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SXSW ’08 INTERVIEW | “The Matador” Directors Stephen Higgins & Nina Gilden Seavey

SXSW '08 INTERVIEW | "The Matador" Directors Stephen Higgins & Nina Gilden Seavey

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors who have films screening at the 2008 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Screening in the Documentary Feature Competition, directors Stephen Higgins and Nina Gilden Seavey‘s “The Matador” will be having its world premiere at the South By Southwest Film Festival. The doc takes on the “epic tale” of David Fandila’s quest to become the world’s top-ranked bullfighter. “Matador” follows three-years of Fandila’s journey across Spain and Latin America during many setbacks and successes en route to achieve his goal. indieWIRE talked to Higgins and Seavey about the film and their goals for the festival.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking?

Nina Gilden Seavey: I have been a filmmaker for nearly 25 years. In addition to making films, I am the founder and director of The Documentary Center at George Washington University and am the Founding Director of SILVERDOCS: AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival. Some of my past independent films are: “A Short History of Sweet Potato Pie and How It Became A Flying Saucer” (2006), “The Open Road” (2005), “The Ballad of Bering Strait” (2003), and “A Paralyzing Fear” (1998). So being a filmmaker is, and has been, my life’s work.

Stephen Higgins: Filmmaking provided an answer to the question “How can I share this experience with people who aren’t here?” Filmmakers have the chance to overcome barriers of time and place to bring real, heart-felt, sensory experiences to others.

First step to becoming a filmmaker was committing to do this first film, for real, and to see it all the way through. For first-time filmmakers, that means finding experienced people and empowering them to do their best work.

What was the inspiration for this film?

NGS: Stephen brought the bulk of the footage to me and I saw in it a film of great passion, beauty, and cultural depth. Quite honestly, I had never been interested in the bullfight, but my father, who was a well-known civil rights attorney in the 1960’s and ’70’s, had been a great fan of the corrida. In his court-room work I think he saw himself as “The Matador” fighting alone against the forces of society that he saw represented in the bull, and against death itself. He died a number of years ago and when I saw this footage I realized that I found a way to come to understand some essence of my father that had eluded me all these years. So I came on board with Stephen to make the film.

SH: It was a provocation. To see a bullfight is to be provoked to do something. Like it or not, one cannot remain unmoved by it. It astonished me that this could be happening and we outside of the spanish-speaking world knew so little about it. This begged to be seen, for what is, and understood by a larger audience.

Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences or early inspirations…

NGS: This film is not a documentary. It is a spectacle – as is the bullfight. For this reason, we chose filmmaking techniques that highlight not just David’s great story, but the passion, ritual, and centuries-old tradition that is the “corrida” throughout Latin culture.

The film was beautifully shot in high-definition with unprecedented access to the inner-workings of the bullfight, so we knew we had a solid story-line. After a series of rough cuts, we brought on John Califra, the brilliant composer, who created a large, orchestral score that he recorded live with the Sophia Metropolitan Orchestra in Bulgaria. It was within John’s score that the film found its heart. The project was brought to Ian Rummer, a senior editor at Team Sound and Vision in Washington, DC with whom I have worked on a number of projects and he cut the film. Ian is a very intuitive editor who has chops both in long-form documentary as well as in advertising, so he edits with a visual eye and a intuitive sense of “what feels right, i.e what do want the audience to feel” – not “what do we need to know?” (the bane of most documentary). Ian also did the color correction on the film, which was particularly important in this project as the bullfight starts at 5:00 in the afternoon, a time when light and shadows shift and plays a critical part of the “mood” for the fight itself – and therefore light and shadow play a big part in this film. So the film emerged from being a solid, traditional documentary of a man on quest to one that intensely embraces the passion, the spectacle and the luminescence of the bullfight itself.

SH: “Casting” in this was about choosing a prominent matador with the right personality and convincing him to let us do this.

We chose David because he personified a modern latin man, but found his life’s purpose deep in his culture’s past. He embodied the contradictions one sees in bullfighting itself.

Those contradictions are many: there’s passion but also self-control, love of the animal and death of the animal, the harsh sunlight on one side of the ring, the shadow on the other.

Christopher Jenkins and James Morton-Haworth – the cinematographers – shot the film in a way that took advantage of the collision of those dark and light spaces. They allowed the matador, and the bull, to be bathed in light or plunged into darkness.

We were also fortunate in that the matador’s suit, the horses and all the other trappings of the bullfight, enabled this to become a documentary that at times feels like a narrative period-piece.

So the goal was to let the natural iconography of the bullfight speak for itself, to use the camera elegantly but unobtrusively.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

NGS: People outside of the world of bullfight have an immediate judgment about it. This film required that we shift the terms away from a polemic about the rightness or wrongness of the bullfight in the modern world, to an understanding of the meaning of this iconic cultural tradition and David’s place within it. In watching the film the audience is immediately enveloped in a world that most have never experienced and previous predilictions, preconceived notions and biases suddenly fall away. This is rare to achieve in documentary which frequently tends to “preach to the converted.”

SH: The biggest challenge was getting the people, time and financial resources to make it happen. In partnership with Nina Gilden Seavey, that was possible.

What are your goals for the SXSW Film Festival?

NGS: We are seeking world-wide distribution for the film. With the new Adrien BrodyPenelope Cruz film, “Manolete” coming within the next few months, we believe that 2008-2009 will be “The Year Of the Matador!”

SH: On the most basic level, being in the festival, and having that kind of audience see the film, is a goal achieved. But ultimately this is such a unique spectacle that it merits a much larger audience, so we are also seeking worldwide distribution.

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