By any means necessary. That’s filmmaker Sam Green’s latest plunge into crowdfunding his film, A Thousand Thoughts, a “live documentary” in which he will appear live along with archival and other images as the four-person string Kronos Quartet plays along. The subject of the film is the Kronos Quartet itself — we all know their contemporary classical vibe that’s permeated the culture for decades. They truck with the likes of Philip Glass and Laurie Anderson. The ever-changing ensemble is the quintessence of a thriving art culture.
There’s nothing not to like here — the film is about the group but also about music itself and the passage of time—so check out the Kickstarter page (just a few days left) and read Green’s take on this laudatory push into nonfiction creativity.
Please describe this live documentary concept.
I generally say it’s all the elements of a film, but it happens live. So I am on stage and narrate in person. There are images up on the screen — a combination of archival footage and photos and interviews I’ve filmed, and then a live band is onstage performing a soundtrack. So, it’s like a movie, but you just can’t check it out on YouTube while checking your email or binge-watching it on Netflix. Sometimes when I describe the form, people are still like, “Huh?” And so it’s best just to show a photo. I’ve attached a couple from various live documentaries I’ve made. One of these is the band Yo La Tengo. The piece is called The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller. That was commissioned by the SFMOMA in 2012 and we’re still touring all over the world showing that one.
What inspired you to do work with this format.
I sort of happened upon this form in 2009. I was making an experimental film about Utopia and I was stuck in the middle of editing it. I couldn’t get the film to work — to make sense to people I showed it to. At some point, Craig Baldwin at Artists’ Television Access (ATA) in San Francisco asked me to do a presentation about the project. I said, “Sure.” I would show some clips and talk. And because that sounded kind of boring, I would get my friend to do live music. We did this “presentation” and it actually worked just the way I wanted the film to work. Audiences seemed to get it, and everyone stuck around after and talked about the state of the world, the idea of utopia, and what has happened to our utopian dreams? So I filed that away. Interesting. Then someone else asked me to do the same presentation. It was Matt McCormick at the PDX festival in Portland. I made it fancier, wrote better narration and we added more music. And that worked too. It was a great screening and everyone hung out afterwards and seemed to get a lot out of the collective nature of the experience. At a certain point I thought to myself, “I’ve never seen anyone else make anything like this, but why not?” I’ve always believed that the film itself should determine its form. So, we premiered that “live film” at Sundance. It was called Utopia in Four Movements, which then toured all over the world with a band screening it. It was a fantastic experience and I’ve continued to come back to this live form just because I’m fascinated by it, by the power and potential of that kind of kinesthetic experience for audiences.
Does the Kronos Quartet have a story worth telling?
Yes! The thing that surprised me most is that they’ve been around for 44 years and no one else has made a film about them!
Who else in the doc world has had success with Kickstarter?
I have a studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and my neighbors there are Gary Hustwit and Jessica Edwards. They are the doc king and queen of fundraising through Kickstarter. They are fantastic at it. Super smart about their audience and how to reach them. Gary made the films Helvetica, Objectified and many others. He just did a Kickstarter campaign for a film he’s making about the designer Deiter Rams and raised $279,000! They have helped me a lot.
You’re an established filmmaker and this film can’t be that (relatively) expensive — why have you turned to Kickstarter? Did you try to go through other routes?
It’s always hard to raise money for films. Or at least that has always been my experience. And it’s actually harder than ever for some kinds of films. We are living in tough times for sure, and I think a lot of foundations and other grantmakers are in emergency crisis mode. Social issue documentaries are sucking up most of the air in the room these days. I’m not necessarily critical of that, I’m just saying that’s the way it is. The films I am making are political, and certainly the live documentary form is political, but my work is formally radical and lyrical as opposed to didactic; it’s not easy to sell these films in the social issue marketplace. The truth is I’d rather not do a Kickstarter campaign but I’m deep in editing right now and we are going to finish the film by January. I needed to do whatever I could to raise the rest of the budget.
How’s the Kickstarter campaign going?
Having said all of the above, I did one Kickstarter campaign before, and it really changed the way I think of them. I used to be very cynical about crowdfunding. I personally get emails about Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns all the time. It seemed to me really sad that the model we’ve been reduced to in making films is everybody bugging their friends for money! I hadn’t realized that there are tons and tons of people out there who don’t get emails all the time about Kickstarter campaigns and for them there might be something cool about it. I always thought this was a self-serving rationale for people who do crowdfunding, but it really is true that there are lots of people out there who are genuinely excited to help you make your work. They want to be part of the experience. There’s something really nice about that. So, the trick with crowdfunding becomes how to reach beyond your family, friends and fellow filmmakers. That feels important to me.
This one is going well. As I write this, we are 75 percent of the way to the $50,000 goal and we have five days left. We are done on June 28. It’s going to get a bit ugly between now and then, but we’ll make it. We’ll make it.