Swinging Verite, David Schisgall Enters "The Lifestyle"
by Dan Pereira
Swinging Verite, David Schisgall Enters “The Lifestyle”
Premiering this weekend at the 5th Annual Los Angeles Independent Film
Festival is David Schisgall’s “The Lifestyle,” a journey into the lives
of a select few members of the “swinger” community in the U.S. Although
the filmmaker and his production team traveled throughout the country
establishing trust in what is a close knit, highly organized and
national “alternative lifestyle” (with its own parties, magazines,
websites and conventions), the film primarily takes place in the
informal center of this underground culture: Orange County, California.
Before his departure this week to Los Angeles for the much anticipated
world premiere of the film, Schisgall spoke to indieWIRE from his
apartment in New York City about the origins of the project, documentary
aesthetic styles and choices, representation of sex in cinema and the
provocative topics that are at the heart of his debut documentary
indieWIRE: What was the original idea behind this film?
David Schisgall: I first floated the idea of a documentary about
swingers as an idea for a group project in my first year film class at
Harvard University. It was tabled along with many other ideas; it was
maybe even very, very, very briefly discussed. It wasn’t chosen as the
subject of our group project, but I held on to it. Years later, I met
(Producer of “The Lifestyle”) Dan Cogan at a bar, and was pitching him
some ideas for films and he really liked the idea of a documentary about
the world of swinging.
iW: Did you shoot on Super 16 for financial or aesthetic reasons, or
for reasons of the more compact and versatile cameras for shooting in
party or club environments? Or a higher shooting ratio?
Schisgall: We shot every frame on super 16. You can make very beautiful
pictures on film, and I wanted to make beautiful pictures. I shot a lot
of Beta when I was with the network [ABC], and I knew that shooting
on film would force me to be focused and disciplined. The limited
supply forced me to think like a director and build the storyboard in my
head. When you have a more or less endless supply of stock in the heat
of the action on a doc many people get seduced into a scattershot “shoot
everything” mentality or you can be seduced into checking off simple
coverage. The limited supply of film forces you to really think through
the experience you want to give the audience. Shooting film ensured
that the film would look like nothing like network news or porn, two
things I wanted to avoid.
iW: Because of the subject matter, mainstream funding sources must have
Schisgall: We got funding from a variety of sources. Dan Cogan did a
brilliant job of handling all the financing, and over time it all worked
out. Good Machine was extremely helpful. In terms of pure mainstream
sources, we got some nibbles from television, because I had worked at
ABC News, I have connections with that world of things but, generally,
we steered away from taking funding from such sources.
iW: Talk about your time with Errol Morris (“Fast, Cheap and Out of
Control“) and then as an Associate Producer at ABC News. It would seem
the lessons to be learned from such disparate experiences, for a future
documentary director, would be wide ranging?
Schisgall: I learned more or less everything I know from Errol,
especially about the level of sophistication a certain documentary
audience demands. In the end, though, “The Lifestyle” is very different
from an Errol Morris movie. I learned a lot at ABC News as well, and
while a national news organization is not a place to make ‘art’ per se,
I learned a lot in a Civic Teachers, sort of way.
iW: What do you mean?
Schisgall: Well, ABC has a high journalistic standard, which is good
value for an organization you are working for to have. So, I learned a
lot about educating an audience, or thinking very clearly about
‘supplying’ an audience, which is what we have to do in network news in
the end. So you have to entertain, but educate. And in being forced to
think about “audience,” I realized where my heart really was. I was
trained as a verite documentarian in college and I had an unrequited
love for a smaller audience who really appreciates edgier, almost
avant-garde documentary films.
iW: Almost avant-garde?
Schisgall: Yes, I think “The Lifestyle” is accessible in a way which
‘pure’ avant-garde pieces really exclude….
iW: ….like a ten-hour piece of a static camera observing the Empire
Schisgall: …..yes, that’s an example. I wanted the audience to be the
protagonist of the movie, to go on a journey and never feel moderated.
iW: So where did that leave you in that perennial debate in documentary
filmmaking circles, over a pure cinema ‘verite’ approach or even the
slightest engagement of the participants in the film by the filmmaking
Schisgall: That’s a great question, because Dan Cogan and I had the
opportunity to sit down with Al Maysles at some point before the making
of the film, and we heard first hand from one of the godfathers of the
form a really persuasive argument for a pure verite approach. And I
have to admit, I was very inspired when we were done talking to him.
But, as you will see when you watch the film, the film has a mix of pure
verite and interview. So I cannot privilege one approach above the
other as a way of getting to the ‘truth,’ because I was comfortable with
both. Knowing the rules of pure cinema verite, however, did help me in
my approach to capturing the sex depicted in the film.
iW: How so?
Schisgall: Well, studio films have a definite grammar to them in the
way they handle star driven sex scenes. Likewise, pornography has its
own vocabulary which we have come to expect, a way of shooting sex which
is erotic, with a rhythm which is designed to bring you into the
lovemaking, to arouse you. I wanted to do something that was
completely different from those models. I decided early on and stuck
with the decision to stand back from the sex act. Put your sticks down,
stay wide and not move the camera. That was the approach we used – more
anthropological, non-judgmental and intelligent -with some distance.
So, in the end, a textbook verite approach to the sex depicted in the
iW: How did you go about establishing yourself and your production team
within the swinger community?
Well, it is a very poorly studied topic, with very few outside experts
to consult. But, I did my typical paper research – swinger magazines to
begin. Then, we would go around to the clubs, meeting people. A lot of
the swinger community does not think a journalist should be allowed
within the scene at all. Never. Others were more open.
iW: Did you have preconceptions going into the swinger parties?
Schisgall: Well, there is a taboo attached to swinging, on that we can
all agree. It is presupposed to be bad. In my mind, there were two
mainstream media preconceptions: that it is coercive of women and that
it is some sort of theatre of the cruel. It was neither of those things,
although it is difficult to condense my opinion of swinging into a
‘sound bite’ because the film most clearly speaks to what I found to be
the truth. The film itself will draw out what people think of the
subject at a personal level outside of the few of the preconceptions I
have mentioned. The film forces the audience to confront things which
are sometimes difficult: in order to challenge them, and hopefully
conceptually teach them something.
iW: Another preconception that I would add to the list is that the
scene is truly bisexual, but isn’t male homosexuality usually
discouraged in the swinger community?
Schisgall: Yes, within the Lifestyle male bisexual conduct is not just
discouraged, but forbidden, while female bisexuality is widespread, but
not “encouraged” particularly. Women are encouraged to like other
women. An entire section of the movie addresses this issue, because the
lifestyle really mirrors the way society constructs sexuality for both
men and women. Women are constructed from birth to interact more
intimately amongst themselves than men are, and men are taught — or at
least were taught until recently — that being gay is the worst thing
you can be. Look at mainstream straight porn: you’ll see women on women
everywhere but you’ll never see two men touching at all. So the
Lifestyle is a reflection and extension of the deep-seated ways this
culture constucts sexuality for both men and women.
iW: On that note, you make a statement regarding the film which is very
provocative in and of itself really: “Frankly, I think the swingers may
be morally superior to the audience.” What should we take from that?
Schisgall: What I mean is that sometimes documentarians make fun of
their subjects, portraying them as inferior to the filmmakers and the
audience. No one would ever make fun of, say, an aboriginal tribe that
was the subject of a documentary, or a community of the underprivileged
in this country, and I refused to do it to the swingers. “The
Lifestyle” is very funny — but without making fun. We walked a fine
line. The swingers may be morally superior to the audience in that they
are sometimes more honest, more attentive, and have better communication
with their spouses than people in the audience. Think about it — in the
average American marriage, one member telling the other they want to
have sex with other people tends to lead pretty quick to a discussion
about divorce. To make swinging work you have to have a very strong
relationship with excellent communication. And the swingers —
particularly the ones in this film that are coming out of the closet for
the first time — certainly have the courage of their convictions.
iW: Is Orange County really the swinger capital of the United States?
Schisgall: Yes, although there are swinger communities in every state
except North Dakota. Florida and Texas are really on the rise, though,
and may give Orange County a run for the money.
iW: Any thoughts on the premiere of the film in Los Angeles?
I hear it’s a great festival, and I really haven’t done the festival
thing quite yet, so I am looking forward to it. Success was making the
film and finishing the film. I hope people come to enjoy the film and
experience it for themselves.
[“The Lifestyle” screens Saturday, April 17 at 3:40 and Sunday, April 18
[Dan Pereira is the manager of the UCLA Extension/IBM Media Lab located
at Universal Studios and a Los Angeles-based freelance contributor.]