Part One of this interview can be found here.
Guillén: I recently spoke with Pedro Costa who had some interesting things to say about space and filming space. Like yourself, he relies on natural light, not only to get an image with light, but to infer space through off-frame sources of light.
Emigholz: I only use sources of light that are in the house or sunlight. I don't use artificial light, no film lights, in my films because these architects themselves thought about the light situation so much. They placed their houses at certain angles to the light and the landscape. I film wherever possible—where the light is—but I don't throw light into the scene myself.
Guillén: Which leads me to ask about your working methodology when you're shooting. You've clearly done your research, you've established a chronological gameplan for the buildings and how you want to shoot them, you've had to go through the machinations of gaining access and permission, so then you arrive at the building: now what? How much time are you given? Because of the vagaries of weather and the way light is coming into the structure, how much time do you have to create?
Emigholz: I have to start immediately. I make one decision after the other. Usually there are three of us. There's one guy who helps with the camera, which is a really big camera, and he schleps it around. Another person does the sound and talks maybe with the house owner.
Guillén: To keep them out of the way?
Emigholz: I have no time to talk to them. I look at the building and I have to concentrate. It's a complete act of concentration actually. What you said isn't exactly right. I don't know the chronological order of the buildings. When I'm shooting, I'm not really interested. We graph out a travel plan to connect the houses we want to film. The Goff film involved nine thousand miles so, of course, you couldn't shoot chronologically from California to Tulsa and back to California. We film the buildings in proximity so we can do them all in one laid-out trip. The chronology takes place at the editing table, which is an interesting moment when you learn how the houses clash and are connected with each other. That's a fantastic moment. In the Loos film, for example, you'll see that he uses certain elements for a couple of houses in chronology, as if he was using up modules that he had stocked up or something.
What I like is when you arrive at a point and you don't know the weather before. It makes no sense to have written a script for a sunny day and then there's overcast skies. It's better to feel free and that you are open for the situation. It's wonderful to have an overcast day because that means we can do a lot of complicated shots without big F-stop ranges that make it impossible to create certain images because there's too much contrast otherwise, too many shadows. I take the situation like it is and I react very fast to it. I start filming almost immediately and the others have to deal with sometimes complicated social situations. If you look at the DVD for the Goff film, one of us did a film on the side about how we arrived at a building and talked to people. Of course, I have very little time. But it's interesting that an object dictates the number of shots I have to do. First we go around, we go in, and then suddenly something builds up. I have to do this, this, this, this. I look at the light and gauge what we should do in the morning, what we should do in the afternoon. The decisions are made real fast. I don't have to sit and contemplate. I'm just working. Because I can't contemplate by looking through the viewfinder. My decisions to use a certain angle arise from the situation that I find there and then I shoot the image. I'm almost always faster than the people I'm with because I know what I want. When I do one image, it already dictates the next two that I know have to come either after or before. I'm addicted to filmmaking because I like that moment. Your mind has to be on the spot 100%.
Guillén: It's that quality of being present in your films that is its dramatic quality. You have another description you've used here and again—"recognition of the manifest"—which comes into play here. You're saying that—when you come into a place—it reveals itself to you in an obvious way so that you know what you have to do.
Emigholz: And there's always more I could do. I never have the problem of not knowing what to do or having enough to do. Other kinds of problems might arise. For example, in the Loos film I go into a house in Winter and come out in Spring because it was so cold when we first entered, there was ice rain, and we couldn't continue filming. We had to postpone shooting until the Spring. That was a situation I couldn't control. Not only the weather but the light. It was too dark and I didn't want to use artificial light. Otherwise, when I'm shooting I never hesitate because there's always so much to do.
Guillén: In contrast, then, to Pedro Costa who—in order to access his spaces—has elected to minimize his equipment and has switched from film to video, you're very clear about wanting to work with celluloid and the large cameras necessary. Why are you so committed to 35mm?
Emigholz: The high resolution. If there is a video camera in the future that produces that kind of high resolution, of course I will switch to it. For example, I'm doing a whole project now with a new camera called Red. It has a high resolution. A 16mm negative has just a quarter of a 35mm negative. You can cheat in 16mm and video. You can never tell how far objects are away from each other because the space doesn't read. In 35mm, it does and you can't cheat. You can read the space and that's why I like to use it. Of course, when I'm dealing with architectural space, 35mm is what I want to use. But for a current project I'm doing that deals with cityscapes, I'm very excited about using the Red camera.
Guillén: Another quality I like about your filmmaking is its luxurious autonomy. You really are an auteur filming auteur architecture. You film what you want to film. Pym is your production company. You're calling all the shots and—from what I've read—you only pursue the work of an architect if some space they have created has captured your imagination.
Emigholz: But, to be accurate, it's not only my company. Of course, I try to find combatants so, for example, with the Loos film and the Schindler film, I went to Austria to an Austrian company. They knew my work. I said, "Would you want to produce?" because they could access Austrian money. I didn't produce those films with German money. So I work with different companies as well as my own company. Whenever it's possible to do a co-production, I do.
Guillén: Is it primarily contemporary architecture you're interested in? You have no interest in historical architecture?
Emigholz: Yes, sometimes. For my last feature film two large scenes were filmed in the Cologne cathedral and in Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia. But I always choose locations that mean something to me. The Cologne cathedral was the bad guy and La Sagrada Familia was the good guy. [Laughs.]
Guillén: I was delighted to read that you're considering doing a monograph on the Mexican architect Luis Barragán.
Emigholz: I just today bought another book at Moe's about his work.
Guillén: Do you know Adriana Williams?
Emigholz: Who? Adriana Williams? No.
Guillén: She was Barragán's lover in her youth. She now lives in San Francisco and has written a beautiful coffee table volume on him. I thought it might be interesting to link the two of you up. I don't know if you would need her insight for the kind of work you do….
Emigholz: It's not in process yet; but, at a certain point we have to get access to all his buildings and I don't even know if it would work. You can never know beforehand.
Guillén: She's very well-situated socially in Mexico and might be someone who could help you gain access. I got excited when I read that you were interested in his work because I fantasized getting my fingerprints on that project a bit.
Emigholz: If you can help, that would be great. I want to do Barragán and I want to do Pier Luigi Nervi and I want to do a German builder Ulrich Müther—who's done beautiful shell structures all over the world—and I want to do Auguste Perret, a French architect.
Guillén: Has any Japanese architecture intrigued you?
Emigholz: Not really. Schindler's almost Japanese in the beginning. Also, I want to stop the series! I don't know, that might turn you off. [Laughs.] I have three feature film projects that deal a lot with architecture but in a subliminal way and they're not about specific architects.
Guillén: Returning to the sticky thicket of experimental filmmaking—which is something I'm still trying to get a handle on—part of the argument I had with my friend after we watched Schindler's Houses revolved around the issue of non-narrative films. I said I wasn't sure if I would call your films non-narrative. Though they may not be structured narratives, they're certainly narratives about structures. For me, there's a story being told; there's certainly a chronology and a momentum driving the film forward and maintaining my interest, and he complained that chronology is not narrative. I didn't know quite how to respond to that, but, I nonetheless still felt that there was a narrative momentum in your films. Do you think there is?
Emigholz: Yes, and each time I watch them I always see little bits and pieces of stories that come out of the material and tell you something. For me it's—as you've said—you get driven forward and want to see more and want to see how it connects and so on; but, of course, in terms of film narrative that's a really big topic. There are certain rules how these narratives work, how they build interest, and if there's three acts, and if there has to be a conflict and the conflict has to be resolved, all this stuff, and this of course doesn't interest me. Unless you see the film and think, "My God, that building inspires conflict or there's something going on between him and the builder." Sometimes one sees that too. Loos had problems with certain rules in building and he does this to avoid it.
But I find it quite alarming that all these rules about narrative filmmaking are equally applied to documentary filmmaking. You have a certain set of rules if you're going to film a BBC-like documentary. You go into an archives and get a few little bits and pieces of film, you have a pile of photographs, you have a voiceover, you have music, you have the hand of the composer or the architect who makes a drawing; a computer could make such a film. BBC documentaries could be done by machines. But then if you have a certain approach to the spaces, an individual approach, maybe a poetic approach, can you really deal with this world of narrative formulas? You have to find your own way. Maybe that's what experimental documentary is all about. On the other hand, as I've said before, it's rather simple what I try to do. To this day I don't understand why there aren't more films like the films I make. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that this documentary form came from schoolteachers preaching content. The teacher tells you what's important and what's not important. Look to the right corner and you'll see something important. But as soon as there's anything like a hierarchy of language—when somebody tells you something and you listen and you don't look somewhere else—then documentary films are guarding you and guiding you through the jungle or the chaos of the photographed world. When they say, "This is content. This is nonsense", it has nothing to do with it.
When I create an image, of course I can compose it and control it to a certain degree, but why do I sit in the cinema and watch my own films? Because I always see something new in them. As if what was there in reality that I filmed really comes through. You can't read it in one reading. As I've also said, with the Internet you can get all sorts of information about Rudolph Schindler in a second. I don't have to use my film time up with that information. I can use my film time to show you the complicated space. If I would put a voiceover narrative on top of my films, it would subtract your energy from experiencing that space.
Guillén: Surprisingly, I felt that when Thom Anderson first appeared in Schindler's Houses. I was startled, distracted, to see a person. For that matter, I was startled to see the three cats!
Emigholz: You see? It's almost like a vacuum cleaner that draws everything to it. You look immediately to the person or the cats and the space recedes. If I would only film shots with people, you wouldn't look at the space.
Guillén: Finally, you have made comments I find so intriguing about the relationship between architectural structures and nature. You've indicated that some of the architects designed their structures with the thought of what the nature surrounding them would become in time. And in my own background leading ecotours to Mayan centers in Guatemala, I frequently observed the romanticized notion of culture or civilization being reclaimed by nature. I would tell my participants, "What you see here are the bones of a civilization covered over in rain forest; but, that's not how these centers once looked. Like Americans, the Maya paved over nature." They preferred the fecund complexity of structures against structures; the "thicket" that you have referred to in describing architecture in European cities. Can you speak about what Mark Peranson has termed the "strange affiliation of culture and nature that houses have."
Emigholz: On the image it is simultaneously there, whether I film part of a branch on a tree or a plant or a house: they're all on the same level. For me, the nature is absolutely necessary. The view through a thicket to a building, connecting trees with buildings, is a topic for me. It's a task I like. You'll find in my films more shots with no building at all in it. Even in the Schindler film, there are a lot of shots there where there's nothing of a Schindler building; but, it deals with nature, structures, and how do I get from one corner to the other. It's a very interesting topic or task to do that. To build up such a contrast between nature and buildings seems to be wrong to me.
Guillén: You call it a "crime" at the beginning of Schindler's Houses.
Emigholz: Yeah. But then you see, for example, how the color wears off so you can see the raw wood underneath. Perhaps I told you this story already but there was one house owner who said, "Well, you can film our house if you give it a new paint job." [Laughs.] Little did that person know that I'm absolutely not interested in new paint and an ideal state of the house. I said, "Thank you, no, we don't have the money to do that." Though the Schindler houses might be beautiful once they're restored, I prefer them before such restoration.