By Scout Tafoya // Robert Greene is a name you should know. He's a film editor, an engaged presence on Twitter and one of the most talented documentary filmmakers alive. Since the premiere of his debut film, OWNING THE WEATHER, he's not only become one of the most articulate non-fiction filmmakers, making expressionistic essays on the people close to him, but he's deftly navigated the changing landscape of film viewing. ...(cont'd here from main page): His films do play theatrically but you can find his work on iTunes and Amazon and watch them the minute after you finish this interview. Which for his work, is perfect. There is an intimacy about his movies and the way he makes you feel for these beautifully ordinary people (a girl graduating high school, an amateur wrestling league and in his latest an actress trying to reclaim her career) and their big dreams. They work on the big screen but they work just as well at 2 in the morning with your face a foot away from your laptop, where nothing can get between you and the story. I wanted to talk to Robert about how he approaches filmmaking in 2013 and how he's taking the constant changes to the world he lives and works in.
NB: Ok, let's talk inception to end point. You're Robert Greene, documentary filmmaker, where does your creative process begin?
Robert Greene: Well for me it's weird. I made this film called OWNING THE WEATHER, it's a movie about ideas, it's about people trying to control the weather and I did that typical documentary thing where I read an article and said "Holy Shit that should be a movie!" And then I pursued people, shot some landscapes and edited the movie and I think it's good for what it is. But part of the problem was I started with a set idea. So I didn't know what I was gonna do next, but for KATI WITH AN I I was thinking of going to my half-sister's graduation in Alabama and she contacted me at the same time and said "you should come and film it." I talked to Sean Price Williams who knew Kati and from the beginning we said "We don't know what this is going to be" I had no idea what it would look like but the film is directed in the sense that I said "let's get a mall scene, let's get a driving scene, let's get a pool scene and see what happens." That's not a fundable thing but I liked the idea that there was an endpoint so I went ahead with it. It was three days and then she was gonna graduate and there'd be that moment where she graduated and that moment right afterwards where she has to decide what to do. And I didn't even know how dramatic it would end up being but the point was I had a framework and that's it, and I feel like that's liberating and that's how I've approached the last couple films.
With FAKE IT SO REAL, I knew there was a show but I'd never met anyone, except Chris (Solar) who's my cousin, before I went down there. I didn't know Gabe (Croft) and didn't know he was going to be the character he was going to be until we filmed for two days. The scene where the audience discovers that Gabe is "the guy" that's when we discovered he was "the guy," you know? So I had no idea about that but it had a structure: at the end of the week there's a show. So I talked to each of the wrestlers and said "I need to film you doing this, I wanna see you at work, etc." But once again it's very difficult to pitch that.
But the answer to your question more simply is that I know these people and I just wanted to try something. Maybe after my newest film, ACTRESS, comes out it'll be more feasible for me to say "I've made 3, 4 films, give me just a little funding for my next film" but the likelihood of that is very small no matter how well-received any of the movies are. With ACTRESS, the subject is my neighbor who'd been on THE WIRE and that was a big enough start for me. She had given up acting but wanted to get back into it and that was enough of a start dramatically, but when I pitched it to my producers their response was "Anything could happen...yes...?" And over the year it developed a lot happened and it turned out to be a really dramatic story. For me I want to have some narrative framework to work from and I have ideas I'm after but beside that it's really about exploring. But the problem with documentary filmmaking today is that you can't get funding for explorations. And that's what you get with so many documentary films. You're just watching the idea realized, you're not watching a movie. It's a different process.
NB: So you've completed the film, found the story and all the killer moments, what's the next step?
RG: I mean these films have been made with no money up front, but with a lot of support from the production company I work with, 4th Row Films. Now is a really good time to ask that question actually. ACTRESS is cut and in the hands of the producers. What time is it? It's 4:00? They could be watching it right now. This is a big moment. Usually what happens is we've got to find some money to finish the film. In the documentary world you build a community of filmmaker friends, programmer friends, people who you trust, and you show the cut to them. Then it's festivals and now that I've been around the block a few times (as a director of my work or as an editor on other films) I have a good idea how that works. The end goal is a theatrical release because I make movies for movie theaters. I know that people are going to watch them all kinds of ways, and that's fine, but I make movies that I think play well in theaters. That's the point. I don't know if that's a retro thing, but that's the only way I know how to edit, for a theatrical experience. The festival experience is part of that, you get that, and as you know they're a great way to get the movie out there.
Now you can make a movie, you can raise the money, the audience can talk to the director on Twitter about what you think of it and you can say "Well, here's another film I made." I think that people respond to films made for a communal theatrical experience for that reason.
I explain it to my wife as if it's a video game. I'm too old to have played video games, but, I think of the whole thing as different levels. You just try to win every level that you can. You get the cut done, you get so-and-so to like it, you get this festival to like it, you get knocked down, you gotta get back up and get to the next level. Think of it that way and you don't go crazy. When I submitted KATI to festivals, it was like dying basically. I knew the movie was good, I knew audiences would like it, but I was waiting for people to tell me if this very personal movie was going to get into their festival. I was literally sitting there refreshing my email; I'd never been so embarrassed in my life. As if hitting "get mail" was gonna make it come five seconds faster. But I've been through it plenty, I've felt success plenty, I've felt rejection plenty, I feel like now I can do it and keep my sanity and not make my wife wanna kick me out.
NB: I saw KATI and FAKE IT SO REAL on a computer but even in that format I could tell the sound, especially in the latter, was made for a movie theatre setting. When the different platforms (VOD, iTunes and sites like No Budge) changed the way that people watch movies, did that effect you? Just being aware that maybe I'm not going to be able to watch the film the way you intended it?
RG: I do feel there's an evening out between video and these new platforms. It used to be that you'd shoot video and project it and the experience felt uneven. Even though I love seeing my films projected in HD on the big screen, I do think you can get something out of watching movies on your computer (I watch plenty of movies that way). I feel like smart moviegoers know how to get their head in the right space so that they can even stop and start the movie twenty times and still get something out of the experience. I'm not precious about that, but I do feel that movie theatres are the standard. Maybe 2, 3 generations from now it'll be different but now the standard is still a theatrical experience. I don't cut a movie so it plays better on VOD I cut it so that the ideal situation can be arrived at.
I don't feel like I'm just making movies for right now. I'm not Nicolas Roeg. Nicolas Roeg once said that he didn't make movies for the future. Martin Scorsese apparently approached him and asked if he could preserve PERFORMANCE and a few others and he said "No, I don't want to save my movies, because I want them to die, because they were made for that time period only." Which makes sense when you watch those films but I want to make films that someone can watch in 20 years. That's a theatrical mindset but I think we've all evolved. I think it's totally amazing that I can be on Twitter where a half hour ago Peter Labuza (film critic) said "you can watch both of Robert's movies for 8 bucks, here's the link" and I can directly say "hey, thanks for watching those movies," you know? It's broken down so many barriers. If you look at the history of filmmaking, specifically documentaries, it's that in the beginning the studios had the equipment and said "You can't use this equipment. You're so silly! Movies are magic and come from a special, magical place!" and there's been a steady destruction of that myth up until the present. Now you can make a movie, you can raise the money, the audience can talk to the director on Twitter about what you think of it and you can say "Well, here's another film I made." I think that people respond to films made for a communal theatrical experience for that reason. It's still a sacred thing because now we're closer together then we've ever been.
And I wanna make movies that are entertaining, too. And I don't mean stupid entertaining. I'm watching the Marvel films that lead up THE AVENGERS with my kids right now and I just watched THE INCREDIBLE HULK from 2008. It's fine but it doesn't do anything at all. It's not a good movie, it just wants to be so entertaining all the time. Every second: "AH! WE'RE STILL ENTERTAINING! WE'RE LOUD!" Meanwhile I'm watching my 4 year old go "When's he gonna turn into the Hulk? Is he The Hulk yet? Why is he kissing that girl?" You can make engaging films that care about audiences and keep people's attention that aren't THE HULK.
NB Oh, I hope so. Do you worry about audiences changing? Whether it's an evolution with the superhero/blockbuster filmmaking or simply that we all now have cellphones on us at all times to distract us?
RG: No, not at all. If the film had been released in 2005, I don't think it would have mattered at all. I'm a few years away from its release today and it's clear to me that people want to watch this movie. The timing didn't matter and people will always find the movies they want. I mean you think about festival programmers. The way some of them watch movies is OFFENSIVE but it's their job. They know their professional reputations are on the line so that means checking your phone while watching a movie that you're not necessarily responding to. So when you're trying to impress those people who are the gatekeepers, it's frustrating. But if people watch the movies and give a shit? That's what matters. We live in a world where KATI and FAKE IT can get almost universally positive reviews and yet the second it goes on iTunes there's five comments and they're all "what a boring piece of shit, the critics are idiots!" But if they got through it and it helps me make another movie? That's fine. Like, I like PACIFIC RIM just fine, it was better than TRANSFORMERS, but it's assaultive to nth degree and people are going to want something else to balance it out. And if a filmmaker is there at the right time they'll respond to you. People are always gonna look for good movies. That's why sites like NoBudge are so important. Some of these films have tiny, tiny audiences but they can find those tiny audiences and that's all that matters.
Teaser below for Robert's latest film Fake it So Real (click the center of the screen, the play button is obscured by the light), distributed by Factory 25.