Month: June, 2011

Days of Heaven

Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”, shot by the great Nestor Almendros.

Strange. Strange how our tastes evolve. When I first saw Days of Heaven I remember thinking that it was the only film I’d ever seen that could rival Blade Runner in its photography. The film as a whole was so far outside mainstream filmmaking, especially when it was released in 1978, and so closely in line with my own aesthetic sensibilities when I saw it, that suddenly I didn’t feel quite so alone. Finally I’d found a filmmaker who respected austerity, spare dialogue and understated lighting as I much as I do. To me the film was a rare triumph of impressionism over exposition in American cinema.

What made Days of Heaven palatable to American audiences when it was released was the voiceover of the young Linda Manz. I remember finding her narration an acceptable substitute for all the dialogue that would have certainly asphyxiated the film. But when I recently screened the Criterion Collection release of the film (which looks incredible) I was struck by how much further my aesthetic sensibilities had shifted away from mainstream American filmmaking. I still consider it a masterpiece, but I couldn’t help but note how extraneous the narration seemed. Of all her off-camera lines, there was only one that I considered an asset for the film: her description of Judgement Day that we hear toward the beginning of the picture. The rest of the piece would have been stronger without the off-camera guide, without the handholding. I suspect Europeans would have loved it even more, and Americans at the time even less.

I am reminded that my most rewarding filmmaking partnerships have almost all been with directors who did not grow up in America. How we managed to find each other in the forests of the Los Angeles film industry will forever remain a mystery to me. Fate, perhaps.

The Documentary Interview: How Long Must We Languish?

An interview scene from Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” shot by the great Jordan Cronenweth. In the canon of motion picture interviews there is this scene and then all the others.

As much as I love the documentary genre, I’ve never been able to shake my dislike for interviews as a filmmaking tool. To me it is an overused and uninspired convention that contradicts a core principal of cinema: films should create an experience, not simply dispense information. Even well-shot interviews are still variations on the same unsatisfying form. When was the last time you saw a doc interview that didn’t look like all the others?

My question is this: why can’t documentary interviews look more like this scene from Blade Runner? I see no reason that doc makers can’t take the kind of creative risks that Ridley Scott and his cinematographer, Jordan Cronenweth, took in this scene. Sure there are budgetary constraints in non-fiction filmmaking that feature films rarely have to contend with, but this isn’t why documentary interviews are so pedestrian. After all, close-ups are always some of the least expensive shots, even in the priciest Hollywood pictures. (It’s lighting for wide shots, multiple angles, and moving cameras that make scenes more expensive from a photographic perspective.)

Apologists of the interview format might argue that there are serious conceptual disparities between what the doc interview and this interview in Blade Runner are trying to achieve, but I’m not convinced. Fundamentally, both aim to suspend the disbelief of the viewer and transport him into the world of the film. Cinema does this best by creating a visceral experience for the audience; the intellectual experience of cinema, I believe, begins in earnest when the credits roll. The fact that documentaries are non-fictional is of intellectual, not emotional, consequence: if a film is successful in suspending our disbelief, then the veracity of the subject matter is of little relevance when we watch the movie. For documentaries, it is a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Practitioners of the interview format argue that well-shot interviews incorporate photographic elements—backgrounds, lighting, etc.—that help create this visceral experience, but even at their best these contributions are limited by formal conventions that few filmmakers are willing to challenge. How many productions have I worked on where we made huge compromises in order to shoot an interview in the subject’s living room, telling ourselves that this will somehow draw the viewer into her world? The truth, in the final analysis, is that this kind of attention has an insignificant effect on the interview footage. It may nudge the audience toward an intellectual understanding of the subject’s plight, but viscerally it does little to move us closer to her experience. Neither does the soft key light, the cool hair light, or the slash across the wall in the background that we have seen thousands of times. These are tired conventions—desperately mundane—and for viewers today they have become a signal for us to sit back and wait for spoonfuls of information. In cinema, that which is boring goes unnoticed.

The interview scene in Blade Runner, by contrast, transports us instantly and decisively into a dystopian Los Angeles of 2019, and it is the filmmakers’ brave aesthetic vision that take us there. Some would point out that you can’t shoot a high-concept interview if the rest of the film has a traditional documentary look, and they are right: the scene must fit into the film’s larger stylistic plan. But the answer is not to shoot the interview so that it is as formally uninspiring as the rest of the film, but rather to shoot the rest of the film so that it is as exciting as the interview. The idea of “capturing reality” has always been based on a false premise, and there is no rule forbidding poetry in the documentary genre. It is art, not news, that we are trying to create.

There are documentary filmmakers who have moved beyond the interview format in some of their work. My graduate school mentor, Jan Krawitz, made the film Styx in 1976 that remains a deep influence on my filmmaking to this day. Sweetgrass, a film by Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, is a more recent example of a documentary style I respect. These films support the idea that in strong cinema photography doesn’t just enable characters to tell a story, photography itself tells the story.