INTERVIEW: Wagner, Public Broadcasting, and Jon Else, director of "Sing Faster: The Stagehand's Ring Cycle"
by Steve Rhodes
Jon Else is known for his award winning documentaries such as “The Day After Trinity” and “Yosemite,” his work on the PBS series “Eyes on the Prize” and “Cadillac Dessert,” and as a cinematographer on hundreds of documentaries including “Crumb.” His latest documentary, “Sing Faster: The Stagehand’s Ring Cycle” is a visually stunning and humorous departure from these more serious docs, as it looks at the Ring Cycle from the point of view of the stagehands who worked on the San Francisco Opera‘s production in 1990. It won the Filmmaker’s Trophy for Documentary (which is awarded by fellow filmmakers) at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival.
San Francisco public television station KQED airs “Sing Faster” as part of their Docs of the Bay series today (June 9, 1999), and Los Angeles’s KCET station will broadcast the film on June 17th and June 20th. Meanwhile, the San Francisco Opera mounts the Ring Cycle again this month. Else is currently working on a documentary on the Pacific Stock exchange.
indieWIRE spoke with Else about funding and the future of docs back in January at his office at the University of California at Berkeley where he heads the documentary program in the Graduate School of Journalism.
indieWIRE: Can you give me some background on how you came to make the film and raise the funds?
Jon Else: The film started out 10 years ago. I had planned to do a four-minute film on one scene in “La Traviata.” That actually expanded into the idea of doing a half-hour film about all of the sets in the Ring Cycle. I was able to raise a little bit of money for that in 1989. We actually shot the film in the summer of 1990. And then it was stalled for nine years because I could not raise the money to finish it.
In the nine years between when we shot it and now, I submitted 137 funding applications to various foundations and agencies. Finally little by little we were able to raise the money. In the final incarnation, the film had grown from four minutes to an hour and was not only about the sets, but the whole story of the ring cycle.
We shot it in 16mm over two months over the summer of 1990 – shooting two or three nights a week, hanging out backstage during all of the dress rehearsals.
iW: You have some interesting visual elements in the film. Were those planned in advance?
Else: Yes, all of the time lapses – there are two big time lapse sequences in the film. One at the beginning which shows all of the construction of the sets and all the arranging and moving of the sets. And one at the end where we take all 17 hours of the Ring Cycle and condense it to about 60 seconds. And those were fairly carefully planned from well before we started shooting.
What we did was bolt an Arriflex camera with an intervalometer to the railing of the second balcony of San Francisco Opera. It took one frame every 20 seconds for about two months. And we took that footage and edited it to those two sequences. The gag with the time lapse at the end is that throughout the entire hour of the film you’ve never been allowed to watch the opera from the auditorium, from the house. So at the end you finally get to watch the whole thing from beginning to end – every single scene.
iW: You mentioned you had first been interested in “La Traviata.” Had you been an opera fan for a long time?
Else: No, I had not been an opera fan at all. My wife and I had taken our kids to see “La Traviata”. It was a family matinee, and they left the curtain open during one of the scene changes. It was great. The soprano finished her aria and left the stage. Then all of the sudden 100 workers came out and transformed a palace into a cornfield or a cornfield into a palace – I can’t remember what it was.
I approached the San Francisco Opera to see if we could do a little behind-the-scenes movie about the scene changes, and they said sure. And then we both forgot about it. Then about six months later they called me back and said we’re doing the Ring Cycle, do you want to do the Ring Cycle? And I, without thinking, said sure, never having heard the Ring Cycle. I went out and got a recording of it and sat down and listened to it. I thought are they kidding? People actually listen to this shit? I can’t imagine people actually paying money to listen to this garbage. And then slowly it began to grow on me. It is certainly an acquired taste. By the time we finished shooting, I was a complete maniac for the Ring Cycle.
iW: You said you were originally interested in the sets. How did you become interested in the stagehands?
Else: Well, I’ve always been really interested in working people. I’ve done a lot of work. I’ve worked in factories and I’ve worked in construction. I’m just fascinated by the work that people do. Old fashioned work. Drive a nail, push a wheelbarrow, work. The thing that attracted me originally was the grandeur of the sets. Then I began to hang out with the guys who did this astonishing work.
I was really struck by two things. One, just the amazing skill and intricacy involved. They’re almost like musicians the way they move, the way they choreograph, the way they can have several huge sets moving on the stage at the same time – all in silence. The second was how well they knew the operas. I don’t know why that should have surprised me, but it did.
Another thing was you could make a four minute film with no structure, no story. You could probably almost make a half-hour film with no story, no structure. But if you’re going to make an hour film you have to have something that goes from beginning to end, has a beginning, middle and end. I did not want to do the standard making of an opera, so I decided to actually structure it around the story of the Ring Cycle.
iW: Why do you think it was so difficult to raise the money? The Ring Cycle seems a natural for…
Else: One would think so. This was a project from the beginning for public television. We were trying to raise money right at the moment that Congress was just ripping all of the funding away from public television. The other thing that happened was that we were trying to raise money at a time when the public television system had really made a policy decision not to support individual programs. It was a big shift all to series. This was in the wake of Ken Burn’s “Civil War.” So virtually everything that gets funded for public television from within the system is a series.
This also was just a strange sort of movie. They were sort of scratching their heads as to what it was all about. They’re still scratching their heads. They’ve actually turned it down for broadcast.
iW: Right, but you eventually did get funding…
Else: Well, we actually did get funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through Oregon Public Broadcasting as the sponsoring station. And from several foundations and other sources. But it still needs to be seen how it is going to get broadcast.
iW: What was the reason they gave for turning it down? You would think PBS would have the perfect audience for this.
Else: They thought that the through line was not strong enough. They thought that the film did not track from beginning to end in a nice kind of logical way. I can’t reconstruct their thinking. The people who turned this down are the people who do all the big performance – Live From Lincoln Center, Great Performance, American Masters. I’m sure they had their reasons. I think that at the bottom level it was just too strange, a little too odd for them. We’ll see. I’m sure it is going to find some sort of broadcast home.
iW: “Sing Faster” was shown at the Film Arts Foundation festival in San Francisco last year. What was the reaction there?
Else: That was the first time I had seen it with an audience. I was very pleased. I think they laughed at all the right places. There was a combined audience of film people and Wagner fans. And the Wagner people are like Deadheads. They really know their stuff. They will catch you if you make a misstep. I think we passed.
One thing that was curious and interesting was that it was projected on a very high-end video projector. At Sundance they will show a 35mm print which was made from our video master. I can guarantee you we’ve reached the point where the high-end video projection looks better than the 35mm print made from the video master.
This technically is a real rat’s nest of a film. It was shot on 16mm Fuji film ten years ago with no key codes. Then we edited it on an Avid system. When the time came to make a print, there was no reasonably inexpensive way to go back to the original film negative. That is why we went from the digital beta master. It looks ok on 35. The ideal thing would have been to shoot it on Super 16 with Kodak keycode numbers. Then it is a slam-dunk to go from back to the original negative for the blowup.
iW: There has been a tremendous change in technology since you shot the film.
Else: Yes. If there is a bitterness I harbor on this whole experience, it is because it took so long to raise the money. The film probably cost twice what it would have if we had been fully funded initially. It burned up a lot of my life. And in the time it took us to raise the money, film editing became obsolete. The first assembly on this film was edited on a Steenbeck. If we could have forged ahead at that point and made a 16mm negative and then a 35 blow up from that, we would have been way ahead of the game. The very ponderousness of the funding process had a lot of downsides to it. The film cost more and looks worse than it would if we had had half as much money at the outset.
Can I talk a little bit about the sound? This is very much a sound movie. The only reason it works is because of this incredible field sound recording by John Haptas. What is easy to miss when you watch the film is that it is in a deafening sound environment. You have a 106-piece orchestra playing full volume and you often have people whispering in the foreground. Haptas is just a wizard at being able to get good clean recordings the first time around. We also had a number of discrete audio channels set up recording continuously. There was the music, the singers and six different intercom channels in the opera house. Those were all recorded on Nagras in the basement in a recording studio we had set up down there.
We had one of the great sound editors in the world who edited part of the film, Jay Boekelheide. The editing was split between Deborah Hoffman who did the first half and Jay who did the second half. And Jay did the sound mix. He is just a genius in being able to find clarity in this chaos of intercoms and singing and screaming. I just marveled at how simple it is to understand the sound and the language, which are so often just crushed in environments like that.
iW: Can you talk about the state of the documentary?
Else: I think it is a great time. I’m incredibly optimistic. One reason is the emergence of DV, digital video. It is the moment I’ve been waiting for all my life because a person… You or I can go out with $3,000 worth of equipment and make a really good looking and really good sounding film. And without having to raise a half million dollars. You can also make a piece of crap and there will be a lot of crap out there. If you look at this recent spate of films like “The Saltmen of Tibet,” “The Cruise,” “Celebration” where they are making this end run around the funding mechanism. That is incredibly liberating. That is hopefully going to do what early 16mm did for documentary – democratize it.
I’m very happy that the middle ground of video production is going to go away – I hope. What is going to survive is Super 16, digibeta and HDTV at the very high end. I feel very comfortable with a sort of two tiered system that is emerging. On the one end is really what amount to ballpoint pens – DV and all of its forms. That is really accessible to everyone. And at the high end, the image quality that is going to survive is so good. I will not lament the passing of standard 16mm. I will not lament the passing of beta. So I think we are heading in a pretty good direction there.
The problem then is broadcast and this voracious commercialism that is overpowering everything having to do with television. That’s a hurdle we have to mount. But at least there are ways to get the films made. I still think we are a long way from seeing serious documentaries on commercial television. The profit driven system will just not tolerate it. And with all of the faults, public television is the forum in this country for really serious documentary to survive the battering of this market driven noose. There is good stuff happening on HBO, but that is not enough. I’m also hoping with this new technology there will be a more invigorated market for theatrical documentaries.
iW: You’ve talked about setting up a lab for documentaries at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism?
Else: In the broad sense the documentary program within the School of Journalism is a training program based on the idea of making real films for real audiences. That is making documentaries that are intended to be seen by millions of people. And within those confines – those confines being broadcast television – trying to do films that are as adventuresome and daring as they can possibly be while still being accessible. Still being engaging to a mass audience.
What we’re trying to do is raise a bunch of money to open up a laboratory here to figure out how cheaply these documentaries can be made. To use this mini-DV technology as a springboard, as a lever to redesign the whole documentary production process from top to bottom. To look at what kinds of films can be done cheaply.
First, it is almost impossible to do archive films cheaply. It is probably possible to reinvigorate cinema v