In its 11-minute little life, The Guarantee, directed by Jesse Epstein , packs a wallop. Narrated in the first person by its protagonist, the film’s main subject is never seen in person. Rather, he and his story are illustrated using hand drawn images by Robert Castillo, in a tour-de-force burst of pencil swipes, arcs, leaps and pirouettes, which is appropriate since Charles Farruggio is a ballet dancer—with a really big nose. Humorous, witty and moving, Epstein’s film pushes the boundaries of documentary, and what we end up seeing is a moving comic book version of a very personal and pretty traumatic story.
This short piece is one in a quartet of films on which Epstein is working, each dealing with body image and our, oftentimes, warped, obsessive relationship with what we, as a society, deem “perfection.” The time, money and energy spent on all this is turning into a crisis of sorts, for both men and women, affecting family lives, careers, and other relationships. Funded in part by the Chicken and Egg Fund, the series explores the images of physical perfection that bombard us daily (“Wet Dreams and False Images” distributed by New Day Films), plastic surgery (“The Guarantee”), and the last two, which will be shot in India later this year, deal with changing one’s skin color (tanning and bleaching) and a mannequin factory where the “ideal” female body is molded and duplicated and then sent to stand and stare blankly at us through store windows all over the world.
I spoke with Jesse by phone in her New York office where she was trying to calendar what’s proving to be a very busy year. We talked about the passion of storytelling, mentors and heroes, the evolution of the short, and the interesting things that are happening on the documentary scene. The Guarantee’s next stops are the Newport International Film Festival, June 5 – 10 and SilverDocs, the AFI/Discovery Channel Documentary Festival, June 12 – 17 in Silver Springs, Maryland.
Still in Motion (SIM): So how did you stumble across Charles Farruggio, the “star” of your film?
Jesse Epstein (JE): Well, he and I found ourselves together in a crew van on some crazy film shoot in Jersey six years ago and I kept the crew sheet because I remembered his story and knew one day I wanted to do something with that story. I hadn’t spoken to him in five years, and one day I called him and when he picked up the phone, I asked him, “So, do you remember telling me your story in that crew van on that shoot?” It was pretty random. But when we met in person he said he did remember me and eventually he agreed to do a documentary on his story. His stipulation, however, was that he not appear in front of the camera. We brainstormed on what we could do to tell the story without having the guy appear in it.
SIM: It’s interesting how his refusal to appear in his own story forced you to really push the art form—the whole notion of storyboarding the whole thing and then animating that. I want to know where in the world you found this amazing illustrator.
JE: Well, he made an award-winning film called S.P.I.C.—A Special Person in Chelsea—Storyboard of My Life.” He was so frustrated about not ever making any money as an illustrator, he made a film about that, staged very similarly to my film in that the camera was stationary and recorded his hands and the sketchpad as he told his own story. He and I connected because his film and mine [“Wet Dreams and False Images”] were both nominated for Student Academy Awards. So, we saw one another’s work and knew we had to work together in some capacity, not knowing how or on what but knowing there would be something we might be able to create together. And so it made a lot of sense that he was the one who would illustrate this guy’s story. An interesting three-day journey in the illustrator’s apartment in New Jersey, a process on how to figure out how to draw how a ballerina stands, do they wear their hair in buns all the time, you know, discovering the little details that would make it realistic.
SIM: Considering how much work this involved, how long did it take you to do the whole thing?
JE: The actual filming took three days, the research took a bit of time and the interview with Charles took half an hour—it was insane. I mean, I was prepared to have him repeat the story maybe several times to get the whole thing, but the guy came really prepared, told the story, I asked him a few other questions and that was it. It was really fast. The editing was the longest part. I originally tried to edit it myself and I sped everything up 2,000 percent so it was all uniform but it didn’t really work, it didn’t hit certain key moments. So I brought in a pair of fresh eyes and editor, Pete Slife, cut it so the timing was better—it was some crazy mathematical equation where it speeds up 3,000 times and then goes back to real time, then sped up 200 percent—a crazy, variable experiment. (laughs)
SIM: It worked beautifully—the right people came together to make the right decisions. The fact that you had been sitting on this, having it incubate, so to speak, for five or six years—you know, sometimes those are the projects, once they’re let out of the bag, that really take off, as if it’s meant to be, some sort of magical thing that happens when you finally get all the ingredients in one bowl.
JE: I felt more like I orchestrated rather than directed the piece in the traditional sense of the word because of all those components coming together. In my research, I worked at trying to figure out all the logistics, how you would illustrate Italian mannerisms, how you would illustrate the ballet body. It was bringing together some people I had wanted to work with for a long time. The behind-the-scenes story is me and this guy in an apartment with the camera set up on the tripod on his table, his dog coming in and knocking over the camera and the little klieg lights that were attached—it’s what we could afford. But that’s what it’s all about—pooling your resources and not waiting until you have the kind of money you want or need to do it. One thing that was amazing, though, in terms of this project is that Judith Helfand, the filmmaker who did Blue Vinyl, executive produced this series of four shorts, of which this one is the second. She helped me get an initial grant so that I didn’t have to ask anyone to work for free, I could pay the crew a bit of money. It took me six months to get the dates down so as soon as I had a little seed money, we hit the ground running the very next week.
SIM: Tell me about Helfand’s Chicken and Egg Fund and how you came into contact with her?
JE: She saw “Wet Dreams” and showed it to her class. I saw her at a party and told her that I had wanted to expand this project for a very long time and I got up the courage to ask her if she’d consider executive producing for me. She said yes, and it was very informal for a while until I decided to start the work. She was starting Chicken and Egg and I ended up being one of the first filmmakers they funded. It’s a new fund specifically for female filmmakers and they give out “I Believe in You” film grants. Pretty awesome to get a letter that says, “I believe in you!” So it’s Judith Helfand, Julie Parker Benello and Wendy Ettinger and they gave me a starter grant to help me raise more money and reach out to other organizations to get matching grants. I got a grant from The Fledgling Fund and Chicken and Egg matched that so they’re helping to leverage small grants into a growing budget for your film. It’s pretty phenomenal, they take you under their wing, give you deadlines for proposals and help you run the gauntlet of things you have to do that for a lot of filmmakers is a big mystery, like how to write a grant proposal, how to manage a budget, all the things that you might need a push on. It’s all kind of new so their help has been incredible.
SIM: You got your Master’s Degree from NYU in both documentary film and gender studies—why those two things and why that combination?
JE: I got into filmmaking because I knew I wanted to use film as a tool to study these images that I’d seen and heard all my life and that impacted me and everyone else I knew so much. Pretty specifically, I knew I wanted to come out of grad school with a project on airbrushing and photo retouching and so my first film was essentially my thesis, combining all these different studies both on paper and on film, and so that’s what I’m building these other projects off of. How do you use video, which I think is the most powerful tool we have, to empower people, specifically women and girls, and to learn how to disseminate that information so that it can be seen by as many people as possible instead of just a few? I did a lot of media activist stuff, basically people yelling at the camera, which can be a useful tool for cheerleading to the already converted but not really all that impactful for a larger audience. My goal was to make something that could get seen by teenagers, on TV ideally. That’s why I think Judith is such a great role model. How do you make polyvinyl chloride remotely interesting? She accomplished that beautifully in her film, made it entertaining and funny, as well as educational.
SIM: And actually quite moving, too. It’s a very emotional film. I’m noticing more and more female filmmakers, like yourself and like Judith, who are compelled to tell stories this way and just do it without necessarily having the resources in place. That kind of passion and that kind of “I will not be stopped, no matter what” attitude, that stubborn persistence—to me that remains the most inspiring thing in all this. There’s more to keep you down than not, and so to keep moving forward despite all that says a lot about a person.
JE: Yes, it’s a compulsion!
SIM: Tell me what the next year looks like for you? I know you have a video program for young people in Manhattan and you participate as an instructor in Sundance’s Reel Stories documentary lab for teens and are having serious calendar congestion with everything else that’s going on.
JE: My main goal is to finish this four-part project that also involves creating study guides for each of the segments—four short educational films that can be used in high schools and also have it be connected to the larger feature-length piece, which is the ultimate goal. I make my living as a camera person so I still have to do all that stuff, but my goal is really to be able to finish this project this year. I’m also working on another documentary about this steel plant in Pennsylvania that’s being turned into a casino—all that is happening now, as we speak, so I’ve been traveling back and forth as I interview some of the steel workers who worked at the plant and then also documenting the actual structure being torn down. That's a whole other thing that’s very immediate. It will be both a film and a photography book—there’s a small group of us, filmmakers, photographers, illustrators, who have been obsessed by this story, so it’s really amazing to work off all this creative energy. So a lot of different projects going on at the same time. I have a chart on the wall to keep track.
SIM: Like a giant jigsaw puzzle. What a busy, creative, nutsy life looks like most of the time. Besides Judith, who are some of your doc heroes?
JE: I love Albert Maysles, I love his approach, his philosophy of how you treat and interact with the people in front of your camera. The goal is to make them feel important and so it’s important when you’re telling stories of real people’s lives to portray them with respect and to, hopefully, try to represent them in the way they want to be represented. It’s a collaboration between filmmaker and subject and you don’t want to exploit that. He’s definitely one of my heroes.
Right now I’m obsessed with Super 8, we’re shooting with that a lot at the steel plant. It’s very exciting but very getting very expensive. This led me to [filmmaker] Jem Cohen, whose work is patient and thoughtful.
That’s what I find so great about the doc world—you can seek these people out, meet them at festivals and other functions and talk to them, they’re accessible. I’m totally obsessed right now by a film called Following Sean. And Sam Green is another filmmaker I admire very much. But again, I’m so thrilled because I can meet and talk to these people about their process, about their films, from the source—festivals like Full Frame, San Francisco, the festivals here in New York—it’s a different relationship than just a student/mentor kind of thing. If you admired, say someone like Steven Spielberg, it might be hard to just go up to him and converse.
SIM: Getting back to The Guarantee, what’s been the general reception from the community?
JE: Well, I was wondering if festivals would consider it a documentary. Which is funny, because in making it, I intentionally wanted to experiment with the form, but was concerned that people wouldn’t know where to put it, you know? It’s been interesting. I’m so glad that the people at Full Frame recognized it as documentary.
SIM: The documentary form is changing all the time. I’m fascinated by this—that’s part of the reason for starting this site and talking to nonfiction filmmakers who are spearheading those changes, whether they mean to be doing so or not. There’s a movement to start a whole new vocabulary for what kind of filmmaking, what kind of sensibility is taking form for documentary these days. Calling it a hybrid of one thing and another is just too glib and non-specific. In my mind, it’s a whole new movement in filmmaking. It’s got a few people I know worried, but I know more people who are genuinely excited by it. And, of course, there are those filmmakers and journalists and essayists and photographers, etc., who have been pushing those boundaries for a while.
JE: I hear that a lot too—that documentary should have strong narrative elements.
SIM: I hear lots of nonfiction filmmakers say that.
JE: How do you take the tools of fiction and utilize them in documentary? It’s all about good storytelling, about the challenge of trying to tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. You know, in doing these shorts, one of the biggest challenges is making it entertaining, hopefully funny, and educational—all at the same time.
SIM: Well, the bottom line is that you are documenting someone’s story; it’s not something you’re making up. In your case, the viewer is being told the story by the person who lived it—how is that not documentary? It looks like a living, breathing comic book, but it’s the truth, it’s what really happened.
JE: Well, each of these shorts is dealing with some kind of body image issue that’s prevalent in lots of societies, ours being one of them. What if you could draw what you wanted to look like and then become that image? So at face value, we’re talking about plastic surgery, but I’m not taking you into a real surgery to watch a doctor hammering on someone’s nose trying to break it!
I’m really into radio documentary. I like the notion of being able to be descriptive enough so that your listener can envision quite clearly and explicitly what’s happening and have an emotional or visceral response to it—just by hearing it. You have to use your imagination, come to your own conclusions.
SIM: I think we take things in in a more visceral, emotional way through our ears than we do with our eyes. Farruggio’s voice tells us his story in an inimitable style—inimitable, because it’s wholly his. In a way, you could have had any number of things up there visually. So yes, your piece does really do the This American Life treatment justice—it really takes us “there” with voice and sound.
JE: You know, sometimes it would take Robert twenty minutes to do one sketch or drawing and I’d catch a spelling error or some other mistake and he’d apologize and crumple it up or erase it or something and that became part of the film. I wasn’t sure those moments would work but it was fun to include the “mess ups.” It made it a much more organic process.
It’s such an interesting time now for short films. For some reason, that’s just the way my brain works. I feel like I’ve said it in 11 minutes. All my pieces so far are 11 minutes for some reason! But there are more opportunities to see short films, both educationally, and in a more theatrical setting.
SIM: Particularly for documentary, you can tell so much in a short time, just like a good essay will do—some of the writers that continue to awe me can describe a whole universe (and its meaning) in fifteen pages of text—extraordinary. I’m actually finding myself less and less tolerant of things that ramble on and on. If it warrants it, fine, but there’s nothing like a one-two punch, it’s very powerful. In your 11-minute films, you accomplish so much that’s true and funny and frustrating about being an imperfect human being. I can't wait to see the other two.
JE: Thank you! See you at SilverDocs next month.