The True/False 2014 Fest Digest provides a day by day recap of this year’s Fest. Written in the midst of the excitement, each digest entry recalls a handful of the previous day’s events with commentary, pictures and videos. Look back at the Magic/Realism:
Brothers Sergio and Jaime Polanco and their cousin Cruz Guzman are immigrants from Mexico who work cleaning windows on Chicago’s tallest buildings. In Paraíso (T/F 2012) director Nadaz Kurtz pairs stunning images of the Polancos’ dangerous and fascinating work with their reflections on life’s meaning and what lies beyond. The result is a compelling look at something extraordinary hidden in plain sight.
Paraíso has received awards at Silverdocs, Tribeca, The Chicago International Film Festival, Cine Las Americas and The Seattle International Film Festival. Now this celebrated short film is available to watch online as part of the New York Times Op-Docs series.
I recently got a chance to talk with Nadav Kurtz via phone about his film and its inspiration.
T/F: Could you tell me about the original inspiration for Paraiso?
NK: I was working as an editor in Chicago. One day I saw this guy pop up by my window, clean it and then disappear. That was the first time I thought about “Who are these guys?” and “What kind of a person does this job?”
T/F: How did you first meet the Polanco brothers?
NK: When I started working on the film, I went to different buildings all over Chicago and talked to people who did this work. When I met the Polanco brothers, I was just waiting at the bottom of these ropes where they were working, and they just came down and chatted. I was struck right away by how open they were. They were very friendly and basically invited me to their house that evening for a birthday party for one of their nieces. There was clearly something special about them.
T/F: What’s True/False about your film?
NK: To me the juxtaposition of the two words is about the influence that we have as filmmakers on the situations and people we make films about. Once we are in a situation we influence it. This is against the old-school idea that you could be in a situation and not influence it, that this would somehow be a “true” documentary.
I was interested in how making this doc would be illuminating for myself as well as for them. So I was very open with them about my own thoughts about their work. I asked them questions about topics that they didn’t bring up. Other people have come and done stories on them, from the Chicago Tribune and other news sources. And usually most people ask them things like “How much do you guys make?” and “Are you scared of the job?”, these pretty standard journalistic questions. I was interested in their spiritual beliefs and their relationship to the afterlife, their thoughts about the danger of their job and death. Those were things that I was curious about.
In the process of doing these interviews I think they started thinking about these things in a different way than when we first started. The falseness is that the process itself changed the reality, and even changed how their families viewed their work. Before their wives didn’t really know much about their work and didn’t really think about it. Their home lives and work lives were very separate.
T/F: This focus on the afterlife, is that something that occurred to you right away when you started making this film?
NK: Yeah, it’s something that I was personally interested in, especially around the time I was making the film. It was something that I was thinking about a lot. And then, of course, when you’re up filming on these high rises, it’s a different reality up there. You’re standing there and there’s no guard rail. You have the feeling . . . if a gust of wind came and knocked me over all the things that I think about, all the different problems and joys, can be instantaneously erased.
T/F: Can you tell me how you went about shooting the film, how you got all the amazing shots in the film?
NK: There’s a couple of really wonderful cinematographers Drew Wehde and Chris Markos. Those two did a lot of the filming with me.
Going in I had a plan of doing some of it off the cuff and some of it planned, in terms of lens choices and things like that. But the main thing was a lot of waiting. We got really lucky. I think there was one morning where we got a lot of the shots, particularly the part where they are talking about the afterlife and light is shining into the lens, bouncing off of the building. That was the fifth morning we tried to shoot there. They kept cancelling the work because the wind is too strong. So we kept coming back and eventually we got really lucky. They just happened to be on that side of the building when the angle of the sun was hitting the building in a particular way.
I’ve heard other doc people talk about this, there’s a phenomenon where you keep coming back over and over and over, and then in one hour you wind up getting 90% of what you’re going to use. There’s some weird synergy that happens. You have to put in that time and keep coming back or keep filming, then there are these weird moments where everything just kind of lines up.
T/F: It’s interesting, this sort of crazy dangerous work these guys are doing is sort of hidden in plain sight, we see this amazing work these guys are doing and don’t really even pay any attention to it . . .
NK: Yeah, it’s funny now I always get texts from friends with pictures of window washers working. It seems like once you tell people about the project or once they’ve seen it, they start to notice these people more.
Explore more streaming films from T/F past on our new video page.
David Serva Jones is one of the only Americans to ever become a world-class flamenco guitarist. He is also a heartbreaker who has left numerous women and children in his wake. One of these children is writer/director Rachel Leah Jones, who set out over the course of a decade to get to know her estranged father and collect stories from the people who he left behind. This includes her own mother, a Brooklyn girl who became a flamenco dancer and began a family with David in Berkeley in the early 70s. Gypsy Davy (T/F 2012) combines these investigations with haunting archival footage and elegant and biting narration. The result is a compelling examination of one man’s hard-to-pin-down legacy.
Now, thanks to Sundance Artist Services, Jones and her filmmaking and life partner Philipe Bellaiche are self-distributing Gypsy Davy on a wide variety of digital platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, YouTube and Sundance Now. They’ve also made the film available in a DVD/CD combo pack including a soundtrack of David’s incredible music. In honor of the film’s release, I spoke with Jones via Skype while she waited for a train in Tel Aviv.
T/F: How did you get interested in telling a personal story in a film? Is this something you always thought you’d do?
RLJ: Well, I set out to tell this story without “taking it personally”, without talking about myself. Then finally, towards the very end, I had to capitulate and accept the fact that I was the reason there was a story. Everyone else was just living their lives and I was the one who wanted to stop and examine things.
Gypsy Davy was the first film that I started shooting and the third that I actually finished. It was good that it was already my third movie, because that way it was less painful to finish.
T/F: So when did you actually start filming?
RLJ: So it’s quite literal in the film, the very first shot in the movie is pretty much the very first shot I took. This is when I get called to his side after the accident where he broke his pelvis and shattered his wrist. That doesn’t mean I edited chronologically, but when I asked myself “What is the story I want to tell?” and “Where does it begin and end?” it made a lot of sense to say “Okay, where did it really begin?”
So, I just started filming. It took a long time to figure out what I actually wanted to do and muster up the courage to go and meet everybody. I had a life to live, jobs to work, other movies to make, kids to have; there was a whole decade of life that happened at the same time. And although this wasn’t how I intended to make the film, in the end I think there is some satisfaction, both for myself and hopefully for the viewer, in seeing us change over time.
T/F: So how does that process interact with the narration? It’s written in the second person as a letter to your father. Was that planned from the beginning?
RLJ: No, I had hoped that there wouldn’t have to be narration. Eventually, it became clear to me that that was out of the question. At the end of the decade, at the end of the day, I understood that the only person who went through any kind of change was me.
It starts with the big drama of his broken wrist. Will he ever play guitar again? And then more drama: he adopts his fifth kid, he gets married for the fourth time. All of this stuff happens to him and yet nothing happens to him. The man doesn’t change over the course of that decade. These twists and turns are all sort of par for the course; it’s what he’s been doing for 50 years.
So then, it was me who transformed in this period. I had to go figure out where I was at 40 where I may not have been at 30. I had to create that character and write a voiceover for her. And that was kind of the worst, not because I don’t like to write. I can write voiceovers for other people really well, but writing your own voice is tricky. How much of it was going to be true? Who was that girl going to be?
For the longest time I couldn’t figure if I should do it in the second person addressing him or in the third person addressing the audience. I kept changing it this way and that way. Like, “I was born in Berkeley California”, I don’t need to tell him that, he was there. But, “When I was ten years old, I started telling people he was dead”, that’s not as intense or interesting as “I started telling people you were dead”.
So, I did what probably a lot of documentary filmmakers secretly do when they’re finishing their personal movies. I went back to my therapist. I came with my laptop and these two voiceovers and said, “I’m sure one of them is truer than the other”. She just looked at me and said “why do you have to choose?”
Finally, I broke it down on paper, and realized every time I spoke in the third person I had put archive and every time I spoke in the second person my father was on screen. So it had already been resolved structurally, I just didn’t see it. And save for one or two adjustments, it was already written and written in both voices. When I ask people if the narration was in the second or third person they can’t remember. My therapist was right, why do you have to choose?
T/F: Could you talk some about how you structured the film? You use a non-linear structure to create mystery quite effectively.
RLJ: I don’t think I was looking to be mysterious at all. There are two obvious ways you could go. You could go from the present and roll it back from 100 to 0 or you could go forward from 0 to 100. But I asked myself, where does my story begin? It begins with my mom and me and we’re smack in the middle. So it begins with woman number three. And then what happened? Woman number four. And then what happened? Woman number five. But wait, where did it really all begin? Woman number one. But listen, there’s also woman number two . . .
That logic presented itself almost immediately. And save for a little bit of tweaking around woman number two, I never had to rearrange it. Something that seems really thought out was completely intuitive and just sort of took care of itself.
T/F: Watching the film, I found my attitudes towards David’s art very interesting. The virtuoso of his guitar playing is undeniable, but I also regarded it with a Darwinian cynicism, that it’s fundamentally a seduction technology or something. And that ambivalence comes through in the narration as well. So I wanted to ask you, do you enjoy David’s music?
RLJ: Today, totally. When I was younger, flamenco altogether, David’s or not David’s, I had a hard time with. I don’t know that I ever hated it, but I had a hard time with it. I had a hard time with it for white middle class reasons: the funky aesthetics; the throaty, growling vocals.
But it totally grew on me, and I totally learned to appreciate it, because, having heard it all my life, I also knew it deep down inside. I don’t play music, I’m the only one in the family that doesn’t do music or dance. I’m the brainy, mouthy one, those are my tools. But if I hear flamenco, I anticipate what’s coming. Now I can really enjoy flamenco, including his. Also, I can actually recognize his playing, which I couldn’t do when I was younger.
Bottom line is, he’s a really, really good musician. He’s not a flashy player. He doesn’t really care for the notion of solo guitar. For him guitar is all about accompaniment. Flamenco is basically about rhythm and song, or cante in Spanish, and the other stuff: guitar, dance, are additions. He understands himself in that supporting role, first as an accompanist, the person that brings out the best in the singer. Also, he really understands negative space. He understands the lack of sound as the place where the last sound you made reverberates. It’s a gentle and intelligent understanding of what music is about.
So I appreciate him as a musician. What I don’t appreciate is everybody’s romance of the artist as somebody who can’t do family and can’t do commitment. I don’t buy the notion that there’s an either/or. I’m not a brilliant filmmaker, but I’m assuming I’m not a bad filmmaker. I still have a kid, I still change diapers, I was still pregnant and nursing in the editing room. Very few women and way too many men get away with this notion that it’s either/or.
The music is fantastic and wonderful and it’s a perfect vehicle for him to express himself emotionally. All of that I buy, just not the either/or thing.
T/F: Last thing I wanted to ask about is the archival of your childhood that you use in the film. What is it that makes it so evocative? I’m always at a loss for why super 8 footage has such a cinematic quality.
RLJ: There’s a mixture of footage there, some is 16mm that my mom and her friends shot with an experimental filmmaker named Damon Rarey who was pretty active in the San Francisco Bay area at the time. He shot the garage sale footage where the two women go chasing after the guy who, because they’re so busy fighting over him, manages to rip off all of their stuff. They go running after him, and finally realize when he’s out of reach that all they have is each other.
I’d never even seen that footage until quite late in the editing. There was a point where I was like “How should this movie end?” and I had this vague recollection that I had asked my mom this very question, but I didn’t remember her answer. So I went back to some interview with her that I had thrown out a long time ago and found her answer, where she mentioned the garage sale film. I didn’t think much of it at the time of the interview, but now that I was editing I was like “I need that footage!” Someone located the one remaining copy on a farm in Northern California and telecined it for me. When I saw it I was like, it’s the story! It’s the movie of the movie! I had already written the voiceover about being born in the middle of a garage sale, so it was too perfect.
A lot of the other footage is Super 8 that my grandfather shot when he’d come out to visit from New York. The thing about all of the archive in the film is that Gypsy Davy is also a portrait of a generation. It’s a generation of bohemian baby boomers. It’s a self-aware yet unselfconscious generation; these people felt they had the right to reinvent themselves culturally, to change their names, even to assume new ethnic identities, to some extent. You can see it in the footage and photographs, it’s the bold and the beautiful. It’s not my generation, which gets all uptight and confused with identity politics. We’re much more self-conscious about the way we image ourselves. Whereas our parents were of that modernist era that took itself for granted and had a ball playing make believe. We, their children, on the other hand, are the products of post-modernism’s deconstructions, reconstructions and, let’s admit it, malcontents.
Aaron Burr was a major figure in the American revolution and early republic. But the legacy of our third vice president was ruined forever on July 11, 1804 when he killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel. In Aaron Burr, Part 2 (T/F 2012) Burr himself returns to finally clear the air about that fateful day and the events leading up to it. Check out the short below, as well as my chat with the filmmaker Dana O’Keefe, the man also responsible for Vladimir Putin in Deep Concentration (T/F 2013).
T/F: How did you first become interested in making a film about Aaron Burr?
DO: I was initially fascinated by the idea that political figures resolved their differences through this highly ritualized form of combat. And then when it became clear that there were discrepancies in the accounts of the duel, that presented an opportunity to explore the idea that there isn’t really a stable version of history. That it depends on your perspective.
If there was a moment of clarity in conceiving the project, it was when we went to the actual site where the duel took place and realized that it was a parking lot. History, especially in New York, is all around us. It’s sort of hiding in plain sight. Using the actual locations where these things happened and embracing the fact that they looked modern forces the spectator to think about the relationship between past and present.
One thing I soon realized is that I knew absolutely nothing about what really happened during the revolutionary war. In this short period a time a relatively small group of people made a series of decisions which in turn determined what would happen over the next two hundred years.
T/F: What’s True/False about your film?
DO: I think the entire premise is “is there empirical, objective historical truth?” Aaron Burr was arguably as important a political figure as Alexander Hamilton. But he wrote himself out of history by killing another man, who in turn was enshrined as a national treasure.
To me it’s the epitome of how I interpret True/False, playing with these questions of documentary versus narrative. We tried to use a narrative filmmaking grammar to approach a documentary subject.
T/F: Could you tell me a little more about this narrative grammar?
DO: I think the idea was to figure out a way to present historical subject matter in a way that was both dynamic and relevant to a younger audience. The style is very music driven and utilizes highly composed shots, things that you don’t usually see in documentary. It’s very easy in shooting this sort of material to backslide into something that looks stagey or artificial.
T/F: Yeah, it almost feels like a film trailer in some ways . . .
DO: Yeah, that’s funny, I guess it is somehow, it’s sort of like shorthand. I’ve never really worked extensively with dialogue in films, so a lot of what I do involves music and silent film storytelling techniques, occasionally title cards and things like that. So I try to convey as much as I can visually.
T/F: I thought Burr as a character was quite interesting. You made him arrogant and somewhat unlikeable, even though this is his chance to tell his story. How did you think about Burr as a character and a narrator?
DO: Gore Vidal wrote a historical novel called Burr which quickly eclipsed all of the other source material. The film is heavily indebted to that work in terms of presenting the jaundiced perspective of this guy who sort of wrote himself out of history and therefore has a very critical attitude about the cherished mythology of the period. That book really helped clarify how to portray his psychology.
T/F: Burr’s voice in the film has a weird, sort of otherworldly quality to it.
DO: Here’s a one way of thinking about it. We’re presented with this one version of history which we rarely question, right? And then Burr’s point of view about this incident is completely different, and he presents this version which contradicts the received wisdom. And he does so in a way that at first seems very objective and detached, almost robotic. But I think as the film builds you realize that his point of view is also delusional. Elements of megalomania sort of creep into this impartial narration. Hopefully, it highlights the impossibility of any stable interpretation of a historical event.
The fraught, often paradoxical relationship between love and art is brought into focus in Cutie and the Boxer (T/F 2013), opening today at NYC’s Lincoln Center and L.A.’s Nuart Theater before hitting cinemas nationwide. This impressive documentary debut by director Zachary Heinzerling is a clear-headed and compassionate observation of the private life of artist couple Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara.
If you’re interested in learning more, check out Heinzerling’s chats with Karen Kemmerle at Tribeca and Hillary Weston at BlackBook where he explains his process and the interaction of the Shinoharas’ art and his own.
Cutie led to one of the best moments from this year’s Fest. Following the Sunday screening at the historic Missouri Theater, Ushio Shinohara gave a live demonstration of his “action art” to a cheering crowd in an adjacent parking lot.
You can check out Ushio’s website for examples of his finished pieces. To catch Cutie and the Boxer, visit a theater on the list below.
Andrew Bujalski’s work has made a major impact on independent film during the last decade. His first two films, Funny Ha Ha (2002) and Mutual Appreciation (2005), inaugurated the “mumblecore” movement, a genre utilizing minimal production costs and an extremely naturalistic approach to dialogue to create intimate studies of the lives of 20-somethings.
His new film, Computer Chess (T/F 2013), is something rather different, a formally perplexing period piece. Through what seems to be documentary footage, we are invited back in time to the very early 1980s. A motley assortment of computer programmers have gathered at a motel to pit their programs against one another in a computer chess tournament. Down the hall, a New Age encounter group is attempting to expand its collective mind. But it soon becomes clear things aren’t quite going as planned. The chess programs start making inexplicable moves, leaving their bewildered creators to interpret the meaning of their strange behavior.
Computer Chess opens today at Film Forum in NYC. In anticipation, I chatted with Andrew about his odd and hilarious film, via computer.
T/F: Hey Andrew, thanks for chatting with me! Your previous films are all set in the present. How did you get interested in making a film that takes place in the past?
AB: Well, the whole project began with a fantasy of shooting something on these beautiful old black and white analog video cameras. I held the notion in the back of my head for years and at some point stumbled onto the historical fact of these computer chess tournaments which, for whatever reason, ended up lodged in my subconscious right next to this camera pipe dream. I didn’t go out seeking a period piece per se. It sought me out I guess.
It was certainly daunting to take on a period piece given our limited resources, but I was comforted by a belief that a good period piece is never really about a “perfect” recreation of any particular era. When Steven Spielberg makes a movie about Abraham Lincoln, as vast as the research and the capital that goes into historical “accuracy” is, the intent is never truly to transport us to 1865, but to open some wormhole between 1865 and now, to use then as a metaphor for now. If you build your wormhole right, hopefully the audience won’t get distracted by whatever little anachronisms creep in, and I’m sure we have a few.
It helped of course that, though I was very young at the time, I was alive at the time we were depicting, as were many of the cast and crew, so we could draw on a more personal relationship with the era than just what we’d gleaned from books.
T/F: The programmers are all such vivid characters. Could you tell me a little bit about the casting process? How did you go about finding the right people to play 80s computer nerds?
AB: The casting process is always just a walk in the desert with a divining rod. Every time I’ve done it I feel like I’ve been praying for miracles and miracles have been laid at my feet. I wish the rest of life worked that way.
The short answer is I thought, if you want guys who look and sound right talking about computers . . . why not approach guys who know a lot about computers? James Curry certainly seemed like a godsend when Wiley Wiggins introduced me to him at a party. Not only is he remarkably charismatic (and a brilliant natural actor), but he had been a child prodigy programmer in England. So even though he *should* be too young to know this stuff, he actually had crystal clear memory of all the early 80s programming-speak in the movie.
Gordon Kindlmann, who plays Dr. Schoesser, is a computer science professor at University of Chicago.
Wiley is known to movie people for his iconic (I swear it bugs me when people abuse that word, but I think it’s earned here) performance in Dazed & Confused, and later in Waking Life, but he’s incredibly knowledgeable and passionate about technology. He was a terrific adviser for us at every stage of this process.
T/F: How did the encounter group become part of the story?
AB: I wish I could tell you about some Eureka moment where all the elements aligned, but I do believe it all assembled very slowly over the course of years.
That said, we never specify the date that the movie takes place. It’s clearly somewhere on the cusp of the 70s and the 80s, and I liked the idea of exploring that as a “transitional” era. The pop culture view of history would have it that everyone hung up their bellbottoms on Dec 31 ’79 and started playing Pac Man on Jan 1 ’80, and of course our experience in real time is much more fluid. Indeed, both the “touchy-feely” encounter stuff of the 60s and 70s, and the tech revolutions of the 80s continue very much to resonate in our culture today.
Dramatically of course it just made for a useful contrast. As one of the characters in the movie says, “We’re all kind of like seekers here.” I do believe that the quest for artificial intelligence, as incredibly technical and dryly scientific as it can be in its particulars, is essentially a metaphysical pursuit. In building a new intelligence we must be, on some level, seeking to understand our own. And these hippie-dippies are up to the same thing, just employing a wildly different methodology.
T/F: What’s True/False about your film?
AB: Oh boy. You know, at the risk of being pretentious (and, cautious as I am in other facets of my life, I am a *daredevil* in that one), I’ll go ahead and say that all cinema is True/False. And that that’s the secret of its magic. The camera is by its nature a documentary recording device. Of course you can do all sorts of artful things with the it, but its essential function is to represent the True. Editing, meanwhile, is by its nature a narrative device. Every edit is a convenient Falsehood. And in that sense, everything from a Fred Wiseman piece of “direct cinema” to Star Wars is built on that same continuum of truth and lies, and draws energy from both poles.
That’s part of my fear about the digital age that’s upon us! As movies are increasingly built in the simulacrum environment of the computer, the documentary aspect seems to risk getting weeded out of movie making altogether. Soon enough we won’t need actors . . . then we won’t need writers, or directors. The movies will still make money somehow, because that’s what they’ll be programmed to do, but what the fuck will they be about?
T/F: Formally, Computer Chess appears at first (to me at least) to be a hodgepodge of found footage, ostensibly shot by a video team hired to document the tournament and its opening panel discussion. We see a camera operator rebuked by one of the organizers for aiming his camera at the sun. But the film very quickly evolves into something much stranger. How do you understand the POV?
AB: For whatever influences and reference points were bouncing around in my head going into this project, one comparison that I never expected, which came up at our Sundance premiere and often since, was to Christopher Guest’s work. Of course, and probably rightfully so, he pretty well seems to own the concept of mockumentary. But I was surprised that people were so anxious to categorize the movie as mockumentary when, as you point out, that conceit gets (mostly) abandoned quite early on. Odd shifts in perspective throughout the movie, and the unanswered questions that come with them, provide much of its texture.
But in retrospect I am realizing that beginning, as we do, with the most “real” looking footage in the movie has a really powerful grounding effect. It is part of how we watch movies that we spent the first several minutes hungrily absorbing context. I think it’s why we so often find ourselves bored an hour into a movie (when we think we understand everything that has happened and is going to happen), and almost never feel bored in the first ten minutes of anything (when anything still might be possible). Because Computer Chess begins with straightforward enough mockumentary, we seem to stake a claim in “realism,” which becomes increasingly absurd as we make our way a million miles away from it.
T/F: Your work has been praised for another dimension of “realism”, your approach to dialogue. In your movies conversations stop and start awkwardly, thoughts are left half finished and at times multiple discussions are layered on top of one another. The result is a style of deadpan hilarity completely different from the now ubiquitous Christopher Guest style direct-to-camera confessional. How do you go about directing dialogue? Are your films scripted?
AB: They were all conventionally scripted until this one; here we just worked from an 8 page treatment. Ultimately though the process with the actors was close to identical, the main difference being that I just had to show up *better* prepared, lacking as I did a document to bury my face in when instincts failed me.
Directing a scene is always just problem solving, and the more you do it, the more you develop (for better and worse) go-to solutions . . . . But I don’t know that there’s any secret formula for it. Indeed a director tends, in most measurable senses, to be the least talented person on any given set! The only things you’re really bringing are (a) the necessary hubris to think you deserve to be in charge, and (b) your eyes and ears, which tell you when things are feeling “right” and when they aren’t. You steer by that and hopefully figure out how to clear all the obstacles in your path, given (inevitably) limited time and resources.
Subway Preacher (T/F 2011) grants us miraculous access to a very strange place, the life of evangelist Brian Kelly. In lieu of employment, Brian, along with his wife Rose and a handful of other followers, runs a 24/7 ministry amid the daily grind of a New York City subway station. His days are spent distributing Chick Tracts and abrasively warning the uninterested passersby about the perils of hell fire. Around the time photographer, musician and first-time filmmaker Dennis W. Ho began filming, Brian attracted a new follower, a beautiful young woman named Kaitlin. The story that followed, captured by Ho’s camera, is enlightening, infuriating and darkly comedic.
Now, Dennis has made Subway Preacher available in its entirety on YouTube. You’ll find it embedded below along with an interview with Dennis discussing this gritty and oddly poetic piece of non-fiction. But be sure to watch the film first, you won’t want to spoil any of its many surprises.
T/F: Hey Dennis, thanks for chatting with me.
DH: My pleasure Dan.
T/F: So, I first wanted to ask about was the amazing access you had in the film. How did you first meet Brian?
DH: I first met Brian at the Times Square Station after having passed through that station several times and seen the “ministry” and its assorted eccentrics and non-traditional New Yorkers. One day I stopped by and asked if I could take pictures of them for a photo essay. And that photo essay turned into a film.
T/F: Was he at all hesitant about you photographing him?
DH: Actually, he was very enthusiastic. Most of them were quite open to the idea.
T/F: When you first began the project, did you have any notion of the emerging love triangle story line?
DH: Not at all. Through the course of filming, there were at least three story lines I could used for the film. The love triangle turned out to be the one I captured the most completely, and also I think the story that Brian wanted to tell.
T/F: What were the alternative stories?
DH: There was a trip down to Georgia that turned out to be quite a fiasco, and there was also a whole other angle of Brian’s story involving his background as a competitive bowler.
DH: Yeah, at one point I was thinking I might call the movie Bowling for Jesus.
T/F: How long did you film for?
DH: I spent probably about one and a half years actually filming.
T/F: What’s True/False about your film?
DH: I think there is definitely an aspect of the story where people wonder if these guys are for real. If they are faking something. And also the question of what aspects of the story are influenced by the filmmaker’s (my) viewpoint and perspectives. Even speculation by viewers of what my own stances and relationship were to the subjects and their world.
T/F: There is one scene in particular that stood out to me. Brian presents a bunch of his rationalizations for the divorce, and then he turns to the camera almost giddy and says “the plot thickens”. It really raised the question of how much of what he was doing was a performance. Was he noticeably different when the camera was off?
DH: You know, he really wasn’t much different when the camera was on or off. But that said, I never saw him in a context where there wasn’t a camera person in the room. Kind of like “I’ll never see myself in the mirror with my eyes closed”. I think there were definitely elements of what Brian gave me that were very much based on the fact that he was having his story recorded “for posterity.”
T/F: One of the most compelling scenes takes place on Rose’s birthday, when he leaves Rose and Kaitlin alone together on the sidewalk in front of the building. It’s hard for me to tell if he is aware how cruel he is being.
DH: A lot of people saw that scene and considered it a “nail in the coffin” on Brian’s likeability. Interestingly, knowing Brian as I did, and knowing in general other asshole people (including sometimes myself), I think Brian was not necessarily trying to be cruel for cruelty’s sake. Rather I think when he asks Rose to prove her birthday and then goads her for being old, he was handling the situation like a lot of people might, if they found themselves in a situation where they are the asshole. Sometimes when you are the jerk, it’s hard not to continue being a jerk and sometimes even exacerbate the situation just to pretend there’s nothing wrong. You know what I mean?
Incidentally, on the issue of forgetting Rose’s birthday, I personally always forget everyone’s birthday, including my own wife. Fortunately she does the same for me, so we are straight . . .
T/F: Ha, yeah, there a lot of times where he does something cruel, and then sort of quickly constructs a theological rationale for his behavior. But he seems like he believes his own crap.
DH: I would definitely say that is one of the biggest neuroses of Brian and people of his personality type; they actually believe everything that comes out of their own mouth. It’s how they get other people to buy it too.
T/F: My understanding is that you composed the score for the film? How did you approach that?
DH: As a matter of fact, the piano piece that bookends the film was one of the first parts that came to me. I was actually in Chinatown watching a funeral procession the day that I decided to turn the project from a photo essay into a documentary. I heard the song in my head. Throughout the rest of the film, the musical elements are much more sparse. I added those parts after I had mostly solidified the edit.
T/F: It creates a beautiful melancholy tone.
DH: Thanks. I actually added a lot of sound elements to the story that were intended to sound as though they were actual ambient sound, but are timed to add color and texture to the story.
DH: For instance, in the scene where Brian wakes up in the hospital, I added the sound of birds chirping to give the feeling of Brian’s carefree attitude. I also added sounds of banging and clanging in the subways, like the subways were commenting on what was happening.
T/F: Have you talked to Brian, Shawn, Rose or Kaitlin since you finished the film?
DH: I have. Actually, I see Shawn somewhat regularly in the subways as he has taken to regularly setting up at Atlantic/Pacific station in Brooklyn, which is right along my regular commute. Rose I hear from every so often. Brian went to Florida for a while after the film was finished and apparently has recently returned to town, though I haven’t heard from him much, though I have seen him a couple times. Kaitlin I have not spoken to since I finished filming.
T/F: Do you know what they think of the film?
DH: Rose and Shawn both really appreciate the film, from what I understand. Kaitlin I am not really sure since I have not heard from her. I gather it is not something she feels very positive about, especially since she is no longer with Brian. As for Brian, when he first saw the finished cut, he was a bit apprehensive, but then told me that he thought I “didn’t do such a bad job” and that I should “show the film to anyone and everyone”.
T/F: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me. Any thing else you want to add?
DH: One of my favorite quotes is one from Alfred Hitchcock which goes something like “in narrative films, the director is god; in documentary films, god is the director.” I am not religious, nor do I have any real place from which to really comment on anything of a theological nature. But the quote from Hitchcock very much describes the process by which this film came into being. I just showed up each day and hung out waiting for something to happen, never telling anyone to do anything for me, not even moving to where the light was better, or even to wear a mic. In a sense, I don’t feel like I directed this film at all. But in the end, the film that resulted was uncannily close to the film I envisioned that day in Chinatown watching the funeral procession, and I don’t believe that to be a coincidence.