For most of the interviews I conduct for this blog (although they're closer to long conversations over a meal, than they are to traditional Q&As), I'm constantly surprised and delighted with how generous filmmakers have been with their time and their passionate thoughts and feelings about what they do and the reasons why they do it. Marcy Garriott is no exception to this, and as we talked about her experiences making her first and second feature films, it became clear that this woman, whose filmmaking career came a bit later in her life, is totally dedicated to creating strong and moving pieces of cinema.
Trained as an electrical engineer because a) she was good in math, and b) had a dad that instructed her to be sure to grab onto a career that made her some dough, Marcy doesn't come from the film world. Although she's expressed herself visually as a still photographer since she was a teen, she didn't make her first film, Split Decision, until she was in her mid-30s.
I saw her second feature, Inside the Circle, last week at the Dance on Film series featured at the Walter Reade Theater here in New York. This screening is the official close of the film's 2007 festival run and Garriott was very pleased that this year has been bookended by the film's debut in Austin at SXSW last March where it won an audience award (it's a Texas story and Austin is the place Garriott now calls home) to playing here at Lincoln Center. But this is the kind of film that will have a long life for theatrical exhibition in years to come, and, of course, in schools, youth centers, hip hop music and dance festivals, and on and on and on.
While following through on Inside the Circle and waiting for her next directorial inspiration to strike, Garriott is currently executive producing a project called Children in Jail directed by Clark Lyda and Jesse Cunningham. Knowing that making documentary brings together a wealth of different disciplines, Garriott is dedicated to showcasing the best of who we are through her own camera lens.
Directly after the screening and Q&A at Walter Reade, we sat ourselves down in a local coffee shop and got busy talking about, well, pretty much everything.
Still in Motion (SIM): There’s so much out there that purports to be documentary and it’s so contrived, so manipulated, so phoney. I think in the service of what’s happening in nonfiction, presenting truly authentic characters is absolutely key. In the service of that authenticity, you produced, directed, wrote and edited this piece yourself. You achieved an intense intimacy and an easy rapport with your subjects by showing up month after month, year after year to document their lives.
This is something that’s at the heart of whatever it is I’m trying to figure out about what makes certain nonfiction films work, while others do not. Your experience, like that of many documentary filmmakers I speak with, was incredibly rich for both your subjects and for you. That relationship continues well after the film is done. One of the things of which Al Maysles is proudest is his continuing relationships with the subjects of his films because of that initial intimacy he and David created during shooting. Was that your experience with your first film, as well? Was it out of necessity or preference to have it be just you and your camera with no one else accompanying you for shoots and interviews?
Marcy Garriott (MG): For my first film, I was focusing on just one person instead of a group of people, as I do in this film. For Split Decision, I shot interviews with one other person as my crew. I would ask my cameraperson to "disappear," to not talk to me or interact with me so that I could focus on Jesus, so that he and I could really connect. But, for the most part, I chose to shoot interviews on my own for my second film. I had a bit more experience by then, and, yes, part of it was based on necessity. The story was spread all over Texas, and the shoot was so long, I just couldn’t find or have that other person with me. Most people don’t have that kind of flexibility.
But, as I say, I was more experienced. I figured out how to do both at once. I could keep that eye contact with my subject and operate the camera and sound simultaneously. It takes practice. I did that a bit in my first film, but by the time I started shooting this one, I found a way to do it—to keep the image looking reasonable and still connect with my subject. I just love that technique and I have to say, it’s my first choice at this point. It’s very intimate; you can do it anywhere, at any time and just say, “Let’s talk now. Let’s capture this.”
There were times, especially with Josh [pictured at NY screening above, second from left], who was going through a lot during the filming, when I would put the camera down and just record audio. He could talk even more openly without the distraction of the camera pointing at him.
SIM: Did you ever feel at certain times, especially with Josh, almost like a surrogate mom? I want to explore this further later in the conversation, but I was hugely struck by Josh’s and Omar’s relationships with their mothers. [Omar is pictured at NY screening above, second from right.]
MG: Huge contrast in those relationships, absolutely. I would say that, for myself, I felt more like a friend than a surrogate mom because it was important for me to hear and understand them without judging or guiding them.
SIM: Each of the boys’ levels of self-esteem, confidence, security in themselves were directly connected to these relationships. You showed us that without having to say anything in an expository way. You got the footage, those subtle moments that told us all we needed to know about those relationships, such as in the way Omar’s mom waited to cry quietly in the car after dropping her son off at the airport for his first trip out of the country, or bringing him something to drink at his new apartment because he forgot to buy himself something at the market; there she was happily unloading her van with drinks for him. She's quietly, consistently there for him. There are no interviews with her talking about their relationship, just those loving moments.
And just that one moment in the kitchen with Josh and his mom where she slams the cabinet door above his head showed how angry, how furious this woman was at the time.
MG: They both had a lot of suppressed anger at that point, yeah.
SIM: That sensitivity and instinct isn’t something that can be taught. Are you conscious of what’s happening while it’s happening, while you’re shooting?
MG: I’m sure there are things in the film that I figured out later, but things like filming Josh’s mom—you know, she’d never asked to have her life examined or her baggage bared in the film, so I just didn’t want to do that. But I wanted, in a subtle way, to let people know what was going on and that was a way to do it.
SIM: What's the main draw, do you think, to your subjects? There are strong parallels in the characters you chose to film in your first feature and this one. You’re drawn to these stories of young men at a very particular time in their lives. What’s that all about?
MG: The question about that draw is so interesting to me because it’s not a conscious thing. My being drawn to it is something that I have to figure out after the fact. There are clear parallels in the two films. What is it that’s drawing me in so strongly? And I think what I figured out is, first of all, that in that age period from 17 to 25, there are so many things that happen in that time. Are they coming into young adulthood with a good start or not? They're making decisions, making mistakes, finding out what they're really good at. It's the time in our lives where we try to discover what we're passionate about in life, or, maybe not being able to figure that out. With young men, there’s this irresistible combination of vulnerability and sweetness, even, mixed with the part where there’s a need to prove themselves in a masculine and showy way. The fact that those two things co-exist at the same time in the same person is just fascinating and very touching to me. They are just trying to find their way in the world.
SIM: But again, not everyone is able to convey that complexity or those types of struggles in an authentic and meaningful way on film. It’s a tricky proposition. You’re filming “real life.” But narrative arc, the story, the heart of it really has to be in the characters. I think the fact that you’re not a “career” filmmaker and that you do come from a completely different world, as is the case of many documentarians, enriches your ability to tell human-scale stories. I want to ask you, though, are people surprised when they meet you, when they see who you are and realize that you were the one that made this film?
MG: Constantly. It’s interesting. These two screenings in New York are, literally, the first screenings where that hasn’t come up as an explicit issue. People are incredibly open-minded and accepting here of just about anything. But yes, I’m the "wrong" gender, ; I’m the "wrong" age; and I have the "wrong" skin color for this film. I don’t fit into this world in any way, shape or form.
I have to say for the B-boys and B-girls, once we got past the six-month “getting to know one another” period, it was never an issue for them. I was always completely welcomed and made to feel comfortable at every event or location I ever went to, anywhere—Texas, Florida, Europe—everyone was great. We know we as a society at large have these preconceived notions and I was getting this reaction so much, at the beginning, I was like, “Ah. This is what it feels like when people react to you solely on the way you look, wondering how you could do something like that." Why not? Why can’t I do something like "that"? My first film was very similar. Why wouldn’t I be able to do this, tell this story? But that is how people have reacted. And then I began to think that maybe it’s a positive thing in that I’m exceeding their expectations [laughs].
SIM: That's always fun. You’re broadening people’s unspoken prejudices just as you do through your films, about that very thing. I don’t expect to relate to a 17-year-old kid in rural Texas. But that exploration of who we are and why we’re here seems to transcend, if it’s presented in a compelling way. I was so frustrated with Josh. He’s so obviously such a handsome, sweet, good-hearted, smart kid and he was messing up so badly! It reminded me of times when I did the same thing--it's painful to watch.
MG: It takes him a little while to figure out what’s going on and what he needs to do differently. He’s one of these guys that needs to run up against a hard boundary to understand how the world works. And once he did run up against that hard boundary [a jail sentence for what the legal system views as a serious offense], you know, that thing people call “consequences,” he got it. He figured it out. He changed what he needed to change and he’s doing fantastically well.
SIM: Do you think the destiny of his father [he was an in-and-out-of-jail criminal and was, eventually, murdered outside of prison] had some kind of weird impact on Josh? He tells the story of his dad right to the camera in such a matter-of-fact way, but we know that's so haunting for him.
MG: I think it weighed on him. I think he really did have a fear, particularly since he really couldn’t relate to his mom. If he had been closer to his mom, he might not have imagined himself as being so much like the dad he never met. And so maybe he felt like that was his destiny—spending a lot of time in jail and not living very long. Charles, his advocate, was very helpful in helping him through that by telling him that he’s not like that. He needed to hear that from another adult.
SIM: It’s kind of strange filming people who are in serious trouble and not really knowing what’s going to happen to them. You go into it with a sense of your story after meeting and spending time with your characters—you’re a director; that’s what you do. In the course of this film and many others I’ve seen, there’s a “surprise” for everyone, including the filmmaker, that turns out to be the story arc of your dreams. Things are even more dramatic, intense and profound, more interesting than you imagined. What was that point for you? You were with these young people for years, a really long while. Did you start to edit in the midst of shooting? Could you easily identify what was playing out in front of your lens or did you know you had to try and find something in the footage once everything was shot and craft it from there?
MG: There was a two-year period where I was fairly broad-brush in what I was shooting. I was shooting Josh, Omar and Romeo. But I was also shooting a lot of Josh’s crew [Masters of Mayhem] because I thought they were a lot of fun and very interesting. So, I was just following what was happening overall, just trying to be alert to what would emerge. Towards the end of that two years, I could tell that the most interesting dynamic was between Josh and Omar, but I didn’t know at that time what was going to end up happening with them. I had the key elements of capturing these young men that were going to be making a lot of choices, undergoing pressures and so on, both incredibly talented, lots of potential, and both ambitious in their own way, in a good way, wanting to make their marks. I was aware of all those elements. But what would happen to them, with their relationship to one another relative to how they found their places in the world, I had no idea. There was a lot of wondering and worrying about what was next for them.
I started to edit just to see how it might come together [ultimately, with over 300 hours of footage, it was an eighteen-month edit process]. It was only when I started editing that I could clearly see the arc of the film itself. That enabled me to go back and get more of the footage I knew I needed to flesh things out—more interviews and a few still-unfolding events. It came together beautifully. I was happy about what happened to them and how everything folded together into the film itself. So much of the process is just about trust and an openness to what’s happening. It was an amazing experience.
SIM: Why did you decide to edit the film yourself?
MG: It’s my process, and how I make creative decisions. The way I find the story is to edit. It doesn’t come into my head; it doesn’t come to me on a piece of paper; I can’t logically think it through. I have to just physically be in there exploring the footage, playing with it, finding out what works and what doesn’t, finding those beautiful juxtapositions that just happen to work. I’m also well aware, of course, that it’s really good to get an independent perspective. The way you find that balance to work with strong edit consultants, as I did in the last six months of editing.
SIM: One of your consultants, Leah Marino, is someone I admire very much. I have several friends who’ve worked with her.
MG: Well, each of these people saw completely different things. It wasn’t as if they were looking at it and making the same comments. Leah had very distinct comments on things. She would come back and say, “I need to see his face when he’s saying this. I need to see his face here.” And she was right. And I’d add something back in that I’d removed. So I benefited from their amazing insights that at times I was, admittedly, resistant to, but they were right. The film improved immeasurably due to their input.
But I was really intent on working with people who really “felt” these kids that are in the film, that "got" them. I needed to know that they would love them as much as I do. That was absolutely essential. That, in turn, made me much more open to comments and criticisms about the actual filmmaking. All three of these consultants [Kyle Henry, Leah Marino and Joanna Rabiger] really came through in that way and had extremely good suggestions.
SIM: Did you apply for production funding for this project? Did you try the grant route?
MG: This is the thing about being older: because I have the savings from my first career, I do have the luxury—and I really view it as a luxury—to jump in. I know that there are filmmaker friends of mine that are busy looking for investors or they’re going through the grant process and I see how time-consuming, what a long process that can be, a year or more of waiting for answers or monies to come through to get a part or a piece of their project done. I wanted to start capturing the story right away and then when I was ready, to edit right away. I had the option of investing my own savings, keeping the costs as low as I could so I can have some hope of paying myself back, eventually. But I felt that as long as I had that as an option, I didn’t want to take money away from a filmmaker that doesn’t have that option. I’ve had people advise me strongly to acquire funding. But that’s how I feel about it. I know so many people that are really struggling to get their films made. Why take money away from someone who might not have another choice? And, of course, there’s the distinct advantage of jumping right into my project on my own time using my own resources. That’s the reason I don’t work with a full crew. It keeps it lean and mean and low cost.
SIM: In making the shift from the corporate world in which you worked to becoming a full-time filmmaker—obviously something you were hungry to pursue—why did you choose documentary; why did you choose to make nonfiction?
MG: Lots of factors, I suppose. It was an accessible way to start to make films. That’s certainly a part of it. I love narrative film as an audience member. But I also love real people and knowing what makes them tick, figuring out what’s going on. Having the ability to bring a journey like that to life in a film is an amazing thing to me. Classical music composers back in the 1600s and 1700s had very rigid forms within which they had to work. But within those constraints, they’d be able to pull out this incredible creativity and that structure enabled that to happen. Constraint can bring out amazing creativity. I feel it’s that way for a lot of documentary filmmakers, as well. Real life is the major constraint. There are so many things you cannot specify or control or re-do. If you miss something, you miss something. But there’s something about operating within that constraint and bringing forth the most powerful story you can that, to me, is very stimulating. I think if things were wide open for me, as they are in narrative film, I think I might have a perpetual creative block.
SIM: So where does your ethical stance fall on people who do re-create “reality” based on what it is they think they need without really disclosing that that’s what they’re doing? In other words, there's no transparency for the audience and that's quite intentional on the filmmaker's part?
MG: It doesn’t necessarily bother me in principal. It’s all about the integrity of the piece. If you’re still conveying the reality and the truth of what happened, I think that’s fine. That’s part of their creative expression. I’m not rigid about that at all. I don’t do re-creations, but I don’t have a problem with other people doing it. I do have a problem when what is conveyed on screen is not true to the integrity of what actually occurred --where facts have, maybe, been manipulated. I have a problem with that.
SIM: Can you think of an instance or an example where that changed your view on a film?
MG: I can give you a very public example in the controversy that surrounds Michael Moore and his films. I’ll just put it this way: I would not want that to be an issue in my own work. I wouldn’t want people to feel they’d been duped, in terms of things being reversed in time, or portraying someone like Josh in a different way than how he really is or manipulate a situation so it better suits my idea of what I want. The means don’t justify the end in that regard. I’m a big fan of Michael Moore’s in terms of what he’s able to accomplish and his films are entertaining and well done and contribute to an important public dialogue about the issues he covers and all that. I’m not drawn to making films like that, though. I wouldn’t welcome that kind of controversy.
SIM: The scope and ambition of this second film, and the way you crafted it, the successful end product of years of work—what has that given you personally? You must feel a tremendous sense of confidence going into future projects. It’s a huge accomplishment. What’s the difference in this accomplishment as opposed to other pinnacles you’ve reached in your former career?
MG: You can feel a sense of accomplishment in the corporate world and I did. But I never felt I created anything that would outlive me, if that doesn’t sound too trite. And in what I’m doing now, I do feel that it outlives my personal presence and it’s incredibly satisfying. Because this project was so long—it took almost five years—I developed this irrational fear during the editing that I was going to die in an accident or something would happen that would prevent me from finishing the project! People would never be able to see this amazing film that I knew was going to capture something important! I got quite cautious there for a while [laughing]. I knew I had to get it done before I took any risks. I’m also a private pilot, so there was no flying in crazy weather or anything like that before I completed this. Kind of insane, but I was so intent on getting my creative expression out into the world. I also, very much, wanted Josh and Omar and Romeo to touch people’s lives through this film. They really feel like that has been accomplished, too. Through their different paths, they became adults during the making of this film. It captured an incredibly turbulent time filled with so many changes, and you can forget what that was like, you can forget what you went through and how you used to be. I think they really appreciate that that has been captured.
I had lunch today with Charlie Ahearn who made Wild Style. His philosophy about people is that he’s never really met anyone who’s truly driven by money, that the overriding desire for most people is to make their place in life and be respected for what they do. I think that’s what Josh and Omar and Romeo do in the process of the film. They made that place for themselves; in the beginning of the film, they don’t have it. We get to see that happen on screen. That’s very rare. So I know they really appreciate that that's been captured. It’s very emotional. When we watched it together for the first time, there were a lot of tears.
SIM: Are there other stories out there that really speak to you? Are you ready for something else, something you might want to explore or experiment with now that you’ve accomplished this, now that you know that you’ve reached a certain level of proficiency in storytelling, in filmmaking? What are you willing to try now that you might not have been before finishing this project?
MG: I’m all over the map in terms of things that are interesting to me right now, my normal process. I’m like someone chasing butterflies. There’s a lot of interesting things out there. You have to play with it a while to see if it’s something that’s going to speak to you on some deep level.
SIM: You’re obviously drawn to rites of passage. I would think that will be a constant theme for you throughout your career. You're good at telling those stories.
MG: If I could run across another potential like that, I probably would go that direction. But they aren’t easy to run across, these kinds of stories.
SIM: Not to mention another five years of your life.
MG: Yeah. So, in the meantime, I'm asking myself how I can push myself—because that’s really what it’s all about. A lot of people transition from making shorts to features. I started out with feature-length projects and I’m very intrigued by the idea of making some very effective shorts and making a whole film in six months or a year, having the discipline of following it through. Because it’s only going to take six months to a year, I feel like I can take more chances, take more risks. And have it be okay to have failures, things that don’t work out, pushing those concerns aside and experimenting a bit. That’s one way in which I hope to challenge myself. In a way, there are more difficult challenges in making a good short than exist in making a feature.
SIM: I agree. I was fortunate enough to get to go to IDFA this year for the first time, and some of the strongest stuff I saw there was short-form work. I saw some 10-minute pieces that were phenomenal. That form, I find, has to emerge organically, though, just as it did for this film for you to tell the whole story, to have the emotional heft it does, it had to be a full feature-length piece. It would have done the story a disservice if you had tried to cut a television hour or something like that.
MG: I have run across several stories that I think could be told in that way very effectively in a shorter piece. And in terms of this demographic I work with, I’m also very interested in issues of immigration policy and how we treat immigrants and how policy has divided people into camps. And now down in Texas, we’re building this wall that’s completely symbolic; it's not a practical solution. It’s not going to accomplish anything; and it’s bad for the community and the environment. So there are some interesting situations developing—landowners are refusing to let people onto their property to survey for this wall. There are stories like that I’d like to capture.
SIM: One of the most affecting pieces I’ve seen on that particular issue is Wholphin’s Walleyball short where they go down and stage a volleyball game using part of that wall that exists at the US/Mexico border as their net. It’s hilarious and quite effective in its message of conveying how absurd a “solution” this is. It got a lot of national attention from both the media and the government. There’s a lot to be said for that kind of one-two punch. He said it cost them the gasoline for the drive down to San Diego and some tacos for lunch for everybody, basically. You can change people’s minds very quickly that way. But back to the Circle. . .the B-boys show so much love and affection towards one another. There are the macho stances and all that, but there’s a lot of physical displays of affection, too.
MG: Especially in this culture, yes. They’re very physical with one another and comfortable with that physicality, which I really love. And people see it for what it is which is just a beautiful bonding that happens between them. I’ve seen that universally in breaking environments—it’s wonderful.
SIM: Any moments you can remember that took you totally by surprise, that blew some preconceived notion you didn’t even realize you had out of the water?
MG: That was one—that display of physical affection with one another. Also, I had not realized what a global and interconnected scene b-boying is. It exists in small, provincial cities in places like China, in Russia—it’s everywhere. And everyone’s aware of the other dancers that are out there.
SIM: That exists in the underground graffiti world, as well—it’s also global and very connected.
MG: There’s a common language that goes around the world that transcends politics which is so great. They see a connection. And even though the roots of this are American, they don’t see it as being solely an American cultural thing. They know the history, of course, but they do see it as being a global culture and they all feel ownership in it and they share a common language. This is also still very much an underground thing, which is the beauty of it. Look, it’s important for people to be able to earn a living dancing, as we talked about in the Q&A with Rokafella [a long-time B-girl who was sitting in the audience that day]. But, that also brings commercial pressures and expectations. For example, the public might want to see more of the power moves, whereas a lot of the artistry is in the footwork or uprock. You don’t want to create pressures that then suppress the creative evolution. I think that the fact that it's stayed so underground is why it's developed so far.
SIM: That’s the biggest vulnerability of youth culture. It’s that commodification that always bastardizes the purity of it, when it becomes palatable to the Disney or cruiseship crowd.
MG: They want to keep that ownership. And they do.
SIM: Well, I have to say that watching Josh dance at the Universal Studios park in Florida—a job that meant a tremendous amount to him in so many ways—well, I was a bit depressed by that.
MG: I’ve heard that before. Some people see a bit of a sell-out but for him, yes, that was a huge accomplishment to land that job.
SIM: And you feel happy for him, certainly. But the depressing part, I think, is how this pure dance form is “interpreted” for that kind of sunburned, tourist audience that doesn’t really understand what it’s seeing. It’s appreciated on an entertainment level, but most of those folks don’t give a damn about why that art form exists in the first place or what it stems from. The rawness is completely removed; it’s slick and polished—so different from those sweaty clubs with everyone on the floor in a circle around the dancers. But to see Josh feeling like a superstar was, indeed, exhilarating.
MG: Yeah, you do want to get back to the “battles,” to the circle. Josh knew, though, that even while he was performing for tourists, for people that are clueless about breaking, he knew that he did still have that circle, the cypher, the battles, he had that world still open to him and could always be back there, as well. It wasn’t a trade-off for him; he wasn’t losing anything. In fact, he found a means to make money with his dancing.
One of the things that’s been interesting about the film for me is that in my first film, people reacted fairly consistently to different parts of the film and to the character and what happens to him. In this instance, people don't react consistently. People feel differently about Josh than they do about Omar. So it’s nice to see that the film is not directing people in how to feel and they can make up their own minds, there is a wide range of reactions to it. I’ve really enjoyed that. The part that was most interesting were the reactions to that aspect of the dynamic between Josh and Omar, best friends before the movie starts, becoming rivals in the time in which I was filming. I see them both as being very balanced in how they’re portrayed, equally sympathetic people going through their own things and doing their best, both very likable and engaging. In taking this to a lot of audiences, it’s very interesting that a lot of people take sides! Some will be in the Omar camp and blame Josh for everything that goes wrong, and some have the opposite feeling, that Omar’s the “bad guy.” It became this weird litmus test for what people went through when they were young. If people made mistakes that they recovered from, they’re going to relate to Josh. If it’s someone that was very confident, assertive, ambitious like Omar that created problems for them when they were young, he becomes someone they resent because of that role he plays in Josh’s life.
SIM: Conflicts within those bonds are so huge at that age—it’s everything. It can make or break your personal universe. This film illustrates that so beautifully. Your propensity to gravitate towards that age group is because it’s an opportunity to keep exploring all that. It’s very rich and always will be.
MG: It taps into a lot of emotions in people.
SIM: And the visceral expression through dance is always thrilling to watch. These are not classically trained dancers; they’re not in ballet class eight hours a day. But they’re superb athletes.
MG: It does surprise people. They display an incredible level of skill, all self-taught. They’re taking physical risks every single day. I think that stuns people. They think they know what “breakdancing” is and I use quotes around that word because B-boys and B-girls never refer to it as breakdancing. That’s a term that the media came up with in the 80s. But audiences think they know what that is because they have an image based on that stuff we saw in the 80s, that bit of exposure on television shows or whatever. It really opens people’s eyes, that skill, that risk-taking. And it is so instinctive; I actually really love that about it. It’s not calculated at all; moves will happen spontaneously depending on the emotions of the moment. It’s like real life being choreographed.
SIM: It’s performance art, too. I was fascinated with the acting involved. Their pantomimes and their posturing with one another was really exciting to watch. It was tribal.
MG: Lots of non-verbal communication. That’s why they can compete across countries so well. They don’t need to speak the same language because they’re communicating non-verbally and they’re communicating a heck of a lot of information.
SIM: When you first started to film them breaking in competition, were you freaking out a little bit?
MG: It’s interesting, because I felt the intensity of it. It felt very emotional; it felt very intense. But I didn’t know how to interpret it. It was very intriguing to me because I knew they were expressing something far deeper than just an athletic competition would bring out, or a performance. But I didn’t have the knowledge yet to interpret what exactly was happening. It really pulled me in! I wanted to know what was happening. And you can’t learn that by just having one conversation or shooting a competition once. You really do learn by absorbing it and being around it for a long time. After a while, I understand the context of the relationship between people. It’s a slow process but then you have that day where you realize you know exactly what just transpired in a certain exchange. I wasn’t sure how I knew, but I knew I had figured it out.
SIM: Do you see that progression in the footage you shot? Do you see a savvier eye and hand behind the lens than you do at the beginning?
MG: I did see the footage evolve, yes. I don’t know that that’s obvious to people. But once I got the feel of the rhythm, the emotional and physical rhythms of what was happening, after about six months, I could shoot and respond to their moves without thinking at all. I would know when to zoom; I would know when to pan and how quickly; I would know whom to follow and where to take the shot because I knew that if someone did something here, there was going to be a reaction to it over there; and then it’s going to come back. That whole rhythm became part of my rhythm. That’s why I love shooting because you get into that flow. As the director, I know how that flow works. If I used the best cameraperson in the world, he or she would still have to be the one to understand all that, too.
SIM: It becomes something ultra-personal, too. And an opportunity to literally see your progression as a filmmaker. Your footage is a good litmus; maybe not the ultimate one because a lot can be done in the editing room, but, as we know, even a really good editor can only do so much with mediocre or anemic footage.
MG: And it’s fun! It was also an opportunity for me to hone my instinct. What they do is totally instinctual and I learned from that. The more I was around them, the more instinctual I became in my work. That was a nice feeling. The making of the film was a pure joy. The parts that were tough were worrying about them—what was going to happen to them and sorting out the narrative arc of how that story would be told. But shooting and interviewing from beginning to end was just a cool life experience. I can’t imagine any better way to have spent several years of my life than being immersed in their lives.
SIM: And the legacy of your relationship with them. Do you think about jumping the lens and being in your own film, as is the vogue these days? Do you ever think about the kind of journey you might explore if you turned your camera on yourself or were one of the main protagonists in your own story?
MG: I do appreciate other people who do that, but I don’t see myself ever doing that. I see myself always staying behind the camera. The other is just not what I’m there for. I’m there to explore what’s happening outside of myself and getting to interpret that through my innermost emotions. I’m there to experience and immerse myself in somebody else’s world and see things through their eyes; that’s what drives me through this process. I end up expanding my own life experience in a way that wouldn't happen if I focused it back on myself.
SIM: What’s your next story going to be?
MG: I'm still exploring. The way it happens for me is that I'll be in exploration mode and then a day will come and something snaps and I just know that's it. I had that day when I did Split Decision and I remember that moment. It was the same for Inside the Circle. It was actually the night of B-Boy City #8 [the competition that Romeo created and produces every year]. I was exploring, getting footage of them, getting to know the kids, but it was that first B-Boy City event where I knew I had to keep going with this. I had to go really deep into it. It’s unpredictable when that moment happens. So I hope that the next time that happens to me is summer of 2008 [laughs]. That’s my goal. But I can’t predict when that moment is going to happen. So in the meantime, I keep exploring and wait for that flash that says, “This is the next one.”
SIM: So it sounds like more nonfiction filmmaking for the next chunk of your life.
MG: Definitely. My next life experience, yes. Documentary filmmaking is so amazing in what it combines: storytelling, visual art, technology (I like technology; it’s fun to understand how everything works). Documentary is also social activism. What other thing combines all of that? You’re able to help someone have a voice, have people re-think issues.
SIM: I also have to mention, too, that I’m really glad I saw this film in a big theater, with a huge screen and a potent sound system. I see a lot of screeners on my laptop out of necessity, but there’s just no comparison to being able to see something, especially like this, in a theatrical setting. And the Walter Reade Theater ain’t too shabby.
MG: Yes, and even better, to have the B-boys and B-girls in the audience that have been around for years and years here in New York, sitting there and speaking out and contributing to the Q&A—it’s just fantastic.
SIM: They showed their appreciation for this film. That must have felt good. Here these men and women are, in their mid-thirties, honing in on 40, and they’re still dancing.
MG: They’re completely dedicated to it. I’m really looking forward to seeing Rokafella’s [aka Ana Garcia] film project. She’s going to give me some of the footage she has when I visit her on Sunday. I’m anxious to see what she’s put together. She’s talented in a lot of different dimensions. I’m interested to see how she expresses herself in film.
SIM: I’ll bet she’s a good filmmaker. Her film is dance-based and she’s a dancer so I’m sure her way of working is that same instinctual way of taking things in through a camera lens.
MG: She and her partner, Kwikstep, just had a big show at Christmas in Manhattan that got just a phenomenal review in the New York Times. I was so happy for them. I know they weren’t expecting that or going for that. They were all about connecting with their audience and being authentic—that’s what they’re about. But to get that recognition is so great. Hang that on the wall! They were thrilled.
I’ve had that experience when a critic is in the audience and you don’t know they’re there. And then they write this incredible review of your film. That’s really gratifying. We’ve also never really gone after traditional press, traditional journalists. Pretty much all the notice we have received has been online or through blogs, something that we didn’t solicit. That’s something that’s changed since my first experience promoting a film where you either sought out newspaper or magazine press or you got nothing. Now, there’s a whole universe out there that matters. It’s unpredictable, but they’re plugged in, tuned in. I’ve loved that part of the process.
SIM: It’s a bit closer to peer review, in a way, since the people blogging on independent film in all its aspects are artists, too, whether they be filmmakers, producers, directors, programmers, or traditional reviewers and critics. Or, just your run-of-the-mill film freak who can write really well and talks obsessively about film. It’s a group that champions independent voices and is also concerned with the state of the union in terms of commerce, marketing, distribution, PR—it’s all tied in. I think most of us doing this also work from a pretty intuitive place in terms of what we champion, what kind of stuff we gravitate towards, how we express our points of view through our interviews and articles and random thoughts. We’re all students and teachers, both. It’s fun and very gratifying to be able to give people notice that are generally ignored by the traditional press because they're busy covering another episode of Britney spitting up on herself again, or something as equally inane and uninteresting.
I’m constantly inspired by the personal creative process—how a piece of art is imagined, made, crafted and sent out into the world. There’s no mystery really, but all the stories speak very much to the synchronicity and serendipity of certain projects. And that should be celebrated.
MG: In terms of creative process, there’s a great interview with filmmaker Jennifer Fox. I think it was in indieWIRE when she was talking about making her film Flying: Confessions of a Free Woman. The question posed to her was: what advice would you share with new filmmakers? Part of what she said was that you have to respect your own creative process because you can so easily get bogged down into deadline mode, the pressures and expectations of those around you that have their own agenda, you’re running out of time or you’re running out of money, whatever. And your creative process can go out the window and then it just becomes about getting something done. She says that, no, you have to hold onto that and understand what it is and protect it. I really think that’s right. I do know how my creative process works. It does take time and I give it that time and I give it that space to breathe. I don’t know how many times I’ll be able to repeat that; I guess it depends on how many more years I’ll be alive!
SIM: This is also the only way an artist can evolve and why I think there’s so much crap out there. We’re still very commerce-driven and the arts here in this country suffer from that. Although I see that changing tremendously in the next decade, call me optimistic. There is a distinct advantage, as you and I both know, about starting to create on your own terms later in life. You do have more patience with yourself.
MG: You know yourself so much better.
SIM: You respect yourself enough to feel like you don’t need to compromise so much anymore.
MG: I see that trade-off. I have a lot of filmmaking colleagues now and a lot of them are young, in their 20s. Part of me, of course, is envious. I sometimes wish that I had started in my 20s instead of wasting away in a corporate environment for all those years [laughs]. But part of me knows that by the time I turned to this in my mid-30s, I was really ready. For me, it actually worked out really well. It’s the path that I took, that’s it. More power to these young people starting as early as they are—they know what they want.
SIM: There’s something to be said though about people of our generation delving into aspects of youth culture and showcasing that world. We’re able to interpret things from a completely different place. I think it’s rich for both the filmmaker and the subjects and a chance to engage directly with a young audience, too, who can tell you how they’ve been affected by your work.
MG: Going back to what we were talking about earlier, you know, coming in and being a different "demographic"—the way in which that really did help me with the project was that these dancers really let their guard down. They had nothing to prove with me. If someone had come in that was their peer, with a camera and a microphone, I wouldn’t think they would have been willing to show that vulnerability so quickly or so easily.
SIM: I think being female was also advantageous.
MG: Yes. It allows you to see many more aspects of who they are because they’re not feeling threatened and feeling they need to prove anything with you. As long as you have the patience to get that relationship in place at the beginning, the chances are really good to be able to have a deep rapport, a deep trust. I see that intimacy when I watch this film, which, partly, is the result of me not looking like them or coming from their world.
SIM: You also kept showing up year after year—that would, I think, garner a bit of trust, right? I could tell Romeo, in particular, really found his voice through those interviews with you. He’s incredibly articulate and profound. And he was able to say things to you in such a way, that he probably can't in his normal circle.
MG: He was funny, too. We’d be looking at some footage and he’d say, “I said that!?” in a really pleased way. He didn’t really remember what he said until he heard himself say it again.
SIM: Are you headed with all the other snow bunnies to Sundance in a bit?
MG: I am; I’m going for the second half as an audience member. I do love to see films there. I’ve done it that way before and it’s less crowded and chaotic. Also, what I love is, by then, you know what’s getting buzz. It helps to narrow down all the choices of what to see there.
SIM: Definitely go see Stranded and Up the Yangtze, which already got picked up for a theatrical release. Those were two films that I saw at IDFA and the only two, as far as I know, that are also Sundance-bound.
MG: We were in Amsterdam at the tail end of IDFA attending the Black Soil Hip Hop Film Festival.
SIM: Something tells me I would have had much more fun at that fest than I did at IDFA! I can’t wait to see where your next life experience takes you. Thank you.