Note: This is the fifth in a series of interviews with the makers of some of my favorite documentaries of 2010.
It's almost becoming traditional that there is a documentary each year that is the SXSW breakthrough, a portrait film that comes from nowhere to take the Grand Jury Prize in Austin and then comes to define the new wave of intimate, personal documentary filmmaking. First Jennifer Venditti's BILLY THE KID, then Bill and Turner Ross' 45365, and now Jeff Malmberg's MARWENCOL, the latter a humanistic portrait of a man who, following a massive brain injury, finds himself creating new worlds out of G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls and World War II fantasia.
Malmberg, an editor by trade, came to his debut film the way many novice filmmakers do - a few weekends at a time, shooting a bit and then going back to make enough money to return to shoot some more. Whatever the process, his final product - an intimate and layered portrait of his subject, Mark Hogancamp - would remind of the films and filmmakers that inspired many of us to make nonfiction (from the Maysles to Errol Morris).
We emailed with Jeff about his process, his relationship with Hogancamp and his decision to bypass the Academy Awards.
All these wonderful things: One of the things I love about focusing on documentary each year are the discoveries, the folks who just a year ago were still hard at work tying up the edit on their first film - and then, it seems instantaneous, they are an ingrained part of the community. This is to say that this past year must have felt like a whirlwind to you.
It seems like a natural thing that these discoveries are coming out of SXSW. What do you think it is about that festival, and about Janet, that a.) finds these films and b.) gives them such a good launch?
Jeff Malmberg: I think Janet is really adventurous in her film taste and really brave in what she programs. It’s easy in retrospect to say that MARWENCOL was a good fit for SXSW, but at the time, it was just this strange little movie that no one had stood up for yet. No one knew how it was going to be received, but she brought the audience to it and shined a light on it. I’ll never forget what she said to the audience when it first premiered – “this is why I do what I do.” She walks the walk, man. Same thing with 45365 the year before – this beautiful film that’s not quite like anything else. Plus Janet’s taste seems like the perfect match for that audience which is really hungry for something fresh and new – and doc seems to be flowering that way these days. My wife [MARWENCOL producer Chris Shellen] is doing a panel at SXSW this year so I get to tag along and watch a bunch of films at the Alamo – I kind of can’t wait to experience that festival as an audience member this time around. When I was in it with a film, I didn’t have enough time or headspace to see all the films I should have.
ATWT: I asked you this question when I dragged you up onstage for the A to Z Chat Show in Sheffield, but can you talk some about your festival experiences this year. What was your best experience?
In terms of the festival experience, meeting all the filmmakers has been amazing. You work in this vacuum for years and then when you come out and show your film you realize that everyone is trying to do the same thing, just in all these different little subgenres of doc, and that’s very inspiring. I don’t think a single festival went by where I didn’t meet someone whose work inspired me and I wanted to compare notes with the next time around.
ATWT: As you were working on MARWENCOL, were there films that you were thinking of as having inspired you and your artistic process?
JM: I just pulled out the note card that has the films I wanted to watch before I jumped into the film and started cutting. While I was cutting, I tried not to watch anything at all, but these are the films I apparently wanted to see just before that: MARJOE, JEFFTOWNE, RIVERS AND TIDES, MEETING PEOPLE IS EASY, HYBRID, ETRE ET AVOIR and CRUMB. I can’t really tell you why – it was just a gut thing at the time – sort of a running list as I approached editing. In a more general sense I’m sure I had the Maysles in mind. Don’t we all, right? Especially SALESMAN which seems to me like this really beautiful, sad portrait of Paul. Because it’s so seminal and the name looms so large, it’s easy to forget sometimes that it’s a very quiet portrait of someone.
ATWT: Going back to the shoot and the edit, can you talk about making the film? I'm particularly interested in how you protected yourself from getting too lost in it, since you were both shooting and editing.
JM: I was worried about that, too, at first. But then as I got into Mark’s world and saw how rich it was, I realized it would be a mistake for the film not to get lost in it. That sort of became my mission after a while – to get as lost as possible and see what happened on the other side. I knew I had two things that would prevent that from being a huge problem: I had a strong editorial background and I also had a great team of producers who could pull me out when I was down there too long. And believe me… they had to pull me out a few times. Have you ever sat through a 200-minute assembly? It’s not good! If I didn’t have those two things, it could have been a disaster. But for me it was fun and scary and wonderful to just dive in there into all that footage and see how deep I could go.
Another thing I did was not to give the film any deadline. I wanted to be free to explore it all for as long as I needed. The only rule I gave myself was that I needed to edit one scene each day… so as long as I did that, I was free to explore anything I wanted. I didn’t cut in any order either – just a huge stack of notecards and two big boards of possible scenes, and I could pick whichever one I was in the mood to do. That made every day interesting because you were never bored and never felt stuck working on something you didn’t feel like working on. Of course then you kind of find structure within those rules and you find yourself cutting all the Colleen scenes in one week and then you’re in the mood to do all the art world scenes, etc. It’s funny because when I first started this project, it was supposed to be an exercise in directing something – I’d never done that before. But as it evolved and I got into all these layers of Mark’s world it really became more of an exercise in editing.
ATWT: How has your relationship with Mark changed throughout the process - the shooting, the editing as well as this period of getting it in front of audiences.
JM: You know, when we first met, we kind of locked in right away as friends. And that made the shooting easier, as well as richer and more interesting. And as I was cutting, our friendship deepened because I really was getting to understand him more in editorial I think. So as the inevitable day came when the film was going to be finished, I was kind of worrying about what would happen to our friendship. I know he was, too – we would talk about it. You always hear those stories about how it’s never quite the same and you won’t talk as much, etc. There’s that amazing Maysles quote – “We’ve fallen in love and our hearts have been broken by everyone we film”.
But I have to say that since the film has come out, our relationship if anything is stronger than before. We still talk a lot and our conversations are often more interesting than before. The only thing I can attribute that to is that now that the movie is done and Mark has seen it, it’s like the other half of this conversation between us has finally appeared. For years it was him talking and me listening. But now the film is sort of my response to him after all that time. And I think that’s really allowed us to be friends.
ATWT: Somewhat famously, at least around these parts, you guys opted to sit out the Oscar qualification process. Can you explain why you did that? Also, I've heard conflicting stories about whether it was financial or timing that was the key issue?
JM: Sure… it was actually a combination of both issues. The first was timing. Cinema Guild bought us in March or April, and it takes time to put together a good run in good theaters. If we wanted to qualify by the September deadline, we would’ve had to either spend a lot of money to do a qualifying run before our actual release, or we would’ve had to release early and forget about playing great theaters like the IFC Center in NY and the Nuart in LA. Neither of those options was really acceptable.
Then there was the financial issue of the screening format. To qualify, we’d have to either make a 35mm print or a DCP file that’s to Academy specs, both of which are thousands of dollars. So all in, we’re looking at like $15,000, maybe over $20,000 between those two issues. And that’s just to be eligible for the shortlist.
So it came down to “is it worth $20,000 to us to possibly make the Oscar shortlist.” And the answer was no. This movie was never made with those kinds of things in mind anyway so it was a very easy decision.