Posted: 6/1/11

 

T/F is a great time for filmmakers to bump into each other, with many relationships forged in the hot cauldron of an intense weekend. But sometimes we try to act as matchmakers. In this case we thought Sam Green and Chad Freidrichs might have a lot in common, as they both seem to gravitate to films rooted in recent history, and which rely heavily on archival materials.  

After living in San Francisco for many years, Sam is now in Brooklyn and finishing up his short film “Esperanto” about the universal language. He and Bill Siegel spent four years making the Academy Award-nominated The Weather Underground  (2003) which weaves together photographs, film footage and FBI documents to trace the group’s notorious path. Sam has appeared twice at T/F, first with his short Lot 63, Grave C  about the final resting place of Meredith Hunter, who was killed at the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert. And then in 2010, he came by with the groundbreaking live performance/film “Utopia in Four Movements.” His other films include The Rainbow Man/John 3:16,” “N-Judah 5:30,” and “Pie Fight ’69.”  

Chad, who teaches film at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, worked for four years to complete The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: An Urban History, his third feature film. In addition to interviews with scholars and former residents of this legendary housing project, Chad dug deep in in archives and found clever ways to transfer old 16mm films. His previous feature-length documentaries are Jandek on Corwood, about the underground musician (which played at T/F 2004) and First Impersonator, a look at the troubled life of a JFK impersonator.

 

Chad:  So I saw that you're an Adam Curtis fan...he's one of my favorites

 

Sam:  Oh man, i love his stuff. he's a huge reference point for me, especially w/ the last film i made.

 

Chad:  Yeah, me too.  Pruitt-Igoe didn't really exhibit his influence so much, but I want to move in that direction for my next couple.  I've got all this old footage and a means to transfer it in my office.

 

Sam:  I met him last year at T/F and was amazed to realize that he edits his own movies. One of the things I really admire about him is his craft. A movie like Power Of Nightmares is just so damn well-edited, in addition to many other things. He loves footage obviously in a way that resonates with me.

 

Chad:  You turned me onto his blog and how you can view it almost like a web version of a doc. I really like his model of sticking to the same general kind of subject material.  Seems very efficient, so you don't have to re-learn with each new project.  It's like a web that expands outward with each film, but with the same core. he can be very productive that way.,..I spent two years researching PI!

 

Sam:  Speaking of craft, that's one of the things that really struck me about PI- it's so well made. I was really impressed - can I ask you some questions about that and how you work?

 

Chad:  of course.

 

Sam:  How did the project come about, and how did you go about making the movie? I know that's a very general question, but I'm just curious about how you work

 

Chad:  I came at it from an architectural standpoint at first...My wife and I had just bought a house and I was researching modern architecture.  Pruitt-Igoe was always labeled as the "death of modern architecture,"  the idea of people's behaviour being able to be controlled by the built environment was fascinating, and it was in my backyard (St. Louis...I live two hours away).  I checked on Google to make sure no one had made a doc, then began researching. I researched for a year, not producing much...just a few shots around modern St. Louis (abandoned factories and the like).  I didn't realize it was going to be archivally based. It was only when i got the $3000 bill from Colorlab for the HD transfer that i decided to get the telecine!

 

Sam:  One of the things that I’m always struck by is how complex a process doc filmmaking is. at least if you are doing it in a sophisticated manner. there's research, shooting, acquiring archival images, editing, making music - all of this stuff goes together, like you need the music in order to edit, you need archival stuff to know what to ask people about in interviews. How did you move forward? (i know I may be asking questions that are too big for g-chat!)

 

Chad:  Yeah, i know exactly what you mean.  "organic" is the best way to describe it...it's a process that's entirely feedback based...you get some footage and now you have a new sequence, so then you find an interview quote to match.  With interviews, we tried to be as broad as possible for our experts.  For the residents, i had talked to them beforehand and found out the salient points of their stories...We tended to focus on the three or four most compelling moments for each resident...

 

Sam:  Yes "organic" is the perfect word for it.

 

Film Forward - Panel TF10.



Chad:  So, before we started accumulating footage, we did the interviews.  We knew the story would hang on that.  Then, we just had to pour through hundreds of hours of film to find those moments.  Fortunately, the films that we ended up using the most we had from nearly the start.  one big find was "More Than One Thing", which contains the black-and-white footage of the young man walking around PI, the pigeons, the car travelling by people, the kid breaking the car window, etc.  So we know we'd have those shots.  Other shots we just had to search for.  I've got 200 or so films in my basement.

 

Sam:  So are you using mostly educational films for your archival imagery?

 

Chad:  Yep, educational and industrials for the most part.  There were a few that were PI specific, and some newsreels, but most of the footage came from films released to the public.

 

Sam:  I love working w/ archival footage, and one of the things that i especially like about it is that now there is a whole universe of that kind of imagery - stuff that's not news footage or the footage licensed thru Getty - in many cases its unique and great and it's just a weird semi-forgotten part of our visual history. But the big complex question with that kind of stuff is what did you do in terms of rights? (and if you don't want to get in to that kind of stuff in this public forum, just say no comment)

 

Chad:  Most of it is actually public domain.  For the rest, we've hired a lawyer to determine its fair use status.  Fair Use is surprisingly permissive. I really feel that the technical and legal tools are there for a fantastic expansion of the archival doc form. It's been a bit mired in conservatism throughout its history, I feel.  and now, you're seeing a lot of folks interested in experimenting with these old films...They're a fantastic visual heritage that open up so much potential for commentary/analysis on the past.

 

Sam:  Yeah, I agree with you about the value of fair use and the fact that it can pushed further than people generally do. I was able to use a lot of stuff in Weather Underground thru fair use.  One of the things I love about educational and industrial footage from the 60s and 70s is that it's often shot really well. most of those movies were made on 16mm and people had skills! There was one shot in particular in your movie - a really bright color aerial shot moving over PI that made my heart flutter!  So did you end up paying 0$ for archival???

 

Chad:  No, we ended spending a fair amount.  We licensed some news footage and other miscellaneous clips.  and we licensed most of the stills.  We also made arrangements with local archives, who were very cool.  They owned a lot of the rights to the material in their archives, actually.

 

Lot 63 Grave C



Chad:  Yeah, and the footage from those old films is fantastic.  I prefer the stuff from the 50's: 1) because it's almost always public domain (post-1963 gets trickier) and 2) they usually used film stocks that held color better. It seems those stocks from the 60's and 70's weren't as fade-resistant...they're almost always pink,

 

Sam:  Have you seen a movie called "film is . . " When you mentioned you were doing something on science, i thought of that movie. it's fan-fucking-tastic - a celebration of the kinds of films your are talking about. Completely mesmerizing.

 

Chad:  No, i haven't.  I'll check it out, though.

 

Sam:  Definitely see it. there's 'film is . ." and I think the guy made "film is . . 2" a couple of years ago. An Austrian fellow named Gustav Deutsch I think.

 

Chad:  Got it up on imdb...I’ll look into after this

 

Sam:  Hey, so like I said, i thought the craft was really great with your movie - the interviews were amazingly powerful, what you did with the archival and the stills was great. And then the music was terrific. How did you approach the music - who made it and how did you go back and forth with that person? How much did you direct him or her?

 

Chad:  Benjamin Balcom composed the score.  This is the second film i worked with Benjamin on.  He's based in Chicago, so we usually just worked over the phone or email, but i always like to sit in on the recording sessions.  I gave him scratch tracks that he then distilled.  He identified early on that the tracks I was selecting had a strong rhythmic component.  So, he started recording a bunch of drum tracks (over 100, I believe), that we started building the melody from.  I trust Benjamin a lot; I just gave him the scratch tracks and verbal descriptions (usually verbs) of what the music should be doing...He just started working things out after that.  Then, he'd send me 10 tracks, I'd cut them in and offer suggestions for refinements... Back and forth, again "organic."   For the montages, I prefer to have the music already composed, so if we didn't have it already, he'd just match the tempo of the scratch track.  He's a great guy to work with...a great collaborator.

 

Sam:  That sounds good. I never understand how people can work in those more traditional manners - you know, you make the movie and then the composer adds the music. I guess I'm only able to work in the kind of 'organic' way you are describing. But I think ultimately the movie turns out way better. The kind of craft that I respond to you with your film never would be there if you hadn't spent the time and worked in the way you did.

 

Chad:  Well, music is such an inspiration, not only for tempo and mood, but general ideas as well.  I get some of my best editing ideas while I'm about to fall asleep listening to music.

 

  Sam:  Yeah! i totally agree. By the way, was there no editing credit? Or did i just miss it?     That's why i asked you who edited the film.

 

Chad:  Yeah, the idea of cutting, then adding music is totally foreign. I edited it....I don't like to be perceived as a one-man band, partly out of modesty I guess. I also shot it, although there's not much shooting there.  Do you edit all your own stuff?

 

Sam:  So I was right that there wasn't an editing credit? Ha. that's funny. I do edit my own stuff. from time to time i will work with an editor. but so much of a documentary is made int he editing room - especially when one is working in the organic manner we've spoken about - it seems weird to have someone else make your movie for you.

 

The World's Largest Shopping Mall



Chad:  Yes, absolutely.  I've never had the luxury of another editor, but I get good feedback from my collaborators, which is great.  It's what i enjoy most, so why not do it?  Editing is more enjoyable for me than any other part of filmmaking, including having it done and out there...the process is the best part.  i actually don't like the phase I'm in right now...festivals, distribution, etc.

 

Sam:  That's funny - for many people, the festivals and travel -- showing the film - that's the best part. I have to admit, I do like that. although editing is also deeply satisfying for me. Editing is brutal though! i usually grind myself down to a nub in finishing a film. So traveling around showing a film is a way for me to recover some of my humanity. One other thing i wanted to ask you about is the narration. when i was watching the film, I assumed that the narrator was the filmmaker. he sounds like he's African-American, and i figured maybe this was a guy whose family lived in PI or he had some other connection. After I finished watching the film, i Googled you and realized you are a white guy. Do you ever get weird responses from people after screenings?

 

Chad:  To be honest, the best moments are like this: a very firm deadline and free time to execute it.  it's difficult at times, and i become socially estranged, but it's some of the most rewarding time.  those moments of alone time with the film are the best.  I'm an introvert, what can i say...

 

Chad:  As for responses, I don't perceive any, but that doesn't mean they aren't there.  Jason, the narrator, is from the east side of St. Louis (Illinois). it would have been weird to have my voice narrating this story that most deeply affected African-Americans.  I like the writing rule that says your protagonist is whoever has the most to lose.  So, we always preferred a black voice-over artist.

 

Sam:  I liked it a lot. he's got a great voice. Did he also narrate a film called DIAL History?

 

Chad:  Nope, this was his first film.  he wasn't as experienced, so we had to work a bit to bring his register down.  But we got there, and his voice is very rich.

 

Sam:  So tell me about your new project.

 

Chad: It's so wide-open at this point, it's tough to pin-point it.  and I can almost assure that it will turn out different from what i say now.  but, for now, I'm working on the chemical origins of life.  I’ve done some research into the history of the idea of spontaneous generation.  I'd like to treat the theory as a character, beginning around the time of Aristotle to its "death" with Pasteur. There have been a good number of films (most from the BBC) that have looked into contemporary theories.  I’m more interested in the philosophy/history of science.  How scientific theorizing works.  what makes them salient.  But I’m also very interested in the psychology of science (science from the scientist’s perspective), so the film should be a many-splendored thing.

 

Sam:  Wow! sounds good.

 

Chad:  But I’ve got about 100 films for it.

 

Sam:  One of the bigger thoughts I had with your movie, and one of the reasons I really liked it, is that it’s taking all the forms of a traditional documentary – sit-down interviews, voice-over narration, a lot of archival footage and still photos – but the film does all those things profoundly well. I guess I just really admire the fact that you are taking a traditional doc form and breathing real life into it. It’s rare. I think in some ways people feel like that kind of form is old or outdated, but when someone does it really well, you realize that it’s a form with great power and potential. I’ve thought this same thing before watching Eyes on the Prize.

One of the things I really love about Adam Curtis is that he does this same thing for the essay film and narration. People have been down on narration for 20 or 30 years – I know that I have – you try everything to avoid it - but the truth is narration can be great and powerful and a super filmmaking tool. It's just that most people do it really badly and it's gotten a bad name. I've completely come around and am now a big voice-over fan (assuming it's good).

 

Weather Underground - trailer from Kontent Films



Chad:  Agreed, it's not the most efficient format!

 

Sam:  Hey, we should probably wrap this up. Anything else you wanna say, or talk about?

 

Chad:  Oh, man, you nailed it.  I really like working with a new form for each film.  My first, Jandek on Corwood, was very different from First Impersonator and Pruitt-Igoe.  The next one will be much more essay, perhaps with no interviews.  It's fun to explore the various formats.

Thanks so much for your kind words, Sam....it really means a lot.

 

Sam:  Ok, sounds good. One final thought: Pruitt-Igoe is such a weird funny phrase and set of sounds. You think they would have realized that that might not be the best name for a project. I personally really like it is as a combination of words, but I think that a professional branding company probably woulda come up w/ something a bit more normal sounding. Do you like the name?

 

Chad:  We've seen a bit of criticism about the name, for sure. Several have suggested changing it.  Some of the residents we've talked to love it.  Regardless, I think we're stuck with it!

 

Sam: I didn't necessarily mean the title of your film - you have to use it -  i was talking about the name itself. For the projects. and like I said, I personally really like it your title, I think it’s great, and i was intrigued when i heard it.

 

Chad:  Oh, that comes from Wendell Pruitt (an black air hero from WWII) and William Igoe (a white politician).  So, initially it was supposed to be two separate projects on separate sites.  The Pruitt Homes and the Igoe Homes.  Then, they were combined and ultimately ended up calling the combined project Pruitt-Igoe.  A lot of the residents still call it "Pruitt and Igoe."

 

Sam:  Alright, Chad. so this was my first g-chat. i guess I'll remember you forever.

 

Chad:  Me too.  Thanks for easing me into it.

 

 



The Pruitt-Igoe Myth: an Urban History – Film Trailer

 
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At the Edge of Truth: Michal Marczak Shakes Up The Aquarium
DIALOGUE 6/1/11
Sam Green (Weather Underground) & Chad Freidrichs (The Pruitt-Igoe Myth) hash it out and herald the return of the voice-over
INTERVIEW 6/1/11
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VIDEO 5/31/11
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MUSIC 5/31/11
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FEED 5/31/11
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