Set against the backdrop of tumultous years in America between 9/11 and the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Freida Lee Mock‘s “Wrestling With Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner” looks at life and work of acclaimed playwright (and activist) Tony Kushner (“Angels in America,” “Caroline, or Change“), including his focus on global issues, his work on the AIDS crisis and exploration of being gay, and also looks at his own Jewish heritage. Mock, an Oscar winner for her documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision,” studied at Berkeley and has received widespread acclaim for numerous films, including “Sing!,” “Rose Kennedy: A Life to Remember,” “Never Give Up,” and “To Live or Let Die.” The film, which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, is opening Wednesday, October 4th at Film Forum in New York City before heading to Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, San Francisco and other cities in November.
Freida Lee Mock is a former Chair of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science‘s Documentary Executive Committee and is the first Governor of the newly created Documentary Branch of the Academy, she is currently making two new films: “Enterprising Women,” which celebrates the history of entrepreneurial women in America, and “Manzanar with Maestro Ken Nagano,” described as “a multi-media symphony with choral music and spoken words focusing on civil liberties and the Japanese-American and Japanese-Canadian experience.”
Mock recently participated in indieWIRE’s email interview series and her answers to our questions are published below.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I was initially attracted to filmmaking because of my interest in history and politics. It came as an epiphany that I wanted to make documentary films to expose corruption, to make the world a better place like the muckrakers of the 20’s in America, an area of history I loved studying in college. It would be like what Michael Moore and Morgon Spurlock do with such humor and effect. Very quickly I found I didn’t have that touch and that the work was heavy-handed and boring. In the process of learning the craft by working in the industry, I was realy hooked on the art and craft of making a movie, putting the elements together, telling a story and hopefully having an impact on the audience. So the focus over the years is on story telling and characters with the backdrop of a political, social and/ or historical sensibility.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore?
I’d like to work on a comedy and the challenges that entails.
Please talk about how the initial idea for “Wrestling With Angels” came about?
Right after 9/11 I read an article in the LA Times about Tony Kushner’s newest drama, “Homebody/Kabul,” a story that takes place in Afghanistan, a place I had a particular interest in. I was immediately curious about Tony whose work on “Angels in America” was familiar, though I hadn’t seen it. A light bulb went on about doing a film about a playwright who had a particular geo-political interest and four years later it finished. I’m not sure if Tony’s play were about Poland or Moldovo I would have spent these years in production.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project?
I found myself pretty much ‘on call’ since Tony’s work and activities were evolving and occasionally not predictable. With a few days notice often, I’d put together a crew and jump on a plane to film Tony whose work took him all over the country. His work had a natural arc of completion, starting with rehearsal on the Afghanistan story right after 9/11 and finishing with his musical “Caroline, or Change,” right before the 2004 Presidential elections. My goal was that this film and his work, which deals with large social issues within the intimacy of place and characters, would clearly echo and raise questions about the tumultuous times we are living through. Most importantly the hope was to make an entertaining film, because at the core Tony is very, very funny and serious.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for (the movie?)
Besides the challenge of financing, the 3Ds for independents – donations (grants), debts (credit cards) and deferments. The biggest surprise and challenge was posting the film digitally, my first time, and trying to get the best film ouput. The film was shot in a variety of media – super l6, digibeta, beta sp, mini dv, 35 stock footage, etc. and it took close to l0 months after we mixed to get a master and print without a lot of odd artifacts.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
I wrote proposals and submitted the projects for grants; fundraising is never ending. The film was set up as a nonprofit project, not investor driven.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you??
Kurosawa, Scorsese, the Simpsons.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
I am working with the conductor Kent Nagao on a story about civil liberties expressed through a multi-media symphony and using the Japanese American experience at the Manzanar relocation camp to explore the story. The project is inspired by the post 9/11 challenge to our civil liberties and rights.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
An independent film to me means you have total artistic control and freedom which imply there are no strings attached to the project; therefore you also control the finances.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why? What are some of your recent favorite films?
All of Kurosawa‘s films, especially “Yojimbo,” “High and Low,” and “The Seven Samurais”; “Ace Ventura,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Life and Times of Harvey Milk,” “Transamerica.” They’re all deeply memorable, somewhat operatic in scale and human.
What are your interests outside of film?
My family, sports, art and reading.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Find an idea, a story that moves you deeply, that captivates and engages you. You’re on your way to ‘making an independent film happen.’
[For more information, including screening details, please visit the film’s website.]