In digerati circles, Bennett Miller's new documentary The Cruise is being hailed as proof positive that the public is ready and willing to accept feature-length films shot on digital video. That's big news to industry purists who have long resisted the slow tide of digital filmmaking, but it's only half the story.
Shot with a Sony VX-1000 ("It's a slacker tool," says Miller) over a period of three years in New York City, The Cruise is a breathtakingly intelligent and rhapsodic portrait of New York City tour bus guide Timothy "Speed" Levitch, a frazzle-haired, Capote-voiced bon vivant of the purest stripe. Dividing his time between attempting to "rewrite the souls" of the people who climb aboard his bus and searching for love and meaning in the bowels of the most famous city in the world, Levitch is half raconteur and half NYC oddball, the kind of tour guide you always hope for but hardly ever find.
With The Cruise, Miller and Levitch paint an epic portrait of not just The City, but also of humanity as a whole, at once comical, sorrowful, and sublime. It's certainly one of the most original documentaries to be released in years, and its ability to buoy the spirits of those who see it (standing ovations have become de rigueur) and crack open the doors of perception for even the most nihilistic of viewers has made it both a critical and popular favorite since its debut at the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival. I spoke with Miller from his home in New York and discussed his remarkable film and its even more remarkable subject. Some choice comments made by Speed Levitch in a separate phone conversation are also included here.
Austin Chronicle: How did The Cruise come about? You had previously attended NYU film school and shot some music videos and a documentary about AMFAR, but Speed's story really strikes me as a great leap forward, both stylistically and thematically.
Bennett Miller: Well, let me answer that by using a word that's really ingrained within the lexicon of Austinites: In 1994, I think I was a slacker in the truest sense, as much as you can be a slacker in such an adrenal town as New York. I was fairly lost and confused about what it was that I was going to be doing and I had even been looking at things outside of film altogether. When I happened across Speed, the real story behind it is that it was a complete abandonment of reason and perhaps the most thoughtless thing that I've ever done in my entire life.
BM: In the sense that it was done instinctually, gutturally, emotionally, and I really had to release the aspects of myself that were addicted to reason and practicality because, had I really thought about it and really considered it, I don't think I would have been able to devote three-and-a-half years of my life to making a black-and-white documentary about a tour guide.
I was not thinking about what the odds were that this was ever going to possibly be seen by anybody -- which were just infinitesimal, to use a Speed Levitch word. It's ridiculous. Less than one percent of independent films get any sort of respectable release at all, and documentaries are much worse. So I really tied to a chair and gagged the aspect of myself that was asking those practical questions and proceeded on a day-to-day basis. By the time the thing was shot, I hadn't even shared the process with another soul -- nobody even saw the footage, and I was really able to do the whole thing myself. At that point, I showed it to an editor and some people who would end up helping to finance the project and began following the more traditional aspects of making a film ... but only then.
AC: I think the question on everyone's lips is how did you find Speed? Granted, you're in New York, but still, a bon vivant-cum-poet-cum-tour guide of Speed's caliber seems a bit of a stretch even there. You really couldn't have written a fictional character more interesting than this guy.
BM: Speed went to high school with my little brother, and the first time I met him he was 16 years old.
AC: When you met him back then, was he the same bundle of energy that he is in The Cruise?
BM: I honestly did not know him very well and my memories of that time are vague. Basically, he was just an odd bird. I don't think I had a full conversation with him until 1994. Our relationship really began in 1994 when I took a walking tour with him.
AC: So how did you approach Speed with the idea for the film, and what was his reaction?
BM: We had been hanging out as friends for some time before it ever occurred to me to make an attempt at a portrait of this man. At that point, again, it really wasn't a very formal thing at all. It wasn't: "Speed, I'm going to make a movie and it's going to be great." It was more like, "Dude, I'm going to introduce a camera into the equation of our relationship." I guess the pragmatic explanation was that we could make a documentary out of this.
AC: So he was open to that from the beginning?
AC: Do you think the filming itself generated any self-consciousness on Speed's part? That is to say, do you think that he may have played to the camera a bit? It's hard to imagine someone as "on" as Speed is 24/7/365.
BM: I don't think it's really possible to point a camera at somebody and not alter them, but at the same time you've got to remember that this thing was just me and a video camera, and we spent so much time together, and as I pointed that thing at him for so long all that self-consciousness got fatigued. After a while, your ego just throws in the towel and you begin to express yourself inadvertently. The finished film is 76 minutes long and we shot over 100 hours of footage, not counting about 70 hours I scrapped. All told, he had the camera pointed at him for probably a total of 180 hours and for every hour I shot I was hanging out with him for many other hours. It really ended up feeling much less like a film that people would see someday and more like something that would just exist on its own terms. In other words, not a nationally distributed film, but just a picture on a VHS tape, a project that I could be very happy with. Sort of a piece of outsider art.
AC: That raises the question of how you finally managed to hook up with Artisan, the film's eventual distributor. You've gone from clearly thinking that this project would never see the light of day to having it not only released nationally, but also widely praised.
BM: Right. This all came about when the film got accepted into the L.A. Independent Film Festival. That was it. We had a lot of heat coming out of that festival, you know? One hour after the screening there we had an offer, and within three weeks Artisan stepped forward as well and gave us the best offer.
AC: Did that rush catch you off guard?
BM: [Long pause] Yes. Yes and no. We had showed it to enough people in rough-cut screenings -- maybe a couple of hundred people had seen it at that point, but never on film -- that I knew that it spoke to people. I knew the effect that it had on people. I felt like that response was something that we deserved, but I'm not sure if I really expected it. Everybody around me had sort of prepared me for the worst. That was an incredible experience bringing it to the film festival: It was the first time anything that I had ever done was shown in front of a public audience where they could read about it someplace and come buy a ticket. It's a thrill that I don't think could ever be re-created.
AC: You mentioned that you edited down from 100 hours to 76 minutes -- that's a lot of cutting to inflict.
BM: I worked with a great editor named Michael Levine, most of whose experience had come from working with Ken Burns on The West and also on Baseball. We spent eight and a half months sort of listening to the footage and determining what it wanted to be. There is a very specific arc that the film takes. This is a portrait, not a biography, and it's not about the details, the mundanities of his life. It's much more impressionistic than that.
AC: Do you think that Speed is a product of New York City or that New York City is an entity that is mythologized by people like Speed?
BM: I think ... people have asked Speed, "How did you get this way? Were you always like this?" And his answer is usually that sexual rejection has made him who he is. I would say that sometimes our identities are evoked by our enemies, you know, and I think Speed regards civilization in general as an enemy. And by that I think he means anything repressive or puritanical is his enemy. But does somebody like him occur and appear in other cities? I don't know. You tell me.
People ask Speed if he could live outside New York City and his answer to that is always, "Absolutely." More than anything, Speed thinks of cities as profound opportunities to understand people, that they really are a reflection of and an expression of the humanity that built this giant stone sculpture. His philosophy of "cruising" can be done anywhere, it can be done in a dark room sitting in a chair. You don't have to be at the base of the Empire State Building feeling sexually inadequate.
AC: Have you had a New York screening yet, and how did that audience respond to this extremely New York-centric film?
BM: We've shown it in a lot of cities and New York had its own strain of enthusiasm. I wouldn't say that it was more or less than other places, but it was pretty strong. We've been up for months now and just finished our fourth week at the Angelika here in New York and people are still coming out to see it. Last night I went to a screening with my editor and it was totally scintillating to stand in the back of the theatre and watch people's faces mesmerized and laughing. And within that there is an infinity of reactions. One thing that I'm hearing about is a lot of repeat viewings -- people are going back to see this film again and again. One friend of mine told me he went the other day at 11am on a Wednesday, and there was another man there (out of the 10 people there at this weekday showing) who knew, apparently, all the lines, and would begin laughing before anything funny happened onscreen. He was letting it be known that he knew what was coming, like he was some sort of cruising authority.
BM: How has the success of the film impacted both you and Speed?
BM: It can enable me to do more projects. I think I probably have more confidence moving to the next project, but really, the way I like to work is from a beginner's mind, from a "lost place." I like to get into that area that's chaotic and tangled and not clear and create some order out of the chaos.
AC: And Speed?
BM: I think the film is delivering him a number of his declared goals in life. He wanted to be able to exhibit that he's thrilled to be alive and still be respected and he's doing that freely and openly all over New York City. I think people are willing to give him credit and recognize him as a writer, which is actually what he does. There's a play of his being produced in serial form in Los Angeles right now. He's really somebody who lives day-to-day in the truest sense. When we do Q&As at festivals or screenings invariably somebody asks him, "What do you want to do next?" His answers typically are like, "Well, I'd like to dance." So, if you ask him where he's going to be in five years in the future, he'll say "Barcelona, on a mountain top, nude." You're not going to corner Speed Levitch into a pragmatic, mundane, careerist mentality because he just does not have it. He's sort of like a depraved garden with great seeds that just needs some water and sunlight, and I think the film is providing that for him.
The Cruise opens on Wednesday, November 25 for an exclusive run at the Dobie Theatre. The Austin Film Society will host an evening with Bennett Miller on Saturday, December 5. Miller will introduce the film at the 7:40pm and 9:45pm screenings and conduct Q&As afterwards. The location of an informal post-screening discussion with Miller will be announced after the shows.