The Dan Schneider Interview 35: Matt Ogens (first posted 4/2/12)

 

 

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 Matt Ogens. His IMDB page lists mostly television documentaries on his resume, with his last, and most well known film being 2007ís Confessions Of A Superhero, the film that first brought his work to my attention, and which I have reviewed here. Before I go into more detail on that film, and forthcoming documentaries or feature films in his future, let me first welcome you, Matt, and give you an opportunity to tell the readers a bit more about yourself: who you are, what youíve done in your life, what your goals are (and if you feel youíve achieved them), and also your place in the film world, etc.

 

MO: Growing up I assumed you became a doctor, a lawyer, or some type of businessman.  You held a job and went to an office from 9am until 5pm.  I didnít know a kid from Maryland could pursue artistic endeavors.  I didnít know what a director did.  I just always loved films.  So I studied finance in college.  I even worked in the World Trade Center in New York one summer.  It was around my senior year, going on interviews, getting job offers to work on Wall Street, that I realized I didnít want to put on a suit and work for someone else just because I think Iím supposed to. I had always been a moviegoer, I just didnít know there was someone called a director at the helm. When independent films as I knew them came out Ė films like Clerks, Reservoir Dogs, Sex Lies and Videotape Ė I learned that you didnít have to be born into the industry, that you didnít have to be from Los Angeles, and that one could choose subjects with a little more weight, a bit edgier, and dare I say darker, which I was more attracted to. I didnít know where to begin. I was living in New Orleans at the time, going to college, and I got a job writing for a local film magazine. I think I earned $25 per article.  But it exposed me to production. I watched and wrote about local film productions and got the itch to do one myself. I kind of fell into documentary work even though I intended to make a career in narrative film.  And still do.  I think I was attracted to seeking the truth and felt there were so many amazing non-fiction stories that hadnít been told.  

 

DS: 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 1997, with a film called ray of Hope, supposedly shot in a Louisiana prison. What was that about? 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?

 

MO:  Ray of Hope was my first film.  Itís a short documentary.  I was still living in New Orleans, at that time one of the highest murder rates in the country. I had decided I wanted to be a filmmaker and thought I would make a short film. About what I had no idea. One night after seeing a band at a music venue I was held up at gunpoint as I was getting into my car.  As a result of this experience, I decided to make a documentary about violent crime. I went into housing projects and interviewed some inmates at Louisiana State Pen in Angola, Louisiana. I had no idea what I was doing.  And just figured it out as I went along. It was definitely a work of passion. My first work of passion. It was my film school. Or at least the beginnings of film school.

 

DS: You then seem to have spent a decade working in television, for ESPN, as well as directing commercials. Is it fair to assume this was work to pay the bills and not something you would have chosen to do out of passion? Regardless, what things, technically or craft-wise, were you able to learn from these experiences, and what direct benefit did it have, if any, on Confessions Of A Superhero?

 

MO: Certainly it helped pay bills, but no it was not just for that purpose. I worked on some pretty amazing stories.   It allowed me to make a living as a director instead of waiting tables of course.  I learned a ton while directing shows for ESPN and other networks.  Jamie Patricof, who later produced Confessions of a Superhero as well as many prolific narrative films like Half Nelson and Blue Valentine, created a new documentary series for ESPN and hired me to direct. It was trial by fire. This is where I learned a visual style. A great sports director and producer named Al Szymanski came aboard that show and taught us how to shoot, how to edit, how to give it some style. He was a huge influence at the time.  So I did learn a lot about technique in terms of camera and editing Ė basically how to tell a story cinematically.

 

DS: Of the work you did for television, which stick out most in memory, for good or ill, and why?

 

MO:  Doing those shows for ESPN actually still stands out. I learned so much. I probably remember most an episode I directed about the Angola Prison Rodeo in Louisiana.  I knew from my first short film at Angola that they had this infamous rodeo there so I pitched the idea. I went down and filmed these inmates riding bulls.  It helped the series get nominated for an Emmy Award. And I also recall a special project I did for CNN Heroes that was set in Baghdad, Iraq.  It was a new experience wearing a bulletproof vest driving around in an unmarked armored car with a driver holding an AK-47. And I enjoy new experiences. I am at home exploring worlds Iíve never seen. And prisons and war zones are not what Iím used to.

 

DS:  Were you originally a visual artist who turned to narrative, or did both coexist? I am of the opinion that Ďpure cinemaí is a chimera, and that film is more of an extension of literature with pictures- i.e.- Ďcinematureí- than it is moving photographs with words appended. That is, I agree with the old maxim, I believe from director John Huston, Ďall 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?

 

MO:  When I decided to try to become a filmmaker I think I assumed I just wanted to direct narrative features. Commercials and documentaries just happened along the way. But I do not see narratives as above non-fiction.  And I donít separate one from the other. Directing is directing in my opinion. Sure there are differences in technique between fiction and non-fiction, a commercial from a short film, but story and character are most important no matter what the medium is. There must be a foundation.

 

DS: 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 Ďgo Hollywood,í or be an indy filmmaker ala John Cassavetes, or an Ďartsyí 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?

 

MO: I donít really distinguish myself as this kind of director or that kind of director. I direct. Period. And if I connect with material, whether it is scripted or non-fiction doesnít matter to me.  I would like to make narrative films. And have some in development right now.  But that doesnít mean if a documentary idea appeals to me I would shun it.  Even with scripted work, I tend to enjoy narratives that are based on true stories.

 

DS: Let me interject for a moment, and ask about something that Iíve noted about many documentaries, and, since my wife and I got Netflix at the start of 2011, Iíve 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 Ďartí 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, Confessions Of A Superhero was not in this vein. You took a story about four people that most might deem pathetic, and gave an Ďiní to their rather rote and sad lives. Comments on the curse of the vanity documentary?

 

MO:  I think it is how you tell the story. It is in the execution, the craft of filmmaking (which includes how you capture the images and how you edit them) but also the perspective, how you tell the story, and more. So any topic can be made interesting depending on how you treat it. Certainly, topics like disease, alcoholism, suicide can be derivative. I agree.  You can take an ďoldĒ story and execute it in a new way.

 

DS: What is your latest project, if any, about? Itís been four years since Confessions Of A Superhero. Is funding a continual problem? If so, have you ever thought of joining forces with other documemtarians who may be in collectives, or have small companies?

 

MO:  I am finishing up production on a new feature documentary.  I canít say the name or topic just yet.  And have a scripted feature being developed for me to direct.  Iím also producing a documentary for another director that is American Indian-themed.

  Funding is hard. Finding money is just not what I do or want to do. I leave that to others who believe in my work or a specific project. But yes, financing is always an issue.

 

DS: Let me now turn more basic. How do you define your job, as a documentarian or filmmaker?

 

MO:  Find a story. Find the characters. Film it. Put it together. Thatís basically what I do. It gets more in depth of course.  And more creative.  I look for what a characterís arc is, how they change, what their needs and intentions and objectives are, some of this I do consciously, some more intuitive. But itís basically about interpreting a story onto a screen. I know that sounds simple.

 

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?

 

MO:  No film heroes growing up. I was just a kid who watched films without any awareness of the craft behind it.  It never occurred to me I could become a director until I was in college. As a kid I enjoyed Star Wars, ET, Indiana Jones, Jaws.  I loved getting lost in a movie and thinking about it for days afterwards.   After I decided I wanted to direct I just fell into documentaries. Personally I donít define or pigeonhole myself as a documentary director although others might.

 

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?

 

MO:  I was born in Washington, DC and grew up in Maryland.  I was artistic when I was young. I drew pencil drawings at a very young age.  And somewhere along the way Ė probably in high school Ė I stopped drawing and got into trouble instead. I didnít think about making a career with anything artistic because I didnít know it was possible.  I do recall from a very young age having a curiosity. A curiosity about other people, other worlds, especially worlds and people different from my own.  I remember sneaking into the city (Washington, DC) and just observing other people, other societies. I was drawn to things I couldnít experience in the town I lived in. And Iím still that way. Confessions of a Superhero was certainly a different world.

 

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?

 

MO:   Los Angeles. About 6 years. Besides great weather I am here because of its proximity to the film business.

 

DS: 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?

 

MO:  My parents tell me I said I wanted to be a garbageman when I was a kid because they got to hang onto the back of the garbage trucks. Then I wanted to be a fireman, for the same reason.  My father was and still is on the fire and rescue commission where I grew up so I was around firehouses and fires. Then, in high school I wanted to be a brain surgeon.   There was this enormous house near where I grew up, horses, fields of grass and I heard the owner was a brain surgeon so I decided I needed to be a brain surgeon. Eventually I decided to get into business Ė Wall Street. Went to business school at Tulane University in New Orleans and worked in the World Trade Center over the summer during college.  I donít remember having any heroes.  Seriously. My father is my hero. Smartest guy I know. Always there for me.

 

DS: What were some of the cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who graced your existence with those ĎI remember exactly where I wasí moments?

 

MO: I remember exactly where I was the day Len Bias died. He was a star basketball player at the University of Maryland and died of a drug overdose 48 hours after he was drafted to the NBA.  

  I didnít have much culture growing up. I didnít come from an artistic family and where I was raised in Maryland was not very artistic or cultural. Of course I went on field trips to museums in DC but I didnít appreciate them at the time.

 

DS: What sort of child were you- a loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades? Were you a mamaís boy or a rebel?

 

MO: I got in trouble all the time, at home and at school.   A few fun examples:  Dropping an axel on my parentsí car before I was old enough to drive. Being curious about a riot that was going on in DC and going down to watch it unfold.  Putting liquid metal into all the locks at my high school. While I had friends, I often felt different and misunderstood. Most boys are into sports. While I participated in sports, my mind was elsewhere.  My grades were good. But I never really fit into a group. I wasnít a nerd. I wasnít a jock. I wasnít a skater. So I didnít have much to identify with.

 

DS: What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your pursuits?

 

MO:  My father is an attorney, focusing on family law in the Maryland, DC, Virginia area. My mother used to own a retail business, then worked in my fatherís office for years until she recently retired and began her dream of opening a baking company.

  They ALWAYS supported me, but not necessarily encouraged me.  I guess in their generation, people didnít just decide to make films. You had a profession Ė doctor, lawyer, business.  You got a job. 

  I went to college, majored in business, had good job prospects, then decided to give that up in pursuit of being a filmmaker which I had never mentioned to my parents until that point. I think it scared them a bit. They didnít want me to spend years struggling to make it. Well, I spent years struggling to make it and they were supportive and when I finally was able to monetize it (make a living from directing) they were more encouraging.

 

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, ĎHey, this kid has something.í?

 

MO: I did have a very influential English teacher in 8th grade. He was the only teacher that let me be myself, that listened, and never judged me. I remember he used to talk about a former student of his named Henry Rollins who had a punk band called Black Flag. I later read a poem Henry Rollins wrote about this same teacher after he had passed away years after I graduated. 

 

DS: Iíve often argued vociferously against the notion that Ďart is truth,í 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 presuppositions?

 

MO:  I donít think Iíve thought about it that hard, not consciously. But I would agree that documentaries should seek truth. Some docs are character driven and by default they reveal truth but the filmmakers intention may have just been to tell a story. For Confessions of a Superhero, I simply wanted to tell a story about these characters. The priority was about telling their story, and seeking truth is just something that comes along with that.

 

DS: Having 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?

 

MO: If he has to highest grossing documentary of all time hasnít he found a broad audience?  Personally, when I watch I Michael Moore film I understand that Iím watching his point of view, his perspective. Heís in the film for Godís sake so people should know going in that this is his opinion and its up to you to question the truth of what he is saying.  He has as much a right as any to his opinion. Whether you agree with his films or not, it gets a dialogue going, which is a good thing.

 

DS: What other documentarians do you think are above the run of the mill? Above the vanity doc level I described earlier? Why?

 

MO:  I look at the execution, the actual filmmaking, as much as I look at the story and characters.  I have watched the Maysles Brothers films over and over Ė Salesman, Grey Gardens, Gimme Shelter.   Thereís a recent documentary I saw called Bombay Beach that I enjoyed. It was set in a poor community in the desert. It wasnít about war, it wasnít political, it wasnít about a cause. It was just about these people, almost like a narrative.  I really respected that the director didnít feel the need to preach a cause.  I watched a film about a skater called Dragonslayer. Also great.  And just this week I saw The Queen of  Versailles which was at Sundance this year. The message in this film is very relevant and timely, but the director presents it through character and story without telling you what to think. Man on Wire is another brilliant film. Used archival footage and reenactments in a beautiful way. Too many other great nonfiction films to mention.

 

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 Ďart is truthí equation laughable and silly?

 

MO:  I donít think about these things while Iím directing. Personally, I find it distracts from actually making a film. Iím sure later in life when I look back Ill have a stronger opinion on this. I still learn every day.  But I find it a waste of time for me to even contemplate these things.

 

DS: Following in that claim, as a documentarian, are you even interested in Ďtruth,í 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-ŗ-vis the more blatantly promotional sort of Ďdocumentariesí a Michael Moore does?

 

MO:  I am interested in honesty, but Iím ultimately telling a story. I try not to interject my opinion into the non-fiction work Iíve done so far. I just find something interesting, the themes, the characters, and I put it on tape. Itís about discovery so I donít always know whatís going to happen at the endÖI donít know what that truth is yet. I donít have the answers until the film is finished. Sometimes I donít have the answers at all. But to answer your question, I am definitely interested in truth.

 

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?

 

MO: I donít think politics affect my films. But I havenít made a political film yet.

 

DS: Why do you think so many artists believe that politics take precedence over artistic quality?

 

MO:  Depends what kind of politics you mean. There is a lot of politics in the film business. Thereís a lot of politics to getting a film made. But I think youíre talking about a different sort of politics. There can be artistic quality and politics. I donít feel one needs to take precedence over the other.

 

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 Ďdumbing downí of culture. What are your thoughts on those two ills- PC and PoMo?

 

MO:  I donít think reality television has helped. People sit on their couches watching The Real Housewives of Bullshitsville.  Of course itís going to make them dumb.  The only thing to learn from shows like these is how not to behave. People sit around on their asses getting fat while watching tv or spending all their free time on Facebook or texting their friends about non-sense is not going to make for a bright society. Thatís my rant.

 

DS: And, to what extent do you think 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?

 

MO:  Iím not exactly sure what you mean. Films literally made for PBS or PBS ďstyleĒ films.  Just different styles. A matter of personal preference as a filmmaker and as an audience member. Thereís an audience for both.   I prefer docs that are closer to narratives in style.  Less archival material and talking heads. More character revalation.

 

DS: What was the general critical reception of Confessions Of A Superhero, 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?

 

MO:  It went to two film festivals, SXSW and AFI Fest, before it was bought for distribution. It had a four city theatrical release followed by dvd and streaming and finally a tv debut on the Sundance Channel. Still seems to find audiences via Netflix, Hulu, Itunes, et cetera.  The reviews were amazing and the screenings at AFI and SXSW were sold out.  The branding of the film (Superman laying on a couch as if in therapy) helped. Bringing Superman and the Hulk to SXSW was also a plus. They were walking billboards. You might have found Superman at 3am in Austin during the fest in a bar, in full superhero regalia, surrounded by a bevy of curious new fans.

 

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.?

 

MO:  When we were releasing Confessions theatrically, the distributor didnít want to pay the $200 or so to print movie posters. We had to design, print, and deliver to the theatres on our own.  How do you show a film at a movie theatre and not have a poster out front so potential audiences know itís even playing there?  How do you spend the money to buy a film and refuse to spend $200 on posters? Wow.

 

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 donít work like you thought, or did you just get across the board feedback that was unavailable before it was released?

 

MO:  Nothing too specific but I would like to mention the cinematography. We never just picked up the camera, turned everything on automatic, and just hit record and ran around all day. Every shot was thought out, discussed, and then composed. We wanted the film to have a look that complemented the story and Charlie Gruet, the DP, was mindful of this during each scene. That was probably our only technique. Of course thereís more I would have shot, and things I would have edited differently.  I had to just stop and finish the film at some point.

 

DS: Before I get into some of my opinions on the film, let us speak of the four main characters in it. This film follows four panhandlers who dress up as comic book superheroes and ask to pose with passersby by photos and tips. How did you even come about this idea for the film, and why did you choose the four people you ultimately went with? How many people did you film, and how did you cut down the number from, say ten, at the outset, to the final four?

 

MO:  I was directing a commercial on Hollywood Boulevard. The dp of that commercial became the dp of the film. In between takes, as lights and camera were being reset between scenes, I kept noticing these characters who dressed up as movie icons and superhero characters.  Superman was hanging around set and I started talking to him. I wondered where these people went when they finished up for the day. Did they have wives, husbands, kids, other jobs? Drugs, alcohol? Homelessness? I was just so curious on a personal level to see how they lived when then werenít on the boulevard. I think we began filming within two weeks. At first it was going to be a comedy.  I was probably as  judgmental as most people who drive by them every day. Crazy people who dress up in crazy costumes.  But the more I spent time with them the more I learned.  The more I understood.  They all had dreams they wanted to achieve. They want to matter, to others, but mostly to themselves.  We all want that and that was my entry point. Thatís when I found a connection between these characters, myself, and hopefully, eventually, the audience. 

  Superman was clearly a de facto leader out there. I knew he was going to be in the film from the outset. And he became a casting director in a sense. He introduced us to this world, which also meant to other characters. I decided early on in the process that I only wanted superhero costumes. I wanted a consistency among the characters Ė they are all so colorful, the characters they portray are instantly recognizable in almost every culture.  And I think there is a metaphor between superheroes and the charactersí actual lives.

  There was not a huge casting process. Things just fell in line. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman were part of the film from the beginning. I had a Spiderman also, which was interesting because he was always arguing with another guy who dressed as Spiderman.  Ultimately we were not getting enough access to Spiderman in his private life so were unable to capture enough footage to create a story for him. We replaced him, if you can call it that, with Joe McQueen, who dresses as the Hulk.

 

DS: What has happened to the four main characters, in general, since the filmís release? Any regrets over choosing any of the four? If so, which one(s) and why?

 

MO:   I donít regret the characters in the film at all. I think they all worked and complimented one another. Iím sure there are other complex and amazing characters I could have included but I didnít meet them, so I donít know what Iím missing.

  But this is an interesting question. What happens to the characters in a documentary after the film is finished. In many cases, depending on the subject matter of course, being in a film may be the biggest event in this personís life. When the film is over the director usually moves on to his/her next project.  And the characters are waiting for the sequel or hoping their message will get out, or become famous, or rich. In my case some of the characters expected fame and fortune from the film and then blamed me when they didnít get it. All four of the characters in Confessions are actors or aspiring actors and wanted the film to help their careers. Jennifer, who was Wonder Woman in the film, did the work. She took acting classes, has an agent, goes out on auditions, and generally pounds the pavement. The results. Sheís gotten great speaking roles on tv shows. Some of the others didnít put in the work then got angry when nothing happened. They relied on me and the film to carry them.  Hopefully that has changed. And I wish them all success and happiness.

 

DS: Letís talk of the four. Clearly, the character that is the most controversial, and who garners the most amount of ink on blogs and chatrooms where the film is mentioned, is the dťclassť George Clooney, Maxwell Allen. He dresses up as Batman, is a starving actor, and seems to have some clear mental ills and delusions. In my review of the film I wrote this, of him:

  Definitely not to be believed are Batman Allenís claims of being a guilt-ridden Mob hitman simply because heís trying to justify his anger control issues. He claims many things, and even confesses murder, on camera, to a psychiatrist, but his story falls apart as he does not know how to handle a gun, is a klutz at martial arts, and even gets arrested for disturbing a picket line. His wife accepts his flaws, and seems to love his Clooneyesque looks. His superhero cohorts even doubt his tall tales. By filmís end, Allen ends up out of the superhero game and working as a seasonal security guard on a movie lot, hoping a talent scout or producer will notice him. In the one scene from a film that we see itís clear that he has virtually no talent.

  Clearly, in looking online, my sentiments are, rightly or wrongly, in the majority. And, having spent over a decade in the arts, online, and in several areas of the country, Allen is like many delusional non-talents whose anger becomes the only source of their motivation. First, do you share the opinion of him that I and most viewers do? If so, why? If not, was there material left on the cutting room floor that could have shown him in a better light, and, if so, why was this not used to leaven the rather harsh portrait you limn of a poor guy whose one Ďmoment in the suní you provide?

 

MO:  People want to matter. They want to feel or be important. They want to leave this life leaving a mark.  This is purely my opinion, but since Maxwell couldnít be recognized for something positive, being a successful actor for example, I think he feels itís better to be known for something rather than nothing.  Perhaps he creates stories to attempt to make himself feel better.  If he canít be famous heíll take infamous. I couldnít have shown him in a better light if I tried. Though he has claimed I did some fancy editing (how I did this, I have no idea) all we did was put on screen what he said and did. There werenít many moments in the sun for him. If he was more likeable or redeemable at the end I would have gladly shown it. But my job as documentary director is to show truth.

 

DS: If the man were a bit more focused on reality, one might even think heíd have a case to sue you for such a devastatingly negative portrait. Therefore, one must conclude that you may have actually gone light on your portrayal of him. Is this so? And what has he done since the filmís release? Have you kept in contact with him? I did find this video of him getting bodyslammed in Las Vegas, so apparently the security guard gig went belly up. Then there are a series of increasingly bizarre videos where heís basically calling out the guy who beat him up for a rematch. Clearly, heís not all there. Comments?

 

MO:  I didnít go light on him. I didnít go heavy on him. I just captured what he said and did. One canít be sued for telling the truth. I found that video in Vegas to be quite sad.  Not much seems to have changed for him. Itís hard to watch someone so unaware of himself.

 

DS: The character the film mainly focuses on is would be Superman Christopher Dennis. Why did he get the most screen time in the film? Was he the easiest to work with, or the most compelling?

 

MO:   Most compelling. Most complex. Gave us the most access.  Chris had been out there the longest, knew everyone, and took it the most seriously. He was a no-brainer as the lead, but it really just happened organically.

 

DS: Throughout the film he claims to be the bastard love child of theater and film actress Sandy Dennis, yet her surviving family members deny this. Do you think that he, like Allen, created his own little fantasy world? Or, has the Dennis family gotten any backlash from fans who believe they have mistreated him?

 

MO:  I donít know if I agree with you. I donít feel the Dennis family denies his relation. They certainly are skeptical but end by saying ďshe was a very private person and who knows.Ē  Do I think he made this up? Iíd rather let the audience decide.

 

DS: By filmís end we see him lose a Superman contest to a far inferior candidate, marry his longtime girlfriend, and seemingly resign himself to a life of inconsequence. Of the four main characters the film profiles, he seems the most zen, in that sense. Do you agree?

 

MO: In a way I do agree with you.  He is pretty even-tempered.  I never heard him complain about his life. Not once. He seems to accept life as it comes. I always said he should just open up a Superman museum and call it a day.  Superman is his passion after all.

 

DS: Since the filmís release, Dennis made news by getting arrested for violating some city ordinance. Is he still on the streets as Superman? What has he done since the filmís release? Have you kept in contact with him?

 

MO:  I believe he is back on the street as Superman.  I donít go around Hollywood and Highland very often. That is the equivalent of hanging out in Times Square if you live in New York. Just not something that most locals do. I check in every once in a while. I believe he is doing the same thing he was a few years ago.

 

DS: Perhaps the character who experiences the most success in the film is a young black actor named Joe McQueen, who dresses up as The Incredible Hulk, and actually lands a small part in martial arts parody film. Given his years of homelessness, he seems to experience the greatest arc of the characters in the film, yet he gets the least amount of screen time. Why was this? To me, he seems the least interesting of the four main characters. Was this a byproduct of editing or just a reflection of your own feelings toward his rather off the rack tale? What has he done since the filmís release? Have you kept in contact with him?

 

MO:  Interesting. Most people I have met like Joe McQueen the most. They love the homeless story, his energy, his perserverance.  He came into the film later on in the process, which is probably why he has less screen time. I would have put more scenes with Joe in the film if we had them. 

 

DS: Then there is the lone woman, Jennifer Gehrt, who dresses up as Wonder Woman. Most men watching her onscreen will likely say that she doesnít stand a chance in Hollywood- sheís simply not pretty enough. But she has other issues, as I describe in my review:

  Gehrtís ups and downs, other than her disintegrating marriage, include her dissatisfaction with her ineffective agent, and her search for a church to attend. We learn of her needing to get out of her small Southern town, as a teenager, and her marriage to a man she knew for only two weeks. Like all of them, there seems to be something missing in her life. Whereas, in the men, this absence is easily seen, in Gehrt itís more nebulous. Yet, when we see her with her acting coach we see she has almost no talent, and clings to bon mots about Ďalmostí getting a job in a commercial.

  In watching her tale unfold, perhaps because I am a man, with a remanent White Knight Syndrome, I found the most depressing aspect of this film. Here is a woman of, at best, average means, average looks, average talent, and even her goals lack any ambition. Instead of roles in local theater sheís bumming around Los Angeles and panhandling. Then, the whole story of her desperate need for acceptance, to the point of marrying an obvious loser, after only two weeks, seems to doom her to failure in life. Yes, the film ends with the minor hopeful note that she will have a bit better life after leaving her husband, but it does not look promising. Were you, as a man, similarly left with feeling hers was the saddest tale? What has she done since the filmís release? Have you kept in contact with her?

 

MO:  Hmmm. I have to disagree and I think most of the audience might also disagree with you.  I donít consider her a panhandler. She has studied at The Groundlings, a very respected sketch comedy troupe and school, and landed speaking roles on major television shows. The creator of My Name is Earl brought her in for an audition after watching Confessions of a Superhero and she got a guest starring role on an episode. Certainly everyone is entitled to an opinion, but I donít feel she had the saddest tale. I feel Max (Batman) has fewer prospects for the future, unless he makes changes, than Jennifer does.

 

DS: Gehrt also has a nicer personality than, say, Allen, therefore the viewer is more able to relate to her. Allen lacks this, but the fascination with him is whether or not heís going to go postal on someoneís ass. What tensions does the film create with these contrasts in personality? Was that intentional or a byproduct of design: aka luck?

 

MO:  A combo of luck and design. With any story, conflict and drama are important. I kind of figured there would be drama out there on the boulevard. Spend an hour out there and something will happen. But I also got a sense as I met Max that he would contrast some of the other characters and may become an antagonist. I had a hunch. You do your homework, prep, plan, find the right characters so youíre ready if luck comes.

 

DS: Hereís my summation of the film:

  Yet, the film empathizes with her and the others. It feels for them, even the delusional Allen. It never mocks them, and shows that films that put seemingly uninteresting things into themselves can transcend that content by widening the context and digging more deeply for substantive issues. Or, maybe, things just fall into place, and the real reason for the film surfaces in shooting or editingÖ.

  Agree or not? What was the actual aim of the film and how well or not did it succeed?

 

MO: I agree and disagree. Things did not just fall into place.  In other words, we did not simply press record and put this all together in the edit. We spent time with these people, we looked for story arcs for each of them, whether physical or emotional or both. But it did take shape as we were filming (and continued in editing). My aim changed because I went deeper with the characters as we moved along. When I first saw them from afar, I probably unintentionally judged them like many people do. I thought it would be a comedy. But after time I found a commonality between them and everyone else. The idea of following your dreams, wanting to matter, itching  to make your mark, is very relatable. I understand wearing tights on Hollywood Boulevard isnít the traditional route to success as an actor, but once we get to know them, I think the judgments dissolve, and we experience their emotions with them in an empathic way. I am proud of the film and feel we treated the characters with honesty and integrity.

 

DS: What projects are in the wings, and are there issues with conception or funding that have seen a number of years pass between releases?

 

MO: Iím currently almost through production on a new documentary. Since Confessions I have filmed in Iraq, Cambodia, Africa, and Mexico for special projects for CNN, a short film, many commercials and digital projects, and have a narrative film being developed.  I donít really feel a time crunch.

 

DS: 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 Ďstyleí 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?

 

MO: I donít avoid that trap because it never occurred to me to make that style of documentary. And I donít say that in a negative way. I love Ken Burnsís films. Itís just not what I do.  The market is flooded with independent films. Itís just too easy to make a film (not necessarily a good one). The advent of inexpensive digital video cameras and Final Cut Pro for editing has turned everyone into a filmmaker so itís harder for the cream to rise to the top. So I do strive to make my film a little different in terms of style.  The camera and editing are very important to me. I am conscious of it. I discuss it with my dp and editors constantly.  I want to tell a story in an original way.

 

DS: Let me speak of editing. How much footage do you shoot just to edit Confessions Of A Superhero down to its length- in terms of hours and minutes?

 

MO:  Not as much footage as most documentaries.  If I remember, Charlie Gruet, the dp/producer, shot about 150 hours of footage, give or take. We ended up with a 92 minute film. Editing is a huge part of directing for documentaries. I knew who the main characters were for Confessions of a Superhero. I had an idea what the story was. But it was about discovery.

 

DS: 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?

 

MO: Itís a case by case decision.  There are so many reasons to include or delete a shot or scene. It canít just be a cool shot. It must reveal story or character. A shot must enhance and move a scene forward. And a scene must move the film forward.   But Iíve fallen in love with a shot because I loved the shot even if itís not right for the film and usually by the end I realize that or someone helps me realize that we donít need it.  And I try to include them in the dvd extras.

 

DS: 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?

 

MO:  I donít want to be overly-literal where words match picture. Reminds me of a bad country music video when they always seem to follow the lyrics with the picture. I prefer words to play off image. It also depends if you even use narration. For instance, we did not use narration in Confessions of a Superhero.  In a sense, we let the characters voice the film.

  I much prefer character be revealed through behavior. Maybe the character isnít even aware of himself. The audience may see it. But the character isnít self-aware.  Humans are complex and I much prefer to capture that complexity, meaning people arenít all one thing or another. And you can use that characterís words or a narration as a metaphor rather than be literal. Let the audience connect with a character or story through that characterís actions as opposed to a voice telling you what to think.

  I always find it fascinating (or revolting) in reality television when we see a situation happen in the moment and then they cut to the people involved describing exactly what we just clearly saw with our own eyes. What a waste of screen time.

 

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.

 

MO:  This is a subjective answer.  This is purely my own opinion and not a fact as I donít feel Iím the judge of good or bad.   Letís start with great documentaries. Iím not alone in saying the Maysles brothers films are a benchmark for how a documentary can aspire to be.  ďSalesmanĒ which I believe is their first film is black and white, 16 mm, virtually no interviews, virtually no music.  It is one of the purist documentaries I have seen.  Another more recent doc that reminds me of a Mayles film is ďUndefeated,Ē directed by Daniel Lindsay and TJ Martin and produced by Glen Zipper among others, about a high school football team in Memphis. These guys found dynamic characters and let the story unfold. Of course thereís a bit of luck with any documentary in that you hope the characters will change for better or worse (sounds terrible) but youíre looking for an emotional arc for each character.  Bombay Beach is another recent doc I loved.

  Bad docs. I donít want to name names but here is what I will say. I personally am turned off when a filmmaker finds a great true story or character and ruins it with bad cinematography or editing.  I donít know who decided that because a documentary is real it is okay if it looks like a home movie.   I understand that docs generally have limited funding or none at all, so the director is often wearing many hats, but if you donít know how to shoot properly, then donít.   People think the content (the story, what people say) are all that is important in a doc. Why should a documentary be any different than a narrative?  Itís a moving image therefore how scenes are captured are as important as in a scripted project. To just pick up a camera and run around with it, with no regard for craft makes little sense to me.  Stop take a breath and think about how you want to capture a scene, think about the background of a character for an interview, is the subject looking at the lens or off lens to the interviewer.  This is not a radio show.  Itís a film.  So what it looks like is part of the story, part of the content, not just icing on the cake. I think people should have more respect for the process of filmmaking.   Maybe audiences donít look for the cinematography or the sound design or music, but I doÖand I think they do subconsciously.   Itís part of the film. Would a Terrence Malick film be as emotional if it was shot on a handycam with no regard for composition? I donít think so because the photography is part of the story. How you capture your subjects and locations helps tell the story. 

 

DS: Are you a perfectionist? What pros and cons does this have on your work?

 

MO: I am a perfectionist on the inside, but I also know that I usually donít have the time or money to get it exactly right. Not yet. In fact with each project what I am really trying to do it translate what is in my head onto the screen. That means I have to write or articulate to others or whatever I need to do to get whatís in my mind into the camera. Each project I try to get closer and closer to whatís in my head. But I also TRY to be flexible, to be open to what happens in the moment so it becomes a mixture of what I plan and what happens spontaneously.

 

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 Ďhappy accidentí is almost inevitable?

 

MO:  Both. I make a plan, but try to stay flexible for happy accidents.  If you have a blueprint and know what the objective is, you can then be open to these magical moments. Maybe the planning allows for this as you suggest above.

 

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?

 

MO:  Attention Deficit Disorder is what happened.  Texting and facebook and reality television has happened. People donít want to sit still or think. I use these tools as well. Iím just not obsessed with them.

 

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: ĎÖ.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 siMOle 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 (Keatsí Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but iMOose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3What 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 180į from creativity?

 

MO:  You probably think Iím a dope because I donít think about these questions. I just donít. I make films. I donít spend any amount of time analyzing the art. I donít think spending time on these more intellectual pursuits will get a film made. BUT, I do find what you say above very interesting. I think the difference between artists and non-artists and even average versus great artists is awareness. I think awareness, of oneself and the world, is important. Iím not sure you can walk around with blinders on and be a great artist.  Of course there are dozens of qualities that go into a great artist Ė curiosity, imagination, taking action, and ultimately skill.

 

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?

 

MO:  Whatever works. I donít have a muse or divine inspiration. I believe in hard work. Always be working Ė write, make a short film, find collaborators who believe in you, make a documentary, make a film. Donít wait for the stars to align before you get to work. Just do it. Clichť I know, but paying your dues and hard work are important to me.  It spells integrity.

 

DS: Are there any other arts that have influenced your films? How and why do you think theyíve had an influence?

 

MO: Life has influenced my work. Watching other films and studying other directors have influenced my work. I would say both photography and books have also had a significant impact. A photograph can tell a story or at least get you to conjure a story in your mind, whether it is true or not. I have a big collection of photography books and often look for images to share with my dp before a shoot. And reading Ė articles, magazines, books Ė whether its learning from books or coming up with story ideas from a newspaper article Ė reading has been influential as a tool for learning.

 

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. Itís akin to Thomas Kuhnís The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Agree or not? And name some film giants you feel whoíve buried past tropes or styles with their canon.

 

MO:  I donít study film theory or history.  Itís not that I donít go deeply as a director. I do Ė with characters, with stories Ė but I donít spend much time analyzing and speculating.

 

DS: Have you ever watched Michael Aptedís 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, ĎGive me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.í?

 

MO:  I enjoyed The Up Series.  I didnít consciously look at is as intellectually as you.  I just sat back and watch these characters grow. I just find it interesting that you can really take anyone and make a documentary about him or her.  Every one has a story. And watching those characters navigate through life can remind us of aspects of ourselves. It can be self-reflective. 

 

DS: A few less intense queries. That old chestnut- name a few folk from history youíd like to break bread with, and why?

 

MO:  I would have liked to have met my grandfather, whom I was named after.  Over the years, when visiting my family, I hear stories about him.

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 accomplish yet?

 

MO:  Iím not sure what you mean by failures. I have not accomplished everything Iíve set out to do. Not by a long shot. Iím still pretty young and have room to grow.

 

DS: Let me close by asking what is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of your work?

 

MO:  I will continue to direct commercials and digital/interactive projects. I am finishing up production on a feature documentary, which will be ready to go out later this year. And I have a narrative that is being developed by a couple of producers. 

 

DS: Thanks for doing this interview, Matt Ogens, and let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.

 

MO:  Thank you for having me. I appreciate the time you took to formulate such detailed questions.   It means a lot.

 

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