EDITORS NOTE: This interview was originally published during the 2007 Sundance Film Festival where the film premiered.
Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev has already directed numerous award-winning narrative and documentary films, including the feature length documentary "Fighter", which won six international awards. This year, Bar-Lev brings "My Kid Could Paint That" to Park City. The documentary questions whether four-year-old Marla Olmstead, who's sold more than $300,000 worth of paintings, is really a child prodigy. At first, "her work captured the imagination of the world," according to the Sundance Film Festival, however, the media began to question the authenticity of Marla's work. The film "scrutinizes society's obsession with child prodigies, explores the complex debate over what makes something art, questions the media's creation and subsequent destruction of heroes, and even examines the ethics of documentary storytelling." "My Kid Could Paint That" debuted in Sundance's Documentary Competition category.
Please introduce yourself. Where were you born? What do you do for a living?
I'm 34 years old, originally from Berkeley, California. My day job is producing television for the likes of Sundance Channel, SpikeTV, The Weather Channel, and VH1. No offense to any of the great people I've worked for or with in TV, but sometimes that type of work can be soul crushing. One particularly soul crushing project, I was so disgusted with my self that I resolved to read the paper beginning to end, every day, until I found a new documentary subject that would get me back into filmmaking. After a month or so of this I read about Marla Olmstead - a four year old who was selling paintings for thousands of dollars each. Amazingly, I was able to reach her parents on the phone as soon as I finished reading the article.
Please discuss "My Kid Could Paint That". What was your approach to making the project?
For the first five months of production, "My Kid Could Paint That" was a film about the meaning of modern art, and what international stardom and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of painting sales was going to do to this 4 year old and her family. Her parents were not the type of folks one normally associates with child stars. They were ambivalent about their daughter becoming a celebrity, and I figured my film would document their attempts to manage these changes the family was going through.
I had no way of knowing that, 5 months into production, I would be faced with the possibility that the whole thing was a hoax - that, possibly, Marla's father was himself doing the paintings. This development turned the project upside down, and I tried to widen the film's scope to aim some of the same scrutiny I was analyzing paintings with to my own medium, documentary film.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
Financing came through a pre-sale to BBC / Storyville that my EP, John Battsek of Passion Pictures, put together. BBC has been great to work with and very supportive of the project.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced making the movie?
I quickly learned it was pretty absurd trying to turn a 4 year old into a documentary subject. I had initially expected that if I spent enough time with Marla, I would, at some point, be able to document her genius. The reality was that once I got past Marla's shyness, she was interested in playing with me, not with talking about art. Since, at the beginning, I didn't envision being part of the film, this made gathering even the most basic b-roll challenging. I would kind of try and hide behind the cameraman and hope that, for a few seconds, the kids would forget about me and allow me to shoot the kind of idealized, "kids lost in their own world of reverie" footage I thought the film needed. Countless shots were "ruined" in a hilarious way when the kids would "break the fourth wall" to ask me play with them or intervene in a dispute.
Talk about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did you react?
A funny story happened a few weeks before we got in, when we sent an email to the programmers at Sundance to tell them we had vastly improved the film since sending them an early rough cut. The response was a rather concerned inquiry, the gist of which was - "we liked what we saw, what did you change??" Um.... we color corrected the hell out of it! Chyrons: new font. World of difference. You're gonna love it!
(Thankfully Sundance bought it. In reality it's a totally different film, we did some test screenings and found out that people weren't really responding to the whole "child artist" thing - the film we're showing in Park City is kind of an action / thriller about a beautiful art thief who travels through time to seduce Vincent Van Gogh. You're gonna love it!)
What is your definition of "independent film"?
I think that what separates me from a big budget studio director is: I trust my audience's imagination.
What are some of your favorite films, and why? What is your top ten list for 2006?
"Unaccompanied Minors," "The Santa Clause 3," "The Nativity Story," wait - indieWIRE? Oh! "My Country, My Country," "51 Birch Street," and "Old Joy."
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