Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Filmmaking’

From the Archives: About “About Schmidt”: The shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film After the cutting room floor

December 6, 2011 14 comments

 

 

From the Archives: About “About Schmidt”: The shoot, editing, working with Jack and the film after the cutting room floor

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Ever since Omaha native Alexander Payne wrapped shooting on About Schmidt, the hometown movie whose star, Jack Nicholson, caused a summer sensation, the filmmaker has been editing the New Line Cinema pic in obscurity back in Los Angeles.

That’s the way Hollywood works. During production, a movie is a glitzy traveling circus causing heads to turn wherever its caravan of trailers and trucks go and its parade of headliners pitch their tents to perform their magic. It’s the Greatest Show on Earth. Then, once the show disbands, the performers pack up and the circus slips silently out of town. Meanwhile, the ringmaster, a.k.a. the director, holes himself up in an editing suite out of sight to begin the long, unglamorous process of piecing the film together from all the high wire moments captured on celluloid to try and create a dramatically coherent whole.

Whether Schmidt is the breakout film that elevates Payne into the upper echelon of American directors remains to be seen, but it is clearly a project with the requisite star power, studio backing and artistic pedigree to position him into the big time.

An indication of the prestige with which New Line execs regard the movie is their anticipated submission of it to the Cannes Film Festival. Coming fast-on-the-heels of Election, Payne’s critically acclaimed 1999 film that earned he and writing partner Jim Taylor Oscar nominations for Best Adapted Screenplay, Schmidt will be closely watched by Hollywood insiders to see how the director has fared with a bona fide superstar and a mid-major budget at his disposal.

Regardless of what happens, Payne’s unrepentant iconoclasm will probably keep him on the fringe of major studio moviemaking, where he feels more secure anyway. As editing continues on Schmidt, slated for a September 2002 release, Payne is nearing his final cut. The film has already been test previewed on the coast and now it’s just a matter of trimming for time and impact.

While in town over Thanksgiving Payne discussed what kind of film is emerging, his approach to cutting, the shooting process, working with Nicholson and other matters during a conversation at a mid-town coffeehouse, Caffeine Dreams. He arrived fashionably late, out of breath and damp after running eight blocks in a steady drizzle from the brownstone apartment he keeps year-round.

He and editor Kevin Tent, who has cut all of Payne’s features, have been editing since June. They and a small staff work out of a converted house in back of a dentist’s office on Larchmont Street in Los Angeles. Payne and Tent work 10 -hour days, six days a week.

“As with any good creative relationship we have a basic shared sensibility,” Payne said of the collaboration, “but we’re not afraid to disagree, and there’s no ego involved in a disagreement. We’re like partners in the editing phase. He’ll urge me to let go of stuff and to be disciplined.”

By now, Payne has gone over individual takes, scenes and sequences hundreds of times, making successive cuts along the way. What has emerged is essentially the film he set out to make, only with different tempos and tones than he first imagined.

“Rhythmically, it’s come out a little slower than I would have wanted it,” he said. “I think it’s been something hard for me and for those I work with to accept that because of it’s subject matter and for whatever ineffable reason this is a very different film in pacing and feel than the very kinetic and funny Election, which got so much praise. It has, I think, the same sensibility and humor as Election but it’s slower and it lets the drama and emotion play more often than going for the laugh. I think it just called for that. With this one, we don’t go for the snappy edit.”

Even before Schmidt, Payne eschewed the kind of MTV-style of extreme cutting that can detract from story, mood, performance.

“Things are over-covered and over-edited these days for my tastes. There’s many exceptions, of course, but the norm seems to be to cut even though you don’t need to. And, in fact, not only don’t filmmakers need to, their cuts are disruptive to watching performance and getting the story. I like watching performance. My stuff is about getting performance. I like holding within a take as long as possible until you have to cut.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY FORTHCOMING BOOK-

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.

 

 

 

Alexander Payne, ©photo Jeff Beiermann, The World-Herald

 

Related articles

From the Archives: Alexander Payne discusses “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson, working with the iconic actor, past projects and future plans

December 6, 2011 14 comments

 

 

From the Archives: Alexander Payne discusses “About Schmidt” starring Jack Nicholson

Working with the iconic actor, past projects and future plans

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Omaha Weekly

 

Citizen Ruth announced him as someone to watch on the independent film scene. Election netted him and his writing partner, Jim Taylor, an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. The commercial success of Meet the Parents, whose script he and Taylor contributed to, led to another high profile hired gun job — a rewrite of Jurassic Park III.

Now, with About Schmidt, which began filming in his hometown of Omaha this week, filmmaker Alexander Payne finds himself playing in a $30 million sandbox in his own backyard and sharing the fun with one of the biggest movie stars ever  — Jack Nicholson. It is the culmination of Payne’s steady climb up the Hollywood film ladder the past seven years. It has been quite a journey already for this amiable writer-director with the sharp wit and the killer good looks. And the best still appears ahead of him.

During an exclusive interview he granted to the Omaha Weekly at La Buvette one recent Sunday afternoon in the Old Market (fresh from seeing off his girlfriend at the airport) Payne discussed the genesis and the theme of his new film, his collaboration with Jack, his take on being a rising young filmmaker, his insider views on working in the American movie industry and his past and future projects.

Although About Schmidt gets its title from the 1997 Louis Begley novel, it turns out Payne’s film is only partly inspired by the book and is actually more closely  adapted from an earlier, unproduced Payne screenplay called The Coward.

As he explained, “When I first got out of film school 10 years ago I wrote a script for Universal that had the exact same themes as About Schmidt…a guy retiring from a professional career and facing a crisis of alienation and emptiness. Universal didn’t want to make it. I was going to rewrite it and come back to Omaha and try and get it made, and then Jim Taylor and I stumbled on the idea of Citizen Ruth, so I pursued that and put this on the back burner. Then, about three years ago, producers Harry Gittes and Michael Besman sent me the Begley book, which has similar themes, although set in a very different milieu.”

Nicholson, who had read the book, was already interested. Payne first commissioned another writer to adapt the novel but that didn’t pan out. “I didn’t relate very much ultimately to the adaptation and then I turned to Jim Taylor and said, ‘You know that thing I was writing 10 years ago? How would you like to rewrite that with me under the guise of an adaptation for this thing.’” Taylor agreed, and the film About Schmidt was set in motion, with Gittes and Besman as producers.

Taking elements from both the earlier script and the Begley book, the character of Schmidt is now a a retired Woodmen of the World actuary struggling to come to terms with the death of his longtime wife, the uneasy gulf between he and his daughter, his dislike of his daughter’s fiance and the sense that everything he’s built his life around is somehow false. Full of regret and disillusionment, he sees that perhaps life has passed him by. To try and get his head straight, he embarks on a road trip across Nebraska that becomes a funny, existential journey of self-discovery. A kind of Five Easy Pieces meets a geriatric Easy Rider.

“What interested me originally was the idea of taking all of the man’s institutions away from him,” Payne said. “Career. Marriage. Daughter. It’s about him realizing his mistakes and not being able to do anything about them and also seeing his structures stripped away. It’s about suddenly learning that everything you believe is wrong — everything. It asks, ‘Who is a man? Who are we, really?’”

Typical of Payne, he doesn’t offer easy resolutions to the dilemmas and questions he poses, but instead uses these devices (as he used abortion politics and improper student-teacher activities in his first two films) as springboards to thoughtfully and hopefully, humorously explore issues. “I don’t even have the answers to that stuff, nor does the film really, at least ostensibly. But, oh, it’s a total comedy. I hope…you know?”

For Payne, who derives much of his aesthetic from the gutsy, electric cinema of the 1970s, having Nicholson, whose work dominated that decade, anchor the film is priceless. “One thing I like about him appearing in this film is that part of his voice in the ‘70s kind of captured alienation in a way. And this is very much using that icon of alienation, but not as someone who is by nature a rebel, but rather now someone who has played by the rules and is now questioning whether he should have. So, for me, it’s using that iconography of alienation, which is really cool.”

Beyond the cantankerous image he brings, Nicholson bears a larger-than-life mystique born of his dominant position in American cinema these past 30-odd years. “He has done a body of film work,” Payne said. “Certainly, his work in the ‘70s is as cohesive a body of work as any film director’s. He’s been lucky enough to have been offered and been smart enough to have chosen roles that allow him to express his voice as a human being and as an artist. He’s always been attracted to risky parts where he has to expose certain vulnerabilities.”

YOU CAN READ THE REST OF THE STORY IN MY FORTHCOMING BOOK-

Alexander Payne’s Journey in Film: A Reporter’s Perspective, 1998-2012

A compilation of my articles about Payne and his work.  Available this fall as an ebook and in select bookstores.

 

 

 

Alexander Payne directing About Schmidt

 

Star and director working out a moment in the retirement party scene

 

 

Women’s and indie feature film pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s journey in cinema

September 5, 2011 Leave a comment

To date, I have written a handful of extensive pieces on filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver, a seminal figure among women’s and independent feature filmmakers in America. This is one of those stories and the others can also be found on this blog.  Sooner or later I will add a couple much shorter pieces I’ve written about her and her work and her thoughts on women directors in Hollywood. When Kathryn Bigelow made history by becoming the first woman to win the Oscar for Best Director (for The Hurt Locker), the first person I thought of was Joan, whom I called to get her to weigh in on what that breakthrough meant to her and to the other women filmmakers. Joan, who began making a lot of television movies in the 1990s, hasn’t made a feature in going on a decade or more, but she has been developing two feature-length documentaries – one on the Catskills and great Jewish women comedians and the other on the history of the bagel in America. I look forward to her completing the projects.

Silver, Joan - still image [media]

Joan Micklin Silver on the set

Women’s and indie feature film pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s journey in cinema

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the Jewish Press

 

When Omaha native Joan Micklin Silver’s directorial feature film debut, Hester Street, proved an unexpected but unqualified critical and commercial success in 1975, women gained a stronger foothold behind the camera in American cinema. The breakthrough independent film, scripted by Micklin Silver and produced by her husband Raphael Silver, paved the way for more women to call the shots in the chauvinistic playground of moviemaking.

Twenty-five years later Micklin Silver has seen women go from being ignored to tolerated to, finally, respected.

“When I started, there were no women directing at all in the so-called industry. I actually had an executive say to me, ‘Feature films are expensive to make and expensive to market, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.’ So, yes, it was that blatant. I couldn’t get a job directing at all. At that time the only job I was suitable for in the industry was writing,” she said by phone from her New York home. “But women are definitely in a better place today. Talented women do get opportunities. It’s not nearly as bleak a picture as it was.”

Informed by a strong feminist sensibility, Hester Street takes a gritty, witty look at the Jewish immigrant milieu of New York’s Lower East Side, circa 1896, and features a Best Actress Oscar-nominated performance by Carol Kane. It is really about the awakening of a meek, innocent emigre named Gitl (Kane) who, upon arriving in America, finds her husband an unfaithful scoundrel with no respect for her or their shared past. Torn between cherished old values and strange new ones, Gitl finds emancipation while remaining true to herself.

The idea of transforming one’s self without losing one’s identity is something Micklin Silver could readily relate to. “I’ve always loved film very much, and I wanted to make it in that field. I wanted to direct, but I didn’t want to be a man. I wanted to be a woman. I wanted to be myself,” she said. Her deep love for the movies was first nurtured in Omaha.

“I grew up in the days when you’d take the streetcar downtown and see double-features for 35 cents. Those were still the days of stage shows (preceding the main movie bill). It was just marvelous entertainment. It really was. I remember those theaters in Omaha very well. The Brandeis. The Orpheum. I think I was probably most influenced by the traditional Hollywood films I saw as a kid.”

Besides the movies, reading and writing held her interest. She attended Central High School (graduating in 1952) and Temple Israel Synagogue, writing sketches for school plays. Her departure from Omaha, at age 17, to attend Sarah Lawrence College in New York State occurred right around the time her father died. Later, she met Silver, married, and moved with him to Cleveland, where he worked in real estate. She bore three daughters and in between raising a family continued haunting cinemas and began writing for local theater.

Inspired by what was happening in film at the time, including the exciting work of independents John Cassavetes and Shirley Clarke, Micklin Silver yearned to be part of this vital scene. But Cleveland offered little hope for launching a project. Then fate intervened. At a party she met Joan Ganz Cooney, a founder of the Children’s Television workshop, who put her in touch with Linda Gotlieb, then an executive with an educational film company. Gotlieb fed her freelance script writing work and when Micklin Silver told the company head she wanted to direct as well, she got her wish — writing and directing three short educational films.

One short subject dealt with immigration, and in researching the piece Micklin Silver came across the novella, Yekl, she would later base Hester Street on.

Later, she and Gotlieb formed their own production company. Meanwhile, the Silvers moved to New York. With Joan’s properties lying dormant and no directing jobs in the offing, she despaired. Then, one of her scripts, Limbo, an anti-war story about the oblivion wives of Vietnam POWs and MIAs faced, sold to Universal Pictures and the studio brought her out west.

“A director there by the name of Mark Robson (Champion) wanted to do the film but he had a very different take on it. He saw it as more of a women-without-men kind of thing when it was meant it be a gritty look at the difficulties these women faced and the fact they really couldn’t get a straight story from the military as to where their husbands were or when they were coming home. I went out there and I explained how I felt about the film, and when I got back to New York I was told I was going to be replaced,” Micklin Silver said.

Despite being taken off the picture, she found an unlikely ally in Robson.

“Although I didn’t like what he did with my script, he knew I wanted to be a director and he invited me to come and spend any amount of time I wanted on the set. I spent about 10 days there for my first exposure to the Hollywood moviemaking apparatus…with all the cranes and dolleys and budgets and cast and crew. It was very helpful.”

Getting that close to a major motion picture further wet her appetite for directing. “It emboldened me to come back to New York and to make films right away. I said to my husband, ‘I don’t want anybody else to do that to a script of mine.’ And I always remember what he said: ‘Go ahead, jump in the water. If you can’t swim now, you won’t be able to swim 10 years from now. This is your chance to try and find out.’ If he had said, ‘Well, what do you know about it? Why don’t you apprentice at film school first?’ I would have probably said, ‘Oh, yeah, you’re right.’ But he didn’t. He gave me support and a sort of permission to try.”

That’s when she and her husband took matters in their own hands and developed Hester Street themselves (under the Midwest Film banner). Besides the novella Yekl, the guts of the movie grew out of Micklin Silver’s Omaha childhood and her beguilement with the tales her Russian-Jewish emigrant family told of their coming to America — their crossing, culture shock and assimilation.

Joan and her older sister Renee (who still resides in Omaha) are the daughters of the late Maurice and Doris Micklin. Their father founded Micklin Lumber Co. Joan said her father, who was 12 when he and his family arrived from Russia, “had very distinct memories of coming over and what it was like to be young, excited and terrified at having to learn a new language in a strange country…and he told those stories very vividly.”

Her mother, who was only a toddler when she arrived, had no recall of the experience, but her older siblings did and Joan’s uncles and aunts shared their memories with her during visits to the family’s Yiddish-flavored home.

“So many families don’t want to talk about the experience of immigration,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s traumatic. They want to become Americans as soon as possible and they want to leave it all behind them. But my family was of the other variety — that loved to tell the tales. I was always fascinated by all the stories they told. Of the people that made it. The people that didn’t. The people that went crazy. The people that went back. I remember sitting around the dinner table and hearing stories that were very funny and enjoyable and strong and interesting and serious. So I was attracted to those stories in the first place.”

Her immersion in those tales not only gave her the subject matter for her first film, but later informed her direction of the acclaimed National Public Radio series Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond.

Joan Micklin Silver

Although not a Jewish director per se, she has often explored her heritage on film (14 years after Hester Street she revisted the Lower East Side to explore the intersection of old and new Jewish life in Crossing Delancey), most recently in the 1997 Showtime movie, In the Presence of Mine Enemies. Based on a Rod Serling TV script produced live on Playhouse 90, the made-for-cable film stars Armin Mueller-Stahl as a rabbi trying to hold his community and family together in the Warsaw ghetto of World War II. Mine Enemies marked the first time she dealt overtly with the Holocaust in her work.

In 1995 the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) honored Micklin Silver with a Jewish Cultural Achievement Award in the media arts category, which she accepted in memory of her parents. Her fellow honorees included Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Arthur Miller.

Referring to Micklin Silver’s work, NFJC executive director Richard Siegel said, “In Hester Street and Crossing Delancey in particular she does something that very few other filmmakers have done, which is to look at the American-Jewish experience in some depth and with considerable insight, from the inside, as it were.”

In her acceptance speech the filmmaker explained how someone from such a goy hometown “could become so addicted to Jewish stories and characters.” She referred, of course, to the stories her family told “…dotted with a pungent Yiddish and much laughter at the human comedy of it all. Such were my introductions to the magnificent and terrifying history of the Jews. When I began making movies I was inevitably drawn to stories which had so much emotional weight for me as I grew up.” But, she added, “making movies about the Jewish experience is a dangerous prospect. Every other Jew has an opinion. You can never satisfy everyone. I learned this after an early screening of Hester Street.”

When, despite great reviews at festivals, Hester Street failed attracting a distributor, Ray Silver called John Cassavetes for advice and was told: “Distribute it yourself.” Ray, who has described it as the “most significant call I’ve made in the film business,” released the film with help from Jeff Lipsky. Made for $400,000, it grossed more than $5 million — then-record earnings for an indie feature.

She followed Hester Street with two decidedly non-ethnic features (Between the Lines and Chilly Scenes of Winter) that fared well with critics but less well with general audiences. In the past two decades she has directed numerous features as well as films for cable (including A Private Matter for HBO). She has worked inside and outside the Hollywood system. She’s also directed for the theater to great acclaim (A…My Name is Alice). Along the way, she’s become a leading figure in American indie circles and a guiding spirit for the vibrant new women’s cinema scene, serving on the advisory board of the New York Women’s Film Festival.

Film U.S. 5 - still image [media]

From Crossing Delancey

 

“I used to make it my business to go to every film directed by a woman, just as a kind of show of solidarity” she said, “but I could not possibly do that now because they’re all over the place. They’re making everything from music videos to television films to feature films.”

Often sought out for advice by new filmmakers — male and female alike — she’s glad to share her wisdom. “Of course, I’m flattered by it. I enjoy meeting with filmmakers and talking to them and comparing notes. They’re looking for almost any kind of help they can get that might help them get projects off the ground.”

More than most, she appreciates the progress women have made in film.

“Absolutely. It’s great.” She attributes this breakthrough as much to women pounding at the gates of opportunity long and hard enough to finally gain entry as to any contribution she and peers like actress-director Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle) made. Whether due to inroads made by these modern pioneers or not, once closed doors have undeniably opened. To wit, her daughters, who grew up on their mother’s movie sets, boast film careers of their own. Marisa has directed feature films (License to Drive), although these days she’s raising a family. Dina is a producer. And Claudia is a director with a new short film (Kalamazoo) out.

Of her daughters’ following her footsteps, Micklin Silver said: “I think they all felt at home with the process and I don’t think they had an unrealistically rosy view of it all. They’ve certainly been aware of the various things I’ve gone through, but they’ve seen for the most part that I’ve enjoyed it and am proud of what I’ve achieved and am still at and so on. So, I hope they’ve been encouraged by it.”

Yet, even after the success of Hester Street, she still could not get Hollywood backing for her next project, Between the Lines (1977), which examines an underground newspaper staff’s struggles to balance their revolutionary zeal with dollars-and-cents reality.

A major studio, United Artists, did attach itself to her third project, Chilly Scenes of Winter, a 1979 film that steers clear of cliches in charting the ups and downs of a romantic relationship. Micklin Silver’s association with UA turned sour when the studio ordered a new ending (to a less ambiguous one) and a changed title (to the frivolous Head Over Heels) against her wishes. Her critically praised film was a box office bust, but she ultimately prevailed when she got the UA Classics division to release her director’s cut in 1982.

A decade removed from the UA debacle, she finally danced with the studios again when her Crossing Delancey (adapted from the Susan Sandler play) was picked-up by Warner Bros. and when she was brought in as a hired-gun to direct two screwball comedies, Loverboy (a 1989 Tri-Star release) and Big Girls Don’t Cry (a 1991 New Line release), she did not originate. While she enjoyed doing the latter two projects, she prefers generating her own material. “In the end it’s more satisfying to me to be able to make films that I just feel more personally,” she said.

Her most recent work, Invisible Child, is a new Lifetime original movie drama starring Rita Wilson.

Along the way, there have been many unrealized projects. Not one to dwell much on what-might-have-beens, she feels an even playing field might have meant more chances but considers her career a validation of women’s gains, noting, “Well, you know, one always feels one could have done more. But I’ve managed to make films for many years now in a field that was extremely unfriendly to women and to make the films I wanted.”

She is quick to add, however, filmmaking is a tough field “for everyone. It’s extraordinarily competitive.” Besides her gender, she feels her own idiosyncratic vision has limited her options. Long attracted to exploring the complex give-and-take of intimate male-female relationships, the romantic partners in her films are far from perfectly happy and, indeed, often flounder in search of equilibrium if not bliss.

Her 1998 feature, A Fish in the Bathtub, illustrates the point. Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara star as a Queens couple, Sam and Molly, whose 40-year marriage finally goes on the fritz. “It (A Fish) falls into a special category of film I like very much — human comedy,” Micklin Silver said. “It’s real, wrenching and strikes a chord.”

Peter Riegert and Amy Irving from Crossing Delancey

 

Unafraid to tackle the silly, messy, chaotic side of relationships, she probes issues like obsession, desire, infidelity, possessiveness, loneliness, rejection, regret. Like the smart repartee associated with Lubitsch, Wilder, Cukor or Hawks, her films delight in verbal sparring matches that deflate gender myths and romantic idylls.

Micklin Silver’s men and women are equally strong-willed and neurotic. That is never more evident than in Crossing Delancey, where Sam (Peter Riegert), the pickle man, patiently waits for the upwardly mobile Izzy (Amy Irving) to come down off her high horse and finally see him for the decent if unflamboyant guy he really is. The story is also very much about the uneasy melding of old and new Jewish culture and the conflicting agendas of today’s sexual politics. Izzy is the career-minded modern woman. Sam is the tradition-mired male. Each pines for affection and attachment, but are unsure how to get it. In the end, a matchmaker and bubby bring them together.

About the male-female dynamic in her work, Micklin-Silver said, “That is something I’m quite interested in. Why? I have no idea, other than a life lived, I guess. In my own life experience I had a really wonderful father who was interested in me and paid attention to me and to my ideas… and God knows I have a wonderful, supportive husband whom I’ve had three great daughters with. I haven’t had the experience of abuse by men, so basically what I’ve done is more observe the differences (in the sexes) than the struggles.”

She and husband Ray (a producer and director in his own right) continue  partnering on some projects and pursuing others separately. Their Silverfilm Production company is housed in offices on Park Avenue.

While rarely returning to her home state anymore, she did accept the Mary Riepma Ross Award at the 1993 Great Plains Film Festival in Lincoln. On that visit, she drove across state and admired the unbroken prairie.

“I Iove western Nebraska. It’s just so beautiful. I love a landscape that’s long and flat, and where there’s so little in the middle distance that your eye goes on and on.”

A landscape reminiscent of that is the backdrop for a hoped-for future project called White Harvest, a period piece set on a sugarbeet farm in far northeastern Colorado. “It has a great feeling for place. It’s also a wonderful love story,” she said. If the project ever flies, it would realize a long-held desire to capture the Midwest on film. “I’ve always wanted to shoot something in Nebraska. I want so much to come back to that world.” There’s also a film noir script she’s tinkering with.

Next spring she is slated to direct a film adaptation of a Paul Osborn play, Mornings at Seven, for Showtime.

Ideas are what feed her work and her passion. “I’m never without something I want to do. It’s your life. What you’re doing…what you’re thinking.” Meanwhile, she’s excited by the prospect of a more dynamic cinema emerging from the rich new talent pool of women and minority filmmakers. “Yeah, it’s going to be a much richer stew, and something all of us can enjoy.”

Cinema iconoclast and vagabond Jon Jost

September 21, 2010 1 comment

headline

 

As filmmakers go, Jon Jost is off the grid.  The uncompromising artist makes the films he wants to make, the way he wants to make them, and since his approach to story and technique is antithetical to mainstream feature filmmaking, he is pushed to the fringe, but that’s where this contrarian prefers to be anyway.  In one sense, he’s actually far ahead of the cinema establishment in terms of working in video and exploring its expressive possibilities.  He is a digital video guru who does a lot of presenting and teaching at universities.  I caught up with him a couple years ago during a residency he did at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. My story about Jost originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com), and meeting him and writing about him and viewing some of his work confirmed me just how diverse the filmmaking community is.

Cinema iconoclast and vagabond Jon Jost

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Digital cinema guru Jon Jost wears his iconoclasm as a badge of honor. The itinerant artist inhabits the fringes of the indie moviemaking landscape. In truth, he prefers it there. He’s railed against the system from the time he tore up his draft card in the mid-1960s, an act of “resistance” that sent him into exile to do the expatriate thing in Europe and Mexico. Once back, he knew “full well” he’d be arrested. He was, too, earning a stretch in an Illinois federal reformatory.

He got busted again, in Chicago, in the weeks leading up to the ‘68 Democratic National Convention. He was filming at the time of his arrest and the fact he used a camera as a revolutionary tool sealed his fate as a rebel filmmaker.

Ever the outsider, the self-taught Jost disdains the established order in film. Anything smacking of studio or industry or commercial” is “artificial” to him.

“I’m an anarchist. I don’t believe in leaders. I have no interest in commercial film,” he said during a break from his artist-in-residency at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “My view is we’re in a very deep trough of corruption and the corruption runs from the White House down to your local theater and into your film festivals.”

His choice to work in DV or digital video is an expression of his dissent. He fell in love with it the first time he worked a Sony camera. From ‘97 on, celluloid’s been dead for him, something once unthinkable for a serious filmmaker as himself. He described DV as “such an endlessly more, in the positive sense, plastic medium. It’s more malleable. You can do more things with it and you can do it without having to break the bank. The movies I make now, if you made the equivalent in film, they’d cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And for me they cost a hundred dollars.

The choice is not just about economics, but aesthetics.

“For years it was really like heresy to say, ‘No, I’m not just doing it because it’s cheaper, I’m doing it because it’s better, period.’ It doesn’t look like film, but it has other things…other qualities…that are much better than film.”

He knows his work is out of step with the suits and the masses. Even as Hollywood begins to test the digital waters, he said DV won’t really change anything.

“It depends on who uses it. If Hollywood uses it than the special effects will get zappier. They can blow things up more spectacularly. They’ll do 3D digital but what they say will be lowest common denominator romance-sex-kill. Conventional movies will remain a big business designed to take ten bucks out of your pockets,” he said.

 

 

Since January he’s conducted statewide DV workshops and a UNL seminar. He does workshops all over the world, preaching a credo of “don’t accept their media —  make your own media.” He and his Italian wife/editor Marcella arrived in October. From a mausoleumesque stone building fast off a busy Lincoln intersection, the couple toil away like digital devils; the interior strewn with computers, musical instruments, books, DVDs, paint supplies. Few people will ever see their beautifully realized movies made on the cheap. Festivals turn a cold shoulder to his recent nonlinear, nonnarrative work. Even his last narrative feature, the anti-war Homecoming (2004), got snubbed. He feels it’s too political for these times.

The rejection dismays Jost, who’s enjoyed acclaim for his art films. His All the Vermeers in New York (1989) was a festival darling and aired on PBS.

Festival directors told him Homecoming was “too slow,” ironic, he said, as his previous films “were slow also and they loved” them. So slow is no longer fashionable?” he asked with rhetorical incredulity. On Homecoming he “deliberately” pulled back from his “inclinations and desires” to shoot in an “avant garde” style and still not a single American film festival would accept it.

“On one level that’s depressing,” he said, “and on another level it’s completely liberating because I can say, ‘Fuck it.’ Why should I move even this far to make it more accommodating when there’s nothing to accommodate? I know I’m going to get shut out. For the moment anyway there is no market whatsoever for what I do. So why should you torture yourself chasing this thing that absolutely doesn’t exist? So now I just make what I want to make the way I want to make it.”

He’s made other narrative films: Last Chant for a Slow DanceSure Fire, etc.. He’s shot in Panavision and 35 millimeter. Only his films don’t obey the rules with their lurches toward abstraction.

In his view, commercial filmmaking is a pastiche of old art. “It’s like, Didn’t you ever look at any art since 1650? Oh, so you can do Renaissance single and even double point perspective. So fucking what? They did it 500 years ago, alright,” he said.

“I’m a consumer, if not always liking it, of the arts. When I look at a movie I’m like, These people are so behind what visual language is available. With a computer you can make a completely credible visual representation you can go through of five-dimensional space, and they’re so pleased with managing to make a Renaissance picture,” he said, laughing with derision.

He enjoys dissing Hollywood and scoffs at the idea an Alexander Payne is an indie filmmaker. “No independent person would want to work with them (Hollywood),” Jost said. Even if Payne enjoys final cut, Jost asserts he’s a sell-out. “He’s already controlled because he makes films that are completely commercially palatable.”

“I find the limits of normal filmmaking false. Why can’t we have films that would be the filmic equivalent of Cubist painting?” Jost asked. “I have done some of that myself.” Using modern art devices, he superimposes scrims, images, text over the frame. He points the camera straight down at roads or out windows of moving vehicles, making subjects of the passing tableaux. In Vermeers a marble floor is the object of attention in a long tracking shot.

He eschews such tenets as establishing shots or cutting from one actor’s profile to the other in dialog scenes. He trusts “you’ll figure it out if you’re paying attention.” He prefers improvising to scripting. Natural light. With his new work, including the in-progress Swimming in Nebraska, he uses a digital software program to adorn and enliven a static frame. Slowly, rhythmically, geometric patterns filled with color and shape bleed in from the screen’s edges. These riffs, alone or in collage, correlate to the background’s fixed image, informing and enriching it.

Swimming profiles individuals engaged in various creative pursuits in the state. Jost said, “I’m trying in a very oblique, poetic way to show the creative process” and “to attack the general mentality people have of Nebraska or the Midwest” as a sterile place. “It’s full of interesting, lively things as much as anywhere else.”

He also completed a video installation while in Lincoln.

With his Nebraska stay near an end, Jost looks ahead to a university teaching gig in Seoul, South Korea. “It will be my first job. It’s not in the bag. If it doesn’t work out I’ll figure out something else to do,” he said. “I’ve never had a real job in my life. I’m 63, I don’t have a pension, I don’t have insurance, I’ve got nothing. I’m not going to worry about it now. One way or another, I’ll manage to survive.”

As he told the New York Times, “I’ve spent my life being left out. I’d like to stop, but it’s what I do.” Whatever happens, he’ll be “working, working, working.”

From May 20 through May 24 the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln will host Jon Jost Presents, a sampler program of his work and work by regional DV artists. All screenings are free and open to the public. For details, call the MRRMAC at 402-472-9100 or visit www.TheRoss.org.

%d bloggers like this: