Two Conversations with Christopher Munch

GreenCineStaff's picture

By Rebecca Bird and Caveh Zahedi

Rebecca Bird

Rebecca Bird: Nine years after it's initial release, Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day has become available to new viewers on a new DVD. With each film of yours I've seen, you tell a different scale of story and take up very different tools. What seems to stay consistent is your sensitive approach to writing, and discernment for the most telling visual moment - you never give too much. What methods and preferences have you picked up along the way? Is there a general direction you see your work moving towards?

Christopher Munch: If I've picked up any methods or preferences along the way, they would be: think big but work small; take your time; think a lot about the work before you do it, but don't over-think it while you're doing it; visualize it as complete and perfect, and then don't get in the way of translating it as fully as possible into a physical movie.

RB: How do you feel about this film looking back on it?

CM: Looking back, this film, like all the ones I've made, was a wonderful learning experience that pushed me in directions in which I needed to grow at the moment, and I retain an affection for it and its subject matter. I'm really glad that the IFC has decided to put it out through New Video.

RB: In Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day, the photography does so much of the storytelling. Does the process of writing and developing the visuals happen simultaneously in your films?

CM: The visual part of storytelling is always in my mind when I'm writing, and because I photographed my films before I could do much anything else, it's a framework that is organic and inseparable from words. But the visual strength of Brisk is mostly owing to Rob Sweeney's great skill and care. His love of Yosemite and the outdoors, coupled with my enthusiasm for railroads, led us to some wonderful places that cooperated in telling our little story.

 

Color of a Brisk and Leaping Day

RB: Throughout Color, you feature the enormity of the landscape; it overshadows and outweighs the human events occurring within it. To me, the sepia tone dream sequence in which John drowns evokes Edward Curtis, who photographed Native Americans but, it seems, reconstructed and staged lifestyles that already no longer existed. That scene cuts to a shot of an oncoming train that echoes an O. Winston Link photo. Link, like the character John Lee, was in love with trains and elegized them through his breathtaking photographs. The whole film seems set within the visual paradigm of Ansel Adams, a landscape that was becoming celebrated as unconquerable and worth conserving. These references are associated with different conservationist tendencies echoed in the story line. Were you using these related visual styles to compare their different aestheticizations of the American continent?

CM: We never really thought much about the visual references you mentioned, and their aestheticization of the American West, except that Carleton Watkins was surely in our minds for the Yosemite scenes, and Richard Steinheimer, a great railroad photographer, was in my mind at least for some of the train work. The one stock shot you mentioned did indeed evoke Winston Link in the way it was rather brightly lit at night, but that wasn't the reason I chose it.

RB: You've described your work and the film medium as photographic in nature, and photography has an implication and sometimes a mission of capturing what is true or real. Can you talk about your relationship to photography?

CM: Being an isolated and introspective kid, I came to know the world, on some basic level, by imagining how I would photograph it. And I had the luxury of learning what I was doing as a complete amateur - meaning there was no training, other than a lot of reading and watching great films, and no professional rules to abide by. This worked very much in my favor because I wasn't overwhelmed by the apparatus of filmmaking. When my friend loaned me his big Mitchell camera to shoot my first feature, it felt like an old friend. The photographic ideas that most influenced me, those of the cameraman Gordon Willis, did so because, while his tastes and training were deeply rooted in film classicism, he was willing to discard any rule that did not suit his unique way of seeing light. What he espoused was accessible: apply your intelligence, your taste, and your rigor; avoid flashiness and cliches; use common sense and do not artificially re-invent what you see in front of you, and you will wind up with respectable work, regardless of your training or how many lights you have to work with.

RB: You said in an earlier interview that you rewrote Color a number of times and, in the end, focused on the railway as the subject of the film. John Lee is a kind of anti-protagonist, whose success or failure is entirely dependent on that of the larger enterprise. It seems that for him doing something big is actually a byproduct of being unable to act in other realms of his life. It's interesting to put such an opaque character at the center of the story; you really feel the vacuum when you see him interacting with his sister, for instance, who is so forceful. Something about his passivity is very key to the way you're telling the story - he doesn't propel a linear narrative forward, rather the action happens around a central inactivity. I tend to find your female characters more developed, emotionally complex but readable, while the male characters retain a certain distance.

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