Ramblin' Jack's Daughter; Elliott Balances History and the Personal
by Anthony Kaufman
(indieWIRE/ 8.18.00) — Winner of a Special Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, “The Ballad of Ramblin’ Jack” is a rare hybrid of the autobiographical and the historical. The film charts the slippery career of folk singer Ramblin’ Jack Elliott from his young Brooklyn boyhood to stealing away to join the rodeo at 14, from his apprenticeship with Woodie Guthrie to a successful stint in the UK; from brief celebrity in the States to stepping back from the spotlight to make way for the likes of Bob Dylan. It sounds like a standard portrait of the peaks and pitfalls of fame. What’s different here is that Jack’s got a daughter with a digital video camera trying to pin him down.
“With a father that became a cowboy and a mother who became an Indian,” says debuting filmmaker Aiyana Elliott, her family history is prime territory for personal filmmaking. But Elliott — who is a devotee of first person doc-maker Ross McElwee — resorted to an even-handed, mostly objective telling of her father’s tale; except for the film’s best moments, when it becomes just as much about a daughter trying to connect with her father. Speaking from the offices of Lot 47, Jeff Lipsky‘s independent distribution company, who will release the film this Friday, Elliott spoke to indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman about documentary distribution, the American Every-Dad, finding her story, and the high cost of archival footage.
indieWIRE: Hey, there goes Jeff Lipsky!
Aiyana Elliott: He’s the man who’s going to take my movie to the people. . . with a vengeance. He’s the hardest working most passionate man in independent film. He’s making this film. If it weren’t for Jeff, nobody would see this movie.
iW: Were you talking to other distributors after Sundance?
Elliott: I think with any film in competition in Sundance, all the major companies are tracking you. There was a lot of interest, but also, people were concerned it was a specialty thing that required a special kind of marketing and they weren’t sure they had the energy to devote to it. But Jeff has nothing but passion and energy to put out movies. So he saw the movie and got behind it. For a documentary film, what he’s doing with it is just really good.
iW: So in film school, I know that you were working on dramatic films. When did you suddenly stop doing narrative and focus your attentions on documentary?
Elliott: My real interest is definitely in narrative films, in the style and tone of [my short film] “Tough,” kind of dramatic comedies about dysfunctional families. But I actually did a short piece on Jack for Sight & Sound Video [a class at NYU]; that week, we had to do a portrait of somebody and Jack happened to be coming to town. So I did it, and it surprised me. It was really upsetting, really emotional. I got a lot of encouragement to do a piece on him. It was then that I thought, yeah, I probably should do a film on my Dad at some point. But there were other scripts I hoped to do before that. But then, not long after I finished school, a lot of my Dad’s contemporaries started to pass away. In one year, there was like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and I had wanted to interview Allen about my Dad. So when I read that he died, I thought, maybe I should make this movie now.
iW: Were you a fan of your Dad’s music when you were growing up?
Elliott: Yeah, I always liked what he did. He’s a very charming guy and I think there’s a universal appeal to his music, whether you’re a fan of folk music or not. And the kind of folk music he plays isn’t the kind of folk music people think of. The way he does it, it’s very stripped down. Wavy Gravy called my Dad a Method Folksinger, the Stanislavsky of the Lone Prairie, something like that. But it’s true. His renditions of the songs are very emotional and simple and his picking, his guitar-playing, is great, so it’s hard to resist.
iW: At Sundance, I saw the film in the catalogue and I’m thinking, a documentary about folk music, that’s not that interesting to me. And then when I saw it, it really took me by surprise. Obviously, the music is central, but there are all these other things happening, your relationship with him, for example, which does make it more universal. Was that always the plan?
Elliott: That’s what I was trying to do. I wanted to find a way to make my Dad’s story resonate on an emotional level for people, that would bring the history to life, and I wanted to find a way to have someone you could identify with in the story, beyond just the music. The tricky thing is how to market it, because there are a lot of people out there who hearing about it might not think there’s something in there for them, if they’re not folk fans. But there are a lot of universal themes. Which I didn’t fully realize making the film. I thought my Dad was a pretty unique guy. So I was kind of surprised to hear people, upon seeing the film, telling me how much they identify with this father/daughter struggle, about how Jack was like their Dad. Jack seems like he’s Everydad. Which is weird, because he’s not. But I think there’s a part of Jack in most American men; he’s someone who represents something that a lot of American men aspire to, despite themselves.
iW: We have these two genres of documentaries; there’s always been the music documentary and lately, there’s all of these — with low budget new technology — there’s these personal documentaries coming up. But you have this nice balance between the two — how did you find that balance?
Elliott: I struggled a lot whether or not to make the film personal and how personal to make it. It occurred to me very early on that I wanted to be objective. Because my Dad’s life is just so interesting in its own right, that I didn’t want to obscure that. By the way, I love Ross McElwee’s films; I think he’s one of the best filmmakers in America. But I really wasn’t trying to make that kind of film, I think. But it occurred to me early on, that there is another story here, a bigger story than just Jack’s story, which is epic in its own right, and this story wasn’t told in the end, but I think it’s implied.
When DV came around, I started to shoot some of the interviews, so people were very intimate when talking to me, my Mom, in particular. And she wasn’t just talking about my Dad, but what it was like for me growing up as a kid, and being on the road, and this story about how one of my first names for him was “Horseman,” because he would come home and then go off on his horse. And our editor, David, basically just took one look at that interview, and said, “I hate to tell you this, but the movie is not just about Jack.” And that changed the course of the film.
iW: How much did you shoot?
Elliott: We probably shot about 100 hours of footage. And then there was 20 hours of archival footage.
iW: The archival footage was really terrific. Was any of it a real battle to get?
Elliott: Yeah, a lot of it. Just about every clip, every still, every song that’s in the film. Because we didn’t have a lot of money, and you know, any time you’re making independent film, you’re asking a lot of people to do a lot of stuff for you, and it’s hard to get people to return your phone calls. But I’m annoyingly persistent. I wish sometimes I could have done it more gracefully, but you got to do what you got to do. We had a lot of help, too; we had a great producer named Paul Mezey [“Spring Forward,” “Our Song“] who is just about the hardest working, most talented producer in independent film.
iW: How did you finish the film financially?
Elliott: Basically, Plantain Films financed the film. [Executive Producer] Tyler Brodie and I were in the Sight & Sound Video class and he was on my crew when I did the Jack portrait. And then later they agreed to finance the film. Originally, it was going to be a simpler project and I was going to do it for less, and as I discovered all the archival footage, we had to re-budget. That stuff is so expensive. The music licensing, I had no idea. There’s like 36 songs and each one was expensive, and the clips and the photographs. It’s pretty complicated to make a documentary film, especially for something that was done on a whim — a four-year whim. It’s funny, because now I feel I’m ready to do a documentary. I’ve finally figured it out. I totally blundered my way, not knowing what I was doing. Now we