The Rush of Reading; Mark Moskowitz On “Stone Reader”
by Jason Guerrasio
Books have always been a source of inspiration for filmmakers, and Mark Moskowitz’s first feature film, “Stone Reader,” is no exception. But his passion for books is stronger than most filmmakers’. An avid reader his whole life, Moskowitz came upon Dow Mossman’s “The Stones of Summer” in 1972 after reading a review of it in The New York Times. At 18 years old, Moskowitz couldn’t grasp its deep subject of a young man coming of age during the haze of the Vietnam War, so he threw it aside where it lay for decades. Finally, in 1998 he gave it another try and found himself engulfed in the book. Interested in reading more of the author’s work, Moskowitz searched for more titles but quickly found that Mossman hasn’t written anything since.
The highly personal doc “Stone Reader” chronicles Moskowitz’s year-long journey to find the elusive Dow Mossman, while discovering how literature can create a bond with complete strangers. Since walking away with the special grand jury honor and audience award for best feature at Slamdance a year ago, no one has been more surprised by the film’s success than its director. He was recently nominated for an Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award and is currently self-distributing the film with Lot 47 founder Jeff Lipsky.
Mark Moskowitz sat down with indieWIRE contributor Jason Guerrasio to talk about the adventures that took place behind the camera, why books still are of value, and how his assistant cameraman may have saved the film. The film is playing now at New York’s Film Forum.
indieWIRE: How much of the impetus for making “Stone Reader” was obsessive drive and how much of it was curiosity?
Mark Moskowitz: Looking back it was clearly obsessive, but when you’re making it you don’t know that; anybody who is obsessive with something doesn’t know that while their doing it.
iW: The film isn’t necessarily a documentary in the traditional sense.
Moskowitz: I don’t even think it’s a documentary. A lady stood up at the Tribeca Film Festival and hammered me about that: “How can you call this a documentary? This is not a documentary, I love the movie, but it’s something else. You’re telling a story. It’s not like you have all the experts and the B roll on top.” I said, “I never said it’s a documentary.” I call it an instigation film.
iW: The way the doc is edited, it’s almost a visual novel. Was it your intention to tell the story as if the audience were reading a book?
Moskowitz: That was part of my intention. To see if I can give you the feeling of place and time like a good novel does. Can I take you through and give that depth, even though it’s only two hours? I was skeptical. I haven’t seen a movie that really does that. The film is about loss, and people die through the film, including my father, Joseph Heller, and [Mario] Puzo. You realize this thing is going away. The film is a story; it’s not a documentary as much as it is a story. And I wanted to tell you the story in a way that if we met at a book store or a library and we were looking at the same books and we started talking, I don’t even know who you are, where you live, but we connect. I wanted to tell the story to someone like that, who loved books the same way I did, and loved reading, and I was determined to tell it the way I am. I go off on stories but eventually get to the point. It may take a while but I get there.
iW: How frustrating did it get when you couldn’t find anyone who knew Mossman, or even heard of his book?
Moskowitz: I would go out and find these guys, like the guy at Penn State, Robert Downs. We’d go out and I wouldn’t tell him why I wanted to talk to him. I was certain that each guy I went to see would know Mossman. With Downs, I FedEx-ed him the book, we drove four and a half hours to him. The screen door opens and he comes out holding the book, so I think he knows Mossman, but we’re not rolling so I say to my crew, “Just get set up,” he says, “I just have to tell you…” I said, “Bob don’t say anything, save it for the cameras.” I got him talking about other things while we’re setting up lights. Then the first thing he says is, “I never heard of the guy.” That happened over and over again.
iW: How was that from a filmmaker’s point of view?
Moskowitz: I was depressed. The thing about a good film is it’s made by a lot of good people, not just one person. I had the initiative to do this, I had the passion to do it, I enjoy filmmaking, but a lot of the ideas come elsewhere. In this case I came back and I was really depressed. That was probably the fourth or fifth interview that we did. I thought this is costing us money, what am I doing, I sort of lost interest in doing it. The assistant cameraman said, “Mark, you don’t get it, failure is what the film is about. Every time you fail it makes the film better.”
iW: Would the film been worth finishing if you never found Mossman?
Moskowitz: At that point once I realized [the camerman] was right, that the film wasn’t about finding Mossman, the film was how much fun I was having talking about books with people, it didn’t matter if I find him or not. Once I understood that, I was stunned when we found him, I was very depressed because I knew how I was going to finish the film now we had to go do this whole piece. The guy’s alive, not only that, he’s going to talk to us.
iW: How much of the making of this film was an escape from what was going on personally in your life?
Moskowitz: I think some. Some of it was wanting to try something else after years and years of doing one thing, I got bored and I wanted a new challenge. Not so much the making of the film and the traveling, that’s not really fun, but certainly the contact that we were going after, being able to talk to the people we did, it was pleasurable.
iW: Why do you enjoy reading?
Moskowitz: I ask a lot of questions to myself about what is the value of reading, about doing this, and I began thinking for a long period, is there any value? Is it a huge waste of time? Could I be making money? Could I be working out? Could I be playing with my kids? I did ask that question to people, and it is like what Puzo said: “Reading is like shooting heroin.”
iW: What was different about reading “The Stones of Summer” as an adult than when you were a teenager?
Moskowitz: I don’t know. I’ve heard from some people who’ve known about the film but haven’t seen it and they say, “Oh, you made a movie on my favorite book, I read it when I was 17 I was blown away, I read it three times in two years.” God, I couldn’t read it then. They’re smarter than I am, because it’s a great book but it requires concentration. I think the answer to this is, that you read things in a point in your life, somewhere between 16 and 22, when things make big impressions on you. On the other hand, there are other things that work differently in life. I think “The Stones of Summer” is very generational, if you grew up in the ’50s and ’60s it captures that, but it captures that in the mid-west and most of the fiction written around then was in urban areas. Reading it now I think back on those times and try to understand them. I have children of my own, and I’ve traveled a great bit. I’ve thought about the Vietnam War, I’ve thought about that time and the book addresses that from the point of what people went through at that time.
iW: Has writing gotten worse, or has reading become less interesting? What are you trying to tell us about reading?
Moskowitz: I think the latter. I think there are a ton of good writers today. I think it’s not the fault of the writers, I think there’s more talented people writing because of computers and access. When Dow wrote the book he wrote it out by hand once, twice, three times, typing, and typing, submitting perfect pages. Attention spans are shorter. You can multitask on the computer; you can do nine things at once. We’re all in a rush and book take time to read.
iW: What’s the state of “The Stones of Summer” getting back in print?
Moskowitz: The book will come back and proceeds are going to benefit a foundation called The Lost Book Club and we’re going to go and do another book and another book and put some of them back [in print].
iW: What’s next for you?
Moskowtiz: I have this film on 24 breast cancer survivors who are on a rowing team together. I did that like a documentary, I don’t control everything. I’m a fly on the wall. I also shot something on six Vietnam vets who haven’t seen one another in 33 years when they were caught in a firefight in a cave in Vietnam. They got together for the 20th anniversary of the Vietnam Memorial Wall. I taped them over the weekend trading stories.