Saturday, September 30, 2006

A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING YOUR SAINTS—The Evening Class Interview With Dito Montiel and Jake Pushinsky

Dito Montiel is Bruce Weber material. He's got a square jawline, masculine face, buffed body. In his shorts, sweatshirt and stocking cap, he looks like a Calvin Klein ad (which he's actually done with Mr. Weber). He's also made noise in a hardcore punk band, signed with David Geffen for some good coin, and impressed Liza Minnelli. I mean, dude!! Now he's raising eyebrows with the film adaptation of his first book, A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints. The film's just opened in New York and David Hudson has gathered up what appear to be consensual raves at Greencine Daily (all save for Salon's cautionary Andrew O'Hehir who doesn't feel like giving away his heart too soon). Despite Andrew's sage advice, I am admittedly smitten. Then again, I'm just old enough to enjoy feeling my pulse quicken. Dito, and his San Franciscan editor Jake Pushinsky, shared their enthusiasm with me in Dito's charmingly messy room at the Hotel Monaco.

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Michael Guillén: First and foremost, congratulations on winning Best First Director and Best Acting Ensemble for A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints at Sundance. That's a notable achievement for a first time effort. I'm excited to talk to you today, partly because my last interview was with Paul Rachman for American Hardcore, so I thought, "What a perfect segue."

Dito Montiel: [Chuckles.] Yes, it is. I'm in American Hardcore, diving off the stage to the Bad Brains.

MG: You are?! I didn't know that.

Dito: He told me. I'm so looking forward to seeing that scene. I'm sure it will be a blur of some crazy kid. I haven't seen it yet. I'm always about five minutes behind them.

MG: You have such a rich and varied life experience—but, since we've touched upon that—it's my understanding that as a young kid you were part of a hardcore punk group called Gutterboy?

Dito: They weren't really a hardcore band. The hardcore band I was in was called Major Conflict, which is a typical hardcore name, ridiculous.

MG: Why I bring it up is that the DIY aesthetic—the "Do It Yourself" aesthetic—presented and promoted in American Hardcore, I feel like you've applied that in every medium you approach. You did it with your book. And now you've done it with this film based on the book. You've in essence done both the book and the film yourself. Am I correct in assuming you're still practicing that hardcore DIY aesthetic?

Dito: It seems corny and weird, but there was something very special about the birth of that [hardcore punk scene] that never left me. When I was 13 years old I went to the Village in New York because I was from Queens and the Village seemed like—well, my friend had a magazine called Punk Magazine. We were too young to be part of the punk Sex Pistols scene but I was blown away by the photographs. I was like, "Who are these people?" I had to know who they were, y'know? I know out here in San Francisco you guys had Dead Kennedys, you had a big scene—

MG: Which terrified me. I was such a wuss.

Dito: [Laughs.] Oh yeah? But in New York you didn't even know what you were looking at because the hardcore scene was tiny and barely non-existent. So I went down to the Village with my friend Ray—who we still talk every day; we're still best friends—we were looking for the Village; it's absurd. I ran into this guy who was from Queens also who was in a hardcore band called Urban Waste and he said, "Y'know, I'm quittin' this band and you guys are from Queens, we rehearse over in the projects in Ravenswood, why don't you be in the band?" So Ray said, "I can play drums." "Okay, you're the drummer; I'm the singer," and he looks at me and he goes, "What can you play?" I'm like, "Nothing." He says, "I have a guitar; you'll be the guitar player" and I said, "Okay." We went to the Ravenswood Projects that night and I just made a bunch of noise and four days later—it was like a Tuesday—that Saturday we played the A-7 Club in New York, which was the little hardcore place, and it was terrible. It was just a whole bunch of crazy noise. I couldn't even play a bar chord. It was the best experience of my life and I never ever forgot it. Nothing ever changed me the way that moment did. In the long run now I look back and I think, that was the moment for me. I had friends who were in bands that they rehearsed for five years in their basement until they perfected every Led Zeppelin riff and I used to say, "When you guys gonna play?" and they'd say, "We almost got it down." It was really exciting and that thing never left me to some degree. I always made noise and I always will and I enjoy it.

I started writing one day because it felt good and I guess, if things feel good, they're therapeutic. That's sort of the way I believe life is, right? It feels good to write and so one day it was long enough to be a book. Luckily, some guy I used to work with at Tower Records—it's a weird world—got a job at a publishing company and he read what I wrote and he said, "We'll put it out." Then along the way that turns into somebody who says, "Let's make a movie" and it felt good so, sure, let's go do that. It's funny, this is my friend Jake who's from San Francisco, he cut the film and he'd never edited a film before. We were working in a dub room together and we had this crazy little dream that we were going to make a movie and now there's a movie.

MG: That inspiration comes across. The rawness of that if-it-feels-good-let's-do-it enthusiasm comes across and makes for an exciting movie. I write a lot about the religiosity of memory, how by looking back you sanctify events and people, and that's exactly what you've done with Saints. You've created this—you call it "guide"—as if you're trying to show people not to abandon or forsake their memories, even if they're uncomfortable ones. Was the character of your same name in the movie pretty much like yourself? Or is the character fictional?

Dito: Whenever you write it's always a combination of both, I guess. Even if you're writing about King Kong, you're probably going to put yourself in there somewhere. In this one I put a little more of myself than normal.

MG: I guess what I'm really asking is if the tension that drove Dito away from his Queens upbringing to a writer's life in Los Angeles was biographical?

Dito: The big plan we had for this film that was the most important thing to come across in it was that it was a movie filled with love. It was a beautiful place that bad things happened in. People always talk about the Kennedys. "Oh, the poor Kennedys, they have such tragedy in their life" and my mother used to say, "They have 15 kids! What do they want? Everyone to be happy?" [Laughs.] The plan for this film—and it's probably a bit of myself in there—is that I feel blessed that I grew up with a lot of love—a crazy love—but a lot of it. And that's why I probably have had a pretty decent life because that's a nice thing to have as a kid; it goes a long way. I saw a lot of people that didn't have that situation and I don't know what that's like but—from an outside point of view—it seems pretty terrible. In making the film it was important that that came across. There were no villains in my movie. Just people. So there's a bit of myself in there, of course, and hopefully that shows.

MG: When you published the book, which was based on these personages from your past, was there any conflict at that time? Did people you wrote about say, "Hey, what are you talking about? This isn't who I was?"

Dito: Well, yeah, but more now because, at the time, no one saw the book. No one bought it, y'know? [Laughs.] So now it's all coming out and it's very odd. Boy, the movie opens today in New York and Los Angeles and it's going to be particularly [interesting] because we're going to see exactly how people feel. I wrote the book more about people I had met, not particularly myself, it's the stories … my impressions of what they meant to me. I don't try to say this is who they are. This is what they were to me, what they did for me, which was good, all good. I didn't have a vicious word to say about anyone in this book because they meant a lot to me. So I tried to say what they meant to the eyes of a 16-year-old kid looking at them. We'll see how that comes across because in the film we've mixed all different peoples' stories. I mean, there's a kid Giuseppe in the film who dies from getting hit by a train; my friend Giuseppe who most of that character is based on was deported to Italy for being arrested so many times…

MG: So he's alive and well in exile?

Dito: He's alive and well and he lives in Milano. We had a friend Billy who in the book and in life had died riding on the trains. Kids used to do that, which was crazy. So that's how the character [Giuseppe] dies. The movie was just in the Venice Film Festival in Italy. It won like the Critics Week. I called Giuseppe up there and I said, "You gotta come see the movie" and he said, "I heard I died!" He was all excited about it. So at least he's excited about dying; we'll see what everyone else feels. [Laughs.]

MG: That's like myself, I keep telling people that—if I were in a movie—I want to be in a monster movie where I get killed off in the first scene. For some reason this is one of my ambitions.

Dito: [Laughs.] Okay, I'm the guy to do it!

MG: Speaking of the character Giuseppe, was he insane?

Dito: He's a great choice because he is to me exactly the epitome of what this film has been in a strange way, his character, the journey of making this film. In real life, the friend that I had Giuseppe was out of his mind. [Chuckles.] But not in the way that this actor is.

MG: Giuseppe in the film was troubled.

Dito: Yeah. [My friend] Guiseppe was troubled in his own way. The kid I grew up with was in a terribly abusive home but he was hysterical. He was the funniest kid I ever met in my life. And he was like a cat. He could climb literally up the side of a building to the roof. I never saw a human that could do that. He would just go right up the building, up the bricks, right to the roof, like it was nothing, like a cat. So when I was writing the role for the film, there's a scene where he's in a train station and he pretty much commits suicide—we're not giving away the film, just that—but the way I wrote it was the way I remembered Guiseppe, he's like a cat, he's inside the tracks and he's joking around and at the last minute he's going to go right up and the train's not going to kill him. But then we wrote into the film that he slips and dies. So then the actor who plays him is named Adam Scarimbolo and Adam is similar to the role he plays—not that damaged, but—I found him on the streets of New York and he's a special kind of kid and we're hanging out and we start doing the scene and he's doing it like it's a suicide. I'm like, "Adam, this is not a suicide, remember? It's Guiseppe. He just gets up at the last second." And he's like, "Oh" and he kind of talks like the character in the film, "Well, I don't know." And I said, "Why are you doing it like a suicide?" He goes, "Well, my brother he won't say I love you so of course I kill myself." I thought, "Man, that's a lot more interesting than what I wrote." So I let him go with that. That was pretty much this movie in a nutshell. There's the real Guiseppe who's a cat who lives and is in Italy now and there was Billy who got killed by the train and then there's the actor who comes in and decides now it's a suicide. We went with the evolution of this film in a lot of ways.

MG: There's a lovely tension around language in the film. This is a good point on that. You have this wonderful colored language of the streets, this street cred talk that's so beautiful and expressive, and yet this inability of these kids (and for that matter Chazz Palmentiri as Dito's father) to articulate their feelings. It's an interesting tension. Myself, I come from rural background, but it was the same kind of tension, the same kind of colored language among the farm kids and yet an inability to speak what we were really feeling. I remember at that time, God, I would have loved to have lived your life in New York.

Dito: Well, I dreamt of farms my whole life. I really did.

MG: There you go. The excerpts I've read from your book—and, I'll be honest, I haven't had a chance to read the book—but the small bits I've sampled, they remind me—and I hope this isn't insulting to you—of the teenage heartthrob romances that Laura Nyro used to sing a lot about in her songs.

Dito: There's certainly no way I could take offense to that!

MG: Well, you never know. I know that for myself growing up in the country when I used to hear these Laura Nyro songs with Labelle talking about going down to the street tunnels to sing, it's the life I wanted and it's why I moved to a city. I think the movie has this glamorization of urban youth growing up on cityscapes. It's being compared to some of the best films, early Scorsese, early Larry Clark, and I can see why: it has that raw street aesthetic to it. Now, the casting is incredible. You won the award for ensemble acting. Robert Downey, Jr. is one of my favorite actors. I watched the movie because Robert Downey, Jr. was in it and he delivers, again, a remarkable performance. My understanding is he met you at one of your bookstore readings?

Dito: Robert's so funny. He loves to create crazy fables wherever he can. The last one—he called me the other day to tell me that he had told an interviewer that we met at a zoo—so he said, "Look for that one coming your way!" [Laughs.] The way we met was, over the years it was impossible to not bump into each other. Me and Robert traveled in strange circles and eventually we were going to crash into each other, and we did a bunch of times. We had a mutual friend [Jonathan Elias] who actually ended up doing the score for the film. Me and Jake, the editor, were working together in a place in Los Angeles. The guy who was good friends with Robert was our boss so Robert would come in and out all the time. We had done this weird little short film with a video camera, and a little portable tape player—not as fancy as that [he gestures to my digital recorder]—and put it on a screen, and started messing with weird ideas. We were in a dub room all day. Jake was figuring out how to edit on a computer at the time. We put it in there and started putting sounds and weird things to it. Robert came in one day and we said, "Hey, take a look at this." He looked at it and he's particularly arty enough, and cool enough, and privileged enough also that he said, "Wow." He read the book and he said, "Why don't we make a movie?" Of course it becomes a long crazy story from there. The funny thing I say all the time about Robert is—I bring his name up and, wherever I go, the first thing anyone says is he's a great actor and then they say, "Is he crazy?" They want to know all the dirt. I tell them all the time, "Do you know how many great actors get one DUI and that's all they're ever known for?" He's still a great artist first and I do believe it's because he'll take a chance and he took a chance on pretty much two first-time guys who had no chance on earth of ever making a "real" film that I'd be talking to you about that would be in a theater. We were going to make this movie regardless of Robert Downey, Jr. or not but it probably would have been on video and we would have it screening at a friend's house. Luckily, someone like him comes along, and it catapults things. It's scary also because now we have to get film; how we going to afford that? It becomes a long process but, luckily, there is privilege that comes with someone like Robert. He is an artist first and that's why we all still know his name, not because of all the weird stories about him, but we still think of him as a great actor first and I really think that comes because he's an artist.

MG: Having had similar issues as Robert's, I appreciate that he has survived the chances he's taken in life and carried on to do such great work. The big breakout performance in Saints is Channing Tatum's.

Dito: Certainly.

MG: His stunningly virile performance in Saints leads me back to talk a bit more about the hardcore punk scene, specifically something I didn't have the chance to ask Paul Rachman when I interviewed him, which I'll ask you: the hypermasculinity of the hardcore scene and in your film, is glamorized, almost eroticized. Was it like that on the streets? Was that toughness a glamorous ideal?

Dito: Channing, in particular, what he did with the role was special. I didn't want Channing at first because he sounded all wrong to me. I had found this kid in the street that was the perfect messed-up mangled kid that was impossible to love that reminded me of the person I was writing about. Channing is a Bruce Weber model who is as goodlooking as a guy can possibly be, he's six foot tall, he's from Alabama, it makes no sense that he's in this movie and I'm like, "No, this is crazy." Then the thing that was really special about him and I am so glad that he ended up in the film is because—to answer part of the question—he went from being this great looking guy to a wounded, sort of beautiful person for me. That's difficult. He brought this Mice and Men quality to the character that I wrote that was slightly more interesting than what I think I wrote. He brought a guy who breaks your neck and then tries to put it together because he didn't mean to do that. As far as the hypermasculinity, the strange thing that happened with him that was really important with this film in every aspect of the word and way was one of the first scenes we're filming, he's walking down the street where he sort of beats this kid up and he just does this dumb little thing as he's walking down the street….

MG: …and he's laughing.

Dito: And he's laughing and everything. We're walking away—and, of course, because we're filming in the neighborhood where a lot of these things took place, there's always critics everywhere and directors all over the streets—and one of them walks over afterwards and he says to Channing, "I knew Antonio and he would have spit in that guy's face and thrown him over that thing and laughed all the way home." Channing, of course, was worried about that. I said, "That guy would have made a terrible film" because he thought Antonio the character was a big joke. He thought he was out there to amuse everyone. Antonio was a wounded person. When he laughed, he laughed because it was pain. He did these things because he was doing the right thing. It didn't seem like the right thing but he believed they were. That hypermasculinity in the hardcore scene is another story. Maybe similar in a way, but, there's just a truth to what we tried to get and what Channing brought to that character that was … I don't know if it's all real. The truth isn't always real.

MG: That's an astute point. If you're going to sanctify these memories and these people in your past, especially if they've been so violent, you did Antonio a good turn. You remembered your friend well even if you fictionalized him a bit because he came off sympathetic. We all would want to escape that kind of a past and some of us are more fortunate than others in the ways we find to get away from difficult beginnings and to transform our pasts into something more notable. A writer sifts the beauty out of the past to give it meaning. That's the value of being a writer and a filmmaker. May I ask Jake a question?

Dito: Please.

MG: This is your first time editing?

Jake Pushinsky: Yes.

MG: I was intrigued by the sequence where, after telling the story for a while, you then film a series of straight-on portraits of each of the characters where they reveal something about themselves in one line or so. The young Laurie says that everyone she loves will leave her. The young Antonio admits he's just a piece of shit. How did that idea come about?

Jake: Originally Dito had all the kids on the set and thought, "Maybe we'll use this." It wasn't in the script. "Maybe we'll use this at some point. I want to have each of the kids come up, say their name, and say this one line. They reveal something about their character without saying something completely obvious." There was no plan on where that was going to go in the film. When I got the footage in the cutting room, I played around with it for the beginning, for the end ….

Dito: Putting Nina Simone to it.

Jake: Putting Nina Simone for the finale of the movie. Where now we see all of the kids [to the song of] "We're Back in the New York Groove", there was one time when it was a Nina Simone song and the kids saying their thing. We came across to the middle of the movie and actually came across a tough transition going from a scene to a scene and this was when everything was really falling apart—or it was about to fall apart; it hadn't really happened yet in the film; I don't want to give away too much—but, we get to a part in the film where we've seen things and we've started to get to know these people and a lot of major stuff is about to happen. It felt right to throw it in there. It really was something that we just dropped in there to see if it worked and it stuck.

MG: For me—in terms of the saint metaphor—it was like you were lighting candles. This is Saint Laurie. And this is Saint Antonio. It was a moment of honoring them.

Jake: Yeah. We've seen these kids living this life and going through their everyday thing and it was more like here is what they're really thinking. They really do know what's going [on]. In the way that Dito was just saying about Antonio, he wasn't there to amuse people.

Dito: He thought he was a piece of shit. The only reason [this sequence] even got filmed was because we're hanging out and Channing is trying to do an actor thing, which sometimes I have a hard time buying into but I'll play the game. [Channing] says, "What does Antonio think about himself? Does he think he's the baddest motherfucker that ever lived?" And I was like, "No. I mean, he used to mutter all the time, 'I'm a fuckin' piece of shit.' He hated his life." [Channing] goes, "Really?" I'm like, "Yeah. You know what? So as an experiment," I said, "why don't you walk down the hill, tell the camera you're a piece of shit, and tell everyone what you think, remember that house you're walking by, it's a house of friggin' hell, it's a hell house." So he starts doing it and we're like, "Man, that looks pretty good." So then we have all the kids do it. When Jake got it, that's when we started saying, "Man, maybe we'll use this."

MG: It worked. At that moment when Antonio says that, my heart opened to him and I got him. Not that I excused his violence, but I got him. Another interesting edit for me—being that this is a film based on your own book and I'm often intrigued by how writers adapt their own works into films—is the sequence where what is being said is being typed on the screen. What inspired you to do that intriguing bit of intertextuality?

Dito: Jake can give you specifics; I'll give you the broad terms. Every single thing that the two of us did in this film, everything, we'll sit here and we can explain every cut to the point where we can bore you to tears. We know why every cut happened. But the easy answer is it felt right. Everything felt right. Nothing is in this film because it looks cool. That might be why we started experiments with it—hmmmm, this is kind of fun and cool—but it goes back to what I was saying before: if it's fun, there's something relieving about it. So we kept trying to have fun with this film and not just fun but to give a point to everything we did. Whenever something felt right, that's why it's in the film. Some of them we can explain to little detail but some it just felt, "I don't know why it's going to be here but it feels right."

Jake: Years ago when we started playing around with the idea of this film and we did a little short five-six minute thing, there was a real conversation with the real Antonio that we had on tape. We were grabbing anything and everything that we had to make this little short film, any sound, any music, any visual. I went to New York on a trip by myself and had a little Bolex camera and got on the subway and filmed the dirt spot and we used that in the short film and then it ended up the idea went into this film. So we had this real conversation and it sounded so great but—if you just hear it, it's almost nonsense, it's two people talking and talking fast and you don't really understand what they're saying—but we wanted to use it and I was playing around with things and we tried it over endless visuals and it just got lost and it was too good to lose and I thought….

Dito: And it wasn't like anything particularly important was being said.

Jake: Nobody says anything; it's how they say everything that they don't say. A.O. Scott nailed it on the head when he said Chazz Palminteri says, "You're not going anywhere, Dito" but what he means is, "Please don't leave me." It's how he says the things that they don't say. This was the same thing with that original conversation. I just played around with: what if we see what they're saying? That way, as a viewer, you can't take your eyes off of it and then it gives it that much more importance.

Dito: Even though nothing's being said. So much is the underbelly of it.

MG: But it underscores what you're doing as a writer, that you remembered, that you listened, and that you made this necessary leap to type it out and put it down on paper, which is what sanctifies things; it takes it to a different level.

Dito: That's what I'm saying about the strange thing about—when you go with the feeling, in writing, or making or movie, or whatever art one creates—it takes on incredible meaning everywhere. I hear people say things about the film that I think, "Wow…"

MG: I should see that film.

Dito: [Laughs.] Like lighting the candles. We didn't think of that at all but it makes perfect sense. We weren't that smart to have thought of that being a reason.

Jake: It's one of those things I feel like with any art, if somebody puts their feeling and heart and emotion into it, other people are going to feel that also. They can take it however they want to take it, and get whatever they get out of it, but, our goal was to make something that for us we watched and loved and felt good about. We feel that way about this film and, hopefully, everybody else will get—whatever they want to take from it—but that they feel that there is that true emotion to it. We loved the typed writing in the short but when it came down to the film, if it didn't work in the film, we weren't going to put it in there.

MG: Final question. I read somewhere that your idea of a good movie is a black detective, a white woman and a serial killer.

Dito: [Laughs.] I hate 'em but I love 'em!!

MG: Are you going to do one?

Dito: [Laughs.] You mean make one? Maybe. Hey, I'd love to, but, we'll see.

MG: Any plans on the horizon?

Dito: I have a book coming out called The Clapper. It's about a guy who's a paid audience member in Los Angeles who gets paid $50 to clap and laugh at terrible t.v. shows that aren't funny. We're a bit obsessed with trying to make that a film next.

MG: Well, good luck with that, and congratulations again on A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints.

Cross-posted at Twitch.

Friday, September 29, 2006

WATER—The DVD release

Earlier this year I watched Deepa Mehta's Water on the Castro Theatre's large screen as the Centerpiece Presentation of the 24th San Francisco International Asian-American Film Festival. Limited to a hold review capsule, I wrote at the time: Witnessing an anquished widow lose her spectacles inspired Deepa Mehta to complete her elemental trilogy (Fire, Earth) with the visionary, revolutionary and emancipatory Water, which resuscitates this resilient wisdom: water that flows will clean itself. Gandhi's sage discernment that the worship of God as Truth leads to social ills whereas the worship of Truth as God does not is flexed into powerful beauty here. A festival gem not to be missed!!

Water went on to win the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature at 2006 SFIAAFF. Deepa Mehta honored me with an interview the day following the Centerpiece Presentation, which I likewise posted on The Evening Class. Since then there have been several excellent interviews with Mehta, including Geoffrey Macnab's Independent piece; Jeannette Catsoulis' article for Reverse Shot; and Richard Phillips' conversation for the World Socialist Web Site; to mention some of my favorites. Ryan Stewart seems to be the lucky one to interview Lisa Ray for Cinematical.

Now after its respectable run at moviehouses where it garnered nearly unanimous critical acclaim (Time called it "a triumph"), Water has been chosen as Canada's foreign film entry for the Academy Awards. Those who missed out on the opportunity of seeing Water at their local moviehouses can redeem their folly by catching it on a new 20th Century Fox dvd, which features an audio commentary by the director, a featurette on The Story Behind the Making of Water, as well as a behind-the-scenes featurette.

The dvd critics have been equally as lavish in their praise. Kurtis Beard from DVD Beaver finds the director's commentary "excellent" and states: "Deepa Mehta speaks fluently and succinctly about the topic of her film and a number of other aspects about production. The information Mehta offers about religion is especially insightful and I walked away with a great deal of knowledge that I may have never found elsewhere. This is a fine commentary and Mehta is a pleasure to listen to."

Phil Bacharach at DVD Talk describes the transfer as "exquisite" and likewise commends Mehta's audio commentary as "thorough, informative and consistently engaging. She covers a great deal of ground, and manages to do so in a fluid pace that does not feel overly scripted." He states the behind-the-scenes featurette "boasts" interviews with Mehta and the cast.

Daniel MacDonald from DVD Verdict joins the chorus: "The 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette provides some insight into Mehta's directorial style, and the struggle of bringing this story to the screen, intercut with scenes from the movie. There is a second, five-minute segment focusing strictly on the controversy Mehta faced during her first attempt to shoot the picture in India, and how she dealt with it. Mehta's audio commentary . . . gives a constant stream of unfailingly interesting and pertinent tidbits about the movie's themes, the production design, the actors, etc. . . . Overall, her comments give the viewer a deeper understanding of the piece, all you can ask from an audio commentary."

I have now seen Water five times and am delighted to discover that it is one of those films of rare and captivating beauty that never ceases to amaze, a film of heart that offers layer upon layer of insight into the human condition, and bears repeated viewing as effortlessly as swallowing a cool draught of water during fevered times.

Cross-posted at Twitch.

10/04/06 UPDATE: RC at Strange Culture has drafted a creative post comparing Water to films it is like; a unique approach.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

AMERICAN HARDCORE—The Evening Class Interview With Director Paul Rachman and Screenwriter Steven Blush

Just as the music of hardcore punk rock was not to everyone's liking and went generally unheralded even during its heyday in the early '80s, so too the relentlessly-charged documentary American Hardcore is not going to be everyone's idea of an evening's cinematic entertainment. Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, Greencine's Jonathan Marlow claimed the documentary did "a disservice to its topic, stringing together poorly photographed segments into a largely incomplete history of the genre" even as Greencine's David D'Arcy seemed more accepting of the film on its own "refreshing" merits when he caught it in Toronto. Bay Area audiences will have the opportunity to make up their own minds when the film opens mid-October in local theaters.

Paul Rachman began his film career making underground hardcore punk films and music videos for bands such as the Bad Brains, Gang Green, Negative FX and Mission of Burma while he was in college. He quickly rose to become one of the of the industry's top music video directors at Propaganda Films in Los Angeles where he worked with such artists as Alice in Chains, The Replacements, Temple of the Dog, Sepultura, Roger Waters, Joan Jett and Kiss. He has also directed several award-winning short films most notably Memories with Joe Frank (1992), Drive Baby Drive (1995), Bang Bang (1999), Home (2001), and Zoe XO (2004). Paul made his feature film directorial debut in 2000 with Four Dogs Playing Poker starring Forrest Whittaker, Tim Curry and Olivia Williams. In addition Paul was one of the founding filmmakers of the Slamdance Film Festival and is currently its East Coast Director.

Steven Blush's 2001 book American Hardcore: A Tribal History serves as the jumping off point for the current documentary. A prime mover in the scene he wrote about, Steven Blush promoted many hardcore tours and shows, DJed an influential college radio show, and ran a record label. Later Blush published Seconds magazine, and wrote for Paper, Spin, Interview, Village Voice, Details and High Times magazines.

The two were kind enough to meet me at the Prescott for a discussion of American Hardcore.

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Michael Guillén: I had a lot of fun watching American Hardcore. I enjoyed the breadth of its outreach. It's clear the documentary is not just for fans of hardcore punk and that you're actually catering to the prurience of armchair anthropologists like me. During those early Reagan years, I used to work at a law firm on Broadway a half a block from the Mabuhey Gardens. The hardcore punk rock scene terrified me. I was always in suit and tie and felt like a moving target so I used to walk around the block to get to my transit stop because I was too intimidated to maneuver the crowd hanging out in front of the club. Is your outreach to non-punkers purposeful? Did you decide to do that from the beginning?

Paul Rachman: Steven finished the book and I just felt it in me. I had this vision for the film that it needed to be this first person account, this genuine telling of the story from the people who wrote the music, did the tours, etc. It needed to transcend beyond that. It needed to be the story of this piece of American subculture history. It's bigger than the music 25 years later. It's a lot more than that because we've changed so much. It needed to explain a bit in context why this happened, what we really were about, and the energy of the music and the archival footage and their true story clarifies things for people who weren't part of it. They get to experience it firsthand without any kind of expert opinion or narrator trying to explain it from a distance. It's pure. It's simple. And it's their story in a very direct form. In its purest form documentary is creating a platform for your subject to tell their story and that's the way it's the most clear. That's what helps the film reach beyond the fans of hardcore. Other people can come and watch this and think, "I've just experienced something and what I was so afraid of 20 years ago, I now understand."

MG: "Experience" is the key word because, for me, the scene was more than the music, which frankly I found repetitive. You've presented the hardcore punk scene as an experiential performance phenomenon, which the documentary places in cultural and historical perspective.

Steven Blush: Yeah, American Hardcore is a music documentary, but, it really is not at all. It really is a story of youth culture and it's a testament to the power of youth and what youth can create under unbelievable odds. This was not just chord progressions and songs. This was a lifestyle. This was something you bought into full on. Like they say in the movie, once you cross that divide, you can never go back. You could never go back to Journey or Fleetwood Mac once you'd seen Black Flag or the Bad Brains. That's what made it exciting. It was an implicit political movement. Everybody was too young to have a manifesto or a platform but there was this mindset, this zeitgeist going on around the country of kids who knew something was wrong and the punk rock was the avenue to get it out there.

MG: In retrospect, I can look at it that way. I can see that at least these kids did something. Granted, the rest of us were becoming disillusioned with Reaganomics—I remember observing things at the time and thinking, "This is wrong"—but I didn't know what to do. At least these kids did something.

Rachman: And you were allowed to participate. It was inviting. You had this moment in this subculture history where you had this angry music coming from the suburbs. These kids really know what they don't want. You had Reagan trying to turn everything back to the 1950s and it was so phony; it was a joke. Then you had this willing audience, this receptacle that's willing to carry the torch. They were invited in to participate. We were fans [gesturing to himself and Steve]. I was exposed to hardcore punk rock in Boston when I was 19 years old and a college student who wasn't fitting in perfectly to what Collegetown, U.S.A. was and I heard this music that didn't sound like music and it was great and I wanted to be part of it. So I picked up a Super 8 camera and I became a filmmaker because of that moment. You were allowed to participate. Bands played on the same level and you could talk to them after. It was so powerful and so energetic that you couldn't wait to turn your friends on to it; it was very proactive in that respect. You had these three things in perfect sync and that's what makes it a movement. You need that intense audience to help take it to other people because it was tiny, it was underground, it wasn't commercial, it had obstacles at every turn, everything was difficult, finding a place to play, putting out a record. But we wanted more. We wanted to make sure that every Sunday afternoon there was a place where we could experience this. It was important. We wanted more. It was addictive. That's what made it so powerful, that participation, that audience willing to do something to help that cause is maybe what's missing a little bit today. Because there's always great artists, there's always new music, that's always there, but, you need that other side to make it something.

MG: How relevant do you think the documentary will be for today's youth experiencing their own share of disaffection and disenfranchisement? It strikes me that young people today are much more acquiescent to the horrors of the world. You refer in the documentary to the re-election of Reagan causing the disillusioned collapse of the hardcore punk "revolution". Was something lost at that time that, perhaps, cannot be recaptured?

Blush: We do not mention the modern era in this film but it is implied. You just watch the Reagan years and it implies the similarity of today. Paul made a very good point there about having all the components in sync and you definitely don't have that. It's really tough for kids right now to make something happen because everything's been commercialized. Three of the main words of this culture were "punk", "revolution" and "anarchy" and all those are marketing terms now. It has nothing to do with overthrowing the government or anything; it's just a way to market things. All the words have lost their meaning. All the terms have lost their meaning. Revolution has been commodified so what is revolution? Right? Revolution sells GM cars. Join the revolution. That's not what our founding fathers meant when they said that. They didn't mean to go work at GM. That's what's missing. The film is an implicit clarion call to kids to seize the moment. We're telling them to take off the Ipod and log off of MySpace and stop thinking that's going to change the world and seize the moment. We're too old to change the world. The hardcore guys are too old to change the world now but what they can do is inspire younger kids. I would say most people over 25 are probably too old even for that. It has to go back a generation to a younger age to let them know this was a youth culture, this was like Lord of the Flies, these were kids who were forced to create their own society. It does go to hell after a while and that's what we say, the scene burns out and fritters away, goes in all these good/bad directions.

Rachman: The audience today is boxed in. There's all kinds of ways of doing things. There's MySpace and the Internet and email and you're boxed in by the corporations. In the late 70s or early 80s at the dawn of this movement the corporations set out to co-opt lifestyle and to sell it back to us their way. Today, while we can tear the wall down and scream loud and voice our dissatisfaction that way, today kids have got to blow up ten walls. They've gotta be more aggressive. They've gotta be louder. They really gotta say, "We don't want this crap that you're just making us want, or telling us what to like." In the hardcore movement it was clear. We don't want that crappy music anymore. We don't believe in Ronald Reagan and turning the country back to 1955. That's a joke. It's phony. We know it's not real. We have this new music, this new voice, and it means something to us, and we know that's special. It energized us, fueled us, however small it was, we knew we were part of something intricate, that had this ethic of helping your friends. Everybody had to work hard to make that show happen on Sunday afternoon at the VFW Hall. Everybody. You had to show up. You had to help. You had to help the band get there. It was a sense of community. You really counted on each other to make it happen because it wouldn't if not. There were too many forces against you.

MG: The DIY aesthetic, which was so strong among the hardcore punk scene, is certainly admirable. One of my favorite scenes in the documentary is when they're making their own album covers, which provides amazing insight into their resourcefulness. In terms of what is suggested to today's youth, perhaps it's not so much about having to blow up ten walls as it is about reminding them to return to some simple concepts.

Blush: You're absolutely right about that.

Rachman: You're right, but, they gotta go around the pitfalls because there's too many things there to distract you. Back then, it was almost like there was plenty of time to sit in a basement and fold ten thousand record covers. Today, it's "I've got to check my email and my cellphone's ringing" and there's so many distractions. MTV hadn't happened yet. Yeah, you don't have to blow up ten walls but you gotta think a little stronger, you've got to have more willpower, willingness to commit and not be distracted by all these other things. This came out of bored suburban youth. Suburban youth isn't bored anymore; they have videogames, they have all this stuff now. I think it's a little more challenging but I hope people walk out of the theater after American Hardcore and go, "What the hell happened? Why don't we have this visceral artery of angry youth that we so desperately need?" Because it makes a difference. It's that extra dimension that makes us who we are. It was so intricately American. It was pioneering. It was, "I'm going to do this against all odds." It's just as pioneering as taking a wagon and mule across the Rocky Mountains. "I'm going to go to California from getting off a boat from Europe with sails on it, and I'm going to go there and nothing's going to stop me. I'm not going to give up. I'm committed to it." And it was very similar. It's not a European thing. It's an American thing and these kids had guts, we had guts, we were allowed to participate in this.

MG: I appreciate that you've carried that DIY aesthetic forward into the making of this documentary, which I understand you've done completely by yourselves, right?

Rachman: It was totally done like that.

MG: When you were first trying to "develop" the project, my understanding is it wasn't to be developed? It started with your book, right Steve? What inspired you to write the book?

Blush: I had been part of the scene. Like I said, I was the kid who had booked all the shows. Like everybody else in the scene, I had bailed on it. By the mid-80s, I was like, "This sucks. I'm over it. I've grown-up. I don't think like this anymore." In New York I went to be a journalist and had a publishing and journalism career, and somewhere in the mid-90s I started realizing how much this subculture had played into who I am as a person. In other words, I had the ethics from my family, and then I had the ethical code from this scene, which was how I ran my life and the two were in total stark conflict with each other. The hardcore ethic was do it yourself, question authority, do things because they feel right, don't do things just for the money: all those kind of things was how I lived my life. So that was a real drive. I realized the history had been lost. These bands had never been on MTV. They were never written about in the Rolling Stone. If they were, it was just to make fun of it. I would talk to people and they would tell me about hardcore and I was shocked how wrong they had it. It was almost like when you're a kid you play that game of telephone, you sit in a room and whisper into each other's ear and by the time it gets [back to you], it's totally different. That was like the history of hardcore.

The final nail in the coffin—this all happened within a few weeks of each other—there was the History of Rock n' Roll series they had on t.v. It's great, it's really good, but it goes from the Sex Pistols straight to Nirvana. What happened? Did they ignore this? Did they not consider this real music? Just like in hardcore fashion, I had never written a book before, there was no advance on the book, there was no interest in the book, and I worked on it for five years until I got it right. I rewrote it three times until I finally got it. That was the journey that got me here: getting the history of the music straight and the component of figuring out my life. Working shit out through the writing. Somewhere around the time I finished the book, I ran into Paul again who had gone off and had a pretty damn impressive MTV video career. He had made Alice in Chains, Men in the Box, Temple of the Dog, Hunger Strike, all these videos that people are still trying to recreate today. When we reconnected, it was a no-brainer. I was painfully tapped into the ethic and the history and he had the artistic vision so it was a really smooth marriage but it's been five years since our first shot. December 2001 was our first shot.

MG: Did you go to concerts together or were you experiencing the scene in different cities?

Rachman: I was in Boston. But what happened was my roommate was the punk promoter in Boston. So these bands were staying at my house too. They were crashing on my floor. What's great is that Steve is booking TSOL and the Circle Jerks and they're playing Washington, D.C., they come up through New York, they come to Boston, we're hearing the stories like, "Oh yeah the show in D.C. was so fucked up, the cops showed up and the promoter got screwed" and that was Steve. We would hear these stories. It was a tight network. I picked up this great camera after my first show and I became a filmmaker. The music so changed my life that I committed to this. I didn't know what I was doing. I didn't go to film school. The ethic that existed was that you don't fear failure because there's nowhere to fail to. You trust your gut instinct because that's what everything was. The music, the bands trusted their instincts, they were writing this music that wasn't even considered music, it was this new dissonant sound that was very intense and it hit me in the stomach. It got under my skin. I wanted more. It meant something to me. I didn't know why, but it did. You stuck by your guns and you never gave up. That was a very strong feeling.

I went through this journey after that. As Steve said, I went to Hollywood, I was doing videos, that was great, but then it gets diluted, all the Hollywoodisms start making an impression on me, you should do this, you should do that, and then I got depressed. It wasn't until I moved back to New York in 1999 while Steve was finishing the book, and we were able to revisit this after this almost 20-year filmmaking career, that I re-energized myself with this project. It was like, "Let's go back to this." The first stuff that I ever shot is in this film. It's incredible that I can re-visit that as a filmmaker with such intense energy from within, and the ethic that I want that in all of my films now. I know exactly what it is and it can exist whether it's a scripted narrative or anything. There's this visceral energy that's in me because of Hardcore and I don't ever want to lose it again. It's like having a second chance with Hardcore as an artist. I can revisit that visceral 19-year-old pure energy that I had, and now apply it—I'm in my 40s—and reapply it and I have all this experience of failure, and the ups and downs, and it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter because I've been there, I've been up, I've been down, I've won awards, I've made stuff I don't even want to watch anymore. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what other people think. If you trust your gut instinct, that's what it's all about, you go with it, you act on it in pure and simple form. You just do it.

MG: Steve, in terms of the story, since you wrote the book and you worked on the film, is it different than the book? Have you gone in different directions?

Blush: The book is a roadmap. In other words, basic tenets—that it was a suburban movement, that it was a regional movement, women's issues, sexual issues, straightedge—all those, that's the frame of the book. Of course the book is excruciating detail about bands. If you're a fan and want to know where Black Flag was in December 1983, I can tell you; but, that's not what our film's about.

Rachman: The detail that Steven put into the book is such a gift back to the hardcore scene because the hardcore scene was somewhat fragmented. We were kids when we were experiencing this and we never looked at it stepped away looking at it as kind of a national issue. We were part of it and we were within it and we were connected and it was very immediate. Steven was able to put this into historical perspective, give it a chronology, give it detail, trace back events that connect to each other. It was incredible.

The vision I had for the film was that the film is not going to be able to be exactly like the book because the film was new interviews and the vision I had for the film was let's make this first person account of the story, let the people tell their story, and we edited the story out of that. I didn't want a narrator. I didn't want an expert opinion or somebody explaining things because hardcore wasn't like that. Hardcore had no experts telling you the way it was. It needed to be pure. It needed to be first person. It was essentially going to be different than the book because of that because people don't talk like that. When you're writing a book, you can take quotes from an interview you did at the end and put it on the first page. You can move things around to make them connect. In a film, you can't cut that up that way.

I knew going in that the film was going to be an extension of [the book] but it was going to be the first person account. You were going to see the people who were heroes in a sense, who were pioneers, on the big screen and they were going to make this impression upon you, juxtaposed against the music, the images, the photography, it was going to create this compressed energy that was going to tell the story. That was my vision. We were lucky to have five years because it allowed the film to talk back to us in the edit room and really get it right.

MG: Have you read Kelefa Sanneh's review of American Hardcore for The New York Times? His review had a seminal observation that I found to be an intriguing critique of the hardcore scene and I wanted to get your feedback on it. He questioned how much differentiation there was between the violence of these angry young white boys and the violent white culture they were protesting?

Blush: I actually liked that point; it was very observant. They're inexorably intertwined. The problem is that these were kids and you still hadn't broken out from what you were—high school, athletic, that typical stuff that is the mainstream—and you're trying to break out from it but you bring a lot of the baggage with you. It's like when Henry Rollins says the Huntington Beach kids were punk rock but they still had that jock "What's up, dickhead?" mentality. He's right about that. He was one of them and he can say that because he was one of them. He was an athletic, hulking guy with this thing. We do live in a violent society. America is formed on violence. Our whole history is based on that. I don't think we can escape it. In many ways it was like a perfect reflection of it.

MG: Almost as if the anarchic violence reflected the institutionalized violence.

Blush: Exactly. That's good.

Rachman: But you know what? The one difference is that the kids in the hardcore movement, it was truthful. There was no lying necessary. There was nothing to hide. It was honest. It was real. You didn't second guess yourself. But all those other people that Sanneh is comparing [hardcore] to, the Reagan administration, they were hiding tons of lies, they were a complete lie. Turn the clock back to 1950s America; that was bullshit. So differentiate it in terms of that. There was a certain innocence to these kids just doing what was in your gut. There was nothing to hide. It didn't matter. You didn't care what people said about you. It didn't matter. There was no fear of failure. There was no reason to hide behind an image. The image was raw. Whereas, that establishment was all about image. It was all about hiding what they didn't want you to see. It was all about creating a façade. Hardcore was against all of that. It had nothing to do with any of that.

Blush: And part of adolescence is the conflict and the hypocrisy: you're a man, but you're a child; you're responsible but you're irresponsible; you're focused and ready to vote yet you're a child. I think [hardcore] perfectly represents that. As I said, that's a great point Sanneh brings up but I think it's that conflict, it's that conflicted stuff, that is the essence of this scene. This is a music based on frustration and inner conflict. It did make sense that half the kids who were queer bashers ended up being queer. That's just the way it was. We don't try to hide that. We're trying to say that there was a moment in time where a new particularly American form of revolution took place in the suburbs and this was the music that represented it. Upon analysis, there [are] highly dubious things about it.

MG: You've done an admirable job of providing a fascinating glimpse into that conflicted scene. Your footage amazed me, that all of these performances were videotaped—whether grainy or not—that you have this record amazed me.

Blush: We needed five years to do that. There's two guys in Philly who had shoeboxes full with stuff, and you'd call up a band and you'd say, "Hey, do you have any videotape of your footage?" and by the fourth phone call they're like, "Oh yeah, I'll get it out of my closet." There was one thing that we got, which was a second-generation VHS tape with an episode of Star Trek recorded in the middle of it, and that's what we used—not the Star Trek—but the….

Rachman: Some of these tapes were shot in 6-hour 8-hour ELP mode and there's like 17 shows on one tape. It's like a year's worth of archives right there and that's what it was and that's the master. A lot of my early footage is in the film. I'm able to revisit the first thing that I shot. I get this validation of like, hey, the first things that I shot are on the big screen now, bigger than any of my other movies, y'know?

MG: Has Henry Rollins interviewed you for his IFC show?

Rachman: No. They tape the shows six months ago or something so they're running now.

Blush: So we'll see what happens with that.

Rachman: And he's a little cautious. He doesn't want to be the poster child. He wants the film to come out. Sony Pictures Classics is a great company; they could never make this movie. I did bring them the book when I started out….

MG: They refused it, didn't they?

Rachman: Well, yeah, yeah, I was bringing them this book where the cover is this kid's bloody face that doesn't look like this thing they can sell. But they were the ones who were first in line to want the film. If there's any star in the film or anybody who comes close to that, it's Henry, and any company is going to want to take advantage of that so we understand him and he'll have us on his show maybe in the future when it's not so much like a selling point. We respect that.

Blush: It's very hard for us for him to have us on his show when he's kind of like a star of it and it's also….

Rachman: …and it's weird for us.

Blush: It's weird for us because we're his friends. We're in contact with him all the time so it's not like any issue; but, I do understand that it's kind of weird for him to have us on his show, talk about a movie that he's in, that's showing a side of him that he's not particularly proud of, so it's very difficult on that level. We're bringing back the old gnarly, violent Henry Rollins and not the sophisticated, poetic Henry Rollins. Look, all the conflict is inherent in youth. Because you are fucked up. I was. I found my way. I stumbled my way through this and found it. I know Henry—I certainly don't mean to compare our paths—but I know from knowing him well enough that that's part of his path—him, Ian MacKaye, maturing, like that article you were talking about, now they're at the Guggenheim, right? So they're trying to get away from that and we're dragging them back in by doing this. Having said that, ultimately Henry Rollins is a hero of music. When you see a rock singer today, they're like Henry Rollins, they're not like Robert Plant, know what I'm saying?

MG: My final question: were you ever punched out?

Rachman: I remember my days in the pit getting hit or beat up. I was never violently hit. There was a way of doing it that you kind of got into this flow. By '85-'86, I wasn't going into the pit anymore. I had done that, been there. But in the earlier days, '80, '81, '82, there was a flow to it. You didn't really get punched.

Blush: This was an umbrella movement. There were all kinds of kids involved in this scene. There were the intense skinhead shaved head kids who were really part of the fashion and the look and then there were people like Paul and I who were college kids. We weren't living that. We were part of it intellectually. Our hair was a little crazy for the day and the clothes and all that but I was definitely more of a voyeur. I think that set me on the path to be a journalist. I was quiet and would observe. I would put on shows and sit in the back and check it out.

Rachman: And I was on the side with a camera. If not, I was in the back of the room with my arms crossed watching this stuff. I was a little bit shy. I wasn't there to be best friends with the bands. I was there to experience this music and to participate and my participation was picking up the camera and documenting it and trying to bring it to others in that way.

MG: Speaking for audiences, we're fortunate that you've done that. As a person who was terrified of this scene, it has proven fascinating to watch American Hardcore.

Blush: That means a lot because, again, we're not trying to preach to the converted here. We're trying to get out a message. And it seems like you got out of it what we were trying to get across.

Rachman: Most importantly, this is the story of this generation that fell between the cracks. We weren't Baby Boomers. We weren't Gen-exers. We came after Carter's America and there was recession, inflation, no jobs, America was a failure, coming in to this Ronald Reagan fantasy-America that didn't ring truthful. There were no answers either way so we fell through the cracks. By the time the Reaganomic jobs hit, that was the late '80s already, that didn't apply to us, we weren't getting those jobs because we were these misfits who just didn't connect to that. So this music, this movement, this whole generation of peers fell through the cracks. The hippies had Woodstock. My parents had Frank Sinatra. We had this and it hasn't been acknowledged. As people in the movie finally see the movie these last few premieres, they thank us. Dr. No, the guitarist of the Bad Brains, who I worked with a lot back then and I was an avid fan, he just came up to me in New York, he kissed me and said, "You did it right." That's all he said and that's all he needed to say. In a way I know because of that that this film will validate these peoples' lives. Now it means something more than this music that didn't sound like music to certain people. More than this underground of misfit kids who didn't accomplish anything in some people's minds. It validates it. It's important. It's a piece of American musical subculture history. I don't think there's been another youth movement like it since. The closest thing I can think of was in the mid-'90s, this kind of subversive computer hacker kids, it's the closest thing that comes to anything like this, y'know? So we're thankful that it turned out this way.

MG: Well congratulations and thank you very much for your time. Have fun with the movie!

Cross-posted at Twitch.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

2006 GLOBAL LENS—The Evening Class Interview With Susan Weeks Coulter

The Global Lens Initiative film series is currently in process at various venues around the Bay Area, wrapping up at the Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland this evening, and finishing up at San Jose's Mexican Heritage Plaza and San Francisco's Balboa Theater towards the later part of this week, but continuing on at the San Francisco Art Institute and the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael for the remainder of this month into next. If you haven't caught any of the Global Lens Initiative films, you still have ample opportunity.

Shortly before leaving the Bay Area to attend this year's Toronto International Film Festival, I had the welcome opportunity to talk with Susan Weeks Coulter, chairperson of the Global Lens Initiative, about the Initiative's various aims and its ongoing traveling film series. As the Initiative's mission statement attests: "The Global Film Initiative promotes cross-cultural understanding through the medium of cinema. History repeatedly points to the importance of great storytelling in chronicling and influencing human affairs. Even today, a powerful, authentic narrative can foster trust and respect between disparate cultures and mitigate the social and psychological impact of cultural prejudice. In recent times, no medium has been as effective at communicating the range and diversity of the world's cultures as the cinematic arts. But this vital contribution to cultural diversity has been threatened by shifting economic conditions in the areas of film financing and distribution, a situation largely prompted by the international success of the American film industry. Filmmaking in the developing world has suffered most from these changes; traditional funding sources have all but disappeared and worldwide distribution channels have collapsed.

"Ironically, it is the United States, and especially its youth, that suffers disproportionately from this lack of exposure to other cultures. The stability of America's ethnic mosaic depends on deep cross-cultural understanding, particularly between young Americans and the children of recently arrived immigrants. A comprehensive effort to give value to stories from every corner of the world plays a vital role in promoting tolerance in all areas of human behavior."

* * *

Michael Guillén: Susan, it's my understanding that the Rotterdam International Film Festival's Hubert Bals Fund has served as the template for the Global Lens Initiative?

Susan Weeks Coulter: Yes. We went to Hubert Bals, and they said sure, we've been wondering when and if something in the U.S. would happen. Because the Germans had been participating. The French had participated for years through Bennington. But no one from the U.S. had ever stepped up to offer this kind of support for filmmakers. What they did for us was they helped us structure all of our contracts. Told us how to avoid all the pitfalls and all of the mistakes that they had made in their first five or six years and three months later we opened our doors in New York.

MG: Now you are humbly saying "we". Who do you mean by "we"?

SWC: Noah Cohen, who is currently up in Toronto, and I met in a bar in Beijing. For the local interest, we had been at a banquet that I had held for members of the Exploratorium's board. I used to sit on the advisory board for the Exploratorium. Big segue, but, we held a banquet when we opened a joint venture with Sony called Sony Explorer Science and after that event there were some younger people and we all went out drinking. We began to talk about the state of the film industry in Beijing. We said, "There's got to be a way that we can showcase these films." From that, and then after 9/11, we decided it wasn't just China that we should address; we should talk about all the cultural issues that help answer the question that was posed during 9/11, which was: "I don't understand why they don't like us." We don't know much about them, all these other peoples in the world. So how do you offer people a passport who don't even have to leave home to exercise it? Hence, the film series.

But let's go back to how we begin. The way we begin is we attend festivals, and at our website twice a year we send out a request for proposals. So in September, our new deadline is September 29, and sometime in Spring we'll create a deadline and it goes out through the web network. We accept applications. We make grants at script stage but we don't release the money until we see rushes so that we know the film is really going to be made. Usually we see between 30 and 40 applications each time. We go through them and we take a look for the same kinds of things that we look for when we acquire films; we look for authentic voices. We look for good cinematic. So if the application is still based on the script, we ask for collateral material so that we know that somebody can actually shoot a picture. It takes us about six weeks to respond. If we get 30 applications in, we'll make seven or eight, maybe ten grants, from those 30 applications.

MG: So the grant process is—as I understand it—one of five programs the Global Initiative is endeavoring.

SWC: Correct.

MG: In terms of the acquisition arm of the Initiative, are you acquiring the projects that you have funded?

SWC: Sometimes. One of the things that's terrific about being a small organization is you can respond to the needs of your constituency. We try to model ourselves identically to Hubert Bals, they represent the Benolux countries, and so when they make a grant, they take rights. We were able to do that with some of our filmmakers but some of our filmmakers said, "Oh no, no, no, no, the U.S. market is so valuable that we refuse" and they would turn down a grant. Now, that was free money and it took them another 18 months to make a film. For $40-$50,000, they were saying no because that was a grant plus an acquisition. So what we decided to do was we restructured. Now we give flat grants of $10,000 and we separate it out. If you want to, Mr. Filmmaker, sign away your rights, then we'll pay you a flat fee, you take some risk, we take some risk (because we don't know how your film's going to turn out) and then we'll show your film when it's complete. Because we are really advocates for these filmmakers, we structure [a clause] in our contracts—I think we're really honorable about the way we conduct our business—so what if the filmmaker signs away because he needs cash desperately and Sony comes into the picture? It used to be Miramax that we'd use as an example but you know what I mean. They offer them a real theatrical release and a pot of money. We allow the filmmaker—if they can demonstrate that they have an offer that exceeds the distribution that we do—that we'll let them repay us for the presale and buy themselves out of the contract because, at the end of the day, that's what we want to have happen. We want these films to be showcased and be seen and if they can find someone who can do it better than we do, bravo, we have then really done our job.

MG: That is honorable.

SWC: If you take a look at what you really want to have happen, it's not about Global Lens or Global Film, it's about what do you really want to see as an end result? And we want these films to be seen. If we can find somebody who can show them in more than 15 or 18 cities and is willing to do so, yippee, because we've been a success.

MG: This is your fourth year in operation?

SWC: Yes.

MG: One thing that excited me about Global Lens is its educational outreach. Not only are you a filmgoer—who is probably sophisticated and wants this expression from developing countries—but you are also an educator in that you want to train the American mentality to appreciate and develop an appetite for these films. How did the educational branch get started and can you speak a little bit about that?

SWC: Absolutely because, in fact, that's my passion. I don't have a film background; I have a public education background. I started out in the public sector in criminal justice education and have come full circle after more than 20 years as a financial services person. Two issues we wanted to address: one is that issue of how can you get along with people if you don't know anything about them? And how do you develop a respect or an understanding of the commonality? Every nationality expresses joy. Every nationality expresses sorrow. There are ways and reasons for revenge. There are expressions of hope. There isn't a mother who doesn't want good health and a good life for her children. There are a range of things that are called universal themes. When we took a look at some of our audiences, what we were surprised to discover was that not only were high school kids totally unfamiliar with the subtitled film or a film from another country, but so were their teachers. I would have preferred and many have said why didn't you just focus on the college market? Well, we lose a lot of kids before they go off to college. College campuses now are so jammed with programs. We face similar issues that we do in our public schools. Middle schools were a little bit too young because they're strict about what can be shown as part of their curriculum. We decided to focus on high school. One, to develop new audiences. Two, to supplement what their teachers have available to them. And the third audience, interestingly enough, came out of an interview I conducted with a journalist in Denver and he said, "You mean to say I can go on your website and download a discussion guide and talk it over with my two teenage kids and we can all go to the movies and have an experience that we all learn something together?" I said, "Absolutely."

MG: And they're thorough study guides. As someone who has recrafted himself as a film commentarian, they're helpful to me!

SWC: Great! Because we're not trying to make people film critics. For example, there is one section on aesthetics and what kinds of things should you look for? What are examples in the film that help you understand how a filmmaker looks at making a film? Another perspective is: what kind of symbolism is being used? There's another section about vocabulary, because some of this vocabulary might not be familiar. So there are a wide range of topics that we address, maps, what's the per capita, what are the religions, what are the populations, what's the rainfall? Simple things that help that country experience and the experience of the film become more real and a richer experience.

MG: Has this educational outreach been endeavored all four years?

SWC: Absolutely.

MG: How has it worked? Is it working?

SWC: We have had some phenomenal reactions and responses. When we piloted the project, we piloted it with a film called Ticket to Jerusalem in a school in Manhattan. It was at that moment that we knew we were on to something. The first question that surfaced—and it's one of my favorites—is how do we know those subtitles say what those people are really saying in the film? We said, "All right. Who speaks Arabic here in the audience?" One girl put up her hand. None of her classmates knew that that's the language she spoke at home. So hit number one. She was able to say, "Well, you know that one part where dah dah dah happened, it sounded like the father was really angry and disappointed in his son; no, no, that wasn't it at all. This is the way they talk. This is his favorite son and it's the way he was expressing his affection for him. He was teasing him a little bit but you don't get the teasing on the subtitle." Suddenly we had a young woman who had something to offer to all of her classmates that she might never have had another opportunity to offer. Another fellow stood up and said, "Well, it seems awfully one-sided to me." And then another fellow jumped up, "Well, you don't think CNN is one-sided? Then what do we have going on here?" And so suddenly the discussion is….

MG: Rich!

SWC: ….rich and creative and takes place among the students, with a little bit of facilitating by a curator or a teacher or someone connected with an institution in the location.

MG: You usually have eight films that you show altogether in the Global Lens program? So how then do you choose the three films to be used for the educational outreach?

SWC: In the series itself in Global Lens this year there are eight. Usually it's eight to ten. We'll take two or three, usually it's three, to identify as education. We look for regional balance. We look for depth of subject matter and also breadth of subject matter. And we look for an accessible film. Some of the films that we do acquire or we show in the Global Lens series, tend to be slower and most audiences are accustomed to. That's even tougher when you've got a high school audience that's accustomed to shoot-em-up, blow-em-up, and car chases. We'll look for themes that will resonate with young people. We'll look for things that present social and ethical dilemmas because the conversation between the young people afterwards tends to be so much more intense and much richer and stays with them for a long time. We've gotten emails from students and from their teachers when they write evaluations, most of them are, "I never knew a film like this existed."

MG: So you provide the exposure, you provide the education through the study guides that help the student appreciate the film, but then you also provide—and this is what struck me as a writer—this opportunity for them to compete and write and win.

SWC: This is our first experiment. We're trying it here in the Bay Area. We've had some support from a private individual who's provided cash for prizes, so it's $100 for the top prize winner for each high school in the Bay Area that participates, and it's a $50 cash award for the second prize winner. We interviewed and talked with a lot of teachers and they're strapped for time. We took a look at what their curriculum standards are and we worked with them to create an exercise to define what is a character? They're asked to develop—based on the characteristics of the character they're assigned—a scene that doesn't appear on film. So it has to be creative. It has to be structurally correct. And it has to be in character. So it's a scene that does not appear on film but it is alluded to as important in the development of the story.

MG: That's fascinating. So you have the educational outreach, we've talked about the granting, now how about yourself? What drew you into wanting to work on this important uphill project?

SWC: I'm a little bit of an entrepreneur, I love a challenge, but I've also lived all over the world. I lived in Egypt as a kid. I lived in the Netherlands. I was in the Peace Corps in India. I studied multiple languages and I grew up in a household where my father was a professor and everyone in their house all the time was different.

MG: So you're aware of the importance of that multiplicity?

SWC: I love the multiplicity! In fact, in my life everyone's always different. I appreciate that multiplicity and the differences; it's made my life richer.

MG: Going back to how you choose the films: some of them are chosen from grants you have provided and projects you have fostered, and others you pick up from?

SWC: Film festivals. I've just been in Sarajevo.

MG: What is it you look for? What catches you?

SWC: The same thing. I look for an authentic voice. It's a film that's made for that country about something that is important to that country. The most difficult thing to find is a filmmaker from the developing world with humor. I look for humor as well.

MG: Max and Mona sounds fun.

SWC: It is fun. In fact, the opening scene is pretty raucous. I think the [Bay Area] high school students—well, in other locations I know they've responded to it with a tremendous amount of hilarity.

MG: So the Initiative started in New York but it's now in about 15 cities?

SWC: That's right. When we began, it was the Museum of Modern Art that stepped up and said, "We will be your anchor." Jytte Jensen, who's the curator at the Museum of Modern Art in the film department, is one of our committee members. We converse a lot about we've seen a great film, let's take a look at it, does it fit our mandate. Because I don't have a film background, I rely on the expertise and the critical eye of a number of people to say, "Am I crazy? Or is this really a terrific film?" It's not just my taste.

MG: And this is the committee of all the filmmakers and industry professionals cited in the Global Lens program?

SWC: No, it's a small committee. It's myself and one of my staff people and Jytte and we make the decisions together. But I get feedback from lots of other people informally. Then we work with the museum people and educators around the country to figure out, "Do we have the right film?" We work pretty hard on those questions and answers.

MG: It's my understanding the Global Lens film series project is amplifying this year in the Bay Area? For the first time you now have multiple venues?

SWC: This is an exciting venture. It's a little bit controversial for some of the members. Typically, venues like to be….

MG: Exclusive?

SWC: Very very exclusive. One of the things I've tried to impress upon them is that there is more value in the sum of these parts because we have nearly 30 days where people can talk about these films and refer people, whether it's to San Rafael, Oakland, San Jose or to San Francisco, and we think we can attract more audiences and create a bigger buzz.

MG: I know that, for myself, the way that I like to write, of course I looked immediately to when they would be shown first in the hopes of creating buzz, because that's where I feel my obligation—as it were—lies. But then the opportunity to attend the Toronto International Film Festival came along—I wasn't expecting to go—and all of a sudden I panicked because I thought, "Oh no! I'm not going to get to see some of these films." But then the expansion into multiple venues allowed the opportunity to catch the films I would not see while in Toronto elsewhere.

SWC: That's right. And with our superb public transportation system—with the exception of the Bay Bridge—there is an opportunity for our populations in the Bay Area to move from one venue to another if they don't have an opportunity to see a film at its closest [venue].

MG: So in its long-range objective, what are you hoping with Global Lens? What do you want?

SWC: My big dream?

MG: Yes.

SWC: My big dream is that in 10 years we won't be necessary.

MG: Because you will have created an appetite where these films will be in demand?

SWC: That's right. We'll be happy to relinquish our mantle because we will have done the job that we set out to do. The other piece, however, is for the filmmaker in their country. When we make these grants, these filmmakers are now learning to syndicate the development for their films, but also able now to go back to their ministers of culture or their local governments or their national governments and say, "These people in this market place say this is a good project. Can't you help us get this moving forward?" And ministers of culture are stepping up and making funds available.

MG: That's great. And so now to understand this correctly, when you acquire the films, the Museum of Modern Art serves as the repository of the films and to maintain that they're preserved. So when Global Lens acquires the films, that means you'll always have this library. Will you then be providing them on dvd? Where does it go from there?

SWC: Ah. We usually order a couple of prints and we bicycle them, we circulate them around the country as a set. At the end of the Global Lens year—so it's January 1 to December 31—then we move to our relationship with First Run Features. They've been in business 20-25 years and they produce and sell the dvds and provide the service for the home and school markets. They're the fulfillment house. We're a nonprofit. I didn't want to be a fulfillment house. We've learned enough. There's enough to learn on the end of the business that we're managing; I didn't want to warehouse dvds and fill orders. They will send and sell dvds to Blockbuster and to Netflix—

MG: Don't forget Greencine!

SWC: That's right. We now have ten of our labels available. And we will be the anchor tenant for Link TV's new World Cinema.

MG: Is this Cinemundo?

SWC: No, this is Link TV satellite t.v. and some have equated it to the satellite t.v. version of NPR.

MG: Have you heard of Cinemundo, which Peter Scarlett is hosting?

SWC: Yes.

MG: But this is a separate organization?

SWC: This is a separate organization.

MG: Because I was reading on IndieWIRE that Cinemundo in their first season is offering three of the films that are in the Global Lens Initiative and I was wondering how that happened or how you interact with them on that?

SWC: It's in conjunction with Link TV. I just saw Peter, in fact, Peter was in Sarajevo as well.

MG: I see. Finally, to wrap things up, the Film Board I was reading about in the Global Lens brochure composed of these incredibly talented directors, how did you solicit that and what do they do?

SWC: Béla Tarr, in fact, at the top of that list was in Sarajevo as well. We felt that it was important—and important to young filmmakers as well—we needed an imprintur. We contacted each one of these people directly and every one we contacted agreed to lend his or her name to our cause that it's an important vehicle to create international understanding; it's an efficient vehicle.

MG: For myself, I can say there is something intrinsically correct about the project that draws in good will. What I've noticed of late—in terms of film writing or film commentary—is this interesting cultural alternative that is happening away from print press (which is tethered really by commercial concerns) to online writing and a whole new generation of writers that are writing about film more freely, more democratically. That's why I became excited about the prospect of offering to Global Lens space on The Evening Class and Twitch for the young writers who win your educational outreach essay competition to publish their pieces because I suspect online venues are going to be the ones available to them in the future.

SWC: I think so too. And to be able to begin to establish some dialogue among young people about a topic that is such a wonderful, creative medium. It's thrilling to be part of it.

MG: As a medium, I absolutely agree. Film is a fairly new medium for me, my writing was always focused elsewhere, but this is the year that film has become a new fulcrum for my writing, a new lens, and the year that I'm meeting people in film and learning about film culture. It's a fascinating, visionary realm. That's why I was excited about Global Lens and its objective to teach people to appreciate foreign film because it is, in some ways, the political alternative that might help us.

SWC: I believe so too. One of the things that seems to be a common theme throughout many of these films is that there is a background of conflict of some sort, whether it's interpersonal conflict, whether it's political conflict, whether it's moral conflict, there are a range of issues that there may not be a right answer to; but, seeing it and experiencing it through the expression, you do it vicariously. You don't have to do this yourself. You don't have to discover how awful you feel by being disloyal when you see what it does in someone else's life. It's cause and effect. Where we can supplement parenting and life skills is through the use of film. Just the way we've done in the past through good literature. There are plenty of things, mistakes that other people make, or plenty of things that people have the courage to try, that good literature and/or film provide us some modeling for. That's one of the things that I find to be so exciting.

MG: Susan, I'm very impressed with what you're doing. I'm excited to take part in Global Lens this year. Final thoughts?

SWC: Get out of your chairs, folks, and go to the theaters!

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

2006 TIFF—In Between Days

The last ticket I had for 2006 TIFF was Pen-ek Ratanaruang's much-anticipated Invisible Waves; a disappointing experiment in how an intriguing concept can have all the life sucked out of it despite a talented director, actor and cinematographer. Who should die? A good guy who is in essence a lonely wandering ghost on the face of the planet? Or a bad guy who is a happy man? Or the audience member who adored Ratanaruang's previous efforts and made the mistake of choosing Invisible Waves over Bruno Dumont's Flanders? I was crestfallen that my first experience of TIFF should end on such a dour dull note.

But Girish Shambu—who encouraged my attendance at this year's TIFF from the get-go—just wouldn't have it. Like a festival guardian angel, he swooped in with proffered vouchers and allowed me to accompany him to So Yong Kim's first feature In Between Days, which won a special jury prize earlier this year at Sundance and which has had a healthy festival run internationally. Darren Hughes and Lorraine Vendrely joined us at the film's Royal Ontario Museum screening.

In Between Days is "first love is beautiful hurt" Korean-style. As much as Alan Pakula adored the emotional mutability of Liza Minnelli's young face in The Sterile Cuckoo, so So Yong Kim capitalizes on the incredible expressiveness of Jiseon Kim's young face in In Between Days. Not to say that Pookie's quirky and exaggerated mannerisms in any way resemble Aimie's withdrawn depths, but when it comes to the complicated terrain of youthful heartbreak, affinities abound.

Commencing with the sound of boots crunching in icy snow, In Between Days guides the viewer into a wintry Toronto. Perhaps because I was experiencing Toronto for the first time, I found it sweet and familiar to have my first-time experience replicated on the screen with scenes that involved transit on TTC buses and Toronto's ubiquitous hotdog stands.

For her debut performance Jiseon Kim is simply lovely. I couldn't get enough of watching her face, which subtly expressed dislocation, infatuation, and the eventual "beautiful hurt" that will come on any given Saturday morning anywhere in the world. As Cameron Bailey writes in her festival capsule: "Jiseon Kim is a marvel as Aimie, her moon-shaped face reflecting the alienation and caution of a young immigrant, then transforming utterly when she breaks into a smile. Her letters to her father, narrated over interstitial winter tableaux, offer insights into her complex new emotions—but her face is even more telling." Aimie's reaction when her love interest Tran (Taegu Andy Kang) suggests sex for the first time is comic and priceless. Kang—also a first time actor—matches Kim scene for scene in understated authenticity. So Yong Kim has done an admirable job drawing out these natural performances from her "non-actors."

So Yong Kim responded informatively to IndieWIRE's rote Sundance questionnaire and expressed herself quite animatedly in her Sundance video interview with Flavorpill's Lisa Rosman. So Yong Kim, husband/producer Bradley Rust Grey, and (incredibly shy) actress Jiseon Kim were present for a Q&A after the screening.

So Yong Kim was asked to what extent her own background had anything to do with how she approached the material for the movie? She responded that when she first started to write this story, when she first wrote the draft, it covered about 30 years of Aimie's life and a lot of events from her life. That took about two months to write and then after that it took about a year and a half to cut it down and make Aimie an individual person away from her own self. It was a long journey from the beginning to what the film ended up being.

When you wrote the film, one audience member inquired, did you have Toronto in mind as the locale or is that something that just happened?

"I have to say," So Yong admitted, "it just happened because it was [originally] set in Los Angeles where I grew up. When we were in Los Angeles doing location scouting and also looking for cast and crew, I felt uneasy about it; it was too close to my own memories somehow. So we were looking for other places like New York or New Jersey; each have both huge Korean populations. But a friend of our's recommended Toronto because it has such a huge Korean population so they said we should check it out. We drove up from New York and somehow all the pieces fell in [place]. We found Jiseon in New Jersey and then right after that when we drove up [to Toronto] we met Taegu, the Tran character, in a nightclub. Then we met Jennifer Weiss, who's our co-producer and support group, and then we got in touch with a lot of Korean kids and Asian film communities and it all just came together at the right time that allowed us to make the film."

Darren Hughes commented that he loved the rhythm of the film and asked So Yong if she could talk a bit about her editing process; maybe where she found inspiration or how she found the rhythm of the film?

So Yong replied: "I didn't go to film school so I have to say I learned how to make films from my husband because I worked on his crew when we were making his film in Iceland. We had a crew of four people as well so I just learned by doing. But editing was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process for me because I was making very short experimental films before I tackled this project. We shot about 66 hours of footage and that was overwhelming. I had so much footage and there were so many possibilities because we shot a lot of little moments and we lived with Jiseon in the apartment that we shot in so it was 24/7. We would shoot constantly. When people ask us how many days did we shoot, I say 23 days, but we shot 24 hours a day so it was a lot longer than that. I had a lot of footage so it was a matter of just narrowing it down and slimming it down. What really helped was also having Brad as the supervisor so first couple of scenes that I cut I would bring him in and say, 'Hey, does this make sense?' and he'd go, 'Whoooaaaaa, people don't edit like that.' So it was completely experimental in the beginning and then I had to learn how to put the pieces together."

I thanked her for bringing the film to Toronto and mentioned that I found it sweet in its irresolution. I complimented Jiseon for her natural, lovely acting, which engendered a round of applause. I was curious about distribution; if she had found a distributor for the States?

She said they were looking for distribution but that it was very difficult "because—even though it's an American or North American film—it has so much Korean language in it and Korean culture." [Variety's Justin Chang has commented in his review that the film's minimalism might be a tough sell and that "despite its perceptive insights into the difficulties of adolescence and assimilation and Jiseon Kim's subtly expressive performance as a girl who's blocked off her emotions, So Yong Kim's glacially paced first feature won't command much of an audience beyond the festival circuit."]

So Yong was asked about the actors' backgrounds. She offered to let Jiseon speak for herself but Jiseon declined. So Yong then offered that Jiseon is currently attending school studying design. She's never acted before. Neither has Taegu. Actually all the cast were non-actors.

So Yong was asked to speak a little more about the locations in Toronto where she shot and she quipped that her producer was "kind of cheap" so that they basically found locations that were free. Jennifer Weiss helped them secure permits from the city to film on the TTC. Aimie's apartment belonged to their "production manager/boom operator/everything-else-only-crew-we-had." It was also his grandmother's, so they relocated her to his mom's house for a month while they lived there. Then they slept around in different places that were free and available.

Having mentioned that the story was initially set in California, though it was obviously filmed all in Toronto during winter, one fellow wondered if those changes came about by virtue of when the crew was in Toronto or was that purposeful on So Yong's part? "I hate to sound like hippie-dippy," she answered, "but, it seemed like all the stars came together for us to shoot it in January, which is the coldest time of the year in Toronto. Also, it added texture to it. Originally the film was set in the summer so the characters are hot and irritated but it happened that Jiseon had four weeks off for Christmas break and that's when we had the car. The day after Christmas, we drove [Jiseon] up to Toronto, introduced her to Taegu/Tran, then we started shooting the next day. I think that added to the urgency of the film. I have to say we used everything we [could] to our advantage. Everyone who was involved—there were only four people: Brad, Sarah [Levy] who was the DP, and Andy [Choi] and myself—we worked together to make everything useable."

[In his Variety review Chang further compliments DP Sarah Levy, stating her "handheld camerawork captures the awkward emotional tango of insecure teens in a way that feels painfully authentic."]

Cross-posted on Twitch.