Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

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Join Susan’s Online Class: “Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script” starts 8/3/17

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script

Seven Weeks to Your TV Spec Script

In this workshop, writers will learn all the key elements to a successful “episodic spec,” and will receive ongoing instructor guidance in building their own—from basic idea through finished outline. It begins with knowing how to choose the right kind of show to spec, then understanding which elements to study, in order to really grasp how a typical episode functions well enough to write one. Students will then learn the elements of great story ideas for a spec, and be given a chance to pitch and re-pitch multiple ideas for their episode, before finally settling on one to write. At that point, they will begin “breaking story” (figuring out the key “beats” of each “act”) over several weeks, getting instructor feedback along the way. Finally, they will be guided in crafting a scene-by-scene outline, from which they could then go on to write the actual script.

Next sessions:
August 3 – September 21
September 28  – November 16

 

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Strange Weather’ Writer and Director Katherine Dieckmann

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“For years I had an image in my head of a woman sitting alone at a bar, nursing a drink, wearing a straw Stetson-like hat and jeans. She was middle-aged and still working out the terms of her life. She had lost a son, but I wasn’t sure how. This woman eventually became Darcy Baylor, and her story became Strange Weather.”

–Katherine Dieckmann

Katherine Dieckmann

A July heat wave in New York City served as a fortuitous backdrop for meeting with writer and director Katherine Dieckmann to talk about her latest feature film Strange Weather.

Dieckmann began her career as a journalist, writing for such publications as Rolling StoneThe Village Voice, Film Comment, Vogue and The New York Times Book Review, before going on to direct music videos for bands including R.E.M., Aimee Mann, Wilco, Everything but the Girl and Vic Chesnutt. Dieckmann was the originating director on the groundbreaking live action Nickelodeon serial, The Adventures of Pete & Pete. Dieckmann’s films include MotherhoodDiggers and A Good Baby, which was developed at the Sundance Institute’s Screenwriting and Directing labs.  Dieckmann is an Associate Professor at Columbia University’s graduate School of the Arts Film Program, and a Creative Advisor for the Sundance Institute. 

ABOUT STRANGE WEATHER

Strange Weather tracks an uncompromising woman (Holly Hunter) as she embarks on a trip through the south with her best friend (Carrie Coon) to uncover the truth about the one event in her life that she can’t get over. As the two women traverse a part of the country afflicted by drought and flood, a climate every bit as uncertain as Darcy’s emotional one, each stop on the road becomes a key step in Darcy’s process of overcoming, giving her a new way to think about her past, and how to transform it into a different kind of future.

Susan Kouguell speaks with writer and director Katherine Dieckmann about her latest feature film Strange Weather, starring Holly Hunter.

Holly Hunter in Strange Weather

We began our talk discussing her influences for this film.  Citing female-driven regional indies, which included Winter’s Bone directed by Debra Granik and Frozen River directed by Courtney Hunt, to Wim Wenders’ road movies.

DIECKMANN:  Granik and Hunt are women who made singular regional movies with a female character at the center of the film; I loved the tone of the films.  My Digger’s cinematographer shot Debra’s film. I know people who were involved in both films.  As for Wim Wenders, I was a journalist in my early 20s, and I interviewed him about Paris, Texas when I was 23 or so, and those films had a huge effect on me.  I saw Wenders’ films again at a retrospective at MoMA a couple of years back and we had Paris Texas on our minds.

It really was a fusion of my passion for southern literature and southern photography. I was an English major at Vassar, and I received my masters in Literature from NYU.  Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, and Walker Evans, among others, had an impact on me with this film.

KOUGUELL: You didn’t have a formal education in filmmaking.

DIECKMANN:  I took one 16 mm class at Cornell when I was 16.

I became friends with R.E.M’s Michael Stipe when I interviewed him for an article.  He gave me a music video to direct; that was the nicest gift a friend could give you. It was an incredible way to enter into the world of making images to have that support from somebody. He could tell I was a frustrated journalist. When I started out as a journalist, Elle magazine sent me to Berlin to interview Wim Wenders, but that type of support was ending for glossy magazines and Michael could tell I was frustrated because pieces were shrinking and becoming more celebrity focused. Michael and I had the same type of taste in film.

KOUGUELL:  What was the timeline from writing the script to going into production?

DIECKMANN: I wrote the script about five summers ago. We attached Holly and it took a while to get the money; my producers were tenacious and dedicated. It was probably four years from writing to directing.

KOUGUELL:  This film was largely made by women and you mentioned that your producers Jana Edelbaum and Rachel Cohen supported your vision every step of the way.

DIECKMANN: I didn’t set out to make it so female heavy. I ended up hiring a male DP; David Rush Morrison was sensitive and the eye that I wanted, which was more important than his gender. But yes, I love giving women work.

KOUGUELL:  Strange Weather is a character-driven story. Holly Hunter’s character is very specific, relatable, empathetic, and often surprising. Was there a particular process in writing that you use to find your characters’ voices?

DIECKMANN: I have a lot of close southern girlfriends and actually this connects to my R.E.M. relationship. When I became friends with that band, I started spending a lot of time in Georgia. There is a certain cultural thing that I was interested in; how these women speak to each other and deal with each other was of enormous interest to me, the humor and the slang, and just that way of being with each other.

The characters were super clear to me from the beginning. I know Darcy would say this and Byrd would say that. The character of Mary Lou was bizarre – it was like I was channeling her.

Callie Khouri, one of my advisors at Sundance Lab, was saying how the characters of Thelma and Louise arrived to her in that way. She woke up one morning and she knew exactly what type of toothpaste these two characters would use. When you’re a writer sometimes that happens, and when that happens it’s the luckiest moment in the universe because it makes your job so much easier; you’re just channeling.

KOUGUELL:  What suggestions do you give your Columbia students about writing characters?

DIECKMANN: I give them a 40 character questions worksheet, which stems from Frank Daniel the founder of the Columbia Screenwriting Program, and then different colleagues of mine have modified it over the years. There are also exercises to do to get to know your character inside – the psyche of your character. One thing I often critique in their scripts is ‘You’re not in the scene because that character was last seen standing by the counter and now he’s sitting at a table, so how did they get from A to B.? You’re not with your character’s physical space. So, I say, be an actor in your own scene, and act it. I do that too when I’m writing. I ask: Where am I in this space? Where are the other people in this space? Is it hot in the room? Am I uncomfortable? Am I hungry? Try to be as an actor would be in that situation and I think that really helps to write more authentically in terms of what characters might say or do.

KOUGUELL: What about structure?

DIECKMANN: I’m really into structure because if you really have structure in your bloodstream it’s actually liberating then you don’t have to think about it too much.  When I teach I spend an enormous time on structure.

I teach the film ‘IDA’ for the sequences.  (Directed by Pawe? Pawlikowski and written by Pawlikowski and Rebecca Lenkiewicz.) It’s hyper composed. If you break down the film, you’ll find eight masterful sequences.

Script EXTRA: Structure – The Spine of the Screenplay

KOUGUELL: Did you stay close to the script, was there improvisation?

DIECKMANN: Holly loved the script and had the entire script committed to memory. She had such an intent keen interest in the dialogue.  There wasn’t much improvisation, not because I’m controlling, but because the actors wanted to stick close to it.

KOUGUELL: Sadly, Glenne Headly passed away last month. She gave a tremendous performance.

DIECKMANN:  Glenne was a very deep thinking actor who really wanted to interrogate text on every level. I loved the chemistry between Glenne, Holly and Carrie Coon.

KOUGUELL: What advice do you have for aspiring screenwriters who are setting out on this journey?

DIECKMANN: Writing about something you’re passionate about even if it does not seem ‘marketable’ is the best thing to do. I think a lot of writers starting out try to calculate to the market, but you can’t control whether the world is going to pay attention to it. Write something that you really believe in, that’s your strength. I always tell my writers to write to their particular and personal strength, and passion. I teach a year-long class and sometimes students come in with two ideas and I say, pitch them both, and it’s completely clear what someone is invested in. Write to your investment and don’t worry if it’s fashionable. Look at Moonlight  – who would have predicted how great that such a singular voice completely uncalculated to the market broke through like that. To me, that’s what every writer should do.

Strange Weather opens in theaters on July 28.

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Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Swim Team’ Filmmaker Lara Stolman

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Lara Stolman

The award-winning feature documentary Swim Team is indeed making a huge splash. On July 7th of this year, ABC World News Tonight chose the cast of Swim Team as its “Persons of the Week” and the film continues to garner note-worthy attention.

I recently spoke with director Lara Stolman about making her debut independent documentary, her creative process and how this project came to life.

Lara has produced news and documentaries that have aired on NBC, MSNBC, TLC, AMC, VH-1 and The New York Times‘ website. Her film Portraits of Survival, about coming to terms with the tragedy of 9/11 through art, was selected for the Hamptons International Film Festival, aired on MSNBC and was awarded the Cine Golden Eagle. For Swim Team, her first feature documentary film, she was named an IFP Documentary Lab Fellow, awarded the New York Women in Film and Television Loreen Arbus Disability Awareness grant and was provided with completion funding from the Karma Foundation. Lara has guest lectured on documentary production at NYU, served as a juror for the News and Documentary Emmy Awards and writes for the Huffington Post. She has a BA in Political Science from Columbia College of Columbia University and JD from Yeshiva University’s Benjamin Cardozo School of Law.

 

About the Film

Swim Team is a feature documentary chronicling the rise of a competitive swim team made up of diverse teens on the autism spectrum. Based in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, the cast of Swim Team is largely Latino and Asian, minorities that are underrepresented in competitive swimming and underserved in autism intervention and education. The film follows three of the team’s star athletes, boys on the cusp of adulthood as they face a future of exclusion and dependence. But everything changes when they come together as a team with parent coaches who train them with high expectations and zero pity. As the team vies for state and national Special Olympics championships, Swim Team captures a moving quest for inclusion, independence and a life that feels winning. 

SUSAN KOUGUELL: How did the project come about?

LARA STOLMAN: I was looking for swimming lessons for my son who has autism and I found Coach Mike and Maria. This was in the fall of 2013. They were recruiting children for their new team; the team was just coming together and so it was the perfect time to meet them and start working on the film. We were able to be there on the first day of practice, the first day the kids came together as a team.

They were so inspiring to me as a mom, as a parent, and as a filmmaker. I was very impressed with their high expectations. Coach Mike said, ‘This team is going to dominate the competition.’ No one speaks that way about children with autism. I knew that I had to see how this unfolds.  My son was too young to participate on the team at that time. It was soon after I met them that I knew I had to capture this story.

KOUGUELL: Why did you choose not to include yourself or your son’s story in this film?

STOLMAN:  My background is in film and television, and this is my first independent project. I work for networks and cable channels, and I’ve always done what I’ve been assigned to do story wise.  I never thought of myself as a personal filmmaker; that’s not how I approached my work. When the time came for me to make my film I looked up to the great cinéma vérité filmmakers, D.A. Pennebaker and Barbra Kopple.

It’s interesting, I didn’t think it was important to turn the camera on myself and yet you could say this was a very personal film. The film is very much informed by my experience. The intimacy of the scenes with these families is a result of what I had in common with them and we were able to establish a rapport.

Susan Kouguell speaks with director Lara Stolman about the creative process making her debut independent documentary and how this project came to life.KOUGUELL: The parents of the three protagonists are so open and honest about their experiences, their fears for the future for their sons, their pride of their sons’ accomplishments. Describe the process of the boys and families opening up to you. 

STOLMAN: It was a process; it didn’t happen right away. I knew I had to have the whole team involved in order to film. There were 17 kids on the team and 17 families. I needed everyone to sign release forms. I needed to call everyone up and not everyone returned my calls. I showed up at the YMCA, I went to people’s houses, and during this process I was interviewing everyone and trying to figure out who was going to be a featured character, who was going to be a featured family and who would let me, who was going to be part of the process and be a partner with me. That’s what you need with a film like this. Not everyone was interested.  I had families who didn’t return my calls or they said, ‘no we don’t want to do this,’ but everyone signed those release forms. I was able to film the story with the kids and the team and no one had to be blurred out or cut out.  For some families it was personal, there are privacy issues and there are stigma issues too with autism and I understand that.

But even with the families that were interested it was still a process to get to the point where we really had that intimacy that you see in the film. For example, the scene with Rosa where she sits down with her son Robbie to talk to him about autism — that happened later in our filming.  It was something that we worked toward. She told me when I first met her that it was important for her to have this conversation with her son. He was on the team specifically so she could tell him about who he was and his diagnosis. He didn’t need to be on that team.  Most of the kids needed to be on the team because no other team would take them but Robbie was on two other swim teams; he was on his high school team and the elite swimming team. Rosa thought it was important that he learned more about who he is and his community. I asked her if I could film that conversation and she agreed. There wasn’t a lot of direction, so to speak, but we definitely talked ahead of time; when she was thinking of doing it, what she would say. She was very nervous how to talk about it.

My relationship with these parents was more than a filmmaker and their subjects. I became part of the community, part of the team. I wasn’t a team family but I actually became a team parent.

KOUGUELL: I imagine that’s how Mikey, Kelvin, and Robbie, came to trust you and the cameras.

STOLMAN: I didn’t think it was going to pan out with Robbie. I tried to test him with my iPhone when I went to visit him at his home. I wanted to do a camera test to see how he would be on camera and he just wouldn’t talk. I guess he was nervous. I didn’t know him at that point and I thought it wasn’t going to work out because he was shutting down. Lo and behold, he emerges as one of the most charismatic characters.

We got to the point they didn’t think about the cameras.  It was myself, DP, Laela Kilbourn and my sound guy Peter Ginsburg. We are not obtrusive, and we spent a lot of time with them even when we weren’t filming. I went to the practices and participated, I spoke to the parents even when I wasn’t shooting and all of that I think contributed to the kids and parents not noticing the cameras.

KOUGUELL: Did you work from any type of scripted outline?

STOLMAN: Yes. Because I work in television and television news, I write everything in script form before I edit. I go through a process over a few months usually and with a project like this I go through all the footage and I put the whole script on paper and do a paper cut before I start to edit with my editor.  Things change when you get into an edit room.  We had a focus group at one point.

I like to write and I like to approach the story first from the standpoint of putting it on paper.   Even before I wrote a script, I wrote a treatment. Everything is transcribed, and I transcribed this project myself. I like to look at footage multiple times because each time I might be looking at things differently; sometimes you’re looking at the dialogue, sometimes the shot. Then I write a treatment or an outline, and then I write a script.  The script is something that changes when you get into the edit room. I sit there with a laptop and I’m constantly changing as we are editing. I feel most comfortable working that way. It took us only seven months to edit the film and I think that’s in part because of the scripting process and because I’m such a stickler about that.

KOUGUELL: What was the length of the shoot?

STOLMAN: We started filming January 2014 and we did most of our shooting until June 2014, then we did some follow-up the next year with the main characters.  We didn’t know what the ending was going to be.  It could have been that Mikey goes to nationals, but all these other things were happening and I realized that’s not the ending.

KOUGUELL: Did you have any specific intentions going into the project regarding the subject matter you wanted to address and did that change in any way as the filming evolved?

STOLMAN: There were certainly many unexpected twists and turns along the way and I definitely had an open mind, which you have to have in a documentary with real life characters who are living their lives.

We did know that Mikey was going to the nationals before we started shooting and that’s one of the reasons that I thought this was going to be the natural ending of the film. We didn’t know anything else; I didn’t know who the main characters were going to be.  We were following seven of the families pretty closely and it wasn’t until midway through filming that it became clear that it was these three guys on the relay team.

I knew I had a story: a season in the life of this team and the star swimmer was going to nationals. But beyond that everything else was organic, unpredictable and exciting.  For example, people have asked me if I orchestrated the Act 2 crisis point when Robbie is late for practice and I say, of course not, that’s part of the fun and unpredictability of the process.

KOUGUELL: You tackle the challenges the three boys and their parents face directly and unapologetically.  This isn’t a film only about young people who have disabilities and their families, it is also universal, as it examines the failure of the system and how parents try to navigate it as best as possible and how the community works together or doesn’t.

STOLMAN: I was mindful that this film has to transcend an audience of families with kids who are on the spectrum. I wanted it to be universally appealing.   What these families are struggling with is applicable to all parents in general.  Whether their kids have disabilities or not all, parents have to handle unexpected challenges with their children.

My producer and editor said they felt so strongly about being part of the film because they’re mothers — and their boys are typical — but they connected so strongly with the parents’ POV in the film and how much these parents love these kids and how they’re willing to do everything and anything it takes. We would like the film to move beyond a niche audience.

Swim Team is playing at the IFC Center in Manhattan until July 25 and at the Laemmie Monica Film Center in Los Angeles until July 26.  For more information about Swim Team and screenings visit their website.

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Susan’s ‘Fundamentals of Screenwriting’ 4-week Online Class starts 7/27

Join me July 27- August 24

 for my online 4-week class

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SCREENWRITING 

This four-week class is the perfect introduction to the world of writing a script, from the fundamentals of the story down to the revision process. In this course, you will gain the tools to structure your scenes, your acts, and your plots.
At each step, you will receive comprehensive feedback on assignments targeted to develop the skills needs to thrive as a screenwriter.
The lessons in this course include video instruction.

Testimonial:

The course was well outlined and a terrific help in getting the script properly structured. The instructor was supportive and gave fantastic advice with positive feedback.” – Jen B.

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Join Susan’s ‘Advanced Film Rewriting’ Online Class starts July 13

Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop at Screenwriters University

This ten-week workshop is broken up into five sessions that each focus on individual elements of the rewriting process. Each session, you will submit a section of your screenplay for review. Each session will also have focused lectures that help you on each step of your revision process. The lectures are there for support, but the focus of this workshop will be on your screenplay. Each session, you will submit to your instructor for private review, and also you can submit to the other workshop participants for peer review.

Register here

Next session:

July 13- September 21

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘The Reagan Show’ Filmmaker Pacho Velez

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President Ronald Reagan signs the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, Rancho del Cielo, CA, 1981. Photo credit: Karl Schumacher. Photo courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. (Gravitas Ventures & CNN Films)

“Reagan’s embrace of ‘the script; ushered in what Paul Krugman and other commentators have called “post-truth politics,” showing that it is acceptable to replace nuanced descriptions of complicated political realities with folk wisdom and self-effacing jokes.”

–Pacho Velez

DIRECTORS’ STATEMENT

Eschewing contemporary interviews or outside commentary, The Reagan Show is composed of network news broadcasts, Hollywood films and, most importantly, the largely unseen raw footage shot by the White House Television Office crew. Through this trove of material—from the bizarre and unscripted to the unflappably professional—the film tracks the public-relations battle behind the Cold War’s tumultuous end, highlighting the key role that Reagan’s use of film and video played in his presidency. Armed with the 20/20 vision that only hindsight can provide, our immersive, self-reflective approach invites viewers to look closely at—and question—the use of narrative in contemporary politics.

—Sierra Pettengill, Pacho Velez

ABOUT THE FILMMAKERS

PACHO VELEZ

Pacho Velez (Director, Writer) is an award-winning filmmaker. His last documentary, Manakamana (co-directed with Stephanie Spray), won a Golden Leopard at the 2013 Locarno Film Festival. It played around the world, including at the New York Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. His earlier work has screened in venues as varied as The Swedish Museum of Ethnography, Occupy Boston, and on Japanese National Television. He is a Princeton Arts Fellow and, beginning in the Fall, a professor at The New School.

SIERRA PETTENGILL

Sierra Pettengill (Director, Producer) is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker. Town Hall, her directorial debut (co-directed with Jamila Wignot), broadcast nationally on PBS in 2014. She produced the Academy Award-nominated documentary Cutie and the Boxer, which also won the directing award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and the 2016 News and Doc Emmy Award for Best Documentary. She was the archivist on Jim Jarmusch’s Gimme Danger, Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women, Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine, and Matt Wolf’s Teenage, amongst many others.

2/4/1983 President Reagan Nancy Reagan and David Gergen at a Press Briefing in the Press Room during a surprise Birthday Party in honor of President Reagan’s 71st birthday

I first met Pacho Velez at the 2013 Locarno International Film Festival when I interviewed him and his co-director Stephanie Spray about their award-winning feature documentary Manakamana. It was a pleasure to speak once again with Velez following the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival about his second feature documentary The Reagan Show, which was nominated for the Tribeca Film Festival’s Jury Award, and received the David Carr Award for Truth in Non-Fiction Filmmaking at the Montclair Film Festival, among other awards.

KOUGUELL: What was your intention for the film when you first started out, and did it shift in any way with the research that was done and the archival footage that was discovered?

VELEZ: I was interested in Reagan, and finding a way to watch Reagan age through the archive.  We actually started in the 1930s and made our way through the 1990s through the footage. There is an additional layer to this archive because Reagan kind of commissioned it of himself. It was overseen by a civilian administrator appointed by the Reagan administration. There is a sense that he is both the subject of the archives but also, in part, its author.

KOUGUELL:  Meaning it’s not impartial?

VELEZ: Yes, it totally reflects Reagan’s priorities; it’s another way of knowing him. You see what he was interested in. You see what he thought was important to record for posterity and in that way you get access to his thoughts on what he’s up to — and when I say “he” I also mean the institutional he; what his administration was up to.

KOUGUELL: There were 1,000 hours of archival footage that was sorted through.

VELEZ: Yes, that was really brutal. That was mostly Dan Garber, my former student, who was the researcher who received an editing credit on this film. He spent essentially three years watching footage.

KOUGUELL: As you started to assemble the footage, did your point of view of the material change, were there surprises for you?

George Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Mikhail Gorbachev all wave to the press corps. Film still from THE REAGAN SHOW. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

VELEZ: Oh yes. We had no idea the film was going to be about Gorbachev and the nuclear weapons treaty at all.  We didn’t begin with a narrative in mind. It was this idea of poring through the archives and seeing what story was inside of that.

KOUGUELL: Which material was public domain?

VELEZ: Broadcast news footage is not public domain. All the footage Reagan shot of himself is public domain because the government produced it, and so the American people own it.

There was a lot of broadcast material we were able to use under fair use rights, which means when you’re not reproducing the footage, but you’re commenting on it in an explicit way, and its source is marked.

The beginning clip with David Brinkley interviewing Reagan, that material is fair use: it has the title in the beginning stating David Brinkley interviews Ronald Reagan in his last interview in office with the date of the interview, the network it was for, and that’s all on the screen.

KOUGUELL:  Talk about the writing process. You chose not to use voice-over narration.

VELEZ: Right and we didn’t have a script. The scripting was a discussion about story. For example: Where are we going to introduce the core narrative, and when is the moment that Reagan returned to the public relations question. We had a bit about Nancy Reagan’s relationship, and if that should come early or late in the film. All those types of questions were the purview of the writer.

KOUGUELL: Some documentarians work with an actual outline, with either insertions for voice-overs or printed text intended to be in supers.

VELEZ: We didn’t do that. At times, we wrote transcripts of the film, and thought about what would be great to have, but when you’re working the way we were working, you really couldn’t do that. You had to go out and find it, and figure out how to insert it.

KOUGUELL: The film is especially timely, given our current events.

VELEZ: Yes. Our present political context shifted; the meaning of those images has changed. There’s a way that you see the seeds of Trump in Reagan’s use of media.

Ronald Reagan addresses the 1988 Republican National Convention. Film still from THE REAGAN SHOW. Photo credit: Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.

FINAL WORDS

VELEZ: Someone was asking us the other day about the film in a way that assumed it was a historical film, and I never thought about it through that lens. Obviously, it’s a film that’s happened in the past. It’s historical, but the film is explicitly doing the work of history, no one is ingesting the footage and saying, ‘Looking back 20 years I see this, that and the other.’ Although it’s a historical story, all the commentators are talking about it in the moment.

Sometimes I think it’s political archeology, media archeology, as much as history. For me, I was thinking about the differences between those ideas; you have the political discourse that is meant to be consumed in the moment and what it means to re-watch that 30 years later versus proper history and having those two speak to each other.

The Reagan Show will open in New York at the Metrograph Theater and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Monica Film Center on Friday, June 30th, with a national rollout to immediately follow. It will also become available on VOD on July 4th.

 

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Susan’s Online ‘Writing the Documentary’ course starts May 11

WRITING THE DOCUMENTARY FILM

FOUR-WEEK ONLINE COURSE

Starts Thursday, May 11, 2017

Documentary writing requires research and an understanding of the audience’s expectations, and how the writer can keep an open mind when challenged by the unforeseen, including the exposing of surprising material and interview subjects’ unexpected responses. This course will examine and offer specific strategies for writing and planning a documentary.

READ MORE HERE

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘No Man’s Land’ Director David Garrett Byars at the Tribeca Film Festival

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SCRIPT Magazine link

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘No Man’s Land’ Director David Garrett Byars at the Tribeca Film FestivalDavid_Byars_HeadShot

David Garrett Byars

I sat down with first-time documentary director David Garrett Byars during the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival to discuss his journey making his riveting film No Man’s Land.   Byars also wrote, produced and was the cinematographer on this project, which gives a gripping on-the-ground account of the 2016 standoff between protestors occupying Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and federal authorities.

The History

In January of 2016, protestors gathered in Burns, Oregon to denounce the federal sentencing of two ranchers. During the protest, a group led by Ammon Bundy broke off and took over nearby Malheur Wildlife Refuge. The occupation quickly attracted a stew of right-wing militia and protestors. What began as a protest to condemn the sentencing morphed into a catchall for those eager to register their militant antipathy toward the federal government. The Malheur occupation drew the national spotlight, attracting media fascinated by the spectacle of cowboys and militia rebelling against the federal government. The siege also attracted the attention of the FBI, who set up a command center nearby to counter the occupiers. During the 41-day siege, events at Malheur took a bloody turn when federal agents waylaid the leaders of the occupation en route to a community meeting. A car chase ensued that resulted in the arrests of the entire insurgency leadership and the dramatic on-camera shooting death of LaVoy Finicum, the semi-official spokesman for the group.

Armed occupiers explore and secure buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Film still from NO MAN'S LAND.

Armed occupiers explore and secure buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Film still from NO MAN’S LAND.

Susan Kouguell: What drew you to this project?

David Garrett Byars:  I started following the whole patriot movement as it related to public lands back in May of 2014. When I heard the Bundys were coming to Recapture Canyon to protest, it was about three hours west of where I was living in Colorado, which is right next door in terms of Western spaces. I drove out there with my friend Jim Hurst, who is a co-producer on the film. We realized this story was something much bigger. What we saw there were people who were very upset over a very small road closure to motorized vehicles. You could still walk there, ride horses, bike, drive a herd of cattle over the road, but the only thing you couldn’t do was drive a car or an ATV over it. It was clear that it was just a Talisman of this rural frustration particularly in the West with the federal government distrust. I saw the patriot movement as it related to public lands as a good avenue to explore this rural rage.

Susan Kouguell: How were you able to get this unbridled access to the Bundys and protesters?

David Garrett Byars:  Since I followed this movement for about two and a half years I knew of a couple of them and had been in contact with a couple of them, so when I got there I had a little bit of a leg up than the rest of the media. Also, the rest of the media kind of put microphones in people’s faces, and some of them were just trying to get to them to say the most outrageous things possible to get it on the Evening News in order to say, ‘There you go, these crazy people.’ I told them I wanted to tell the more human side of the story, and they thought that was hippie dippy BS. It was spending time with them, putting the camera down, sitting with them at the campfire and being very respectful of them and their privacy; I think that’s what allowed them to allow me to start filming more and get more intimate moments with them.

Armed agents guard the command center set up by the FBI to monitor and neutralize the occupiers at the Malheur. Film still from NO MAN'S LAND.

Armed agents guard the command center set up by the FBI to monitor and neutralize the occupiers at the Malheur. Film still from NO MAN’S LAND.

Susan Kouguell: In the film, you presented a neutral point-of-view; you didn’t disrespect the Bundys or the patriot movement, and powerfully conveyed both sides of the story.

David Garrett Byars: I could have made a real preaching-to-the-choir type of movie but then I thought no one would learn anything from that.

Susan Kouguell: Tell me about the writing process.

David Garrett Byars: I was constantly writing and rewriting as things were happening, before the occupation. Originally it was going to be more of an essay-type film. When the arc dropped out of the sky, it was a new story and I’m glad. There are essay type films about the patriot movement, but I hadn’t seen a film about public lands, and I’d rather have a narrative arc-driven film than an essay-style film. When we decided to use talking head interviews rather than purely the cinema vérité form, David Osit (editor) and I sat across from each other with a script and said exactly what we wanted to say at each moment, according to our timeline. So basically we had a timeline of our vérité footage and then we said this is what we want someone to say here, and this is what we want to say there.

Duane Ehmer rides out to confront the press after the killing of Lavoy Finicum. Film still from NO MAN'S LAND.

Duane Ehmer rides out to confront the press after the killing of Lavoy Finicum. Film still from NO MAN’S LAND.

Susan Kouguell: Instead of using a voiceover to give background information on the movement and occupation, various journalists were interviewed, which was very effective.

David Garrett Byars:  I didn’t want to use the voice of god. I grew up on one side of the political spectrum, and I’m on the other side of the political spectrum. I think that transition gives me a bit of insight. We live in a country where everyone is pointing the finger at the other side and saying, ‘You’re wrong, and because I disagree with you, you’re a bad person.’  By saying ‘you’re wrong’ – it claims a moral higher ground.

Susan Kouguell: Did you work from an outline or a script?

David Garrett Byars: Initially we went very chronologically. We put an assembly in chronological order and started picking and choosing. I did the whole note cards thing. My editor didn’t. We had it in a cinema vérité form and once that was done we saw that it didn’t say what it needed to say. We were tossing out a lot of ideas with Lana Wilson our story consultant and our editor David Osit. We reached out to journalists who were there and reached out to experts. We wanted to stay at the refuge as much as possible. That was a lynchpin moment in terms of the direction we were in. We could have made this very artsy, purely cinema vérité film, but it would have been emptier and devoid of meaning.

Susan Kouguell: You mentioned that there was a natural arc to the story that you didn’t expect. Please elaborate.

David Garrett Byars:  When the Bundys took over the line in Oregon in 2016, it was a situation in which they were forcing the federal government to react; there was going to be some sort of reaction and some sort of ending with this standoff. We already had the inciting incident, and in just pure story terms, there were things that were going to happen, and there was going to be some type of ending. As a documentary filmmaker, I feel like we are forced to find an ending or more of an emotional ending than an actual physical ending, unless of course you are making a film about a political campaign or a football season. It was definitely something I knew I had to jump on top of and take advantage of because to have this narrative arc and to move you through this whole question of how we got to this current movement of American Zeitgeist was really compelling to put you through to the larger question.

Susan Kouguell: For a first-time documentary filmmaker, you have quite the impressive team of producers. How did this come about?

David Garrett Byars: I was at the Refuge and David Holbrooke, who was just a mentor at that point, called me up and said you need to put a two-minute reel together and make a postcard, and come down to Sundance. I flew home to Telluride, got my car, because I was hemorrhaging money on car rentals – money that I didn’t have.  I drove out to Sundance and met Morgan Spurlock, basically on the street because David knew him. I gave Spurlock the card, and he said it looks awesome and to send him the film link. Soon after, he said that looks great; we’re going for it. It was really so quick. I then met one of the executives from Warrior Poets, we laid out the basic terms of the agreement, and I drove out back to Oregon the next day.  Every moment I was at Sundance I was stressing about missing something in Oregon.

Susan Kouguell: At what point did the story intention of your film change?

David Garrett Byars: When we moved into postproduction, these guys were all arrested. This was a film that was going to come out and these guys would be in jail and Hillary Clinton was going to be president. Obviously, none of those things happened. We were perhaps awakened a bit earlier than everyone else what America was beginning to look like; what it really looked like. Trump was just a lens and we were able to see what America really is. We were hyper aware of this because we were making this film, so we were incorporating this into the film as it occurred. Of course, the results came back in November of both the trial and the presidential election, and it was not what we expected.

Armed occupiers explore and secure buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Film still from NO MAN'S LAND.

Armed occupiers explore and secure buildings at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. Film still from NO MAN’S LAND.

Susan Kouguell:  This was November and now it’s April, and the film is having its world premiere at Tribeca. That’s pretty fast in terms of the editing and postproduction process.

David Garrett Byars: We didn’t change much with the ending thematically. I think almost every documentary filmmaker’s kind of urge is to make a film somehow related to Trump. We had a natural avenue to do that, but we didn’t want to go too heavy on that. We wanted to take time and made sure that we were confident with what we were going to do. We had to incorporate the new trials into the ending. Trump wasn’t the driving force of why the film changed, but it was effective.

 

 

Susan Kouguell Speaks with ‘The Foster Portfolio’ Filmmaker Danielle Katvan at Tribeca Film Festival

 

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Susan Kouguell Speaks with The Foster Portfolio Filmmaker Danielle Katvan at Tribeca Film Festival

A lesson in perseverance.  This is the best way to describe the challenges Danielle Katvan faced with unyielding determination – from obtaining the rights to the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. short story The Foster Portfolio to directing this period piece on a low budget.

I spoke to Danielle Katvan, the writer and director of The Foster Portfolio, a poignant yet quirky 19-minute film, which had its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival in the shorts program section titled Your Heart’s Desire: The things you want most are often deeply hidden.

The Foster Portfolio is a story about appearances, and what lies beneath them. It is a study of human nature in a materialistic society, and the lengths to which one will go to indulge in their true passions. Based on the original short story by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., The Foster Portfolio is an offbeat, mid-century tale about a rookie investment counselor who discovers that his penniless client is hiding a million-dollar inheritance in order to conceal a strange, double life.

About Danielle Katvan

Danielle Katvan describes the challenges she faced making 'The Foster Portfolio, from obtaining the rights to the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. short story, to directing this period piece on a low budget.

Danielle Katvan

Danielle Katvan is an award-winning director, whose films have been official selections at festivals such as the Tribeca Film Festival, Palm Springs ShortFest, and San Francisco International. Her work has been featured on MTV, VH1 and NBC Universal and her short film, Stranger Things, received an award from Kodak for Excellence in the Craft of Filmmaking. She was named one of Film News Briefs “Filmmakers to Watch” and was selected as a finalist in the 2016 HBOAccess Directing Fellowship.

KOUGUELL: What inspired you to adapt this Vonnegut short story?

KATVAN: I first read it when I was in film school about seven years ago. I attended a 16-month program in Berkeley, California at the Berkeley Digital Film Institute and that’s where I met my producing partner and a lot of the people that I still work with today. I was looking for a project to make a short film. I’m a big fan of Vonnegut and I was reading his book of short stories ‘Welcome to The Monkey House’. I came across this story I just fell in love with it right away. His writing style felt like just a perfect fit with my sensibilities as a filmmaker; that kind of offbeat, quirky, ironic tone. The visual descriptions were just so vivid.

I fell in love with the characters of the story, especially Herbert. He’s such a complex character because he has this part of himself that he feels so much guilt and shame. And at the same time it means so much to him on such a personal level that he is willing to let his family live in near poverty in order to keep it hidden and compartmentalize his life, to maintain this double life that he is living.

KOUGUELL: How were you able to obtain the rights to the story?

KATVAN: I reached out to the Vonnegut estate and I was shot down right away because I was a student and they had no interest in collaborating with me. I spent the next five years harassing them with emails and phone calls. I eventually went over and met with them in person and brought over a bottle of wine. (Katvan laughs.) I think by that point they were so sick of me that they were like, go make your movie and leave us alone.

I told them that I was making it as a student project. I showed them some of my previous films that I wrote and directed, proving to them that I was serious and would do something good. My other shorts were screened at other festivals, including Palm Springs ShortFest.

KOUGUELL: Did you stay close to the original material?

KATVAN: I tried to stay extremely close to the original story. Originally we had a couple of more scenes and more locations, but we had to pare it down for budgetary reasons.

 

KOUGUELL: Talk about the adaptation process.  How many pages is the Vonnegut short story?

KATVAN: The original short story is 12 pages. One of the biggest challenges in adapting the story was that it was mostly written in first-person monologue from the perspective of the narrator. Bringing that to script form was a challenge without being too expositional. I wanted to maintain the literary feel in the film, which is why I kept the voice-over, although I didn’t want the voice-over to push the story forward. I wanted to pay homage to Vonnegut and keep that in the script and keep a lot of the original dialogue. It was definitely a struggle because I already knew the story, so when I was working on the script it was hard for me to tell if someone watching it for the first time would have enough information or too much information and where that balance was.

FOSTER PORTFOLIO 1KOUGUELL: How long was the shoot? The production values were very impressive.

 

KATVAN: The shoot was six days. We shot in Brooklyn and upstate New York and found a lot of historic locations. Because of budgetary constraints it was important to find places that already looked right. For example, we shot at a historic location in Brooklyn Heights called The Long Island Bar that was built in 1951, the same year Vonnegut wrote this story.

The interior of the Foster home we actually found on Airbnb. It was an untouched home with the original wallpaper and furniture. It was an amazing find.

KOUGUELL: How did you find the financing for your film?

KATVAN:  We used the crowdfunding Fractured Atlas, and some of my savings and some of my family’s money.  For postproduction we used Kickstarter.  It’s a testament to my producing partners; they were able to work magic with very little money and finding people who were talented and believed in the project and were willing to sacrifice.  People got paid little or close to nothing.

KOUGELL: What’s next for you?

KATVAN: I have a couple of feature film projects I am developing right now and some episodic concepts.  In addition to writing my own material, I’m also looking for scripts and stories to adapt. I don’t feel like I need to write everything I direct.  I’m definitely open to finding a script that inspires me and that I can bring a vision to.

Learn more about the film here.

 

READ MORE HERE

Susan Kouguell Speaks with Filmmaker Agnès Varda

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French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

French Director Agnes Varda. Photo by Julien Hekimian/Getty Images

Agnès Varda in Manhattan

Born in Belgium in 1928 with a career spanning over 60 years, Agnès Varda’s work continues to reexamine and challenge the themes of time, memory, and reinventing reality.

Often referred to as the Grandmother of the French New Wave (a term with which she takes issue, noting that Goddard and some of the other Cahier du  Cinema group were close in age yet differed in their political views and artistic backgrounds), Varda’s film credits include La Pointe Courte (1955), Cleo from 5 to 7 (Cléo de 5 à 7, 1962),  The Creatures (Les Créatures 1966), Lions Love (…and Lies) (1969), Documenteur (1981), Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi, 1985), The Gleaners and I (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse, 2000) and The Beaches of Agnès (Les Plages d’Agnès, 2008).

At the ‘Life as Art’ event in March at the Alliance Français in New York City, moderated by Olivier Renaud-Clément, organizer of her exhibit at Manhattan’s Blum and Poe Gallery, Agnès Varda spoke about the pieces in this show, as well as her narrative and documentary work while film clips and images from past multi-media installations were shown. Varda expressed reverence and curiosity for the subject matter and interviewees, and her responses were as wide-ranging as the work itself.

Varda: “With ‘Uncle Yanco’ (1967), I was interested to transmit not only the facts but how I felt about meeting him, like having the camera shake to show my excitement” — [to ‘The Gleaners and I,’ (2000)] When you film, the weather is always changing; the people are in a certain mood or do a movement you don’t expect. It’s an adventure. You can organize more or less before, and then the adventure is the time that you film, a vérité. And then the editing, I’m very excited about because that’s where you build the story.”

Agnès Varda at Blum & Poe Gallery

Open until April 15th, this is Varda’s first time exhibiting in New York City. Highlighting works made from 1949 to the present, this exhibit includes video installations, photographs, and sculpture. In Paris in 1954, Varda staged her first exhibition of eighteen black & white mounted photographs at her house in which she still lives and works today.

Varda led the press gathering as we walked together throughout the gallery rooms. Irreverent, inspiring, and disarming, Varda often shared her insights with a sense of comedic timing when discussing her work and journey as a filmmaker and artist.

Varda: “I used to put away my life as a photographer and now it comes in the light again.”

Varda points to the framed original invitation she made for the exhibit:

Varda: “The invitation explains the first time I exhibited in my own courtyard. The photographs were hung on the wall, on the shutters, on the ladders and around my studio. I printed the photographs myself and someone helped me to put it on the wood. I left the photographs up even at night because it was my own courtyard. There was no reason to make any kind of announcement so I put the invitation up in my neighborhood; at the bakery, at the butcher, and about 20 shops nearby, which is interesting because years later I made the documentary Daguerréotypes about my neighbors in 1975.”

Following the FIAF screening of Daguerreotypes, moderator Laurence Kardish and Varda discussed the evolution of the film from idea to production.

Varda: “I went to all the shopkeepers and asked if they would come to the café for the show. I was surprised they all came. We took two cameras. I said to the other DP (because you know the show at almost three hours is endless) let’s see what the people do. There is no fiction at all; the magic show happened, and what we filmed in their houses and at the shops were all true. The shopkeepers were concerned about how I was going to pay for the light so I ran a cable from my house and we used my electricity to film. The DP and I were small. We were hiding in corners of the shops. We kept the light on so there was no difference when people came in; we wanted to see them arrive. The crew was one sound person, and one to help, two camera people. We waited for hours to film because we had to be forgotten by the shopkeepers.”

As Varda walks around the Blum and Poe gallery, she offers glimpses into her past and present, while recounting some back stories of the images.

Varda: “I am switching from an old filmmaker to a young visual artist. I’ve had three lives: as a photographer, a filmmaker, a visual artist. I’m old. So I’ve been crossing the time for years.”

La cabane du film Le Bonheur

La cabane du film Le Bonheur d’Agnes:  Varda, 2017 Metal structure with Super 8 film from Le Bonheur (1964), miniature potted sunflowers, interior lighting with switch, and mixed media on wooden base. Polished cherry wood case with engraved plaque and handle.

Varda: “We had all these negatives in the film cans.  I wondered if there was a way to recycle all these negatives. So I thought, let’s make it a house of cinema, and make these shacks. Since it’s expensive to do the big ones (life-size), I did these maquettes. For this piece, I re-filmed Le Bonheur in Super 8 because to make the mini house, it had to be true to the original film.” (Varda hands me the magnifying glass to further examine the Super-8 images.) “If you take a look, there are the images of the original film. In Le Bonheur the film starts with a lot of sunflowers, so I imagined a greenhouse where they grow sunflowers.”

bord de mer

Bord de mer (2009). Digital HD projection, Blu-ray aspect 16:9 color/sound video projection, sand. Total running time: 1 minute, looped.96 x 120 x 115 inches

In this piece, Varda explores three representations of time; the one still photograph is of the ocean; the moving image shows a wave rolling in and out of the shoreline; and on the gallery floor lies a small beach of sand at the edge of the video.

I asked Varda about her decision to use real sand on the floor for this installation.

Varda: “I wanted the viewer to forget about the floor and just be there.  I wanted something realistic. I did another big installation Patatutopia and there were potatoes on the floor. Because a little piece of reality helps the imagination.”

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille

La terrasse du Corbusier, Marseille (1956) / Les gens de la terrasse (2008), 2012

A photograph of five figures and a baby on the Le Corbusier’s terrace next to a video re-enactment of what might have preceded the moment the photograph was taken. Varda describes the scene as a before and after. The before (the video) and the after (the photograph).

Varda: “I was sent by a magazine to photograph the Corbusier. I liked the mise en scène. A lot of snapshots for me are questions. Because it was a mystery I decided to make it a screenplay: I asked, who could be those people? So those people became characters. I built the set, and I asked some people to come. (Varda points to the video.) This couple in my mind is the mother and father of the girl, and this one is the mother of the boy. (Varda chuckles) Then like in real families they kiss on both cheeks for hours.”

TRIPTICH

Le Triptyque de Noirmoutier, 2004-2005 35mm film transferred to three-channel color/sound video, three wooden screens, hinges. Total running time: 9 minutes 30 seconds, looped. 39 x 180 x 1 inches open; 29 x 129 x 2 1/2 inches closed.

This interactive work allows the viewer to open and close the side panels thereby influencing the unfolding narrative.

Varda: “I’m asking the viewer for 10 minutes of their time, which is nothing. The feeling comes if you give yourself time to think because there is almost no action.  I love that in a film it brings a lot of people together but a triptych in a gallery or a piece in a gallery brings in a few people. They come, they go. I like the during, the after, the before, and the elsewhere all at the same time. This makes it different from film.

I was inspired by the religious triptychs of the 15th century. I love the triptych shape; the opening and the closing of the panels.  We can see three things at the same time; something we cannot do in a film.  I was very excited to see where the people go when they go out of the scene.”

Pointing to the central projection of the domestic kitchen scene Varda says: “For about five minutes it’s just a classical kitchen scene like a Flemish painting of the 17th century.”  (She then points to the left panel and then center panel.) “When the man goes out, the mother puts away things. It’s intimate and also outside; sometimes we feel this at the same time, inside and outside.”

I asked Varda the identities of the three people in the film.

Varda: “They are my neighbors; he is a plumber, and the old lady is his mother. It’s in a little village island of Noirmoutier. I’ve always loved working with non-actors that I meet here and there.

Kouguell: How much direction did you give them?

Varda: I don’t say, ‘Drink your beer like this’ I say, ‘We’re going to do a very intimate kitchen scene’.  We discussed how long the film will be.  I suggested what they did and then they did it according to their own impressions. The kitchen scene is one shot; that was the intention. The relation to the side panels we had to organize.

The lady is the mother of the man, and the woman is his wife. He reads the paper and drinks a beer. Like very often it happens in life. And the women do the work. The lady undoes the rope and the wife does the potatoes.

Varda refers to the images of the beach on the left panel: “My mind started to think, what could happen if I could bring some of the outside inside? Then I allowed myself to have the immensity of the sea.”

Kouguell: This piece happens with no dialogue and just the sound of the ocean; it is very meditative.

Varda: I love the quiet noise of the sea. My mind is always at the sea. I’m inspired by the sea. (Varda points to the action of the woman pushing the cat off the table): “The woman doesn’t like the cat and he doesn’t like the sea.” (Varda smiles) “Voilà, that’s all you can say about their relationship.”

Kouguell:  It speaks volumes about their relationship. And, it’s interesting with the images of the two women, the wife and mother, on the far panels.

Varda: Yes. I kept it blank in the middle for a little while. (We watch together until the panel changes.) And then the film starts again. 

VISAGES, VILLAGES

Varda: “The artist JR and I just finished the documentary Visages/Villages; it will open in June in France. We got along very well; we have a 55-year age difference. We met people in the villages, listened to them. I took pictures of them, and JR enlarged them.

Documentary feeds my mind, it feeds my soul. Filming is also learning to live with other people, learning to share something with people you may not have met before. And so it is for me especially over the last years I like taking the time to listen to people. The film asks: How do you perceive what’s happening to us and what’s happening to the people we meet?”

 

Final Words

Varda: “I fought a lot as a feminist, and we succeeded with a lot of marching and screaming and we changed the law. Birth control was an incredible step in society. I’m still a feminist more than ever. In the cinema world in France today, there are a lot of women directors, writers, DPs, mixers, producers. It’s a fight I did when I started making films. I say to women, learn the camera, learn the sound and editing. When I was young it was rare to have a camera. Now people do photos all the time. When they do selfies, they want to put themselves in it to say they were there. As if to say, I need proof in my life. Not only are images easier to make now, but we want to have memories of ourselves.

The documentary I did about widows (The Widows of Noirmoutier The Veuves de Noirmoutier 2005) I went alone with a small camera and sound. The women were very touching the way they spoke to me with their small confidences. I listened to them. It’s a step in understanding the world.  The world is cruel.  But I have decided, especially aging, to try and spend good time with people. I cannot change a life. I have seen the world changing so much since I have been here.

You can use your memory to remember, but that’s not my point in my work now.  The point is, getting a piece of my past and bringing it in my life of today. I don’t have the feeling that I wish to tell you my memories, (she smiles) but I did it a little in The Beaches of Agnes. What I do now is make it alive now. What I want is to make the now and here very important.  It’s sharing what I do with people. My work is to propose emotion, propose surprises, and propose my view.  That’s the life of the artist.”

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