The Dan Schneider Interview 41: Jilann Spitzmiller (first posted 1/19/14)
DS: In the last few years 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 not only a film director, but a film producer named Jilann Spitzmiller. I discovered her work when I picked up a DVD copy of her and her director husband Hank Rogersonís 2006 BBC documentary film Shakespeare Behind Bars. Before I go into more detail on that film, and forthcoming documentaries or feature films, let me first welcome you, Jilann, 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.
JS: Thank you so much for this opportunity for deep reflection. It comes at a really fortuitous time in my life.
I am basically an artist, and always have been. The media Iím working in change, shift, evolve, but storytelling is always at the core of my work, whether it is writing, web site creation, painting or filmmaking. Another thing that is always at the core of my work, whether I was conscious of it or not, is spiritual exploration. Looking back, all the stories Iíve elected to tell (most of them with Hank), involve a deep level of searching for the human connection to a higher power and a questioning of what that means to us and how it impacts us. And Iím not talking religious or organized spirituality. And it might not be obvious on the surface, but it is a guiding force in my work.
As for achieving goals, I think thatís a ďconstantly shifting sandĒ, to quote Ben Steinfeld from our new film in the works, STILL DREAMING. I experienced a dark night of the soul recently, when confronted with some health issues, and from that darkness, I gained a lot of clarity about some immediate future goals, and hopefully the big picture of where I might be going as a filmmaker/artist. Luckily, the health issues have resolved, but the clarity has remained.
DS: Aside from
films, you and your husband have a website called Documentors,
a play off the documentary film format and the idea of mentoring others. Why did
you start it? What is its goal and/or purpose? How has it succeeded or failed to
meet your expectations? What will the future hold for it? How is it related to
your production company, Philomath Films?
JS: In 2009, when we founded DocuMentors, Hank had been teaching full time at the College of Santa Fe, and the college went bankrupt. We were brainstorming about what we could do and we came up with DocuMentors. It seemed there was nothing on the web quite like what we were imagining, and that it was something that was really needed.
I teach part-time at the Santa Fe Community College and encounter many accomplished adults whoíve had successful careers in other areas, who now feel the drive to make a documentary. I get a great deal of satisfaction out of sharing my hard-earned producing and directing knowledge with my students. It feels like a great way to leverage what Iíve learned and to contribute to the world. If I help them tell their stories in a professional way, they have a better chance of making an impact.
So, with DocuMentors, this was just a way to really expand and support documentary filmmaking on a broader level. Itís one thing to have a film idea; itís a wholly other thing to actually execute it well. There are so many moving parts to making a film and most people with a good story have no idea where to start. Also, the advent of affordable digital movie-making equipment has given people the idea that they actually could attempt to make a film. So they dive in, and then realize they need a whole bunch of tools that they donít have. And they probably donít want to take the time or expense to go to film school.
I find it incredibly inspiring to work with the passionate, caring people who feel driven to tell true stories. It definitely re-energizes me when Iím working with my clients. DocuMentors will continue to be a major part of our endeavors and a sister company to Philomath Films.
DS: Other than your own films, what other films and filmmakers have benefited from the website? I see, via a look on the forums page, that the last year has not seen much activity. I know, in the arts scenes Iíve been in that there are far more many people who want to be artists than those who actually appreciate art of quality by others. Is this a case of that- i.e.- the website is a good idea, but thereís just little interest in it from younger filmmakers?
JS: I think looking at our forum is not a good indication of the level of activity and participation in the site. The forum is for Members only, and there are several good documentary forums out there, so I just decided not to really invest a lot of time in re-creating one at DocuMentors. I focus on creating teaching content instead, and mentoring in small coaching groups and one-on-one. After doing this for about 4 years now, there are several films made by our clients that have recently been released and are winning awards on the festival circuit, getting theatrically released internationally and getting broadcast. For the most part, I have mentored them through the entire process of making their films and getting them out into the world. Here are a few: HAFU, CHILDREN OF THE WIND, FROM ZIMBABWE TO SANTA FE, THE YOUNG ANCESTORS, LIFE WITH ALEX, MEN OF THE CLOTH and DYING TO KNOW. There are many more and I am really, really proud of these filmmakers who have completed films and are being recognized.
Let me turn 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. Aside from Shakespeare
Behind Bars, you have produced a few other films. What exactly does a
producer do, aside from the director and other members of the crew?
JS: Producing is a really broad term. But in the end, it means that you are the one responsible for the success or failure of the production. Youíre like the CEO of the film. You are probably largely responsible for raising money. You are definitely over-seeing the spending of that money. You are responsible for hiring crew; renting gear; getting location permissions; filmmaker-subject relationships; legal issues, and more. You might also be intricately involved in the creative aspects of the filmmaking, as I was for SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS.
Let me go through them, one by one, chronologically. You have actually directed
two films, which you also produced. A PBS POV film called Critical
Condition, in 2008, and a 2001 film called Homeland. The
latter film seems to have been on Native American life at the turn of this
century. What was it about, what compelled you and your husband to do the film,
and, since it seems to have been your first film together, what things were
learnt on it for future films?
JS: HOMELAND tells the story of four Lakota families on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, over the course of three years. It is really a story of the American dream in a Native American community at the turn of the 20th century.
Making HOMELAND truly created a turning point in my life. In 1994 we were on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for our very first professional film project, which was about Native American elders. Two very extraordinary Lakota women, Marie and Cecilia, aged 83 and 84, were our guides. They gave us the history lessons of our lives. They told us about Lakota history firsthand, showed us Wounded Knee, talked about their famous relatives, and filled us in on the real story of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud and Sitting Bull. We realized that there were so many stories that hadn't been told and that our Western education had neglected to give us the full picture of Native Americans, past and present.
On the reservation we encountered solid family values, deep spirituality, a vibrant social fabric, and an unparalleled reverence for the environment. On a personal level, we knew we could learn a great deal by spending time with the Lakota people. We decided to make a film about contemporary Native American life because it was the best way to convey what we were learning. When we started there were many good films that dealt with Native history, but not much about every day life. It was the present day, with all its complexities, that drew us in the most.
We really grew up as filmmakers making HOMELAND. We really didnít understand how to construct a story when we started, but by the end we had been through that fire and itís served us well since. We learned to be good listeners. Early on in the shooting, I was interviewing a Lakota spiritual leader and like a good student, had my list of questions I wanted to ask him. We were out in his front yard, and the wide open Plains were behind him. He said, ďPut away that list. Just listen to me. Iíll tell you what you need to know when you need to know it.Ē That shocked and embarrassed me. But really, it was the best interviewing advice I ever got. It made me really be in the moment and listen to his side of the story, and not be so preoccupied with what I wanted to get out of the interview. Now, I strike a balance between what I want to know and what the interview subject wants to share, but I never come in with a piece of paper. I listen and trust my gut more. I see that the interviewing dynamic should be a partnership between the interviewer and the interviewee.
The same spiritual leader, Michael Little Boy, had a line in the film thatís always stayed with me and helped me through challenging times while making a film. ďAlways have faith in what youíre doing.Ē Itís simple, but very profound.
Critical Condition was a PBS documentary on the problems with
healthcare in the U.S. I recall seeing it on television when it first came out,
but did not know you were attached to the project until researching this
interview. You directed and produced two of the filmís segments, set in
California. Was this intended as a polemic during the last Presidential election
cycle? You did not work with your husband on this film, so how did you get
involved? Was it strictly a work for hire piece to fund more personal works?
JS: I was hired by Roger Weisberg of Public Policy Productions in New York. Roger does a lot of social issue and public policy pieces and he goes in with a very clear point of view on a film. He was looking to do a character-driven, observational, long-view piece about the health insurance crisis. And yes, it was intentionally timed to provoke dialogue around the issue during the presidential campaign. In fact, immediately following itís airing on POV, there was a special McNeil-Lehrer hour on the topic and representatives of McCain and Obama were there to discuss the issues.
When Roger contacted us, we had just completed SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS and he really liked that film. He asked us to find potential subjects in southern California who were in a serious health care crisis without health insurance. I ultimately followed five stories in total and 2 of those ended up being in the film. I would not have personally initiated this film, but it was a good thing of which to be a part. As for funding more personal works, I wasnít paid enough for that! But it did help pay the bills for a short while.
Aside from directing, youíve also worked on a few other films in various
capacities. Which was the one you learned the most on, and why?
JS: When I first started out in the film industry, I was happy to try a variety of different jobs to hone in on what I really liked and wanted to pursue. I worked on Hollywood movies like CITY SLICKERS and WHITE SANDS in the art department, camera department, production, etcÖWhat I realized was that I wanted to tell real-life stories, as I had started to in college. From there, I began working with other documentary filmmakers. I think learned the most from working on a series called MEDICAL DIARY, which was for the Discovery Health Channel. I co-directed, shot and wrote several episodes with Hank. On that show, I had a boss named Bob Niemack who is kind, funny, and very direct. He taught me how to tell a story, and how to be brave in the telling Ė how to not shy away from the tough questions or scenes that I needed to get to tell the story in the most impactful way. Funny enough, he edited SCARED STRAIGHT, a film you mention later in the interview.
Let me turn to Shakespeare Behind Bars, but before I explore that,
let me state that, although I watched your film on DVD, picking it up at a
bargain basement retailer, I finally got Netflix in early 2011, and found it
best not for Hollywood schlock, but for streaming documentaries such as Shakespeare
Behind Bars. Has Netflix opened up markets for indy documentary
filmmakers that were not open before?
JS: I think the Internet in general has flung the doors wide open for doc filmmakers. You can get your stories out into the world now and get beyond the broadcast gatekeepers. Of course, finding your audience and making a profit is still a challenge. And the distribution landscape is constantly changing. Overall, I think itís been a positive thing.
My opinion is that while Hollywood is killing American fiction films, and indy
films are in a state of hibernation, the American documentary film may be one of
the few areas in all of the arts, in this country, especially, that is NOT in
the tank. Think of it: television is all bad hospital and cop drama soap operas
and predictable sitcoms, or banal faux reality shows and contests. Hollywood
films are special effects and glorified video games- where is a John Cassavetes
or Orson Welles, in Hollywood or the indy scene? Novels, short stories, and
poetry are being killed by the incestuous MFA writing mill mentality, and the
visual arts of painting and photography are still in the doldrums that followed
the wake of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Music and cinema have never
recovered after the highs of the 1970s, and Broadway is dying, propped up by
overly expensive bad musicals adapted from Walt Disney cartoons or other media-
where is a Eugene OíNeill or Tennessee Williams? Yet, the documentary film
seems to be creatively thriving, even below the realms of titans like Michael
Moore and Errol Morris. Do you agree? Why or why not? What are your ideas for
JS: I think itís truly astounding to watch the documentary genre come of age. Since we canít rely on special effects, we really have to rely on solid story and character development. I think that films like Hoop Dreams and Crumb showed how documentaries could portray just as strong a narrative as a fiction film, but they had the added magnetism of reflecting real life and real people. Itís an irresistable combination in my mind. Also, I would add Werner Herzog to the titan list.
I think that the documentary genre will just continue to get more important in the overall landscape of film. As in-depth reporting and objective news become more and more anemic, documentary is picking up the mantle of exposing societyís issues in a deep and thoughtful way.
I think itís our job as documentary filmmakers to keep delivering compelling, well-told and well-produced stories, and to keep pushing the boundaries. In the end, itís all just storytelling. I donít understand why Hollywood hasnít gotten more into the business of distributing documentaries on a really wide scale. There is much more potential for profit, given the smaller budgets.
Are there any doc makers that youíve discovered on Netflix, or elsewhere that
you think are good? Who, and what works would you recommend, and why? If so,
have you been able to network with them via the Documentors website?
JS: Some of my favorite films include No Impact Man; Rivers and Tides; Jesus Camp; Capturing the Friedmans; Crumb; Bukowski: Born Into This; Food, Inc; Grizzly Man;
And yes, I have had some of these filmmakers come on as guest speakers on DocuMentors. Thatís been one of my favorite parts about having the site, is doing in-depth interviews with some industry experts. These get put into the Members area, which is a monthly subscription based service, which includes in-depth tutorials, templates, tools, databases, and these interviews.
Let me turn then to Shakespeare Behind Bars. First, I thought it
was a good and provocative film, and in my
review of it I wrote:
Unlike such documentaries like Scared Straight, this one does not so obviously buy into its subjectsí mission. One of the major flaws of Scared Straight, as much of a landmark documentary as it was, was that the film overstated the case for the program which showed lifers at Rahway State Prison trying to intimidate young thugs into going straight. This film, however, does not quite buy into the premise that the program that helps produce a Shakespeare play once a year is a cure-all for the varied ills that have driven the prisoners behind bars, despite what its detractors claim.
I stick by that claim. While the earlier film is, indeed, a landmark film
in terms of social documentaries, there was a bit of naÔve-te and preachiness
to it. Your film seems to more or less just be an invisible eye. Was this what
you set out for it to be going in, or did you and Hank just shoot, and think of
the format in the editing room. Also, there are things that occurred that affect
the filmís narrative. Were there other elements you left out? How did the end
product match up with the initial idea? How did you even get the idea to do a
film like that?
JS: All good questions! We always take the stance as observers, and really try to stay away from preachiness. I think the viewer gets the most out of a film when the filmmaker leaves room for interpretation. We do have a point of view going in, but we donít necessarily operate from that POV entirely. We have questions, rather than statements, that we seek to explore with the film and through its characters. Our questions with SBB were: Does working with Shakespeare really give inmates insight into their own lives and actions? Is it a viable therapy for criminals? Is it important to try and rehabilitate criminals, and what is a good, effective way? I think itís up to the viewer to answer those questions.
Of course, through what we observe on location, we shape and hone the story to focus in on those central questions, and invariably, a lot of other smaller questions and discoveries get left out. Thatís the tough part in the editing room, taking out nuances that there just isnít room to explore in a 90 minute format.
The SBB film idea was really developed by Hank. He is an actor, and he was interested in doing a film that centered around the acting process in some way. Honestly, at first glance, I was not really interested in prison, nor that much in Shakespeare. But after our first visit, I was hooked. I realized the incredible depth and layers that existed within this group of men and their situation. We always look for a situation that has a lot of potential story threads, and complex dynamics. That way, weíre fairly sure to come out with something rich and interesting in the end. We take a huge risk when we jump into a new idea, and invest a lot of our personal time and resources to get something off of the ground. Weíve got to feel itís a good risk.
DS: The film is
an hour and a half in length. How much footage did you actually shoot? What
elements do you regret, if any, including in the film, and what elements do you
wish you had not sent to the cutting room floor? Why?
JS: We actually
shot about 170 hours of footage. I donít think I regret anything thatís in
the film. I do regret not being able to include one very interesting character
who ended up on the cutting room floor because we didnít have his
transformational moment on film. He was a Native American man who had been a
sniper in Iraq in the Marines. He had subsequently shot and killed someone who
was hassling his girlfriend. We were not on location filming when he reached a
point in the rehearsal process where he broke through to admitting his
responsibility for the crime. The break-through didnít hold up in the
retelling, even though it was a very dramatic moment. And ultimately, we
didnít have the narrative room to include one more character. I think an
audience gets really weary if you give them more than 5 or so people to keep
track of in a documentary.
DS: The film was
released in 2005 or 2006, but seems to have been filmed in 2002 and 2003. Why
did it take so long to hit the market? Funding, or artistic disagreements.
JS: I find that the
timing of getting films made is often times largely dependent on the flow of the
funding. And the kinds of films that we make do take a very long time to
construct and finish. We like to make films that take place over a significant
amount of time. With Shakespeare Behind Bars, we began filming in May 2002 and finished
filming in September of 2003, so it took over 15 months just to shoot the film.
There was a bit of a lag between filming and editing due to a need for funds. We
spent the fall of 2003 through the Spring of 2004 solely fundraising and
shopping the project around. Then our editor, Victor Livingston, spent 8 months
editing the film beginning in the spring of 2004. This is a very average amount
of time to edit a feature length documentary. It takes a long time to shape a
tight story out of 170 hours of footage! There were no artistic disagreements,
just a lot of normal debating and decision-making.
We hit the festival circuit, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005 and continued playing at festivals through 2005. The film was officially released in theatres in May 2006 and on DVD in July 2006. Active distribution lasted through approximately 2008, and still continues today in various markets.
So, we know that when we dive into a story, we are really looking at a multi-year process of filming, fundraising, editing and distributing the film. Itís something that weíll be living with for quite a long time. So, we make these choices very judiciously!
DS: To return to my review, I wrote:
Ö.the film shows very little of the eventual production (and a good thing, for their acting abilities are very, very limited), choosing instead to focus on the behind the scenes moments where the prisoners choose their own roles, and the moments of personal revelation by each prisoner. Here is where the film has run into some trouble with critics, for oftentimes the film has been reduced to bleeding heart liberalism run amok, trying to humanize pedophiles, rapists, killers, and armed robbers. But, in fact, director Rogersonís hands off approach to the film works, for the audience gets a good sense of which prisoners are genuine and which are fakes. And, trust me, the fakes are there!
I found a number of reviews of the film to be quite off base. The film
seems anything BUT bleeding heart. When a criticism is negative, it can sting,
but if it is on the mark, at least you can appreciate the criticís discernment
and attention paid, but clearly many online reviews seem to have snoozed through
the film, for I saw a film utterly at odds with their claims. How was the film
received, in general? Did you think it was fairly treated, critically?
JS: I guess that we havenít seen these online reviews that youíre talking about! We mainly focused on the major publications and actually were very, very gratified by what was written about the film. The New York Times, the LA Times, New York Newsday, Seattle Times, etc., all wrote excellent reviews and those we really took in and appreciated. As for official online reviews, we also have an excellent 92% rating on RottenTomatoes.com.
Iíve learned from many years of screening my films though, that the reactions are really all about the person watching the film. The film never changes, but audiences will react differently. Itís been an interesting lesson in human psychology! And itís helped me toughen up.
DS: I wrote:
The prisoners who seem to really have learnt something of themselves via their incarceration and rehabilitation, including participation in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, include Hal Cobb (playing Prospero), a wife killer and closeted homosexual, Jerry ĎBig Gí Guenthner (Caliban)- a cop killer turned mentor for younger prisoners, and Sammie Byron (Triculo)- who killed a lover, but seems to have finally realized that he was the reason he was troubled, not his surroundings nor colleagues. But, the film really shines when it focuses on the phonies and borderline cases, like Leonard Ford (Antonio)- a pedophile whom the viewer is never quite sure of if he is gaming the film for his own end, as well as a couple of other prisoners shown in brief bits, who obviously fuck up their lives. One, a double lifer, ends up killing himself after being sent to Ďthe hole,í aka solitary confinement. Then there are other prisoners not so easily identifiable as con men who are cons- such as Red (Miranda), for whom we never learn the crime of, and who seems to be a put-on in one moment, and sincere in the next.
Given that itíll be over a decade since the events were filmed and when this interview runs, have you and Hank kept up contact with any of the inmates in the film? What, if any, interesting tidbits can you share? Do you agree with my assessments of their characters, as portrayed in your film? Were any of them divas? Did any object to their portrayals?
JS: We have kept in close contact with Curt Tofteland, the director of the SBB program, and usually hear the news of everyone through him. Hal Cobb has done some interesting writing. He was awarded a 1st place Pen Award in essay and a 3rd in Poetry in 2010. He has recently been invited to participate in the Anne Frank Center USA Prison Diary Project.
Big G, Leonard and Sammie are still in prison. Sammie is up for parole in 2014.
Big G started a mentorship program for young offenders and wonít go up for
parole until 2021. Red was released, but re-offended and is back in prison with
a 20 year sentence. Howard was released in 2012 and is grateful to be back with
his family. Bulldog served out, is working in the home security business and has
started a family. The Shakespeare Behind Bars troupe is going strong and
recently performed Romeo and Juliet and Richard III. The recidivism rate of guys in this program is a mere 5.6%,
compared with the 60% national average!
No one in the film was ever a diva. They were always kind and
considerate. In fact, I was pregnant while we were filming, and they threw me a
surprise baby shower. Incredible. The guys were all really cooperative and stuck
with us to the end. The hardest 90 minutes of my life was showing them all the
film. After our Sundance premiere, we went to the prison and had a private
screening with them, Curt and the prison chaplain. The guys loved the film and
it was an enormous relief. As each of their confessions came on the screen, they
would sort of gather around that person and support them in that moment during
the viewing. It was an amazing show of the courage and love and trust that they
have for each other. Itís not something you would expect in a prison
atmosphere. But thatís what this group fostered for them Ė a safe place to
express their most shameful and hurtful feelings and memories. I think they all
saw the film as a way to further their healing, and to be a part of something
bigger and helpful to society. As Leonard says, theyíre all looking for mercy,
and ďthe ones who need mercy the most, deserve it the least.Ē I think they
all hope that this film provides some of that for them when everything is said
DS: I wrote:
Yet, the thing that sticks most in the viewersí minds is that many of
these prisoners are actually deeply introspecting themselves. They are not the
mallgoing capitalistic zombies that populate the real world. Of course, they
really need to introspect more than the unincarcerated. Yet, this introspection
does not inhabit the film, itself. By that I mean that the film never really
explores the effectiveness of the program, merely having an addendum that claims
the program has been effective. While I understand Rogersonís aims for his
film, the fact that the film displays skepticism re: the individual prisoners,
yet seems to show no such skepticism toward the whole program, is one of the
reasons that the claims of dimwitted liberalism have been hurled against the
Was it an intentional choice to avoid political arguments about the
program and focus on the individuals? Do you wish the film had been broader
based? Do you think this unquestioning view of the system justified some of the
critical jabs made at the film?
JS: Hank and I never make films about systems or institutions. We make films about the people who inhabit those systems. One of my firm beliefs is that ďthe personal is politicalĒ. To see the larger story, all we have to do is look closely at the smaller stories contained within. And as filmmakers, we have to let the viewers make their own conclusions and judgments as much as possible. So, thatís what we do as filmmakers. We give you a close-up look at the humans in a place that you may not have access to yourself. We forge the relationships to bring forth their stories in as honest a way that we can. Then we leave it to you decide what to do with those personalities, revelations, etc..
DS: To continue:
Another thing that prevents this film from engaging more deeply than its probably should is that it is a no frills documentary. The cinematography is rather pedestrian- the only shot that sticks in the mind is the filmís ending, where, after the play, the cons are bodysearched, and they fade, one by one, from the film and hallway, as a prison guard locks the place up. The chronological structure and interviews with the individual prisoners, after brief introductions, are also rather predictable, as is the filmís ending with a recap of what state of grace (or not) the prisoners featured are currently in (at least as of the DVDís 2006 release).
In retrospect, given the rather interesting subject matter, do you wish
you could have pushed boundaries a little further in regard to cinematic form,
or were budget constraints a factor?
JS: Good question. The answer again lies in the fact that weíre trying to get out of the way of the story and the characters as filmmakers. Weíre trying to let the audience get as close to the characters as possible, to feel the intimacy as much as possible. When the filmmaking gets too showy, or manipulative, it can just take the viewer out of the story, instead of bringing them further in.
That being said, magical realism is something that weíre exploring in our new film, STILL DREAMING. And in a way, we have an intrinsic license to do so because of the spine of the film which follows the production of A MIDSUMMER NIGHTíS DREAM.
The film takes place in a nursing home, and in the surrounding natural world. We followed a group of retired Broadway veterans who are cajoled into returning to the stage again in their 80s and 90s. They are led by two young co-directors who are up and coming NYC Shakespearean directors from Fiasco Theater. They reside in a retirement home for folks in the entertainment industry.
DS: The filmís score was done by James Wesley Stemple, and I wrote:
Rarely has a documentary used music as effectively as a fictive film. Perhaps only Ken Burnsí The Civil War surpasses the music in this film. And, it should be noted that music is present in perhaps only 10-15% of the film, so that when it is deployed, it is in moments of supreme synaesthesia.
What degree of autonomy was given to Stemple, and were you satisfied
with his work? Was it his choice to deploy it so sparingly?
JS: I have to give credit to James and Hank on this one. Hank is always striving to use as little music as possible in our films. He wants the emotional impact to arise organically from the content, and not to be manipulated by the music. I really respect his lead on this. So, in the editing, we ďtempedĒ in very sparingly. Jim is a brilliant composer and a very gifted musician who can play many instruments. We used a lot of the music he provided for the temp score, so we were on the same page all along.
DS: The DVD had
three commentaries on it, and yours and Hankís was easily the best. Yet, a
mere five years after the DVD came out, it seems that streaming has put an end
to the Golden Age of DVD commentaries. Even big companies, like The Criterion
Collection, are simply not making commentaries for new releases any longer. Is a
commentary track just too expensive? If so, how could such a low budget film as
this afford three of them? What is your opinion of this death of the audio
commentary? I feel itís a lost opportunity for filmgoers and cinemaficionados
to be enlightened while also entertained.
JS: Itís not expensive to create. Perhaps if you have to round up movie stars and famous directors and pay them to record their commentary it would be. But for documentary, itís really affordable. I give credit to our DVD distributor, Shout! Factory, for making such a commitment to the artistry and full realization of the content of this DVD. They really got behind us and helped us put together such a full range of content. I hope that we will continue to do this for all of our films in the future.
DS: Let me turn
to talk of film itself. 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.í Documentaries, then, by
analogy, would be good non-fiction books- work of history or biography. What are
your thoughts on this? And, now that youíve broken into feature fiction films,
is Huston correct?
JS: I love this question! I am a visual artist who had to learn about narrative, even though I was an avid reader and writer. I did not truly comprehend story until after I got out of college and began making my own films, and working freelance on a documentary series.
I donít think you can necessarily pair documentaries with non-fiction books. They are different animals. Itís the same as when you see a book adapted to the screen Ė itís never the same. So much needs to be simplified in the story for a screen version.
And obviously, in a cinema verite documentary, we donít start with a script. We start with a situation, possible characters and some themes and ideas weíd like to explore.
I think all good character-driven documentaries have to start with a number of enticing ingredients Ė charismatic characters with interesting backstories, unfulfilled goals and potential obstacles. You also need a situation that is a microcosm of a larger idea, or that can express something universal. You need some good, juicy questions that need to be answered. You need potential conflict. And then, you need incredible patience, tenacity and luck for something great to coalesce over the course of time. Of course, then you have 150 hours of footage that you have to boil down to 90 minutes! Thatís another feat entirely.
What is your ultimate filmic goal? Do you want to continue with documentaries,
and have you and Hank 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?
JS: I just simply want to continue to tell good stories that delve deeply into the human psyche and help all of us figure out how to live better with each other and natural world. I donít really care what form or genre that they take. I would love the opportunity to keep working no matter what. Documentary is a very hard road economically. We donít sustain ourselves at the moment on our filmmaking alone. I would like to. I would also like to work in fiction and direct Hank as a leading actor. That, I guess, is a big dream of ours that will happen in the near future.
I fell into film after taking a course on the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave Cinema) in college. I was literally bowled over by European storytelling on film and the intense psychology and relationships contained therein. Those legendary storytellers are my mentors. Also the Direct Cinema documentary filmmakers. I also really love the work of certain authors, and learn a lot from literature that is reflected in my filmmaking. So, you can see that my inspirations come from many different places, and I hope that my filmmaking also travels many different paths before itís all over.
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? Comments on the curse of the vanity documentary?
JS: In the industry, we have a different name for it which is Personal Documentary, or First Person Documentary. I agree that a lot of them are solipsistic. I also think a few succeed and are totally brilliant. One great example is Troublesome Creek. One of my all time favorites. I also love Alan Berlinerís films and his are mostly personal or family-based.
Let me just digress on your filmic output so far vs. other documentary makers.
Having watched, now, numerous documentaries, itís 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. How do you finance your
JS: Itís really difficult. It takes total commitment and utter tenacity. You just keep knocking on doors until one opens. You process rejection very quickly and move on. Itís a spiritual journey. It pushes all of your buttons. It makes you grow in many ways.
On a specific level, we now rely heavily on crowdfunding. We also do a lot of fundraising through foundations, private donors, mega yard sales, fundraising events. As you can see, itís multi-faceted, and it seems to never end. Itís an exhausting aspect of the path weíve chosen. I thought it would get easier, but it really hasnít. At the same time, Iím an eternal optimist, and I never give up. If a story has chosen me, Iím obligated to tell it. That means I do whatever is necessary to get it made, within reason.
DS: Let me now turn more basic. How do you define your job, as a documentarian or filmmaker?
JS: I feel that documentary filmmaking is a spiritual journey and calling. Itís a vocation that gives voice to the fringes of our society, adding to the important conversation of what is the human race all about and what are our obligations to each other and the planet. Some of us doc filmmakers are here to develop compassion for certain sectors of society; others are here to raise very critical issues that are not being properly addressed in the mainstream; others are here to remind of us our history and past mistakes. Ultimately, I would dare to say that we all have one goal: to make this a more just, healthy, peaceful and tolerant world. There are some people out there making propaganda disguised as documentaries, but I would venture to say that most of us are seeking connection and clarity.
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?
JS: My hero growing up was my dad, who is an illustrator. He was always telling stories through his painted images. I was in awe of what he could do, and how he could pare down a story into its essential images. I had no desire at all to be a filmmaker, until sophomore year in college when I came across those French filmmakers of the 70ís. They blew my mind, as Iíve mentioned earlier. I was always an incredibly avid reader. I would get a book series and not come out of my room for an entire Christmas break. I still have to monitor myself when I read. I have a tendency to get totally lost in a story and not want to deal with my real life for days. My mom is also my hero. She is a really hard worker, a dreamer and an optimist.
I gravitated towards documentary because when I was in college in the 80ís, you just didnít see female fiction filmmakers anywhere. I could name probably two Ė Nancy Savoca and Allison Anders. Then along came Jane Campion. But I didnít think I would be able to break into Hollywood as a director. I wasnít a very commanding person at a young age, and I didnít think I could hack it. On the other hand, there seemed to be total gender parity in documentary filmmaking. It felt less intimidating to me. I wasnít drawn towards the journalistic aspect of it, but the storytelling aspect of it. I fell in love with the authenticity and intimacy of it. My doc heroes are the Hoop Dreams guys (Steve James, Gordon Quinn, Peter Gilbert, Frederick Marx, Bill Haugse), Ricky Leacock, The Maysles Brothers, Barbara Kopple, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. I am totally passionate about this storytelling form and think it is so sublime when done right.
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?
JS: I was born in St. Louis in an interesting circumstance. My parentsí families were blue collar Ė in construction, sheet metal working, automotive industries. My dad was the first to go to college, and he really broke the mold becoming an artist. We moved from St. Louis when I was 7 so that he could be near the NYC art market. This just wasnít done in his family. He was determined to become a top illustrator, and he did just that in about 3 years. I was old enough to really be along for the ride. It was exhilarating and it deeply effected me. I knew that I wanted to also have some sort of voice in the media or the arts. I just wasnít sure how. I saw first hand that all you needed was a dream, a belief in yourself, and the willingness to really work hard at it.
I watched a lot of crappy TV while I was growing up, so I canít say that that really influenced me. I did love the Paul Newman/Robert Redford movies. It was really when I got to college that I started seeing a higher path that I could take within filmmaking. I also had a really corny dream of making television better. Iím glad to see that others have taken up that cause. That being said, Iíd still love to work in television on a great series as a writer and director.
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?
JS: We live in northern New Mexico, near Santa Fe. The region is a wonderful place to live and has a small film industry. Hank has had a lot of fun acting roles on TV shows since weíve been here, such as Breaking Bad, Longmire, Crash and In Plain Sight, which have all shot in Albuquerque.
We lived in NYC and LA for many, long and hard years. We have 2 children,
so we wanted a more family-friendly place to live. For our most recent film,
STILL DREAMING, we moved our family to New Jersey for a couple of months during
filming. The kids thought it was a great adventure.
We donít get as much freelance work as we did in LA, but now Iím starting to travel more to do that. Weíll hopefully keep our current homebase for a long time to come.
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?
JS: I wanted to be a figure skater for a long time. I skated seriously from the ages of 9-14. 20-30 hours a week. I trained in Lake Placid NY and Colorado and for a short time with Dorothy Hamillís coach, Carlo Fassi. I wanted to be like Dorothy, until I realized how limiting the career choices were after you finished your competitive life. Ice Capades didnít appeal to me. I quit and became a regular high schooler. Iíve never regretted that decision. I went to a small public high school in Connecticut, and then on to Dartmouth College.
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
JS: I remember when
the first man walked on the moon, and we watched it on a snowy black and white
television. I was only two and a half. I remember
my mom saying there was a new show on called ĎSesame Streetí, which I then
fell in love with. I remember where I was when Elvis died. I was 12 and we had
recently moved to a new home in the woods in Connecticut. Elvis was a mystery to
me. I was at Telluride when Michael Moore had his very first screening of his
very first film, Roger and Me. It was electrifying to see a documentary take the
festival by storm, and to see him and his crew swept up in the fun of it.
DS: How did you
and Hank meet? What are the pros and cons of working with your spouse?
JS: We met at Dartmouth College on a canoe trip, before classes began. We were very good friends throughout college, and took film classes together. We became a couple later on. So our relationship was founded first on creativity and similar influences. Itís really very special and I cherish it. Itís great because we have many different kinds of relationships with each other and when one is not doing so well, we can lean on the others. We parent together, we create films together, we sometimes teach together. We have similar tastes, but very different temperaments and approaches to life. The challenge is finding time and space for ourselves as a married couple. Weíve had to set strict boundaries around that, and when things get really hectic, it can be the first casualty. But we have such a strong trust and foundation, that we come back to it easily.
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?
JS: I was an only child till the age of 11, and I was a very quiet observer up until that time. Skating helped me come out of my shell. I was always a diligent student and loved school.
Any siblings? What paths in life have
JS: I have a younger brother, Bartley, who is a property manager. He is very entrepreneurial and needs his freedom, like I do. Heís also very gifted creatively.
Any children? What paths have they followed in life? What are their interests?
JS: We have 2 kids Ė ages 5 and 10. They are both very artistic and athletic, so weíll see what happens.
What of your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your
JS: My dad is an artist, and my mom has always worked with him, supporting his business. She also became a realtor later in life. We all like our freedom!
They have been supportive of my filmmaking career for sure. Still Dreaming, our new film, is their favorite of mine so far.
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?
JS: I think I always connected very deeply with my writing and art teachers, even since elementary school. I felt very validated and recognized in both areas throughout my schooling. For most of my college years, I was very torn between becoming a visual artist or a filmmaker. Writing never really figured in, but itís actually something that I have to do quite often as a filmmaker. I had an English teacher in high school, Mrs. Reade, who really encouraged me. In college, a film teacher, Maury Rapf was very special to me, and was my first documentary teacher. I was also close to a studio art teacher, Ben Moss. He gave me very high compliments, and made it very difficult to choose the film path. Ultimately film won out, though I always feel sad about neglecting the visual artist inside of me.
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
JS: I donít think all documentaries fall under ďjournalismĒ. I think they fall more under the exploration of the human condition. They are a truth, they are not the truth. I believe truth is relative and shifty, depending on your perspective and your perceptions. Studying A Midsummer Nightís Dream through our new film, STILL DREAMING, helped shed light on just how murky the idea of truth really is.
That being said, our film HOMELAND, was really propelled by our personal need to find out about the truth behind the history of Native Americans and the United States, versus what we had been taught in school. It makes me incredibly angry that our government and our dominant US culture has created such a false story around Native Americans, as they have with all minority communities. We really needed to study the history, from a number of primary, non-traditional sources to get a clearer picture of how weíve ended up where we are in terms of contemporary Native American life. In the end, our film didnít recount the history, but picked up from there in the present tense.
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?
JS: I appreciate and respect Michael Moore. I could never make films like he does. Heís a provocateur, not just a documentary filmmaker. I think we have to admit that heís had a great impact on the industry, by the mere fact of how heís done at the box office. He has expanded peopleís notions of documentaries and their economic viability. I donít think you can really put him in the same category as Leni Riefenstahl.
DS: What other
documentarians do you think are above the run of the mill? Above the vanity doc
level I described earlier? Why?
JS: Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Laura Gabbert, Laura Poitras, Werner Herzog, Alex Gibney, Marshall Curry. They know how to tell stories that are very layered, and that weave in issues and politics in very elegant and intelligent ways. I also really admire Robert Kenner and Elise Pearlstein for pulling off a complex film like Food, Inc. There are many, many others in our field that I admire as well. Itís exciting to watch this career that people used to condescendingly tell me was ďnobleĒ, become a very powerful and respected endeavor.
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?
JS: I like Ďart imitates lifeí better! Neither can be pinned down totally. I think you have to go for the gestalt of something, rather than get to attached to what it is and what it isnít.
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?
JS: My aim is to move a viewer to open their heart, to feel emotion, to relate to others in a deeper and more authentic way after experiencing a story and its characters. My aim is to get to the more metaphorical and spiritual plane, than the factual ďtruthĒ plane.
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?
JS: Iím hoping that Iím telling stories that have a long shelf life. We strive to get to the universal concepts in our films to make them relevant for many people and for a long time. In other words, weíre telling universally relevant stories, but through a specific lens of a situation and set of characters. I am politically active, but that tends to be in my personal life, and not in my documentary filmmaking life. Iím not opposed to making an overtly political story. One of my favorite fiction films is Bullworth. I loved the political documentaries, The War Room, Travels with George, Street Fight, No Umbrella and Feed.
DS: Why do you
think so many artists believe that politics take precedence over artistic
JS: I donít know. Maybe itís an easier way to get attention than through artistic merit. Iím not sure I agree with the question. The great filmmakers can deftly weave both together.
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?
JS: I think itís mainly driven by commercialism, consumerism and capitalism. But I think you find pockets of engaged, intelligent and concerned citizens everywhere.
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?
JS: PBS has some great strands that play one-off independent documentaries Ė POV and Independent Lens. These have greatly expanded the voices and the documentary fare of PBS and of our national dialogue. I also have to give a lot of credit to ITVS (Independent Television Service). These entities have stretched PBS way beyond Ken and Ric Burns. I have tremendous respect and gratitude for all of them.
I would say that most documentary filmmakers are hopeful for a theatrical release, so I would say that most are theoretically ďmade for theatrical releaseĒ. Itís just who is the lucky one that gets it. We were very, very fortunate to get a theatrical release for SBB. And it only happened because of Shout! Factory, our great DVD distributor, who went after the theatrical release to get more visibility for the film before it was released on DVD. If you are able to get into an A level festival, you might catch the attention of a large enough distributor to garner theatrical release. The odds are very small. Some filmmakers are turning to self-theatrical distribution, just as is happening in the publishing world with major book releases.
In terms of the material difference, PBS has a very prescribed length of film that they mostly program which falls between 52 minutes and 56 minutes, depending on its placement. That really limits the story you can tell. HOMELAND was a PBS ďhourĒ at 56:40 and I feel the film worked best at about 75 minutes. Sometimes a longer film will get programmed at the PBS feature length of 83 minutes. But those are rare.
As for cable, the gold standard is HBO. They have done so much to
strengthen this genre over the past 2 decades. They are able to run any length
of film, and able to take more risks than PBS. Other cable channels come and go.
HBO has been steady and has allowed many filmmakers to grow.
DS: 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?
JS: I donít really understand this question.
DS: Let me ask you of something I see as deleterious to both the appreciation of film, and the purveying of good criticism, and thatís what I call Ďcritical cribbing.í 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 Antonioniís 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 Iíve 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 Ďmemeí 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 Ďpicked upí on the initial criticsí misread?
JS: I have to admit that I feel extremely uncomfortable with the whole idea of criticism itself. Not because Iíve been hurt by negative criticism. But even before I was making work that was public, I felt that criticism was just a derivitive activity to art making. I think that as consumers, we fuel it. Weíre looking for a quick recommendation on what do to in our spare time on the weekend. Should we see this movie or that, read this book or that? Works of criticism are very subjective and most people donít take the time to actually get to know the tastes of the critic to measure whether or not the critic merits their ideological patronage.
I know that there is a place for critics. In the best sense, as artists, it helps us get the word out about our work. But in the worst sense, it makes it too easy for cultural consumers (I hate that word ďconsumerĒ and use it deliberately here).
There are great critics out there, who really do their homework. Itís up to us to do our homework on the critic before we just consume their opinions.
And by the way, Blowup was one of the films that made me want to become a filmmaker.
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.?
JS: Well, the most frustrating part of the process seems to always be the funding. So, I think itís that dog and pony show aspect of pitching your project and trying like hell to get it made. We searched for 2 entire years to get enough money to make Shakespeare Behind Bars, and it was the same good idea from the start. It was an award-winning movie in the making to begin with. We knew this. But getting others on the bandwagon was very hard. Thatís my biggest beef with the industry.
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?
JS: I think that weíve always made completely different types of films than the Burnsí style. We focus on contemporary character-driven documentaries.
One film that I love that involved lots of still images was The
Kid Stays In The Picture. That breaks the mold of a Burns film.
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?
JS: We have a crazy shooting ratio. Something like 100 to 1. Thatís a lot. But itís necessary to roll all the time, I think, in order not to miss the subtle and unpredictable moments that become the magic of a documentary film.
The most obvious difference between a fiction film and a documentary is
what you start with. With a fiction film, you have a very specific script. You
know the exact content and outcome. With a documentary, you just have questions,
a situation, potential characters and dynamics. Itís obviously unscripted, but
you have to be aware of, and shaping the narrative from day one. This is one of
the most rewarding and exhilarating challenges to me about shooting a doc.
Itís using every single one of your neurons to keep the story plates spinning
in your head, and to keep trying to make sense of what is happening, versus what
you thought was going to happen.
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?
JS: We donít have a specific criteria for material that stays in the film, or that gets cut out. Each story is different, and has different narrative demands. For instance, even though on the surface our two most recent films, SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS and STILL DREAMING sound very similar, the storytelling for each was very different. (both involve doing a Shakespeare play in a surprising location with a unique group of actors). In SBB, the plot is very simple, and what drives the film is character revelation and backstory. In SD, the character revelation is not as dramatic, but the plot is much more of a roller coaster ride. So as we are filming, we are discerning what is the driving force of the film, and we are trying to capture as much as we can to serve that driving force.
I will say overall, though, that the moments that make our hair stand on end when we are filming are invariably going to end up in the film, because they are conveying a deep human truth in some way. Even though we come home with 150 hours of footage for a 90 minute film, we can pretty much say off the top of our heads the scenes that weíll be using that will make up 50% of the film. The other 50% of the film is crafted from the rest of the massive amount of footage and supports these incredible moments, weaving the story and character development into something watchable and compelling.
For instance in our new film, STILL DREAMING, there is a scene where an Alzheimerís patient, Charlotte Fairchild, does something extraordinary in a rehearsal. Every day she comes to rehearsal, she has to be reminded of what part she is playing. But because she is so talented and has such a deep well of experience from her Broadway days, she can still really act when she has the text in front of her. While running lines in this scene, she begins singing spontaneously instead of speaking her lines, and the effect on everyone is just spine-tingling. Itís a Puck that no one has ever seen before, and it is brilliant. I had tears while it was happening.
With editing a film, we are also making tough choices about which themes to focus on, so we use footage that supports those main themes. Lots of great stuff happens that we donít end up using because itís too much of a sidebar to the main focus of the film.
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?
JS: I am always on
the lookout for subtext because itís so revealing and interesting. For
instance, what we say versus what we do. I am always warning my students to not
be ďtoo on the noseĒ with image and audio Ė meaning that your visual
exactly illustrates your audio. But
you also have to make sure youíre not being so clever as to frustrate or lose
DS: Are you a
perfectionist? What pros and cons does this have on your work?
JS: Perfectionism is poison. I strive not to be a perfectionist, but to get it mostly right. Woody Allen said a film is never finished. Luckily I heard that in film school, so itís been a helpful edict to remember.
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?
JS: I really love your references Ė the French films from the 70ís, Rodin, etcÖ I think we might have some similar fundamental artistic tastes in common. But anyway, this is a question that really gets to the heart of our process as documentary filmmakers.
I would say our films are there in theory when we start, and weíre trying to get the best odds for the happy accident of a successful story. But weíre always taking a risk that we will be able to bring them forth. It depends on the cooperation of the real life characters involved, and also sometimes the institution where weíre filming.
We try to invest in a situation that has many possible rich and layered outcomes. We seek intriguing characters, who might be flawed, or who have really interesting histories. We seek characters who have a goal and something at stake. We seek a situation that explores an idea or set of ideas that weíre interested in diving into in a deep way through the lens of someone elseís experience.
When we first started editing STILL DREAMING, I had this feeling like it was an archaeological hunt, that we would uncover the story deeply buried in the sand of all the footage. But the more we edited, the more I realized that we were more active in shaping the story - that we were not just uncovering it.
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?
JS: Donít forget Bill Moyers. Heís still hanging in there and really getting deeply into conversation with change-makers in our world.
I do hope that our films help to serve a deeper reflection on the human experience, and promote meaningful conversation. I think we need that higher purpose to keep us going. This is such a hard road to walk most of the time. I need to feel that Iím doing something worthy in order to keep at it.
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 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 (Keatsí Negative Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3.í 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 180į from creativity?
JS: I think thatís an interesting concept. I would put myself in #2. Iím creative, but I donít know if Iím a visionary. I donít think a discipline such as teaching is 180 degrees away. To be a good teacher, you have to be able to guide your students into a greater level of creativity and critical thinking than they are capable of alone. When Iím teaching, I feel very creatively engaged. I also think teaching is a collaborative group process, and that you must involve the other students as well to some extent. A good critic is also a creative person, and the best critics are sometimes visionaries. They are very rare.
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?
JS: I canít really say that I believe in a Muse. Perhaps in Divine Inspiration. I do believe that I am inexplicably drawn to tell certain stories and they just wonít go away until they are told.
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.
JS: The Direct Cinema crew opened the road for the current movement of great storytelling in documentary in the 60ís, starting with Primary. They blew apart the narrow, educational documentary genre by making some technological innovations that allowed a very observational camera technique. I think the Hoop Dreams guys led a new renaissance of that in the early 90ís, and pushed the boundaries of the long-view story. I think Werner Hertzog is pretty great nowadays in terms of thought-provoking documentary cinema and larger than life characters.
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?
JS: Iíve watched several installments. Itís a film school staple, of course. I think the last I saw was 49up. I think itís a fascinating idea that is yet to have a conclusion.
Unfortunately, in the growing list of interviewees Iíve had, you are only the
second female. I have sought out a goodly percentage of females to be
interviewed, but almost all of them balk at intense querying. My wife and I
believe it just has to do with the female mindís more emotional connection to
art- i.e.- they view the art more as a baby, or extension of themselves, than a
thing apart from themselves that, if criticized, bears no reflection on the
individual creator of the thing. We have seen this over and again in the arts,
in all fields. Have you seen the same thing in the documentary field? If so, do
you agree with our posit, or do you have other ideas for the general female
reticence to deeply explore art and issues related to it?
JS: I donít agree with you. I just think it has taken me hours and hours, and many many sessions of writing to get through all of these questions. I havenít minded it, but it has been very intense just on a time level. Raising a family, juggling work and trying to maintain personal balance donít really leave time for long interviews such as this.
I learned a very long time ago that my films are not my babies, and that they are separate from me. I had to, in order to survive this business.
DS: A few less
intense queries. That old chestnut- name a few folk from history youíd like to
break bread with, and why?
JS: My great-grandparents and my maternal grandfather whom I never met. My great-great-grandmother who was born on the Trail of Tears. Iíd like to ask J. Robert Oppenheimer a few choice questions. Iíd love to spend time with Robert Rauschenberg, just because his work amazes me.
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
JS: I think Iíd still like to figure out a way to make the economics better for documentary filmmakers. I would still like to direct a fiction film, with Hank acting. I have a television drama series idea that Iíd really like to make. Itís got an environmental theme. I pitched in around Hollywood in 2000, but no one wanted to touch the ďEĒ word at that time, and they told me as much. I donít think failures gnaw at me, just things I havenít done yet. Having kids, it really creates a longer career arc, but itís very fulfilling on a day to day basis.
Let me close by asking what is in store, in the next year or two, in terms of
JS: You will see
the release of Still Dreaming. We may continue working on another documentary
that takes place in our community and is a black comedy of sorts involving
sustainability. I want to continue to develop DocuMentors and keep adding
relevant content for all documentary filmmakers.
DS: Thanks for
doing this interview, Jilann Spitzmiller, and let me allow you a closing
statement, on whatever you like.
JS: Thank you for the interview. I canít believe Iíve finally come to the last question!
I appreciate your contemplation and exploration of the form of documentary film.
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