Filmmaker Q&A

A black-and-white photograph of an older John Fante, sitting in a chair and smoking with his trademark moustache while looking off to the side
Filmmaker Jan Louter shares how his impression of John Fante changed as a result of making A SAD FLOWER IN THE SAND.

I think I understand John Fante better after making the film. I realized more and more that he was a wounded man, discriminated against in his youth because of his Italian background and dark skin. In my opinion, this “quivering wound” is the source of his writing. As Joyce, his wife, says in the documentary, “John was always angry. He did not want to be a ’hey you’ guy.”

Director Jan Louter talks about the thrill of discovering John Fante’s work, the challenges of bringing his spirit to life and the importance of passion and dreams in filmmaking and beyond.

What led you to make this film?

In 1984 I visited Los Angeles for the first time. Most Europeans get lost in L.A., but for me it was like coming home, as if I had been there long before. At that time I discovered Ask the Dust. The preface by Charles Bukowski and the first lines of the novel were overwhelming. From the moment I read it I fell in love with the novel.

In Ask the Dust, John Fante expresses his love for Los Angeles: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets. You pretty town I loved so much, you sad flower in the sand.”

In his youth, Fante came from Boulder, Colorado to L.A. to become a great writer. And in the novel—by Fante's alter ego Arturo Bandini—you feel this spirit, the energy of a young kid who wants to become a writer. In a way Ask the Dust is about writing that novel—a novel about having a dream, and it's important to have dreams, always, at any age. Without dreams life is boring! In a way that’s the “message” of my documentary. Like Robert Towne expresses it in the film: ”It's my dream to make a movie of Ask the Dust.”

In 1988, I made a radio documentary about John Fante for Dutch Public Radio. At that time I got in touch with his wife, Joyce Fante, and his son, Jim Fante. I also interviewed Robert Towne. Jim showed me downtown L.A. where Fante had lived and where the novel is situated. All the people I met at that time talked with so much passion about John Fante and his work. Since I was one of the few people interested in Fante at the time, I became a “member of the Fante family.”

After making They Destroyed All the Roses (my documentary about the writer Jean Rhys, who wrote Wide Sargasso Sea) it was my wish/dream to make a documentary about John Fante, focused on Ask the Dust. But it was difficult to finance. “Who the hell is John Fante?” people asked. Nobody knew him in the Netherlands. Finally I succeeded.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

The most important challenge was to bring Fante back alive, to allow for an identification between the viewer and the subject. Therefore, I filmed images on 18 frames, which I used to go along with the quotations of Fante in the first part of the film. With the shaky effect of those images, the viewer could imagine John Fante as he was again walking through the streets of downtown L.A., raised from the dead.

How did you approach the editing process?

When I was editing the film, I sometimes had the feeling that John Fante was looking over my shoulder. I could feel his breath. I could be wrong but when the film was finished he disappeared, as if he wanted to say, “It’s fine.”

The second part of the film is more biographical, and that was the most difficult to edit. I did not want to show Fante’s portraits full screen to avoid a stilling effect. I wanted the images always to be in movement. But there are no moving pictures of Fante, so the photographs are “cut and pasted” with the moving archive material.

What are your impressions of the Los Angeles of today, as compared with when John Fante wrote about it?

Los Angeles today is still the factory of dreams. People are still coming there from all parts of the U.S. to fulfill their dreams. In some ways, it’s not very different now from how it was during the time that Fante wrote about it.

How did Joyce Fante, John Fante’s wife, feel about participating in the documentary? What is her background?

Joyce was very pleased with the documentary. After her husband’s death she dedicated herself to making him famous. She did it. She sacrificed her own career for her husband. She was a poet herself, but knew that her talent could not match John’s.

Your recent documentaries have focused on Jan Montyn (2004), John Fante (2001) and Jean Rhys (1996)—each a gifted creative mind engaged in struggle. What attracts you to this theme?

All of the people I portray in my documentaries have a “quivering wound.” They all fight and struggle to create another life by their work.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope someone somewhere will see A SAD FLOWER IN THE SAND and become curious about John Fante's novels. And when he or she has finished, let’s say, Ask the Dust, he or she will say, yes, it’s a great novel, and then they will never give up their dreams.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

Everything is difficult in the world of arts. I feel the urge to tell stories. I do not want to think how difficult it is to get budgets for my films. The best is to believe in what you are doing. I work hard, each day. I enjoy life most when I'm working on my films.

What projects are you working on now?

At the moment I'm working on four films. One of them is The Last Days of Shishmaref, a documentary about the first actual victims (a community of Eskimos in the north of Alaska) of global warming. In the past few years the settlement Shishmaref has become the arena of a far-reaching and growing drama. The increasing influence of the “white man,” resulting in the arrival of satellite television, mail order shopping and obligatory education, has caused a deep schism between different generations of Inupiaq. The youth falls prey to the temptations of the West and the mainland. The impact of modern western culture undermines the traditional family system and its modest but stable standard of living.

At the same time another threat slowly but persistently jeopardizes the village, with immense consequences for the future. Due to the increasing temperature of the earth—in Alaska the temperature has risen four degrees Celsius in the past 30 years—the polar caps have started to melt and the sea becomes frozen over much later in the year than in the past.

As a result, each year the winter storms terrorize the island for much longer, causing enormous damage to its coastline. Large areas of Shishmaref have already crumbled into the ocean. In order to save them, 14 houses had to be moved further up on the island on large skis. It has been predicted that the whole of Shishmaref will disappear in less then ten year’s time. Its inhabitants seem destined to become the first actual victims of climatic change and the inadequate environmental measures of the U.S., Europe and Japan.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

I hope to find an interested audience for my documentary through public television, the stage for documentaries on art and culture.

What are your three favorite films?

I do not have favorite films. There are so many good films. It's the same with literature. It's enormous what mankind achieved in a short time.

If you could have dinner with one famous person, living or dead, who would you choose, and why?

Although I'm not religious, my inspiration is to say God––to tell him about the mess we are making of his creation.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you’d be doing?

A writer or a wanderer. A psychiatrist or a lunatic.

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

The best is to eat little. Just some fresh fish and vegetables.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Keep your dreams alive. To believe in yourself. Never give up.

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

All of them.

If you could have one motto, what would it be?

Everything changes, nothing stays the same.

What sparks your creativity?

My wife and child.

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