There’s a scene in filmmaker Robert Greene’s new documentary “Procession,” where a sexual abuse survivor returns, as part of a therapeutic exercise, to the very place where he was preyed upon by a Catholic priest as a child. It’s a moment of cinematic catharsis. Cinematographer Robert Kolodny patiently stays on the man’s face — allowing us to watch him experience a full gamut of emotions — before panning the camera to find the man’s attentive brother, who then alleviates the mood by singing a silly song from their childhood.
It’s a beautiful, funny, transcendent piece of filmmaking, and one Greene insists he didn’t direct, at least not in the way you might assume.
“What I realized, looking at the shot during the edit, was Rob’s not being directed to pan there,” said Greene, who admits he wasn’t even paying attention to the camera at that moment. “Not only was [the pan] the exact right instinct, but it allows for closure in the moment. It allows for the guy who’s processing to know, ‘Okay, I’m good.’ And that funny moment does not occur unless Rob makes it occur by panning away, up to this other person.”
It’s just one of many examples of how Greene’s “Procession” collaborators made their own vital and independent filmmaking contributions to the documentary, and why Greene decided to share the “film by” credit — typically reserved just for directors — with Kolodny, production sound mixer Danny Bowersox, re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor Lawrence Everson, composers Dabney Morris and Keegan DeWitt, and his three long-time producers, plus the six sexual abuse survivors featured in the film and the drama therapist who guided their therapeutic journey.
Greene is not looking to debate the auteur theory, nor abdicate his role as director, but rather acknowledge its limitations. “When it comes to documentary, the thing is that the artistic impulses are always happening at the same time as the human interaction,” said Greene. “So your artistic ideas are never more important than the human interaction.”
Case in point: Kolodny told IndieWire his pan was in line with the visual language he and Greene hashed out during prep, but that the time he spent living, eating, traveling, and filming with the film’s participants over the four years of production played a bigger role in dictating his filmmaking. In that sense, Greene’s use of the “film by” credit is not a gesture of his humility, but, much like “Procession” itself, the natural culmination of what Greene and his filmmaking team have been working toward for the last decade.
A former East Village video store clerk (at the legendary Kim’s Video), turned college professor (at the prestigious Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri), Greene is a film theorist at heart. His almost-Scorsese-like enthusiasm for talking about the medium helps frame many of the ideas that guide his own films, the most prominent being his continued exploration of the nature of performance in nonfiction.
Greene’s friend and former next door neighbor Brandy Burre — and the eponymous “Actress” in his third feature — tells the story of watching the documentary “The Overnighters” with him. After the screening, Burre expressed amazement at how the filmmakers were able to capture the local pastor Jay Reinke’s confessional moment, which provides the film’s jaw-dropping third act twist.
“Robert says to me, ‘You do know that he had a mic on him, right?,’” recalled Burre in an interview with IndieWire. “Here I was naive, thinking that they’ve caught some secret moment. There were lights. He said it for camera.”
Burre, a trained professional actress, is still surprised at just how much of a light-switch moment this was for her. For Greene, it was Eric Kohn’s review of his first feature “Kati with an I,” about his sister’s last days of high school, that flipped the lights on for him. “It was when Eric wrote, ‘Kati gives one of the best performances of the year’ that I realized the fascination I had with the footage of Kati was because I was fascinated with her performance,” Greene said.
A life-long wrestling fan, the North Carolina independent pro wrestling circuit proved the perfect canvas for Greene to focus this fascination with his follow-up film, “Fake It So Real.” But it was with “Actress” that he would not only tackle the issue of nonfiction performance head-on, but would actively embrace trying to figure out how to navigate an open, creative collaboration with the film’s participant.
“Brandy really taught me what collaboration looks with ‘Actress,’ because every decision, on a lot of fronts, was our decision,” said Greene. “I was the director, the cameraperson for a lot of the time, and the editor, but she was making so many choices and everything was an interplay between our choices.”
Burre recalls the constant discussions of what to film, when to film, and how she often needed Greene to edit a sequence for her — Why am I putting on a red dress and listening to opera to do the dishes? — to understand what he was doing.
She still gets asked about when was she acting in the film, queries Burre continues to shrug off. “I think people under-estimate how much they perform in their day to day life,” she said. “I think what started for Robert on ‘Actress,’ is giving subjects the awareness [that] they’re a part of the conversation and process.”
One of the two big takeaways for Greene from “Actress” was how cathartic the experience was for Burre. The other was, as he explained, “starting to realize that this fictional conceit could be a container in which we play.” The ramifications of those revelations were huge. He could expand his filmic sandbox, and still be able to to build performance into his films.
In his next film, “Kate Plays Christine,” the conceit is that actress Kate Lyn Sheil is preparing for a role in which she portrays Christine Chubbuck, a real-life news reporter who took her own life on local Florida television in 1974. The role itself is actually just a handful of scripted scenes that would be performed inside Greene’s film, but her quest to discover the essence and truth about the mysterious Chubbuck unfolded in ways that were impossible to predict.
Starting with “Kate Plays Christine,” Greene said that he began to view his directing role as being the person who could “define the container,” which embodied the ideas he wanted to explore with others. “The reason why I make documentaries is because I don’t want to be in control,” said Greene. “I want to give it up, because I knew whatever Kate’s going to do at the end of ‘Kate Plays Christine’ is way better than whatever I thought we should do.”
The attitude toward directing is incongruous with composer Keegan DeWitt’s experience working with most directors, but he’s seen first-hand how it works, thanks to his collaborations with both Greene (on his last three films) and on director Alex Ross Perry’s films, which Greene edits.
“Robert and Alex are very big personalities, have very big opinions, big brains, you’d think they’d be difficult to collaborate with,” said DeWitt. “And it’s interesting because they both have one thing that’s extremely rare, for all their intense opinions, when they come to a collaborator, they’re both, ‘You’re the person I like, what is your interest?’”
No longer content to use just a camera (operated by himself, or DP Sean Price Williams) and the film’s subject, Greene has carefully added filmmakers like DeWitt, re-recording mixer/supervising sound editor Lawrence Everson, and production sound recordist Danny Bowersox to lend their voice to his works.
But the biggest shift in Greene’s post-“Actress” collaborations are with his producers. “When I got to ‘Kate Plays Christine,’ we had grown to the point where I understood that the only way to execute more difficult visions is not only to have producers do the work of producing, but to empower them, and for them to feel like it’s their film, not executing Robert’s vision,” Greene said.
When producers Douglas Tirola and Susan Bedusa started 4th Row Films, Greene was hired as in-house post supervisor, a position he held through the making of “Actress.” The pair fully supported Greene pivoting to making his own films. “After ‘Actress,’ he was no longer Robert the employee, but Robert the director, and our role as his producers changed,” said Bedusa. “It was no longer something we did between projects, but its own entity we had to support.”
Tirola’s varied experiences in Hollywood as a location manager, unit production manager, and screenwriter made him uniquely suited to help navigate how to incorporate the fictional movie elements of “Kate Plays Christine” and “Bisbee ’17” into Greene’s larger documentaries.
Another hat Tirola wears is that of director; his most recent documentary “Bernstein’s Wall” just premiered alongside “Procession” at Telluride earlier this month. While Tirola declines to talk about his directing background in context of Greene’s films, it is something their other collaborators all recognize as being a key part of the process.
“The films are just too complicated and they’re too dense and they’re too full of ideas, and some of those ideas are just as much Doug’s as they are mine,” said Greene. “And it’s a great secret of our films that they’re pretty well-structured, partly because I’m getting input the whole time from Doug, who is thinking like a screenwriter.”
Greene is also aware that the initial narrative “containers” he dreamed up for the last three films are sprawling, filled with conflicting and complex ideas that need to be reshaped, or even re-imagined to be delivered by his producers. Never was this more true than when it came to the premise of “Bisbee ’17,” in which he wanted the titular Arizona border town to reconcile with its controversial history of deporting 1,200 immigrant miners in 1917 by staging a re-enactment on the hundredth anniversary.
“We moved to Bisbee with only half the budget that we needed,” said Bedusa, who said the original concept of hiring the extras to stage an reenactment would be too expensive. “The creative solution was to get the townspeople to become invested in the film.”
Added Tirola, “You’re just trying to keep people involved and make them feel part of something bigger than themselves.” In other words the “Bisbee ’17” team would not only need to move to the town of 2,000 to facilitate a massive event and shoot, but to become creative partners in the process.
Greene refers to “Bisbee” as one of the greatest producing jobs ever, but he’s also clear it’s more than that. “They’re casting, making allies in town. That’s not just producing. Producing is solving the problem, but having a relationship with people [in documentaries] is filmmaking,” he said.
Watch how cinematographer Jarred Alterman, sound designer Lawrence Everson, and composer Keegan DeWitt contributed to “Bisbee ’17” in the video below.
At the very center of the human relationships production had with its participants is producer Bennett Elliott. Elliott started off at 4th Row as Tirola and Bedusa’s assistant, then rose through the ranks of the New York production world, eventually returning to 4th Row to produce “Kate Plays Christine.” She has worked closely with Greene ever since.
With Greene’s attention spread so wide on “Bisbee ’17,” Elliott not only cast lead Fernando Serrano — a decision Greene admits he was against, until he realized Elliot’s instincts were right — she was the filmmaker in closest communication with Serrano throughout production.
She also saw her job as being that same type of conduit for a wider range of “Bisbee” participants. “If these people are going to give us their time and their experience and their stories, someone needs to hold that and protect it and keep it safe,” she said.
Elliott is proud of “Bisbee ’17,” but wondered if the team really achieved their goal of using play-acting as a way to understand historical trauma and the connection between the town’s present and tragic past. “Robert and I had a number of deep conversations about it afterwards,” said Elliott. “[On some level], we’d just started up a whole lot of trauma, and then we left.”
In the film, someone refers to the reenactment as the “biggest group therapy ever.” During a Q&A session, someone asked Greene if they had therapists on set. They didn’t. It was at that point that Greene realized the key issue was that they had done little “to activate the help.”
And yet, as he explains it, “What we have learned over all these movies is about the power of the camera to add, to give some catharsis and healing.” It was against this backdrop that “Procession” was conceived and executed. The performative device in this film, its clever container, is drama therapy, and it follows six survivors of sexual abuse as they attempt to heal their way out of decades-long pain.
“The filmmaking decisions are all tied into choices to be therapeutic,” said Greene. Over the last four years, Elliott has become a constant presence in the lives and family of the six survivors, checking in with wives and family, ensuring there is support as each man confronts trauma that gripped them for 30-plus years.
“It is a very emotional thing, because I think that all of the participants in the film, there’s just such a noticeable, tangible difference. Everyone is feeling better because they opted to be a part of the film,” she said.
With “Procession,” there is unity of purpose, an elegant simplicity that comes from all of Greene’s previous films’ inherent complexity. It all stems from how the nature of collaboration has evolved in Greene’s films.
“The participants are empowered in front of the camera to believe, and rightfully so, that they are steering the ship. In many ways, [to understand] that they have authorship,” said Kolodny. “It lends it this exciting feeling on and off set. It really feels like they are as active of collaborators as the producers, as the camera people, as the sound person, we’re all in this together.” —Chris O’Falt