Ross McElwee had been making his own brand of independent films for a number of
years when Sherman's March established him as a name in the cinema art
house scene in 1985. Originally planned as a documentary recounting General
William Tecumseh Sherman's infamous march through the South, its focus was
derailed by the filmmaker's breakup with his girlfriend. Sherman's
March became a chronicle of the women McElwee met on his own march through
the South, with small concessions to the title character interspersed
throughout the film.
McElwee's current film, Time Indefinite , follows the same general
structure as Sherman's March, albeit more so than he initially intended.
Beginning with the announcement of his engagement to fellow filmmaker Marilyn
Levine, Time Indefinite was supposed to have recorded their marriage
and a subsequent cross-country trip. But, again, life--in this case death--
The vagueness and intensely personal subject matter in Ross McElwee's films
make them difficult to categorize. They are documentaries and yet they are
profoundly subjective. McElwee completely exposes his family and friends to
the audience in the--as he freely admits--genuinely closed-lipped society of
the South. McElwee the filmmaker/storyteller creates works which are both
uniquely his and completely accessible.
A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, McElwee studied filmmaking at MIT with
Richard Leacock and Edward Pincus. He made his first film, Charleen
(1978), as his thesis for the graduate program there. Freelance work as a
cameraman and editor (for the series NOVA, among others) enabled him to support
himself while working on his own projects. This year, he is teaching
undergraduate filmmaking at Harvard University.
Although success has brought McElwee recognition and invitations to film
festivals around the world, his four-year-old son Adrian has perhaps changed
his life to a greater extent, not only in terms of filmmaking but of how he
looks at life. MovieMaker caught up with Ross McElwee, his wife, Marilyn
Levine, (who is finishing her own film project), and Adrian at the Vancouver
MovieMaker: Adrian is obviously a large part of your life now. How has
he affected your work?
Ross McElwee: Having as son has affected my work, but it has also
informed my work in that it's given me a new dimension in thinking about life.
I can't help thinking about life in a whole other way. You feel a
responsibility for a small child, but it also makes you think about the meaning
of life and moving on from generation to generation. It's affected the way I
think about film and making films and on a more mundane basis, it's caused me
to slow down my pace a bit and adapt my schedule to a life that requires that
I spend a certain amount of time with my son, not making films.
MM: You're still working, though. What is your current project?
RM: I've got a two hour cut of a film that's tentatively called Six
O'Clock News. It's another autobiographical documentary whose modus
operandi is that I go to various cities with a VCR, initially, and just tape
local news shows until something of interest comes up, some person whose story,
however brief, seems interesting to me. I then go find that person and film my
interaction with that person over a couple of weeks. The resulting film will
be a mosaic of these little video snippets along with filmed interactions.
The staple of the six o'clock news is, of course, catastrophe, disaster, and
tragedy. The film director/protagonist in this case looks through the window
of the six o'clock news and sees a very frightening world out there. The
tension that I hope I can build into the structure of the film will be created
by juxtaposing the filming that I did of my son in his first six months with
the window of the six o'clock news out into this frightening and bizarre
Time Indefinite was to have been the prologue to this film and it grew
to become a separate, feature film because it was clear that I was about to
find myself with a four-hour epic on my hands that would have
MM: What is the connection between the two films?
RM: The continuity was that those deaths that occurred in Time
Indefinite had a profound effect upon me, as they would have had upon any
person. Six O'Clock News was a way I could look out and see that, in
fact, catastrophe strikes everybody, or certainly very many people. It was
originally to have been accompanied by looking over and looking out of the
television, but there was no way to compress it into a watchable amount of
time. Maybe when I was younger I would have said, "To hell with it, I'm going
to make a four-and-a-half hour film and I don't care if anybody sees it." I
don't feel that I can really afford to do that anymore.
MM: When you made your first film, Charleen, did you have an
"I really don't care if anyone ever sees this attitude?"
RM: Well, I made it as best as I could as a film, as a documentary, and
just assumed that people would want to see it if I made a good film. That's
still pretty much how I operate.
MM: How does the fact that you now have an audience for your films
affect your work?
RM: They expect me to keep on doing what I'm doing and as long as I
enjoy what I'm doing, there's no conflict. Charleen isn't as
groundbreaking, if you can use that phrase, as later films that I made, so it
wasn't as if I was free to take more risks in Charleen than I was in my
subsequent work. It wasn't until later that I really started to discover the
ways in which I wanted to make films.
MM: When you film, do you just show up with your equipment, or do you
call people ahead of time and let them know that you're coming with a camera?
RM: The latter. I never try to ambush people with the camera. In
Sherman's March there were some ambushes that we did that were cut out
of the film. There was a furniture store that I filmed in and the owner was
really obnoxious to the woman who worked there. She was going to quit that
day, so I just showed up with the camera and he kicked us both out of the store
and I filmed the whole thing. That was great, it was a really good scene and I
had no ethical qualms about doing it. Everybody else I felt connected to in
Sherman's March, Time Indefinite, Charleen and Backyard,
were my friends and family so I always gave them warning, saying "unless you
tell me not to, I'm going to have the camera."
MM: Don't your family and friends consider your filming intrusive?
RM: Yes, but they put up with it. It's strange, but it's now harder
for me rather than easier as the years go on.
MM: Why is that?
RM: Because you start to value your time with people a lot more and you
don't want to impinge upon them with the camera. There's always that
MM: In Sherman's March, Charleen tells you to "stop hiding
behind that camera." To what extent were you hiding?
RM: Well, of course, that's the whole notion behind cinema verite, that
you can remain a silent observer behind the camera. There's a lot of truth to
that. I think that I was playing with the irony of the notion in Sherman's
March . That's clearly part of what the filmmaker's doing, he's hiding
behind the camera. He's gotten scalded by life, his lover left him and he
retreats into the mollusk shell of his camera and pokes his head out now and
then. It's meant to be somewhat obvious and somewhat humorous. I think that
there's also some truth, at least for me, that when life has been rough I've
taken some solace in simply ceasing to try to understand it and simply recorded
it, collect it, and store it away for future analysis.
MM: Would you have asked questions about your father's death if you
hadn't been filming?
RM: It would have been different, in some way less formal, perhaps.
MM: If you weren't looking for answers, perhaps asking the questions
was a way of working through your felings about his death.
RM: Perhaps. I had to ask the question to ask it, maybe, and not so
much because I needed an answer. I think that in the South there is a great
tendency to not discuss these matters and I wanted to challenge that a bit, as
MM: Did you learn what you needed to?
RM: I was quite startled that my brother, in fact, didn't know how my
father died exactly. I'd assumed he would have the answers to these questions
for me because he was a doctor and also because he had been at home in
Charlotte where my father had died when I was up in Boston. I thought that he
would have more information for me, but, in some ways, maybe I should have
known better. In Backyard, which is a short, forty-minute film that I
made about my family, I asked my brother about how my mother died and he also
didn't know the answer to that. I'd assumed he would know, but he didn't. So,
fifteen years later the question and answer repeated themselves.