Pamela Cohn speaks with filmmakers Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri about their “small art-film documentary” October Country, their upcoming projects, and the struggles (and patience) necessary to bring an independent film project to fruition.
After the sound and fury of an incredibly hectic international film festival run, domestic theatrical run, and DVD home and educational release of their film October Country, I caught filmmakers Donal Mosher and Michael Palmieri on the road one afternoon this fall as they were driving from nowheresville, Minnesota, to Rochester. The filmmakers were on their way to the famed Mayo Clinic to film a “lab rat wedding” for their new movie, a feature-length documentary about men and women who have offered up their bodies and brains to pharmaceutical companies for drug testing experimental psychotropic drugs. Mosher and Palmieri have been crisscrossing the United States for the last several months of filming, staying in “shitty motels across the heartland of the country.”
I’ve witnessed most of the crazy roller-coaster ride these exceedingly talented artists have traversed with their début feature film. It was a profound professional and personal experience for both of them as they self-released an independent film. With a lot of expert advice from advisors, friends, and colleagues, and some deep soul-searching twinned with a high level of professionalism, they made a lot of wise decisions. And some not-so-wise ones as well. Palmieri, whose background is in media, advertising, commercials, and music videos, and Mosher, a photographer and writer, shared some war stories and reflections with me about their “small art-film documentary” about Mosher’s angst-filled family.
Going into a second feature project together, I wanted to know how the strategic decisions they made for their first film are affecting the way in which they’re tackling their latest project.
Michael Palmieri Interestingly, the second film we’re doing is almost based on an “older model” of making an independent film. A commissioned documentary like the one we’re doing is almost unheard of. It used to be a regular mode of operation. It’s funny that we find ourselves in this situation. But, having said that, I don’t think it necessarily impacts or changes the strategy of putting the film out in the marketplace.
Donal Mosher When we started making October Country, we started by combining our sensibilities into something around this idea of the portrait of my family. We didn’t think about the complications we would encounter in making and releasing a film that looked and sounded like this. We didn’t understand anything about the documentary film market or how it worked. So none of that was even an issue, the thought of whether or not the artistry of the piece would propel us into anything significant in terms of getting the film out. We just made it.
MP We had our inspirations and referenced our favorite documentary filmmakers, of course. Someone like Chris Marker, who may or may not obviously appear as any kind of influence for the film, had an impact. We, as lovers of cinema and music, have our favorites, but we weren’t deeply studying the genre of documentary or trying to fit our film into any kind of genre, for that matter. We didn’t identify what we were creating in terms of a personal, narrative documentary, or an art documentary film, or what have you. That came after the film was made. We were just trying to make something good that we thought held up to our internal artistic imperative, the things we respond to viscerally in other people’s work.
Then, as it was starting to play—or rather, I should say, as it was starting to get rejected—we started to figure that out. And then, as it slowly became accepted into festivals and such, hearing what people liked about it and what they didn’t, we started to learn about these arbitrary forms that are often imposed upon the documentary community.
Pamela Cohn Do you believe the work would have been compromised if you had gone a more traditional route? Or, if not compromised, then shaped and formed according to a commissioning editor’s imperatives versus your own very personal ones? There seem to be just as many “blind spots” and risks working either way.
MP Without question. We did, in fact, encounter this early on when we had very preliminary discussions with ITVS [Independent Television Service, a funding entity]. We didn’t get so far in the process that we were offered money or anything, but it was very clear from the beginning that if we were going to pursue something with ITVS, they were going to suggest a direction that was antithetical to what we felt to be critical to the film. Once we knew that, we made a decision to go the route we did—doing what we wanted to do and spending our own money to do it. This was really at the behest of Rob Epstein. He’s a friend of ours and has been an advisor since the beginning. He told us, “Look, you’ve just got to find a way to do this film yourselves. It’s too complicated and weird to describe to the powers that could supply you with funding.”
PC The films that really stand out, in terms of personal vision being realized as purely as possible, all experience something similar, at least in the US. I’ve spoken to many filmmakers that “left money sitting on the table.” However, having been at many festivals and at many screenings of your film, I have heard many filmmakers say that they want to “make a film like October Country.” It resonates very deeply with the filmmaking community because we, more than anyone, know how hard it is to do something like it. What is it about the film, do you think, causes filmmakers, in particular, to say that?
MP (laughter) I don’t think there’s any way to answer that question without sounding completely vain. I think what happens in October Country that doesn’t happen a lot is that it mixes a variety of styles in a loose manner. And it wasn’t by design. It was out of necessity. Sometimes when we were filming, we got very strong, pure vérité. Other times, the film felt more like an art project, more like a photo essay, or a music video. We were just using everything at our disposal that seemed to work for the material at hand. Every film has its own language. When that language is understood, especially on an emotional level, it’s exciting for a viewer. If you’re a filmmaker watching it, you see multiple styles being bounced back and forth within the same film, and that’s exciting, too. It’s not possible to do that all the time. People might also be reacting to something purely technical. In the last four or five years the quality of cameras has gotten better. So it’s possible, and easier, to articulate a story cinematically in an artistic and exciting way. Six or seven years ago, we were all shooting on cameras that were lacking. And again, we can’t state enough that we really were not hip at all as to what typical or acceptable documentary language is right now. So we created our own.
DM The documentaries I love the most all have a poetics that work, whether it’s strict vérité or something like [Alain Resnais’] Night and Fog, a cinematic construction that’s far closer to narrative convention. But, in the writing and photography that inspired the film and in Mike’s previous work—well, it just never occurred to us that you could combine or work in a metaphorical, symbolic way in documentary, and still tell a story that is deeply grounded in a hard-core social issue. If you’re a filmmaker who is very close to the particular subject you’re tackling, I think that subject automatically has a certain poetics. In our film, it was that haunting quality, grounding it, in time and tone, to Halloween. [The film was shot over the course of one year, from October to October.] There was a poetics that bridged how we felt, personally, about the subject and how the “documentary camera” would capture that subject.
PC In most personal documentaries, there is an intimacy and a close relationship established. However, in your particular case, your subjects met you more than halfway. Most of the time we understand that there is collaboration, a complicit agreement that filmmakers and subjects are making the film together.
In the lab-rat film you’re working on now, your main protagonists are not people related to you. They are ostensibly collaborating with you in an entirely different way. How is that affecting your directorial work, individually and collectively?
MP The thing about working with anyone, family member or not, is that you’re trying to engage with an individual in a way where he or she is going to feel comfortable in front of your camera. With this new film, it’s very complicated because we’re working with so many different people, people with whom we have no relationship except the one that’s formed as we’re shooting. It’s slowed the process down quite a bit for us. We have to spend more time getting to know people before we film them, so we can try and understand what it is they really want to talk about.
To go back to your previous question, I think what people are seeing and feeling when they watch October Country is the necessity of the moments that are captured. There is a necessity on the part of the filmmakers to make this film. There’s the necessity of realizing Donal’s entire history of working on this project about his family. And there’s a necessity on the part of the Moshers to express certain things. It’s much more difficult and much trickier with our current subjects. Having said that, sometimes this situation enables you to be a more effective director by not knowing the person that intimately.
DM Well, just to add a bit of complexity, I can say that I see that idea of necessity differently. While making October Country and saying what we wanted to say creatively was a necessity, I don’t think anything was necessary on the part of my family. That intimacy was already there. Things just flowed the way things flow between family members. They didn’t need to express this stuff in public. But the collaboration happened when they understood our necessity and decided to comply with it.
We’re currently making a film where we’re meeting people because of particular issues, the main one being the medical establishment’s corruption and how that’s affected individual lives. Also, most of these people have been interviewed in front of a camera before. We’re coming to them because they already have a necessity to say or show something to the public. So because of that shared imperative between filmmakers and subjects, we have an immediate intimacy. Unlike my family members, they’re used to talking to strangers. And that’s great on the issue front. On the personal front, and the thing that takes it beyond a 60 Minutes piece, is that we can show them in the way that Mike and I love to record human beings. This is a much more difficult, and a much slower, process.
MP Because we’re still shooting, we really don’t know what’s going to end up in the film, but it’s one of those films where it could very easily become an “issues” documentary. That’s something we really have no interest in doing. Perhaps the experiment of this film will be about talking around subjects like health care and the medicalization of personality. We’re approaching it from a very personal point of view, which puts these issues in perspective as it pertains to individual lives and circumstances. People assume you’re going to talk to them about x. You also have to make them comfortable about talking about y. We might be asking left-of-center questions; I don’t know.
DM It’s a learning process for both of us. Mike has a long history of conducting interviews, but maybe not walking into someone’s home and asking really personal questions. My work has always focused on intimate things from the distance of a writer. I’m a shy person. We’re both going through a lot of growing pains.
PC The intuitive partnership that emerged working on October Country together stemmed from your personal relationship and your admiration for one another’s work. It turns out that you make a strong professional team, as well, where you can share the directorial role in a way that is satisfying for both of you. Have you had to adjust your working relationship—the roles you take on, the way you acquire access—in any way on this project, and if so, how?
DM As we gather our material, we always keep our focus on the concept of the piece. But the terrain seems to be changing constantly with each new character we add. So each of us is scouring our own resources, constantly framing and re-framing, negotiating new tactics and ideas that each of us brings to the project. Right now, we’re “making the notebook,” something that’s free form, doodling, making notes, etc. That’s exactly where we are.
MP One of Donal’s strengths is his ability to research, which is something that is definitely not one of my strengths. He does it on a much deeper level. I work much more loosely, focusing on what’s happening or what I’m seeing in the moment. You can have the basic framework of the research, but it’s also about how a shot will suddenly align itself. That tells me where I need to be with the camera and how I want to frame things visually. You have to make something of that moment made up of the elements that are presenting themselves right then and there, that imparts something not just purely informational, but something that’s cinematic. This project is heavily research-based because that’s how we’re finding the people we’re filming. But the reason things are shifting around so much is that we then have to rely upon what’s in front of us when we’re all in a room together.
PC Let’s shift the discussion a bit to the marketplace. You’re on the other side of a pretty significant personal and professional experience, probably one of the more profound things that have happened to you both. As we’re well aware, the landscape now is such that one has to have a pretty strong stomach, one has to be extremely in tune with one’s intuition because so much comes at you so quickly. You have to make decisions that decide the course of what happens to your film, from the practicality of how to exhibit it and where, marketing, strategizing festival screenings, etc. These decisions, seemingly, always have to be made when you really can’t see much beyond that particular moment.
What’s the best piece of advice you received when you were ready to put your film out into the world?
MP Well, I don’t know if this is the best piece of advice, but it’s the one I always remembered when we were struggling to get our film into the top-tier festivals and didn’t succeed. We were faced with the reality of having to figure out where we were supposed to go from there. Sundance, South by Southwest, Tribeca, Berlin, Rotterdam—all these festivals rejected the film. We didn’t understand what to do after that point. We didn’t know whether the film had any value for any festival. The way the film rolled out, ultimately, is that completely by chance, the programmers from the True/False Festival were there at the screening at Rooftop [Films in Brooklyn, New York]. So, if it wasn’t for Mark Rosenberg [Rooftop’s artistic director] and that experience, it’s possible the film wouldn’t have gone anywhere.
DM This all speaks to the fact that you really need to take a hard look at the nature of your film. Is it a big-issue mega-doc? Is it a more obscure film? Another incredibly valuable piece of advice was from another long-time supporter of the project, Esther Robinson. She would say to anyone that you must understand your film, the one you created. But, also, one needs to understand the world into which it’s emerging. Negotiate for that. Go to the festivals that suit the material and you’ve got a better chance of rising above the competition than you would at these gigantic festivals. You might have been programmed into some big festival, but it won’t get seen. You don’t have the profile, and a lot of times these festivals can’t or won’t help you out with that.
MP We talked to Thom Powers very early on and he told us that our film would get lost at Toronto. [Powers is the documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival. Along with wife, Raphaela Neihausen, he has also just launched a documentary film festival in New York City.] He advised us not to wait and see if they were going to take it or not. That had a huge impact on us. Jem Cohen also saw the film early on and told us not to pay attention or worry about the whole festival racket because the film would find its way in an organic fashion. Because that’s the way these things happen. In giving us advice as first-time filmmakers, he was trying to impart how important it was not to get caught up in that vortex.
PC It’s interesting that a very experienced programmer who works for one of these top-tier festivals, and an artist who has worked fiercely independently for decades, would give you similar advice. It’s also very much in line with what Donal just described in terms of the bespoke way you have to exhibit and market your “small” film.
It turns out you got into quite a few festivals, all of them some of the best out there, and also won some prizes along the way. Can you share some of the best experiences, perhaps what surprised you the most about the places and audiences you encountered in different parts of the globe?
MP Well, Rooftop was a seminal experience, of course, since that was the first time we had a public screening. And True/False was also extraordinary. I was blown away by the response from the audience in Locarno. It was unbelievable. Here’s this small American film [the only American documentary in competition] in Switzerland playing to this massive audience of 2–3,000 thousand people. But more than that, it was the effect the film had on the people in the community. We had so many people come up to us and want to talk about the film many days after it had screened. It had nothing to do with what the critics thought but, for the first time, we heard from audience members and how they responded to the movie.
DM I have a double answer because all the European festivals, of course, were very exciting. This film represents my childhood, a very small-town American experience. To see it with an audience from Lisbon or Florence or Leipzig, or anywhere in Europe, where the audiences responded very deeply and personally—well, the small-town boy in me had his head explode. (laughter) But then you do have these festivals in America like True/False, like Camden [Maine], like Denver, where the audience doesn’t entirely consist of sophisticated New York cinephiles. They’re educators and social workers, people who own farms, people who are closer to the class of my own family. For me, when those audiences saw the film and responded and engaged with it and took my family to heart the way they did, those were some of the best screenings.
MP There were two others that I would make note of and those were the screenings in Russia [Amfest in Moscow and Flahertiana in Perm] where the film had a huge effect on the audiences there. We’re continuing to get invitations to show the film in Russia. You’re talking about a human artistic sensibility that exists across cultures. I dreamt of that as a kid. I would watch films by Sokurov and Tarkovsky and I remember how much they personally resonated for me. You never think that’s going to happen in reverse, that a Russian will think of an American film in that way, much less your film!
PC Let’s jump out of this insular world of festivals—where you’ve found kindred spirits, in the people who came to see your film and responded to it, as well as meeting and befriending fellow filmmakers—to the morass of decisions you then needed to make to get the film out into the commercial marketplace. Were your expectations tempered, somewhat, by what you heard from other filmmakers?
MP Obviously, everyone would love to see his or her film on 35mm, and play in movie theaters. But there has to be a reason for it. From really early on, it was obvious to us that you can do as well as one can possibly do on the festival circuit, but some other extraordinary thing has to occur in order for it to play theatrically. First off, someone would have to be crazy enough to pick up the film for distribution. But when we, surprisingly (at least to us), got nominated for a series of awards—Cinema Eye, Gothams, the Spirit Awards—that’s when we really started considering the possibility of using those nominations as the impetus to do it. If it weren’t for that, we never would have considered it.
You hear from everyone that it’s a lose-lose situation, particularly financially. But what we could do is solidify some kind of critical presence around the film. We wanted major reviewers from major markets to write about it, to be legitimized in some way by the critics in the bigger markets.
(laughter) The coolest thing anyone ever told me about any of the business dealings around the film was [filmmaker] David Redmon of Carnivalesque Films October Country’s DVD distributor for home sales.] He told me, “You have to go with the person you’re disappointed with the least.” We immediately wanted to work with him because he’s so honest and up front about all of it.
PC Most filmmakers, naïvely, expect way too much from distributors and exhibitors and what they’re able to offer, especially on the financial front.
MP Listen, all the talk about DIY this, that and the other—one thing I really have to stress is what I learned business-wise when we were trying to negotiate releasing the film with The Cinema Guild. They were going to do theatrical, DVD, education, everything. They had an offer for us and we started talking about how the film could possibly do better if it was parceled out. They would just take on the educational market for us and we could explore other ways to exhibit and sell the film. I thought it was really cool that Ryan Krivoshey, the head of the company, would put that out there even though he had an offer on the table. He cared about the movie more than the business of the situation. He liked the film and wanted it to do well.
You really start to understand why you get what a filmmaker would consider such a crappy offer from these companies. It’s actually not a bad offer. It’s an offer that’s just really about covering the expenses of investing in a film. I have to say, at this point, I’m much more sympathetic to what these guys are doing. The numbers are the numbers. When you realize how small the margins are—for everyone—you really start to understand why they have to offer what they do. Essentially they’re providing a service, one that takes a lot of energy and effort based on this “independent model.” It’s something we don’t ever want to do again! It was effective, yes. But it’s a constant disappointment on a certain level. We never, however, had to compromise in any way and that’s very valuable.
DM The difficulties of filmmaking all across the board, from a film’s creation to this endgame we’ve been talking about, cannot be overstated. If it weren’t for my partnership with Mike, I would probably have never attempted it, because it’s far too difficult for me to do on my own. The most significant thing I’ve learned coming into the world of filmmaking from the technical level, the critical level, the world of festivals, to marketing and distribution, is that it’s impossible to do it alone. You must be open to working with other people, receiving advice, finding your allies and having a network of peers where you can work in a communal manner. Now, if I had to make a film on my own, I would at least know where to find those resources; I would know where to turn.
PC Let’s go back a bit to Carnivalesque, David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s distribution company, and why you decided to sell the home version of the DVD through them.
MP We really like David and Ashley a lot. They’re friends of ours. When they offered to put the DVD out through their company, we were a bit hesitant because we envisioned going with a larger company. But they really know the business and they had all the same connections larger distribution companies do. They represented a perfect opportunity to work with a small company and get the same results. And hopefully, this partnership will help their company to continue to build a label or roster of quality independent work. They represent films we really love such as Loot and Sweethearts of the Prison Rodeo. When you put aside all the financial stuff, it all consists of “bad decisions.” (laughter)
PC These current producers of yours, Anish Savjani and Vincent Savino, came to you with this lab-rat documentary film project and asked you to direct the piece. I know both of you are, individually and collectively, roiling with ideas about stories, films, etc. that you want to pursue. What were the reasons for putting this project front and center on your schedule?
DM Anish and Vincent are independent producers with their own company [Film Science in Austin, Texas] who have an appreciation and understanding of our work; that’s why they came to us. So that’s a good foundation for a partnership. It’s a great idea for a film, as well.
MP We’re hoping to have them as possible production partners beyond this film. We think they have very good taste; we can see that from the stable of filmmakers they’ve worked, and are working, with. We’re extremely flattered that they came to us. This is the first documentary they’ve worked on and it’s been an interesting learning curve for all of us to realign the language of how we’re used to working in a documentary fashion versus a narrative one. In a way, they’re putting their necks out for us and there’s a lot of trust. They’re used to working on feature narrative films where there is careful and meticulous preproduction before one frame is shot. And documentaries, those that we’re interested in making, at least, aren’t made on that kind of schedule. The preproduction process is completely different—your time investment, the gathering of resources and material, finding your story. So there has to be a big trust factor conceptually in how we’re ultimately going to realize this story, how we’ll end up telling it cinematically.
DM It’s been a very long, but very cool creative, financial, and social education, for sure. Way more than we expected.
October Country is available here.
Pamela Cohn is a New York City-based media producer, freelance arts journalist, and film programmer. She writes a blog on nonfiction and experimental cinema called Still in Motion.