A Little Help from My Friends: Michael Shamberg Remembers
By Anthony Kaufman
What do Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci, James Herbert, Open City
Films and Why Not Productions all have in common? They all took part in
the five years in the making of Michael Shamberg’s debut feature and
recent Rotterdam film festival selection, “Souvenir.” As a music video
producer, Shamberg has worked with such directors and artists as
Jonathan Demme, Katherine Bigelow, Robert Frank, Robert Longo and
William Wegman. He produced Beth B’s feature “Salvation!” in 1988 and
“Summer Cannibals” by Robert Frank (and Patti Smith) in 1996. “Souvenir”
is a mixture of these elements and a whole lot more.
“What you can’t remember, you’ll never forget,” reads “Souvenir”‘s
tagline — an emblem of the film’s play with multiplicity and memory.
Citing diverse references from French New Wave auteurs like Truffaut and
Godard to low-tech sci-fi (with the help of Left Bank “La Jetee”
filmmaker Chris Marker) to authors like Proust and Virginia Woolf,
Shamberg’s richly (and literally) multi-layered film is a feast for the
senses. Experimenting with sound and image, past and present, narrative
and desire, the kaleidoscopic “Souvenir” may not end up in a multiplex
near you, but it certainly deserves a look by anyone interested in
seeing how far the film medium can go. After Rotterdam (where Japanese
distributor Uplink acquired for Japanese release), “Souvenir” will next
screen at the Taos Talking Pictures festival. Shamberg also hopes for a
possible pairing with Chris Marker’s “Level 5” at London’s Institute of
Shamberg spoke with indieWIRE about his extensive cross-country network
of associations that helped make the film happen, from NY-based
production companies like Good Machine and Open City to Paris-based Why
Not, to his digital sound and picture odyssey from Holland to the
London-based post house, The Mill.
indieWIRE: Since you’ve been in the field for a while producing, did
that make it easier once you got on the set as a director?
Michael Shamberg: I found it very easy shooting — the production was
difficult — I had to let go of being a producer, which is what I am.
And then actually, the directing came quite easily.
iW: I have some production questions — how did Open City Films
Shamberg: They were friends of a friend of mine, Katherine Dieckmann,
and they were people who I went to, to get some information on France.
And I needed a sound person and they gave me the name of their sound
person. And they were interested in reading the script and then they
said they were going over to France and they spoke French and English,
so they liked the script a lot and helped with some logistical things.
iW: I also saw Why Not Productions on the credits [who have produced the
films of Gregg Araki and Arnaud Desplechin]?
Shamberg: I had known the owner, Pascal through a friend — before I
went over there, I asked if he could give me some office space and he
offered that. And he further offered, while we were in production — he
had deals with production companies — so we were able to use those
deals, using Why Not to help with cash flow.
iW: What about the different countries involved in producing the film?
Shamberg: I was just going to be shooting in Paris and editing it back
in New York, but due to the nature of the film and the problem of
finding money in NY and not being able to go forward with the final
printing and mixing stages without money, I had the idea to finish on
digital video and scan back to film. I was certainly aware of Lars von
Trier and people like Peter Greenaway using such facilities. I did my
research, and realized that I needed to do it in the PAL format, rather
than NTSC, to get a higher quality. And so I called up a commercial
production company in London and said to a friend [Helen Langridge, who
he had worked with along with Katherine Dieckmann], “this is what I
need, this is my ideal” and she gave me two names and The Mill is the
one that responded and in the end, came through supporting the film.
They made it possible for me to finish. This guy liked the film, maybe
because we were finishing on digital video, or that it was lots of
different textures, or it was somewhat experimental — maybe that was
more interesting to him, rather than something that was possibly
commercial, which they’d have to get more involved in. This, he knew, it
was just an art work.
So I went into a new mode of bringing over all my materials to London,
staying with friends and basically relocating and finishing my image
there. And while I was finishing that, I was doing research on scanning
back to film in Holland. I met people in Holland, making a special
arrangement with them, finding a lab in Holland. And then eventually
also finding a sound facility to do the design in London and then to do
the sound mix with Dolby in London.
I was also in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and I met this guy Speedy J, who’s
a musician that I love. He had a studio there, and I visited the studio
and he did something that sounded like Radioscanner — which I was
already. So I said, could you actually recreate that for me to use in
my film, and from there, we ended up doing two full sessions of a couple
days each, where I went with my film from London and we actually sound
designed sections of the film in his studio.
iW: You have such a densely layered soundtrack. How long did that
take? What was the process?
Shamberg: It was always my intention to have the sound and image to have
a very strong dialogue. So I wanted to cut the picture and then work on
sound, go back to picture, then go back to sound. A friend of mine,
Skip Lievsay, a very dear friend who has supported me from the beginning
on this film — who is one of the top sound editors for Scorsese and
Spike Lee and the Coen brothers — he would say to me, “Not even
Scorsese has the luxury of doing that.” But he didn’t understand
exactly what I meant, because his way of working is they get the picture
locked, then have people doing dialogue editing and sound effects, and
foleys and this and that. My film was much more personal and abstract,
and I think because it took me so long, I benefited from it. I cut the
picture and then I did work on sound with Juan Carlos Martinez and he
and I worked for five weeks developing all these 24 tracks of sound. And
then over in England, I was able to bring all that material that we had
worked on. Over that time, I had been working on the picture again. And
in London, I went into another sound design situation and was able to
take what I had did with Juan to the next level by changing, adding,
iW: Being a producer in the varying industries and knowing all these
people, it is truly amazing the group of talent you brought onto the
project. Could you talk about that? Going down the list, we could start
with French director, Chris Marker (“Sans Soleil” and “La Jetee”).
Shamberg: Chris Marker had become a friend and we had done a video
together for Electronic — while I was writing my script, I was in touch
with him. He read a draft of my script at one point, and it was when I
was with him with Stanton Miranda, the lead actress, he told us the
story of “Level 5.” Miranda liked the story and he said, it’s yours. I
immediately said, “Girl and computer” and at that point, I worked that
into my script. I went on to make the film, and I asked him, once I had
the computer in there and knowing the computer work he was doing — very
low-tech — I asked if he would do the computer graphics and he said,
iW: I also saw that you thanked the band, New Order. Did they have
anything to do with the scoring?
Shamberg: No, it was a thank you to them, because after I shot the film
— I went into the film naively with a small amount of money and I went
over budget (mainly due to the amount of film I shot which was only 6:1,
but was still twice as much as I thought I could shoot and the kind of
food I had to buy for the crew) — I came out of that with this debt.
And New Order, at that time, called me to do 2 very big music videos and
that’s what paid for getting the film out of the lab. And then 5 years
later, after they broke up, they come back together while I’m in London,
trying to survive to finish the film, I did some research for them and
shot them live and I got paid for that and it kept me alive.
One would have thought that I’d bring them in to do music, but there’s
no reason to. There’s no songs, per se, in the film, pop songs. I could
have worked with them individually, but Richard Kirk was the one that I
really wanted to work with.
iW: And Kristin Scott Thomas, you mentioned was someone the casting
director brought in?
Shamberg: I brought over Stanton Miranda, a lot of the film was built
around her, the script, and James Herbert (“Scars,” “Speedy Boys”), who
came with me as camera. And then Claude Montand, the casting woman, who
worked a lot with Why Not, and she really loved the script and I
identified with that, and because of that, she brought in all these
iW: And Christina Ricci, who does one of the voices?
Shamberg: There was a couple of years in New York where I was trying to
cast the voices. I knew I wanted a young girl and a younger boy. I
found a couple girls, but no one would bring in a young boy. I don’t
know if it was because of the language, or the fact that they were
supposedly having sex in a couple scenes. But I just couldn’t find the
boy. I knew Christina and I was talking to her about another project,
and one day, I went in to see Anthony Bregman of Good Machine, who’s
been advising me and has been very supportive through the whole thing,
and they were looping for “The Ice Storm.” And there was Christina and
behind her was this projection of Christina and Adam [Hann-Byrd]
together in bed. So these were obviously my voices. So I called
Christina and asked her if she’d do it and she agreed, and I called Adam
and he said anything that Christina does, he’d do. I was very lucky.
iW: This film seems to be a movie that could not have been made by
someone new to the field. Because of your connections.
Shamberg: But the film wasn’t dependent on having these well known
people in it. It wasn’t dependent on having Kristin Scott Thomas or
Christina Ricci; it wasn’t planned to have anyone of note in it.
iW: But even your D.P. James Herbert and Chris Marker, it seems like you
have a great network of talented people?
Shamberg: I was very fortunate, not only to be able to draw on those
resources in making the film, but in finishing it and having financial
difficulties in getting the film out of the lab, a lot of the people
I’ve worked with over the years came to the rescue. It’s true, that’s
what made this possible.