Everyone knows by this point that I get totally geeked about documentary films. I can't watch enough of 'em. Some of my long-time readers may remember my interview with another doc-maker, Eddie Schmidt. It was fun and I've wanted to do more of them. This time I asked Eric Chaikin if I could ask him some questions. I realize this interview won't make a lot of sense to those who haven't seen Eric's films, but I like to do what I can to promote great docs. I did a POST recently about one of his films, "A Lawyer Walks Into A Bar". Eric also made a great "competition" doc called "Word Wars" that followed the lives of four of the best Scrabble Tournament participants. I hope all you Netflixers check out his films!
SG: Let's start out with the obligatory stuff. How did you get into documentary filmmaking? Are there any other films or filmmakers that have inspired you or influenced your work? I also like to ask fellow creative types about the other stuff they're interested in - hobbies, music, books, TV, etc.
EC: I like creative projects: wordplay, screenplay, software, acting, documentaries. I just like the creative-aesthetic=emotional-intellectual puzzle-solving. I have a background in acting and working with actors, and generally in what you might call "cultural awareness" (look for my "Win Ben Stein's Money" rerun some time). So a theatrical documentary seemed like a good way to combine the emotion and story arc of feature films with the 'look under the rock' aspect of examining the absurdity of our culture. Specifically, I saw a film called "Dark Days" at Sundance in 2001 (I think) and it was a pure labor of love made by a guy who had lived in the Subway tunnels of NYC with people for like 2 years and they just slogged out this movie. I made the decision then to make a documentary. This may sound like an odd leap but...I had been in the tournament Scrabble scene on and off pretty much my whole life and I knew that was the movie I had to make. I wanted people to feel like they were in the same rooms that I was in on a regular basis, up at 3am dishing anagrams with guys that know the dictionary cold.
SG: There's a great scene in "Word Wars" where Marlon is describing a "post-mortem" - a post-game analysis of the Scrabble board to determine whether different moves would have netted more points. There are about five grown men on the floor in the hotel lobby laughing and debating as a wedding party looks at them like they're crazy. It's clear that there is a shared love of this game and all of its intricacies. I'm curious what your initial impression of each of these guys was when you started filming and whether it changed much over the course of the film. How did go about determining who you were going to film?
EC: Well, these were all people I knew before filming. In most cases filmmakers will tell you how surprised they were at what unfolded. In actuality, I had a pretty good sense of the personality types of the four main subjects of Word Wars. A year and a half before the National Championship that ends the film, I had a sense of which of the guys was "due". (I won't give it away). And the other guys' story arcs played out as destiny would have it that year. But the great thing about that world, since there is a large element of chance, is that anyone in the top echelon could have a real shot.
SG: I read in another interview you gave that you did not want "A Lawyer Walks Into A Bar" to be a slam on lawyers. Have you gotten any feedback from lawyers who have seen the film? What have they had to say about the film? After making the film, do you think you'd have what it took to be a lawyer?
EC: Lawyers love it. They're a largely self-loathing group anyway, so they'll slam themselves before you can slam them. Even the high profile ones (Dershowitz references the historical nature of this at the beginning of the film). I could be a lawyer. I'm an actor and I like to memorize stuff and argue about it just to hear myself talk, so yeah, I could pass the Bar and fake it in court, or in an office. It did hit me that the 24-yr-olds I was running into taking the Bar complaining all the time were going to be raking in more than I was in about 3 months. The thought of giving myself a consciencectomy and becoming a lawyer has occurred to me. But I would probably move to a tropical island first.
SG: Both films make great use of added graphics and animation. I especially liked the animated dramatizations of actual bar exam questions. Do you look for opportunities to use these sorts of things or are they more a result of the necessity to tell your story?
EC: Thanks. I have a bit of computer graphics background from a previous career, and in the case of Word Wars it was definitely part of the filmmaking vision to have graphical motifs to bring the mental processes to life. For a few reasons. First in Scrabble, unlike Poker the action is largely internal - not a lot of banter during the high-profile matches. Second, in the marketplace an indie doc has to throw all of its arsenal at the screen just to have the production value that deserves to be in theaters. Third, I knew a great graphics guy named Cassidy Curtis from college days and I knew I wanted to get some of his ideas on screen. He made this custom After Effects plug in that had the effect of bouncing light around a swimming pool filled with water, and we made some segments where sheets of words were the water. Those were the interstitial backgrounds in the film. And he animated the 'letters flying around in peoples' heads' stuff as well.
In the Lawyer movie, the Exec Producers (Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson) had a concept to animate some ridiculous Bar questions. Again, it contributes to the theatrical (as opposed to journalistic) feel of the film. My wife Marni Chaikin did the voice-over. I cast her because she looked cute at the audition (I think I recorded her while she was trying to get to work one day and made her late). And her rate was good. Seriously, she's a voice-over artist. I put her full name in here so if anyone's googling: she's available.
SG: I noticed after doing a Google search that you're a pretty good Scrabble player yourself. Can you remember the best word you ever played or at least the one that gave you the most points?
EC: Not exactly, but I can tell you a few good plays - once I extended INFORMATIVE to INFORMATIVENESS, which is a 15-letter word, and they don't get any longer on a Scrabble board. Once I played KABELJOU through a mutha-f**kin' J, using the blank as an A. My opponent was the National Champ at the time. Take that, champ. He accused me of getting all the good letters.
SG: This question may appear crass, but I was wondering how documentary films (other than ones made by Michael Moore or ones about penguins) make money? I don't ask this to be a dick. If it were up to me, documentary films would have WAY more exposure than they currently do. Does most of it come from DVD sales? Festival ticket sales? Rentals? I can't imagine much is made from typical box office ticket sales.
EC: So far, don't sweat it, you don't sound like a dick. Though to be fair, we haven't met. You still have a chance... Yes, it's very hard for a filmmaker to make money on a documentary. You get what you can on the cable deal and the DVD advance, and theatrical is usually a wash if you're lucky. Even for a successful one. Look at what's going on with ThinkFilm. They're getting sued for not putting enough money behind and Oscar-winning doc that didn't do much at the box office. There's probably two a year, besides Michael Moore, that actually turn a profit for the filmmaker. That's why Errol Morris makes (or made) commercials. And it's why I'm designing iPhone software right now. But I'll be back in the game.
SG: I know you filmmakers like to keep your projects hush-hush, but is there anything in the works that we can look forward to? Feel free to be as vague as necessary. If not, is there a subject that you're dying to make a film about?
EC: I have about 10. I'd like to make features next. I have a great script in progress with a partner set in the world of the Dead Sea Scrolls. All of my documentary ideas are a breath away from being done by anybody else, but...hmm...maybe a doc on the history of the "ooip! ooip!" thing that people do in discos. Who started that nonsense? Was there one primal moment somewhere in someone's 1970s, center-parted, feathered-hair, bubble machine, disco ball memory that it began? It's the last thing you can't Google, cause you can't even spell it. It would be a personal journey back to the idyllic days growing up on Staten Island and in Brooklyn in the 70s. A Jewish kid who thinks he's a cugine (look it up) but then, accidentally, one day, gets Bar Mitzvahed. I was too young to be in a disco in the 70s, but there would be plenty of archival footage. You'll have to wait for the movie I guess.
SG: Thanks a lot Eric! Best of luck on your next project!