In Jackson Heights/Frederick Wiseman

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. ©John Ewing.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

IN JACKSON HEIGHTS filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. ©John Ewing.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

There’s a threat rising in the multiethnic New York neighborhood of Jackson Heights, where Jews and Italians, and natives of India, Colombia, Mexico, and Pakistan have lived and done business for decades; where the LGBT community finds a welcome home; where churches and synagogues still serve as community centers: Big-city real estate developers are poised to wipe out the neighborhood under the guise of a BID (Business Improvement District) and convert it to a luxury wasteland. Frederick Wiseman captures the beauty, the anxiety, and the pathos in this astounding portrait of a neighborhood facing unnecessary and unjust obliteration. A highlight of the New York Film Festival.  •Availability: World theatrical premier in New York City, Nov. 4, Film Forum. Click here for listings in the US and abroad. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  Excuse the hyperbole, but this was the most brilliant editing I’ve ever seen.  All the images, and faces, and conversations—everything converges on your final shot so that it represents every frame that preceded it in the film.

 

FW:  Great!

 

New York City’s Jackson Heights neighborhood, subject of Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

New York City’s Jackson Heights neighborhood, subject of Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

DT:  How did you do that?

 

FW:  I sat in a chair for eleven months and worked away at it.

 

DT:  Can you describe the process?

 

FW:  I can describe the external aspect of the process.  When I come back from the shoot, I look at all the rushes; it takes me six weeks or so. I make notes, then after I finish looking at all the rushes, I put aside 40 or 50 percent of the material. Over the next six or eight months, I edit all the sequences that I might use in the final film. When I have all the so-called candidate sequences close to final form, it’s only then that I begin to work on the structure of the film. I can make the first assembly in three or four days, because at that point I know the material very well and I can make the changes quickly. The first version usually comes out to around forty minutes longer than the final. And then, over the next six or eight weeks, I work on the internal rhythm within a sequence, the external rhythm between the sequences, and I get what I think is the finished film. After that, I then go back and look at all the rushes all over again to make sure there’s nothing I’ve forgotten or might be useful, or something that I initially rejected that turns out to be useful because of the other choices I’ve made.

 

DT:  One door opens, another door closes, and one thing always leads to another, but as you’re shooting, do you get any sense of—

 

FW:  Structure?  No.

 

DT:  Or what to include?

 

FW:  You know when you get a good scene, like the scene with the woman who asks the Southern Baptist street sweepers to pray for her father.  You know that’s a good scene. The scene in the halal butcher shop is a good scene.

But most scenes aren’t like that, and 50 percent of film editing has nothing to do with the technical aspects of film editing. It has to do with understanding the material, or at least deluding yourself into thinking you understand the material.

 

DT:  Another question about the final shot. I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen the film yet, but to me Manhattan looked like Disneyland, with those fireworks going off…

 

FW:  That’s one association to it. It’s not the only one.

 

DT:  Did you set off those fireworks?

 

FW:  It was the fourth of July. Fireworks in Manhattan.

 

DT:  It was perfect.

 

FW: I thought it was perfect.

 

A mariachi band performs in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

A mariachi band performs in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

DT: This Jackson Heights is different from the one most New Yorkers think of, with saris and Indian emporiums and the Jackson Diner on 74th St.  Why did you choose to shoot this Jackson Heights?

 

FW: That’s the Jackson Heights that I found. 156,000 people live there. I’m not a mathematician, but the number of possibilities is almost infinite in terms of the combinations one could make. I never want to suggest that it’s a definitive work. That’s why I called the movie In Jackson Heights. I didn’t want to suggest this is all of Jackson Heights.  I mean, it’s only a three-hour movie.

 

DT:  I know you say you don’t know anything in advance.

 

FW:  I don’t!

 

DT:  But when you and I spoke after you shot National Gallery, you talked about finding the power center; in other words, the people at the center of power wherever you’re shooting. But finding the power center takes time. It takes time to arrange meetings, it takes time to be allowed into the meetings. Did you have your camera and your microphone while you were finding the power center, or did you go out in advance to scout it out?

 

FW:  I don’t know that I found the power center. It was obvious that City Councilman Dromm was the center of some power aspects there, so I hung around his office a bit. And obviously the church—not only the Catholic church but other churches—have influence in the community, so those were obvious places, which is why they’re in the film. The Jewish Community Center, which is no longer used primarily as a synagogue, was a place where a lot of activity took place, because it was rented out to whoever would rent it out. Muslim groups, Bangladeshi groups, Baptists…whoever wanted to use it could.

 

Taxi drivers attend a tutoring class in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

Taxi drivers attend a tutoring class in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

DT:  How about the labor organizers and the IDNYC people?

 

FW:  I just stumbled across them. Somebody told me about them, and I called them up and asked whether I could follow them around. That was in the last couple of weeks of shooting.

 

DT:  To me, that was the most meaningful aspect of the film. I can’t imagine what it would have been like without them.

 

FW:  It depends what would have substituted for it, but it would have been a lesser film, I think. Both the community organizers and the whole issue of the BID, as well as the activities at Make the Road New York [a community NGO], are very important aspects of the film.

 

DT:  Can you talk about the scene in the councilman’s office, with the parents who were worried about the schools?  From what I hear people say, the schools are what holds the community together.

 

FW: I just happened to be there the day that was being discussed, and it was a very interesting issue that touched on a lot of the other themes in the film—people moving away from the community because of religious or ethnic reasons, and the schools suffering as a result. There were a lot of issues suggested in that scene, as well as the scene in Councilman Dromm’s office cross-cutting between the two ladies on the phone. I hope that suggests the kind of stuff they have to deal with.

 

DT: That was a great scene.  So let’s say you’ve edited all your sequences. Do you choose one and say, This is the organizing principle of this film?

 

FW:  No.

 

DT: When did you know that the BID issue was so important?

 

FW: Only when I started to assemble the sequences. When I was editing them, I realized it was important, but I didn’t realize how important or how I was going to use them or the extent to which I was going to use them until I actually tried. I can’t edit in the abstract. I have to try it out.

 

A woman relates her story of coming to the US at a Make the Road New York immigration support group in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.  Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

A woman relates her story of coming to the US at a Make the Road New York immigration support group in Frederick Wiseman’s IN JACKSON HEIGHTS.
Courtesy of Zipporah Films.

 

DT:  Is there one trigger scene that says, This is it.

 

FW: No. There were all kinds of interesting activities at Make the Road New York, so one of the structural issues was where to place them. There’s a very short sequence early in the film—the one about fake adoption in order to get citizenship—to establish the fact that Make the Road is important not only for the subject matter of that sequence but also to establish it as a place we’re going to revisit. Sequences in Make the Road New York appear from time to time throughout the film; it’s a question of working out the structure, not only the narrative structure but also the rhythm of the film, because you can’t place them all together. No matter how good they might be, they would be boring if they were placed all together, so you have to surround them with other kinds of events, whether musical, or funny, or action-oriented, or whatever.

 

DT:  One of the things I loved most about the film was a whole series of familiar images—the subway, the cops, certain faces—that, because of the way you use them, take on new meaning as the film develops.

 

FW:  Not only my movies, but any movie, proceeds on two tracks. There’s the literal track—who says what to whom, what’s going on—then there’s the more abstract, or metaphoric, track, or what is suggested by the literal sequences and their order. That’s where you get the more general ideas that the film is dealing with.

 

DT:  That’s what makes your final shot so mind-blowing.

 

FW:  Exactly. The final shot summarizes a lot of those issues that have been presented in the film and carries them forward.

 

DT:  Truly brilliant. In our National Gallery interview, you said, “I like to think that I’ve learned something over the course of the years and that what I’ve learned gets applied to the next film.” Did you learn anything in National Gallery that you applied to In Jackson Heights?

 

FW:  When I’m in the process of editing, I say to myself, How did I deal with this problem before?  Also in the shooting, if I previously edited a film and found I didn’t have a kind of shot that I needed in order to solve an editing problem, I tend to remember to get that shot the next time out.

 

DT:  Which do you prefer, shooting or editing?

 

FW:  They’re both fun.  Shooting is an adventure. One of the things I like about documentary filmmaking is that it’s intellectually very demanding and physically very demanding, because you have to be alert during both the shooting and the editing. It draws in all your so-called intellectual capacities and emotional capacities, too. During the shooting there are also physical demands because you’re on your feet twelve hours a day.

 

DT:  And you’re doing the sound.

 

FW:  Yeah.

 

DT:  The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you were going to be working on Titicut Follies, the Ballet.

 

FW:  I am working on it, with James Sewell as choreographer. We presented twenty minutes of it at the Toronto Film Festival. It seemed to go over very well, and we’re hoping to have a premier in New York in the spring of 2017.

 

DT:  And that’s going to be onstage.

 

FW: It’s not a movie. It’s onstage.

 

DT:  Can’t wait.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Palio/Cosima Spender (director) and Valerio Bonelli (editor)

The Palio is more than a horse race:  it is an 800-year-old competition between the 17 districts that comprise the Tuscan city of Siena.  Every July and August, with great medieval pageantry, the districts vie to make sure their chosen jockey wins the 90-second race, held in the heart of town.  The districts, as well as the jockeys, will stop at nothing to win:  bribery, buying and selling favors, sabotage.  With unprecedented access to the jockeys and heart-stopping footage of the race, director Cosima Spender reveals the inner workings of the Palio. Click here for the film website and directory of jockeys. Winner of the Best Documentary Editing Award at the Tribeca Film Festival 2015 (Jury comments: “This film viscerally transported us into an event and turned life into art. For subtly placing us behind the scenes; and for general technical excellence, this year’s award for Best Editing in a Documentary goes to editor Valerio Bonelli for Palio.”) Thanks to Emily Jim and Jeff McBride, Frank Publicity, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  Cosima, you and your producer wanted to make a documentary about the Palio for a long time, but it wasn’t until Siena’s bank collapsed that your producer was able to negotiate the terms for you to film such a closed institution. Is that correct?

 

CS:  It  was good timing that the bank collapsed, because Siena wanted to find a way to get some good press.  They were very depressed; the institution that had given them a sense of pride and identity—the first bank in the world—was brought down by a few men literally in a few years, and it was a huge loss of pride for the city.  We were also lucky.  Because I was born and grew up outside Siena, I could really connect with the people. During my research, I went to the city council and told them we wanted to make this film on the jockeys and about how the Palio was an all-year-round thing, not just four days in the summer, and they really loved the fact that someone was going to give it some time.

They’re always guarding this tradition. They said no to Mel Gibson when he wanted to make a film about the Palio, because they’re very proud and they know it can easily be misunderstood and decontextualized to a point of being detrimental to their livelihood and the tradition.  I went there many times, but when John [Hunt, producer and cowriter] came in, he brought the possibility of working the contract with them, which was quite a complicated thing. They wanted a lot of control—we even had to fight for final cut. We had to show it to them first and take their comments on board.

They’re like a propaganda machine.  There are moments you think, Can I make a film when there are so many things we can’t show?  But luckily for us, they don’t care very much for the jockeys,  so I could show a lot of them.

 

DT:  Was there much difference between the edit you showed them and the final cut?

 

CS: We were petrified. We flew them over to London, put them up in the Bulgari Hotel—that was thanks to John—and took them out to dinner.  We showed them the film,  and they only asked for three changes.

 

VB:   They were impressed because the film encapsulates the spirit of the Palio in a very respectful way.  We were worried they were going to ask us to remove the shot of the jockey being beaten up, but they said, No, that’s fine, the mayor talks about it and it’s something from the past, and we as Sienese are trying to change that.  It doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen now; it still happens.  There was a jockey last year that was beaten up after the race.

 

CS:  We couldn’t show that. There is this unspoken code of behavior that goes back centuries. If you’re a jockey, you have to expect to be beaten up, you have to expect to be spat on, and you have to expect to be treated badly. But if you win, you make money. You make a lot of money.  In the eighteenth century, a winning jockey was able to buy a house and feed his family for a year. That’s a lot of money, even in the eighteenth century.  The jockeys can make a lot of money, and that’s why they’re also hated by the citizens, because they view the jockeys as mercenaries. They’re guns for hire, while the district can lose a lot of money. It can cost them a couple of million Euros to win a Palio in terms of paying bribes and buying favors.

 

VB:  And nobody knows that.

 

DT:  Did you know what you were getting yourselves into?  Valerio, you’re from Florence.

 

VB:  I saw the Palio as a kid, on TV, and I always hated it.  Then I was brought in one day by a friend who was a horse breeder.  I was nineteen, and I thought it was the most incredible, visceral experience I ever had.

 

CS: But when I proposed making a film about the Palio, you were not enthusiastic.

 

VB:  It’s a difficult subject to tackle because it’s so massive. But Cosima had a good angle—the jockey angle.

 

CS:  That was a good angle, because if you try to do everything, including the districts, it’s just too difficult.  The challenge for me was the fact that many incredible things happen the moment the jockeys go off to the district, but I was denied access to  my main characters for those four days leading up to the main race.  We had to steal shots of them walking down the streets and steal shots where we could to give a sense that they now belong to the district.

 

DT:  You grew up outside Siena.  Did you have a sense that it was far more than a horse race—that it was all about the bribes, and money, and machinations?

 

CS:  Everyone knows.  It’s public knowledge.

 

VB:  In Siena.

 

DT:  While the subject of the Palio might be huge, the story in the film boils down to a very operatic structure—an apprentice challenging his master. You didn’t know this at the time of shooting, however.  John was able to triple your budget, but was it big enough for you to cover all the jockeys during the shoot?

 

CS:  Not all of them, because if you follow him, you can’t follow him, etc.  I didn’t realize that we would have such a clear narrative with a master-and-apprentice structure, so the original idea for the film had a lot of themes I wanted to explore. I thought I was going to shoot for much longer—the whole concept at the beginning was an all-year-round view, following the Palio over a long period of time.  But I found the financing for the film in the middle of May and we had to start shooting on the first of June, because there are certain events that happen on certain days. Then we were filming the Palio itself in July and August.  It happened incredibly quickly.  It so happened that we picked the right characters. If you think of the jockey who narrates the film (Bastiano), you could make a doc just on him.  He’s a very captivating character, and he’s a very good storyteller, so I had covered myself, but it was originally going to be a very different kind of film.

 

DT:  So it was really the outcome of the races in July and August that determined the structure of the film.

 

CS:  Yes.  It’s not until the editing that you really write a documentary. The whole idea was getting the jockeys up the ladder.  The young one, the one who wants to really make it, then the established one, and then the retired one. It would have been that kind of film, not as operatic in terms of structure, but more about a journey…a bit more arty, maybe. My other films haven’t been so commercial.  This is definitely the most commercial film I’ve made.

 

DT:  I actually went to the Palio in 1978.

 

CS:  Bastiano must have been there!

 

DT:  I didn’t know that at the time.  What struck me most was this vibrant celebration of an 800-year-old tradition.

 

CS: It’s alive.  Thank God they’re keeping it alive.

 

DT:  Is it alive like that 365 days a year?

 

CS:  It’s dead the other 360 days a year. After I shot the film, I bumped into Michael Winterbottom, who’d been shooting The Face of an Angel in Siena. I said, I just filmed in Siena.  It was so incredible! Everyone in the crew said it was the best shoot they had ever had because they were fed so well, and they had siestas, and they only filmed in the morning and the evening, and it looked so beautiful.  And Michael said, We hated Siena.

 

VB:  Winters are grim there.

 

CS:  It was grim, there was nowhere to go. We were there the moment it comes alive.

 

DT:  Let’s talk about the music. You combine the music of Ennio Morricone with original compositions.

 

CS: From the start, Valerio and I had this idea of the spaghetti Western, because it was just irresistible.  We chose Ennio Morricone for Bastiano, who’s a retired jockey, and we got Alex Heffes, who’s a great composer, to do the other music. He did Mandela, Touching the Void, Last King of Scotland, and he’s worked with Valerio on previous films. He really connected with Ennio Morricone. We needed something that would respond to Morricone in a contemporary way, but we didn’t want electronic music.

 

VB:  The film definitely needed somebody who could sound like Morricone. Alex is a very, very talented and classically trained composer. At the same time, he uses ethnic instruments, which he’s very good at combining with orchestral scores.

John [Hunt, producer] went with the whole plan of going to Abbey Road and having an orchestra. Alex had a blast, because the Palio’s a subject that allows you to be operatic and at the same time use poor instruments like Morricone used to.  Maybe not the whistling, but the percussions and the horns.

 

CS: Morricone used simple instruments, like a melodica [clavieta in Italian]. Alex did that too.  He used a Japanese drum, then for the district captains, who are all about money, he used an mbira [Zimbabwean finger piano made of metal].  It’s just like the sound of coins in your pocket.

We worked very closely with Alex. Once he got a cut of the film, he had literally 30 days to write and record the music.  He worked very hard and very quickly.

 

DT:  I loved the end of the film, where Bastiano talks about the young jockey [Giovanni] riding for glory, as opposed to the older jockeys, who were riding for money. As an Italian and as a proto-Italian, can you talk about the Italian concept of glory?

 

CS:  There’s a concept in Italy that I don’t think exists in many other cultures. It’s la bella figura—a beautiful appearance, or the importance of coming out well. For Giovanni, being a jockey in the Palio means he’s already realized his dream, but to be able to win two Palios is beyond.  This guy comes from a really humble background in Sardinia, so for him he’s reached the stars.  Also in material terms, he’s got a really nice house outside Siena, and he’s doing really well for himself. Giovanni brings a romance back to the Palio that had been lost to a certain extent, and in that way it’s a microcosm for Italy. Now we really want the young generation to take over and take away the corruption. Berlusconi really did something to Italy that we need to shake off.

 

VB: The end of the film represents a microcosm of what’s happening in my country.  The old guard sits there and doesn’t want to move. Young people like me have the choice to leave, which is the only thing you can do, because if you stay, the old people just push you down.  It’s not like here in America or England, where you believe in the youth and give chances to young people because you know they are the future of society.  Somebody like Giovanni stood out and looked for glory because he’s got that immigrant mentality as well.  His father is Sardinian and went to Germany to look for fortune, where he married a German woman and came back.  Giovanni’s got that thirst, he’s hungry.  He’s hungry in a good way, and he represents the good side of Italy.

 

CS:  In the film Giovanni represents all the young jockeys. They call it “the ladder.”  The ones at the top push down the ones at the bottom.  Bastiano, our narrator, says, It’s time the youth stopped just being content with a few crumbs from the old. Enough of being on this ladder.

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

Uncertain/Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol

When documentary filmmakers Anna Sandilands and Ewan McNicol set out for Uncertain, Texas, population 94, they thought they were going to make a comic short film.  It took only a day to obliterate their misconception.  Over the next year and a half, they got to know–and film–three of the town’s citizens:  Wayne, a Native American  fixated on catching a boar he’s nicknamed “Mr. Ed”; Henry, an aging fisherman intent on marrying a thirty-something gold digger; and Zack, an alcoholic diabetic desperate to escape Uncertain and its promise of perpetual poverty.  Against this human landscape, the lake on which they all depend for food is being choked by salvinia, an invasive weed, which can only be stopped by introducing weevils into the ecosystem. In lesser hands, Uncertain would seem like chaos.  Under the direction of Sandilands and McNicol, Uncertain is a masterpiece of compassionate perception.  Winner of the Albert Maysles New Documentary Director Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.   Availability:  Check Tribeca Film Festival schedule, Hot Docs schedule.  Thanks to Russ Posternak, Murphy PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  I was incredibly moved by your film. That being said, how did you find this place?  As the sheriff said in the film, “You either have to know where you’re going or be lost to find it.”

 

AS:  We were in Lafayette, Louisiana, making a short film called The Roper.  On the map we saw this town called Uncertain about four hours away, and we thought, How does a town get a name like that?  So we carved out a couple of days to go and see what it was all about, with that idea in mind:  to make a short film about how a town gets a name.

 

EM:  We drove into town and saw the sign that said Uncertain, Population 94, and the Church of Uncertain, and we thought, OK, this is going to be a comedy. When we said we wanted to go fishing, they told us, You’ve got to go out with Henry, he’s the best fisherman on the lake.  It was a misty morning, and he kind of appeared out of the mist, almost like Charon, the boatman.

 

AS:  The opening you see in the film was our first day there.

 

EM: It felt like we had jumped back to a different time and place, and we were captivated by it. We didn’t really understand a lot of what Henry was saying at first, cause it took a while to learn to speak Henry, as we say. [He has a very heavy accent and is subtitled in the film.] The next day, we went out filming with Wayne, the hog hunter. We asked why he shoots with powder guns, and he said, I can tell you the truth, or I can tell you what I tell everyone else. We asked him to tell us the truth, and he very quickly opened up in this incredibly graceful and candid way and told us about his past and being a convicted felon. That night, just two days into filming, we realized there was something incredible here and this was not just a short film; this was something bigger. We returned soon after that and continued filming on and off for a year and a half.  For about eight months, we weren’t sure what the story was.  We were in limbo, like all the characters in this film, not knowing how we were tying them together.  In some form or another they were all looking for some kind of recovery or forgiveness, but we weren’t sure how they were all going to fit together. Then this weed appeared, and it was like a mirror to their stories, so we realized that was how we were going to tie this together.

 

AS:  But for a long time all we knew was that we had these great men and this great place and it was worth following on that alone.

 

DT:  Why were they so open to sharing their stories with you?

 

AS:  We have no idea.  It was a complete act of courage on their part to agree to open up to us. In Wayne’s case, I think he was ready to unburden himself.  He’d been through a lot of work privately on letting go and forgiving himself. Our initial interest was in his hog hunting. That was the reason we were getting together that first day, but he ended up telling us about this tragedy, and we asked if he would be OK with us learning more about it.  He was uncomfortable. A few days later, he asked us why we were interested, and I said, Because we can’t reconcile the man you are today with the man who did these things. That’s why he knew he could trust us: because we could see the good man he is today, he could trust us with the past.

 

EM:  Everyone was incredibly open.  I’m obviously English, so I’m even more of an outsider.

 

AS:  They kept saying to him, “You’re not from around here, boy, are you?”

 

EM: But the fourth, the fifth, the sixth time we returned, some of the people who were unsure of us realized we were investing in them and the town, and I think at that point they realized they could trust us.

 

AS:  The other thing that attracted us immediately was that the town really seemed to care about each other. They’re a very tight unit in a lot of ways, and that’s something you don’t get in most communities.  They also live much closer to the land and rely on it. We were enchanted by that, and that’s another reason we felt like we were going back in time.  These are ideals we had as Americans fifty years ago that we’ve lost quite a lot of today, and to see it still very much alive and well in Uncertain was another reason that we immediately bonded.

 

DT:  I was really struck by the difference between their relationship to the land and my own.  When Wayne was talking about killing all these hogs, my reaction, as a city person, was, Oh my God, you can’t kill all these innocent animals.  But Wayne had a global view of things; if you kill Mr. Ed, that will allow other animals to come in.  They might have no problem ripping the skin off a dead animal, but they have a love for nature the rest of us don’t.

 

EM:  With Wayne, the hog hunter, that was part of the complexity in his character. He was very spiritual about taking an animal’s life, and every part of that animal will be used and eaten—you make dog treats, tan the hide, make necklaces from the teeth—so for him taking a life was not just about eating and it wasn’t just sport. It was the whole spiritual process, and that for us was really intriguing. At first it’s hard watching an animal being killed and gutted, but when you hear how he thinks about it, the whole cycle of life becomes complete.

 

DT: It also rounds him out as a person.

 

AS:  Absolutely. That was one of the things about all of them. We talked quite a lot about this when we were editing the film; we wanted people to follow the same path of getting to know the town and getting to know these people that we took—you come in very much as an outsider, you think you know who you’re looking at, you think you’ve got them pegged, and in fact they’re very surprising, deep people.

 

EM: Thoughtful.

 

DT:  As an audience member, I found myself going through various stages:  at first, this place was so foreign that I had to pretend it was another country.  Then I struggled to overcome my stereotypes about these people, and finally I was stunned by the fullness of their dignity. I think that evolution was the result of your slow reveal.  Can you talk about how you built the characters through editing?

 

AS:  One of the first things we agreed on in the early, nervous days of editing was that we wanted to approach it as you would a tale. Tales don’t have fact, detail, so when we were talking about the lake’s ecology, we didn’t want too much scientific detail. We wanted people to be somewhat disoriented about where they are and who’s who.  You only hear each character’s name one time, buried in the context of a scene, so we knew right away that we wanted that to be the overarching frame. In terms of the slow reveal, it was a lot about our own process of getting to know each one of them. We also knew we wanted each of their storylines to feather into one moment where they all turn together at the same point in time. So even though Henry’s story is a historical one, and Wayne’s is past and present, and Zack’s is very much present, we wanted them to all pull together in that one central moment.

 

EM: At the beginning of the film, there’s no dialogue for five or six minutes. You have these preconceived ideas about this hunter in a tree or that fisherman. You think you have ideas of who this person is. That’s probably what we had in the beginning, and we wanted you to go on the journey that we did. Try and change the perceptions of who these men are.

 

DT:  The approach really worked.  Let’s talk about the final shot.  For me it did two things:  It pulled all the threads of the story together into one tale about the mighty human struggle to correct the wrongs we inflict on the universe, including ourselves. It also transformed the film into an existential work about the human condition as revealed through these three characters.  Am I reading too much into it?  After all, it was just a shot of weevils eating a weed.

 

AS:  That was a very purposeful choice. You’re not reading too much into it at all. I’m glad you saw it, I’m glad that all came out for you.  We also felt like that was the one moment, hopefully the only moment, where our signature as filmmakers appears.

 

EM: It’s a very editorial choice. We spent a lot of time debating whether we should end on the lake. Some people see the weevils as evil creatures, and other people have watched and said they’re just kind of disgusting. For us this is a sign of hope, that nature can rebalance nature, that whatever man does to create the imbalance, nature will eventually find a way, with or without man, of rebalancing things. It leaves the film in this state of uncertainty, and that for us was where we wanted to leave the film.

 

DT:  But also redemption.

 

EM:  Yes, redemption is out there. These men who are looking for forgiveness can forgive themselves, and perhaps the town can solve these ecological problems.

 

DT: Talk about your use of music.  I especially loved the music with the raccoon party.

 

EM:  We didn’t want to go down the path of choosing typically East Texan music, because we saw this film as a tale, as a universal story.  It takes place in a very specific part of the world, but the stories are very universal, so musically we felt like we didn’t want to choose music from that area. We didn’t want to lead the audience.  We wanted the picture and the story to lead the audience and the music to supplement, so we were trying to be as restrained as we could with the music.  Our composer, Daniel Hart, lives in Dallas, but he’s an extraordinary musician, playing the violin and banjo himself.

 

AS:  We learned a great lesson from the director Ross McElwee.  The Sundance Edit and Story lab invited us with the film, and on one of our first days sitting down and working with Ross, he said, What would happen if you took away all the music you have now and then just carefully, slowly, put it back?  Not only did that inform our decisions about how to open the film without music but it also made us much, much more discerning about where to put it back in.

 

DT:  So initially you had a lot more music?

 

EM:  A lot more.

 

AS:  When you’re nervous about how much of a film you’ve got, you think you can put music in to glue it together. But he said, No, you’ve got the film, take away, take away, take away.

 

DT:  When you worked up the characters in editing, did you develop each one the same way, or did you vary between them?

 

AS:  We used Wayne and the hog hunting as the first spine of the film because his hunt for Mr. Ed was the most consistently linear story. Then came this story arc with the lake, with the salvinia and the weevils. Again, we wanted to anchor all of them in the same turning point in the film, where they each have that heavy inflection point, so it was really about building up and around to that moment and then back out from there.

 

DT:  What do you hope to achieve with your studio, Lucid Inc.?

 

AS:  For us as documentary filmmakers, we’re most attracted to people, to human beings, to characters. In the world of documentary today, there is so much focus on issue-based films, or films with an agenda. We are not those types of filmmakers.  We want to continue to pursue the types of stories that Uncertain is. It may make us outlyers in the world of documentary, but we’re OK with that.

 

DT:  I’m sure it won’t. If this is what you can do, I can’t imagine what your career trajectory is going to be like.  Which brings us to the next question:  What’s your next project?

 

EM:  We can’t talk in real detail because we haven’t locked in yet, but it’s going to involve being in one place again. We’re always drawn to the landscape and the people. Both have to be equally powerful.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015

National Gallery/Frederick Wiseman

National GalleryFrederick Wiseman’s thirty-ninth documentary—uncovers treasure after treasure within, without, and around London’s leading art museum. From Turner and Rubens to docents, restorers, and administrators; from museumgoers of every age to appraisers and lighting experts; from a touch-and-feel class for blind art lovers to a ballet choreographed to Titians, Wiseman covers everything in his quest to understand the art of painting. To view the trailer, click hereAvailability: US theatrical opening Film Forum, November 5-18. National Gallery received its US premiere at the 2014 New York Film Festival. Thanks to Adam Walker, Film Forum, for arranging this interview.• 

 

DT: Your previous subjects, like ballet and boxing, have had a lot of intrinsic movement. In National Gallery, your subject was paintings. How do you give cinematic life to an inanimate object?

 

FW: One of the big issues before we started the film was how to shoot a painting. I thought the  best way to do it was to be inside the frame of the painting so the painting filled the frame of the movie. We also did closeups of various parts of the painting so we could shoot the painting sequentially. Until the end of the nineteenth century, beginning of the twentieth century, most great painting was story or character driven. The collection of the National Gallery stops at the end of the nineteenth century. It was possible to make sequences out of some of the paintings—in other words, to show the paintings not in one shot but in a series of shots, which then links the way the painting is presented to other forms, like movies.

 

DT: Kind of giving them a linear depth of field.

 

FW: Exactly.

 

DT: You’ve described your editing as a process of associations, where one thing leads to another.

 

FW: It’s a combination of trying to be very logical and at the same time paying attention to your associations. No matter how I’ve arrived at a cut, even if I’ve dreamed it or arrived at it by paying attention to my associations, I nevertheless have to be able to rationalize it. I have to be able to say to myself in words why I think it works, why it belongs in the film in the place it’s in and in the form in which I use it.

 

DT: Sort of an artistic rationalization for something that’s instinctive?

 

FW: I can arrive at a cut deductively or associatively. Both things happen.

 

DT: Have you ever tried working another way?

 

FW: No. That’s the way I know how to work. It would be stilted. I work the way that works for me, to use the word “work” in another way.

 

DT: Every method has disadvantages and advantages. What are the disadvantages and advantages of working your way?

 

FW: I haven’t really thought about it other than the fact that that’s my way of working. I like to think that I’ve learned something over the course of the years and that what I’ve learned gets applied to the next film. If you haven’t resolved a problem satisfactorily in one film, when a similar issue comes up in the next film, you tend to remember that you need different kinds of material in order to anticipate the problem you ran up against in the editing.

 

DT: Can you give me a for-instance?

 

FW: In the beginning, I didn’t collect enough cutaways of participants in meetings. You need cutaways in order to reduce the sequence and reduce it in a form that helps create the illusion, however momentary, that the meeting took place the way it’s edited and in the form in which you show it in the film, even though it didn’t take place that way. If I didn’t have enough cutaways during a meeting, the next time there was a meeting going on, I remembered that I needed to get more shots of people just listening, or with their hands next to their cheek, or their fingers folded together.

 

DT: What do you mean by “reduce the sequence”?

 

FW: It’s very rare that a sequence in a film is the same length of time that it was when it occurred. For example, in At Berkeley, some of the meetings in the chancellor’s cabinet went on for an hour and a half. I might use ten minutes of it, but it’s not ten consecutive minutes, it’s thirty seconds here, forty seconds there, a minute and a half here, edited together to make it appear as if it was taking place the way you’re watching it. I say momentary illusion; if the editing works, it works because you feel that’s the way it happened. It didn’t—it’s a summary, it’s a compression of an hour and a half.

 

DT: You’ve said that “accumulated experience” takes you from film to film. For instance, you shot La Danse after meeting some of its cast at Comedie Francaise, then Boxing Gym was conceived as a relationship between ballet and boxing. Does National Gallery fit into that picture?

 

FW: Sometimes that’s after the fact, because I didn’t know Boxing Gym was going to be a dance film until I made it. After being at the gym for a while, I edited the material, and I realized I was making a dance film in part. So it’s not as if I specifically set out that way, but I came to that conclusion as a consequence of the experience.

 

DT: For me, the phrase “accumulated experience” describes my experience of watching your films. With their in-depth exploration of a single subject, I may start out knowing virtually nothing about it, but my accumulated experience over the course of watching brings me to a new place. Is that your intention?

 

FW: One aspect of the films I make is that they should be a report on what I’ve learned. There are many other aspects as well, but to the extent that I can adequately convey what it is I’ve learned to somebody watching the film who hasn’t had that experience, maybe it will add to their understanding of the subject.

 

DT: Let’s discuss your shooting process. Before you begin, do you have a preconception of what the film will be?

 

FW: No. I have none. The only preconception I have is the assumption that if I hang around this place long enough, I’ll accumulate enough material out of which I can edit a film.

 

DT: Then how do you guide your shooting?

 

FW: I guide my shooting by a variety of ways. I try to find out the power center…who are the people who make the decisions, what kind of decisions they make, can I be at the meetings when the decisions are made. If it’s an institution that serves clients, like a welfare center or a hospital or a police department, I try to get the relationship between the people who are offering the services and the people to whom the services are offered, and I try to get some sense of what the daily routine is like.

 

DT: In National Gallery, you had a vision beforehand of how you wanted to shoot the paintings.

 

FW: Yes, that was an idea I had before shooting to cover myself. The paintings were shot in a wide variety of ways so that in case I was wrong—in case my idea for shooting inside the painting didn’t work out—I had choice. In the 170 hours of rushes that I had for National Gallery, there were lots of shots of paintings where you see the wall or you see the relationship to other paintings in the room. The idea during the shooting is to collect enough material so that you have choice in the editing room, and since I don’t know what the themes are going to be or what the point of  view is going to be, I need a wide variety of choice.

 

DT: You shot 170 hours of footage. How much of it did you use?

 

FW: The film is three hours, so I used about 1/60, a little less, maybe 1/59.

 

DT: What’s your selection process when you’re looking at the rushes?

 

FW: There’s no external checklist of criteria. I’m responding to the material. What I really have to do is analyze what I’m looking at and what I’m watching and hearing. I have to think that I understand what’s going on in the sequence in order to be able to edit it. First, I’m constantly asking myself the question, Why? Why does somebody say this? Why is there a pause here?  Fifty percent of film editing has nothing to do with the technical aspect of film editing, especially in a documentary. It has to do with analyzing the behavior that you’re watching in the rushes, because if you don’t, you may be mistaken. You have to have some understanding of what it is you’re seeing and hearing in order to make the choices, and that has nothing to do with formal aspects of film editing. You use the technique, but the technique is at the service of that analysis.

 

DT: I don’t know if this is what you intended, but I walked away from National Gallery with the feeling that painting is a very elitist art.

 

FW: I don’t know what that means. I can speculate what that means. Elitist is too trendy a word these days. I’m not suggesting you’re necessarily using it that way, but that’s my response to it. I think any great literature, any great poem, any great play, the Bible, the Greek plays—they only work if you bring a certain amount of experience with language or thought in order to understand what they’re about. So if intelligence and education are elitist, then painting is elite, but it’s no more elite than studying the great nineteenth-century American novels. To understand what Melville’s at in Moby Dick, to understand some Hawthorne short story, you have to bring your intelligence and education to bear on what it is they’re trying to do.

 

DT: Why do you do your own sound?

 

FW: Because I like to do it, and I can make better choices about what to shoot, because I’m right there.

 

DT: How does the sound determine what you’re going to shoot?

 

FW: The sound in part determines what you’re going to shoot because one of the ways you make a decision as to what to shoot is what people are saying. It’s basically just the two of us, and the third person is usually outside the room or way outside the shot. I lead the cameraman with the mic. At least it’s one of the ways I’ll lead the cameraman.

 

DT: How else do you lead the cameraman?

 

FW: There are signals that we use, gestures that we make.

 

DT: So you haven’t set up the shots ahead of time?

 

FW: Oh no, I never set the shot up ahead of time. Inanimate objects like the paintings, yes, but in terms of people, no.

 

DT: Do you direct people when you’re with them?

 

FW: Never. I like to be able to accurately and honestly represent that I’ve never asked anybody to do anything.

 

DT: You’ve described National Gallery as your most abstract film, in terms of recursiveness, yet what struck me was the extreme physicality of painting, which I’ve always considered sort of ethereal.

 

FW: What do you mean by physicality?

 

DT: When I go to a museum, I experience the painting not as a physical object but as “a work of art.” In National Gallery, it was so clear that the paintings were physical objects that needed to be cared for.

 

FW: They’re both, really, aren’t they? They need to be cared for, preserved, restored, like us. But at the same time they have a form and a beauty, which is what the artist has created. And they’re the result of thought, among other things, not just technique. When Rubens created Samson and Delilah, he had to have an idea. As that wonderful woman guide in the movie says, he had to have an idea of what the relationship was between Samson and Delilah, and he had to find a way of expressing that relationship. He does it with the expression on Delilah’s face and the ambivalent position of her hands. To get back to this elitist business, if you don’t know the Samson and Delilah story, it’s difficult to properly interpret the painting. You don’t know the history, you don’t know it’s a giant and there’s a war with the Phillistines, blah blah blah. You think it’s a beautiful man asleep on the lap of a beautiful woman.

 

DT: What did you learn about painting that you didn’t know before making National Gallery?

 

FW: I learned a lot about how to read a painting. I knew this to some extent before, but the depth of my ignorance was impressed on me. I learned about how to pay the same kind of detailed attention to a painting that I would bring to something that I read. My experience before had been a lot more with reading than with visual art. But listening to some of those guides, I began to pay a lot more attention to the details of paintings. This was particularly true of paintings that tell a story, as most paintings did until the twentieth century. I learned that to properly appreciate Titian, you have to know something about Greek mythology, you have to know something about Ovid. To properly appreciate a lot of the great Middle Ages paintings, you have to know something about the Church and the Bible and the history of the Church and the literature and the ideology of the Church. In order to understand the painting, you have to bring something to it, which is true of great literature as well.

 

DT: It’s true of film as well.

 

FW: It’s true of film as well. Right.

 

DT: I love the irony that the foundation of the British National Gallery was laid at a major auction of the Duke of Orleans’ collection following the French revolution.

 

FW: That was a nice lucky thing [to have in the film].

 

DT: That was the piece that brought me to the idea of elitism. When I say elitism, I don’t mean knowledge or education. I really mean money even though in New York you can shell out a nickel and get into a museum.

 

FW: But you can’t buy it for a nickel, unless you’re lucky enough and the artist is so unlucky he’s starving, which has certainly happened in the history of art. Rembrandt went bankrupt. For a lot of the great Impressionist painters, people thought their paintings were crazy and maybe they were crazy, too. The smart people were the people who bought it when it cost nothing. It’s only now that it costs twenty million dollars or forty million dollars.

 

DT: While you were shooting, you were obviously conscious of a painting being an object that represents life without being life, the same way that film represents life without being life.

 

FW: It’s an abstraction. It’s taken from life. That’s one of the things the movie’s about—the different ways you represent experience. Whether it’s a movie or a play, a poem or a novel or a ballet, it’s all drawn from experience. The subject matter of the paintings shown in the film are some of the great human experiences—life, death, war, love, etc.

 

DT: Are you working on anything new?

 

FW: I’m working with a choreographer to make a ballet out of my first movie, Titicut Follies. That’s why I’m in New York this fall.

 

DT: How did that come about?

 

FW: I made two ballet movies, and I go to the ballet a lot. I was struck by the fact that a lot of the dancing is great. Certainly Balanchine was great, but a lot of contemporary choreography isn’t so interesting. It has very little relation to contemporary life other than the fact that it’s always dealing with relationships. There’s so much other good subject matter around. Some of it is dealt with in modern dance, but not so much in ballet. So the idea is to see whether you can transfer a classical form into a tough contemporary subject and a complicated contemporary subject.

 

DT: One of the things that struck me while watching La Danse is how difficult it is for a dancer to interpret a choreographer’s vision. I imagine it’s the same with acting and directing.

 

FW: Sure it is. But it’s the job of the choreographer, or the ballet master, to impose sometimes. Sometimes the dancer understands it, and sometimes the dancer will make a contribution, because the good dancers are not puppets. They’re in part puppets, but the really good ones add something, they bring their experience to the interpretation of the role just as a good actor brings his or her experience to the interpretation of a role. But it has to be within the framework of what the choreographer has in mind.

 

DT: When will your ballet be ready?

 

FW: Two years from now. Fall of 2016.

 

DT: And it’s going to be called Titicut Follies?

 

FW: Titicut Follies, the Ballet.

 

DT: (Laughs)

 

FW: It’s a funny idea, I agree. It remains to be seen whether it will work, but it’s worth the effort, I think.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2014

 

 

Particle Fever/Director Mark Levinson and Producer David Kaplan

In Particle Fever, six brilliant physicists lead us through the Large Hadron Collider as the international scientific community gathers to search for the Higgs boson, aka “the God particle.”  Physicist-turned-filmmaker Mark Levinson and professor of theoretical particle physics David Kaplan offer an intimate look at the men and women asking the biggest questions that can be asked—and what happens when they get an answer.  •Availability:  In theaters March 5. Check for local listings at www.facebook.com/Particle Fever. Thanks to Brooke Medansky, BOND Strategy and Influence, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  With the discovery of the Higgs boson behind you, you’re now working on trying to disturb the vacuum of space.  What does that mean?

 

DK:  We’ve known for many years what all matter looks like:  It’s made of atoms. The thing we now hope to see at the LHC is what the vacuum of space itself is made of.  Investigating it is similar to looking through a microscope. You look through the microscope; light hits the thing you’re looking at, then bounces off and goes into your eye through a lens, which makes it bigger.  The light has frequency and wavelength.  The higher the frequency or the smaller the wavelength, the smaller the thing you can look at.  What we want to look at are things that are very tiny—the tiniest scales and lengths and elements of the vacuum itself.  To do that, you first need to go to incredibly high energy, and to do that you have to build an insanely big machine that can move particles at incredibly high energies and smash them into each other. You have to do that when you investigate the vacuum because you can’t bounce off of nothing, so you smash two things together, and the energy from the collision goes into the vacuum, then reflects out what the vacuum is made of, what its structure is.  So by inserting energy into a vacuum and then refracting or reflecting stuff out, we get to see what the vacuum is made of and all the information about our spacetime living in the vacuum.  And that’s important.  That means you can discover new particles, particles that don’t just hang around and live here for long periods of time every day but particles that could live only tiny fractions of a second.

 

DT:  Do you have to make any modifications to the LHC to explore the vacuum of space?

 

DK:  In some sense the LHC looks like a very sophisticated and elite thing, but it’s like the NASCAR of physics because it literally is the fastest thing on the planet. We move things faster than anybody else. We smash them into each other.  The modifying is just trying to get the thing aimed so that the particles hit each other as hard as possible, at as high an energy as possible, and to get as many collisions as possible.  In some sense it’s mundane, but it’s very hard to do.  Then we outfit the detectors, which are like layers of digital cameras whose guts are silicon and other materials as well.  When the collision happens, two particles smash and hundreds of particles come out of it. That’s what’s coming out of the vacuum.  They’ll plow through the different materials of the detectors and be recorded electronically, and you’ll get a snapshot, which is just like a three-dimensional photograph of what that collision looked like.

 

DT:  Those were the gorgeous images at the end of the film.  Spectacularly beautiful.

 

ML:  Which actually is not the way physicists look at it.  Those images are more for the public.  The physicists are looking at data, and numbers, and charts, and things like that.  You asked if the LHC was modified; it was designed to do this specifically.  What they’re modifying right now is trying to get it to higher energies, but the whole purpose was to be able to do this analysis.

 

DK:  It was decades ago when people realized we have to investigate the vacuum, not just the particles.

 

DT:  Can you briefly explain the relationship between the vacuum of space and dark matter.

 

DK:  In some sense dark matter is a more prosaic thing than the vacuum of space, because it’s just stuff.  Now, it’s stuff that’s not made of atoms—we know that very confidently—which means it’s stuff that’s made of something else but we don’t know what it is.  And it dominates the universe.  About eighty plus percent of the matter in the universe is dark matter.  It’s responsible for the galaxies, because dark matter particles all attracted each other and created these gaseous clumps, in which we, the atoms, fell in, collided, circled around, created galaxies and stars and people and us. So the dark matter has a lot to do with the structure of the universe, but when we look at our list of fundamental particles, there’s nothing there that could be dark matter.  Nothing has the properties of what it is. In the simplest case, dark matter is one new type of particle that we’ve never seen before but feel gravitationally, and we’re trying to nail down what its properties are by detecting it or creating it at the LHC.

 

DT:  The film Journey of the Universe teaches us that humans are made of the same stuff as stars.

 

DK:  We’re made of stardust, right.

 

DT:  In an interview you guys did with PBS, you said that dark matter is something other than what we’re made of.  I was tremendously gratified to find that we’re made of stardust and terrified to find that eighty percent of the universe is called dark matter, which is something entirely other than what we are.   It bothers me the way the idea of chaos bothers me.

 

ML:  In one of the scenes in Particle Fever, some of the physicists are joking about Mr. Dark Matter coming and taking you away at night.

 

DT:  It’s the ultimate boogeyman.

 

ML:  When we were at Princeton, people were joking about whether there could be life in the dark sector, but it’s certainly not something that we worry about.

 

DK:  In some sense, when we discover a new particle, we think, What the hell is that?  It’s this odd thing that doesn’t fit into what we are and how we are made. And then, over many years, things start to get incorporated: “Oh, there are symmetries, and we’re a reflection of that.”  There’s a theory called supersymmetry, in which dark matter is the partner of a particle of light, or photon. In the theory of supersymmetry, every known particle will have a superpartner, with symmetry balance between them, and amazingly, light’s superpartner could be the dark matter, in which case both light and its partner fill the universe.

 

DT:  That’s so cool.

 

DK:  Light and dark. It is cool.  It’s poetic.  Nobody planned it that way.

 

DT:  In light of the mammoth effort behind the LHC, can you talk about how science progresses—how scientists go from one discovery to the next?

 

DK:  Science progresses highly nonlinearly.  In fact, we wanted to make this movie because nobody ever portrays it that way.  In TV science documentaries, you have scientists explaining things to you.  You get very beautiful explanations and graphics for how the world works, but you have no idea how they got there. It seems insane that anybody would come up with such an idea.  You think, How did they come up with that?  I would never think of that! And you wouldn’t, because you start where you know. Then you go down a path saying, “Well maybe this is true, maybe this is true,” and you go down blind alleys, you go out on limbs, and the limbs sometimes break and you’re back at the bottom of the tree and have to climb back up.  What we end up with in textbooks is chapter seven leads to chapter eight leads to chapter nine and that’s how everything is explained, but between chapter seven and chapter eight may be a hundred and seventy-five years and many, many false starts.

 

DT:  Unless I’m mistaken, you dealt with that in Particle Fever, in the section about multiverses.

 

DK:  The multiverse represents a totally different approach to the way we think of fundamental physics or particle physics.  Because of that, it’s hard for some people to accept.  Or it may have implications that are completely different from the path that we thought we were on.  So in a sense it’s a beautiful example of thinking things are going this way and then there’s this other idea, which, if true, means none of what you’re thinking is right and you’ll never be able to discover what you’re after and you have to do something completely different.  Which is why this was a perfect time to make this film, because there was a lot of uncertainty over what was true.

 

ML:  As far as the process of science, there are other ways to be looking for dark matter, so there are other experiments. These collisions are happening all the time, so there are satellites out there and things deep underground where they’re hoping to see them. The great advantage of the LHC is that it’s a known environment, you’re doing it somewhere where you’re controlling the collision, and you can look at it.  But it could be that they’re going to see evidence of it in one of these other sites where they’re just waiting for random events.  We try everything.  The great advantage of the LHC is we’re doing it right here, and we’re looking right here.

 

DK:  It’s a great advantage for the movie, too.

 

DT:  Or it could be like the burning bush; it’s always been there, and it just takes the right guy to see it.  Let’s talk about the structure of the film.  First, really fascinating scientists get us involved in the story of the search for the Higgs boson.  Then, once we’re hooked, the science of the Higgs boson comes at the end. It’s a very interesting decision. Why did you choose to make the film in that way?

 

ML:  Putting the science in was the hardest part of the film, just in terms of knowing where and how to do it.  From the beginning, our approach was let’s get the drama and the narrative right.  We know we can do the physics, but let’s find out what our story is and what it demands.  I’m very happy to hear you say we put the science at the end, because that means we put it in unnoticeably before, since if we hadn’t laid the foundation, you wouldn’t have understood the end.  And so we seeded it in the places where we needed it initially. The idea was always that just when you’re on the verge of not understanding something, we explain it so that you can move to the next step, and set up the end.  The end, specifically though, was a consequence of what happened [i.e., the discovery of the Higgs boson during the course of filming]; this was not what we initially thought the end of the film was going to be, but once the Higgs was discovered and it had that specific mass, we had to set it up. So we went back and had to figure the places where we could do it, as the idea always was that it would not just be some omniscient narrator explaining the physics. We always wanted it to come organically out of the story and out of the characters, so I’m very happy that you didn’t feel it was stopping the story at any point along the way. David’s lecture became a great way to introduce a lot of things in a nice organic way, and we had scientists filming themselves with small cameras, just conversationally talking about things in an approachable way.  We carefully threaded the science in so when you got to the end and we were really dealing with the physics, you were ready for it.

 

DK:  I’m a beginning filmmaker, and my naïve approach was that you first have to be attached to these people and then you hear what they do.  You’ve got to love these people, and once you love them, it’s OK if you don’t quite understand what they’re doing.  You’re inspired; you say, “Well, he likes it. I’m with that guy.”

 

ML: These people often talk in very technical language, and if we didn’t explain it, the danger was that you would not identify with the character. That was the delicate balance: How do you get attached to characters if they’re speaking gobbledygook?  That was really the trick.  We couldn’t not talk about the physics initially, but we had to do it in a way that still got you attached to the characters so that they’re vested at the end.

 

DT:  You started shooting without having any idea where the film was going to go, because you started shooting without knowing whether the Higgs boson would be discovered.  Along the way, however, you got many beautiful moments.  One of them was Fabiola Gianotti saying, “Physics addresses big questions in a more practical way than philosophy.” Can you talk about that aspect of physics?

 

DK:  People ask me, Are you religious? Do you believe in God? What’s your philosophy? Do you think there are things that are not physical?  I can imagine speculating about those things for the rest of my life and not getting anywhere.  And it would be nice to get somewhere.  It’s OK if it’s incremental, and it’s OK if I don’t get all the answers by the end of it.  But to actually make some progress is so inspiring. Fabiola, who’s a very artistic, creative, and philosophical person, is also very practical in that.  She wants to feel the progress.  She wants to walk down that path.  Now, very beautiful things have been said.  Einstein said, “I want to know God’s thoughts.”  And in a sense you get to interact with something that is not human.  You are asking questions of something that is not created by another person. With no motivation. And you’re getting answers back.  It’s not really a dialogue, but you get to learn something that is outside of yourself and outside our race.

 

DT:  Talk about the international cooperation that was needed to pull off the LHC.

 

DK:  It’s totally insane.

 

ML:  CERN [European Organization for Nuclear Research] was founded in the fifties as an outgrowth of UNESCO, so right from the beginning it was seen as an endeavor created to unite people in something that transcended politics and divisions and war.

 

DK:  After WWII.

 

DT:  But in the midst of the cold war.

 

ML:  Even more.  I met somebody at a retiree benefit who had been there right at the beginning, when it was just shacks. He said it was difficult—that you were basically supposed to start working with somebody you would have been shooting at five years earlier.  Right from the beginning that was the mandate, and I think that it’s continued, and it really is a universal thing.  Now we see that it has to be.  No single country could ever do anything like this, and I think that’s fantastic.  It unites people beyond petty concerns, and that’s a great aspect of the process of science at this level.

 

DK:  I like to say that people’s first language is physics and their second language is whatever they were born speaking, and that’s how it feels at CERN.  It doesn’t matter where the person’s from, what they’re like, what they look like.  It doesn’t matter because you have something to talk about and you’re both passionate about it, and you speak exactly the same language.

 

DT:  One more question. What’s your next film?

 

ML:   I have a couple of projects I’m thinking about.  The big question is, Is it another documentary or is it fiction, cause that’s my background.  I’m looking for good stories with good characters, and I’m very interested in the art and science overlap, so I’m looking at various things that could explore that further.

 

DT:  Can’t wait to see what’s next.

 

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