"Museum Hours" director Jem Cohen.
"Museum Hours" director Jem Cohen.

With experimental documentaries like "CHAIN" and  "Instrument," Jem Cohen has made intimate non-fiction diary films rooted in an attentiveness to atmosphere and riddled with small observations rendered in profound terms. "Museum Hours,"which opens today in select theaters, is technically his first narrative effort, with a pair of amateur performances and the backbone of a fictional story. But its constant introspection and remarkable sense of place provide a fluid connection to the earlier work.

On the one hand a sad, poignant character study, "Museum Hours" is also a treatise on art history and a love letter to architectural wonder. Predominantly set in Vienna's grand Kunsthistorisches Art Museum, the trim story involves middle-aged museum guard Johann (Robert Sommer, making a gently affecting onscreen debut), whose quiet gig has allowed him to fade into his surroundings and observe the visitors in much the same way they peer at the artwork. It's here that he encounters the distant Anne (Canadian songwriter Mary Margaret O'Hara), a woman of the same generation in town to deal with her cousin's debilitating illness. Sensing Anne's isolation in the big city, a physically overwhelming sensation that reflects her inner turmoil, Johann quickly forms a bond with the woman and keeps her company around town. Whether seeking meaning in paintings or their lives, their faces reach artistic heights worthy of the same scrutiny allotted to the museum's collection.

Cohen spoke to Indiewire this week about imbuing the film with big ideas, his interest in entertaining audiences, and how the movie addresses problems with the way people think about art today.

"Museum Hours."
"Museum Hours."

Although it involves fictional characters, "Museum Hours" deals with the universality of death and the way art can provide catharsis during challenging times. It feels very personal -- you dedicate it to your parents and your friend Vic Chesnutt, the musician who died in 2009. How did the movie help you cope with grief in your own life?

My parents are elderly and were having serious health problems for some time, and between that and things like what happened with my friend Vic Chestnutt, there was no question I was feeling I had to tangle with some of that mortality stuff. I think what was interesting to me was to take that on in a way that was not a downer. That, in a way, that was more about how heavy matters and the issue of death become intertwined in life and art that isn't just a negative. It's a reality -- and it is, in its way, also fascinating and important to deal with.

On the one hand, "Museum Hours" is a heavy intellectual experience filled with conversations about art and art history. But at the same time it has this soft, emotional side to it, and you usually don't see those two things come together the way they coexist here.

"It would've been very difficult to explain this movie to investors."

It was very organic to me, partly because I never believed in that firm distinction between nonfiction and fiction anyway. So really, if you were to go back to my very first film made in 1983, you would find it to be entirely accepting of a coexistence between what people describe as a documentary and what people describe as narrative. That has been part and partial of what I've always set out to do. This is a big step for me in that it's a bigger film and there's a good bit of dialogue in it, and I think it will take a lot of my older fans by surprise in some regard, partly because it is intentionally a friendly movie in a lot of ways. It's very difficult for me to talk about this because I think at the same time it's like the friendliest movie I've made and the heaviest movie I've made. When you're trying to get people into theaters, you don't want to tell them you made a movie that deals with things like -- well, things like death.

I can only imagine what it sounded like when you were explaining it to investors.

I wasn't explaining it to investors. I never do that. I didn't have investors.

Well, that takes one challenge out of the equation.

It would've been very difficult to explain this to investors.

So you covered this out of your own pocket then?

No, it was funded in partly out of pocket and in part through funding we were able to raise in Austria via their cultural resources. There's something called the BMUKK -- it's not directly just the Film Fund, which is a separate fund we applied for and did not receive. But we got this money from the BMUKK and we got money from ORF, and when the other money fell through, which was the film fund that we were really aiming for, we had to consider pulling the plug and we decided to pare it down a bit and forge ahead. That was one of those kind of mortifying, but not in any way unusual filmmaker moments.

How did you pare it down?

Mary Margaret O'Hara in "Museum Hours."
Mary Margaret O'Hara in "Museum Hours."

There were a couple of scenes we were hoping to do out of Austria, but it didn't really change that much. It just meant we had to be a little more fearless, and my producer, Paulo Calamita, was really the one who convinced me we needed to take the leap. I was teaching at the time. The allotted production moment was in between semesters. So it would've been very hard if I had postponed it. We may have lost the actors, all of that kind of thing. But, you know, there was a point at which if somebody wanted to be judicious and sane they might've said, "You need to put on the brakes and come back to it someday." But I'm very thankful we didn't do that. I've always done my films with a very low budget, stripped down, DIY, whatever you want to call it. I've never believed in separating what is logistically doable from what you want to do. Those have to be made to work together or else you just end up having endless meetings with investors who usually want something much more explicable than the kinds of films I make. I don't know if "explicable" is the word, but they tend to want something more commercial, or…what's the word for "pin down-able?"

Next: Is "Museum Hours" really scripted?