"We both came to the same window at the
same time, which was that we need to get out of here and let
go of this paradigm. There’s got to be more than Hollywood and
its issues/26/images of being an American," says Kristin Hahn, co-director
of the new documentary, Anthem. "When you’re in Hollywood,
everybody takes it so seriously. For a second or two, you start
to think it’s actually reality. That’s really when Shainee and
I decided-we’re not married, we don’t have babies, let’s go.
We need to get out and see if the rest of America is really as
cynical as it appears from this viewpoint."
So began the road trip that would bring Hahn and
co-director Shainee Gabel to the backyards, living rooms, hotels
and workplaces of 28 political, entertainment and social luminaries.
Among them are Studs Terkel, George Stephanopoulos, Robert Redford,
Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck D., John Waters, Tom Robbins, Michael
Stipe, Dr. Ralph Reed, Krist Novoselic, Jack Healey, Geraldine
Ferraro, George McGovern and a cross section of non-celeb, working
Americans. To each of them, the filmmakers asked about the American
Dream, their heroes, inspiration and how the landscape affected
their lives. Criss-crossing the lower 48 more than six times, the
pair turned their car into a mobile production office, calling
in to check on interviews and rescheduling, staying with friends
of friends and discovering that the answers to each of their questions
were intimately related. It was a journey that would make Kerouac,
Kerault or Steinbeck proud.
"We both really wanted to see the country and
wanted to make a film. Having experienced enough of the inner sanctum
of Hollywood, we did not want to wait for someone to tell us we
could make a film. The idea of going around and pitching Anthem
was a horrifying thought," laughs Hahn. Living in L.A. prior
to their road trip, the filmmakers knew more than a little about
the film industry. Gabel worked with both the L.A. Independent
Film Festival and the IFP/West and Hahn produced radio specials,
created the socially-conscious theater group Minsky/Hahn Productions
and is executive producing narrative films.
"We came up with a list of 100 people we wanted
to interview. People who, in our subjective opinion, were shaping
the country-a list of mavericks. We sent out six letters and made
a pact that if two out of six said yes, we would go. Two weeks
later we got a call from Ben & Jerry and they said yes. Then
George Stephanopoulos called from the White House, which was a
complete shocker. That was the clincher for us.
"Neither of us owned a camera. I went to film
school and Shainee was learning film through her work. She and
I had always worked with crews and we decided that it would just
be the two of us. We sent out proposals to raise money and raised
enough to buy used video equipment. Over the next two months we
sent out 150 more letters and most of them came back unanswered.
We left anyway."
As for the women’s accomplishment of reaching some
of America’s distinguished citizens, Hahn says, "A producer
at CNN said that one of the coolest things about the film is the
people we got. ‘There’s a lot of people that you got that we (CNN)
can’t even get interviews with,’ he said. ‘We wonder how you got
them.’ That shocked me. CNN? I think it was our persistence as
much as anything. If we got their home number, we would call their
home number. We got ahold of Hunter’s (S. Thompson) home number
and we would call him every four days and say hi. He never called
us back. We called him 20 times just to say we’re traveling around
the country and will be heading toward you eventually. I think
he was quietly enchanted by the fact that we were bugging the shit
out of him."
When the pair returned eight months later (plus several
follow-up trips to round out interviews), they found themselves
with nearly 200 hours of footage and interviews to transcribe,
log and edit. The final result, clocking in at just over two hours,
leaves the viewer with a mixture of nostalgia for the America of
yesteryear and optimism about the future. Gabel says, "A lot
of people tell us they find the film empowering. Everybody wants
to go take a road trip after they see it, which is the ultimate
compliment for us.
"We wanted to demystify the whole process of
ascension in America," says Hahn. "The fact that we have
our own elite royalty that we all uphold and revere, we wanted
to break through that, do the whole behind-the-scenes, behind-the-back-door
interview. People expected us to stay an hour, but they were so
nice and got into what we were doing and said, ‘Do you want to
stay for dinner, sleep over tonight?’ I think Redford was so damn
happy to not have been swindled into an interview where the last
question was, ‘Where do you get your hair done or how old are you
really? How much money do you really make?’ We asked questions
that for the most part people talk to their friends and family
about; how they feel about living in this country."
On the go with their tripod and video equipment,
Gabel and Hahn soon learned that their choice of cameras was the
right one. "Techies told us we were crazy to shoot on anything
but Beta, but we found that the Hi-8 stock, for the look we wanted,
was better. It had a warmer, grainier, film feel. The Beta was
a little sterile. We shot with a Sony VX3, which is a three chip
camera and has a pretty good low-light. In the beginning, we thought
we would be able to light a bit, but we ended up shooting it all
with available light. The fact that we chose that camera was actually
fortuitous, because if we’d had to light, we would have had a real
problem. The tape stock that we chose was Fuji MP which, in our
opinion, is as durable as you’re going to get with Hi-8. For all
of the scare messages that you get for shooting on Hi-8 and how
fragile it is, we didn’t really have that much trouble as far as
drop-out. We actually had more drop-out when we mastered onto Beta."
"We really wanted the film to feel like a trip
and story that had some beginning, middle and end," Hahn adds
about their method of weaving their own travels into vignettes
along with the "talking head" interviews. "But in
real life it was pretty damn long, disjointed and all over the
place. We went through that and assembled it into a six-hour cut.
We used an AVID 24 hours a day, got it down to four hours, then
made friends watch it and kept whittling it down to two."
After nearly finalizing distribution with New Line,
the film found a home with Zeitgeist Films, a company that agreed
to give the filmmakers final cut. With final edit in hand, Anthem
was blown up to 35mm, the format Gabel aimed for from the start.
As for the question of whether the rest of America is as cynical
as it seemed from their perspective in Los Angeles? Says Hahn, "It
wasn’t, which was an incredibly relieving and comforting fact." MM