Tuesday, September 22, 2009

An Interview With Stewart Copeland- Director of "Jennifer"

Following up yesterdays post, and serving as the DVD (err...online video) of the Week this week, I recently conducted Out 1's first ever director's interview with Jennifer filmmaker Stewart Copeland. If you have further questions about the film that I didn't ask, or you just want to dig a little deeper, please ask the questions in the comments and hopefully Stewart will stop by and be able to answer your questions. A big thanks to PBS for picking up the film and helping it be seen by a larger audience. And an even bigger thanks to Stewart for taking the time to talk to us. On with the interview!

JH: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

SC: I had a professor at in film school who was teaching the beginning film course and after reading all of our proposed scripts he said, “All of you should be making documentaries because none of you know anything about reality,” thinking back on it he was probably just trying to insult us, but I took it seriously. I’m very glad I did though, he was right.

JH: What is it that draws you to the documentary form?

SC: Documentary is really difficult. You only have so much to work with, so it’s a challenge to peace together a story with limited materials. It’s like taking a plastic bag full of jigsaw puzzle pieces and having to figure out what the bigger picture is. I prefer that process much more then narrative filmmaking where you’re constructing something from scratch. When someone makes a narrative they have to construct an experience, but documentary is an invitation to have an experience, one where you meet people, travel new places, and challenge yourself.

JH: Tell us a little bit about how Jennifer started?

SC: After my mother passed away I moved back to Tennessee from Saint Louis where I was going to school. I was working on a documentary for my thesis project for college, but I decided to scrap it and make a film about my mom. I decided to focus on one moment in her career as a science teacher when her students got to speak to astronauts aboard the international space station.

JH: Jennifer is an unquestionably personal film for you. What made you want to share something that intensely specific?

SC: I don’t know how aware I was of sharing the film when I started working on it. It felt like it was just me and the movie. I worked on it for about 5 months before I went back to Saint Louis to finish school and the film, and at that point I did a lot of work with my mentor on the project, Mike Steinberg, and that’s when we started talking about the film’s ability to relate to the viewer. Before that, in the early stages of the film, it was just kind of an exercise or therapy. That’s the beautiful thing about documentary, the process of making a film teaches you about the subject and yourself.

JH: I suppose some people may lump Jennifer into the mode of experimental film practice, although I think in just as many ways (and this isn't a complaint, by the way) it fits into a more classic essay approach. Do you think about these traditions at all? Do you associate yourself with one approach or another? Or does it matter for you?

SC: That’s a really great question. I think a lot about documentary form and tradition when I’m working on a piece, but in the end, there has to be an even relationship between the subject and the filmmaker. You can’t force a subject to fit a form, but if you’re too passive, then you loose your authorial voice. The film is about my mother, but to be more precise, it’s about remembering my mother. I suppose a film about memory is intrinsically experimental. The moments where the film feels the most like a classic essay doc are in the moments that require that structure. I know that sounds like a silly statement, but filmmakers often try to force an aesthetic or style on to a subject. I always try to be aware of style, but never commit to anything completely and allow a project to evolve before the audience.

JH: Although the film is only five minutes, I wonder how much footage you worked through before it got to the final form?

SC: There was only about 15 or 20 minutes of actual footage from the student’s conversation with the space station. However, I didn’t want the film’s narration to be describing what you were seeing; I was looking for video that enhanced what you were hearing. So the film is mostly composed of stock footage and unrelated b-roll, and that resource seemed limitless. It took 9 months to piece the film together, so I had a lot of time to search out the perfect stock footage and animations to achieve the final look.

JH: I think there is a pretty fascinating structure to the film as a whole. What were your ideas, and how did you work through, the varying structural concepts in the production process?

SC: I wanted the final piece to feel like a memory. So I thought about different attributes of memory. First, it is difficult for me to remember things in chronological order. So to accomplish this sensation in the film, I book ended it with an identical footage of birds flying. I felt like that helped confuse to viewer. I mention towards the end of the film that my mother has passed away, but I wanted the audience to think that they knew that the whole time, that no information in the film was revealed, just remembered. Secondly, some details of my memories are vivid, but other particulars seemed to fill themselves in with unrelated recollections. For example, I might remember the exact way the house I grew up in smelled, but when I try to remember what it looks like, all I can see is an old photo of my brother eating a birthday cake. That was the inspiration for using the stock footage.

JH: You say in the film's narration that your mother had "a fascination with the living world" and that teaching was, maybe, a way of sharing this fascination. Not to totally project my own take on the film, but, for me, this seems the central concept, which is underscored, quite beautifully, throughout. Can you talk a little bit about this idea and how (or if) you tried to embed this within the narrative?

SC: I used a lot of 1950’s science videos in the piece. All of that footage has this surreal energy and look to it. Probably because it’s trying to teach kids something and also entertain them. All the footage I shot myself of her school and our house has a very specific look too, I’m not sure how I would describe it, the camera seems almost mesmerized. My mother was a science teacher, and science is, as far as I can tell, a method by which we are able to gain a deeper understanding of phenomena. Through science and scientific method we can determine how and why and predict when and were. For most people, a greater knowledge of how something works can be demystifying, it can transform an experience from magical to clinical. But for my mom, knowledge of a subject made it even more spectacular and miraculous. I absolutely inherited this attribute. Knowing how a magic trick works doesn’t ruin it for me, it enhances it. I guess that perspective or attitude or whatever you would call it, is so deeply embedded in the film because that’s just how my mom and I are. Fascination leads us to study and study leaves us fascinated. It’s a good way to be.

JH: Your visual methodology, if I can call it that, reminds me in some ways of a couple great a-g filmmakers - Ben Rivers and Nathaniel Dorsky. I don't know if you're familiar with them, but I mention them for two reasons: one, for high praise, and two, I want to end with a quotation from Dorsky's book "Devotional Cinema" and get your response to it. Jennifer isn't operating in all the same traditions, but I couldn't help but think of it after watching Jennifer a few times.

(Excuse the long quote)

"When a filmmaker is fully and selflessly present, the audience becomes fully and selflessly present. The filmmaker’s physical relationship to the world manifests as the camera’s relationship to the image and becomes the audience’s relationship to the screen. To the degree that a filmmaker can relate directly to the heart of an object, the viewer will also connect directly to the heart of the object. The audience will see the screen as the camera sees objects, and a great unity of heart will take place between filmmaker and audience."

I guess I'm just interested in your reaction to this and if you think Jennifer and your relationship to filmmaking might be similar. Or am I stretching a little?

SC: That’s a truly beautiful quote. It’s still feels strange to talk about Jennifer, and it’s themes and structure and my approach and process. The film is about the person I love more than anyone else on the planet, so in the end, any editorial decision I made was driven by that love. I guess the greatest accomplishment any filmmaker could experience would be “a great unity of heart.” I don’t know if Dorsky and I share the same means, but I think we’re after a similar end.


Nostalgia Kinky said...

Fascinating interview James. I greatly enjoyed reading it and posted a link for you over at Moon in the Gutter. Great work.

Anonymous said...

AMAZING film!!!
It's subtle beauty is remarkable.

Unknown said...

this is a great interview... you two should talk more often...wanted to read more

James Hansen said...

Hah. I'll see what I can do. :-)

Guess no one has extra questions?