A DVD Talk Interview With The Makers of American Movie
American Movie follows the life of an Independent Filmmaker through the trials and tribulations of making a film. We spoke with Chris Smith and Sarah Price, the makers of American Movie about their own trials and tribulations in making American Movie. In our interview we used the questions which were submitted by DVD Talk Members, so here's YOUR interview with the makers of American Movie:
How do you see the role of DVD in getting an independent film like American Movie see by a wide audience?
Sarah: The other thing that I think is interesting about DVD's is the commentary track. I know a lot of people look forward to listening to what's happening behind the scenes. It was nice doing the commentary together the four of us: Chris, myself, Mark and Mike, and it gives our documentary and added dimension, because we were able to talk about how Chris and I were shooting something on a particular day and then Mark and Mike were able to comment on what was going on in their lives at the time. I think the commentary track is something really special that people are going to enjoy.
What role has the Internet played in American Movie?
Chris: It was really exciting to have this new way of get the word out on our film. It's great to open a dialogue with people who have seen the film, and if someone has a question or comment they can e-mail us directly or post messages on the message board. We were getting close to a million hits a month! The Internet plays a similar role to DVD's as it gives you a home for wayward footage and thing. Another great thing about the Internet is that there are people in places where the movie wasn't released theatrically, who now know about the film and will be ready to see it now on video or DVD. More importantly, after you see any documentary, everyone has that question of "where are they now?", on the web site we can address that: Mark has been posting a daily journal, we have updates on how many copies of Coven Mark has sold, and people have a chance to chat with Mike. It's a great interactive tool for a documentary.
Sarah: It's another way to get the word out, get a dialogue started, and have people interact with the film on some level. The site is controlled by the filmmakers, and we didn't have to wait for the distributors to do something, or some sort of cable TV behind the scenes show to express and interest in the film, this was something that we created. Chris did the design for the site and hired a couple of friends to do the programming, so it kept the control for this type of dialogue in the hands of the filmmakers.
What effect do you think Digital Video and Digital Cinema will have on the world of independent filmmaking?
Chris: In terms of Mark, it will have no impact, as he won't shoot on anything but film. However, I do think it will afford some people that financially would never have the opportunity to shoot on film, to shoot on a format that isn't very expensive, but is of a high enough quality that if the project comes out well, then it can be blown up to 35mm and put in theaters. In that way it opens what used to be a very limited world to almost anybody.
Sarah: People ask us why we didn't shoot American Move on Digital Video, at the time we started really the only viable format was something like High-8 which had some problems. Digital video is such a great compact image, given it's likeness of camera and everything. I think that the difference between shooting on film and shooting on video at this point is going to be dictated by the project themselves. With American Movie it seemed appropriate to shoot on film because that's what Mark has a passion for. He has sort of this nostalgic Orson Wellsian view of cinema, and really likes the actual physical chemistry of film itself. There are lots of projects that would demand a quicker set up time and so you would have to shoot it on Digital Video. It's allowing people to make those decisions of format based on the project itself, so they don't have to feel like they are being roped into one or the other, now they have some sort of decision in the mechanism of the format.
How similar was the making of American Movie to the Making of Mark's film Coven?
Chris: They were probably more similar than we'd like to admit - the time that they took and the problems that they both had. Sarah and I were running into huge financial problems the entire time we were making the movie. There were technical problems. Everything you could imagine. Everything you saw that was happening to Mark happened to us to some degree. I think that it's just something that is inherent to low budget independent filmmaking and it's just part of what you go through on the road to getting your film done.
What made you decide to continue making American Movie after Mark decided to postpone Northwestern?
Sarah: It's funny because I distinctly remember the day Chris called me and said Mark quit. Mark was really urgent to do something at this point in his life, so yes, he quit Northwestern, but the whole idea was that he needed to finish Coven to raise the money to continue to do Northwestern. Mark told us it would only take two weeks to finish Coven, and we made the decision that Coven was not a part of our story, and we would stop filming. So we did stop filming, and two weeks went buy and we realized that he was no where near finishing Coven, not only that, but we were missing a lot of great moments. We realized that Mark's life had taken a turn; his life was now about making Coven. We had to realize that, be flexible, and also change with him. So we resumed filming after a couple of weeks, and thank God we did because it took another year and a half to finish.
As Independent Filmmakers making a documentary about another filmmaker, how did you draw the line and not get involved with your subject and his film?
Chris: It was actually easier than you might think. Sarah and I from the very beginning said "We are making a movie about the struggles Mark goes through in making his film, about his life, his family and friends". It wasn't a movie about two other independent filmmakers trying to make this movie, it was a movie about Mark and his life. For us to start interjecting our opinions into that environment would have betrayed what we had set out to do. It really wasn't a difficult decision. There was a friendship and relationship that did develop between us and everybody else. At the same time, as far as the film was concerned it was pretty easy to maintain distance. If Mark was having trouble shooting a scene because no one was there to help him, we wanted to document the struggle he went through rather than say "Oh, let's not make our movie, let's help him out." He never asked for our help. From the beginning Mark basically said, "If you want to make your movie you can make it, but you do what you want to do and I'm doing what I have to do." He really felt that way, and so he didn't feel that we should be helping him out. There wasn't really a cross over and Sarah and I never really felt bad for him, because we had faith in him and we respected him as a filmmaker. Ultimately we knew he'd pull through it one way or another.
Do you consider the inclusion of Coven on the American Movie DVD to be success for Mark and his film?
Sarah: I think American Movie has really helped him get his movie out. I don't think that Mark views the inclusion of Coven on the DVD as success, I think what his idea of success is to be able to now afford the time to really work on what he wants to work on, which is his film Northwestern. It has very much helped him, and he's thrilled with it, and he's working very hard to fulfill all the orders. He's got a new office space, and it's basically he and his mother working there nine to five processing all the orders. It's a lot of work, and he's enjoying it. He's enjoying all the attention he's received by being an example of someone who has dedication to fulfilling his dream. But his idea of success is to continue going forward and to keep his feet on the ground and do what he set out to do in the first place, which is make Northwestern.
What do honestly think about Coven as a movie?
Sarah: Both Chris and I think it's great. Mark has a great eye and a great talent for situations and creating an atmosphere, which is sort of what you hear him talk about throughout the whole film. He's constantly sighting these atmospheres he wants to capture on film, and I think he has a great talent for doing that. Coven is of course a first film, and with any first film you are going to have some flaws that you can definitely work on for the next film. Coven is a really strong first film that shows the potential of what he can do when he has more resources and more time and more help.
What kind of advice would you give to people who are trying to make their first film?
Chris: Always think about the film you want to make and don't make a film because you want to go to Sundance or you want to be famous. Really make something that is important to you and means something to you. Ultimately your true feelings about what you are trying to do will come through. If you do something that you know, something that is close to you or something that is meaningful to you, that's what will help make your film a success. Don't try to predict what other people want to see.
Sarah: People talk about someone having "strong vision" and I think that what "strong vision" is all about is your own interest in what you are doing, and being able to see it through and follow your instinct. That ultimately is what is going to separate your film from the thousands of others that are being made out there and are competing for the very few slots of distribution. It's generally people who are interested in their own film rather all the possible starlight campaign and caviar that could go on, that really breaks through.
At what point during the making of American Movie did you realize you had something special?
Chris: That actually happened when we first met Uncle Bill and Mike Shank and were actually making the film. The story seemed so amazing to us as were the people who were involved. As the events unfolded during those two years, Sarah and I were constantly amazed at how things were coming together. We could just see the movie coming together. The story just became bigger and better every day. It seemed better than any narrative film that you could ever write, the characters, the dialogue the scenes. For me it was really an amazing time while we were filming and while we were chronicling the story.
Sarah: When we started this film we both thought it would be six months and we both had other things to do. It became pretty apparent that it just sort of took over our lives. I think one of the reasons why that happened was because we instinctively felt that this was something that we were connecting with on various levels and also something we believed needed to get out there. Now just because we believed in it, didn't mean that everyone else would, so there's always the risk and always the idea that if it's edited together it just might not go anywhere. But we could not concern ourselves with that we just had to keep thinking about what we were interested in and why we were doing this.
What are you currently working on?
Chris: Currently, there's this one project which is this Internet TV station called Zero TV, and that's kind of consuming a lot of our time. It's a an Internet TV station which we've been working on for a while, and it's going to have a lot of programming that we are all doing internally with a bunch of people we've worked with in the past. That's where I've been focusing all my energy now.
Sarah: I'm finishing another documentary we started at the same time as American Movie. This was one that I was shooting and Chris was doing sound on. So we were actually shooting two documentaries in the first year, and that sort of got pushed to the way side as the scope of American Movie unfolded. I am going back to try to finish editing that.
What's the Documentary about?
Sarah: It's a little less dramatic; it's about some neighbors of mine, about three houses of people, who have lived next door to each other for about seventy years or so. I come from a background where I've moved around a lot and so when I moved there next to these people I thought, "what a great feeling of stability and community." It's sort of an old world type atmosphere. As I got to know everybody and documented them over the course of a year, it turns out they could really care less about who they live next to or how long they've been there. The idea of gentrification just doesn't bother them. There's just a whole host of social issues that people raise the flags for, and when you actually ask people who are involved they really don't care sometimes. It's more of a seasonal portrait of these people, and how they communicate, and the whole idea of neighbors, and the people who live five feet away from you.
Which filmmakers have influenced your work the most?
Sarah: I love a lot of different types of films; I love Hollywood, independent and foreign. One thing that inspires me to make films is of course documentaries, films by: Fredrick Weisman and Earl Morris, there's a film that's very inspirational to me by Ross McOwe called Sherman's March, another film called Seventeen. So it's not only just filmmakers but films that inspire me.
Chris: I also have been inspired by certain films rather than filmmakers, because of the impact they had on me at the time and the way they've stayed with me over the years. Some of those would include Vernon, Florida, One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest, Sunset Boulevard, Breaking Away, any of those sorts of films that seem to work on so many different levels.
How important was Sundance in the success of American Movie?
Chris: I think Sundance is the stamp of approval, and it's a great forum for getting people to see how your film can play in front of an audience. Who knows what would happen without it, but at the same time it is there, and if you can get in and get seen, it's a great way to launch a film and get it out there to more people. I don't know what would have happened with American Movie without Sundance, it may not have reached an audience, it may have reached a bigger audience, it's hard to say. I do feel that Sundance has been instrumental in getting this film seen.
Sarah: One of our co-producers Jim McKay did a film called Our Song, it went to Sundance and didn't get picked up. The film has gone on to a lot of other festivals and has done extremely well. Sundance isn't the only conduit, but it did help us.
Will we ever see American Job on DVD?
Chris: We are in negotiations right now for it to come out on video and DVD at the end of the summer, but it's one of those things where we are waiting to see how American Movie release will do to see what we can do with American Job.