Page Two: Moving Forward by Falling Backward
Keep on keeping on
[Richard Linklater: dream is destiny, a documentary on the filmmaker co-produced and co-directed by Karen Bernstein and myself, opens Friday, Aug. 26, at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar and Violet Crown. The film premiered at Sundance, screened at SXSW, and is being distributed theatrically and on VOD by IFC Films. It will air on PBS's American Masters in 2017.]
"Again, 'an enormous stroke of good fortune' doesn't fully characterize it. I mean, people bust their butts for decades to get to make a picture, and I fell backward into it." – Jonathan Demme
Working in film publicity, Jonathan Demme was hired by Roger Corman to be the unit publicist for Von Richthofen and Brown in 1971. "As fate would have it," Demme said, "just at the moment Roger was starting New World Pictures, and he was in desperate need of screenplays." When asked if he liked motorcycle movies, Demme answered that he certainly did, leading Corman to suggest he write one. The rest, as they say, is history.
So much of my life, in all honesty, has been backed into, often at the instigation of others. I was the first person Joe Dishner and Nick Barbaro recruited to work on the alternative paper they were launching. Some years later Richard Linklater asked if I would be a board member for the nonprofit film society he was starting. In 1986 Roland Swenson and Louis Meyers proposed to Barbaro and me that we initiate a small regional music business gathering.
Lacking finer skills, I've at least always been a quick learner as to what I can't do. At UT I took a Film One production course to understand better how films were made. Co-producing and writing the final film project, I also planned to direct. The first day, the very first shot, when asked where I wanted to put the camera, the heavens opened as I heard a deep voice telling me, "You are not a director! You have no idea as to where to place the camera!" Realizing that the fantasy of being a "director" was not accompanied by any actual desire to direct, I happily gave up that ambition.
But as is my wont, without thought or deliberate action, backing into things proved a saving grace. In the mid-Nineties Linklater, noting there was no longer public money for the arts, proposed we create the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund to award grants to filmmakers. TFPF recipients would regularly present progress reports on their work to us on the AFS board. Margaret Brown showed some of the Townes Van Zandt footage from her in-progress documentary, which came closer to capturing the magic of his live performances than anything he had recorded. Having a friend interested in investing in films, I successfully lobbied for this project. Following Paul Stekler's suggestion, Margaret made me an executive producer to say thank you. At first I was just giddy. But then I ended up working on Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt almost every day for the next three years.
Happily, it turned out that the abilities needed to produce were the same as those I had developed in my roles at the Chronicle and SXSW. Since then I've produced a half-dozen documentaries and a few narratives as well as restored and released a number of important Texas independent films.
Around April 2014, Karen Bernstein called me up to suggest that in the wake of the success of Boyhood we pitch a film on Linklater to PBS's American Masters. A veteran of that series, Karen had worked on the Lou Reed, Clint Eastwood, and Ella Fitzgerald shows, among others. I said yes, though as usual without really thinking through what this might entail.
Providence smiled, the many strands that all must align for a film to happen did, and soon it was in production. Karen had pushed for me to direct. Ignoring the old warning from above, I agreed. In the middle of it, I pointed out that I was not a director. She insisted, for which I am grateful as I gradually came to understand and grow into that role. We ended up sharing the producing and directing credit.
Being a producer involves a number of roles on a film, usually including watching and giving advice on multiple cuts of the film as it evolves. Overall, however, one is distanced from the actual process of filmmaking – the main job being to facilitate the production. On this film I was very much hands-on, which was not only exciting but brought home how completely filmmaking is a cooperative effort. The extraordinary team included Bernstein, editor Nevie Owens, cinematographer David Layton, and producer Dawn Johnson. What came as a surprise was the importance of researcher Susanne Mason, whose work miraculously gathering all appropriate footage proved absolutely critical to the success of the film.
Arts + Labor was instrumental in launching and guiding the production while PictureBox handled much of the technical end of production and post-production. Working on a film is much more a way of life than a job, and during the 18 months of production it often seemed as though my partner Sandy Boone and I were doing nothing else but thinking, talking, and breathing the film, though both of us had full agendas beside it.
Only after it was finished did I realize that I had never thought at all about the reaction to the film. Not just how it might be received by audiences and critics but what Linklater would think. The intense focus was on getting it to work, molding and tinkering until every scene felt right, with the film really coming together not as major pieces settled into place but through constant fine-tuning and careful adjusting.
The finished film premiered at Sundance. Warmly received by audiences, so far almost all the reviews have been positive. But as a director who didn't want to direct, I'm now haunted knowing that I'll never really get to see the version released. Directing means getting the whole film in your head, so it becomes part of your breathing and as the beating of your heart. Watching it now is to try to make out what is on the screen seen through the dimming glaze of the ghostlike layers of the many different versions it's been along the way.