Ross McElwee spoke with Paula Hunt recently at the Vancouver
film festival. Part One of this interview ran in our December issue.
MM: Although your title Time Indefinite,
is taken from the Bible, religion isn’t a strong presence in the
film, except for your visit with the Jehovah’s Witnesses and your
discussion with Lucille.
RM:In Six O’Clock News, religion becomes
a more salient presence than in this film, because what I discovered
when I filmed people whose lives had been somehow struck with turmoil
in Six O’Clock News was that religion comes up over and over
again. You begin to realize that, in fact, the way many of us, most
of us, probably get through fife is by assuming that there is a
heaven, there is an afterlife, and that God is eventually going
to take care of us.
MM: At what point did you decide on
the title Time Indefinite?
RM:It wasn’t until I got the material in the
editing room and on the editing table. It’s not a good title in
terms of marketing, because it’s very vague-people won’t keep it
locked into their minds. I have an award plaque that I got at some
film festival that awarded the prize for best documentary to "Indefiniteness
of Time". My distributor said, "Do you have to call it
that?" and I said, "Yes, we have to call it that.
The distributor of First Run Features saw Sherman’s
March at the IFP (the Independent Features Project) in New York
and immediately said he’d take it. I wanted to shop around a bit,
because it’s a very small company and I wanted to see what else
was available. I got turned down by every other middle range distributor.
I didn’t even bother to go to the studios or the major distribution
outlets. First Run Features was the only company willing to take
a chance on it and, in fact, it did terrifically well. According
to their statistics, until Strangers in Good Company came
along it was their top grossing film. It’s supposed to be the tenth
highest grossing feature documentary of all time. Isn’t that incredible?
I could never have imagined it being that kind of a film.
MM: Does your success make getting
RM:Yes, absolutely, it’s made a tremendous difference.
That’s its biggest benefit to me, not the money that I made off
of distribution. But, of course, by the time the theaters take their
share, the distributors take their share, and both theaters and
distributors write off their expenses, there’s not all that much
left for the filmmaker.
MM: Did you get calls from Hollywood
studios after the success of Sherman’s March?
RM:Yes, but most of them had not seen the film,
they had just read about it. They would say things like, someone
with your sensibility is of great interest to us, we’re really interested
in talking to you." I think that the idea was not to let any
talent fall between the cracks. When it comes down to it, I’ve never
made a fiction film. It’s a little bit presumptuous for me to think
that I could do it when you have scores of people who have made
fiction films. Who do I think I am to waltz into that when for fifteen
years I haven’t even been directing documentaries? I’ve been receiving,
responding to the world with a documentary camera. The whole possibility
of me making fiction seems improbable to me. There are times when
I’m tempted because I get frustrated by the lack of control inherent
in the kind of filmmaking I do, both in terms of shooting and editing-being
unable to make a cut work because you didn’t direct it, you didn’t
storyboard it. It can drive you crazy at the editing table and that’s
when I say "I can’t make these films anymore, I have to try
fiction, I have to write a script." But, then I sober up a
bit and think about the rat race out there. I’m in a situation now
where I have complete autonomy and control – autonomy and control
are two very important things, neither of which I would have in
Hollywood. I am loath to jump into the piranha pool with people
who need their scripts produced or need director’s positions.
MM: Do you believe there is more of
a market for independent documentaries than for independent features?
RM:Yes, I think that the market is a little less
crowded, there’s a little more room to maneuver, but this is casting
it all in terms of marketing decisions. I make these films because
I like to make them, not because I’ve cleverly figured out that
there is a market slot that I can fit into. I’m just lucky that
there seems to be some sort of niche that I’m in now that I very
well could be out of in five years. People just may not be interested
in me any more and I’ll have to go get a real job.
MM: It sounds, though, that you’ve
been fortunate in that you’ve been able to work fairly steadily
RM:I have been lucky – I never really had to
do anything other than film once I decided I wanted do it. But some
of those jobs weren’t very interesting and you could load millions
of magazines and after a point you aren’t learning a damn thing.
MM: Do you ever shoot video.
RM:No, I very much believe in theatrical runs
for my films, as modest as they are, and it’s usually one art house
per city that runs them, or a museum, or a university setting. Whatever,
it’s still a very important component of the overall distribution
arrangement for me. I don’t care what anybody says, even the best
systems aren’t there yet. There’s something wonderful about
the quality of film when projected that so far can’t be matched
by video. If I were only shooting for television, I’d shoot video.
You’d be a fool not to. Who’s got all that extra money to burn?
I don’t. That means you just have to work all that much harder to
raise the money. And I have to admit that there is also a part of
me that really loves working with film. I’m older, so the mechanical
versus the electronic is the tendency that I have. I think that
I’m one of a handful of people who still shoots on film and edits
on a Steenbeck. Maybe I’m just lazy, but I don’t have the time to
learn a whole new system.
MM: What kind of camera do you use?
RM:I shoot with an Auricon super 16 camera. Time
Indefinite was blown up to 35 from super 16.
MM: What about Sherman’s March?
RM:Regular 16. We never blew it up.
MM: What kind of sound equipment do
RM:With Backyard I used a Nagra. It was
a hard film to shoot because I had a huge Nagra over one shoulder
and my camera, (at that time it was an Eclair,) on the other. On Sherman’s March I used a Nagra SM which is a miniature Nagra
reel to reel recorder.
MM: Did that work well?
RM:Yes, very high quality sound, but it’s difficult
to change reels quickly because it’s not a cassette. I have left
that behind and have gone on to a SONY TCD Pro 5- which is a type
of cassette recorder. It means that you can run more sound before
you have to change to a new tape and you can change the tape more
quickly. But I think that, actually, the sound quality isn’t as
good as the Nagra SM. The next step is digital tape, and that’s
what I’ll use in the next film.
MM: Do you consider yourself a director?
RM:I don’t direct anybody. "By Ross McElwee,"
that’s enough for me. MM