Robert Greene’s films have played at two previous editions of True/False. In 2010 he presented Kati With an I, an intimate look at the final days of an Alabama teenager’s childhood. In 2011 he returned with Fake It So Real, which follows a ragtag group of wrestlers pursuing their dreams in working-class North Carolina.
I recently got the chance to speak with Robert about two new films which will be unveiling at True/False 2014. His new film Actress is a unique collaboration with Brandy Burre, who played political operative Theresa D’Agostino on the unbelievably great television series The Wire. The film follows Brandy’s attempt to reenter the world of acting after starting a family in Beacon, New York. We also spoke about Approaching the Elephant, which Greene edited in collaboration with director Amanda Rose Wilder. This observational film follows two children and their school director during the first year of an anarchist “free school” where all classes are voluntary, and children and teachers have equal say.
T/F: Could you start with how you decided to make a film about Brandy?
RG: I know Brandy really well. She’s my next door neighbor; we take care of each other’s children. She’s also one of the most theatrical people I’ve ever met in my life. She’s a really flamboyant personality, with a deep, gritty sense of self as well.
I’ve been writing and thinking about the idea of performance in documentary for awhile. It’s there in Kati With an I and especially Fake It So Real, where the wrestlers are performers and you’re seeing them perform themselves. So I had this idea of filming a direct cinema portrait of an actress living her life, being a mother. What effects would that have for the camera?
I like to get involved when I can see a narrative forming, which in this case was Brandy trying to get back into acting. In the movie she tells the story about how she got out of acting, about being a woman in her late thirties who couldn’t get a part for her age. That was a really clear starting point; I don’t think I’d ever heard that story before.
So I knew we had a beginning and this formal idea about watching a performance in a documentary. We started filming, and nothing much was happening at first. Then she went through something, a transformation, that I don’t want to spoil. It became the real narrative of the movie. The filming suddenly jived with what was going on in her life outside of the filming, and they became one thing. It was uncomfortable and scary and not something that we ever expected. But we latched on to it and took it where it needed to go. There were weird twists and turns, and things I couldn’t have imagined being present for.
It’s a little bit of a cliche to say that I consider her more of a collaborator than a subject, but it’s really true. What we were giving each other was really direct and interesting. And because we were so close already, it became really intense.
T/F: The film raises the question of the performed vs. the actual. Could you explain how that tension played out through the process of making Actress?
RG: What Brandy says is she’s not acting like an actor, she is an actor. When you turn a camera on her, she’s been trained to be an actor. She just is a theatrical person, who naturally wants to express herself through her language and her body. So it’s not like she’s turning it on and turning it off. There are degrees of who she’s being.
We did everything that most documentaries do. I would ask her to say things again. I would say, “give me a second while I get into position”. Or I would say, “hey, when are these things happening? Let’s get together and film.” That’s very much what every other documentary does, but generally they try to hide those things and give the impression that cameras are going 24/7 and they just happen to be capturing magic. Part of the formal idea is to say, hey, all documentaries are movies.
This is a very narrow version of the truth in many ways, but it is the truth. There were things that I wasn’t there for. There were things that I would never have recorded even if I was there. There are things that I know about that I would never put in the movie. So this is the very specific story that I wanted to tell, and she was willing to go along with me. But in terms of what’s 100% real and what’s not, it’s all an expression of reality. I want the audience to see these layers of reality as their watching, and to be questioning the film as well, to think about what documentaries really are doing and how they are constructed.
I also think that it says something about being a mother, being a wife, being a lover, being a passionate person. These are all social performances. We play these roles in society because it’s how we get by. Ironically, when Brandy tries to break through that, you see her performing herself. To me this says a lot about what we are. I don’t really know how to unpack it all completely, but I think it’s there for viewers to sort through.
T/F: One fascinating thing about how Actress is structured the film is how it changes, how it begins as direct cinema but mixes in these conspicuously composed shots and sequences.
RG: Yeah, one thing I was interested in doing is exploring the relationship between direct cinema and melodrama. Melodrama is this over-the-top expression of an idea. It’s inherently ironic. If you see the great Douglas Sirk films, there’s an ironic element to the drama and a distancing effect that actually elevates the emotion. You’re sort of pushed past the direct emotion and you get to this other formal level of over-the-top-ness. That was the idea, to get at the theatricality of performing yourself, the theatricality of everyday life and how we can make melodramas in our heads.
T/F: Let me ask you about Approaching the Elephant. How did you get involved in this project?
RG: Amanda has been making the film for a really long time. She’s a great filmmaker, she has a great eye for what she wants to capture. She spent a year in the life of this free school, and really captured the story through gestures and bodies and faces, the building blocks of cinema. But she got to a place where she wasn’t quite sure where to go next. The movie got into IFP labs twice over the years that she worked on it, which is a testament as to how good the material is. She just needed some help getting over the hump. I came on and I think was able to focus the film.
T/F: So how much material were you working with to cut down into the film as it exists now?
RG: She’s the only person who could know all of her footage, it would have taken me six months to really learn it all. She had a two and half hour cut before I came on. So we started by cutting it down from that. As we were shaping the film, she’d mention other cut scenes she’d like to get in there, material I didn’t even know about. She’d rely on me to figure out how to get these other scenes in. We would put them in, then take them back out. It was a lot moving pieces to get them in place.
T/F: Is it an intuitive process cutting a film down, or do you have clear ideas of themes you want to pick out?
RG: You need a director who you trust and who trusts you, that’s one thing. I think for me too, I’ve just done it so much, I’ve edited like 14 features. So, I think it just comes from sitting in dark rooms too much and watching too many films, you know rhythmically what it takes to tell a story. And I have a fondness for stories that develop organically. Instead of “we have to get this moment, and then now this other thing”, I just trust my instincts, and it becomes, “we need this feeling here” and “it’s great that that happens but it needs to feel differently”.
T/F: What went into the decision to make the film black and white?
RG: We decided on black and white because we loved how “out of time” it made the film feel. It really is that simple. I feel like it elevates the story and makes everything cohere in a really nice, timeless way. As Amanda said, it’s easier to cut together when it’s black and white, because everything just makes more sense. It was a very intuitive decision. I believe we will have a color version as well at some point.
T/F: Could you introduce how you see the narrative elements in Approaching the Elephant a little?
RG: I think you spend the beginning of the film learning the rules of the place, which is cool, because the kids are learning the rules too. One of my favorite ways of narrative unfolding in a documentary is when you as a viewer feel like you’re on the same journey as the filmmaker. That’s how I hope Actress feels too. So, you’re thrown in the chaos and the mix, starting to pick up faces and meeting people. Then, suddenly, this narrative of the three main characters really grabs hold. It has one of the most dramatic last acts I can remember in a documentary, where on a totally small level you see these character’s faces and this story unfolding.
For me Approaching the Elephant is a movie about idealism meeting reality head on. That clash unfolds slowly at first. I think it’s the kind of movie that picks up momentum as you watch and gets you to a place you really didn’t expect to go.