An Interview with Filmmaker Sam Green

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Sam Green is a documentary filmmaker, whose documentary The Weather Underground was nominated for an Academy Award and included in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. His recent focus is on “live documentaries”, including Utopia in Four MovementsThe Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, and his recent film, The Measure of All Things.

His latest “live documentary”, The Measure of All Things, based on the Guinness Book of Records, will be shown at The Kitchen in New York City, November 21 and 22nd. The first night will feature a live soundtrack by yMusic and the second night with trio Brendan Canty (Fugazi), T Griffin, and Catherine McRae. I’ve always loved Green’s curious, open sensibility, and long been interested in how he finds and then explores his disparate subjects. We chatted by Skype. Like a true filmmaker, he commented on how nice the light looked in my San Francisco living room.

—Anisse Gross 

I. FALLING IN LOVE AND GOING LIVE

THE BELIEVER: I would love to know how you fell into making documentaries in the first place. When you were younger, were you in art school, or a journalist? 

SAM GREEN: If you look back on your life, things seem easy to predict, but at the time you just stumble into things. It made no sense how I got into what I’m doing at the time, but now I can see that it makes sense. As a kid I was super obsessive and interested in the world. I’d get very into different subjects—I was really into Big Foot for many years. I’d draw lots of pictures of Big Foot and correspond with people who had seen Big Foot when I was like eight years old. In hindsight I can see that I was basically getting obsessed and doing research.

When I went to college, I went to art school, but it felt too cut off from the world, especially the art world in the 80s. Then I went to UC Berkeley graduate school of journalism, and took a video class on a whim. The class was taught by the great documentary filmmaker Marlon Riggs. All I knew about documentaries was the boring stuff I had seen on PBS, but Marlon’s work and the other work in the class, like Sans Soleil by Chris Marker, or Salesman by the Maysles—all these fantastic films that combine lyricism and poetry with a rigorous journalistic approach. Those things put together—I was smitten by that.

BLVR: It’s nice to get into a field by accident; it’s like falling in love. You can’t really plan for it.

SG: No, not at all. When I was in my twenties, I really wanted to figure out what I wanted to be. It weighed on me. For many years I was frustrated because I couldn’t figure it out. At a certain point, I decided I was going to do what I like to do. It was a huge weight off my shoulders. I’m still doing that: what I like to do. I think it’s a good guide.

BLVR: I want to know how you made the shift to doing live documentaries.

SG: After I made The Weather Underground, I was making a documentary about utopia, which was going to be several different stories about utopia, but with no explicit connection. I put all the pieces together, and people said, “I don’t get it. This doesn’t make any sense.” I was totally crushed. I realized it needed some explaining, but I’d never done a film with voiceover, and I didn’t even like films like that.

So I was stuck, but then at some point [the filmmaker] Craig Baldwin, a local legend, got in touch and asked me to do a talk about my project. I did a power point, and I got my friend Dave Serf to DJ. It ended up being a great night and did exactly what I wanted the movie to do. People got it, and there was a nice collective feeling in the air. Then someone else asked me to do a talk, we did it again, and it kept working. I had never heard of anyone doing a film live, but for a lot of reasons the form appealed to me. From political to aesthetic to economic reasons, I liked it.  

BLVR: Can you draw that out a little? What do you feel like it responds to in culture that might be missing?

SG: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I have a couple things to say. One is concrete, the other is abstract. The concrete one is that if you’re making movies today, you have to accept that people are going to watch your work on their laptop while on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t have anything against watching movies online, but I love cinema and the cinematic experience and I think it’s a heightened way to experience something.

To go into a theater, turn your phone off, sit in the dark with strangers and have a collective experience is magic. I want to keep my work in that context. There’s something weird going on today where people think that a movie is a movie no matter how you see it. The idea that you could watch Avatar in 3d Imax or on your cell phone and it would be the same movie—which is just not true. That you can erase context from the experience of media. It’s so oddly wrong and ignores a huge part of the experience.

In the 1920s in the huge fox movie palaces, there was a slogan, “The movie starts right when you walk in the front door.” And that’s awesome. It recognizes the fact that the context in which you see something is a huge part of the experience. I make work where I want it to be felt and connected with in significant ways. More than that, and this is the half-formed bigger thought, I feel that it’s actually a very political thing. Not only do we erase form these days and divorce it from the content itself, but there’s not a lot of talk or thought about the fact that there’s a lot of new forms these days. In the old days you saw things on the TV or at the theater. Now there’s a million ways to see things and they are all so tangled up in money and the market. There was a new thing at Sundance this year, Oculus Rift, which is a virtual reality headset. Facebook bought it for 2 billion dollars, so we are going to see a lot more of that.

Media and film is going to be nudged in that direction because a lot of money can be made off of it.  Which isn’t to say it’s not amazing, but the media landscape is so infused with the market, and I’m trying to do something else. We can be frank: capitalism is terrible. This sounds shrill and grandiose, but I want to make something that’s anti-capitalist. I like the live documentary form, because there’s no commodity. You can’t buy it. You can’t stream it later. You can’t turn it into a file and download it. It’s only an experience. In the world today that’s so counter to the way things are going. There’s a lot that’s valuable about the ephemeral. 

BLVR: I’m also interested in the notion you mention about being in the dark with strangers. We don’t have to be there—our lives are so hyper-curated that we don’t have to interact with material, people, and circumstances we don’t want to. We can avoid risk. 

SG: Not to sound like a northern California hippie, but to be in a room with people and be part of a collective experience is significant. It doesn’t have to be a situation where you talk to the stranger next to you and make a new friend. Just doing something with other people you don’t know—that means something. 

II. THE SOUND OF MUSIC

BLVR: Let’s talk about the music in your work. I had the pleasure of seeing The Measure of All Things with live score by yMusic. What’s that collaboration like?

SG: I went to see The Dirty Projectors play at Carnegie Hall. yMusic was the string and horn section. They did a couple of songs themselves and they were fantastic. First of all, anything in Carnegie Hall sounds good, but they slayed me. I was completely taken. I immediately thought, this is what I want for my piece. Their music has a force. It gathers you up and envelops you. It’s almost like metal in terms of its force. 

BLVR: What do you think live music adds?

SG: With live documentary form, you work with are the ability to project a huge image that dwarves people, and then also to blast live music, it’s a sensory experience. That’s what the magic of cinema is. You are lost in the screen. One of the things that fascinates me about the form is how different it is to have the music live. Let’s take Yo La Tengo for example: I could show the film with a recording of their music, note for note, and it wouldn’t be the same. The fact that they are in the room playing gives a charge to the show. Especially with a band like that. People are thrilled to see them in the room.

BLVR: Rebecca Solnit had a quote about your work, “A movie being born as you see it and hear it, as alive as music.” Having your work be live, almost makes it feel as though it’s being born as you watch it. I can’t actually imagine watching The Measure of All Things, at home on DVD.

SG: It’s actually not very good. I’ve tried it.

BLVR: Also for me, the music made the film much more emotional. I felt closer to tears, where, without music, I might have seen the film as more quirky. Maybe because music takes place in the body.

SG: I think it’s also because we all have different expectations for different forms.  I think our expectations are different for different forms. You have expectations around what’s too much in music, oh that’s schmaltzy, but in a live form, all the expectations are scrambled. You can get away with a lot more in person. You can have music that’s much bigger, more romantic, and people will go with it a bit more.

III. THE GUINNESS BOOK OF RECORDS IS DEEP

BLVR: Where did you get the idea for your recent film, The Measure of All Things?

SG: I came across a Guinness Book of Records a couple years ago, an old paperback copy. I had been obsessed with it as a kid and hadn’t seen it in twenty or thirty years. When I saw the book, it rocked me. I looked through the photos and was transported in a strange way. I was very interested in that. I knew I wasn’t the only kid who liked the Guinness Book of Records. I started to wonder what the fascination is about. I laughed because so many entries are funny and some are moving.

Now it’s more about the town that made the largest pizza in the world. In the past it was more about oddities and things people didn’t necessarily want, like the longest case of hiccups, or the lowest grossing author of all time. These are fantastic stories in the same way that fairy tales are simple on the surface, but underneath there were messages for young people about how the world works.

I started to see the Guinness Book of Records as being about time and fate and chance and the mystery of being alive and loss. It struck me as being deep in a way, which is odd because we see it as this totally silly thing. 

BLVR: You know, speaking of the Guinness Book of Records, there’s something playful about the project. Just the idea of it existing at all is amazing. The thing about the book is that you could theoretically record anything, like the longest interview two people had over Skype. In a weird way, it’s their kind of art, a document of where they put their attention.

SG: Yes, for sure. In that sense it’s the ultimate subjective document and ultimate expression of a certain sensibility and politics. It’s funny, it’s so hopelessly unobjective. 

BLVR: It never dawned on me that the Guinness Book of Records was deep.

SG: I’ve never been able to come up with an explanation about why kids are so into it. Somehow I think it’s because they sense some of the bigger ideas.

BLVR: Kids are really drawn to danger, and part of the Guinness Book of Records is the terror and joy of what could become of you. As a young child, you’re taken with possibility. It’s really that—a map of what’s possible.

SG: You could become the tallest person.

BLVR: I was always terrified of the long nails lady. I had this fear that I would become her if I drank too much milk. I was worried that I would grow the long nails and they would catch on something and rip off.

How did the people in your film deal with being presented? How does one reconcile being part of the human experience when they are so marginalized through this one trait or action—or did people not have that experience?

SG: It’s one of these things where people struggle to understand why they are dealt the cards they are dealt. There’s no good explanation: people either become religious and explain the world that way, or accept the fact that things happen and we have very little control or ability to predict the future. I like the old guy in the film who has the record for staying up the longest. He stayed awake for eleven days as a teenager. In some ways that odd and semi-pointless project defined his life, and he’s still sort of living in the shadow of it.  Like everybody, he has his ideas about why the world is the way it is. He had a very Buddhist sense of, “It’s impossible to know why things happen and all you have is the present.” His take on the world was very striking. It had nothing to do with his experience of staying up the longest, but at the same time it also had everything to do with that. I was curious as to how people came to terms with or didn’t come to terms with their fate. We all struggle with that. 

BLVR: This theme of randomness versus control—can we use that as a metaphor to explore the filmmaking process? How much control do you feel you have over your material? It seems like a lot of your work, you go in very open and curious, but obviously you have to have some control over it.

SG: You just got to the contradiction at the heart of the documentary practice. Both having some sense of what you’re looking for and at the same time being open to the randomness of the world. This is true of journalism in general. There are a lot of documentary filmmakers who go on to make fiction films. I have no interest in that whatsoever. I love the world; it’s much more interesting than anything I could make up. The fact that it’s real makes it a million times more interesting. It’s a tough thing because in making documentary films you can’t be totally open. You have to have some a sense of where you’re going or where want to go, but the great pleasure is to see where the world ends up taking you, which is always somewhere you didn’t have in mind. And thank God for that.

IV. EVERY TREE IS A TOTAL MIRACLE 

BLVR: When you’re drawn toward a subject, are you mostly pulled in by narrative or image? 

SG: In terms of getting smitten with things, I’ve had both experiences. When I made The Weather Underground, I was in the Library of Congress killing time, and I started typing keywords into the catalog. I typed “Weather Underground” and there was a senate report about the group. I requested it and started looking through, and in the middle there were these photos, mug shots. I just sat there totally mesmerized by these photos, the expressions on their faces. There was something about them.

Then there was the movie I made about the Rainbow Man. I read a detail in an article, about him. It said that the Rainbow Man had been homeless living in his car in Los Angeles for several years. He was this guy who wore a wig and got famous and was consumed by his need for media attention. He was this archetypal American—no family, no culture, no direction. He was this totally rootless person engaging with the media and celebrity. That was the north star of his life. And this detail that he was living in his car, was so sad and moving to me. The ultimate extreme fate of all of us. We’ll all be homeless living in our cars in Los Angeles. You can’t think of a more American fate than that.

BLVR: What are you working on now? 

SG: Well I’m doing a lot of screenings of the Buckminster Fuller piece and The Measure of All Things. I’m in the touring band stage. But it’s funny, when you talked about movies that seem so far from being dramatic and appropriate, I thought sometimes I have a lot of ideas, am very curious. A lot of things come, but mostly they go. Something will stick around and I’ll try to show it the door and have it move on, but it won’t. One I’ve been trying to show the door, a the subject that I love and am obsessed by, is trees. How do you make a movie about trees?! Talk about undramatic.

BLVR: [Laughs.] Well if I was your life coach, I’d have to ask what is it about trees that you love. I don’t want to say I don’t love trees, but I’m not that into trees, I don’t think. I’m not thinking about trees a lot. 

SG: That’s a good question. I think sometimes working on movies is a way to understand why you’re drawn to something. The more attention you pay to trees, the more interesting the subject gets. A couple of summers ago, I got a book, and started identifying trees. It’s either one step below or one step above birding. 

BLVR: It seems there’s very few people with a tree-identification hobby. It’s the first I’ve heard of it.

SG: They’re rich in symbolism. Tree of knowledge, life, liberty. Trees have a metaphorical and poetic significance to them. You should cut this, but almost every tree is a total miracle. Even the most boring dull tree is a miracle of having lived and survived. 

BLVR: This is like the Sam Green Interview, California Edition. 

SG: Yes, this interview is not to be read outside of California.

BLVR: I don’t see why you couldn’t make the film, though I don’t want to be the one to talk you into it.

SG: That’s one thing I like about this project, which I am not going to do. I swear I’m not going to do it. When you work on a project, you have a million people asking you what you’re doing. And with trees, everyone has something to say. It never fails, someone always has something to say. Like someone told me about this tree in Athens, Georgia, the tree that owns itself. A guy was so smitten with his oak tree that in his will he left the land around it to the oak, and the courts upheld that. It’s the tree that owns itself.

BLVR: That’s amazing. There’s something about being in the presence of an old tree that’s beyond language.

SG: Trees evoke a different time frame. They remind you of other scales of time. They soothe me. Okay, no more talking about trees.

BLVR: I probably won’t put the trees in the interview.

SG: That’s probably good.

BLVR: You should really make the tree film, though.

SG: [Laughs.] I swear I’m not going to make that film. I’m really a hard-boiled New Yorker now.