DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: "I Am A Camera," Ross McElwee on First-Person Filmmaking
by Nick Poppy
[EDITORS NOTE: Nick Poppy spoke with Ross McElwee about "Bright Leaves" for indieWIRE in August of 2004; the film will be released on DVD this week (June 21st, 2005).]
For followers of independent film, and of documentaries in particular, Ross McElwee doesn't need an introduction. But here goes: McElwee has been making films for almost three decades -- documentaries that mingle the personal, the historical, the cultural and the political, into splendid cinematic stewpots. Trained under such cinema verite legends as Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, McElwee took from them a love for shooting with a handheld, 16mm film camera -- and shooting a lot. Unlike the more orthodox practitioners of verite, however, McElwee includes himself in the action; he interacts with the people he shoots (and often they are people he knows -- members of his family, and his friend and former teacher, the spirited Charleen Swansea), asking and answering questions, involving himself in the action. And instead of constructing a story strictly from the amassed footage, with no added frills, McElwee narrates his films in his mildly twangy North Carolina drawl that sounds just a little bit like John Edwards.
His thoughtful narration, at times halting, often funny, is the heart of his films, a ruminating thread that ties them together. Watching and listening to a Ross McElwee film is like spending time with a very wise and unpretentious teacher - which he is, incidentally, at Harvard. They are journeys of discovery, at once personal and universal, and it is his talent that when we watch them, we feel like we are right there with him.
McElwee's works include "Time Indefinite" and "Six O'Clock News," but the best known, and arguably the best, is 1986's "Sherman's March." In that work, McElwee travels south to follow the devastating route of Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, while trying to find a girlfriend. His romantic results are mixed, at best, but the people he meets along the way -- New Southerners, Old Southerners, Burt Reynolds -- are remarkable and strange and utterly memorable.
McElwee's latest effort, the smartly entertaining "Bright Leaves," follows a similar path, as the filmmaker returns to the tobacco country of North Carolina where he grew up. He tries to make sense of the tobacco industry, particularly as it relates to his own family (McElwee's great-grandfather developed the formula for Durham Bull tobacco), and tackles the knotty issue of what it means to grow something that is a known health hazard. Along the way, he meditates on the ideas of family and time and mortality and film, and how these all might relate to each other. If "Bright Leaves" sounds hard to summarize, it is, if only because McElwee takes us in so many pleasing, unexpected directions.
Nick Poppy spoke with Ross McElwee about the filmmaker's influences, first-person documentaries and the dying medium of film.
indieWIRE: The first thing I want to tell you is, I think you have a marvelous voice.
Ross McElwee: Well, you'd be the better judge of that. I have no sense as to my own voice. Which I guess is funny, because my films depend heavily upon my voice, and I always need somebody in the recording booth with me when I'm recording the final version, because I can't tell.
iW: It is the most salient quality in your work, it's so recognizable. Could you talk about the creative decision to make that a part of your work?
McElwee: Well, clearly I'm not the first person to use voice-over narration in a documentary. In fact, it's long been the staple of documentaries. Since sound documentaries came in, we've always had narrators explaining things to us, telling us things, and I think initially, it was a convention I really wanted to avoid, voice-over narration. I was very influenced by and appreciative of the films of people like Fred Wiseman, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles brothers, that whole group of wonderful cinema verite filmmakers who for the most part managed to eschew the use of voice-over narration. And it seemed to me there was something admirable about allowing the visual to be visual, allowing film to stand, by virtue of its visual representation of the world, not by spoken interpretation of the events that were unfolding in front of the camera.
But as time went on, an old inclination I had when I was in high school and later on in college - that is, to be a writer - kept coming back to me. I kept wanting to interpret verbally what I was seeing, and yet felt an allegiance to cinema verite and sort of kept myself from doing it for my first few (many, many) films. But for me, anyway, a dissatisfaction began to arise with the notion of simply observing the world silently from behind a camera. It didn't seem to suit my personality, although I could very much appreciate and respect the films that were made that way. I soon realized that this was not the style for me. Nor did I really want to do narrations that attempted to be objective. And that is what really appealed to me was to try to bring back some of the personal response to the world that I'd experienced, when I tried to write as a younger person, into my filmmaking, and so I evolved this style of subjective narration as opposed to objective narration. And it's suited me very well ever since.
iW: It also seems like you might be part of a tradition that would include people like Chris Marker and Agnes Varda, the French film essayists.
McElwee: Absolutely true. "Sans Soleil" is a film that you have to notice as a documentary filmmaker. You have to come to terms with it. It's like David Holtzman's "Diary," in a way, you have to navigate your way around it somehow.
I think for me, "Sans Soleil" adopts a fictional patina with an epistolary style where the narrator is receiving letters, and that was very engaging and very intriguing to me, but I think I wanted something more direct. And also, I wanted a form of filmmaking that would still allow that style to step aside and let a kind of patient observation of the world come back into the film. In other words, I didn't want to narrate from start to finish, the way Chris Marker does, and it was very important that significant segments of my work also involve my direct from-behind-the-camera interactions with people and filming, and also just stretches of my films when you didn't hear anything from me, where I could revert to a more traditional cinema verite approach. That became very important to me, but yes, I think the French notion of an authored film was something that was influential to me.
iW: Recently there's been this explosion of popular documentaries, many of which have a first person point of view -- Michael Moore being the most obvious. What do you think of those folks? Do you have anything in common with them?
McElwee: I was in touch with Michael as he was working on "Roger and Me," just for a very brief period of time. He'd seen "Sherman's March" and was very curious as to how I'd evolved that style and sort of felt that he wanted to do something similar to it but with a much more political bent. So we went back and forth for a while about how that happens. I gave him a bunch of advice, none of which he took, fortunately for him, because his film was extremely successful without taking my suggestions. "Roger and Me" was a huge hit. I think Moore's work kicked the door down, really, for a whole flood of documentary filmmakers to come in and try their own styles. A lot of films these days employ first person narrations, with the filmmaker as character in the film, and I think that's fine, but I'm glad not all films are doing that, or I think non-fiction would lose a lot of its variety and force.
Errol Morris' work is not autobiographical (does not do that). The new film, "Control Room," is closer to classical cinema verite, and I think makes an interesting point that that style of filmmaking is still very valid, given the proper topic, in this case Al-Jazeera. I think it's great that we have personal voices in documentary film, but I'm also glad that it's not purely that, that other people are still experimenting in different directions.
iW: It seems like you have a shooting lifestyle. I'm sure you don't go about your entire life with a camera on your shoulder, but it sort of seems like you do.
McElwee: That's why you wanted to interview me by phone and not in person -- you wanted to stay out of range of my probing camera! No, it's not as it seems in my films, I don't constantly have a camera on my shoulder. In fact, weeks will go by when I don't film anything. But to create the kind of protagonist filmmaker who's driving the movie, I do convey that impression of myself. And the impression is both me and not me, because if I'm not actually shooting, I'm certainly thinking about shooting a lot more than I'm actually doing it. The world is often seen by me, even if I'm not filming it, in a kind of cinematic, non-fiction filming way. How would this have been if I had filmed it? That's a little sick and neurotic, but true. But I'm not actually filming all the time, and I think part of it is, when you have kids, you just can't be doing it perpetually, because you want to be with them, without any intermediating media of any kind. Also, they wouldn't allow it, they wouldn't put up with it. But I do film a lot, and in that way the persona in the film, though somewhat exaggerated, is a representation, somewhat accurate, of me.
iW: The other thing I'm struck by is that you're still shooting film, which is a medium that seems to be going away.
McElwee: That's a gentle way of putting it. Careening towards the precipice, as far as I can tell. I shot the last one in film, and don't honestly know for sure that I'll shoot the next one in film. The other day, I had my Aaton 16mm camera out, and periodically, once a year, I discharge the batteries and then recharge them, to keep them in good health. And I was overcome with this sense of nostalgia - because I've also been shooting a lot of DV lately - for shooting with the big, bulky camera. I came out of a generation of filmmakers who learned to shoot with 16mm handheld, and DV is quite an innovation, no doubt about it, and it does simplify things immensely, but there is something about the cumbersomeness of 16mm cameras, and the limitations imposed upon you by ten minutes at a time, given that that's how long a roll of film lasts, that I think is now a part of my filmmaking sensibility. Even if I'm not actually shooting film, part of the patience and the caution with which I pull the trigger has to do with having learned on 16mm. So if I don't do another 16mm film, I'll be sad about that. But I'm not sentimental about it -- I'm also perfectly ready to move on. A lot of it has to do with closing the gap between film and HD or Digibeta, transferred to film and then projected. When that technological gap is closed sufficiently, in terms of being able to render the world as beautifully as film does, I'll be the first to jump ship. I don't love giving $100 a roll to Eastman Kodak.
iW: You mentioned the process of shooting film, and how that informs the way you make films. I'm interested in that kind of meditative style. It seems that's such an important part of what you do.
McElwee: I think it's very much a part of the style of my filmmaking that I allow for long shots, with everything that implies. Shots that go on for 20 seconds, 30 seconds, even a minute, two minutes occasionally, in which the viewer is allowed to sit there and absorb not only the primary content, but also the nuance of the moment -- people's body language, what's happening in the background -- because there isn't a cut every 2.5 seconds. And I may be inching my way into complete obsolescence by insisting on this style, but it is something that I value, and I realize it's very counter to the prevailing trends these days, which is to keep things moving, and put lots of music in the films and use lots of special effects and graphics and so forth. There are a lot of fast paced movies I really love, but it's not my style, and I think I am after something different. It is very meditative style, as you say. I just have to somehow be confident that there's some segment of an audience that wants to experience now and then a film like that. And when There's no longer such an audience, I guess I'll no longer be making those kinds of films.