What drew you to the premise of your films?
For Until They’re Gone, what drew me to the premise is that no one is talking about landmines as an issue anymore. In 1999, when International Campaign to Ban Landmines won a Nobel Peace Prize, the issue was front and center. Emmylou Harris and Elvis Costello were doing concert tours promoting the breakthrough of the historic Mine Ban Treaty. But then 9/11 happened, and the U.S. focus turned away from cleaning up the explosive remnants of war. We just are not as interested in messy issues like cleaning up after a long ago war. But for the people on the ground threatened by landmines, unexploded ordnance, it’s not forgotten at all. These things are still killing and maiming innocents, most born long after these wars ended.
The search for landmine stories turned up an all-female demining team in Vietnam, and Aki Ra, a former Khmer Rouge child soldier turned deminer. Aki Ra was featured in an earlier documentary, his story compelling. When I met Bill and Jill Morse, an American couple who left behind a comfortable retirement on a golf course in Palm Springs, relocated to Cambodia to raise funds for Aki Ra and his demining team, I knew I might have a chance at this story being relatable to an American audience. When I learned that Bill was in ROTC during college, during the Kent State shootings to be specific, I knew I had my story. A retired Baby Boomer going to, as Bill puts it in the film “Clean up the mess my generation started,” was compelling. He tells the story very well. As does David P. Chandler, the dean of Cambodia scholars, who features heavily in the film.
For The Typewriter (In the 21st Century), I read an article about “the last generation of typewriter repairmen,” and it was a bit elegiac. I thought, if the machine upon which so many of the 20th Century’s great novels were written was going gentle into that good night, it ought to have a swan song. Only problem was, as soon as I interviewed local repair technicians here in Los Angeles, it turns out they were busier than they had been in ages. People, it seems, are looking for a place to unplug from time to time. The story expanded to include collectors of typewriters once owned by Orson Welles, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, Helen Keller, Sylvia Plath, Jack Kerouac, Ernie Pyle, John Lennon, Tennessee Williams, and two of America’s premier authors who are still using typewriters well into the 21st Century. Robert Caro and David McCullough, four Pulitzer Prizes, three National Book Awards, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Presidential Medal of the Humanities between them, had plenty to say about the value of working slower, revising and rewriting, and how the typewriter is the preferred method for enforcing that kind of thoughtfulness in their writing process.
Most people thinking of making films are looking at making narrative features. What drew you to documentaries?
What drew me to documentaries? Well, a few things. When I was a boy, this older man named Mr. Cross used to come to my school with a projector, and show us films he’d shot across the western U.S. He would narrative the films live, and they showed things like petroglyphs that were being covered by the rising waters of the Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell. I was struck by the film documenting something that “would never be seen again” and how Mr. Cross’ family had to move their campsite due to rising waters. My family would watch PBS and Disney nature documentaries, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, etc. So I basically grew up on them. Narratives, too.
When I finished undergrad, and needed to justify being an English major, I freelanced as a journalist, eventually landing a staff writer-photographer position at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I suppose these days, when I make a documentary, it’s as much to keep a foot in the world of journalism as anything. I don’t see a tremendous amount of difference between the two, and plenty of people will argue with me over that point. Sure, in the narrative world you light, block, rehearse, shoot, and it’s scripted, with multiple takes to choose from. Documentary, not so much. But in the edit bay, the same goal comes into focus – you have to take the footage you have, and craft the story. Take the audience on a journey into a world they did not know before your film grabbed their attention.
Another thing that draws me to documentaries, honestly, is that they are a helluva lot less expensive. Look at summer blockbusters – the budgets are so high, that to return any kind of profit, they have to appeal to as many people as possible. And I’m pretty sure no one will argue that is a formula for making the most deeply human, resonant film. But if you’re looking to maximize return on investment, there are smarter ways to do it than make films, documentary or narrative. But if you want to make specific types of films, films that aren’t sullied by the corporate machine that needs a a huge opening weekend haul to keep the studio afloat, then you can have much more freedom with how you tell the story. It’s a more democratic medium in that regard. That appeals to me.
Marketing execs will ask you in pitch meetings: “What other film have we successfully marketed that you think this film is like?” I see their point, as it is their job. But it is *their* job to find a way to market it, not mine. Most documentarians make the films we make because no one else is telling the story, not because it fits a marketing niche. The creative act of breathing life into a thing that wasn’t there before you did, that’s an exquisite feeling. Being able to call attention to a country like Cambodia that’s recovering from an atrocity, while informing the audience how things came to be, love that. Even with a film like The Typewriter (In the 21st Century), it asks you to think about an essential tool of creativity, how it impacts the work we do. It’s not big stakes financial risk-taking, but it can tell big stories without compromise.
Who would you say are the filmmakers that most influenced your filmmaking style?
The filmmakers who most influenced my style are Wim Wenders, and Les Blank. Sometimes it’s best to step back, let the story tell itself, but to frame, expose, and edit in such a way that a narrative is revealed, the story moves forward on its own terms, without the obviousness of a director’s heavy hand on the wheel. You are choosing every frame, every cut, of course, but hopefully not in a way that intrudes on the story.
There’s been a debate recently about whether it is better to shoot on film or digital when making a film. Where do you come down on the issue?
Film vs. digital – define “better.” Film is a proven archival medium. Properly stored, it can last a century or more, can be scanned to whatever the new digital format is in whatever data storage medium is coming in the future. Solar radiation degausses magnetic media. Ask audio engineers if they can still run the early versions of ProTools. One of the points I made in the typewriter doc is that here we are, right in the middle of a so-called information age, and so much of it is digital or virtual. Doesn’t take much to wipe out huge chunks of our cultural history on digital media storage that isn’t backed up sufficiently. There needs to evolve a more stable, long-term storage method for digital media. That’s a massive concern.
As for what is better in production, it’s budget-dependent. I’ve shot narrative work on S16mm and 35mm film. I shoot still photos on a variety of vintage analog film cameras to this day. But it is not the least expensive option. In documentary land, no question digital offers the biggest bang for the buck. No lab or transport to lab to concern yourself with when shooting in challenging landscapes. The shooting ratio on most documentaries, that factor alone, dictates that most documentaries are shot o digital formats. Ease of shooting, ease of integrating footage into your postproduction workflow, all of it favors digital if you don’t have the budget for film. We’re also at the point now where far more people have shot digital than are capable of properly shooting film. Digital imaging technology changes so fast, it’s amazing, and wonderful to have choices as a filmmaker. In 2002, I shot the first HD thesis anyone had ever shot at American Film Institute, AFI. I had to lobby the school for permission, study with Sony Engineers, and the camera, the Sony F900 Cine Alta, was $65,000 before you even put a lens on it. Fast forward to 2010, and I’m going off to Haiti with a $1,000 DSLR in a backpack that shoots cleaner, and frankly much better looking video, than that $65,000 Cine Alta.
Film is not dead. It has the right feel for many narrative projects. I don’t know a single documentary filmmaker who can afford to shoot on film anymore. Even Ken Burns, whose projects were always shot on film, has become a digital convert recently. I just wish someone would solve the digital storage issues of archivability. I started shooting still photos because I grew up in a town that was rapidly developing, and changing. I wanted to preserve some of it in visuals. Instant was the exact opposite of what I was after. So for those of us who shot, and shoot film, adapting to digital was fairly easy. Not so sure someone who has only ever shot on digital formats would do if handed a light meter and a camera loaded with film to shoot. The foundation of good photography and cinematography is better laid on film, I personally believe. But in terms of the budgets one has to work with today, digital is clearly the winner.
I’m trying to get back into doing more narrative work. Most productions below a certain budget level can’t touch film, and film is not always the correct aesthetic choice for a project. But I would love to get back on projects that shoot on film. Just the discipline of shooting on film seems to enforce a gravity and seriousness of intent on the process. You have to know what you’re doing to shoot film. But the mistakes are expensive, and thus, another point for digital – you can see the out of focus shot on the monitor. Not always true on film, especially if you’re both DP and Operator.
I see value in both, and more value in film than many people believe. But digital is winning this one. Below a certainly very high budget rate. And most docs live in that world.
What is the one takeaway you would want the audience to have from your films?
The one takeaway I want audiences to have is that these stories are about a shared humanity on this planet. Whether exploring the tools of creativity in the typewriter documentary, or documenting the work of brave deminers who are on their hands and knees trying to rid a country of explosive remnants of war. They are literally working against a clock. Until the landmines are gone, it’s not a question of it, but of when, someone will be hurt or killed. Those two films couldn’t be more different from each other, but they both have something to say about life, how we live it, and how it might matter to you.
Both of your films have unique concepts that are very different from each other. Did you consciously decide you wanted to make a wide array of films rather than being a genre director or were you simply drawn to two different premises?
I’m a former journalist and photojournalist. And I also have an MFA in Cinematography from the American Film Institute. Rather than specialize in photographing, say, still life, or portraits, I have a pretty broad range. One of the biggest compliments you can pay to a cinematographer is to say that two of his film look nothing alike. That’s range. I like to believe, right or wrong, that if I can get excited about a film, there’s someone else out there who can, too. My tastes probably aren’t broadly populist, I admit, but everyone of a certain age has used a typewriter, and the QWERTY keyboard we use on our computers today came out of the Remington factory circa 1874. So that old technology is still very much applicable. So that’s maybe as populist as I get.
I don’t think I sought to consciously decide to make two widely different films, but whatever my next one will be, I imagine it will be different from the other two. My thinking is more or less to let my enthusiasm, and curiosity, guide me. The marketing can be someone else’s domain. Werner Herzog’s widely divergent body of work comes to mind as an example. Not sure today’s marketing pressures will allow a similar career path, but if I find an idea keeps me up at night thinking about it, it might be worth pursuing.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with some very well respected figures in the making of your two films. How did you come across them? Can you describe what it was like to work with them?
Working with Robert Caro and David McCullough were highlights of the typewriter film. The collectors and repairmen were also a delight. Their passion, good humor, and insights kept things fresh and fun despite the low budget, the many miles driven to interview them all, etc. Caro and McCullough happened by simply putting together a pitch that was honest, straight-forward, explained what my aims were, what my background was, why the films would get finished, and would (hopefully) be solid pieces of work they’d be proud to be a part of, and tracking them down to get a yes or no. Thankfully, they both said yes. A few other writers declined. But I was very happy to land two heavyweight authors. Caro conducted 522 interviews for his book The Power Broker, Robert Moses And The Fall of New York. A few of my questions gave him pause, and he inscribed my copy of that book: “To Christopher Lockett, who asks good questions…” Very proud of that.
The David P. Chandler footage in Until They’re Gone was kind of a small miracle. I had purchased a plane ticket to shoot one final round in Cambodia in March of 2016. I was leaving March 23. I was planning on possibly tacking on a few sleepless travel days to/from Australia from Hong Kong to interview him. A friend in Australia, where Chandler lives and is a retired Emeritus Professor of History, sent an introduction. Chandler replied that he was interested, but that he would not be in Australia at that time. As it happened, he was going to be in Southern California to visit friends, flying in on March 21, resting on the 22, and going on to San Diego that night.
I had a standing set in my living room, a professorial looking backdrop of my own book shelves, from a web series I had shot. Looked very appropriate to interviewing a history professor. He wouldn’t have to wait for set up or tear down, just literally walk into the pre-lit room, put on the lavaliere mic, and away we’d go. He liked that idea. We picked up him, did a 2 1/2 hour interview, took him to the train station so he could continue his trip. And I left the next day for Cambodia. Whew! Sometimes, you just get lucky. In 2018, Chandler was the honored guest at an academic conference on Genocide that featured the film. This time, it was on his turn, right there in Melbourne, Australia.
In each instance, I came prepared with questions, backup questions, follow up questions, Plan B questions in case things weren’t going well, and a lot of research. I respected all of them so much, coming very prepared was the least I could do. I like to believe they took me seriously, and I respected their time and expertise, and that’s reflected in the films. And David Chandler liked that I make a strong french press style of coffee. Honestly, all three of those interviews are career highlights for me
Tell us about the differences between doing television work and making independent films.
Television work vs. independent films – funding, scheduling, and crew size, mostly. Due to the time pressures of TV work, most TV shows are rigorously planned, even the unscripted shows like Big Brother and Naked & Afraid XL that I’ve shot. Knowing that bills will be paid, hotels will be arranged, vaccinations and meals will be covered, insured, etc. lets a crew relax and focus on the job at hand. We got a lot of work done under tight time restrictions. Big Brother, for example, puts three hours-long shows of network-approved television on the air every week for 15 weeks every summer. We start season 21 summer of 2019. I’ve been with the show since season 6.
Naked & Afraid XL, we’re in the bush for about 50 days shooting the survivalists in a 40-day challenge. Bug bites, snakes, crocodiles, biting insects, parasites, extreme heat and cyclones, you name it we’re out in it. And we shoot 8-10 hour-long episodes in that time. Post takes a while, but we are blasting away full tilt boogie out in the bush.
On the indies, I am usually Director, Director of Photography, interviewer, and on these two films, also have Producer credit. What funding there is is either out of pocket, crowdsourced, or cobbled together from friends, family, and discretionary funds. Both films had incredibly meager budgets, even Until They’re Gone, with its international travel. The basic difference is that on the indies, division of labor lines are blurred if they exist at all, and everyone on the crew knows they’re not in it for the money. We’re there because the stories need to be told. It’s a very difficult process, and I don’t recommend it to many people, to be honest. But if you’re willing to put up with the demands of it, they you’re halfway to knowing you’re the right person for the job. The rest is a combination of doing it professionally (bringing more production value to the film than the budget suggests is possible), honoring the story, and the people who give their time to tell it, and being good company on the road. Because low budget indies will test you in a way that a fully-paid show will not. The fully-budgeted shows have their own challenges, and there are several points of intersection that every production has, but the indies have an unique set of additional challenges. Trying to maximize every dollar on a tighter schedule, without enough manpower, while trying to tell a story that might not appeal to as broad an audience as a network TV show…. ya got your work cut out for you. Better be there for the right reasons!
Looking to the future, what kinds of topics would you like to cover in your films?
In the future, there are several outdoors-life stories I’d like to tell. There are a few human rights stories I’d like to tell. If there are any experienced producers with serious track records who’d like to discuss further, I’m open to it. I can’t say much more about those potential projects than that, except that the first one I will likely do will be yet another divergent path away from these two films, which are already divergent from each other. But that’s human experience, right? We’re all over the globe, doing all sorts of things, and every bit of it is interesting, and tells us about ourselves. If we tell the story right, we honor it.
What advice would you give to someone looking to potentially make their first film?
Advice? Well, we’re living in an era where cameras are better and cheaper and more accessible than they’ve ever been. DaVinci’s Resolve is a powerful, edit and color timing software that’s a free download. It is more possible now than every to make quality documentaries for a lot less money. But that also makes it hard to stand out. So I’d say this as advice: Find a story that’s local, that you care about deeply, then research it as completely as you can, then begin. Shoot it yourself, or find someone with better camera skills than you, and learn to communicate to them what you are looking to do. Same with audio – and don’t skimp on audio. Alfred Hitchcock said pre-production is the longest and cheapest part of production, so spend the greatest time and effort there. Having a plan, with contingencies, and time and room for sudden changes, mistakes, or sudden brilliant, last-minute ideas, lets you do good work. You keep the intent of the thing when you had time to think about it, but can adapt as your feelings change, as situations require. Late tennis great Arthur Ashe told me at an athletic awards banquet when I was a teen athlete, and I think this is great advice for any endeavor in life: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”