The Big Sky Documentary Festival is in Missoula, MT (pop. 111,807), a college town with roots in lumber and trapping. It’s not where you’d expect to see innovative approaches to distribution.
Downtown Missoula still hosts dive bars like The Oxford Saloon, which opened in 1883 and while it no longer serves brains and eggs, is open 24 hours and operates a casino in the back. However, you could just as easily have lunch across the street at Sushi Hana, or at Plonk, where the menu includes purple farro and chicken-fried foie gras. (Plonk’s doorway also hosted a midnight hair-pulling battle between two drunks, broken up by cops clearly familiar with the players.)
Now in its 12th year, the hosts at Big Sky play both ends toward the middle: Great doc programming by day, hard-drinking charm by night. The festival opened February 6 with Alex Gibney’s “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” and closed 10 days later with “And We Were Young” from local animator Andy Smetanka. And this year it found a centerpiece in the work of Sam Green, with Big Sky screening 10 of his features and shorts including the 2002 Oscar-nominated “The Weather Underground.”
However, the retrospective’s highlights lay in Green’s live performances of “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller” (2012) and “The Measure of All Things” (2014). Both works premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, with narration by Green and musical performances by Yo La Tengo and a trio led by Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, respectively. And, unless you go to events like Big Sky, that’s the only way you’re going to see these films. As Green told the New York Times shortly after the premiere of “The Measure of All Things,” a meditation on the Guinness Book of World Records, “This is the way it is. We’re not going to stream it on Netflix. You have to see it live.”
Since then, Green and the musicians have given about two dozen performances of the film. And while that may sound like a noble stance, the filmmaker is the first to quash any notions of self sacrifice. Says Green: “The performance world is a much more lucrative world than the film world.”
Indiewire spoke to Green shortly after the Big Sky performance of “The Measure of All Things” about the model of distributing via live performance.
Why is your commitment to that?
A couple reasons. One is an aesthetic thing. If you’re making films now, you have to assume that they’re watching your stuff on a laptop while checking Facebook. I got nothing against that, but I don’t want my work to be experienced that way. I love the magic of cinema, where you go into a place and the lights go down and you’re with strangers. I just like that. It’s a more meaningful experience. This is a way to position my work in that context.
But then, since this is Indiewire I’ll say, you know, the bottom has dropped out on the film distribution world and this is taking film and putting it in the performance world. And the performance world is a much more lucrative world than the film world.
That’s really interesting. So you’re saying that it’s actually more lucrative to do live tours —
Yeah. If you go see a dance company at BAM, they’re getting a performance fee. A five-figure performance fee. Whereas if you go see a movie, it’s getting a screening fee, which is like $250. They’re different worlds with their own economies, their own ways that people get paid. It’s surprising that filmmakers are like, “Thank god I’m in the performance world,” but it’s kind of weirdly true. It’s not possible to undermine the value of the thing by making it digital and accessible. There’s still a value on presence.
Is this the world you intend to stay in, then?
Well… I’m never super deliberate about what I’m doing. I didn’t decide to do this. I didn’t set off to do this, so…. I like it and I keep being inspired by doing it and I’m interested in it. And in a way, it’s a solution to the problem that filmmakers face — How the hell do you make a living these days making films? But I still make regular movies and I still want to keep in that world.
What has your experience been in the distribution world?
I made “The Weather Underground” and that was actually — I didn’t know it at the time, but in hindsight I can see that it was the last great moment of being able to make a documentary and actually being able to make a fair amount of money off it. I had a great experience.
Who was the distributor?
Shadow Distribution. And it was theatrical, we made money off that, there were foreign TV sales, we made a lot of money off that, Docurama selling DVDs, so that was great. It’s not as if I had a bad experience. But I see people making movies and not making any money off them. Or doing iTunes, and not making a lot of money off that. That pains me. In some ways, it’s tougher to figure out how to make a living as a filmmaker these days.
Did you stumble on this solution?
Yeah, but I do it because I like the form and the sort of aesthetic reasons. I’m not doing it for the monetary ones, but I’m pleasantly surprised by that fact. I was totally surprised. When the first live movie I made was at Sundance, in 2010, I thought we would show it at Sundance and that would be it. I didn’t know about the performance world or anything. We showed that for like two years, all over the world. “You can do something with a live documentary? This is great.” It’s much (more fun) than a regular screening. We have a great time.
It was really engaging and dynamic; it felt very real. Frankly, I’m not even sure how you could present that on Netflix.
I’ve videotaped some of our shows and it would be like videotaping an improv comedy thing. You’d watch it and something would be missing.
Lost in translation.
Yeah. Not to sound like a northern Californian, but there’s an energy in the room you can’t capture in a videotape, that’s tangible. I like that.
How did you come to work with Brendan Canty, and Yo La Tengo? How did that happen?
I worked with him making music for regular movies. And I knew that he had experience — he’s done a lot of live stuff with Jem Cohen. So I knew he had experience doing live. And Yo La Tengo, I’d seen them do live music and movies before. So with Todd (Griffin) and Brendan, I just kind of asked them — when we got into Sundance, we didn’t have a band. I asked Brendan and Todd, would you play live? and they were up for that. And afterwards was where I didn’t know what else I was going to do with it and, hey you want to do another show? Hey this festival in Poland wants us to do it. And we just kind of made it up. And now I sort of have relationships with a lot of places and know a lot of places to go. So it’s become a little more systematic.
What is your preference for the dynamic of a live performance like this, and the theatrical experience?
It’s a really good question. I really like this form because, the first film I made had a lot of narration. I narrated it. And I realized, I always hated narration movies. I would mediately tune out. And I just noticed that when you go to a lecture, when somebody’s there, you can watch somebody who’s not even that interesting talk for an hour. Whereas if it’s voiceover, you can disengage very easily. The fact that we’re in the room changes things a lot. And it also really is true that it’s never the same twice. A normal movie in a theater, you know it’s going to be the same movie, whereas this is kind of different. This is kind of an energy that comes from that, it’s kind of ephemeral and unpredictable. It could totally fuck up at any point. So there’s a kind of charge that you don’t get with a regular movie.
Your narration feels a little raw. It doesn’t feel like it’s set in stone.
It is… these are scripts I’ve written. And you memorize it, but you try to say it in a way that you’re really saying it, so it changes all the time. I know the ideas, but it comes out in a normal way.
What’s your next performance?
True/False, then two shows in Greece. Thessaloniki Film Festival, Athens, Austin then Philly, San Diego, Ontario Canada, the UK – we have a ton of shows.
This doesn’t sound like a bad life.
I love it. There’s some filmmakers who don’t like distribution. When they’re done, they want someone else to take the movie so they can make another. I’ve always loved distribution, screening a film and being out there, and this form really accentuates that part of the process. These keep going. They just go until you say… “I’ll stop.”