LIVES: Jennifer Reeves, filmmaker
"Creativity takes a certain audacity and insistence. It requires insisting upon the time and space and resources one needs to make work. You have to fight for it, when there are more immediate and obvious concerns competing for your attention. "
The difficulty of being a filmmaker is the problem of making it through endless challenges, doubt and dry periods, to the shorter periods of discovery and happiness at surprising oneself. For doing what seemed impossible, a little better than you thought you could.
Right now I’m feeling good, I have a few new projects I’m excited about.
But six months ago I was feeling creatively dead and I had gotten too many rejections in a row, and was too much in debt, which for the moment seemed to confirm my sense that I had nothing left to say. But that seems to be a regular part of the cycle of making time-based work, for many people.
SOMETHING LIKE THE SUN
Making films...I’m thinking it’s like a sunset on a summer night, watching a film under the stars after working seven days straight. Beautiful -- and such a relief! No, that’s too easy. Gratification is further off.
I recall this story I read in grade school: a girl in a future world is bragging about the sun. It only comes out once in five years, and she saw it somehow before the other kids (she moved from another planet?)
So when the sun is supposed to appear finally, these other kids (who only see it as a myth) tie the girl up in a closet to spite her.
So she misses this thing she found so glorious, and will have to wait another five years to see it again.
All that darkness to miss the light, because of being boastful and because of the meanness of others. When they see the light they finally understand the girl a little better, but she’s not likely to tell stories again. But she will if...
Who wrote this story? I don’t know, but it has stayed with me, like the best of films.
I can work on a film for five years, and when it’s done, the difficulty and doubt and hopes were all greater than spending another second with it. The films of mine that people seem to like the most are the ones that embarrass me.
BREAKING AND ENTERING
When I got out of college and had no commercial film connections (but a great liberal arts education and introduction to feminism and avant-garde film and no-budget filmmaking), I tried working as a PA on different semi-commercial projects and several educational ones.
I learned that I wasn’t going to be taken very seriously as a creative or technically proficient person in that environment. Or, I could see the fight was awfully huge to enter that commercial world that wasn’t particularly inviting to my sensibilities or experience of life.
I’m still not particularly good at costuming or making coffee. And hair grooming may be my worst talent.
I’m being a little sarcastic, but you know it to be true -- the movie industry is male-dominated. Or, the most highly respected positions in the film industry are male-dominated. Sometimes there’s just not a ladder to climb from the bottom.
In avant-garde film and documentary film, women have been much better represented and recognized (as directors) than in the commercial (big-money) films. Although there’s still ageism that women have to contend with.
Men’s careers in all arts are celebrated from youth to maturity. Women, well...stereotypes about fertility unfortunately are very related to how women in our culture are valued in other arenas.
Hurdles are there, but I’m feeling fortunate that I’ve been able to make this much of my own work and that people have found it exciting or interesting.
Shown: "The Time We Killed"
For about three years, I didn’t think I’d have the energy or resources or ideas to finish "The Time We Killed."
But I figured it out, found the help or patience I needed. The film has just been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
I’m glad now that back then I decided not to pursue production work, but to work on my craft in my own way.
I’ve developed as an artist and I’m able to communicate more complicated and complex ideas; I’ve not been driven to succumb to consumer culture.
I think it would be a much harder life to spend 14 years working six days a week for someone else and having more possessions.
MAKING IT WORK: PRODUCTION
The time schedule is irrelevant until there are people waiting and demanding you finish your film. This is one reason working with grant funding is great. A film can take the time it needs so that it reaches its potential (maybe not in "slickness," but in thoughtfulness, artistic cohesion -- beauty of a more imperfect, human kind).
But time is money. Or so it works out at the moment. So when your film takes "too long" you can feel like a jerk. Or get the rug pulled out from under you.
Personally, I think time is much more valuable than money, because you can’t buy these things (knowledge, discoveries, inventions) that can be accomplished in time/through dedicating yourself [to a project].
So, I’ve chosen to work less and get paid less, and to spend more time on making work that I haven’t made a profit on. If I had pets or kids to take care of, it would be harder to do that.
But there’s the disease of working too hard, having to produce, having to prove your worth, that happens in art-making these days.
It resembles a little too much the competitive money-making world of today’s late-capitalism. It’s not possible to be immune from the pitfalls of your own culture, but you can be mindful of it.
Sometimes my films include references to real-life incidents, but they're usually fictionalized in some way.
In my film "Chronic," a Welsh terrier runs by the main character and an inter-title says "Sparky’s alive!"
That’s in reference to my dog, who had just died. On film he will always live.
I could never imagine one thing I’d like to change in any of my films, because honestly, as soon as a film is done, my awareness of the little mistakes begin multiplying.
I always work on my films as long as I can make them better, or until I have some worthy deadline, or until I’m not going to learn much by sticking with it anymore.
After the sound and picture are "married" on a print, and the negative has long been cut, the film is done for me. I grow with every project, so I'm happy when I don’t make the same mistakes I made in earlier films.
IF FILMS DIDN’T EXIST...
If films didn’t exist, we’d lose an important direct human language and art form, much beauty, and we’d lose a lot of brain-rot too. Some films infuriate me for the wasted resources. Yet I feel nourished by other films.
But in most cases the character of the experience is not the film by itself, but what someone communicates/shares through it. But that points to why I love experimental/avant-garde film, films that really create something unique to the film form (texture, color, visual rhythm, grain, visual poetry, etc).
These are things you cannot get in any other art form or life experience. It’s not "escape," which you can get in other ways. It’s not just entertainment or education or selling you something.
It is what it is; it's individual and personal and beautiful, and nothing can replace it. Many people live without this pleasure already (avant-garde film is not marketable, profitable or readily available), but when I discovered this world of film I felt my life was enriched and my perspective opened up.
Creativity takes a certain audacity and insistence. It requires insisting upon the time and space and resources one needs to make work.
You have to fight for it, when there are more immediate and obvious concerns competing for your attention.
In creativity, openness is equally important and so is being able to admit what many people would like to deny -- awkward, painful truths about life or about how things happened. To be willing to speak out loud with shamelessness.
I "speak" best without words sometimes, so I chose the sound and image of film.
I’m really furious that I’ve become so tired of being furious. I just can’t believe that people get so excited about hating and hurting other people that live or look differently.
I just cannot see the purpose it serves (except that it makes you appreciate loving, open-minded individuals). I’m also genuinely puzzled why anyone thinks George Bush is "likeable."
AROUND THE BLOCK
Yes, there is certainly such a thing as creative block, because people believe it to be so. That dreaded condition has different causes in different people.
For me, it’s about being depleted after giving too much energy to a project, and not taking in enough new experiences.
It’s about being out of shape: if my mind has been too focused on the PR and networking realms of being a filmmaker for too long, then it takes some time to shift back into a more creative mode. Creative block can also be about needing a rest (how creative I feel after a good night’s sleep!)
It’s strange how the influences I had 10-15 years ago sometimes stand out more than my recent influences (which, maybe I haven’t yet seen their impact). Bruce Baillie, Su Friedrich, Marguerite Duras, Emma Goldman, Luis Bunuel, Doris Lessing, Tsai Ming-Liang, Claude Cahun, Stan Brakahge, Cannonball Adderly, Rainer Maria Rilke and just too, too many more to mention.
IMAGE VS. SOUND
In film, images and sounds are equally important, which is why they should never be redundant, telling you the same thing. Each must be considered vital and independent, complementing each other, not echoing each other too much.
Bresson’s "Notes on the Cinematographer" is a book so concise on the relationship between image and sound, I like to recommend that book to beginning filmmakers.
Sound is often neglected or put on the back-burner in film. I myself do my sound mix as I’m editing. Because the sound is essential in feeling the rhythm of the edit. Sense of time changes for an audience member based on the sound/image relationships.
Shown: "When It Was Blue"
"If films didn’t exist, we’d lose an important direct human language and art form...It’s not just entertainment or education or selling you something. It is what it is; it's individual and personal and beautiful, and nothing can replace it."
I also don’t have musicians score the film after it is done I prefer music to be created independently, to have its own reason for being. In “The Time We Killed,” I showed images from my film (not entirely edited) to musicians I know and love (Elliott Sharp, Pitt Reeves, Zeena Parkins, Marc Ribot) and they all responded by composing beautiful, strong pieces that stand on their own.
And then I brought these compositions into the film in ways not anticipated by the musicians, often editing the montage of picture to the music, rather than the other way around. I like the driving force of a scene to oscillate between picture and sound.
SCRIPTING VS. IMPROV
I've made 12 short films and one feature (all that have shown publicly) and I have yet to complete a script before beginning to shoot a film.
I work more from outlines and note-cards and I revise the “script” after I shoot and respond to the footage by furthering the script and then shooting again.
I shoot, write, edit, shoot, write, edit, write, shoot, edit, write, write, write and then edit. (And when I say “shoot” I also mean that to include recording the sound, which is also done from the beginning and not necessarily “on film”; I record sound independently of image.)
This method has worked great for shorts; it’s a proven-effective way to make documentaries and personal or experimental films.
Yet it is an inefficient method for longer-form fiction film -- I learned this in the years-long making of my first feature length work, “The Time We Killed.”
But as long as I went “over schedule”, what resulted was something that could never have been preconceived. The film turns traditional film form on its head, and it works!
The film has done better than anyone might have expected. It just got me nominated for an Independent Spirit Award -- the “Turning Leaf” Someone to Watch Award. I don’t like to be watched (but do like my films to be watched)!
It’s both surprising and encouraging to me that despite not having yet secured distribution for the film, that it has been seen and enjoyed enough at its festival screenings to get this honor.
Shown: "The Time We Killed"
I wrote, shot, edited, directed, sound-designed and optically-printed “The Time We Killed” -- and did most of the errands and phone calls too!
During the last couple years of the production I had a handful of kind and creative souls helping me out a lot: especially my co-producer Randy Sterns and assistant editor Danielle Lombardi and all-around darling Bill Wu.
Their help makes me want work with even more people on my next film (and take on fewer jobs myself) and I think it’ll work out best to have a finer map drawn out first.
My next feature will incorporate some level of improvisation, I’m sure, but I’ll have a more complete script (than I’ve previously written) before shooting the first scene.
I’ve been reading "The New Yorker" rather ravenously these past six months, because I'm so sick of sound-bite news.
I’m in a period where I don’t listen to a lot of music because my stereo broke a few months ago and I’ve been too busy to get it fixed. And I think I feel too serious right now, anyway. The “election” results really knocked me on my ass and I don’t feel up for dancing yet.
Right now I’m finishing up the shooting/editing of a film and music performance that I’ll be showing in the Premieres program at the NY MoMA.
I’ve done a few of these performances in NYC, Iceland, and at the Toronto Film Festival.
This one is still unfinished, so it’ll be a brand spanking new, shiny, double-projection, 16mm film with a live original score by Skúli Sverrisson (played also with Anthony Burr and a few other musicians not confirmed at press time).
It’s called “When It Was Blue,” and though it is not referencing the recent discussions of “blue” and “red” states, it does talk about the longing for another time, paradise, when water was really blue!
And when art wasn’t so hip and ironic. Life before my dad got cancer. The film will be lush, painful beauty that you cannot hold onto, but you’ll not forget.
I’m using two projectors to superimpose images I’ve made of landscape (islands: Iceland, Manhattan, the Pyramid in Pyramid Lake, New Zealand, and Galapagos) and hand-painted film frames -- tens of thousands of colorful little light paintings.
Not to be attempted on video; if 16mm is going to die, I’m going to give it a nice farewell these next few years.
Shown/header image: Jennifer Todd Reeves/Photo: Bill Wu
Author/artist bio: Jennifer Reeves (born in Colombo, Sri Lanka) is a Brooklyn-based indie filmmaker, whose work has shown internationally (from the Berlin, Rotterdam, New York and Sundance Film festivals to the Smithsonian Museum, the Tokyo Gay and Lesbian Film Festival and the Cinemathéque Français in Paris.)
Her debut experimental-narrative feature “The Time We Killed” premiered at the Berlinale 2004 and was awarded a FIPRESCI prize (from the Federation of International Film Critics).
Reeves, as director of the film, has just been nominated for the Turning Leaf Someone to Watch Independent Spirit Award.
The film also won “Best NYC Narrative Feature” award at the Tribeca Film Festival and “Outstanding Artistic Achievement” at OutFest in L.A. Reeves is a Visiting Professor of Film at Bard College.
“The Time We Killed” is looking for distribution in the US and other countries.
Interested festivals, exhibitors and distributors can contact the producers, Jennifer Reeves and Randy Sterns, at: email@example.com.
In Canada, the film is available from the CFMDC.
Visit official site: Jennifer Reeves
Read in-depth profiles with other creative artists, in the DEC('04)/JAN ('05) issue of "Arte Six."
RELATED EXTRAS: Additional links about Reeves
"The Time We Killed" reviewed at the Vancouver International Film Festival; Essay by Mark Peranson, Berlin Film Festival 2004;"Jump Cuts, New York independents in Berlin" by Dennis Lim
RELATED EXTRAS: Related booklist
"Projections 13: Women Filmmakers on Filmmaking", "Film Fatales: Independent Women Directors", "Women Filmmakers: Refocusing", "The St. James Women Filmmakers Encyclopedia: Women on the Other Side of the Camera", "Rebel Without a Crew", "What They Don't Teach You at Film School", "How to Shoot a Feature Film for Under $10,000 (And Not Go to Jail)", "Digital Filmmaking 101","303 Digital Filmmaking Solutions", "Producing Great Sound for Digital Video", "Nuts and Bolts Filmmaking", "Living in Oblivion"(film), "The Independent Film Producer's Survival Guide", "Shooting to Kill", "Projections 11: New York Filmmakers on Filmmaking", "Visionary Film", "The Garden in the Machine"