The current landscape of independent American film would look a whole lot different if we didn’t have Robert Greene, a man whose touch can be felt across several films released (or at least premiered) in the last 12 months. But although he’s made invaluable contributions to some of this year’s more acclaimed titles — editing Listen Up Philip and Approaching the Elephant are but two of the more recent credits — his new film, Actress, is earning the most attention of his career. A verisimilar melodrama that marries Douglas Sirk with the Maysles brothers, it follows former Wire actress Brandy Burre on her difficult, sometimes tumutlous attempt at resurrecting a long-dormant career — if she isn’t already getting that opportunity from her documentarian neighbor.
It just so happens that the film is shot and set in Beacon, Greene’s current location and a town no more than 15 minutes from my own. This was not only of great convenience for two people seeking an interview — we had no real time limit, for one thing; the length of this interview will show as much — but allowed us to speak about Actress in-depth right off the bat. For valuable thoughts on distributor Cinema Guild, the basic failure of many documentaries, and a slight peek at his terrific-sounding next feature, read on below, then pick up tickets for the film’s Lincoln Center engagement.
The Film Stage: Maybe I’ll commence with Beacon itself, having never driven to an interview and spotted locations from the film in question on my (brief) trip. Having grown up fifteen minutes away, the whole experience was unmistakably, incalculably odd. What is your own personal connection? What does it mean to shoot in Beacon — if it means anything at all?
Robert Greene: I think it means, inasmuch as the location… a part of our job, if you’re making a film, is to set it in a location firmly. And that’s not just a flippant answer. Location is psychology, and, specifically, it became… I ascribe to the probably hackneyed, half-baked idea that most films like this are autobiography, and although I’m not going through exactly what Brandy is going through — not the least of which because I’m a man and she’s a woman — the idea of having a relationship with Beacon and the city, and the idea of a commuter town and those trains — what that all meant — became something that, once I realized her story was so important, once I realized the nature of that story and what that all meant, it then became immediately clear that Beacon needs to be firmly established.
I’m not here for much longer — I’m moving kind of soon — and so I’ve been here for six or seven years, and it’s always felt a little strange to me, the place. But then, the minute you start filming it, I immediately feel nostalgic and love the place in a way that I probably didn’t before. You know? As a storyteller, it became very important to establish what the town was, and without anything close to some documentary, bullshit idea of, you know, “population this,” “socio-economic situation this” — I didn’t want to do any of that. But, with images, I wanted you to get a firm sense of where she is. More importantly, probably, than the radical specificity of Beacon, I think it’s important to think of what it’s like in all these towns — all these towns that surround New York City.
We all have an identity crisis of it being a “suburb” vs. a “town,” and people tell me, “Oh, you moved from Brooklyn to the suburbs.” Well, I didn’t move to the suburbs; I moved to a town. It feels like a town, but, the fact is, it’s not. The city still has its tentacles cutting through the soul of the place, and I wanted to get all that. It was part of what took the sort of formal ideas — and, also, her specific story — and made it universal, because the town has this sort of universal thing for a commuter town.
Her home is right next to yours. When you stepped into it after conceiving the idea for this film, did you immediately start conceptualizing how you’d capture it?
Yeah. She’s my neighbor, so I know her home very well, and I always joke with her that the work that she put into it, when the home was her only creative outlet, so to speak — it never really was — she put a lot of work into that house. I made a joke that it paid off, because now she has a film set. I would never film my own house, because we have a junkier house. We have more scattered things, we don’t have neatly placed cups, we don’t have a beautiful window area. It’s a beautiful house, and I think… I liked the house from the beginning. It almost had this envious quality of, “Wow, she has a much more beautiful house than I do,” but she’s an owner and I’m a renter, and that’s a whole other thing. I’m like, “Where’s the next place I’m moving to?” while she’s very much, “This is my home,” which is a different mentality.
I guess I always had this kind of love of the house, but, when I turned the camera on, it was like, “Every shot is working,” because of the place. Because of the staginess of the space, and because the light coming through the window was so beautiful. It was a combination of the way she carefully articulates herself through the space, but then, also, how she defuses light with these curtains. It made it all really lovely and nice, and it just was easy. I felt like if we had to film in a… if the house didn’t have that feeling, I think it would’ve failed, probably. If it succeeds, part of the reason why it succeeds is that setting.
“If you cast your film, you cast your fate” — that’s 100% true. When you place your film in a setting, you cast your fate as well, and I immediately fell in love. I didn’t really need to think about where we were going to put the camera, or stuff like that, because I conceived of these things as we went. I had an overarching sort of formal idea of how to explore acting in a documentary, but when the movie started really taking off, it was like trying to be in the right place.
During the Christmas scenes, your camera is invisible. It seems to be capturing a very natural, festive, yuletide environment. People don’t seem inhibited by it — they can move around and interact with one another in a way that gives a fly-on-the-wall sensation. But other moments aren’t like that, where it feels like there is a camera — “performative,” you might say. Tell me about striking that balance, or if there’s a need to strike one.
There definitely is. I think that… one, I’ll just back up and say that part of the nature of the space for this movie is that it’s psychological space. There are many, many different ways that we created space in this film, and you’re touching on a couple of kinds there. One of the ways we’ve created scenes was to say, “Okay, you need to clean the kids’ room. Let’s let that build up for a couple of days and I’ll film you doing it. I’ll film you doing this labeling and stuff.” That was a directed scene in the sense that, “Okay, I’m going to come over for the purposes of getting this scene.” And so that is filmed — the kids’ room scene, earlier, is very much “directed,” in that sense. It’s very much about trying to establish a psychological space. In that sense, there absolutely is a camera present. You’re very aware of composition.
That’s the scene where she repeats the line of dialogue, so she’s very much aware of the camera, and you’re very aware that I’m composing, but then she’s doing something with a Lazy Susan, and a kid cries from upstairs, and obviously it’s a kind of eruption, a break, from this structure we’re creating. Obviously, the dialectic there is established immediately — that it’s reality breaking in — and there’s no way we’re staging a kid crying, although I wouldn’t say the audience understands, intimately, that this is the day I went over there to shoot that scene, but it does have a directed sort of quality. That whole scene actually does all the things: it has that directed quality, but then there are these eruptions of reality. That sort of thing which encapsulates what I think of documentary, which is structure, directing, chaos, and serendipities of reality — how those things relate to one another. That dialectal thing is what, formally, I’m totally interested in.
So what you’re picking up at the party is literally just me hanging out at the party, getting shots, getting bits of dialogue, things to try to pull together this emotional idea that she was in this sort of state. That scene is absolutely fly-on-the-wall: they knew I was going to be there, I’d been there for a while, I’m friends with most of the people on camera. The goal in the film is to establish this sort of dialectical thing, so that the audience has this sense of different ways of seeing, and that goal is two-fold: the first is because that’s what I think documentaries should be doing. That’s where I think the art of documentaries lies. The greatest documentaries of all-time have done some different version of that over and over again, in different ways. But, beyond that, it also establishes the psychological dissonance of her personality. The form is matching the content, in that the story is a woman who made a decision she’s very proud of — which is to give up her primary art and to raise a family — and this is a moment where she’s somewhat in crisis and she needs to figure it out. The changing perspectives of the film absolutely match the changing perspectives of her psyche.
I just interviewed Bennett Miller last night for my book that I’m writing. I’m paraphrasing — it’s probably not the fairest quote — but he’s like, “I don’t think documentaries are really about reality sometimes. They’re about psychological space as much as anything, because you really do try to understand the psychology of someone as you watch them.” So those different ways of seeing are a comment on the form, and they’re also a raising of the content at the same time. That’s a really high-falutin’ answer, but I honestly swear to God that’s what I was thinking. [Laughs]
You talk about how New York City has its tentacles reaching into Beacon, and, for many, the center of Beacon is its train station. I’ve been to that train station countless times — my last visit was just a few days ago, actually — and, those associations in mind, I could not believe somebody photographed it in an interesting way.
It seemed impossible that you could actually make it an interesting location, but lo and behold. There’s that incredible shot where she’s crouching down and the train barrels right next to her, for instance. How many of these images were stored in your mind over the years, simply as a result of visiting it? What connects specifically to her story? The images do have tether — I’m just not sure how you first formulate them.
Yeah. I think I’m a person who goes to a place… one of the reasons why I knew New York City when I moved there fourteen years ago was that I couldn’t stop photographing things. I couldn’t stop videotaping, or even just looking with my eyes. You’d see a wall of flyers, and I’m like, “This is better than any art museum.” It’s the most beautiful city in the world to me. I think that Beacon, the train station, had a similar thing. Just the light. I remember when I first started Instagramming — and everybody, when you get Instagram, you just start taking too many pictures, and you’re constantly taking pictures — I just kept… just the tracks and the feet and the light, all of it.
One of the secret projects I’ve always wanted to make is a film about Grand Central, or a film about a airport — which has been done before — but I’m kind of obsessed with these places of transit. I spend a lot of my life in transit like that. And I’ve got hours of cell-phone footage of just out the train of a window, as it’s passing, just because I’m obsessed with the passing trains. This is why Chantal Akerman, for instance, is just a big influence on my brain. Just the way she thinks about train stations, really, is such an important part of News from Home, Les rendez–vous d’Anna, and D’Est — a lot of her movies.
So, yeah, it was in my head — the structures and the way lines are created. But then, like, obviously if Brandy didn’t have any reason to get on the train, we wouldn’t be filming that. The relationship that happened between her and the train station over the course of filming… like, the first time I went into the city with her was pretty early into the filming, and it was pretty much like, “Woo, we’re going into the city! We never do this!” I do it much more than she does, because I have to work in the city often. But then it became a thing where it was clear that her lifeline was the city, even though she doesn’t necessarily identify with New York City per se. It’s just that there’s art there — there’s life there. What the train station sort of meant for the psychology of that aspect of the story was super-important.
And then we filmed some stuff, but that one scene is just sheer magic. That was the same night that she drops the kids off. It’s cut together as one night and it absolutely one night. She drops the kids off, and it was a really sad experience, but she changes moods when she’s going to the city, and she’s leaving that behind for the night, or whatever it is. That night, everything looked beautiful. [Laughs] There was a glow to the Metro North machines, where I was like, “This is movies.” She knelt down; that reaction is totally unscripted. Her natural theatricality comes through in the way she reacts, and it’s a perfect moment to encapsulate the entire movie. But the train passes and she’s scared, and I just happen to be not-stupid enough to move to follow her off with that last train when the train goes.
That’s just one of those things where it reminds me of how movies get made: movies are made by people who obsess about things for a long time, and then are thrown into situations and don’t fuck it up, basically. And that situation was full of emotion for both of us, and I absolutely think about Chantal Akerman; I think about the Ross brothers. I think about all the influences of all the movies I’ve ever seen, and they’re all coursing through my fucking body, and then I just give up — because of fatigue, most likely — and I’m just reacting, and I happen to not fuck it up. There’s many of scenes where I did fuck up, but that’s just one that just works. It’s sort of this magical thing that can happen when ideas, in the moment, reach something together.
Were there moments that you felt you did “fuck up,” but had to keep in the film because it was essential? I don’t want to make you expose the flaws of your film —
No, no, no. No, I don’t think so. The only way I ever feel it’s fucked up… I don’t like how, sometimes, I move in a way, like where she’s confessing something. I’d rather not give away what that is, but when she’s confessing something, I feel like I’m moving with her, because I just don’t want to be still and static, because she’s going to be talking for a long time, and I can notice that camera movement. But the only time I ever feel like something is a “fuck up” is where I’m too self-conscious about a decision, or she’s going down a path — which, you know, many hours were spent together — where she needs to talk for herself, and that’s not necessarily what translates into good communication for the movie. That’s the only time I’m ever like, “We don’t need that.” Everything else is on the table, because there’s no vanity for that kind of stuff. If it works onscreen, it works. I suspect that many other people would be able to tell you where I fucked up, and I don’t know if anything in the movie is something that I would describe as a fuck-up.
I actually quite like that camera move.
Yeah, it does something. But I feel like it’s a little too… I mean, I think it’s very important, because one of the things I’m very adamant about is — and I just wrote this about The Kill Team and the response to The Kill Team — that the filmmaker’s always in the room. The thing about documentaries is that the filmmaker is present, and that is an acknowledgement that we don’t have to make in the same way that we had to make 30 or 40 years ago. We should all be very aware that there is a person holding that camera, and I think that camera move does help you sort of understand that. You very much sense that there’s another being, and that being is a very close friend of this person, talking, or some sort of closeness — whether you know it’s a friend or not — and there’s an interaction happening. And the camera is interrupting a normal interaction, pretty much.
You’ve expressed an admiration of Cinema Guild in the past, particularly their work with documentaries such as Manakamana and Leviathan. I’d like to hear about your relationship with the company, first their status as a “brand.”
Yeah. I mean, I don’t think it’s a gimmick that they release the best-reviewed films of the year, you know? I think that’s because they see in films like Manakamana, which you could look at… you could be another buyer and look at Manakamana and be like, “No one’s going to go see this.” Or you could be like Cinema Guild and say, “No, this is special.” The beloved energy around it, the specialness of the film itself, and understand that it’s going to play six weeks at the IFC Center — which is what happened. To me, the reason to have all these discussions is because I firmly, firmly believe audiences, art-film audiences, want to see these kinds of movies. It’s not general audience.
It’s not like people who go see Guardians of the Galaxy are going to want to see Actress in the same way, but there is a devoted, committed filmgoing audience of young cinephiles, old ladies in New York, people in Chicago — there’s a devoted sort of core group, and it’s finite. It has a finite thing, but they just don’t think of documentaries in the way that maybe they should. Cinema Guild, I think, kind of taps into an understanding of that. There’s a way of looking Leviathan, that it’s an audience-punishing experience, and there’s a way of looking at it that it’s exhilarating and exciting for audiences. I happen to believe it’s the latter, and I think Cinema Guild does, too. That’s the important thing: it’s not about commerce in the strict sense of money, because no one has the pretense that we’re going to get rich off these films.
But it is a sense of, “There is an audience out there, and you just have to find them. They will respond.” Because I’ve found them in different ways, seeing people respond to Actress on the festival circuit. It’s on the festival circuit, which is a bubble. But it’s in Wisconsin, where we have sold-out screening in Wisconsin, and it’s like mothers hovering around Brandy, telling her how important the story was to them, personally, or it’s like this guy saying, “I never really thought about my wife in this way until I watched this movie. These are not in-a-bubble reactions; these are real human beings who step in thinking they’re going to be treated like idiots — like most documentaries treat them — and, instead, they’re treated like filmgoers who want to be surprised and moved in a different way.
I think Cinema Guild gets that. They put out challenging films that still want an audience. They’re not putting out films that are needlessly distancing. They’re a company which has to pay its bills. It’s the classic thing of it taking two people to make a painting: the painter and the guy who shoots the painter when the painting’s done. I think of producers and distributors in that way, too: that person needs to be the person who says, “You need to remember the audience.” We’re talking about the trailer, for instance, and the way to present this story in the way that’s going to bring in the most amount of people, and we’re trying to get press that’s more interesting. The ideas of reaching for an audience is really important to me, because it’s not just about paying the bills.
You want to pay the bills, but it’s about finding a way to communicate these things that these great films have in them — which I can’t believe, that I’m able to say Actress is among those films. They’re just great people. I mean, they’re just straight-up-great people. I’ve worked with people who are all good, but they’re distracted or whatever. They’re just committed, smart people, and the idea that they would take the risk with me makes me want to take every risk with them. It’s an honor. It’s crazy; it’s really crazy. It’s crazy to have written so passionately about Leviathan a couple of years ago and to have your film with the same logo in front of it. It’s insane.
Do you worry there isn’t enough interest in your films to have them actually be seen?
No, because I guess I approach this from a somewhat different perspective. I think a lot of the hand-wringing and fretting about the support for independent film misses a very specific thing, which is: it’s always been impossible to make independent films. John Cassavetes didn’t make his films easily. Spike Lee’s never made his films easily. There’s never been that big of an audience for independent films. I think that this film relates — I think all of my films relate — but this one, even more so, relates to people’s lives in a way that can actually have them sit down and come out of the theater feeling not only intellectually engaged, but emotionally engaged in a way like, “Your life means something,” and you’ve got to think about the way your roles are socially performed. The way that the things we take for granted as truth are moveable things, and that means something.
But I don’t have any pretense that that’s a huge amount of people that are going to want to sit through that experience, but that doesn’t mean I… to me, the question is, “Will the film be watched in five years and ten years?” Because that’s what I’m making it for. I’m making it for… you’ve got to survive, so you’ve got to find an audience for your films — or you’re not worthy of surviving. You don’t need to keep making movies if you can’t find an audience for your film, but, when it comes down to it, it’s more like, “In ten years, are people going to say Actress meant something to this way of thinking about movies and thinking about real people’s lives?” It is really about thinking about that, that down-the-road kind of thing. So I don’t worry too much about it. I want the biggest audience. I know, strategically, how to help make that happen. We can do a number of strategic moves to get us in the best position — such as finding a partner like Cinema Guild to help us put the movie out.
My production company, 4th Row Films — they’re running a business, too. They need to make sure they’re not releasing things that are going to die, which is a good pressure for me to have, you know? It’s more important for me to think, “Does the film excite anybody, and will it be something that continues to matter in five years from now?” Those are more my criterion. Otherwise, you start making decisions on the filmmaker level that are corrupt. The fact is, if you make a documentary for the purposes of getting money or finding big audiences, you can do that — there’s ways to do that — and almost all of those films die quickly. They may make more money, and they die somewhere along the line. I want my movies to be seen in the future.
A lot of the bigger documentaries struggle from being about the moment they’re made in. Fahrenheit 9/11, for instance, was one of the biggest movies of that summer, but nobody talks about it ten years later, save for the most standard of references.
And it might have affected the election the wrong way; it did the opposite of what it was supposed to be doing. No, no, I think that’s right. I think subject-driven, issue-driven films… like, Salesman is timeless. Wiseman’s films are timeless. A lot of Pennebaker’s films are timeless. Primary is timeless; even though it’s about a specific election, it’s about the nature of politics and the nature of campaigning, and John F. Kennedy’s cult of personality. That it timeless stuff, you know? Whereas Blackfish I don’t think is timeless. Fahrenheit 9/11 is not timeless. Even though Bowling for Columbine should be a film we’re referencing all the time now, we don’t, because it was made in such a specific sense, and it’s such a maudlin film, in so many ways. It’s so cheesy and manipulative in the wrong way.
Even though I like aspects of that film a lot, it… if he would’ve stuck to the opening scene, which is, “Look how easy it is for me to buy a gun,” and that was the kind of thing that he made — instead of placing that picture of the dead girl on the driveway of a guy who’s clearly got Alzheimer’s and dies within a few years because his brain’s gone — that’s the kind of stuff that just makes you never have to go back and watch it again. Whereas, Roger & Me, you can watch that movie now. You could watch Roger & Me now and be like, “This means something.” I think that’s a very important way of thinking about films and the failure of the sort of traditional social-issues documentary is that the instinct to try to save the world is a good instinct, but the filmmaking techniques… I think Kill Team is going to last. Kill Team is a portrait. If people can talk about it the right way, it’s a portrait of so many things that aren’t just the story. That’s why that film is worth fighting for.
This has more “flourishes,” speaking broadly, than something like a Maysles brother film. You have something such as the slow motion.
All of which is shot in-the-moment.
Yeah, absolutely. The moment where she’s putting on lipstick and her husband walks in? I set the camera up and I was like, “This looks cool in slow motion.” And that moment just happened to have her reaction, and it’s absolutely “direct cinema” in the most pure sense — except that it’s slowed down. Nothing post-added in terms of slo-mo, which is a very, very important point, because they weren’t effects achieved for the simple act… the melodrama was happening, you know what I mean? We were capturing that melodrama, on purpose, throughout the process. It was like, “How do we make a melodrama now?” It wasn’t like, “Okay, we’ve got this stuff,” and then we add melodrama afterwards. The music is added afterwards, which is obviously a fair way to look at it, but the music really is dictated from that image. That image was captured, in the moment, as if it was a fly-on-the-wall thing.
It’s the same sensibility, but changes drastically when you push the different setting on the camera. The only reason I shot on that camera is because it captures slow-motion beautifully. There’s two cameras that I use: the DVX, which I still use, and the HPX, which is the HD version of the Panasonic — which is a shit camera, except for it does this beautiful slow-motion stuff. But that’s a very important point: it was all captured in the moment. The opening scene is staged and totally directed and lit and everything. Some of the other stuff is “staged” in that same sense, too, but all captured that way, because we wanted that.
When did you settle on your first shot, and how did you decide to return to it about 40 minutes into the film?
I think I had other ideas for the first shot for a while. There was one amazing image of her hand just going up an icy window, and her fingerprints evaporating as it passes by, and it’s in slow-motion with this frozen-ice thing. Windows are a big part of the movie, you know? Like looking out windows, the weather outside, the home, and all that stuff. But, in the end, it was just too cheesy. I didn’t mind really aggressively going for melodrama from the beginning, really in a Sirkian sort of, “Nothing is too over the top, nothing is too direct, nothing is too cheesy.” We shot that footage and I had no idea how we were going to use it, but it just meant so much to me, the footage, and that stuff was actually the one day of shooting that Sean Price Williams came up and did. He owed me a birthday present. He gave me a birthday card that said, “One free day of shooting,” or something. I stopped paying him a long time ago, because he’s my friend, but this was a way of getting him to do it.
So he came up and that shot, and the shot walking around the house, where she gets the coat hanger, were shot in the same day. I think the decision was pretty much like, I wanted something to start with that voiceover sort of thing, which she just said in an interview, and I had her re-record it, and then I had her re-record it again. You detect, I think… that’s from a line that she said on The Wire that she, in the course of answering a question that I asked of her, she answered with that speech, basically. “I was thinking the other day, ‘This is me, though. It’s me.’” She was having this revelation in the course of things. I then directed her to say it again, and then we re-recorded it again. So you’re getting, with that performance, those opening lines, this layered… and I think you sense it, that there is a mannered sort of performance happening immediately. Putting her on that stage became, of course, a no-brainer. Once we put it in there, it was, like, a no-brainer.
Someone said to me, I think after the Hot Docs screening, “You set us up, at the beginning, to distrust anything this person says — because she’s on a stage; it’s phony, it’s artificial — and then you spend the rest of the movie trying to prove that she’s authentic.” I don’t know that that was necessarily the direct intention, but I love that as a thought, because it destabilizes your idea of a documentary right off the bat, and it makes you understand that you’re not watching… you’re watching something where the layering is important, and you need to see the layers. You need to think about the layers that you’re watching. Think about direction. Think about performance. Think about light. Think about all these things. Think about mannered. Think about control. Think about chaos. Think about all of it. That images really does encapsulate it all, and made it possible for us to then start all the way from the beginning, with the most direct-cinema scenes that follow.
Once we’ve sort of ripped open the expectation, then we can build back up the ideas of how you see. One of the things the movie is about is the ways of seeing a person; ways of seeing a person that you think you understand and don’t. That mimics a sort of way women live their lives. The way women, especially mothers, are seen. When she says, at the end, “I played the role because everyone expected me to be the person who got hit in the head,” she’s speaking as a woman who is constantly dealing with people looking at her and expectations. That’s it: this constant feeling of expectations. Constantly thinking, “I think I can tell who you are because of how you walked down the aisle of a grocery store.” That opening shot allowed us to explore a lot of that, and strip away the expectations of reality right away.
Do you worry about how people perceive and accept any boundary-blurring qualities? Does the conceptualization alone make cohesion easy?
Well, I think the film is coherent because it coheres around Brandy — because her personality dictates so much of it. That’s why the film works: because, in a character sense and a story sense, it’s pretty simple. The “ways of seeing” aspect is where the intellectual stuff starts working. Your mind starts racing in trying to figure out, “What am I watching and why am I watching it?” That stuff is all operating on another level. But because it’s just Brandy — it’s just this very straightforward thing, in a way — I think it coheres for that reason.
I think the films that I like are the films that I’m not sure why I’m watching things sometimes, and then they pay off. I think documentaries, too often, are so concerned with, “Because it’s reality, because it’s a real person, because that’s so important, we have to take very careful steps to make sure that everything is understood in a very understandable way.” The problem with that, to me, is that it’s not reality; it’s manipulated movie. I’m not interested in easy comfort when it comes to watching a movie, because, specifically, this film, you need to have… because she’s a woman, in this situation, making the decision that she makes, there is a sense of judgement that comes with that. That’s one of the film is about: how much do you judge Brandy? How much do you judge her for who she is?
So that gave me a leeway. The content, the story that happened, gave me leeway to then play with this idea of perspectives about her, and to actively not worry about how those perspectives may sometimes be repetitious, or sometimes distancing, or sometimes shocking, sometimes like, “I don’t know why I’m watching this moment right here.” I could do all that, because it was about perspective. The film became about perspective, so I can make a film where perspectives change. I don’t really worry. I trust the audience can come to it. If you find a coherent story, and you then strip away all these intellectual, sort of formal ideas, let the emotion sort of carry you through, and let a real connection between Brandy and the viewer really matter — and that what you’re seeing is stuff you can’t believe you’re seeing.
You’re seeing a real break-up happening. At that moment, the film coheres, because the formal ideas don’t matter in the same way. You’ve been set to think what you’re thinking as you’re watching this emotional exchange, so the emotion and the thinking becomes sort of one thing, really. That’s something that you don’t really need to coach the audience through understanding, because it’s all there; it’s all onscreen.
And, of course, it’s teed up right in the title.
On a lot of levels, like the gendered name. I refer to her as an “actor” when I’m discussing and talking to her, and refer to her, but the title is Actress. Maybe that gets to your point more. I want the audience to think things like, “Who is exploiting who? Is she exploiting him, or is he exploiting her?” Someone was like, “Is he the other man? Is the filmmaker the other man that this is all about?” Through parts of the movie, you suspect that. I love the idea that some people could approach this and say it a sexist film, and that other people can approach it and call it a feminist film.
Those things are absolutely… I’m a feminist, in the sense that I think women are equal to men. It’s a stupid think to say you’re a feminist or not a feminist, because it’s so fucking obvious. Not a “stupid” thing, but it’s a political thing that I think, perhaps, is needed, because there’s rampant sexism in the world. It should be unneeded to say you’re a feminist, because it should be that everyone’s a feminist. It’s a feminist film in that I make a film about a person who’s experiencing real things that women go through. But, also, I’m very comfortable with people being like, “She’s used in this movie,” because those ideas, what that means to be used in a film, are part of what you’re watching. It’s all, hopefully, on the surface. It needs to be; I want it to be. Someone was like — I think it was Alex Ross Perry — “I like the movie because, at first, it looks like you’re exploiting her, and then, at some point, it’s very clear that she’s exploiting you to get what she wants.” I’m like, “That’s a great reading of the movie.”
The problem is, I’ve gotten in fights about this before. I start with the premise that all documentaries are exploitative, period, but I don’t mean that in the most negative sense. I think you exploit trees to make books, but books are still good things. Exploitation is a power relationship — not necessarily a negative or positive one. It’s somewhat negative, or it can be somewhat negative, and I think it’s negative if you don’t acknowledge it. I think, in some ways, this film is about exploiting. It’s really about all the things that I’m obsessed with on the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of documentary. Everything that I’m obsessed with is basically in the movie, in some form or another.
So how do you move from a movie that contains all your obsessions? You posted a photo indicating that your next movie would be about suicide.
Was that serious or a joke?
No. It was serious, if the movie turns out to be what I think it’s going to be. What I do next is a very good question, because it does feel a little bit like this is the movie for me. It does feel like… okay, so, the combination of my interest in life and my interest in film and my interest in human beings and my interest in form, and all of it, is sort of collapsed in this magical thing that happened that was relatively “easy” to make, because we could concentrate. And very harrowing to make, in many, many ways.
I have two possible ideas. One is to take those ideas and push them even further, which is what the suicide thing is about, and one is to say, “Okay, let’s go more subtle in this other direction with another topic, and try to do something else.” It’s a tricky thing. I’m lucky that I have other things to do besides thinking of my next movie, even though I was writing my treatment for the next film this morning. I can concentrate on, like, editing Alex’s new movie that’s coming soon, and I’m writing, and I have to get ready for this teaching thing I’m doing, etc. But I don’t want to be paralyzed by the fact that I think, in some ways, I made the movie that I most wanted to make. And that’s a little bit paralyzing. [Laughs]
I also joked — on Twitter, I think — that the only thing to do now is to just make a really shitty fictional film, just to continue the tradition of documentary filmmakers making really bad fiction movies, because of hubris and stupidity. I think that the more ambitious of the two ideas definitely has the potential to be a complete and total disaster — which actually makes me think, “Hmm, that’s a risk worth taking, possibly.” Or I’m an idiot. It’s either one of those two.
Someone made a joke about receiving tax credit for working with you, but that joke isn’t unjustified when you do so much. I’d like to hear about the work of editing other people’s film — the attachments you might develop with them, and if there are any potential conflicts with the filmmaker. Say you have an idea for a scene, but they don’t consider that the “proper” format.
I feel like the unique perspective that I bring is one that thinks of things in these very strict, critical-minded ways. Part of what I bring is that I’m pretty good at breaking down what a movie can do, kind of, and so that’s why I’m often asked to come in when a project is either in some state of flux — an “I don’t really know what to do next” — and I’m good at cutting through some of that stuff, and really seeing the potential of something. If I had a talent, that’s probably the only real talent, and that talent then gets translated to writing and other things, including my own filmmaking.
But I love editing. I kind of hate shooting and love editing, and the crux of my art is being able to put images together. It’s just so exciting to me. I just edited a video for Sight & Sound that’s this “art of non-fiction” video, and it was so fun to pick great moments from great movies, then create this six-minute thing that I can’t wait to share with the world. So editing is my ideal. It comes as such a second nature that the idea of saying “yes” to things is super easy for me. Generally speaking, though. Approaching the Elephant, for instance, I never will get paid a dollar, most likely — but that’s fine, because I love it so much. But I can make money, also, editing, because it’s a career thing and a soul thing.
Conflicts always come up, but I don’t usually work with people… I’m lucky enough to work with people that I really do, four out of five times, people who are really aware of me. Amanda Wilder, who made Approaching the Elephant, she’s a very sensitive, very sweet — and I mean that in the biggest complimentary way — really sharp, but also thoughtful person. She thinks slowly. She’s like my wife in a way: she thinks calmly and slowly. Whereas I think aggressively and haphazardly. [Laughs] We had conflicts, definitely, where I’d be like, “We have to go in this direction. There’s no other path to go,” and she would be sort of overwhelmed by my energy. My job was then to go, “Ooh, I’m overwhelming you by my energy, and I need to back up,” and then let her sort of have her moment of thinking.
I really felt like, if something was true, I would fight for it, but I needed to understand that, as a filmmaker, she’s so much more sensitive than I am — not sensitive in terms of emotion, but she’s very delicate in terms of how she wants images to function. She thinks about that stuff, when I’m more aggressive. That was a balance. But whereas, working with Alex, for instance… the thing about Alex is that he’s snarky, he’s so bitter and angry, and all these things that people know and love about Alex, but he’s one of the best collaborators I’ve ever met in my life. He knows that he knows how to do certain things, and he wants you to know how to do your things. I’ll work on a scene, and he’ll be like, “Perfect,” or, “That’s horrible. Let’s fix it.” When he says something is horrible, he doesn’t mean that I’ve done a bad job — he means, “I need it to be this specific thing.” Sometimes he’s like, “You did the right thing, where I would have done the wrong thing.”
He’s very open to letting Sean shoot the film like he wants to shoot the film, and letting me edit the film like I’m thinking. But we work really well together. I’ve been lucky to have collaborations that are people that I really love, and that’s a very different thing than working for hire on things where I don’t feel it. I’ve found myself having to think about taking things that are more for hire, and part of the great thing about leaving that grind is that I’m moving to Missouri and teaching at this program. I don’t want to be “A) an editor.” I am an editor, but I don’t want to have my entire career be editing other people’s movies, because I know that those collaborations are something you can’t take for granted. And those collaborations have come from people being like, “You know how to do this, and we’re close already. Let’s do this.”
Now I’m starting to be asked by people who I’m not so close with to do things, and I don’t know if that’s necessarily what I want out of life. So I have to think about it. This year is insane. There’s Actress, Listen Up Philip, Approaching the Elephant, If You Take This — which was the official BAMcinemaFest selection for Northside, and played at Sarasota — Christmas, Again, and I’m helping with Bob Byington’s film; I’m one of the editors on that. I think I’m probably missing something. It’s insane, this year: things that not only have been made, but have gotten there. Oh, and Jessica Oreck’s movie, The Vanquishing of the Witch Baba Yaga, which I was a contributing editor to; I took it over at a certain point to give it back to her. That’s insane, but it’s all people who, more or less, are people I would say I love.
But I don’t know if that’s sustainable. You can’t just say “yes” to that forever, because eventually you have to start saying “yes” to the films that are going to pay you more money, and maybe then you’re not as much in control… I don’t know.
So it feels less like work, in a sense?
I’m overwhelmed with work. I’m lucky to be overwhelmed. Right now, including every piece I need to write, every video I need to work on, every freelancing thing, I have probably, like, twelve jobs right now. But it still doesn’t feel like work. I get to think about and process and debate and work on things that I deeply care about.
Actress enters limited release on November 7.