Director Alison Chernick‘s documentary “Matthew Barney: No Restraint” captures the famed American artist (best known on screen for his five-part “visual opera” the “Cremaster” series) as he creates his latest “Drawing Restraint 9” series. The film profiles the artist and includes an interview with pop star Bjork who is married to Barney and appears in his 2006 experimental film, “Drawing Restraint 9.” Hailing from television, Chernick first directed a doc on artist Jeff Koons in 2004. In this interview with indieWIRE, Chernick shares how she “unlearned” some techniques for this project, her challenges with “Japanese formality,” and her fortunate subject matter… IFC First Take opens the film in limited release on Wednesday, December 20.
Please give a snapshot of your background…
I am from New York. My background is in TV, working for the man. While I worked in television I found myself constantly trying to pitch new ideas, break new ground, but repeatedly getting shot down. Finally, after a bit of persistence, a few art shows got off the ground–shortly after I did my first doc on artist Jeff Koons. I wanted to combine my interest in storytelling with my background and interest in contemporary art. Jeff was thrilled with the show. I showed the film to Matthew and that’s how “No Restraint” came about.
Did you go to film school? Or what was your learning process for filmmaking? And any other insights you think might be interesting…
I did not go to film school. I worked in film and also learned a lot of technical skills through TV. Only stylistically did I need to actually “unlearn” some of what I had learned in TV. The beauty in directing film is the freedom to not follow a formula.
Please elaborate more on how the idea for “Matthew Barney: No Restraint” evolved?
My first doc on Jeff Koons (“The Jeff Koons Show”) was more of a retrospective on his work. I thought Matthew’s work would be great to document next. Not only because of all the layers and complexities in his work–but the incredible timing. He was just starting a new project, “Drawing Restraint 9” on a whaling vessel off the coast of Nagasaki. I saw the opportunity to capture process–from inception to execution. I knew there would be an underlying story within this environment.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
I wanted to take the viewer on a journey to Japan–and keep it within a verite style film. This would allow the story and situation to unravel in front of the viewer. However, the challenge came in the complexity of his work and I then felt the need to elucidate the meaning behind some of the more abstract or fantastical elements, to sort of engage the viewer as opposed to ostracize them.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution for the the film?
The formality of Japanese culture presented some stumbling blocks, as expected. The very nature of doc filmmaking is aggressive–as well as the reputation of Americans–so I needed to juggle sensitivity and boundaries, with mission and intention. It was quite difficult and a very fine line to ride. It’s never easy.
Distribution was one of the easier parts because my subject has an audience in place already, which laid some of the groundwork of course… but not all. I suppose I would have had to really screw up for this to go nowhere.
How did you finance the film?
Agnes b. came on from the very beginning of the project with the majority of the funding. We supplemented that with other fashion and art-related companies, like Hugo Boss, etc. At a certain point we would take any money, as long as it was green. The Film Forum was our fiscal sponsor too.
What are your biggest creative influences?
Maysles, Pennebaker, McElwee–all always a huge influence for doc people. Albert Maysles actually shot some of the film too, like the Bjoerk interview. His generation really focused on the art of filmmaking, as opposed to a lot of people now focused on “presenting information.”
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and what are some of your recent favorite films?
“Grizzly Man” was genius in what Herzog did with it. Also “Capturing the Friedmans“–groundbreaking. And Ross McElwee’s “Sherman’s March.”
What are your interests outside of film?
Living in new environments, not just passing through but exploring. I like to research. I love Google.
How do you define success as a filmmaker?
If you are making films about things you are interested in–that you can share with others.