David Redmon and Ashley Sabin are prolific filmmakers with an impressive collection of films behind them. In the last year, they have released two of their latest creations into the world: GIRL MODEL and DOWNEAST, the latter of which was funded by LEF. Program Director Sara Archambault spoke with David and Ashley recently about their films, the challenges of the current indie film marketplace, and the nature of collaboration.
SA: In DOWNEAST, there are so many layers to what might seem, at the surface, like a simple story of what it takes to start a business in a tough economy. Small town politics, the experience of the working elderly, the struggles of an immigrant family, the at-times-desperate risks of entrepreneurship – all of these issues intertwine in the film. Did you see these layers upon entering the story, or did the characters attract you and the rest was a slow reveal?
DR: I would say that upfront, analytically, we knew there were some layers. But the more we began delving in to the shooting of the project then even more layers revealed themselves so we had to figure out a patterned way of organizing all of the story lines and how they intersect with each other. We initially started out to do an installation. We wanted to document the physical factory.
AS: It was empty and we would have had to get access but it was ripe for whatever we wanted to do.
SA: What were your plans for the installation?
AS: Looking at what happens when an industry leaves a town. The hole it leaves.
DR: And it was also the life inside the empty factory. The aura and traces of the past that remain and reminders of the present.
SA: When did you know it was a film?
DR: We knew we had a conventional story in that we had a character who wants something and goes after it when Antonio confirmed he was going to purchase this factory and rebuild it. That presented a whole host of possibilities for us. Not to mention a hopeful outcome. Though, that didn’t happen.
AS: I think the film, whether it was going to be a film or an art project, was really a decompression because the project we were just coming off of was so heavy.
SA: So the hope you were seeing in Antonio’s storyline felt vastly different from the situation you just left with GIRL MODEL.
DR: The disasters, outcomes and circumstances in GIRL MODEL – I mean, we personally wanted to latch on to something more hopeful.
AS: And the access with DOWNEAST was unbelievable from pretty early on. As soon as Antonio agreed to participate the access was unlike any film that we shot.
DR: He said, come shoot me whenever you want. He gave us the keys to his office. AS: Normally you don’t have that, people guard themselves. He may have guarded himself in other ways that we’re not aware of but when you give someone a key, it’s hard to stay hidden.
What is your relationship with your subjects like?
AS:We approach it like any relationship you build in life. Sometimes you feel closer to some subjects in your film and sometimes there’s a distance. So it’s not only recognizing how they are but how you are responding to them then becomes part of how you deal with the story.
DR: Right, for example, if they tell us something or we’re filming something and it’s a surprise, a revelation to us from our characters. Then we need to think about where this comes in the film so the audience will have that same “oh wow” moment that we experienced. So that aspect of the relationship comes into how we structure our scenes too. I’ll give you an example. When Antonio confides in us and he says, “You can’t put this in the movie, but I’m mortgaging my house for the factory.” I mean somehow there’s an intimate moment and he opens up and trusts us that he can tell us that on camera and we’re not going to put it in the movie. But then later, we build more trust, and we decide we do want to put it in the movie. Because of the trust we’ve built, he says, “That’s fine; that’s insignificant now compared to what I’m going through today.” But it was still a big shock to us, like – wow - you are really risking that much. That’s how much you want this to happen.
AS: But I think our relationship may change in the future because typically in the past with vérité, you’re just spending an obscene amount of time with the person. Because those big moments or magical moments don’t happen all the time, you really just have to be there to capture them. So I think the way that we’re moving, which is pushing ourselves to experiment a lot more, that kind of relationship may change. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like, but I don’t think it’s going to be the same sort of waiting game. It may even be more constructed – constructed situations. We want to do this to stretch ourselves.
SA: Do your characters see a film before it premieres?
SA: Do you give them a chance to respond? Ask for changes?
DR: It’s a case by case basis. It depends on the circumstances. If it’s something detrimental or dangerous, then yes, but we haven’t had that happen yet.
AS: I think it’s actually better to do that. With GIRL MODEL we made the mistake of not doing that and what happens is the people in your film read reviews and that’s the lens through which they interpret the film instead of making their own impressions.
SA: Moving to Maine was a bold decision when taking on DOWNEAST, but crucial to the level of trust and intimacy you were able to achieve. Can you comment on your decision to move to Maine for this production? Was there ever a moment along the way when you said – this is crazy!?
AS: Yeah, I mean it’s just such a rural location. I think not only because it’s so rural and hard to get to but also because the people really look at you as outsiders and it was important to say, “No no no, we moved here. We’re not going anywhere.”
DR: But it wasn’t a reactionary move. AS: No, we wanted to try Maine anyway. But I think it was also important for the storytelling. Because you get a strong sense of place living in the environment with the people you’re filming, and it informs your editing. On a day-to-day basis, yeah, what the hell are we doing in the middle of nowhere? Well, somewhere, but far away from a city, like Boston, where we have roots. There were times that I doubted it.
DR: I never doubted it.
AS: Not in the winter? You didn’t doubt it in the wintertime?
DR: Well, in the winter. We didn’t know that it got dark at 3:30pm.
SA: You were profiled in the New York Times this spring, along with a number of other filmmakers working in pairs, about how common nonfiction collaborations are and how to make it work. What have you learned about standing your ground and letting go over the course of the many films you've now made together?
DR: GIRL MODEL brought out a lot of conflict. We realized we had different aesthetic visions for that movie. A lot of the things that I predicted might happen, which you do with any movie, did happen. And I feel we should have taken better precautions. It feels wonderful to jump right into a project, but you have to learn to be prepared for certain outcomes. Take precautions. And I didn’t always feel like Ashley listened to me about that.
AS: We work really well together, but what I realized, especially after GIRL MODEL and then David doing most of the editing for DOWNEAST, it’s actually better when one of us is directing and the other producing. So I think for the future that would be my goal. Maybe we have different roles. We can weave in and out of them, but one of us is making final decisions, otherwise it puts too much strain on the relationship. It’s really tough when you’re romantically involved and working together at the same time. One hand it’s great because you can communicate really well on an honest level, but on the other hand that’s also the same problem. It can get really heavy. I feel like in the beginning, when we first were making projects together, it felt light and exciting, and there’s just this looming heaviness recently. I don’t feel negative about it, but it means we have to change something and that’s what we’re doing.
SA: It’s funny how your creative and relationship honeymoon periods overlapped and now your working life has increased and, well, you managed to get married through all of this!
DR: We stayed together through it.
SA: It’s been an exciting year for you. Within the past year, you’ve had two films premiere on the festival circuit – GIRL MODEL and DOWNEAST; both in-depth, nuanced, but very different films. Can you talk a little bit about what you learned from that experience? Would you do it again?
DR: No. We learned quite a bit. A lot of me is about having a strong work ethic. So when we work as hard as we do, working 18 hours a day and having 2 films that come out at once, and then the programmers only choose one movie. I hate to use the word punishment, but it feels like that. Ashley, what’s a better word?
AS: I don’t know, but it makes you feel like you’re in competition with yourself. To us, the films aren’t different. But programmers want to play what hasn’t been seen elsewhere. It’s frustrating because you want both films to play and both films to have a life.
DR: What they told us was that they can’t have 2 films by the same people in one festival. So that it wouldn’t look like they were playing favorites.
AS: So now, even if we did finish something at the same time, we would wait a full cycle to submit. It’s not even the overwhelming schedule of going from one festival to the next, it’s really just the marketplace. Because it’s so saturated. So when your films are competing against each other it’s like “What?!” That’s not what I hoped would happen.
DR: Imagine if we were separate and we only attached one name to each film. I mean, then they would play both films. It just doesn’t make any sense to me.
AS: It’s actually interesting even thinking about the future. Say we did make separate projects, would people still look at us as one unit? And then we submit both of our projects separately and they still only take one. You just put so much time into it. It’s really frustrating.
SA: It’s an exciting moment for indie film distribution, but also a moment of great change and even, at times, frustration. You distribute the majority of your own films through your company Carnivalesque, though GIRL MODEL is being distributed by First Run Features. Can you give an assessment of the contemporary state of distribution for indie docs? What’s inspiring you? What walls do you wish you could break down?
AS: Actually, we are also handling the educational for GIRL MODEL too. We did maintain those rights in our deal with First Run. I’m hoping all the home DVD and theatrical in the future we give up because I’m trying to minimize administration work. It really sucked up the last couple years of my life.
SA: It does take a lot of time. And we’re hearing from a lot of people in the field that the control you gain from doing a DIY approach to distribution makes it an attractive option.
AS: In my opinion, if you want to be a filmmaker you probably shouldn’t be doing DIY distribution because you won’t be making any films!
DR: We did it for years.
AS: We did it for years, but I’m really tired of doing it. It’s so rewarding. Don’t get me wrong. When you connect to an audience who really gets your film and you made that connection, it’s incredibly rewarding but you know what I realize especially after having Dogwoof represent GIRL MODEL - they have an office, they have an infrastructure. They have many people working on the film. You know all that, regardless of whether you’re going to see much money, really helps the reach of the film. How far it gets and to how many audiences. You can do it but you need money and you need a lot of people to help you do it. Or you need to give up your life which means not making anything else.
DR: The other thing is that they negotiate for the filmmaker. Whereas when a filmmaker negotiates directly with a programmer, there are so many things that can go wrong. Like filmmakers may take a decision personally, and then fear that that may be held against us in the future.
AS: I’m all for that DIY spirit, but I’m really wary if that’s the place that the entire marketplace is going. I think it’s better to have a variety, then to have one way of doing things.
SA: If there was anything about the distribution of indie that you could change, what would it be?
AS: Like wish list? I would love it if these companies that were buying the film at the backend would invest from the beginning. Not necessarily so that you’re seeing a lot of money but that they are taking a little bit of the risk on. Because otherwise you, the filmmaker, are taking on that risk entirely and you’re selling your film for not very much money. And they just don’t take on any risk. So I wish there was a structure where you could pitch your film and get that level of commitment earlier on.
DR: I wish there was a department of documentary at the federal level that would allocate money to the state that would allocate money to little towns like Somerville, Cambridge, and then make that fully transparent so that anyone can log in and see where that money went and through whose hands it was exchanged. It seems like a real possibility given how much money goes to goddamn war.
SA: You recently concluded a successful Kickstarter fundraiser seeking support for your outreach campaign for GIRL MODEL. What advice would you share with the hundreds of filmmakers who look to Kickstarter as a model to fund their work?
DR: Don’t do it during your honeymoon. We learned a LOT, actually. What’s the saying? Get your ducks lined up? We made the mistake of not telling people that we were doing a Kickstarter until it was already launched. So I would highly recommend letting people know, “Hey, this is what I’m going to be doing. This is what our goal is. We hope you can contribute. We’ll be launching in x number of days. And we’d love it if you could share this link with 10 people who you think might be interested in supporting this passion project.” So then when you’re coming out, you’re coming out like – who was that Jamaican sprinter? - Usain Bolt.
AS: The thing is we wanted to be done as soon as we started it. A lot of people say that spike comes at the end. We could not wait for that. We just needed to get it done.DR: (To Ashley) What would you recommend?
AS: Well first of all I said to myself this is the only time I’m going to do this. So I’m going to ask as many different people and not have problems with asking people for money.
SA: So you knew you’d only do one?
AS: As soon as I started doing it, I knew that this was not for me but I couldn’t stop it. You know, I kept hearing people say, “Oh it’s so easy. It’s a great way to raise money.” All these fluffy things. So I didn’t realize the reality of what it feels like to just sit at your computer all day long and just ask people for money. And how uncomfortable that is.
DR: We called it a contribution. It somehow made it easier to do to ask for a contribution in exchange for a gift.
AS: Still it was hard. And I think if you have a wealthy network, then you’ll be okay. But for us, a lot of our friends are artists and writers. They don’t have any money. And then we’re getting asked a lot. And then you go through these psychological head trips like, well I supported this person and they aren’t supporting me. They are not even answering my email. Are we not even friends? I just think that everyone who has recommended Kickstarter as a fundraising method should do one, at least a small one. Just to understand, before giving advice that that’s the go-to thing to do. I just don’t think that it’s for everyone. I know it’s not for me.
SA: What’s next for you guys?
DR: The DOWNEAST series, parts 1 – 5. The one-shot film is going to premiere at CPH:DOX, and a few other festivals have contacted us for that. DOWNEAST continues its festival life overseas. We’ll be doing a work-in-progress workshop of DOWNEAST Pt. 4 at Camden’s Points North Film Forum.
SA: What about the material for DOWNEAST is inspiring the series?
DR: Getting a more holistic understanding of that factory. If the factory is the wheel, each story is a spoke that makes up the wheel and takes you to a different place. I wasn’t able to do that with DOWNEAST Pt. 1. Eventually, you have to draw boundaries around a story. But it’s compelling to know, who sets up the tools, who cleans the place before the workers even arrive. That’s part of the story. In DOWNEAST Pt. 2 we spend a lot more time on the commercial lobster boats.
AS: And I think really what it is, is it’s an opportunity to exercise your ability to experiment.
AS: So you can look at this one space and shape so many stories with it and demonstrate – wow, these are the many different ways you can tell the story of this place.
DR: It allows us to dare, for sure.
GIRL MODEL premieres theatrically at the IFC Center in New York on September 5th. Details here: http://www.ifccenter.com/news/girl-model-in-person-appearances-95-97-98/. For more information about Sabin, Redmon and their films, go to Carnivalesque Films: http://carnivalesquefilms.com/.