Robert Brinkmann
Robert Brinkmann shoots his friend/subject in Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party.

With his new film, Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party, finding success on the festival circuit, DP-turned-director Robert Brinkmann proves that it doesn’t take a huge budget—or even a high-concept idea—to connect with audiences. But Brinkmann admits that his film, which brings venerable character actor Stephen Tobolowsky into the spotlight, would probably not exist if it weren’t for the recent advancements in digital technology.

Brinkmann recently spoke with us about the genesis of the story, how digital is helping moviemakers all the way through post-production and why giving Tobolowsky his first starring role is his greatest achievement.

Jennifer Wood (MM): You’ve been a noted cinematographer for almost two decades now, but Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party marks your debut as a director. Have you always wanted to direct, or was it more the personal nature of this story—and your friendship with Stephen—that made you decide to make this movie?

Robert Brinkmann (RB): I like making films. As a cinematographer, I am an integral part of that process, which I find very fulfilling. If I had been offered great films, I would have been quite happy to shoot [them], but Stephen Tobolowsky’s Birthday Party really came out of a slow period and films I would have not been happy taking. I just thought, if nobody is letting me work on a movie I like, I’ll just make my own.

MM: When did the idea for the movie originate? How long did it take to complete—from shooting to final edit?

RB: I originally had the idea when I first became friends with Stephen. I was at a birthday party at his house and saw him surrounded by a large group of people, as he was telling his stories. Swimming to Cambodia had come out a year or so before and I thought Stephen would be great in something like that. I mentioned the idea to him a couple of years later, but it took nearly 15 years for me to actually do it. Part of that had to do with the advance of digital technology; it was not entirely my inaction. I simply couldn’t afford to shoot the film in a quality I would have been happy with until the recent advancements in HD capture technology.

When we decided to go ahead in the fall of 2003, we spent three months meeting and discussing the stories and structure. We shot in January of 2004 for four days and it took until September to edit and finish the whole film. So, I guess you could say it took a year to make.

MM: Was the film at all scripted beforehand?

RB: There was no script at all. The structure was thought out beforehand and Stephen had worked out the stories and tried them on me in advance, but it was essentially a live performance without a script. I really think of it as a concert film, which is a sub-genre of documentary. That’s why I submit the film to festivals as a documentary, even though it is clearly staged.

MM: Going back to the role of digital technology in the making of this film: Do you think the movie would even exist if it hadn’t been for the availability of digital cameras, etc.?

RB: I had the idea of making this film for many years and always wanted to shoot it on 35mm film. That’s really part of the reason of why it took me so long to get around to it. I would have needed at least $500,000 to produce STBP on film, but didn’t think I could get it to shoot somebody’s birthday party.

I was unwilling to shoot on any lesser format, because I believe the intimate and small nature of the material demands a large canvas, lest it become too small. It wasn’t until the recent advances in HD technology that I felt comfortable using a digital format. So, without the new digital technology, it might have taken another 15 years or a lottery win to get it to the screen.

MM: What kind of camera did you use for the picture?

RB: I used specially-modified Sony F900/3 cameras from Clairmont Camera. A friend of mine had bought a F900/3 and offered to let me to use it any time I want. I realized that I needed at least two cameras to shoot a live performance and, when I found the Clairmont Cameras, decided to switch to theirs. Clairmont has taken the standard Sony cameras, which are basically flimsy news-gathering cameras with great electronics, and re-engineered them into sturdy and ergonomic production cameras. I ended up using two of theirs and still used my friend’s camera, as well.

MM: Was it the only camera you considered?

RB: As far as HDCam is concerned, I would not consider any other cameras, and I absolutely refused to do it on any smaller format.

MM: For independent films of a more personal nature, such as this one, what do you see as the greatest benefits of digital technology? What about the drawbacks?

RB: I think the greatest benefit of digital technology is that it allows filmmakers to make films without the backing of a big studio. It makes low-budget films affordable for individuals or small companies.

I think the drawback is that producers, both on a big scale and a small scale, tend to downgrade too easily. If you have a great film, you shouldn’t shoot it on DV only to get it made. If a format is uniquely suited for a certain kind of material, it’ the right way to go. If you only choose it because it’s cheaper, you may hurt your film in the process. Think of what kind of exhibition and shelf life you want your film to have and don’t shortchange your own film.

Just think of the producers who shot their TV series on film, while others used 1” videotape. The ones who used film are right now transferring their shows to HD and continue to generate income from their library. The ones who used videotape now have shows on a format that is no longer feasible. Even today’s HDCam will be outdated some day. Film is still the best capture and storage medium for visual information.

MM: How did your choice to shoot the film digitally help and/or hinder you through the post-production and exhibition phases?

RB: Shooting digitally streamlines the post-production process. We did half of our down conversions to DVCam for offline editing while we were shooting on the set, and for the others we went to a post house. We edited on Final Cut Pro on a Dual G5 Power Mac and e-mailed our edit list to the online facility.

While we were finishing the online, Andy, my co-editor, was building the graphics and the credit sequence and uploading it directly from his laptop into the system via a wireless network. Most of this would not even have been possible only a few years ago. The greatest thing is that we experienced absolutely no loss of information in our digital post. We mastered from HDCam to D5. On film you have so much more information, that it is still hard to maintain the standard through digital post, because it takes up so much space and needs to be compressed heavily. HDCam is easier to deal with, because it isn’t quite at that level. So even though we had less information than film, none of it was lost.

MM: The film is currently on the festival circuit. Had this been your distribution plan for it from the beginning or do you still hope to get the film into theaters at some point?

RB: I always wanted the film to get on the festival circuit, so people can discover it. Fortunately, the reaction from the audiences as well as the press has been incredibly supportive. I used to dream of having the film show in at least a couple of theaters in New York and LA, but I have realized that there is much more acceptance of this strange little film than I thought there would be. We have not made our push to distributors yet, but now my dreams have grown. I really think this film can be enjoyed by a wide audience.

MM: Which festivals will it be screening at next?

RB: This month the film will screen in Jacksonville, Philadelphia and San


MM: Stephen is truly the epitome of the “character actor,” and so many people are huge fans—even if they don’t know his name. How fulfilling was it to give Stephen—your friend of so many years—his first “starring” role?

RB: This is actually my favorite part. I absolutely love the attention Stephen is getting through this film. I think he is an enormous talent and I love and admire him. I really meant what I say in the beginning of the film, that I want to share him with the audience, so they can see him through my eyes.

I think I have succeeded in that, and, no matter what else happens, seeing audiences “discover” his talent is the greatest reward.