I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Exploring performance in documentary film.
The recent professorship bestowed upon filmmaker Robert Greene by The Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia comes with the title Filmmaker-in-Chief (really). The prolific thirty-eight-year-old could be considered a cine-polymath of sorts since he works in both narrative fiction and documentary/nonfiction film as a producer, director, and editor – on his own films, as well as those of others, including Alex Ross Perry’s recent hit Listen Up Philip.
His is also an emerging critical voice for the never-ending debates surrounding international nonfiction cinema, a topic that’s been close to my heart for a long time. I first met Robert in Columbia at the True/False Film Festival many moons ago when he was exhibiting his feature début called Kati With an I about his much younger half-sister and her drama-filled life. To this day, he is still working with the same producers, 4th Row Films, run by Douglas Tirola and Susan Bedusa, and the same cinematographer, Sean Price Williams.
His latest directorial effort is Actress, a project in which he’s raised the bar on performance in documentary, an obsession, he tells me, he will be devoted to exploring for at least his next twenty-five films. His previous documentary Fake It So Real, about a group of wrestlers, dealt directly with this topic. But for Actress, Greene forged a unique and intimate partnership with his main protagonist, Brandy Burre, a professional actress. The two create a semi-improvised film that explores Burre’s troubled psyche as she is going through a major identity crisis. Simultaneously, the relationship with the father of her children is disintegrating. Burre’s home, where most of the film is shot, is in the picturesque bedroom community of Beacon, New York with just a few feet separating her house from Greene’s. The town, as Greene shoots it, is a Cheever-esque locale that exudes the strange melancholia typical of American suburbia.
Greene has just completed a successful crowd-funding campaign for music rights clearances for a few of the songs in Actress. He stubbornly refused to replace them because they are too integral and necessary to his story. The campaign had some urgency since the film is set to have its US theatrical release this month through the film’s distributor Cinema Guild. Actress will also have its European festival premiere at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen as a selection in its main competition for the DOX:AWARD. Also appearing in the same competition is a film that Greene edited, Amanda Rose Wilder’s Approaching the Elephant, a beautifully realized profile of a grammar school in New Jersey that untethers itself from conventional classes and school rules—unconventionality and rule-breaking being subjects Greene holds forth about regularly when he talks about nonfiction cinema in his regular column for Sight & Sound Magazine.
One of Greene’s forthcoming projects has also been selected for this year’s CPH:FORUM. Kate Plays Christine is a continuation of the kind of work he did with Burre. The film follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil of House of Cards as she encounters her own ambivalence about the film industry while role-playing a thirty-year-old TV host named Christine Chubbuck who committed suicide on live television in Sarasota, Florida in 1974.
Greene and I convened over a Beacon-Berlin Skype connection in early October just as he was launching his crowd-funding campaign. At 8 am in New York, Greene, fueled by coffee and his own boundless energy, spoke to me in a flood of staccato exhortations about his cinematic passions.
Pamela Cohn David “The Father” Hayes, one of your wrestler protagonists in Fake It So Real, says, “Telling a story and making people feel an emotion is something I’m good at.” I’m supposing this line must have resonated quite strongly with you when you heard him say it.
Robert Greene At first glance, all these guys all looked and sounded like “certain” kinds of people. But it turned out that they were all exactly like me, and like a lot of people I know. When Alex Ross Perry saw the film he said, “They’re independent filmmakers, just like us.” Having a guy who relates so little to others relating to those people was a good sign.
In terms of my work, these ideas, these stories, come from my own obsessions. When I was twenty-one years old, I edited something together, the first pieces of footage I ever touched, using Media 100 in a production class. It was good and everyone asked, “How did you do that?” I told them I didn’t really know. Today, I know it’s partly just because I want to control the universe.
The work of film editing—specifically, finding and seeing rhythms where others don’t—is something that has always come easily. For my own films, it’s about using the camera so people can go about the business of being themselves, including the performance of playing themselves. This is my particular obsession, capturing all of that and leaving it all there and then finding the rhythms in a film that will startle people.
The movies that I have always responded to aren’t story-driven, per se. That is to say that they’re not plot-driven or driven by narrative, but are mostly built out of these ecstatic moments or observed in a way one doesn’t normally see. When you’re making a documentary, those moments are all you really have. While making Actress, we had moments that were more directed than others—still as real as anything else, but more directed than in, say, Fake It So Real when those directed moments came from the performers themselves. The editing work I did for Listen Up Philip deals with the same methodology in the jokes, character arcs, and tones we were trying to create since all those moments need to be propped up too, even within the confines of a written script. I’ve edited fourteen feature films and it’s something I encounter all the time.
PC In Actress, you did something I hadn’t seen in your work before in quite this way, these elegiac slow motion segments: life slows way down and we’re forced to concentrate or ponder beautiful moments, beautiful scenery. These scenes were startling to me, especially because they are accompanied by very specific, and quite dramatic, musical cues. The use of this kind of poetic imagery with music can be risky—maybe even ruinously so.
RG The slow motion segments are there because I realized this was melodrama, particularly because of Brandy’s persona and her ability to be melodramatic in any and all situations. She’s a person who goes to the grocery store and sees a turnip that she likes and will exclaim: “I have been looking for this exact turnip. Oh my god!” In seeing her take whatever situation she’s in and observing it and reacting to it in a theatrical way as she’s trained to do, and is naturally inclined to do in every way possible, you experience so much feeling.
I equate it to a Douglas Sirk moment. You get the maximum amount of emotion but you’re also thinking about her performing that emotion, as well as the core human being that’s giving that performance. The slow motion was meant to draw all that out. Having said all this, I know that slow motion in a film can make you want to die at some point, and oftentimes, it can be the worst decision a director can make. But in taking this kind of risk, we had to go all the way, and that meant the inclusion of the score as well. We’d paid for everything except for three songs and we’d been working for eight or nine months to get rights costs down for those because I was not willing to lose that music, specifically the cover of “Waly Waly” sung by Harry Belafonte and the Colin Blunstone song, “Let Me Come Closer to You,” which plays as she walks over the bridge. That song was playing on the car radio and if I had just edited off of that version, we could have had it for free. But I want it in there as it is now, because it elevates the movie.
I would like to think that every movie I make moving forward is going to be taking chances like this. Kati and Fake It are very different films, but have a similar humility to them. Especially for something as flamboyant as wrestling, that humble, stripped-down aesthetic works. But if you remember, in Fake It So Real, there’s a slow motion effect during a dream sequence, and there are flashbacks in Kati With an I that are formal decisions in the same way. I think Actress is just pushing all this further, and why not? This movie could have been too simple if we didn’t make decisions that were audacious, and a bit insane.
PC What was your method of working with Brandy, your respective roles as director and protagonist? She lives right next door to you—what were the rhythms of your daily encounters and your decisions about when to shoot? How did you decide when you’d shot enough? Because plot does come along when her household comes apart and her performance becomes nuanced in ways neither one of you, perhaps, would have expected. I think the ways in which both the coldness and the warmth of what domestic life can bring and what’s at stake there add a deeper pathos to her career/family identity crisis.
RG The original title of the film was Mother As Actress. The main idea from the beginning was: What happens when you film an actor in an observational documentary? She’s going to be performing even when she’s not. From the beginning, I wanted to film her routines as a mother. Even though Brandy can be the center of attention so easily, she still wants some base of reality. A lot of characters in documentaries want the opposite; they’re as removed from daily reality as anything, but daily realities are where you can understand other human beings. It was always going to be about filming this theatrical human being in a domestic space and working with the tensions that arise when you put a camera there. Then life took us in a direction we couldn’t have predicted. However, even if that hadn’t happened, I wanted to show her putting her son Henry’s coat on over and over again to record how she does it differently every time, and to show how careful she is when the camera’s observing her. Like any actor, the camera is both her best friend and her enemy. She wants to give the perfect performance but she also wants to hide herself away.
Once the relationship started to come apart, the shooting did become very cathartic, and the recording of normal everyday routines became transformative in a way that neither one of us can really comprehend, even now. As well, the “camera” is a character in this film. I think that’s one of the things documentary filmmakers don’t exploit enough and that is getting everyone thinking about the person filming and editing that reality.
PC I think as we grow older, quotidian time becomes more and more elastic, somehow. We’re always compelled to deal with our days and weeks linearly in some sense because we’re a culture enslaved to a calendar. This is what I find so fascinating about the editing process, the myriad ways in which you can portray time passing.
RG We shot Actress over the course of eighteen months and the timeline in the film is somewhat linear but there are jumps and leaps. In the very beginning, you see her alone with the children; you don’t really understand who she is or what her situation is, but that was filmed after Tim had already moved out of the house. Emotionally, it’s the right place to start because it is about her and the children, not about a nuclear family or a family lost. I always wanted to keep everything from Brandy’s perspective. Marriage falling apart is not really where I wanted the drama to be, not at all. It’s about the woman in that situation, and that’s why I felt I needed to start a bit ambiguously.
Going back to what we were talking about before, I like the fact that it ended up being overly poetic in some of its aspects because to me, the poetic in cinema is fine. But when it stops at poetry, that’s when I get annoyed. Being able to make a flower look beautiful and understanding the beauty of nature is one thing, but Douglas Sirk taught us that the poetic is only the beginning and that you have to push past that in order to get to some other sort of emotion. In the case of a director like Ken Russell, exuberance is only the beginning. You need to go past this exuberant visual idea because, goddammit, we have to feel something.
These days, you also have to pass through this wall of irony everyone puts up. “Oh, really? You’re going to show us slow motion river shots that represent Brandy’s emotional state?” Well, yes I am. And that image is going to stay there for a while. Many people have a cynical reaction to this, but if you watch that for ten or fifteen seconds, you do start feeling a whole lot.
Admittedly, in its formal structure, Actress is a bit of a mess and barely coheres at points, but I do think overall it does cohere due to Brandy’s performance which is fragile and open, at turns opaque and hard. These gestures of fragility that she makes are more devastating to me than watching someone totally unaware of what she’s doing. She’s authentically in pain, but she’s also demonstrating pain very consciously and dramatically. The combination of the real and the display is mind-boggling to me. You don’t know where one begins and the other ends.
PC There’s also something that you’re doing as a director to call that forth. Brandy is a professional actor, highly trained and skilled in that craft. But Kati isn’t a professional actor nor are the guys in Fake It even though one could say that the wrestlers, in their own way, are self-trained thespians. But you are the one crafting her performance as you do with professional actors when you cut fiction. Just as there are different levels Brandy is offering you, you’re enhancing or detracting from the level of drama going on. There is lots of directorial and editorial manipulation.
When you encounter material in the edit—your own or another director’s—how do you begin to orchestrate? You mentioned you were “a natural” when you hit an editing suite for the first time, but that was several years and many films ago. How do you approach it now?
RG I’m interested in people at these stages of life wherein social performance becomes apparent. Some of the most compelling stuff in Kati is when she’s saying things like, “I’m getting married.” Are you now? No, you’re saying you’re getting married because you’re performing something based on what all of your friends are doing. Everything she says in that movie is phony. She was pregnant the whole time, which is devastating to know about because I didn’t know that at the time. “I’m going to college; I’m getting married”—all phony, all performance.
This came up, as well, in the edits for both Listen Up Philip and Approaching the Elephant. You watch someone’s face just long enough to detect the layers of their personalities. In Elephant, Jiovanni’s character, the essential antagonist of the piece, is revealed through these lingering shots, particularly when he’s still. He’s very aware of the camera but he is being this authentic kid as well as giving a really strong performance. When you find those images, it’s gold.
I’m editing Alex Ross Perry’s new film right now, Queen of Earth, and the same is true of actress Elisabeth Moss and in the way that Alex works with her. He’s also very interested in finding these ecstatic moments whether they’re comedic or tragic. It’s about modulating character. Elisabeth and Brandy are professionals so they’ve been trained to know how to modulate when given a certain direction. But with Kati, I was the one modulating her performance in the edit, how full of shit she was and how lovely and beautiful, all at the same time. I wanted audiences to see how full of these social contradictions she is, but I needed her to remain highly likable so the movie works. When someone performs, they’re revealing insecurity, a sense of themselves that they’ve worked on—how they speak, how they do their hair, how they work on their body, all in service to presenting a certain self. With the camera there, that’s pushed even further since no one is ever in a totally relaxed state when a camera’s around.
PC As we’re talking about performance, I’m also thinking a lot about social media and the ability to perform, if we like, all day, every day.
I like the way you’ve grabbed the tail of this ongoing discussion of genre. You are fluid in the ways you’re shifting between working in fiction and nonfiction. I spoke with Josh Oppenheimer about this too—his performance as a filmmaker in his own films amidst the performances of his protagonists.
RG He and I agree that the biggest value in that is what it reveals. To your point, social media is an apt metaphor, for sure. For the last century, more or less, there has been this conversation about social performance and how that’s reflected in cinema and now we’ve gotten to the point where these performances are happening all the time. Actress is a film about Facebook behavior as much as it is anything else. I embrace that.
If the formal ideas I’m playing with in my films didn’t lead anywhere, they would be meaningless, empty gestures. But they’re about real lives and I tend to try to think of these things in real life situations. There’s an emotional quality to watching someone trying to be something they aspire to.
PC And in terms of social media and cinema audiences? Today, there is cinema being presented in distinctly non-cinematic settings, which is all right, but it’s created this sort of rough-trade exchange. I sense this in many “critical” voices that tend to value their own performance over any real consideration of the work.
RG In fiction films, there’s this imperative to make people laugh, to make them cry, to surprise them with twists. In Listen Up Philip we went for something formally ambitious. We changed the rhythms of the film halfway through, taking away the story you thought you were going to see precisely because the stakes have been raised as to how films are consumed now.
PC Do critics write for audiences anymore? I think moviegoers are increasingly being left out of any critical dialogue about film.
RG You could say that, but many documentary filmmakers make films for their cronies and aren’t that interested in audience, either. And you can get that specific because that’s the way it is now, all of these very small, circumscribed worlds that knock against one another but never really quite communicate in any meaningful way. When I make films, I take into account that I also have a critical voice out there, even though I don’t consider myself a film critic. I’m always analyzing the way audiences view moving images. I’m very aware of what the expectations might be at every moment.
By the time you get to the climax of Actress, for instance, I hope I have constantly upped the stakes in terms of playing with those expectations. To make films for nostalgic reasons is a mistake. If you want to be relevant, you have to take the things we love about movies and just grab people by the collar with them, like Sirk, like Wiseman, like Cassavetes. As both a director and an editor, I want to grab people and say, “Watch, for fuck’s sake!” Otherwise, why do it if you’re not trying to get people to watch things or understand things? I like to think I’ve moved beyond doing it just to appease my own ego. I now need to make things that matter to people. We live in a world where we watch things in a very fractured way and I need to respond to that in the way I make films, to grab people and bring them as close as possible.
PC There’s a scene in Actress where Brandy goes into the city to meet with this manager for some career advice and he says to her quite gently, but also a bit cruelly – a specialty of managers – “You’re growing into your type.” How are you looking at the next few years of your artistic career? You definitely have a viable one at this point. And you’re entering into academe, yet another aspect of your film life. If there is ever a performative space, the classroom is it.
RG I appreciate deeply that you would say I have a career. (laughter) First and foremost, I have a family. My dreams, from an early age, were to have a family and to be an artist. A friend told me that was impossible; I had to choose one or the other. Every one of my decisions goes through my wife and my kids. They make me better at what I do. I work harder. I have to survive. Things are starting to happen that will provide more chances than I was given previously, but up until now I have scraped by like most and had to fight for every inch of what I have, proudly so. I want to continue to push this idea of performance in new ways. I probably will make my next twenty-five films about performance, but each will be different from the other and equally as interesting.
I believe that no one is ever owed an audience for their work; no one is ever owed an opportunity. Even the greatest filmmakers of all time know that. I’m not talking about “earning your place” because that’s a bullshit game. But it does have to mean something. If it doesn’t, you should give up.
Pamela Cohn is a media producer, writer, film programmer, and documentary consultant currently based in Germany and Kosovo.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee