Richard P. Rogers (1943-2001) was a NYC baby boomer, born to privilege: a Harvard-educated WASP who became a first-rate independent filmmaker (“Quarry” and “Elephants” both opened at Film Forum in the ’70s) and a gifted film teacher. But he was also a tortured, neurotic soul who freely admitted to being jealous of Steven Spielberg and simultaneously ashamed of the impulse. Torn between narrow class loyalties and broader professional goals and political values, Rogers found the time to juggle multiple relationships with the skill of a world-class Lothario, but was unable to complete an autobiographical film he had worked on for 25 years. His former student Alexander Olch collages a trove of material, including extraordinary scenes of Rogers’s mink-coated Gorgon-mom, and fictional sequences with Wallace Shawn as Dick. “The Windmill Movie” is a heady, fascinating brew that brings together one man’s parentage, culture, education, and ambition — letting the chips fall where they may. The film opens Wednesday, June 17 at New York’s Film Forum.
iW: What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
AO: Watching movies – in particular as a 7 year-old seeing The Natural when it played at the Beekman, and Lawrence of Arabia when it played at Ziegfeld Theater – was a magical thing: mysterious and very important to me. It took a few more years before I understood films to be things that are actually made by people, at that point I was instantly fascinated. Filmmaking seemed the ultimate combination of interests – writing, photography, music, theater, editing, acting, design. Dare I say I was interested in all, and spent years studying piano, theater, writing, in some strangely hopeful way that these things would come in handy one day.
iW: Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
AO: This is my first feature. I’d love to direct a few more.
iW: How did “The Windmill Movie” come about?
AO: The idea for the movie grew organically from what was supposed to be a small project for Richard’s wife Susan Meiselas and his friends who were hoping to see some of the footage he had shot over the years. Only after immersing myself in this footage for many months did the idea of making a full film begin to emerge, but it still took many more years before I could tell exactly what form that film would take.
iW: How did you approach making the film?
AO: Richard’s strategy for shooting was to hunt, without being quite sure what he was hunting for. His footage is decisive and beautiful, yet so mysterious as to motive that it was engrossing to start working with it as an editor. As a director, my attempts at logically and coherently explaining exactly what he was trying to do proved so dull that it was clear I needed a different story telling style and angle. It can only be described as trial and error, I moved very slowly, and tried to try every idea, as there was very little way of telling in advance what might work and what wouldn’t. I did think of “F for Fake” and “Grizzly Man,” the only two other films I could find which also use an existing body of footage from which to craft something new. In my case the filmmaking conundrum was even stranger as Richard’s footage was in many ways itself about the making of a film. So beyond my emotional attachment to the project, I was very excited to explore the peculiar almost Russian doll nature of making a film about a film that was itself about the making of a film.
iW: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
AO: Richard’s footage has a glaring omission – himself, in the center. That is to say, he shot everything around his life, but was unwilling to really confront himself in a way that could generate material which would serve as the center of a movie. I had plenty of hours of scenes at the beach, at the tennis courts, but hardly anything with Richard in the frame. And so the search for a center – be it in Richard’s voice, Susan’s voice, Wallace Shawn’s voice, my voice – and how that voice would function structurally and stylistically was a tremendous challenge to navigate.
For distribution, co-producer Andrew Fierberg of Vox3 Films and Film Desk founder Jake Perlin deserve the all the credit. Jake saw the film at the New York Film Festival, our deal was locked down soon after.
iW: What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
AO: Richard Rogers’ colleagues Ross McElwee and Robb Moss at Harvard – both teachers of mine as an undergrad – were enormous creative influences. Their craft and technique in the personal documentary form were key building blocks for me.
iW: What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
AO: When younger, I always defined independent films as the really good ones, often foreign, that I would go see in largely empty theaters on weekday afternoons, spotting familiar faces of other film buffs in the next row every now and then. Alas, I’ve probably come full circle on that, with the added dose of appreciating the difficult reality of producing and releasing these projects.
iW: What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
AO: As General Eisenhower said: Planning is essential, plans are useless. It’s vital to prepare as thoroughly as completely as possible, yet it’s just as important to have your wits about you to trust your gut instincts. Put another way – get as much advice from people as possible, then don’t listen to it. Filmmaking requires you to keep many opposing forces, ideas, feelings, and opinions inside of you. Be at one with that, and don’t let those contradictions bother you.
iW: Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
AO: A few days before our world premiere in the New York Film Festival, I went up to the projection booth at the Ziegfeld Theater (Lincoln Center was under construction, all screenings were at the Ziegfeld) for a test run of our film. I chatted with Sony’s head projectionist Ray Murray who was there especially for the festival, told him how thrilled and honored I was to show my film in the Ziegfeld, that I had come here with my Dad when I was 10 years old to watch “Lawrence of Arabia,” that this place was so magical. He smiled, and said ‘I was the projectionist here 20 years ago. I projected ‘Lawrence of Arabia.'” He then turned the lights down, flipped the projector switch, and put my first feature up on that same big screen.