAKER: What was the editing process like, in terms of shaping the story? What changes did you make based on people’s feedback?
LIPES: What changed the most from people’s feedback was informational. People needed the set-up to be clarified, that they’re going from A to B and he’s getting ready for this show, and who was who, and that Nicelle is going to come visit. Lance [Edmands, the editor] and I thought that was clear, but it turned out that it wasn’t. I was cutting it for about a year before giving it to Lance, and then we did another six or seven passes together. He helped me understand what the core of the story was and shape what the film was about more than anyone. Same thing with my producer Kyle Martin, who was very creatively involved and helped me understand what people would take away from it. You shoot something by yourself in the middle of the woods with no one you know, then you spend a year cutting it on your laptop in your room – it’s so hard to understand what it is. Kyle opened my eyes to how important Kirsten was and that the love story is what engages people who have no interest in the art world, which is most people.
FILMMAKER: The ending is very open-ended – you choose not to focus on anyone’s reaction to the show. How do people react to it?
LIPES: I’m not gonna change anybody’s ideas or feelings about contemporary art. If I’m subverting something with the ending, it’s only to say that the outcome of this particular show and event, the result of this huge opportunity, was really less important than the process of putting it together and how it affected [Brock’s] relationships. I always felt like, unless he became a huge art star, or the gallery shut down because of the exorbitant expense of his project, that the show itself wasn’t really important. What is important is that he’s still making work and his family is still together, two things I think he really risks in the process of putting this show together.
FILMMAKER: And also how can you represent art world success visually, in a verite film – magazine capsule reviews? Bank account statements?
LIPES: Exactly. Brock is somebody who really struggles to put his entire life into his work. Whether you like it or not, he gives it his all all the time. So, it’s a story of somebody doing that and putting it all on the line -- yet in reality, after he goes through all of this, he’s still basically in the same place he was before in terms of his career. I feel that his success or failure can’t be judged through the lens of his career in this story because to me Brock’s true achievement was learning to balance his creative life and his relationships with the people he loves.
AMERICAN PRINCE'S TOMMY PALLOTTA By Scott Macaulay
Even if you consider yourself a literate, well-viewed, cinema completist, you may not remember the name “Steven Prince.” I could jog your memory and tell you that he was influential to the films of Quentin Tarantino, Rick Linklater, and, most directly, Martin Scorsese, and the name still might not ring a bell. If that’s the case, don’t stress — I didn’t recognize the name either, even though I vaguely remembered that there exists a Scorsese film, American Boy, that I’ve never seen, and that Prince’s one scene in Taxi Driver, in which he plays Easy Andy, a fast-talking gun dealer, is one of the movie’s most memorable.
If you’re like me then and can’t place Prince, Tommy Pallotta wants you to see his new short feature, American Prince, which premieres at SXSW. It’s a fascinating filmic time capsule that depicts the man as a kind of Zelig-like figure within ‘70s American and later independent cinema. It also casually but persuasively argues for new production and distribution practices that take into account our ability to share media across the internet.
Reprising the set-up of Scorsese’s documentary, American Prince takes place during one long evening in which Prince, an engaging late-night raconteur, spins out for Pallotta, Linklater, a couple of cameramen, and a few uncredited female admirers, the story of his life in the movies. In addition to being a pal of Scorsese’s and appearing in the doc and Taxi Driver, he also worked on the set of New York, New York, plays a part in that film (it lands on the cutting room floor,) and for a while around The Last Waltz, lives with the director and Robbie Robertson in their house on Mulholland Drive. Stories of a manipulative Liza Minelli, Prince’s shooting out the windows of Bergdorf Goodman, and his later brief stay at the house that was the famous John Holmes Wonderland Avenue murder scene are illustrated with film clips from the relevant films as well as from the younger Prince found in Scorsese’s doc. In one sequence from American Boy, Prince describes reviving an OD’d friend, a sequence Pallotta intercuts with its beat-for-beat evocation in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. “His personal life affected independent American cinema in a much more profound way than people know,” Pallotta says. “ Scorsese used the documentary as a character sturdy for Travis Bickle, and obviously Quentin Tarantino used the clip to great effect in Pulp Fiction. And Rick [Linklater] and I used his one of his stories in Waking Life.” With all these stories and clips flowing and knitted together by Prince’s outrageous and sometimes poignant narration, the film is like a long dream about our collective lives in the movies. “What we were attempting to do in American Prince is to blur the line between cinema and memory,” confirms Pallotta. “When we remember things, we remember them as a movie.”
Pallotta first met Prince about ten years ago in Austin. When he decided to make the movie, Pallotta said, “I had been meeting with once a week for a year, listening to his stories, and then I brought in a writer to sit with him to transcribe the stories. So even though it took only one night to film it was in pre-production for a year.” Pallotta invited Linklater to stop by for the shooting, and the director can be seen on the couch occasionally lobbing a question Prince’s way. “I needed someone there who had never heard the stories before and who he would respect,” Pallotta says. “Rick was visiting that night, had fresh ears and an encyclopedic knowledge of the movies, and I knew Steven respected him.”
“The movie was one night, two cameras, one take,” continues Pallotta. “It was a night of just hanging out, and the question became later, do we film more? But I thought it had to be that one night. The aim wasn’t to do a documentary in a strict sense — it was to do a portrait of a person. The things that he elects to highlight [in his storytelling] are what I wanted to emphasize, and the things he didn’t [I didn’t explore]. It was a very conscious choice on my part not to delve too deep, to leave a little bit of that mystery there. If you fill in your own lines, it becomes a more interesting portrait. I’m throwing out the idea of the objective documentary. I look at photography a lot, and I look at a portrait or a still photo and can have multiple interpretations [of what the photo represents]. This is a self-portrait of Steven Prince and the way he sees the world. I didn’t want to talk to different people and have multiple perspectives. I just wanted it the way he saw it.”
What Pallotta calls “a little bit of mystery” are narrative ellipses that give the documentary a surprising narrative pull. Why are we here in this hotel room and why are listening to Prince? Perhaps more to the point, what exactly did Prince do during the Scorsese years, and why did the director suddenly seem to disappear from Prince’s life? At first glance, Prince seems to be the kind of figure one might see on Entourage, except that in the ‘70s, when, as Pallotta points out, “the studios let people be crazy and creative when making their movies,” this position required, perhaps, a different skill set. In one of his tales, Prince describes being approached by producer Irwin Winkler on the set of New York, New York: “Irwin came in, closed the door behind me and said, ‘How much?’ I said, ‘Excuse me?’ ‘Just tell me how much money you want to be working on the movie? ‘I said I want a per diem, $1,000 a week and a car…. I want a Corvette Sting Ray, white, red leather seats….’ We finished shooting and they pushed that big door open, and there it was, right outside of the soundstage. It had seven miles on the odometer. I thought to myself, yeah, this could be interesting!”
Later, after living with Scorsese and Robertson and the various girlfriends and starlets who drift through their Los Angeles house, Prince detaches from their orbit. “The question of the movie is, why did he leave the business?” says Pallotta. “I think it’s pretty obvious why by the end. He was going to self-destruct.” Towards the end of the film it is clear that Prince has left his Scorsese years behind on multiple levels. He talks about becoming a carpenter and taking pride in jobs well done: “If you know the right way to do it, and you don’t do it the right way for whatever reason – money, whatever reason – that’s wrong. There’s no integrity in that. It will end up coming back on you. A carpenter I learned carpentry from in Texas… would say, ‘You are only as good as the mistakes you can fix. That’s as good a carpenter as you’ll be.”
“I care for Steven,” says Pallotta, “and at the end my audience was him. I admire someone who puts himself out there like he does. He just saw [the film] recently and he said the same thing he said when he saw American Boy. He was speechless. He is going to be at the screening, so I’m assuming he approves of it. My hope is that this movie will motivate American Boy to come out properly.”
But as much of the movie is born of Pallotta’s affection for Prince, it’s also an outgrowth of his career-long interest in new media and new forms of storytelling. To make the film Pallotta not only relied on digital cameras and laptop editing systems but also YouTube and file-sharing networks as well as Fair Use arguments with regards to the clip usage. The movie was made for next to nothing, none of the clips in the film are formally licensed, and Pallotta envisions a distribution model outside of the typical one.
Explains Pallotta, “In a weird way, it’s like a YouTube movie. We were pulling sources from YouTube and BitTorrent channels. It occurred to me we are now making films almost entirely on the computer. I remember the linear way of shooting movies on film, editing on film — well, now you can make a doc and grab stuff from YouTube. It’s very liberating as a creator to do that, and it also gets into issues of ‘who is the author?’ When American Prince premieres at SXSW we are going to release it on BitTorrent, post parts of it on YouTube, and we are going to stream it in low quality via [our website]. I wanted to make an experiment and see what happens when you are not precious with your material, to see what kind of relationship you can have with an audience instead of the standard one of holding your content back until you get paid for it.”
Does he expect to make money? Pallotta answers, “The profit motive isn’t gone, but the profit potential [for this film] wasn’t great in the first place. So instead of limiting myself I decided to play with it. If people are interested, maybe there’s a different way of commoditizing [the film]. It was a passion project, everybody donated [their time and services]. It cost nothing — the only real cost was time. People were on board to try something different.”
Finally, then, what does Scorsese think of a film that’s very much a bookend to one of his own pictures? “I’m trying to [get in touch with him] now,” admits Pallotta. “Hopefully I’m not going to piss him off. You try not to alienate the icons of the film world. But I’m a firm believer in freedom of expression, and this movie comes from a very good place. It’s not trying to exploit anybody.”