One of the finest filmmakers you've likely never heard of, Pat O'Neill creates entire worlds distilled merely from the images of present-day (and past, real or imagined) Los Angeles and its surroundings. His films, such as the stunning Water and Power or The Decay of Fiction, utilize revolutionary optical techniques to craft collaborative layers of otherwise unrelated imagery, creating the visual impression that separate histories have become one.
On the occasion of an award from the San Francisco International Film Festival in 2003, Craig Phillips and Jonathan Marlow spoke with the director about his remarkable work.
One of the things that I was really taken with The Decay of Fiction, in your use of optical printing and motion-controlled camera, is the ability to allow the seams of the process to show. Unlike what someone would see if it was done digitally, for instance. How much does that bring to the aesthetic quality of the film you're after?
I was interested in the camera moves in the space and then to make the seams both consistent and inconsistent with the background. So the people did actually seem to be in the rooms but they weren't totally lifelike. I was interested in a kind of shorthand way of making a rendition. The idea of the film is to not make a narrative film but to make a film that comments on the idea of narrative without really partaking in it.
Since you spend some of your days working on more conventional feature films, how much does that influence or overlap with your personal films? Is there a connection at all?
Yeah, there's some. I've worked on special effects for features and documentaries and I've done restoration work and so on as a way of paying for the equipment so I could do my own work. I set up a company in 1973 that enabled me to hire some people and take in work and to make payments on equipment that was expensive at the time (and which is essentially junk today). We're still using it and we still have a few people around who know how to repair it. But the two things are pretty separate from one another - commercial work and personal work. One connection is that I tend to get stock material, ephemeral film, and I'm interested in restating things that were initially done many years ago but seem to have a somewhat different meaning when you recombine them today. This is the first film I've done where I've directed a cast and basically shot everything from scratch.
As The Decay of Fiction is making the rounds right now, are you and [cinematographer] George Lockwood in the midst of working on another project that also involves actors or was this an anomaly?
Well, so far we're not doing anything else - it took all our resources to finish this film. And unless I get some funding I'll probably be working on much more modest projects for a while. I'm showing a couple of shorts with this feature that are made directly to film, scratching on emulsion and hurling developer across the room at raw stock, and then taking the result and working with it in a printer, taking rhythms and so on that repeat. They're very musical. They're silent films, actually. I have several other ongoing projects that involve landscape and basically a documentary on people in the cities.
This is all still based in Los Angeles, the LA landscape?
Actually, I've been shooting all over the western states - northern Arizona, New Mexico... so it's pretty inclusive.
Can you talk a little bit about the involvement of the Labyrinth Project and the production of the DVD?
Yes, Labyrinth came into the project when I was part way through the shooting. I already had the background shot and was about to shoot the actors, and we talked about the fact that we could make a database and use some of the shots that I'd made for the film - but also a lot of other material that I couldn't use in the film - of an archival sort. Storytelling by people who had some connection to the Ambassador Hotel. Some documentation about the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 and the botched investigation that followed that. And some talk about the neighborhood and how neighborhoods and populations change. The quality of life in a particular corner of a world changes radically from decade to decade. So >Tracing the Decay of Fiction is a Labyrinth Project DVD.
The version of the disc that you presented in LA and the one you're presenting here is a demo version of it?
No, it's the final version. We just haven't gotten to the point of printing them out in quantities yet. It's essentially done. It will also be available through the Annenberg Center at USC. And Facets Video and Amazon, and museum bookstores.
So now that Decay of Fiction and Tracing the Decay of Fiction exist, is there an interest to put Water and Power and some of your other shorts out?
I hadn't thought about it, except that I'll probably just end up doing it myself.
You'd mentioned that in Decay of Fiction there's one character who doesn't appear in the finished film, a homeless man you'd shot in your garage as well as this storyline from his perspective - is some of that on the DVD?
No, that's been eliminated. We'd tested it with him, but I realized to put in a character that clearly defined would wind up taking over the gist of the film, and I really wanted it to be more open ended than that. So I made little sections that are distinctly different from the rest of the film. There is no background, they're in a black void, more of a psychological portrait of someone who's more of a receptacle of my own fantasies and memories of being in places like that. The sort of the things you might think about on an idle evening in a hotel room.
Is there any connection to some of the other films shot at the Ambassador Hotel? Any spiritual connection to those films?
Not really. Most of the films that were shot there - well, The Graduate was shot there when the hotel was still active, but most of the films shot there were after it was already closed. In fact, they were often going on at the same time we were shooting our scenes there. We had a relationship with the management, who let us come in and be there. A lot of the shots took place through the night and day. They may take ten to fifteen hours to complete, so we spent a lot of time in the building, making these shots. And then we went back and shot these actors in a big empty convention hall in the hotel against a black background.
What was it like to work with actors for the first time?
It was wonderful. It was also extremely stressful at the time because we had to direct actors operating in a void with no surroundings to anchor them to, so it became necessary to do everything with blocking and marks. But the actors were great. They would help with the dialogue and change things. They'd try to understand the story more than they could. I'd say, "Well, if you understand it that way, that's fine."
So the actors were looking for motivation from you?
[laughs] Right, they were building a backstory, and so on...
You mentioned that your expectation was that the building, the Ambassador, was going to be torn down and that would be incorporated into the film. It was clever that, without that footage, you included sounds of demolition over the end credits. Do you feel the film is finished the way it is, or do you want to go back if and when they do demolish it, and incorporate that footage?
I won't change what I have now, but I'll go back if I can and shoot the demolition, which might wind up being a sequel or another short item that comes up after it.
The background footage that you shot is pretty incredible. To then incorporate the ghosts of the actors into that space - you described it as an easier process than it really is. Can you talk about the technical challenges you had to overcome?
The first thing we found out is that it took twice as much light as we'd imagined to make the exposure bright enough on the actors to make them push through the background. We also had to change anyone's dark wardrobe to something much lighter. We had some fifty lighting instruments for the shots that are quite large - some of the biggest shots required people to move from about ninety feet away from the camera to about five feet away, so the amount of light that it takes to light a path like that was more than any of us imagined. We had to keep pouring on more and more light, and thus having more power generators and so on.
The problem was, just the mechanics of setting the shot up and laying it out and getting it lit and getting the light so it doesn't shine into the camera lens, all took an incredible amount of time. I was continually urging everyone to be satisfied and get on with it because I could see I'd just be throwing hundred dollar bills into the furnace. So I sort of became the producer in that regard, to say it's gotta be good enough, let's go with it.
A lot of things that are a little on the rough side [are the result of my feeling that] it was important to get it done. Polishing beyond a certain point just got to be more than we could afford. But I think it's all right that way. And people will get used to it. They'll see artifacts of its making and that's kind of part of it.
It definitely enhances the experience, to see the rough edges of the film. In the complicated scene where they're all in the room with the red walls, how many passes did you have to do with the actors in order to develop these layers of them in that scene?
We shot three times with the same table and the same actors rearranged in different distances from the camera. So we'd go through it once with the actors close, and then further back, and then further back from that. So we wound up with three masters that we superimposed in the background. But yeah, figuring it out always took more time than we thought.
For your direct-animation pieces, scratching directly onto film stock, did you find yourself influenced by the work of Stan Brakhage?
Stan is an influence on everybody working in experimental film. But I don't think he was as much an influence specifically on me as he was on some people. I would say Bruce Connor's work has been a big influence on me, as has Ed Kienholz, the installation artist, and a number of other static art makers. George Segal is another one.
What about Gerhard Richter?
I love his work. I don't know if he's an influence, though. There are some animators over the years - like Robert Breer, an animator whose work was very spontaneous and minimalistic. I've been making films for almost forty years and looking at a lot of work. They all become influences over time.
As an extension of that, what is it like working in experimental, non-narrative film, in Los Angeles - the center of narrative film - and how does your work fit in historically or conceptually given where you've been working?
I've always felt somewhat of an exile in Hollywood. The industry has absolutely no interest in experimental material. Although it's feeding into production of trailers and commercials more than in features. It's kind of like working in exile in a way. I come to San Francisco or New York or even Paris and find people who are working along similar lines. I think the main reason I've stayed in Los Angeles all this time is that there's so much going on technically, that the junk is better. You get more salvage opportunities - maybe more true ten years ago - but just in terms of raw stock and inexpensive lab work, and people who can do anything. I mean you can find it in San Francisco, too, but I've always had a kind of scavenger mentality towards the industry, and what it makes.
I've never had the ambition to become part of it. I don't consider myself a storyteller. I'm more involved in the concept of the image-making than I am in joining that tradition that I don't really feel I have anything to add to. It seems to me that people do a first film and they wind-up getting a contract to do another film and it often becomes a disaster because the things the first film displayed were weeded out by the time the next project happened. So I've always been kind of aware of that being a pitfall.
That's true of any commercial art - music, too. How would you say your visibililty has changed with the release of Decay?
It has changed. There's a lot more recognition, a lot more people know about this place, the Ambassador, have an awareness of it, memory or a framework for an interest in it. So the interest in the film has been quite strong, which is quite gratifying. I had no idea when I finished it how many people would want to see it.
Are you thinking of working more in digital, given its cheapness, or are you still more interested in film?
I'm still into working in film. I may do some of the operations digitally rather on film but I'm not sure yet. I've been doing another project over the last five years, which is making a series of still images ink-jet printed on paper, so they're not film-related at all. But the technology used to make them is sort of similar to what I've done in film except a hundred times more complicated and sophisticated. So far I haven't gotten to the point where I can do that in motion, but I'm working on it, and making stills in the meantime.