Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.
Alan Berliner directed “Wide Awake,” which is screening in the Independent Film Competition: Documentary section. “Wide Awake” documents Alan Berliner himself, who “has composed a deliriously intimate portrait of himself, his obsessiveness and manias, and his inability to sleep…”, writes Sundance. “”Wide Awake” gives its viewers a chance to delve into an unsettled mind, while generating a better understanding of insomnia.”.]
Where were you born? Where did you grow up? Where do you live now? What jobs have you had?
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. I grew up in Far Rockaway, New York. Take the A train to the last stop in Queens – but be sure it’s the one to Mott Avenue and not the one to Lefferts Boulevard. I say that because I actually grew up on Mott Avenue, just a few blocks away from my elementary school, P.S. 104. I wish I could say I was on the audio-visual squad way back then, but I wasn’t.
I currently live Manhattan with my wife Shari and our son, Eli. In addition to my own work, I also do some editorial and creative consulting for independent filmmakers, and from time to time I teach a course at the New School called “Experiments in Time, Light and Motion,” and a course at NYU called “Visual Thinking.”
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? Did you go to film school? Or how did you learn about filmmaking?
In the late 1970’s I happened upon one of, if not the best avant-garde film program in the world at, of all places, the State University of New York at Binghamton. Not so much a film program (I never took a course in “editing” or “cinematography” or anything purposely “functional”), as a place to appreciate cinema as a fine art. We’d study films by old European and Russian masters like Hans Richter and Dziga Vertov, as well as more contemporary filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Michael Snow and Hollis Frampton just to name a few — films that changed the way we looked at light, at time, at the possibilities for poetic expression – films that changed the way we looked at the world. We were just as likely to look at paintings, listen to music or read poetry in classes, as we were to watch films like “Citizen Kane” or “Man With A Movie Camera.” It was fantastic. I don’t know anyone who went through the Cinema Department at Binghamton in those days who wasn’t somehow changed by it.
My first student efforts were very abstract, black and white silent films that explored the geometry and architectural order in the world around me. After I started working with sound, my work shifted radically towards “collage” — films that became preoccupied with montage editing, especially the possibilities of discovering new and unusual sound/image relationships. It was around that time that I began collecting images, in particular, anonymous American home moves from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. That fledgling collection (and the fact that I spent a year working as a “sound effects” librarian and was able to make my own copies of thousands of sounds), would eventually form the basis of my ongoing personal film (and sound) archive – a source that I’ve utilized in virtually all of my films ever since.
At some point in the mid-1980s my work went through yet another metamorphoses – in many ways triggered by finally discovering the power of my ownfamily home movies — and I began making films that derived from the circumstances of (and characters in) my own personal life. I think you can still see elements of those very early abstract and collage phases in all the “so-called” documentary films I’ve made during the past 20 years.
What other creative outlets do you explore?
I also have produced a large body of installation work, in particular, interactive audio and video sculptures, sometimes connected to the themes of my film work. For instance, in 2002, following the release of my film “The Sweetest Sound,” my fascination with names became the basis of my one-person exhibition at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis called “The Language of Names.” It included a 30-foot long “text poem” in the lobby, containing the names of everyone who lived within a three-mile radius of the museum. I’ve also been commissioned to do several pieces for the internet, most recently, one called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Sound” for a very cool public radio website located at www.transom.org. There’s lots more information on my website: www.alanberliner.com
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
I’ve been a poor sleeper my entire life but wasn’t ready to tackle the problem in a film until now. I’m not sure if it had to do with marrying Shari, with having a child, or the fact that my last film “The Sweetest Sound” (a film about “names”) explored “identity” from the outside (looking in), so to speak — that I felt I needed to explore “identity” from the inside (looking out) this time. I’ve known all along that my insomnia is caused by my inability to shut down my brain at night. Making “Wide Awake” allowed me to dive head first into the problem — directly into my thought process, both conscious and unconscious – into the very place that provides fuel for my creative life, but paradoxically, also keeps me up at night and makes me exhausted during the day. I wanted to understand the source and seed of some of my deepest conflicts and contradictions and try to render them in ways both visceral and poetic. And cinematic.
At the same time, I want the film to generate a greater understanding of and empathy with the condition of sleeplessness — at both the personal and societal levels. There’s also a good deal of practical advice in the film that can help others with sleep problems as well.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
Before I began “Wide Awake,” many of my friends and colleagues were skeptical as to how I was going to make a film about sleep that wouldn’t – to put it simply – “put an audience to sleep.” I suppose they were imagining lots of doctors talking, lots of medical terminology, and lots of static imagery of people sleeping.
As it turns out, I have included doctors in my film – five of them in fact — and while a fair amount of medical science and biology is discussed in the film, it’s usually translated into visual or conceptual metaphor. Finally, there are many images of people in bed in the film, but most of them are tossing and turning, not sleeping.
If someone falls asleep while watching the film, and one of my screenings at Sundance takes place at 3:00 in the afternoon, which is prime time for involuntary napping – why do you think they call it “siesta time — well, it’s all part of understanding the “sleep” experience. And besides, it’s something I actually illustrate and discuss inside the film. There’s even a part of the film in which I try and make it hard for the viewer NOT to yawn.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?
For me, finishing a film is really only the beginning of the end of the filmmaking process. Having a chance to show it publicly in front of an audience represents the middle of the end. When I finally get around to making another film, I know I’m at the end of the end – which is, of course, really another beginning.
Because the work I do is so personal and idiosyncratic, I need to be able to step back and watch my film being watched. I need to talk with audiences and viewers in order to measure what I hope, think and know about my film against what actually takes place on the screen for the viewer. That’s why the question and answer session following the film is so important. I’m learning about the film almost as much as the audience, perhaps even more so. The intensity and passion of the Sundance environment is a fantastic way to begin this process.
What is your definition of independent film?
Independent films make you realize and appreciate that everyone has a unique way of seeing the world. In many ways they democratize or “level” the playing field, by proving that it doesn’t always take a lot of money, a large crew or connections in Hollywood to make something poignant, meaningful and/or even entertaining.
Ideally, a “good” independent film should tickle, punch, amuse, gnaw, or ignite something inside each and every viewer – something that inspires them to want to go out and make a film of their own. Or at least realize it’s possible.
What are a few other films you’re hoping to see at Sundance and why?
Naturally I’m eager to see all the other documentary films in the festival, but I’m especially eager to see the two other films whose content also revolves around “sleep” – Haskell Wexler’s “Who Needs Sleep” and Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep.” There’s also a film about Leonard Cohen I’d like to see. I use a small piece of one of his songs in “Wide Awake.”
Who are a few people that you would you most like to meet at Sundance?
Haskell Wexler and Michel Gondry. Leonard Cohen. I also hear Neil Young is going to be there…
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
To spend more quality time “wide awake” with my son Eli. Now that my film is over, I want to get out from behind the camera and focus my energy on him.
[Get the latest from the Sundance Film Festival throughout the day in indieWIRE’s special Park City ’06 section