Jason Silverman (JS): I’ve heard you say this was the most difficult film you’ve ever made.
Alan Berliner (AB): Without question. Certainly Nobody’s Business was the most emotionally draining thing I’ve ever done, but just for sheer filmmaking challenge, is easily the most difficult, the riskiest. If you think of filmmaking in terms of something like Olympic diving, then I suppose this film has what they call a very high ‘degree of difficulty.’ For the first time I’m the fish, the fisherman and the cook. The main subject, the main character and the author. Sometimes I just wanted to run and hide from such emotional and creative pressure.
But the film didn’t exactly start out that way. At one point it seemed as though I was on a path towards making a much more traditional documentary about the subject of names. After the emotional intensity of my two previous films, I felt the need to do something broader and less intense. Something with a more humorous edge. Maybe I just wanted to breathe out a little bit.
JS: That explains the visits to the name societies and the street interviews.
AB: Yes. In fact the opening of the film to a great extent describes the true journey of its making. I thought (naively so) that I was going to make ‘the definitive film’ about names, and set out with that in mind. I traveled to the Jim Smith Society annual meeting, to the National L.I.N.D.A Convention, and especially out onto the streets of New York. I spent a day in Harlem talking about African American names, a day in Chinatown talking about Chinese names… I must have interviewed thirty different women about the issue of marriage and maiden names.
It took me a while, but I realized I was looking for something I couldn’t find, trying to solve a problem that wasn’t mine to solve. In any event, outside of some important, fascinating and even humorous information — there are actually some truly provocative anecdotal, statistical and historical things to know about names — no matter how hard I tried to dress it all up — the results were boring. Maybe the subject was just too big? Maybe I’m not used to doing something without having a real personal stake in it? Frankly, it felt as though I was making someone else’s film.
JS: Can you talk any more about the early cuts of the film and how they pushed you in a different direction?
AB: Because I was trying to cover a seemingly infinite list of name issues — kind of like hanging laundry, piece by piece on the clothesline — the early versions of the film never really got to the heart of the matter. What a name is. How it means. Where it lives. Its true psychological and emotional dimensions. My disappointment with the first rough-cuts of the film kept reminding me how far I was from my usual approach to unraveling a subject. Kept forcing me inward. And finally, kept pushing me to accept that in order to really work, the film would have to be about one name only — mine. That only by blasting through the personal, would I be able to find a path to the bigger picture. In the end I had to come back to what I know, to work from who I am, where I come from. To draw from real experience. I had basically recapitulated the inherent argument for the ‘personal’ nonfiction film.
JS: It does seem appropriate for you to turn the camera on yourself — your films have seemed to strike closer and closer to home, from the universal American family in Family Album (1986), to your grandfather in Intimate Stranger (1991) and your father in Nobody’s Business (1996).
AB: People have approached those three films as a trilogy. But I want The Sweetest Sound to be seen as a continuation of my ongoing investigations. Make some more room on the shelf and call it a quartet. But you’re right. The trajectory of my work has had its own internal intuitive logic. And its own momentum. Sometimes it feels like it has a mind of its own. After I made Intimate Stranger, audiences challenged me to make a film about my father, his nemesis in the film. And after I made Nobody’s Business, lots of people said, “now that you’ve done your grandfather, and your father, it’s time to make a film about you.” It was in the air. But I was resistant. I thought (as I still do) that I was too young for an autobiography, too young to ‘do me.’ But actually, now that I’ve tasted the challenge of a first-person, persona-driven cinema essay, I’m excited about the challenge of tackling an autobiography. I just need to wait another 40 years until I have a full life story under my belt.
JS: Even though the narrative serves to structure the film, The Sweetest Sound manages to maintain a jazzy, free-flowing feel.
AB: In many ways, this film is less rigidly structured than any other film I’ve made. There’s no lifetime chronology to contend with, no direct birth to death arc. The film is always moving from inside to outside — weaving issues about my particular name — where it comes from, how I got it, what it means, who else has it, my struggle in sharing it with others — with insights and information about the American name pool — things like the most common names, or the results of various name studies, or even my final little coda over the closing credits about ‘alphabetical neurosis.’
JS: There is also a lot of text in this film — words are on the screen at almost any given moment. Why?
AB: Names are, after all, words. And that reminds me. There’s a built-in problem with a film based on a topic so abstract and conceptual: what do you use for images? You can’t go to a film archive and say, “What images do you have on the subject of names?” because there are no images of names per se. So I looked for names wherever I could — in the newspaper, carved into desks, carved into sidewalks, in cemeteries, on war memorials, on the AIDS Quilt, on Ellis Island. The internet. This is not exactly an image-friendly subject.
(The above excerpt was taken from an interview by Jason Silverman, a freelance writer and artistic director of Taos Talking Pictures.)