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Tribeca ’09 Interview: “Handsome Harry” Director Bette Gordon

Tribeca '09 Interview: "Handsome Harry" Director Bette Gordon

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of several interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival.

“Which Way Home”
(World Narrative Feature Competition)
2009, 94 min., U.S.
Director: Bette Gordon
Primary Cast: Jamey Sheridan, Steve Buscemi, Mariann Mayberry, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, Campbell Scott, Titus Welliver, Karen Young
Screenwriter: Nicholas T. Proferes
Producer: Jamin O’Brien, Marilyn Haft, Eric Goldman, Jamey Sheridan
Director of Photography: Nigel Bluck
Executive Producers: Fred Berner, Elizabeth Kling
Editor: Keiko Deguchi
Composer: Anton Sanko
Sound Mixer: Skip Lievsay

Synopsis: Harry (Jamey Sheridan), a divorced father and former Navy man, lives a simple life. But when his dying best friend sparks Harry’s drive to confront his past, buried secrets surface and force him to deal with painful memories. This unique and eloquent film also features Steve Buscemi, Aidan Quinn, John Savage, and Campbell Scott. (Description provided by the Tribeca Film Festival).

Please introduce yourself…

My name is Bette Gordon. I was part of the groundswell of downtown independent cinema. I made my own films as an artist, and I was part of The Collective For Living Cinema, the first real cinema in Tribeca. It was an exhibition space, a loft in downtown Manhattan, that was run by a collaborative group of young filmmakers dedicated to making and exhibiting non mainstream films. Currently, I am a film director, and I’ve worked in television as well. I also teach directing at Columbia University’s graduate film program. I am most known for my film “Variety” which is a film about looking, and about a young woman who sells tickets at a porn theatre and ends up following a man through Times Square’s sleazy bookshops to the world of men and money in lower Manhattan.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

It is no accident that as a young high school student, after attending a screening of Jean Luc Godard’s “Breathless” at the Brattle Street Cinema in Cambridge, I consciously decided to live in Paris and unconsciously decided to become a filmmaker. Godard believed in the transformative power of cinema and in its ability to promote a creative viewer as opposed to a passive consumer. Having grown up through the Seventies, I could not have found a more appropriate mentor. His radical approach to the use of sound and image helped shape me as much as the questions he asked the viewer to consider, most importantly, the relationship between truth and fiction.

What prompted the idea for “Which Way Home” and what excited you to actually undertake it?

My good friend and colleague, Nick Proferes, wrote the script and asked me to collaborate with him. I was drawn to the male characters in the story because of their rawness, possessing a male energy reminiscent of actors I grew up watching and loving – Lee Marvin, Ben Gazzara, Steve McQueen, and William Holden – men who didn’t say much but exuded a physicality. I was also attracted to the idea of masculinity as a way of examining gender dynamics, which has been a consistent theme in my work. In “Variety,” I explored notions of female sexuality and desire. “Handsome Harry” allowed me to explore male sexuality through a female lens.

How did you approach making the film?

My films have always focused on the visual aspects of storytelling. I’ve been drawn to stories in which color, texture and mood are as central to the narrative as character and plot. In order to create an honest and personal character film, I wanted to explore a different method for achieving an understanding of human behavior. I allowed the camera to be guided by performance so that scenes would unfold organically; I refrained from forcing or dictating the pace. I wanted a raw, emotional feeling in the film, not a fixed set of behaviors. Faces, bodies and voices guided the composition of the image. The perpetual search of the camera to find moments of discomfort was key to my understanding of Harry as a character in motion, striving to come to terms with himself as a man. I wanted the audience to share his subjectivity, but also to watch him closely as his life unravels.

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

In addition to the difficulty in financing a low budget film, or any film for that matter, the challenge is to hold on to your passion, your vision, in spite of the bumpy road ahead, not to lose faith when people say “no”. On “Handsome Harry” my shooting days were limited, so I had to move quickly, think on my feet. We had lots of locations and just under 3 weeks to shoot. Sometimes we had twenty or more set ups in a day. Also, I was shooting for the first time with an HD camera, so I had to get used to a new set of circumstances and an unfamiliar post work flow. Because we chose to use anamorphic lenses to get the image quality we wanted, focus was crucial and exactitude important.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

Success is getting to make another film. What is most thrilling is to see what you imagined, what was in your head (what you dreamed of for so long), on the screen, in a theatre. I love the moment when the lights dim, the audience becomes quiet, and the first image appears. The collective experience of watching…The secret pleasure…I love being in a movie theatre.

What are your future projects?

I’ve always wanted to make a film version of “The Ravishing of Lol Stein” by Marguerite Duras.

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