Su-City Pictures East, LLC

Screenplay & Film Consulting By Susan Kouguell

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘Swim Team’ Filmmaker Lara Stolman

Click to tweet this interview to your friends and followers!

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.

READ MORE HERE

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

Join me July 27- August 24

 for my online 4-week class

THE FUNDAMENTALS OF SCREENWRITING 

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

Testimonial:

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

READ MORE HERE

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

Advanced Film Rewriting Workshop at Screenwriters University

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

Register here

Next session:

July 13- September 21

Susan Kouguell Interviews ‘The Reagan Show’ Filmmaker Pacho Velez

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

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.

 

READ MORE HERE

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

WRITING THE DOCUMENTARY FILM

FOUR-WEEK ONLINE COURSE

Starts Thursday, May 11, 2017

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

READ MORE HERE

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

Click to tweet this interview to your friends and followers!

SCRIPT Magazine link

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

David Garrett Byars

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

The History

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

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

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

Susan Kouguell: What drew you to this project?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Kouguell: Tell me about the writing process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

Click to tweet this interview to your friends and followers!

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

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

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

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

About Danielle Katvan

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

Danielle Katvan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KOUGUELL: Did you stay close to the original material?

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

KOUGELL: What’s next for you?

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

Learn more about the film here.

 

READ MORE HERE

Susan Kouguell Speaks with Filmmaker Agnès Varda

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

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’

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

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’

Click to tweet this article to your friends and followers!

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.

 

« Older posts