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June 1, 2009 3:09 AM
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A Triumph of Passion: "Herb & Dorothy" Director Megumi Sasaki

A scene from Megumi Sasaki's "Herb & Dorothy."

Megumi Sasaki's doc "Herb & Dorothy' tells the story of Herbert Vogel, a postal clerk, and Dorothy Vogel, a librarian, who managed to build one of the most important contemporary art collections in history with very modest means. In the early 1960's, when very little attention was paid to Minimalist and Conceptual Art, Herb and Dorothy Vogel quietly began purchasing the works of unknown artists. Devoting all of Herb's salary to purchase art they liked, and living on Dorothy's paycheck alone, they continued collecting artworks guided by two rules: the piece had to be affordable, and it had to be small enough to fit in their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. indieWIRE spoke to Sasaki about the film, which opens June 5, 2009 in NYC.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I never thought I would be a filmmaker, and never even dreamed about it until I met Herb and Dorothy Vogel. I started my career as journalist, first as a photographer and reporter for print media, before working for NHK (Japanese public television) as a reporter and news director. It was during a NHK assignment when I first heard about Herb and Dorothy.

I was working as a field producer for an educational program featuring the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude. We were shooting their exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington DC, and I noticed that all the works came from the Herb and Dorothy Vogel collection.

Doing some research, I was so struck and moved by their story. A postal clerk and a librarian built a world class collection that was crammed in their one-bedroom apartment in NYC, never sold a piece, and let go all the works to the museum? I couldn’t believe it was true.

At the end of the shoot, I went to the museum bookstore and bought a catalog of their collection. I didn't know what to do with the story at that point. The catalog stayed on my bookshelf and their story stayed at the corner of my heart for the next two and half years. In 2004, I happened to meet them in person at an event. Their presence was so powerful, although they were both small in stature. I introduced myself and told them I was interested in telling their story and they invited me to their apartment one week later. That’s when it all started.

After I did some research about the Vogels, I found out they were quite a media sensation, particularly when the announcement of the collection’s transfer to the National Gallery came out in 1992. Mainly, they were covered as a rare success story of a postal worker and a librarian who turned out to be great art collectors. I thought there was a much more profound message in Herb and Dorothy's story however. Beyond art, it's a triumph of passion and love and a celebration of life.

I then knew this had to be explored in film. So, I started making "Herb & Dorothy," not knowing anything about filmmaking or art.

Because of my background as journalist, my interest has been telling true stories about real people. I found a great pleasure in the total freedom of story telling in the documentary form.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.

Since "Herb & Dorothy" was my first film, I didn’t know the right approach and just went forward without much planning initially. Up until we had the first 25 hours of footage, I simply tried to capture as much as possible. When I looked at the initial footage, I realized it was a love story. It’s a story of their love affair with art, artists and each other.

From then on, I tried to carry the intimate feel throughout the film and started to examine and select what to shoot. I don’t like to go out and shoot everything and interview everybody just to accumulate footage. I constantly stopped and questioned myself if there was another theme or layer I could add to the story. Being always aware and searching for themes was crucial for me. My goal was to tell the story in the most effective way by presenting a clear picture to the audience.

Then I saw the documentaries of renowned British filmmaker Kim Longinotto whose films were eye opening. I never thought observational documentary would be my style because I didn’t have a lot of patience. But her films were different: all the characters were so compelling and everything happened so naturally.

I also attended her seminar where she told us her way of making film was to start shooting without any particular focus or goal, but just follow the characters for a certain period of time and figure out at the end what’s there. She finds her comfortable spot to shoot and doesn’t move much from there to get different shots from different angles. Her films made me want to make a film with a more intimate process with the subject. One day, I would like to try this approach.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

It's more like a mantra than a cliché for independent doc filmmakers, but fundraising was excruciatingly difficult. It’s a lot of fun to explore the next film’s ideas, but when I think about fundraising, my stomach starts to ache. Acting as my own producer was also a huge learning curve.

Finding a good editor was a huge challenge because many experienced editors are careful not to take a risk with first time filmmakers. In the end, I was fortunate to be partnered with Bernadine Colish, who totally understood and respected my vision. I learned so much about filmmaking from her. Quite often people use the marriage analogy to describe the relationship between director and editor. In that sense, Bernadine and I had a perfect marriage.

I learned that there’s always a solution where there’s a problem. I just had to face it and deal with it immediately.

How did the financing for the film come together?

1/3 of the budget was funded by grants organization and individual donors, another 1/3 was funded by ITVS program, and the rest of 1/3 came from my savings, maxed out credit cards and home equity loans.

What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?

The only genre I will NOT explore is animation. I am probably one of a very few Japanese people who is not interested in anime, although I am intrigued by Hayao Miyazaki. Perhaps this is because he seems to have a mission, not as an animator but rather as a savior. I have a vague idea to make a documentary about him.

What is your next project?

There are several ideas for the next film on my list, all character oriented, and I am waiting to see which one starts fermenting in my heart. I have a tendency to have interest in making films about something I have no knowledge of. I like the challenge and feel I can tell a story better because I am not an expert.

What is your definition of “independent film"?

"Independent film" is a product of the complete freedom of creative choice, and the severe restriction of financial choices. If filmmakers know how to keep a healthy balance between this freedom and restriction as well as their own sanity, "independent film" can be made.

What general advice would you impart to young filmmakers?

Persevere. Forgive. Be grateful. Make no enemies. Lose fights to win the war. Always question where your assertion comes from, based on your ego or creativity? Let it go if it comes from your ego. Welcome obstacles and limitations, as they push you to a place where you have no choice but to work harder and be more creative.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

I completed my first film, "Herb & Dorothy," after learning all the lessons I have mentioned above.

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