Editor's Note: This is one of a series of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.
"Sons of a Gun"
Director: Rivkah Beth Medow & Greg O'Toole
Lance, Craig, and Ubaldo live with schizophrenia. They also live with Larry, their alcoholic caretaker/"dad". And even though they aren't related by blood, they've lived together as a family for 20 years. Through intimate access to this unique family, the documentary "Sons of a Gun" follows them as they get evicted, move into a cramped motel room, joke around, and scramble to find a new home before their family self-destructs. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
"Sons of a Gun" will screen in the Documentary Feature Competition.
Please introduce yourselves...
Rivkah Beth Medow: My name is Rivkah Beth Medow and I live in Oakland, CA. I grew up in the Midwest and never thought I'd live on the West Coast.
Greg O'Toole: My name is Greg O'Toole and I also live in Oakland.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?
RBM: I was making big public art sculptures, started grad school at CCAC, but then broke my back and couldn't lift more than about 4 pounds. My brother is a cameraman in LA and we always talked about working together someday, so I thought I would try to learn how to make films. Sculpture was a super solitary pursuit and filmmaking offered this incredible world of collaboration. I live in the Bay Area and our community has been very generous in teaching me about filmmaking.
GO: I was researching my undergraduate thesis in the war zones in the middle of the Colombian jungle. For some reason I decided to shoot all the interviews on a little handycam, and when I returned to the Bay Area I was amazed at the medium's ability to communicate so intimately an experience that was so far removed from my everyday. After that, I was hooked.
How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?
The film that became "Sons of a Gun" was slated to be a short about eviction & gentrification in the Bay Area. But not a preachy, gentrification-is-bad tirade - just a look from multiple sides. Larry, Lance, Ubaldo & Craig were the last holdouts in a 690-apartment eviction and we were gathering some background interviews. They had just moved into a motel, everyone in one room, and they were really open with us. Larry was telling us they all called him dad and that they'd lived together for about 20 years. Lance and Ubaldo were playing cards and chain smoking inside with the curtains drawn and the door open, and Craig kept his eyes shut for his whole interview. They were very compelling as this unlikely family and we just kept coming back.
We shot for about 5 months where the most interesting thing that happened was a cat got caught up on the neighboring roof , but things accelerated quickly after that. We thought we were witnessing unprecedented events in these men's lives and it was hard to know where to draw boundaries. We got lost in our story over and over and got overwhelmed by the number of possible stories that existed within our footage. We were trying to definitively decide whether Larry was a good guy or a bad one - the protagonist or the antagonist. Finally we realized that he was both, that our subjects were all complex and that our main challenge would be to represent them accurately. One of our key advisors suggested that we connect with how we felt when we encountered the situations for the first time and use that to craft the emotional trajectory of the film.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.
We wanted to make a verite film, but we also wanted to be ourselves with the guys, so we ended up interacting on camera sometimes. We spent a lot of time in the motel room, at the food bank, and going to the dentist with the guys. There were many days where we didn't even turn the camera on, but all that time spent together built a really solid trust and genuine friendship between us all. By the 5th month or so, when things really started cascading, none of the guys even thought twice about the camera - it was just always there. I think they gave us so much access because we were who we said we were and we did what we said we were going to do. We always told them we would tell their story (stories) as honestly as we could, though that made it hard to show Larry some of the scenes. Craig, Ubaldo, and Lance, the schizophrenic men, weren't really interested in watching any of the film, and after about 10 minutes, Larry was more interested in hanging out and talking with us as well.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The first challenge was just being able to film in the motel at all. 4 smokers in that cramped, airless room! The music was always blasting and the tv was on high volume. There were lots of dogs barking in the other rooms. There were illicit things going on in several rooms at that motel and some people got nervous when we brought the camera around.
Once we got into the edit, trying to show the complexity of each of these guys and provide each man with their own emotional arc became our biggest challenge. We unraveled and rebuilt the story in a hundred different ways, trying to get to what was essential about each scene, each man.
Also, we had concerns about how the mental health and homelessness communities would see this film. We didn't interview any experts, we didn't provide statistics or a framework of what was at stake - it is a really character-based film. We did speak with many experts on the issues raised in the film, but we just wanted to tell this story that would move people emotionally the way it had moved us. We want audiences to really care about these men and appreciate their sensitivity and perceptiveness.
How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?
RBM: Listening is key. Knowing what to pay attention to follows that listening. You have to be able to tell a solid story that moves viewers and an audience who watches the film and talks about what they saw completes the filmmaking journey. I want to continue making films collaboratively about compelling people or ideas.
GO: Success as a filmmaker is to bring compelling stories, artfully told, to as wide an audience as possible. I guess I'd like to keep trying to do that.
What are your future projects?
RBM: There are some documentaries I'm currently researching. I think because I just had a baby they all seem to have either kids or animals in them.
GO: Another doc. Hopefully one with more than two locations, less smoking, and just as much surprise ending.