Following Sean

PBS Premiere: July 31, 2007Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: Describe Following Sean for someone who hasn't seen it.

Ralph Arlyck: It's a revisit with someone who I'd first filmed as a four-year-old in Haight Ashbury in the '60s. I was living in the Haight, and there was this wonderful, precocious, audacious four-year-old living upstairs from me. I was a film student at the time, and I needed a project, so I decided to film him. I made a 14-minute film, and he talked about pot smoking and the cops and whatever else was happening in the Haight at that time. Then I went back [to San Francisco] in the mid-90s and caught up with him to find out who he had become, who he had turned into. The result is "Following Sean."

POV: In the film, you follow Sean 30 years after you first knew him, but you also reflect on yourself and your own family. How did you interweave those two subjects?

Arlyck: With great difficulty. It was a struggle to bring those two strands together. I was surprised by how personal the film became. But there were parallels between his life and mine, even though we were a whole generation apart. I gradually realized that the '60s had been a time for me of — I don't know exactly how to say it — but of some kind of anguish. I loved the '60s but was also troubled by them. Interweaving the two strands proved a good way to explore some of the things I had been thinking about.

POV: What drew you to Sean to begin with, and why did you take this trip back to the West Coast 30 years later?

Arlyck: I think you only need to see a minute or so of the original film to realize what would draw me to him. He was just a wonderful kid. He was smart and completely at ease and funny. I lived on the first floor, and he lived up on the third floor. He would come down and visit, and I just loved being around him. Then when I had to do this film project, I thought, "Gee, he would be great..." He would run around Haight Street, so I got a little 16-millimeter hand camera and followed him on my skateboard. He's a natural, just wonderful. And as to why I went back, I'd always thought that would be a nice thing to do. People would often say to me, "It'd be great to find out what happened to Sean." You know how those things go, for one reason or another, you don't do it: You can't raise the money, or you're doing other things, or whatever. But at some point around the 25th anniversary of Woodstock, there was a renewed interest in the '60s. That's when I began to think that this would be a viable project.

POV: How did you track Sean down?

Arlyck: Through his grandmother, Hon, one of the characters in the film. She was both a Communist organizer and a rabble-rouser, but also the center of the family. She kept track of everybody, so I relied on her to tell me where everybody was. I would constantly go back to Hon and say, "Who's this and where do I find them?"

POV: For people who haven't seen the film, can you share a little context about who Sean is and who his father, Johnny, is?

Arlyck: Johnny believes in absolute freedom. He thinks that's what it's all about, and since that was a very vibrant question in the '60s — what you owe to the man and to yourself and to everybody else — Johnny is unequivocal about that. He really believes that the free life is the only way to live — that you care for your family but there's also a wider family, a community. When they were all living in the Haight upstairs from me, it was what the media would call a crash pad. People could come and go. It was a welcoming, free place, sort of a revolving door. That's what Sean grew up in, and he did very well in that environment. I think freedom served him well. But there may have been things that he felt he was not going to do with his life. I think he has more of a sense of family responsibility and economic imperatives that are very different from Johnny's. They love each other, but there's a real difference. In some ways that's not surprising — often one generation will develop and respond in opposition to the previous generation. But Sean and Johnny are particularly different in their notions about freedom and responsibility. Sean has a very different sense of the meaning of freedom and what you owe to your family and what you owe to yourself. In a father-son relationship, those questions really come to the fore very quickly.

POV: At one point in the film you talk to Johnny about his nostalgia for the '60s. Can you talk more about your own relationship to that time period? And did you come to any new realizations about the '60s during the filming and editing of "Following Sean"?

Arlyck: It's interesting you mention that scene, because I tend not to be aggressive in my interviewing. But at that point, I was a little bit aggressive with Johnny, because I say to him, "Why is freedom so important?" I push him there a little bit. I guess one of the reasons that I do that is because it's a very troubling notion to me. In the film, Johnny represents what you might call a typical '60s attitude toward freedom, and my relationship to it is much more ambivalent. I'm sort of somewhere between Sean and Johnny on this notion. At that moment in the film, it occurs to me that in a way I'm asking myself, "What is it with you and freedom?"

POV: In both Sean's family and your family, we see three generations. Are there similarities between your two families that you drew on?

Arlyck: I came to realize that there were both similarities and major differences between the two. The similarity is obviously that they were both lefty Jewish families during the '30s and '40s. But the big difference is that Sean's grandparents were important Bay Area Communists, very involved in union organizing, and Archie [Sean's grandfather] had to go underground. They suffered through HUAC [House Un-American Activities Committee] and the McCarthy hearings, whereas my folks sort of dabbled in Communism. At the time my parents would have considered themselves serious left-wing progressive people, but when you look back on it, there was just no comparison. Sean's grandparents, Hon and Archie, were really doing it. That was a very striking contrast — one that I learned while making the film.

POV: Were there any surprises, things that you never would have expected?

Arlyck: I was surprised at how well Sean turned out, although maybe not really, because there was something at his core. When he was four years old, you could see that he was solid. So if you really thought about it, you could predict that this kid was going to do fine. But I guess I didn't think that he would be so comfortable and that he would do so well.

I was also surprised by how much I had missed San Francisco because one of the nice things was that the film got me to go back to San Francisco 10 or 12 times. I really like it and sort of wonder why I ever left. But I think I'm an East Coast person. Malcolm Pullinger (with whom I made the film) is a West Coast person. He spent some time on the East Coast and he went back. Everybody returns to their roots sooner or later, I guess.

POV: So, in the broadest sense, what is this film about?

Arlyck: I think it's about the unpredictability of life. You could say, "So what? We all know that." But I think you watch over a long period of time, you watch several generations and particularly this kid, and you just don't know how lives are going to turn out. It's also about work and ideas about work. And it's about aging. You watch Sean get older. My parents get older. His parents get older. I get older. Everybody ages in the film. It's not a revelation, but it brings it close.

POV: There are certainaly people — baby boomers in particular — who lived through the 1960s, and who would want to watch the film. But who else do you want to see this film?

Arlyck: I want more than just boomers my age to see it. I worried in the beginning that people would say, "Oh, the '60s, we've heard it all. Who wants to hear more about the '60s?" Because there's so much myth and there are so many clichés. The mystique of the '60s is part of advertising, and in some ways, it's been done to death. So I was worried that, except for people who wanted to wallow in nostalgia, there wouldn't be an interest. But when younger people have seen it, they've responded very well, and that's been really gratifying.

POV: Has everyone involved in the film seen the final version? Are they happy with the end result?

Arlyck: Anybody who's had the experience of being filmed knows the result is not quite what you would choose to say about yourself. So I don't think they unequivocally feel that it's a completely accurate portrayal, but by and large they like it. And it's a very laid-back family, a family that just doesn't get very upset about how they are portrayed or who thinks what of them. I'm generalizing, but most of the people in that family take life as it comes and roll with the punches and are not overly concerned about what the world thinks about them. So I think for them it's a nice family record.

POV: Are there other documentary filmmakers who have inspired you?

Arlyck: I tend to like films by Ross McElwee, Alan Berliner and Rob Moss. Middle-aged guys who do the kind of thing that I do. [LAUGHS.] I also like Ellen Bruno's work, and Sue Friedrich and Dan Reeves. Not surprisingly, I tend to like personal-essay films. And then, of course on this film people tend to mention the 7 Up series, but stylistically it's nothing like that since there's no first-person narration in 7 Up. But that's a film that comes to a lot of people's minds when they hear about this one or see this one, since it's a longitudinal look at people's lives over a very long period.

POV: The 7 Up series has reached 49 Up, and it's also going to broadcast this season on POV, so you're in good company. But if you had one piece of advice for a first-time filmmaker, what would it be?

Arlyck: I'll just say what Al Maysles said to me: "Make films." When he said that to me, after I got out of school, I thought, "Yeah, fine, great for you to say, buddy, you know you can do this." But it's really true. It's going to be very tough because there are many, many people that want to do it. It's true that video and video editing are expensive, but it doesn't cost that much. You don't have to do enormous fundraising to make films. Learn a good skill like camera or sound — some skill that's marketable.

POV: Why do you love making films?

Arlyck: I guess the more apt question might be, "Why be an independent filmmaker?" because I don't think I would be particularly interested in working in the industry. Daily-deadline journalism was giving me an ulcer, so soon I realized that was not what I wanted to do. Making films is just a different way of being able to look at issues, questions and the things that troubled me.