Ross McElwee spoke with Paula Hunt recently at the Vancouver film festival.
Part One of this interview ran in our December issue.
MM: Although your title Time Indefinite, is taken from
the Bible, religion isn't a strong presence in the film, except for your visit
with the Jehovah's Witnesses and your discussion with Lucille.
RM: In Six O'Clock News, religion becomes a more salient
presence than in this film, because what I discovered when I filmed people
whose lives had been somehow struck with turmoil in Six O'Clock News
was that religion comes up over and over again. You begin to realize that, in
fact, the way many of us, most of us, probably get through life is by assuming
that there is a heaven, there is an afterlife, and that God is eventually going
to take care of us.
MM: At what point did you decide on the title Time Indefinite
RM: It wasn't until I got the material in the editing room and on the
editing table. It's not a good title in terms of marketing, because it's very
vague--people won't keep it locked into their minds. I have an award plaque
that I got at some film festival that awarded the prize for best documentary to
"Indefiniteness of Time." My distributor said, "Do you have to call it that?"
and I said, "Yes, we have to call it that."
The distributor of First Run Features saw Sherman's March at the IFP
(the Independent Features Project) in New York and immediately said he'd take
it. I wanted to shop around a bit, because it's a very small company and I
wanted to see what else was available. I got turned down by every other middle
range distributor. I didn't even bother to go to the studios or the major
distribution outlets. First Run Features was the only company willing to take
a chance on it and, in fact, it did terrifically well. According to their
statistics, until Strangers in Good Company came along, it was their
top grossing film. It's supposed to be the tenth highest grossing feature
documentary of all time. Isn't that incredible? I could never have imagined
it being that kind of film.
MM: Does you success make getting money easier?
RM: Yes, absolutely, it's made a tremendous difference. That's its
biggest benefit to me, not the money that I made off of distribution. But, of
course, by the time the theaters take their share, the distributors take their
share, and both theaters and distributors write off their expenses, there's not
all that much left for the filmmaker.
MM: Did you get calls from Hollywood studios after the success of
Sherman's March ?
RM: Yes, but most of them had not seen the film, they had just read
about it. They would say things like, "someone with your sensibility is of
great interest to us, we're really interested in talking to you." I think that
the idea was not to let any talent fall between the cracks. When it comes down
to it, I've never made a fiction film. It's a little bit presumptuous for me
to think that I could do it when you have scores of people who have made
fiction films. Who do I think I am to waltz into that when for fifteen years I
haven't even been directing documentaries? I've been receiving, responding to
the world with a documentary camera. The whole possibility of me making
fiction seems improbable to me. There are times when I'm tempted because I get
frustrated by the lack of control inherent in the kind of filmmaking I do, both
in terms of shooting and editing--being unable to make a cut work because you
didn't direct it, you didn't storyboard it. It can drive you crazy at the
editing table and that's when I say "I can't make these films anymore, I have
to try fiction, I have to write a script." But, then I sober up a bit and
think about the rat race out there. I'm in a situation now where I have
complete autonomy and control--autonomy and control are two very important
things, neither of which I would have in Hollywood. I am loathe to jump into
the piranha pool with people who need their scripts produced or need director's
MM: Do you believe there is more of a market for independent
documentaries than for independent features?
RM: Yes, I think that the market is a little less crowded, there's a
little more room to maneuver, but this is casting it all in terms of marketing
decisions. I make these films because I like to make them, not because I've
cleverly figured out that there is a market slot that I can fit into. I'm just
lucky that there seems to be some sort of niche that I'm in now that I very
well could be out of in five years. People just may not be interested in me
anymore and I'll have to go get a real job.
MM: It sounds, though, that you've been fortunate in that you've been
able to work fairly steadily in film.
RM: I have been lucky--I never really had to do anything other than
film once I decided I wanted to do it. But some of those jobs weren't very
interesting and you could load millions of magazines and after a point you
aren't learning a damn thing.
MM: Do you ever shoot video?
RM: No, I very much believe in theatrical runs for my films, as modest
as they are, and it's usually one art house per city that runs them, or a
museum, or a university setting. Whatever, it's still a very important
component of the overall distribution arrangement for me. I don't care what
anybody says, even the best [video] systems aren't there yet. There's
something wonderful about the quality of film when projected that so far can't
be matched by video. If I were only shooting for television, I'd shoot video.
You'd be a fool not to. Who's got all that extra money to burn? I don't.
That means you just have to work all that much harder to raise the money. And
I have to admit that there is also a part of me that really loves working with
film. I'm older, to the mechanical versus the electronic is the tendency that
I have. I think that I'm one of a handful of people still shoots on film and
edits on a Steenbeck. Maybe I'm just lazy, but I don't have time to learn a
whole new system.
MM: What kind of camera do you use?
RM: I shoot with an Auricon super 16 camera. Time Indefinite
was blown up to 35 from super 16.
MM: What about Sherman's March?
RM: Regular 16. We never blew it up.
MM: What kind of sound equipment do you use?
RM: With Backyard I used a Nagra. It was a hard film to shoot
because I had a huge Nagra over one shoulder and my camera, (at that time it
was an Eclair,) on the other. On Sherman's March SM which is a
miniature Nagra reel to reel recorder.
MM: Did that work well?
RM: Yes, very high quality sound, but it's difficult to change reels
quickly because it's not a cassette. I have left that behind and have gone on
to a SONY TCD Pro 5--2 which is a type of cassette recorder. It means that you
can run more sound before you have to change to a new tape and you can change
to a new tape more quickly. But I think that, actually, the sound quality
isn't as good as the Nagra SM. The next step is digital tape, and that's what
I'll use in the next film.
MM: Do you consider yourself a director?
RM: I don't direct anybody. "By Ross McElwee," that's enough for me.