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Past Article

Ross McElwee's "Replication of Reality"
By Sean Axmaker
July 4, 2005 - 3:26 AM PDT

"It's happening all over the world."

SA: Have you found that using your own life, turning the camera on your own life, becomes a template to exploring the lives of everyday American people growing up, starting families, having parents, having children, that whole experience? That, to me, is what grounds your documentaries. You use the camera as kind of a microscope on your own relationships, but as you ponder them, you to universalize the experience.

RM: I hope that that's true, and I think whether or not I was striving for anything universal, the minute you start to deal with notions of family and deaths of parents and births of children, you're dealing with universal elements by default. So the degree to which the film is accessible and embraceable by an audience pleases me. It's been an interesting experience for me to travel with my films. I just got back from Korea where they showed a kind of selection of my movies to Korean audiences. Watching in one way I started thinking, "There's no way that these people can interpret what all of this means." There was this Korean script on the side of the screen as subtitles and then the bizarre Americana of the events. But I think what they could connect to was the notions of family and connecting to children and connecting to parents - all of that is, in fact, universal. So I agree with that.

SA: Bright Leaves is your first film since Six O'Clock News in 1996. What have you been doing in between?

RM: How can I account for myself? [laughs] Well, I teach, that takes a lot of time.

SA: Where do you teach?

RM: I teach at Harvard, although I'm a teacher half time. So I teach one course a term. And I have a family, the same family that...

SA: Is in your films.

RM: I have two small children. My wife is a writer. Our lives are chaotic, raising two small kids and freelancing our lives the way that we do. But one of the notions is she needs the time to do her work just as I need the time to do mine. I was wondering why I wasn't finishing films faster and I actually, at some point years ago, started keeping a calendar. I started writing down the number of hours I that was actually out of the house, day by day. I was just curious: how many hours am I able to get out of that house? And it was astonishing. When Adrian, my son, was born, I was down to 25 hours a week, and then it started to sort of slowly rise back. But it's never really gone above 35 in all of these years. In one way, that's an explanation right there. I mean, 35 hours a week is not even a full-time job. And from that time, you have to subtract the amount of time you are giving to your students and the amount time you're doing chores not related to domestic stuff.

I know other filmmakers work 70 hours a week and they get a lot more done and they get their films finished a lot faster, and they also have large production crews, and I don't have that. I do everything myself, more or less, and then I have an assistant that I hire now and then. So I think all of that kicks in to slowing the process of finishing films down quite a bit. At times I'm very frustrated by that and feel this isn't good; I should be producing faster and I'm not really satisfied with this pace. But on the other hand, maybe an argument can be made that over time, the idea, the concept of the film ferments in a nice way and something stronger comes out of the process than if I'd rushed through and finished in two years. I don't know that I entirely agree with that, but it's the kind of rationalization that I sometimes cite to make myself feel better. But at this point in my life, with two kids and teaching and everything else that's going on, it's not like I have a choice. If somebody handed me a million dollars, I guess I could hire people to help move things along faster, but I would still have to make the films.

SA: Have you made a film from an assignment? Has someone come up to you and said, "I want you to make a film like this," or did it all come out of your own desires?

RM: Oh, it all comes out of my own desires. People have approached me to make films, definitely, and so far, I've just preferred to get my own ideas and pursue them. Yes, I get something I'm curious about. Like with Bright Leaves, the thing I was wondering about it was, could you make a film about tobacco that wasn't necessarily and clearly an anti-tobacco industry movie? There's been a number of those productions already, even some Hollywood films like The Insider, and I didn't want to make a film like that. I wanted to make something different. But it took me a while to find out how to get into it and, of course, my cousin provided the door that opened up that world and enabled me to make a film that was at least partially about tobacco. So sometimes it just takes a long time for me to figure out how to act upon a curiosity that I have.

With Six O'Clock News, for instance, I had an abstract idea of, "Could I meet people by watching the news?" Because I wasn't comfortable approaching people on the locations of disasters and talking to them about how this was affecting their lives. I didn't have whatever it took to be a TV news cameraman and throw myself into that situation, and yet I could cheat by letting the TV cameraman do the dirty work for me and once I saw them on television, these people that had these awful things happen to them - murders, losing their homes and farms, victims of earthquakes - that would signal the fact that, of course, they wanted to talk to someone with a camera because they were doing it on television, so that would also mean they would talk to me. It broke the ice a little bit. I guess what I was curious about was what happens to these people's lives after the local news leaves. What are their lives like months later, even years later, after the cameras have gone? And also, what does this do to their metaphysical grounding? If they're religious, does it strengthen their religion or does it weaken their religion? I was interested in those kinds of questions. Six O'Clock News was a way in which I could make that film. So it was a kind of idea that I had, but I didn't know precisely how to make that happen, I had to find my own way of making it. So it took me a while to figure out how to make it into a film.

SA: Your way into it seems to be part of all of your films. Your discovery of it is very much part of the fabric; as you are presenting it to the viewer, you are also sorting it out in your own mind.

RM: Yes. Of course I'm adding the narration, for the most part, long after the filming is finished, but the effect is what you've described, that I'm processing it as it's happening, that I'm trying to figure out what I think of all this while I'm shooting it and as I'm reflecting on what I've shot previously. It's a later conceit, in a way, that I use to shape the narrative form.

SA: I think it makes your films about your own personal journey into these subjects. Every documentary obviously has the perspective of the filmmaker, but you share your journey with the viewer and invite the viewer to contemplate along with you.

RM: Very much so. I think, if my films are working the way I want them to work, you have this sense of entering the filmmaker's psyche, his emotional state, as if you're getting into his head. Not that that's necessarily something I'd want people to feel all the time because a lot what's in my head is not very interesting, but I'm creating a persona who is thinking interesting things for the sake of the film. But yes, I'm trying to, as much as possible - this also has a lot to do with the handheld shooting, the fact that people are looking directly into the lens - it's all there to help people feel they can occupy the psychological space and sometimes even the physical space of the filmmaker. And then I have my friend Vlada Petric, the fearsome film theorist [in the film Bright Leaves] who is lecturing me about how the camera needs to keep moving to draw people into films.

SA: Did you get any good advice from Vlada Petric? Anything you could use?

RM: I got a really good seat [Petric pushed him around in a wheelchair to get his handheld camera moving]. I agree with what Vlada said about his passion for filmmaking. Vlada tends to be a little more theoretical than I am in that the reasons for shooting films and making films are not that self-conscious, at least the way I do things the way I do. Clearly it's a documentary and it's an unscripted documentary, so how could it possibly incorporate all the things he's talking about? And I think he's performing, too, just like Charleen. He's knows it's not possible for me to shoot everything in tracking shots. I'm making a documentary, for God's sake, and a handheld documentary at that. And yet some of what he says is true. If you just film people statically talking to the camera, it's not going to be a very engaging film; it's just talking heads. The camera has to move, the camera does have to traverse through space, it does have to keep searching out and finding different things. You're not a real filmmaker unless you do, so those things that he says are true. I know they're true; it's good to be reminded of them. When he pummels me the way he pummels me, that's fine.

SA: The idea of non-fiction filmmaking is really getting blown out of the water as far as what is possible in a documentary. Your first person approach to documentary certainly seems to have been very influential on a lot of people and a part of a whole redefinition of the genre.

RM: There were people doing it before me. One of the people I was most inspired by, and I think someone who had a greater effect upon me than Richard Leacock, is Ed Pincus. He was a documentary filmmaker who had made a number of political films in the cinéma vérité tradition in the 60s. He was also teaching at MIT when I was there. But then he saw the possibilities of autobiographical filmmaking and made a wonderful, sort of epic three-and-a-half-hour film about a five-year span of his own marriage and family life. His marriage falls apart and then comes back together again. The film is called Diaries, and it's a masterpiece and I was very, very influenced by this. I felt, you know, there were also things I wanted to do differently than Ed did in my own work. But there was that film and then there was another film, Family Portrait Sittings by Alfred Guzzetti, which is a film about his parents, which I loved. And then the subsequent film he made about his own kids called Scenes From Childhood, which I still think is one of the most elegant and lovely and most mystical, in terms of the effect that it has on the viewer, views of childhood that anyone has ever made.

These films are extraordinary, and they are just about his two children. He's basically just filming them without any kind of commentary, just observing their lives and the sort of magical presence of children, but totally unsentimentally. It's just very, very beautiful. So there were people who were doing this before I decided to try it. There was a kind of nascent interest in turning the camera back on the lives of filmmakers just as I was getting involved in making films. I wasn't the first person at all. It was a very exciting time to be a documentary filmmaker in the late 70s. I think we are seeing the fruits of that period now because I think that's when we broke out of this mold of thinking that documentaries had to do one of two things, either educate, inform, provide data, or take a strong political cause and push it hard. Those kinds of films are obviously very valid, either of those two genres, and there is the historical documentary, of course, Ken Burns, the third way that you could make a documentary film. All of those are valid ways to use non-fiction filmmaking, but suddenly there are all these other possibilities. Errol Morris went off in one direction, I went off in another; there's been a whole range of documentary filmmakers in the 20th century. It's been very exciting.

SA: Are there documentary films and filmmakers that you are excited about?

RM: Errol Morris's work continues to fascinate me. I thought The Fog Of War was a great movie. And even though it's stylistically miles away from the way that I make movies, I so appreciate his sensibility and intelligence, and his subtlety, and his complexity, and all of those things that are not necessarily the first thing that come to mind with documentaries that have a strong political content. So Errol's work continues to be of great interest to me as a filmmaker. And I'm also pleased to see younger filmmakers doing really interesting things. And then these other films from around the world that keep popping up: To Be And To Have, this film from France by Nicolas Philibert. It's just a wonderful movie, I love that film. Nanni Moretti's hilarious political assessments of politics and life in Italy. Aprile (April) and Caro diario (Dear Diary), both of those films.

Fred Wiseman continues to be fascinating. I think Belfast, Maine was a masterpiece and that was his 30th film. It's kind of a compendium of all of his films in one movie set in one town, Belfast, Maine, and it's a portrait of life and death. I love that film. Traveling the festival circuit you see things that will probably never come to America. A nine-hour movie called West of the Tracks, that was the English translation, by a Chinese filmmaker named Yang Bing. It's an elegy of an industrial town that is slowly closing down, kind of like the Pittsburg of China. It has some of the most amazing cinéma vérité work I had ever seen in any movie in the last ten or fifteen years. Where did that film come from? I have no idea, it's just like this major work is flirting around the world and it may never come to... Well, it probably will come to America in some form because it's just too good not to. It was really a remarkable work. So I guess my point is that these films are coming from everywhere, not just from the United States. There's Spellbound and Winged Migration, which is a French film, Super Size Me and Michael Moore's work and this strong American contingent of documentaries that we are all aware of, but it's happening all over the world.

back to past articles >>>

"A kind of force field."
"Things are both a lot harder now but also a lot easier."
"It's happening all over the world."

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Sean Axmaker
A film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a DVD columnist for the Internet Movie Database, Sean Axmaker is also a frequent contributor to MSN Entertainment, Amazing Stories, Asian Cult Cinema, Greencine and His reviews and essays are featured in the recently released Scarecrow Movie Guide.

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