Saturday, 3 September 2016

Experimental Filmmaking Interview: Walter Ungerer (USA)

Born in New York City in 1935, Walter Ungerer has produced a vast and eclectic body of avant garde films since the mid 1960s when he first experimented with 16mm on shorts such as Meet Me Jesus, which gained him attention at the Ann Arbor Film Festival. As the available technology has progressed through the decades, Ungerer has shown great passion in exploring the possibilities of each new mode of production.

We encountered his work through screenings of his later shorts at Scotland's Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival and have kept in touch since first making contact on Twitter in 2014.

This year we were blown away by the colour, vibrancy and energy of a recent short: I Just Don't Get It - It's My Russian Soul (2016).

Hello, Walter. Where are you and what kind of a day are you having?

Hi Sarahjane. Hi Roger. I am in my editing room in the lower level of our house. The window in front of me looks out at a grassy slope. In the distance is Rockland harbor, nearby islands and the Atlantic Ocean. We live in Rockland, Maine, USA.

Almost every day is an interesting day.

The Light Cone website says that you were “born in New York City in 1935 of German immigrants”. In what ways has this displaced European background - a distinctively German background - influenced who you have been as an American living in the 20th and 21st centuries? More specifically, how has this background informed you as an artist working with the Modernist medium of moving image?

Being of German heritage has made me a bit more alert to things German than other cultures. Maybe there’s a residue of learned national pride, be it German or American. Today, that attitude doesn’t work for me. I think of myself as member of the planet. I’m aware that my life experiences have affected me. When I am working, I don’t dwell on such thoughts. I am not a psychologist.

What route did you take from studying art and architecture at the Pratt Institute in the late 1950s to becoming a filmmaker in the '60s?

When I was eighteen and starting college, I was eased into art school because I did well in art in public school. I did well in math, too. I think the public school teachers with whom I was in contact thought architecture would satisfy my interests in art and math. At that time I never showed any special interest in film. I loved going to the movies. So did everyone else. Film, as a profession, was out of the realm of consideration, or possibility; at least at the public schools I attended, or was familiar with.

After undergraduate college, Pratt Institute, where I studied art (drawing, painting, sculpture), I went on to Columbia University, still studying art. Because of my interest in movies, a friend of mine suggested I look for work in the film industry, if I wanted to learn more about film. The two centers of film in the U.S. at that time were Los Angeles and New York City. So I looked for work on film productions in New York. I worked on Shirley Clarke’s feature, The Cool World, then on a doc about Buckminster Fuller and Edward Teller for Foland Productions, then on an animated film called The Beginning for the United Church of Christ. There were other films, too. They were all free-lance jobs that lasted a few days to a few months. I was hired for a particular assignment: camera operator, sound recordist, animation stand operator, or negative cutter. That’s how I learned about film production.

You've said that you were interviewed by a major film studio when you were a young man. They wanted you as a graphic artist but that was not what you wanted to do. You wanted to make films and it seems that it was experimental films you particularly wanted to make. What drew you towards the avant garde? What does experimental work offer us that mainstream cinema can't?

I went to Los Angeles to check out the West Coast film scene, as I free lanced in New York. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what was available. Because of my art background Bueno Vista Studios (Walt Disney Productions) was willing to hire me to work on what I call their animation assembly line, very specific and limited in scope drawing and inking on cel drawings. That wasn’t for me. I began to realize I wanted to do my own thing, and run the show. So I came back to New York, got together with several other aspiring artists, and produced a short 16mm film called A Lion's Tale. At the same time Columbia University gave me the opportunity to teach film production in their graduate film program. It was just a beginning production course. I had access to discarded film, both unused short ends from the networks’ production teams, as well as copies of television films. I used that material to make another short film called Meet Me, Jesus. It made the rounds of film festivals that were cropping up, especially at colleges. It won some awards, gave me some recognition, and was the impetus to keep going in that direction of experimental film. “Underground film” is what I heard more often at that time, 1950’s, 1960’s, than “experimental film”.

The avant garde seems to offer me freedom to do whatever I want to do. I have found business people that offer me financial support, usually want to impose their views on me. In a business environment there is an obvious inevitable relationship between the employer and employee where the employer tells the employee what to do. In my environment the public sometimes also tells me what to do, or what I should do, or suggests how I can improve my work. There is no obligation on my part to follow it. In truth I have fallen into the avant garde because my work is of that nature, has a look that fits in with what is thought of as avant garde. I didn’t create my work to look like what is considered to be avant garde.

Did you feel that you were working within the context of the wider counter-culture, which had simmered on the fringes in the 50s with the Beats and the art of Robert Rauschenberg and the Neo-Dadaists before fully exploding across America in the mid '60s? Or did you feel that you were trying to do something quite separate from this?

I never consciously concerned myself with working within any context. I saw and experienced art at museums and galleries because I felt enriched from the experience, not to emulate a style, trend or individual. It took a long time for me to accept I was an artist. For the longest time I saw myself as a student of art. I am still a student: still learning.

Your early work seems to have involved a gumbo approach to the craft, mixing together whichever ingredients were at hand at the time in order to add flavour and texture: whether that be found footage, scratching or painting directly onto the film, the use of startling jump cuts or more dreamlike super-imposed imagery. What were you trying to say to us with this approach? Were you attempting to show us glimpses of another more chaotic, less rational world beneath the surface?  

For the most part I don’t know what I was trying to say to the world. I tried to be humble, and have humility. I was a student of art, a student of the world. If my work pointed out the chaos in the world, it came through from a connection with my soul and the universal soul.

When we first spoke with you on Twitter in 2014 we asked you if your Oobieland series was inspired by Alfred Jarry's absurdist King Ubu plays. You replied: “Nice guess, no. It was 1968. I was driving to California in my VW bus. We were halfway there from New York. Chicago was on fire.”  We've seen the Chicago Riots in documentaries and read about the Democratic National Convention in a book by Hunter S Thompson. Can you paint a more vivid picture for us of what was going on at that time? How specifically did the climate of unrest and change influence the Oobieland project?

In the summer of 1968 I remember seeing buildings burning in New York City. There were flames and smoke billowed out from apartment houses as I drove past the area on a highway into the city.  Clouds of smoke passed before me as I passed through.

I had to get some equipment in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York. I was warned to be careful. There was shooting going on. As I reached that area, everything was in rubble: smouldering buildings and empty lots with fires still burning. It was a wasteland, desolate. I saw few people. They all seemed to be inside the remaining structures. One knew this was a dangerous area, as there were other dangerous areas in New York; in Chicago; in Berkeley, California. In 1968 I passed through all those areas in my VW bus on a tour of the United States. There were moments I thought I was in a dream, that this was not happening.

How did this influence the Oobieland project? In retrospect Part Two has references to “the American Scene” and one character answers my question about what I think of the United States. He says, “The American Scene - chaos”. The Oobieland project has five parts. Part Two, Ubi Est Terram Oobiae?, is focused on the climate of America at that time of the mid and late 1960s. Additionally, the Latin title, Ubi Est Terram Oobiae?, in translation means “where is where?” referring to a national loss of positive identity. The translation might not be exact, but that is the inference as I titled the film. The other parts of Oobieland don’t have quite the gloom of Part Two.

Would you say that the current divisions in America have a similar intensity to what was going on at that time? If so - how might this influence artists working today, including yourself?

In 1958-69 I was living in New York City, experiencing the turmoil that was going on there. Today I live in a rural area, more distant from densely populated areas. The intensity I feel is of nature: beauty. I have a television, radio and a computer. That pulls me away from my rural environment, into a more global realm. So – yes, today it is similar in that there are plenty of problems to be addressed, and hopefully solved: How to get along with everyone on the planet? How to be fair and concerned about the greater good for everyone, rather than the selfish “me the best” attitude?

When human beings are honest, they are tuned into the pulse of the earth. When they are artists, they create art that reflects the condition of the earth. They do it in as many ways as they are artists. My work speaks through the spirit I have placed in it, not consciously, but spiritually.

In your films it seems to us that the audio is as important to you as the visual material. Would you agree with that? How have you sourced music and sound for your films throughout the years?

Yes, the audio is as important in my work as the visual material. As with my eyes, my ears are always working.

With a portable recorder I record the audio around me: ambient, radio, TV. I find material, bits of sound, on audio and video tapes, records, CDs. When I start a new project I create an audio effects folder, placing all the sound bites into it. In earlier years when I shot a lot of sync sound and picture, as for my feature length films; I didn’t rely as much on wild sound or the pick-up material I just described.

Do you edit to a pre-prepared audio track, or do you bring the sound in at a later stage once you have some kind of visual rhythm and structure?

No to pre-prepared audio track. When I begin shooting, very quickly I will think about audio as well. It becomes a parallel process. Imagine the desktop of a computer screen. Film clips will be placed there as well as audio files. I’ll begin to move them around in different orders. With that changing arrangement film clips will affect the audio, as audio bits will affect the film clips.

In a documentary we watched, Placing the Mark | Marking the Place, you speak about inhibiting the urge to jump straight into the editing so that you can get a feel for what you have shot before you set about dismantling the chronology. How important is it for you to end up with a work which is non-linear? Why is this war against chronology in your films so important and what does it mean to you?

Mainly, I don’t want to jump into the editing until I have a feel for the material because I know that if I don’t follow that procedure, I’ll make decisions I will need to un-make later. In viewing my material I try to savor what I have already recorded. If I don’t savor it, it won’t be in consideration for later use in the project.

It’s not important to end up with a work that is non-linear. It is important to make creative decisions that I feel good about. Then, whatever result occurs, is good.

It’s curious to me you mention the war against chronology. My earlier works, especially my feature length films (The Animal, The House Without Steps, The Winter There Was Very Little Snow and Leaving The Harbor), all relied on narrative structure and chronological order in order to convey the story. I have moments where I think I am too “chronological order” oriented.

When you edit video is your process improvisational like jazz or meticulously scored like classical music?

To improvise and be spontaneous in my life and in my work, is what I strive for. I also like order. How do I resolve that? I try not to think about it. Just work!

Have you managed to support yourself and your family through filmmaking and the arts throughout the years?

Money and monetary things have never been very important to me as long as I could get by; and later as long as the family could get by. That’s a good approach if you don’t have much money. I have not made much money from my work. For the longest time I have thought of Vincent VanGogh as my mentor.

I have taught some aspects of film at several colleges and universities, most of the time as a visiting artist, or adjunct professor. That has been my solution to sustainability.

In the 1990s you began “a long period of exploration with the computer, using the computer to not only edit but to create the entire film without the use of a camera”. What led to this exploration of digital media and what did you learn from it?

Using the computer was a cheaper method to produce a project than to use film. Film and processing costs were getting more expensive. Additionally, computer software offered many more creative options in creating effects, and doing it more quickly, than film laboratories could offer.

I learned using the computer route was quite a different method of working. The learning curve never stops when working with computer software. There are always upgrades and updates. The film age was slower. Equipment evolved. Computer equipment becomes obsolete quickly. You can physically touch film. With computers you can only touch the screen. Everything else is in hard drives.

You made a feature length documentary, And All This Madness, in 2002 in response to the Twin Towers attack. Did you approach this film in new ways? What was your methodology? Did you learn anything new about the World, other people or yourself through the process of making this film?

I had made documentaries before, and worked on other peoples’ documentaries before. The only difference in approach to making And All This Madness  compared to my earlier documentary experience, was that I was using a digital camera and editing on a computer as opposed to a film camera and a Steenbeck or Moviola flatbed editing table. The objective with the film was to get the story out to the public and answer the question, “Why did 9/11 happen?”

There was no new approach with And All This Madness compared to earlier docs I had done. As with previous docs with which I have had experience, there needed to be a structure or plan for the film. What did the film want to say? How would that be accomplished? To a great extend the film used the interview format. Who did we want to interview? Then, would they be willing and could we arrange it? We made a list of potential interviewees. Some were unavailable. Others were unwilling to be involved for political reasons. It took over a year to make the film. When finished we had great difficulty getting it shown. Vermont television knew my experimental work. It had been well received. Initially they wanted to air And All This Madness. After seeing the trailer, they pulled it. Colleges were more willing to show the film. It was disheartening to see the lack of backbone on the parts of very established and engrained individuals in important positions to show the film.

Can you tell us a bit about the next feature you made after this, Down The Road? Whilst continuing with your experimental approach it seems that you've made a very personal, autobiographical film which covers some uncomfortable material.

Down The Road was made as I was going through a divorce. A woman I was married to for 20 years no longer wanted to be married to me. We had a 13 year old daughter. I could not understand why my then wife wanted a divorce. I was clueless. The film interviews some of my friends, who I hoped would be able to give me insight to my divorce. The film was therapy for me. The production methods I used to make the film were similar to my previous film And All This Madness. I recorded probing questions. I added home movie footage of our family when my daughter was several months old, then later stages of her growth. At one point the home movie footage shows the three of us in our car waiting for a rain storm to pass by. My daughter, aged five months, is singing a song to me with my then wife’s encouragement. It was an idyllic young family moment caught on film. Very poignant, and painful to watch now.

For your more recent work, you have utilized a DSLR stills camera and software to produce vivid, vibrant, colourful experimental shorts. Is this the set-up which most suits you now? Presumably it allows you to work more quickly and for less expense?

Today’s set-up suits me fine.

For our own films we've recently moved from working exclusively with digital equipment to experimenting with Super 8. We like the texture, the process and the excitement of uncertainty. We've even been trying our hand at home processing using the Caffenol C recipe (coffee, vitamin c and washing soda). Is there anything you miss about cine film or do you see that as purely belonging to the past?

There are moments when I recall fragments from the past, for instance loading an Éclair camera or threading a Steenbeck. They are just brief memories, and there is work to be done now. Maybe I will shoot with film again. I have an 8mm Rolliflex cartridge camera and a 16mm Bolex H16 camera.

Your interest in Super 8 with its qualities, seems like a good direction for you both. The excitement of uncertainty with that process coincides with my own enthusiasm for uncertainty and spontaneity.

For now I am finishing question 17. Whew!

Roger and Sarahjane, thank you for researching my film history, and posing a resulting array of provocative questions to be.

Thank you very much, Walter Ungerer, for taking the time to answer our questions.

Walter Ungerer's Dark Horse Films  |  Vimeo  |  Twitter  | Q&A at LAFF

Monday, 25 July 2016

DIY Filmmaking Interview: Fabrizio Federico (UK)

Fabrizio Federico, who are you?

Legendary filmmaker prodigy from England.

We like the way your films seem to chew up all of cinema and spit it back out like the splatter paintings of a deranged Lifer. What's your intention with this style? Do you want to confuse and disorientate or is this just the way you see life?

It’s just my way, the underside of life is more interesting. I don’t care about formula or pleasing goody two shoes, I'm after Acapulco gold. It’s fun bringing all the out of control film fans out there together. Showing them how to lose themselves in exotic tribal cultures and lurid dark spirits.The films are spells to open people up to whatever they're searching for; sex, death, love, travel….. etc.

Tell us about The Straight Jacket Guerrilla Film Festival.
It was the first year so I was very happy with all the international filmmakers who came out of the woods to support its cause. Basically, I wanted to show the most deranged films on the face of the planet and to encourage filmmakers to not bother using scripts or professional actors in order to make an interesting film. Pick a dangerous subject and run with it, see what magic you can capture.

How did you go about making the documentary Anarchy In The UK (2016) and how long did it take to make? You seem to have interviewed filmmakers and underground cinema freaks from across the whole country. Did you go on tour with your camera with the intention of making this film or did it happen by accident?

Yes, I loved every minute of making that film. It took a year of travelling by coach, train and car everywhere in the UK, talking to all these great filmmakers and cinema groups who I respect and have something pure and honest to say about the magic of cinema. I didn’t want to speak to any government funded cinema organizations, I’m sure you can guess why. The worst are the hipster dishwashers at the Experimental Film Society in Dublin and LUX in London. There’s a lot of hate out there for these limp dicks and they’ve earned every penny of it.

Anarchy was directed by Jett Hollywood. Why did you invent Jett Hollywood?
Most filmmakers are so timid and studious it really bores me, you can tell they only live through their cameras, a bit of mojo goes a long way. Why should rock stars have all the fun with alter-egos and characters? Jett was inspired by Ziggy Stardust. He’s a filmmaker from Mars, he’s got a big cock, and he seduces virgins. He’s also on a death trip to make cinema raw again.

What are the differences between Fabrizio and Jett?
Jett is a godhead, a figure to show people that cinema needs to loosen up and become more decadent again. Use your wildest fantasies. The Evolution Of The Earth Angel & Anarchy In The UK are precisely that. Look at all these people who are now crazy with desire and ambition to change the world. I'm a loner, I don’t need anyone and no one needs me. I'm extremely selfish when it comes to love because I have so much to give. It’s focus that I'm after, and I’ve found it with cinema and sin.

Why did Jett commit “cinema suicide”?
Jett died for cinema. He’s Jesus Christ on the cross. He’s now a martyr and a legend. Too bad he had to die in order for it to happen.

In what ways is Fabrizio also a creation? Is the Fabrizio we know from your films the same person you are outside of film?
I think the concept of being real has also turned into ‘’a character’’. Because I’ve been honest from the start I can do or say everything. After you’ve survived death at an early age, you’ve got no fear of anything. Let alone of something as trivial as looking mad. What you see on screen is me confronting my fantasies and my experiences and putting them together. Life is really a fantasy and a mirror. It can also be a landslide of shit or stardust, just get naked and find out.

Which filmmakers or movements in cinema have made you who you are?
I'm more about the movements and their energy, especially Italian Neo-Realism , French New Wave, Dogme 95, No Wave and Poetic Realism. The Pink8 Manifesto is really the bastard son of all these energies put together. I guess I’m really the Walt Disney of underground cinema.

How do you go about editing your films?
By accident really, especially Black Biscuit cause I didn’t know what the hell I was doing so I took LSD and listened to exorcisms and Smile by the Beach Boys and just went into a visual trance. I wanted it to be messy. Pregnant was edited at night and I became a victim of the film’s subject. I wouldn’t leave the house for weeks. Going on the road afterwards and making Anarchy was a great cure to get away from social media and all those other home imprisonment trappings.

What are the main points of the Pink8 Manifesto?
To not study film, and to just do it. If you wanna make a punk film get your ass out there and get ready to steal in order to make it happen. Don’t beg or borrow, if you want something just take it. Im sure Aleister Crowley would say the same.

Why do you insist “Short films are NOT acceptable, it MUST be a feature”?
Because short films aren’t a challenge. Where’s the cathartic relief? Making a short film is the equivalent of jerking off, but making a feature film is similar to a long steamy love making session. There’s no comparison, it's either all or nothing.

Do you stick rigidly to all the Pink8 rules you've set yourself, for your own films, or are these more of a starting point to trigger action and creation, like the Dogme 95 manifesto?
Absolutely not, I hate rigid rules. Just keep it loose. I make my films like this anyway, so it's no stretch for me, but if someone wants to make a Pink8 film you can mix and match and even create your own shortcuts. Just take with you the spirit of the manifesto and that will be enough.

What happens next, Fabrizio Federico?
Whenever I’ve completed a new film the reaction is as if I’ve just finished abusing the muse. So she needs a baby rest for a bit, but in the mean time I plan on looking down from the mountain for a little while. 

Fabrizio Blog

Straight Jacket Guerrilla Film Festival

Interview with AvantKinema / The Bird and The Monkey (UK)

An interview with Sarahjane Swan & Roger Simian (AvantKinema / The Bird And The Monkey) by Fabrizio Federico, filmmaker, founder of The Straight Jacket Guerrilla Film Festival and author of the Pink8 Manifesto.

Please introduce yourself.

SJS & RS: Hello, Fabrizio. We are Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian. We've collaborated together since 2010, under the name The Bird And The Monkey, on songs, music videos, short films and writing and we've also had the opportunity over the past few years to produce five video-art installations, featuring multiple projections, music and sculpture. This year we've created AvantKinema to help promote DIY experimental cinema.

I think it's great that you're encouraging people to believe in the talent and risk of DIY low budget cinema, plus breaking down the power and magic of its pure disarming qualities.

SJS & RS: We think it’s important to find time to Do It Yourself as far as films, music, art, self-publishing etc. Take control over the means of creation, distribution and promotion. This gives you more power in relation to what you do. You can learn for yourself out on the frontline how the process works. That way, if you ever do decide to take your work into some more established, traditional systems you can demand full editorial control and you’ll know what you’re talking about. You’ll have a body of work that proves you know what you’re doing. Throughout the history of cinema, each element of the process of creating a film has been put on its own pedestal and made to look like Magic by the corporate players. But the Dadaists didn’t ask MGM, Fox or Warner Brothers for permission they just went ahead and did it themselves. It’s our job as filmmakers to demystify each part of the process for ourselves. The technology is now cheap enough and available enough for anybody to do this. As the Punk zines used to say: you’ve learned three chords, now form a band!

What is your ultimate cinematic message to the world at the moment?

Roger: I think what we do is to bring the world around us into our heads through our senses and our experiences and that data is stored in different cognitive hard-drives, consciously and subconsciously. When we create our films, music, art, writing etc. we’re trying to put some of that material back out into the world through our own filters so that other people can get an idea of our experience of life.
Sarahjane: No, that's not our message. Our message is: be obsessive, be bold, find your magic and sprinkle it everywhere like hundreds and thousands!
Roger: Yes, you're right, that's our message.

What are your plans for making a feature film, and what subject would you pursue?
Sarahjane: At the moment we’re wondering if we can make a feature using Super 8. It’s expensive to do but we’ve got hold of a job-lot of expired Kodachrome 40 and we’re looking into processing this ourselves using coffee, vitamin c and washing soda. There’s a good chance that our subject might be our son who has autism.

Roger: It’s a total experiment and we’ve no idea if any of this film stock will actually work, or if we’ll be able to get a handle on the Caffenol processing, but that makes the whole thing exciting. It must be how the early cinematic pioneers felt.

Tell me about what made you want to make In The Dark I Sat?

Sarahjane: We wanted to see if we could make a Love Story work as an experimental movie. Up to that point we'd been making music videos and we wanted to expand this and bring in narrative at the same time as still using our music. The story of the film meant that we had to dig deep and get very expressionist with our sounds.

Roger: Yes, and we were thinking that a lot of the shots in our music videos looked kind of like scenes from movies, but more LoFi, like something the New York No Wave Cinema might have produced if they got their hands on digital equipment. So we wanted to try sampling some of our own previous work, mixing it up together and making something new: our first short film.

How does the concept of improving yourself and hunting down your dreams like a wild and savage animal manifest itself in your film?
SJS & RS: In this film we show the layer dividing real life from dreams as being as thin as the skin between a body of water and the air above it. There's not much effort in pushing through one realm into the other but somehow our heroine and her man have ended up in worlds so distant from each other that they can't even quite remember who it is each of them has lost. In the darkness between there is wildness and confusion.

What are your opinions about the drug culture and its impact on creativity?
SJS & RS: It’s up to people to decide for themselves but we’re of the opinion that the best results usually come about when artists keep their drugs in the recreational drawer and do the work when they're straight, once all their faculties are back online. Both of us have dabbled a bit recreationally when we were young, like everybody else, but we're now bringing up a little autistic boy, so we've got the biggest responsibility you could possibly have. We have quite unusual minds anyway and we're pretty well tapped into our creative wells so it's not something we feel we need. If we were out of our faces all the time we wouldn't get any work done. As far as culture and society, drugs were useful to help expand consciousnesses and to Open the Doors of Perception for artists, musicians, writers from the Romantic poets onwards, a way for people to throw off the shackles of traditional thought. But, in the case of Lennon and McCartney, for example, it then took the methodical brain of somebody like the straight-laced George Martin to put it all back together in ways that really worked. Captain Beefheart always claimed to be anti-drugs and he and the Magic Band produced some of the weirdest and tightest music going. You don’t have to be Wired to be Weird. Having said that, we have written a couple of songs drunk as Pepe Le Pew and they turned out pretty cool. So, basically: you've just got to work it out for yourself.

How did you come to write the film's prose and dialogue?
Roger: Years ago I started trying to write an experimental science-fiction novel, inspired by the '60s New Worlds era experiments of Michael Moorcock and JG Ballard. When we we were making In The Dark I Sat we decided to thieve chunks of my unfinished novel and mix it in with some cut-ups from Art History essays and a couple of our unreleased songs, one by Sarahjane (which gave the film its title) and one by me.

The movie’s cast is full of searching characters. Where did you find your cast and what is their background? Can you explain your working relationship with your actress and how do you feel about the primal importance of finding the right muse or misrule in cinema?
Roger: Sarahjane is the actress and I'm the actor. We decided soon after meeting to be each other's Muse and that works very well for us. We're a micro-collective, or a binary auteur and we do everything ourselves,
Sarahjane: So far we have used no other actors. When we act we direct each other.
Roger: Or we argue about the direction each of us should take and then we just go ahead and do it whatever way we wanted to in the first place.
Sarahjane: If we do make a film with our son he'll be our actor without necessarily knowing he's being our actor. He doesn't communicate verbally but it's obvious from his behaviour that he's aware when a camera is pointing at him, so us introducing a camera into our interactions with him will be as close as we get to directing him. It'll be interesting for us to work this way, as the issue of sensitivity will be a tussle for us. We want to celebrate our son and find new ways of communicating with him, using the language of film. At the same time we don't want to be exploitative.

What is your current favourite movie?
SJS & RS: There are so many films from more than a hundred years of cinema that we could pick for this but instead we'll highlight two filmmakers who have recently become our friends and had an influence on our own work. Walter Ungerer is an American who has been making experimental films since the early 1960s and Allan Brown is a Canadian who has collaborated with Montreal's Volatile Works collective. At this year's Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in the Scottish Borders we saw Walter Ungerer's short, I Just Don't Get It – It's My Russian Soul, and Allan Brown's first feature, Silver. We loved the colour, vibrancy and energy of My Russian Soul, and Silver gave us the boot up the behind we needed to finally go ahead and buy a couple of Super 8 cameras and some film-stock.

I Just Don't Get It – It's My Russian Soul by Walter Ungerer (USA)

Silver trailer by Allan Brown (Canada) 
SILVER_trailer from Allan Brown on Vimeo.

If you could travel back in time what year would you go to?
Sarahjane: I don't want to go back to a specific time but I'd like to visit an era: the Black and White era of German Expressionism, Jean Cocteau and the Film Noir Femme Fatales. I love that look and I like to perform in our films as a strong female with striking makeup and lighting.
Roger: I'd like us to go back a hundred years to 1916, to a specific place, the Cabaret Voltaire club in Zurich, so we can watch the early days of DADA unfolding, and participate in that. But I'd want us to come home again. I wouldn't want us to get stuck in the middle of World War I.

What would be an ideal world for independent cinema?
SJS & RS: Maybe a place a bit like the indie music scene in the '80s where you had underground bands creating the most experimental music (the more famous of these being the likes of The Fall in the UK and Sonic Youth in the States). There was an audience for this, probably the younger brothers and sisters of Punks who'd grown up listening to some pretty outrageous sounds. Bands were championed by John Peel and so you could hear them on his Radio 1 show. As well as the thousands of homemade zines being sold at gigs and in shops like Rough Trade, there was an established music press with three papers, NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, competing with each other, so you could read reviews and interviews. There was a cooperative distribution network linked in with independent record stores throughout the whole country. It was a thriving, fully self-sustained scene. It started falling apart because BritPop / Blur / Oasis / Creation Records made indie musicians think they should strive for mainstream success; then John Peel passed away and Amazon shut down all the indie record stores. Or something like that. Anyway, so what might the cinematic equivalent of that look like? You hint at this in your Anarchy In The UK film. If there were collectives like London's Exploding Cinema in every city and every town then that would be a great start, wouldn't it?

How do you feel about the imagery of the crow and suicide?
SJS & RS: We're friends with the crow. Crows have helped us and we smile when we hear their squawk. The same year we made In The Dark I Sat, with its tale of a crow who controls our heroine, we made our first video art installation at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival. The installation was called Sung To The Crows. It was inspired by an anonymous 14th century Borders Murder Ballad, Twa Corbies, where two crows have witnessed the slaying of a knight and, after picking his remains, they spy his hawk and hound going off hunting and his lover with another man. Our installation was presented as a Surrealist crime scene with a wedding dress covered in thousands of hand sewn sequin blood splatters; multiple video projections; strange music; a macabre figure which was part man and part crow; and the constant cawing of the corbies. Our slain knight pleads with the crows to bring him back into the world through the dreams of his murderers to wreak vengeance. We scared the shit out of one volunteer who was supposed to be invigilating. She left after only an hour and never came back!
As far as suicide. Suicide isn't beautiful. It's sad. It's sad that Ian Curtis killed himself. If he'd managed to hold on a few hours, days or weeks he might have realized that he wasn't feeling so bad anymore and he could have gone on to create great music for decades. Suicide is also terribly sad for the people left behind.

I'm a big believer of improvising and continuing to experiment with film editing. Can you explain your state of mind and tricks at the time of putting the film together in the editing room?

SJS & RS: We think we've picked up a feel for rhythm and structure after editing 20 or so music videos for our songs. There's a lot of improvisation: trying out different things, messing about with effects etc. When we were editing In The Dark I Sat, it was done in one or two long stretches. We spent just as long working on the sound, music and dialogue as we did on the visuals.

Other then the Pink8 and Cine-Rebis manifestos I haven’t really heard of any other new statement of belief in film journalism. What would be the first outline of your own cinema manifesto?
SJS & RS: We've been working on a manifesto but it's for all the arts and it asks for filmmakers, musicians, artists and writers to make work which breaks down the boundaries between the avant garde and the mainstream. We have some other demands, including: keeping it DIY and looking at the world as though you're seeing it reflected in the shards of a smashed mirror.

Which thinkers and authors do you admire?

Sarahjane: There are quite a few women whose thinking has fascinated me through the years. I always go back to Patti Smith, and the artist, Louise Bourgeois, and we were watching an interview with the Belgian filmmaker, Chantal Akerman, the other day which was interesting. I like to see the way other female artist's thoughts resonate or contrast with my own.
Roger: I go through phases of reading all kinds of books: literary ones, trashy genre novels or biographies of bands. I often like to dip into experimental books by Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Richard Brautigan, Flann O'Brien and others, without necessarily reading the whole book. I think it's ok to do that.
SJS & RS: As far as philosophical thinkers, Alain de Botton's book and TV documentary about Status Anxiety seems to explain a lot about the ways people behave nowadays.

In what way is the world's cultural zeitgeist affecting your inspiration?

SJS & RS: Unfortunately, the current zeitgeist seems to mostly involve Kim Kardashian's arse, Kanye West's ego and Donald Trump's tiny little mouth all fighting it out for the spotlight at the epicenter of a great cultural vortex. We probably filter a lot of what comes into our minds from the zeitgeist through our own dream logic. We want to cut-up the world and put it back together like a Hannah Höch DADAist photomontage!

Fabrizio Federico's Blog

The Bird And The Monkey


Monday, 27 June 2016

No-To-Low Budget Filmmaking & How We Made Our First Experimental Short

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In 2012, Sarahjane Swan and I set about putting together our first short experimental film, In The Dark I Sat. We had no budget, so we decided to make a No Budget Film. The only way to make a No Budget Film is to plan the thing, write it, film it and do any post-production (editing, effects, sound etc.) in your spare time, using equipment, resources and locations you either already own, or can easily beg, borrow or purloin. 

A lot of new filmmakers feel uncomfortable putting their time and effort into an under-financed cinematic work, no doubt assuming that quality will suffer, that there will be a barrage of accusatory snipes from critics and peers - “amateur!”, “underachiever!” - and that the finished result will be a shoddy shambles fit only to be seen by their Mum, their Shrink and the Family Pet. This need not be the case.

If you do a bit of research, there are many examples which prove that, with talent and determination, a filmmaker can create a work of great quality and merit on the tiniest of budgets. Many of these filmmakers have gone on to have successful careers in the mainstream, often managing to keep a modicum of creative control as it is their individual style, vision, message and/or technique which have put them there in the first place.

Think of America’s Grand Surrealist, David Lynch, whose struggles financing the production of his first feature, Eraserhead, included having to work a succession of menial jobs, borrowing cash from the cast and crew and contemplating completing the project with Ray Harryhausen style stop-motion animation. There is seemingly a scene in the film where high-haired hero, Henry, walks through a door one moment and when he arrives in the next room it is several years later. This was not a Lynchian absurdist plot device designed to unsettle and confuse. It literally took that long to get the next scene financed. Eraserhead, which was started in the early ‘70s, following soon after Lynch’s student shorts, was finally completed and released in 1977. The project cost very little, in a monetary sense, but its vision was so original, disturbing, beautiful, haunting and terrifying that it blew the cinematic world apart and propelled Lynch into a kind of Alternative Mainstream, if such a category can exist, of big budget widely distributed movies and media attention. 

This example shows that, because of the hurdles and restrictions in place due to lack of resources, the No Budget Filmmaker requires huge levels of stubborn persistence, originality of thought, resourcefulness, time and energy to produce work of a high quality. You’re right there on the frontline, soldier, dug deep in your trench and you’re going to have to improvise constantly, using whatever is at hand to edge your way forward. There’s sure to be a torrent of problematic shrapnel flying at you from every which way, so remember to duck. 

Here's another example:
The tale has oft been told of how director, Robert Rodriguez took part in clinical drug trials to help finance his first feature, El Mariachi (1992), made for just over $7000. Rodriguez utilised the talents of mostly amateur actors and shot over the Border in Mexico, using 24 rolls of 16mm film, which he later bounced onto video for editing, as this was the cheaper and easier option. In his 10 Minute Film School video, which you can track down on YouTube, Rodriguez basically advises those starting out to dig around in their own back yards for the clay from which to sculpt a memorable work: “When I did El Mariachi, I had a turtle, I had a guitar case, I had a small town and I said 'I'll make a movie around that'.”

He had intended to sell his Spanish language Western to the Latino straight-to-video market to bring in funds towards a bigger budget project, but the Mexican distributors he approached showed no interest. So Rodriguez took a different approach and mailed out trailers of El Mariachi to the larger US companies. Columbia loved what they saw and on viewing the full feature financed a 35mm print, promotion and distribution which reportedly led to $2 million brought in through the box office. With profits like that it is no surprise that Rodriguez was soon seen as a director who could successfully bring in a project well under budget. He has gone on to make countless mainstream films, including his own Mariachi sequels, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, as well as From Dusk Till Dawn with Quentin Tarantino and the Spy Kids movies. 

To some filmmakers, even the $7000 Rodriguez had at his disposal for El Mariachi or the ten-to-twenty thousand dollars it took to make Eraserhead are figures so far out of their grasp that they may as well be full-blown major Hollywood budgets.

This is where the No Budget philosophy of filmmaking kicks in. Where is the rule which emphatically states you can’t create your cinematic wonders with Zero Finance? If you’re resourceful enough to use what you already have and borrow the rest you can work out some way of tapping those visions in your head and releasing them into the world in all their filmic splendour.

Do It Yourself! That’s the motto you should pin above your bed so that its message is engrained into your psyche from your waking moments. Punk Rock encouraged the DIY gene in all of us to kick into action on a grand scale but the handmade, self-published, fully autonomous work has been there in art from the very start: from the Modernist pamphlets and manifestos of the early 20th Century, and William Blake's illuminated volumes back through the aeons to the cave-painters of pre-history. There’s no shame, only glory in taking full control of the means of production, distribution and promotion. The technology of today makes creative production and delivery even more accessible than it was in the halcyon days of home recording, zine publishing, graffiti and mail art etc.

Sarahjane and I discussed what kind of short we would like to create and came up with the vision of an avant-garde science-fictional love story about individuals trapped in alternate realities in the aftermath of a quantum level catastrophe, “The Fluxing”.

We wanted our first film to have a fragmented structure and feel. We've always loved a trend in the Modernist creative arts which seems to reflect the disjointed nature of the contemporary world and the fractures this causes in the modern psyche. It is as though the artist has glimpsed the world in the shards of a smashed mirror and attempted to piece together a patchwork reconstruction of it.

In Fine Art this approach can be seen in the early collage work of Picasso and Georges Braque, the Dadaist photomontages of Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, the Frankenstein-like sculptural constructions of Merz founder Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg's Neo-Dada; or the symbolically cluttered installation work of Louise Bourgeois's Cells. Examples of literary Shard-ism can be read in the postmodernist fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, the cut-up word-collage of William Burroughs / Brion Gysin and Kathy Acker and the hip '60s New Worlds New Wave Sci-Fi of JG Ballard and Michael Moorcock.

Shard-ist Music? Look to the sampling of early Hip Hop or to Captain Beefheart's collision of early blues, rock, free jazz, outsider music and Beat poetry.

The easiest way for Sarahjane and I to translate this Smashed Glass approach into a cinematic form seemed to be for us to raid our own catalogue of DIY music videos. By the time we decided to make In The Dark I Sat, in 2012, we had already produced an album's worth of these under the name The Bird And The Monkey. 

By excising various unconnected segments from these music videos, which were filmed at different times and in different locations, we were able to piece together a new construction with a chronology which was purposefully disjointed. In this new narrative we see Sarahjane's character jump between looks, styles, personalities. To us as filmmakers, this aggressive rejection of Continuity – which is so prized in mainstream cinema and TV - gives a real visceral visual indication of just how fractured our protagonists's identities have become when faced by an absurd and confusing world. For the end of the film we experimented by dragging hundreds of frames from a segment of video into Photoshop and “painting” over sections in each of these.

Obviously there were initial costs in purchasing a camcorder and an iMac several years earlier but, other than this, In The Dark I Sat literally cost us nothing to make. It was premiered in London at the Portobello Film Festival in 2012 and later that year screened in Scotland at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival.

In my next post I'll look at the benefits brought to low budget filmmaking in the 21st Century by developments in digital technology.

Roger Simian collaborates with Sarahjane Swan in The Bird And The Monkey and low budget experimental film project AvantKinema-DIY

A sample of the script for In The Dark I Sat is available to read in the Flux issue of  ABSC_ND magazine. Turn to page 289 to read.