Co-directors Petra Epperlein and Michael Tucker‘s Toronto International Film Festival ’06 doc “The Prisoner or: How I Planned to Kill Tony Blair” centers on a “freedom-loving” Iraqi journalist who is mistaken as British prime minister Tony Blair’s would-be assassin and sent to the notorious Abu Ghraib prison where he discovers the “true meaning of liberation.” The pair most recently directed “Gunner Palace” in 2004. Red Envelope opened the film in limited release last Friday.
Please introduce yourself…
Petra Epperlein: I was born in Karl Marx City in the former GDR where I first worked as a brick layer and later studied architecture in nearby Dresden.
Michael Tucker: I was born in Hawaii, later dropped out of high school and spent a decade doing everything from the army to working as deckhand on boats in the Bering Sea until I discovered that I wanted to make films.
PE: We met each together in New York in the ’90s, moved and had a child in Berlin and recently moved to New York. Over the years, our work has been a mix of art, humanitarian and conservation projects all over the world..until the war started.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
PE: The great thing about filmmaking is that it is one of the few mediums that you can completely control. We make our films with little outside help or input–literally make them in the kitchen. You can’t do that with many other mediums and still have an impact.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking hathat you would still like to explore?
MT: We are currently working on a graphic novel centered on stories from Baghdad and on narrative ideas for bigger films. The documentary is limiting in that the audience has fairly rigid ideas about what a documentary is. It would be great to be liberated from that. A book can be many things. Narrative features can still break new ground.
Please talk about how the idea for “The Prisoner” came about…
MT: The idea for “The Prisoner” evolved from a series of events. While filming “Gunner Palace,” I filmed the arrest of an Iraqi journalist who was charged with planning to kill Tony Blair. Then, when “Gunner Palace” came out, a young American journalist recognized the journalist from the film and he and one of his associates in Baghdad agreed to help me meet him. When the first cut of the film was readying for Toronto, a former guard at Abu Ghraib heard about the film and told us that he not only knew, but was very close to the journalist. That was the seed for the final feature version.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
MT: Our approach is very organic. We just start shooting and see where it takes us. Later, when we log footage, we try to build a paper-edit and work from there. Most importantly, we always walk into shooting with an open mind–often we walk out of the experience with entirely new viewpoints, often even opposite.
How did the financing for the film come together?
PE: We always self-finance our films as we find that too much energy is spent on raising money and not on creativity. These days, especially with docs, there is no excuse to not go out and at least start a project to show to people.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
MT: Walter Murch is inspiring. When you look at his new work compared with his early work, you can really see where he came from–he has distinct fingerprints.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
PE: ‘Independent’ is an over-used word. For me, it means people working alone or in small cells who have unique visions. The word “independent” has become just another marketing tool and much of what is labeled as such has little to do with original or free thought.
MT: At the same time, in making films, you always have to be aware of your dependence–on acquisitions people, distributors, the publicity machine and audiences. There is a necessity to make marketable films that people can react to.
What are some of your all-time favorite films and favorite recent favorite films?
MT: “Dr. Strangelove,” “Come and See,” “Harold and Maude,” “Network.” They don’t make them like they used to.
PE: “Come and See,” “Metropolis,” “Alice and Wonderland” (Jan Svankmajer), East German Indianer films and “Eraserhead.”
What are your interests outside of film?
MT: We have always loved traveling in remote places with our daughter and will hopefully move back to that from the war themes we have been working with. There is still wonder in this world–in the face of violence–and we’d like to get in touch with that again.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
PE: Make your film and worry about the rest later. What matters is the art. I think it is essential to forget what you have learned and just go with what you feel.
Will you please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
MT: I was very pleased that we successfully appealed the MPAA’s decision to rate “Gunner Palace” ‘R.’ We convinced the appeals board to give us a PG-13 based on the argument “who can rate reality?” and the film went out, uncut, and is the most profane PG-13 movie in history. More, that rating allowed us to get in school libraries across the country and in front of younger audiences who responded strongly to the film.