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Walking Toward the Flame: An Interview with Robert Greene About ACTRESS

Walking Toward the Flame: An Interview with Robert Greene About ACTRESS

Documentarian Robert Greene’s evolution has been astonishing. His second and third features, Kati with an i and Fake It So Real,
are immersive portraits of his half-sister during the period leading up
to her high school graduation and a team of amateur wrestlers,
respectively. They’re accomplished films, but they don’t prepare one for
the skill shown in his latest film, Actress. Depicting Brandy Burre, an actress who appeared on The Wire
but gave her craft up to became a homemaker, it comes as close to
Douglas Sirk as it does to Frederick Wiseman. Using devices like slow motion and
saturated color, Greene follows Brandy over a troubled year in her life,
as her relationship with her partner Tim crumbles and she tries to get
back into acting. His next film will integrate fictional devices even
further, as it tells the story of an actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) playing a
news anchor who committed suicide on air in the ‘70s.
Greene recently ran a (successful!) crowdsourcing campaign to raise money for the music rights
so that Actress could be released on November 7th
(Note: I don’t think Actress
is the kind of narrative film for which spoiler warnings need apply,
but readers should be forewarned that this interview discusses its final
scene.) 
Press Play: At what point did it become apparent that Actress was as much a melodrama as a documentary
Robert Greene:
That’s an interesting question. Brandy is my neighbor. We’ve known
each other for years. We have kids the same age, so that our friendship was
based more on children than on being grown-up friends. When you’re
friends with other parents, it’s often through what your children are
taking you to, like parties. From the beginning, my interest in Brandy
as a subject grew before the story became so dramatic. She’s a theatrical
human being. The basic premise was, “What happens if you make an
observational documentary about an actor?” What is the effect that has?
Maybe she’ll be overacting. That has aspects of melodrama from the
beginning. That could’ve found its way in different forms. One of my
original ideas was just to show her performing acts of wife-ness, and
motherhood, and showing instability and fragility in these performances.
Then that could’ve taken us anywhere. Before we knew where the movie was
going, we thought about staging things and revealing they were staged.
The actual events in her life gave us the grounding I needed. All the slow motion stuff was shot in camera as slow motion. There’s a
technical difference between doing that and adding slow motion effects later.
The scene where Tim walks in behind her as she’s putting makeup on was
done when I had the camera around, and I just liked the framing, so I
put it on in slow motion, but it’s as observational as anything else.
The miracle of the film, I guess, is that the things that were happening
matched my instincts from the beginning. 
Press Play: Were there any aspects of her life that she hesitated to let you film? 
Greene:
Yes. As she says in the movie, she has a real love/hate relationship
with the camera, as most actors do. I think she was hesitant about the
whole thing and also wanted to embrace it. I think Brandy’s the type of
person who, if she feels hesitant, will walk towards the flame.
That’s her natural instinct. A lot of actors go, “If I’m scared, do it.”
The whole concept of stage fright is fascinating. Actors get stage
fright,  but they wouldn’t be on the stage in the first place if they
just succumbed to it. There’s this love/hate relationship with the
spotlight. You sense that tension, hopefully, throughout the film. It’s a
totally natural response. My instinct was to protect some things. I
knew that a portrait of Brandy was never going to be a sweet,
no-blemishes depiction, because that’s not the type of human being she
is. She’s tough and prickly. I knew there was always going to be an edge
to it. At the same time, I never put in fights that she and Tim had,
and she appreciated it. It’s all true, but like all documentaries, it’s
my version of the truth.  
Press
Play:
That scene with the bruise over her eye creates some expectations
in the spectator. When I first saw it, I thought that Tim had hit her,
and I didn’t completely believe her story that it was an accident. Is
that kind of question something you want viewers to ask? 
Greene:
The reason that scene is in there the way it is—I would prefer not to
spoil it if possible—is to elicit that reaction. When I first saw Tim
after it happened, he said “I didn’t do it” jokingly. The whole movie
is about her stepping out of line in some ways. It’s about her testing
the boundaries of what’s OK. The response that a fair number of people
have is that she deserves to be swatted down. I don’t think most people
think she deserves physical violence. But the fact that it happened and
that we could play with that expectation and the viewer could think
about where they stand with Brandy’s decisions was fascinating.
Hopefully, by this point, the viewer is thinking about the layers of
reality around everything. Is she acting? Is she being authentic? Is
this real? All these things that are happening in every scene pay off.
You don’t know what you’re looking at. It’s totally true that she did
fall out of a car. But the fact that you don’t believe her is an
interesting way that women are often viewed. The whole film is about a
woman with a radically specific take on her life, by a filmmaker with a
radically specific take on her life. It puts you in a position where you
have to think through some things and judge, as we often do. When
people go through breakups, we judge people, and the film pushes that
last scene to some extreme point. I’d like viewers to cycle through all
their thoughts. Who hit her? Is she lying? Is this a role she got when
she walked through the ABC building? Is this some stupid metaphor the
director came up with to describe her plight? In thinking through those,
hopefully you’re thinking about your own take on the image of a bruised
face. Beyond that, this is something documentaries are often afraid to
do. Forget observation! Go for expression! The image of a bruised face
should mean something, even if it’s a complex thing and seems like a
stunt at first. Also, it’s the last thing we filmed. It’s literally the
end of the story. 
Press Play: How do you think your interest in performance developed? It’s nascent in Kati With an i, blossoms in Fake It So Real and Actress and is developing even further in your next film. 
Greene:
I was probably 14 when I heard this cliché that there are 17 words for
snow in the Inuit language and became completely obsessed with language
and the way words function in culture. Similarly, the idea of social
performance, that we’re always performing identities, is something I got
fairly obsessed with. I think it’s probably because I am a person who
went to 15 different elementary and middle schools. I moved all the
time, often having to run out in the middle of the night because my mom
couldn’t pay the bills. There were schools where I’d be the poor loser
kid. There were schools where I’d suddenly be the smart kid or the cool
kid, although that was very seldom. By the fourth grade, it was clear
that I was taking this role on. It troubled me, because I’m not the
person who was cool five days ago. I find it fascinating. I don’t think
it’s a dead end. In Actress, the goal of talking about
performance is to show that these are traps. The role of wife, mother,
or filmmaker is only part of the truth. We’re supposed to “do the right
thing” all the time, but it’s often filling what Joshua Oppenheimer, in
an interview I did with him recently, called “unacknowledged social
scripts.” So that’s fascinating to me. The documentary camera—specifically, an observational camera—held by someone who’s attentive
to behavior can detect these layers and reveal what makes up society. In
Kati With an i, you have a girl who says she’s getting married
and going to college, but she’s just repeating back what society tells
her to say. What does that mean and why? In Fake It So Real, these guys are creating escape fantasies for themselves and creating art out of it. Actress
is a step forward from that. It’s about how you get out of that role.
Because Brandy has a master’s degree in acting, I knew she could bring
something more to it. Who knows how many more times I can explore this? I
just think there’s something in the non-fiction form that allows
you to see things clearly, if you’re patient.
Press Play: Kati With an i and Fake It So Real both depict your relatives, although I don’t think the films mention that. Did that make the filming easier? 
Greene: It does. I think I appear very briefly in Kati With an i,
and you see me hugging Kati very briefly with a camera. You can put two
and two together and figure out who I am, especially because I say in
the credits that I appear. I didn’t feel the need to say that Chris
Solar is my cousin in Fake It So Real. But it does make it
easier. It’s simply that these are films I could get made. I’ve never
raised any money upfront to pay for a movie. That’s changing now with my
next film. I was supported by a company I used to work for, 4th Row
Films, who could give me equipment and help pay for travel expenses if
necessary and buy tapes for my DIVX camera. There’s no big sum of money
upfront. At the same time, I’m not interested in my personal take on the
stories. I had Sean Williams shoot Kati With an i because he was
looking at my half-sister in a way that I never would have. It was much
more interesting. That movie wouldn’t exist if I had shot it. Chris Solar
was the “in” for this world in Fake It So Real, but it’s an ensemble piece. For Actress,
I’m looking out my window now at Brandy’s house. It’s obvious that’s
the only way this could have been made. It’s very pretentious to call
out John Cassavetes as an influence, but we made a grown-up movie about
grown-up themes in each other’s homes with a similar “go for broke,
let’s see what happens” aesthetic. The next film stars a friend of mine.
I was hesitant to make Actress because I didn’t want to keep
making films about people who are close to me. But in the end, the movie
took hold, as they tend to do. I don’t care about the idea of objective
distance from your subject. Hopefully there’s something explored here. 
Press Play: Is it frustrating to have a distributor for Actress and an opening date locked in, but still have to raise money for the music rights? 
Greene: It’s frustrating in some sense, but I’m lucky to be able to do it. Basically, the Cinema
Guild is great, but they don’t pay money. They help you get your film
out there, and hopefully if all things click in some beautiful and
magical way, Actress could be one of a hundred documentaries that
succeeds. I hope that could happen, but I don’t expect it. I’ve seen
the movie connect with people that aren’t just cinephiles. I’m hoping it
continues and we’re working hard to make it happen. 4th Row Films paid
for The Rachels and Colleen and several other songs in the film, and
the posters, with no money raised upfront. It eventually got to a point
where it wasn’t sustainable. They’ve supported every one of my films,
and I felt like I couldn’t ask them to do it anymore. They believed in
these songs. We’d been working for months to get the quotes on those
songs down. The original price was much, much higher. We had several
choices. Do we cut these songs? We got the prices down to a manageable
level where I didn’t feel like it was an obscene or absurd amount of
money. The choice really was to cut the songs or raise the money this
way. At the same time, it’s an effort to preserve the vision I had for
the money. For a movie that was made for no money, you would never
assume you would use that music. I feel lucky to be able to fight for my
vision. Cutting those songs would physically hurt me. I usually think
“Don’t fall in love with a song in a rough cut, because you’re gonna
have to cut it.” This isn’t that case. This is a case of expressing
something through music. One of them is the love song that Brandy and
her boyfriend have. It’s their song. It would kill me to cut that song
or use some cheap alternative. So it’s frustrating, but thank God I have
people around who think it’s worthy. 
Press Play: In Kati With an i, you used a song by the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus. Were there any similar issues? 
Greene:
No, they loved it. It’s a different ballgame. They’re a big deal in
certain circles, but they’re not Harry Belafonte. They don’t have legacy
costs built in. Colin Blunstone and Belafonte are owned by Sony. I used
a Guided By Voices song in Fake It So Real. Those were manageable costs: in the hundreds, not thousands and thousands. As crucial as that song is to Kati With an i,
I probably would’ve had to cut that scene if I couldn’t afford it.
Here, it’s a case of believing strongly that the film deserves that
moment. I’ve always cringed at crowdfunding, but this film’s done and
ready to go. The only thing we had to do is a fun, behind-the-scenes
clip of the Red Jumpsuit Apparatus watching that clip on the DVD of Kati With an i. I flew down to Florida to shoot it. That was a slightly bigger cost than the cost of the song, but it was worth it. 
Press Play: Do you think Actress will be the performance for which Brandy will most likely be remembered? 
Greene: She’s in what I consider to be the greatest television show of all time, The Wire, and she’s pretty great in it. I think she’s extraordinary in Actress.
How many movies are going to be able to shed a light on all that she
is, like this movie? It would be presumptuous to think that’s the
answer. The sky’s the limit for her. She wants to act in good stuff, but
she has to pay the bills. She has to work the same balance we all do,
between art and commerce. When people see her in this movie, she’s going
to be able to choose some very interesting things. On the one hand, how
could another role be as fully Brandy as that role? On another, who
knows what’s going to happen? I would like to be one of her memorable
roles. I think that’s a better way to put it. 
Press Play: Do you consider it a feminist film? 
Greene: Feminism is basically “Do women deserve equal treatment?” Yes, obviously. 
Press
Play:
Well, it goes beyond that. You explore several examples of
sexism, like the scene where Brandy talks about the lack of a
diaper-changing board in Tim’s restaurant and that the only roles
available for her are the “wife or girlfriend.” It gets into the
specifics of how women in their thirties are treated, both in Hollywood
and in the larger world. 
Greene:
Absolutely. From the start, it was clear that we could make a film
about a woman in her thirties. When I heard the story about her being
passed over for parts because she’s in her thirties, that was the first
time I felt like I had a movie, because I’ve constantly heard those
kinds of stories but couldn’t remember seeing them in a movie. I
consider it a feminist film, in some ways radically so. Tim is
deliberately marginalized. He’s an aloof person—that’s just how he
conducts himself. This is a magnified version of himself. It’s radically
her perspective, about a woman in her situation. At the same time,
hopefully the film doesn’t stop at feminism or a political perspective
on womanhood. I want the viewer to think about exploitation but also
about Brandy exploiting herself, the camera exploiting her and all these
levels of intricacy. Hopefully the experience is complex enough that it
goes into spaces that are sometimes troubling and upsetting and moving.
It’s sometimes hard to talk about politics and art. Obviously, I have my
core beliefs, but I think art is best when it’s troublesome and pushes
against stuff. Did I want to make a film that confirms that it’s hard to
be a woman when you’re repressed creatively? Yes, I wanted to reveal
that. Hopefully it doesn’t stop at that statement. 
Press Play: That also ties into the ending. 
Greene:
The ending is a provocation, but it’s tied into non-fiction filmmaking.
That’s what happened. My job was to say “Shit! In some ways, this has
to be in the movie. “ Along the way, a lot of filmmakers get rid of
things that are messy or don’t fit in some ways. To me, I want to work
with serendipity and things we happened upon. That’s our job, that’s
what the form demands. It absolutely does speak to a feminist 
perspective. You could take the image of her face with a bruise out of
context and use it as a feminist provocation, but hopefully there’s also
more going on. 
Press Play: Your next film sounds like your most complex narrative yet. Do you think you’re moving closer to fiction? 
Greene: I’m gonna do what a lot of documentary filmmakers do and move into fiction, royally screw up. That’s my goal. 
Press Play: I said “move closer to fiction,” not make a fiction film. 
Greene:
It’s a joke that Alex [Ross Perry] always says:  ”You’re going to be a
laughingstock in no time. Why don’t you make a comedy about an actress?”
I think with Actress it’s not fiction I was interested in, but
filmmaking, aesthetic choices that touched on the reality of the
situation. With the next film I find myself continuing to step back and
say, “I make non-fiction partly because I’m not that good of a writer. My
talent, if I have any, is in balancing, capturing and directing
reality, rather than creating scenarios.” That’s how I would describe
fiction. I’m much more interested in finding a chaos in reality which
you can swim in. Only because that’s what I’m good at and feel
comfortable doing. When I think about the new film, I think I can do
whatever I want with fiction, but the more documentary it is, the better
it will be because that’s what I’m good at. I’m good at observing
people’s behavior and putting these unspoken things into movie contexts
in ways that other people can sometimes miss. Not to compare myself to
the Maysles brothers, but they were great at taking sensational things
out of reality. If they tried to write those things, they would be
failures. At the same time, I love working with Alex and editing things [such as Ross Perry’s film Listen Up Philip] and working in the
fiction realm. I can’t imagine that I’m not going to challenge myself to
try it at some point. But I think the potential for formal
boundary-pushing is higher in documentaries.   
Press Play: How did your column in Sight and Sound come about? 
Greene: I wrote a few things for Hammer to Nail,
and then they reached out. I write from a filmmaker’s perspective about
documentary, which means that I’m talking about camera, editing and
performance. These are things that don’t find their way into mainstream
writing about these films. I started saying things that found some
small audience. Then, Nick Bradshaw at Sight and Sound was
expanding their online presence. It’s amazing to have that monthly
deadline, even if I’ve tip-toed it. It allows me to flex a muscle, and that’s
very satisfying.    

Steven Erickson is a writer and
filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites
across America, including
The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.

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