Writer/Director/Editor Jordan Mechner talks about meeting photographer Don Normark, the breaking up of communities and the importance of stubbornness and guilt.
When did you first hear about Chavez Ravine and see the photographs of the neighborhood?
I was new to Los Angeles in 2000 and came across a review of Don Normark's book of photographs in the L.A. Times. I wondered if he was the same Don Normark whose son I'd roomed with in college. He was, we had dinner and one thing led to another.
What led you to make this film?
Both Don and my wife Jennifer wanted me to do it. I resisted at first, but was drawn by the beauty and power of Don's photographs. The time and place—Chavez Ravine in 1949—is so specific, but the feeling of nostalgia for the vanished places of our childhood is an emotion everyone can relate to.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
We started filming with no backers and no funding. Andy Anderson, Tomi Pierce, Mark Moran, Ry Cooder, Cheech Marin and many others all donated the time, talent, money and equipment that made it possible. Creatively, the biggest challenge was to find a structure for the film that would weave so many individual stories into a coherent whole.
What impact do you hope this film will have? What has the audience response been so far?
The response at festivals and screenings has been more than I hoped for. The film seems to work for young and old alike.
What was a memorable event that happened during the making of CHAVEZ RAVINE?
The most moving moment, for me, was one that didn't make it into the film. We had filmed all day at a memorial service for Manazar Gamboa, who was from Chavez Ravine and had gone to prison, where he became a well-known poet. The magic moment came when one of our other interviewees, Carol Jacques, realized for the first time in her life that Manazar, whom she revered, was the brother of Cenovia, whom she had known as a child (and who appears in the film). If we hadn't done the interview, she'd never have known that. It was emblematic of all the little human connections that get lost when you break up a community. But I couldn't find a way to fit it into the film, as much as I tried.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
A combination of stubbornness and guilt. For two years it weighed on me, knowing that Andy had a Final Cut Pro editing station taking up most of his living room, all loaded up with CHAVEZ RAVINE footage just sitting there waiting for me to come in and edit. And of course that Don had entrusted me with his photographs and was counting on me to finish the movie somehow.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
PBS was always our first choice. There are very few venues for short documentaries in this country, and this was clearly the way to reach the largest and most interested audience.
What are your three favorite films?
Seven Samurai, The Third Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?
Designing videogames... or writing comic books.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
If you have a film you want to make, don't wait for someone to give you permission, or funding, or whatever it is you think you need to get started. Just start. No one wants to hear that you have an "idea" for a movie. But if you're actually making the movie, people will want to be part of it.
Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?
Hitchcock, Spielberg, Kurosawa—because their films are the ones I've studied most closely, scene by scene and shot by shot, as masters of visual storytelling.
What sparks your creativity?
I tend to get more inspiration from reading, traveling and talking to people than from watching movies or TV. This may just be me, but I need to experience something directly, or as close as I can get, for it to lodge deeply enough in my brain to generate ideas that are any good. The ideas I get from watching other movies are more superficial, more like imitation than real inspiration.