Did you always want to make films?
When I was 15 or 16 I started thinking that it would be a cool profession to tryout but at that age you really have no idea what that means. In high school I worked doing a little bit of television production and I did that throughout college as well. In college I mostly studied cinema history and criticism, I never did anything hands on. I studied documentaries and I really became fascinated with the elements and the different ways that different directors approached it, that was something I was really interested in exploring but I had no skills. When I got out of college I worked at The History Channel for 4 or 5 years and that’s really where I developed my hands on skills. I always say The History Channel was kind of like my film school. I met a lot of people and they gave me the opportunity to interview a lot of people. That’s really when the passion took hold and I was able to do the hands on stuff and see what I was really capable of. While I was working at The History Channel I made my first short film, The Archive, and I’ve been doing it ever since, I love it, and I’ve devoted my life to it.
What were you doing at The History Channel?
I was writing and producing promos. Basically they would have a new show and they’d tell me to produce a campaign to advertise it. It was cool, I had to learn how to tell stories in little 30 second snippets. That grew to bigger opportunities, they gave me the chance to do a 10 minute web documentary or talk to World War One veterans and things like that. I had the opportunity to do and explore a lot of cool stuff. That’s what gave me the confidence to go off and tell these stories on my own.
You said you were doing mostly theoretical work in college and I think a lot of people struggle to choose between technical and theoretical programs, which would you recommend?
I was finishing college in 2003 so the technology aspect of it wasn’t there yet. If I was going to be doing technical programs in school I would have been working hands on with actual film, which wasn’t really what was going on in the professional realm. I think for me in particular it was important to go to school and to think about film and to learn the language, that’s really what it is, it felt like learning a whole other language. I was able to learn things about film that I had never thought about before and if I had been doing hands-on stuff at the time I don’t think I would have taken the time in my personal life to learn film history and criticism and theory and all those things. I felt that I went to college and learned a different language that I’m now able to apply to my own work.
You mentioned your first project was The Archive, how did that project come about?
It turned out to be a great opportunity. We went out to Pittsburgh and filmed with this guy who had the worlds largest record collection. It was something I had stumbled across on Digg or Reddit or something. I had seen an article about this guy with the worlds largest record collection and he was having trouble trying to sell it. It was one of these stories that fascinated me on a lot of different levels, there was a lot more at play than what was in the story. I thought it was an opportunity so I called him and went to talk to this guy and see what his records looked like and see what his struggle was.
I shot that in 6 hours and it pretty much changed my life. It got into Sundance, it got nominated for an Emmy, it was a little 7 minute film and all I really did was put it on the internet. We made it, I didn’t really know if there was a place or what the place would be to show this type of work, this was 5 years ago and Vimeo was just getting started so I threw it on Vimeo and it took off from there. It ended up being a really life changing experience, telling the whole story about this guy Pittsburgh with a lot of records ended up changing the course of my career. It was really awesome and it gave me a lot of confidence.
I think the first project of yours that I saw was The Bowler, how do you meet these people and how do you get things started if you want to film something with them?
The Bowler was a unique situation. I thought of that film and I kind of conceived that film before I found someone to be in it. I really wanted to make this film about a bowler and I really wanted it to encompass and embody everything that I saw in the bowling ally’s growing up. I was in bowling leagues as a kid and when I was a teenager I would hang around the bowling ally and I really wanted to capture that essence. I told some friends who were producers that I was looking for this type of guy who really fit this mould. I knew it was a shot in the dark and I thought it was going to be years and years before I was able to make this film but somebody found someone right away. My friend Don Roberts came to me and said “I had a limo driver last night who was an absolute character and a total gem and he wouldn’t stop talking about his bowling exploits”. He put me in touch with Rocky and I knew we had our guy and we made our film very shortly after that.
For me getting people to agree to projects is really just about asking. I’ve just been honest with people, here’s why I’m interested in talking to you, here’s what I’m interested in talking to you about, and this is what the final product is going to be. Just being open and honest with people. A lot of people want to talk to you, they want to get their stories out. One of the first hurdles you have to get over when you’re going into documentaries is that level of shyness that people have about approaching a stranger. You have to be willing and able to go up to someone and say “hey can I talk to you for a little bit”, you never know what that will spiral into.
Before watching American Juggalo the only thing I knew about them was that they were made fun of a lot in the media and online. I was impressed that you were able to go in as an outsider and get these people who could have very easily been defensive to open up and speak honestly on camera. It seems like there is a human touch to it that they can’t really teach you.
I think the humanity you see in my work comes from really just not over thinking it. I try to treat these things like I’m having a conversation with somebody off camera. I’d act like myself, flaws and all, and they’d see that and be themselves. There’s a humanity that you can get to with a lot of people, whether it’s there on the surface or not is a question you need to figure out. With the Juggalos and similarly with Oxyana it was a situation that really drives me, popular opinion would have you believe that you’re going to go in there and you’ll have to deal with the threat of violence or negativity or people throwing stuff at you or harassing you and that was really just not the case at the gathering of the Juggalos. We were just acting like ourselves, there was really no pretence to anything we were doing, we were just there to hear them and they saw that and they opened up to us. It’s really about how the filmmaker approaches their subject and what they bring to the table. That’s a reflection of what you’re going to get from your subject.
I think I learned a lot about them. I came out of that one thinking alright their different, they look like they’re having a good time, it’s really not for me, but I can’t judge them for it.
It’s about showing little slices of humanity in a way that doesn’t make people immediately judge them in a negative way. A lot of people are up to a lot of different things out there and I think we should embrace those things because a lot of times we choose not to. Those differences are what make us who we are and I love exploring people who are on the fringes and who are pushing the envelop and doing different things.
American Juggalo is similar to Heavy Metal Parking Lot the documentary about Judas Priest fans. I went back and was watching some of that and it’s become a time capsule into the music scene and teenage life in 1986. Do you think in 20 or more years your work will hold up and be as indicative of the time period you’re working in?
It’s interesting you mentioned a time capsule because that’s kind of how I think about not only that piece but a lot of the stuff I do to try and capture these little snippets that were going on in a particular time and place. Honestly, that’s the dream. As you’re doing this stuff want to leave a legacy and you want to leave something behind that people will want to revisit because they want to see that slice of humanity that’s there. To see things that are different. It’s already happening, we made that two or three years ago and people are still watching it and saying “wow I can’t believe this is going on” and I really hope that continues. I hope that people will watch my work 10, 20, 30 years from now and think of it as a time capsule. That was a huge influence for us and I’ve talked about it in other interviews. One of the things we talked about at the gathering was that I wanted it to feel like a sophisticated timely version of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.
You don’t use a narrator, you don’t appear on camera, you don’t use stats or any graphics, did you make this decision to give a more direct and honest look into your subjects lives and not skew it with a narrative or an agenda?
I think that nowadays people are trained to watch films a certain way and I think they’re trained to watch them in a way that gives them really easy conclusions. It was important to me even before I started making films, back when I was just watching films, that the filmmaker does not underestimate the intelligence of their audience. I want my films to be an experience where you’re kind of grappling with things, you can take it at face value or it’s kind of funny or it’s shocking or whatever but it engages you with other things and makes you grapple with issues. In particular with my latest film Oxyana I don’t think it’s my place as a filmmaker to tell the audience how to feel about these things, I think that’s up to the audience. What I can do as a filmmaker is show the most honest cross-section of what I think is going on and try to tell those stories.
I think that not having my voice in there or not having any particular narrative is really just a way to respect the subject and respect the people who spoke to me and respect the audience and not underestimate their intelligence and to let them draw their own conclusions based on what’s been presented to them. I love when people have varying opinions on my work. I love when two people can watch the same thing and come away from it with completely different opinions. To me that’s what documentary filmmaking is all about. It’s about trying to raise questions as opposed to sum everything up in a nice littler package and answer everyones questions and send them on their way. A really well made documentary is one that raises more questions than it ever dares to answer.
Oxyana some controversy because some people said the film wasn’t a fair or balanced portrayal of the town of Oceana, obviously you can’t go to a town and talk to everyone and show every single angle, how do you handle those challenges?
Fair and balanced based on what? Based on their opinion? Before I make a film am I supposed to go around and ask every potential audience member what is the fairest and most balanced way to do it? You can’t do that. What you do is you go and you try to get the best reflection of what you see. I went to Wyoming County, West Virginia to make a film about the drug problem that I witnessed. I wasn’t trying to throw anybody under the bus or take a certain town to task or do anything like that. I wanted to expose a drug issue that’s not only going on there, I wanted to show a microcosm of what’s going on in the rest of the country and the rest of the world with prescription drug abuse. It’s an issue, it’s a silent killer, and not a lot of people are talking about it. I came across this place and having had some family members struggle with this type of addiction, it was very familiar to me, so when I saw it I said I want to talk to these people.
Much like I did with American Juggalo I wanted to give them a voice because often I think when you’re dealing with drug addicts, particularly in the media, they’re never really given a fair crack, they’re never given a chance to explain how they ended up in their position, they’re never able to say here’s the ingredients that go into someone turning out like this. I was very fascinated with that and I really only wanted to talk to the people that were addicted or the people who were directly affected by these addictions. That’s what I went there to make and that’s why I called it Oxyana as opposed to Oceana. Oxyana and Oceana are two very different places. Oxyana is a drug place and it’s bleeding and it’s something that can go away and probably will go away overtime. I think that thing that’s most important to filmmakers is to be true to themselves, there’s going to be criticism, especially when you’re approaching sensitive subjects, but that shouldn’t deter you from getting in there and finding out those truths.
Since its release people have started talking about it more and it looks like they are starting to take action and starting to make an effort to clean it up. Did you intend for the film to spark that action when you started shooting it?
You really never know how a film is going to be received but we understood what we had done, especially in the editing room when it started to come together. We understood the potential impact of it and the one thing we really said from day one was that the goal with a film like this, one that isn’t offering any easy solutions, was to spark some dialog, to put something out there that people can watch and have different opinions about. It’s not an easy subject and it’s not an easy film to watch. I wanted it to be powerful and impact full enough that people wanted to talk about it and people wanted to get the dialog started to not only help this place but how we can avoid this altogether.
It’s really not just going on in Oceana and I don’t think the film is trying to come off like this is the only place it’s going on, it’s going on in small towns all over America. The idea with making a film like this is that maybe someone somewhere else will see it and say you know what that looks an awful lot like this place I live in and that person looks a lot like this person I ignore everyday and maybe I should look at that person a little differently, maybe they’re going through some problems that I just don’t understand. That’s what a film like this is meant to do, it’s meant to spark a dialog and adjust a cultural stigma that we put on drug addicts. Hopefully we can come up with some bigger, different, new ideas, it’s obvious the ideas we have and the drug war itself is failing.
You won Best New Documentary Filmmaker at the Tribeca festival, what was that experience like? Do you have any advice for filmmakers entering the festival scene?
It was really flattering to be recognized. I’m not really all about awards, I always thought it was strange that awards were given for art, whether it’s music or films or whatever, to say that this one is better than that one, it’s such a subjective medium. It’s something I always felt a little weird about and being on the receiving end of it was even weirder. It was really flattering to be told by your peers that this is really cool what you’re doing. It helped get us the exposure that we needed to put this film out ourselves. That was really cool and despite my issues with awards I think it did help.
In terms of getting into festivals my advice would be fuck that don’t worry about it. Don’t pay any mind whatsoever to anything but what you want to put on screen. Festivals are going to pick your film or not pick your film, there is very little you can do about that, and trying to tailor your art towards someone or something is something I’m really opposed to. My advice is don’t do that, be true to yourself first and foremost and good things will happen.
You funded Oxyana on Kickstarter, would you recommend it to other filmmakers?
Kickstarter was a great resource for us. We were a little reluctant to do it because you’re really putting yourself out there in a lot of ways that are really uncomfortable to first time filmmakers. At the same time it was an opportunity that we had to take, we were able to make the film because of Kickstarter. I would recommend it to anyone that’s able to do that but man is that a nerve-wracking experience, looking at that thing everyday and hoping that people donate, oh man it’s so nerve-wracking. I hope I don’t have to do it again but I would for the sake of whatever project I’m working on. The stress of it is really something else because we were really relying on it, we were relying on that money coming through, we set a really lofty goal and lucky everything came into place. The other thing that comes out of it, besides getting the money, is that for a film like ours it was PR that we could have never paid for or even thought to get at that stage. It put the film out there, it got people to notice it, that’s what got Tribeca to notice it in the first place. A lot of good came from it.
You’ve released most of your work online for free and you’re selling digital copies and rentals of Oxyana at Vimeo and hardcopies on your site.
I put out 5 short films, I spent my own money on them, I got them made, and I worked my ass off to save the money to make those films. Because the brunt of the financial burden was on me I could say fuck it I’m putting these out and I’m going to build an audience and hopefully people will want to watch them. That’s been really great and I’m glad that a lot of people can share in that experience. Tribeca opened up a lot of doors for Oxyana and we were hearing offers and we were hearing from a lot of interested parties but I think it would have been hard to convince us not to put it out this way.
I looked at my track record of putting out films on Vimeo and they have a service where they give 90% of revenue to the filmmaker and I think that’s a really fair deal. I trust Vimeo so we decided to take a gamble and we put the film out a few months after Tribeca. We decided not to do anymore festivals and take it on on our own and do it DIY. It’s been amazing and we’ve gotten such great support, people have been buying the film and buying the DVDs and we’re doing public showings. It’s a grassroots effort. If you’re the type of filmmaker that has the time energy to devote to that I would recommend it. It’s been really awesome and really beneficial to us, I love that we put the film out this way and we were able to make it work. I think it speaks to the future of what distribution can be and hopefully we’re at the forefront of that.
I picked it up on Vimeo. It was the first movie I’ve bought online and it was really easy.
There hasn’t been many complaints. People don’t seem hesitant to buy the film on that service even though it’s a new service. I’m really excited about that and now we’re expanding onto iTunes, it’s going to be on Amazon shortly, and we’re looking at some other options. We’re also doing screenings across the country. I’m really excited because the project is ours, we didn’t have to sign anything, we didn’t have to sign it over to anyone, we’re still in control, we still have creative control of how it’s marketed and how it’s sold. If it fails, which it’s not, but if it did that would fall on us and I’d rather deal with the frustration of a failure falling on me than having that anger towards a distributor for not doing right by me. For a lot of reasons it was just really conducive to this film and I’m super psyched about the way it’s been distributed.
You’ve said your commercial work is a way to finance your films but you’ve done some very high profile work for Nike, Google, Bank of America, Doritos, Microsoft, HTC, and I was wondering how those jobs came about?
That actually came about from The Archive. Because it got recognized and it got into Sundance and the Emmy nomination and everything I was approached by some commercial production companies. They asked if I was interested in directing commercials and it was something I was already kind of doing at The History Channel but now it was on a way bigger scale. I said sure let’s take a chance and it took a bit of time to build but it’s been really cool. I owe a lot to the people who helped me get there. Commercials pay good money and you get to try out new things and you get to try out working with a new crew and working with new toys and exploring some different types of filmmaking tactics that you wouldn’t think to risk or try on one of your personal projects. It’s been really good for me, not only financially to take that money and do a project that I really care about, but also to meet so many qualified people and try out all this other equipment that I would have never had access to making low budget documentaries. That world, for as long as it lasts, is going to be pretty awesome. I enjoy making commercials, it’s a really cool counterbalance to what I’m trying to do with the documentary work.
I noticed that a lot of your commercials are done in documentary style, you kind of just hang out with the person and talk to them and they tell you about themselves and show you how they use these products.
It’s meant to be an extension of what I’m doing with these films. At first I was being hired to do these commercial projects because of my film, which was really flattering because I would get to go in without the pressures of having to adapt to this commercial style, it was more saying we hired you because you did this so just go and do it. I think that working with real people in a commercial sense made me a better filmmaker and that’s something that in a million years I would have never expected, that working in a commercial medium would make me better at documentary filmmaking but I really do think that it has.
The medium doesn’t get a lot of credibility but there are great filmmakers, like Spike Jonez, who started their careers doing commercial work.
One of my all-time heroes is Errol Morris and I remember seeing him speak when I was in my junior year of college and somebody in the audience asked him how he funds his projects and he said simply “I direct commercials”. That really spoke to me, this was a guy that I loved and he was able to get good high paying work that way. So that was on my radar back then but commercials work almost needs to find you, I don’t know what I could have done to break into that industry. It’s so hard to give advice to other filmmakers on how to break into it.
You mentioned commercial work allows you to play with different equipment, what do you use when you’re shooting your documentaries? What would you recommend?
I really just talk to people and I try to hire the most qualified people to shoot it so I keep my head out of the technology aspect of it. There are cameras that I’ve worked with that work a lot better for documentaries and then there are cameras that don’t. I’ll say that for my money’s worth the Sony EX3 that we shot The Bowler, Stray Dawg, and American Juggalo on is such a great documentary camera. Since then we’ve been using the Sony F3, which is just a step up from that, and is also a really good documentary camera. This summer I was actually running around with a Red Epic for a commercial that was documentary style and that actually worked really well too. For me it’s all about small and unimposing, I don’t want our subject to be distracted by the size of our camera or our crew and a lot of times with bigger cameras you need more crew. I try to have as few people there as possible and when the cameras start rolling I like it to just be me, a sound person, and whoever is shooting. For that reason I like to keep it small and I think the Sony EX3 is a great camera and so is the Sony F3, they are really great documentary cameras, a little expensive, but still great. You can do this with anything though, it’s the wizard not the wand, some of the most compelling stuff that I think I’ve ever shot I shot on my cellphone walking down the street. If you can somehow capture the humanity in someway it really doesn’t matter how you got there.
Who do you usually work with on these projects?
We’ve been rolling with two cameras lately so we have a director of photography that operates one and we’ll have a second camera operator, then usually a camera assistant, a sound guy, me, and a producer. That’s on the bigger side. We just shot something in Myrtle Beach this summer with just me, Hillary Spera who is my cinematographer, and a sound guy, just the three of us. I don’t think you’d be able to tell by looking at the work but I can tell that it’s a lot more of an uphill struggle, the more people who are on my crew the harder it’s going to be for me to get through to the person I’m interviewing. I think that when there’s people hanging around that aren’t holding a boom mic or a camera your subject tends to focus their attention on that and it becomes less of a conversation between the two of you. I try to keep it small but on American Juggalo and The Bowler there were situations where there were 6 or 7 people and on Oxyana there was maybe 8 people total.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on the next one, the next feature length documentary, called Cam Girlz, about women who do sex shows on the internet for money from the comfort of their own home. I’m delving into that world a little bit and there’s a couple little short films we’re going to put out over the next couple months and some commercial stuff.
Do you have a dream project?
Right now it’s Cam Girlz, that’s the number one thing on my mind, before that it was Oxyana. I think that when it comes to dream projects it’s whatever is on my mind at the moment, that’s what I’m pouring all of my heart and soul into and trying to do the best I can. Right now it’s Cam Girlz, I thought of this a couple years ago, I think because of the success of American Juggalo and Oxyana we’re going to be able to make this film and we’ll be able to make this film the way I want to make it and I’m really looking forward to that. In a lot of ways it’s my dream project, I’m working with such cool musicians, pulling in so much outside talent, it’s been such a pleasure to work on.
Do you have any advice for people looking to work in documentaries? What are some other jobs in the documentary industry that might be lesser known but are still important?
Producing, that’s the world I came from at The History Channel, as a producer you have to have so many skills, you have to have interpersonal skills along with math skills, problem solving, there’s so many things and it’s such a cool job. I really like the producing aspect of it but now I have a really really good producer. It’s tough to say but anyone can make films, anyone who wants to can direct films, we all have video cameras on our phones now. I’d say just get out there and start doing it. That’s the advice I give when I talk to college kids, start making your mistakes, get those out of your system. There’s a lot of exciting jobs and opportunities in this field and it’s a field that’s still growing, people are more and more interested in documentary and I think we’re on the cusp of some really cool things happening in this industry.
Oxyana on Vimeo: vimeo.com/ondemand/oxyana
Oxyana on iTunes: itunes.apple.com/movie/oxyana