It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to talk to a filmmaker for this blog! It’s been a weird, wobbly summer getting settled in New York and I’m anxious for the fall season to begin. It’s nice to be living in a place that actually acknowledges seasons and there is a lot on tap for the next few months—until things come to a screeching halt again after Thanksgiving.
Spending the summer in the West Village has not been too bad, mind you, and I’ve met some amazing and fabulous people, but I’m looking forward to settling into my new home in Brooklyn and diving into everything the city has to offer. I’ll be doing some traveling, as well, but there’s nothing like autumn in New York City.
But on this still-balmy summer day, I spoke to filmmaker, Judy Irola, on the phone from her East Los Angeles home, about her first directorial feature called Cine Manifest. This is not to say, Ms. Irola is new to filmmaking—far from it. One of the few pioneering American women cinematographers, she’s been making movies all over the world for decades. Twelve years ago, she was the third woman to be invited to become a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC).
Last summer, I served on a nominating committee for the IDA Awards with her co-producer and editor, Nels Bangerter, who was working on finishing the project at the time. Nels invited me to a screening of Cine Manifest at USC, where Judy presently holds the Conrad Hall Chair in Cinematography and heads the cinematography track at the film school there. As it travels around the world to festivals this year, to mostly glowing reviews, Judy is in the midst of putting together a package of the film with archival footage and the two award-winning films, Over-Under, Sideways-Down and Northern Lights, both produced during Cine Manifest’s heyday.
So what was Cine Manifest? Consisting of six male filmmakers, Cine Manifest was, in John Hanson’s words, “a quasi-Marxist, Maoist, communist, radical” collective in San Francisco in the early ‘70s that set out to make films that reflected their political and social beliefs--where everything they did and produced served that political context. In July of ’72, they asked themselves why they didn’t have a woman in the group. After having returned from Peace Corps’ service in Africa, July Irola was working at the local PBS station and applied to the collective. Initially, the guys turned her down, but after she wrote them a scolding letter, they changed their minds. “Brothers and sister” went on to make award-winning films and stayed together as a collective from ’72 to ’78—a good run, marred only by a decision from the group to “fire” one of the directors, Peter Gessner, off the film project he was co-directing.
Thirty years later, a reunion was held in the North Dakota town where Northern Lights was filmed. Spurred by the joy and sheer emotionalism of being together again, Irola decided it was time to make a film about their experience—what it meant to each of them personally and professionally and how it informed their careers. The story is told by Stephen Lighthill, Steve Wax, Rob Nilsson, John Hanson, Gene Corr, Peter Gessner and Irola through intimate interviews interspersed with footage of the films they shot, and photos and other archival material saved from those years working together in their warehouse in San Francisco. With a fantastic soundtrack by the late David Schickele (an unofficial member of the collective—he never actually joined), stellar sound design by USC’s Midge Costin and Melanie McGraw and sharp and creative editing by Nels Bangerter, the film is a journey into what’s possible when a group of like-minded passionate people get together to make movies.
Still in Motion (SIM): So what was the impetus for you to decide to make a film about Cine Manifest?
Judy Irola (JI): Well, at the end, things just kind of floated away. There was no “divorce” or anything, everybody just went their separate ways once the films were finished and it fell apart kind of naturally. We spent 80 hours a week together over a number of years and we made these two fabulous films, but only we know what we went through in order to do it.
SIM: In terms of what happened with Peter, it was a very emotional thing that happened with this close group of people. How did that play a role in the dissipation of the group? Or did it?
JI: It depends on who you were in the group. In the film, Stephen Lighthill says that it was kind of the demise of the group in some way. Three of us did Northern Lights [Irola (DP), Hanson and Nilsson (co-directors)] and the rest of us did Over-Under [Corr and Gessner (co-directors and writers), Wax (producer)]. The people who were devastated by the Peter thing were the two who were so close with him, Gene [Corr] and Stephen Lighthill. For Stephen, I think that was an overwhelming negative thing, even though he supported our decision to let Peter go. They had been friends for a long time. We were in production for both films almost at the same time. So, being in North Dakota shooting, we were not as decimated or emotionally involved as Gene and Stephen.
So for us, the demise of the group was just a much more natural transition—I was ready to move on; everybody was definitely ready to move on, to see what else was out there and start working with other people. Both films were finished about the same time and were distributed around the same time. Both films traveled to a lot of film festivals and had television broadcasts, etc. Over-Under was in a series called “Visions” which was a precursor to “American Playhouse.” And Northern Lights was on “American Playhouse,” as well.
We all remained friendly, I would say, but we didn’t really see one another. I moved to New York for eleven years, Wax moved to Boston, Lighthill went on to more cinematography work. And then, in 2002, we had a 30-year reunion in San Francisco. Steve Wax and I were always the two who did these things. We both had emailed one another agreeing that we should do this—it was time. The six of us [not including Peter] spent the whole weekend together. Friday night, we cooked at Gene's and on Saturday had a party for all the people that had worked with us. That Sunday, we all showed each other the work that we’d been doing since disbanding. It was a fascinating weekend, very powerful emotionally. And then there was also the 25th anniversary of the premiere of Northern Lights in North Dakota. North Dakota wanted us to come back and screen the film again and all of us went. So, all of a sudden, we were back in the small town where we had shot the film and everybody was really emotional. And I took a camera and thought I’d do something there, but it wasn’t appropriate because people were very much in the moment. But that was the time that I started thinking about doing the film. I had stopped shooting by that time; I didn’t want to freelance any longer as a cinematographer. I was tired and I really wasn’t enjoying that kind of work at all anymore. So at that reunion in 2002, that was kind of the end for me of shooting.
I really wanted to make a movie and they really wanted to talk about this, too. So it was easy to get them involved. Everybody was ready to speak. It was a cleansing thing for everybody. And I didn’t know that I was going to get Peter, but he was ready to talk, too. I almost started crying—I hadn’t heard his voice in over 30 years.
SIM: It’s really an historical document—you were doing something revolutionary, not only in your ideology, but as a social experiment, as well. These are things that groups of filmmakers still do but you had such a hard-core philosophy about what you were doing. You were so strict with one another and stuck fast to the overarching ideals that in a group of such strong-minded, creative people would be pretty hard to maintain, but you did maintain that for six years.
JI: It’s remarkable that there weren’t ever any other rifts. That was a mature decision [to fire Peter from the film]. There was no question; we couldn’t waste $225,000—he wasn't the right person to direct the film. And, as he himself says, by then he was so closed down that he couldn’t listen to any advice or anything. There was no re-hashing; we just went back to work. But, Peter, even though he says he’s not going to watch it [Cine Manifest] for another 10 years, loves the film; he really respects the film. It’s hardest for Gene to watch. And except for Peter, they all came to the opening in Mill Valley and they’re all very proud of the film and proud of our time together—on that, we’re united.
It’s a personal film. I told Nels from the beginning that this is going to be the film that I would want to see. I really made it for myself and for the guys. In answer to some of the criticisms about how the film isn’t hard-hitting enough, I should have been on the attack a bit more—well, we’ve never had that kind of relationship, nor would I start that kind of thing now—for a stupid movie? (laughs)
First of all, most of us can hardly remember anything! But I sent them all some of the memos [from their meetings] after the reunion; I kept a huge book of memos; I had never thrown any of this stuff away. Not everybody saved memos, but everybody kept something. And all the photos that exist in the world are in the film. [Composer] David Schickele’s wife, Gail, had the footage from all the birthday films. He was more the curator of Cine Manifest stuff than the rest of us, even though he wouldn’t join. I don’t know why I kept the memos, I honestly don’t. But I need to find an archive that wants all of this. There’s a review of the film in the Fall /07 issue of Cineaste and they do mention that the birthday films need to be a part of the DVD as an archival imperative. And we’re very close to getting Over-Under back into our hands, to own that film again. Now I have to work on the guy who owns Northern Lights. That’ll cost money.
SIM: That would make an incredible package—those two films, plus yours and all the archival material. Do you have a distributor who’s interested in putting all this stuff together?
JI: Well, I got a hold of Docurama a couple of weeks ago but haven’t heard anything. We’re winning awards at festivals and Latin America loves this film. But I don’t know if they’re going to be interested. It’s an odd film—it’s not an issue-driven film about the Sudan, or Afghanistan or Iraq. It’s a personal film. There are programmers out there who go crazy over it and those that watch the first few minutes and decide quite definitively “no.” So there’s a bit of work involved—re-mastering Over-Under, buying Northern Lights back which is going to cost about $25,000. Both of these films have a tremendous life ahead of them. The guy who owns Northern Lights [Lakeshore Entertainment Group] does not own any of the elements so he can’t make DVDs. So he puts it on TV once in a while and that’s about it; it doesn’t need to be languishing like that.
SIM: So going back in the old time machine now, how old were you when you came to Cine Manifest?
JI: I was 29. And the guys treated me very well. Initially, when they had the meeting with me, well, I mean, I thought I was a shoo-in. And they responded the next day that they weren’t ready to take anybody in! But the minute I walked into the warehouse, these guys always treated me like a queen; I hope that comes across in the film. I thought the toilet thing was kind of funny. [There’s a hilarious memo that reads, “Whoever has Monday phones will be responsible for taking out the garbage.”]
But I’ve received a lot of backlash for joking about it in the film. I mean, why do people remember that? I thought it was hysterical. It was the truth—I cleaned the toilet--who cares!
SIM: Well, the bottom line was that by joining these guys you were going to get a chance to do what you dreamed of doing, which was becoming a cinematographer—here was your chance to do just that. Watching your film, I was kind of envious, in a way, that you had this group of people banding together and supporting one another. There’s a group of filmmakers getting a lot of press right now here in New York that have been lumped together under the term “mumblecore.” They’re not necessarily a collective, but they’re young filmmakers doing the same type of DIY filmmaking and in their own process, creating great movies together.
JI: Yeah, there are quite a few of those. At USC, a lot of the students come out of the film school and sort of band together. I mean, they’re not necessarily making political films or anything like that, but they support one another emotionally, they give each other work, they’ll pool resources quite often.
But I have to tell you, it was very cool to be the lone girl in a group of six very handsome men! It doesn’t sound very politically correct, but I had so much fun with them. We drank beer and shot pool. There was no weird undercurrent of anything. Also, as young men, they didn’t communicate very well. I was young, too. I didn’t really know how to communicate very well, either. I did not go home at night feeling bad or lonely or not wanting to go in the next morning—none of that. We played well together and we worked well together. We didn’t really have any other friends in town because we worked all the time. And it was fine—we did well together in that environment. We still love being together.
SIM: Was Nels a student of yours at USC?
JI: No, I had never met him. He had been in the documentary class but I had stopped teaching that course. I received $25,000 from USC and was so excited. I was talking to my teaching assistant and told him that I needed to find an editor and he mentioned Nels right away, told me I didn’t need to consider anyone else, actually. He had been editing docs throughout his school career. I gave him a tape from each of the interviews I’d done so he could see who we were and I gave him Northern Lights and Over-Under and about four days later he called and said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” He’s a very talented guy, a nice guy. I mean, we did have a few “mother-son” clashes—he’s young. He did what I wanted and I think he learned a lot in making the film and he will definitely edit my next film.
SIM: And you made him a co-producer. What that something that he negotiated?
JI: I gave him that credit because he did so much for me. I produced the film; it’s my film. But, at that time, I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, how to do stuff on the Internet. There’s a lot of things I can’t do and don’t understand. I worked with the web designer and I did the whole web site with someone else, but Nels helps maintain it for me. And he’s gone the extra mile in terms of doing all kinds of things that I can’t do. And I didn’t have a post-production supervisor. He helped technically with so many key things.
SIM: There are wonderful effects done with colorization and animation—was all that in your vision of the film?
JI: Nels started experimenting with all the footage I had shot in San Francisco that appears at the beginning of the film. We had to figure out what to do with all of that to create context and to make it interesting and different. The animation was his idea. In the middle of the night, he started tearing and tacking things up, cutting and burning different things.
But we had the music. Temp music is no good—before you make your movie, you get the music that you’re going to use. David’s music is so eclectic, so fun. That’s what “directed” Nels more than anything, actually. Initially, he really wanted to make a very, hard-hitting, “let’s destroy Peter Gessner” type of piece, which would be a lot of people’s instinct. But that wasn’t what I wanted. So we negotiated.
He edited at home. He’d come to my house twice a week and show me a cut and we’d make notes, and he’d go back and then come to me a few days later and show me another cut. So he was quite autonomous in that way—I would never sit over an editor’s shoulder. I have too much respect for all the crafts of making a film. And we stayed on our schedule for the most part.
SIM: Well, with all those collage-like elements and the music, I really felt transported to that time in San Francisco—it’s very effective that way. It’s like a scrapbook come to life.
JI: The sound design is so extraordinary. I had shot footage up in San Francisco and a teaching assistant in the sound department [at USC] went up and recorded the actual places where I had shot—the bridge and the Cine Manifest warehouse and various other places. She [Melanie McGraw] and the woman who is the head of the sound department, Midge Costin, did the whole sound design. It makes it funnier, makes it totally come to life. I love sound. You don’t have a movie without music and sound.
SIM: You very much captured what that place felt like in the early ‘70s.
JI: What the people who think the film isn’t hard-hitting enough or “political” enough ask is: where is all the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll? Well, there wasn’t any! Everybody in the group was getting a divorce. The only sex among us was between me and Steve Wax and that lasted for about a year and, really, who cares? And drugs? I think we smoked some dope; nobody even smoked cigarettes except for Peter and nobody was a big boozer—we had some beers once in a while. We were putting in eighty or ninety hour weeks in that warehouse. It was the ‘70s; it’s true. Maybe that stuff was going on all over town, but we were, and still are, every single one of us, including Peter, hard-working people. No one in this group is retired. We’re still making films. Stephen Lighthill is the head of cinematography at AFI, for goodness’ sakes. I head up the department at USC. Peter’s publishing books; he’s having his second detective novel published. Nobody burned out. No one started out young and disappeared into the Bowery, so to speak.
SIM: So that legacy continued throughout your lives. To me, that’s a very positive thing to take away from all of this.
JI: There are a lot of great things coming out of it. David’s wife, Gail, is putting out a five-CD collection of his work; she and her son [Nighttrain] have been extraordinary. David’s son being able to see this film and hear his music is incredible. It’s like a big family—there are all these positives. You know, people may say it’s not hard-hitting enough but it’s been pretty painful for just about everybody to rehash a lot of this stuff.
SIM: Talk a bit about the “criticism/self-criticism” exercise that was so much a part of how that collective was run. How has that kind of exchange informed your life, the way you teach?
JI: That stuff is very complicated because, first of all, in hindsight, we spent way too much time and concentration on Peter and Peter’s problems. We talked about the same thing to one another. Most of the time it was too much of the same thing.
I was told over and over that I wasn’t very articulate; I was too emotional, etc. To tell you the truth, this was great feedback. When I think about it now, that people were telling me when I was 29, that I needed to become articulate, that was great. I mean I’m in a group where John and Rob were from Harvard, okay? Steve Wax is a UCLA graduate. Lighthill’s Boston College, Peter’s Yale School of Drama. I never went to college.
John, in particular, was very good with me. He’d say, “Judy! You’re going off. I know something’s going on. But you have to take a breath and you have to be articulate about what it might be.” That’s great advice. And I listened to this advice. I think that it helped make me an incredibly strong woman. That’s probably the best thing I can be for my students—they have a strong woman standing in front of them. I’m a really nice person, but I don’t take shit from anybody. I give 200 percent to the young women at that school. It’s really rough for them, still. There’s another woman who is tenured faculty in cinematography. The head of sound is a woman. The dean is a woman.
It couldn’t have been any better than starting off with six men who had so much confidence in me and being able to shoot something like Northern Lights [the film went on to win the Cannes d'Or for best film debut in 1979]. Rob and John never criticized me. I had never shot a feature in my life! We didn’t see any footage for weeks. No one treated me like a second-class citizen. When you have that kind of support when you’re that young, it’s amazing. And then when we came back and looked at the footage, they treated me like I was god. With that kind of support, you go a million miles; I worked so hard on that film—why wouldn’t I? It was a huge challenge, I was young, it was fun, it was god-damned cold and I was working with these people who had total confidence in me. I see the same thing happen with my students.
I still have total self-confidence in myself as a director. When I was young, I made some excellent choices. But that initial confidence came from my father, my family—I was set up to make good choices for myself.
Women are great at this [making films]. Visually, women look at things in an intimate way. It’s just instinct. Anybody can set up a light meter. I tell my students, “Now, look through the camera. Keep your other eye closed. Do you love what you see? Is it attractive? When you look at every corner, are you happy? Are you saying to yourself, ‘Oh this image is so beautiful!!’?” Don’t be sloppy—that’s not going to get you anywhere.
The bottom line is that I had, and continue to have, a fabulous career. I was in the right place at the right time and I was always so open to doing anything I could do. That guarantees a life of good work.