Crafting the Autobiography of Another Man
AFS Documentary Tour: 'The Windmill Movie'
Brainstorming strategies for resolving the dilemma Alexander Olch faced in making The Windmill Movie would make a swell film school exam question: The widow of your well-born, charismatic film teacher and mentor asks you to have a look at the boxes of footage and audio journals he left when he died (at 57 from melanoma), with an eye to completing the autobiographical film he'd been working on for years but had been psychologically blocked from finishing. The teacher was Richard P. Rogers, a well-regarded Harvard film professor and director; his widow, the acclaimed Magnum photographer Susan Meiselas. In footage found on Rogers' editing system – in a scene that he self-consciously dismisses as the ultimate personal-film cliché – the deceased stands in front of a mirror, staring at himself through his camera viewfinder, bemoaning his inability to put himself at the center of his story. "Was there anything to say? Does it mean anything?," were the questions that stymied him. He couldn't seem to get past what he saw as the foolishness of complaining about the richness and beauty of those formative summers he spent at his very WASP-y family's house in the Hamptons (with the windmill) – no matter how psychologically fraught and damaging that milieu and that family were.
Filmmaker Olch's dilemma began where Rogers' audio trail ended. Literally. There was lots of provocative, beautifully shot footage, but not enough of Rogers' commentary. What to do? He considered bringing in actors, and there are a few scenes in the film with Rogers' friend, actor Wallace Shawn, reading Rogers' own words. In the end, Olch's solution for the second half of the film was to blend the boundaries of documentary and fiction film and write a voiceover that he read, as Rogers, over the latter's footage.
Austin Chronicle: Can you talk about how this film evolved into the unconventional form it eventually took?
Alexander Olch: The major problem was that Dick's footage, though there was plenty of it, was missing one thing: a center. The center of the film had to be him, yet there was barely any footage with him actually on camera and not enough of his recorded voice to narrate an entire film. The challenge therefore was how to find a way to fill that center – to essentially create his character, which was not fully present in the footage. I tried every strategy possible – from interviewing Susan, putting myself in the film, interviewing his friends – anything to generate the kind of material which could tell Dick's story. It was only through gradual, painstaking trial and error that I arrived at the eventual solutions of narrating the film myself, with some help from Wally.
AC: So that's how you made the genre-bending leap into what you've described as an "exploration of the differences between documentary and fiction techniques."
AO: Initially, the narration was written for Wallace Shawn to narrate, but hearing an actor perform those words felt too far removed and did not work when we edited sound and image together. Instead, what felt more effective was hearing the temp track that I had recorded in my voice to test the narration – the feeling that Dick's student, the director of this film, was going through this effort to write in his teacher's voice seemed to carry an emotional weight which brings the viewer closer to the material. Wally could then become a collaborator with me and also serve as a kind of representative of the effort on Susan's part, on all of Dick's friends, to contribute whatever stories, guidance, or insight they could, so that this film could be finished.
AC: So this must have been like reading someone's diary and then channeling them. How do you think Rogers would have felt about that – and weren't there privacy issues involved? So much of your "imagined" narration involved Rogers' presumed thoughts about his relationships with women, particularly Meiselas, the film's producer. Was this awkward for her?
AO: Dick was a wonderful experimental filmmaker, and I know he would have been thrilled to see his student use such a daring narrative strategy to make this film work. Many of his experimental films were intensely personal, so Windmill had to be personal as well. Indeed, there were concerns about privacy, but once I was able to show parts of the film to Susan and Noni [another of Dick's female relationships] and other of Dick's friends, we were able to develop a sense of trust that though the film was treading on some very private territory, that it was the right direction for the film. Susan and all of Dick's friends gave me notes, suggestions, thoughts on what the movie was to them, how it should be – in a weird way this became part of my process, and I tried to figure out and learn about Dick through the prism of all of these comments. I knew him only as a student before his death. In his footage, and through everyone's stories, I came to know him – or at least create a vision of him – as a man. So in the end, the film is exactly the film I wanted to make – an imagined autobiography.
AC: At the end of the film, we certainly feel that we've been privy to a lot of personal revelations about Dick Rogers. Was there anything about who he was in person that you feel the film was unable to convey?
AO: No. What I find so fascinating about Dick is that as a man and as a character he somehow embodied debate – you could think him superaccomplished or not accomplished enough; you could think him charming or too self-indulgent – there was something rare and magical about him that seemed to draw out incredibly personal responses from people. I feel that aspect of him is quite strong in the film – that as a human being, as a character in this film, he presents a kind of strange Rorschach test to a viewer – which asks you fundamentally if you are happy in your life.
AC: Lastly, I must ask about your own story and backstory. This is your first feature film, and you've made a couple of successful shorts, but you also design luxury men's neckwear, Alexander Olch New York, which, according to your press materials, sells to "the world's most prestigious stores." How do these two métiers of yours dovetail?
AO: I graduated Harvard with a grant to make a documentary in Spain about Orson Welles – which Dick Rogers was producing. When Dick became ill and was unable to work on that film, it was both sad for me personally and difficult for me as a director – the shoot in Spain seemed pointless without my mentor involved. I slowly abandoned that project and began looking for another project to do on my own – no simple task for a rookie independent director in New York. Meanwhile, a souvenir gift necktie I had made for the crew of my thesis short film had become popular in New York amongst Harvard friends who had graduated to jobs in banking and law, and I began growing a small business designing luxury men's neckwear. I eventually found the next film I wanted to direct – The Windmill Movie – but in the meantime the fashion business was growing. By 2007, our collection began exclusively in Bergdorf Goodman Designer Collections, and by 2008, as Windmill made its world premiere at the New York Film Festival, I was simultaneously selling to premiere luxury stores from Colette in Paris to Isetan and United Arrows in Tokyo. It's certainly a strange set of schedules to share, but for me it has helped my creative process immensely. A key problem in filmmaking, especially in editing, is to consistently find a way to have fresh eyes on your work – to see something you have been watching repeatedly for months if not years and look at as if for the first time. Design occupies a separate part of the brain for me than filmmaking, so leaving the edit room to work on design for a few hours ends up being a perfect solution – it's exciting and clears my head, allowing me to return fresh to view the editing problem at hand. This has become my peculiar, but so far I hope effective, working process.
AFS Documentary Tour presents The Windmill Movie Wednesday, Sept. 16, 7pm, at the Alamo Ritz. Tickets are $4 for AFS members and $6 for the general public. For more info, see www.austinfilm.org.