DS: In the last year I have discovered a bevy of young and beginning documentary filmmakers that I believe are deserving of and in need of greater exposure for their often neglected art form. With this in mind, this DSI is with a filmmaker named Andrew Neel. His IMDB page lists mostly documentaries on his resume, but the film I discovered his work with was his 2007 filmic portrait of his grandmother, Alice Neel. Before I go into more detail on that film, and forthcoming documentaries or feature films in his future, let me first welcome you, Andrew, and give you an opportunity to tell the readers a bit more about yourself: who you are, what you’ve done in your life, what your goals are (and if you feel you’ve achieved them), and also your place in the film world, etc.
AN: I grew up in Vermont. I went to Columbia University where I majored in Film Studies. I started making films after college. I have made four feature length documentaries and I am premiering my first fictional film, KING KELLY, at South By South West on March 10th.
DS: Speak to me
of SeeThink films How did you start
it? Why? What are its goals, etc.?
AN: I started SeeThink when I got out of college. My goal was simply to bring together like-minded filmmakers into a small collective. There are four people in our company: Luke Meyer, Tom Davis, Ethan Palmer, and myself. Then there are a host of other people that we have worked with a lot on our films like Mike Roberts, Hillary Spera, Jonah Rapino, Jonny Olsin, Eben Bull, and Brad Turner to name a few.
Let me return to your page on IMDB and speak a bit of your career, early on,
then get into the biographical stuff, the film I reviewed, and other things. You
seem to have started your career in 2006. with a documentary called Darkon.
This seemed to follow a band of people who play live action role games. Now,
I’ve never been into this, so this is sort of a Dungeons And Dragons thing?
Give a brief précis of the film, please.
AN: Darkon is a film about a recreational sport or game called Live Action Role Playing. The specific group that we followed was based in the Baltimore / DC area. We followed the main characters lives in the game they played (named Darkon) and out of the game. It was a mix of verité documentary language and threadbare fantasy style action. It tells the story of an epic battle that takes place between various factions (or countries) in the game. We were interested in indulging in the world and the imagination of the characters, while also investigating their lives and why they felt the need to play the game. Simply put, it is a film about the role of fiction and reality in the lives of ordinary Americans from different walks of life. Essentially the film asserts that ‘life-is-but-a-stage’ and that the human drama is played out in the gap between the constructs we create in our minds and the struggle to bring those constructs (or ideas) into the real world. It’s a messy process, but it defines who we are, and how we struggle. It’s about a lot more too, but I tend to go on and on about Darkon and I am going to try to not do that here.
We premiered the film at SXSW in 2006 and won the Audience Award. It’s what really got us on the map in the film world. We sold the film for distribution and went on to sell the remake rights to Plan B Entertainment (that had an output deal with Paramount). They still have the rights to the fictional remake but have not made the film as of yet. The film has acquired something of an underground following. I truly loved making Darkon. One of the characters in the film once said in an interview (that didn’t make it into the movie): ‘We all live in a fantasy world…its just someone else’s shitty fantasy’. I think he was speaking about ‘the modern world’ in the grandest sense. I like that idea…that we are living inside the constructs of other people’s minds. There is more to say about that…but again I’m going to try to control myself.
You co-directed this film with Luke Meyer. What exact role do co-directors have
on a film project? And does halving the workload really cut it if it doubles the
disagreements? Is he a college or film school pal? How did you meet?
AN: Luke and I had many long discussions about the film on Interstate 95 on the way back from shooting. I think I was interested in pushing the boundaries of traditional documentary language…playing with the fictional form of the game within the documentary medium…meddling with the game…setting some stuff up…bending the pliable reality a little bit to create the film. This meant breaking a lot of traditional documentary rules. We talked about that a lot. But we rarely argued. We both shot. We both ran sound sometimes. We collaborated. It was great making that movie together.
What drew you to such a bizarre subject? And, given its extremely limited
appeal, did you have any real hopes that the film could be a commercial success?
Oftentimes, it seems, documentaries on such subjects are usually because the
director has a personal connection to the project, something that often leads to
vanity documentaries- a thing that we’ll go into more depth on later.
AN: I didn’t have any particular connection to the game besides my intellectual interest in the subject matter. It all grew out of my college thesis film which was about people getting lost in false identities on the internet. All this sort of stuff fascinated me. After making that film which is called billy528 I did more research on escapism of all varieties. I came across Darkon while I was writing a script about a group of friends that played Dungeons and Dragons. I felt some form of larger disconnect from reality taking root in the American psyche. Reality was starting to become plastic. Fiction and Nonfiction were starting to merge (as they still are) and I wanted to discuss this. When I found out about Darkon I rewrote my entire script as a Live Action Role Playing script. It was research for that rewrite that brought me to Darkon. I met Skip Lipman (the main character in the film) via a friend of mine who is also a filmmaker named Elliot Jokelson and eventually decided to make a documentary instead of a fiction film, and that sort of led me into docs, which is where I stayed for the better part of my 20’s.
Where did it play or air? Was it made for theaters or PBS, and was it a work of
passion or a work for hire? Was it a good experience?
AN: It was bought by IFCtv and had a small platform theatrical release. It played on IFCtv for years (it still does). They put a lot of money behind their advertising campaign. It was exciting. Ovie Entertainment raised the money for the film. Making Darkon was a great experience.
We then come to the documentary about your grandmother. We’ll return to that
in a bit. The next film was 2008’s The Feature, also
co-directed, with Michel Auder (although Luke Meyer wrote and edited the film).
I’d heard of the name, but always associated it with avant garde filmmakers
like Chris Marker or Stan
Brakhage. Marker’s films display talent and depth whereas Brakhage’s are
sort of the filmic equivalent of Abstract Expressionism. Which, if either, does
Auder more closely resemble?
AN: Auder’s films don’t resemble either of those filmmakers very much. Auder has a vast body of work that spans many different styles. Some abstract, some biographical, some anthropological. I think he was influenced by the French New Wave, and Warhol too, but he really forged his own style. I think his films have a lot in common with Jonas Mekas too. Of course for our project we concentrated on more of his biographical work.
The film is a supposed fictive biography of Auder’s life, culled from his
obsessive filming of himself. How does the film avoid solipsism? How did you get
involved with it? It sort of reminds me of the visual equivalent of Henry
Darger, who was the subject of a 2004 documentary by Jessica Yu, In
The Realms Of The Unreal.
AN: Auder’s work is Solipsistic only in the philosophical (epistemological) sense of the word, but not in the more common ‘egoistical’ meaning of the word. Auder, as an artist, has absolutely nothing in common with Henry Darger besides obsession with his medium. In my opinion, Auder is, at his foundation, a sort of poetic anthropologist. Certainly, he is part of the world he is filming, and he doesn’t try to hide that, but most of his work is not about him. He always says to people “it’s not about me its about you”. Which I think is funny, and true. The Feature is a cheeky film about ‘video reality’; about the flexible fictions that constitute the notion of self and personal narrative. We were in a very overt way (as the title suggests) toying with modern narrative conventions and clichés, with fiction and reality as it related to personal narrative.
I got involved with the film because he had a lot of footage of my grandmother that I used in my second film Alice Neel. I spent a lot of time at his studio and we started talking about collaborating on a massive semi-fictional piece about his life. The eventual outcome of these discussions was The Feature.
Then, in 2009, came another co-directed effort, with Luke Meyer, New
World Order. The film follows conspiracy theorists. Are they pro- or con-
the New World Order? Again, as in Darkon, this would seem to be
quite a fringe topic. How did it do, commercially, vis-à-vis your other films?
AN: The film was financed by IFCtv from the outset. We did a small theatrical run in New York. When it was released it was the most requested ‘on-demand’ documentary in not only IFC history, but then in Comcast history (I don’t know if that record still stands). I think it had over 250,000 ‘watches’ in the first month. Alex Jones and associated ‘conspiracy theories’ were a hot topic and people wanted to see it. It was not as fun loving as Darkon however and I think people had a harder time with it. I would like to go hang out with Alex Jones again some time. I think he’s an interesting phenomenon and is always exciting to be around.
It seems that, other than Alice Neel, your films are niche-ready.
Do you worry of ghettoizing yourself? Other than rather obvious conspiracies,
like the JFK assassination,
don’t such people as conspiracy theorists get tiring? They put me in mind of
wannabe artists- people who sort of focus their mental and psychological
deficiencies into a singular seemingly tangible thing they can grasp at. Ideas?
AN: I don’t worry about my film being ‘niche-ready’ or not. I just make things I’m interested in making. I don’t worry about being ghettoized either.
To answer the second part of your question: everyone gets tiring. Liberals. Democrats. Libertarians. What-have-you. Anyone that is ideologically motivated can get tiring (including filmmakers driven by ideological motivations). I think your analysis of them is short sighted. I think most people as you say ‘force their mental and psychological deficiencies into a singular seemingly tangible thing they can grasp at.’ I think the fact that we do that is interesting. I think investigating that is interesting. Look in the mirror. We all do it in one way or another. I certainly do, but I try to be aware of it, and combat that way of thinking.
In my first emails with you, you mentioned working on a first feature fiction
film. In looking it up I see it is called King Kelly. That puts me
in mind of someone from the 1930s or 1940s. Is this a biography? What is its
premise? When will it be released? How has this differed from indy documentary
AN: King Kelly is what I call a ‘FUG’ (fake user generated) movie. When Kelly’s car – filled with illegal drugs – is stolen by her ex-boyfriend on the 4th of July, an epic whirlwind of drugs, sex, violence and mischief-making ensues as Kelly tries to reclaim what’s hers. The film is shot to look like it was made entirely from camera-phone diaries It is a sensational journey into hedonistic American youth culture and the YouTube generation told from the perspective of Kelly (a 19 year old chat-room stripper) and her best friend Jordan.
Thinly veiled under a sort of smarmy Teen Movie convention is a very serious meditation on how we are learning to understand ‘self’ in a over mediated socially networked world. I think the internet and things like the iPhone are completely changing how we understand ourselves…I wanted to investigate that with a very self-centered, over-mediated young woman. I think all these technological advanced are changing our social DNA. Our understanding of ourselves has become malleable and multifaceted. Identity is plastic…and so is reality…that’s what this film is about.
We are premiering the movie at SXSW. It will be released next year, but I don’t know when or how yet.
DS: Before I return to the film that first got me interested in
your work, let me digress a bit. Were you originally a visual artist who turned
to narrative, or did both coexist? I am of the opinion that ‘pure cinema’ is
a chimera, and that film is more of an extension of literature with pictures-
i.e.- ‘cinemature’- than it is moving photographs with words appended. That
is, I agree with the old maxim, I believe from director John Huston, ‘all
good films start with a good script.’
Documentaries, then, by analogy, would be good non-fiction books- work of
history or biography. What are your thoughts on this? And, now that you’ve
broken into feature fiction films, is Huston correct?
AN: I partially disagree with some of what you are saying here. I think Huston is right a lot of the time…but not all of the time. I come from that school (solid script to start) but I don’t think it’s the only way to make good films. Kazan said perfect scripts sometimes are NOT perfect films because the writing it too good. It overshadows the cinematic medium. I think that can be true too, as far as documentaries are concerned I would side with Herzog and Morris on this point. Great documentaries are not about facts, and Truth, and opinion. They are about accessing truth using the raw material of reality as an artistic tool; creating ‘chimera’ as you call it, out of reality and reconstituting that to formulate meaning. I think they can function as simple historical essays, polemics, or biography, but I think that is when Documentaries are no longer an art form. It is problematic that people expect only this when they watch documentaries today. It is a limited and conservative understanding of the medium.
What is your ultimate filmic goal? Do you want to continue with documentaries,
and become another Errol Morris or Michael Moore or are you yearning to ‘go
Hollywood,’ or be an indy filmmaker ala John Cassavetes, or an ‘artsy’
director ala Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman? And, if the latter- the
Cassavetes/Bergman vein- do you also yearn for fictive drama films that appeal
to adults (in the mature, not porno, sense)? Why do you think there are so few
films like that out there? I think there is a HUGE market that is underserved.
The elderly are growing and are more affluent than teenagers, and more likely to
look for films that play in theaters than Netflix. Ideas?
AN: I don’t have an ultimate goal, I simply want to keep making films about things I’m interested in discussing. I don’t want to be like Errol Morris and I most certainly don’t want to be like Michael Moore. I’m not yearning to ‘go to Hollywood’. I don’t like the term ‘indie’ film frankly. If anything ghettoizes films it’s this silly ‘indie’ term. I want to make fictional films and I think Fellini and Bergman are great but hoping to be like that would be setting the bar pretty high.
I think there are a lot of good films being made, and I think the market might not be as big as you think. Most people don’t watch film because they want to be confronted with ideas, forced to think, or be engaged. They watch films to escape, and forget their lives. And that’s ok. I do it. I love big Hollywood films when they are well done. The elderly may be affluent but that doesn’t mean they want to go out to the movies when they can watch it on their own couch. I think the cinema will hang around for a long time, just on a limited scale, and that’s ok.
Let me interject for a moment, and ask about something that I’ve noted about
many documentaries, and, since my wife and I got Netflix at the start of 2011,
I’ve watched many docs- from PBS sorts to indy docs, and while there are a
goodly number of quality, there are far too many docs I call vanity
documentaries; i.e.- films made by people about their families or
friends, documenting rather pedestrian things about people whose lives are
simply not that interesting. I mean, suicide or child abuse or alcoholism are
too common to generate much interest. I subscribe to the notion that the
personal can be art, but only if the person is immanently important, notable, or
interesting, and/or if the filmmaker or artists can render that person
important, notable, or interesting via their art. Failing that, such ‘art’
recalls to me the bad books published by vanity presses; hence the
term for doc films in this vein. Have you noticed this trend? If so, will you
avoid it? Clearly, even Alice Neel was not in this vein, despite
your familial connection. Perhaps it was easier, as she was a well known public
figure? Comments on the curse of the vanity documentary?
AN: You bring up a good point here. I call them ‘family cam’ docs. I think the great majority of them are not very interesting. However, the ‘personal’ is generally what makes the best art…it’s good raw material to play with…but also very dangerous. One’s personal connection to something is a powerful tool, but it must be used wisely and without ego and self-love. When I was making Alice Neel I was terrified that the film would take on some of the elements of these ‘vanity documentaries’ as you characterized them above. I think that’s a good term for them because really when working with this sort of material vanity is your greatest enemy. I worked hard to avoid letting my vanity get involved. I tried to stick to the subject of Alice albeit through my subjective (and therefore idiosyncratic) lens.
Let me just digress on your filmic output so far vs. other documentary makers.
Having watched, now, numerous documentaries, it’s clear that most are done by
folks who lack the fiscal resources of an Errol Morris or Michael Moore,
therefore their output is spare. Some even have a hit at Sundance, Toronto, or
SXSW (in my local Austin area), but then go a decade before another film is
released. Most of this is due to limited finances. Yet, you have plowed on with
documentaries that seem to be purposely limited in appeal. I can only conclude
that a) you either have tapped into a very affluent niche group of viewers, or
b) been able to find a good backer. Has your creative freedom thus been the
product of what must be your grandmother’s artistic estate? If so, have you
ever thought of moving into producing other filmmakers’ projects? Have you
ever thought of joining forces with other documentarians who may be in
collectives, or have small companies? Can you go into this?
AN: The majority of my films have been financed by other people. Alice Neel was made with the support of Alice Neel’s family as well as other support from artists that donated valuable work to an art auction for the cause. Has coming from upper-middle class privilege helped me? No doubt. I hate it when rich kids try to act like they don’t have anything. I think it’s insulting to people not to admit that you have had some help getting by. I feel lucky every day that my parents were open minded enough to help me live before I could support myself. It made me very uncomfortable in my middle 20’s (getting help from my parents). My father said: ‘Andrew I was on scholarships until I was 30 years old and I didn’t have a paying job until then, basically, so just relax and keep working.’ But it’s a daily struggle…art and commerce will always be fighting one another in cinema…and for that reason that fight is always alive inside the filmmaker too.
DS: Let me now turn more basic. How do you define your job, as a documentarian or filmmaker?
AN: My job is to study and present human behavior and raise questions about it. I feel that all filmmaking (fiction and documentary) is the study of human behavior…visual anthropology of a sort.
DS: Did you have
any heroes in filmmaking or screenwriting (or any other form of writing) as you
grew up? If so, who and why? And how did you gravitate to the more journalistic
pursuit of documentaries?
AN: I have a lot of heroes in filmmaking. I guess I associate with filmmakers that take advantage of the wide range of possibilities of the medium like Herzog. But I have many heroes that don’t too. The list would be too long.
As I said earlier, I sort of fell into documentaries and found I loved
them. My first documentary was a scripted movie before I decided to make a
documentary about it.
DS: When and
where were you born? What were some of the major, or defining, issues during
your youth, insofar as they affected your career path? Were you politically,
socially, or artistically active when young? What films or television shows had
an effect on you?
AN: I was born in 1978. My grandmother was the defining force in my life growing up. Her legacy fostered an intense interest in art and intellectual pursuits. I always drew as a kid and started taking photos when I was about 14…but didn’t pick up a movie camera until I was about 19. I liked STAR WARS, PBS nature documentaries, cartoons, like any normal kid I guess. My parents would take me and my sister to the local Art Theater (the Savoy) in Montpelier where we would watch international art cinema…I remember seeing MY LIFE AS A DOG there when I was young and really liking it.
DS: Where do you
reside? How long have you lived there, and what advantages and disadvantages
does the location present for your company and work?
AN: I live in Brooklyn (Williamsburg). It’s a very lively place as far as the arts go and that is very stimulating…of course hipsters can get on your nerves but…so what.
What did you want to be when you grew up? Who were your childhood heroes
(outside of film) and why? Where did you go to high school, and to what college?
AN: I wanted to be a scientist. I went to Stowe High in Vermont until I was 14. Then I went to boarding school at Northfield Mount Hermon in northwestern Mass.
DS: What were
some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who
graced your existence with those ‘I remember exactly where I was’
AN: I saw M by Fritz Lang and wanted to make films. Alice was a big influence…all sorts of other western literature, art, philosophy, and music.
DS: Are you
married? What does your wife do? And how did you meet? Is she a critic, writer,
AN: I am not married.
What sort of child were you- a
loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mama’s boy
or a rebel?
AN: I was always a bit of an iconoclast. I would not say the pledge of allegiance in 4th grade. I was fat for a while…then I got skinny when I went through puberty and people treated me differently. That made me distrustful of groups. I don’t like concerts and I don’t like ‘group tours’.
Any siblings? What paths in life have
AN: My sister is a successful painter. She makes more fucking money than me! That’s crazy. But it’s great. Her work is wonderful and it’s so cool to be able to go visit her studio and get a break from film. She makes me tea and we hang out. My sister is my best friend…along with my parents.
Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests?
AN: No children.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
AN: My father is a doctor. My mother runs a farm in Vermont and was a teacher when I was little.
DS: In your youth, did you have adults or teachers who recognized that you were brighter than most other kids (as great artists are) and encourage you? Or did they not notice anything at all? Was there a Prime Moment, or a First Person who said to someone, ‘Hey, this kid has something.’?
AN: This question makes me feel uncomfortable. I did well in school. I guess that’s how I would answer it…
DS: I’ve often
argued vociferously against the notion that ‘art is truth,’
but journalism, science, and history are or should be about the
search for truth- and documentary films fall under journalism. Do you agree? If
so, what truths have you encountered in researching your films that debunked
some well held fallacies you had? What was it like to have to let go of your
AN: I disagree. Your understanding of documentaries makes me mad. Journalistic documentaries are the death of the ART FORM of documentaries. It doesn’t mean its wrong for them to be journalism…but making a proclamation about what documentaries are supposed to be is unwise, and restrictive. I think art is only a version of the truth too…I hate being so post-modern about it…but there you have it.
spoken of truth and its need in documentaries, whether or not you are in
political sympathy with him or not, this inevitably brings up the top
financially successful documentary maker of our time, Michael Moore. What is
your take on him? My opinion is that he is a brilliant technician, but he wastes
his time pandering to the liberal choir rather than, like Errol Morris, seeking
out a broader audience. Thus, I think time will consign his work to a ghetto,
like that of Leni Riefenstahl, whereas Morris will be seen as one of the greats
in documentaries. Agree or not, and why?
AN: I’m not interested in talking about Michael Moore. I agree with you, he is pandering to the liberal choir. It’s often extremely limited. He has a lot of talent, but his films are deeply flawed…and mostly failures aesthetically speaking. Bowling For Columbine is amazing. I sort of agree with you about how history might treat him and I think he deserves it.
DS: What other
documentarians do you think are above the run of the mill? Above the vanity doc
level I described earlier? Why?
AN: Herzog, Wiseman, Chris Smith, Raymond Depardon, Pennebaker, Mekas, Auder, Michael Apted, Buñuel…there are more…
DS: Art speaking a truth is fundamentally different from its being a truth. Looking at the root of the word art, after all, shows it derives from the same place as artifice. Therefore, art can NEVER be truth, only an instrument that CAN get at a truth. But, it can also illumine aspects of existence utterly disconnected to truth, like emotions, bad ideas, politics, etc. Do you also find the ‘art is truth’ equation laughable and silly?
AN: I think what you say here is totally accurate. So yes, I think the term ‘art is truth’ is silly…laughable…and not very helpful.
DS: Following in
that claim, as a documentarian, are you even interested in ‘truth,’ as a
concept, or is your concern more multivalent- to affect mind, heart, eyes, ears,
etc.? And, if so, what are the pros and cons of this approach vis-à-vis the
more blatantly promotional sort of ‘documentaries’ a Michael Moore does?
AN: They are NOT art they are Polemics, which is what you seem to by implying…and I agree.
DS: As a coda to this arc, what of your views on politics? How, if in any way, do they affect your films? Are you politically active, and what are your thoughts on the world today- the ongoing wars, the economic woes, etc.? Do you fear such things will put an expiration date on your work?
AN: I am not politically active. I see the world as a fish tank that I try to look at and understand. Certainly I vote, and I believe in certain core values…but I also believe we must be flexible, thoughtful, generous and good to one another in all things…that defines my politics.
DS: Why do you
think so many artists believe that politics take precedence over artistic
AN: Good artists don’t. Most who are respected and canonized don’t…because by their very nature…politics use propaganda (which can never be art) to achieve their goals. Also in politics people have to take over simplified, easily digestible stances on things which makes for bad art.
DS: Before we
get on to more specific areas, have you any ideas on what is the cause of the
lack of introspection in modern American society- from Hollywood films,
television shows, book publishers, etc.? Is American or Western culture simply
as shallow as man of its detractors claim? In the arts, Political Correctness
and Postmodernism have certainly aided in the ‘dumbing down’ of culture.
What are your thoughts on those two ills- PC and PoMo?
AN: Because we are decadent. And when you are decadent, and stuffed, and self obsessed you become shallow and you don’t care about anything but your own appetite, and your own limited world view. Its normal…and I understand it…but I think its fucked up.
DS: And, to what
extent do you think things like PBS counteracts that? Do you see a difference
between documentaries made for PBS (those in a Burns Brothers style), those made
for assorted cable channels, and those made for theatrical release? What are the
pros and cons of each sort of documentary?
AN: Yes they are
all different. Some PBS docs I like. Some cable docs I like. Some theatrical
docs I like…and then in all categories there are MORE I hate. I love
frontline…but…only when that dude is doing the great VO…those
self-centered correspondents who INSIST on doing the voice over…they really
ruin it for me and annoy me.
DS: Let me now
turn to specific queries on the film of yours I saw and reviewed: Alice
Neel. What was the general critical reception of the film, and
did it open any doors for you, in terms of winning recognition at film festivals
or the like? Was it released theatrically or for cable? Do you believe any
critic or filmgoer owes it to the artist to take into account anything that does
not belong on the screen, page, or between a frame? If so, does that not
necessarily bastardize the standalone work of art?
AN: Critical reception was good. It opened theatrically in NY in 2007 and did very well. That movie is a crowd pleaser. People like it because Alice is inspirational. And that’s good, because Alice should be inspirational. No, it did not open up any doors for me but who cares because it’s a great film and Alice was a great person. Yes I think the filmgoer owes it to the artist to take into account things that are not on the screen. No I don’t think taking those things into account bastardizes the work.
DS: Let me ask you of something I see as deleterious to both the appreciation of film, and the purveying of good criticism, and that’s what I call ‘critical cribbing.’ It happens especially online, but started long before that, in print. This is when claims- pro or con- about a film, or serious errors, are propounded again and again. If a Kenneth Turan or Roger Ebert said A, B, or C about Film X, then the same ideas, with the slightest variations, are propounded on hundreds of blogs and newspapers. I think about the misinformation in films, such as when I watched Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup; and the same nonsense about the characters having names cropped up, but there were none in the film. A similar thing re: the characters being called by letters occurred in Last Year In Marienbad; but that, too, was false. This tells me the review is a phone-in, and I’ve seen similar things occur in reviews of books and poets. I posit that most critics, in whatever field, truly do not engage the art they review. They watch or read part of it, justify presuppositions and biases, and, once an artist or film gets a reputation, they never waver from it. If you troll about online, you will find very little variance in the ‘meme’ that gets attached to any film or director. The point of view- negative or positive, may be differing, but the take, often flawed, is always the same for each critic. Do you agree that this lack of attention to their own craft is formed by biases? Have you ever felt a work of yours was unfairly maligned, not just by a single critic, but especially so by the repetition of the wrong meme by critics who lazily ‘picked up’ on the initial critics’ misread?
AN: Yes I agree with everything you said there and yes it has happened to me. Most people jump on the bandwagon…be it positive or negative…because they are not free thinkers and do not have an open mind. This certainly is true of critics. Also people are just plain lazy and don’t want to go to the trouble of actually watching the film and using their mind and coming up with their own opinion. I think most people are good…for the most part…but I also think most people can be lazy sometimes…with their mind. It’s the job of the critic to be vigorously engaged mentally with what they are reviewing…and often they just aren’t. It’s lame.
DS: What are
some of the levels of bullshit an indy filmmaker has to put up with, be it
distributors, film festival wonks, critics, interviewers, media people who see
your work as a mere ten second blurb for their outlet, etc.?
AN: Everyone has to put up with bullshit of one variety or another. Ten second blurbs are important because there are so many things to look at today its hard to pay attention and you have to be able to quickly express your film to people so that more people will watch it…It’s a bummer but that’s how it is.
DS: Tell me some
of the techniques, passages, or scenes in the film you think work the best, and
why? Which would you, if re-editing, perhaps drop, and why? Is it because they
don’t work like you thought, or did you just get across the board feedback
that was unavailable before it was released?
AN: I like the whole film. I think in the end…as a piece its pretty good. I would not mess with it. I regret being unable to put our ‘communism’ scene in there…and I regret not being able to fit ‘painted by Alice’ (people talking about what it was like to be painted by her)…but those scenes are on the DVD as extras and hopefully people watch them.
DS: Let us speak
of Alice Neel, your grandmother, first, then your film. She was a near
ubiquitous person on the NYC arts scene when I was a child. What was your
relationship with Her?
AN: I was 6 when she died so I just remember her as a grandmother. That’s all.
DS: Did she set
up a positive role model for you and your siblings and/or cousins, who may have
had artistic leaning? Especially for your sister Elizabeth, a painter, this
could be a problem, having such a large figure in one’s own chosen field.
AN: She was an incredibly positive role model for me and my sister. She has defined our lives in many ways I think. People like Alice have a huge wake (like the wake of a boat)…the ripples move out into the water long after the boat has moved on…Alice was like this…most of her ripples are good…excuse the melodramatic metaphor.
DS: On to the
film. Here is the start of my
Growing up in New York City, in the 1970s, painter Alice Neel (who died in 1984, at age 84) was often in the news, with a show or retrospective at this or that gallery or museum. Such was the extent of her fame and renown, locally, that it’s hard to imagine she was anything other than a famous painter, but in the 2007 documentary, Alice Neel, directed by her grandson Andrew Neel, it is a myth that is quickly dispelled.
I’ve always felt that Neel’s talents as a painter (far closer to that of Egon Schiele than Georgia O’Keeffe, a lesser painter she’s compared to only because of her sex, not artistic affinities) were never fully documented nor discussed. The film is a good one, but could have been great had it been made by someone unattached to the subject matter. Most biopics and documentaries on artists fail because they do little to elicit the creative impulses of their subjects. This film, for instance, delves extensively, albeit superficially, into Neel’s life and loves. We hear of her failed marriages and loves, the daughter (Santillana) that died of diphtheria, the daughter (Isabetta) she left behind in Cuba, who later committed suicide and hated her mother, but little of this has bearing on Neel’s art. The worst example of the film’s failings come from the interviews Neel conducts with his grandmother’s two surviving sons: His own uncle Richard (a self-proclaimed Left Winger-cum-Right Winger), and his father Hartley. Neither man comes off as anything but bitter and self-absorbed. The former seems vapid and resentful while the former seemingly has little appreciation for his mother’s talent and import. The movie even opens with Hartley musing pseudo-profoundly on life, only to later show his pettiness in exchanging fuck yous with his son. What any of this has to do with the art of Alice Neel is something a professional filmmaker would ask and promptly leave on the cutting room floor.
AN: Well…let me respond to that. Especially your last several sentences. You are entitled to your opinion but I think its bullshit. I think clearly you don’t really understand the film, and you don’t respond to it. I think the film is great for the very reasons you criticize it. I didn’t want to make some balanced, didactic, dry reinterpretation of a person’s life. It’s not interesting. You’re version of the film would have been a fucking boring nightmare…a standard biopic. The film was successful with audiences for the very things you cite at being superfluous. That’s fine…that’s your point of view…but don’t try to suggest that I’m some sort of amateur. It’s plain ridiculous. I might say your verbose, armchair philosophy, and apparently ‘high minded’ questions are pretentious, puffed up, and at times totally amateurish. They make you look entirely unprofessional. Your lack of understanding of my father’s rhetorical question at the beginning says a lot…Your understanding of my father and my uncle demonstrates a lack of emotional intelligence, and I think most people would disagree with you. Now we’re having fun!!!
DS: Let me go
point by point. Do you find lazy comparisons of your grandmother’s work to
someone like O’Neill, because of her sex, to be noisome, especially since
there’s nothing that links them but their sex? And do you agree that a Schiele
is a better analog?
AN: I assume you mean O’Keefe and not O’Neill. Yes Schiele is a better analog…but she was much better. He was a bit gimmicky in my opinion.
DS: Yes, it was
a typo that WORD filled in- I meant O’Keeffe. Why did you spend more time on
the Neel family problems- especially those not directly related to Alice, rather
than an exploration of why her work was good, great, or important? In
retrospect, do you think this film- one you directed by yourself, may have
benefited from having an outside eye, like Luke Meyer’s, do more than just
physical editing? Or did he advise this and was rebuffed? I ask because this
seems the thing that prevents this from being a really excellent documentary,
just a good one; this sometimes bogging down in the pettiness of your father or
uncle. Granted, were the film on them, as artists, it might be relevant, but not
on your dead grandmother.
AN: I don’t even know where to start. Your understanding of the film, her life, and what the film was trying to say is so far off it would take me too long to explain this. I don’t really understand why you asked me all these questions if you didn’t like my movie or felt this way about it….but hey…nothing like some criticism to generate a lively response I guess…I get that...
DS: The other weakest point of the film is the use of the talking head format; such as soliciting Chuck Close’s opinion. He really adds nothing of value to the understanding of Alice’s work. Did you ever consider not having talking heads? If not, other than having known Alice, what do you think someone like Close brought to the film, if anything?
AN: I disagree.
Close is one of the most important figurative painters of our day. His opinions
about why painting portraits is hard, and his impressions of Alice are
worthwhile, and just plain engaging.
DS: What other
projects are in the wings, and are there issues with conception or funding that
have seen a number of years pass between releases?
AN: I have a number
of scripts I am developing.
I earlier mentioned PBS style documentaries. I think one of the negative things
to arise, in the last few decades, has been the popular success of the
documentary films of those staples of public broadcasting, the Burns Brothers-
Ken and Ric. While their films are generally good (with the expected peaks and
valleys) I think their ‘style’ has become so formulaic, especially when
copied by other filmmakers. Talking heads, the reading of written passages, the
use of still photographs as if they were moving pictures, etc.
It seems to have been so successful that many documentarians lazily fell
into the formula. How have you avoided that trap?
I agree. It’s a pity. I think that is a valid observation. Good documentary
work has been relegated to a backwater. The Burns use cinema to create moving
history…but, although they are great historical documents, they are not
‘art’ in my opinion.
Let me speak of editing. How much footage do you shoot for films before editing
them down to a final length- in terms of hours and minutes? How
does a feature fiction film differ from a documentary?
Different docs have different amounts of footage. Alice had about 120 hours
including all archival material, but Darkon had 340 hours!!! New World Order had
about 80 hours. The Feature had about 5000 hours to choose from! Documentary
filmmaking and feature filmmaking are the same process (basically) only they are
inverted. In doc you ‘write’ the movie in the edit suite, in fiction you
write the script then execute on that.
Do you have the same sorts of criteria for what sort of material stays and goes
in each film, or does that vary per film, subject matter, and even per section
of a film?
Yes a lot of criteria. Each film is its own universe with its own rules and
needs. You learn that universe as you create it…each is different…which is
why filmmaking is so cool.
How often do you strive to get a narration and an image consonant with each
other? Or do you seek to have them, more or less, play off of each other?
You can’t make your narration and your images too closely related or the film
becomes flat footed. It becomes ‘show and tell’ which is boring. So it’s
an art to get it right.
DS: Define what constitutes a good documentary from a bad one. Give me the parameters. Also, what is the difference between a good and a great documentary? Name me a documentary you think is great and one that is bad. Define why each is at the level you ascribe to it.
AN: A good documentary can be many things. Fog Of War is great. So is Salesman…I’m not going to badmouth other docs because I don’t feel like it today.
DS: Are you a
perfectionist? What pros and cons does this have on your work?
AN: Yes I am a perfectionist. It’s exhausting. But my work is better
DS: Auguste Rodin once mentioned that his sculptures were always there, and he just removed whatever material needed to reveal them. Do you slowly accrete ideas and images? Does an image almost come to you fully made, meaning you then just have to shoot it, the hard work is done? Or do you create a set of circumstances where a ‘happy accident’ is almost inevitable?
DS: Let me ask a
few queries that I ask almost all my interviewees; because this is a series, and
the parallax of replies is of interest to me and my readers. I started
this interview series to combat the aforementioned dumbing down of culture and
discourse- what I call deliteracy, both in the media, and online,
where blogs and websites refuse to post paragraphs with more than three
sentences in it, or refuse to post anything over a thousand words long. Old tv
show hosts like Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett, David Susskind, Tom Snyder, even Bill
Buckley- love him or hate him, have gone the way of the dinosaur. Intellect has
been killed by emotionalism, simply because the latter is far easier to claim
without dialectic. Only Charlie
Rose, as a big name interviewer, is left on PBS, but near midnight. Let me
ask, what do you think has happened to real discussion in America- not only in
public- political or elsewise, but just person to person? And, even in a small
way, do you think films like yours help to counteract such willful ignorance?
AN: I hope my films counteract willful ignorance. But I can only hope.
DS: I also believe that artists are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the truly great artists are even more greatly different. Let me quote from an essay I did on Harold Bloom, the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism: ‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, & it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary- only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists, discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern recognition is concerned. And also to be able to lead observers with their art. Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3.’ What are your thoughts on this concept of mine? Have you discerned any differences between non-artists and artists, or average artists and the greats? And, if you are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself? And do you think disciplines like teaching or criticism are 180° from creativity?
AN: I love that you are quoting yourself Dan…I’m gonna start doing that! I think a lot of what you are saying is correct. But it’s also dangerous to turn the artists into some sort of mythological character. Talent is rare. Talent is rare in all fields…I think our culture’s obsession with artists is silly. But…without art…we are just animals…what else do we have?
DS: Do you believe in The Muse? Divine Inspiration? I find that many artists use the idea of a Muse or Divine Inspiration as a crutch for times when their productivity is fallow. I call this the Divine Inspiration Fallacy. Any opinions?
AN: I believe in a Muse. I don’t believe in Divine Inspiration. In fact I think it a dangerous and romantic concept that is damaging. I never use the word ‘vision’ for my films. I think it’s lame and self-aggrandizing.
DS: Are there
any other arts that have influenced your films? How and why do you think
they’ve had an influence?
AN: Lots…too many to name.
DS: Some years back I co-hosted an Internet radio show called Omniversica. On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant- or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Agree or not? And name some film giants you feel who’ve buried past tropes or styles with their canon.
AN: Yeah maybe…it sounds a bit dramatic to me but maybe its true. I don’t know. I’d have to think more about that.
DS: Have you ever watched Michael Apted’s The Up Series documentaries for the BBC? What are your thoughts on it as a longitudinal study of human development? How about sociologically? Do you agree with its epigraph, the Jesuit proverb, ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.’?
AN: I love the Up Series. I think that they are moving…they will be the definitive cinematic document for centuries regarding the lives of 1st world industrialized people…maybe forever if they are not lost. I have a lot of respect for Apted.
DS: A few less
intense queries. That old chestnut- name a few folk from history you’d like to
break bread with, and why?
AN: I don’t
answer these questions. They seem silly to me…you seem to think so too.
DS: At this
point in your life, have you accomplished the things you wanted to do? If not,
what failures gnaw at you the most? Which of those failures do you think you can
AN: Life is really difficult…I am a very ambitious person…I want to make a lot more films…but I’m proud of what I have done already.
Let me close by asking what is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of
AN: KING KELLY is
premiering at SXSW in a week. More fiction films to come. I’m producing Luke
Meyer’s new documentary too. It’s cool and I’m excited about that.
DS: Thanks for
doing this interview, Andrew Neel, and let me allow you a closing statement, on
whatever you like.
AN: Thank you Dan. I respect your honesty and your desire to stir the pot. Meeting you in person would be interesting. I think we would have some interesting discussions…hopefully it would not come to fisticuffs ha ha! I’m EXHAUSTED…that was a very comprehensive interview. Thanks again.
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