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Read Hank and Jilann’s Sundance Film Festival blog,

written as they went through the rollercoaster experience of premiering a film at this world-renown documentary film competition for the first time.

 

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An Interview with Jilann

Jilann was recently interviewed by Dan Schneider for Cosmoetica.com. Dan interviews artists and thinkers of our time. In these excerpts, get insight into Jilann and Hank's documentary filmmaking process and Jilann's philosophies on the medium. 

DS: In the last few years I have discovered a bevy of young and beginning documentary filmmakers that I believe are deserving of and in need of greater exposure for their often neglected art form. With this in mind, this DSI is with not only a film director, but a film producer named Jilann Spitzmiller. I discovered her work when I picked up a DVD copy of her and her director husband Hank Rogerson's 2006 BBC documentary film Shakespeare Behind Bars. Before I go into more detail on that film, and forthcoming documentaries or feature films, let me first welcome you, Jilann, and give you an opportunity to tell the readers a bit more about yourself: who you are, what you've done in your life, what your goals are (and if you feel you've achieved them), and also your place in the film world, etc.

JS: Thank you so much for this opportunity for deep reflection. It comes at a really fortuitous time in my life.
I am basically an artist, and always have been. The media I'm working in change, shift, evolve, but storytelling is always at the core of my work, whether it is writing, web site creation, painting or filmmaking. Another thing that is always at the core of my work, whether I was conscious of it or not, is spiritual exploration. Looking back, all the stories I've elected to tell (most of them with Hank), involve a deep level of searching for the human connection to a higher power and a questioning of what that means to us and how it impacts us. And I'm not talking religious or organized spirituality. And it might not be obvious on the surface, but it is a guiding force in my work.

As for achieving goals, I think that's a "constantly shifting sand", to quote Ben Steinfeld from our new film in the works, STILL DREAMING. I experienced a dark night of the soul recently, when confronted with some health issues, and from that darkness, I gained a lot of clarity about some immediate future goals, and hopefully the big picture of where I might be going as a filmmaker/artist. Luckily, the health issues have resolved, but the clarity has remained.

DS: My opinion is that while Hollywood is killing American fiction films, and indy films are in a state of hibernation, the American documentary film may be one of the few areas in all of the arts, in this country, especially, that is NOT in the tank. Think of it: television is all bad hospital and cop drama soap operas and predictable sitcoms, or banal faux reality shows and contests. Hollywood films are special effects and glorified video games- where is a John Cassavetes or Orson Welles, in Hollywood or the indy scene? Novels, short stories, and poetry are being killed by the incestuous MFA writing mill mentality, and the visual arts of painting and photography are still in the doldrums that followed the wake of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Music and cinema have never recovered after the highs of the 1970s, and Broadway is dying, propped up by overly expensive bad musicals adapted from Walt Disney cartoons or other media- where is a Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams? Yet, the documentary film seems to be creatively thriving, even below the realms of titans like Michael Moore and Errol Morris. Do you agree? Why or why not? What are your ideas for the medium?

JS: I think it's truly astounding to watch the documentary genre come of age. Since we can't rely on special effects, we really have to rely on solid story and character development. I think that films like Hoop Dreams and Crumb showed how documentaries could portray just as strong a narrative as a fiction film, but they had the added magnetism of reflecting real life and real people. It's an irresistable combination in my mind. Also, I would add Werner Herzog to the titan list.

I think that the documentary genre will just continue to get more important in the overall landscape of film. As in-depth reporting and objective news become more and more anemic, documentary is picking up the mantle of exposing society's issues in a deep and thoughtful way.
I think it's our job as documentary filmmakers to keep delivering compelling, well-told and well-produced stories, and to keep pushing the boundaries. In the end, it's all just storytelling. I don't understand why Hollywood hasn't gotten more into the business of distributing documentaries on a really wide scale. There is much more potential for profit, given the smaller budgets.

DS: Let me turn then to Shakespeare Behind Bars. First, I thought it was a good and provocative film, and in my review of it I wrote:
Unlike such documentaries like Scared Straight, this one does not so obviously buy into its subjects' mission. One of the major flaws of Scared Straight, as much of a landmark documentary as it was, was that the film overstated the case for the program which showed lifers at Rahway State Prison trying to intimidate young thugs into going straight. This film, however, does not quite buy into the premise that the program that helps produce a Shakespeare play once a year is a cure-all for the varied ills that have driven the prisoners behind bars, despite what its detractors claim.
I stick by that claim. While the earlier film is, indeed, a landmark film in terms of social documentaries, there was a bit of naïve-te and preachiness to it. Your film seems to more or less just be an invisible eye. Was this what you set out for it to be going in, or did you and Hank just shoot, and think of the format in the editing room. Also, there are things that occurred that affect the film's narrative. Were there other elements you left out? How did the end product match up with the initial idea? How did you even get the idea to do a film like that?

JS: All good questions! We always take the stance as observers, and really try to stay away from preachiness. I think the viewer gets the most out of a film when the filmmaker leaves room for interpretation. We do have a point of view going in, but we don't necessarily operate from that POV entirely. We have questions, rather than statements, that we seek to explore with the film and through its characters. Our questions with SBB were: Does working with Shakespeare really give inmates insight into their own lives and actions? Is it a viable therapy for criminals? Is it important to try and rehabilitate criminals, and what is a good, effective way? I think it's up to the viewer to answer those questions.
Of course, through what we observe on location, we shape and hone the story to focus in on those central questions, and invariably, a lot of other smaller questions and discoveries get left out. That's the tough part in the editing room, taking out nuances that there just isn't room to explore in a 90 minute format.

The SBB film idea was really developed by Hank. He is an actor, and he was interested in doing a film that centered around the acting process in some way. Honestly, at first glance, I was not really interested in prison, nor that much in Shakespeare. But after our first visit, I was hooked. I realized the incredible depth and layers that existed within this group of men and their situation. We always look for a situation that has a lot of potential story threads, and complex dynamics. That way, we're fairly sure to come out with something rich and interesting in the end. We take a huge risk when we jump into a new idea, and invest a lot of our personal time and resources to get something off of the ground. We've got to feel it's a good risk.

DS: The film is an hour and a half in length. How much footage did you actually shoot? What elements do you regret, if any, including in the film, and what elements do you wish you had not sent to the cutting room floor? Why?

JS: We actually shot about 170 hours of footage. I don't think I regret anything that's in the film. I do regret not being able to include one very interesting character who ended up on the cutting room floor because we didn't have his transformational moment on film. He was a Native American man who had been a sniper in Iraq in the Marines. He had subsequently shot and killed someone who was hassling his girlfriend. We were not on location filming when he reached a point in the rehearsal process where he broke through to admitting his responsibility for the crime. The break-through didn't hold up in the retelling, even though it was a very dramatic moment. And ultimately, we didn't have the narrative room to include one more character. I think an audience gets really weary if you give them more than 5 or so people to keep track of in a documentary.

DS: Let me just digress on your filmic output so far vs. other documentary makers. Having watched, now, numerous documentaries, it's clear that most are done by folks who lack the fiscal resources of an Errol Morris or Michael Moore, therefore their output is spare. Some even have a hit at Sundance, Toronto, or SXSW (in my local Austin area), but then go a decade before another film is released. Most of this is due to limited finances. How do you finance your films?

JS: It's really difficult. It takes total commitment and utter tenacity. You just keep knocking on doors until one opens. You process rejection very quickly and move on. It's a spiritual journey. It pushes all of your buttons. It makes you grow in many ways.
On a specific level, we now rely heavily on crowdfunding. We also do a lot of fundraising through foundations, private donors, mega yard sales, fundraising events. As you can see, it's multi-faceted, and it seems to never end. It's an exhausting aspect of the path we've chosen. I thought it would get easier, but it really hasn't. At the same time, I'm an eternal optimist, and I never give up. If a story has chosen me, I'm obligated to tell it. That means I do whatever is necessary to get it made, within reason.

DS: Let me now turn more basic. How do you define your job, as a documentarian or filmmaker?

JS: I feel that documentary filmmaking is a spiritual journey and calling. It's a vocation that gives voice to the fringes of our society, adding to the important conversation of what is the human race all about and what are our obligations to each other and the planet. Some of us doc filmmakers are here to develop compassion for certain sectors of society; others are here to raise very critical issues that are not being properly addressed in the mainstream; others are here to remind of us our history and past mistakes. Ultimately, I would dare to say that we all have one goal: to make this a more just, healthy, peaceful and tolerant world. There are some people out there making propaganda disguised as documentaries, but I would venture to say that most of us are seeking connection and clarity.

DS: Let me speak of editing. How much footage do you shoot for films before editing them down to a final length- in terms of hours and minutes? How does a feature fiction film differ from a documentary?

JS: We have a crazy shooting ratio. Something like 100 to 1. That's a lot. But it's necessary to roll all the time, I think, in order not to miss the subtle and unpredictable moments that become the magic of a documentary film.

The most obvious difference between a fiction film and a documentary is what you start with. With a fiction film, you have a very specific script. You know the exact content and outcome. With a documentary, you just have questions, a situation, potential characters and dynamics. It's obviously unscripted, but you have to be aware of, and shaping the narrative from day one. This is one of the most rewarding and exhilarating challenges to me about shooting a doc. It's using every single one of your neurons to keep the story plates spinning in your head, and to keep trying to make sense of what is happening, versus what you thought was going to happen.

DS: Do you have the same sorts of criteria for what sort of material stays and goes in each film, or does that vary per film, subject matter, and even per section of a film?

JS: We don't have a specific criteria for material that stays in the film, or that gets cut out. Each story is different, and has different narrative demands. For instance, even though on the surface our two most recent films, SHAKESPEARE BEHIND BARS and STILL DREAMING sound very similar, the storytelling for each was very different. (both involve doing a Shakespeare play in a surprising location with a unique group of actors). In SBB, the plot is very simple, and what drives the film is character revelation and backstory. In SD, the character revelation is not as dramatic, but the plot is much more of a roller coaster ride. So as we are filming, we are discerning what is the driving force of the film, and we are trying to capture as much as we can to serve that driving force.

I will say overall, though, that the moments that make our hair stand on end when we are filming are invariably going to end up in the film, because they are conveying a deep human truth in some way. Even though we come home with 150 hours of footage for a 90 minute film, we can pretty much say off the top of our heads the scenes that we'll be using that will make up 50% of the film. The other 50% of the film is crafted from the rest of the massive amount of footage and supports these incredible moments, weaving the story and character development into something watchable and compelling.

For instance in our new film, STILL DREAMING, there is a scene where an Alzheimer's patient, Charlotte Fairchild, does something extraordinary in a rehearsal. Every day she comes to rehearsal, she has to be reminded of what part she is playing. But because she is so talented and has such a deep well of experience from her Broadway days, she can still really act when she has the text in front of her. While running lines in this scene, she begins singing spontaneously instead of speaking her lines, and the effect on everyone is just spine-tingling. It's a Puck that no one has ever seen before, and it is brilliant. I had tears while it was happening.

With editing a film, we are also making tough choices about which themes to focus on, so we use footage that supports those main themes. Lots of great stuff happens that we don't end up using because it's too much of a sidebar to the main focus of the film.

DS: How often do you strive to get a narration and an image consonant with each other? Or do you seek to have them, more or less, play off of each other?

JS: I am always on the lookout for subtext because it's so revealing and interesting. For instance, what we say versus what we do. I am always warning my students to not be "too on the nose" with image and audio – meaning that your visual exactly illustrates your audio. But you also have to make sure you're not being so clever as to frustrate or lose your audience.

DS: Are you a perfectionist? What pros and cons does this have on your work?

JS: Perfectionism is poison. I strive not to be a perfectionist, but to get it mostly right. Woody Allen said a film is never finished. Luckily I heard that in film school, so it's been a helpful edict to remember.

To read the entire interview, go to Cosmoetica.com.

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For more advice from industry leaders and professionals, listen to the archived Doc Talks interviews in the DocuMentors members area.