By Tamara Lees
July 11, 2005 - 10:51 AM PDT
The Joy of Life saw its world premiere at Sundance this past January, where GreenCine and RES were proud to honor her as one of a "Ten Filmmakers We Like" (as part of their "Art of Storytelling" party). Jenni Olson's beautiful film, influenced by William Jones who, in turn, was influenced by James Benning, presents largely static shots of San Francisco overlaid with two contrasting tales. The first, excerpts from Olson's Fuck Diary; the second, a history of the Golden Gate Bridge. The latter works as an unexpected plea for a suicide barrier on the bridge. It's a compelling film for those seeking something far outside of the conventional narrative.
Tamara Lees: Your filmmaking style is unique: The Joy of Life is both a narrative and a documentary, and consists almost entirely of wide, long takes with no dramatized dialogue scenes, no talking heads, no archival footage, all at a very contemplative pace. Can you talk about your artistic vision and why you chose to make your film and tell your story in this way?
Olson: The mood of my filmed landscapes - generally quiet, simple urban compositions - complements the tone of the voiceover, in which the protagonist pines over a girl or reflects on her own preoccupations and butch insecurities. The image and voiceover tracks come together obliquely. Perceptually and spiritually, I think the film challenges viewers to slow down and pay attention to the moment and to the world around them. I want to draw their attention to the surprising beauty of what might - at first glance - appear mundane, but is, in fact, a rich experience of landscape, architecture, light and shadow.
I also want to convey a sense of time and place and history. The underlying agenda of the film is to create a visual document of the changing face of San Francisco; probably 30 percent of the shots in the film no longer exist due to buildings being torn down or built up. It's also my hope that audiences will be inspired by the film's form and bring this way of looking at the world with them when they leave the theater.
Lees: Can you talk about your early influences as a filmmaker, and about how this film evolved out of your earlier work?
Olson: This film really developed over a very long period of time. I remember seeing Ross McElwee's film Sherman's March back in, like, 1985 at the Rivertown Film Festival in Minneapolis and thinking, "Wow! That's the kind of movie I want to make!" I saw Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise around the same time and was also really inspired by the simplicity of his cinematic style. I was also very influenced by the work of Su Friedrich, Marlon Riggs, Sadie Benning and Chantal Akerman - all artists who make films that are tremendously powerful, and utterly unconventional.
I made a couple of small video shorts in the early 90s. "Levi's 501s Commercial" is a spoof on the "What do you do in your 501s?" ad campaign; "Sometimes" is a one-minute poem about butch identity. And then I made my first 16mm short, "Blue Diary," in 1997. It was basically an excerpt from the feature script I'd been working on at the time (which was called Fuck Diary). I thought that making a short would be sufficient to get the filmmaking bug out of my system, but it didn't last. A few years later I decided I had to make a feature.
The three-part structure I arrived at pretty much came out of a trio of interests. I wanted a personal reflection on butch identity; an archival audio segment - preferably poetry read by an author; and some kind of documentary component about San Francisco history. I was also very influenced by a film called Massillon, by William Jones, which utilizes a three-part structure. In the end, I think my film has four parts, if you count the capsule production history of Frank Capra's Meet John Doe), but it was a useful framework to start from.
The personal reflection on butch identity was, of course, my Fuck Diary manuscript. For the archival audio segment, I did a lot of research at The Poetry Center at SF State. I wanted this Jack Kerouac piece initially, but then I heard Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading his amazing poem, "The Changing Light." It was so perfect for the film that I called him immediately. He was really busy when I called and I was a bit too aggressive about it - he actually hung up on me. But he called me back a few days later and agreed to let me use the piece. For the documentary segment, I had researched many other topics before choosing to focus on the Bridge. Ultimately, it was my personal connection to the Bridge that led me to explore this particular topic, the history of suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge. My friend Mark Finch committed suicide by jumping from the Bridge back in 1995.
Lees: How long did it take for you to make the film and where did you get funding?
Olson: Well, after one initial grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, the funding came entirely from individual donations from friends and colleagues (and then I got a finishing grant from POWER UP in LA). It was truly amazing and very humbling to get so much help from so many people. And then all my production team worked for free or for way less than their regular rates - the amount of in-kind labor and equipment really was tremendous. And then there's my VISA card... My life-partner, Julie Dorf, who is my co-producer along with my friend Scott Noble, basically supported us for the last two years so I could work on the film full-time. I had been developing the script for many years prior but, of course, movies don't just make themselves.
Lees: Can you talk about the production process on The Joy of Life and the crew that you worked with?
Olson: The production process was a dream come true - until the very end which was a total nightmare. I was fortunate to have a friend, filmmaker Abigail Severance, volunteer to go shoot with me to get me started. Abigail moved to Los Angeles to go to UCLA Film School, and then I got my old friend Sophie Constantinou to agree to be my cinematographer. Over the course of about a year, Sophie and I would go driving around the city at 6 am, chatting about this and that and capturing compositions from a massive shot list that I obsessively compiled over the last decade of living in San Francisco - everything from the water tower on Potrero Hill to things like Anna's Danish Cookies on 18th Street and Our Lady of Lourdes Baptist Church out in the Bayview. We shot on regular 16mm, on this fabulous 7245 Kodak stock. And the footage turned out really gorgeous, if I do say so myself.
Making a film that consists entirely of static landscape shots you have to have someone really powerful to carry the voiceover. I got the incredibly talented Bay Area performance artist Harry Dodge - co-star, co-writer, co-director of By Hook or By Crook - to agree to do the voiceover several years ago. By the time we actually got around to doing the recording, she had moved to Los Angeles. Fortunately, my partner Julie had a childhood friend who owns a recording studio in Venice, The Hen House, who generously gave us the studio time we needed. Harry and I spent a couple of really wonderful days recording the first round of voiceover, another session a few months later and then one last day of pick-ups. She is such a talented performer. We really only had one relatively brief discussion about the character and style I was going for and she just totally nailed it from the start.
My editor, Marc Henrich was another marvelously fortuitous gift. We met at this swim school in San Bruno while our kids were in their respective swim classes. We started chatting and, when I described my film to him, he offered to be my editor - for an insanely low rate I might add. The picture edit took way longer than I had imagined. Partly because we had such a good time putting it all together and taking leisurely lunch breaks to discuss our progress. It was a really magical time and, although it is the biggest cliché in the book, the truth is, I couldn't have made the film without him.
As is true of so many films, this one really was made in the editing room. We basically laid down all the voiceover first and then started laying picture on top of it. It's a very unconventional film, so it was a pretty unconventional process. But, of course, there were points where we realized we needed retakes and new voiceover bits and also more of certain types of shots. In many cases we discovered that we needed longer takes than what we had - initially, I had been shooting on a wind-up Bolex which meant all the shots were only about 30 seconds long. So, of course, I went out and shot all these, like, five-minute takes, most of which we never actually used. In the end, there are only 130 shots in the entire 65-minute film.
Lees: What about the audio in the film? It's very understated.
Olson: Yes, the sound design was the other really crucial component of the film. How fortunate that my best friend, Kadet Kuhne, happens to be a sound designer! You'd be surprised how much work goes into creating a very minimalist sound design. I was also really lucky to get Jim Lively and Dave Nelson from Outpost Studios to come in at this stage. They also did the final mix.
Lees: You had some trouble finishing and weren't able to get a 16mm film print. Can you talk about that last part of completing the film?
Olson: I won't bore you with the excruciating post-production nightmare... as the hours ticked away leading up to Sundance. Except to say that I got a lot of help from the HD-to-film transfer folks at Retina and at Video Arts. And to make it all the more exciting, I swung by the lab to grab the HD exhibition master on my way to the airport the morning before my Sundance world premiere.
Lees: You've attracted a lot of attention concerning the Golden Gate Bridge suicide issue. Can you talk about how the film has been received? Is it being widely distributed?
Olson: We're having our theatrical premiere at the Castro, and then we have a week at the Rialto in Santa Rosa. It looks like we will get a New York theatrical release in the fall and have been playing lots of film festivals. The film just won the Best US Screenplay Award at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, which was very exciting. It has gotten dozens of really glowing reviews - except for the Variety critic who didn't like it, but I'm in good company there; he's the same guy who gave Sam Green's The Weather Underground a bad review.
The most exciting thing has been the impact it's having around the suicide barrier debate. It was extremely fortuitous that documentary filmmaker Eric Steel made his big announcement - that he had filmed nineteen people jumping from the Bridge in 2004 - just the week after I had run an excerpt of the script in the San Francisco Chronicle as an Op-Ed calling for a barrier. And then the following week, we premiered at Sundance. There was tons of press and really strong visibility for the issue. And all the while, the Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California were lobbying members of the board of directors. By the beginning of March, the Bridge Board actually agreed to do this feasibility study. We're a long way from getting a barrier, but it's a great example of the power of filmmakers to make a difference on social issues. It will be even more exciting when Eric Steel's film finally comes out - I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it having it's own Sundance premiere next January!
Lees: One final question: Has Lawrence Ferlinghetti seen your film? And what did he think of it?
Olson: He did see it. I've never actually met him. But I dropped off a video copy for him at City Lights Bookstore just after I got back from the film's Sundance premiere in January. He emailed me and said, in his whimsically poetic way: "I was joyed."
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"Landscape, architecture, light and shadow."
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A former actress and occasional collaborator on films too obscure to mention, Tamara Lees now lives and works in San Francisco.
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