In 2001, filmmaker Bill Stone set out to make a documentary about the construction of a stone wall. But like many documentaries, this initial intention morphed as that stone wall took it’s sweet time being built. The builder — Chris Overing — had set out to complete the structure in eight weeks, but eight years later he was still at it and Stone was still filming him. In the meantime, though, Stone’s film had gone from being simply about the construction of wall to becoming a rather epic (and at times both meditative and hilarious) look at the process of constructing both projects and personal identity and the journeys we take to get there.
Indiewire spoke to Stone about the film, which some 13 years after he started filming opens Friday at the Quad Cinema in New York City.
How did you get into filmmaking? And how did that lead up to “Triumph of the Wall”?
My interest in getting into filmmaking started in my last year of high school, in Toronto. I had a drill-seargent type of English teacher who was passionate about movies; got us reading Pauline Kael, showing us great films and getting me into ways of seeing that had previously been invisible. After that I went to Concordia University, taking a film production program. Since then, my trajectory in the film world has been somewhat inconsistent and unglamorous. I worked on many independent projects over the years as a cameraperson and editor, at times, essentially directing, but the “Triumph” project came out of nowhere. It was my first larger scale, totally authored — finished — project that meant anything.
It was 2001, and I knew I wanted to make a film. Documentary seemed like the best bet. I ran into Chris Overing [the subject] by accident. As I say in the film, I was attracted to the idea of following a large challenging project, getting into the rhythm of it, exploring commitment. That idea of conflict of rhythms and the different paces in life interest me. There were also major elements of intuition, chance and not really knowing where this would lead. I don’t know anymore than anyone about how fate or destiny works, but in a way I feel a big aspect inherent in the film — my whole process through it — was coming to terms with my own place, style and type of expression in the creative process.
Tell us about the film and the unique journey it took from idea to end result.
The initial “plan” behind TotW, if I can call it that, was to make a elegant, somewhat simple “poetic” film about a guy making a wall, filled with lovely shots of nature, profound reflections on work, time, etc, similar in style, perhaps, to “Etre et Avoir” or “Rivers and Tides.” I envisioned it from the somewhat neutral position of being outside the process — the easier, distant, controlling vision that define many clichéd ideas of what a director is and does. I certainly didn’t see myself involved in the film as I end up, nor did I anticipate it would take near as long as it did — man plans, God laughs kind of thing.
As the film chronicles, what happened in front of me did not even remotely being to satisfy my somewhat simplistic ideas, however noble or lovely I thought they were. The film involved shooting predominantly throughout the summer and fall months, so in the winter I had time to reconsider, reflect, and worry. By the end of the second season — 2002 — I was getting very concerned that my film was going nowhere and I had a character that I could neither fully pin down nor pull out some kind of “big drama” I had decided was the lifeblood of all films. Strangely, it was after this very difficult year that I received my first arts grant to make the film, so continuing became a no-brainer. I continued, still struggling to find the essence — or at times even a coherent throughline — of what I was filming. Until I decided to bring myself into it, I was relying pretty much exclusively on what was happening “outside,” and what was happening “outside” seemed random, wildly inconsistent and at times, like nothing. That’s not a good feeling. After seeing Ross McKelwee’s “Sherman’s March,” “Time Indefinite” and Agnes Varda’s “Les Glaneurs et La Glaneuse,” it dawned on me that taking the experience from a personal angle — my journey and experience through this process as opposed to simply relying on what was “happening out there,” was a solid angle. It felt like a natural fit.
That being said, I had never done anything involving personal narration before — man, it was my first real movie — so it was intimidating and difficult at the start to go down this route. Mixed in with the sense of you “could be getting somewhere” is the feeling that you “could be fucking this up even worse and making something laughable.” So the narrative, reflective process was, well, a process. I had tons of notes and thoughts andstarted forming something coherent. In retrospect, what I had working for me is that I’ve spent a good deal of years and energy reflecting on these type of things — meaning our own personal relationship to what is around us, our fears, doubts, weaknesses and inauthenticities, and all the corollaries that spin off from that. So it wasn’t a stretch to take what my producer calls this “philosophical” angle. It was hard work, grueling at times, it demanded a frankness and honesty that was not always easy to disclose, especially publicly. However, in the end, as one friend said to me, I was lucky that things in the film “went wrong” as they did, because it ended up being a better film because of it.
I can thank my editor Carl Freed and producer Frederic Bohbot for being incredible partners in that process. They were supportive of its angle, but they also talked straight about what did and didn’t work, no matter how personal or “wise” or sentimental I became. They really guided me along making sure the film rang true, and I didn’t get away with any bullshit.
It’s clear there were many, but talk about some of the main challenges in getting this film made?
There were a few “main” challenges — in fact I would even say the film itself was one big challenge. Being three years into filming and feeling you don’t have a viable or coherent subject nor character nor real film is, to say the least, a bit of a worry. Time was, of course, a factor too, and Chris suffered (and still suffers) this as well: the question — many years in, so many hundreds of hours of work and effort later — what and why am I doing this? The longer you spend at something, the greater the pressure is to deliver something bigger. I realized this implicitly — I’m not a 23-year-old first time filmmaker, and I felt the pressure that the film had to deliver something mature, something developed, in a way that reflected the time and effort put into it, as well as my “advanced” age. So Chris as a main subject was a huge challenge, because I couldn’t pin him down, and couldn’t get him to be visibly emotional, and I had a great deal of trouble trying to figure out how to “get him” to be interesting on camera. He had a pleasant consistency — overs years! — that drove me a bit crazy. I wanted breakdowns and freakouts and moments of despondency, something, and I wasn’t getting it. And you can’t blame someone for being exactly who they are — isn’t that the whole point of documentary, to capture “reality?”
There were obviously the challenges of financing an independent, weird little documentary like mine. I did the first two seasons on my own dime, and then in the third season (2003), some initial tiny financing kicked in. Of course, the shooting and the timeline of the film ballooned — I remember writing the grant agencies, with great earnest, that the film would be done in 2004 (then 2005, 2006, etc.). Over time, with Fred coming in in about 2007-08, he was able to help put the financing in place, sell to television, etc. I cannot underestimate the amount of tangible results Frederic brought to the realizing of the film, at the very least in that respect. Before he came on board, I was a bit lost.
It was a challenge coming to terms with the fact that Chris was not going to be done his wall before the end of the film (he still isn’t done, and it’s 2013). In hindsight, it worked out better, as the film isn’t about finishing things, and, in fact, had he finished the wall and had I included that in the film, I think the film would have seemed trite, and the finishing aspect would have killed off a certain spirit the movie heads towards. But it was still a struggle at the time.
The narration and the edit were big challenges. Very long edit, and due to its personal nature, there were limitations my editor Carl Freed came up against — where he just had to throw up his hands and say: “this is your gig, you gotta do this part.” I had to do it myself, and editing your own footage that you shot, listening to your own voice as your editing said footage as you’re rambling off reams of personal voice-over about your experience can drop you into pretty deep swirling vortex.
Finally, the technical side of the post was difficult as my film spanned generations of camera advancements and technical expectations. By the time we were in post, using tape was a distant memory, and everyone demanded HD, etc. My film was shot all a variety of 3 CCD DV cameras. Lots of work in that end to squeeze out the best looking material possible. I was very lucky that the film is directly chronological, as I wasn’t in the unpleasant situation of having to mix very old footage with new.
What do you hope people take from it?
The greatest thing for me is if people reflect on their own lives, their own large projects/challenges/you-name-it, and get some kind of compassionate or generous perspective on these somewhat maddening pursuits- towards themselves and others. One of the nicest things a viewer said to me was “well, in a way we’re all works-in-progress.” [The original title was Work In Progress]. I wanted ideally to make a “poetic” film, and in some ways in the end I did, although I didn’t get there in a way remotely like I had originally thought. And if people watching appreciate that side of it, the beauty of the work and environment and the simple goodness that we all have when we start out and try to make something lasting, something beautiful, whatever it is — children, a home, a family, a novel, whatever — I am extremely touched.
To think about the nature of time and change — meaning how we’re always wanting things to “change” to our way(s) of seeing things, and the strangely complex, even illusory nature of this way of thinking — if viewers come away thinking about this, well, I couldn’t be happier.
What would you say to a filmmaker attempting their own passion doc project?
The first answer is what we all know — you have to be passionate about the subject or process, or at least see the possibility of being passionate about it. So much of this is intuitive and beyond rational explanation. “Passion” is a funny word, because, personally, I was not “passionate” about walls nor even my subject at hand, but I was passionate (without me necessarily recognizing it at the time) of the other subjects the film brought up: an honest reckoning with the self, time, nature, the search to come to terms with our place in the bigger process. There are people in the world who say “I have to do ‘X’ or I will die.” I don’t seem to be one of those people. but I do get driven and determined once my mind is made up. If you are on of these people, you certainly don’t need my recommendations.
At the same time, there is the reality that being “passionate” about something is not necessarily your ticket to ride. If one can structure what is being made properly — meaning put it out there in a way that allows people to respond to it, to get it — the passion behind it will come through and bring it to a higher level. But “passion” itself is no guarantee that our projects will go where we want it to go. I do believe that the cream rises to the top, despite the many cynical (and perhaps accurate) opinions to the contrary, but the element of “passion” has to be mixed in with so many other things: ability, attention, a need to connect to people.
What’s next for you?
I’ve never really felt like a dyed-in-the-wool “documentary” filmmaker. Documentary just happened to be the way in which I expressed myself in film this time. I’m really a fiction person. I’m planning on doing a couple of short films I’m written; they are, perhaps, similar in the kind-of reflective style as Triumph. Ideally, I’m interested in combining the explorative, small-crew intimacy of documentary filmmaking with the openness and inventiveness of fiction — of working with actors as opposed to “real” people.