June 30, 2007
I finally sat down this afternoon and got to work on the short documentary I shot back in May. I resucitated the footage from where it's been resting on the hard drive and started going through it, clip by clip, cataloguing it and sorting it into editing bins. After several hours, I'd made my way through roughly half of it. I'll finish it tomorrow and then: parsing and subclipping the interviews! I had promised myself that I wouldn't have any talking heads in the film, but some of these talking heads look so great that I might just have to squeeze them in.
I knew what the end of the film was going to be the moment I shot it. Looking at it again today, I'm not sure if I'll be able to get away with it, but if it works, it'll be amazing. It'll also put the car shot in The Outlaw Son to shame; it's not as long, but it's twice as uneventful.
I've decided to try learning the guitar again, since I've got a guitar here. My fingers are now appropriately calloused. Just like my heart. Ha ha! That was me practicing for all the emo songs I'm going to write.
Posted by David Lowery at 11:21 PM
June 29, 2007
Necessity Is The Mother Of Final Cuts
By all accounts, the Ciao screening in Dallas went exceedingly well the other night. I countered by giving a living room screening to some of the Los Angeles cast constituents this afternoon. It was the first time I really watched the mixed and scored edit all the way through in one sitting, and even though we talked through the whole thing, bringing up anecdotes and practical jokes from the set, it managed to pull me in. It's such a small, quiet, subtle film, and although I know pretty much every frame by heart at this point, the punch it eventually packs still manages to surprise me.
Watching it this evening also made clear to me what areas need a tiny bit of last minute work. I can never stress enough how important it is to sit on a project for a while before finalizing it - and yet I always manage to convince myself that it isn't true. "Hell yeah it's locked!" I'll tell people time and time again, months before making drastic changes to whatever project I'm working on at the time.
And now I've got a confession to make. My real point in posting all this is that I really hate writing grant applications. I've got one due on Monday and I'm doing anything and everything to avoid finishing it. The fate of a feature length documentary may hang in the balance, and yet I can't bring myself to describe it in 200 words or less! Alas.
June 27, 2007
A History Of Convalescence
I don't think I've ever managed to make it to a movie in Westwood, LA Film Festival or not, without having to sprint to get there on time. It's not just parking - it's that I always forget to bring cash to pay for parking. So it was that I breathlessly made it into the theater just as I Don't Want To Sleep Alone, the latest from my Tsai Ming Liang, was hitting the screen. I had to watch the first few minutes of the film standing up, waiting for my eyes to adjust so as not to accidentally sit down in someone's lap. As I stood there, leaning against the balustrade and watching Tsai's longstanding leading man Lee Kang-Sheng in one of his typically long shots, I couldn't help but wonder: where does one go after a film like The Wayward Cloud?
The answer, it turns out, is back to Malaysia, where Tsai grew up but has never made a film (typically, the Malaysian government banned the picture in March - and then relented when Tsai agreed to make some trims). Harkening back to the less explicit days of The Hole and What Time Is It There?, the film follows the recovery of two injured men, referred to in the credits as Paralyzed Guy and Homeless Guy. The former is in the hospital, unable to move anything but his eyes, cared for by nurses and his mother. Homeless Guy finds himself in a similar state of disrepair state after being savagely beaten in an alley and rescued by a construction worker who carries him through the streets on a dirty old mattress. The first hour of the film is so aloof and seemingly aimless, even by Tsai's standards, that it's all too easy to miss one of the biggest hints this generally undemonstrative director is giving us by casting Lee as both of the guys.
The disparate elements of the plot gradually begin to fall into cocentric orbit, moving gradually closer to the geographical heart of the picture: an unfinished downtown building, in the foundation of which a deep pool of water has accumulated. Water (or the lack thereof, in the case of The Wayward Cloud) is Tsai's leitmotif, and here it has all been hidden away in the skeletal structure, a fountain of life awaiting discovery. Once again, longing and the need for physical connection are Tsai's overriding themes, and one might ask how many hilariously awkward sex scenes between Lee and his usual costar Chen Siang-Chyi he can get away with before he starts repeating himself. But that's sort of the point, I think: Tsai is one of those directors who has found a way to circumvent traditional modes of progression. He swims ever deeper into the same waters, and his films, familiar as they might be, keep getting richer.
It's worth mentioning, too, that this is his most visually gorgeous work to date, especially in the latter half of the film: the cinematography by Liao Pen-Jung is rich with shadow and fog (so much so that it's almost impossible to make out the details in the online trailer) and the compositions he finds - particularly in the abandoned building - have an almost Escher-like level of complexity to them that demand to be seen on the big screen. Or maybe not; there were a lot of walk-outs during the screening. One man sighed in frustration as he huffed up the aisle, as if he'd given it all he had and just couldn't take it anymore. It takes a while for a film like I Don't Want To Sleep Alone to offer a return on the attention you have to give it: it's as benign and gentle as The Wayward Cloud wasn't, but at the same time there's nothing to yell at the screen about.
After the screening, I caught up with AJ Schnack, who snuck me and my badgeless self into the Red Room for free drinks and a random game of truth or dare with Analog Days producer Jenifer Shahin. Then we all headed over to see Join Us, Ondi Timoner's troubling (in more ways than one) follow-up to the amazing DIG! It was a great jolt of festival fun amidst the solitary life of the mind I've been living lately, and I'm hoping to make it out to LAFF to see a few more things before Saturday - although not the big Transformers premiere tonight. When I left last night, construction crews were busy doing something major to the Westwood Village. Probably turning it into a giant robot. Which would be pretty cool, actually.
Posted by David Lowery at 1:50 PM
Apologies if you happened to stop by during the recent downtime; my hosting service was doing some IP work, and in the progress my URL was somehow reassigned to a different site. Adding insult to this vegan's injury: it was a site for cultured dairy products.
Posted by David Lowery at 4:58 AM
June 25, 2007
A Mighty Heart
A Mighty Heart is an interesting film; it's a Michael Winterbottom picture by name and appearance, and in many ways it fits right in with his oveure, completing a Middle East-meets-West troika alongside In This World and The Road To Guantanamo. But while those two films defied easy categorization, this one is defined by a slightly more overwhelming factor. It's not so much the presence of Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, on whose life and book the film is based, that polarizes the film so much as it is the event of the most famously philanthropic movie star lending offering herself as proxy to Ms. Pearl. Indeed, Jolie was attached to the project before Winterbottom was, which puts the entire film into perspective: it's not so much the work of an auteur as it is that of a celebrity doing her best to subjugate herself to her material.
And certainly, Winterbottom was the right commodity to invest in for this particular film. He could be counted on to strip the vermeer from a story that needs none, to revel in the grit and immediacy of a given context (by the time the film was announced last summer, he'd naturally already been shooting undercover in Pakistan for several weeks) and to pull off, under this verite subterfuge, a rather precarious vanishing act.
To a very large extent, he pulls it off. There's a level of disbelief that cannot be suspended in a film like this: we know that Daniel Pearl will not survive, and that the suspenseful pursuit of him will come to naught; likewise, we're familiar with all the baggage accompanying the woman playing his wife. These impediments come with the territory, but both director and actress go a long way towads circumventing them. Jolie, for her part, never completely disappears, but she never seems to be acting either. She's there in the mix, in the moment, with all the other actors (who, but for Will Patton, may as well be the real players as far as Western audiences are concerned), and this is in many ways about as great an accomplishment as one could hope for, given the circumstances.
But then comes the moment when Mariane learns that her husband has been killed. It is this scene that will be excerpted en masse come awards season, precisely because it is a glaring instance of performance with a capital P. I don't doubt that Jolie worked herself up to a real and genuine level of grief, and that those raw and anguished screams come from a sincere and real place, but there's practically a ticker tape of meta data running across the screen as the scene plays out. It's the moment we've been waiting for, so to speak, and the fact that Winterbottom gives it to us - and gives it to us and gives it to us - feels at odds with much of what he's accomplished to that point in the film.
On the other hand, this scene has an interesting counter effect: it breaks the fourth wall, and thereby removes a certain level of self importance from the picture. Winterbottom might as well have caught his camera's reflection in a mirror, because suddenly he's taken us out of the moment, reminded us that this is only a picture, only a performance, and that what we've been caught up in is an entertainment. As Manola Dargis wrote in her review: "...make no mistake, despite its pseudo-documentary grit and the imprimatur of the midcult art-house director Michael Winterbottom, A Mighty Heart is a precision-tooled Hollywood machine." This one big movie star moment proves to be a cog in that machine, but it also provides a genuine moment of something else: honesty. Albeit not the type anyone probably intended.
Ciao is screening at the Magnolia tonight in Dallas. It's a word-of-mouth-by-way-of-cast-and-crew-cum-test screening, and it'll be the first time it's seen by anyone other than the key creative principals. I'm waiting with baited breath to hear how it goes.
Posted by David Lowery at 2:42 AM
June 22, 2007
The Monster Child
An illustration from that recently completed screenplay (which may never make it any further than this in the visual realm):
June 21, 2007
Watching L'Intrus In The Afternoon
The longer I left that last post at the top of the page, the more I started to feel as if I were basking in the glow of my own smug self satisfaction. I need a new topic!
So I'll talk about how I finally took a break this afternoon and sat down with some iced Yerba Maté to watch Claire Denis' L'Intrus. What a frustrating, fascinating bit of cinematic friction this films is! In Beau Travail, Denis stripped a story down to its thematic core and turned those themes into images, and I loved it. Here, she begins with the themes and works backwards, exploding the philosphical ideals of Jean-Luc Nancy's memoir into sharp, jutting physical form. And I wasn't quite sure what to think. I can't say I loved it, and I can't say it's not great; my opinion now is that I simply need to see it again. And write more about it.
PTA: Do you remember movies well? I never remember movies well, but I can remember the ones I love, and which meant something to me. I remember Breaking the Waves - I was in the middle of editing Boogie Nights, and I was by myself and it was a Sunday night, and when I saw it, it was really like the clouds opening up - suddenly the sun started to shine, as gray as that movie was. But I don't remember details of that movie.
LVT: That is because what you like and what I like in a film is not a whole. We look at films differently than most people, and that's why we don't remember the whole thing properly.
I've always had trouble recalling details in films. The progression of events, the lines of dialogue. I mostly remember how they make me feel. Together with those feelings I hang onto a few stray details: shots, sometimes, and often juxtapositions or camera movements, or expression on actors' faces. And I remember the experience of watching them with a great deal of exactitude. In a sense, I feel like I hang onto what matters most - at least, what matters to me. But I want some of the concrete details, too, and I feel that writing about them - and not just simply expressing thoughts, but spending the time to physically put pen to paper - will bind them to the feelings they provoked.
So that's part of the reason I started this journal. The other is so that I can let whatever I write there spin off into personal territory. As it inevitably will and already has. Breaking off into tangents and reminsciences and ideas and other things I don't want to forget, and don't want to share.
The people downstairs are watching The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. I can hear it through the floor. The Tiger Shark just showed up.
June 18, 2007
I just finished this new feature film script. This is notable because, in spite of all the time I spend writing, in spite of the subterfuge of progress I constantly project, I haven't actually finished a brand new feature since 2004, when I wrote a little script called Drift. Since then, I've written shorts, I've written projects destined for places other than the silver screen, I've done page one rewrites on older scripts, I've actually made a living as a screenwriter, I've made quite a few films without scripts and I've started quite a large number of features that have made it sometimes as far the eighty page mark - but I haven't actually finished any of them until just now. I was listening to the soundtrack to Billy Budd as I finished the last scene, and now I'm about to flip back to page one to do a quick polish before all the inevitable rewrites start.
This is the project, incidentally, that I was originally hoping to finish on the nonexistant date of February 31st. That scheduling snafu sure did throw me off.
June 16, 2007
There Will Be Blood Trailer
There are a handful of filmmakers whose work, when I see it, makes my own efforts at the craft feel pretty pointless, but I think there's only one who's been able to do the same thing to me with his trailers.
Now I feel like I need to start all over again. Thanks to Cigarettes & Red Vines, of course.
June 15, 2007
I'm About Sixty Dollars Poorer
Criterion has a habit of hinting at their upcoming releases via mildly tantalizing cartoons. Two that have my anticipation particularly piqued...
June 14, 2007
Gone To Texas
I've been missing my home state lately, and thus it was I found some comfort in the first trailer for No Country For Old Men. I'm sure a high quality version will surface at Apple's site soon; but even in this incarnation, with Roger Deakins' widescreen photography squeezed into an annoying 4:3 frame, the film looks mighty strong.
I of course tuned in to Cormac McCarthy's interview on Oprah last week. He was simultaneously down to earth and as elusive as ever. There were no airs. He didn't court his interlocutor, nor did he avoid her questions. It was a succinct and effusive conversation, and more than anything else it impressed what we've known all along: that what he wishes to convey to the public is in his literature, and nothing else he has to say is too terribly important.
That said, if you missed the interview, or if you caught it but wish it were more in depth, you can see a lot more right here. If you're like me, you'll join Oprah's Book Club just to hear McCarthy vocalize his thoughts on punctuation.
June 13, 2007
Routine, Or Something Like It
Last week, just to clear my mind of all that's been plaguing it, I wrote a thirty page script. I started it on Monday, thinking I'd be able to finish it in a day, and wrapped it up on Thursday, having remembered that telling a well structured story is hard and bloody work, regardless of page counts.
But it served its purpose. This morning I woke up feeling unusually light in body and spirit (as opposed to my normal pre-noon suicidal tendencies). I turned back to this long-gestating feature, wrote a little, made coffee, wrote a little more, made a salad, started editing, fielded a few phone calls, finished a cut of the new short, exported some OMFs for Yen's short film, went grocery shopping, bought seven pounds of carrots, went home, sat out on the porch and wrote some more, poured a glass of wine and am now, at one in the morning, making of this post a consitutional before heading towards the home stretch on this script. I won't finish it tonight, but I think I'll be close. It's about time.
Tomorrow's forecast: oversleeping, with a chance of doldrums. They come and they go.
June 11, 2007
Cutting To Black
I've never watched more than an episode and maybe a handful of random scenes of The Sopranos, but I tuned in to the finale tonight, just so I could know what everyone would be talking about tomorrow. It was pretty bold, going out like it did, but could something so big have really ended any other way? What David Chase did isn't quite so shocking as how he did it; on an entirely technical level, there's a jarring dissonance to that final edit that I imagine will upset people far more than its actual implications.
I realize that I don't really talk much about television here, mainly because I don't really watch it. I don't have cable, and although I've got a few shows in my Netflix queue, they always get bumped in favor of movies. In the past year, though, I've become a devoted fan of David Milch's Deadwood, which is the first show I've ever bought on DVD (I can't wait to pick up Season Three on Tuesday) and which I've generally found to better than most of what's put out on the big screen these days. It's almost single handedly changed my mind about the potential of television; I know I'm putting myself very much behind the times in saying this, but serialization, it turns out, is starting to look like a pretty good way to tell a story.
Posted by David Lowery at 12:06 AM
June 10, 2007
Brand Upon The Brain
I wish I could provide an objective perspective on Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain, but the experience of seeing it on the big screen at the Egyptian, with the orchestral accompaniment, the foley artists and Barbara Steel's magnificent narration was such an ecstatic one that you probably should take it at face value when I say that the film may well be Maddin's masterpiece (Heart Of The World aside, of course). At the same time, I don't think there's even been a more perfect presentation of the man's work; the pure theatricality, the showmanship of the live performance elevates Maddin's style to delirious new heights.
That style, with its jittery kineticism and hyperactive aperture, is by this point in Maddin's career perfectly in tune with his storytelling. There was some degree of parallax between his earlier melodramas and the style in which he filmed them; they were fascinating and ambitious, but they were also frequently somewhat tedious. Over the years, however, he's figured out how to make the one intrinsic to the other, and to make their confluence the perfect vehicle for a mainline into the more naive and sensitive regions of the subconscious.
Like its predecessor, Cowards Bend The Knee, Brand Upon The Brain is an autobiographical fantasy. If that one was an ode to its Maddin's father, this one is an account of his relationship with his mother. One can assume that the details - which here include an orphanage that harvests nectar from the brains of its young wards, a plucky girl detective who disguises herself as a boy and a deeply mad matriarch - may not be as historically accurate to the young Guy's upbringing as the film purports, but they're buoyed by a very particular emotional exactitude. The film's bombastic whimsy is coursed through with a very real heartache; this film is as deeply felt as it is ridiculous, as deeply personal as it is totally made up.
Alas, the self-reflexive journey that is Brand Upon The Brain will from this point forward have to be experienced in a slightly more traditional cinematic format. The print that is beginning to open up around the country (the release schedule is here) has a pre-recorded score and a narration by Isabella Rosellini, but the live show ends its run tomorrow night in Los Angeles, and has yet to be announced for additional cities. Instead of lamenting that fact, I'll take this opportunity to mention Maddin's journals, collected and published under the title of From The Atelier Tovar. It's a marvelous and indespensible compendium of self deprectation, self doubt, self loathing and, betwixt all that, artistic triumph. There are also treatments, storyboards and reviews, including what may be the most hilarious critique of Kurosawa that I've ever read. Highly recommended.
Posted by David Lowery at 7:48 PM
June 5, 2007
Today's jolt of creative inspiration, coming clear out of the blue, is The Timebox Twins, a short film directed by Tipper Newton, who also stars alongside her LOL director and Ice Cream Floats bandmate Joe Swanberg. I could probably figure out exactly why I love it so much, but what's the fun in that? I'd rather just go watch it again.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Unknown Forces
I visited the REDCAT gallery this evening, where Apichatpong 'Joe' Weerasethakul's first solo US exhibition will be running until June 17th (right up to the premiere of Syndromes And A Century at LAIFF). It's accompanied this week by a nightly screening of Joe's feature films and, on Friday, a collection of rarely seen short films (including his 2006 piece FAITH, which I'm dying to see - so of course, it just has to be the same night that I've got tickets to see Brand Upon The Brain).
The exhibit is a four-channel video installation, entitled Unknown Forces. The first two channels depict matching closeups of a man and a woman riding in the back of a pickup truck, each smiling and talking (telling stories) as the Thai landscape rolls by behind them. The third features the same truck, on what appears to be the same stretch of highway; it's a wide shot this time, trailing behind the truck, in the bed of which is a young man dancing ecstatically.
It's the fourth channel that bears the most direct aesthetic link to Joe's other work (the image above is a behind-the-scenes still from this scenario). It depicts a large tent-like construction staked down in the middle of a clearing, billowing against the elements, surrounded and illuminated by motion picture lighting equipment. As a typhonic wind stirs up a storm of swirling dirt and dust, the camera makes a slow, slow dolly from left to right, around the encampment; it's the same sort of move we've seen in Tropical Malady and Syndromes, in which Joe's camera transgresses against time and space. Once it completes this move, the camera moves back again, past where it originally started; it's just beginning a third trip forward when a series of candy colored neon tubes ignite and a club beat strikes up on the soundtrack, tying this channel to the third, in which the young man in the truck now appears to be dancing to the music.
In the program notes, Joe explains the political implications of the piece. He views it as a narrative comedy, caustically celebrating the almost blind optimism of Thai citizens against the backdrop of their political history. "It operates," he suggests, "like a discothéque - to dance, to forget."
I stayed for the evening screening of Weerasethakul's millenial documentary Mysterious Object At Noon. In the film, Joe travels across Thailand, inviting the people he met to contribute, in the fashion of the Exquisite Corpse, to a mythical story. Re-enactments of this story are interspersed with footage of the people who tell it, but because everything is shot on the same grainy black and white film stock, it's hard to differentiate between reality and folklore. It's an endearing ode to a country and to oral tradition, and it ties in beautifully both to Unknown Forces - in that, inasmuch as it is a travelogue, it is about Thailand as a physical place - and to the mythical qualities that would be featured so prominently in Tropical Malady.
I bought a cup of coffee before he movie and, as I opened my wallet to pay, the girl behind the bar caught a glimpse of the edge of my driver's license in my wallet. "Are you from Texas?" she asked. It turns out she hailed from Dallas as well. I wish I were that good at making observations.
June 2, 2007
A Conversation with Charles Burnett
Charles Burnett's Killer Of Sheep was one of those films I'd always heard mentioned here and there during my cinematic matriculation; most of what I knew about it was that I couldn't see it, due to soundtrack rights issues that had kept it unreleased ever since it was made in 1977. But then, earlier this year, a trailer for the film began to show up in theaters. UCLA had restored the film, the soundtrack had been cleared and Milestone was going to put it out into theaters for the very first time.
Killer Of Sheep is, suffice to say, more than deserving of its enduring legacy. It's great film, and an important one - not just as a piece of film history, not just as a document of social unrest, but as an example of cinematic form so strong and assured that it's difficult to believe that it was Burnett's first picture, or that he made it under the circumstances it was (a ten thousand dollar budget and shooting schedule made up of a year of weekends).
I was lucky enough to have the chance to sit down and discuss the film with Burnett last week. This is what he had to say.
I finally saw Killer Of Sheep for the first time the other day. I loved it, and was also struck by how familiar certain elements were; you can see the influence the film had on everything from early Jim Jarmusch to Barbershop . Do you ever go to the movies and see your own influence up on the screen?
Sometimes. Sometimes people call me and say "I want you to see my film because I was impacted by your film, and I want to see what you think of it." I've had that on occasion.
Did David Gordon Green call you when he made George Washington?
Yes, everyone brings that up! He sent me a tape of it. He's doing very well now.
You started this film when you were at UCLA. Was it actually a student film, or was it produced outside the curriculum?
No, it was a student film. It was my thesis film, and it was a part of an ongoing discussion and debate about how film can aide in changing society. A lot of people were very much interested in that, and were making films about the working class, but they had no relationship with the working class. They were making the same film over and over again, with the same solution over and over again, about the factories being exploited by management, getting the unions started and everything.
Where I came from, people were in totally different situations. I said I wanted to make a film, without imposing my values, and say "look, here's a situation. How can we help Stan? [note: Stan is the central character in the film] How can we help the community? What can we do to change it?" And that was the point of the film. To create a debate and not just say here's a solution, here's a filmmaker's point of view. So that was the idea behind the film, and also to make it so anti-Hollywood that it appeared to be something captured in the moment. To form the narrative by having these events that, in the way they're tied together, lead to insight and story.
Did you go to film school with the goal of making this sort of film, or was it something that evolved over the course of your studies and making short films and such?
No, I wanted to tell a story, I wanted to tell what happened to people in the community. When I was in high school, I saw how the system was crippling the kids. The whole idea of encouraging kids to go to prison, like it was a right of passage. Our school did nothing to help. I mentioned in some other interviews that when I was in class, one of our teachers just went down the aisle, pointing and going "you're not going to be anything, you're not going to be anything." There was always this antagonism between teacher and student. Most of these kids, no one in their family had a college education. What they used to tell us coming up was to just get a high school diploma. Because then, before the sixties, you could make a living with a high school diploma. You could get a manual labor job and do quite well. No one ever told us what the reasons were. School's supposed to be a nurturing place where you could take a kid and inspire them. You've seen teachers who come in and change students, because they have that dedication. I wanted to do something about that.
To capture the results of this sort of conditioning?
Yeah, the whole thing of who's responsible. Stan's responsible, society is definitely responsible, and I think that if you realize that it's a complex issue, who the good guys bad guys are is not always clear.
I felt that, precisely because you don't point fingers in the film, there's a general sense of social malaise but also a great deal of hope and opportunity shining through the cracks. There wasn't necessarily any one thing keeping anyone down.
I think back then it was more optimistic. The thing about it was that when we were coming up, the idea of a man was to provide for your family, to keep a job no matter what. The positive thing about Stan is that he endured. He didn't fail or drop out. He was determined to do things to make sure his family was going to survive, and so that in itself is very positive. It's not the kind of thing where he wins the lottery and his kids go to Harvard or whatever. His kids are going to have a rough time just like he did. All those kids in the community are going to have a rough time. They're being trained and conditioned to be able to survive and endure.
The film's been widely cited for it's almost documentarian approach, but I understand that it was completely scripted, and even storyboarded.
It's scripted, yeah. There's a few places where we ad libbed. It was made to look like a loosely shot film, where the narrative sort of evolves, but it was scripted. A lot of the images were drawn. I was looking for specific things in the scenes, but the idea was not to have perfect lighting and stuff like that. Also, the idea was to bring filmmaking into the community and demystify it, to encourage kids that, look, if you can turn a HiFi on, you can turn a Nagra on and do sound. Just watch the button and keep it level. And they would do it. Five year old, six year old kids. The kids you see running around, they'd drag the lights, do the slate. The only thing they didn't do was change the magazine and load the camera, but everything else they had their hands on.
We had a crew from the film school, but they got sort of impatient about waiting. So it was just myself and Charles Bracy, a friend of mine who was an actor. When he wasn't in front of the camera, he was also helping behind the scenes. He was probably the most consistent adult we had.
Do you think you could get away with something like that now? Film school has become so institutionalized...
It has, it has. The attitude has changed. When we went to film school, we didn't think about getting into Hollywood. At the time, you could just get in as a technician. Become a cameraman. You had to go through the union, go through all these steps, and you accepted it. I wanted to be a cameraman, and I knew that in order to be one it was going to take fifteen or twenty years. It was hard to get into the unions then. Sundance didn't exist then. We weren't under any illusions about three picture deals. We made films because we liked making films, and the best place to do what we were doing was in film school. Today it's not like that. The studios are right there looking at these kids coming up, and they're picking them off the tree before they're ripe, because they figure these kids know what the audience wants.
Was it surprising to you that Killer Of Sheep developed such a tremendous legacy? And, considering that you didn't have any expectations when you made it, is this theatrical release thirty year later just icing on the cake
It's not icing on the cake. If I made the film yesterday, it would have had a different effect. A totally different effect. My new film has a lot of commercial elements, totally different from Killer Of Sheep. You can't sell the concept; you sell stars, and how much money it's going to make at the box office and what audience it's for, and it really effects your approach to the subject. You're already compromising, thinking that you have to have this commercial appeal. When I was doing Killer Of Sheep, I didn't care one way or another. It wasn't made to appeal to people in that sense. If I had been thinking about it, I would have been conscious of a lot of different things.
But I imagine you were able to make a much stronger film as a result of being liberated from any sort of mainstream expectations.
Unfortunately, I think we have to consider that if you're going to make a living in this business. You're up and down; you have success and disappointments, success and disappointments, and so it sort of balances out a certain way. You take it knowing that tomorrow's another day, and you have to wake up in the morning and look at an empty page all over again and hopefully get something done, and fight again to try and get a film made. What you've done in the past gets your foot in the door, but that's all it does.
Did Killer Of Sheep open any doors in Hollywood for you?
No. It didn't open any doors at all, actually. When I was at Berlin, I got some money to do My Brother's Wedding after they saw the film, so in that sense, yeah, but it wasn't from Hollywood. It was local European television. Then I wrote this script, To Sleep With Anger, and I was really lucky to find the right people who had the money and the interest to look for money to put the film together. I think that's the film that's helped me more than anything.
I read that when you finished the film, you took it to black communities around the country...
To a certain number of cities. Oliver Franklin in Philadelphia and Pearl Bowser each had this program, this tour of black film that they created. So we were a part of that and we took our film around to different communities, and screened it and talked to the neighbors, to the people. And that was a very, very important thing.
That reminds me of how John Cassavetes wanted to show his pictures to working class audiences; he always thought they would be his most appreciative audience, that they would intrinsically understand his films, and he was always disappointed when they didn't respond. Did you find that people got what you were trying to do with Killer Of Sheep?
No, no, no. They normally don't, and that's not important. Everyone has their own reality, their own perception of what life is, and someone living two or three houses down sees things differently. The film never claimed to be a total representation of black community. I didn't expect anyone to understand the film. And particularly now, when people are so used to seeing these really commercial action-oriented films...I look at To Sleep With Anger and see how slow it is. It just plods along. Things have changed. Just looking at the image used to be really exciting in and of itself. It had a story to tell.
Are there any films that excite you these days?
I can think of a lot of filmmakers working now that I admire greatly, and from the past as well. I don't want to name any names because tomorrow I'll be like "oh, I wish I had said this, I wish I'd said that." But there's a lot of good work.
When you watch Killer Of Sheep now, how do you feel about it?
I don't really look at it. I saw it so many times while editing it. The mistakes you see get magnify instead of atrophy. It's not a perfect film. A lot of filmmakers go back and re-edit their stuff. But it's never going to change. You have to live with it.
I read that, in the scene where Stan dances with his wife to Dinah Washington's "This Bitter Earth", you had a different song in mind...
Yeah, I had Louis Russell's "Sad Lover's Blues." I took it to school, the 78, and the thing was so brittle that it cracked and broke.
Did you ever consider going back and putting it back in?
Yeah, actually, we found a copy of it, and we played it. It's a different melody, it's just as haunting, but when you're used to the Dinah Washington, it's kind of hard to change. I don't know if I'd have lost anything if I went back to the, but it's still hard to get used to. But we used it in the trailer, and it goes very nicely there.
One thing I meant to ask earlier was whether, when you were shooting, you have difficulty getting access to film in a slaughterhouse?
I had difficulty getting into a slaughterhouse in the LA area, because at the time I was making the film, there was an upsurge of vegetarianism. A lot of the vegetarians were also making movies, and they went to slaughterhouses and exposed a lot of the cruelty to animals. So they were hesitant about letting me use it. So I went up to another meatpacking place near Vallejo. They were this real meatpacking company owned by this guy who said "I want to help someone who's trying to help himself. If you come in and don't interrupt the assembly process, you're okay to do this." People were very helpful. This is why I tried to shoot in the community, because businesses were very helpful about letting me use their facilities if I was doing something positive.
The effect the title has on the film itself, the weight that it gives to Stan is a character, is tremendous. Was that always going to be the title, or did you come up with it later?
That was pretty much the title as long as I can remember. I as working on this story about this guy who had problems sleeping and had these nightmares, and all the things that had an impact on him. I was going to college at the time, and I always saw this one guy on the bus. One day he happened to sit by me, and I had the opportunity to ask him what he did. He told me he worked at the slaughterhouse, and what he did was kill sheep. What they did then was they had a sledgehammer, and they would hit the animal in the head with the sledgehammer and crush the skull. And I just couldn't imagine someone doing that every day, day in and day out, without it creating some nightmarish effect. I never looked at him the same after that. So that's where I got that the idea that this was what Stan ought to do. Something as horrible as that.