INTERVIEW: Chuck Workman gets to "The Source" in Beat Documentary
by Nick Poppy
Chuck Workman is a highly sought after director and editor who has for years, managed to fly below the buzz radar of the film world. But we've all seen his work; he's edited dozens of films and programs, including the special film sequences for the Academy Awards and the original trailer for "Star Wars." He also has an Oscar on his shelf for his 1987 short documentary "Precious Images," a fast-paced series of clips from the last 50 years of our favorite movies. Workman's latest release "The Source" -- opening today at New York's Film Forum -- is an exhaustive documentary compendium of the Beat Generation, from William Burroughs to Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg. Workman spoke to indieWIRE in New York earlier this summer about varying sources -- from footage to financing -- and the complex relationship between editing and directing.
indieWIRE: "The Source" has a lot of source footage. Did this present any special problems?
Chuck Workman: For the theatrical release, you have to get everything to 35mm. I used an old-fashioned image transformer, which takes video to 35, and it was pretty awful the first time. I went back in and redid a lot of it. One of the problems with doing a documentary where you use other films as source material is that sometimes they don't exist on film anymore. So you have somebody's video of a film that was made 30 years ago. And you have to take that video and get it back on film again. I always try to get the original film, but I can't always. They say, no I'm sorry, it's just on video.
iW: What was the funding situation like for this film?
Workman: The film was privately funded by one man, Hiro Yamagata, the executive producer who was a friend of Allen Ginsberg. And it was great. I had done another film like that before, that was privately funded, and I said, I'll never get this again. And I did. And those were two of my best films, where I had a paycheck, and they were great. You don't have to keep everybody happy, you don't have to make 13 cuts, like I did for an HBO film. I had an adequate budget, and god, I recommend it to everybody. Find a patron. I think every filmmaker who's any good can develop that sort of source -- the problem is not to compromise the movie, and not let the person who's paying for it tell you how to make it, or else you'll never develop your own style. You have to be in the same ballpark, in terms of your feelings toward the subject, and they have to have confidence in you, in what you're doing.
iW: There's an old interview with filmmaker Shirley Clarke in "The Source." Can you talk about her?
Workman: Shirley Clarke was a big influence. I remember seeing a couple of her films at the New York Film Festival. Her early films were important, like Cassavetes was, in terms of independent filmmaking. "Portrait of Jason" was a film of hers that I remember. Then she made a film about the guys who did the play "Hair," she followed them around and made a film out of that. So she was quite an important filmmaker. There was a film that was mostly out of sync, about the beats, that was done by a visual artist in Venice, California, about the West Coast Beats. And Shirley Clarke was in it. Shirley Clarke used to hang around Venice, I remember, in the late 70's, early 80's, so I grabbed that. And I also had to find a way to bring the women in, and I thought she did it in an interesting way.
iW: You work in Hollywood a lot. What's it like for a documentarian in a feature film town?
Workman: Making a documentary in Hollywood, they think you're very strange, because they relate mostly to television documentaries. And they also work in a style that is a television documentary style. So there are very good independent filmmakers in L.A., and some of them are making films, but for the most part, the L.A. documentary establishment is much more cliched in their style than I'd say San Francisco or New York [are].
iW: How hard is it for an editor to jump into directing?
Workman: An editor looks at the movie and doesn't really realize how that shot was made. And you get very used to taking the material and just cutting it, and not thinking about how it's done, how hard that is. So editors do make good directors, but you have to learn how to shoot the shot, and you don't realize how hard that is. Even in a documentary, that's hard. So that if you're just an editor, you don't know until you're out there. It doesn't come out the way you had in mind. Whereas, if you're an editor, it's always there. One of the good things about being an editor, and in the beginning of my career I did this, is that I would save myself. So I would maybe screw up the directing, but fix it in the editing. For a long time, I found I was doing that. And then I found out I was doing it too much, that you can sometimes over-edit.
It happened to me even in this movie with Johnny Depp. [Depp, along with actors John Turturro and Dennis Hopper, play poets Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs respectively, reciting their poems in staged sequences.] I didn't realize the power of Johnny Depp. And I said [to myself] Johnny Depp isn't nearly as cool as the other two guys. He's kind of flat, just walking around, being the cute guy. And so I cut him back. I kept cutting him back. Then I started having screenings, and everybody was freaking out over Johnny Depp, whether you like him or not, he did work on screen. So I had to put him back. I find that I always cut a little too much, and then I have to put it back sometimes.
iW: Is there a directorial style that editors are prone to?
Workman: Yeah, I think editors know what they want. Editors shoot less coverage, because they're so used to seeing too much coverage, that they say 'I know just how I'm going to do this', and they don't shoot enough coverage. So that could put them into a problem. Editors are highly developed, in terms of their filmmaking skills, but they don't really know how to shoot, they may not have the photographic skills, may not have the visual skills. They have to learn that. It takes a while to learn that - it's hard to direct a movie.
iW: How did you make the jump from editing to directing?
Workman: I always thought of myself as a filmmaker, working as an editor. I have rarely cut for another director, and I stopped working with other directors years ago, because I use editing as a tool in my own filmmaking. When you're an editor and you're successful at it, you're just busy being an editor all the time, so it's very easy to get stuck in it. It's a lot of fun, but it's very bad if you're an eligible young woman or man, because you don't meet anybody. You're just in a room all the time.
iW: Do you ever fall in love with your own material too much?
Workman: Yeah, I fall in love with a sequence, and I really like it, but I trust that, well if I like it, I want to stay with it. You've got to remember, I've been doing this a long time, so I understand myself and my own work at this point. For many years you're just trying to learn the craft, and do it well. But once you establish your own kind of rhythms, if I fall in love with something, then I say, it must be good. Maybe nobody else will like it, but I like it. And I try not to get myself talked out of it. Or talk myself out of it. And it's important, because what's going to happen is, 15 people are going to tell you how to change it, who have no stake in it - they're your friends or they're your wife, your girlfriend, your boyfriend or they're the studio, they're all going to tell you why it's wrong. And you have to hold onto it if you like it.