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Robert Greene Talks ‘Bisbee ’17,’ the Need for New Documentary Forms, and ‘Her Smell’

Written by on September 6, 2018 

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Every two years or so, there comes a new Robert Greene film whose beautiful images, fascinating subjects, and thorough investigation of both immediate and surrounding concepts become overrun by the true-false question — what control Greene wields, where the spontaneous and constructed do or don’t collide. His latest, Bisbee ’17, sometimes plays like a provocation towards those assumptions, heavily relying on the reenactment of a horrific, little-known strike against working-class citizens (as our admiring review handily summarizes), parlaying the filmmaker’s strengths for documentary portrait and narrative whats-it into what may be his densest work to date.

Catching up with Greene a few weeks before Bisbee ’17 opened at Film Forum –where it just began a theatrical run in advance of an ambitious, cross-country tour — I found myself, as usual, in a long, long conversation that easily branched from the work at hand to the conversation that’s surrounded it. (And, yes, a bit about Her Smell, his fourth editing collaboration with Alex Ross Perry.) In his world, they eventually become one and the same.

Robert Greene: How’d you see it?

The Film Stage: Just a link.

It’s a terrible way to watch this movie. It’s really good for the big screen.

I know, and I got that sense, basically, from the first shot — the wide view of the guy standing, slightly bemused.

Works really well very big. Very big screen. Probably looked a little boring. [Laughs]

If anything, it may have been more intriguing. Because the figures seem even smaller, I had this response of, “Oh, he’s really reaching for something here.”

Yeah, the tininess of the guy and then the silence of his 10 seconds before he starts speaking is pretty crazy in a theater. People don’t know what to do with that quiet right at the beginning of a movie of just so, so much silence — which is great because I would basically tell everybody… I was like, “I’m gonna say action and then wait 10 seconds, and then you start talking.” Which had that nice effect of having people just being a portrait or whatever, and he was just having that conversation and the guy walked off and I was like, well, he’s going to say, “Okay, are you ready now?” And he never said that. So it looks kind of manufactured, but it’s not; it’s totally real and natural.

Of course, whenever I see something you make and these very deliberate decisions present themselves, the question emerges: from where is it coming? Not necessarily about one side of the fiction-nonfiction divide, but it’s funny. How aware are you of the idea that somebody could start perceiving things in that one-or-the-other key?

Well, that’s the whole point. If you’re questioning that, something’s working on some level to start, right? Because, to me, that questioning of what’s real and what’s fake, it should be in every documentary. First of all, everyone should be watching every documentary wondering what was staged — and “staged” might be a word that most people would use, but there’s degrees of staging. I’m very happy on a sort of basic aesthetic level or basic ethical level that that’s a question that people have to start. Furthermore, I would say that what I’ve tried to figure out in the last several films is how you make that question dramatic. How do you make it have an energy that’s not just cerebral but also emotional, right? If you’re wondering, “Oh, was that intentional? Is he aware of the weighting? Did he approve of this waiting?” All that stuff sets you up to think about the relationship between the camera, the subjects, then you’re activated to think about other things down the line. Right? So it activates your brain. It’s something that I not only don’t shy away from, but embrace actively.

You recently said the true-false thing is not very unconventional anymore — that people need to be unconventional in a different way.

It was never that unconventional to start. I mean, the history documentaries in this history of true-falseness. Right? Nanook of the North was staged, so on and down the line. It’s just gotten extremely uninteresting, lately, for people to just think mixing fiction and nonfiction and think it’ll be revelatory. To me, for my thinking, the direction for into Bisbee is more: how can use that sort of method to get at historical mythologies, basically — the performance of mythologies? How can you use performance and documentary to get someone to think about how we get locked in stories and those stories that have horrible repercussions. Right? And that we need to understand the stories. So you could use the same method to get at something. But I really find a lot of these things to be usually personal. It’s like everyone wants to make something like Actress, which I was proud to make, but it’s where it’s like, “Oh, it’s mixing fiction, nonfiction because it’s about how our personal identities are wrapped up.” And I think that’s just been played out.

So to me it’s like: yeah, younger filmmakers should not be making hybrid films. I mean, no one should make hybrid… all films are hybrid films, first of all. So it’s a meaningless distinction. But basically, if documentary is a form that can be pushed forward continuously, how do you use this to pry open other thinking? I think the western, wild wild west, good guy with a gun mythology is incredibly damaging on a day-to-day basis in our lives. Americans use this mythology to help sort of make ourselves feel good about all kinds of shit, including now. Like separating children at the border — this is in news stories about this stuff. So we can use this stuff to see something else. But that, to me, is like finding a form that I feel excited about still and using that form to get at something much deeper than the formal questions. But yeah: young filmmakers need to abandon that shit and do something else as soon as possible — like, please, for God’s sake.

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Actress never felt too much like a double-faced film, honestly. One could take it as a very straightforward story and depiction, and I sometimes suspected that the way people talked about it was grafting true-false concepts onto that.

That’s what people do with documentaries. The thing I tell my students that I think is really important is that, when you’re watching a documentary, what’s happening outside the frame is as important as what’s happening inside. What I mean by that is: people read into it. She’s an actress, so she’s doing this to get back into acting. She’s using the camera and playing to the camera and taking it back to that. That’s not in the movie per se, but it’s definitely in the way people watched the movie — and with Kate, the idea was to not only embrace that questioning but use it to basically talk about depression. Use it to really get inside Kate’s head in a way that I was hoping would be unique and dark. Kate was like basically like, “Let’s just burn the whole fucking thing down.” My idea was that we shouldn’t even tell stories anymore. Like, you shouldn’t tell stories about real people. Nothing is good; it all needs to be leveled. Bisbee is an attempt to build back up from those ashes, to make something out of what I think we’ve rediscovered as filmmakers, you know what I mean?

The reenactments surprised me in how much it felt like you were, frankly, going for it — the level of effort in staging environments, dressing up the actors, the western-esque lighting. The idea of reenactments typically recalls the History Channel or Errol Morris — and I was saying this leans more towards the latter, but it’s not in the same style. It’s a bit more, as much as I hate this word, cinematic. I have to wonder how much that came from Kate, whose constructed sequences also resembled an actual narrative feature that you might see, albeit with this same kind of distance.

This is a big conversation, because in Kate the reenactments are meant to be so bad that they’re depressing, right? Like there’s so depressingly bad and they feel like this is an empty exercise and it’s meaningless and you can’t do this. They re not just bad, not just amateurish, but garish. And we wanted them to be garish and awful because they were critiquing the idea of reenacting it while reenacting it — the colors had to be sensationalistic, and things like that. And this was different. I was like, we don’t really want to do that again because this is about people coming together to understand something deeper through the reenactment. Right. And, for me, one of the things they’re understanding is that they’re… one of the things I think the movie is doing is that so many different characters are in different movies. The guy, Richard, playing Sheriff Harry Wheeler, is in a western and Fernando’s in a musical, music video kind of thing. And Mary Ellen is in a Telenovela, and Laurie’s in a real artsy, sort of like John Sayles movie or something. Everyone’s in their own thing.

What do I mean by that? I mean that the images that we’re using are meant to connote the mythologies that lead to those images. Right? And so musicals and Westerns have deep mythologies that are about sort of replicating and reproducing ideologies and all that other stuff. Right? So the idea is that you’re kind of looking at a movie about all kinds of different ways of seeing stories — and to do that, you have to conjure those real feelings, you know? So working with Jared Alterman, it wasn’t, “This a bad western.” It was like, no, it needs to look like a western. This isn’t a bad musical. No, it’d feel like a real moment, like a musical moment.

So it’s not meant to be undercut the same way, that Kate is. But the same time, I don’t even think of them as reenactments. Are they performance pieces? That’s what they are as much as that, but I have too much respect for the history of performance art to call them performance art. But there’s something else; I don’t know what they are. I mean, there’s just as much in common with Tombstone reenactors as there is with anything else. I’m really excited by cars passing and cheesy acting and cheap sets and all that other stuff. But if it evokes the deeper feelings of that genre stuff, then we’re working on another level, too.

You stress the idea that, in documentaries, there’s as much importance with what’s happening outside the frame as inside. I was thinking about this throughout — these little moments where, and this is kind of a big word, it felt like you were editorializing, in terms of what you’re retaining and how it’s included.

Yeah, yeah, yeah,

I think the first thing that suggested it was the Tombstone reenactment: it’s revealed that we’re watching a Second Amendment celebration  only because you’ve made sure a clarifying line is included, and it slips in right before you cut away.

Well, Tombstone is a Second Amendment city; they’re proud to be. And that’s important to understand because Bisbee is a blue dot in a red sea. Like the minute men a few years ago, which were doing horrible things at the border, they came from tombstone. So it’s important. That’s that. That’s editorializing. Sure. Yeah. But it’s as important to me that you realize that the place that reenacts the “good guy with a gun” mythology every single day, the OK Corral mythology — which is not true; it’s a made-up story — that’s reenacted every single day. And guess what? They’re a Second Amendment city today. It’s not like, “Look at this cute history, but here’s why it was wrong.” It’s like, “No, cowboys were good and cowboys are good today.” And that also contrasts a lot with what Bisbee is — a different kind of place. So certainly editorializing. Also, Tombstone’s a fucking crazy place. And I mean, I love it. I mean, I really love it. I love that, in the middle of town, someone would fire a gun in the air and be like, where’s the second proud to be a second amendment city, go fuck yourself. It’s a crazy place considering what that means to be pronouncing that, you know, in 2017. So I’m editorializing, but they wouldn’t see it as that. They would be like, “Yeah, I’m proud to express that.”

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That’s the thing: it was underlined, but almost felt like it was underlined for not being underlined. The fact that you have people who are presented as they offer justification for the deportation. My favorite interview is the woman whose father is what she calls “a company man” — she seems conflicted about it. She says she loves her father and knows that he’s a company man. And at the same time she’s uncomfortable with how these things played out.

She says, “I’ve heard a lot of stories about stuff. People tell those stories were the ones who did the deporting.” And it’s important. I mean, it’s still a divisive issue in Bisbee because you’ve got to understand that Bisbee is a company town, but a company town means is there is no town without the company and, in this case, a series of companies. And the truth is, in Bisbee, if you worked for Phelps Dodge, you were taken care of. I mean, people grew up thinking about the PD hospital as a great place to have a baby because they took care of you, and etc. Right? The schools were good. Everything was good because if you worked for the company, you are in this thing. And then you add the trauma of 1975 — the mines left town.

So there is a longing for the company-town mentality because it’s way better than being an impoverished town. Like, from the richest town in Arizona to the poorest. A company town might have some dark sides to it, but, “I love Bisbee and I wished we had some money here now.” So it’s not even just like people were all on this side of the company — it’s also just this idea that the IWW could come into town and say, “We’re going to shut your whole system down” and people would be okay with it. Of course they weren’t okay with it. No. Once you learn the story, what we’re trying to do with the film is to try to get people to understand that you go from defending the existence of your town to five steps away from xenophobia and a genocide, and it only takes, like, five steps to get there. That’s what’s crazy.

It’s like when we’re hearing about children being ripped from their families. There’s one way to look at that, which is like, “God, Trump’s a monster and this is bad.” That is a step-by-step story of the border that has led us to this moment of new internment camps on the border right now. It doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen over 10 years. It’s a long process of people justifying policy decisions and ideologies. Part of the whole performance thing, too, is: the IWW was a performance; the fucking wild west mentality of the sheriff was a performance. The capital being out for its own sake. They’re embracing ideology in a way that is, “This is what we believe in, this is what we stand for.” And they propagandizing themselves into these camps, and then something like this happens.

I’ve seen you asked more than once about “the newfound relevance of the film” and “the ways that it can reflect upon our situation today.” But even if I hadn’t detected a trend I wouldn’t have been interested in asking you.

Yeah, yeah, sure.

Isn’t it just too obvious?

Someone was like, “What’s the relevance of the film?” And it’s like, it’s so obvious that you don’t have to say. The day we were editing the scene where Mel from the bodega gets ripped out of his… the day I locked picture on that scene, I really struggled with that scene and where it was going to be placed 100 7-11s were raided and people were being pulled out of 7-11s. So it’s like, it’s so obvious that we don’t have anyone saying the name Trump. I mean, the thing to me that is important about the relevance and so much about experience with the companies is that everybody who did the reenactment was thinking that as well.

The reason why hundreds of people came out that those days is because they realized that creating those images was important for them as a community, but then for people to see for the bigger picture. Because it’s a border town. They live with these stories every day, so something that had been long buried was suddenly so important. So what matters is that when you see people grabbing people, they’re thinking about the political situation; they’re thinking that. Then you understand the urgency in their performance.

All of your movies have these weird moments where life throws you these circumstances that are so on-the-nose that, had it been fictionalized, you would have kind of rolled your eyes at its presence. I know it’s been brought up more than once, but I think it’s because it’s actually worth bringing up: maybe one of the only times when your voice comes on the soundtrack is clarifying the word “solidarity” to somebody. From the first Sundance reviews, people were saying, “Greene doesn’t show up often, but when he does…”

Yeah. But what’s underlying that moment is that I’m correcting. I’m a white guy correcting a Mexican, a Mexican-American, on the word solidarity. That should not be a one-to-one sort of relationship between… I usually use my voice in movies to bring up how shitty it is to make films about people, like my voice is always like the villain, sort of prodding people along. And I don’t think it’s so much here, but the other time that you hear me is, I’m looking at a picture of someone riding a bull and I say, “What’s that?” And he says “bull riding,” and it’s like, you can’t get more… somebody would be like, “Why do you have that in the movie? You just looked stupid.” It’s like, “Yeah, because I didn’t know what that was!” You should know that the person making this film didn’t know that a picture of someone riding a bull could just be described by the term “bull riding.” It’s a limited perspective. You should think about the filmmaker having a limited perspective going forward, and you don’t have to put a lot of that in there for it to get across.

But in that particular moment, like the thing about the Fernando storyline in the movie is: he’s apolitical. We drag him into this thing. He’s not kicking and screaming so much, but a little unsure of himself. And then, in the end, he transforms into this other thing, and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. So for me, me correcting him saying “solidarity” is not just, good-guy filmmaker opening the eyes of a poor kid who doesn’t know anything. It should make you feel a little weird. And I think it does. I think it makes people go like, “Oh, you know, he’s a little mansplaining right there, a little whitesplaining,” and then that pays off so nicely later when James is trying to explain the history of people coming to this country and Fernando puts him in his place — like, at that point he has the moment to shut the white guy down.

So I use my voice in a very specific way because it’s to get at that kind of stuff because I think it, in a way, it helps you. I mean, it helps you see through what we’re doing and less present than the more recent films. Certainly Kate. Not Actress. I mean, you don’t hear my voice at all, but I’m holding the camera. I’m holding the camera. So that’s important. You don’t hear my voice at all, but I’m holding the camera in a very specific entry point. I think I’m slightly less than in Kate, but I didn’t need it to be like Kate. I’m reminded of the great J. Hoberman reviewing a Frederick Wiseman film and he didn’t like this movie very much and he was just like, “You don’t get the sense of the filmmaker at all.” And he was basically saying that Wiseman was another unethical filmmaker because he was not in his films and I’m like, “You cannot watch a Frederick Wiseman film knowing that Fred Wiseman edits them without thinking of his decision making.”

Of course the filmmakers are in the film and it’s always a fine line because you see me in a couple shots — you see me, you hear my voice, you should be thinking that the whole time, especially as far as framed and portrait shots — those weird, long portrait shots. That’s me. I mean, I’m the one obviously creating those scenarios. The movie is an intervention. It’s not an observation, so you have to have to have an intervention, so I just don’t even think it’s necessary to go further.

You, more than many documentary filmmakers — even documentary filmmakers who actually get distribution, with head-above-water exposure — have a decent number of viewers, and people who personally know you.

Yeah. Probably less. Hopefully we’ll find some people who don’t know me to watch the movie.

You’ve written a lot about documentary criticism; you’re talking about it now. I’m wondering how you feel about it lately, if you think there’s been any shift.

I think the positive is that certainly the review that’s like, “Here’s a paragraph about what the story’s about and then nothing else like that” — that review is pretty dead in the water. I mean, it’s shocking when it happens. It still happens all the time. There’s so many outlets, specifically the ones that make a difference in people’s lives, that still don’t know how to review a documentary. I’m still shocked at some of the reviews in major outlets, but in general I think that it’s not as bad as it used to be. There’s only so much you can do in that realm about getting people to write about films better. It’s up to filmmakers to make more interesting films and I’m like, to me that’s the fight has gone from, “Critics don’t get what we’re doing” to, “Well, you need to do something interesting and force them to get it.” With this film, we’re particularly trying to work on a scale that’s sort of undeniable.

The last few of my films are all — really except for the first one — small portraits of people, and very intimate situations. You can deny that if you’re not interested in that person. But here we’re trying to work on a bigger scale. And I think that part of that is to be like, “You can’t not watch this movie and think about the ideas that I want you to think about.” But also I want to be entertaining and big enough for you to give a shit. So when you were saying “going forward,” that’s also conceptually different than Kate, but cinematically I wanted it to feel like a big movie, because I think not necessarily just critics, but critics and viewers can latch onto more pleasure and there’s more pleasure, there’s more excitement, more entertainment, more all of it, if we’re “going for it.” Which I like because we certainly went for that true-false tone.

I can recall even five years ago when True/False was definitely a niche festival — there was a thing where obviously smart people were going, but the profile keeps going up. I have to think that’s crucial to the story of that kind of filmmaking becoming more understandable, by and large.

Absolutely. And it’s just because it’s so fun. Maybe that, too. That’s a great follow-up to what I’m saying because True/False is fun. I think there’s great fun in mixing these things and getting people to think in certain ways and, like, making a western-musical-documentary-weirdo ghost story that’s fun. As dark as the story is, the movie’s meant to be fun to watch, and then when those emotions hopefully hit you, when it’s all happening at the end… the one thing about Kate was it was so unfun. [Laughs] It was a very unfunny movie, and I remember it was Nick Pinkerton — who I can mention by name because he’ll never write about my movies ever again — who was just like, “Yeah, I like it. It’s fine. But boy, it’s humorless.” And I was like, that’s not what I mean. Actress has a couple of funny moments and Fake it So Real was a comedy, basically. You can do other things, and there’s moments in Bisbee that I think are fun because Bisbee is a fun place. I guess I’m trying to capture that town and you walk the streets, you feel ghosts, you feel trauma, and then you’re like, “This is the weirdest place I’ve ever been.” Like, it’s, it’s a mixture of things. It’s what the hero David Lynch is doing with Twin Peaks. How can you mix those tones in the way that he does? It’s like that. That’s just heroic to me.

The German hairdresser in Kate was funny.

Amazing, yeah. She was incredible. That wig. The wig was funny, but no one knew to laugh; that was the problem. The wig was purposefully this ostentatious, ridiculous thing, like the tan, but no one knows to laugh in that movie because it just seems so dreadfully serious. I just didn’t execute the comedy in Kate very well.

I chuckled.

I wanted people to go, “Ooh, this isn’t gonna work!” [Laughs] Nope. Sure didn’t. It did not work.

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Did you like Bisbee immediately?

Yeah. When I got there in 2003, my mother-in-law bought a house — a summer house kind of thing for family to visit and that was before I was married — and I just loved it. I went to work on the house with her, like, strip the paint off the floors I’d never been in the desert and it reminded me of New York in some ways — like the survival mentality and that it takes a tough creature to live in Bisbee. It’s too weird to be boring ever. It’s just weird all the time, and then I felt ghosts. I mean, I legitimately feel spirits in the town. The only other place is my other favorite place besides New York — New Orleans. I feel just this weird energy in Bisbee, and it makes sense because it’s like the first short film that we released at all. Have you seen those?

I have.

The first short film is all about the energy for the mine. So that’s a real thing. There is actual energy actually coming from minerals, from those mines, and it’s an intense place and I love it. I love it very much.

It was initially difficult to understand how you’d approach the town — if it was going to be from a place of like disdain, disgust — and then the tracking shot of Fernando, when he’s walking on the street and he goes into the theater, was the first moment where I thought to myself, “Okay, maybe he actually likes this place. That feels affectionate.”

Oh, it’s in love. I mean, it’s an in-love shot. I mean, that’s what that shot is: can you believe that you could walk out of the Vietnamese restaurant and walk through a travel agency or whatever it is, into a theater that was open in 1917 and has never been renovated or whatever? Can you believe that exists in a town? I can’t. I can’t. I mean, that’s the kind of place where you’re like, Oh, you should see this,” and it’s just like, “Oh, yeah, that’s a movie theater that was open in 1917.” I can’t believe that that exists and there’s so many places like that in Bisbee. We filmed in the corner hotel, the scene where Fernando goes and meets the guy, a doorman who’s an IWW organizer and that’s filmed in the Warner hotel, which is this abandoned hotel that we got access to film in. That was for Warner Bros., where they housed cowboys for Westerns. So it was like, “How does that place exist? How is it that it’s a ghost town? I mean, it feels like a ghost, like the things that were left there forever, but instead a business is literally working in the front lobby. I love that Bisbee is a place where no one gets their mail delivered; they all go to the post office every day. So the post office is like a center of the place. It’s just really, really important to feel in love with the place. Definitely.

It’s definitely more expansive and excitable than, say, Beacon’s depiction in Actress.

Oh, because I hated Beacon. I mean, I liked the people fine. I love the interiors; I love Brandy’s house. Freddy’s house was like a magical place to film in — but I felt depressed being in what I felt like was a suburb of New York. Sarasota is a deeply alienated pace. I happen to love Sarasota, too, but for Kate. Sarasota feels like a place that’s so shimmery — a sort of mirage of a place.

When it was announced for Sundance, Bisbee was first listed as running 138 minutes.

It played at Sundance at 124. We immediately had them change the runtime because that’s wrong. That was what we submitted. Or we actually submitted a three-hour cut of the movie. But we cut down. I remember desperately getting a call from a programmer asking, “It is any shorter?” It’s half an hour shorter; that’s what we finally got. And that was probably what locked into. But we screened Bisbee at 124 minutes, then I cut it down. So the shorts are not just things that are cut out of the movie, although it could be a five-hour movie. It just ultimately wasn’t. I mean, I would be fine to make a five-hour movie; it just ultimately wasn’t what we thought was the best way to get the impact of the last chapter. So they’re also characters that we knew could never be in the film that I wanted to explore a little bit. And so it’s just a cool opportunity to do something different than that.

Could you talk a bit about those decisions?

The 112-minute cut first played at Hot Docs in April.

So that’s about a three-month span between 124 and 112. So what was the thinking there?

I saw it at Sundance. I felt like, “This is good.” And then I felt like we dodged a bullet with the reviews not all saying it’s really long, and I was happy about that. And I think people got the bigger point. I think in Sundance, actually, no one talks about how long movies are at Sundance because everyone sort of knows that people keep working on the movies after, a lot of times. So you hardly ever get people talking about the edit, for example. But then I was sure that it needed to be shorter and it was just a breakthrough. But what’s funny is that it was like a note that I’d been given by Doug, one of my producers, and he gave a note early that the scene where they go to the parade, which is the July Fourth parade, which was in the cut, the original. It’s like, I love it, but “I think we should keep it for these reasons, I think we could lose it for these reasons.”

And ultimately he was right. And I just knew he was right the whole time — but keep in mind, we edited the movie, we wrapped picture July 20th or something like that, and two-and-a-half months later, submitted to Sundance. That’s insane. That’s insane for a film of this scope and size and scale and all that stuff. So yeah, the process was basically: continue to watch it, continue to think about it, and continue to want to. I just want to make the best movie so I don’t care about… I know that the most important audiences are the ones going to come up here in September. So yeah, we just kept going and eventually I think we found the right balance. It’s also good. I knew it was never gonna be an 80-minute movie and I didn’t think it needed to be. So it seems kind of impossible for this movie. It’s impossible. I mean, it’s very possible for a lot of movies — and for this movie, 100% impossible. I would just embrace that. It’s not only four minutes longer than Kate Plays Christine — I think it feels a lot shorter. Did it feel long to you?

I felt like it was lengthy, but it’s like the way you can affectionately describe a movie as slow.

The structure of the film is chapters, so that has its own sort of thing. But the idea there they’re not self-contained in terms of each chapter having its own direct point, but they do move to a certain moment and then the story sort of restarted itself. And so there’s a little bit of that that happens again, again, again, which I like. I like telling a film of that sort of structure, like things crescendo and then you go into another place. And that’s why I like musicals: musicals can go to this epic place like Mary Poppins. I’ve written about this, about how documentary filmmakers could learn a lot from Mary Poppins as a structural thing. It’s not plot-driven. It’s big, big sensations of feelings and then through those sensations and feelings you understand where the characters are, what they’re doing, and then it switches gears into another big sensation of feelings and so that’s kinda what I’m excited about. But also it’s an epic tale and it’s a whole town and it takes time.

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Can I ask some questions about Her Smell?

It’ll be in the world, in some capacity, whenever this comes out. I may not answer it all, but go ahead.

It seems like that happened quickly.

Listen Up Philip, I’m proud to say, was wrapped in October and was seen by Sundance folks like three or four weeks later. I mean, we work pretty quickly because Alex and I know exactly what we want to do and we’d go for it. I’m quick; I like being quick. I like making decisions and living with them and Alex likes that too and there’s an energy that comes with that, and we work really well together. There’s plenty of people could watch Bisbee and Her Smell and say, “Yeah, well, maybe you should have taken longer,” [Laughs] but I don’t care about those people because there’s a vigor to those two. Even the structural sort of slow-moving aspects of Bisbee, I think it feels unwieldy in a way that I’m excited about. I just think movies… we’ve gotten too used to this idea that we’ve got to take forever and pulverize the life out of things. We’re interested in going quick. Her Smell is an epic film. I mean, it’s epic in its own way. It’s also got a similar structure. actually: it’s like five acts versus six acts. A very different film, obviously, but doing similar structural things with the way you see a story play out over time.

Well, recent movies that you’ve done with him, it feels like so much information can be conveyed from one scene to the next and it moves quick. Like, Golden Exits is not a fast-paced movie necessarily, but it moves in the way it’s written and it’s edited.

Sure. And that film, specifically, we gutted a lot of stuff. There was a whole monologue, conceptual thing that’s still in the film very much, but which we worked at in the edit. But that’s just what we do. I mean it. Her Smell we didn’t have to rework much because it was pretty locked in, and now I think Alex takes it as a challenge to write something that I can’t rework. [Laughs] I think his writing and my way of thinking about scenes work extremely well together. Of course with Sean as the foundation. It’s just a really, really graceful, easy collaboration. And he very much values what I bring to the table, which is nice, and he knows I very much value what he brings to the table. So it’s great and it’s also so much easier to Her Smell that it was Bisbee ’17 — like, infinitely easier — and people are like, “How could that be?” It’s because people just tend to tend to think of fiction as bigger stakes and more money. And so it must be harder. Bigger stakes, more money makes it easier. Bisbee is a thing where, at any point, I could say, “That’s the beginning of the movie, but now it’s the middle of the movie,” whereas you can’t do that with Her Smell. You can a little bit, but you can’t.

And so I love editing those movies. Documentary filmmakers, even when we’re making something like Bisbee that has no actors and set design, all this stuff, it’s still not Elisabeth Moss and the team that Sean has doing the lighting. Jared just simply didn’t have those resources — because he can do that stuff too, but it’s just like we were working at a smaller scale, so it’s so much easier to edit. Every shot looks fucking great, so let’s have fun with that. And in Bisbee, every shot looked great too, but it’s just much more of a conceptual piece where the truth and people’s real feelings guide just as much as Jared’s brilliant cinematography. So you’re always balancing all these other things that you don’t have to balance. No one cares about Lizzie Moss’s truth. [Laughs] They care about how good of a performance she’s given. So it’s much, much more fun.

So people need to be unconventional in a different way. Do you see Bisbee as a conscious attempt to be unconventional in a different way?

No, it’s an attempt to be conventional because it’s an attempt to make something that can be radical and understandable at the same time. And to me it’s radical and it’s layered. It’s radical in its shifts of genre. It’s radical in its tone shifts. It’s radical in its politics, I think — not just being a leftist but it’s radical in all these ways and it’s also radical in totally not caring at all about fiction-nonfiction divide, whatever that means. I don’t care at all about that, and so that’s radical, but I think that an audience can be brought to the table. That doesn’t mean like, oh, I made decisions in order to be conventional. No. I want the story to be told and I want people to see this film and I want people to look at it and go, “Wow, that’s an interesting way into the story and it adds layers of meaning to something that would otherwise be straightforward bad.”

“Layers of meaning” is not just to say there are several sides to this story; layers of meaning also means the performance of mythology. Things like that that I think are very clear; and I think I made them clear. I guess I don’t necessarily believe that it’s an attempt to be conventional because I don’t think it’s conventional in a lot of ways, but it is an attempt to be understandable and comprehensible. I think Kate was very comprehensible to some people and totally baffling to other people, which I love; I’m proud of that and it’s baffling to me. But that’s what I mean by Kate was like, “Let’s burn it all down,” and this is like: maybe we can build something out of the ashes. Maybe we could create meaning that’s understandable with these tools that have previously been used to burn it all down. There’s a nihilism to Kate that does not exist in this thing. This film is idealistic in some ways. I felt that it’s hopeful that people will come together to try to do this together; I want it to be.

There’s something kind of fucked-up about the path towards it. But not in a bad way.

The question is: do you conjure ghosts or do you but them forever? It’s a huge question about how we collectively handle our history, and I don’t know how I feel about whether we should conjure them or bury them. I hope my own ambivalence towards that… it’s not even ambivalence. It’s more like fear of doing the wrong thing is felt in the movie. I hope that’s how you feel, but in the end it felt hopeful to do it, but it could have easily been very dark and that would’ve been the movie. This is why I cling to the idea that these are nonfiction films because I didn’t script that ending. [Laughs] Well, I did script the ending, but just the pay off of everything that we were doing was totally unscripted — in terms of how people were actually going to react to it.

You had me expecting something darker going in — very profoundly unpleasant places.

Was that a weakness, do you think?

No. It didn’t feel like the movie’s intent and didn’t seem necessary. Given how you got there, the idea is already present — knowing that it was terrible.

The story itself is so dark.

Even the people who do try to justify it cushion the whole thing with, “Yes, but…”

Yeah. Having Dick Graham be in that, get up and have those people singing to him “Solidarity Forever” to him has got as much in common with a Christmas Carol as it has me holding his feet to the fire. Because ultimately, the darkest thing in the movie is that it happened. Then it happened before. It’s kept happening. When Dick Graham says, “That’s why in the Vietnam War, I was against the protests.” That, to me, is a signal — not unlike a bunch of other things in the film — that this movie’s not about 1978; it’s about everything between 1917 and 2017. The entire history of the 20th century is the company mentality versus the workers mentality. And those narratives are used again to divide us, and it’s embedded in everything that’s in that movie. So that’s a different kind of darkness. It’s not like shock; it’s like a resignation. Hopefully what we did, at least within the town, feels like it’s breaking out of that loop, somehow creating another loop — like there’s something else.

Bisbee ’17 is now playing at Film Forum and expands around the country in weeks and months to come.


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