November 2011

The Balagan Film Series is hosting the Boston premiere of filmmaker Robert Todd's latest work Master Plan at the Brattle Theatre on November 1st, 2011 at 8pm. LEF Program Manager Sara Archambault caught up with Rob recently and discussed his film, his process, and his thoughts about non-fiction cinema.

SA: Your original idea for MASTER PLAN was to look at the different ways we structure and organize spaces for living, examining a variety of places from gated communities to prisons. How did you translate your idea for this story into a visual strategy for the film?

RT: Although the central concept for the film has remained, initially I had a very different storyline in mind than the one that I eventually discovered through making the piece. In other words, I scrapped my initial STORY in favor of letting a narrative emerge from the characters I encountered as I sought to construct a survey of "managed" housing. The "characters" were to be both the housing itself and those who managed it. So the shots of the housing would determine the visual design, the interviews would dominate the audio design.It became clear rather quickly that the differing housing scenarios each suggested a different approach to gathering footage.

After the first few shoots, I noticed shifting dynamics in terms of lens use and color/light palettes that matched my perceptions of opulence or impoverishment, as well as changes in the shape language of shooting that seemed to me to be based on the design of the spaces. My shooting began to shift to address this dynamic, as well as my sense of the structure that was taking form within the interviews. I was discovering that housing was serving more as a metaphor for social "design”: as a way of talking about how we structure our lives within a society to create an effective dynamic social architecture. So I gradually introduced sync shooting, and began to de-emphasize constructed housing as an aesthetic determinant, increasingly allowing the human narrator to dominate the imagescape.

There was, of course, the question: how do you create an architecture out of existing architecture? How do you define housing issues visually? One way is to just show a house. You indicate the type of house and you just show it and there it is. Or you can flow through the space and feel it. But the problem with that I realized is that the cinematic space is created as you watch it and informed by your memory of what you’ve just seen. So let’s say you start with something yellow. That’s your first stroke on the canvas. With something like a painting you can take it in all at once. But with film you can’t. You’re actually taking it in over a huge period of time, so your memory is building these chunks. Therefore, what is happening in the first part of the film begins to form subconscious associations and, you subconsciously begin to understand that the language of this film is yellow. And as the film goes on and yellow is disproven or usurped by other colors, there is a question – you can’t remain conscious of color evolutions when the film throws out all this other information at you, but you can feel it. And that’s what I’m talking about.

So in that cinematic experience, my feeling is that over time we start to develop a spatial language that we’ve come to understand as we watch the film. So this is a chance in some ways to create a village. You can listen to the voices describing the spaces, but for the most part I left those voices out so you can place your own understanding through that cinematic experience.But it’s also in your imagination. I don’t have the same relationships that you will to the color changes or the light changes or how the saturation feels. I just know that I’m creating something that will allow you to have your own emotional experience based on this spatial construction.

SA: How does this film fit with your past work, or is this a new direction?

RT: I've made similar films on a smaller scale, and my last longer format film also used sync, but this is the first long-format, interview-based piece that I've made in which I've edited directly after I've shot each scenario, allowing the edit to inform my ideas as I've moved on to the next shoot. And it's certainly the first piece I've made where I've had the chance to revisit the locations to gather additional material as my ideas have changed. What it mainly shares with my past work is its form being discovered as it's being made.

SA: What have you learned about your own process in the making of MASTER PLAN?

RT: I didn't expect to completely scrap the initial storyline. I had thought that I would make this "survey" piece of the film, and while making that, I'd prepare the production for the other parts. It was great (and true to my nature) to allow the piece to develop organically, with one shoot leading to the next - I'd often think about a new subject/character while in the midst of a conversation with the place or person I was shooting/recording, and that would be my next subject. This reconfirmed for me that I should just keep things simple, spread just a very few seeds, and huge bushels-full of crops would be likely to grow.

At times I thought that I was extremely lucky to find or gain access to certain characters, but looking back on it, what seemed like magic was really just a consequence of an internal logic to the piece: questions that I would ask were always rooted to the main and rather simple idea of how housing stands as a metaphor for comfort and the-space-for-creativity, and I was directed to the subjects I found most exciting either by people who had good answers to those questions, or through the memory of someone with whom I'd had contact with who was connected to a place where I might find more good answers to those questions.I should have kept a journal, but I'm recalling that I had several places on my list that I thought would be fantastic and necessary to the overall structure of the film, but now I cringe at the thought of including them. I've had other films where this has been the case, but it's been a while since it's been so embarrassingly obvious that those ideas would really not work in the film - either too overbearing, too obvious, too much of a distraction, things like that. I can't say that "keep it simple" has been my mantra, but I've tried to keep things relevant to a certain line of thinking/perceiving, and that's enough for me to call it "working".

Another thing: for a number of months I had promised myself that I would watch it without sound to see how the visuals were working, and I wasted these months refining dialogue without that sound-free viewing. I learned a ton from that simple silent screening. I had been concentrating so closely on the evolution of ideas that had been building in the vocal track and how the visuals supported those ideas, that I totally forgot my original idea (about letting the image sets establish an overarching architectural mileu). That’s the problem with sound, it can dominate. Then going back, I was able to say –that shot doesn’t go with that shot, and these pieces work better together. Suddenly, you’re crossing a threshold. I ended up cutting about 15 minutes out of the film following that. I also cut a very large amount of dialogue out following that event.

SA: What camera are you using?

RT: I mainly used the Bolex 16mm camera because it is lightweight and versatile, and I've been shooting with it for years. That last part is important: my comfort with the camera allows it to become almost like a prosthetic extension - I find myself reacting to what's in front of me in as direct a manner as I've found possible with a motion picture camera. We used an Arri SR1 for the sync shoots because it's reliable and the operator was most comfortable with this camera.

SA: Where does your work fit into documentary?

RT: I think of myself more as a portraitist. For me it’s linked to Aristotle’s idea about how we perceive, as opposed to later philosophers who talk about how we receive information.. We actually physically look out. Our vision is directed out. So the camera is an odd thing. It makes it so you have that sense that your vision is directed out. It enhances that idea of active direction and, at the same time, the idea that the lens gathers light inward. To some degree that is the same recipe for portraiture. In portraiture, the idea is that the artist encounters a subject and in between them is the medium - paper, sculpting material, what have you. That medium captures the process of discovery that the artist is involved with. However that does not reflect a couple of things, like what the subject is experiencing. Are they relaxed, or maintaining a pose or an attitude? So they too have an active role in the medium. But the most interesting thing is what happens in the medium itself. The person who is drawing sees the drawing directly. The figure doesn’t really have the same relationship to this. However, when the artist is forming their action they’re aware that what is happening with the medium is possibly different than how they would have anticipated it. And so some people are really hung up on the idea of getting the image right. And so when it’s not doing that, what do you do? And others are more apt to say - I’m just going to see what happens. And that’s wonderful and we’re left with the results of that discovery and need to adjust our expectations accordingly.

SA: So do you think of yourself in that more interpretive mode?

RT: Well, I see myself as being part of a triangle between what seems to be out there, what kind of notion I have of what I’m feeling about what’s out there, and then what the camera and the sound will do. The camera makes this magic with you and the character. It transforms whatever you thought you were going to get into this other thing.You see a lot of lock down documentaries where they never move the damn camera and it’s just this wonderful still frame. That can be a great still photograph, but I’ve lost a little bit of the understanding of what was at risk in that relationship. Where did the camera have any kind of risk potential for me as the viewer in that relationship?

SA: It seems that formal concerns are as significant as those of story in your work.

RT: I think experiential concerns, is how I think about it. For example, everyone says that your art direction should serve story. Your sound design should serve story. Your cutting should serve story. Well, that may be true. But it is a certain impoverishment of a person’s experience when the story is dealt with in such a way that those other concerns are not seen as significant quarters of the pie. Yes, there’s a story; let’s take that for granted. But one quarter of the pie is the performance of the characters, another is this atmospheric thing, another is the sound evolution, and the last quarter is that sort of mysterious other thing that happens in editing. All of those things together are actually the story. But people commonly say that the story is these people walking around telling us this stuff. But that doesn’t take into account that it’s a movie. Part of what makes it a really compelling experience is that the story takes place in just this way. It takes place because the filmmaker paid attention to the movement of the camera, the position of the subject in the environment, the sense of sound being in my head and then it’s suddenly at a distance. All of those things together are storytelling.

Film is a phenomenological process. We say it’s discovery; we say it’s transformation; but in a way it is just the magic of life. Now that said, it’s only going to work for me if there’s magic in the experience of the film in the theater and that’s kind of a strange thing. That’s got to be the hardest part of making films. You go too far and over-determine the audience’s reaction or you don’t go far enough in telling the audience (and I mean other viewers as much as myself) where to go. And I think that’s the risk in nonfiction. If we use the camera as a recorder, we’ve got the wrong idea. But if you use the camera as some sort of extension of your heart and mind, then you’re on the right track.

MASTER PLAN will have its Boston premiere as a part of the BALAGAN FILM SERIES at the Brattle Theatre, Tuesday, November 1st at 8pm. Find more information here: