Archive for the ‘Off-site interviews’ Category

Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Fiona Otway

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Given the recent closure of the iconic letterpress printing shop, Yee-Haw Industries, whose work adorned everything from Jack Daniels to Le Sport Sac to the movie posters for Self-Reliant Film, today’s post on Kiss the Paper, a film about letterpress’s decline and revival, seems especially timely.

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Fiona Otway is a director, cinematographer, editor, producer, and media instructor whose work is influenced by her background in cultural anthropology, critical social theory, and experimental filmmaking. She has edited three Academy Award nominee films, including one of the three stories in James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, which garnered a “Best Documentary Editing” award at Sundance.

Her latest short, Kiss the Paper, is a documentary portrait of Alan Runfeldt, a man who has been a letterpress printer since age 12. Told through poetic camerawork and moody, natural lighting, the film both paints a portrait of its subject character, Alan, while also exploring the world of tactile printing–a world that stands in opposition to and is threatened by the computers and cell phones even this hardcore letterpress printer has come to adopt and rely upon.

An example of thoughtful, poignant, and self-reliant filmmaking, Kiss the Paper is a meditation on art versus profession, trade versus craft, and the ways in which analog is hanging on in a digital world.

For those readers attending Full Frame Festival in Durham, you can catch the film today!

 

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How did you meet the subject of your film, Alan Runfeldt, and what inspired you to make a film about him? 

I had been wanting to make a film about letterpress for a long time and was living in Philadelphia, where there is a lot of printing history. I started talking to folks in the letterpress community in town, asking whether they knew of any printers who had been around long enough to witness the past few decades of changing letterpress history. A few names were suggested, but to my dismay, these printers had already retired or closed their businesses and were very hard to track down.

So I started expanding my search beyond Philadelphia and when I heard that Alan Runfeldt had filled an old chicken barn with a collection of printing presses he had rescued, I knew that I wanted to talk with him. From our very first conversation, it was obvious that Alan is a man filled with incredible passion.  He was very friendly and eager to share his many decades of accumulated wisdom. Soon after we chatted, I traveled to Frenchtown, NJ to visit his print shop and discovered a treasure trove of beautiful, beloved machines under his care. Since I was interested in exploring the themes of tactility and obsolescence — both visually and through a character portrait — Alan and his presses were the perfect subject.

 

Your credits on the film are producer, director, camera, and editor. Tell me about the process of making this film, which appears to be a more or less one-woman show. Were there any challenges or benefits to making the film in this way? 

I had a very narrow window of time in which to make the film (between other projects), so working solo was partly a practical issue of flexibility and expediency. It’s easier to shoot a film on the fly when you don’t have to coordinate schedules and availability with a lot of people. I also simply didn’t have any budget to hire other professionals to work with me one this one. But I wasn’t completely alone; my friend Ginger Jolly came with me on one of the shoot days and was a huge help in setting up lights, recording sound, and schlepping gear — not to mention the creative support of bouncing ideas around together.  We had a lot of fun.

I have to admit, although it can be more difficult to work solo, I also really like shooting and editing my own material.  I had a pretty strong vision for this piece from the very beginning, and there is a creative joy that comes with being able to shape the material in such a hands-on, start-to-finish process.

Of course, collaborating with others to make a film can be an incredible experience too. I also freelance as a shooter and editor, so I know firsthand that sometimes it just makes more sense to have a team of people creating a film together.  A film can be greatly enhanced by individuals bringing their unique strengths, talents, and perspectives to the process.

 

In addition to this film, you’ve also edited a significant number of successful films, including James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments, for which you won Sundance’s first ever prize for “Best Documentary Editing.” How do you go about the process of editing another person’s film? In other words, how do you go about crafting footage into a story? What is your process of collaboration? Do you have any special processes or techniques for getting through that first assembly or rough cut?

The process of collaboration is unique to each project.  As an editor, I’ve found that every director has their own working style and each project has its own creative needs.

In the beginning, my job as an editor is to really get to know the footage — its strengths, its idiosyncrasies, its potential. I’m also engaging in a rich dialogue with the director, absorbing as much information as I can about their vision for the film. Sometimes I end up doing my own additional research on the subject matter, so that I can understand the context of the story better. I might also study other films for aesthetic inspiration and use these kinds of films as a reference point for ongoing discussions with director.

As I get deeper into the edit, I am working to find a structure that will carry the story. I write outlines, start assembling scenes that I think are especially strong, build spreadsheets, make notes on index cards, and begin playing with ideas and possible approaches for a story arc.   To get to the first assembly or rough cut, I’m searching for interesting resonances in the footage and in the story — the questions and themes that become more nuanced over time and make the material come alive for me. One of the aspects of editing that I love the most is that it allows me to tap into a deeply intuitive level of creativity.

Throughout the entire editing process, I’m continuing to have conversations with the director.  We are constantly working to refine our vision for the movie.  We’ll watch rough cuts together, make notes about what’s working and not working, and then chisel away some more.  At a certain point, we’ll start showing rough cuts to a trusted circle of friends and colleagues in order to get feedback from outside the edit room. This invaluable feedback gets folded back into the editing, and the process continues in these cycles until a movie is born.

 

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The lamentation and nostalgia that your film’s subject, Alan, expresses about the decline of analog technology seems especially poignant, given this film’s digital format. Did you question making this film digitally, or was that an intentional juxtaposition from the start?

KISS THE PAPER is actually shot on both super-16mm film and HD video, which was a very deliberate expressive choice from the beginning. With the recent news about Kodak’s bankruptcy, there are obvious parallels between filmmaking and letterpress printing. While KISS THE PAPER isn’t making specific commentary on the the decline of celluloid, I was very interested in the formal subtext of combining film and video in the making of the piece.

 

At one point, your film’s subject Alan says, “Technology moves towards efficiency, but art moves towards emotion and feeling.” Your cinematography, which turns heavy, oily letterpress machinery into a cinematic poetry of sorts, would seem to agree. Is this an edict that you feel accurately describes your work? How so?

I definitely have a soft spot in my heart for old technologies and tactile media, but I’m not opposed to the evolution of technology. I do, however, sometimes worry that we live in a culture that blindly worships technological progress for its own sake.

As a filmmaker, I make no apologies about working in a digital medium. In fact, the digital revolution in video is what has enabled me and others like me to have access to the tools of filmmaking in the first place. But at the same time, I want to create work that connects with people and enables people to connect with each other. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how digital technologies and digital media can either support or inhibit these goals. I often contemplate what is lost and what is gained in the fact of our increasingly digital lives and in the march towards ever-increasing technological efficiency.  These are some of the questions that led me to make KISS THE PAPER.

 

The film premiered this January at Slamdance and has also screened at Big Sky Documentary Festival. Where else can audiences hope to catch this film?

KISS THE PAPER premiered at the Athens International Film and Video Festival in 2011. The film is still in the festival circuit, and has screened at Silverdocs, the Citizen Jane Film Festival, Red Rock Film Festival, Slamdance, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, and Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival. The next few confirmed screenings include Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC, then DOXA in Vancouver BC, and at the 2012 New Hampshire Living History event in August. Additional screenings and the eventual DVD will be announced on our Facebook page.

 

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Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Brian Bolster

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

Because short films are often neglected in film festival press and buzz, the next two installments of this series focus on powerful films in short-form packages. First up is an interview with Brian Bolster, a native of Boston and graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. His film, The Lookout, premiered at Slamdance and recently took home the “Big Sky Award” at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The Lookout is a sixteen-minute documentary about a fire lookout–a term which describes both a person and a place–in a remote area Montana’s Flathead National Forest. Lookouts serve to detect and fight wildfires and, despite their ongoing use, seem a thing of the past.

Bolster’s film is a reflection on solitude and voluntary simplicity in a landscape where, as the lookout puts it, “weather dictates life.” Told with stunning cinematography of big skies and mountains, stars and sunsets, it is a carefully crafted film that celebrates quiet and natural beauty.

 

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It was your awesome hand letter-pressed card that first led me to want to watch this film, and in the film’s press kit, you also included a letter-pressed business card. Why did you make this aesthetic decision to represent a digital film/filmmaker? How does this style of printing relate to your work?

This was the first time I have used letterpress printing for any of my projects. Initially, I was going to follow the formula that many filmmakers use at festivals, a glossy postcard with a still from the film on the front and standard screening information on the back.  However, I truly felt that this particular project warranted a less traditional feel promotional-wise. The Lookout has a rustic sensibility, and I wanted the marketing materials  to embody that as well. It was Fiona Otway’s beautiful film Kiss the Paper about a letterpress printer in Hunterdon County, New Jersey (which incidentally also screened along with The Lookout as part of the documentary block “Americana” at this year’s Slamdance Film Festival), that served as my inspiration to give letterpress a try. [Note from Ashley: This film, Kiss the Paper, is the subject of our next fresh filmmaker interview!]

Using an older, nearly forgotten art form to bring an element of nostalgia to the collateral materials just felt right, and in the end, I couldn’t be more pleased with unrefined texture of the output and how well both the postcards and business cards represent the film’s aesthetic. Fire lookouts and letterpress printers are similar in that both can be considered dying breeds of sorts, and I’d like to think that I played a role in preserving both of their crafts to some extent, by making a documentary film about one and successfully promoting that film with the other.

Most of my films examine an individual or group’s relationship to structures and/or the environment in which they work, live, worship in, etc. Given that spectrum, I don’t think letterpress print would be the right medium for every project.  For me, the film’s aesthetic should really dictate the look and feel of all its ancillary touch points. That said, my next project profiles the owner/operators of an old fashioned mercantile, situated at the end of a long dirt road in rural Montana. It definitely has a rustic feel similar to The Lookout, and I’m certain that letterpress print would, again, yield tools that would both perfectly complement and promote the film.

You made The Lookout with a one-person film crew and had to hike twelve miles to and from Thoma Lookout to bring up the equipment for you shoot, not to mention you went without bathing for the week of filming on the mountain. Knowing these challenges from the start, why did you pursue this film? Why did you feel this was a story you had to tell?

Fire lookouts and the individuals that staff them are an important part of our nation’s history, and I really wanted to showcase their work to audiences who may not be familiar with their unique, yet often times unnoticed, role in fire management. Additionally, though they remain  critical front-line components of our forest system’s detection and prevention of wildfires, they have recently dwindled in numbers, due largely to the proliferation of advanced technologies.  Because of this, I knew that I not only wanted to document the working life of a fire lookout, but also play a part in preserving their history in doing so.

As far as the physical challenges of getting this film made, backpacking and hiking have been a part of my life for a long time, so the camping and making the two 4-mile one way trips (personal belongings on one, film equipment on the other) up and down the mountain on the front and back-ends of the shoot were definitely much more a welcome adventure than an issue.  Also, while not showering for a week may be have been a little unpleasant, that too is something I’ve become somewhat accustomed to over my years of being an avid hiker.

 

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The subject of your film, Leif Haugen, is a fourteen year lookout veteran, who chooses to spend solitary summers in a remote post with only a two-way radio as his connection to the outside world. Haugen is surprisingly natural on camera and I imagine there had to be some sort of negotiation for you sharing the small, tiny hut for a week of filming. Tell me about that process. Given his habitation to solitude, how did you achieve the intimate footage in your film, which gives a strong, cinema verite impression?

To my surprise, Leif was very comfortable in front of the camera.  While we had talked briefly on the phone once or twice about logistics and such, we had never met in person until the first day of shooting.  The hike up to the lookout gave us a chance to talk, and Leif was nice enough to accompany me on both trips up and down the mountain, allowing us to get to know each other fairly well in a very short period of time.

Overall, the weather at the lookout proved to be a real challenge and in many ways ‘co-directed’ the shoot, if you will. We experienced everything from wind and rain to snow and sleet, with one or maybe two warm and sunny days over the course of the week. On the days where the weather was particularly bad, we stayed inside the lookout and shot Leif’s interviews which ended up taking much of our indoor time. Other than that, our days would mostly involve discussing Leif’s plans for the day over breakfast, followed by my doing my best to shadow him as his went about with his routine, whether it was a trip to get water, chop wood or cook dinner.

Thoma Lookout is very small and tight space, and that, coupled with the fact that Leif is used to spending so much of his time in complete isolation at the lookout, often times left me with a sense that I was invading his world with my presence. Fortunately, due both to his dedication to his work as a lookout and our mutual desire to share his experience at-large with others, we were able to successfully navigate any discomfort.

In addition to being a fourteen-year veteran of the Hungry Horse/Glacier Ranger Districts fire lookout program, Leif also helps train newly hired lookouts as well as restores older lookout structures back to fully operational states. After Leif saw the film screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, I asked him what he thought of seeing it for the first time in such a large format. Though he was beyond pleased with both the end product and the audience reaction, he also mentioned that the film left him feeling a bit melancholy because he missed his life at Thoma – a clear demonstration to his passion and commitment to his work as a fire lookout.

 

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How did you prepare for your week of filming at Thoma Lookout. (I imagine you wanted to get everything in one trip, given the struggles of getting there!) What forms of previsualization did you use (e.g. storyboards, shot lists, etc.) to plan your shoot, if any? Did you plan any sequences ahead of time, such as a stunning time-lapse sunsets or nighttime skies?

I did have some pre-visualization of what the end product would look like, but it was minimal since I had never visited this particular lookout and had no idea what to expect other than being told that the views from the site were stunning. I did find some inspiration from the films of Terrence Malick and John Ford’s film “The Searchers” before and after the shoot, and I did have a good idea as to what I thought was important for viewers to experience – but that information was primarily gleaned from Leif’s interview. Additionally, I also knew that I wanted as little camera movement as possible because I wanted viewers to be in and experience Leif’s world. The time-lapsed night time sequence in the middle of the film was the only segment that was preplanned before I left for Montana, and I knew I would include it in the finished film – although, it was pure luck that I happened to catch an electrical storm passing through that particular night. Other than that, everything was shot on site at Thoma.

To complete this film, you worked with an editor, Amy Glickman Brown. How much footage did you have to work with for this 16-minute film? What was your process of collaboration for winnowing down the footage?

This is the second time I have worked with Amy, and she definitely has a knack for finding the heart of a story.  At all points throughout the editing process, I always sense that she is just as invested in the project as I am, and she has never shied away from arguing her points when she feels that I may be making decisions counter to the project’s overall message.  I place great value on the pacing of my films, as I find that central in setting the mood for the entire piece.  With The Lookout, the only instructions I gave Amy were to edit the film with a pace that was slow, deliberate and with a very “day in the life” feeling.  She found the pacing quickly, and with limited footage (only about twelve hours total), was able to add a breadth to the end product that I never thought was possible.  In the end, I felt that the final cut of sixteen minutes captured my story perfectly – and I had originally envisioned a total runtime of only about eight to ten minutes prior to our post-production work.

The Lookout is a quiet film, whose soundtrack is composed by the wind, rain, and other elements of Montana’s Flathead National Forest and the crackle of the dispatch radios. When and how did you make the decision to not use music? Was this a directoral decision or one you made in tandem with Drew Fuccillo, your sound mixer?

If nothing else, I really wanted viewers to experience the same sights and sounds as Leif, so the decision to not use music in The Lookout was indeed a deliberate one. Perhaps I should also credit some of my inspiration in this regard to the soundtrack from Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds as well, as I have always admired Hitchcock’s choice of using the sounds of the birds in place of a musical score.  However, my choice to use the crackle of the radio was made while shooting at Thoma. I loved how the radio would suddenly disrupt the quiet solitude. The crackle was jarring, and I wanted to incorporate that noise into the film as an auditory reminder that Leif was still connected to the outside world.

The budget for your film, $2500, seems fairly modest given the travel that must have been necessary for the filming. Do you often make work with small or micro-budgets? Do you produce work this way for practical, aesthetic, or other reasons?

In many ways this shoot was really an extension of a typical backcountry camping trip. The only difference being that I had a camera and tripod with me. Air travel aside, a hiking and backpacking trip is inherently a non expensive outing. Therefore, taking on a film shoot on such a trip definitely assisted in helping me keep costs low during production. While this helped me to keep costs down, it was by no means an aesthetic choice but rather a practical choice. Most of my costs for The Lookout were post-production related.

After its premiere at Slamdance, your film went gone on to screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, where it won the Big Sky Award. Where else do you plan to screen the film at this point? Do you have any long-term plans for VOD or digital distribution?

Currently The Lookout is making the rounds on the festival circuit. After the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, it screened at the Durango International Film Festival and will have two screenings at the Florida Film Festival next month in April and screenings at Independent Film Festival Boston. To-date, there has been some initial interest from a couple of distributors, but I’m definitely still open to exploring and discussing any short or longer-term distribution opportunities which may present themselves. Down the line, I’m also considering packaging The Lookout with some other similarly-themed short films in which I am currently in post-production. In the meantime, I welcome anyone interested in learning more about the film to please check it out at facebook.com/TheLookoutMovie.

 

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Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Isaac Brown

Monday, February 20th, 2012

I met director Isaac Brown and producer Ana Paula Habib at the Slamdance premiere of their hour-long documentary, Terra Blight. This duo is regionally based in Jacksonville, Florida, and is committed to producing socially-conscious yet nuanced documentary films.

Their latest work, Terra Blight, is a compilation documentary that sheds a light on the global impact and dangers of e-waste. Using a combination of archival, live-action, and animation, viewers meet a cast of compelling characters, including, George Laurer, a retired IBM engineer who invented of the UPC symbol; Mike Anane, a Ghanian journalist, fighting to end e-waste dumping in his country; a sales manager at CompUSA; a middle American family of computer gamers who make an annual trek to QuakeCon; and the endearing Isaiah Atta, a young boy who supports his family as a metal scavenger at and who one days hopes to become a preacher.

More essayistic in its approach than propagandistic, Terra Blight highlights both the innovation and peril brought by America’s tech-obsession and desire to constantly upgrade to the latest and greatest. Viewers are challenged to find their own ways to solve the film’s great paradox: in a world in which we have become computer-dependent, how do we temper our addiction before it leads to self-destruction.

Below is an email conversation I had with director Isaac Brown shortly after the premiere.

 

Shoppers test out computers at Comp USA in Jacksonville, Florida.

 

At your Slamdance premiere, you described the making of Terra Blight as a four year process that began with reading news articles and culminated in a trip to Ghana. Describe for us what initially sparked your interest in this topic and how the film took shape over that process. (I’d be especially interested in your recounting one of the challenges you mentioned at Slamdance–your agonizing over the decision of whether or not to upgrade to HD and to start over shooting this project.)

I think the process of coming up with the idea/concept of Terra Blight started years before. I was a photojournalist major doing a photo essay on American waste. A couple years later, when I started making documentaries, that interest manifested itself into a project called Gimme Green. This was a 27-minute short I co-directed that explored America’s obsession with the residential lawn and all the resources it takes to keep them green.

We were very successful with this project; it won over a dozen awards and screened on the Sundance Channel. When looking for another object in our everyday lives that we take for granted that we could build a film around, we naturally started gravitating toward the computer. We read numerous books, articles, and blogs and started writing a treatment/proposal.

After shooting for a year (and 20 hours of footage) on the same DVX100a that we filmed Gimme Green on, we realized that the film would be pretty dated by the time we got it done (standard def, 4×3, interlaced lines, etc). So we made the agonizing decision of starting over and investing in new equipment (the HVX200 with p2 cards).

It was painful at the time, but I’m really glad we did. I always think you should shoot a film with the nicest equipment you can manage to obtain. Our budget was small, but we put the entire thing on the screen.

Your production company, Jellyfish Smack Productions, is based out of Jacksonville, Florida. What regional influence, if any, shaped your production? Where there any challenges you had to navigate (e.g. funding, equipment, etc.) that were either hurt or helped by your FL home base?

Northeast Florida is our home, so naturally our company is based there. I love it. We have the woods, the beach and international airport 20 minutes away. (what else can you ask for?)

As far as locating funding for the project, living in Florida actually helped us. Ana [the film’s producer] and I are both recipients of Florida’s Individual Artist Fellowship for Media Arts. We both feel very supported by our state.

 

QuakeCon is the largest Local Area Network (LAN) party in North America

 

One of the strengths of Terra Blight is the rich cast of characters, who represent several different perspectives on the issue of computers’ utility and their life cycle. How did you identify/connect with/discover the key characters in your film? Was the multi-character structure carefully planned or envisioned by you, or did this come out in the edit? How did you, from an editor’s perspective, go about structuring and combining these seemingly disparate stories?

We knew from the beginning of the project that we wanted to have a rich cast of characters in Terra Blight. We very much envisioned the film as the life cycle of the computer and all the different hands that helped it along its journey. Of course we filmed many more folks than the ones that appear in the movie; the real challenge of editing was finding the narrative arc in the massive amount of footage that we accumulated. We used a lot of index cards, had dozens of conversations, and spent hundreds and hundreds of hours editing.

When I’m working with student-filmmakers, I often ask them before they embark upon a documentary project to define what impact they hope to have on their viewers–that is, what is it they hope the audience members will do after they see the film. What is the impact goal of Terra Blight? Was this goal the same when you embarked upon the project? If not, how was it shaped along the way?

We have always had the intention when making this film of raising awareness about the dangers of e-waste. We want the audience to think about all the resources it took to make their electronics, and to be responsible consumers when their machines become obsolete. Please don’t just throw them away! Find a responsible recycler from www.ban.org.

We also hoped that the computer would become a metaphor for the countless products we create and dispose of at the expense of the earth.

Finally, how can interested viewers hope to see Terra Blight in the near future? How else might they connect with you and your work? And what else should we look for from you down the road?

We have just begun our distribution/outreach journey for Terra Blight. Check out www.terrablight.com to see where the film ends up. We are hoping for a traditional broadcast and plan to eventually have DVDs/streaming available.

We have a couple other projects in the works; check out Jellyfish Smack Productions to follow our future/past projects.

And of course, like our Terra Blight page on Facebook and help us get the word out. It is going to take all of us working together to stem the tide of e-waste from flowing to the wrong places…
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Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Keith Miller

Monday, February 13th, 2012

Paul and I returned recently from a week in Park City, where we were able to see some of the many films screening at Sundance and Slamdance Film Festivals. At both festivals, we encountered self-reliant filmmakers making challenging and fascinating work. So, to give blog readers a taste of some of what we encountered, we’ll be posting a series of short interviews with some of the makers to highlight and showcase some of the fresh, new work out in the world.

Up first is an interview with filmmaker Keith Miller, whose feature, Welcome to Pine Hill, premiered at Slamdance and took home the grand jury award for narrative feature. We corresponded via email shortly after his premiere and before his award.

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A still from Keith Miller's debut feature, WELCOME TO PINE HILL.

Welcome to Pine Hill is, as writer-director Keith Miller, put it, an example of “committed and concerned filmmaking that is engaged with social realities.” Based on a real-life argument and encounter with Shannon Miller, a non-actor who portrays a character similar to himself in the film, Welcome to Pine Hill explores the disconnect between social classes in Queens and the challenges that come with trying to turn one’s life around with a filmmaking approach that blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. Told in long takes with exceptional handheld photography, it is a moving portrait about privilege, social ties, and mortality.

Welcome to Pine Hill is also a 2011 Independent Filmmaker Lab participant and Miller’s debut feature. The short film, Prince/William, that the feature expands upon can be seen on feature’s Kickstarter campaign page here. SRF readers might also be interested in this video interview with director Keith Miller by Filmmaker Magazine.

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Your film, Welcome to Pine Hill, was inspired by an actual argument that you had upon meeting Shannon Harper. Because Shannon portrays a character in the film much like himself (i.e. his character’s jobs are ones Shannon actually had in the past; Shannon is from the area where his character resides, etc.), I’d like to hear more about your process of collaboration with Shannon and the other actors/non-actors in the film. What kinds of input did Shannon and others contribute to scenes and/or the film’s storyline? Were they involved at all in the editing process of the film? Along these same lines, you are credited as the film’s screenwriter. Approximately, how much of the film was improvised/non-scripted?

Working on the short, Prince/William, Shannon and I had a number of long discussions about the implications of our initial meeting and, from these developed the basic plot for Prince/William. When we were shooting, we worked through the conversation in a number of different ways, repeating sections, until it felt like we had created the scene that we were going for.

The process of Pine Hill was a bit different. I had been planning on working with Shannon again, and he was interested, so I began writing the framework of the story based on elements from our conversations and other ideas I had for the storyline. I worked with the actors in very direct ways, both before and during the actual shooting. Before shooting I worked with them to get a sense of who they were and then talked to them about who their characters were and where we were going to go with the them.

Altogether the final script is about 30 pages. Some sequences are a single line in the script but are over ten minutes in the movie, like when he goes to the woods or after the doctor’s office when he is alone at home. Once we began shooting a scene that was not scripted I was constantly pushing the conversation in one direction or another and working with the actors in real time.

To put it bluntly, you’re a white, middle class NYU arts professor telling a story about a nearly all-black cast in an impoverished area of Queens. How did you “unpack” the proverbial knapsack as you made this film? What role, if any, did the cast play in helping you navigate the racial/ethic/socio-economic spaces of the film’s setting and story?

Addressing issues of race head on was one of the initial impulses for the short. This is so central to my thinking about the movie that I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post called, Who am I to tell this story?. One of the central issues for me is that discussions of race are often so gingerly touched upon that it really never gets addressed in a serious way by a lot of people. That said, I see Pine Hill more as a story about a personal journey that is set in black culture. One of the reasons I felt drawn to it was not as a window into the black world, but as an exploration of one man’s experience. In some ways, my being an outsider –being white in a black world- was one of the things that informed the storytelling process throughout. Shannon and I are very close and when we were working through scenes or discussing specific ideas, the issue of race was always present, but much more central were our many overlapping concerns, such as how he would react in a situation, what the meaning of that reaction was, what the choices were in a certain situation. When I was working with the other actors I pushed to get an intimate sense of who they were and how to most gracefully get them to put that forward with cameras rolling. Whether it was age or race, class or interests, I feel like our differences, the cast and mine, was what made me more able to work with them. The otherness that happens in front of the camera, the very artificiality of it, was what I was trying to undo; seeing that difference, between the actors and me, reality and filmed events, pushed a lot of those scenes into the space between both.

This film began as a short, which you premiered at the Rooftop Film Festival in the summer of 2010. How did you embark first upon making this film? What kinds of resources did you gather then and what additional ones were needed for the making of the feature-version?

This film was made almost completely with the energy, dedication and talent of the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective. We are a very tight knit group of diverse filmmakers who workshop our passion projects. So when it came time to shoot, I proposed it to them and little by little they jumped on board. Another big help, in terms of the gear, was Ed David and his Kitty Guerilla Films. Without his generosity we would have shot on iPhones or something like that.

As the project moved forward, people began to take a liking to it and offered to help in a lot of different ways. A number of my former students (from NYU’s Gallatin School) came on board; more of the BFC members offered their help. The music is from the crews’ friends’ bands and the post people came from word of mouth. Being selected for the IFP Narrative Lab was yet another another boost as both the filmmakers and the IFP crew have been extremely supportive. In the end, the making of this movie was an amazing community effort.

The film captures a number of intimate and poignant scenes (for instance, an older man “lectures” the group of men drinking beer in the backyard with Shannon, telling them how to make their life count). How, literally and figuratively, did you capture these performances? What motivation or prompts did you use with to get these scenes going?

Most of the actors had not acted before and my focus was on getting a sense of who they were and then working with them to bring that out within the context of the scene we were shooting. It was a very hands on directing style but since the takes were so long and the camaraderie genuine, the tension you could feel or the potential stiffness of some situations, quickly faded away.

In most of the ensemble scenes we were shooting with three cameras rolling simultaneously, often doing takes of up to 45 minutes. We worked together to get a sense of the camera movements, the general tone, and how we would move as a group- all three cameras, the AC, the Boom op and me. The DPs are all experienced hand-held documentary film shooters with great skills and eyes, and the ability to keep a feel for the heart of the moment.

Finally, how can interested viewers hope to see Welcome to Pine Hill in the near future? How else might they connect with you and your work?

For the moment, the best way to connect with us is through the Facebook page. We plan to be playing some more festivals soon, but are still waiting on where to go next.

 
Writer-director Keith Miller

 

This Conference is Being Recorded: 2007 Wrap-up

Sunday, January 27th, 2008

Over the holidays, Lance Weiler, Mark Stolaroff and I spoke about the year in review for This Conference is Being Recorded, the Workbook Project’s podcast series. You can listen to the show here.

I was fighting off a migraine that day, so apologies if my thoughts aren’t that coherent. I do recall that Lance and Mark had some typically insightful things to say.

The recording is the second in a two part series. Part one, which features Lance, Scott Kirsner, and Woody Benson, is worth a listen, too.