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 email interview and each was sent the same questions.
Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert directed “A Lion in the House,” screening in the Independent Film Competition: Documentary. Bognar first appeared at Sundance with his film “Personal Belongings” in 1996. Besides directing, Bognar has produced several films and taught media production. Academy Award-nominated Reichert has also directed and produced multiple films. She cofounded New Day Films, an independent producers cooperative, and teaches at Wright State University.
Please tell us about yourself and include as much of the following information as you feel comfortable with …
Age. Day job (if you have one) and former jobs. Where you were born. Where you grew up. Where you live.
Steven Bognar: Born in Milwaukee six months before JFK was killed. Grew up in Madison, Berkeley and suburban Ohio, in that order. Live in Dayton, Ohio — a scrappy post-industrial town about an hour north of Kentucky. Birthplace of the Wright Brothers, no matter what anyone from North Carolina says. Dishwasher. Orchard farmhand. Bus boy. Movie projectionist.
Julia Reichert: I was born and raised in rural New Jersey, spent summers in a trailer park at the Jersey shore. Along with being a working filmmaker since … let’s see, 1970 … I have in recent years also taught university-level film production and have managed to become a full professor with only a B.A. Before that my last job was as a barmaid, where I earned enough to get my first film out of the lab.
My buddy Steve Bognar and I live in a small town in southwest Ohio: Yellow Springs, population just under 4,000.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?
SB: I became a filmmaker cuz I couldn’t play guitar. Adolescent influences — comic books, loneliness, the Clash — conspired to seduce me down this path of ill reputes.
JR: It was the 60s. The explosion of creative energy that poured out of the ideas of ending an unjust war, fighting racial inequality and finding what it meant to be a full human being as a woman, compelled me and many others to take on new roles. Who would create strong, real images of women if we didn’t? Who would take to the streets to stop the war if we didn’t? Who would explore racism in films if we didn’t, and so on. It was a great time to be young. My working class upbringing in no way prepared me to be a filmmaker, but the times encouraged transformation. Too, I was lucky to be among dedicated people, and there were a few mentor figures out there.
But it was not only the 60s. As a kid I loved making photographs with whatever camera I could find, and at Antioch College I was a radio DJ, news reporter and made audio documentaries. Photography is still close to my heart.
Did you go to film school? Or how did you learn about filmmaking? How did you finance your own film? And any other insights you think might be interesting …
SB: My best education has been the mistakes that really hurt.
JR: I learned filmmaking by doing it. Reading the manuals, making mistakes, trying again. I think the main thing is you have to know WHY you want to make films, the rest then flows.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
SB: “A Lion in the House” started when a certain pediatric oncologist saw “Hoop Dreams,” and was moved enough by it to think that someone should make a documentary about what families with kids fighting cancer go through. This doctor started looking around for an Ohio-based documentarian. He found out about my film “Personal Belongings,” and gave me a call. What he didn’t know is that my partner’s daughter (my stepdaughter) had just finished treatment for childhood cancer.
JR: “A Lion in the House” started because a pediatric oncologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital saw “Hoop Dreams” and thought that someone should make a documentary about what families with kids fighting cancer go through. This doctor started looking around for filmmakers. He found my partner Steve’s name in the paper and called our house.
What is amazing to me to this day is the fact that the doctor had no idea that my teenaged daughter was just finishing her treatment for cancer. Was this fate, divine intervention or just a fluke?
After a few moments thought, Steve and I realized that we had to do it, we had to say yes.
BUT, if we had not had a child who had fought cancer, we would not have said yes. If I had not spent night after night for months watching my kid suffer, forging my helplessness into a will of iron, learning all I could about the disease, fearing for her life, trying to keep her spirits up, wishing it could have been me, letting go of all my filmmaker pretensions to become just a mom … if I had not been through all that, if cancer had never come into our house, there is no way either of us would have considered starting on this journey.
What are your biggest creative influences?
SB: Geez, a thousand filmmakers, writers, musicians, poets, activists and outlaws who didn’t accept the world as it is and used their time in this world and their skills to make meaningful work to help things get better.
JR: Edward R. Murrow, Alain Resnais, Bernice Reagon, Henri Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie and Cajun/zydeco music. And, Steve Bognar.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
SB: Like many an independent film, this has been a project of many challenges.
The first great challenge was deciding to do it. Having gone through a year of cancer, it’s not so easy to think about taking up residence in that world. It’s not a place most people visit unless they have to.
Another challenge, more for the hospital where we filmed, than for Julia or me, was to sign on to making the film as an independent project. This was a great leap of courage and faith, to give independent filmmakers such unprecedented access.
And of course the big challenge for us was to see the stories through. To really do our best, to be there with the families and nurses and docs — to really bear witness.
JR: Physical stamina to keep shooting the long hours and days. Never any money, for years. Believing anyone would want to see it.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you?
SB: We were in our cutting room, editing, when we got a call from Shari Frilot, one of the Sundance programmers. We had just gotten back from showing the film to one of the families in the film — a really emotional and important part of this for us. We were telling Shari about it when she sort of casually said, “Well, you’re also going to be showing the film in competition at Sundance.” We both went “WWHHATT?!?!?!”
It was a complete shock, given the running time of our film — it’s 3 hours 45 minutes long. We had sent it to Sundance in the hopes they might consider it for one special screening, like they did with “The Blues” doc series a few years back. So to find out we were going to be in competition — we were utterly floored.
JR: We were in our cutting room, arguing over some cut, when we got a call from Shari Frilot, one of the Sundance programmers. We had just gotten back from spending Thanksgiving with one of the families and showing them the whole film — a really emotional and important part of this for them and for us. We were telling Shari about showing it to them when she sort of casually said, “Well, you’re also going to be showing the film in competition at Sundance.” It was a complete shock. Look at the running time of our film — it’s 3 hours 45 minutes long. We had sent it to Sundance in the hopes they might consider it for one special screening, kind of an outreach event. So to find out we were going to be in competition — we were utterly floored. I still am.
What do you hope to get out of the festival, what are your own goals for the experience?
SB: We’ve made a nearly four-hour film about families facing something very scary. Our fear has been that the film would be seen as an “issue film.” Not a compelling narrative. But we are filmmakers — we believe in the cinema, in its powers to, as Siegfried Kracauer said, record, reveal and redeem reality, particularly those places where people don’t want to look.
Sundance will put our film in the context of a work of documentary art, and that means the world to us. We’re going to be at the festival with folks from all the families in the films — parents, kids and other family members. We want them to have a very positive experience amidst the madness of the festival.
JR: We’ve made a nearly four-hour film about people facing something very scary. We followed them, no matter what the outcome. Not all the kids who we followed survived their cancer. From the start we knew this would be a film about which people would say, “Oh, I would never be able to watch that.” Many have said that already.
We hope that, coming out of Sundance, people will say, “I am glad I saw that film. It was not what I expected. It was tough but worth it.”
Being selected by Sundance means the world to us. The programmers are brave to show it. This will help audiences see “Lion” as a work of nonfiction narrative storytelling, not a film about an issue.
Then too, all the families in the film will be there, from Ohio and Kentucky — parents, kids and other family members. Our whole editing team is coming too. We want them to have a very positive experience amidst the madness of the festival.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
SB: Films that successfully avoid the warping heat of commerce.
JR: Films that emerge from the heart and stay rooted there, and damn the commercial torpedoes.
What are a few other films you’re hoping to see at Sundance and why?
SB: Kevin Everson’s film (“Cinnamon”), Sam Green’s short (“Lot 63, Grave C”), Laura Paglin’s short (“No Umbrella — Election Day in the City”), there’s so many.
JR: I can’t wait to see Steve Ascher and Jeanne Jordan’s new film, “So Much So Fast,” and Kevin Everson’s feature in [the] Frontier section.
Who are a few people that you would you most like to meet at Sundance?
SB: Three years ago, when the nation was gearing up for a war that would begin a few months later, I was at Sundance with my short film “Gravel.” There was an antiwar protest in downtown Park City, and on my way there I had high hopes of seeing a real turnout — a real stand taken by this independent film community. It was disappointing. There were a bunch of people there, but by no means enough. It made me mad. And where were the known filmmakers and actors who could have lent their name to such an effort? Then I saw Tilda Swinton, right there in the protest. So she gets my vote.
If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?
SB: I’d set up a workshop here in Ohio to develop new filmmaking voices amongst the many communities that are all over here but which get ignored by the coasts.
JR: Start an advanced program for mentoring young and emerging filmmakers in the Midwest.
What are some of your favorite films, and why? What is your top ten list for 2005?
SB: I’ve been in an editing room all year. Next year will be the year of double movie going.
JR: I loved the penguin movie.
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
SB: Reclaim my health and sense of balance after finishing this film. Have time for friends and family again.
JR: Get back balance in my life. Take a break. See my friends again.