The Approach or Nervous All the Time

27 07 2010

Before I really dive into this post I want to take a second to acknowledge that a lot of good things are happening with Sparrow Songs and we’re grateful for all of them.

The first bit of news that’s equally exciting and rewarding is that this year we’ve been named to Filmmaker Magazine’s annual list of the 25 New Faces of Independent Film.   I’ve been a fan of the magazine and its ground-eye view of the work of independent film for a long time so it’s really flattering to be a part of this list.

The second piece is that we’ve got a Kickstarter campaign going for the project and we’ve already raised over $500.  That support and the feeling of people literally investing in the project feels great.

All that said, it’s another month, which means in the process of making a short documentary we’re back at square one.  The calendar doesn’t care if we’re on the front page of The New York Times, the clock is ticking and there’s a film to be made.  Right now we’re mired in the most nerve-wracking phase of the whole process which I think of as The Approach.

You have an idea, you can see how all the pieces will fit, there’s the potential for amazing visuals, you might learn something about yourself by making this, the audience may learn something about life by watching it, all this good wonderful stuff is going to happen when you make this, it’ll be hard but we’ll pull through and then we’ll all eat pizza and drink a beer or two.

Okay, but this is a documentary and that means a subject is involved and unless you’re Ken Burns or Jaques Cousteau that subject has a living, human component.  The only way you can make this film is if you somehow get this person (or worse, these people) to agree to make this film with you.  And you know what?  There is an inverse-proportional relationship between your level of excitement about the project and their apathy toward it.

For a long while I’ve wanted to make a piece about the poet Gary Snyder.  He’s the last of the living Beats, he’s lived his life according to a beautiful and rigid set of beliefs and his understanding of man’s relationship to the natural world is revolutionary and ancient.  I’ve read most of Snyder’s books and read his collection of interviews earlier this summer.  It’s not out-of-bounds to say that he’s one of my heroes.  Earlier this month I contacted the publicist at his publishing house, had a great conversation and composed a sincere email to her about our aims for the piece. She forwarded the email to Snyder.  Five days later he said no.

Three or four days after that I started kicking around an idea for a different piece.  It wouldn’t be interviewing one of my heroes but it held the chance for me to explore a question that I’m trying to work through in my own life.  I did research on whom I needed to contact, sent emails, got responses, sent more emails and set up a meeting.  During a meeting like this – or more often a phone call –I do my best to explain Sparrow Songs and to convince the person I’m speaking with that this is an honest attempt to understand the lives around us.  I have no credentials, no real professional presence; I’m just sitting there trying to reassure them that this piece about their lives isn’t going to be sandwiched between videos of a cat fighting a roomba.  You do your best, shake hands and leave the room. Then wait.

That’s where we are at this point in the month.  I’m supposed to get an email any minute now letting me know if we’re on for a three-day shoot or if I need to scramble and start the process all over.

I don’t think there’s any corollary to this in narrative filmmaking.  You may not get a location or an actor might fall through, but you never have to ask a character’s permission to tell their story.

The whole thing creates a certain Zen-like attitude toward the stories themselves.  You learn that the more force you apply the less likely you are to get the results you want and when you do hear a ‘no’ you can either drive yourself crazy thinking about how great the piece could’ve been or to trust that there’s a different piece you need to make right now.

That being said, the waiting is never easy.

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Episode 9 or ‘The Personal Documentary’

5 07 2010

Yes, this episode is short.  No doubt about it.  When we began this project the only rules were:

  1. We’d make a film a month.
  2. No film could be shorter than 3 minutes.

So, technically, yeah this film meets those requirements.

At the same time I’m a little fearful that people will somehow feel gypped by this piece and feel that it somehow doesn’t measure up to the bar we’ve set with the previous eight episodes.  The feeling feels negative but I can see that that’s actually a very good thing.  This project is a far different animal than what it was when we began it.  The response to the films has exceeded my expectations and at times the filmmaking has exceeded what I thought Michael and I were capable of.  And now we give you this episode which on some level is just me cleaning the house. “Are they putting us on?  Is this some kind of piss-take? Is there actually something there?” No. No. Yes.

Already this is sounding like a defense which is not what I intended to write when I sat down to do this post, so let’s start at the beginning.

The opening of the film comes from Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March and this moment of McElwee’s friend Charlene making a strident and valid point about the nature of love forever changed the way I saw both documentaries and relationships.  I’d seen plenty of non-fiction films but this was doing something entirely different: there was no social issue driving the film, there in fact didn’t seem to be anything driving the film other than a certain longing and existential pain and despite that (because of it?) the film flowed easily and through restructuring the seemingly mundane pieces of his own life McElwee made something universal and epic that — with both irony and sincerity in the same breath – equated his search for romantic love with Sherman’s war path through the South.

It struck me as remarkable that it was even “okay” to make a film like this.  Up to that point so much of what I’d seen was staid, poorly-shot films about uprisings in foreign lands heavy with statistics and burdened with good intentions; that to see Sherman’s March was akin to discovering that connected to the house you’ve lived in all your life there’s actually another room.

I came to discover that the Personal Documentary was a genre unto itself.  Folks like Alan Berliner and McElwee were actually in the canon and they had created a tradition that now led to films like Caveh Zahedi’s I Am a Sex Addict and Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans and Jay Rosenblatt’s remarkable short films.

More importantly Sherman’s March let me know it was alright for a nonfiction film to involve itself in nothing more than looking at people and emotions and the way lives are lived and could take the seemingly simple pieces of our own existence and rearrange them into something telling and worthwhile.

As part of this project is to try on different traditional documentary styles and to borrow different voices and see how they feel I was aware from the start that one-month would involve making a personal doc.

There’s something else at work too: For anyone who’s been with this project from early on, it’s clear that the subjects in the previous films have – to varying degrees – let their guards down and been honest about their own difficulties and feelings.  Using these conversations, sifting through them each month to create these films, hearing these interviews over and over and all the while not sharing anything about yourself… well, you can only do that so long without feeling like a parasite.

The result of all this is Episode 9.