Jake Mahaffy: SRF Interview

"This is the world after the end of the world," a boy tells us at the beginning of Jake Mahaffy's debut feature, War. Then, for the next 80 some odd minutes Mahaffy captures, in black and white, the tedious and transcendental moments of a handful of characters, all male, inhabiting a devastated landscape. They work, play, drive, destroy, search for things lost. In a way, it seems, they wait for the world -- seemingly dead already -- to just end already. Is this is what purgatory, or limbo, looks like? Movies this stark, elemental, sui generis are rarely made by conventional means, and in this way War is no different. Mahaffy took five years to produce the thing, shooting it with a Bolex and a handful of non-professional actors in Warren County, Pennsylvania.

Happily, Mahaffy's spare, spiritual vision found an audience on the festival circuit, playing at Sundance, Rotterdam, Ann Arbor, and several other fine festivals. Response was warm, even glowing. Its premiere at Sundance even led to a positive review in, of all places, that bastion of Hollywood biz reporting, Variety.

As Mahaffy has worked on new projects, other laurels have followed: Jake was recognized as one of the "25 New Faces of Independent Film" by Filmmaker Magazine, and he has been awarded grants from Creative Capital and the Guggenheim Foundation. Just this week, in fact, he was selected as the inaugural Lynn Auerbach Screenwriting Fellow by the Sundance Institute.

Last month, visiting Roanoke, where Jake currently lives and works, I approached him about doing an interview. Here is our conversation:


War is your first feature film. Why this film?

It was a mix of intention and circumstance. There wasn't a period of career-planning when I considered the potential value of this film as a "first feature." I was a grad student in art school and had to make a thesis film to get my degree and get a job.

I expected to shoot and finish it in a few months -- it took five years. And it changed over time, as it changed me.

In retrospect, I wouldn't want to have made any other movie.

Part of what makes it unique is the way you made it. Tell me about the tools you used. I shot most of it on a 16mm Bolex camera, which doesn't have a battery, by disengaging the motor and winding the rewind key forward. So, I manually pulled the film through the camera, like silent film-operators used to do. That's not a clever attempt at art. It was a practical necessity. With the Bolex, a spring-wound camera, you only get 20-second shots -- many of the shots run 30-seconds to a minute.

I recorded the sound separately with a hand-held microphone and a field deck. So, I could concentrate on picture and sound separately and give full attention to each element for its own sake.

Then editing in Final Cut, I'd piece things back together- footsteps, doors.... I basically made a silent picture-film and a radio-play, composing each for its own sake, then tied them together at certain points, weaving the sound in and out of sync with the image.

Were there parts of your vision for the film that didn't make it on screen? Hardly any of my "vision" made it to screen, thank God.

There are many scenes, written and actually shot, entire plots and characters that aren't included in the final cut. They could constitute a whole other film, actually.

I went in with all my great ideas and was constantly punished for it. It's hugely frustrating and I've lost years off my life - an experience I wouldn't wish on anybody else- but now I wouldn't trade it for the world.

I was beaten into submission- in a good way. I was beaten into recognizing and accepting reality at the expense of all my clever plans. Maybe rather than imagination without restrictions, creativity is really expressed in the friction between ideas and reality. It comes out truly when you deal with the frustrations of trying to impose your vision on the world.

I never would have made a film like this on purpose. But I had to deal with limitations that couldn't be wished away -- or bought out -- which is what you do with a big budget. If you don't have the money to force it then you have to grow and change with it, expand your conception of reality and truth. That's a glorious experience. The film is just so much better than who I am as a person.

Since there was no budget for the project, how did you approach the financial aspects? The film stock was free with a student grant from Kodak. A wealthy, generous man who liked one of my other student films put up $8,000 to buy the camera, tripod and a sound deck. My wife was funding the film, and supporting me, with her job at the time. Then when I got a teaching job- some equipment came with that gig and I started editing.

It was hand-to-mouth. I didn't know what I was doing at the time and couldn't explain to anyone why they should be giving me money for  --  I didn't deserve anybody's money.

But filmmaking isn't necessarily an expensive activity. It's not a big deal to make a cheap film. What costs money is taking the time away from a paying job. That's expensive -- paying rent to live -- taxes, insurance and all the other crap.

In its willingness to let the landscape tell the story War feels like the spiritual heir of Tarkovsky's films. Then, when I met you, I learned that your wife is Ukranian, you speak Russian, and you studied cinematography in Russia. So there's definitely a Russian (or Soviet) connection. Am I just making coincidental connections, and if not, what are there conscious ways that a Russian sensibility -- or whatever you'd like to call it  --have made it into your work? Oh no - don't call my wife Ukrainian! She's Russian - she just lived in Kharkov. Yeah, I studied Russian and Spanish at Brown University. I wanted to get out of myself and away from everything I knew. Living in Russia did that to me in a dramatic way.

As far as landscapes, at the time, I was thinking a lot of Andrew Wyeth. I was trying to compose images and recreate textures that I saw in Wyeth's paintings. It was important to me because I grew up with his pictures.

As stunning as the images are, I thought that the voice-overs were equally compelling -- things like the sequence where the preacher is thinking about the things he misses, and he's listing foods. Were you working from a script?

Some of the monologues we improvised- sitting and looking at the footage and making up stories about it. I told Kenny Hicks -- the guy who does the preacher's voice -- to talk about the Country Kitchen Buffet and how it would feel to be there- hungry but ashamed to eat. He was hilarious and brilliant. My dad too... I showed him several shots of himself dropping rocks into a puddle. I liked the images but didn't know exactly why he was doing it. Right away he said, "Oh, I'm smashing the peepers." And he went off for 15 minutes talking about smashing peepers, how the peepers come out in the spring and bother him and if he kills the frog eggs before they hatch then its not really killing.

But I wrote some of them too. And guided the improvisations. We were just trying to make sense of the images. War was filmed like a documentary because I couldn't use the screenplay I originally intended. I shot images, year after year, of the characters working and living, inhabiting the fictional world of our film. We created an entire self-sufficient reality, gradually pulling a narrative out of the footage in the editing process. Anyway, rather than executing a prearranged plan with a script, we realized the drama indirectly like when making a verite documentary. But that is not the most efficient way to go about making a fiction film, and I couldn't really recommend it.

You've lived and made films in a number of different places -- among them, Providence, Roanoke, and western Pennsylvania. None of them are traditional centers of filmmaking. What's made that possible? Not depending on other people...

These films are not big productions. With a small project you've got to generate your own energy. That's your self-reliance right there.

But there can be some safety in numbers. There"s some security in knowing that other people actually care about what you"re doing, an official "film" and not just some amateur hobby, which is what you get with a producer and a budget. Some people are embarrassed of making a film by themselves- or terrified.

But there"s also a risk for folks to get caught up in that paradigm at the expense of the alternatives. It could be easy to end up not waiting for "money" as much as you"re waiting for validation. You want to build up a network of support that"s going to carry you through production. You want other people to care, which is one way of insuring the film gets finished, seen and approved of.

It's a different kind of "difficult" -- striking out alone without expecting, or trying to convince, other people to care about your project before its finished.

How did you convince the non-professional actors involved with War and Wellness to participate? These are older folks and, presumably, they have jobs, families, and other commitments. Everybody's got commitments. We just try and make it work around jobs and schedules. I don't know. Tell you the truth, I really have no idea why people do this.

Speaking of "safety in numbers" you belong to a cooperative, Handcranked Films. How did you meet the other makers, and what does belonging to it provide?

Dan Sousa, Jeff Sias and I all studied at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) together. Jeff and Dan worked with Bryan Papciak at an animation studio in Boston (Olive Jar).

Since then, Jeff and Bryan put up a website with some of our work. They"re the two central figures and run most of the shows and events. They"ve all been doing amazing work- mostly animation- besides supporting themselves with commercial jobs and teaching.

Dan just made a beautiful animated short, Fable. It's playing at Sundance, Annecy, Ottawa -- all the big animation festivals. Jeff and Bryan are working on a feature non-fiction project called American Ruins. They have some amazing footage and are trying to raise the funds to continue. You can see some of their stuff at www.handcrankedfilm.com

War had a great run on the festival circuit, but there are clearly audiences that haven"t had a chance to see it. What are your plans for distributing it on DVD? How can someone that reads about it here get their hands on it?

I don't have any plans to distribute it. That's a full-time job and I'm busy as it is. The unfinished version of War that showed at the festivals is weak compared to the completed film. I made some small changes that make a big difference. It'd be nice for folks to see the finished film but there's not a whole lot I can do about it at this point. Is there?

But what about audiences that didn't have a chance to reach those festivals. Are you not interested in simply selling the DVD on your website? That's a good idea.

What are you working on now?

There's a whole list of different projects I'm working on... Right now I'm shooting Motion Studies, editing Wellness, and writing a script for Free in Deed. That's a film about a man who tries to perform a miracle and fails. I hope to shoot that within the next year or two-- a civil war movie -- not about the first one but the next one. Wellness, which follows a traveling salesman, was shot on DV. Instead of working with non-sync sound and B+W film, you're now working in color and with dialogue. Did it feel like a radical departure? It's fun -- I can't believe it. Just working with people's faces and tones of voice. It's so much easier and more immediate than dealing in visual terms -- with composition and all. The story just takes care of itself. Editing is a riot -- I'm howling through my tears, laughing while cutting it all together.

When and where can we expect to see it? I've only started editing. We'll see how it turns out.

Just this week you were awarded a Sundance Insititute fellowship for your script to Free in Deed. Can you talk a little bit about the story, as well as what the fellowship will do for the project?

I'm still writing it. So, I can't say a whole lot. It's about a man who failed to perform a miracle when he should have. And how he tries to survive in a new reality without miracles.

The fellowship is meant to help you focus on writing the project. That's where Wellness came from. I wanted to learn about dialogue and take a shot at this whole "realism" kick -- people talking, handheld camera and all that. So

Wellness was shot as an exercise, an experimental project, to help write Free in Deed. But its turning out so well -- it may be its own feature.

Sundance has been so generous. It's such a rare and genuine help. The Labs, the people -- I can't speak highly enough of them. You know, it's out of nowhere this stuff they're doing. So many people -- I see artists so caught up in themselves and people in competition with each other -- trying to outdo each other. The Labs' generosity is really refreshing and positive -- they have a bigger picture of the potential of many movies working together rather than just the small picture each filmmaker has of his or her own project.

One last question. Like me, you teach filmmaking. What are the most important things you try to pass along to your students?

I just try and get students excited about learning, really -- so they can teach themselves over time.

I'd say, go for the long-haul. There's some demented American idea about the importance of age- the prodigy myth- it's a marketing trick, really. But it's simple bullshit. Don't sell out your dream to make a splash. Don't believe the hype, you know? It could be easy to lose perspective with the movies where each new film is the greatest piece of genius since Adam's rib. It's like grade-inflation or something.

And I'd say, be true to the specific subject of each particular film rather than trying to make a "great" film in some generic sense. If the film is right and truthful to its subject then it will also be "good" on its own terms.

Is that preachy enough?