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Real Life Turned Up to 11: 'Actress' and the Documentaries of Robert Greene

Robert Greene's new documentary <i>Actress</i> exists at the blurry intersection between observation and collaboration, nonfiction and drama.

Making the observation that a film called Actress is about performance is easy. Less easy is discerning the difference between what's spontaneous and what's contrived. This gray area between observation and collaboration is where documentary films frequently shine brightest, and in this regard Actress may be one of the grayest films to appear since last year's The Act of Killing. Brandy Burre, the star of Robert Greene's film, muddles the current between actress and audience because she's still figuring out exactly who she's supposed to be. From 2004 to 2006 Burre was featured in a recurring role on HBO's The Wire before shifting gears and moving to the suburbs to raise a family with her boyfriend. Greene's camera follows Burre through a transformative chapter in her life as she separates from her partner and tries to rekindle her acting career, all of it complicated by parental responsibilities and an uncertain sense of self. Early in the film, she suffers a blow to the head from a falling box of toys in her children's playroom and crumples to the floor while moaning, "Death!" This moment more or less sums up where Burre is at in life. Regardless of the situation, she remains theatrical.

Actress represents a collaboration between filmmaker and subject, which is not how we typically think of documentaries, although we probably should. Robert Greene's body of work is defined by such creative partnerships. His breakthrough film Kati With An I follows his sister through her final days at an Alabama high school, while Fake It So Real chronicles a week spent with a cousin who performs in an independent pro-wrestling league. For this latest collaboration, Greene found Brandy Burre living next door to his family in Beacon, New York. The old trope that an artist reveals the universal through the familiar gets plenty of lip service, but Greene actually pulls it off.

I spoke with Robert Greene over the phone from Columbia, Missouri, where he has very recently moved after 15 years in New York to take a position as filmmaker in residence at the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism at the University of Missouri. That Greene the artist has found employment in an institution named for the creator of MTV's The Real World feels appropriate.

VICE: In addition to directing and editing documentaries, you've also worked as an editor on scripted films like Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up, Philip. How is working on a documentary different from working on a scripted film?
Robert Greene: There's a tension in documentary between the storytelling impulses and the wild, unkempt, uncontrollable reality of what you're trying to capture. Whereas in fiction, you have to work to bring in the wild life in there, you either have to be a genius like John Cassavetes or you have to work very hard to sort of let life guide you or something. It's built into the documentary form because you don't know where you're going. You've got to ride the wave. Actress would be a piece of shit if it was just my academic, intellectual, bullshit ideas. One of the things I love about the documentary form is that when the viewer sits down, they're suspicious of what they're watching on some level. It's like you know what you're seeing is supposed to be reality on some level, but it's manipulated. The way the brain starts operating in this situation gives the filmmaker a lot of opportunity to play with stuff.

How did you begin working on Actress with Brandy Burre?
Brandy was my next-door neighbor, and we have children around the same age. I was in this phase where I was asking myself whether I wanted to make another film about someone close to me, so we both tiptoed into the project and got gradually more involved over time. Sometimes we'd film all the time, many days out of a week, and sometimes we wouldn't film for weeks. We went about 18 months total, but I wasn't there for all the fights, and I wasn't there for all the nice mornings. Once the observational material about her life and her transition started relating to my formal ideas about playing roles and being trapped in roles converged, the movie clicked. We filmed until Brandy's injury, which really did happen, very late in the process. We'd been looking for an ending for a while, and then she conveniently fell on her face.

Before we know anything about how the injury happened, Brandy describes the different ways she could act to suggest different things that might have happened to her. It's a confrontational moment where a viewer might appreciate how she thinks as an actress, or else cast her in a negative light and see her as manipulative.
As a performer, she's always thinking about how you see her and what kind of power that gives her. She realizes that there's something dramatic and powerful in being the abused woman, and how fucked up that is.

We are always judging women. We judge men, too, but it has a different sort of effect because we're always looking at women to see whether they're being good or not. If I'm at a bar at 2 AM, and I'm showing off pictures of my children, it's like, "What a cute dad! He's drunk and showing off pictures of his kids! Isn't it great that he's always thinking about his children?" But if Brandy does it, she's a negligent mother. Why is she here when she should be at home with her kids?

Actress is the third in a series of films that have been described as being made in collaboration with people you are personally close to in some way, the others being Kati With An I and Fake It So Real. How would you describe Actress as a collaborative work?
With Kati With An I, I was working with my sister, so I knew that she would bring a certain level of awareness with her, a certain level of performance. Because I had been filming Kati for her whole life, I knew that she could be a movie character. And then with the wrestlers in Fake It So Real, I knew that they were working me on some level when they would tell me their life stories and begin to dip into wrestling-promo mode. I was always ready for this intersection of wrestling character and real human being. To me, wrestling was always such a great metaphor for documentary characters anyway, because there's reality plus an extra layer. In wrestling there's the cliche that you take your personality and turn it up to 11. I think documentary characters are the same way: you take your real self, and you tweak it for the camera a little bit and put on this sort of performance.

With Actress, the exciting part for me was to take this idea of performance and push it further. Brandy's a naturally theatrical person who plays to the rafters whether there's a camera around or not, and that was fascinating to me. She realized that her freedom—not necessarily freedom from her partner, but freedom in her soul—was connected to this film. I wasn't just dissecting this person, she was actively creating at the same time. What I mean by collaboration is a nicer way of saying that we went through something together, and the film wouldn't be the film without her art as well. She really took the camera and said, "OK, if we're going to do something then let's really do it, and I'm going to go there." And going there meant baring her soul.

Actress is available now on iTunes and is available on DVD on March 24.