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Henry Corra Discusses the Controversy and Artistry Behind ‘Farewell To Hollywood’

Henry Corra Discusses the Controversy and Artistry Behind 'Farewell To Hollywood'

Since world premiering at the 2013 International Documentary
Film Festival Amsterdam, Henry Corra and Regina Nicholson’s challenging
documentary “Farewell To Hollywood” has been touring the global festival
circuit to both critical acclaim and contention. Shot over 19 months and condensed
into a nearly two hour narrative from over 400 hours of footage, “Hollywood” is
the gripping story of co-director Nicholson, who died of cancer at age 19 a
year before the film’s premiere. While the documentary acts as an unflinching look
into Nicholson’s battle with cancer, it’s the way in which the filmmaking
process is revealed to have provoked family hardships that has caused some
pundits to find controversy in the directing duo’s ode to life, loss and moviemaking.

Regardless of the film’s provocations, “Hollywood” is bound
to yield a powerful response among viewers, which was made clear by all of the
tears that filled the Jean Cocteau Cinema during the movie’s
Santa Fe Independent Film Festival debut. Following the screening, a humble and
emotional Henry Corra sat down with Indiewire for an exclusive interview to
debunk the controversies and to discuss the film’s structural roots and future
distribution plans. Whether you have seen “Farewell To Hollywood” or not, the
following interview provides great artistic insight into a bold kind of
documentary filmmaking. Check out the full conversation below:

READ MORE: Moving or Offensive? Henry Corra’s New Cancer Documentary ‘Farewell To Hollywood’ Is Both

The narrative approach in “Farewell To Hollywood” is built on the
foundations you’ve created for yourself as an artist over the years. You started
out at a young age as a protégé of the Maysles Brothers, particularly David
Maysles, and they led the Direct Cinema charge with films such as “Grey
Gardens.” How have you built off of them to create your own career as a

I actually came to the Maysles Brothers
after seeing “Grey Gardens.” I was the head of the film society at my little
experimental film school in New Hampshire. I showed “Grey Gardens” and really saw something in it, so I came
to New York and walked into the Maysles Brothers’ office and asked for a job.
They hired me right on the spot! I was 22. So for the next six or seven years, I think David Maysles really saw in me the ability to understand the preformative aspects of
capturing reality and having it be very gentle and real. I learned about
filmmaking under his mentorship. He got sick when I was about 28 or 29, and
they were doing their third film on the artist Christo called “Umbrellas,” and
he said, “Listen, I think you’re the one who should take the charge.” His
brother Albert was more the cameraman and not the director or filmmaker. He was a great shooter and
had great instincts, and he was philosopher of vérité too. But David was the real boots-on-the-ground, multi-hatted guy who would make
things happen, and I think he saw that in me. So I did this amazing film, “Umbrellas,” but I realized
after making that movie that the whole vérité thing was coming up short for me.

There were a couple of things about it that weren’t true to me. One was that I really
didn’t want to pretend that I was being objective. I didn’t want to pretend
that I was invisible. That led me to this whole idea of what David hinted at in “Grey Gardens,” where the camera would pan around and you would see the sisters
in the mirror and you’d hear David’s voice talking to Little Edie. It’s the idea that you’re being very honest with trying to connect to this person via
filmmaking. And that was the birth of “living cinema.” When I made the film for HBO about my autistic
son, “George,” I realized that I was off to the races and running with this
whole idea of being really honest about both the performative aspects of improvisational
filmmaking – that it is performance, but you’re not actually writing it or
scripting it or directing it – and, at the same time, that
you’re also being really honest about the way you’re collaborating with your
subject. My son, George, was 12-years-old during filming, and when I handed him
the camera he developed what I call the autistic style of filmmaking. He would
film someone, but when they would say something important he would move off their face. That was one of the conceits of that movie and it was born out of the collaboration
between director and subject.

Could you elaborate
more on what “living cinema” is? It’s this kind of approach to filmmaking that
is embodied by “Farewell To Hollywood.”

I only gave it a name because some PR guy told me
to give the kind of work I was a doing a name once during an interview, and I
jokingly said, “Living cinema,” but it kind of fit and people ran with it. And
it fits perfectly because it’s modeled after “living theater,” which was what
Antonin Artaud wrote about in “The Theater and its Double” in 1938. Then there
was this guy in New York in 1939 who opened the Living Theater, and that was
all about actors trying to break down the boundaries between the actor and the
audience. I just thought that was exactly what we were doing, searching for
connection and trying to break down barriers. With Reggie in this film, right
off the bat we knew she would be a co-filmmaker and a co-writer; even though she didn’t write a single word, she helped write the film visually. Because she is a subject who breaks down the wall between the film and the
audience is what makes “Hollywood” absolutely rooted in the “living cinema” I’ve been building my entire career on.

You mentioned before the screening that it was Reggie and her mother
who first approached you to collaborate on this project at a film festival all
of you were attending. What as a filmmaker made you say yes?

A bell went off in my head the minute I saw Reggie. I work
more like real novelists, like Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner,
Fitzgerald, all the authors I used to read. People say I’m a documentary
filmmaker, but what I really am is a novelist stuck in a documentary
filmmaker’s body. As a writer, the only way to truly bring a character
to life is to put yourself inside the consciousness of that character and to
become them. That’s what novels do. I try to
apply that same technique to “living cinema.” It’s the idea of total
identification, and it’s very subjective. 

All these movies that I’ve made, be
it the features or the shorts, have all been character based. I make my
decision to create a film not on some big issue statement or narrative arc that
I can foresee but on the character, which is exactly what great literature
does. The character is story. Ultimately, then, it’s about finding that great
character, and of course when you find a character that has the potential to go
through a great transformative experience it’s all the better. In the living
theater mode, I also place myself into the novel if you will. Is it going to be
a transformative experience for me as a filmmaker as well? That’s something I
always ask. But as soon as I laid eyes on Reggie, that invisible bell in my
head went off. It certainly did when I heard her story, but when I first saw her from
across the lobby I turned to my producer and said, “Who is that?” It
was this odd girl with a shaved head and I didn’t quite understand it. Then
when her mom approached us and we talked and Reggie told me her story, it was
instant. Reggie was that great human character who happened to find me.

What was it like
to assimilate yourself into the family in order to film? Even as tension builds and fights erupt, the camera always remains on the inside. W
as that a hard
world to make your way into?

I mean, in a very general sense every family is fucked up in
their own way. The Nicholson’s were dealing with an unimaginable tragedy, but
they were also a family, so I knew going in that it would be a challenge to some degree because every family has their own tense baggage. And that goes for my family
as well, and I would guess yours too. But listen, I’m a very “glass half full” kind of a guy. I really am. I go into these projects holding my camera and my
head high, and I really believe in the people and the story and the potential
of the film. When I’m in the editing process, I tend to be more self-critical
and more self-doubting, but when I’m shooting I’m more how I am when
I’m with my family or my daughter. Also, something about filming glamorizes the
world for me. When I went into the Nicholson’s house, I couldn’t believe there
was this working class family who was besieged by this unspeakable
tragedy, and you can hear me saying just that to the mother. That’s not fake.
That’s totally real. I didn’t even see the tensions that developed later
coming. I was so naïve. You expect there to be tension because it’s a family,
but when I was actually filming I was so punch-drunk on my embrace for the
family. I fell in love with the subject and that made
it a world or a household that I could easily be in and one that I wanted to be

But then what would
you say about a scene like when Reggie’s mother gives her the “family or film” ultimatum? Clearly the filmmaking was something that caused a huge dissonance
within the family. It even led the parents to infer certain unorthodox things about your relationship, which is why I think it has drawn controversy among some

That’s something I deeply struggled with just like any
member of the family, and just like anyone who was deeply invested in this tragic
situation. I struggled with it. I was asked to
back off twice from filming and I did, but it killed me. It hurt me. As you see
in the film, Reggie ended up being the one giving me lectures about how to not
to worry and how to cope. I cared about her so much and I knew she was going to
die that in many ways I was no different than the mother. That’s the thing most
people don’t pick up on, that me and the mother are very similar in this movie.
And I don’t want to tell people how to receive the movie, because the movie is
it. The movie is the thing that talks about the situation the best. But everyone
that sort of brings up these ethical or moral questions, I just say, “What are
you talking about?” I had Reggie’s best interest at heart at every step of the
game. I had her family’s best interest too.
There’s not one thing that I would change. Was it painful? Extremely. Was it
difficult? Extremely. Sometimes it was unbearable. But the one thing that makes
me realize I wouldn’t change a thing is how happy Reggie was and how free
she was when she died. These were tough decisions, but I had the church people,
my people, social workers at the hospital, her shrink and my shrink at
Livestrong all as mental support. I was constantly talking to these people
about whether I should stay or whether should I go because it was so morally
conflicting. I didn’t always stay. As you see, there were times when I stood aside and I put the camera down
and waited. But I always came back because
Reggie made it clear that this was what she needed to do before she left us. It was always for her.

So how would you
respond to the critics claiming you took it to an unethical level?

Listen, I don’t care if you find things
challenging or if you absolutely disagree with certain decisions that I made.
But I don’t really understand all the people who ask about boundaries being
crossed or lines being broken because the point of this kind of filmmaking at its very core is to collapse boundaries and lines. Eric Kohn reviewed the movie
after seeing it at the Amsterdam premiere, and I remember reading that one
because it came out so quickly. Whether or not he liked it, he was clearly
devastated. Eric’s review was the best kind of good bad review. You
know why? Because he was reeling from it, he was exploring his emotional
connection to it. I actually liked that review very much. Even though it didn’t
service us very well at all, at least he was struggling to open a dialogue with
it. I love all the words he used – “offensive,” “moving,” “paradoxical.” I like
people who engage with the material even when it is challenging, as opposed to
those who blatantly point a finger and can’t really explore either side of the
ethical argument. 

I just think that we’re not doing entertainment, we’re making art.
Art is supposed to cross lines. Art is supposed to challenge. That’s how engaging with art makes us better people.
That’s how I was raised under the Maysles. I’m not saying entertainment and art
don’t mix or collide ever, just look at David Lunch or Robert Altman for proof
that it can. But I think the Maysles realized that their films weren’t going to
be the blockbusters they thought they were. They thought they were going to
sell out the multiplex. By the 1980s, they realized they were among artists and
that the dialogue around their films weren’t entertainment based or even cinema based. These were pieces of art, which means they are inherently allowed
more ambiguities and a smaller audience. That’s how all my films function.

You talk about
evolution of character, and it struck me that you start the movie as a
filmmaker and eventually evolve into a caretaker and even into a paternal
figure. How did you first and foremost approach the film?
How did you see yourself evolving throughout the shoot? 

In a sense I was everything, but at first it was filmmaker. Filmmaker and
not mentor or teacher, and this is very important because it was important to
her and it was important to me that she be equal. Here’s a filmmaker like
Reggie at the beginning of her career and here am I as a mature artist at the
later stages of my career, and the filmmaking process was about coming together
and finding an equal voice. Yes there were “caretaker” elements and all of that,
but when it came time to shooting I was a filmmaker and she was a filmmaker.
And that’s what a lot of reviews and a lot of people during Q&As seem to
forget. Reggie is my co-director. This is her movie as much as it is mine, I’m
just the only one who can speak about it today unfortunately. A lot of people
don’t even realize that she had seen a three-hour cut of the film four days
before she died, and that she was the one dishing out guidelines on what needed to
be included. She was adamant about filming her dead body, for instance, because
she felt it wouldn’t be real or feel real for the audience unless it was shown.
But then I read all these reviews where they just mention my name and it’s
completely not right. I don’t know why some people gloss over Reggie’s
directing credit, maybe it’s something along the lines of identity politics,
but she was in every way a co-filmmaker, so I could never be a teacher or
mentor while shooting. I was her equal.

What was the greatest
thing she taught you as a director? What are you going to take with you into
your next project from working with a first time filmmaker like Reggie?

That’s a really good question. I learned so much.
I’ve spent so much time since the film premiered 11 months ago in this
whirlwind of taking it around the world, and it’s been pretty traumatic
because I haven’t had much time to properly grieve myself. Even in the
film I made about my son I was able to compartmentalize a lot more. I was able
to go into the editing room afterwards and sort of start to refer to me as him and to my son as the boy. Not that you do that
all the time, but all that stuff you do in the editing room – where you sort of
take a step back and understand what you’re dealing with within the frame with
characters and structure and shape and film language – I was doing that with
Reggie while I was subjectively involved in the project. I never got to be
objective, and then I got thrown into critics’ hands. I was shocked in
Amsterdam. I was coming up from under water emotionally and artistically and
when I stepped in front of that audience for the Q&A. I was in a
state of shock. Now I have some perspective. I really believe Reggie and me
deserve the accolades for sort of creating a new kind of movie. That’s one of things Reggie taught me: how to create something really special. I had no idea what we
had done until I saw it. Now I feel more confident in what we’ve done and I’ve
seen how it works on people.

How has it been taking
such a personal film all over the world? What’s the festival experience like
with this kind of movie?

It’s really just been so powerful on a personal level to see
the film with audiences and to get feedback and to get all kinds of reviews,
both good and bad. What’s most interesting is how in Europe the film is received so
differently than it is in the United States. What people care about and focus
on over there is so different than it is here. It’s kind of crazy. The American
press only wants to focus on boundaries, but everyone else focuses on the whole
big, round scope of this film. It’s so multifaceted. The European press is so
much more focused on that scope.

You talked briefly
about the editing of the movie. One of the most effective editing tricks is the incorporation of Hollywood films. When Reggie takes her inhaler,
for instance, you match cut to Uma Thurman in “Pulp Fiction.” There are also
the sounds of the helicopters from “Apocalypse Now” interwoven through the
entire film. Where did those choices originate?

All of my films open themselves up in a way where they know
they are pieces of filmmaking. So those edits were one of the ways to achieve that
in this film. But it also just grew organically from who Reggie was. It felt
very natural to who she was. The opening scene of the film is just her room
with all the movie posters. When the suffering and the extreme pain started, I
would talk to Reggie about how she thought we should progress the sadness
throughout the movie. She actually wanted to show that graphic needle part very
early on, but that’s something that would’ve been so powerfully sad so early
that it would’ve thrown the pacing off. All of the movie clips we used were a
great way to pace that sadness and the other moods of the film. And, as I said,
they just felt rooted in who Reggie was. Instead of shooting 400 hours of
material over two years and then going into the editing room, we basically
edited and did style samples and experiments and scenes and fragments that
started to bring in the Hollywood movie scenes from the first month of
shooting. That idea was there from the beginning.

You’ve had a long
career as a filmmaker, and from this interview it’s clear you never compromise
your directorial instincts. What would your advice be to up-and-coming documentarians?

Don’t call them documentaries! Make films that happen to be
unscripted, that happen to be improvised, that happen to be conversational,
that happen to feature real people. When I talk to my friend Harmony Korine, I have more
in common with what he does than I do with many of my documentarian contemporaries.
Korine is a master of throwing a ton of balls in the air and just figuring out
what lands as he goes. It’s a balance between the preconceived and getting
balls in the air. I have more in common with him because my films aren’t issue films
or journalistic. They’re just these odd, deeply personal portraits.

We’re seeing so many
documentaries take these narrative risks in the way they tell their stories, be
it Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” or Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing.” “Farewell To Hollywood” is obviously different, but how do you see it fitting
into these documentaries that break storytelling boundaries?

Right, we’re seeing all of these hybrid films. But that’s
something that’s inherent with documentary filmmaking that I love so much. Just
look at Errol Morris and “The Thing Blue Line,” which came out more than twenty
years ago or so.

So then what is it
about documentaries that speaks to you so profoundly?

I love the improvisational feel to them. I like not
knowing the end as you begin. I like crafting very cinematic movies
that have a language that is unique to the story and the characters. I am hopeless
as soon as you hand me a script. Scripts bore me, and I don’t know why. But you
put a camera in my hand and a character like Reggie that I can connect with and my brain comes alive as a storyteller and as a filmmaker.

The movie has been touring around the world for almost a year now. Will it get distribution ever?

Yes! Film International is going to do a 30-city thing.
It’ll open in New York and Los Angeles first at the kind of places where these
types of movies always play. We have a great team behind it and a great distributor
for art films. After NY and LA, it’ll roll out into 30 cities beginning
sometime in January. We’ll see how it does. For the first 15 years “Grey Gardens” only had 3 screenings at the Paris Theater. Maybe only like 500 people
saw it. And for 15 years it was an underground movie. One of my jobs under the
Maysles Brothers was to take the print down to gay parties in the West Village
and show it. It basically sat dormant for a long time and then was
rediscovered. You can’t have it all. You can’t make movies like this and turn
around and say, “Now I want commercial success!” You have to define what
success is, and right now I feel like this film is just beginning. It’s going to have a long life. There’s been an
incredible emotional response to the movie, and that’s going to continue to
grow. It deeply affects people. That’s success.

READ MORE: The Ethics of Documentary Filmmaking

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