Despite the controversy surrounding Dieter Kosslick’s imminent departure after a long tenure as director of the Berlin International Film Festival and German filmmakers’ open letter last November calling for more aesthetic risk-taking in the festival’s conceptualisation of cinema,1 the Berlinale’s Forum section remains a place of reliable cinematic discovery. It is the section, founded by consummate cinephiles Ulrich and Erika Gregor and now led by Christoph Terhechte, that most stretches towards a cinematic unknown, towards new combinations of sound and image, towards a synthesis of diverse visions of the cinematic. There is something utopian about the Forum’s aesthetic range, and I am not the only critic who has occasionally wished that the programming ethos of the Forum could become that of the Berlinale Competition.
One should not underestimate the Forum’s role in shaping and legitimising contemporary U.S. independent cinema in the past ten years. Not only was the section quick to identify the merits of work by Andrew Bujalski, Matt Porterfield, Joe Swanberg, Josephine Decker, Alex Ross Perry and J.P. Sniadecki, among others; it has also placed their work in the historical company of more established U.S. filmmakers and artists like Jem Cohen, James Benning, Frederick Wiseman and Amie Siegel or the Canadian Forum alum Guy Maddin. When these films are removed from the commercial concerns and competing notions of cinematic independence native to Los Angeles and New York to bask for 11 days in proximity to Grass, the latest from Hong Sang-Soo, their value increases. The films can return to the States with some hope of a future: more festival screenings, more relevance to audiences at home and abroad, the stamp of A-list approval, a sense of cultural urgency. This European predigestion of our narrative, documentary, experimental, and hybrid avant-gardes gives U.S. arthouse cinema permission to be more radical than it is – to maintain fluid and more inclusive boundaries.
A case in point were this year’s Classical Period by Ted Fendt and Notes on an Appearance by Ricky D’Ambrose, both of which were produced by savvy distributor-by-day Graham Swon (who used to go by “Graham Swindoll”). This trio of hardworking millennial Brooklynites who, like me, grew up in the suburban shadows of large cities (Philadelphia and New York) of greater cinematic and intellectual possibility, stand out for their uncompromising aesthetic independence. Unlike many of their contemporaries, whose experimentation still dances on the border of commercialism, Fendt, D’Ambrose, and Swon remain truly free of the obligation to please others. That is not the purpose of their filmmaking.
I admit that I was perplexed when I first encountered Fendt’s shorts at BAMcinemaFest in 2013 and New Directors/New Films in 2015. Shot on 16mm in nondescript suburban settings with a group of non-actor friends, yet not particularly concerned with cinematography, character development, and narrative trajectories, films like Broken Specs (2012) and Going Out (2015) could easily be mistaken for shoddy work. Was it that they lacked irony about their own amateurism or that they so refreshingly didn’t seek to imitate? It was only when Fendt’s first feature Short Stay – a mere 61 minutes – screened in the Forum in 2016 that I started to sense his sensibility. His cinematic worlds are almost too impossible to believe, and it’s this impossibility, dressed in outward realism, that’s worth watching. People walk a lot. And like talking more than they like doing or feeling. They don’t state goals, or, if they do, don’t necessarily attain them. There is almost no technology. Everyone is smart. People care about history and the spaces in which they live. Nobody is beautiful. It’s hard to latch onto a protagonist because the devices of psychological identification are not at play. Called fiction, the films refuse fiction, but in their structured yet unpretentious realism, they also evade the truth claims of the documentary image. As real as it all looks, don’t mistake it for reality.
Classical Period, which centres on Fendt’s friend Calvin Engime, who was a minor figure in Short Stay, and several other avid literature hobbyists working their way through Dante’s Inferno, steps even further away from narrative convention. In long takes and static frames of barely intercut monologues, the characters discuss texts, buildings, classical music and urban planning, often without interruption from their listeners. The warmth of the16mm images and historical distance of the simple optical soundtrack combine a tour de force of the lapsed art of reading, speaking and articulating thought with the materiality of an earlier time. But this is not video art. And its effect is not really Brechtian. Fendt’s characters may not possess standard, fleshed-out motivations, drives, desires and wills, but they are enthusiasts. They care enough about the passages they discuss and anecdotes they recount to resist alienation. What results is a kind of suspension between modes of filmmaking. What we watch is a performance of the self in a state of intellectual activity. I couldn’t help, in our current technological age, thinking of the book people of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 – the way they clandestinely clung to and perpetuated the act of reading.
If Fendt removes narrative and character to distill another kind of human truth, D’Ambrose maintains, in Notes on an Appearance, the outlines of narrative, albeit through ellipsis, while reducing characters to their graphic functionality. They are one sign among many, alongside the postcards, notebook entries, newspaper clippings, enigmatic, old video footage, and subway maps that recount a young man David’s (played by filmmaker Bingham Bryant) return to New York after a trip to see his girlfriend (Tallie Medel) in Milan. What begins as an appearance becomes a disappearance when David goes missing. His roommate Todd (Keith Poulson), who is working on a biography of an incendiary political philosopher named Stephen Taubes, searches for him in vain. Much like Taubes’s poorly shot and hermeneutically resistant video footage, which David is cataloguing for Todd, David’s departure defies rational explanation.
Employing the same aesthetic he developed for the shorts Six Cents in His Pocket (2015) and Spiral Jetty (2016), the ever-modest D’Ambrose will attribute the resulting form of Notes on an Appearance to limited finances. But there’s more to it. In addition to writing, directing and editing his films, D’Ambrose serves as their production designer. His eye for New York street corners, colour, planimetric framing2 and the graphic artistry of archival objects joins with his euphoric classical musical interludes (underscoring a bright green screen) to lend this tale of a generation’s lost economic agency operatic import. In D’Ambrose’s case, the evocation of the aesthetic surface of film history – something of a pop sensibility like that of Jean-Luc Godard circa La Chinoise (1967) – gives meaning to our own time, when a skilled and educated young person is not necessarily guaranteed a place in the workforce.
Fendt and D’Ambrose’s films will go forth from the Berlinale Forum into the greater world. With Fendt having just won an award at a Siberian film festival and D’Ambrose scheduled for New Directors/New Films 2018, it will be interesting to see which audiences these films ultimately reach. On 24 February, 2018, I sat down with Fendt, D’Ambrose and Swon to talk about their work and the sustainability of cinematic independence.
Graham, how did you start working with Ricky and Ted?
Graham Swon: The way I met Ricky was very circular. I worked with Matías Piñeiro first as a distributor on Viola and Princess of France and then as a producer on Hermia and Helena. Ricky had been working on a script for some years which was then called Millenials and which had had a mixed response trying to go through a more conventional production structure in the U.S. of trying to find a larger sum of money to make the film. Matías told Ricky, “You should talk to Graham because he’s interested in making films in a different way.” Only after a while of knowing Ricky did I realise that I had first heard about Matías from a piece that Ricky had written on him in MUBI.
Ted and I got to know each other more slowly around repertory screenings. There’s a relatively small group of people who go to the cinema a lot, so you get to see them.
You’re all born in the late 1980s, between 1987-89. I’ve always thought of my slightly older cohort as the last one to grow up in the analogue world. The Internet really only entered our lives as teenagers, followed by cell phones somewhat later. But you guys evoke that analogue world in your films – both in terms of film format in Ted’s case as well as stylistically and materially in both Ted and Ricky’s work.
Ted Fendt: I had always watched things at home since I’m from suburban New Jersey, and VHS was the way of accessing films. When I was in my teens, I got more seriously interested in movies. I watched a lot of films on television late at night, and, retrospectively, I think it was important to have watched older silent films that were being broadcast from beaten up old prints. It was pre-digital restoration in 2003, and there was already a textural, material quality that I found attractive. I also saw Bill Morrison’s Decasia around then.
It’s interesting that discovery coincides exactly with a moment when everyone was extolling the virtues of digital video and non-linear editing for independent production. What drew you to 16mm?
TF: I never had an interest in using digital cameras. From the get-go. And that got hardened by going to see repertory films all the time and always being hyper-aware of the projection format. I also wanted to learn film projection because it seemed relevant to filmmaking. Projection was still all analogue then. It wasn’t something I thought through conscientiously. It was more of an intuitive attraction. And then I had a built-in aversion to change for the sake of change.
GS: I also grew up watching TV like TCM [Turner Classic Movies]. I didn’t think of myself as particularly into movies, but I liked to watch the Universal horror movies that they’d show in October. My grandmother lived in Minneapolis. There was this old cinema, the Oak Street Cinema, which doesn’t exist anymore, but which only showed prints. One summer I saw Tokyo Story there, or there’d be a noir series. All the films were shown on film, and I just came to associate that with “the real thing” – a specialness that wasn’t there when you watched a film on tape or DVD. As fewer and fewer places are projecting film, it takes on a performative element like theatre or opera. You’re seeing a specific print that will never quite look the same. That’s something you can’t get with digital.
Ricky, though you shoot on digital video, Notes on an Appearance still evinces a fascination with analogue objects, materials and actions. Like paper or the act of writing.
Ricky D’Ambrose: All the paper documents in the movie are there because one of the characters is an archivist. He’s a graduate student who’s been tasked with assembling research for a biography on this guy Stephen Taubes. Just by the nature of that work, it would most likely be paper documents he’d be handling. Or he would have a file of newspaper clippings. I suppose he could find things online through a search engine. But in my experience of doing research, you go to libraries. After Susan Sontag died, I worked for her son on a book of letters. You print things. There’s a paper trail. It was less a decision dictated by a taste for analogue culture.
TF: But your other films also involve postcards and maps . . .
GS: I think Brigitta’s onto something. Because it’s not just in Notes on an Appearance.
TF: Maybe you’re interested in characters who necessitate those kinds of elements. In your short films, you have postcards being sent to communicate information, newspapers . . .
The reference to addresses . . .
RD: That’s true. The shorts were made very cheaply, and this feature was made very cheaply. There needs to be a way to communicate information in a very limited amount of time with a very limited number of locations over a very limited number of days. Having an audio recording of Stephen Taubes giving a lecture in front of a supportive audience, as you hear later in the film, is a way to solve the problem of “How do you present a character without having to show him in a bookstore?” Originally we thought we’d have a bookstore and fill it with extras and have an actor playing Taubes. The idea exhausted me. There were no resources. It became a way to economise. The maps of the subway stations solve the problem of “How do you convey a trip without bringing a handheld camera into a subway station?”
How do you not go to Milan?
RD: My apartment became the Milan apartment. And there’s a postcard that establishes that right from the beginning. Or the JFK terminal map. It’s mainly a way of putting through information. There is one shot of Milan from the back of a tram, but that’s meant to be from David’s point of view. As if he had a camera with him.
GS: That somehow connects him to Taubes.
Yes, to Taubes’s cryptic video footage, which David is asked to decipher and catalogue.
In this political, historical and cultural moment, there’s so much word-vomit coming from the current U.S. administration. Trump. Twitter. “Fake news”. Fake social media profiles dispersing incendiary information. This makes it all the more interesting to see two American films that are focused on process: the process of searching for someone or writing a biography in Notes on an Appearance and the process of following ideas throughout a text and actually having to debate and discuss them and double-check footnotes in Classical Period. It seems like some ability we’re losing in digital culture. In some ways, you’re both insisting on bringing it back. How does this relate to your own experiences with academia and intellectual pursuits?
RD: I come from a very middle-class American upbringing. People like Karin [Madeleine James] and Todd in Notes on an Appearance are not the types of people I hung around with growing up. They’re still not the types of people I hang around with. I identify with David in a way – the guy who disappears and whose disappearance is left without any consequence. Todd and Karin are people who could take for granted their erudition, their education. I always thought of these people as people whose parents were academics. They inherited their intellects. For me it’s more of a curiosity, something I’m very distanced from. Going to grad school was a year and a half of my life that I wish I hadn’t gone through. The distance between me and these academics is a big part of this movie. I don’t think I’d be able to present these characters this way if I were more connected to that environment.
What about your characters, Ted? They’re non-academics who are nonetheless passionate readers or amateur scholars.
TF: I like books and wanted to do something with people talking about books. And I also like the idea of people being interested in things not for career reasons. This relates to my own reading. And I happen to know people who share similar interests.
RD: In Ted’s film there’s this leisurely idea of picking up ideas through reading. Whereas the characters in Notes on an Appearance are reading for their dissertations or for their translation or archival work. Whatever leisure is in Notes on an Appearance is dedicated to money and sex, which are treated as very impersonal exchanges. Meeting someone at an art gallery. Picking someone up at a coffee shop. Going to a tailor or keeping track of how much you’ve spent.
Short Stay centres on a world of loosely connected figures who appear free of typical character psychologies, goals and development. In Classical Period, you push the narrative asceticism of your characters to a further extreme, Ted. Why is it important to you to strip away these traditional dramatic trappings?
TF: I always felt like I needed a thin narrative background structure to connect scenes. But then I felt like I wasn’t trusting enough in the basic, fundamental elements of film: that the projected image of a person was enough in the present tense to convey all that was necessary about that person and that any artifice of character background was only there because I didn’t have the courage to trust in people’s images. If I just want to film an apartment, the connective tissue that explains why a character’s going there has no justification. So I decided from the beginning not to include that stuff.
How did you come to build Classical Period around Calvin Engime, who is a minor, recurrent character in Short Stay and a courthouse clerk in real life?
TF: I thought about Calvin in connection with people talking about books because he’s an avid reader. That’s the basis of what we talk about when we’re hanging out. And that would allow the movie to go in another direction than my own limited reading or abilities at writing would allow.
So what comes from you, and what comes from your actors?
TF: Maybe I have an initial idea – wanting to film someone – but then their own interests define the form that the film takes on. The reason for Classical Period’s very long scenes is that I didn’t write most of what’s in the film. And I couldn’t have. There’s a layer of content that’s guided by me, but the less guided it is, the better. And maybe there are points in the movie that are too guided, and those are weak points. Then there’s a second layer, the formal layer of mise-en-scène, which is me, but the two layers aren’t necessarily connected. In the past they were a bit more connected. More of the content was coming from me and had some relationship to the form. This change also comes from reading poetry over the past year.
GS: You and Cal are both autodidacts. You’re the two people I know whose learning is so self-directed. It’s the opposite of the graduate school world. The idea that knowledge can just be pleasure rather than utility. It’s not a form of status. Despite Ted’s background in film school, I don’t think very much of his aesthetic came from NYU. He’s the antithesis of other filmmakers I knew who came out of that program.
All of you seem to position yourselves in opposition to contemporary U.S. narrative filmmaking – both aesthetically and in the radically independent financial ethos of your productions.
GS: I won’t speak for Ted and Ricky too much, but I certainly feel a real loathing for the way commercial capitalism dominates cinema and production in the U.S. We don’t really have any subsidies to speak of, and even those that exist feel geared towards something that’s ultimately going to become commercial, like Sundance Labs or IFP Labs. I feel like people are making these “calling card” films, so that they can get a job directing an HBO TV show or a superhero movie. And they’re regarded as serious filmmakers in the US.
RD: They all have a house style.
GS: We’re at a low ebb in the quality of American cinema, and I think it’s because people aren’t making very personal films. I think there’s a real strength in the poverty of production. You’re free in not having anybody that you’re responsible to. You’re not responsible to some funding body or some executive producer who expects a return on investment. It’s good to be able to make films as a poor person.
RD: Before Graham came on to Notes on an Appearance, I shared the script with a few other producers, some of whom came out of NYU’s film school. There was this model of filmmaking that they had become habituated to. And this was that we needed at least $500,000. They would interpret scene descriptions in the script in a way that revealed the NYU runaround. If it said, “Todd drives to the beach with his roommates”, they thought – without even discussing it with me – that we’d have to mount a camera on a car. There was no other way in their minds to depict going to the beach.
It indicates a way of making movies that still flabbergasts me – also that Ted came out of Tisch [School of the Arts]. I was an undergraduate in Cinema Studies at NYU and used to have a work-study job at the post-production centre. I would come across students who were very nice people but didn’t seem like they watched movies. They wanted lots of prizes. It was a very different approach to making movies that didn’t seem like a place of camaraderie. There’s a sense of entitlement – an assumption that they’ll get lots of money.
What you guys are making comes out of poverty, as Graham put it, but the ideas are so rich. I struggle with this, too, as a filmmaker in Germany. Everybody thinks, “Oh, you’re in Germany. You’re so lucky. State funding.” But the funding isn’t free. First, you have to apply for it. Then, if you get it, you suddenly have 50 people talking about your idea and trying to make changes. They’re not friends or people you specifically ask for this advice. They’re not necessarily people you trust. And then you see the kinds of films that come out of this process. Meanwhile, German filmmakers look to the work that independent – truly independent – U.S. filmmakers are doing and are in awe. You can’t make your work here. People obviously could, but they can’t.
GS: You could make it anywhere. That’s the beauty of it.
Exactly. But you also can’t. It’s a question of mentality.
GS: But the people from NYU also can’t. It’s a way of thinking about cinema. Matías Piñeiro is from Argentina, which is a very subsidised and culture-driven country. Most Argentine filmmakers apply for state funds, but Matías doesn’t. He just makes his $20,000 or $30,000 and spends it all on the movie. Somehow this trickles back in – or doesn’t. When you make films of that size, you make what you want to make. I think everybody making films in America looks at Europe and says, “Yeah, it would be nice to get a couple of grants.” But simultaneously you see how it shapes the national cinema. Because the things that are getting funded are what the government sees as culturally valuable exports. Governments and corporations have their own interests, and they’re expecting something in return. There’s no free lunch. So it’s better to keep it small, so you can do what you want.
How do you live while making these aesthetically free films?
RD: For the past four years I’ve been the assistant to the woman who edits The Nation magazine, which is a political magazine in New York. It’s a very undemanding job. I show up and do my work very well. From 9:30 am-5:30 pm, I’m at a desk. I’m not around people who are involved in the arts or film. I’m around people who are political editors and journalists. In a year or two, I don’t imagine that I will advance within the magazine. It’s not a career. It’s a day job like waiting tables – although I have very good health coverage unlike waiters in New York. What’s been nice about it is that there’s no expectation that I participate in the work culture there. I’m not obligated to attend meetings. I don’t have to think about my job after work. When I clock out, I’m done. In fact, my boss has introduced me to people as a filmmaker and is actually quite interested in what I do. So I’m fortunate in that sense. But I barely get by. It’s still very difficult – even with a regular paycheck. The money I earn from my job can never go towards my movies. I could barely put my own money into Notes on an Appearance. I didn’t have the luxury to segment some of my paycheck for it.
What about you, Graham?
GS: I work the sort of office job that does relate to cinema, even to production. I’ve been working in distribution for almost eight years. First I worked at Cinema Guild, a small, independent distributor, for about 4.5 years. I knew what distribution was, which is 90% of the battle. Most people who go through film schools don’t. Now I’m working at Kino Lorber, a mid-sized U.S. distributor, mostly on foreign and documentary films. I wish I worked 9:30 am to 5:30 pm and then didn’t have to think about my job anymore. I work from 10 am to 7 pm and then deal with e-mails until about 11 pm, five days a week.
How does this knowledge of the U.S. distribution landscape contribute to your work as a producer?
GS: I do theatrical booking, so I work with theatres around the country and try to convince them to show good films and then try to collect money on those good films. I think a lot of U.S. filmmakers, whether or not they go through film school, aren’t very familiar with the business and how it operates. It can help protect them to understand how a sale works or why somebody would be interested or uninterested in a product. I see this as a valuable thing for producing, but similar to Ricky, the job allows me to exist in the space I want to. It allows me to go to film festivals from time to time and meet more people. It also pays the rent.
Ted, you paid for your previous feature, Short Stay, out of your own pocket. Were you able to do that with Classical Period?
TF: I think more and more that there should be an aesthetic harmony between the amount of money a filmmaker has available and the kind of film that they make. If you only have $1000, then the film you make should ideally be something that can come out of that. There was a period of time when I was working at two different theatres in New York and making $20,000-$25,000 a year, and over a year and a half, I could make a movie that cost $6000-$8000. I’d have nothing in the bank at the end of the year, but I’d have a 6 to 8-minute film. When I then fortunately got a job where I was making $60,000-$70,000 a year, I could make a longer film. I was putting things on credit cards. This is why, in the next two years, I think I’ll make two short films. Because it will be less demanding on my bank account and mental health. If I have the opportunity to work extra hours, I take those extra hours. But then I go crazy just shuttling between my house and a projection booth and trying to do extra translation work on the side. Last year I won $3000 at a film festival. If I were to win a prize for Classical Period, it would only go to paying off the credit card debt.
Both of your films, Ted and Ricky, are fairly mannered – distanced from realism, though for very different reasons. You both seem drawn to a certain sparseness of character.
RD: I didn’t give my actors very much direction. Bingham Bryant, being a filmmaker, not an actor, was surprisingly very intuitive. Tallie Medel and Keith Poulson also had an easy job. If you read the script, there isn’t much dialogue. And the exchanges between the people are so simple and concise. It would take an actor with a certain type of training to turn these simple exchanges into very emotional and grand performances. They’re not those types of actors.
In terms of directing, it was “Walk to the door more quickly.” Or, “Can you say it slower?” When Tallie had to cry in the doorway towards the end of the film, I said, “Tallie, I need you to go into the other room and cry for a bit and then come out.” There was no discussion about why she’s crying, what is she feeling, what is she thinking of. There’s also a character in the Chappaqua sequence who’s being consoled. When I was trying to find an actress to play this part, I spoke to a fellow filmmaker who had cast a woman I thought would be good for that role. I said, “I need a character to cry.” And she said very flippantly, “Well, you shouldn’t just tell an actor to cry. It’s an organic process.” I don’t care about that stuff. What I’m seeing on the screen is what is most important for the film. I’m not making psycho-biographies or portraits of people.
Ted, how did you prepare Cal and the other characters in your film – all non-actors – for the kinds of non-psychologised performances you alluded to earlier?
In Short Stay Cal tells anecdotes about his life, and I asked him to do the same for Classical Period: either retelling things he had told before or giving his thoughts about Dante or other texts from antiquity. I was trying to create an environment on the set where people were comfortable to talk without putting anything between themselves and the camera – psychologically speaking. Anything that would prevent the camera from seeing them. This relates to why I like to work with people who have no history in acting and performance but also have as little to do with film as possible. I’m not interested in the hidden life of film people, but rather in people who live different lives. There’s a guy named Sam in Classical Period who’s a district attorney who also runs a book group and plays music with people on the weekends. It’s more about creating an environment through some loose rehearsals that are more about hanging out and getting everyone comfortable with each other.
Even in a documentary, subjects might be self-conscious in front of the camera, but your characters are real people who just speak. Part of our job in your long takes seems to be to witness them, to experience them in real time.
I was always bothered by films in which there was too much of an actor conveying the character through gesture and things that tell you about the character’s inner life. I felt there were elements of this in all of my other films, even if I was working with non-actors. Maybe through the film narration or things I was having them do, there was still too much focus on daily minutiae – the kind of thing that an earlier Mike Leigh would do. I will hopefully continue to get away from that. It’s difficult to put into words because I think it’s something I’m still in the process of figuring out through making films. What I like in Frederick Wiseman movies is that he’s filming a whole layer of content, but he’s adding a layer of decisions about how to structure the film, where to cut, that doesn’t relate to relaying dramatic information. He’s conveying people and places. And this I like: conveying people and places.
Place is important in both of your films. In Notes on an Appearance, it’s the playful sense of New York you convey through well chosen street views, close-ups, sound and graphical-geographical information, like the maps. Watching this, your viewers gain a graphic (and cartographic) familiarity with place. There’s a nostalgic sense of New York that comes through.
GS: Certainly through your father’s video footage.
RD: The World Trade Center towers. I have no real experience of or memory of New York before 1992, when I would go into New York with my parents. I’m not interested in New York in the 1970s or 1980s. Someone the other night at the Q&A thought that the maps were from the 1970s. They’re not. They’re from a road atlas that you can buy in Barnes & Noble. Maybe the colour scheme evokes the 1970s. The movie really could be shot in Chicago, in Los Angeles, maybe Philadelphia or Boston. But the characters in the movie don’t exist in other cities.
This movie was instinctual. I didn’t have to figure anything out. I didn’t want to make a movie that would require me to inhabit some other headspace or some other environment. If I were to do that, I wouldn’t have been able to make the film with the limited means I had. I wanted to be able to shoot in my own apartment. I wanted to be able to shoot in the apartments of the people I know. Todd’s apartment is a composite of three different apartments. Being able to get up and go to Graham’s apartment in 30-45 minutes and then to go home and be able to look at what I’d shot and have time to edit and make decisions between shoots was important. Being in New York allowed me to do that.
GS: If you know Ricky and know where he lives, you can see his footpath in the film. The restaurants we shot in, the cafés we shot in, the bookstore we shot in are the restaurants, cafés, and bookstore that Ricky goes to. They’re in a 5 to 10-block radius of his apartment. There’s something autobiographical that seeps into the film through those spaces.
RD: For about two years after graduating, before I had a fulltime job and was freelancing and had an awful lot of time to sit in coffee shops, my point of view was someone bringing coffee over to the table. I didn’t even look at other people but was overhearing a table of four going on about some party or art installation they were at the night before. That was the frame.
Classical Period is also very tied to place, particularly to Philadelphia. As in Short Stay, you seem interested in the history of place and include historical or touristic moments in your films – in this case, as a man is explaining the architecture of a Colonial house.
TF: That’s because the people in the film are interested in those things. There’s an architect in the film who used to give tours of the city for the tour company seen in Short Stay. I’m interested in the contrast between older and newer buildings particularly in Philadelphia, which has a lot of older buildings right next to newer things. But I couldn’t write any of that long talk about the house. If you walk around with that guy, that’s the kind of thing he’ll say to you. In my other films, it was the suburban landscape that generated some ideas. Actually, ten years ago, I bought a book – Where We Live – by different American photographers. This book might have been influential. Particularly the photos of Sheron Rupp, which are rural photos, but it’s the idea of casual, but very structured, photographs of people in their yards going about their everyday tasks.
I realise that we are all children of New Jersey or Long Island suburbs. I’ve always thought that bland betweenscape’s mix of proximity to and distance from some centralised “City” contributed to a wellspring of creativity.
RD: I was lucky because I grew up 45 minutes by car from Midtown Manhattan. My father grew up in Brooklyn and was very familiar with the city. It was a place I went to a lot. And I knew very early on that I was attracted to that place and wanted to go to school and live there. Some people come to New York for a few years and go off to someplace else. I don’t regret my choice. I had always associated New York with a life that was not available to me growing up in Nassau County. The first movie I ever saw in New York was at Film Forum. That was available to people. And there were other people like that all in one place.
I also remember (re)discovering Manhattan as a teenager through the geography of its cinemas. Certainly New York is a place for cinephiles to find each other and get to know varied and obscure work. But I also think it’s important for independently financed films like Classical Period and Notes on an Appearance to be seen beyond New York.
GS: We have to figure this out. Today there are online opportunities related to the boom of VHS – a time when you could make anything. Video stores needed content. That’s why there were all these weird horror films from the late 1980s – like who the hell was watching these things? You’d sell them to video stores. The independent film boom of the early 1990s was created by the desire of video stores to purchase content. This created a way to make a film for $100,000-$150,000 – an extremely low budget, which, to us would be a luxurious budget. In a similar way now, VOD is hungry for content.
The big thing that I’ve seen in American independent cinema is that there’s no sustainability. It’s one thing if you make a film for $40,000 and put it on credit cards and pay it off. A lot of people make a film for $200,000 and put it on credit cards. That’s not sustainable. You’re not going to be able to make another film. You’ll be saddled with this debt for a long time. And the hope is, “Oh, my film will boom.” I don’t have any illusions, and I don’t think Ricky and Ted have any illusions that capitalist society is hungry to give us money for these things. So you have to be opportunistic about finding ways to put yourself in the black and make another film. In distribution, it’s very hard with foreign or small, independent films. Maybe you can open in and do well in New York, but it’s very hard to move into the suburbs or even into other cities. For them, Lady Bird and Moonlight are art movies – movies that to me are corporate, commercial films.
RD: Sundance movies.
But isn’t the challenge of sustainability twofold? Not just to make enough money back in order to invest in another film, but also to cultivate an audience? Today you can put your content out there, but there’s no assurance that people are going to watch, think about and discuss a film. The sustainability of independent films isn’t just financial, but cultural.
RD: I can only speak for Notes on an Appearance, whose life will really come through film festivals. Ideally there’d be a small theatrical run in New York for a week or two and maybe some other big city, but beyond that? We’ve spoken about having a 50-state strategy, but as Graham was saying about having no illusions . . .
GS: With Classical Period Ted and I both feel strongly that the film should be seen on 16mm. The print is the film. I think Ted would prefer that people didn’t even know that a DCP exists. Certain countries and festivals don’t have the ability to show 16mm. It’s the same with many venues in the U.S. The hope is that maybe we can recreate some of the cine-club circuit that existed in the 1960s and 1970s: to play at universities, to play at microcinemas, to find pockets around the U.S.
I lived in the Midwest during the rise of the Netflix DVD era, and people were really eager to avoid multiplexes and gain more varied access to aesthetic experiences. At the time, I was having conversations with distributors, who were insisting on the tried and true progression from a week in New York to maybe L.A. and then maybe on to Chicago. But this model excludes most states in the country, despite the fact that every state has its thriving independent film and arts communities: e.g., Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri. How can this level of independent filmmaking create new circuits?
TF: I’ve got a list! I put a list together.
GS: The theatrical model that exists is antiquated. The way the commercial cinemas think is that they want to see the New York grosses.
TF: Which is so dumb. As a person who works in a theatre, I see that there’s no reason to show an arthouse movie of limited interest 5 or 6 times a day in New York. People only come to two screening times – both in the evening when they’re not at work.
GS: It used to be that you needed a full run, so that The New York Times was obligated to review you. There were all these microcinemas that would appear and disappear in Brooklyn at various points. “Four walls”. It was all these people paying $10,000 to get their films run. When you’re a commercial distributor trying to make money for the company, the struggle is that cinema clubs can only afford to pay $150 or $250 for a film. Even if you play 50 cinemas, this is not very much money for a company of 20 people. You can’t pay salaries. But if you can be smaller, you can be more nimble. If you control it yourself, you need less. You’ve got less overhead. The festival circuit is really important. But you do need a 50-state and multiple-country strategy. You can build a circuit. Classical Period has Short Stay’s shoulders to stand on. And Ricky’s shorts help guide the festivals interested in Notes on an Appearance. That’s something you have to build over time.
TF: Maybe we shouldn’t rely on cinemas anymore. Because then you’re limited to the kind of arthouse audience you find in Los Angeles or Chicago. But if you show a film in a different space, maybe it has its own audience – not a typical repertory audience. We should distribute Classical Period the way a punk band goes on tour. I’m happy to show the movie in somebody’s house if they can bring the audience that normally comes to their house to watch bands. Maybe it would be a weird combination for that movie and those people, but I’m happier with that than with a normal combination.
RD: The American filmmaker Andrew Bujalski did something like this with his first movie Funny Ha Ha. Someone I know first saw that film in a coffee shop that had projection equipment. Bujalski toured the film. And there was also a past model that filmmakers coopted in New York where there was a catalogue. You’d have Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, or Ron Rice. Their films were bundled and toured.
GS: Canyon Cinema in San Francisco did something very similar. That model has been chipped away at. The independent cinemas were chipped away at by the multiplexes. Now they’re being chipped away at by VOD, but the communal element is a really important element driving people to want to do things. Audiences are a lot smarter than people give them credit for. If you can get people to see the movie, they respond. Like you were saying, people are hungry and smart and interested in seeing things, but they’re force-fed a certain type of culture. So they’re not always used to searching for things. The challenge is to give people the opportunity to see a film. Whether they come or not is a different question.
RD: But without believing that there is a very, very, very general audience for these types of movies. My family wouldn’t be interested in my movies. And if my movies are inaccessible to them, then they’re most likely inaccessible to many other types of people who live in places like they do. But there are pockets or groups of people in every part of the United States.
GS: In the U.S. we have so little support for basic communal infrastructure. All these places are fighting the same fight. The people running microcinemas in Akron or anywhere else are battling a lot of financial pressure from entities that simply don’t care if they exist. You have to pay your rent and your electric bill. But we all think the films should be shown, not just available.
RD: The films need to be cared for.
RD: That’s why I want to attend every screening of Notes on an Appearance. Some filmmakers don’t. I put so much work into it. And it’s here. Why not share it?