Over the course of nearly two decades, Alexandre O. Philippe has celebrated and explored the iconic figures of the seventh art, from Lucas and Ford to Hitchcock and Lynch. His unique approach not only reveals new insights into their work, it also invites viewers to experience cinema in a new and profound way, inspiring them to become passionate cinephiles in their own right. Philippe’s documentaries also examine and critique cultural trends through film, exploring the intersections between cinema, culture, and history.

The notion and concept of producing a film that intricately explores the world of filmmaking, commonly referred to as “A Film about a Film,” has long captivated the attention of directors. Through a fusion of nostalgia, reverence, and innovation, these films afford directors a platform to express their reverence for the medium that has played a profound role in shaping their lives and share their passion with audiences around the globe. Whether they expound on the subtleties of storytelling, the complexities of visual effects, the latest trends and techniques of the industry, or the narrative influences that informed the production of a film, a film about a film/a director is a gateway to the very essence of creativity. Ultimately, these films exalt the everlasting power of cinema to inspire, incite, and captivate, fostering a shared admiration for the art of storytelling.

In recent times, the creation of documentaries of this nature has witnessed an upsurge. The triumph of notable productions, namely 78/52 (Alexandre O. Philippe, 2017), Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012), They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Morgan Neville, 2018), The Real Charlie Chaplin (Peter Middleton, James Spinney, 2021), Fellinopolis (Silvia Giulietti, 2020), The Great Buster – A Celebration (Peter Bogdanovich, 2018), Douglas Sirk – Hope As In Despair (Roman Hüben, 2022), and Fragments of Paradise (K.D. Davison, 2022), bears testament to the enduring impact of the most illustrious auteurs in cinema history, including the likes of Hitchcock, Kubrick, Wells, Chaplin, Fellini, Keaton, Sirk, and Mekas. These cinematic works provide fresh interpretations and unique perspectives and have inspired a new generation of filmmakers, alongside some pioneers such as Bogdanovich, to delve into this burgeoning genre.

Philippe is a filmmaker of the new generation who has earned a well-deserved reputation as a leading documentarian for his pioneering work in exploring the art of cinema itself. As a true cinephile, Philippe embodies the very essence of the term – an ardent devotee of the medium, nourished by it, and driven to capture his passion in images.

In The People vs. George Lucas, Philippe examined the cultural impact of the Star Wars franchise, and the controversy surrounding Lucas’ changes to the original trilogy. The film offered a fascinating insight into the ways in which fans engage with and interact with popular culture, and how this engagement can shape the way in which we understand and interpret cultural artifacts.

Similarly, 78/52 explored the cultural significance of the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), offering an in-depth analysis of the scene, examining its use of cinematography, editing, and sound to create a sense of tension and fear. Through its exploration of the shower scene, the film offered insights into the ways in which cinema can manipulate and shape our emotions and perceptions.

Memory: The Origins of Alien (2019) and Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist (2019) are two engrossing documentary films that provide deep insights into the creative process behind the making of two of the most iconic horror movies in the history of cinema. The former takes a meticulous look at the origin of Ridley Scott’s masterpiece Alien (1979) and how the cultural and historical background of the time had a substantial impact on the film’s production, while also examining the intricate themes and ideas that formed the foundation of the movie. The documentary presents a fascinating exploration of how Alien was a product of its time, a reflection of broader cultural and societal trends, and how it was skilfully crafted to both appeal to and subvert those trends.

Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist

On the other hand, Leap of Faith: William Friedkin on The Exorcist presents an insightful perspective into the vision and work of director William Friedkin, who helmed the 1973 horror classic The Exorcist. Through an engaging interview with Friedkin, the documentary explores the creative process behind the movie and provides a rare glimpse into the director’s unique approach to his craft. Additionally, the documentary unpacks the complex themes and ideas that underlie the film, including the nature of good and evil, the place of religion in modern society, and the nature of faith itself. Both documentaries serve as a testament to the power of cinema as a medium of artistic expression and exploration of complex ideas.

As a seasoned filmmaker and cinephile, Philippe has consistently exhibited a keen interest in the horror and thriller genres, which have served as prominent subjects of his films. However, in his more recent works, which take on the form of film essays, Philippe reveals a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the unconventional and surreal world of David Lynch, as well as the Western genre. The Taking (2021) is a thought-provoking documentary that explores the significance of Monument Valley in the Western genre, while simultaneously offering a critical re-evaluation of its problematic representation of Native Americans. 

Philippe’s Lynch/Oz (2022) presents a fascinating inquiry into the relationship between David Lynch’s oeuvre and The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939). With a deftly curated selection of interviews featuring renowned cinephiles and directors such as Amy Nicholson, Rodney Ascher, John Waters, Karyn Kusama, Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, and David Lowery, Philippe meticulously showcases the manifold ways in which Lynch’s films have been influenced by the iconic movie. In six meticulously crafted chapters, each bearing names such as Wind, Membranes, Kindred, Multitudes, Judy, and Dig, the film artfully elucidates the interconnectedness of artistic creation and underscores how artists draw from the works of others to enrich and transform their own creative visions. The Wizard of Oz here serves not as a mere pretext, but as a catalyst, a vital key that unlocks a veritable trove of insights into the myriad themes and motifs that pervade Lynch’s films, offering a profound meditation on American culture and its dreamlike, nightmarish dichotomy.

At the opening scene of The Taking, Philippe sagaciously invokes John Ford’s maxim, “When in doubt, make a Western.” a statement that carries a particular resonance in Philippe’s own cinematic philosophy. He interprets Ford’s dictum as a call to action to “make films when in love,” underscoring his ardent passion for the art of filmmaking. O. Philippe’s approach is characterised by his ingenious and collaborative spirit, working closely with his editors and composers, who play a pivotal role in bringing his cinematic visions to fruition. He employs a plethora of techniques, including re-enactments, expert interviews, and expertly selected moments from the films themselves, to create immersive and indelible cinematic experiences. With the recent release of Lynch/Oz at prestigious film festivals like the London Film Festival, I seized the opportunity to engage in an extensive dialogue with Philippe regarding his artistic inclinations and the methodology he employs when working with his subjects. These conversations provide captivating insights into Philippe’s creative process and his ability to craft profoundly moving and intellectually stimulating films that resonate with audiences on a global scale. 

– H.S

Your movies clearly demonstrate a profound love and infatuation towards the cinema. I am really curious to know where your passion for movies comes from.

I feel that I’m doing now as an adult what I was doing as a kid. I was raised on Hitchcock movies, I was raised on horror films and, even at a very young age, I would watch the movies that I loved over and over again and try and understand them at a deeper level. Of course, when you’re a kid, you view films differently; but it’s obvious to me that my love for dissecting movies has followed me into my adult life. 78/52 was a big turning point for me because Hitchcock in particular was a filmmaker that I had thought about and admired ever since I was a child and I really wanted to make a cinematic tribute to the shower scene. And I’m happy that I did because, in a way, 78/52 paved the way for my other films like Memory and Leap of Faith which I think go deeper into cinephilia than, say, The People vs. George Lucas and Doc of the Dead which are more about pop culture. But in all my films, I try to focus on those moments in cinema that not only became part of our pop culture but which also went on to shape and define that culture and I think those moments are worth a closer look.

It seems to me that you must really like horror films because if I’m not mistaken, you’ve probably made about four or five movies about the genre. So what is this infatuation you appear to have with horror films? 

I think horror is one of the more significant movie genres we have because it deals with that most basic of human emotions, fear, and fear is one of the best tools with which we can better understand ourselves. Fear dictates what we can and can’t do, what we will and won’t do, and if you understand that about yourself, you can gain a certain degree of self-knowledge which I think can help us strive to do better as human beings. Unfortunately, it is also a genre that has been much maligned in the past but thankfully the tide is turning and it is starting to get more recognition now. The Exorcist is an extraordinary example of a horror film, but I like to think of it as a profoundly spiritual film and a moving one too. It’s a film about guilt, a film about love, a film about motherhood. It’s a film about so many profoundly human themes. I waited years to watch it because I remember my mum telling me stories of how she couldn’t sleep for weeks after watching the film with my dad, and it is indeed a very difficult movie to watch. So after waiting so long to see it for the first time and many more times subsequently, I can say that it’s one of those films where the more you watch it, the greater it gets.

I’d like to ask you for your definition of cinephilia, which is often understood as the knowledge, the passion and love that you and others like you have for the cinema. What does that word mean to you?

It’s simple. To me, it’s love, that’s all. It’s a deep passion for the medium which, as we all know, encompasses all the arts: it’s visual art, it’s music, it’s design, it’s architecture, it’s light. You can watch a Guy Maddin film and a Marvel movie and a silent film by Abel Gance – these are all films, but they’re as different from one another as a pineapple is to a boat! What constitutes a movie is ultimately a very personal mode of expression by the filmmaker that gets translated into film, and the beauty of that process is that we as the audience get a chance to briefly glimpse into the filmmakers’ minds as they let us enter their world. The shared experience of watching a film is pretty much the same for all of us when we walk into a darkened theatre, the lights go down, the projector comes on and the sound comes up. But we each come out of the theatre with a different take on what we’ve just watched. I’ve still not seen the horror film Skinamarink (Kyle Edward Ball, 2022) that people are talking about. But from what I’m hearing it’s a singular experience and, chances are, people are going to come out of the theatre feeling unsettled yet excited that they’ve just watched something new and different. And that was exactly the same feeling I had after watching The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999) for the first time. 


How would you describe your own cinephilic drive and the way it developed and informed your own filmmaking practice?

I was raised watching movies and I was raised loving movies and watching them repeatedly and having this kind of built-in desire to watch movies over and over again. So, it’s not something that I’ve really questioned or something that I’ve ever thought too hard about. I know that I look at movies through a different lens. I know that I have a keen eye for detail, I look for it, and I love to share those details with others. I’m also very curious about the way people see things, especially when they happen to see those things in a different way from me. And those elements put together amounts to me having a career as a filmmaker, someone who makes films about films, and films about cinephilia. So, I don’t think I have any hard answers except to say this is who I am. 

When it comes to making movies, do you view it as a means to fulfill an innate love of filmmaking, or is it just a more matter-of-fact, calculated approach to explore your subject matter? Which approach dominates your decision making?

Actually, it’s a bit of both. Obviously, I couldn’t do what I do without having a profound love for the films that I spend years dissecting. The movies that I make are not behind-the-scenes documentaries – they are not anecdotal ‘movies about movies’. What I try and do is to provide a new way to look at those films by carefully examining the craft of the filmmakers, and to build a sort of bridge between them and the public.

When you set out to make a film, do you have the specifics or the details of what you are trying to do outlined beforehand, or does the idea start to take form when you get into it and start interviewing people?

No, I think you generally have to start with a structure or a premise but, this being documentary filmmaking, you make discoveries along the way and often the structure changes. In fact, sometimes the entire narrative of the film changes and this is what happened with Memory. Initially, I wanted Memory to be a film about the ‘chestburster’. Instead, I realised that in order to understand the chestburster, you first have to understand why Alien is such a mythologically resonant movie. Therefore, the chestburster had to be the climax of the film and not the focus because if I had made the chestburster the focus of the film I would have ended up with a 90 minute behind the scenes documentary which, as I said earlier, is not the kind of film that I wanted to make. So yes, in a way, it’s a mixture of both – you have to have a point of view and a structure to begin with, but you also have to be open to the possibility that this might change which might then lead to a better story being told. And that’s the challenge but also the fun of making documentary films.

Your films are mostly about movies or their directors or some specific element of their movies. But who do you consider to be your target audience? Do you think your films communicate well with the ordinary public, or are they just intended for other cinephiles such as yourself? In other words, do people need to have some basic elementary knowledge of movies and the cinema before they can understand your films?

No, not at all. I’m not a film scholar. The films that I make are made very consciously for both the hardcore cinephiles, and also for the complete neophytes, the people who may never have watched any of the films that I make movies about because the films that I make are not scholarly works. I didn’t attend any film studies program, although I did crash a bunch of cinema studies classes when I was at NYU, but my films are not academic. They’re meant to be entertaining, enjoyed on a big screen as part of a communal experience. I’ve always viewed my films as a bridge between the general public and cinema studies which the general public find a little bit terrifying. I would rather convey my passion for analysing films in an entertaining and cinematic way so that people can watch my films and say “wow, that was fun.”  Take 78/52, for example. Before the screening, I’d sometimes ask the audience in the theatre if there was anybody there who’d never watched Psycho before, and there’d usually be a couple of shy hands that would go up. And then I’d ask if they’d heard about the shower scene and the music associated with that scene, and most of them would say ‘yes’. So these were people who were there to watch a film about a scene from a movie that they’d never seen before, that was made some 60 years ago. I find that remarkable. If that’s not a testament to the power of cinema, quite frankly, I don’t know what is. I think that tells you everything you need to know about the power of movies and their ability to enter the collective consciousness, to enter the pop culture in a very powerful way, and I’m not talking just American culture. That’s what really fascinates me and that’s why I make the movies I make.


You say that you’d sometimes ask questions of your audience before they start watching your film to gauge their level of knowledge about the film they’re about to watch. But I wonder if you’ve ever questioned them afterwards to see if your film has influenced them in any way or changed their perspective about the director, the particular subject you were focusing on, or just their interest in cinema in general? 

What I usually hear back is that my films often make people want to go and watch the movies that my films are about. And cinephiles who’ve seen the films multiple times and have thought about those films, they also go back to re-watch and rediscover those films all over again but now through a new lens. There’s probably a million ways to make a film about Psycho or The Exorcist but it’s all about finding a new angle or a unique perspective to make it interesting for the audience. For instance, the beauty of a film like Lynch/Oz is the fact that it completely focuses on the mysterious connections that exist between the works of David Lynch, his entire body of work, and The Wizard of Oz and how they inform each other. I’ve said many times that my films are not about solving problems, they’re about opening more doors on to more mysteries. There’s nothing to solve about the creative process – great art will always be mysterious. It would be a wasted exercise to simply say that Lynch/Oz finally solves the David Lynch riddle – there’s nothing to solve because he’s the quintessential American surrealist. To go back to your earlier question, I think cinephilia is about being a lifelong student of film, and the more you explore and study it, the more you realise that you really don’t know anything, and that sort of reflects what life is all about, really.

Yes, I agree in that your films often feel like an exploration from an audience point of view. You take us through a door where we start looking at a particular element of a film which suddenly turns into a key that opens up a bunch more doors and windows. Whether it’s the shower scene in Psycho, or the chestburster in Memory or Monument valley in The Taking etc, the journey usually ends somewhere completely different, having explored so many themes and topics along the way, and we leave the cinema somewhat overwhelmed with details and information. Is this something that you plan from the beginning, or is it a creative process that emerges during filming or the editing? 

No, it’s important to always start with a focus on a detail. You can’t just say I want to make a general film about Hitchcock, Lynch, Scott, etc. You need to think about why the shower scene worked for Hitchcock but not for Gus Van Sant. And when you start to focus on that scene, which is the heart of the film, you can then view Psycho through a more focused lens, then Hitchcock’s filmography, and then, hopefully, you start to think more about cinema and why the shower scene had such a massive cultural impact in 1960. For Memory, it boiled down to this obscure small story of Ridley Scott showing HR Giger the triptych by Francis Bacon of The Three Studies for Figures at the Base of the Crucifixion which completely changed the art world, and how it ultimately found its way into the design of the chestburster itself. And then the realisation that those creatures were subconsciously a representation of the Furies from Greek mythology, and that they kept appearing over and over again in Francis Bacon’s work. So that started me thinking, could there be a connection, not a conscious connection, but a connection nonetheless, between the Furies and the Xenomorph in Alien, and if so, why and what does that mean? 

So that one little detail was the spark for my film, Memory. You could of course make a film about Alien in so many other ways but, to me, it is about finding a piece of relevant detail and what can you extrapolate from that detail that will lead you to a larger narrative, not the other way around. Similarly with Lynch/Oz where, yes, the film is a lot about Lynch and is a lot about Oz but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a film about the mysteries of influence and inspiration on the creative process. That’s why I end the film with a long montage where we see a series of recurring visual motifs in films by Jane Campion, Wong Kar-wai, Kiarostami, Antonioni, Hitchcock, and so on. The conclusion which emerges from Lynch/Oz is the idea that if you are a filmmaker or an artist, there’s a handful of events – be it a movie or an experience or something that happened to you in childhood – which will have had such a huge impact on you that, whether you’re conscious of it or not or whether you want it or not, those things will somehow find their way back into your work again and again. Fellini very famously once said “I always direct the same film, I cannot distinguish one from the other”, and I think that’s true for all artists who are in a way trapped by something. Which is what David Lowery was eluding to in Lynch/Oz when he says that the deeper you go and the more you dig, the more you realise those things are a part of you and part of your DNA.

Okay, so I need to ask which came to you first, Lynch or Oz? I ask because the creative connections between them which you highlight are actually there to be discovered by anyone who is prepared to put in the time and effort to watch Lynch’s works as many times as you have. What your film does is painstakingly show us all those connections between Lynch and The Wizard of Oz which were hiding in plain sight. So which came first for you?

For me it was Lynch. I was raised in Switzerland and I have no recollection of ever seeing The Wizard of Oz broadcast on any French channel during my childhood. My mum lives in France and every time I’ve been back there, I still haven’t seen it broadcast because it’s not a quintessential movie there. But I was raised on Lynch and I have been passionate about his work ever since I was first exposed to his films, and my first theatrical Lynch experience was Lost Highway. I walked into the cinema as a fan and walked out as a mega fan. Wild at Heart was another popular talked-about film when I was young but I think I’ve probably watched Mulholland Drive more than 70 times, and together with Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) and Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), those are the films that I have watched the most often. And of course since I’ve started working on Psycho and The Exorcist, I’ve been watching those films constantly. But then I discovered The Wizard of Oz which is just an extraordinary film, and I instantly fell in love with it, studied it and even taught some classes on it. It wasn’t until several years later that I started to connect the dots, and realised that the connections between Lynch and Oz had been floating around in popular culture. So deciding to make a film about it was an act of faith because I wasn’t sure if there would be enough material for a feature but we said let’s see how deep we can go and we committed to it. But I’m glad that we did because the moment we jumped in, suddenly all these other doors and windows started opening up to us and there was way more than we thought we’d ever find.

The Taking Poster

For Lynch/Oz, as well as your previous movies generally, are you the one who tries to form certain connections in the minds of your interviewees, for instance between Lynch and The Wizard of Oz, or do you just ask your questions and let them take you wherever they want to go? For example, in The Taking, everything is put up for discussion, Monument Valley itself, the Western genre, John Ford, Anthony Mann, the Indigenous people and how they were treated in western movies etc. So do you try to gently coax your subjects in the direction you’d like them to go, or do you let them speak freely to see where it goes, and then later structure your film around their words?

It’s a little bit of both really. As I said earlier, I always have a pretty clear idea of what I want to make and what the film fundamentally is going to be about. But sometimes you have to tap into the energy of the people that you’re interviewing and try to figure out where they want to take you. They’re fully aware that the film that I want to make is about the connections between the works of David Lynch and The Wizard of Oz, so obviously all my questions are going to be focused on that. But when you start going down a particular rabbit hole, then you have to follow where they want to take you. When Rodney Ascher starts talking about The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962) or Back to the Future (Robert Zemeckis, 1985), those are the wonderful moments that are completely unexpected and you just have to go along with it, and that is fundamentally why I do what I do. I love picking the brains of my fellow film lovers, film thinkers, these great cinephiles. It’s an extraordinary privilege and joy for me to be able to spend time with people that I have so much respect for, who think about movies in such wonderful ways. Every time I interview them, I know that I’m going to look at movies differently. I could spend the rest of my life interviewing great filmmakers and great film thinkers just about the Psycho shower scene, and know that every single time I would get a completely different and unique perspective. And then putting those views together into a coherent whole afterwards and build my thesis with the material they’ve given me is pure joy and what my work is about.

I noticed that for The People vs. George Lucas, you interviewed a huge number of fans. How long did it take you to find all those people.

It took us four years to make The People vs. George Lucas and we conducted 126 interviews, not counting the 600 hours of interview footage that the fans themselves submitted. To capture as many opinions and views as possible, you have to cast a wide net. Interviewing famous people can be rewarding but it can also sometimes be detrimental to the making of a film that tries to get to the heart of those movies. Sometimes fans can have a lot more to say than the cast and crew of that film. Some of the best interviews that I ever conducted were with people who weren’t necessarily the most obvious picks. And that’s why in every film I make, you see some pretty surprising faces. For instance, people often ask me why Elijah Wood was featured in 78/52. Well, that’s because he not only has a production company called SpectreVision that focuses on horror films, but he’s also a fan, just like Daniel Noah and Josh Waller, which is why I think the three-and-a-half-hour interview I did with them was one of the best I’ve ever had. What matters is that I have a very clear idea of the story that I want to tell and I think that is what dictates who I’m going to reach out to, and who I’m not.

And if I remember correctly, you applied a similar fan-based approach to the Doc of the Dead. But I’d like to know more about the criteria you apply when it comes to choosing the guests for your interviews in general but more specifically with 78/52 and Memory.

Well, they are both very different. 78/52 is a film that sets out to dissect the shower scene and, in doing so, establishes its position as probably one of the most ground-breaking moments in the history of cinema. So we had to have a balance of cultural experts and filmmakers but to have those filmmakers from different generations. I wanted to make sure that we not only had opinions from legends like Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich and Guillermo del Toro but also younger filmmakers like Eli Roth and Elijah Wood who I mentioned earlier. I wanted to make the argument that even after 60 years, the shower scene in Psycho remains as influential on today’s filmmakers as it was when it was released. It was also essential to interview and feature a number of women, because I don’t think you can make a film about Hitchcock or Psycho without having a strong female presence. Memory is a different film as it’s a mythological take on Ridley Scott’s Alien, so we had to find people who could express really big ideas in a way that the general public could grasp. It’s an origin story that goes way back to Greek and Egyptian mythologies. It’s fundamentally a film about Dan O’Bannon, and his widow Diane carries the emotional weight of the film. So when you ask which criteria I apply, I’d say it is the story that I’m trying to tell that pretty much dictates who I’m going to interview.

I imagine that for an independent filmmaker, finding people to agree to be interviewed could perhaps be a bit challenging. But would I be right in saying that following the success of The People vs George Lucas, guests became less hesitant and more willing to appear in your films? And that the further popularity of 78/52 marked another turning point in your career which opened the door to later opportunities which made making Memory a little easier?

In a way, yes and no! The films that we make at Exhibit A Pictures have a reputation. They’ve been very well received and people know what we do and I’m very proud of that. But any time you’re dealing with Hollywood, you’re dealing with extremely busy people, with crazy schedules, sometimes you have to deal with egos, and I don’t know if that ever gets any easier – it’s always a struggle. Thankfully, we have a great team and we have the right credentials to approach people which obviously helps. In fact, in Leap of Faith, I didn’t have to approach William Friedkin at all, he invited me to his table at the Sitges Film Festival, and the rest is history. So yes, in many ways it is easier now but it’s also a constant struggle and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

You said that it was William Friedkin who approached you to discuss making Leap of Faith. Could you expand on that and tell us how it all came about and what was the genesis of that discussion?

The way it happened was very serendipitous. I was in Spain for the Sitges film festival and we both happened to be at the same restaurant on the same day having lunch but were sitting a few tables apart. He was there having a meeting with the festival’s director and I guess they must have been talking about me because at some point he invited me over to his table and he started telling me stories about Hitchcock. He said he’d heard a lot about 78/52 but hadn’t seen it and asked me to send him a link – which I did immediately – and he watched it later that same day. He must have really liked it because, three weeks later, he invited me to have lunch with him in LA, and the conversation soon turned to The Exorcist. He didn’t explicitly say that he wanted me to make a film about The Exorcist but he did let it slip that if I were interested, he would not only give me full access to his collection but that I’d also have carte blanche to make the film any way I wanted to, without any interference. I don’t know what he must have been thinking or sensing at the time, but I think he must have instinctively felt that I would do right by him. And I’m grateful that he trusted me because he later sent me a gracious email saying how much he loved and enjoyed watching the film, which means the world to me. Looking back on it now, it almost feels like the whole episode was fated and, funnily enough as you know, fate is one of the main themes of Leap of Faith. But making the film was itself an act of faith.


We don’t see Ridley Scott or Sigourney Weaver in Memory. Was that a deliberate decision on your part, or was it something else? 

No, of course we reached out several times but I honestly don’t know why they chose not to join us. My hunch is Ridley was just too busy but I’ve heard since then that he’s watched the film and liked it and that we have his blessing which makes me happy. I’m not really sure about Sigourney. I know she considered it at one point but maybe she didn’t want to be a part of it, or maybe the schedule didn’t work for her but either way, I wasn’t as concerned about that as I was about finding the right mythologist to get onboard. I’m not saying they are not important figures, of course they are, and they obviously feature quite heavily in the film but I don’t think it was absolutely necessary to have them physically present for interviews for me to be able to tell the story that I wanted to tell. O’Bannon and Giger are no longer with us so, when I think about it, given Ridley’s immense stature, I think his appearance would have radically changed the film’s complexion and balance. Because the film focuses so much on the symbiosis between O’Bannon, Giger and Scott, in retrospect, I think his archival presence carries almost the same weight as Giger’s and O’Bannon’s presence in the film which was perhaps the best outcome in the end.

I think we see you interview six people in Lynch/Oz but how many did you actually reach out to for interviews because, if I remember from one of your Q&A sessions in London, you mentioned that you had gathered enough material from so many interesting people to fill a bonus DVD or Blu-Ray.  So how many people were on your list initially before settling on the ones we see in the final film?

I decided to dedicate one chapter to each person in the film. I couldn’t ask 15 people for an interview because if they’d all said yes, we’d end up with a five- hour film. So I started with Amy Nicholson because she had done a great podcast episode on The Wizard of Oz. She had such a clear way of expressing her thinking about the film that I thought she would anchor the film and provide a foundation in the history and significance of The Wizard of Oz. After that, I just went by intuition. John Waters was important because of his relationship with Oz, and Rodney Ascher seemed an obvious choice to me for many reasons, but mainly because he has a way of tapping into the real darkness of Lynch and Oz and he fully delivered on that. We did approach Jordan Peele as I thought it would have been really interesting to talk to him about doppelgängers but we didn’t get a response. Guy Maddin first said yes but then unfortunately pulled out. I really like Guy but he had a lot going on in his life and it just wasn’t the right time for him to be interviewed. Sometimes people just don’t want to do it, and sometimes they’re busy working so the timing just doesn’t work, and these are factors that are beyond your control. Still, the contribution from those who did join us weaved together naturally and beautifully and we had our six chapters.

It seems to me that by the time you got to your Hitchcock film, you’d adopted a somewhat different style and even a different grammar for your movies. Compared to The People vs. George Lucas which felt a lot more off the cuff and spontaneous, 78/52 looked more staged with your subjects sitting on a couch in what looks like a set in a hotel room, and in Memory, you shot your subjects in a dimly lit room, indicating that you were now utilising a camera and lighting crew on both sets. You had also invited more experts on to your set like Walter Murch and even Janet Leigh’s daughter, Jamie Leigh Curtis. Was this a deliberate change of strategy?

Yes, absolutely. First of all, I should mention that we didn’t film the 78/52 interviews in a motel room. Everything was shot green screen and we inserted the hotel room background later, so it’s all an illusion. But yes, you’re right. Even before we started shooting, I wanted The People vs. George Lucas to be a participatory documentary. I knew I couldn’t have a unified style in the film because I wanted fans from around the world to send us their footage and be able to participate in the film, so I had to let go of the idea of a format and even a style. In a way, the style of The People vs. George Lucas had to be eclectic and from a diverse collective in order to reflect the voices of the ‘People’ who are in the title of the film. Style has always been important to me so it bothered me a bit when I had to make that decision with The People vs. George Lucas but I knew that the film had to be anti-stylistic and, in a sense, that is its style, so I’m fine with it. But what we’re doing in 78/52, Memory, and Leap of Faith is much more in keeping with my sense of style and feels more pleasing to my eyes. They are also much more obsessive in the details: 78/52 is a 90-minute film about a two-minute scene so it’s as detailed as it gets.

The change in style between The People vs George Lucas where you include so many vox pop-style interviews, and Leap of Faith where we see mostly one person, Friedkin, narrating the story in a staged setting, is quite stark.  What was the thinking behind this decision?

Well, it was my intuition. I didn’t want to make a behind the scenes film, I didn’t want to do a ‘making of a film’. I was overwhelmingly interested in Friedkin’s process as a filmmaker. So, in order to dig deep into his methods as a filmmaker, as an artist and a thinker, and examine the film entirely from his perspective, I felt that a more in depth, one-on-one approach was best suited to this film.

Friedkin is clearly a very good storyteller. He has a very clear mind and he can convey information in an interesting manner. Was that another reason why you decided to take that particular approach to filming him? 

Oh, for sure. Anytime you set out to do this type of very personal and intimate one-on-one interviews over an extended period, ultimately what you get is a portrait of the filmmaker and a portrait of the person. And I think what comes across in Leap of Faith is that we start to see a more personal side of William Friedkin that I don’t think we’ve seen before. I think there’s a great deal of mythology that tends to build up over time around great filmmakers and artists, and there’s certainly a lot of that around Friedkin. It’s a kind of earned mythology that happens when you’ve become such an influential filmmaker. I hate to use the cliché ‘iconic’ but, to some extent, many people do view Friedkin as an icon. And that stature can equally be applied to legendary greats such as Hitchcock, John Ford and many others. But to me, the real joy of making a film like this is getting to know the person, and William Friedkin as a person is an extremely warm, profound and moving person, and I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to get to know him on this level.

How many sessions did it take to you shoot the whole interview, and how long was each session?

It took us six days to shoot. We would start around ten in the morning and go right up to four or five in the afternoon with a short break for lunch.

The People vs George Lucas

I want to ask you about your editing process and the relationship with your editors, especially given the stark contrast between 78/52 and its one-on-one nature, and some of your other films which contained so many more contributors, and wonder if you had the same approach to both. Do you start with an outline predefined in your mind, or take it as it comes? And just how much do you interfere with the editor’s work?

Well, I always write the script first, and I give my editor the screenplay. Then, as a first step, I ask him to cut the film exactly according to the script. In this particular case, I believe our first cut was around three hours and 20 minutes. At that point, we start working together and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work and if the structure holds, and then we start refining by cutting or adding clips, so there’s a lot of pushing and pulling that goes on in the process; but it always starts with the screenplay for me. It needs to work on the page before it can work on the screen.

I was mesmerised by your scene selections at the start of Lynch/Oz because the way you intercut clips from The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life was very clever, so I’d like to know about your process from interview to editing.

For each of those chapters in Lynch after I filmed the interviews, I took the transcripts and I looked for each participant’s unifying thesis. I wrote down what I thought was going to be their chapter and sent it off to them for approval. And this back and forth went on for a while until we were both completely satisfied, after which I send them back to a recording studio to re-record their voice over. And for the visuals, I actively think hard about making every single moment meaningful, and for this, I provide a blueprint to my editor who, in the case of Lynch/Oz, was David Lawrence, who also happens to be a massive cinephile himself and brought a lot to the table and was fully committed to make each clip work and resonate on multiple levels but of course it’s always a collaborative process. When you’re lucky enough to be in the position that I am, you get to work with some of the greatest talents in cinema and pick their brains, from editors, and producers to composers and cinematographers.

And how do you work with your composers? For 78/52 and Leap of Faith, The Taking and Lynch/Oz the soundtrack for all of them seems to be an original score. And despite the fact that some of these movies are about horror movies, interestingly enough, the music sounds to me quite mesmerising, very calm, and even a little bit sad.  How did you decide on this as the background music to your films? 

I don’t see music as a background. In this particular case, music is an integral part of the storytelling. For Friedkin, I wanted the score to be a single cello to bring out a certain emotion, so we talked a lot about different ways to record the cello and the best way to use it in different parts of the film for maximum effect. We actually had two composers for this: John Hegel who is my regular composer did most of what I would call the emotional tracks or personal tracks. And Anthony Weeden who used various techniques to come up with what you might call the mystical tracks that speak to the spirituality of William Friedkin and the spirituality of the film.

Something else I notice about your films is that you start off exploring one topic, but somehow seem to end on something completely different. In 78/52, you start with the shower scene, and we ended up finding out so much more about Hitchcock the man and his character and background. And with Friedkin, you start dissecting the horror that is the Exorcist, and end up in a Japanese Zen garden. We have had the same experience with The Taking and Lynch/Oz as what we found in your movies are much more that John Ford’s concept of Monument Valley or the bizarre world of David Lynch. So again, was that by design, or a natural development?  

This is the direct result of interviewing someone like Friedkin over six days and building this kind of personal relationship and digging deeper than perhaps previous interviews have done. Honestly, the Kyoto Zen garden was not something I was remotely expecting. He took me by surprise and delivered this completely unexpected monologue. As soon as he delivered it, it was obvious to me that this was going to mark the end of the film. Those are the critical moments in any interview and I recognise their importance right away, and I knew instantly that to do justice to the film, we’d have to go to Kyoto to film this footage. And I’m really glad that we did because, for me personally, I think that it’s probably the most beautiful ending of any of the films that I’ve made.

Almost 11 years ago, a film about Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, called Room 237, had great success in the same arena where filmmakers make movies about movies. Given your own preference for this particular style of filmmaking, how do you feel about the expansion of this genre by cinephiles like yourself?

Yes, it’s true – this is what I do. It’s difficult for me to step outside of it because it’s what I do, but I will say that, to me personally, making films about films is a complete and legitimate art form and there are different ways of approaching it. Some people prefer to be very factual about it and factual films about films are usually presented as DVD extras. My take on the genre is quite different and the films that I make can be more accurately described as film essays. I strive to make films that make people look at movies differently, which in turn makes them think about art differently, think about the creative process differently, and ultimately look at those great filmmakers through a different lens, and there are many more films in that space that I still want to make.

I’d like to get your thoughts on the role of the traditional film critic. Commonly, the natural home for the professional film critic was the printed publications, whether newspapers or trade publications like Sight & Sound, for example. Filmmakers would produce their work, the critic’s review would appear in print format somewhere the next day, and we’d all read it. But now, with the advent of social media like Twitter, Facebook, TikTok and all the rest, practically anyone with access to the internet and a smartphone can create a blog sitting in a coffee shop and become an instant self-appointed film critic. So do you think professional film critics still have a role in our culture and society, or are your films and those of other cinephiles like you now simply at the mercy a new breed of viewers and subject to their whims and opinions?

Right now I’m listening quite obsessively to Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary’s podcast, Video Archives, and reading his new book, Cinema Speculations, both of which are wonderful. I generally don’t like the term film ‘criticism’. To me this term denotes the idea of being critical, whereas the exercise should be more accurately termed film ‘appreciation’. This is why I love what Tarantino is doing which is appreciating stuff and which also addresses your first question, namely that being a cinephile is fundamentally about loving film. I think the best critics write about film in a way that is thoughtful and loving. They’re not trying to bring films down. 

On the other hand, there are some critics – I am not going to name them – who perhaps like the sound of their own voice a bit too much. They criticise a film not for what it is, but for what it is not, which is problematic. The great critics are essentially film lovers, film thinkers and film appreciators and they’re able to communicate that very well. Take Tarantino, for example. You can say whatever you want about him – and look, I personally have mixed feelings about his films too but, on the whole, I love most of them. But whether you agree with him or not, you can’t deny the fact that he has a burning passion for discovering movies, and he’ll make arguments in favour of a film that others would readily dismiss as being a minor movie. This is a guy who just loves the medium more than anything else, and that innate love is the reason why cinephiles spend time watching films, making films, watching films about films, reading books, or even reading great pieces of criticism. 

But I think ultimately, it all stems from the realisation that making movies is a really difficult task. We all have films that we don’t like or possibly even hate. But I just wish that before trying to take down or trashing a filmmaker’s work, critics would take a minute to acknowledge that making movies is not easy and that it takes a lot of effort to get a film made at all, and then ask themselves why filmmakers make the films they make in the first place. I think this should be the motivation for anybody, professional or not, who wishes to write about movies, whether it’s Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz or some other film.

Apart from watching movies, do you also read any academic text on cinema because, watching your movies, one gets the impression that you must have researched your subject in quite some depth beforehand?

No, I don’t read a lot of academic stuff, to be honest. I read books like Hitchcock/Truffaut, of course, but I enjoy discovering films by watching them over and over and over again. I also enjoy talking to people and getting their interpretations of certain films. I do read and go to museums but I’m not an avid reader of academic writings. What I do is a distinctly different exercise because I try to ensure that my work does not become too obtuse. My aim is to make films that are accessible to the wider public who are not necessarily film scholars so, on that level, I think my films belong to a different kind of space.

I sometimes imagine you standing in a cave of treasures filled with nothing but cinema artefacts from around the world and from different time periods and you can just reach out and grab a bit of cinema history and start building up an entire story around it, from which we learn so much more besides the main theme. Whether it is from the Exorcist or Lynch/Oz or The Taking, we end up learning about Kubrick, the wild west, American pop culture etc. On that last point, your films generally tend to focus on cinema from the West which is probably not that surprising, given that you were raised in Europe, although I note that a film about Michelangelo Antonioni is now on your to-do-list. So do you have any plans to make films about cinema from other parts of the world because, to date, most of your work seems to deal with American figures, icons and pop culture? 

I watch everything, I consume a lot of cinema and I do watch many foreign films but ultimately I do what feels right to me. For better or worse, American films generally tend to export better and further than other films and, as such, have much more of a global impact. And then of course there are distribution issues to consider too. Making a film about David Lynch is hard enough as it is when compared to someone like Hitchcock, and even though Lynch has also become a household name, he is still a niche market. Which then leads to the obvious financial considerations that we have to take into account because these films are not cheap to make. I mean a project on Abbas Kiarostami, as much as I love the idea of making that film, would probably be destined for the Criterion Channel, which is fine, as I love to work with those guys, but as you can see, we have to weigh up all these considerations when we’re deciding which films we are going to select. 

So far, I’ve just been focusing on the films, the scenes and filmmakers who have become, for lack of a better word, iconic, and entered the public consciousness in a big way while others didn’t. I have to ask myself why Psycho and Alien became these huge cultural phenomena, but not Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960) or Queen of Blood (Curtis Harrington , 1966). I’m interested in cracking the code of popularity in the term ‘pop culture’. So for now at least, I’m still fascinated with the works of Hitchcock and want to make more films about him, and am currently working on a film about Vertigo which might take me some time to make but that’s another film that I’m very passionate about. 

By now, you’ve marked yourself out as a documentary filmmaker. But as someone who loves cinema, do you ever see yourself doing anything else? Might you one day consider making something outside of the documentary world and venture perhaps into fiction, drama, comedy etc? 

Yes, maybe. I’ve made some fiction shorts in the past and they’ve been very successful and I may want to make some fiction features later, who knows. In fact, I’ve been thinking about doing a Western for a while so we’ll have to wait and see. I do what I love to do and I’m working on the projects that speak to me. To me, whether they’re in the fiction or non-fiction space is almost irrelevant, so yes, I think at some point a Western is probably something that I will tackle.

About The Author

Hamed Sarrafi is a UK-based cinephile, critic and translator. He has written and translated for Iranian newspapers and magazines for 20 years and more recently has established his podcast, Abadiat Va Yek Rooz (Eternity and a Day), in which he reviews movies and film festivals and also interviews filmmakers and fellow film critics. Sarrafi is particularly interested in interviewing emerging directors on their social and political views. His interviews have been published in Cineaste, Notebook (Mubi) and Cinema Without Borders.

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