Category Archives: Filmmaker Q&A's

PRESUMED GUILTY – Mesmerizing!

becky beamer doc and a drink review presumed guilty

I’ve been waiting for a chance to see PRESUMED GUILTY for months. The movie is, as expected, a Law & Order film and, as unexpected, an uplifting story of empowerment and personal justice. It’s one man’s struggle through the Mexican legal system after he gets convicted of a homicide he didn’t commit. It’s gotten critical acclaim internationally and, now, it’s showing at Silverdocs.

The visuals pulled me in and the strong storyline kept my attention. I also have to point out the detail spent on sound design and the sound track. It was superb. And, I found out that all of the hip hop songs were written and performed by the main character, Tono. Each character was perfectly crafted – as if they were in a Mexican Soap – each cast by an agent. There was a annoying shifting judge, crooked detective with excellent facial expressions, and a pregnant fiance. There was injustice, drama, and joy.

As I started absorbing everything I was seeing and feeling I was hit by the film’s access. The cameras were everywhere that cameras have never been before. The cameras followed the main character – Tono – behind bars in every corner of the prison and recorded the entire trial.

My personal pet peeve is with documentaries that take on a specific issue and then don’t explain what can be done to join the “mission”. This film has a clear message and just as clear directions for those who want to help “the cause”.

As it happens – yesterday the directors Roberto Hernández & Geoffrey Smith were in attendance. They answered questions from the audience. And while it’s always interesting to get additional background on the film, the most interesting part of the Q&A was that each question was preceded by and exclamation about the film’s excellence. Also notable was the emotion that was still evident in Roberto as he held back tears when discussing his experience with Tono (the main character of the film).

Unfortunately, there are no additional showings of PRESUMED GUILTY at Silverdocs. But, I have good news. A one hour version of the film will be aired on July 27th on PBS – for all to enjoy. Check your local listings to times. I also encourage everyone to check out the film’s website for future screenings and details.

Festival Tip of the Day: You can join the stand-by line before the movie and extra seats will be released 15 minutes before the movie starts.

5 out of 5 Cheers —

— Becky Beamer, Writer, Doc & a Drink

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You know you want to relive it. Time to get your CONVENTION fix.

We are on the cusp of announcing more details on our Centerpiece Screening of CONVENTION, which follows the making of the 2008 Democratic Convention through the eyes of its organizers, reporters, police and protesters leading up to the historic nomination of Barack Obama as the Democratic nominee for President of the United States. Most of the filmmakers will be in attendance and will present a special DOC TALK on ensemble filmmaking as part of the SILVERDOCS International Documentary Conference. 

New information as of today, there will be a slew of filmmakers and subjects for a post screening Town Hall including: Chantal Unfug, Special Assistant to the Mayor, Deputy City Liaison to the DNC; Katherine Archuleta, Chief of Staff at the US Department of Labor (formerly Lead City Planner for the DNC); Representative Chris Van Hollen; Kevin Scott, Permit and Protest Liaison for the City of Denver; Curtis Hubbard, Political Editor of the Denver Post; Allison Sherry, Staff Writer, Denver Post; and Reverend Leah Daughtry, 2008 Democratic National Convention CEO. Moderated by NPR Tell Me More host Michel Martin

Director AJ Schnack tells all about the project:

 Introduce yourself:

CONVENTION is the third nonfiction feature by filmmaker AJ Schnack.  His previous films include KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON (2006), for which he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and received the inaugural Cinematic Vision Award at AFI Silverdocs, and GIGANTIC (A TALE OF TWO JOHNS) (2002).  Both films were released theatrically and on DVD in North America and were broadcast in the US on the Sundance Channel.  ABOUT A SON premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and was also released theatrically in France and Japan and aired in the UK on More4’s True Stories. Schnack is the author and editor of the popular nonfiction film blog All these wonderful things (http://edendale.typepad.com), which he began in 2005 and which is perhaps the most widely read resource for nonfiction filmmaking online.  He is the founder and co-chair of the Cinema Eye Honors for Nonfiction Filmmaking, which recently celebrated its 2nd edition at the Times Center in New York City.  Schnack is currently in production on a feature film about Branson, Missouri, the Ozark Mountain show-town.  He is also in development on a new ensemble film (in the style of CONVENTION) that hopes to shoot in early 2010.

What inspired this film?   How did you find your subjects?

When I was in journalism school at the University of Missouri, I organized a group of writers and photographers to Des Moines to cover the Iowa caucuses for the student newspaper.  It was such a great experience – running around with a group of people all covering different angles of a larger story – and one that I’d been thinking about a lot over the years. Getting out on the film festival circuit with my first two films and writing a lot about nonfiction film has given me the opportunity to forge friendships with a lot of great filmmakers.  But while it’s fun to hang out at festivals, you almost never get a chance to work together.  And yet there was a rich history of collaboration between some of the legends of our form – Robert Drew, DA Pennebaker, the Maysles, and Ricky Leacock.  So the idea of doing something like what I’d done years ago in Iowa – and the notion of recruiting some great filmmakers – came together in this project.  For subjects, I was lucky to team with Britta Erickson, who is one of the producers on the film, a Denver native and city leader.  Britta opened the door for us at the Mayor’s office and at the Denver Post – these people knew and trusted Britta (some of them went to high school with her) – which allowed us to come in and make our pitch: we want you to give us total access during this huge moment in your life, planning for an event that’s bigger than any that the city has dealt with before.

What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises?

Getting credentials to get into the Convention itself was much more difficult than I expected.  Having dealt with credentials at film festivals, I was completely amazed at how bizarre, chaotic – and ultimately unproductive – this process was.  It took weeks of emails, phone calls and even meeting people for cocktails just to get a sense that we might succeed.  Early Monday afternoon (the first day of the Convention), we still weren’t sure that we were going to get any credentials for any of our filmmakers.  Then suddenly we had them.  And after that, it became ridiculously easy to get more. 

 Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?

At the moment, pretty much everyone on our CONVENTION team.  I’m still amazed at what we accomplished together in such a short period of time. 

What is your all time favorite documentary?

My feelings about nonfiction film are constantly changing and evolving, and that includes my feelings about the films themselves.  But CONVENTION was obviously influenced by films like PRIMARY as well as the fiction films of Robert Altman.  Some favorite recent nonfiction features include Margaret Brown’s THE ORDER OF MYTHS, Darius Marder’s LOOT, RENE, Pernille Gronkjear’s THE MONASTERY (MR. VIG & THE NUN), Jason Kohn’s MANDA BALA (SEND A BULLET) and John Maringouin’s RUNNING STUMBLED.

What other projects are in the pipeline?

I’m in the middle of shooting a multi-year film about Branson, the Ozark Mountain show-town in SW Missouri.  I’m co-directing with David Wilson, who is one of the filmmakers on CONVENTION.  I’m also hoping to do a new ensemble film, in the style of CONVENTION, early next year.

Why did you become a filmmaker?

I don’t really remember ever wanting to be anything else.  I might have thought I needed back-up plans (journalism, for example), but I always wanted to make films.

What are some of your creative influences?

I think of each film as being drawn from a palette of influences.  For CONVENTION, I was inspired by the films of Robert Drew and Robert Altman and the great ‘70s films that combined journalism and politics – ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, THE PARALLAX VIEW, THE CANDIDATE.  Also on the palette: the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan, the memories of network television gavel-to-gavel coverage of political conventions and Hendrick’s gin, tonic & cucumber.

 Did you go to film school?

No.  I graduated from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism.  The closest thing I had to film school was many years of being an Executive Producer at a company that made music videos, many of which were made for very, very low budgets.  That experience – two guys, a camera and moving as fast as you could – would prove to be invaluable experience in making CONVENTION.

What do you shoot on?

We used the Panasonic HVX.  David and I had been using it for months on our Branson film and I love working with it.

What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit?

Yet to be determined.

Why did you want to screen your film at SILVERDOCS?

Silverdocs is the premiere documentary festival in the United States, it’s been a good friend to me (my KURT COBAIN ABOUT A SON screened there in 2007 and won the inaugural Cinematic Vision Award) and because I can’t imagine a better place to have a world premiere screening of a film about the 2008 Democratic National Convention than on Washington D.C.’s doorstep.

VEGETARIAN GOBLINS TO OVERRUN SILVERDOCS?

It’s true. SILVERDOCS is run by great folks who don’t piss on hospitality. Normally that sentence would set off PC-Violation alarm bells, but when it is a play on the crucial line from the worst movie every made, cult-classic TROLL 2, conveyed by the film’s former child-star and helmer of the SILVERDOCS 2009 Doc chronicling the fiasco–BEST WORST MOVIE–it has to pass the censors, right? We’ll have a new FCC chairman soon. I’ll check with him on that. While we’re waiting, read about Michael Paul Stephenson and his seminal role as both an actor and a director. You heard it here first, he now has two cult classics on his hands—and you can see them both if you bring a balony sandwich the right SILVERDOCS screening. I hear that there may be a caravan of Troll 2 fans driving down for this. Please let them be in Goblin costumes.

Introduce yourself:
Michael Paul Stephenson’s career in the entertainment industry began when he was cast as the child star of the worst-movie-ever-made: TROLL 2. But starring in the worst movie ever made didn’t ruin him or his desire to work in the industry. Michael spent most of his teenage years as a punk-kid making skateboarding videos with his pals while writing screenplays and short stories.  He continued acting into his early twenties and has worked with outstanding directors such as Academy Award nominee Taika Waititi and Robert Redford. As a cinematographer Michael has worked on numerous projects, most recently with Oscar nominee Mel Stuart. He has written, produced and edited various projects for clients such as GRB TV, Shape Magazine, GE, ABC and more.  Today, Michael resides in Los Angeles with his producing-partner and wife, Lindsay Rowles Stephenson. He’s the recipient of the prestigious American Gem Screenplay Award for his screenplay, ORANGE, and an award-winning filmmaker for his acclaimed feature-directing debut, BEST WORST MOVIE.

What inspired this film? How did you find your subjects?
Strangely, this whole adventure really began about twenty years ago and has now come full circle in a very odd and round about way.  After starring in the worst movie ever made, I wanted nothing to do with it. I HATED TROLL 2. As a teenager, I shuddered every time I heard the name “Joshua”. Bologna sandwiches haunted me and I had sweaty, green nightmares of vegan goblins eating me… tree-limb by tree-limb.  But I could run from my bad movie legacy for only so long. TROLL 2 finally caught up with me and there was no escaping it. Twenty-something “fans” started sending me photos of their TROLL 2 parties. Kids throughout the world were dressing-up like goblins, eating green-food and even… pissing on dinner tables. A complete stranger sent me a MySpace message that read, “Are you Joshua Waits? Please say it is so!”  One morning I awoke and exclaimed, “I’m the star of the worst movie ever made! I have to tell this story.” Smiling, I said to myself, “Yes…I am Joshua Waits.”

What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises?
For me, the biggest challenge was knowing when to put the camera down. The TROLL 2 resurgence is a living, breathing, spontaneous and complicated subject matter that continues to unfold throughout all parts of the world…everyday. Of course, we couldn’t be in all places at all times. There was always an agonizing feeling and pressure to make sure we were able to wrangle and capture the most important characters, events and environments to tell our story. The organic nature of this project often led to last-minute red-eye flights, organizational chaos and one-chance-only attempts. It felt as though we were hanging onto the tail of a dragon, or… a Troll.
Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?
Chris Smith for AMERICAN MOVIE, Seth Gordon for KING OF KONG, Jeff Feuerzeig for THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, Werner Herzog for GRIZZLY MAN, Heidi Ewing for JESUS CAMP and Frank Oz for THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN.

What is your all time favorite documentary?
American Movie.

What other projects are in the pipeline?
I’ve recently been asked to direct a narrative film titled KAIJU. It’s an extraordinary and beautifully written father-son underdog story about Kenji, an actor in the Tokyo studio system whose job consists of being the guy inside the rubber suit who plays a movie monster. It’s charming, pathetically humorous, warm, full of heart, dysfunctional, dignified and meaningful. I’m in love with this story. Also, I’m also adapting my award-winning short screenplay, Orange, into a feature length script.  Through BEST WORST MOVIE, I’ve fallen in love with the documentary filmmaking process. I’ve learned that truth is stranger than fiction. This is an exciting time for non-fiction films as we’re moving away from the misconceived generalization that all documentaries are about war, disease or poverty stricken villages. There is a lot of opportunity in the documentary genre to tell stories outside of the sociopolitical gamut and it’s my strong belief that general audiences are hungry for these types of stories.  Whether my “next project” is another documentary or a narrative, it’s inconsequential to me. Simply, I’m interested in telling genuine and heartfelt stories that resonate with the human spirit through a fresh voice.

Why did you become a filmmaker?
Please see above.

What are some of your creative influences?
Generally speaking, I’ve always been inspired through God, culture, music, and Sour Patch Kids.  Early on I felt as though we had a real-life Christopher Guest story in the making and I wanted the story to be character-driven. I didn’t want to make a movie just about “fandom”. I knew there was more to this story than signing autographs at sold-out screenings of TROLL 2. I saw a story with a human element that would connect with a much broader audience than TROLL 2 fans.  As we went into post-production, fortunately, I worked with two of the most talented editors, Andrew Matthews and Katie Graham. Not only did they catch hold of the vision; they added to, challenged and built upon the common “space” that we were all coming from. And believe it or not, the genesis for Andrew and Katie actually started as…TROLL 2 fans. BEST WORST MOVIE is their first film and my relationship with them started after they had created a spoof trailer that made TROLL 2 look like a heart-wrenching indie film. It was brilliant.  Throughout the process, we watched many of our favorite docs for inspiration, films such as AMERICAN MOVIE and KING OF KONG. We also watched a lot of documentaries for examples of what not to do. But, I’ll leave those nameless. We took daily office trips to Pink Berry and we brought our dogs to work to comfort us in those moments of utter despair.

Did you go to film school?
No.

What do you shoot on?
We shot BEST WORST MOVIE on DVX-100A’s and I’m looking forward to shooting my next film using one of the emerging HD formats.

What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit?
Edgar Wright attended one of our screenings in Toronto at Hot Docs. We’re now Facebook friends and he was kind enough to send me a great message telling me how much he loved BEST WORST MOVIE.

Why did you want to screen your film at SILVERDOCS?
Apart from it being an honor to showcase BEST WORST MOVIE in the country’s most prestigious doc film fest, alongside the best documentaries in the world, SILVERDOCS is run by great folks who don’t piss on hospitality!

NUTKIN’S Avengers

Squirrel species wars, of course, make for good drama.  Greys and Reds battling for survival with assists from humans, determined to preserve the native breed.  What’s not to love?  But there is so much more.  It is so easy to watch a film with a quirky subject and miss entirely the deeper implications and intentions of the filmmaker, which become so obvious upon reflection (or getting clued in by a savvier cinephile).  Shorts programs are free at SILVERDOCS—don’t miss your own enlightenment.  Berger is one of many filmmakers who count Werner Herzog as a major influence (no Squirrels committed suicide during the filming of NUTKIN’S LAST STAND), but he is the only one who discussed the film with the venerated filmmaker, garnering the directive, “You must film the squirrels at their eye level.”  The best piece of advice Berger ever received.

 

 

NUTKIN’s LAST STAND’s Nicholas Berger:

 

Nicholas Berger was born in San Francisco and has lived in San Diego, New York and Berlin.  As an undergraduate he attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island where he received a BA in philosophy.  After graduating he spent two years working on documentaries for PBS and the History Channel and traveling in Europe.  He then attended Stanford University’s Documentary Film program where he recently received an MFA. NUTKIN’S LAST STAND was his thesis film at Stanford.

What inspired this film?   How did you find your subjects?

I have always been attracted to documentary subjects that have such strong characters, visual coherence and metaphorical structures that they feel scripted.  These subjects attract me because I am more interested in making morality tales than informational pieces.  If a documentary feels like a fiction film we read it more like a fairy tale and less like a journalistic document, and the issues addressed become more universal in scope…I hope. 

NUTKIN’S LAST STAND provides a bit of information on the ecological issue of an invasive species but its real focus is on patriotism and morality.  Like any good morality tale it reflects on the big questions: under what circumstances is it okay to kill one thing to save another?  What does it mean to be native/alien?  Why do we tolerate some kinds of violence and not others?  What does it mean to be a patriot?

I was drawn to this story because it had these features and I found my characters by reading local papers in Northern England….

 

What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises?

Many of the subjects were reluctant to be in my film because they weren’t sure what my intentions were.  I think they were worried that I would either portray them as heartless squirrel killers or as ridiculously squirrel-obsessed nuts.  They wanted a propaganda film for their cause. I think the film I made is fair but not all of the subjects loved it. 

Who are some of your favorite filmmakers?

I’m a big fan of Werner Herzog.  I like him as much for his approach to filmmaking as for his films.  He throws himself at his projects with a kind of reckless abandon and passion that I find inspiring.  I got a chance to talk to him during the filming of NUTKIN’S LAST STAND.  I excitedly explained the whole project to him and, after a long pause he said, “You must film the squirrels at their eye level.”  This is the best piece of advice I have ever received.

 

What is your all time favorite documentary?

That’s a very hard question.  The one that comes to mind is THE BELOVS by Viktor Kosokovsky.  It’s a 20-minute film about a peasant family in Russia that is incredibly beautiful and emotional and funny.  Kosokovsky’s camera floats around the space as if choreographed and events unfold that have perfect narrative arcs as if scripted. 

 

What other projects are in the pipeline?

I’m looking into doing a film about butterflies.

 

Why did you become a filmmaker?

 

I was inspired by transcendent moments in films I saw and wanted to make some more of these.

 

What are some of your creative influences?

I studied philosophy and folklore in college.  As I said before, I’m drawn to stories that play out like morality tales.  I especially like it when this happens in a humorous and unexpected way.

 

Did you go to film school?

Yes. I got an MFA from Stanford University’s program in documentary film.  NUTKIN’S LAST STAND was my thesis film at Stanford. 

 

What do you shoot on?

This project was shot on HDV.  I have shot on 16mm film in the past and would love to go back to it if I could afford it. 

 

What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit?

It’s been fun to notice differences between audiences in different places.  European audiences are not afraid to ask confrontational questions, challenging editorial decisions and asking about moral issues.  One woman in Amsterdam asked me “What I thought about the white invaders.”  I guess she thought that since I had made a film about invading squirrels I should also comment on invading peoples.

 

Why did you want to screen your film at SILVERDOCS?

I love watching my film with an audience.  It reminds me of how delighted I was when I first met the characters in my film. 

Cooking SILVERDOCS

One of the many great things about SILVERDOCS is the number of filmmakers and film subjects who come to the Festival with their documentaries to be part of the event and importantly, answer post-screening audience questions.  I am always most fascinated by how filmmakers came to their stories and found their subjects.  Thankfully almost all of our filmmakers participated in answering filmmaker Q&A’s, which we’ve posted as part of our film descriptions.  We think this new addition to SILVERDOCS is a great way to feed the pre- and post-screening curiosity monster. 

As part of the SILVERDOCSblog, we will be posting some of the Q&A’s here, starting with one of my absolute favorites for originality and execution: COOKING HISTORY directed by Peter Kerekes.   His film is about army cooks and eleven of their recipes from WWII to Chechnya, from France to the Balkans, to Russia—and explores how food impacted victories and defeat.  The Doc also reveals how food preparation becomes its own battle strategy.  What Peter captures and how he presents it is simply brilliant.  But learn more about it directly from him.

COOKING HISTORY’s Peter Kerekes:

Introduce yourself: 

I am a film director and a film producer. I live in a small village in a small country – Slovakia. I live with two small kids and with my wife – Katarina Kerekesova, who is a director of animation films.  I’ve graduated in 1998 from a film academy in Bratislava.

I’ve made a several movies: MORYTATS AND LEGENDS OF LADOMIROVA – 1998, 66 SEASONS – 2003, ACROSS THE BORDER – part HELPERS – 2004, COOKING HISTORY – 2009

 

What inspired this film?   How did you find your subjects? 

I was cooking together with my father – and during cooking you are usually speaking together about various things.  So we were speaking about my father’s memories of the cooking during his army service, and somehow we started to chat about military cooks.

I got an idea – it would be interesting to research how an ordinary small man – a military cook – can influence the so-called “big history”.  In the beginning it was just a joke, but later on I started to think about it as a serious topic for a documentary movie.

We did toooooons of research. We found around 300 cooks from all European fronts – I did interviews with 106 cooks without a camera and we then filmed with 24 of them.

 

What were some of the biggest challenges/surprises? 

Basically everything.  I love all the disasters during the shooting, because they have the potential to turn to the best parts of the movie.

 

Who are some of your favorite filmmakers? 

I grew up on the films of Paradzanov, Iljenko, Petrović, Kusturica (his Sarajevo period) – their films had a big influence on me.

 

What is your all time favorite documentary? 

PICTURES OF THE OLD WORLD by Dusan Hanak and WHO THE HELL IS JULIETTE by Carlos Marcovich

 

What other projects are in the pipeline? 

I would like to make a TV series out of COOKING HISTORY – we got so much interesting material during the research that it would be very selfish to have it only on my shelf.

I’ve also started the research for a movie about the relationship between humans and things.  It is a road movie in time and space with one question:  “What THINGS would you take with yourself, if you have to LEAVE your HOUSE FOREVER?” 

 

Why did you become a filmmaker? 

For very selfish reasons. 

When I was a small kid, my grandparents spent the holidays every year in former Yugoslavia.  It was a time when we could not travel, because of the communist regime, but my grandparents could go, because they were too old to emigrate.  My grandfather took wonderful pictures of the sea.  And in cold autumn, my grandparents invited family and friends and my grandmother baked a cake and my grandfather projected the slides onto a sheet on the wall.  I loved the atmosphere of the dark room, exotic pictures (even it was just Yugoslavia) and the stories of my grandfather.

I would like to make a same atmosphere in my movies – I would like the audience to have the same feeling of magic that I had as a child.

 

What are some of your creative influences? 

It is hard to answer in several lines…

 

 Did you go to film school? 

Yes, film academy in Bratislava, Slovakia.

 

 What do you shoot on? 

16mm. It is very important for me to shoot on film, to know that every meter costs 85 cents. It makes me prepare for shooting very precisely. 

 

What has been the most unexpected thing to happen since taking the film on the festival circuit? 

The film is still very young.