#9, #9, #9 (in a series)
Darius Marder's LOOT - a tale of Lance Larson, a treasure hunter on the search for war-era bounty - had its premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last June where it won the fest's grand jury prize (as well as it's $50,000 cash prize). Not long after the fest, LOOT was acquired by HBO. In November, Marder was named a nominee for the Film Independent Spirit Awards' Truer Than Fiction prize for his work on the film.
In this exchange, we talk about his experiences during and after LAFF, the unusual, narrative qualities of Marder's film, how keeping your distance can sometimes be a virtue and the joys of being lied to by Guillermo del Toro.
ATWT: I guess I'd like to start at the beginning. How did you find Lance and what was it about him that made you think he'd make a good subject?
Darius Marder: Really I first learned of Lance while sitting on a park bench in Brooklyn watching my son play in the sandbox. I had just quit all my freelance chef work on the theory that I was going to commit to a career in film making - not really knowing how that would work - when another father (Dan Campbell) sat down next to me and after some time started telling me about this used car salesman that he knew in Utah who had plans to help a blind veteran recover his stolen WWII jewels from Austria. I told him that I would love nothing more than to make that film and so we decided then and there that we would do it - Dan would produce it and I would direct it. One week later we flew to Utah and I met Lance for the first time.
Lance was hard to grasp at first viewing - bleached thinning hair - slow apathetic delivery and no particular volition. But I liked him - he was without pretense and it was this bullshit proof quality that ultimately made him a great subject. Which is not to say that he doesn't try to bullshit (he's a used car salesman after all) but somehow in spite of everything, his eyes betray a man who is solidly good with a simple wisdom. Looking back - the moment of deciding to tell the story through Lance was by far the most important decision that I made during the shooting of LOOT. It's hard to imagine now making any other choice, but in those first moments it was quite a leap of faith.
I wanted to tell a story that wasn't polemical - that reflected the heart and innocence and apathy of the modern American mindset. Lance was the key to telling that story but it meant letting go of a lot of control and going on a crazy, sometimes frustrating but always rewarding Lance journey.
You made some really specific creative choices. I've said that when I saw LOOT it made me feel like I used to see when I saw the great indie narratives of the '90s. Nothing about your film feels fake but it also doesn't look or move like other documentaries. How did you approach the filmmaking? How much of it was just you with the subjects?
I obviously could never have predicted how the events of this story would unfold but I knew that I wanted to capture them in a way that was unlike a documentary. I wanted to help a story reveal itself as something much bigger than what the surface would suggest. This is I think the essence of "narrative".
I always wonder why we don't refer to documentaries as narratives. Certainly they can be as narrative as any piece of fiction or at least I hoped that was true when I started. I really wanted to capture this quest in a cinematic way - I tried to think about the moments that were occurring not just as events to document but rather as layered moments that with the right perspective could be viewed in deeper ways. Ultimately this meant committing to the journey. I committed to the idea that there is inherent symbolism in every moment and I always tried to stay aware of the fact that I wanted to show that symbolism without exposition.
I was really lucky to have a very strong rapport with all of the characters. So much has to happen away from the camera in order for intimacy to occur. That was important. There has to be trust. I think the subjects have to trust that you are not bored by them no matter how insignificant the moment seems.
Ironically the narrative quality of the film has sometimes been a mixed blessing. I invariably get a comment after each screening that implies that a person having just watched the film still doesn't know if it was real or fictional. This pleases me and baffles me. The problem is that they hold it to the standard of fiction and wonder why I didn't write more car chases or murder scenes into the script.
There's a great scene late in the film that I won't ruin for those who have yet to see the film, but it's this amazingly emotional moment with one of your main characters, shot from a distance. I said to the person who watched the film with me that if you'd been right up in his face with the camera at that moment, it wouldn't have worked at all the way it does.
Yeah that's such a great point, AJ, and I feel really lucky in that instance to have made the right choice. Often the right shot is dictated by what is going on in the moment and in that case the character (Darrel) signaled to me that he wanted to walk out there alone so all I had to do was respect the moment. But I think your point is so important and true. Many moments are killed by over crowding the subject. I've had times where I've come home after a shoot and literally yelled at myself while watching footage where I move in on a subject when I should have hung back. I think over-crowding also applies to the size of the production team. I decided early on not to have a sound person or ever use lighting and I think that made a big difference as far as establishing intimacy. It's a rush to be caught in a moment and you know that you have to make a choice and you only get one chance. When you nail it you know it and when you don't it's usually because you were caught between two choices.
Tell me about screening at the Los Angeles Film Festival, where you won the grand jury prize (and a nice cash bonus). How did you choose LAFF for your premiere and what was that experience like?
That was such an amazing experience - really great festival - great people. I finished the film the day before I left for LA (flew with it to the festival). When I got to LA I had literally expended every resource I had to get there. By mid-week I remember I had to get a hotel room and I was at the counter with a line behind me and all of my credit cards failed - 4 in a row. An hour later my landlord called to tell me that my rent check had bounced and I went into a bathroom and looked into the mirror and really wondered to my self for the first time "What was I doing?" I was really low. I stayed at friends houses for the rest of the week and ate the festival's free food. I actually managed to have a really good rest of the week.
My last screening went really well and at the last minute I decided to go to the closing night film (HELLBOY II). I showed up a couple of minutes before the film started - ran down the red carpet in a sweatshirt and sat down. Then Giullermo Del Toro got up to introduce the film. But instead of introducing the film he started to announce the winners of the festival. I had written off the award at this point and had resigned myself to just enjoying the experience and then - LOOT and I found myself staggering to the podium and hugging Giullermo. He whispered in my ear - "you fucking deserve it man" and I looked at him and said "you saw the film" and he smiled and said "no". It was great - it was more than great - without that award I really don't know what I would have done. I guess get a job.
You've been acquired by HBO. Can you talk about the sale of the film. Did they approach you, did your rep go to them? How much did you jury prize win at LAFF help, if at all?
The whole sale to HBO was very easy really. I found out after the festival that Sara Bernstein from HBO was at my first LA screening. She called me a couple of weeks later having shown it to Sheila Nevins and we set up a meeting. I don't really know if winning the festival had anything to do with selling it but there is no doubt that being at the festival was key - winning probably didn't hurt though.
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