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Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Category: DOCUMENTARY (page 1 of 3)

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

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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 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.”

Susan Kouguell Interviews Director Jenny Gage on her Documentary ‘All This Panic’

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All this Panic takes an intimate look at the interior lives of a group of teenage girls as they come of age in Brooklyn. A potent mix of vivid portraiture and vérité, the documentary follows the girls as they navigate the ephemeral and fleeting transition between childhood and adulthood. As one teen in the film remarks, ‘They want to see us, but they don’t want to hear us’ this documentary is comprised entirely of young women speaking to their own experiences.

Susan Kouguell Interviews Director Jenny Gage about her Documentary ‘All This Panic’ | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

DIrector Jenny Gage

Jenny Gage (Director) and Tom Betterton (DP) are a couple and long time collaborators on fine art, photography and film projects. All this Panic is the latest project in a celebrated career that has centered on the images and inner lives of young women across several mediums and genres. Their fine art work has appeared in gallery and museum shows throughout the world. Their commissioned work and portraits have been featured in publications, including W, Vanity Fair, and Italian Vogue. Their short film, Drift, screened at international festivals and museums. Jenny received her MFA in photography from Yale University.

All This Panic was shot as a two-person crew with minimal equipment, relying solely on natural light.

Jenny Gage: This was a film about the inner lives of the girls therefore the camera needed to be an extension of what the girls were seeing and feeling. Along with my partner, cinematographer Tom Betterton, we decided early on to shoot everything handheld so that he could move as quickly and easily through the city as the girls did. I knew there needed to be an organic approach to the filming process to encourage the girls to feel free enough to share the kind of unimpeded intimacy we were seeking. We imagined the camera to be as kinetic as our characters. Never judging, always participating and observing.All this Panic takes an intimate look at the interior lives of a group of teenage girls as they come of age in Brooklyn.

Evolution of the project

Gage: Tom and I knew Ginger and Dusty since they were 6 and 8 years old, and we knew their family a bit; we knew their father from our other career as still photographers. Right about the time we had our daughter they moved down the street from us. I would occasionally talk to them, and I was fascinated by them; what they were talking about, thinking about, who their friends were.  At a certain point I decided to make a film about them. I wrote their parents an email, I told them my intentions, which I didn’t really know at the time, all I really knew was that I wanted to film them and hear what they were talking and thinking about. And to immerse myself in their world. It began in a natural and organic way. Then we met their friends. That’s one of the reasons it took so long. At any given point we were following 10 girls.

Kouguell: You shot over a period of three years.  Was there any type of set schedule?

Gage: We followed the girls’ cues. It was sporadic. For example there was a lot going on in the fall but in the winter there wasn’t. We realized after a year or two of filming that everything happened in the spring: first crushes, parties, girls running around the city, going to the beach. In the fall and winter we’d film them once a week, once every other week, and then in the spring it would be every other day. In the summer it would slow down because they’d go out of town, etc.

Kouguell: Did you have an outline or script in term of specific things you wanted them to talk about?

Gage:  There was no outline. We never had a script, but we definitely had things we wanted to talk to them about and things they wanted to talk to us about.  We had things we were curious about, and there were themes in their lives that kept coming up, like Ginger not going to college. From the first day we filmed her she was already thinking that she wasn’t going to go to college, so we followed that train of thought throughout the years. We would ask them: Boyfriends? Girlfriends? What’s going on, on that level? We would revisit those things and see how their outlooks had changed about who they like and what they like. It was an interesting time for the girls, talking about gender fluidity and the spectrum, and feeling that they didn’t have to be gay or straight, and that there were lots of grays and in between. That was enlightening to hear.

Ginger and Lena

Ginger and Lena

Kouguell: Did the ‘story’ change or your approach to the material change, as the three years went on?

Gage: Yes, as the girls evolved so did the themes and stories. One thing in the beginning when we followed Ginger and Lena, there was talk about who gets invited to a party, that was big in 10th grade. And then in the 11th and 12th grades, what came out was their evolving and complex friendship, their trust and loyalties and sometimes the hardships they went through together, and apart.

Kouguell:  If there was a certain event in their life did they contact you to say this was happening?

Gage:  Not really. I always asked them to do this, but everything in their lives happened so quickly like a haircut or dying their hair. Everything was on an equal level. Everything was equally important and unimportant. Often they’d tell us a story that they thought was a good story for the film, and we would record it, but really it was the in between moments and when they were talking without really thinking that made up the film.

Kouguell: Were they self-conscious at all, about what they talked about on camera?

Gage: Maybe at the beginning they were a bit self-conscious but it quickly became second-nature to them.  It was funny in the beginning of shooting, there was a dance where to look: Should I look at Jenny? Should I look at the camera? And then we’d start talking, and then they were unselfconscious.

Kouguell: Did they look at any of the dailies over the years?

Gage: No.  It was amazing the amount of trust they had.  After two years of filming, every six-to nine months we’d cut a minute-long trailer, and we’d show them that.  It was always hard for them to watch, like watching an argument they had with someone. For the most part we didn’t show them any footage. We talked a lot about our intentions; we asked them what they wanted to see in a film about young women.

Kouguell: Did any of the girls’ parents have any concerns or want input into the film? Did they want to look at any footage or before you locked picture?

Gage: They never asked to see a rough cut or any footage. Sometimes they had concerns and we’d meet with each parent. They took their cues from the girls, and the girls trusted us implicitly and we trusted them, and their parents trusted them. It was an amazing circle of trust that we were allowed into. I have so much respect for the parents; they raised incredible young women.

Sage

Sage

Kouguell: How did you decide on a structure?

Gage: Our editor Connor Kalista helped us, and combed through the 140 hours that we had. We knew certain themes that each girl had in her life, and we knew which ones we wanted to highlight for the film, and others we felt weren’t strong enough to highlight.  Connor really gave the film the structure it has.

Kouguell: With the current theatrical release of the film, you’ve been doing post-screening Q & A’s with the girls. What are their responses when they look back at the experience?

Gage: I love doing the Q & A’s with the girls, because it’s another chance for them to talk and that’s what this whole film was about. Most recently, one of the profound responses came from Ginger. She struggled a lot as a teen, and dealt with the fear of being one of the leftover kids who didn’t go to college, as well as her struggles with her relationships with her family and Lena.  My heart always went out to her because she was having the quintessential teenage experience. One thing she’s said in the Q & A stayed with me: ‘I was always so hard on myself as a teenager and when I was in high school. When I look at this film now and I see the little me, I say, little me was trying, little me stumbled along the way, but I was really trying.  And I should cut myself a break.

The other night at a Q & A we were talking about how the film was a study of teenage girls, in a particular time, in a particular city, and I absolutely think that’s what the film is about and it was one of our intentions. But, I think that one of the other things that the film is about is female friendships and their complexity and how they go so deep, and how they’re often not portrayed like this in films and television. They are this rich source of experiences that should be mined for great material.  Every one of the girls has such incredible friendships with each other and they definitely had their ups and downs. The film shows how complex friendships are.

Learn more about the film here.

READ MORE HERE

More articles by Susan Kouguell

 

Susan Kouguell Interviews Director Tyler Hubby about his Documentary ‘Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present’

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SCRIPT MAGAZINE ARTICLE

I recently spoke with Tyler Hubby about his 22-year journey making his new film Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. The documentary opens in New York City on March 31st and runs until April 6th at Anthology Film Archives and will stream on Mubi starting on April 8.

Director Tyler Hubby

Director Tyler Hubby

Director Tyler Hubby

Tyler Hubby has edited over 30 documentaries, including The Devil and Daniel Johnston; Participant Media’s The Great Invisible, which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW 2014; Drafthouse Movies’ The Final Member; the HBO documentary A Small Act; the Peabody Award-winning television special about Latinos in the US military For My Country?; and Double Take, Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s metaphysical essay on the murder of Alfred Hitchcock by his own double. He edited and co-produced Lost Angels about the denizens of Los Angeles’ Skid Row and the punk rock documentary Bad Brains: Band in DC. He served as an additional editor on the Oscar-nominated The Garden and HBO’s Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. He is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute where he studied film and photography.

About Tony Conrad and the Documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present

The documentary follows American multi-media artist Tony Conrad’s uncompromising 50-year artistic path through experimental film, music, video, public television and education, and his unlikely resurgence as a noteworthy composer and performer.  Earning a mathematics degree from Harvard, Conrad was a central figure in the 1960s New York scene, collaborating with artists such as Henry Flynt, Jack Smith, and with the legendary drone ensemble Theatre of Eternal Music, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and John Cale. Conrad’s 1966 ‘The Flicker’ stands as one of the first examples of structural film. Conrad has influenced artists ranging from the Velvet Underground to the Yes Men.  The documentary has been screening at such festivals as Viennale, Leeds International Film Festival, DOC NYC, International Film Festival Rotterdam and esteemed museums including the TATE Modern in London, the National Gallery of Art in D.C., Los Angeles’s Broad Museum and San Francisco’s Cinematheque.

The evolution of this documentary is perhaps not surprisingly as unconventional as the artist Tony Conrad himself.  As Tyler Hubby explained, the journey began in the spring of 1994, when he left art school with his video camcorder to follow a touring gang of experimental musicians.

The evolution of Tyler Hubby's documentary: Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. is perhaps not surprisingly as unconventional as the artist Conrad

TONY CONRAD: COMPLETELY IN THE PRESENT

Hubby: We didn’t have any money to pay anyone but we got a generous donation of $500 from someone to buy video stock. We rounded up volunteer camcorderists in whatever city we were in. I’d ask people, ‘If you shoot using my tape, I’ll give you a wristband and you can go back stage and drink some beer, but you have to give me the tape back at the end. It made all the difference in the world because I had multiple angles of everything.

Kouguell: When you first started filming Tony Conrad did you have a specific documentary idea in mind or were you just documenting his performances?

Hubby: The idea was to document the performances. We initially thought we were going to do a documentary on the band Faust; it was their first US tour, and that was kind of momentous. This was in 1994. A few days in we realized this wasn’t making a great film, and we thought we really should be making the film about Tony Conrad. Tony was media ready, winking at the camera, and so on. This was before I knew about his video work experience.

Script EXTRA: Conversation with Sheila Nevins President HBO Documentary Films

Kouguell: Tell me about the evolution of the project.

Hubby: Over the years, as Tony’s record label was putting on more events, I continued to film – 1996 in Chicago and again in 1998 when Tony appeared in Los Angeles, and in 2002, 2006; it just kept going.  In 2002, I shot a lot of short vignettes, the idea was that we were going to do a DVD that was going to have seven short films about Tony Conrad with playback and random shuffle order, that was what you could do on DVD, none of this VHS business, but it turned out to be too expensive at the time for the record label.  By 2010, I approached Tony to make it as a feature-length film. Then I made several trips to Buffalo and Brooklyn, filmed the interviews with the other people, and used the archives I had.

Tony Conrad

Tony Conrad

Kouguell: How did you decide on a structure for the film?

Hubby: I used the writing process.  Editing a documentary is screenwriting. The most exciting part and the most terrifying part of putting a documentary together is that you’re really writing it in the edit.

The film almost has a clean 3-act structure even though there are time jumps within it. The first act really covers downtown New York in the 1960s. The second act is leaving New York and finding Buffalo. There’s even a dark night of the soul at the bottom of Act 2, which is the death of Mike Kelly, Buffalo is not a happy time, the jail movie is derailed, and things got dour. Then Act 3 is the rediscovery of the music. The evolution of the records, showing recordings and album covers, which did by mixing the concert footage. The performances were thematically organized, not chronologically organized.

It’s funny, in some ways those were the acts of Tony’s life. There was a structure there. It’s not a capital N narrative. Even though the Lamont story has a through-line, I was approaching the movie as a film with ideas and experience we experience the physics, the music. There is structural work underneath that.

Kouguell:  Did you write an outline?

Hubby: I do a lot of outlining. I’m a color-coded 3 x 5 card user – (laughs) I should say addict.  This is the first film that I used Amazon story builder. It’s a virtual corkboard where you can move your cards around and then expand them, and so on.  I do a lot of carding, and while trying to figure out what’s going on here and there, the script gets written and rewritten.

Like in a narrative film, it’s finding out, what’s the scene really about.  I transcribe all the interviews, notating and color coding all my transcripts.  I ask: why are we here, what can we pull out of this scene?

Kouguell: Approximately how many hours of footage did you shoot?

Hubby: It wasn’t excessive. I’ve been working on documentaries for so many years, I’m not an over shooter.  I found that one-hour of shooting with Tony had three hours of material in it because his interviews were very dense.

Kouguell: How long was your edit?

Hubby:  Maybe not even a full year. I’d been editing bits and pieces all along, and when I had a break from other jobs, I’d work on it. I had a lot of building blocks pre-built, like some of the concert footage. In the end, after 22 years, it was a sprint to get it done.  With his health declining it became more urgent; we had a premiere date, and dates locked.

Kouguell: Did Conrad have any specific input into the film?

Hubby: I had free reign to edit and include what I wanted. He never saw a cut of the film and he never asked to see a cut of the film. He understood that it was my film, and he let it be my film, which was amazing. That was also part of who he was. He could be very definite in his ideas what he wanted and didn’t want, but when the trust was there it was there. We never really talked directly about the film; the feeling I had being around him was that I think he was tickled I was doing the film but he would never admit it to me.

Final Words

Hubby: I wanted to make something accessible and digestible and fun to watch. Not an academic film. I didn’t want to be didactic and say, ‘Tony Conrad’s work is this or that’ – I wanted to introduce the audience to the core ideas, and if you’re interested in these core ideas, look them up. I tried to make the film a bit anarchic as well (laughs). I wanted to make an art documentary that was more like a midnight movie.

Learn more about the film here.

 

Susan Kouguell Talks to Brian David Cange, Producer of “Take My Nose… Please!”

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take my nose image

Directed by legendary editor of Allure magazine Joan Kron, this provocative and humorous feature documentary explores society’s attitude towards plastic surgery. The film follows two comedians as they deliberate going under the knife: Emily Askin, an up-and-coming improv performer has always wanted her nose refined, and Jackie Hoffman, a seasoned headliner on Broadway and on TV, considers herself ugly and regrets not having the nose job offered in her teens – and maybe she’d also like a face-lift.

With commentaries from cultural critics, psychologists, sociologists, surgeons, along with cameos from comedians Judy Gold, Julie Halston, Lisa Lampanelli, Giulia Rozzi, Bill Scheft, and Adrianne Tolsch, the film confronts the pressure women feel to meet impossible expectations and the judgment they endure when they have cosmetic surgery.

About First-time Director Joan Kron

Director Joan Kron

Director Joan Kron

An author and award-winning journalist, Kron’s work includes stints at the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. She spent 25 years covering plastic surgery for Allure magazine and documented some of her experiences in the book, Lift: Wanting, Fearing, and Having a Face-Lift.

Take My Nose… Please!

I spoke with one of the film’s producers, Brian David Cange, about the documentary just days before the announcement that the film received the 2017 Miami International Film Festival’s Knight Documentary Achievement Award.

About Brian David Cange

Producer Brian David Cange

Producer Brian David Cange

Cange is an award-winning producer and line producer whose credits include Roxanne, Roxanne and Marjorie Prime (both 2017 Sundance Film Festival Official Selections), Equity, a 2016 Official Selection Sundance Film Festival; the highly acclaimed documentary Mad Hot Ballroom; Backwards; Fugly!; Particle Fever; The Skeptic; the 2008 Peabody Award winning documentary Billy Strayhorn: Lush Life; National Geographic’s I am Rebel, the first in a four-part miniseries; Footsteps in the Snow for A&E and Lifetime Movie Networks; the Emmy-nominated, History Channel mini-series The World Wars, and Making Space, a feature documentary about five accomplished female architects with renowned producer Ultan Guilfoyle.

KOUGUELL: How did you get involved with the project?

CANGE: I became involved through my colleague Andrea Miller. Andrea and I worked together on the documentary film Particle Fever, and I helped her develop other projects, budget them, and sometimes shoot sizzle reels. I met director Joan Kron at the end of 2014. Andrea had suggested I speak to her about physically producing the film and also helping develop the project from a storytelling perspective, making sure there was a narrative structure, and helping her find the right characters to follow. In this case it was Emily Askin and Jackie Hoffman.

Joan was very resourceful; she went out to the comedy clubs every week and sometimes I would go with her to check out comedians.

Script EXTRA: Conversation with Sheila Nevins, President of HBO Documentary Films

KOUGUELL:  What was the response from the comedians to participate in the film? Were they forthcoming as to whether or not they had cosmetic surgery or reticent?

CANGE: Yes, very reticent. Oftentimes people didn’t want to speak about it. Judy Gold, Lisa Lampanelli, Julie Halston, and a few others were confident enough to talk about it on camera.

KOUGUELL: Tell me more about finding the narrative in the project.

CANGE: When Joan Kron first came to me about the project, she had a clip reel of famous comedians: Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Phyllis Diller.  Joan had taken an editing class and she put together a sizzle reel of what she thought would be comedians talking about the history of plastic surgery or the history of plastic surgery in the female comedian environment.  I thought it would be very expensive to put this all together because they were very expensive clips and music rights to obtain.

Joan had the clip-driven sizzle reel, an outline, and a group of interviews she had already done in California, including some of the plastic surgeon specialists.  In the film, the interviews done in the theater were done early on, before I came on. She worked in Los Angeles and did eight interviews for two days. A good number of these interviews stayed in movie.

Emily Askin

Emily Askin

Joan, Andrea and I discussed the way to produce this film that there was a narrative to follow. We all agreed to casting and meeting with comedians who were living and perhaps less famous in some cases it was a little bit of both. Emily Askin was the one we were following first.  Emily agreed to the film; she’d already had a stomach belt surgery prior to working with us so she was also open to the possibility of getting a nose job.

Joan approached Jackie Hoffman after reading a story about her in the Wall Street Journal.  Jackie was really on the fence as to whether or not to get a nose job.

KOUGUELL: What was the time period over which the film was shot?

CANGE: The majority of the film was shot in 2015 and 2016.  It was less than 100 hours of filming. The editing process took over about nine months. We brought on editor Nancy Novak; she really understood the narrative balance needed between the story of these comedians, their own journeys, and the history of plastic surgery, which was so important to Joan. And, also making sense of how women comedians are often judged by their appearance just as women actors are. Someone actually asked me after our recent screening in Miami if we had considered any male comedians and we did approach a couple but no one wanted to be in the film.

Jackie Hoffman

Jackie Hoffman

KOUGUELL: Because the men didn’t want to reveal that they had cosmetic surgery done?

CANGE: (laughs) Yes, that’s pretty accurate.

Academy Award®-Nominated Documentary Filmmaker, Carl Deal, Talks ‘Citizen Koch’ & ‘Michael Moore in TrumpLand’

by Susan Kouguell

 

Regardless of which side of the political aisle you stand, there is probably one point all sides can agree on – Academy Award® nominated filmmakers Carl Deal and Tia Lessin make thought-provoking films that challenge the audience to question the world around them. Their two recent films, which guest speaker Carl Deal recently spoke about at Purchase College, SUNY – CITIZEN KOCH and MICHAEL MOORE IN TRUMPLAND – are no exception.

Academy Award®-Nominated Documentary Filmmaker, Carl Deal, Talks 'Citizen Koch' & 'Michael Moore in TrumpLand' by Susan Kouguell | Script Magazine #scriptchat #screenwriting

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin

About the Filmmakers

Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, are Academy Award®-nominated filmmakers, who produced and directed TROUBLE THE WATER, winner of the Gotham Independent Film Award, the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize, and the Full Frame Documentary Festival Grand Jury Prize. Deal and Lessin were, respectively, archival and supervising producers of Michael Moore’s FAHRENHEIT 9/11, winner of the Palme d’Or, Academy Award®-winning BOWLING FOR COLUMBINE and co-producers of CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY, WHERE TO INVADE NEXT and most recently Deal produced (with Michael Moore) MICHAEL MOORE IN TRUMPLAND, which Lessin Executive produced.

Tia and Carl were nominated for an NAACP Image Award and a Producers Guild Award for TROUBLE THE WATER. Tia line produced Martin Scorsese’s Emmy and Grammy-winning film NO DIRECTION HOME: BOB DYLAN and was consulting producer of LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD: GEORGE HARRISON. Her work as a producer of the series THE AWFUL TRUTH earned her two Emmy nominations, one arrest and a lifetime ban from Disney World. She is the recipient of the L’Oréal Paris/Women in Film’s Women of Worth Vision Award and the Sidney Hillman Prize for Broadcast Journalism for BEHIND THE LABELS, a film about labor trafficking in the US garment industry. Carl Deal has contributed to many other documentary films, and worked as an international news producer and a writer, reporting from natural disasters and conflict zones throughout the U.S., Latin America, and in Iraq.

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About CITIZEN KOCH

The film tells the story of the changing American political landscape through the eyes of three Wisconsin state employees, all lifelong Republicans, who suddenly find their party taking direct aim at them, stripping away the economic ground their families have built and depended on for generations: Set against the rise of the Tea Party in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, a citizen uprising to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker collides with the Tea Party-aligned “Americans for Prosperity,” a group founded and lavishly financed by two of the world’s richest men — David and Charles Koch. As Republican working class voters find themselves in the cross-hairs of their own party and its billionaire backers, they are forced to choose sides.

CARL DEAL: “The film was made in 2011-2012, and came out in 2013. It’s very topical given the election season right now. What you see here is a behind the scenes; and today it’s still happening all over the country; there are still certain states that are being targeted in the same way as Wisconsin was targeted in this film.”

Protesters fill the rotunda in the Wisconsin State Capital in the run up to Gov. Walker’s anti-union bill in a scene from CITIZEN KOCH

Protesters fill the rotunda in the Wisconsin State Capital in the run up to Gov. Walker’s anti-union bill in a scene from CITIZEN KOCH

Advice for Storytellers

CARL DEAL: “This film began with the idea to do something about climate change deniers and along the way of making this, very early on, we concluded that we are filmmakers and we are people who are engaged with the world so we try to make media that engages with what is relevant today, in the moment. It became a movie about money and politics because we realized that’s where the problem lies. We never thought we’d be in Wisconsin; we ended up in Wisconsin sort of on a whim because that’s where the news of the day took us.   So, for you storytellers, I hope you always follow the story where it takes you, and get out of your head and not be fixed in following the idea that you have when you get support to do a project. Let the project also have a life of its own.”

Backlash

Making a film that has the potential to stir up controversy carries its own set of risks. Deal was asked how one manages the issue of backlash and specifically how they handled it on CITIZEN KOCH.

CARL DEAL: “We got Errors and Omissions insurance and we made sure that we were insured in case anything happened that got in the way of us finishing the film. We knew we were taking on some powerful interests with it.  We were set to premiere at Sundance and our broadcaster was about to release the last transfer of the film when they called us and said we needed to change the title or else. The New Yorker did an exposé on it.”

New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer writes: “Lessin and Deal had provisionally called the film “Citizen Corp,” but they worried that the title made it sound like a film about a corpse. After Sundance officials pressed for a final title so that they could start promoting it, Lessin and Deal told ITVS that they had settled on “Citizen Koch.” The new title reflected the evolution of the narrative: reporting had focused increasingly on the pitched battle in Wisconsin over the efforts of Scott Walker, the Republican governor, to ban collective bargaining by public-sector-employee unions. As the  reported, Koch Industries was among Walker’s primary financial backers in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign.

CARL DEAL: “The title of the film is so important sometimes. The “Citizen Koch” title was a direct reference to Governor Scott Walker; it set up expectations for viewers who thought it was an exposé about the Koch brothers, which it wasn’t. Think about your titles.”

Character-Driven and Context in Citizen Koch

CARL DEAL: “There are many different ways to make a documentary film. There’s a trend now to make only character-driven documentaries and those can be really beautiful and emotional stories, and I also think the context for these stories is really important. Not every audience is going to understand the context with an emotional connection to characters so that’s why we did it both ways here.”

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About MICHAEL MOORE IN TRUMPLAND

Oscar-winner Michael Moore dives deep in the heart of hostile TrumpLand territory with his daring, profound, and uproarious one-man show. When the show gets banned from the first town they tried, Mike moves on to an even bigger community of Trump supporters in the ironically-named Clinton County, Ohio.

 

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Susan Interviews Producer & Co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus of ‘Landfill Harmonic’

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“To have nothing is not an excuse to do nothing”
–Favio Chávez,
Conductor of the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura

Favio Chavez (Orchestra Director)

After their awe-inspiring concerts made them viral sensations and put them in the spotlight of international media, The Recyled Orchestra of Cateura has been featured on 60 Minutes, NBC News, People, Time, Wired, Oprah Magazine, NPR Music, and more.

LANDFILL HARMONIC, the award-winning documentary has received over 30 awards at international festivals.

As a classically trained violist, I had the opportunity to play with a youth orchestra when I was a teenager and travel on concert tours to South America and the Far East.  Whether we played in the jungles of the Amazon or a president’s palace, and regardless of the audience’s economic and ethnic backgrounds, these six weeks of summer travel and approximately 30 concerts, forever impacted my life.

The often-used phrase “the universal language of music” is not a cliché, it is indeed the truth and underscored in the documentary Landfill Harmonic.

Several years ago when I first saw the 60 Minutes piece about Favio Chávez and his Recycled Orchestra of Cateura in Paraguay, it grabbed my attention and as time passed the story of the orchestra continued to pique my interest.  After viewing a press screener of Landfill Harmonic, I knew I had to set up an interview.

One doesn’t need to be a musician or even sing in tune, to be enthralled by the power of this film.

IMG_3471 violines

Synopsis

Landfill Harmonic follows the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical group that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight. Under the guidance of idealistic music director Favio Chávez, the orchestra must navigate a strange new world of arenas and sold-­out concerts. However, when a natural disaster strikes their country, Favio must find a way to keep the orchestra intact and provide a source of hope for their town. The film is a testament to the transformative power of music and the resilience of the human spirit.

Producer and co-director Juliana PenarandaLoftus

DSC_6213 Juliana head shotRecently I had the opportunity to speak with producer and co-director Juliana Penaranda-Loftus by phone for our interview.

Juliana Penaranda-Loftus began her career working in production for prime time television shows in Colombia. After completing her Bachelor’s degree, she moved to the United States where she received her Master’s Degree in Film from the American University in Washington, DC. After September 11, she directed and produced a documentary about Aid Afghanistan, an organization fighting for the right to educate women. The organization used the documentary to raise funds to support schools and programs in Afghanistan. Since then, Juliana has produced several independent feature films and in 2009 established her own production company, Hidden Village Films with the purpose of producing films of social relevance. In 2012 she was one of eight women selected by the American Film Institute for their Directing Workshop for Women.

KOUGUELL:  Tell me about the evolution of this film.

PENARANDALOFTUS: Alejandra Amarilla (Founder and Executive Producer) contacted me at the end of 2008 to talk about the idea of making a documentary about underserved children in Paraguay her home country.

In April 2009, we traveled to start the research and find the story. It was the last day of the trip when we heard the story about Favio Chávez and his efforts of teaching children with recycled instruments. Alejandra loved the story from the beginning and as founder she selected from the options we had. I loved the story too. We saw the potential with Favio to be able to take the kids to where they are today.

We started following up the story via phone calls and email.  I was doing pre-interviews over the phone and email. We returned to Paraguay every year, sometimes twice a year depending on what was going on.

The production took five years. We started shooting in July 2010 and the last shoot took place in September 2014.

About the Collaboration

Landfill Harmonic is directed by Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley, and co-directed and produced by Juliana Penaranda-Loftus.

Due to the filmmaking team’s outside work commitments and changing schedules, the process was further complicated by the need to reshoot some sections.  Penaranda-Loftus emphasized the importance of the great teamwork they had, which made this film become a reality.

READ MORE HERE

 

Inspiring Storytelling and Insights from the Filmmakers at the Tribeca Film Festival’s Documentary Shorts: ‘New York Then’ Program

By: Susan Kouguell | May 30, 2016

Good storytelling is the key to a successful documentary.  Whether you are profiling a person, investigating a crime or documenting an event, telling an engaging and thought-provoking story is imperative in order to capture your intended audience. In a short or feature-length documentary, ‘characters’ give a face to the story you are telling. A character can not only be human but an animal, an object, a location, or the filmmaker can choose to be a character in his or her film.

Documentary filmmakers approach their material, and find inspiration and ideas in various ways. The documentary shorts presented at the Tribeca Film Festival were no exception. Joe’s Violin, Mulberry, Starring Austin Pendleton, Taylor and Ultra on the 60s, The Factory and Being a Warhol Superstar and Dead Ringers centered on some element or reflection on New York’s past, delving into themes of chaos, survival, and a glimpse into a life of the city that forever evolves and a time that cannot be forgotten.

After the screening, the filmmakers joined in for a Q&A.

Inspiring Storytelling and Insights from the Filmmakers at the Tribeca Film Festival's Documentary Shorts: 'New York Then' Program by Susan Kouguell #scriptchat #screenwriting

Joe Fiengold and Brianna Perez meet for the first time. Photo credit: Cinematographer Bob Richman.

About the Film: Joe’s Violin

A 91-year-old Holocaust survivor donates his violin to an instrument drive, changing the life of a 12-year-old schoolgirl from the Bronx and unexpectedly, his own.

About the Director: Kahane Cooperman is the director/producer of Joe’s Violin’ She has also directed several other documentaries. She is currently the showrunner/executive producer of The New Yorker Presents. Prior to that role, she was a co-executive producer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. She began her career at Maysles Films.

Kahane Cooperman talks about Joe’s Violin

Cooperman began by introducing the two subjects of her film who were seated in the audience, the violin owner Joseph Feingold and Brianna.

“The way I got this idea was very simple. My car radio was on and I tuned on the classical radio station WQXR and I heard a promo for their instrument drive; it said donate your instruments and the instruments are going to New York City school kids. They mentioned the donations they already had gotten and one of the instruments was Joseph’s violin. I just thought, I wonder if there’s a story there with this violin and if the student who gets the violin will know the story. I got in touch with the radio station and they allowed me the privilege of pursuing the story and this film is what unfolded. It was a very moving experience. I do love music but I don’t play an instrument. I think music is incredibly powerful but I’m also moved by the idea of how a small gesture can make you dream and change someone’s life. Somehow the idea of this was very compelling to me and that it might play out in the context of this one instrument shared by two people who were born 80 years apart.”

Vinny Vella sits in front of Mo’s the butcher on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. From the short film MULBERRY. Photo Credit: Paul Stone

Vinny Vella sits in front of Mo’s the butcher on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy. From the short film MULBERRY. Photo Credit: Paul Stone

About the Film: Mulberry

This cinematic portrait of Little Italy explores how a working class neighborhood of tenement buildings transformed into the third most expensive zip code in the United States. Part funny, part sad, the film investigates how gentrification and rent control are affecting the neighborhood’s long-term residents.

About the Director: Paul Stone

Brooklynite Paul Stone started his directing career in the edit room at Ridley Scott & Associates. In Tales of Time Square, Paul recreated 1980’s Time Square. The footage was often mistaken for stock and went on to be screened at over 50 festivals in the U.S. and abroad. His previous short Man Under( TFF 2015) explored the rise in NYC subway suicides.

Paul Stone talks about Mulberry

“I saw my neighborhood disappearing, changing. I have no problem with gentrification, but it’s gotten to a point of hyper gentrification. Little Italy in New York is known for its soul and its people, and it was rapidly disappearing. I wanted to tell the story about who inspired me in terms of my friends and that Little Italy is still alive and well, and that there are still a lot of characters left.”

Austin Pendleton teaching a class at HB Studios in the West Village of Manhattan 2011. Shot by Greg Vanderveer. Directors Gene Gallerano and David H. Holmes

Austin Pendleton teaching a class at HB Studios in the West Village of Manhattan 2011. Shot by Greg Vanderveer. Directors Gene Gallerano and David H. Holmes

About the Film: Starring Austin Pendleton

Austin Pendleton is that quintessential character actor you might recognize. We follow Austin as he reflects on his life and craft, while his A-list peers discuss his vast influence, dogged determination, and what it means to be an original in today’s celebrity-obsessed world.

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