Go "To The Hills" On Easter Sunday with Fritz Donnelly
At SXSW a few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet and hang with Brooklyn-based filmmaker Fritz Donnelly. Fritz gave me a copy of his latest DVD, To The Hills 2, a collection 25 of his short films including Financial Advice, Real Estate, Milk Industry and my personal favorite, Awkward Social Situations. Fritz will be on hand this Sunday at 8pm at Glasslands in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he’ll be hosting Easter Island Sunday, an evening of short films from the likes of himself and others including Elle Burchill, Ben Coonley, Arin Crumley, Susan Buice, Myles Kane, Jason Talon and three spontaneous submissions. Be sure to stop by for all the festivities. In the mean time, please enjoy my interview with Fritz below.
TFPN: Tell me a little about your screening series.
Fritz: I'm doing a series of events at the Glasslands, which is a music, art and wild party venue in Williamsburg that's been around for about a year. I think the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs did a video there kind of early on and the whole independent music scene of a certain tier has performed there. It was started by Brooke Baxterand Rolyn Hu, two women who I've worked in the past on my movies. Every month, I do something there like an open mic/performance night or a film nite. At the last performance was a guy who lectured about chocolate and then gave out free raw chocolate samples. I rapped in Chinese, there was a beat box guy, some song singing, and a modern dancer, and a couple of people read poems and fiction. I also do To The Hills Movie Nights showing local filmmakers work. I usually use the screenings as a deadline to make work. And actually, I'll show anybody's work. There's people who regularly make work for this screening like Ben Coonley and Elle Burchill, and some people who just come in at the last minute with spontaneous submissions. It's an inclusive forum. We're trying to build a little community of filmmakers.
TFPN: What is the meaning behind your To The Hills short films?
Fritz: We live in the city and we're influenced by the variety and the strangeness that we see everyday; To The Hills is about that. You come to New York or you grow up here and you're inherently ambitious; you ask, how can I succeed in this metropolis? That is the environment you put yourself in, but sometimes you just need to get out of that because you lose track of yourself or because if you come out if it and you come back, it's going to be so fresh. To The Hills is that impulse to go off to the hills, either so that you can come back fresh or so you can imagine something different or because that's the space where your ideas can run amuck. You're born into the world and it's already all set up, but you kind of want to mess with it. It's that impulse: to mess with the world that's already presented for you.
TFPN: How would you describe your films? Would you classify them as experimental?
Fritz: I think they've been described in so many ways. I showed them to Tom Schumacher, The President of Disney's Theatrical Division. He said he was into them because they showed different systems for living your life. You know, these are movies about stealing your roommate's milk , calling your lover by the wrong name, and overly long eye contact (Awkward Social Situations). A bunch of Berkeley Freudians and neuroscientists saw my Yoga-Dance film in the Hi/Lo Film Festival and they asked me, are you making fun of yoga or are you really into yoga? You're being ridiculous with yoga but you seem into it. So there's that tension, how much is something being made fun of and how much is it being celebrated? A ridiculous looking person is also a fantastic looking person. A ridiculous way of dressing is also flamboyant and wonderful. So a lot of these films have that tension where there's fun in it, but also this way that it's very sincere. I don't think any of it is that experimental, but I treat the whole filmmaking process as one where I'm very conscious of what the conventions are, and then I know whether or not I need them. Like shot, reverse shot, when people are having a conversation. I think that's a really weird and arbitrary convention. Why would you see a conversation from both perspectives? I mean, it's exciting to see both of their faces, but it's really voyeuristic. I feel like a lot of the cinematic conventions are voyeuristic. That's not my interest in watching a movie, to be the person who's looking in. My interest is more to be the person who's participating. I try to shoot my movies in a way where the camera is the participant and gives the viewer a chance to participate and not be an omniscient eye that sees everything. Borrowing from literature, you could call it first-person filmmaking. My films tend to skew toward using experimental techniques, but I feel like the result is not experimental.
TFPN: Are you trying to make any statements with your films?
Fritz: What I like in film is when you put a lot of it together in your head. I feel like the film is what happens between the person and the thing on the screen. So I'm not trying to say anything directly, but I am trying to evoke the part of a person that they're shy about, but that they really like about themselves. I feel, based on the responses I've gotten from people, that some of the films are effective in doing that. For example, Financial Advice, the film that was licensed by IFC and that's at the very beginning of the DVD (To The Hills 2). The guy has no money, but he's giving you financial advice. He's not even capable of keeping track of his life, it seems like, but somehow he's compelling anyway. I've actually had people follow his advice. He's not really giving you advice like, you should do this, but they sort of followed the spirit. Somebody calls me up and says I quit my job and my boss offered me more money, just like you said. And then I've had a lot of people who wanted to make their own stuff based on seeing my movies. Really, it's just me and a camera in a lot of them. I think that's inspiring to other people--that you can do something simple and it can be compelling without using teams of 100 people and massive budgets.
TFPN: What inspired you to make films?
Fritz: That's interesting because I make films, but I also write. I wrote a novel, and almost two, one and a half now: an absurdest how-to memoir, How to Live the Good Life and a hipster murder mystery with astrological themes, Mercury Retrograde. I had a radio show for a while, Shake Your Head, and To The Hills started as a TV show on public access in Manhattan. So I've done different things, not just making movies. I have an interactive video project showing in the New Museum in a couple of months, it's online at http://www.vidopedia.com/. If I feel like I have a message, I write it. I find that film is more evocative. I think creating environments can also be really evocative, but film is demanding because you're asking for time of a person's life. I think of architecture in relation to film. Time and space. Building an environment is demanding because you're asking people to go somewhere and move their bodies through your thing. And I actually think architecture is all about getting people to move their bodies in a certain space in a certain way. I'm trying to not to be too demanding of people, but to offer a lot in exchange for what they give me. Films seem to me like the most efficient format for that.
TFPN: Are there any filmmakers or other people who inspired you?
Fritz: I read a lot of fiction, and a lot of my movies are I think inspired in a general way from people such as Dostoevsky and Borges. Lately I've been editing like Murikami and James Joyce, in the sense of how they return to certain metaphors and images to structure their stories. It's not montage and it's not mash-up, let's call it morphic resonance, to borrow a term from the experimental biologist Rupret Sheldrake. There's a couple of early films of William Wegman's that I really like. He's an artist. You probably know his photographs of dogs. He's got these early videos where it's just him talking to the camera and telling you stories. They're hilarious and amazing. You picture so much going on, even though you don't actually see so much. I had already been doing my thing, but then I saw his work and thought it was related. I guess the same thing happened to me with Borat and Ali G. I saw those after I was already in the middle of doing my foreign characters (How Drive the Car and Instructor and my POZitive character (Live N Maintain). I like the way Sacha Baron Cohen throws himself into the people. The joke is not on the people, it's more on these conventions and these ways that we have of acting that we think make a lot of sense, but in the end are so ridiculous, even reprehensible; he's so good at showing that. I feel like my movies are also about that. They're probably a lot less confrontational. Those are some people who have really inspired me, not really to start, but kind of just along the way like you're running the marathon and somebody gives you a cup of water as you're going.
TFPN: Can you talk about the technical choices you made with some of your videos, such as the Awkward Social Situations one where you played around with the sound?
Fritz: Some of those are me doing a voiceover. So I'll shoot it and then I'll re-do the voice because I wanted the voice to have a different quality. Or I layer the voice twice. I put one out of sync a little bit. It's not actually backwards or anything. In my very first film I ever made, Blue Lobster, there's almost no sync sound in the whole thing, but there is a lot of dialogue. I used a lot of different ways of syncing sound and image so there was syncing going on, but it wasn't lip-syncing.
TFPN: Have you ever been involved panel discussions?
Fritz: During SXSW, I was involved with the roundtable discussions for From Here To Awesome. Brian Chirls, Arin Crumley and Lance Weiler gave an introduction of what it's all about and then they opened it up. (From Here to Awesome is a tool for filmmakers to find their audience online, I'm a filmmaker they've asked to submit to it, the poster child along with Susan Buice, Isis Masoud, Karl Jacob and M dot Strange. I think the conversation gets deeper, faster when there are more participants because people want to get to the heart of the matter. I think panel discussions can be very political--people are self-conscious and a lot of time is spent floating around stuff, whereas when you put everyone on stage I feel like it opens up immediately, you get some angry or extreme questions to get things moving. I think there's a way people try to talk really safe as well, when they're put in a position of authority. The From Here To Awesome discussion was amazing. I think we covered basically everything in this conversation. It ended up going through paradoxes like, how can people make money off of their movies while giving them away to everyone for free. Filmmakers like Lance Weiler and M dot Strange both have done that. We talked about how the audience is involved in the creation process and a Canadian filmmaker discussed how his documentary about copyright includes at least six scenes that were re-edited or created entirely (in the case of an animation) by fans and are in his final film. Arin Crumley talked about licensing plans where the license adheres to the project--so you put one of your movies out there and if people want to distribute it in a small way they pay you a small amount of money, if a major distributor wants to take it to the moon then you'll get a lot more--and this would be automated. We talked about ways to simplify the monetary structure, and a lot of really practical ideas that were futuristic. This whole discussion is online, I'll put a link to it on my website. As for my personal panel experience, Mr. Film Panel Notetaker, I've spoken at NYU on film regularly. For example, I was an expert on Chinese film for Professor Richard Brown. I worked with a bunch of Chinese filmmakers when I was starting out and I speak Chinese, those are my credentials for that. I've done a lot of speaking, and lead lots of discussions, but not that many panels.
TFPN: If you were to be on a panel, what are some ideas or topics you would like to talk about?
Fritz: Anything having to do with love and how to live your life. To me, those are really related. Maybe that's seems like it's coming out of the blue, but it involves communication and art. Another area is how to do things, how to actually do them, like how to make a movie or make art. And another would be timeless writing. And then maybe the fourth thing would be nomadic lifestyle/workstyle. So basically how to keep moving in terms of a project and not feel like you have to attach yourself to resources, but being able to find the resources when you need them and then let them go when you don't need them. I think all four topics relate to filmmaking. But wouldn't you rather know how to have a perfect relationship?
Support Fritz Donnelly
Buy To The Hills 2: Includes films like AWKWARD SOCIAL SITUATIONS and FINANCIAL ADVICE - http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000EZKZTW/