New meeting on Le Blog documentaire with a well-known filmmaker. Ross McElwee is directing « first person » documentaries since the 70’s and, from « Sherman’s March » to « Photographic Memory » or « Six O’clock News » (read here our article), he influenced many film directors all over the world. Before Ross McElwee’s masterclass at Visions du Réel film festival (25 avril-3 mai, Nyon), an interview by Camille Bui.
Ross McElwee : It became harder to film. When you film close people, your family, it inevitably creates some conflict or hesitancy on the part of the people you are filming. Especially, as the children get older, they become more self-conscious. I don’t think I ever assumed that would not be the case, but it created problems in continuing to chronicle my life. And then there is this twice-harder context: when I began making documentaries, I could just put a camera on my shoulder and film, it was a charming thing to do. There was no Internet, there was no reality television, so there was no sense that any image I was taking would ever be seen. Now of course, it has become much more complicated because everyone knows that the images could be on Youtube or posted anywhere. Sometimes, if you start to film, people get very scared or expect to be paid. So things changed both at a very intimate level, with my family, and at a broader level with new developments in technology.
When does the gesture of filming your everyday life actually become cinema? For instance for Photographic Memory, at what point filming your son became a film project?
At first, I did not have a chart or a plan. I filmed a little bit here, and a little bit there, during many months. In my films, it seems that I am constantly filming because they are compressed, but in fact I am not filming that much. In the everyday life, most of the time my camera is not even here. I don’t think it would be very healthy to be filming all the time. And when I am shooting, I don’t know for sure if the scenes are going to be in the film in the future. It is when I start editing that I go back to my archive and think of what footage I can use. For instance, in Bright Leaves, there is a brief shot of my son smocking a pretzel. I don’t even remember shooting this, it was ten seconds long, and I never used it because I did not think it was important. And then for Bright Leaves, as I was thinking of tobacco smoking, I remembered the shot. So I retrieved it.
But when you decided to go to Saint-Quay-Portrieux, you were already thinking of your film project ?
In the back of my mind, I always thought that I would go back some day in Saint-Quay and make a film. But it seemed too self-indulgent just to go back, out of context. So my son being my age when I went there for the first time seemed to be a useful device by which to set the film.
Photographic Memory takes the form of a « passage de relais » between you and your son…
Relay race is a very good analogy, but the question is: “are we on the same team?”. When you pass the baton to the next person on your team, you are all working together. Sometimes, I feel that I am giving my son the baton but he is on the other team. There is a conflict.
How did he react to Photographic memory ?
He travelled with me and I think he really likes the film. He likes to be a movie star. He came to Paris with me and talked to the audience after the screening at Cinéma du réel. We went to Berlin, Venice, Spain, Los Angeles, New York… Clearly, if he was upset about the film he would not have done that. It was really fun travelling, because he could see other films and meet filmmakers. I don’t know what he will do but if he wants to make films, especially documentaries, this is a really good introduction.
In the film, the passage between generations is also embodied by the change of medium. Why did you decide to shoot in video and how did you feel about it ?
It is hard for me because I love 16 mm. But as I like to film spontaneously, video is clearly easier. A 16 mm camera is very big and very heavy. You could only shoot ten minutes at a time and you could not look at the footage right away. Video also gives the freedom to gamble a little bit more as you film, to take chances. So all of this is for the good. Now it is so easy that thousands of people are trying to make documentary films. You don’t have to raise money to start making a film, but it can bring a kind of carelessness. At least for me, I find I am not as quite as disciplined when I am shooting. It can make you very careless if you’re not careful, but I think overall it is a good thing.
Do you feel that your bodily relationship with the camera has changed ?
Not really. I still hold my camera on the shoulder so I film in the same way. And I mostly use the viewfinder. Only sometimes I use the screen, it is good to have that option. And as I am getting older, it is good to have a lighter camera.
And what about the image itself ?
The digital image is much crisper and definitions between colours are extremely clear, almost too clear sometimes. And there is only a part that you can mitigate, correct in post production. I like film because it has a kind of aura or glow to it, a kind of softness that the video really does not have. But it is better not to complain too much about that and see the positive aspects.
As you change technology, you have to deal with more and more heterogeneous footage in your films: 16mm, 8mm from your family, still photographs, video…
Yes, for instance, when I include Super-8 footage in a film, you can see a difference. I think it is good because it shows you a passing of the baton to a different generation of technology. When I include these heterogeneous images, it creates different layers of time, it’s like archaeology.
What could you say about your relationship to the 16 mm shots of your family that reappear in every film ?
In Bright Leaves, I talk about the way the footage of my father becomes almost fictionalized, more and more, as time goes by. I think it is a universal experience, I don’t think it is just personal. The documentary seeps out of the image, and, through idealization, fictional recollections replace the reality.
By repeating this footage in your films, do you think of your spectator as someone following this process?
I never assume that someone knows my previous films. I have to make each film autonomous. It is great if the spectator perceives the repetition but I am not assuming that it is the case. Of course, it becomes more interesting if you have seen the other films too, it becomes more complex.
At what point of the process do you work on the narration ?
I record it after the moment I shoot but I try to give it a kind of faux present tense. I look at some footage to give me ideas and I take notes before going back to the film. Most of the time, I record it when the shooting is finished. Only sometimes I go shoot a little bit more, but, for instance, for Photographic memory, I could not go back to France to film more because I had a limited budget. Unlike when I am filming in Boston, I knew that I had to get everything in thirty days. Having this unusual constraint was an interesting experience.
Do you rehearse a lot to record the narration ?
That is where I become an actor, because I am really performing the narration. I have to do multiple versions, multiple takes, but never more than six. And sometimes I have to go back to the studio to redo some parts. It is very hard to get it right. Writing is very demanding for me. I have great respect for writers because it requires a kind of patience that I really don’t have.
Do you feel that the character you build evolved from film to film ?
The character I perform is a version of me but it is not the whole me. Sometimes, I exaggerate certain emotions for comic purposes, but it is in some way always based upon my real experiences as much as my real thoughts and feelings. So the character I am in Photographic memory is definitely not the character of Sherman’s march. It is different: I am much older, and at the same time that I am the same person, I am not the same person.
And how is it to look at your films? Can you recognize yourself ?
It is surreal, I never got used to it ! For me it is like looking at some other guy, as if it was not me but my brother, my twin brother who would not behave so well but who likes to be in the movies. I don’t, he does.
In Time indefinite, there is a scene where you sit in front of the camera and talk to yourself. Do you consider autobiographic filmmaking a form of therapy ?
I think it is the opposite of therapy… I think it makes me crazy. I am sure that on some level it is beneficial as it enables me to explore complex psychological questions that I have about life – my life and life in general. But at the end of each film, the questions are always only temporarily resolved and I have to make the next one. So in a sense you could say that filmmaking is somewhat therapeutic but it is not the reason I do it.
What is the place of collaboration in your autobiographical work? For example, you worked with an editor – Sabrina Zanella-Foresi – for your last film.
I did finally. It’s hard because I like editing and I like shooting, but I co-edited Bright Leaves with an other person. I liked the collaboration so I worked with an editor for Photographic memory. We had a very collaborative approach. I know that she has a kind of similar sensibility to mine about film. I sat with her almost every hour while she was working. It’s been a very good experience.
How much are the feedbacks and the reactions to your films part of your creative process ?
When I show the film to people before it is finished, I need to know if something is not clear but almost only from a factual point of view. I can make changes, but I don’t really change anything essential about the film based upon what people told me. I know inside what I want the film to do. Sometimes, I am wrong about the way in which the mechanism made to achieve my goal is constructed. And sometimes I can be criticized for having done what I did in a film. But it is still my decision. It comes from inside.
As a teacher and as a filmmaker, how do you see documentary filmmaking today ?
Today, it seems that many people are trying to make films, which is good. But I worry because they are so many that it will be hard for them to support themselves. And because the cultural landscape has changed, it has become harder to make documentary films. Now, people know that a person with a camera could be a threat in a political situation or could be doing some kind of investigation. So even if you have a really good relationship with the people you film, the context can be very difficult. You might find someone working in a factory whose condition is very hard, perhaps in China, where they are making phones and not being paid very much. Your character can be very happy to be filmed. But there are two things that you have to worry about as a filmmaker: are you jeopardizing this person’s livelihood by making a film in which where he or she appears? Secondly, how can you film when the government is watching the factory, watching very carefully workers who appear in the film? When I started making films, people were completely open. The only known documentaries were about nature, animals, history or science… And my father always used to say « Why don’t you make nature films? It would be a much more stable financial situation”. And he was right.
Is it difficult for you to make films today in terms of funding ?
There seems to be people who like my films and who support them enough that I don’t get rich but I can make the next film and hire an editor now, which is good. University gets me support in terms of equipment and technical people to help me. And then ARTE funded my last film, which is wonderful. I get grants from ARTE or PBS. So I have been lucky, even if it’s always difficult to put together.
Who are the autobiographical filmmakers you would recommend to watch ?
Dominique Cabrera, Agnès Varda, Alain Cavalier and Claire Simon are the four French filmmakers that I particularly like. For Americans, Ed Pincus was a great inspiration. He was my teacher and his work was very influential on me. On the experimental side, there is Alan Berliner. I would also recommend the work of Alfred Guzzetti, Robb Moss and Nina Davenport.
Do you have an ongoing film project ?
I was approached by a Hollywood film director to turn Sherman’s March into a fiction film. I signed over the option on the condition that I would be allowed to make a documentary film about them making the fiction film based upon the original documentary. So it would be a circle. But it’s just beginning, we’ll see if it happens. Most projects in Hollywood never become films, but that’s my next idea.
Talking about reflexivity, in your films, you never show yourself watching footage, or editing, isn’t it also part of your everyday life ?
I film things like that. But then I always find self-indulgent to show myself working at the editing table. These images are not that interesting for my films, but in the narration I talk a bit about the act of filmmaking. In this regard, this is something I like in Dominique Cabrera’s last film. In the course of Grandir, she talks about the act of filming. But my personality, my disposition is not to really talk about my work so much. It is something that will mostly interest other filmmakers. That is why I do interviews, because then I can talk about the act of making a film and if people want to read about it, they can go to your blog…