Jeff Malmberg, director of Marwencol, took on much more than just a film project when he decided to shoot a documentary about Mark Hogancamp. Intrigued by a magazine article about Mark and his imaginary backyard universe, Jeff had to earn the trust of a man who had been misunderstood and brutalized by the outside world in his past. In the end the film brings a gentle dignity to Mark’s story, and Jeff remains a caring guardian of Mark’s reputation and privacy, long after the cameras stopped rolling. We asked Jeff to talk about the process of making Marwencol, which premieres Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 10:00 PM on Independent Lens (check local listings).

What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope that the film will call attention to those terrible snap judgments that we make about people who seem “different,” and remind us to be kinder and curious as opposed to judgmental.
I also hope that the film will leave audiences with an appreciation for Mark and his art. He shoots in Marwencol almost every day, and the stories and photos are just getting better and better.

What led you to make Marwencol?
I work primarily as a film and TV editor, but back in 2006 I decided that I’d like to try my hand at directing. Around the same time, I happened to see an article on Mark and Marwencol in Esopus Magazine. I was immediately drawn to Mark’s photos and especially his captions, which hinted at something going on beneath the surface.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Like any independent film, the biggest challenge is always budget. I worked on Marwencol on and off for about four years while I worked full-time as an editor. Plus, Mark lives on the other side of the country, so it’s not like I could just drive over and see him on weekends. But I think the distance probably helped as much as it hurt, since it gave both Mark and me time to process what was happening.

Captain Hogancamp marries Anna in front of the hanging SS who had ravaged Marwencol. (Photo by Mark E. Hogancamp)
Captain Hogancamp marries Anna in front of the hanging SS who had ravaged Marwencol. (Photo by Mark E. Hogancamp)

How did you gain Mark’s trust?
I think it happened gradually during the four years I filmed him. I just kept coming out and I think he realized that I really wanted to understand him and what he was going through. I remember on the first day, I asked to film him dragging the Jeep. I walked with him the two miles to the store and back, and I think that meant a lot to him.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?
More scenes of Mark’s fantasy world — there’s so much beauty and imagination that we just didn’t have time to include.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
The scene late in the film when Mark is tucking the dolls into bed always gets me, both for its content and the fact that Mark shared it with me.

What has the audience response been so far?
It’s been incredible. People seem to really love and understand Mark.

Mark Hogancamp at work in Marwencol. (Photo by Tom Putnam)

Has Mark seen the film? What did he think?
I showed the film to Mark and Bert before we premiered at SXSW. They laughed a lot and Mark got choked up. He told his mom that I told his story exactly as he would have, if he’d known how.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you motivated?
The chance to get to tell a story like Mark’s.
Why did you choose to present Marwencol on public television?
I remember when I was a kid, public television felt like it was full of talking heads and nature documentaries. I think that stereotype still exists, but when you actually watch it, you’re like, “wait … this is public television?” It’s not your parents’ PBS. Series like Independent Lens have some of the best, most entertaining programming I see on TV. And we wanted to be a part of that.

Why Independent Lens specifically?
I actually met my wife (and fellow Marwencol producer Chris Shellen) at an Independent Lens party in 2007, so I will always associate the series with good things.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
Paying off my credit card.

What are your three favorite films?
They change all the time, but three that come to mind at the moment are Salesman, Marjoe, and To Be and to Have (Etre et Avoir).

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Don’t worry about getting an expensive camera or hiring a big crew. Amazing films are being made by one person with a pocket camera and a computer. It’s the story and your connection to it that really matter.

There’s not craft services on a documentary film set! What is your most crucial sustenance when making an indie film?
Really good red wine.

Mark Sees the Film for the First Time