Filmmaker Q&A

A man wearing a gray suit and black hat sits at a table and looks at photographs of paintings
Filmmaker Rebecca Dreyfus shares how her thoughts about the crime changed during the course of filming.

My idea about the crime definitely changed during the making of the film but mostly because I never could have imagined how much might be involved in this crime. The fact that the story might well involve politics, power, even terrorism—much more than money or simple love of art—was surprising and not something I had thought about beforehand.

Director Rebecca Dreyfus reflects on the keys to controlling a runaway narrative, working with her mentor, Albert Maysles, and what surprised her most about the case of the Gardner heist.

What led you to make this film?

I had been to the Gardner Museum and seen The Concert by Johannes Vermeer when I was young. I'll never forget the moment I saw the painting.

After you contacted Harold Smith, his interest in reopening the investigation becomes central to the story. In the midst of filming how do you handle such unexpected turns while keeping control of an overall narrative?

It’s a very interesting question because in a way your job is to maintain control and give it up at the same time. I think finding a way to do this is one of the keys to documentary filmmaking. For me, I was clear what I wanted the film to be tonally and thematically, which informed how I was shooting. In terms of what I was shooting, I would often follow Harold’s lead.

Albert Maysles, the director of photography for STOLEN, has a long and distinguished documentary career. What are some of the most important things you have learned from him as a filmmaker, and how did your collaboration play out during the making of this film?

Albert brings a hearty dose of humanity into the room with him. I find that his presence quite literally changes what is happening in any given situation in a subtle but profound way. Everyone around him—both behind and in front of the camera—starts operating from a deeper level and you can get to the heart of the matter much more efficiently.

This is the biggest lesson I have learned from Albert: stay compassionate to everyone around you, love them. This approach seems to make less important things fall away and allow the significant ideas or emotions to take precedence.

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

The biggest challenge in making this film was to stick with it. It took a long time!!

Is anybody pursuing the Gardner thefts today?

The Gardner case has many people obsessed. In my opinion, there are myriad people working on the Gardner case every day.

Sometimes great scenes have to hit the cutting room floor. What material was the most difficult to edit out of STOLEN?

Some of the material about Vermeer. There is so much to say about his work.

In the film there is a scene in a cab when Harold Smith refers to “some information” that Dick Ellis had shared with him that he couldn’t reveal on camera without putting Ellis at risk. Did you ever discover what that information was, and can you tell us now?

I think the information had to do with his talks connected to movements in Ireland. I think Dick decided it was best not to share all the details on camera. And I understand why he might have felt this way. If the "Irish Connection" theory is true, it is a very delicate matter.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I made this film because I was personally compelled to do it. I hope that people like it and are touched by the elements in this story that were so moving to me.

Over what period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude? Any updates on the people and what they have been doing since then?

It took about three years to shoot and edit. To my knowledge, Dick and Turbo both separately and together are constantly working on the case. I believe there are others as well.

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

I can't explain what keeps me motivated. It's not a choice really. You are seized by a story or an idea and something takes over. At least that's how it is for me.

What are you working on now, or next, and how do you find documentary projects?

I’m working on a romantic comedy. Susannah, my producer, and I are always joking that we want to make something where we know the end.

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

Independent Lens is the perfect venue for STOLEN as it is one of the few national venues that truly embraces independent filmmaking. In many ways STOLEN is exploring issues of form and structure and juxtaposition, so it really needs a venue that showcases less conventional films.

What are your three favorite films?

I have many, many favorites, here are three…

Rosemary’s Baby
Gimme Shelter
Shadow of a Doubt

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Be sure you REALLY want to do it. (It’s harder than you think.) Don’t wait for anyone else’s permission. Put your whole self into it.

Which filmmakers have most influenced your work?

Roman Polanski
Albert Maysles
Robert Bresson

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

One time I had the pleasure of meeting Tyne Daly. We were talking about filmmaking and she said, “It’s important to remember we’re here to win the war not the battle.” I really liked that idea applied to filmmaking. I try to keep it in mind while I’m working.

What sparks your creativity?

People and their stories.

What has been the most frequent question from screening audiences so far?

The audience always wants to know where the art is! After you see the film you will too!

What is a favorite anecdote from the filming?

Harold Smith after most conversations: “You can take the rest of the day off now.”

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