Regrets? Maybe.

I remembered this exchange between Soleri and me the other day and thought, why not post it again, you know, as a super special encore presentation! Hope you like it.

I.G. took advantage of this blog’s stellar feature, Ask the Filmmaker. Why don’t you?

Dear Filmmaker,

I think I read somewhere that when you started interviewing people, you recorded those interviews audio only. Is that right? Do you listen to that now and wish you had shot those interviews?

Good luck with the film.


Hi, I.G.

Thanks for the warm wishes and the question.

You must have read What Was I Thinking? The first interview I did with Paolo Soleri I recorded audio only on a broadcast-quality digital audio recorder, and yes, now I do wish I had used my camera. I wish I had captured one exchange between Soleri and me in particular. To put it in context, I asked him what was the projected population of the original plans for Arcosanti. Here it is:


But, and this is a huge point, I’m pretty sure this exchange would not have happened as it did if the camera were in the room. Soleri doesn’t like cameras and he was obviously more at ease when we spoke with just the audio recorder running. So I take some solace in the knowledge that the joking that occurs in this audio wouldn’t have happened on video.

This ease was a big reason I initially wanted to record the interviews audio only. But the unease created by cameras can also lead to interesting moments, just watch any Werner Herzog documentary and you’ll see what I mean. He’s a master at letting the camera roll after a subject has answered a question. If you let people sit in silence after they’ve given an answer (especially to a question they’ve answered a million times), they will often elaborate on that answer in a fresh way, and sometimes you get something special.

Sorry I.G., got a little sidetracked there. Yes, sometimes I do regret not shooting that first interview.

Interview with Filmmaker Aimee Madsen

In the spring of 2010, a Google Alert mentioned a documentary in production about Paolo Soleri that wasn’t A Life’s Work. I was curious and reached out to the filmmaker, Aimee Madsen. We’ve communicated since about each others’ work and supported each others’ efforts the way filmmakers do, or at least should. I’m thrilled that she agreed to answer a few questions about her film, Before Form.

Tell me about your documentary, Before Form.

The actual shooting started about three years ago, with Paolo’s now senior apprentice Roger Tomalty (Associate Producer on this film) literally grabbing me to come document  with a borrowed video camera, Paolo carving the silt panels for his first commissioned bridge in Scottsdale, AZ.  Since then I’ve shot … well I’ve really lost count, over 200 hours, just from one camera, a total of four different cameras were used.  We only have a few pick-up shots to do and maybe a few more intimate interviews. Other then that, we are ready to edit – put the puzzle pieces together.

In a nutshell, this film presents a fresh look at the legendary and multi-talented man Paolo Soleri, known as an artist, craftsman, architect, urban theorist, and finally a visionary, a term he’s not so fond of.  Although the philosophy behind Paolo’s work seem to be the driving force in his life, it will focus instead on Soleri as the form giver, rather than Soleri, the idea giver — hence the working title Before Form.

Before Form - A film by Aimee MadsenHow did you become interested in Paolo Soleri and where did the idea for this documentary originate?

I visited Arcosanti in 1989.  It was very mysterious to me back then and I had a strange sense of the possibilities for it becoming something even more amazing.  Then in 2007 I had completed my third short film and was out of money.  I applied at Cosanti and discovered the connection right away.  Through the years working there, I’ve seen many people enter his spaces for the first time and they physically go through a transformation, you can see it.  They slow down, not only because they’re in awe but feel connected to something remarkable.  It started then, with wanting to know why this happens and I was determined to film it in such a way that would explain this phenomenon that we take for granted.

The idea of the film really took hold when I was filming Paolo carving again, which was a rare opportunity, because this hasn’t happened for many, many years, Paolo being 90 at the time, now almost 93.  Seeing Paolo and Roger after five years of not working together, suddenly find themselves side by side again.  At first they had to find their rhythm, but after awhile they were smiling and flowing, Paolo was finally doing what he is a master at, carving silt.  It was really magical seeing this through the lens and what they accomplished together, it was like a dance.  Here, probably for the first time, it was their chance, to tell their story instead of a filmmaker from the outside looking in.  They basically could “grab” me anytime they wanted, because I was there on site at Cosanti, most of the time.

 I read somewhere that there are a few Soleri-related documentaries currently in various stages of production. Was this a concern before you embarked on the project?

Well, any kind of positive exposure has been good for them over the years, they have always welcomed this.  But as a filmmaker, not really before we embarked, but once we started to see how important this was becoming, it started to be a real concern.  With the plethora of material out there that has already been created and sometimes regurgitated, the pressure for coming up with something new was felt.  It could tend to drive one crazy if you only looked at it this way, when in fact it’s not really the reality at all.  Because everyone sees differently, lending their own take on things and there are many ways to tell the story of Paolo Soleri.  For example in your film, A Life’s Work, I know you’re taking a completely different approach; it will look different, feel different and most likely have a different targeted audience – and I suspect this will be the case with the other projects currently in production.  Basically filmmakers don’t want to copy other filmmakers material, overlapping due to this high profile subject may happen by accident, but not by design.  So I have to be very focused on what I want to say and try to say it in a unique way, at the same time I feel compelled to pay attention to what is out there if I can, and be respectful of that.  I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries in general and I’m confident that Before Form will lend a fresh look.  The big difference being that this is the first in-house documentary, presenting a more candid, intimate look into Soleri and the people that have surrounded him for years and how it’s still relevant today.

What do you hope to do with the finished film?

The DVD’s created will be available for purchase in the Arcosanti and Cosanti galleries in Arizona.  I already have one festival interested, so yes it will go through the festival circuit.   We will also have an evening screening with Paolo Soleri at Cosanti and TV broadcast is a possibility also.

 Before Form is a Kickstarter project. How’s that going?

I wanted to pull the plug the day after I launched it . . . the anxiety was unexpected and very powerful – it’s as if you are running for political office, you feel very vulnerable.  But it didn’t last.  Now it’s so amazing to me, how generous people can be.  How a stranger (for the most part) puts their trust in you and believes in the project.  It’s absolutely an incredible high.  The down side, yes, there is that “all or nothing” aspect to it.  And when it’s dead and there is no activity, your heart sinks.  It’s a lot of work to stay on top of it, so you don’t sink.  Overall I’m really impressed with Kickstarter, it’s slick, professional and it’s a brilliant idea and seems to really work for so many indie projects that otherwise may not have the opportunity to get funded.

About Aimee: Aimee Madsen is an award-winning editorial photographer whose carefully crafted images have appeared in Arizona Highways, Phoenix Magazine, Native Peoples, Sunset and Outdoor Photographer, to name a few. Areas of study and concentration have been in Photojournalism and Wildlife Photography. In 1999, the prize money Aimee received from Transition Abroad Magazine for her photographs of the Ecuadorian Andes, financed a working adventure in remote areas of Guatemala. Over the years, her work has also taken her on an exploration of the French Pyrenees and a near-death experience in Canyon del Diablo, Mexico.

 After studying Cinematography in Arizona, she made the transition into filmmaking in 2005 and formed her independent company Eye Am Films. Since then she has created shorts films, commercials, promo trailers, numerous video vignettes and screenplays. You can support Before Form via Kickstarter.

[crossposted on Extra Criticum]

What a D.P. Sees

I am always awed by how cinematographers see so much more than I do. We can be looking at exactly the same thing, the same angle, the same  frame, and they’ll register all sorts of details, big and small, on an initial viewing that I won’t see until I’ve viewed the footage they shot several times.

In July, cinematographer Andy Bowley and I went to Arcosanti to shoot some construction and conduct a follow-up interview with Paolo Soleri. Here’s what Andy saw through the viewfinder during the interview.

During David’s last interview with Arcosanti architect Paolo Soleri, I was struck by what I witnessed through the camera – something rare and powerful and surprising. Initially our interview clicked along in the usual way: director asks question, subject answers.

But halfway through, David asked Soleri how he maintained his motivation — and then went on to admit there were times when he had difficulty maintaining his enthusiasm for A Life’s Work. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a director show such vulnerability to an interview subject during an interview. It was startling to me – a wonderful moment. But what put it over the top was Paolo’s silent reaction: he leaned forward to listen, smiling and avuncular and compassionate, and then went on to answer the question in the broadest philosophical terms anyone could imagine.

Soleri’s expression said so much to me about the relationship between the filmmaker and subject.  Sure they had been jousting all along – Paolo endlessly skirting David’s more personal questions, David dancing and jabbing as best he could, but underneath it all there was also a kind of artistic connection between them –  clearly (and wordlessly!) established during this one little moment.

It strikes me as such an important thing in any documentary: a nod to the audience, no matter how subtle, that there is a process going on. There are pointed cameras and hovering furry microphones, and most importantly a relationship, often rich and complex, evolving between the subject and the filmmaker.

Andy Bowley is a NYC-based cinematographer whose projects have won many national Emmys and one Peabody.

Andy’s other posts:

Charismatic Manhattan Pinecone Test

This Post Is For You, Gearheads!

Hardest/Easiest Work Environments So Far in 2010

E-mail Andy: a b o w l e y at  e a r t h l i n k d o t n e t

Five Documentaries That Influenced A Life’s Work

Because I have lists on the brain, here’s another:  films that have had a huge impact on me in general, and on A Life’s Work in particular.

On the TV, "Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control."

Grey Gardens
The first time I saw the Maysles’ Grey Gardens it made me very very uncomfortable. I thought I was watching the exploitation of a couple of mentally ill people. I saw it again many years later, when I had older, failing and frail parents, and I thought I was watching a complicated love story. When I saw it a few years after that  I thought I was watching a portrait of a couple of great American eccentrics. That Grey Gardens keeps drawing me back in and changing my idea of what I’m seeing is remarkable, but at its core this film makes the viewer ask what is “normal” behavior? What is “acceptable” behavior? I don’t think the subjects in A Life’s Work are anything like Big or Little Edie, but I’m hoping the viewers of A Life’s Work will look at the subjects and wonder what makes them tick in the same way one looks at the Beales.

For All Mankind
As I mentioned in earlier post (What Was I Thinking?), I had this idea of eliminating all talking heads and having only the subjects’ voices over images of them working or going about the stuff of their day. Seeing this film reinforced this idea. Okay, so it wasn’t a good idea for A Life’s Work, but it worked brilliantly Al Reinert’s For All Mankind. I wrote more extensively in a previous post why For All Mankind is important to me, so I won’t get into it again. Giant thanks to Andy Bowley for telling me about this film not all that long ago.

Antonio Gaudi
Shooting architecture, especially big architecture, is tricky, but Hiroshi Teshigahara nailed it. Here, the no talking heads idea is taken to the extreme. In fact, except for some bit of dialog at the end, there is no narration at all, only images of Antonio Gaudi’s architecture shot in a most meditative style. This film became a reference for the way we shot Arcosanti, though we didn’t have the luxury of a dolly, and even if we had, setting it up would have been quite a challenge. The architecture does all the talking in Gaudi, and does all the talking for Gaudi. I liked that idea and hoped we could pull it off when we shot Arcosanti. Did we?

Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control
The similarities here are obvious, and when people compare A Life’s Work to this film, I don’t mind at all, and instead take it as a compliment, because I think this is a great great film and Errol Morris is a great great filmmaker. When I speak about A Life’s Work for the first time to someone I often ask if they’ve seen Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control right off the bat, because then they can get an idea of the structure of the film, of the cross cutting, of the selection of four seemingly very different people doing four seemingly very different things. But A Life’s Work is much different than Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control. For one thing, I don’t share Erroll Morris’ passion for re-enactments and  the eccentric. They work in his film magnificently, but they’re not for me. I love verite and the every day. The subjects in A Life’s Work are really doing very ordinary things–looking at the sky and wondering what’s up there, nurturing botanicals, trying to build efficient shelter, trying to pass down a vital piece of culture to future generations. They are just doing it on an out-sized scale and operating on a  time scale that extends beyond their lives.

Werner Herzog
Okay, I know Werner Herzog isn’t a film, but it is because so much of his oeuvre is uncompromising and that he is not afraid to tackle the big themes that he is an inspiration and influence. Go to the South Pole? No problem. The Amazon? You bet. Burning oil fields? Bags are packed! I wish I had one-hundredth of the fearlessness this man has. And to me, that’s what makes him an exciting filmmaker. His willingness to take risks and ask the big questions, even if it means putting himself (and others, can’t get behind that, Werner, sorry) in peril. That he’s more interested in people than the gee-whiz technology of cinema endears him to me further.

Special Mention: The Seven Up series.
Michael Apted was one of the people I considered approaching for A Life’s Work, but the thought of getting all meta or getting in the way of his work dissuaded me from this idea quickly. But it’s remarkable to watch these films and see where these people go in life. I know some people have given up on the series, but I recommend taking it up again, and if you’re watching them on DVD, it’s worth your while to listen to Apted’s commentary on 42 Up.

Have a comment about this list? Or maybe you feel like sharing your own? Go ahead. Make my day!

To Friend or Not to Friend: A New Documentary Dilemma – Resolved

I originally posted this on Extra Criticum, a blog about the performing arts written by performing artists. I write about film mostly. This post is dated April 1, 2009.

Two things you may not know about me. One, I’m making a documentary and two, I’m addicted to Facebook.

Click to become a FB Fan of A Life's Work
You are two clicks away from becoming a FB Fan of A Life's Work.

I imagined when I finished the documentary, sometime before 2525, I’d use FB as another promotion tool. If I thought about it at all, this was how I thought these two things in my life would collide.

But there I was the other day, searching for people to befriend, when out of curiosity I searched for one of the subjects of my documentary. And of course, like the rest of the world, there he was.

So, will I cross some kind of subject-filmmaker line if I ask him to be my friend? What would Errol Morris do?

This post garnered some interesting comments and suggestions. I deliberated and deliberated and this weekend I became a  Facebook friend with a subject’s significant other. (The subject is not on Facebook.)

I  still don’t know what Errol Morris would do, though.

How Do You Find These People? Robert Darden

Robert Darden in Hyde Park Records, Chicago, IL

I’m not shy about telling people about the film and sometimes they will suggest a subject.  (I love it when their first response is a laugh followed by, “That sounds like me and my garage.” Really, I do, because that’s the point.) All of my friends know I’m making this film, so when they catch wind of someone or a project they think will work for this film, they tell me about it. That’s how I found out about Robert Darden and the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project

Roland Tec, good friend, brother in filmmaking, Pinkplot Productions head honcho, and brainiac behind the blog Extra Criticum, heard a story on NPR’s Fresh Air. He called and left a message. I listened to the archived show and salivated.

Robert Darden and other customers in Hyde Park Records.
Robert Darden and other customers in Hyde Park Records.

I always wanted to find a collector to include in the film, someone searching for their holy grail, and this lead pointed in that direction.  Though Robert wouldn’t call himself a collector or an archivist, he is actively searching for recordings known to be missing.

The thought of using gospel music in the film was exciting, and Robert and the music would bring religion into the film, and that, I thought, would be a nice counterpoint to the kinds and degrees of spirituality that the other three subjects displayed.

Some tips don’t amount to anything, others amount to a good pay off. With Roland’s tip I hit the jackpot. Thank you, Roland.

"What the Hey Were You Doing in Chicago?" Part 1

I went to interview the next subject of the documentary, Robert Darden, founder of the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. Robert is a writer and professor of journalism at Baylor University, a deacon at his church, and a passionate gospel music enthusiast. I highly recommend his book, People Get Ready, for anyone interested in the history of gospel music.


What’s the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project about? This from the Baylor University web site: “The purpose of this project is to identify, acquire, preserve, record and catalogue the most at-risk music from the black gospel music tradition. This will primarily include 78s, 45s, LPs, and the various tape formats issued in the United States and abroad between the 1940s and the 1980s.”

This is gospel music’s golden age and there were many many recordings made by gospel artists famous and not. Many of these recordings were on small obscure labels that have long since disappeared, many are in the hands of record companies who may or may not be aware that they possess them and have little interest in re-releasing them, and others were pressed in small runs for sale to the congregation only. It’s difficult to quantify, but it is estimated that 75% of these recordings are unavailable–lost or in the vaults of conglomerates or collectors. But as more people hear about the BGMRP, more recordings show up at Darden’s doorstep, from individuals who have boxes of vinyl in their attics and from collectors who are willing to share.

To date, the BGMRP has digitized more than 6,000 sides. (A side can be a single song {a 45} or several songs {an LP}.)

That’s all well and good, but what is Robert Darden doing in A Life’s Work?

Here are the last three  paragraphs of  “How Sweet the Sound” by Michael Hoinski (The Texas Observer, November 16, 2007):

“I suspect there is a lot more to be found than we think,” says Robert Laughton, who along with Cedric Hayes has spent the last four decades compiling The Gospel Discography: 1943-1970, a 658-page compendium of gospel recordings from the era targeted by the Black Gospel Music Restoration Project. “There are also new labels being discovered that we know nothing about.”

Darden seconds that emotion. Nothing in the first two boxes of stuff he got from a collector in Chicago was in the Laughton and Hayes book.

“I will die before we finish this project,” Darden says.

I’m very excited to include Robert in the documentary. His passion for his life’s work is present in his articulate speech, gestures, and actions. The possibility of including gospel music in the film thrills me beyond belief.

Thanks to Robert Darden, Mary Landon Darden, Deacon Reuben Burton, Rev. Dr. Stanley Keeble, Peter and Paula Schuler of University Quarters, the wonderful people at Captain’s Hard Time Restaurant, the employees and shoppers at Hyde Park Records. You all made this a most memorable trip.

Another Adventure

Wolfgang Held and I are on our way to Chicago. We return late Monday evening. I’m nervous and excited and I don’t expect I’ll get much sleep this weekend.

I received an e-mail last night from Wolfgang. The last sentence: “Looking forward to this adventure.”

When I was shooting David Milarch in the redwoods I became friends with the journalist Jim Robbins. (He wrote The New York Times article about that event.) Jim gave me a book he wrote and he inscribed it. I had forgotten about that inscription until almost a year later, when I was nervous and anxious about the upcoming SETI shoot at Hat Creek and Mount Lassen. For some reason, I picked up Jim’s book and read the inscription: “For David, Enjoy your adventure, Jim.” It calmed me.

And that is what I will try to remember this weekend. This film is an adventure! It has taken me to the frozen Michigan tundra and the baking Arizona desert, to the lush redwood forest in Northern California, and now to bustling Chicago, Illinois. It has introduced me to  architects, astronomers, scholars, tree farmers, and this weekend, a musicologist.

Thank you Wolfgang and Jim for the always welcome reminder. Adventure. I like that.

The Readiness Is All

Friday, August 7th, I’m heading to Chicago to do the next interview. You’ll forgive me if I don’t reveal the subject by name yet. I will in time, perhaps after I’ve had time to digest the interviews. There is a chance, after all, that he won’t work in the film, but I’m confident he will. For now it’s enough to say that he is a passionate collector and archivist of a certain genre of music and he’s written books and articles about that music. His work, like the work of the other subjects in the film, will probably not be completed in his lifetime. I’ve heard him say as much.

So, am I prepared to interview him and follow him around? Well, I have prepared, but I never feel prepared enough. This probably isn’t a bad thing. I think it’s good to feel a little on edge inside, a little uncertainty. Keeps one sharp.

What have I done to prepare? I’ve read his books and articles. Twice. I’ve read books by other authors on his specialty. I’ve listened to a lot of music. I’ve watched a few documentaries on his field of expertise. I try not to do too much of that last one because I want to keep the influence of others’ work (especially documentary films) to a minimum.

And the logistics of course, always the logistics: booking the flight and hotel and rental car. Exchanging e-mails and phone calls with the subject to coordinate schedules. And the big one, securing the cinematographer.

The slate from Tango Octogenario.
The slate from Tango Octogenario.

I’m very pleased to be working with Wolfgang Held again. It’s been more than two years since we’ve worked together. Too long. Wolfgang and I have become good friends since he shot Tango Octogenario and we’ve developed a solid collaborative relationship. I feel like he pushes me to be my best. He senses when I have a concern or an idea and he calls me on it. “What are you thinking?” “What are you seeing?” These are questions he often asks me when we’re shooting and I love that. And he tells me when I have a stinker of an idea. (More about that in a future post.)

There’s still work to be done. I need to organize the questions so they have a certain flow to them. I have an idea for an interview space and I need to secure it. And a few scheduling details still need to be ironed out. And if I’m lucky we’ll be able to shoot …. No. I must not get ahead of myself.

Hopefully I’ll write ecstatically about it all when I return home.

Wish me luck!

"Don’t you want to make a REAL film?"

On the set of Tango Octogenario, DP Wolfgang Held, 1st AC Eric O'Connor, producer Tom Razzano and 2nd AC Laura Hudock.

People have actually said that to me after I tell them I’m making a documentary. I’m usually rendered speechless and sometimes I can’t even manage to raise an eyebrow. Of course I know what they mean. They mean a narrative feature film with actors in it and lots of lights and cables crossing the sidewalk and grungy looking PAs with walkie-talkies and a table full of danishes and  sliced fruit.

It’s a good question, since I’ve spent most of my life writing fiction–screenplays, short stories, the novel in my closet–and my short films were narratives. So why a documentary? (Not why this documentary? That’s a different question, one I wrote about in an earlier post.)

I decided to make a documentary because I wanted to make another film. I wanted to capture moving images and have those images tell a story. Most filmmakers can attest to just how difficult it is to get a narrative film made. So much time and energy is spent chasing producers, name actors, and money. Lots of money. When you’re trying to get a narrative film made, even a very small independent film with a micobudget, these elements have to fall in place long before a frame is shot. You might as well be waiting for all the cherries in all the slots in all the casinos in Atlantic City to line up at once. It’s enough to snuff out whatever creative fire you have burning inside of you.

My reasoning went like this: I could work on a documentary a bit at a time, which is something you can’t usually do with a feature (there are exceptions, like Roland Tec’s excellent We Pedal Uphill); I could make a documentary with a small crew and I wouldn’t need a steamer trunk full of Hamiltons to get it started. The big questions were could I live with making the film in stages and was I prepared to undertake the marathon that is making a documentary of this kind? Could I keep my enthusiasm up for years and years?

The answers so far: still alive after three good subjects interviewed, 70+ hours in the can, more on the way in August ’09; plenty of kick in me and as passionate as ever about this adventure.

But I haven’t answered that first question, have I? Do I want to make a real film? A narrative feature film, yes. But right now, I have this film I’m still excited about and that still requires most of my attention. When A Life’s Work is finished, and if I can rig it so all those cherries in all the slots in all the casinos in Atlantic City line up at once, then I’ll make that feature.

Photo:  Peter LaMastro

[cross-posted at Extra Criticum]