Sean (Colm O’Leary), An Irish immigrant in America returns from military service in Afghanistan to find his heart and mind in disarray. He is befriended by Ike (Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy), a strong willed Evangelical Christian who endeavors to ensure his salvation. A meditation on frailty, mutual need and friendship, New Jerusalem explores the allure and limitations of modern utopian belief. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
Director: R. Alverson
Producer: Courtney Bowles, R. Alverso
Screenwriter: R. Alverson
Cinematographer: R. Alverson
Editor: R. Alverson
Sound: Andrew Uvorov
Music: Robert Donne,Champ Bennett
Cast: Will Oldham, Colm O’Leary, Thomas Bowles, Walter Scott, Roxanne Ferris
Responses courtesy of “New Jerusalem” director R. Alverson.
[Editor’s note: A previous version of this interview included the incorrect answers.]
On reality and fantasy, an adolescence at the movies…
There was a time in my adolescence when i realized the power of movies, not a moment that I can pinpoint, but a series of experiences, primarily the experience after seeing a movie in which I’d feel for hours on end a kind of detached euphoria – most often as though I was looking, physically, from behind the eyes of the character I had been so voyeuristically exposed to. That intoxicant was powerful, but ultimately detrimental to navigating the ordinary world. I began to realize it infused my perception of the mundane events and people in my life with a kind of lackluster tolerance, even a desire and proclivity to inflate or pervert those elements into a kind of fiction. There seem many unforeseen dangers of being exposed to a mixture of the actual and imaginary in media. This promoted a deep suspicion of the medium in me, particularly narrative film and television, and I wanted to be part of a subversion of some of those detrimental, even dangerous, qualities in the thing that divorce us from our senses and our lives rather than being a tool to orient ourselves with more aptitude in the world. To me, it seems there is the common flirtation with technology and the proliferation of its output without even the smallest consideration of what the medium actually does to us. (I’m not advocating that the MPAA become more like the FDA, both are thoroughly corrupt and irrelevant organizations at this point, but that we should attempt to perceive from scratch, consider the basic senses and be, at the very least, conscientious about the material we work with).
Making a film about coming to faith…
“New Jerusalem” was born of a desire to explore the blindness of faith (in what are essentially supernatural constructions), to analyze what utility it has in our lives and minds, what purpose in the 21st century, in a time when access to a mapped and certain world is readily available, in some form, to most people in this country. As with my previous movie “The Builder,” I also wanted to consider how a personality is constructed, what it is made of, what is at its root when all the nonsense and culture and information are whisked away by an inopportune event, or series of events, or just by a reckoning with the lack of one’s utility in the world.
On making a film pragmatically…
I believe strongly in constructing a film as pragmatically as possible. That includes an attempt to remove much of the will and ego of the filmmaker during the capture of the thing, as well as the utilization of the innate social behaviors of the subjects of the films – essentially recontextualizing those behaviors into a fiction that allows us to view the world in a controlled way, one without all the arrogance and authorship of the everyday. This would include utilizing the native vernacular of the participants, and the actual chemistry between them. To remove much of the responsibility of the fiction from the “actors” (it seems it has always been their responsibility to create the fiction), and place that burden on the director. To try and not have the conceit to avoid working as simply as possible, as directly, instead of all the elaborate fabrications that usually attend moviemaking to try and arrive at an actual moment. Much of that seems asinine to me.
An atheist working with a megachurch…
We worked with a church whose congregation was in the thousands. The biggest challenge, for me, existed as a struggle to subvert my opinions and prejudices about religion (as I am an atheist), to prevent my will from prescribing what these bodies and expressions and interactions naturally can illuminate about us. Film seems to have an actual therapeutic potential in this way, for both the maker and the audience. There is a line from a terribly overlooked poet named Clark Coolidge, really one of the great artists of the last 40 years in my opinion, that goes “To finally not know whether I am reading or writing.” I think of movies that way.
Filmmaking and the personal…
“New Jerusalem” essentially bookended the most important non-familial relationship in my life. It was, in essence, the catalyst for its end. It taught me a great lesson about the risks and arrogance of attempting something beyond what one is made for physically, emotionally. That loss, or change, is the subtext of the edit, and ultimately the construction of the film – it would be silly to leave it as some mere detail and not assert its relevance to what was left in and what was taken out of the images and sequences and sounds.
On “Rabbit” and other projects down the pipeline…
Colm O’Leary, Will Oldham and myself are collaborating on a feature called “Rabbit” which we’re shooting over 4 days in Vermont this winter. Then there is “The Comedy” a feature which begins production in July. Then another feature next winter called “Clement” set in reconstruction era Virginia, with Will and Colm again.