In support of Brent Chesanek’s new film Academy and its production campaign, here is an interview with the filmmaker about his previous film, City World. Questions were sent on April 4, 2013; answers were received about two months later.
…What’s really fascinating to me about it is, the film seems like a different paradigm about what film is and can be — it’s experimental without demanding a lot of leniency, and without doing anything obviously outrageous on the surface, it still opens quite a few doors. I’ve been thinking in different terms about films and filmmaking since seeing your movie, and that actually leads into my first question: perhaps because of the qualities mentioned above (in being so different), the content of your film doesn’t call up the term “cinematic” in the usual sense — it has grand images at some points, but (from the way I saw it) no pushes for larger-than-life excitement in characters or story-based stimulation.
Did how different this film is ever scare you? Everything I’ve said about the film’s relative inaction is an observation, not a criticism; how do you feel about the relative amount of stillness to your film, which is what we’d usually consider a medium of moving images? Do you regard the film in a different way?
You shouldn’t make a film of any kind and not believe in it. I know that’s not the same as being scared, but this film was very deliberately done. It scares me that so many films are the same, want to do the same thing, using the same techniques, explore the same scenarios. Scares me as in — is this what’s encouraged, what’s desired? I’m not even talking about Hollywood blockbusters. I don’t have much interest in doing work that doesn’t try to offer something new, or something pure. There are exceptions of course, and I love the pursuit of perfection, which of course you can see with a lot of films made in a traditional style or within a genre that are just exquisitely done, but a lot of films out there, I just don’t know why. I want to push the medium, push the language, expand it, not simply to exist working within predetermined styles and techniques.
My work is driven by rhythm more than anything. Rhythm doesn’t necessarily need visual movement to have life. Filmmaking is a medium of time for me, not movement. Movement is only movement because of time. That said, I think the film is filled with movement in more subtle yet precise ways. Those are the moments I find fascinating.
And yet you’re right, there is plenty of stillness in the film. I love stillness. I think it’s incredibly powerful to be in a dark room with a giant image that’s barely pulsing, and spend time with that image, absorb its nuances. There was a time I was obsessed with Bresson’s Notes On The Cinematographer, getting very literal with them. I go back to them every couple of years. I think the two big ones you could apply to this film mention something about thinking of the film only in terms of the resources one has available, and building the film on silence and stillness. That’s not to say the film is just an exercise in his principles, but it was nice to have something help me focus.
Read at Unsung Films: City World.
Cinematography is a crucial element of the film. How did you go about finding these images? Do you consider yourself to be primarily a “visual director”; has technical excellence in cinematography always played such an important part in your films? Just because you’ve posted a picture of it, what did the color correction process contribute? What was your working experience like — did you acquire shots alone, or with a crew’s involvement? Was this mostly produced on weekends, and the like? About how long did the production process take? How did the gliding/helicopter shots come about?
I shot probably about thirty days in small bursts, seven days here, ten days there, over the course of two and a half years. I had some locations planned, others I found as I drove around Orlando. Probably 90% of the film was me shooting all alone. The rest I had help from Chris Zabriskie, who also did the music. And for the entire shoot we used no lights, no permits, no street closures.
As for the next question, cinematography is very important, but every aspect of a work should be carefully considered. If we’re not seeking excellence, then what’s the point? If I’m not happy with the images, what they convey, and the way the convey it, I have a hard time putting them out into the world. Technical excellence, as you put it, shouldn’t be optional, although a lot of people might consider cinematography artistic flourishing. I think it’s both, technical and artistic, and it doesn’t matter — I think it has to be of a certain standard if you take your work seriously.
Considering the above elements on a deeper level, there were some magical moments within the film where nature seemed to be working with you — such as the alligator and birds that swim into frame. Were those lucky accidents?
Maybe it’s nature working with me, but the film is about immersing oneself into an environment, observing, sensing, feeling. If the moments feel magical, maybe it’s the film working on you to bring about an appreciation of the most miniscule events having an impact on your senses, or even on the greater scheme of things. We see things differently in this film. It frames small events in a way we aren’t used to seeing them. This sounds kind of new-age, but yeah, well, the film is a bit new-age, isn’t it? I know I intentionally put new-age music in there. That’s what I wanted. I listened to a lot of Deuter while conceiving it.
And, the things I’m personally most curious about: What came first, the script/voiceover, or the shots? I was personally amazed at the editing in particular: creating such a well-balanced feature duration from so much footage that seems mostly the same at first looks like a Herculean task. Can you give any general insights into how you decided which images would go where, and how long each would stay on-screen? How did the music come about; what ideas did you contribute to that process, and how did it shape what’s on-screen?
There was the idea of a hybrid film about Orlando’s architectural and landscape culture, the past, the development, and the present. The script and the photography were then developed concurrently throughout the entire process. With the exception of the film’s final ten minutes or so, I rarely shot anything with distinct ideas about where it would be used even though I had a version of the script all through shooting.
During editing, it was important to simplify and structure the process. I divided the film into seven chapters, then further into seventeen, then tried to merge some of the chapters as much as possible. Lay a foundation, and build from there. Find moments that were solid, then elaborate. You can find defining moments in the film, and I built off those. To me it wasn’t that different a task from editing anything more traditional. You know what you’re trying to make, and you find the film as you go, letting what’s on screen guide you.
Chris Zabriskie did the music. He and I have been friends since we went to high school together in Orlando. I always planned to use his music for the film, before there was a film. Some music existed before the film, and I had him write and record new pieces to accompany that existing music. Other songs were created for the film. Chris knew what the film would be, was on board from day one, so I didn’t have to steer him too hard in any specific direction, he just knew what we were making, he knew all the references.
Watch the trailer for City World here:
Finally, I believe Terrence Malick has been mentioned a few times in reviews (including mine). Would you consider him to be an influence of yours? What (other) films and filmmakers have been an inspiration to you?
I like Malick’s films quite a lot but it’s not a deliberate influence and I don’t write or shoot with him in mind. The majority of this film is shot locked off on a tripod. There’s not much of that in Malick’s work. I look to his films for editing reference, but honestly not for cinematography as so many people have deduced. I try to shed references while shooting. I work better when I let the environment dictate what I do rather than a pre-determined method. Even the Bresson stuff I mentioned earlier, I wasn’t thinking of it while shooting.
I suppose a general rundown of some of my favorite filmmakers and films would include Claire Denis, Jim Jarmusch, Jean-Pierre Melville, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Leos Carax, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, LESSONS OF DARKNESS, THE ICE STORM. And I’m a fiend for MIAMI VICE.
As for films influential to making CITY WORLD, Herzog’s LESSONS OF DARKNESS is a big one, it’s actually something I was thinking of right from the start. I watched Roy Andersson’s short film WORLD OF GLORY a bunch very early on before shooting. I also really like the Arte France ARCHITECTURES documentaries. There’s a wonderful rhythm and matter-of-factness to them. They are information driven, but they really aim to deliver a feeling of the buildings they study. You could look to SANS SOLEIL, Chantal Akerman’s NEWS FROM HOME, THE SOUND OF INSECTS, even NIGHT AND FOG as similar essay films, but they aren’t that influential to the finished film we wanted CITY WORLD to be not much of an essay film — it had to be more trance-like.
Visit the Fundraising Campaign page for Academy at indiegogo.com