"Visual Acoustics," which premiered at last year's Los Angeles Film Festival, is a doc that celebrated Southern California's own Julius Shulman, one of the world's most renowned architecture photographers. The film, narrated by Dustin Hoffman, is especially poignant because Shulman died around the time of the film's finishing. "Visual Acoustics" premieres this Friday in New York City, October 9, at Cinema Village and October 16 at the Nuart Theatre in LA. The film extends to other cities later. indieWIRE spoke to director Eric Bricker about the making of his first film.
Please introduce yourself.
I am 39 years old and moved to Austin, Texas in January of 2008 after fifteen years in Los Angeles. Originally from St. Louis, MO, I graduated from Indiana University, Bloomington in May of 1992 and then moved to Los Angeles that summer. I caught the acting bug in high school, continued throughout college and spent three years in Los Angeles working the bug out of my system. At age 25 I realized that acting in films wasn't really what I wanted to do; I wanted to make films.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
Growing up, my maternal grandmother used to take my brothers and me to the movies (she referred to them as "the show") quite often. I was really affected by what I would see on screen and can recall the feeling of wanting to "do that" after walking out of the theater. Ultimately, the "do that" was not only reach an audience on an emotional, intellectual and perhaps even spiritual level, but also to create a dialogue with an audience. I live for meaningful conversations and I found the medium of film was the most conducive way to foster that in my life.
Ending up as a filmmaker was a process of evolution. I first thought I wanted to be an actor. After about seven years of acting I realized that the craft was extremely limiting in terms of allowing me to have the experiences that I was seeking through film. I decided that filmmaking would expose me to a broader scope of interactions with individuals across a wide array of disciplines.
The vision for my career continues to evolve. As my next round of projects progress I am paying close attention to where media in general is heading. I am convinced that in order to survive as a filmmaker, it is necessary to develop related media across a number of different platforms.
Please discuss how the idea for "Visual Acoustics" came about...
I had met Julius Shulman by chance in the spring of 1999. I was working as an art consultant and was in need of 1930s black and white photography of San Francisco for a project. I will never forget the day I met him. Julius was on the phone when I arrived so I was able to spend time browsing the various photographs and books strewn across every desk, table and chair in the room.
The photographs sang to me. The images are bold and uplifting statements instilled with a lyrical quality. I still have the same experience to this day when I view his work. On that same day, I realized that Julius was not only an exceptional photographer but also an exceptional human being. We talked about everything. He seemed familiar to me. He reminded me of my maternal grandfather. Over the next few years I spent as much time as I could with Julius.
From the first day I was introduced to Julius' photography I was convinced that the images were worthy of big screen real estate. In addition, I wanted more people to have the opportunity to get to know "Uncle Julius" as he referred to himself. The best context in which to do this was a film, so in the summer of 2001 I asked Julius, "What do you think about someone doing a documentary on you and your work? What if that someone was me?" His answer was "I don't see why not."
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project?
I wanted to make a film that satisfied two groups: those who were aware of Julius' work and those who were not. The key to winning over both groups was establishing an emotional connection with the audience through Julius. Once the connection was made, we could explore the architecture and photography along with the larger context of Modernism and Los Angeles with Julius as our guide.
"Visual Acoustics" is comprised of three interwoven strands. The first strand is called "hanging with Uncle J." This is the verite strand of the film and the intent is to have it come across as very personal and "down home." I want the audience to experience what it is like to sit in Julius' studio and talk about Neutra, the chirping birds outside or when he used to hike as a Boy Scout down an old Indian trail which is now called Pico Blvd. The second strand of the film is comprised of interviews, which provide the larger contextual framework of modernist architecture. Finally, the third strand is comprised of what I call "visual symphonies." These are expressionistic sequences based on a particular house, photograph or idea. The symphonies are used to provide the viewer with a break from the exposition as well as an opportunity to relish imagery.
Ultimately, I want the audience to walk out of the theater feeling curious and inspired to learn more about Julius, architecture, design, photography, and Los Angeles.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
As this is my first film, the "on again / off again" due to fundraising in combination with the unknown geography of making a film was really frightening; it kept me up at night. Ultimately, on an instinctual level, I knew that I would complete the project and this served as my guiding light in coming to terms with the all-encompassing uncertainty of everything else. I saw no way out other than finishing the project. In addition, Julius and his daughter, along with a number of other people trusted me and gave me the opportunity to do this. I felt obligated to those people and that alone was enough motivation for me to see this through to the end.
My standard line in regards to the film is it has been one long yoga pose. I found myself breathing deep quite often and embracing the periods where nothing seemed to be happening as all part of the process.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
Grants, donations, fundraisers and investors pieced the financing together. I wasn't really used to asking people for funding so I have to admit I sweated bullets every time I had to do so. I was however supported by an incredible production team that was out there doing the same thing so the financing, like the other pieces of the film, was a collaborative effort.
In terms of casting it was simply myself or members of the production team approaching individuals and asking if they would like to participate on camera. Kelly Lynch and her husband Mitch Glazer live in a Lautner home while Tom Ford renovated a Neutra home; all were fans of Julius and gave us a resounding "Yes!" when asked to participate on camera.
As for Dustin Hoffman, he met Julius when Julius photographed the Santa Monica Community College Performing Arts Center. Later, Dustin was the recipient of the Julius Shulman Excellence in Communication Award at Woodbury University. I attended the event in which Dustin received the award and when I heard him speak I realized that he, like Julius, was a master craftsman in his field. There is so much integrity and authenticity in the way he approaches his work and from this vantage point I thought a narration by Dustin Hoffman would be appropriate. I asked him that night and he replied on the spot: "Yes. I would be interested. Here is my number. Call me."
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
The biggest creative influence to date is my high school English teacher, Don Ribbing, which I had both sophomore and senior years. He brought great characters and stories to life in the classroom by exploring the rich literary gems we had the opportunity to read. He also instilled within us what he deemed the most important part of not only literature but also education in general; that the question is more important than the answer.
The question is what fascinates me the most in life. The first part of the title of my next film, "What If...?," serves as testament to Mr. Ribbing that I actually was listening in class.
What is your next project?
I have another documentary in the works entitled "What If...? How Geeks & Gamers Will Save the World." The film looks at online virtual worlds and how they have captured the attention of hundreds of millions of users. "What If...?" offers a hopeful look at a future where the connectedness occurring in the virtual new frontier spills over into the real world forever altering our economy, politics, society and reality.
In addition to the film, we will be launching an online social game, which allows the audience to pickup where the film leaves off. The audience will have the tools to not only write their own story but impact the world in a positive way as well. Dallas Snell of Origin and NC soft North America fame is executive producing the game.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I have two narratives in development. The first one is a docu-dramedy commenting on the contemporary art world as told through the rise and fall of an evil-genius-artstar-twit. The other is collaboration with my writing partner Jonas Koffler. It is a surreal story of real estate, golf courses, cowboys and a Brazilian capoeirista set in West Texas.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
My definition of independent film is rooted in the idea that a filmmaker is free from any outside pressures in terms of realizing his or her artistic vision on screen.
The definition has not changed at all for me since I started working. I chose this route as I had a burning desire to make this particular film in the way I had envisioned it and by staying "independent" I can say that I was able to do just that.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Think about the audience for whom you are making the film. I firmly believe that you don't have a film until you have an audience; "if a tree falls in the forest...." kind of thing.
Stay open to suggestions, new ideas and ways of seeing things other than you had originally envisioned. A film is a repository of inspiration, ideas and energy from a number of different people. Listen to every idea, take what you like and leave the rest.
Learn to let go and trust the process. If the intention is there and you stay focused things have a way of coming together.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Thus far, I think what resonates the most for me, is when I witness audience appreciation of not only the remarkable body of work which Julius has left us, but also the incredible reminder that you really can fashion your own reality, as illustrated through Julius' ninety-eight years of good living. Connecting with others from this shared sentiment is extremely fulfilling.