3/15/2007

My Big Interview...

*Note: I'm aware that most of you don't have a clue who Eddie is or maybe haven't seen his films. You should. They are excellent. I know this is longer than my standard post, but I was jazzed to be able to have access to a filmmaker I really admire. As usual, his responses are in BOLD.

I'm really excited to have the chance to interview filmmaker Eddie Schmidt. Eddie has produced some of my favorite documentary films, including "Chain Camera"�, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"�, and "Twist Of Faith"�, which, as I mentioned HERE, was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2005. If you have not seen these films yet, I highly recommend them. Thank you, Eddie, for taking some time to answer questions. So, what did you have for dinner last night?

Pork tenderloin w/apple-walnut stuffing, baked potato, and spinach w/scallions. Yum yum.

Sorry, I'm being a dork. Seriously, "Twist Of Faith" is the incredibly powerful story of Tony Comes and his family. They are trying to cope with the sexual abuse he suffered as a kid at the hands of a Catholic priest. For me, some of the most powerful stuff was seeing Tony's interaction with his own kids, as well as when he returns to the lake house where much of the abuse occurred. You were also able to acquire police interviews with Dennis Gray, the priest in question. How were you able to obtain that footage? Do you have any further contact with the Comes and, if so, have there been any new developments with him and his family, or in regard to the Catholic Church since the release of the DVD?

The footage of Dennis Gray came from a deposition taken during what's called the discovery phase of the court cases against him, and was part of the public record of those cases.

As far as Tony goes, I'm pleased to say that he has become something of an advocate for survivors of clergy sex abuse. Both actively, speaking at functions and conventions, but passively as well - meaning that people who see the movie and recognize their own lives (or the lives of their loved ones) reach out to him for inspiration. Or simply find it in his story. It was very courageous of he and his wife Wendy to participate in the film. On a personal level, he's said that his marriage has never been better - and he credits that, as well as his renewed faith in people, coming directly from doing the documentary. The Oscar nomination was rewarding, but that kind of sentiment from the subject of your film is just as gratifying.

In case no one noticed when I posted about it HERE, Eddie was one of the co-authors of "The Finger: A Comprehensive Guide To Flipping Off"�, which includes chapters like "Tune In, Turn On, & Flip Off (How To Give The Finger)"� and "Don't Take My Picture, Asshole!". Until you check it out, you probably won't understand the following: I was saddened to learn on page 45 that Florence Henderson, TV's Carol Brady and foremost authority on "Wessonality"�, refused to pose for your book. Did she give a reason? Also, how exactly did this book come to be? (p.s.- I love that you included a Crumb cartoon on pg. 61. I love the guy with the hat & glasses who's just sort of there.)

I think the Florence Henderson thing is just a random joke - I'm not sure we asked. Since Florence was willing to play the Amish temptress in "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Amish Paradise," I'm not so sure she would have said no. Other people did turn us down though - I know we couldn't get permission to include the famous Johnny Cash photo. I'm not sure who said no, but someone did.

Crumb was incredible - our publishers reached out to him and he liked the idea and said yes. If I remember, one stipulation was that he got two copies of the book, which we were only too happy to give him. I'm a big fan of Crumb the artist, and "Crumb" the film.

In general, let me say I am proud to be one of the foremost experts in the world's most insulting gesture.

"�Chain Camera"� may be my favorite of the films you've made. For those who haven't seen it, Eddie and director Kirby Dick went to a diverse Los Angeles high school and passed out ten cameras and told the students to film their lives for a week, then pass the camera along to another student. What resulted was some pretty compelling footage. Given the massive amount of material you must've had, did you ever consider doing this as a series? In other words, was there enough to make a few completely different films or was the other student's material unusable? I'm also wondering if there are still plans to do a Michael Apted-style ten-year "reunion" film?

Yes, at one point we were in serious discussions with MTV to do a "Chain Camera" series - this would have been in 2001. We had some great outtakes, sure, but this would have been a new "chain" in another school, or several schools. Then the deal fell apart. "American High," which had been on Fox the previous summer and bombed, was coming back on PBS in the wake of our acclaimed debut at Sundance in 2001. Not coincidentally, the relaunch played up the "WE GAVE KIDS CAMERAS!" aspect, even though that was only a slight portion of their overall footage (most was crew-shot), while ours was 100% the real deal. They even used very similar tag lines to the ones I'd written for our poster. MTV saw their ads in SPIN Magazine and got cold feet. But the original film itself stands as a landmark - it predicts blogs and You Tube, in a way - and has a real cult following.

As far as a sequel, there actually has been some discussion of that, but Kirby is busy with a number of his projects and I am busy with a number of my own, so it remains to be seen whether anything could be worked out. But it could be interesting.

According to your IMDB profile, you were a Senior Segment Producer for the TV dating show, "Blind Date"�. Shows like this are a guilty pleasure for me. A million questions spring to mind, but I think the easiest thing would be to have you share your most memorable experience (no matter how unseemly) working on this show. There must be a few. Do you consider shows like these verite, or is there so much happening behind the scenes that most of it is contrived. It seems to me that, at the very least, the dialogue between the daters is spontaneous and authentic, but maybe I'm wrong.

Gosh, unseemly? On reality television? Egads, the cynicism.. Yeah, there were some unseemly things, but without the benefit of liquor, I ain't talkin'!

I had a great time on this show, actually. Did a half season before we went into pre-production for the HBO special "Showgirls: Glitz & Angst" (which I encourage people to watch - it's the Kirby Dick/Eddie Schmidt documentary musical!). As far as the daters' conversation, it was real. You almost couldn't believe what people would do or say, and that's what made the show amazing. Then of course we could put jokes on top of that. It was fun - one week I created an original song called "Hot Tub Lovin" and had the in-house composer score it; another week I shot a quick insert cutaway of my friend leering at a couple skinny-dipping and tossed it into the episode. All of that was great fun, and it was produced quickly - so one date down, next one up.

In your latest film, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated"�, you lay bare the corrupt, anti-democratic practices of the MPAA ratings board. I'm assuming that, by now, the MPAA has issued some sort of statement disputing the claims in your film. I'd love to hear you "un-spin"� whatever it is they are currently saying. Are you optimistic that change will come or is there too much apathy out there on the part of Hollywood and moviegoers themselves to really demand accountability?

I am somewhat optimistic, since the film was well-received by critics and audiences - and because the MPAA announced reforms to the system in January. Now, these reforms are basically cosmetic, and designed to ward off all the bad PR they've been getting because of the film, but they're still changes. Which means that if the pressure is kept on, there's more that they might do - "if they can move an inch, they can move a mile," you know? Our film is a learning tool, it's like a primer for any up and coming filmmaker or film lover. So with it out there educating, people can now write/call/email the MPAA with geniune concerns and questions. Before, the system was so secret you took it for granted, which was kind of the point. Now, you can try to make it as useful and as transparent as it ought to be, since it is supposedly there to serve "you": the public. There was a quote about the classic band the Velvet Underground, something like "they weren't huge, but everyone who loved them started their own band." Meaning they were hugely influential. I spend a lot of time on the web and it seems like everyone who loved "Rated" has a blog. I'm hopeful it'll have the same trickle down, both in changing the ratings system and (even better) re-opening the imagination and spirit of what American film can be.

One of the things I have enjoyed the most about DVD technology is the ability to include extra footage, outtakes, and especially commentary tracks. In fact, it's kind of a letdown to get a DVD with no extras. I could watch an entire movie that was nothing but outtakes. I think that commentary tracks can really add to the experience and add valuable insight from the filmmakers about what was happening behind the scenes. I've also noticed this bleeding into television, in that shows can now air unseen footage on the internet. Has being able to put things on the DVD that weren't in the original film changed your approach to making films?

It hasn't changed the way I make films, because I believe really strongly in story arcs and pace. It's clear when a film goes off the rails, or is getting flabby. However, when you're cutting, there are always great individual scenes that you hate giving up in the edit room. For fans of the work, these deleted scenes are like a Christmas gift rather than yesterday's leftovers. So DVD makes it possible to complement, or augment, the "meal" of the feature film experience with little snacks and desserts.

A while back, I read an interview online of Sarah Price, who produced "American Movie"�. In it, she described some documentary filmmakers that influenced her like the Maysles, Ross McElwee, Errol Morris, and others. As a result, I was turned on to some of my favorite films - films I wouldn't have otherwise known about. Now, I always like to ask people if there are films (not necessarily docs) or filmmakers they admire. I would also extend that into other creative fields. Like, are there TV shows you really like or music or whatever?

Sure - I mean, I'm always happy to blab about what I like. I'm a huge fan of John Waters, Woody Allen, and Weird Al, comedically speaking. Also really like Christopher Guest, Larry David, and Robert Smigel ("TV Funhouse"). In terms of recent docs, I should recommend "Street Fight" by Marshall Curry, "Blindsight" by Lucy Walker (her "Devil's Playground" is also very good), "Children of Leningradsky" by Hannah Pollak (a short - might be hard to find) and "Derailroaded" by Josh Lubin and Jeremy Rubin. Anyone who hasn't seen Robert Greenwald's "Outfoxed" really owes that to themselves - same for "Inconvenient Truth." And it goes without saying that I really loved "American Movie" and do certainly appreciate Michael Moore.

Musically, I've been listening to Beck, Kings of Leon, Fiona Apple, Nellie McKay, the Shins, Spoon, Raconteurs, Randy Newman, Jonathan Richman, Tom Waits, Ben Folds. Will always have soft spots for Devo, B-52s, Squeeze, The Smiths, Graham Parker, Joe Jackson, and old REM.

With Netflix, I have been able to watch a ton of documentary films (http://andsomeguy.com/films). I've noticed a preponderance of films that deal with painful subjects: crime, war, abuse, living with disabilities, political malfeasance, etc. I mean, just look at how many docs there are out there about the Holocaust. Why do you suppose this is?

To paraphrase Devo, it's a beautiful world. (Detect sarcasm). These films are a reflection of that. Imagine if Bush hadn't been elected - think of all the documentaries that wouldn't have been made! Seriously, docs are alternative news - the news the news doesn't do anymore. We need them now more than ever, turning over those rocks and showing us the dirty Earth underneath.

Again, I really appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions. I look forward to watching your future films. Is there anything in the works right now that we have to look forward to?

Yes, but they're like little things growing in petrie dishes - not yet ready for the harsh sunlight of the world. But in about a year or so there will be a couple of very cool things. In the meantime, though, I'm appearing on a panel at the Ann Arbor Film Festival on March 24, which should be a lot of fun. And I seem to be popping up every couple of months as a pundit on G4's "Attack of the Show." Oh yeah - and for those who haven't seen it yet, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated" airs on IFC on March 31st!

Thanks, Eddie!

5 comments:

vikkitikkitavi said...

Nice interview, Chris!

I sometimes think that documentary filmmakers are these intellectually and morally perfect people. Good to be reminded that they have to schlep through show biz like everyone else.

Beth said...

Excellent job on the interview. How cool that you got to meet him and interview him!

Flannery Alden said...

I'm impressed! But it really is a long post...

Dale said...

I'll bet his favourite part is where you tell everyone they have no idea who he is! :-) Nice job Chris. Very cool.

Big Orange said...

that was too long to read. Who is this dude? he's kinda... HOTT.