Upon discovering the captivating photography work of Mark Hogancamp in an issue of ESOPUS Magazine, an arts journal that is published twice a year featuring "aspects of the contemporary cultural landscape," Los Angeles based editor, Jeff Malmberg, got in touch with Hogancamp in hopes of doing a short cinematic portrait of the man and his work. Four years later, after dozens of self-funded trips from his home on the west coast to Mark's home in upstate New York, together, Malmberg and Hogancamp came out the other side of an incredibly intense and life-changing journey for both of them. (The director, pictured left, next to his subject, Mark Hogancamp.)
The result of their magnificent collaboration is a feature documentary--Malmberg's first--called Marwencol. (Be sure to check out the film's fantastic website to read about Mark's story and to see his creations). The film débuted at the South by Southwest festival in March of this past year, and walked away with the grand jury documentary prize, the first of many festival awards including the Cinematic Vision Award at Silverdocs, Der Standard Readers' Jury Award at the Vienna International Film Festival, and the Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Filmmaker Award from the International Documentary Association. An unabashed critics' darling, as well, the film received The Boston Society of Film Critics' Best Documentary award and voted Malmberg Best New Filmmmaker of 2010. Marwencol is currently rolling out what is proving to be a very successful theatrical release through New York-based distributor, The Cinema Guild in the US and KinoSmith in Canada. The film and its maker have gathered a slew of nominations, including four from the Cinema Eye Honors, and Best Documentary and Truer Than Fiction noms from the Spirit Awards.
When the film played at the 2010 Sheffield Doc / Fest in the UK in November, I moderated the Q&A for one of Marwencol's screenings with Jeff and his wife and producer, Chris Shellen. Both are engaging, open-hearted people and it was clear they were having the time of their lives (although they both had flu and Jeff had injured his arm). The audience was deeply moved by the film and obviously charmed by Malmberg and Shellen--as was I. Between theatrical engagements in San Francisco and Berkeley in Northern California, and the film's opening in Denver, Colorado, Jeff took some time to chat with me over Skype from his home in LA about the past five incredible years of his life.
Still in Motion (SIM): How’s the rock star tour going? Does it feel like a rock star tour?
Jeff Malmberg (JM): It does, except for the budget and no wild stories. But other than that, it kind of does feel like that, yeah.
SIM: And congratulations, as well, on all the nominations and critical acclaim—that must feel pretty wonderful.
JM: It does. But the audience reaction to the film is really the big thing. It’s so amazing to see how Mark’s story goes over. It’s really interesting to see.
SIM: Has he been able to accompany you to theaters some of the time?
JM: No, but occasionally we’ll call him so we can do a phone Q&A for a couple of minutes. He likes doing that and the audience really likes hearing from him. He came down to New York for the opening there [at the IFC Center].
SIM: I would think it still must be very difficult for him to be in large public spaces with lots of people around.
JM: Yeah, but I think it helps him to know that everyone's on his side. He’s not comfortable flying and not comfortable with a lot of people who don’t know him. It’s usually not really what he’s up for. He handled the New York thing really well because I think he felt like everybody there was going to protect him.
SIM: I’ve had the opportunity to see firsthand an audience react to the film and to Mark's story. Why do people love this film so much, do you think? What is it tapping into, in your opinion, in terms of the zeitgeist right now? What are people responding to?
JM: There’s something about Mark that’s really honest—a lot more honest than probably most everyone is in the course of a normal day. A lot of us convince ourselves of certain things that maybe aren’t above board and we know it. Mark is so incredibly honest. He made a promise to himself that in his "second life," as he calls it, he would never lie. In the film, for instance, when he’s explaining how Deja Thoris' time machine was built, he doesn’t necessarily want to tell you those details, but he has to, you know? [laughing]
The other thing I think the film taps into is the notion of alter egos, alternative creations, being another person or representing yourself with some kind of avatar, either online or what have you. Here’s this person that’s taken that concept to the nth degree.
SIM: My admiration for Mark is in his absolute monk-like devotion to what he’s doing, how he’s living his life, tending to his own wellbeing with everything he has. You, in turn, display that kind of attention and nurturing in the way you record him. There are lots of other—quite distracting—elements in this story. Obviously, we want to conduct this interview without divulging any spoilers since those “surprises” are such an essential part of the human being that’s being revealed to us.
JM: I agree. But what we can say is that he’s one of those really special people who is just not kidding around. Initially, it might be easy to dismiss him in one way or another. You think you understand this guy or you can see what he’s doing as just kind of sweetly “playing with dolls,” or whatever. But as I got to know him, and as audiences get to know him, you realize that he’s one of those people who is on a mission. He’s using every moment in his day to try and scale this mountain, so to speak. And it is a really beautiful thing. Frankly, it’s just downright inspirational. What he’s created is monumental, mentally and physically.
SIM: The film is remarkable, too, for the way in which you juxtapose the footage to the events in the unfolding story. It psychologically matches the relationship that developed over the course of those years you were filming, as you were growing a relationship with one another. I think the way in which you put this piece together really speaks to that, and totally justifies the liberties you decided to take with the chronology of how things were revealed to you. Your intuitive decision-making in that regard was really in high gear. To me, that is the essence of a really good documentary filmmaker. It’s so obvious to me when someone has that. The curator from ESOPUS that discovered Mark’s work and took it public has that instinct, too.
JM: You’re hitting on the most interesting part of the process for me and one I don’t really get a chance to talk about. I first encountered Mark through his photos and this backstory of his that was so fascinating. But it was one of those experiences where you really need someone who’s ready to go down that road. Many people at Q&As ask me how Mark let me in; everyone wants to know about this access I had to this person.
The short answer is that I met someone at a time when I really wanted to get down to it in a pretty serious way as a filmmaker. The smart things I did, looking back, were going to see him and film him by myself for the longest time. I never set up any lights or reflectors; most times I didn’t even take a tripod, I would just balance the camera on my knee. So all that was helpful. But more than that, I had encountered a person who was really ready to let it all go. We were two people who wanted to go down that same road, a road of discovery. We both knew certain things, but there were also other things we didn’t know, things we didn’t yet understand. He certainly didn’t understand it all when we started. Our quest was the same one and together we could figure it all out.
I had a lot of scenes, for instance, of us going to the courthouse, or to meet the woman who found him on the side of the road the night he got beat up, Nora Noonan, who is this really wonderful person. We went with her to see the spot where she found him. But somewhere along the way, I realized that these scenes weren’t necessarily really germane to the arc of the story. It was, however, important background that we had to do together.
SIM: Sounds like an archeological expedition.
JM: It was totally like that! I was filming from 2006 to 2010, six to ten years after his attack. One thing that struck me as I was getting to know Mark during that time, and that I hope is reflected in the film, is the process he goes through as a victim of an incredibly violent incident. He’s constantly chewing on these negative equations of this post-traumatic stress disorder. He’d been doing that for close to a decade. It would have been better, of course, if his therapy hadn’t been cut off like it had; maybe he wouldn’t have been in this situation of having to figure things out for himself. That being said, if you’re going to do a documentary about someone and that someone is going to open up everything to you, it’s important to make sure that he’s going to get something out of it, too.
SIM: Well, what’s a bit ironic—and I’m sure I’m not the first to point this out—is that I don’t think any expert or therapist, or what have you, could ever have accompanied him on the journey he takes, the one you took with him with your camera in tow. That is the most moving thing about this film for me, Mark’s self-salvation, with very little help from anybody. We live in a society where it’s very common to look outside ourselves for help, for aid, for support.
JM: In order for us to show up, all the other people have to show up.
SIM: There was no one there for Mark, and this was someone who really needed help! His discovery of this incredible inner reserve as a newly born person is, indeed, inspiring. There’s no other word for it.
JM: The biggest thing I learned during this whole thing was that there is no replacement for using your heart. A documentary from fifty years ago or a doc made today—if they’re well made, they have this overlap, this idea of kindness and appreciation. If you look close enough at anything, it’s possible to see beauty. I didn’t expect to find a teacher like Mark. I thought I was making a little eight-minute short of somebody who plays with dolls in his backyard, who’s created this really rich fantasy world and photographs it. I didn’t expect to go on this journey. This might serve as some sort of template for me as I continue to make more films. Go find something that fascinates in some way and jump in. And take your camera with you. I don’t expect all of these ideas to pay off in the way this one did. My wife and I joke about our “doc-of-the-week” ideas. Let’s go make that film! And next week, it’ll be something else. Sparks are easy.
SIM: Short attention span cinema.
JM: Exactly. I think it’s best to always just think of these potential projects as short films and let it be a surprise when it turns into a feature.
SIM: Not a bad strategy. Let’s circle back to the onslaught of regard for this film. As a début feature director, it’s obvious you’ve splashed big, at least in the American market which is probably the toughest market there is, particularly for documentary. And as documentary makers, it seems the world toys with us endlessly to see if we’ve really got what it takes to make nonfiction films. Most of the best makers I know just have this inexplicable devotion to the craft of making nonfiction and the rest seems like so much background noise as they go about their work, as you have done with this film.
JM: I think I’d be extraordinarily lucky to meet anyone like Mark again and I was incredibly lucky in meeting him when I did. But there’s always the next step: what do you do with this “stroke of luck,” do you know what I mean? I always want to get inside people’s heads; it’s an interesting place to be. It’s something you can do in documentary that you can’t do in narrative. It happens in novels, maybe. Mark let me inside his amazing head.
There’s really nothing to understand about the “business” end of things in making these kinds of films. It’s mind-boggling. I really appreciate the response this movie is getting right now. But you know as well as I do that on another level, this was not a “grant-able” or fundable film. All these dynamics I encountered during this project were kind of through a side door. What I can tell you is that now I do want to buy some new equipment [laughs]. I just bought some sound equipment and now I’m looking at cameras. I just want to be in a place where the next time something comes across my path that I want to do, I can just go out and shoot it.
SIM: You started out with the intention, as you said, of making a short film about Mark. When you realized you had a feature on your hands, to whom did you turn for advice besides your inner circle of producers?
JM: It always was only that inner group, the four producers on the film—my wife, Chris Shellen, and my friends Kevin Walsh, Tom Putnam and Matt Radecki. And me. That was it. We didn’t really show it to anyone at all. We didn’t know anyone to show it to! It’s only now after moving through this festival tour that I’ve met all these great people with whom I do want to consult and show cuts to the next time. It would be great to have that input. As an editor, I really thrive on that, and I need it.
SIM: All that input can be a mixed blessing sometimes, too.
JM: Yes, definitely, it’s got to be when you’re ready for that. I didn’t even show anything to those four producers for the longest time. I wanted to get lost. At least in this case, it was appropriate to get lost. Mark had created this world that was so vibrant, I wanted to get lost in it. I also knew those four people would make sure I didn’t get too lost [laughing].
Once the film was at rough-cut stage, it was really Janet Pierson [the director of the South by Southwest Film Festival] who saw through the crummy video output to the film’s real beauty. She could see what it was going to look like and was the first one to really champion it and program it. That was everything for us in terms of launching this film.
SIM: Well, considering you walked away with the documentary grand jury prize, her instincts were spot-on.
JM: It was a dream come true. I remember calling Mark from the bathroom after it happened. “Mark, Mark, we just won the grand jury award!” In his mind, grand jury means something else completely. So he goes, “Grand jury! . . . Is that good?”
SIM: That puts things in their proper perspective pretty darn quick, doesn’t it? [laughter]
Do you find the festival junket and constant Q&As a surreal experience? I’m asking this for a specific reason since I conduct a good number of Q&As with artists and filmmakers regularly. It’s such a weird experience to present the person who made the work to an audience that just experienced something pretty intense, pretty wild. This instant dialogue is meant to happen when people are still processing. But there’s the expectation that there’s this amazing opportunity to talk to the maker—ask brilliant questions--go!
JM: I know exactly what you mean. It’s a bit unfair to an audience. Everyone’s still processing what they just saw, the lights come up and I bound up there and say, “Hi, I made the movie. What do you want to know?!” You can kind of see a certain anxiety on a lot of people’s faces, especially if it’s not a festival environment. Chris and I were just in San Francisco and Berkeley this past weekend and I saw that on their faces there. This was a weeklong engagement at a Landmark theater. There’s this weird adjustment period that can be very awkward.
But I will say what we realized doing all these Q&As was that it’s really important to always make sure that you work on a subject that you don’t mind talking about for a solid year—or longer. The great thing about Mark and Marwencol is that I don’t have all the answers to that; I never will. I’m a pretty studied person on all this and, in part, can be everybody’s tour guide, but the audience actually informs me and makes me rethink things constantly. It would be really tortuous otherwise. We find that the questions people ask, for the most part, are very subjective in nature.
SIM: That’s the best litmus, I think, for the success of a film. Do people take it to heart and really resonate with it in a personal way? This guy is, or could be, any one of us. But how many of us could self-heal like Mark does, in that particular artistic way? And not to sound completely cheeseball about the whole thing, but you really feel the love you have for him—it’s there in every shot. Yikes, I sound like a Hallmark card, sorry; I can hear you laughing.
JM: I’m laughing because I’m not necessarily that person all the time. But that kind of love and devotion was required. I was talking to you about this at Sheffield when we were discussing how every movie should match its subject—the form of it--especially in documentary. You don’t really know what the form of what you’re making is ultimately going to be. You really can’t if you’re doing it with any amount of integrity. And you really need the person you’re shooting to be on the journey with you. You don’t really know the “genre” your film will fall into until you’re done shooting. As I was shooting, all I really knew was that I wanted to bring it, because I just care for that guy so much. That soaked through, I guess. And hopefully, it’s representative of how the audience feels. I just read a review that said, “Movies rarely let you inside someone’s head. But this movie pops open Mark Hogancamp’s head and lets you jump in.” That made me really happy because that’s sort of what I was going for. What is it like to be on the other side of that crime? So often we hear from the aggressor’s side, the prosecutor, perhaps, but the victim is always this kind of MacGuffin in that his or her situation gets the story going and then they sort of take a backseat to the "action." But I wanted to try and show what it’s like to really be that victim, on the other side of evil. What does it take to get the trauma ground out of you, and can you ground it out?
SIM: Or the ways in which you just can’t. You don’t supply any nice, happy ending, that’s for sure. What’s so beautiful about docs is that you show one aspect, one part of a real person’s life. The movie may end here but that life goes on. It’s one thing to admire a fictional character, but it’s quite another to know that this person you just spent an hour and a half with is still out there somewhere just living his life, still processing what happened to him in his own distinctive way, still creating all this remarkable art work because it’s the only thing that makes it possible for him to go on. The role of artists in our society right now is a really dire one, I think. It’s really rare to find someone that pure in the way they express themselves.
JM: Mark brings up a lot of questions that I’ve always been interested in, particularly this idea of “outsider art.” What exactly is that term supposed to mean? Outside of what, exactly? He’s somebody who has to do this; he has no choice. He’s not doing it to impress people. He’s doing it because he wants to express something about himself, to himself. When those people are labeled “outsider artists”—I don’t know. It’s so incredibly ridiculous to me. I’ve never understood that and I didn’t really want to make a movie about that. To me, Mark is the perfect example of why that term is owned lock, stock and barrel by the commercial art world.
SIM: It’s just one more thing to commodify. What you just expressed really nicely articulated something I’ve been thinking about lately. As someone who writes about art, I’m currently going through what I can only call a severe case of paralysis about writing something about anything anyone is making anymore. It seems so pointless, such an inane exercise in many ways. I don’t even know what I’m writing about. A movie? A social cause? Some artistic phenomenon? It’s fabulous to celebrate good work but I’m really questioning the exact value of doing that. It’s all a self-referential nightmare after a while. [Malmberg laughs] Anyway, I really like what you just said.
JM: We had some people from New York see it recently who are from the art world—you know, capital A, capital W. Their reaction to the film was really interesting. I don’t think they quite knew what to make of Mark.
SIM: What were their impressions?
JM: It was their lack of impressions. They said, “Thank you very much,” and they left.
SIM: Well, I suppose you can be flattered if you left people like that speechless. That's something, I guess.
JM: I hope it shook them a little. I don’t know. That’s why I always subscribe to ESOPUS. I think a lot of what that publication does makes you question those boundaries, those lines, those rules. Mark naturally brings up all those questions.
SIM: But he had a taste of that gallery world and we see how confusing and, ultimately, meaningless it is for him. It's like a Martian landing in the midst of that world and you see the people there trying to adjust to his frequency, some willingly, some not. But he is really not able to adjust to their frequency at all.
JM: As much as I got along with Mark from the beginning and really felt a kinship with him, it wasn’t until we got to the art show that it really sunk in for me what this movie was going to be about. Thank god for videotape or a card where you can just keep rolling. You just never know. I remember that moment very clearly when he asked me outside the gallery what in the world he was supposed to do. I could see how bewildered he was. The whole last period of time that I’d been shooting with him, which was pretty substantial, immediately ordered itself in my mind. I think the audience gets set up in this, as I was set up, in thinking that somehow the art world was going to solve all his problems, that we were going to go on that typical narrative journey where getting to the "big art show" was going to make him better. We want him to be better, right? We’re used to narrative fixing people, in books or movies, or whatever. But in real life that’s not always really the case. Your use of the word Martian made me think of that. That’s what it felt like for me.
Now that the movie’s done, I can say that I feel like the time for analysis and discussion is before or after the making of a film. But if you’re engaging in any of that during, you’re sunk. There’s a time where the work is pure muscle; you’re just showing up every day with your camera. Then there’s time to do the work with your heart and there’s a time to intellectualize with your mind. I have to be very careful in these interviews to really convey that I did not know ahead of time a lot of what I discovered. The mystery and loss of control was the wonderful thing about it, the best part, to my mind. I would hate for some wanna-be first time filmmaker to get the wrong idea. In a lot of interviews I do, it seems like the person interviewing and crafting the conversation is setting things up to make me look a lot smarter than I actually was about all of this. It’s just not true.
SIM: Were you fearful a lot of the time you were shooting with Mark?
JM: Yes! There were many periods where I had no idea what I was doing. And here I am with all these wonderful prizes and nominations for my directing and editing work. So, the next time I’m that frightened, I’ll just think, “Oh wait. I must know what I’m doing somewhere. The last time this happened, I got nominated for awards!” Maybe I don’t have to be so frightened next time [laughter].
Seriously, the real honor is that I had a subject with whom I could get that lost and get so upside-down about. But I hear from filmmakers all the time about how they set out to make a certain movie; it was going to take exactly one year from start to finish; and they made it, the end. And these are mostly movies I don’t really vibe with most of the time.
SIM: So what I hear you saying is that fear and uncertainty are good.
JM: As long as you’re willing to work through them, they are. You’ve got to keep pushing. All I can say to someone considering making documentary films is that you’ve just got to have an undying, burning desire for it. It’s really a format that can be very user-friendly if you’re willing to go for scaling the wall, for a crazy idea. Or something that really matters.