PBS Premiere: Sept. 22, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

POV: What is the film about? Could you describe Jennifer for someone who hasn't seen it?

Stewart Copeland

Stewart Copeland: Jennifer is a short documentary about my mother. The film focuses on one day in her career as a teacher, a day when her students spoke to astronauts aboard the international space station. That's about the simplest explanation. If the film can be said to have a "plot" then that's it. I have a hard time explaining it. I made the film after my mother passed away, so it's also about our relationship, how much I miss her, what it feels like to lose a family member and coming to terms with a loved one's death.

POV: How long did it take to make the film? Can you describe the process?

Copeland: It took me nine months to make the film. I began working on it two months after my mother passed away. When I started the project, I thought it would be therapeutic. I thought that working on a film about my mother would help me deal with the pain of losing her. At first I wanted to make a film about the places she had inhabited — the film was going to be a study of spaces and of how a person leaves an impression on a location even after she is gone. So I went to the school where she taught, and while I was shooting I came across newspaper clippings, video and audio of my mother's students talking to astronauts aboard the international space station. I remembered my mother talking a lot about that moment in her career, and I began to feel that focusing on a single event would be a better approach. So I worked for the next nine months on the film, combining home movies, found footage, ambient music and voice-over to recreate one day in my mother's life.

Jennifer: A Still image from Jennifer

A still image from Jennifer.

POV: Can you tell us about the aesthetic choices you made for Jennifer?

Copeland: I wanted the final piece to feel like a memory. That influenced most of the film's aesthetic choices. I feel as if there are some vivid details in my memories — certain images and even smells — but a lot of my memories feel like composites of similar information. Does that make sense? For example, if I think back on my elementary school cafeteria, I can remember exactly what the light fixtures looked like, but the rest of my mental image looks like the gymnasium from Sixteen Candles. My brain uses similar images to fill in the blanks of my memories. So in the film I tried to use stock footage to inform the actual footage and fill in the spaces that were left in the spots where video documentation didn't exist.

POV: The film is a combination of home movies and found footage. Did you shoot any original footage for the film? How much stock or found footage did you look through to find what you needed?

Copeland: I did shoot some original footage. I filmed at my parents' house and my mother's school with a MiniDV camera. The film is pretty evenly split three ways between the footage I shot, found footage and stock footage. I had about 20 minutes of found footage and it was absolutely beautiful and gritty and dreamy, so the hardest part was deciding what to cut. Working with the stock footage was the most difficult. I got it all through an amazing open-source Internet archive called the Prelinger Archives, but to find what I needed I had to watch hours and hours of old science films, animation and space documentaries from the 1950s, just to get a three-second clip or a cut-away shot. It's easy to get obsessed with hunting down the perfect video.

POV: Can you talk about the song that is featured in Jennifer?

Copeland: The song is called "Banshee Beat" and it's by the band Animal Collective. Because the film is so personal, I had a difficult time editing it. I would get really emotional. To make it more manageable, I split it into 30-second slices. Because I was working on it in pieces, I needed a single song running throughout to help keep a consistent pace. I chose the song originally because I felt it had a good tempo and mood, but before I was done with the project I had totally fallen in love with the music. I am very fortunate and thankful that the powers that be allowed me to keep it in the film.

POV: What are you working on now?

Copeland: I'm working on my first feature documentary film. It's about a 70-year-old buck dancer and his relationship with his grandson. It's a blast. It's the longest film I've ever made, so it's a little scary, but I'm having an amazing time. It should be done sometime in November.