Ross McElwee's films are memoirs, not documentaries.
Sep 1 2009, 12:00am
INTERVIEW BY JESSE PEARSON
PORTRAITS BY KRISTEN BLACK
Ross McElwee’s films are memoirs, not documentaries. Since his watershed moment, the cult classic Sherman’s March (1986), through the films that have followed—Time Indefinite (1993), Six O’Clock News (1997), and Bright Leaves (2003)—McElwee has a released a string of autobiographical films that, taken together, are unlike any other body of work in cinema. Ross McElwee himself is the main character in his nonfiction works, but they never feel like navel gazing or self-absorption. Instead, we see an earnest and funny and honest quest to understand self and life and all the scary stuff that we all have to fight with, most importantly love and death. With his big themes and his careful narration and his recurring characters, McElwee’s films feel more like Proust than Pennebaker.
We recently caught up with Ross via telephone from his office at Harvard, where he teaches filmmaking to a bunch of very lucky kids.
Vice: I’ve read that you majored in creative writing as an undergraduate at Brown.
Ross McElwee: That’s true.
I’m wondering who the literary inspirations on your film work might have been.
Well, I’m from the South and, obviously, there were many southern writers who were important to me when I was in high school. Eudora Welty and Faulkner are the obvious ones. Thomas Wolfe was another writer who had a big influence on me. Nobody reads him now, but—
I love Look Homeward, Angel. But the language is very ornate and I’m not sure if people want that now.
It’s very ornate, and he’s very prolix, and the books are very thick. It’s no surprise that nobody’s reading him anymore, but I loved his books. I thought they spoke directly to me even though, clearly, he had a national audience. It wasn’t just obscure southerners who doted on his work. In fact, in my film Bright Leaves, there’s a little homage to Thomas Wolfe. In one shot in which I’m walking through a display of cemetery markers, I walk past an angel. It’s pretty indirect, but it’s there.
Yeah, that wouldn’t have occurred to me, but I get it now.
There’s no reason why it would occur to any sane person. But it was my private tip of the hat to Thomas Wolfe.
Well, that’s interesting. Since your films are very personal, do you put a lot of secret messages in them?
I do not, but there are a couple of others. In Sherman’s March, there’s one somewhat more overt homage to Buster Keaton when I’m standing at the ruins of Old Sheldon Church in Charleston. It was totally destroyed by Sherman’s troops, but the brick facade still stands. I stood in the doorway consciously thinking of Steamboat Bill.
Right, right. This is going to make me go back and watch your movies with entirely different eyes now. I’m going to become like the conspiracy-theorist Paul-is-dead guy about your films.
Well, don’t expect to find too many secrets.
Did you move into filmmaking because writing didn’t work out for you?
I found it so difficult to write well. I was very dedicated to it through high school into college, but it takes a certain perseverance and personality that, ultimately, I perhaps didn’t have. I also was seduced by still photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. There were courses that I could take there as an undergraduate at Brown, and I think they opened the door to visual media. I started to see the world in a more visual way than I had growing up in North Carolina.
Another thing that occurred to me is that the writing life can be a very, very insular and often lonely life, and your film work involves a great deal of being social.
It certainly does. But I think that any writer would probably say that his or her work entails getting out in the world and collecting experiences and then transmuting them somehow into fiction. It’s a little more overt in documentary filmmaking because one has a camera on one’s shoulder, and those interactions become the direct material from which you make the documentaries. So filmmaking did force me out into the world more, and I think I liked that. And, you know, one possible way in which filmmaking can be quite different from the solitary confinement of writing—as you describe it—is that it involves crews of people working together. But of course, that’s not how I work. So in that sense, my enterprise is still a somewhat solitary one.
Maybe another corollary is the editing room. The writer goes out and gathers material and goes into his garret, and you go out and gather your material and go into editing.
I think that that’s exactly right. I’ve very much relied on the input of a handful of people whose advice I strongly believe in, but in the end being in the editing room is still a very solitary experience for me.
You mentioned still photography sparking something for you. Are there any particular photographers you would name? Southern photographers, perhaps?
I was very taken by Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Those were the two big figures when I was taking photography courses, and, you know, I think that their influence is still being felt.
Absolutely, especially Cartier-Bresson I think.
He’s very much in the spirit of the kind of filmmaking that people like Fred Wiseman, and Jean Rouch in France, capitalized on. They sort of did what Cartier-Bresson was doing and turned it into 24 frames a second.
Frank and Cartier-Bresson were also influences on William Eggleston. Did his work inspire you? He is a fellow southern artist.
You know, I was about to name Bill Eggleston as being one of the people whose work I found interesting, but I think he is a little more estranged from the world that he’s photographing. I feel much more of a kinship with Cartier-Bresson. Robert Frank was also somewhat alienated, or somewhat detached, but also got, I don’t know, closer to people than Eggleston for me. I can’t explain the difference, but there’s something a little too gothic about Eggleston’s work to appeal to me directly.
I like his work a lot, of course, but I think I know what you mean.
Oh, I very much respect his work. I went to the big retrospective at MoMA when it happened.
Perhaps we should talk for just a moment about the writing, the narration, in your films. In your work, we often see these moments where you’re talking directly to the camera about how there’s sort of a lull in the shooting and you’re not sure whether to go here or there or even to keep going at all. You’ll be in a motel room talking to the camera about your bewilderment or your indecision at that moment. Then there’s also your voice-over narration, which sounds like it’s being done during the shooting. Now, do you write while you’re on the road making a movie, or does all the narration get written and recorded as you edit?
Well, that’s a good question. I do some of both. Even though I abandoned writing in the sense of trying to write discrete pieces of fiction or nonfiction, writing stayed in my life and my work because I write these voice-overs. I have tremendous respect for Fred Wiseman and those who practiced really pure cinéma vérité, where the filmmaker is not a part of the story at all. I find that work very, very engaging and inspiring, but I felt that that approach didn’t suit me somehow.
Can I ask, did you ever make attempts at what could be called pure cinéma vérité?
Oh, yes, I did. My early film Space Coast is an example of that. Cinéma-vérité films are traditionally made in crews of two, sometimes three, people, and in that sense, Space Coast is vérité. There are three or four short lines of narration identifying people, but that’s it, and it’s a 90-minute film. I’d say that the narration is less than a minute total, and it’s also factual narration. It’s not subjective, but then that was something that I thought could be explored more with voice-over, and it had not been done a lot at that point.
The subjective thing.
Yes, subjective possibilities. It’s almost a novelistic approach.
So to answer your question, my writing is done in the field, where sometimes I’ll write a phrase or an idea down and slip that into my pocket and hope that I encounter it later on, in the motel that night or whatever, but 90 percent of what I do is forged in the editing room months later. That’s where I respond to the images, trying to remember how I felt at that time or maybe realizing that there’s some other thing that was going on at that moment that I was filming that I wasn’t even aware of at the time and commenting on that.
You really deal with the big themes, as far as I’m concerned: death, family, romance, and love.
They don’t get much bigger than that, do they?
Those are the things that people talk about over the course of 40 years of psychoanalysis, and those are the things about which you make films. And I don’t know if it’s possible to grapple with those things in a personal documentary without some element of writing coming into it.
Well, there may be, but it has not made itself apparent to me. And I can’t say that I enjoy writing, but it does bring me satisfaction when it works, and for that reason it seems like something worth doing, this melding of quasi-cinéma-vérité documentary footage with this very subjective writing.
There are many moments in your films where it sounds to me like I’m eavesdropping on something you’re saying to a shrink. Is filmmaking therapeutic for you in the way that analysis might be?
On some level, all art must be therapeutic, or artists and art wouldn’t exist. So I think it’s close to what therapy is, but I haven’t been in therapy a lot—probably ten times in my life.
I was going to ask you that.
[laughs] Well, there’s the answer. I think the reason that I haven’t done more of it is because the films provide me a way to therapeutically approach problems and disturbing things that I see in the world and in my own life. That’s not to say that it’s as efficient or successful as therapy, and it’s not to say that I don’t believe in therapy. In fact, there was a time when I was quite sure as an undergraduate that I wanted to be a Jungian psychologist of some kind.
Wow. Jungians are kind of cooler than Freudians.
Right, and I did know the difference. But ultimately, I was just too engaged by getting out in the world with the camera and that, lo and behold, became a way that perhaps those two things could happen simultaneously. But I have to say that it’s not at the forefront of my thoughts as I start shooting anything or editing anything. It’s not like, “Oh, this needs to be shaped in this way because it’s going to be therapeutic for me and the problems I’m having.” It’s not that conscious.
Yeah, and like a lot of art, which is always therapeutic for the creator, it’s very rarely a totally conscious thing like, “I’m going to work on my daddy issues now in this painting.”
One thing that comes across about you in your films is that you often have that movie camera hoisted over your shoulder. There are many scenes of people who are close to you commenting on it or even getting a little tired of it. Do you always shoot with a particular project in mind, or do you just shoot your life knowing that it might become part of a project?
This is a difficult one to answer, but I think the short version would be that I am always shooting, though sometimes, like two weeks ago, I didn’t shoot anything for a little while. I’m often not sure why I’m filming the things I’m filming, and then an idea for a particular film will come along somewhere along the timeline. For instance, Bright Leaves, the film that I produced in 2003, where I saw that there was a specific topic that I really had to go after. Then my filming becomes a more conventional documentary enterprise.
That makes a lot of sense. Bright Leaves is in many ways, maybe pervasively, about tobacco, but it’s also very personal.
Yes, that’s right.
I’m starting to see your entire body of work as being sort of one big accumulating movie. Do you know what I mean? Sort of like, maybe, the “Up” series by Michael Apted, or a novelist’s journals or something like that. For instance, I watched some of your things out of chronological order. I saw Time Indefinite before I watched Charleen, and so I was seeing the tragic arc of her boyfriend, Jim, in the wrong order. But the interesting thing is that it was almost more moving for me in that way than it might have been to see it in a conventional way.
Uh-huh, that’s interesting.
That’s sort of a tangent, though. I mean, what I’m really asking is—
But it’s a really interesting tangent. And actually, no one has ever pointed that out. As I think about it, of course it’s going to be true that seeing the films out of chronology could give some of the earlier films more poignancy.
And since it’s dealing with real life, it’s a very special kind of poignancy. I suppose what I’m getting at is that, since your body of work up to this point has been cumulative, are you locked into that for the rest of your career? Or do you think you ought to branch out and say, “I’m going make a documentary about something that has nothing to do with me”?
Frankly, I’ve felt I wanted to prove that I could still do a conventional documentary and that everything does not have to be about my life. I was almost embarrassed by the success of Sherman’s March, I think, in many ways.
It wasn’t that expected?
Well, of course not. I mean, who knew that a film as obscure and weird as that would have the kind of distribution that it had? And I mean, it’s still out there in a strange way.
Sure. A lot of people even in their early 20s know and love that film.
That’s gratifying. My students have told me that, and it’s just strange to me that a generation later it’s still out there. It’s not a blockbuster, but it’s a preference. It hasn’t vanished.
I looked you up on IMDb, and there’s something called In Paraguay listed for 2008, but I can’t find any more information about it.
Yes, that’s a film that I made about the adoption of our daughter in Paraguay. It’s highly personal, and we have decided for now not to put it out. It premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but my wife and I then decided that we needed to withhold it from distribution for a while.
Because of its personal nature?
Because it’s very personal and, you know, we were a little concerned—my wife much more than I—that perhaps it’s not a good idea to put it out just now. It was painful to sort of withdraw it at that point, but we did. It got lots of festival invitations.
On a smaller scale, do you often, when you’re editing a film, find footage that may just go a little bit beyond what you think might be right for public consumption in terms of your private life?
Not really, because I tend not to use the camera that way. I don’t try to force highly emotional situations on camera. Although there have been a few times where that’s happened. I think in Time Indefinite, when I ask my sister how much she knew about my father’s death, she just looks at the camera and says, “I really can’t talk about this now.” So that was an instance where perhaps I pushed a little bit too hard with the camera. Then certainly with my former girlfriend Karen, the ERA attorney in Sherman’s March, I’m obnoxious with the camera there.
Yeah, but that’s kind of an act of aggression or jealousy at that point, isn’t it?
Which is fascinating to see.
Yeah, it’s fascinating to see because I don’t do it very much, and yet it’s certainly become a sort of entertainment via reality television. It makes me a little ashamed that I could possibly be lumped in with that genre.
Oh, but your intentions and those of reality-TV producers are night and day.
At that point in Sherman’s March I wanted people to feel alienated from the filmmaker—from me. It would have been very easy for me to have left that out, and I didn’t do it. I think it’s also a measure of the intensity of my feelings for her at that time.
Absolutely. And I think it would have brought a sort of dullness to the film if we didn’t dislike you at certain points during it, because it’s often very sympathetic to you.
That’s right, I think that’s true.
Your film Time Indefinite is all about death and grappling with the idea of mortality. I just turned 34, and I never really feared or worried about death much until my 30s began. And so that film resonates a lot for me now. I guess what I’m looking for is you to reassure me that you stop fearing death a little more as you get out of your 30s.
You stop fearing death a little more as you get out of your 30s.
Ha. But are your feelings regarding mortality the same as they used to be? Do you gain more acceptance as you get older, or do you have the same anxiety you had as a younger man?
I think that the awareness of the terminal nature of life never goes away, obviously, unless you’re in complete denial. I think, again, that my filmmaking has helped me deal with that since religion has not been a source of comfort for me in that regard. So, sorry, but it never goes away entirely. I think for me, what happens is it gets shaded in different ways. After I had kids, it became not so much that I’m going to die but what will happen to them when I die and, worse, the realization that they will die. That becomes a very powerful emotion. It’s not something that I think about all the time. Maybe once every couple of weeks I’ll look at some image of them when they were younger, and I’ll think, my God, these little babies will be dead someday.
And it also can bounce you back to your own parents and the loss of them and their strong connection to you. So it’s a complex web of emotions around death and family, and that doesn’t go away. It just transmutes. And humor is a way in which I confront death a lot.
It’s very helpful.
And people have been doing that for quite a while. Shakespeare did it. Anyway, no, the anxiety around death never quite goes away.
That’s not very comforting, but I have to be honest.
Speaking of things that are dying, have you moved away from film and started to use digital media?
Some. I’m about to begin a new film using a camera that doesn’t even use digital tape. It goes straight to cards.
And that terrifies me.
It just doesn’t seem real, does it?
No, it sure doesn’t, but it’s certainly the way everything’s going. Bright Leaves was shot on 16 mm, but all the footage was digitized and we edited it on an Avid-like system. So that was my half step into the digital world. If you see a test of material that’s shot in HD, which is what I’m going to be doing, it’s very difficult in many instances to tell the difference between that and Super 16. And at this point, 16-mm cameras are getting more difficult to service. Also, it’s not as if 35 is going to go away. The technical enterprise of mounting Hollywood epics or even independent epics—feature films where you’re shooting in 35 mm—that technology will be with us for a while. 16-mm is all but vanished. People shoot Super 16 to be able to blow it up into 35 mm, but that’s very, very expensive to do—
More expensive than making the transition to video, ultimately.
Oh, far, far more. The film In Paraguay was shot in Super 16 and Hi8 video, which is a very primitive form of video, but we made what’s called a digital cinema at Dolby Labs in Los Angeles of the whole film. I took it to the Venice Film Festival on a hard drive. That was something radically different for me. Instead of two big 35-mm cans, I took it on a tiny thing that I could put in my pocket. And then that was projected at a huge cinema for 500 people.
How did it look?
It looked great. But I admit that there’s a romantic attachment to celluloid for me.
That’s what it is. It’s romantic. It’s nostalgic.
I haven’t sold my 16-mm camera. I still have it, and, you know, chances are, if for no other reason than just—as an homage to 16-mm filmmaking, little bits of 16 mm will still be in my movies.
That’s good. I think that cinematography in documentary films is often neglected in terms of being commented on, and that’s a shame because there’s a lot of great images in documentary work. A lot of your cinematography is really beautiful. Do you have heroes in terms of documentary cinematographers?
In terms of documentary films that inspire me, there are a dozen or two dozen that I find to be touchstones, extremely important work, but I don’t really think of them so much in terms of their cinematography. It’s more the overall feeling. But if I stopped and thought about which films were important to me because of the way they’re shot, there are some films like the work of Jeff Kreines. Do you know who he is?
The name is familiar, but I don’t think I’ve seen his work.
He made a film called Seventeen, it’s—
Oh my God, yeah, that’s his name? Seventeen is the kids in Gary, Indiana?
I love that movie, but I thought that a woman made it.
A woman named Joel DeMott was his partner. The two of them made it together. They had two cameras, and he more or less filmed the guys, and she filmed the girls.
It’s hard to find, but I have a pirated DVD of it. I love that movie.
The way it’s shot is extremely inspiring. There have been others too, like Les Blank. The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins is just beautifully shot.
The women of Sherman’s March (plus a couple of shots of Ross). Click for enlargements.
There’s a moment in Time Indefinite. It happens when you visit your grandmother in the nursing home. You walk outside to where the car is parked and sort of look across the street and have this quiet moment gazing across the street.
I love that. I thought it was beautiful. And I wonder when you were shooting, did you know you were doing that? Because that was very quick thinking if so.
I certainly never practiced it. In that instance, I remember quite well feeling very emotional as I said goodbye to my grandmother. Not really knowing what I would do, I just felt I would walk out the door with my aunt who was accompanying me at the time and, you know, probably pan to her or something for some kind of a reaction. But she’d gone off to the side or something. I don’t remember exactly. So I just stopped. Part of me is always thinking about composition and what the shot is saying to me, but also on an emotional level what the shot is saying to me, and suddenly, there was this brown earth stretching off into the rural distance, and the tree—I think—I can’t even remember now.
I think there’s a tree in the left of the frame.
Left-hand frame, exactly. And I just thought, this is the end of this shot. You know, maybe I’ll end up cutting it from my wave goodbye while I’m still inside, or maybe this is it, but somehow the fact that it is all one shot was extremely important to me. That framing of the rural South, you know, at that particular moment, seemed very important to me. Like back to the earth in the Faulknerian sense, you know? There’s that line in one of his novels where he talks about the bread-hungry earth; in subsequent screenings when I’ve watched that shot, I’ve thought, “Wow, that’s it. There’s Faulkner. Fall to the ground and grab me by the ankles.”
Yeah, exactly. Is it possible to be an artist from the South and not have a little bit of Faulkner in you? I don’t know.
I think you’ve got to have some. It’s like a virus. You get it in there, and you never quite get rid of it.
How do you feel about Flannery O’Connor?
She’s extremely important, and the gothic quality of those characters in her short stories is astonishing. I think it flavors a lot of the view that we have of ourselves as southerners. But Flannery O’Connor’s work, for me, sailed a little bit too far into the world of the grotesque. I think that was also sometimes my concern about Bill Eggleston.
That stuff, that kind of southern grotesque, does often color the northerners’ view of southerners.
Possibly, and perhaps not deservedly.
After so much time living in the North, do you start to lose something southern about you? Do you feel a sense of regret that you’ve lost time that could have been spent in the South? I guess that what I’m really asking is, what’s southern about you?
I do feel regret about having spent so much of my time up here, although that’s not a complaint. It’s an observation. Living up here has been great for me. It’s given me a life that, actually, I tried to have down South and did not succeed in. It was very difficult for me to raise funds for my films down South when I was just beginning, and my life up here has been very full and very well supported by institutions. So I have no complaints at all about living up here, but there is a part of me that does feel something was lost by giving up my address down South, my residency in the South. It’s not quite the same thing just visiting, no matter how many times I go back. On the other hand, there is this tradition of southern artists leaving the South and coming up here.
I think I’m part of that tradition, you know, for better or for worse. It’s certainly not unique. But, you know, my accent returns the minute I go back, and my family all seems very happy to welcome me back, as do my friends who are still down there.
In my perception, it seems like the South has more of a discernible, unified identity in Americans’ eyes than the North does. There’s a widely accepted idea of a sort of southern temperament. Perhaps it’s a cliché or a stereotype, but there’s often some truth to those things.
There is some truth to it, and it is a stereotype. I think part of that southern tradition, beyond the sort of good manners and the gentility and all the other stuff we always hear about, is that there is a true love of storytelling. For instance, my brother, who is a doctor, is a far better storyteller than I am. He loves just to tell stories about his patients or people he meets or humorous things that happened during a golf game. I envy his ability to tell stories off the top of his head at the drop of a hat. How’s that for mixing and matching? Top of the head, drop of a hat.
That’s pretty good.
But I think my way of becoming a southern storyteller was to make these movies.
There are all these rumors about a feature adaptation of Sherman’s March.
I’ve optioned the rights to it, and I’ve been working with this director Steve Carr. I was extremely skeptical at first, but he was on the East Coast shooting a film in Massachusetts and wanted to have lunch, and we talked, and he convinced me that he truly loves Sherman’s March. He saw it when he was younger, like a lot of people, and it stayed with him. He always felt that after making a number of these mega-pictures with huge budgets, which he’s done, he would make a film based on Sherman’s March. The difficult thing is how can you fictionalize something that gets its energy and tensile strength from the fact that it’s a documentary?
It’s a risky proposition.
He and the others who are making it realize that it’s going be a big challenge, but they’re moving forward with it. They want my input on the script, and I’m trying to help them out, and I’m also making a documentary about the process of their making a fiction film based on the documentary.
Oh! See, I want to see that more than I want to see the fictionalization.
The fictional film could well be interesting, and it could be very successful. I want it to be, you know? I’m just a little stymied by exactly how to make that happen, and I actually have been too tied up with other stuff to devote a lot of time to thinking about what my suggestions would be so far as how to make a script from a transcript of the original documentary. How do you do that? They’ve got ideas about a B story of some kind, and I’m open to that. I’ve liked working with them. I find they’re funny and they’re irreverent, but I think at the base of it all, they love the film, and they want somehow to make it into a successful fiction.
That’s important. I mean, I don’t know. It scares me a little bit. The only precedent I can think of is the narrative adaptation of Grey Gardens starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore.
I haven’t seen the fiction version.
I don’t think I can. I don’t want it in my head. Drew Barrymore as Little Edie? I just don’t think I can do it.
[laughs] I lost track of the whole process. Has that film been released already?
It was an HBO film. It was made for TV. And let’s not forget the Grey Gardens musical.
Yeah. It became a musical before it became a fiction film, I think.
Yeah, it did. If you look at Broadway lately, all these shows are recycled from films—everything from Hairspray to Coraline, even The Toxic Avenger. There’s a musical Toxic Avenger!
Oh my gosh.
Yeah. So I feel nervous about the Sherman’s March thing because I think filmmakers need to make some new stuff and stop mining other people’s work. But I’m a grumpy dick.
We’ll see how it goes. I’m very excited about filming around it. I don’t think my film is really going to be about the making of their film. That’ll be a component of it, but it’s much more just another personal autobiographical documentary about my life and the whole weirdness of seeing your life recast as fiction.