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Category: DOCUMENTARY (page 1 of 3)

Susan Kouguell Speaks with ‘UNREST’ Documentary Director Jennifer Brea and Producer Lindsey Dryden


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The feature documentary Unrest is poignant and personal, and educational without being didactic. It is indeed a personal journey about Jennifer Brea and approaches a medical mystery with an examination of science and medicine that is accessible and gripping. One of the most striking elements of this documentary is that one does not need to be directly affected with ME (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, commonly known as chronic fatigue syndrome), to appreciate this film.
When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

I had the opportunity to interview director Jennifer Brea via Skype and meet producer Lindsey Dryden in person. They were so generous with their time; their passion, not only about educating viewers about ME but also how the film evolved, the specifics about the writing process, collaboration, fundraising, and more, underscored their generosity of spirit.

About UNREST and Jennifer Brea

Jennifer Brea is an independent documentary filmmaker based in Los Angeles. She has an AB
from Princeton University and was a PhD student at Harvard, until sudden illness left her bedridden. In the aftermath, she rediscovered her first love, film. An activist for invisible disabilities and chronic illness, she co-founded a global advocacy network, #MEAction and is a TED Talker.

Jennifer Brea was 28 and working on her PhD at Harvard and months away from marrying the love of her life when she gets a mysterious fever that leaves her bedridden and looking for answers. Disbelieved by doctors yet determined to live, she turns her camera on herself and discovers a hidden world of millions confined to their homes and bedrooms by ME. At its core, Unrest is a love story. Together, Jen and her new husband, Omar, must find a way to build a life and fight for a cure.

‘What happens when you have a disease doctors can’t diagnose?’

Jennifer gave the highest-rated talk at the 2016 TED Summit in Banff, Canada, the first ever TED Talk about ME. It launched in January 2017 and has been viewed more that 1 million times and translated into more than 25 languages.

Awards for Unrest include a Special Jury Prize for editing (Sundance Film Festival), Audience Award for Best Documentary Feature, (River Run) Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature (Nashville Film Festival and Illuminate Award (Sheffield Doc/Fest). Unrest also has a companion VR piece which premiered at Tribeca and won the Jury Award for best VR at Sheffield/DocFest.

When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

Brea with her husband Omar

Interview via Skype with Jennifer Brea

KOUGUELL:  Tell me about your writing process for this film. How did you determine the structure for the film and did you work from any type of script or outline?

BREA:  There are three layers of writing in this film: there is the actual story structure that is essentially the collaging of found words; the scripting of the dialogue from interviews or the dialogue that’s happening in scenes; and the voiceover that can be written over and over again. We didn’t have a script per se, but it started with a storyboard. I knew the structure of the film even before we started shooting.

Brea went on to discuss seeing Debora Hoffman’s multi-character documentary Long Night’s Journey Into Day and how it influenced the structure of Unrest. (Hoffman is also an executive producer of Unrest.)

BREA: I found it worked so well because rather than spending a lot of time trying to figure out who everyone was and trying to connect with them, you’ve already had the chance to really spend time with them in their specific world, before moving on.

We knew that my story was going to be the through line and glue, and figuring out what that meant took many months and iterations. The way the film works is that the stories are ordered by tragedy in a way, ordered to create a rising action and rising complication. We always asked ourselves: ‘Why is this story in the film?’ ‘Why and where is Jen in this moment in the evolution of her overall arc?’  With the other writing, I would write some very bad temp lines that editor Kim Roberts could cut to and based on what she cut, I rewrote, and once we laid down music then that would change things. As we added different layers, we kept rewriting again and again.

SK:  Unrest opens up the conversation not only about ME but also patients with chronic illnesses and the response by medical practitioners without finger-pointing.

JB: I wanted to create a film that could start a broader conversation and that could reach beyond the patient community; that meant a lot of different things the way we were telling the story.

When I see documentaries that are polemic, they can play a role in mobilizing people who already agree with you and people who are already prone to be mobilized. That can be a fine goal, but for me with ‘Unrest’ and my own sensibilities, I wanted to leave some room for the audience to interpret the film and come to their own conclusions about what certain things mean or what should be done.

It’s a delicate balance. I’ve seen observational films about social issues that dip into a world and don’t give you any context, and it’s frustrating. I want to see what is actually happening; it’s not enough just to know it happens yet at the same time there can be too much taking the viewer’s hand by saying, this is what you need to think about. I didn’t want to do either. I wanted to have a point of view, which the film has, but also leaves some room for interpretation.

When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

Ruby and Jessica

Brea and I discussed the story that takes place in Denmark and how Brea approached Per Fink, one of the subjects of the film whose vocal oppositional of the ME diagnosis offers another side of the medical debate.

BREA: We asked Per Fink: What did he think was a fair representation of himself?  What is it that he truly thinks? We didn’t need to alter it or distort it; we could just have him speak for himself. That is what we tried to do in every situation to let people speak for themselves and tell what we thought was the truth about whatever everyone’s prospective was on their lives.

SK: You successfully found a balance incorporating several devices (voice-over narration, cinéma vérité, and interviews) which can be over-utilized or distracting in many documentaries. Each device you used had a reason to be there. Let’s talk about this.

JB: The question for me was how do you use it and use it intentionally and for what reason. I knew that things needed to be explained, otherwise people would get lost in a way that would detract from the film. The narration is about bringing you inside this internal space that would have been impossible to access otherwise.

When it comes to the interviews with other subjects, they are not talking head interviews. They are actually very intimate conversations with me, so it is very motivated; that is the way I’m able to connect remotely with people. What I’m asking them is not just to reveal their own lives; I’m asking them to reveal their lives for the purpose to try to understand what is happening to me. So everything is related back to me, the structure to the film.

Each of the stories has its own set tone. It’s very easy to make Ron Davis’s story a kind of science mystery story, it was easy to make Karina Hansen’s story a kind of thriller –each story had its own genre set point and that would never have worked. Trying to find a tone for each of these very different stories in order to have them feel that they were part of the same film was one of the big challenges. What made it work is that every time we were coming back to that well of the personal; the why and the intention, and the why do we need to be here question.

Script EXTRA: Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Joe Berlinger and ‘Intent to Destroy’ 

When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

Jen and Omar

Final Words

JB: I started off very angry before making the film, fueling the investigation. I started over time to eventually forgive and empathize with doctors and ended up on the side of it. Doctors haven’t been given the tools and training to properly handle this illness. What doctors’ practice is from the education they receive. The system is failing fundamentally. Most people do the best they can.

I met with Lindsey Dryden at a café near the Jacob Burns Film Center; the night before she presented a Q & A following the screening of Unrest at the Burns Center.

When a Harvard PhD student is suddenly stricken with a complicated illness, she turns to filmmaking to find answers. Jennifer Brea and Lindsey Dryden discuss the making of the award-winning Unrest documentary.

Lindsey Dryden

ABOUT LINDSEY DRYDEN, PRODUCER

An award-winning Creative Producer and Director, and founder of Little By Little Films, Dryden began her career in British TV documentaries (BBC, Channel 4, History Channel) before moving into independent films for cinema. Her acclaimed work as a Director includes Lost and Sound (SXSW) and Close Your Eyes And Look At Me (True/False), and as a Producer Little Ones (nominated for a producing award at Underwire) and Unrest (Sundance). She makes intimate, warm and surprising films about the body and the arts, most recently for Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition. A recent Filmmaker-In-Residence at JBFC, and a Fellow of Guiding Lights, IFP and HotDocs Forum, she is also a Lecturer in Film.

KOUGUELL: How did you come to work with Jen?

DRYDEN: I’ve worked with Jen now for about 3 ½ years. My background is as a director and producer in the UK. I work often on films about the body; I’m interested in the human body, the female body, how they change and the unexpected things that can happen and how one copes with that. Jen was looking for a co-producer to work on the UK story with Jessica, the young woman in the film. She contacted various documentary organizations and festivals, and I think it was the Sheffield Documentary festival, which is our biggest documentary festival, who recommended me to her.

Jen had already done an extraordinary amount of work on her own and with a small team. She did a Kickstarter; she set out to raise $50K to make this film and raised over $200K. She realized there is a huge audience waiting for this story and so she was able to expand her team.

SK: Tell me about the filmmaking process and how the film evolved.

LD: Jen would shoot one day a month and the rest of the month she would be in bed recovering from that one day. She started using this amazing system where she could be in her bed and she could film people using Skype, so we would mount a teleprompter underneath the lens, and it would reflect Jen’s face onto the lens so when people looked at the camera they could see her; she could be anywhere in the world, and in her case, it was in bed. She started interviewing people that way.

Jen had a really strong vision for the film and the story, and the approach from the very beginning. I came on board because I saw a filmmaker who never made a film before, but she absolutely knew what she was doing and had huge skills as a director. I had a lot of faith about where the story was going and a lot of people felt the same way. Sundance came on board early on with development money. The Kickstarter campaign demonstrated to other parties that there was a real story here and that combined with Jen as a presence, she is a force that is undeniable.

Can a person with this type of disability make a film, and the answer is always yes. And it grew; Ruth Ann Harnish was one of the earliest people who gave financial support.

SK: The credit of producer can be defined in different ways. In your case, how would you define your role on this film?

LD: I would define myself as a creative producer. My role is a lot about relationships with contributors, with subjects, identifying an amazing team and crew to work with, and leading that crew when we are filming in the field, as fellow Producer Patricia E. Gillespie did with the film’s North American stories, and as Co-Producer Anne Troldtoft Hjorth did in Denmark. Then it’s leading negotiations when it comes to who we want to work with and how much we can afford, and finding good fits with Jen as a director, like editors and composers. It’s also about making special, impossible things happen, like getting a hospital to allow us to put lights, cameras and cinematographers in their therapy pool!

Also, the part that I love is the editorial shaping of the film that develops over time. There’s a constant rewriting in documentary: This is where we are, this is where we hope to be. Okay, this is where we are now, this is where we’re going to go next, and that process.

My role wasn’t particularly connected to fundraising, which people often assume is a producer’s only job. Jen is the most extraordinary fundraiser and also a producer of the film herself. My role was also about distribution strategy – that’s kind of my baby. Traditionally, you might hand over a film to a distributor when it’s finished, and they hopefully do what they say they’ll do with it, but every strand of distribution is so different and our audience is so specific and important to us, and there are political sensitivities in the countries we are campaigning in. We knew from the beginning that we didn’t want to hand over that to one company who may only specialise in one area.

We did a lot of festivals around the world and a theatrical release in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco in September, and the UK in October, and now it’s on iTunes, Amazon, and it will be broadcast on PBS in January 2018. What’s so great about that is that we’ll be able to do screening parties. We can engage with audiences who are home, and connect them with other audiences in other homes, and for a film like this and a community like this, who are often bed bound or homebound, that’s very exciting.

SK: Tell me about your unique collaboration and writing process.

LD: So much we did was remote and that process is certainly challenging. We started with Emiliano Battistaanan editor in the UK, and they were editing remotely together.

Jen always had a strong vision for the stories. The stories make sense because they were always answering questions that Jen was asking about her own life and her own experience. So you have that narrative spine of Jen’s experience changing over time; her questions, her needs, her relationships shifting, those questions and needs naturally leading to the people she talked to and got close to, who became the main characters. They were in place from very early on.

The writing process happened most intensely between Jen and editor Kim Roberts, and also our amazing creative advisor and executive producer Debbie Hoffmann, who also has ME. What’s incredible about Debbie is the narrative contribution she made and support she gave Jen from the very beginning; she was the first person on board, and you can’t really beat editorial experience like that. That would involve her at home on Skype, us in our various houses, talking through the narrative, talking about cuts, giving notes and giving feedback, which is a traditional way to work but we weren’t necessarily in the same room or the same country.

Jen and Kim went to the Sundance story and edit lab and it was after that the film became something that was good, to something that was bigger than itself.

Jen’s Wall of Science

SK: Many documentaries tend to make issues black and white, which ‘Unrest’ does not do.

LD: The film isn’t about a network of doctors who want to get into people’s way; they don’t have the resources or the time to treat people appropriately. It was extremely important for ME people around the world, some are considered malingerers, and critical of doctors, they are perceived to be a pain because they are asking for help, but they are asking for support. We were extremely mindful of that particularly in the UK where it is a huge political issue; the reputation of people with ME is horrendous. So we were mindful of not making a film that could be accused of that. There are so many good people who want to do good things. It was about pointing out the issues and injustices.

Many people said why the film didn’t end on a more hopeful note. Jen’s response was that if you tidy up the film at the end and it’s optimistic, then everyone has an easy way out when actually people have to do something right now; this isn’t fixed, this isn’t over, this isn’t better. Those ways of shaping the narrative are very important; to offer understanding of why and how things are going on, because that’s how we move forward and address them.

The film and our campaign is not about saying to doctors, ‘you’re really bad.’ It’s about saying, ‘this is what harms patients, this is what help patients, and we would really like to help you get the resources to help the patients more effectively’ and that’s in the campaign.

SK: The last few weeks in particular, a great deal of media attention has been on many women speaking out not only about sexual harassment, but also about women’s voices being heard.

LD:  I said at the film’s premiere and continue to say each time I introduce the film: ‘This is a moment where we need to listen, and listen to women. We need to listen to people who tell us they’re being honest, who are telling us their stories, we need to hear them, we need to take action.

SK: Your advice for documentary filmmakers and any final words of wisdom?

LD: I think it’s really important to consider ‘Unrest’ as a piece of cinema and not just a piece of advocacy. I would love if there is a homebound would-be filmmaker reading this article who feels inspired by what’s possible because it is possible. There are organizations who have been through the process with us, who know how to support and fund and resource incredible storytelling voices who don’t necessarily have a traditional experience of the world. How many people are there in the world like Jen with this tremendous talent that we haven’t seen yet? That’s what I want to spend my time with in cinema on the screen. I hope ‘Unrest’ is part of a movement that supports that.

Learn more about the film and to view Brea’s TED talk here.

Susan Kouguell Speaks to Award-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Joe Berlinger About ‘Intent to Destroy’ (for SCRIPT Magazine)

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars.  Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.

Joe Berlinger

From a filmmaking standpoint, it was incredibly challenging to tell a complicated, historical story in an interesting manner and to juggle three different threads – the complex history of the Armenian Genocide, the production of a long-suppressed major feature that deploys the Genocide as its backdrop, and finally the aftermath of the genocide and legacy of denial.

– Joe Berlinger

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception. It is powerful and timely, and a must-see.

ABOUT JOE BERLINGER

Academy Award® nominated filmmaker Joe Berlinger is a two-time Emmy, and Peabody winner. He has received multiple awards from the Directors Guild of America, the National Board of Review and the Independent Spirit Awards. Berlinger’s work includes the landmark documentaries BROTHER’S KEEPERPARADISE LOSTMETALLICA: SOME KIND OF MONSTERCRUDEUNDER AFRICAN SKIESWHITEY: UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. JAMES J. BULGER, HANK: 5 YEARS FROM THE BRINK, and TONY ROBBINS: I AM NOT YOUR GURU. He has directed and produced five seasons of the critically acclaimed Sundance Channel series ICONOCLASTS and directed/executive-produced the first two seasons of the Emmy-nominated MASTER CLASS, a series for the Oprah Winfrey Network. Berlinger’s multiple Emmy-winning PARADISE LOST series for HBO helped spawn a worldwide movement to free “The West Memphis Three” from wrongful murder convictions. The latest film in the trilogy, PARADISE LOST 3:  PURGATORY was nominated for an Oscar in 2012 and two primetime Emmy awards.

ABOUT INTENT TO DESTROY: Death, Denial & Depiction

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.Joe Berlinger embeds with a historic feature film production on the set of Terry George’s The Promise, to take an unwavering look at the Armenian Genocide. Historians, scholars, and high-profile filmmakers come together in Berlinger’s cinematic exploration of the tangled web of responsibility that has driven a century of denial by the Turkish government and its strategic allies. Intent to Destroy is a timely reckoning with the large-scale suppression of a historical tragedy. Berlinger confronts the fraught task of shedding light on the Armenian Genocide — whose witnesses and descendants are still fighting to be officially acknowledged as such by the international community — how it was carried out during World War I as the reign of the Ottoman Empire drew to a close, and how it laid the groundwork for the genocides that followed.

KOUGUELL: How did you get involved with this film?

BERLINGER: I was always fascinated about the subject of the Armenian genocide but never thought I had anything to add because I’m not a historical, talking-head, archival-footage, kind of filmmaker. I follow stories that unfold in the present tense, which by definition means you’re not writing them. But, with director Terry George’s The Promise; it presented an opportunity to drill into the subject matter that I’ve always been fascinated by. I thought here’s a way to still allow me to work in my comfort zone, which is unfolding cinéma vérité by covering the making of the movie, but it wasn’t just gratuitous behind the scenes. The other reason I wanted to cover The Promise was, to me, the making of the film was quite historic because over the years this subject matter has been taboo in Hollywood.

Thematically, I wanted to make a film not just about the Armenian genocide, because that has been done before, but to me what was interesting was the denial and the mechanism of denial and the aftermath of denial, and that is perfectly expressed through the following of the making The Promise; it allowed me to tell the story that over the years Hollywood has always treated the subject as a taboo.

As early as 1935, Irving Thalberg wanted to turn The Forty Days of Musa Dagh into a film and during production, the Turkish government complained to the State Department and the State Department then twisted the arm of the Hollywood studio to drop the project and that’s been the vibe for eight decades. Nobody has wanted to tackle the subject because every time they do they get a complaint. That kind of censorship in Hollywood encapsulates the century-long campaign to sweep this story under the rug.

Documentary filmmaker Joe Berlinger has never shied away from taking on controversial subjects. Berlinger’s new film Intent to Destroy is no exception.

Director Joe Berlinger (right) and Director of Photography Bob Richman (left) with Director Terry George on the set of The Promise. Photo courtesy of Survival Pictures, LLC. Photo credit: Jose Haro.

 

KOUGUELL: Tell me about your writing process. Did you work from an outline?

BERLINGER: We wrote up the research and the direction we were headed in. You have to understand your subject matter. For me, present tense cinéma vérité is the opposite of writing the film, however this film was rich in history, and a complicated history at that, and the real challenge of this film was to simplify the history but still be accurate.

We didn’t write down the dialogue or what people were going to say, we would never do that, but we certainly wrote much more than I usually do. We wrote the kind of direction the film should take.

The following of The Promise was its own thing that I treated like any cinéma vérité situation where I just follow the story and brought all that footage back. Then we had to consider how to integrate the behind the scenes footage and how to do that with the unfolding history. It became quickly apparent to me that the history was more important than the behind the scenes because I didn’t want this film to be dismissed or thought of as a massive EPK (electronic press kit) behind the scenes gratuitous exercise. It was a vehicle to deliver the history.  That’s when we started writing; what are all the historical beats, how do we structure it, which I had never done before for a documentary because of the style of documentary that I make. That’s when we came up with the idea to divide it into three chapters: Death, Denial, Depiction, and write what we needed to tell the historical beats.

Any film is a process of condensation. This history is so complex and its integration with the cinéma vérité material of the behind the scenes of The Promise, we wrote an outline, got the interview subjects to address the subjects, but clearly in their own words. I would never tell an interview subject what to say. We knew the types of things we wanted from each of the interview subjects because we had a very extensive outline of what we were trying to achieve.

Archaeologists excavate Armenian dead from mass graves. Photo courtesy of Armenian Genocide Museum Institute

KOUGUELL:  You made an interesting choice to include the genocide deniers in your film.  How open were they to talk to you and appear in the film?

BERLINGER: All were very wary about agreeing to participate in the film.  I convinced them that I wanted to cover both sides of the story and be fair to their point of view. I was also very honest about where I stand on the subject; that I shake out on the other side, and to go look at my previous films. I wanted to show both sides and let the audence decide what they think about it. Several people required multiple conversations to convince them to be in the film; I think they felt it was better to participate than not participate. I think their points of view were expressed without me throwing them under the bus, but clearly my point of view rises to the top, which is that I think there was genocide.

I didn’t want to make a movie just about the genocide; I wanted to make a movie about denial. I think you have to hear from others who think it wasn’t genocide because once you understand what their arguments are and the nature of their arguments, and the fact that these arguments exist, it’s easier to understand how denial works.

Some holocaust and genocide scholars pleaded with me not to include the denial arguments in the film, because there’s a certain philosophy among holocaust and genocide scholars that you can’t give a platform to those who deny.  I was asked by a scholar, would you include the denial argument in a film about the holocaust and my answer is, if it is a film about the holocaust — no, but if it was a film about holocaust denial then I would say yes.

The film will be released in NY and LA on November 10th and then will expand.  Learn more here.

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

A Conversation with Actress Vanessa Redgrave on Her Debut Documentary Sea Sorrow at the New York Film Festival

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Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

 

Sea Sorrow reframes ideas that refugees are from a far off land.”

— Vanessa Redgrave

 

About Sea Sorrow (From the NYFF)

Vanessa Redgrave’s debut as a documentary filmmaker is a plea for a compassionate western response to the refugee crisis and a condemnation of the vitriolic inhumanity of current right wing and conservative politicians. Redgrave juxtaposes our horrifying present of inadequate refugee quotas and humanitarian disasters (like last year’s clearing of the Calais migrant camp) with the refugee crises of WWII and its aftermath, recalled with archival footage, contemporary news reports and personal testimony—including an interview with the eloquent Labor politician Lord Dubs, who was one of the children rescued by the Kindertransport.  Sea Sorrow reaches further back in time to Shakespeare, not only for its title but also to further remind us that we are once more repeating the history that we have yet to learn.

(Still from “Sea Sorrow”)

The Documentary Choices

There are no definitive rules in documentary filmmaking and Sea Sorrow, which examines the historical context for the current migrant crisis, is no exception. A documentary can utilize the traditional three-act structure or nontraditional narrative format. Ideas can be presented objectively or subjectively. Documentaries can include stock film footage, still photographs, use talking heads, include the filmmaker in the story, employ live action, animation, dramatic reenactments, and voiceover narration or just have the subjects and images alone convey the narrative.

(A young Redgrave in WWII)

During the World War II bombing of London, a three-year old Redgrave was sent into the British countryside where she was taken in by the town’s residents. Redgrave, on camera, recounts this experience intercut with still photographs of her during this time, referring to herself as an “internally displaced person.”

Redgrave’s nontraditional narrative also incorporates a combination of archival footage (including Eleanor Roosevelt introducing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948), still photographs, talking heads, and live action, as well as a dramatized extract from The Tempest performed by Ralph Fiennes and Daisy Bevan (when Prospero tells Miranda the history of their “sea sorrow” and how they came to be exiles on a remote island, the former seat of his power and prosperity). Actress Emma Thompson also appears in the film, reading from a 1938 edition of the newspaper The Guardian, highlighting rhetoric heard today.

 

(Vanessa Redgrave at NYFF Press Conference)

Press screening Q & A with Redgrave and her producer Carlo Nero

Redgrave stated that she treated the film as if it were a poem, and chose film as the medium to deliver her message because: “Film is one of the arts — although treated like a prostitute most of the time, but it is an art — that can help people communicate and get rehumanized.”

Redgrave continued by saying she hopes Sea Sorrow will help audiences have compassion for the displaced people shown in the film:  “Do you realize how close we are? It could be us. What will we do if we are treated the way our country has treated other families? That can happen so easily and so quickly.” She continued: “Do people have imaginations? People don’t have time for imaginations. … Film, like theater, can. It doesn’t impose, it can help people stop reacting and start thinking.”

Sea Sorrow is indeed thought-provoking in its global glimpse into the refugee crisis, and it is personal.  The film reinforces the major theme that history has repeated itself but it also poses the question to the viewer that perhaps today, given what history has taught  us, that it will not be repeated.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

Susan Kouguell Interviews Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz for SCRIPT Magazine

Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Susan Kouguell interviews Ramona Diaz, filmmaker of Motherland, a poignant documentary in the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines.


Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell is a screenwriting professor at Purchase College, SUNY, and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1991 where she works with writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. Twitter: @SKouguell

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Susan Kouguell Talks with Motherland Documentary Filmmaker Ramona Diaz

Ramona Diaz (Photo: Justin Tsucalas)

I had the pleasure to speak with Ramona Diaz about her gripping documentary Motherland, now playing in New York City’s Cinema Village, kicking off its theatrical run. Shot in a vérité style, the film foregoes any formal interviews, archival footage, experts’ opinions or narration. The film is intimate and powerful with moments of humor gently underscoring the poignancy of the subject matter.

About Ramona S. Diaz — Director, Producer, Writer, Co-Editor

Ramona Diaz is an award-winning Asian-American filmmaker. Her films include Spirits RisingImeldaThe Learning, and Don’t Stop Believin’ which have been broadcast on POV and Independent Lens, and have screened and won awards at Sundance, Berlin, Tribeca, Silverdocs, IDFA, and many other top film festivals. She has received funding from ITVS, CAAM, Sundance Documentary Fund, MacArthur Foundation, Tribeca Institute, Catapult Film Fund, and Chicken & Egg. Recently she was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship and was inducted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Ramona has been a film envoy for the American Film Showcase, a joint program of the U.S. Department of State and USC that brings American films to audiences worldwide.

About Motherland

Motherland takes us into the heart of the planet’s busiest maternity hospital in one of the world’s poorest and most populous countries: the Philippines. The film’s viewer, like an unseen outsider dropped unobtrusively into the hospital’s stream of activity, passes through hallways, enters rooms and listens in on conversations. At first, the surrounding people are strangers. But as the film continues, it’s absorbingly intimate, rendering the women at the heart of the story increasingly familiar. Three women—Lea, Aira and Lerma—emerge to share their stories with other mothers, their families, doctors and social workers. While each of them faces daunting odds at home, their optimism, honesty and humor suggest a strength that they will certainly have to summon in the years ahead.

KOUGUELL: Initially, you started with one idea for this film but it shifted.

DIAZ: I was in Manila researching a completely different film having to do with reproductive justice, reproductive health, and women’s rights. I was following a legislative bill, the Reproductive Health Bill, and I was interested in the social and political drama around it. When I got to Manilla I realized that the conversation there was very black and white, either for or against the bill, and I couldn’t find the nuance. Someone told me to visit the Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital for my research. It’s called a baby factory; that’s how they refer to the hospital. In the first half hour I realized this is where my film is.

Walking around the ward, listening to the conversations the women were having, drew me in. The hospital is also so cinematic. I realized too that I could still include the themes I was interested in — reproductive health, etc., — all in one place. It was clear to me that this would make a better film.

KOUGUELL: How were you allowed access in the hospital?

DIAZ: First, there was the bureaucratic access: I had to go to the Secretary of Health to get permission. This hospital has been covered by media in the past, including CNN and the BBC, but only for short pieces and they were only there for a couple of days so they were used to media attention. But what I wanted was to be there every day for six weeks with access to all parts of the hospital. And they did give me access.

The more difficult type of access was making the staff really understand what I wanted, especially the nurses. To them, (the maternity process at the hospital) was so routine they couldn’t understand why it was special. I think people don’t necessarily think of their lives as being interesting. I knew the nurses were key because they know the ins and outs, and how that place works. Their average tenure there is 25 years. They were sort of the tribal elders; I knew if they understood what I was looking for then I’d get what I needed.

Because I chose to feature patients more than the staff, it made my life harder of course, because you can’t prep for that. Getting to know the staff was important, they sort of became my embedded producers because they knew I was looking for a younger mother, a much older mother and someone in the middle. And they would point out patients; they were on my side.

I chose the women who gave birth to preemies so I could follow them over time, a few weeks. Choosing the specific women was pure instinct.

KOUGUELL: Because you were there every day, the mothers felt they could trust you, yet filming them is very intimate. What kind of questions did you ask them to build trust?

DIAZ: I told them I was making a film about their lives in the hospital in however long their stay was, their everyday experiences. I said, we don’t want to get in the way of you resting, caring for your baby, we’ll never ask anything special of you, and we’ll have the camera on you. They wondered if that was interesting. I said it was interesting for me. I said, your stories will come out through the interactions with other people. Like Lea, she didn’t know she was having twins until giving birth.

We wouldn’t shoot the entire time we were with them, we’d put the camera down and we’d talk. That also really helped. They were interested in documentaries and what it is.

KOUGUELL: Talk about your choice to shoot Cinéma vérité and not use voice-over narration or title cards.

DIAZ: I wanted to mimic the experience I had when I first visited the hospital. I wanted to drop the audience into this organized chaos and figure it out because that was my experience with it. I really felt that the narrative would emerge from the scenes that we were filming. It was purposeful. From the beginning I knew I wanted to do that.

I had conversations with my DP Nadia (Hallgren) and I told her this was pure vérité. I remember the first day we were shooting and we walked away from a nurse doing a procedure and she asked, do you want to interview the nurse, and I said no, and she said ‘great’.  Many filmmakers start interviewing people just in case, but the ‘just in case’ becomes a crux, a go-to when you’re editing and I just didn’t want that option when we were editing.

KOUGUELL: How did you find the structure of the film? Was it prior to the shoot, during it, or in post?

DIAZ: We found the structure in editing. We found it quickly. Typically I edit for nine months, we edited for six months.  What took the longest was pulling the scenes and translating them.

KOUGUELL: Once you started filming did you work from any type of outline or did you just let the camera roll?

DIAZ: It wasn’t a strict outline but I kept notes every day about the characters and places so I knew where we had to cover: the labor room, the waiting room, the ward room where most of the action takes place. It was that kind of list making. Once I got into the characters then I started writing short outlines for myself; I imagined what we could capture based on the stories that were emerging. Sometimes they were so off the mark and sometimes they were right. We followed five to six characters fully and I knew I had to follow them throughout the stay until they got discharged.

KOUGUELL: Your advice for documentary filmmakers?

DIAZ: Certainly, persevere and be passionate. Be clear on what you’re trying to say, and I’m not even talking message. Know what it is you’re trying to say with your film and what you are trying to convey. If you know this, then things will fall into place.

Motherland opens in Los Angeles on September 22nd at the Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica with a national roll out to follow.

Learn more about Motherland.

More articles by Susan Kouguell

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Swim Team’ Filmmaker Lara Stolman for Script Magazine

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 for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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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’s SCRIPT MAGAZINE Interview: ‘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 Filmmaker Agnès Varda for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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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’ for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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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’ for SCRIPT MAGAZINE

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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.

 

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