Archive for the ‘Films & Filmmakers’ Category

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…
IsaacBrown05

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

 

On Plex: National Film Board of Canada and Snag Films

Monday, May 23rd, 2011


I’ve been setting up a HTPC on a new MacMini. Nothing fancy, it’s basically a MacMini running Plex, which (if you’re not familiar with it) is a free media server application similar to XBMC and Boxee.

I used Plex about a year and a half ago, when it was in rougher stages. Today, it seems both more robust as an application and also offers more variety in terms of the content available.

In addition to stuff like Netflix, TED, and South Park, there are “channels” from Snag Films and the National Film Board of Canada, which has an amazing library of films online, including works by Michel Brault.

Vimeo’s HD channel looks amazing, too — it looks as good as any HD cable I’ve seen. So far there’s no Mubi support. Hopefully soon.

You don’t need Plex to watch these videos, of course. Click the image below to watch Pour la suite du monde (aka Of Whales, the Moon, and Men).

Of Whales, The Moon, and Men

Launched: The New Self-Reliant Film.

Wednesday, April 6th, 2011

The new and improved SRF.

If you’re looking at this website in anything other than an RSS reader you can probably tell that we’ve completely overhauled the website. Thanks to our wonderful designer friends at Nathanna, we’ve both expanded and simplified the Self-Reliant Film website.

As we mentioned a few weeks ago, our new look is based on some new directions for the website.

Today, with the launch of the new site you can do a few things that you couldn’t do before:

 

Sign up for the email list. Our new email newsletter will have exclusive content we don’t put on the blog. We’ll share tips on great films we’ve recently discovered, we’ll provide some extra filmmaking tips, and you’ll get access to see our films for free. The newsletter is only sent once a month, we never sell or share others’ email addresses, and it’s ad-free. Subscribe!

 

Watch our films: Some folks that visit this site do so because they’re fans of our films. Others visit the site because of the blog. If you’ve not seen our work, or you want to see our films again, or you want to see more of them… we’ve spelled out all the ways to watch.

The easiest and least expensive way is to sign up for the email list. But there are other ways, too. Find out more here.

Must reads: Look to the sidebar on the left. These are a few of the most popular posts on the site. Check them out if you’re new here or if you’ve not read these. The Declaration of Principles was the first post on the blog, and it’s still pretty much as relevant today as it was when it was drafted in November 2005.

 

Resources: If you click on “Resources” (look to the upper left of this page) you’ll see some of the more helpful pages we’ve assembled for filmmakers (and everyone) since beginning the site. Over the coming weeks we’ll be updating and expanding these pages.

 

Submission guidelines: We’ve always received emails from readers wanting us to watch and/or review our films. This has been done pretty much catch-as-catch-can in the past. We finally drew up some ideas about how to do this, as seen in the sidebar on the left. We want to review and put a spotlight on great films more than we’ve been able to recently. This is a way to encourage this. Click on the Submission Guidelines and and let us know if you’ve got a film you want us to watch.

 

What hasn’t changed?

 

Our blog still features all the same stuff that we’ve championed and discussed from the beginning — DIY, regional, and personal filmmaking. We’ve moved it to selfreliantfilm.com/blog, so update your bookmarks.

(If you bookmarked an old page from the blog it should automatically redirect to the new permalink structure, but if you encounter a broken link, let us know!)
 

Finally, one other thing that hasn’t changed: This site is still ad-free.

For us, self-reliance has always gone hand in hand with the idea of simplicity. While filmmaking is a vocation that often resists even our attempts to simplify the process of making movies, we feel the least we can do, sometimes at least, is keep our tiny corner of the internet quiet from flashing banners, pop-ups, and google ads buried within our own reflections. This website, like our films, continues to be a labor of love.

We hope you like the new site, and the things to come. If you do, spread the word by sharing with a friend by using facebook, twitter or, you know, by actually telling someone about it face-to-face.

Touring the South(s)

Tuesday, March 8th, 2011

Ashley and I have been on the Southern Circuit Tour of Independent Filmmakers for a week now. As I type these notes, we are driving on I-55, heading from Memphis to a screening tonight in Jackson, Mississippi.

The program we are screening on this tour have been appropriately packaged together under the title “Southern Stories.” The two fictional films (Gina, An Actress, Age 29 and Quick Feet, Soft Hands) were shot in Knoxville, Tennessee, and the documentary (For Memories’ Sake) is a portrait of a woman who’s lived in a rural area outside Nashville all of her life. The cast and crew for these films is largely drawn from the areas in which they were shot.

Charleston Guest House

Guest house. Charleston, SC.

So, while there is a truth, and a convenience, in advertising the films as “Southern Stories”, I’m also ambivalent about labeling them this way. I have long believed that the South is not a monolithic place, except in American mythology, but that there are, instead, many Souths.

Visiting the three places we’ve screened so far — Johnson City, TN, Charleston, SC, and Memphis — has driven that home in dramatic fashion. I can’t remember touring three cities in such short succession that are more different in their cultural, racial, economic, and geographic diversity.

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