A Night with Ross McElwee
“Charleen” and “Backyard”
February 2, 2010
New York, NY
Ross McElwee, perhaps most noted for his films “Sherman’s March,” “Time Indefinite,” and “Bright Leaves” presented two lesser-seen gems Tuesday night during Stranger Than Fiction – “Charleen” (starring the outspoken Southern poetry teacher Charleen who later appears again in “Sherman’s March”) and “Backyard” (McElwee’s first attempt at an autobiographical documentary focusing on his family’s home in the South). Thom Powers led a Q&A with McElwee after each film screened, and beforehand noted that the evening’s presentation was dedicated in the memory of award-winning documentary editor Karen Schmeer, who had been killed in a hit-and-run car accident last week in New York’s Upper West Side.
Powers noted that “Charleen” was a student project of McElwee’s when he was attending graduate school at MIT in the 1970s. Among McElwee’s teacher were documentary veterans Richard Leacock
) and Ed Pincus
). With all that inspiration, what gave him the courage to make films about people who aren’t well known, Powers asked? McElwee said that Leacock believed in the first part of his career that one should make films about people who achieved a lot in their lives such as John F. Kennedy. McElwee and other of his contemporaries thought that one can find the same sort of heroicism in everyday life and those people have to have some sort of “star” quality, “which Charleen clearly has, even in a crudely shot piece that I did for my senior thesis at MIT. You can still see that she somehow takes over the film in a way.” Regarding the MIT program, it was highly unstructured and was just in its infancy when he went there. They were given sync sound cameras. “Charleen” in particular was shot in 16mm, and he also used a Nagra tape recorder. He recalls it being terrifying and liberating, giving him the freedom to do very unstructured film.
Having finished “Charleen,” what was his takeaway from the experience and what did he do between making this film and “Backyard,” Powers asked? McElwee said the two films were shot very close together within a year, but he didn’t have the money to process the print. The sync sound camera rig was the most expensive thing. In between “Charleen” and “Backyard,” he and Michel Negroponte
shot a film called “Space Coast.”
He was very pleased that he made “Charleen,” which was a learning film for him, but on a more profound level, this kind of filmmaking where he was always behind the camera asking other people to tell their stories, made him a little uncomfortable, so he decided largely through Ed Pincus’s example, doing autobiographies was a positive direction to go in, even though he was a little reticent to do it then. More to the point, there were possibilities that he hadn’t seen before with subjective writing an almost fictional shape to nonfiction. Journalistic writing to could possibly be applied to cinema vérité footage. Also, he cut his crew down from two to one, because it allowed a kind of intimacy. “Charleen” was a film he loved making, but he was still working out ideas of how he should shape his films. “Backyard” was a sketch for what would become a style he was more comfortable with and which he invested his artistic inclinations in his filmmaking, which is exemplified in “Sherman’s March.”
Lastly, Powers asked if Charleen is still alive today. McElwee said she’s “very much alive and if you ask her that question, she’d hit you over the head.”
Powers asked if McElwee’s father (a surgeon) ever accepted him as being a filmmaker? McElwee said he’s very grateful that his father came to the premiere of “Sherman’s March.” His father didn’t really understand what he was doing in the film, but when he heard people in the audience laughing, he started laughing and turned to him and whispered, “I never knew you were so funny.” After a while, his father realized he found a way to make films that suited him and also could find an audience at least on a small scale.
In “Sherman’s March,” McElwee appears on screen fumbling in the weeds, almost like a Buster Keaton-type character. How much of that was he consciously cultivating an on-screen persona, Powers asked? McElwee said he was cultivating an on-screen persona of a doofus fellow who’s trying to execute one task, but constantly being distracted, which in a way is him.
Powers said when “Sherman’s March” came out, the idea of being a one-man band was more uncommon than it is today. People have talked about McElwee’s films as an observer walking through life and he actually cares a lot about formal qualities of filmmaking, such as the role that light and shadow plays. McElwee said while those things are important to him, he’s not always on top of those technical aspects. In “Backyard,” he was carrying a huge Nagra recorder and a heavy 16mm camera and dealing with a microphone. While he wasn’t the only person to do this at the time, this approach to making films really placed demands on a filmmaker. He hoped that he could continue to be conscious about composition. For instance, in the scene in “Backyard” where his father hands him a measuring tape in the backyard to put up the volleyball net, he has to deal with multiple elements from making sure the sound is recording to having the correct exposure on the camera while also composing the shot. He said he finally found the right composition towards the end of the shot with the lawnmower in the background and the microphone in the foreground. While this is important to him, it’s a compromise when you elect to do a film on your own.
Powers said there seemed to be a novelty to the moment during the scene in “Backyard” where the busboys are working in the kitchen at the country club and they speak to the fact the camera is there. How much has changes since then? McElwee said the world has changed tremendously. You have to get permissions and be more conscious of whatever’s being shot, as it can end up on YouTube. There was none of that back then. People were so relaxed. He said he thinks it’s going to continue to be hard for people to go into public spaces to make documentaries now compared to the freedom he enjoyed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
While he lives in the North, the South seems to be the place McElwee always continues to go to in his films. When he goes back to the South, does he feel like a Southerner or Northerner, Powers asked? McElwee said while he’s made his home in the North where he’s supported by his teaching gig and has also raised money from various sources such as WGBH in Boston, there’s part of him that has a strong connection to the South. He loves going back there and being with his family. In “Backyard,” he said you could especially see some of the ambivalence he had toward the way things were down there. That bothered him for a while, and had a lot to do with his decisions to make his life in the North, but things aren’t like that anymore, as things have loosened up for racial relationships. “I think you gain some perspective on where you came from when you go to a different place,” he said.
Labels: Backyard, Charleen, Ross McElwee, Sherman's March, Stranger Than Fiction