Ross McElwee had been making his own brand of independent
films for a number of years when Sherman’s March established
him as a name in the cinema art house scene in 1985. Originally
planned as a documentary recounting General William Tecumsah Sherman’s
infamous march through the South, its focus was derailed by the
filmmaker’s breakup with his girlfriend. Sherman’s March became
a chronicle of the women McElwee met on his own march through the
South, with small concessions to the title character interspersed
throughout the film.
McElwee’s current film, Time Indefinite, follows
the same general structure as Sherman’s March, albeit more
so than he initially intended. Beginning with the announcement of
his engagement to fellow filmmaker Marilyn Levine, Time Indefinite was supposed to have recorded their marriage and a subsequent cross-country
trip. But, again, life – in this case death – intervened.
The vagueness and intensely personal subject matter
in Ross McElwee’s films make them difficult to categorize. They
are documentaries and yet they are profoundly subjective. McElwee
completely exposes his family and friends to the audience in the
-as he freely admits – genuinely closed-lipped society of the South.
McElwee the filmmaker/storyteller creates works which are both uniquely
his and completely accessible.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, McElwee studied
filmmaking at MIT with Richard Leacock and Edward Pincus. He made
his first film, Charleen (1978), as his thesis for the graduate
program there. Freelance work as a cameraman and editor (for the
series NOVA, among others) enabled him to support himself while
working on his own projects. This year, he is teaching undergraduate
filmmaking at Harvard University.
Although success has brought McElwee recognition and
invitations to film festivals around the world, his four- year-old
son Adrian has perhaps changed his life to a greater extent, not
only in terms of filmmaking but of how he looks at life. MovieMaker
caught up with Ross McElwee, his wife, Marilyn Levine, (who is finishing
her own film project), and Adrian at the Vancouver Film Festival.
MovieMaker: Adrian is obviously a large part
of your life now. How has he affected your work?
Ross McElwee: Having a son has affected MY work,
but it has also informed my work in that it’s given me a new dimension
in thinking about life. I can’t help thinking about life in a whole
other way. You feel a responsibility for a small child, but it also
makes you think about the meaning of life and moving on from generation
to generation. It’s affected the way I think about film and making
films and on a more mundane basis, it’s caused me to slow down my
pace a bit and adapt my schedule to a life that requires that I
spend a certain amount of time with my son, not making films.
MM: You’re still working, though. What is
your current project?
RM: I’ve got a two hour cut of a film that’s
tentatively called Six O’Clock News. It’s another autobiographical
documentary whose modus operandi is that I go to various cities
with a VCR, initially, and just tape local news shows until something
of interest comes up, some person whose story, however brief, seems
interesting to me. I then go find that person and film my interaction
with that person over a couple of weeks. The resulting film will
be a mosaic of these little video snippets along with filmed interactions.
The staple of the six o’clock news is, of course, catastrophe,
disaster, and tragedy. The film director/protagonist in this case
looks through the window of the six o’clock news and sees a very
frightening world out there. The tension that I hope I can build
into the structure of the film will be created by juxtaposing the
filming that I did of my son in his first six months with the window
of the six o’clock news out into this frightening and bizarre world.
Time Indefinite was to have been the prologue
to this film and it grew to become a separate, feature film because
it was clear that I was about to find myself with a four-hour epic
on my hands that would have undistributable.
MM: What is the connection between the two
RM: The continuity was that those deaths that
occurred in Time Indefinite had a profound effect upon me,
as they would have had upon any person. Six O’Clock News was a way
I could look out and see that, in fact, catastrophe strikes everybody,
or certainly very many people. It was originally to have been accompanied
by looking over and looking out of the television, but there was
no way to compress it into a watchable amount of time. Maybe when
I was younger I would have said, "To hell with it, I’m going
to make a four-and-a-half hour film and I don’t care if anybody
sees it." I don’t feel that I can really afford to do that
MM: When you made your first film, Charleen,
did you have an "I really don’t care if anyone ever sees this
RM: Well, I made it as best as I could as a film,
as a documentary, and just assumed that people would want to see
it if I made a good film. That’s still pretty much how I operate.
MM: How does the fact that you now have
an audience for your films affect your work?
RM: They expect me to keep on doing what I’m
doing and as long as I enjoy what I’m doing, there’s no conflict.
Charleen isn’t as groundbreaking, if you can use that phrase, as
later films that I made, so it wasn’t as if I was free to take more
risks in Charleen than I was in my subsequent work. It wasn’t until
later that I really started to discover the ways in which I wanted
to make films.
MM: When you film, do you just show up with
your equipment, or do you call people ahead of time and let them
know that you’re coming with a camera?
RM: The latter. I never try to ambush people
with the camera. In Sherman’s March there were some ambushes
that we did that were cut out of the film. There was a furniture
store that I filmed in and the owner was being really obnoxious
to the woman who worked there. She was going to quit that day, so
I just showed up with the camera and he kicked us both out of the
store and I filmed the whole thing. That was great, it was a really
good scene and I had no ethical qualms about doing it. Everybody
else I felt connected to in Sherman’s March, Time Indefinite, Charleen and Backyard, were my friends and family
so I always gave them warning, saying "unless you tell me not
to, I’m going to have the camera."
MM: Don’t your family and friends consider
your filming intrusive?
RM: Yes, but they put up with it. It’s strange,
but it’s now harder for me rather than easier as the years go on.
MM: Why is that?
RM: Because you start to value your time with
people a lot more and you don’t want to impinge upon them with the
camera. There’s always that struggle.
MM: In Sherman’s March, Charleen tells
you to "stop hiding behind that camera!" To what extent
were you hiding?
RM: Well, of course, that’s the whole notion
behind cinema verite, that you can remain a silent observer behind
the camera. There’s a lot of truth to that. I think that I was playing
with the irony of that notion in Sherman’s March. That’s
clearly part of what the filmmaker’s doing, he’s hiding behind the
camera. He’s gotten scalded by life, his lover left him and so he
retreats into the mollusk shell of his camera and pokes his head
out now and then. It’s meant to be somewhat obvious and somewhat
humorous. I think that there’s also some truth, at least for me,
that when life has been rough I’ve taken some solace in simply ceasing
to try to understand it and simply recorded it, collect it, and
store it away for future analysis.
MM: Would you have asked questions about your
father’s death if you hadn’t been filming?
RM: It would have been different, in some way
less formal, perhaps.
MM: If you weren’t looking for answers, perhaps
asking the questions was a way of working through your feelings
about his death.
RM: Perhaps. I had to ask the question to ask
it, maybe, and not so much because I needed an answer. I think that
in the South there is a great tendency to not discuss these matters
and I wanted to challenge that a bit, as well.
MM: Did you learn what you needed to?
RM: I was quite startled that my brother, in
fact, didn’t know how my father died exactly. I’d assumed he would
have the answers to these questions for me because he was a doctor
and also because he had been at home in Charlotte where my father
had died when I was up in Boston. I thought that he would have more
information for me, but in some ways, maybe I should have known
better. In Backyard, which is a short, forty-minute film that I
made about my family, I asked my brother about how my mother died
and he also didn’t know the answer to that. I’d assumed he would
know, but he didn’t. So, fifteen years later the question and answer
repeated themselves. MM
Look for part two of
this interview in the January issue of MovieMaker.