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YouTube Filmmaking: Penny Lane and Dan Schoenbrun Discuss Making Archival Films From Footage They Found Online

Lane and Schoenbrun discuss how her interest in Morgellons disease patients (“The Pain of Others”) and his exploration of the Slenderman myth (“A Self-Induced Hallucination”) led them to make archival films from YouTubes.

"The Pain of Others"

“The Pain of Others”

Penny Lane

Two filmmakers have new films that are made entirely of videos they found on YouTube. Penny Lane’s “The Pain of Others,” a feature length documentary that will play at BAMcinemafest on Thursday, brings the viewer face-to-face with people who purport to suffer from Morgellons disease, which many in the medical community believe is a psychosomatic delusion that spread via the internet. Dan Schoenbrun’s 67-minute film, “A Self-Induced Hallucination” was released online last week and takes a look at how a real-life assault – in which two girls stabbed their friend 19 times in 2014 – led to the internet-fueled phenomenon known as Slenderman.

Lane and Schoenbrun found out about each other’s projects while developing them, and decided to team up to present their films as a unique double-feature around the country. IndieWire invited Lane and Schoenbrun to interview each other about the process of assembling a movie out of YouTube clips and what motivated them to make a films out of videos they found online.

"A Self-Induced Hallucination"

“A Self-Induced Hallucination”

Dan Schoenbrun

Penny Lane: I’ll ask you two questions that were asked of me at Q&As: How is this a “movie” and not just a collection of clips? And, what led to the creation of this film?

Schoenbrun: My friends Dean and Brett told me about Slenderman in 2014, shortly after the stabbing incident propelled it from an internet meme or MMORPG or whatever you want to call it into a more mainstream story. I was immediately fascinated – less so in the gritty true crime details of the actual stabbing and more in the evolution of this online boogeyman from a fictional meme that some creative people had created on a forum into a controversy the media was now blaming a murder on. How does that happen?

And then I realized something even more fascinating: That this “true crime” – this horrific event that had actually occurred – was in the process of being swallowed back up into fiction. I remember reading and then re-reading one of the first long reads about the stabbing that was published in New York Magazine in 2015, and just being struck by the level of cinematic detail in the writing, like the writer was consciously constructing a “Badlands”-style screenplay out of the crime. And then on YouTube and Reddit you had people sharing videos and fan theories about the stabbing and about these 12-year-old girls like they were just another bit of the Slenderman mythos. You can see it in the trailer for the Sony film that comes out later this summer, too. It’s playing on the imagery and mythology of the actual crime (whether consciously or not). It’s folded this very real incident right back into the fictional Slenderman mythology (at least it has in the marketing materials), all for our entertainment.

I couldn’t get all of this out of my head – fiction and reality and the strange way the two were interwoven. And then there was the election in 2016, and lots of talk in the media about “fake news” and our “post-truth society” and through it all, Slenderman would just not leave my brain.

I struggled with the question of form for years. I very seriously considered making a hybrid fiction film about the crime itself – I wrote a full script and even started figuring out production logistics. I started and stopped countless iterations of an essay-based documentary in the style of “Sans Soleil” or “Level Five.” But nothing ever felt quite right. Making a movie means taking something out of the private space of your brain and unleashing it out into the world. That’s a real responsibility.

Then I started constructing something out of the raw material that had inspired my initial, seemingly endless fascination with this topic, and well, something finally clicked. Is it really a movie though? Well, duh. Films made out of archival materials are still films. Are there seriously people at Q&As arguing that they’re not?

Penny, your three features all play with form in such bold and elemental ways, like the stories you tell feel absolutely inseparable from the style in which you tell them. With “Pain of Others,” were you already planning to make something about Morgellons Disease and that’s what led you to discover these videos? Or did you find these videos first, and they inspired you to make a movie about Morgellons Disease?

"The Pain of Others"

“The Pain of Others”

Penny Lane

Lane: Yes, people really do ask that question! In some ways, it’s a question about image quality – I’m blowing up these, like, 240p videos to movie-theater size. In other ways, it’s a question about context – the videos were made for a specific platform, which was not movie theaters. And in another way, it’s a question about form and experience – “The Pain of Others” is not necessarily “entertaining” in that there are no scenes and nothing happens. You certainly don’t ever suspend disbelief and go into that psychological space where you forget you’re watching a movie. I think that’s true with your film as well – both of our films are demanding a very different kind of viewing experience, a very active negotiation with the media and its re-use.

As an aside, people also ask me pretty often in Q&A’s how I can even call myself a director when really all I am is an editor. I’ve been answering that one since “Our Nixon.” And while I’ve developed a pretty decent answer, there are a lot of people who still look at me sideways when I try to claim I am a director.

What I’m looking for in a story is a formal challenge and a formal opportunity. With “The Pain of Others,” what happened was I was on vacation (I was birding in Panama, since you asked) and I read an incredible essay about Morgellons called “The Devil’s Bait” by Leslie Jamison. She made brief reference to the YouTube videos and my whole body went into a state of alert. My film definitely came from my own experience of watching the videos – I wouldn’t have tried to do a film based on the essay, which is already perfect.

Similar to your experience, I considered many forms this film could take. I researched the hell out of the subject, for months and even years. I read and thought and wrote. I found out another filmmaker was making a more “traditional” documentary about Morgellons, and that was a huge relief to me, as I felt someone should do that …and it set me free to attack just the slice of the subject I cared most about. Like, “Our Nixon” would be really unsatisfying if it were the only movie about the Nixon presidency ever, right? I didn’t want to make the only Morgellons documentary ever, either.

Everything about the form of the film is supposed to communicate that it is not any kind of definitive statement on the subject. Everything about it should make the viewer want to go home and google it to find out more. And that was definitely my experience watching your film, too.

How do you know you’re done, when you’ve left so many questions open? Or does that idea not resonate with you?

Schoenbrun: That old adage that “a film is never done, just finished” definitely rings true based on literally every project I’ve ever been a part of. My film feels complete to me, but I also gave myself a deadline. If I opened it back up in six months, I’m sure it would evolve – indeed, there will be a whole new treasure trove of archival to pull from.

But I don’t think the problem you’re discussing is relegated to archival YouTube documentaries only, but to all works of art: they’re all inherently subjective, imperfect, and incomplete objects. That’s something I think should be embraced instead of covered up. It just doesn’t feel like my responsibility as a filmmaker to lecture the audience, to stand above them, or to share some objective, authoritative, final “truth.” I make art as a way to search for truth; to wrestle with it.

I definitely see how our films can feel frustrating from a narrative perspective. My film is structured around a trial, but I never even bother to reveal the verdict. Part of this is because when you’re making an archival film, you’re at the mercy of the archive itself. I’m sure you can relate. Part of it is because, yes, just google it. But in my film, there’s also intention behind withholding information or subverting genre tropes. I’m sure you would say the same about “Pain of Others.”

There was a very central rule I set for myself when I realized this was going to be an archival film: I decided that every bit of archival material I used had to be about more than just the content of the material. It had to do more than just push along the narrative or offer something entertaining for the viewer to watch. My rule was that it also had to prompt questions about authorial intent.

This is what my film is about at its core: Why do we make these videos? Why do a bunch of college kids spend their weekend in the woods making an amateur horror movie? Why, within hours of a horrific tragedy, is YouTube awash with vlogs and reaction videos and conspiracy theories? Why do paid pundits argue about exactly how two mentally ill children should be punished? And why did I spend months locked away making a wildly uncommercial, experimental documentary that I just uploaded online for free? Where do all these different but interweaving impulses to create and share and distort come from? To me that’s a funny, disturbing, and fascinating question.

Both of our films have complex relationships with the archival we’re presenting. And both of our films feel very conscious of the ways that the internet is changing storytelling – and maybe reality, too? What was it about the mention of YouTube videos in that article that made your body tense up? What interests you about an archive of material that’s not just an archive, but a “YouTube archive?” And bonus question: is the internet itself proof that reality is all just one big absurd simulation?

Grizzly Man

“Grizzly Man”

Lions Gate Films

Lane: I am attracted to subjects whose self-representations I can access and study and use. i.e., the home movies in “Our Nixon,” the marketing materials in “Nuts!.” So knowing that there is a community of people on YouTube who have been doing this kind of work about as aspect of their lives so contested by the mainstream – well, that just gets me going.

I knew this about myself as an artist before I knew I was an artist. The earliest doc I really loved was “Grizzly Man.” Later, it was “Exit Through the Gift Shop.” My favorite part of “Capturing the Friedmans” was the home movie archive. I think I am just one variation of found footage filmmaker in a longstanding tradition. And to be that kind of artist, you’re always having to engage with authorship and context, just as you said you did with your central rule.

So I thought, upon reading Jamison’s essay, that the videos would be based on the idea of physical evidence and that I would be evaluating various “amateur filmmaker” attempts to show physical proof of Morgellons. But while some of the videos are just that, I discovered many many many more that were in vlog form. Confessional, direct to camera – what I call “hey guys” videos. So my film became something very different than what I initially imagined, and frankly it became a lot more uncomfortable and difficult to make.

I love your question, but I’m not sure the internet is proof that we’re all living in virtual reality. Although I suppose it depends what you mean. To the extent that we as humanity are all living inside imaginary castles built of abstract ideas, i.e., “justice” or “love,” and fictions and stories (religion or history) then yeah, we live in a “virtual reality,” and I think the internet shows that very clearly because – as you say – you see the work being done. You see the ideas evolving and the stories being rewritten.

Watch Schoenbrun’s “A Self-Induced Hallucination” below. “The Pain of Others” is playing June 28th at 9:30pm as part of BAMcinemafest. The next joint screening of Lane and Schoenbrun’s films will be at the Austin Film Society in August.


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