Twenty-five hundred days. The number feels heavy, eternal. If I divide it into years—seven—it becomes plainer still that the journey to transform the essays from my book Let Fury Have the Hour into a feature length, non-fiction film took nearly a quarter of my life. The world premiere was at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, but during the time I struggled to finish it, I continued to excavate the ideas that serve as the film’s narrative through-line. Each of these intervening projects, including the book A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, the short film “No Free Lunch” (starring Lewis Black), the visual arts series “La Terra Promessa,” created as artist-in-residence at the Center for Contemporary Art in New Mexico, and my collaborations with artist Shepard Fairey, including the book,Mayday, were all in service to this large-scale cinematic project that I so deeply believed in.
This is what we make art for,” musician Chuck D says in my film. The film’s humanist vision reminds us that history is made by those who participate, seeing the world from a perspective not just their own. It rouses our collective and historical imagination to inspire in each of us a deeper sense of compassion. It responds to life’s obstacles by converting them into creative possibilities. And here is where my interest lies: In the unearthing of the messy, uncomfortable, and insistent ideas that urge us to come together, rather than push us apart. To translate these ideas from page to screen, I continually asked myself one question: What kind of world do I want to live in?
I first began exploring that conundrum three decades ago when I discovered punk rock, skateboarding, rap, and street art (and soon merged these with an expanding love of reading, writing, film, and history). These were D.I.Y. storytelling devices that provoked action over indifference, providing the metaphors—and permission—to express my ideas. Each reveals our remarkable talent as human beings: “creative response.” Creative response is on display in the courage of Russian punk band Pussy Riot, the passion of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, and the artistry of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, all of whom, despite prison, exile, censorship or worse, mine personal tragedy to help re-imagine the world. Creative response presents another side of history, one shaped by “makers of fire,” who defy the perception that we must accept our current socio-political conditions as permanent.
My film introduces these “makers of fire” by being at once conceptual (dreaming together) and concrete (dissecting culture anthropologically), abstract (re-imagining the world around us), and active (creating a new “we”). Writing is my foundation, so I borrowed from that to form the structure of the film—which is part visual essay, part tone poem. Shaping the film hinged on choosing participants that at once represented all parts of me and at the same time, offered a universal story. Through thoughtful conversations and sparse performances, the film offers a diverse array of voices as a way for a similarly diverse audience to connect to the film. I started with a list of 100 people across the creative-response spectrum, filmed 70, and fit a full 50 into the final film. Knitting together the stories into one continuous exchange allowed me to capture a truer human interaction, a tangential but clear and dynamic conversation.
Given that the production balance sheet seemed to perpetually hover around zero dollars, I called upon my experience running the production non-profit La Lutta NMC, mining every area of support I developed over two decades of D.I.Y production. For this reason, the film was shot with nearly every kind of camera—Super 8 and 16, Panasonic HVX, Canon 5D and 7D, iPhone, camcorders—whatever allowed me to keep moving forward. There were four narrative elements of this story that had to work both separately and joined together: The counter-intuitive archival material; the music cues and score; the interviews; and the stripped-down performances. Since we are bombarded with images to the point that many become banal, the counter-intuitive footage ranges from the 1930s through the 1980s, a mixture of beautiful and degraded industrial films, military propaganda, commercials, PSAs, newsreels, and much more. I wanted the images to seem new and fresh, pulling viewers deeper into the narrative. I gathered together this material via fair use and public domain sources, including the enormously rich Prelinger Archives. Instead of limiting the creative scope, these sources expanded my possibilities while simultaneously saving me a huge a huge amount of money.
With over 600 pieces of archival material, 70 interviews, 16 performances, various animations and illustrations, the editing required rigorous attention to detail. I’ve worked with my editor Karim Lopez for over 15 years, and during this time developed a short-hand that allowed us to cut the film. With the starting point being my essays, I then expanded into a detailed script where I divided the film into four acts with each act containing cultural touchstones and historical tipping-points. We next sat down together and first did a rough cut of each interview where I logged every significant idea. Split into seven categories, these ideas were the bricks and mortar for each act. Since I hear the images and see the music, every sequence and cut required me watching the footage first with no sound, and then with no images. If I could see and hear the story then I knew we could move on to the next cut. Also, I decided to do our own color correction, choosing to de-saturate specific shots and over-saturate others (this also saved the production thousands). Likewise, the musicians I work with remained a thoughtful base of support. From Gogol Bordello, Antibalas, and Fugazi to Public Enemy, Thievery Corporation and Tom Morello, everyone worked with me in the partnership, including the MC5’s Wayne Kramer, who composed a groundbreaking score full of nuance and grandeur.
To the inevitable question: “What were your biggest challenges?” The answer, as always, is money. Lack of it disrupts everything, from the technical to the practical to the creative. Attempting to convey the film’s aspirant narrative to investors presented an all too familiar challenge. The task was made more daunting as I navigated a Byzantine group of financiers who invented new versions of the endless meeting, resulting in infinite promises of support, followed by the delivery of nothing at all. Talk isn’t cheap, the old saying goes; it’s actually very costly as the amount of time wasted just kept delaying the production and escalating the budget. Moving from the sublime to the absurd were the “new models of financing,” which were really just schemes bordering on the illegal. (This, by the way, gave me great insight into the kinds of “products” that caused the economic crisis.)
Turning to resources more interested in the long-term purpose of the work then any short-term gain led me to a new kind of “patron”—those dedicated to using their money as a form of economic creative response. All this supported an ever-changing filmmaking approach that needed to be both independent and dependent. And that’s the beauty and power of creative response filmmaking, when the like-minded, the tenacious, and the visionary combine to uplift the best part of filmmaking: The exchanges and the collaborations.
In the film, author and filmmaker John Sayles says, “Where there’s a structure let’s use that structure, but let’s not let the structure use us.” It’s something I hold tightly to in all my work: Working within a traditional format but always spreading my arms wide to push the boundaries a little further, and then a little further still. “If you look at history, well behaved people change nothing and I believe in misbehaving,” says playwright Eve Ensler. Let Fury Have the Hourembraces misbehaving and the makers of fire as those who strive to do the impossible. “If you’re not building community with your art it defeats the purpose of that art,” musician Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordelo affirms. “‘Cause if you got a microphone, you’d better use it in a good way, man!” Or a pen, brush, spray paint can, turntable, camera—whatever allows you to join the greater argument.