Friday, October 21, 2005

Every film makes an argument, even documentaries. I think we’re taught that good docs don’t, that they’re unbiased. But ultimately I think the notion of an unbiased documentary is impossible. Of course, I tried to make one.

When I first screened ‘”Clear Cut” in Oregon, a lot of people came up to me after the screenings and said, “Great documentary…but I know which side you were on.” And I’d say, “Oh really, which one?” And invariably they’d pick whichever side they were on. I took this as a good sign. When people ask me point- blank which side I take, my line now is, “My opinion is represented in the film.” Of course this is a total non-answer answer. There is some truth to it. I strove to make as balanced a film as possible (don’t worry, I won’t say “fair and balanced”) and in order to do that I think you really do have to see both sides’ points of view. But inevitably, you end up favoring one side over the other. I’m not going to say which one. It would spoil the film, I think , to know the filmmaker’s bias…ut good luck trying to figure it out.

In film school, my advisor and film professor, Jill Godmilow, and accomplished documentarian in her own rite, taught us to analyze every film we watched to break down the argument it was ultimately making. We broke a film into five statements, with the fifth and final statement being in the form of a philosophical conclusionary statement (If A, then B, therefore….C). It was a fascinating, rigorous, and challenging way to analyze a film, and it was also a little disillusioning.

Films aren’t always saying what you think they are saying, and this is their true power, and their true danger. They are meant to overwhelm our conscious mind with sound and image and experience, and in so doing they hide messages we often-times don’t realize we are receiving. Jill emphasized “the content of the form” and signed every email with a quote from Voltaire, “"If we believe absurdities we will commit atrocities."

As I was making “Clear Cut,” Jill encouraged me to analyze the film I was making in the form of an argument, to discern what it was I was actually saying, or at least going to say. This is a hard thing to do if your first priority is simply to tell the story in an compelling and comprehensible way, without the use of voiceover. I think ultimately Jill would want to see me make a formalist film, a deconstruction of the form and the conventions of documentary and perhaps of the film I ultimately ended up making. This would have been an interesting exercise, and maybe would have turned into a thought-provoking film, but it wouldn’t have been a great movie. So which to make, then? Obviously I went with the latter (at least the movie part). So I’m curious to know what you as a viewer comes away with after seeing the film. What messages slipped into your subconscious or conscious mind? What is the argument I’m ultimately making?

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Lover of Learning

"Philomath" is a strange name for a town. It's pronounced fill-O-math and means "lover of learning." So how does a rural Oregon logging town get named "Lover of Learning?" The town was settled in the mid-1800's by missionary educators. They established a college in the town--one of the first in Oregon--and called it "Philomath College." The students were known as Philophreneans. The college was a success until the late 1800's when a divide between conservatives and liberals, ironically enough (though in those days what would today be considered a "conservative" would have been considered a "liberal" and vice versa) closed the school down for a couple years. The conservative faction went off and built a new school. They called in the "College of Philomath" (apparently not being very creative) and it stood only a few hundred yards from Philomath College. Approximately 100 years later, Philomath would find itself similarly divided over the schools. History repeating...

Making a movie in your home town is not like making it in Illinois. People know you. This can be a good thing, and a bad thing. Having grown up in Philomath, many doors were open that otherwise would have been shut. When I met with the Philomath Superintendent and Chairman of the school board to tell them of my plans, they were understandably reluctant. They had been approached a few months prior by another documentary crew looking to tell the story and had denied them access to the schools. Fortunately for me they were a little more receptive, and I ended up interviewing both, as well as being granted full access to shoot inside the schools. This was a big thing for a school district that had just had 13 TV trucks parked outside it's high school, telephoto lenses peering through classroom windows and into open doors. I'm pretty sure I was the first camera let inside the schools while students were in class. The reporters from the Wall Street Journal and LA Times were allowed inside, but their cameras were not.

The other challenge was getting interviews with individuals involved in the story who had already been demonized in the press. Chief among these was Steve Lowther (whom you meet in the clip posted on the AFF website). Mr. Lowther was the most vocal member of the Clemens Foundation--the organization that granted the college scholarships to all the graduates of Philomath, and then pulled them. Perhaps understandably, he was not exactly the most popular person around town. When I first went out to visit him--a meet and greet before cameras were allowed--I was greeted at the end of his driveway by a large mailbox that was smashed in on all sides. Philomath citizens had taken some small revenge on Mr. Lowther's decisions by way of his mailbox.

Finally Mr. Lowther agreed to the interview, and we spent the better part of 4 hours interviewing him about the story. He liked to talk, and often it seemed even a single question would get a 10 minute response, and end up WAY off topic. Of course this ultimately leads to the best material, so we just kept rolling and felt thankful we had brought along enough tape.

The film was shot entirely by myself and my mother's cousin, Michael Brown. "Mick" had been a cinematographer on television commerials for the past 30 years in LA, and like many DP's got his start in documentaries (one of his projects was a doc on Elvis). A few years earlier he had retired to Philomath, but when I pitched him the documentary, he was keen to help and we covered nearly every crew responsibility between the two of us (sound, lighting, schlepping, etc). I was also collaborating on the film with a friend from college who was working as an assistant editor in New York. Beth was to be the editor on the film, and every couple weeks I'd send her dubs of everything we shot (keeping the masters with me in Oregon in case Fedex lost them). Beth diligiently logged the footage, and the plan was for me to fly out to Brooklyn, crash on her couch as she edited the film, and then off to festivals we go. But, unfortunately, nothing ever really goes as planned.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

So here goes my first post for the AFF website and, somewhat amazingly, my first Blog ever. I find the fact that I've never before had a blog somewhat ironic as I both enjoy writing (especially journaling) and I am a Leo...and I think Leos are supposed to enjoy attention, so wouldn't the blog seem the perfect marriage of the two? Perhaps it will be, we'll see. But enough astrology, on to filmmaking.

Clear Cut is my first feature film. I graduated from Notre Dame (who I'll be cheering on to upset USC here in about 10 hours) with a degree in Film and Television production and theory. My senior year I made a short documentary about a white supremacist named Matthew Hale, who was the "pontificus maximus" of the World Church of the Creator, a leading, perhaps the leading, white supremacist org in the US. The film was called "Racist" (an apt title), ran about 10 minutes, and mostly consisted of an interview my filmmaking partner and I conducted with Matthew at his home in Illinois (also his parents home. He lived with them). As some of you may be aware, Matthew is now in jail, convicted of plotting to kill a Federal Circuit Court judge in Chicago.

Shooting "Racist" basically involved my friend Dustin and I driving out to Hale's home from South Bend, interviewing him for a day (and shooting him as he played violin, which we later incorporated into the film) and also shooting his city and neighborhood. But what I most remember of the experience was Dustin and I loading equipment into the back of my car, a green '94 Saab 3-door hatchback. Not exactly a large car, but it had a big trunk. As we packed in a camera, tripod, c-stand, a small light kit, some other grip equipment, I remember remarking to Dustin how amazing it was what we were doing: making a movie out of the back of a hatchback. That of course is the excitement of being a filmmaker today...the fact that you can actually MAKE MOVIES, you just have to do it....which of course is easier said than done.

I made some other shorts in college, the rest fictional, then graduated in 2002. I took a job at a PR firm in LA working on Sony Classics films and also awards campaigns. It was an entry-level position, but I got to be around some pretty great docs like "Fog of War", "Winged Migration", and "Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary." After about 10 months of working and learning in LA, I knew it was time to get back to filmmaking (not publicizing) and serendipitously, an amazing story was unraveling in my hometown of Philomath, Oregon.

I think what was happening in Philomath, a conflict between two eras, two cultures, and really two political parties, was emblematic, and is still emblematic, of the political divide in our country, red vs. blue (the poster for Clear Cut features the two colors prominently). The national media seemed to agree, and the story reached the front page of the Wall Street Journal, and the front page of the Los Angeles Times, CNN, FOX News, you name it. I knew this was the filmmaking opportunity I was meant to take, and so I talked to my boss in LA and told her of my plans. She was supportive (and continues to be to this day), gave me $5,000 to buy a camera, some sound equipment, and lights. I had another Saab this time, a green one, same year, 3-door hatchback, and all the equipment fit in just fine (I promise you I am not paid by Saab). I packed everything from my apartment in West Hollywood and hit the freeway, once more on the road to start making movies.