Any Portrait is a Self-Portrait: Bennett Miller and Speed
Levitch Discuss "The Cruise"
Any Portrait is a Self-Portrait: Bennett Miller and Speed
by Anthony Kaufman
When it screened at the LAIFF, indieWIRE staffers were astounded.
We did not know, as New Yorkers sharing in a similarly exhilarating and
isolating experience in our (un)fair city, if we were the only ones
struck by Bennett Miller's witty and profound portrait of Timothy
"Speed" Levitch, a Manhattan double decker tour guide who cruises
through life, thriving on chaos, and waxing hilarious bits of history
and philosophy to unsuspecting people from all around the world.
We soon found out that we were not the only ones seized by this intimate
urban profile of a man compared to the likes of Jerry Lewis and Tiny
Tim, Truman Capote and Woody Allen -- even Gore Vidal and Willy Wonka
comparisions appear in rousing notices from the Los Angeles Times, the
Hollywood Reporter, the LA Weekly, the Village Voice and the New Times.
And after an enthusiastic screening at New York's docfest on Saturday,
where even documentary legend Jean Rouch ("Chronicle of a Summer") showed
up, "The Cruise" has now become a bit of a legend in its own right, with its
one-man crew, miniDV black & white cinematography, simple, subtle story,
and an emotional staying power that will likely propel it from a film festival
favorite to a documentary distributed to a theater near you.
Walking through Central Park with Miller and Speed, documentarian and subject,
was like being inside the movie -- dumbstruck by Speed's knowledge of the
Park's every detail and guided by Miller's calm, observant and encouraging
remarks. Although reading a portion of our conversation gives some indication
of the breadth, poetry, and wackiness of Timothy "Speed" Levitch and his
unpretentious profiler Bennett Miller, it is simply incomparable to witnessing
their collaboration in "The Cruise."
indieWIRE: What were your expectations? When you made this film, did
you think, oh, I want it to have a theatrical release?
Bennett Miller: No. My expectations were that this would be the last
thing I do before I leave the film business forever. And I had no real
expectations of anybody ever seeing it -- I did it by myself and by the
time it was completely shot, there was not another individual that had
even seen it. It wasn't until the first rough cut screening -- when
people began to respond to it -- that I realized it could be more
popular than I expected. It does speak to people on bigger
levels than I would have expected, but I never thought about it. I
never thought about it.
iW: At what point did you start to think about it?
Miller: I would say, when we begin to show it to people. Even at its
earliest stages it became very clear that people were moved in
unexpected ways by the movie. It's attractive to people on a
superficial level, I knew people would be interested -- just the
fascination of being able to look at a purely bizarre human being. But
on a deeper level, as the film reveals him, we can all identify with him
and that's where the lasting feelings about the film come from and why
people seem to be reacting the way they're reacting.
iW: At what point did the video-camera come into play in your
Timothy "Speed" Levitch: Bennett came onto the double decker bus, with a
pretty simple video-camera. And it was in the winter time, in December,
and I was, in particular despair at that time. And I remember the first
day, he came on, I was working with "The Kabul Comet", Najim Shaquid,
who was one of the great double decker drivers of the original Red
Cavalry. And we buzzed around the city and did a loop and he was
basically having a good time with the video-camera and I realized he was
just on the ride with everybody else who had a videocamera -- there were
twenty other people on the bus with video-cameras. And we were all
together, looking out the window. (He laughs a gigglish chortle that
really can't be described with words.)
iW: Was that camera the beginning or was that just research?
Miller: I guess you could call it research. I shot about 80 hours
before I began shooting what would become the footage that we'd cut
together. So there was about a 80 disposable hours before I figured out
what I was doing.
iW: Were you thinking about structure?
Miller: I was specifically not thinking about structure. I made a
strong determination not to structure it in any way in my brain. I
heard Norman Mailer say, in an interview about writing, that you
should not make decisions about the characters and the plot and
what happens. As a writer, you have to be on the adventure,
the same way a reader needs to be, otherwise, it's a little bit
contrived. I decided that's what I wanted to do.
There was something compelling about "Speed". To get to it, I didn't
want to delineate it in my own mind and try to force it out one way
or the other, I wanted to get it naturally and make sense out of it later.
iW: Speed, how did you feel about being the object of the lens?
Speed: It was a psychedelic experience. And a specific craft to be
practiced. Like piano playing. To be an object is an athleticism and
an artistry, (laughs) and an opulent one, I should say. It's like being
your own instrument, playing yourself as your own instrument. And the
question is, are you in tune and are you a virtuoso? What kind of an
instrument is it going to be? Is it a clarinet? Is it a piano? Is it a
tympany drum? Sometimes it's all of those things. Often, I just became
what we all are on a daily basis -- which is a walking, 80-instrument
symphony. Like bang -- violins, cellos. . . (Laughs)
iW: Did you feel you changed at all because the camera was there?
Speed: Well, it was a craft -- it is a craft. It took me a long time to
find the right rhythm, the right rhythmic dance with this thing, the
camera. And of course, a lot of things clicked when I began to
understand that the camera was my lover. And vice versa, when we fell
in love. There was a long time there where I was certainly a walking
rough draft, waiting to find the right rhythms, to just look into a
camera directly and speak.
iW: Bennett, how collaborative do you think the process was between the two
Miller: From my perspective, being a voyeur and wanting some detachment
from the subject itself and yet wanting to get at something from within
it -- I saw my job as cultivating an atmosphere for Speed to
self-consciouslessly allow the aspects of himself that interested me to
be evoked and to capture them in a cinematic and artful way and then to
put them together in such a way that an audience coming in cold could feel
and experience my bigger feelings that I had toward Timothy's being.
Hanging out with Speed made me feel a particular way. I found something
extraordinary in him. And I think Speed will attest to this, that most human
beings before the film did not give him the same credit. There was a lot of
quicker judgement of him and it required some looking into. It required some
patience and sensitivity and interest and curiosity to appreciate,
because he's fucking unusual.
Speed: (agreeing) Yeah, yeah.
Miller: But . . . I don't consider it a performance piece, I don't consider it
as exhibitionism and just entertainment. I think what speaks to people is
that who he is gets captured, gets evoked, gets presented. It's a portrait.
iW: How long was the editing?
Miller: About 8 months. We were on a full-time intensive...we weren't
doing anything else.
iW: Speed, did you come in during editing and check it out?
Speed: Very rarely. I dedicated myself to the chaos of the universe.
The universe breathes through chaos. And Bennett's mind was in full
throttle disassociation with the chaos, so I was confident to leave it
in his hands and to let it unfold organically. I think that the best
moments of our collaboration are these moments when we were hanging off
the same edge together and there were moments when ecstasy knew us by
the same name. And perhaps, that's what true collaboration is about.
iW: What were those moments when you were both hanging?
Speed: There are moments in that footage when the despair that I am
feeling is the despair that he's feeling and that is why he was able to
fixate the camera in a certain way. When I watched the film recently,
it came across to me as a distillation of a character, like there are
several test tubes on a table, different phylums of tantra, and the
thing becomes a discussion between multiple personalities. (Laughs)
Miller: Someone after seeing the movie said to me, "It's a
Speed: This is Leonardo DaVinci's original dictum. I think he said,
"Any portrait is a self-portrait" and that's a beautiful process. We
are marching through the dark forestries of ourselves together and
that's what collaboration is about.
Comradery is, we all have battlefields, I'm going to supply you with
armaments and I'm going to back up your artillery [Gestures towards
Kaufman]. Like, together we're going to go in on the left flank on your
battlefield and then later in the afternoon, you're going to give me a
tank for my battlefield. You've got a special adeptness and
understanding of the horse cavalry unit, you're going to help me surround
We are contributing to each other's battlefronts in the frontiers of
our awareness. By speaking to Burrito [Speed's nickname for Bennett]
and his camera, I am sharing in his energy, we're experiencing
osmosis as a tactile experience. What's happening there is that he is
taking me, escorting me into new aspects of myself. I'm discovering
things about myself that I didn't even know, in the impromptu moments of
improvisation in front of this camera.
Miller: I agree with what Speed said. . .
["The Cruise" screens this week at the Newport International Film Festival.]
[EDITOR'S NOTE: Next week, with "The Cruise" as a reference point, indieWIRE will
publish a DIY article exploring the process of making a film utilizing
emerging digital technology.]
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