Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Fiona Otway

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.


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!


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 

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Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Brian Bolster

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.

The Lookout

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

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Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Isaac Brown

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, 4x3, 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

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 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...

Fresh Filmmakers Interview Series: Keith Miller

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.


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.


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

The Conversation... with Scott Kirsner

Though this website is a direct result of my belief that new technologies are reshaping filmmaking, as well as the relationships that filmmakers have with their audience, I rarely write about the intersections between cinema, the web, gaming, and business. One the reason I don't is because there's already someone that does that much better than I could. His name is Scott Kirsner. A journalist by trade, Kirsner is the author of "The Future of Web Video: Opportunities for Producers, Entrepreneurs, Media Companies and Advertisers", the editor of CinemaTech (his must-read blog) and a contributor to publications as diverse as has also contributed to Variety, Wired,, and BusinessWeek, among others.

Recently, Kirsner announced a new event to be held this fall in Berkeley, called The Conversation.

The Conversation


Billed as "a gathering... intended to explore the new business and creative opportunities emerging in 2008," The Conversation is "targeted to media-makers and technologists who want to understand and help shape the future of the entertainment industry."

If the list of organizers and "conversation leaders" is any indication, The Conversation will be well worth sitting in on.

In anticipation of the event, Kirsner and I exchanged a couple of Q+A emails. I thought I'd share this (lowercase "c") conversation with you:


Your journalism has covered motion pictures, new technologies, the internet, and the intersections of all of these overlapping worlds. But I've, at least, always thought of you as a journalist -- someone that reports, someone that analyzes. With The Conversation you're an instigator, a participant.

I'm really interested in innovation, and how new ideas get introduced to the world. It's fun to write about that, but it's also fun to bring together people whom I've met in my journalistic travels, and get them talking to each other -- in person. All kinds of cool sparks fly. That's what we aim to do with The Conversation. I'll be there to ask questions and instigate, sure, but I also expect that our participants will do a lot of that, too.

How did The Conversation got started (no pun intended)?

There were two dynamics, really, that led to its creation. One is that a lot of times at film festivals, the discussions about new technologies, new tools, and new business models wind up as a side-show to the main event, which is watching movies. We wanted to do something where mapping out the future and getting up to speed with what other creators are doing would be the central purpose. The second dynamic was that there used to be this great event that happened twice in Montreal, called Digimart. Lance Weiler, Peter Broderick, Tiffany Shlain and I all spoke at the second Digimart a few years ago. It was a great gathering... but it didn't continue after 2006, and we wanted to keep its spirit alive and take it to a new geography.

One of the things the website says is that The Conversation is "definitely not a conference." Why make the distinction?

Conferences, to me, are about listening passively. They're often sold out to sponsors, which means they don't serve the participants very well. They tend to feature the same old speakers delivering the same old PowerPoint presentations. We're trying to avoid all that, and simply host a high-energy conversation among people creating change in the entertainment industry.

If you could only ask one question to all the people that will be attending -- the presenters and the registered attendees -- what would it be?

How is your relationship with your audience changing? That's a topic I'm obsessed with right now -- I think that some of the biggest changes over the next 10 years in TV, film, video, and games are going to revolve around that relationship between creator and audience.



The Conversation unfolds October 17-18 in Berkeley, California. Visit the website for more information and to register.

DENTLER TAKES THE STAIRS: Kevin Bewersdorf Interview

In anticipation of the release of Joe Swanberg's Hannah Takes the Stairs, South by Southwest Producer Matt Dentler interviewed the film's major contributors then asked several film bloggers (myself included) if they would be interested in posting one of the interviews online. I warmly reviewed Hannah back in March, immediately after its premiere at SXSW, so I happily agreed. I find it impressive to see a festival director support the work he programs well beyond the festival itself. Dentler's vision has made SXSW one of the finest film festivals in America and his support of truly independent fare has helped make it so.

Enjoy the interview. And see the movie. Hannah opens in NYC on August 22. (Showtimes are here.) Rollout for the rest of the country is here.


On the eve of the theatrical debut of Joe Swanberg's SXSW 2007 hit, "Hannah Takes the Stairs," I wanted to check in with each of the film's principal collaborators. The film has been documented as a successful collaboration between acclaimed film artists from around the nation, each one offering their own trademark influence on the final film. "Hannah Takes the Stairs" will open at the IFC Center in New York, on August 22, as well as be available on IFC VOD the same day. As part of an ongoing series you can find throughout the film blogosphere, here is an interview with "Hannah" composer and frequent Swanberg collaborator Kevin Bewersdorf:

Dentler: How did you first get connected to "Hannah Takes the Stairs?"

Bewersdorf: Joe and I had just been touring the festival circuit with our film "LOL" (set to come out on DVD August 28). During the festivals Joe kept talking about wanting to shoot a new movie in the summer, and I guess we both just sort of assumed I would be working on it. A month later I was somehow sleeping on the floor of an apartment in Chicago and hanging out with a bunch of great people. Like all the projects I've made with Joe, "Hannah" just sort of fell in to place.

Dentler: What do you remember most about the shoot in Chicago?

Bewersdorf: The whole thing was a gift from God. Every moment was happy. I do want to bring up one particular incident however: the moment that the Bujalski vs. Rohal feud began. This mock-feud has been mock-annoying everyone for a while now, and it is time for me to mock-bring-it-out-into-the-open. One day, when we were sitting around at the office location, Bujalski told Rohal that he looked like an actor that he couldn't place of the name of. Everyone tried to guess the name of the actor as Andrew listed his filmography. Finally, Kent correctly guessed that the actor was Vincent Schiavelli ("One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," "Amadeus"). Rohal was extremely insulted. We consulted a picture of Schiavelli on imdb, and he looked like an gaunt and droopy troll, may he rest in peace. To counter the attack, Todd claimed that Andrew had a particularity to his countenance which made him appear as though he had Down's Syndrome. Andrew was outrageously insulted. For the rest of the shoot the two maintained a mock rivalry over the incident. The rivalry has continued in public statements made by Rohal on various blogs (such as the "Bujalski Sex Tape" jab on Matt Dentler's blog) although to this day Bujalski denies that the feud exists. I want to bring this out in the open so these two can finally make up, and put the feud behind them.

Dentler: How did the production process differ from your own other projects, or projects you've acted in before or since?

Bewersdorf: I've primarily worked with Joe in the past, so for me it was totally natural. None of the projects I've worked on since have been as stress-free as "Hannah." There was no producer present in Chicago, so that removed any notion of authority or hierarchy in the production. There was extremely minimal equipment, basically no lights or gear, no schedule, no script, and no typical movie pageantry (Joe rarely says "action," for example). It was just like hanging out, we were a perfectly balanced family unit from the start. Working on an indy film is almost always hell. Everyone is concerned with their own agenda, or worried about making their own reel look good, or restricted by an impossible schedule, or moaning about money problems. But, if everyone is willing to just let the movie happen, to enjoy the accidents and rock with the waves (while making sure to keep anyone with bad vibes away from the production) it can be so much fun. Usually people are a too concerned with their own success to have a good time.

Dentler: What are your thoughts on the issues of sex and relationships that come to the forefront of the film?

Bewersdorf: Many girls I've spoken with have despised the Hannah character. Usually it's either because they resent that they are so much like her, frequently leaving trails of destroyed guys in their wakes, or because they have been pissed off by girls like Hannah in the past. Girls like Hannah are so awful and unhealthy to be around, and I've encountered them often. But I've never been able to hold their sporadic heartbreaking actions against them -- they are young and confused and don't know what they want, which everyone knows the feeling of.

Dentler: Ever been in a love triangle?

Bewersdorf: Yes. I was unknowingly involved a love triangle for months. The last side of the triangle wasn't apparent until much later though, when someone else revealed their feelings. At that point it sort of dissolved in to a "love obtuse angle." "Hannah" doesn't technically involve a full love triangle though, unless the character Matt is secretly in love with the character Paul (Ed. Note: they're co-workers and best friends, so it counts).

Dentler: Did you ever work with "the stairs?" Any thoughts on why they didn't make the cut?

Bewersdorf: There was one scene with the stairs, a nude scene, but Kent was worried that his balls looked too fat so Joe cut that out.

James Longley: SRF Interview

'You are going to be the proud owner of 25 million people,' he told the president. 'You will own all their hopes, aspirations, and problems. You'll own it all.' Privately, Powell and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage called this the Pottery Barn rule: You break it, you own it.

-- from Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward

While the title of James Longley's mesmerizing new documentary, Iraq in Fragments, literally conjures images of the now-infamous "Pottery Barn rule", the connection runs much deeper than the title. Like Colin Powell's admonition to the president, James Longley's film actually considers the situation of the Iraqis. I say "actually" because, though it may seem like an obvious consideration, Iraq in Fragments is, to the best of my knowledge, the only American documentary about Iraq -- and this year has seen several of those -- that focuses solely on the citizens of that fractured nation

Divided into three discrete segments (hence the title's double-meaning), Iraq in Fragments first follows a fatherless 11 year old working in a Baghdad garage. The second section chronicles the growth of the militant followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. The film closes with a portrait of a family of Kurdish farmers. It's an illuminating approach, one that prevents it or us from making generalizations about how Iraq's citizens, have, and haven't, been transformed by the war. I imagine it will also help American audiences understand, at least a little, how American forces are viewed -- as occupiers by some, as liberators by others. Certainly, the time Longley spent with his subjects (well over a year, and 300+ hours shot) helps provide a perspective that's been absent from what we see on the nightly news.

While Iraq in Fragments would be noteworthy for its content, the film also happens to feature striking cinema verite cinematography and edgy editing, which gives the film a quality that is more poetry than prose. The style creates an impressionistic sketch of what it might feel like to be in Iraq, without (in my opinion) grossly aestheticizing the pain, rage, and hope he finds there.

The combination of style and substance has been met with critical praise. At Sundance, where it premiered, Longley took home honors for directing, editing, and cinematography -- a first for a single film. Since then its laurels include Best Documentary awards at major film festivals (Full Frame, Thessaloniki, and Chicago, among others), as well as a Gotham Award.

That Longley did most of the work (e.g., cinematography, editing, music, etc) single-handedly will make the film's achievement that much more impressive for some. Longley, though, suggests that working this way was precisely how he was able to achieve things.

We emailed back and forth last week, soon after Iraq in Fragments was short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.


You have "film school" training, but you chose to study in Russia. Can you talk a little about your training at the VGIK?

VGIK is a good school -- and it used to be even better back in the heyday of the Soviet Union. From my perspective in the early 1990s, it offered a chance to film inexpensively on 35mm. Also, there's a huge selection of 35mm prints playing at all hours in the 5-6 cinema screens in the main building -- so it's like attending a continuous film festival. Many of the professors are quite experienced and gifted, and the student body is talented. It was nice to have a different angle on filmmaking for a while -- something closer to Tarkovsky and Eisenstein than to Spielberg -- and to be surrounded with people who felt the same way. But most of all, it was a good chance to try my hand at making a documentary film under the difficult circumstances of a Moscow winter (Portrait of a Boy with Dog -- co-directed with Robin Hessman) and confirming that filmmaking was what I wanted to do with my life.

The director's "voice" is so strong in Iraq in Fragments -- through the poetic imagery and impressionistic editing -- but any political opinions you might have can only be inferred by audiences. This really sets it apart from a lot of other documentaries -- from the Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald (Outfoxed, etc) movies to less strident fare like An Inconvenient Truth. Still, I suspect that when you've screened the film for audiences at festivals people have asked you your opinions about Iraq. What do you tell them? Personally, I thought the Iraq war was a bad idea. But that's just my opinion, and everybody has opinions. With my film, I wanted to do something more than simply tell people what I think: I wanted to convey a broader sense of what was happening in Iraq during the two years I was there, and to put a human face on the country -- to let people experience the place a bit. I'm not sure whether I was ultimately successful, but I tried.

One of the most conspicuous decisions you've made -- one many critics have cited in their praise for the film, one of the things that distinguishes it from some other Iraq documentaries released this year -- is your choice to focus on Iraqis, not Americans. US soldiers only make very brief appearances, and none (to the best of my memory) ever speak. Likewise, I don't remember any contractors or Western journalists making appearances. Was that the plan from the beginning, or did you shoot footage documenting those perspectives, too?

My original goal was to make a film about Iraqis -- I tried to start this project before the war, but was unable to begin until after -- and when the war ended my goal hadn't changed. I knew that the perspective of US soldiers and even US journalists was already being recorded by other filmmakers, and I had no desire to duplicate their efforts. And in any case, I prefer to focus on under represented perspectives, of which the Iraqis' is certainly one. It's the harder film to make in many ways, but I think also the most important. After all, the Americans will eventually leave Iraq; the Iraqis will stay.

What interactions did you have with other Americans while there? Were you on the radar? Under the radar? Under the radar, I think. I didn't have a lot of interaction with US troops, mostly because I wasn't filming them and I almost never went onto US bases. I never went to the Green Zone, for example -- don't know what it looks like on the inside. A lot of my journalist/filmmaker friends spent at least part of their time in Iraq embedded with US troops, but I chose to stay outside the wire.

Like the military, you're clearly a Westerner and, though you weren't carrying a gun, you were carrying a video camera. Why or how do you think you were able to blend in like "furniture" as you say in your production notes? Was it just a matter of putting in the time, or were there other factors? It's mostly a matter of spending enough time and moving very patiently. I really didn't stand out as a Westerner -- with a beard and a suntan, many people thought I was from Iran when I was filming in Najaf. They would come up to me and start speaking in Farsi. But mostly I just took a lot of time to get to know people and know the location before doing a lot of filming work -- in all the places I filmed, I did weeks/months of prep work, letting locals get used to me. And I was just extremely lucky, also -- I came at the right time and left at the right time. And somehow I managed to walk between the raindrops.

Are you still in touch with your subjects, especially the kids in the first and last segments? I haven't been able to keep up with everyone; last time I heard from Mohammed Haithem he was working for his uncles in Baghdad. The Kurdish farming family is still in much the same situation as when I filmed them. The Sadr movement is famously contentious.

Has anyone that is in the movie seen it? If not, will there be any oppportunities for that? So far nobody in the film has seen it. It's very difficult to send packages to people in Iraq now, very difficult to move around even in a city like Baghdad, even for locals. Also, most people in Iraq don't have DVD players that they could watch the film with. Video CD has been the format of choice in Iraq for the last 10 years or so, and DVD is only just starting to appear in places like the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.

Did you have any reservations about screening the film publicly without screening it for your subjects first? Some documentarians consider this an essential part of their enterprise, while others argue that it can compromise the integrity of the piece. I have never screened documentary work for the subjects before releasing it to the public -- but that may be partly due to the specifics of what/where I'm filming. I'm not against the idea of showing the film to the subjects to get their reaction, certainly, but I also don't consider it a mandatory step. I film with people for such a long time that I become very confident of my portrayal by the end of it. I often showed the people in the film sections of material as I was filming in Iraq, but I've never had a chance to show them the completed work, thus far. It's not so easy to send a DVD to a house in Baghdad now, and even if I did -- they don't have DVD players.

HBO was involved with the project, as was the Sundance Institute. When and how did financing for the film come about? HBO acquired the TV rights to Iraq in Fragments in summer of 2006, after it was completed. They have been very helpful in promoting the release of the film, and I expect they will screen the film on Cinemax in 2007. I applied for a Sundance production grant while still filming in Iraq, and after going through several rounds of review with them, they came forward with a grant in autumn 2005. They were instrumental in the completion of the film, and also selected Iraq in Fragments for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which was the perfect place to premiere it.

The credits of both Iraq in Fragments and your previous film, Gaza Strip, list you as the producer, director, cinematographer, sound, music and editor. You seem to have willed both movies into existence virtually single-handedly. Do you like working this way, or is it more of a necessity? And, either way, what do you find it affords you, and are there things you feel you can't do on your own? It's partly necessity -- because I was using my own money to pay for the entire pre-production and production period of the film, and partly because I know what I like and I know how to use a camera. I like to make things, and it's not difficult for me. It's what I enjoy most. If you're working with other people, sometimes you'll put their needs before the filmmaking process -- I might not have filmed for two years in Iraq if I had been collaborating with another person full time from the start. Doing your own work lets you make fewer compromises in a difficult filming environment. That said, of course I did work with a lot of other people on the film -- there are about twelve different translators / fixers, and two other editors (Billy McMillin and Fiona Otway), John Sinno came on board to co-produce after production, etc -- so it is a collaborative process, but one in which I didn't ask other people to participate in the full two and a half years of pre-production and production. For that period, I simply brought on Iraqi translators in various locations in Iraq and worked with them as long as I was in their area. I never asked anyone to go through the whole journey along with me, because most people wouldn't have wanted to in the first place.

As you can probably guess from the name of this website, a lot of the people reading this are interested in self-sufficient filmmaking methods such as yours. Do you have any tips for them -- philosophical or technical? When filming with these small video cameras, always try to find a way to keep the iris wide open. Your material will look much better.


For more details on the production history of Iraq in Fragments, check out Longley's production notes. Also, Kimberly Reed's fine interview with Longley in DV Magazine goes into detail about the production process and provides specifics about the equipment used. The quality of Reed's article led me to avoid (for the most part) asking overlapping or similar questions in this interview, in fact.

Tom Schroeppel: SRF Interview

You won't find Tom Schroeppel's face adorning the cover of Film Comment, Filmmaker, MovieMaker or any other film magazines that champion American cinema, yet, in his own way, Schroeppel has exerted a quiet influence on aspiring filmmakers in film schools across the country for the last twenty-five years. How? As the author of The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video, one of the simplest -- and by simplest, I mean best -- textbooks to cover the basics of motion picture production. When you get a copy of Bare Bones in your hands the first thing you realize is that Schroeppel's not kidding with the title. It starts with the brown (think: "paper bag") cover and block lettering. Open the book and you find text in double-spaced 12 point Courier font and simple hand-drawn images. The content is standard film/video textbook stuff, only it's distilled to its most essential, readable essence. It's like the film textbook equivalent of one of those incredible, out-of-nowhere independent films from the late 70s or early 80s. What it lacks in production values it more than makes up for in content and handmade charm. But don't take my word for it -- no less than Nestor Almendros called it "a marvel of clarity and conciseness."

In true "self-reliant" fashion, Schroeppel took the DIY route to publishing and distributing the book. What's unusual, though, are his sales, which are approaching 120,000 copies sold. When you stop to think about the number of student filmmakers that have learned about such basic concepts as "color temperature" or the "rule of thirds" from him, well, that's what I mean when I say quiet influence.

After I decided to use Bare Bones this fall for the production courses I'm teaching at Virginia Tech, I approached Tom about doing an interview. Happily, he agreed, and over the last few days we emailed back and forth about his 89 page/$8.95 wonder, and its sequel, Video Goals: Getting Results with Pictures and Sound.



How did The Bare Bones Camera Course for Film and Video come about?

In the late 1970s I was pretty busy shooting and editing TV commercials and industrial sales films in Miami. During the same period I was traveling to Ecuador a couple times a year to train camerapersons at a small TV network there. One day as I was drawing on a Little Havana restaurant napkin to explain a setup to a client, I realized that this was the same thing I had explained in Spanish the previous week in Quito. I decided to translate my training notes back into English and print them in a version I could give to clients.

I based the content of The Bare Bones Camera Course on what I was teaching in Ecuador. This is turn was based on what I had learned at the Army Motion Picture Photography School at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey. (I was an Army cameraman and later a Signal Corps officer.) Both environments required quick but thorough knowledge of basic camerawork.

The Army Motion Picture Photography School sounds fascinating. How did you get that assignment? Did you have an interest in motion pictures before you went?

In 1966 I was drafted after I dropped out of graduate school. I wanted to avoid the infantry, so I extended my enlistment from two to three years in order to qualify for motion picture training. For me, it was the most interesting thing the Army had to offer. I came from a family of avid amateur still and movie photographers, so making a living taking pictures was always in the back of my mind.

Is the school still around?

I'm pretty sure the school no longer exists, under that name anyway, although I'm sure the Army is still training photographers and doing a very good job of it. Army education has, in my opinion, two great things going for it: first, they assume you know absolutely nothing about the subject; secondly, they constantly verify that you thoroughly understand and can use what you're being taught. At the mopic school, our training started with silver halide crystals on a piece of film and ended up eight weeks later shooting dual-system sound with a 35mm Mitchell studio camera the size of a Volkswagen. Every day we would have a lecture, shoot assignments based on the lecture, then go back to the classroom and have the previous day's footage (which was processed overnight) critiqued by our teachers, then edit that footage and be critiqued again. I didn't realize it at the time but we were implementing the well-known quality-control cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Act. So, returning to the book, how did you approach writing it?

Over the summer of 1979 I jotted down notes and drew stick figures and eventually put together the first version of the book, typing it on my IBM Selectric typewriter. My industry friends thought it was pretty good, so I had some copies printed and stapled and passed them around.

I started thinking about getting a real publisher to buy my book. To get more input, I placed a classified ad in the American Film Institute Education Newsletter, which went to film teachers; in the ad I offered a free copy of the final published version of my book in exchange for criticism of my rough draft. One hundred teachers asked for copies and 30 of them wrote back and said they wanted to use the book--even in its current stick figure form--as a textbook. I contracted with a local animation house to overdraw my stick figures with better art and had 1000 copies of the book printed, which I started selling to colleges.

Among students of film you're best known for your books, but those books are the result of a long career in film and video. Can you tell me about that work? I worked for many years out of Miami, primarily shooting and editing TV commercials for local, national and Latin American clients, plus a lot of industrials and training films. Later I did more writing and directing. My one foray onto the national stage was when I wrote, directed and shot more than 100 episodes of a syndicated children's magazine show called Kidsworld. What were, for you, the most memorable or creatively satisfying projects? I enjoyed Kidsworld because I was given a lot of independence in the production and I enjoyed working with kids. I made a documentary on my own in Peru called Cuzco...In the Valley of the Incas, which won some awards. The great majority of my work was in TV commercials, sales films and industrial training films. My corporate clients, especially, gave me a lot of creative leeway and most of the time I had fun.

Your website claims you've sold 117,000 copies of Bare Bones. I don't know much about the publishing business, much less self-publishing, but that sounds like a heck of a lot. Can you talk a little bit about self-publishing and self-distributing the book? Who uses it? How did you first market the book?

First of all, the 117,000 number refers to both of my books: The Bare Bones Camera Course and Video Goals. As of today, July 12, 2006, I've sold about 104,000 Bare Bones books and about 14,000 Video Goals. Over the course of the 27 years Bare Bones has been in print, that comes out to an average of 3851 books a year. I sold a lot fewer in the early years and I sell a lot more now. My main customers are colleges; I've sold to more than 400 so far. Lately I've started to sell books to secondary schools, as they get into video instruction and production.

I submitted The Bare Bones Camera Course to every publisher I could find and no one wanted it. It was too short, too simple, not marketable. Then I found a book, How To Get Happily Published, by Judith Appelbaum and Nancy Evans, which I enthusiastically recommend to any would-be author. The second half of this book discusses self-publication. The basic idea is that if you have a niche book, know your market and are willing to invest in book printing, advertising, and order fullfillment, then self-publishing can be a good thing.

The first few years I mailed flyers to the chairpersons of film departments listed in a published guide to colleges that teach film. I reproduced some of the book pages and included favorable quotes from the teachers who were already using The Bare Bones Camera Course. Lately, I haven't advertised at all; with so many copies of my book floating around, word of mouth seems to be working well.

When I picked up Bare Bones for the first time I was impressed with the blurb on the back cover from one of my all-time favorite cinematographers, the late Nestor Almendros. How did that come about?

A good friend and fellow editor in Miami, Julio Roldán, worked with Nestor Almendros in Cuba and was still in touch with him. At Julio's urging, I wrote Mr. Almendros a fan letter and sent him a copy of my book. He wrote me back, praising The Bare Bones Camera Course, and later graciously gave me permission to use his quote, translated into English, on the back of the book.

Your second book, Video Goals: Getting Results with Pictures and Sound seems to overlap some of the same concepts as the first. I like Video Goals, but I am curious why you made it a separate book instead of simply expanding Bare Bones?

Video Goals contains information I used in various talks over the years. I first thought of adding this information to The Bare Bones Camera Course, but teachers said they preferred keeping the first book as simple and basic as possible. So I decided to make a separate book dealing with the overall production process as I experienced it. Since production includes camerawork, I had to provide some information that overlapped with The Bare Bones Camera Course.

One of the most charming aspects of both books are the drawings used to illustrate concepts of framing and cutting. At first, their rudimentary nature was a turn-off, but I then I gradually grew to like them. Aside from obviously keeping down the costs of printing the book, I realized that because they aren't actual photographs of real people and places -- that is, because they don't represent a specific reality -- the drawings allow you to focus on the conceptual points you're making about, say, the rule of thirds. Had you thought about this, or was it just a practical matter?

I wish I was that smart, but I'm not! I originally wanted to hire actors, rent a stage and shoot stills for all my illustrations, but I didn't have the money. So, as I mentioned earlier, I worked with an animator friend to have my original stick figures overdrawn. Since, I've been told by people who design books that drawings are probably the best way to teach principles of photography, because they contain no extraneous details. The other advantage is that, unlike photos, drawings aren't so dated. If I'd used 1979 actors and cameras, I would have had to reshoot all the illustrations several times over the years.

[Click here to see one of Tom's original drawings from 1979.]

As for the text, do you still revise using a typewriter?

My IBM Selectric died some years ago, so I've made the few revisions in the book on my computer, using a Courier font.

Through your books you've played a role in the education of countless filmmakers. Have any of them ever contacted you? From time to time individuals write to thank me for The Bare Bones Camera Course. It's always nice to know that something you've created has helped another person in some way.

Do you have any words of wisdom that you'd like to share with filmmakers -- beginning or advanced -- that might know you through your books and that are reading this? It all comes down to your audience. Know your audience, then make your movie for your audience. Also, don't be afraid to ask for criticism, because it will always help you; even if some idiot says your work is terrible, you will have learned that you're not reaching the idiots out there, which is probably a good thing.

The LOL Team: SRF Interview

The biggest joke in LOL, Joe Swanberg's second feature, may be the one that the filmmaker plays on the audience. Neither romantic (though there's plenty of frank sexual content), nor a comedy (though there are many funny moments), LOL feels less like the rom-com that its title suggests and more like a digital age mash-up of Jean Renoir's Rules of the Game and David Cronenberg's Crash "“ on the one hand, a humanistic, if occasionally bitter, social critique disguised as an ensemble comedy and, on the other hand, a chilly, unsentimental look at the ways that our fascination with technology (in this case, cell phones and the internet) keeps us apart when it's meant to bring us together. While Swanberg's lo-fi digital images and casual sense of plotting may not achieve the cinematic heights of either of the aforementioned masterworks, LOL has a charm all its own. Some of that charm, no doubt, is a product of its production history: The whole thing was made by Swanberg and his friends in Chicago without a script for a mere $3000. What's even more impressive, though, is how the movie starts as a comedy of awkwardness and gradually molts into a bleak satire with a mature, dramatic punch. For this, credit goes to the non-professional performers and Swanberg's sharp editing of his improvised source material.

After premiering in March at South by Southwest (where it was very warmly received), LOL had its East Coast premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival. The night after its first screening in Philly, I had dinner with Swanberg and two of his collaborators, Chris Wells and Kevin Bewersdorf. All three, as actors behind the improv, are credited as "co-writers." (Bewersdorf also composed the soundtrack.) Among other things, we talked about improvisation, choosing one's collaborators, and making a feature on the cheap.

Here's some of that conversation:

Kevin Bewersdorf: The process [of making a film with Joe Swanberg] is basically just maximizing accidents. Make as many accidents happen as possible because the accidents will be genuine. Sometimes it's a technical nightmare because Joe will just be like, "Alright. We step out here. Here's the mic. Let's just start shooting. Let's just go and do it. Let's just do it." And I'll be like "No, wait, Joe, I mean, the light's not enough here. We're not going to be able to hear the mic." And Joe's just, "No, let's just go. Just shoot, just shoot."

Chris Wells: I feel exactly the same way. We did the phone sex scene, before I knew it the camera was rolling and I was already sort of doing it. Joe didn't give me any time to think about it, which is probably better. I think that's how Joe can get performances [as good as those he gets]. People don't think about it.

So: How do you maximize accidents?

Joe Swanberg: Well it's something that I just realized on the first film [Kissing on the Mouth] that I was making. Things started getting knocked over. And I started thinking about how nothing ever gets knocked over in movies. So in my first movie, multiple times, somebody will open up a cupboard and something will fall out of it. Or they'll do something and a thing of laundry detergent will get knocked off of the washing machine. Or I'll accidentally bump the table and a thing will fall over on it. And so then I started thinking, "Why don't things ever fall over in movies?" They do, but then they don't use that take.

Kevin: So it's not really accidental, in that you choose to use the take where the accident occurred. It's deliberate.

Joe: Yeah. Right. But I specifically set up a scene with enough misinformation that people are going to have to invent things that aren't there. I'll explain a scene to a point, but then I'll leave crucial information out so that the actor will have to actually be thinking while they're in the scene. They can't just go through it [pre-rehearsed]. As Kevin was saying [at the LOL Q+A at the Philadelphia premiere], the second or third time [you do the scene] then you start to react to what you did the first time. But the first time there's gotta be stuff that both of the people don't know so that they have to be on the spot and think of it. For instance, I put Kevin and Tipper [Newton, who plays a girl named Walter] on the porch and I said, "Tipper your parents live in St. Louis and, Kevin, you're trying to get to St. Louis. Now go!"

Kevin: Or, for example, in the scene where I'm going to film Tipper making noises, you didn't tell Tipper that's what I was going to do. You said to Tipper, "He's going to ask you to do something. Do it. And Kevin will film it." So it's about keeping people in the dark just enough.

Joe: ...enough that they're comfortable, but not enough that they know what they're going to do before hand.

Because if all you say is, "He's going to ask you to do something," then she might say, "no" in the scene. Instead, she knows she's gotta say "yes", but she doesn't know what she's saying "yes" to. And that keeps the way she says it fresh.

Joe: That's a good point. If you leave it totally up to chance, it could go horribly wrong.

Kevin: You have to have the skeleton set up. But you don't know how anything hangs on it. Chris: I feel like with my [scenes] it was interesting because I kind of knew the direction the scenes were going to go, but Greta [Gerwig, Chris' co-star] didn't. And I was really talking to her on the phone. So I would just call her up in the middle of her day and she'd start talking to me and I would know where the scene was going to go and she wouldn't, but it would have to go in a different direction because I was reacting to her lack of knowledge. So what I thought the scene would be would end up being something completely different than what I expected.

Joe: But she always knew we were filming. Otherwise, that's exploitation, and that's not what I'm interested in. I want everybody to be aware of the process and aware that it's happening, but unaware of certain crucial information.

Kevin: The other important thing is that Joe's whole style as a director is to be completely invisible. He gives NO direction. His direction is either "Yes it was fine" or "No, do it again." No other direction at all of any kind. Not "do this in this way." Or "More feeling." Or "Slower." Or anything. It's either working or it's not working, and if it's not working we continue to do it. And if it is, then it's fine. And that's why, for some people, it's awful.

Joe: Well, for professionals, it is.

Kevin: And that's why you can't use professional actors. Because unless they're being told what to do they don't know how to feel, they don't know what to do. Because they have all these little tricks and techniques in this little bag of tricks that they've learned. I mean I have great respect for actors, but with non-professionals you can't tell them what to do because then they'll be acting, and then they'll be bad actors. If you have non-professionals and you tell them nothing, then they won't be acting.

Joe: I like professional actors, just not in my movies.

Does it not strike you as unusual that you've found people that are willing to work so hard for you? Joe: No, because it's a backwards process. I cast people who... I found the people and then we found the movie. I didn't have the movie in my head and then I found the people. So really, had I been working with Chris and had he not been in that relationship with Greta that was like that, then the movie would be different because his character would be different. To me it seems perfectly natural that the movie ends up the way it is because I cast the people first and then we all make the movies together. LOL is the only way LOL could end up being. It's these specific people, at these specific points in their life, and this specific point in time, with this technology. There's no vision before it starts.

But on a bigger level, you found people that for six months are saying, "I'm coming along for the ride. And I don't know where it's going. And I'm going to do this." That is what is amazing. This is not something to take for granted. Joe: I don't know. I'm lucky I guess. I can't answer because I have no technique or method other than saying, "Please help me" and then people help me.

Chris: Joe's movies are all so fun for because he's making them out of your own pocket, with his own money.

Joe: I think that is a nice level to it. I'm losing money [making films]. I'm not making money on it. There's a different vibe to everything that happens.

Kevin: People know that Joe is not profiting, that Joe's not just using us. No one feels used because everyone knows that Joe isn't like some Hollywood dude saying, "Hey want to make me a million dollars and be in my movie for free, Trix?"

Chris: There's a huge level of comfort of working for someone who knows he's going to lose money -- he's taking the hit for it -- and just wants to do it because he really, really wants to do it.

It almost has this sort of innocence of those movies from the Thirties where the characters are like, "Hey, let's put on a show!" Because you're all going to do this, you're doing it because you want to tell a story. And you don't even know which story.

Chris: We all start out with friendships I think. Joe knew Kevin from high school. Joe and I have known each other for the last couple of years, and while Joe didn't know Tipper that well, everyone becomes friends through the process of making the movie.

Kevin: I thought LOL would suck. Even until I saw the rough cut. I thought LOL would be terrible. I still did it just because it would be fun to do. I'd get to hang out with these other people. It was like a sport, almost. Like hunting.

Joe: And if your team loses at the end of the day then.

Kevin: . it's a fun game. I didn't feel like I had that much to lose. And being skeptical in the whole thing from the beginning, felt like, if it was bad, well, I was skeptical all along. so I was right. (laughs)

Chris: The movie was made almost like [writing a] paper. There were a lot of different drafts of it. It wasn't like a traditional movie where to go back and to do re-shoots is a big deal, or costs a lot of money or is really difficult. Because for Joe it's no more difficult than anything else he ever shot.

Joe: I was editing as we went anyway.

Chris: Yeah, exactly. I got a copy of the movie in November and I watched it through as it was, and I was like, "Well, my character needs a scene here and here and here, and this is what these scenes need to be." And then we could go back and weave that into the story and just make sure the continuity matches, and then its like we intended that from the beginning.

Joe, one thing you mentioned at the Q+A at the Philadelphia premiere was that while shooting the film is a collaborative process, ultimately the process ends with you, in your bedroom, editing alone.

Joe: That's the one aspect where I'm not really looking for collaboration. I show the movie to Kevin and Chris along the way so that they can tell me what's working and what's not.... I'll always do the first pass without showing it or asking anything like that. And I feel like that's where the director credit comes in. Technically, LOL will always say a film by the three of us, but I think my editing is where I'm doing my directing. Not on set.... Editing is really fun for me. It's the part of the process that I'm most passionate about.

Talk about the technology you used to make the movie.

Joe: We made the movie with one camera and two microphones.

Kevin: And the microphone was hooked up to a pole by a rubber band.

Joe: We didn't have a boom operator. We just had a 3-legged music stand with a rubber band holding a shotgun mic and a 25-foot XLR cable.

Chris: And you ended up buying a new wireless mic, which was one one-sixth of our budget.

Joe: The most in the budget was the wireless microphone. I bought the wireless microphone, I have a Sony PD-150, and there's 30 DVCAM tapes, and there's a 25-foot XLR cable, and there's the shotgun mic that comes with the PD150.

Kevin: And [we weren't even] shooting progressive. Just shooting interlaced.

Joe: Standard 30 frame interlaced. That's the entire package. And then I have a single clamp light with a dimmer switch, just in case, that I usually carry with me. In two hands I can hold everything use to make both my feature films. But that's the way that allows me to walk to somebody's house and shoot and then walk back home and edit that footage 5 minutes later. I don't need to mobilize the troops to shoot a scene. I just need to take my camera case, take my mic pole, and walk somewhere and shoot. I need to be mobile because as soon as it takes two people to transport my stuff somewhere then I need to plan it a day beforehand, and as soon as I need to plan it a day beforehand I'm thinking too much about it. It's not going to happen spontaneously anymore.

So the stuff with Tipper, where Kevin's playing the music at her house, I said, " I know this girl Ann Wells, and I want this girl to play Tipper's roommate, because I know what she looks like and I kind of know how she acts and aesthetically I want that. So I called this girl, Ann Wells -- and it's such a throwaway role, but I knew I wanted that girl to be that throwaway role -- so I called her and she was like, "I don't know if I can do it." and so I said, "Tell me an hour that you have free, and she said "Ok, if we can do it between four o'clock and five o'clock then we can do it." So I said to Kevin, be at Tipper's house at four o'clock. I'm going to be there at 4. We got there at 4:00. We shot from to 4:00 to 4:45.

Kevin: I held out my t-shirt and he white balanced on it. And then we started shooting.

Joe: As soon as we got there. I was rolling as Kevin was unpacking. And then at 4:45 I drove Ann to where she needed to be. And that was the scene. We even shot two scenes.

Kevin: That's another way, going back to maximizing accidents: If you have that kind of restriction on time. Joe could have said, "I want to take my time. Let's not use Ann Wells. We'll use someone else, and take our time and shoot it." Instead, Joe was like, "If we just go and shoot it, then maybe some things will happen.

And if it doesn't work out, you've only lost 45 minutes.

Joe: Absolutely.

Kevin: That's the whole philosophy of the movie. Instead of investing $100,000 to do it you invest $3000.

Joe: If I''m funding something with my own money, like, even when it started to climb up to multiple thousands I was feeling like "Ok, it's time to wrap it up." The financial aspect is becoming too large. The failure rate is so high: No movies get distribution anymore, so many are made, and stuff like that. If I spend $3000 hopefully it can make some money and I can split it with everybody. But if it doesn't, then I've only lost $3000. As soon as the money gets into $10,000 and $15,000" then you're playing the lottery and your odds get less and less with each $5000 increment.

Chris: Especially when you can make [the film] for $3000!

Joe: But that goes back to what you were saying earlier: I need to find people like Kevin and Chris to make it for $3000.

Kevin: The only reason that I did it was because I knew that his last film was in a festival and I was thinking that if this did get into festivals, that I'd get to go for free, and stay at hotels and chill out and drink.

And you're living the dream now.

Kevin: And that's what I'm doing.

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

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?

Caveh Zahedi: SRF Interview

To label Caveh Zahedi's I Am A Sex Addict, being released in New York City today by IFC Films, a documentary, a docudrama, an essay-film, or a fictional narrative inspired by true events misses the point. Whatever you call it, I Am A Sex Addict is a great film, easily one of the best American films released so far this year. The film isn't for everyone; that's obvious. Its title alone will warn resolutely unadventurous moviegoers to keep their distance, and for good reason. I Am A Sex Addict critically, and often graphically, charts the filmmaker's addiction to prostitutes through a series of re-enacted scenes from Zahedi's past. Yet in spite of having such lurid subject matter, Zahedi's movie is often funny, deeply moving, stylistically adventurous and, ultimately, a life-affirming film. I Am A Sex Addict is, in the end, a story of redemption through love, but one far more convincing than the dime-a-dozen romantic comedies that Hollywood churns out these days.

I am an acquaintance of Caveh's (he was an organizer of Underground Zero, a 9/11-themed anthology in which I participated), and I've admired his work for some time, so in December I asked if Caveh would be interested in doing an interview for this website. My intention was to help draw attention to his film because, at the time, he was self-distributing it to theaters. Caveh agreed to the interview and, during our exchange of our emails in January, I Am A Sex Addict was picked up by IFC Films -- an exciting development. The IFC pick-up also made some question the sincerity of Caveh's recently-published self-distribution manifesto. (I skipped asking about that in the interview because I assumed, correctly it turns out, that the issue would be dead by the time the movie came out.) ADDENDUM: After this introduction was written, yet another controversy arose -- Mark Cuban's refusal to screen the film in Landmark Theaters. On the same day that this interview was published AJ Schnack posted a recap, and a thoughtful consideration, of the events.

In the interests of drawing attention to the film when it was most useful, I delayed publication of our brief exchange until now. I Am A Sex Addict hits theaters in NYC today, and will continue to roll out to cinemas across America over the Spring. Go see it.

On to the interview:


In January, when I Am A Sex Addict won the Gotham Award for "Best Feature Not Playing at a Theater Near You" IndieWire wrote that you chastised the audience at the awards ceremony, in effect saying that the award was a backhanded compliment. Can you share the text of your speech (or at the very least, the essence of it)?

Well, Indiewire got that wrong, I'm afraid. I didn't chastise the audience. What would be the point of that? On the contrary, what I said was that the existence of such an award was evidence that there was something wrong with the current state of film distribution, but that it wasn't the fault of the distributors. The fault, I said, was with us, the filmmakers. I argued that we independent filmmakers need to stop relying on distributors, in much the same way that independent filmmakers no longer rely exclusively on Hollywood studios for financing. I argued that if we have the resourcefulness to obtain financing for our films, we also have the resourcefulness to figure out how to get them seen, and that we need to stop relying on distributors to give us permission to show our films to audiences. We have the power, and the problem is that we've given our power away and don't realize it.

Part of taking that power back, it seems, is Video on Demand, which you've been a proponent of. [Note: Caveh's films are available for download at GreenCine]. What have been the ups and downs of that?

There are no downs that I'm aware of. Only ups.

How did you get involved with it?

I was approached by GreenCine and I said yes. My feeling is that the more people who see the film, the better. Plus I get royalties for each download.

Do you have any advice -- practical or philosophical -- for filmmakers that want to pursue distributing this way? Should filmmakers work with a service like GreenCine, do it themselves...

My understanding is that the technology is rather complicated and expensive, so until that becomes easier and/or cheaper, I would recommend going through a service like GreenCine. They've been wonderful to me. I can't say enough good things about them.

Let's talk about the movie itself. I Am A Sex Addict is a textbook example, in many ways, of the kinds of films that this website was set up to champion: It is a personal, hand-crafted film that tells a story we've not seen in movies. It was made with a small crew. It was made for very little money. And you make assets of these things that others might call liabilities.

Can you talk about the very basic production aspects: What tools did you use that let you work this way? How did you budget the project? What kind of agreements did you make with Greg Watkins (cinematographer), Thomas Logoreci (editor), and the actors, many of whom do some very brave work? How long did you shoot?

We bought a DV camera package, microphones, lights, and an editing system. We had very little money, so we didn't pay anyone, unless we had to. Instead, we made deferred salary agreements with the principal actors and crew people, and shared points in the film. We shot for three and a half years, editing and revising as we went.

In an interview that you conducted with Henry Jaglom, you pointed out the fact that, while other people have always produced his work, Jaglom himself is independently wealthy and that that's how he managed to pay the bills while producing films. (I've found this to be true of a number of filmmakers, too.) I presume that's not the case for you -- In the Bathtub of the World and Underground Zero both show you as a teacher. How did you support yourself during the writing, shooting, and editing of the film? Did you teach?

I tried to teach and make the film in my spare time, but I found it impossible. The demands of the film were just too great. So I ended up persuading the investor to pay me a monthly salary to work on the film, so that I could quit my teaching jobs and devote myself entirely to the making of the film.

My girlfriend and I watched the film together, and this is a question -- and a compliment -- that she insisted that I bring up. In almost all the movies we've seen where characters are (or become) addicts -- whether it's GoodFellas or Boogie Nights or Trainspotting or Requiem for a Dream -- there's some point where we lose sympathy for the characters. And after we lose sympathy, in some cases at least, we lose interest in the narrative altogether. But that doesn't happen here. Like many addicts, you do some absolutely despicable things, yet we still found you charismatic, sympathetic, and pathetic (as in pathos). We were rooting for this addict, even in his worst moments.

Why do you think that is? Is it because the addiction regards something (i.e., sex) that many people have experienced instead of to a more illicit and illegal substance (i.e., heroin, cocaine, etc)? Or is it something else?

Well, first of all, I have to say that not everyone watching the film feels the way you do. A lot of people lose sympathy for me quite early on, and some never develop sympathy for me in the first place. These issues of audience sympathy I find much more subjective than is commonly assumed. But to the extent that you did maintain sympathy for my character, despite my "despicable" behavior, I don't think it has to do with the fact that most people are more familiar with sex addiction-type behaviors than heroin or cocaine addictions, etc. I think it has to do with the ontological pitch at which the film is delivered.

If a recovered heroin addict made a film in which he or she told the true story of their heroin addiction, using both direct camera address and re-enactments of key scenes in which they play themselves, and incorporated actual documentary footage of the real people involved, and weren't trying to make themselves look better than they actually were, I think the viewer would have much more sympathy for such a character than for the same character seen through the lens of the typical Hollywood version of such a story. Because the film itself would be a kind of performative speech act that would command one's respect because of its truth quotient and courage. I think honesty and courage are both very likable qualities in people, and I think a viewer will forgive a lot of "despicable" behavior if honesty and courage are present.

I've read that earlier drafts of the script that were less forgiving. What sort of transformations did the script go through to reach this point?

The original script was 300 pages long, so the first challenge was getting it down to a manageable length, which was a difficult and painful process. And then once it whittle down to a manageable length, the next challenge was finding the money to make it. This took ten years of my life, and even after ten years, I only obtained a fraction of the money I needed to make the film as written. So I had no choice but to re-conceive the film at a much lower budget. As it turns out, this was the best thing that could have happened to me, because it forced me into making aesthetic decisions that ended up making the film both a lot funnier and a lot more radical than it would have been otherwise.

Regarding the "ontological pitch" you talk about, Darren Hughes points out how you really walk a tightrope as far as tone is concerned. I agree. For me, a lot of this had to do with how visually diverse the film is -- from the animation, to the direct-address documentary scenes, to the scenes where you become close to each of the women in your life (which reminded me of another tragically romantic film, Chris Marker's La Jetee). Was it originally conceived this way, or did this kind of mosaic of styles evolve?

The film was not originally conceived that way. The mosaic of styles evolved during the shooting, and arose out of the need to solve very specific aesthetic and narrative problems.

Two of the great moments in the film are the moments where you face up to the compromises made in making the film -- one comes early in the film, when you admit that you're substituting San Francisco for Paris; the other moment is when the actress playing your second girlfriend refuses to do a sex scene you've written and you ask the viewer to imagine it instead. Compromises are part of making any film. But you make the most of these compromises -- to the point that it feels like, on an essential level, an almost uncompromised film. Do you feel that way, that it's uncompromised? Or were there parts of your vision for the film that didn't make it on screen?

For me, the film is totally uncompromised. I made exactly the film that I wanted to make, given the budgetary and time constraints. That's not to say that I think the film is perfect, or that there aren't parts that I think could have been done better, but I did the best I could given my own limitations as a human being.

What's next?

A film called How To Legally Overthrow The U.S. Government.