INTERVIEW: Reed Paget Risks Life and Film with "Amerikan Passport"
“I found myself addicted to war zones,” says Reed Paget, who at 23-years-old traveled the globe with 16 mm camera in hand, chronicling the decade’s political hot spots from the 1989 bloody massacre of Chinese students in Tiananmen Square to waiting out Iraqi SCUD missile attacks in Jerusalem in 1991 — and everywhere in between. You name it, Paget was there: querying locals in Vietnam and arrested in Cambodia, mingling with the Contras in Nicaragua and amidst civil war in El Salvador, caught between police gunfire in apartheid South Africa and a riot in East Berlin as the Wall came down. Sounds more like a James Bond movie than a no-budget documentary.
Sixty thousand feet of film and several years later, Paget’s “Amerikan Passport” debuted at Slamdance ’99, won the prize for Best Documentary, and continues some travels of its own, kicking off the Chicago Underground Film Festival this evening. After playing at festivals such as South by Southwest, Seattle, Santa Barbara, and Maryland, and garnering nice praise along the way, Paget’s “Passport” is as entertaining and enlightening a festival film as you can find. So much so, you’d think it’d land at art houses and a cable station near you. For now, the film awaits distribution and the politically inert audiences that would do so well by catching it. In the meantime, Paget has grown up quite a bit, shoots news footage for New York One, and is in heavy strategy mode to sell the film.
indieWIRE: With so much to shoot, why didn’t you shoot on video?
Reed Paget: I had the romantic notion that one day I’d be able to play at a film festival if I shot in film. I now know making a film was a mistake financially. The real mistake was shooting interviews on film. Because I had to shoot tons and tons of interviews, because you never know what you’re going to get. On the other hand, having shot in a number of ‘war zone’ type places, having 16 mm was definitely choice, because it definitely has a more authentic look and it’s more visually appealing. After all, I didn’t go to business school, I went to film school.
iW: How did you finance your two-year-plus production/world tour?
Paget: I worked in China, taught English and saved money. People tend to think one needs to be rich to spend years abroad. The ironic truth is that it is cheaper to travel than to live in the US. Especially if one is willing to work along the way, and live like the locals. I bought the camera for $500, a Sony pro-walkman for $300 and had a crystal synch chip installed, and $100 for a stick microphone. I had a $1000 left over for film stock, bought 20 roles of old, expired stock. The bulk of the film was bought on credit cards. And that was not cheap. It cost in the neighborhood of 8 grand, so there was a huge credit card debt and in fact, technically, I still haven’t paid it back. This film has been and still is a huge risk. I’ll probably lose my shirt.
iW: Tell me about editing 60,000 feet of footage down to the finished film.
Paget: It took a year to just get it out of the lab, so I didn’t get the footage until ’92. It took about 5 years to edit the film on a Steenbeck, and it took about 5 drafts. It took a year to make each draft and they weren’t good enough to make audiences respond. That stemmed from the fact that making a political film and a personal film together was very tricky. To find the right balance, and tenor and tone and everything else that might sabotage the film.
iW: What then made it ultimately work?
Paget: The big turning point was when I sent the film out to a few friends around the country on videotape, and said, “Can you show it to people who don’t know me and know nothing about the movie and I want you to tell me honestly what they say. Don’t soft-glove it.” And people were like, it’s a great film, the only bad thing is the filmmaker. Specifically, the filmmaker’s narration. Thank God someone said this. It hurts for a second, but you pull the knife out and I cut out about 50% of the narration immediately. When I took out the commentary, it worked.
iW: What I like about the movie is there’s this air of self-mockery. That’s what makes it work. Here’s this tall white kid from Washington, running around in the middle of the decade’s hot spots. Have you gotten criticisms that the politics may be superficial?
Paget: What is the value in a person going to 20 different countries and asking, ‘What is the U.S. doing here, is it right or wrong, is it colonial or saving the world from communism?’ By definition, that’s going to be superficial as opposed to taking one country, it’s true. Maybe, this film isn’t an answer to anything, but hopefully, it’ll provoke continued questioning of these issues. Maybe it undermines itself by being somewhat humorous, but hopefully it works the other way, where the humor of it and the limitations of it make the MTV audience see these things for the first time. I bet if you asked anyone who’s 20-years-old today where Laos is, or whether America has ever bombed Cambodia, they will not know. I actually think every generation has to rediscover every damn political issue.
iW: What was the most terrifying moment during the shooting?
Paget: A guy put a knife to my stomach in South Africa and asked if I was police. And I said, No, I’m American. I’m surrounded by six of his friends, and people had just been killed in their neighborhood and their houses had been burned and the police had been standing by allowing this to happen. Naively, like a dumb American I was just waltzing through the day after.
iW: Why do you think you haven’t found a distributor yet?
Paget: A distributor looks at the numbers and says, we have to put up a 100 grand in prints and advertising, you’re going to have play in these theaters, and there’s no guarantee we’ll get our money back. For the smaller companies, they’re sitting on the fence.
iW: And what are you doing now to help sell the film?
Paget: I’m actively working on Roger Ebert to watch the film. We’re playing in Chicago, we made the film in Chicago, so hopefully that will carry some weight. And we’re setting up a website. We’re cutting a trailer. We’re putting together a strong, graphic press and marketing campaign, so when we go to a distributor they don’t have to think: “What are the taglines? What’s the art? What’s the font? Well, this kid’s got so much of this put together that we all have to do is add money.” I try not to call them and be the jerk that they’re avoiding.
But I don’t feel disheartened by it. Out of Sundance, if you look at all the films that were there and how many are getting released, there aren’t many films that get attention. So I’m somewhat enjoying the ride, it’s highly educational, a lot of fun, even though it’s extremely taxing and costly, but it’s kind of worth it just to get out there. At the end of the day, if it doesn’t get a distribution deal, it won’t have been. . . just the festivals, it’s almost been enough; it definitely makes the process worth it.