What inspired you to become a filmmaker as a kid growing up in St. Louis?
My father is a huge inspiration. When I was as young as seven years old, my father was taking me to an old repertory theater to see movies like “Gaslight” and “The Third Man.” My father had one rule though, the films we saw had to be in black and white. I think my dad saw a higher aesthetic in black and white. Perhaps that’s why some of the older Hollywood films seem more timeless than the more recent classic color films. Of course, once in a while we would see a color picture. I remember one exception to the rule my father had were the Ealing comedies. I remember once seeing the brilliant Technicolor film “The Lady Killers” two times in one day. I never laughed so hard as a kid…I suppose, like many directors, my passion for going to see movies ultimately translated into wanting to make them. By the time I was fourteen I was running around with a Nizo Super-8 camera – shooting black and white naturally (laughs).
Your early super 8 efforts were remarkable — they showed wisdom beyond your years. What do you think made your work so unique?
Gee, thanks. Sometimes I think I peaked creatively when I was sixteen years old (laughs). Seriously though, I guess I was just feeling a little didactic as a kid. I was interested in conveying a social message. Part of that was from having a really politicized childhood. My mother was a political activist in the early ‘70s and I spent a lot of time at anti-war demonstrations or farmworker rallies. Also, at the time I started making super 8 movies I was obsessed with Stanley Kubrick. All of his films I saw as a kid always had some kind of subtle social message – whether it was on the middle class in “Lolita” or on war in “Dr. Strangelove” or on social violence in “Clockwork Orange.” I guess I was aspiring to make those kinds of films. Also, I was surrounded by a group of high school friends who loved making films too, and they were great, always encouraging and helping me to make films that might have a more heavy social content. I’ve lightened up a bit since then. At least I hope. By the way, one of those filmmaker buddies of mine is Bill Boll who just made a great cult feature April is my Religion, which I know is available through the Film Threat DVD library. (laughs) There’s a plug for you, Bill.
You are very proud of your St. Louis roots, is it important to be in New York or LA to make it as a filmmaker?
As much as I love St. Louis, I do think it is imperative to end up on one of the two coasts, preferably California. It’s just where the business is. You’ve got to follow the money…
How did you get your start working professionally as a filmmaker?
I had been working sporadically for Roger Corman as a P.A. and still photographer. Through Roger, I ultimately met Peter Bogdanovich about whom I made a documentary, my first professional feature. He was shooting “Texasville” at the time and through actor Timothy Bottoms I was able to convince Bogdanovich to make a visceral documentation not just about “Texasville,” but about his life. This led to me making “Hearts of Darkness” which consequently opened a lot of doors.
In your films, you’ve worked with some amazing talent — Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Billy Bob Thornton — what is your method for directing actors?
Well, I think I learned a lot from making documentaries. I think the best directors are just there to observe. If you are lucky to work with a great talent like Garcia, Jagger or Thornton, you’ve got to trust their abilities. You’re just there, kind of like a metronome, to keep the timing of their performance and to monitor their interpretation of the character and keep it balanced with the tone and arc of the story.
You got your start in documentaries — what is it about the documentary form that prepared you to take on larger feature productions using traditional narrative storytelling?
Well, like I just said, first and foremost it gave me confidence as a director to trust the actor. Secondly, it taught me a hell of a lot about narrative. With a documentary, you have all of these images from which you have to shape a story. In that way it’s a lot like sculpting clay. You really are molding and shaping meaning just by juxtaposing often completely random images and ideas. In this respect, I really think documentary film highlights the power of montage or editing. It is montage alone that separates and makes cinema stand out above all the other art forms. Through the documentary, you really come to understand this power because you are creating meaning and an emotional response from raw images, whereas in fictional filmmaking, you’re working with a screenplay, which is the blueprint for the images you have shot. For fictional filmmaking, putting those images together is purely about finding rhythm, but with documentary filmmaking it’s about finding meaning and creating the story out of virtual chaos. I really believe that documentary filmmaking and particularly editing is a vital exercise in understanding storytelling’s true nature. It also helps when you’re working with a great editor like I did on “Mayor” with Julie Janata.
Get the rest of the interview in part three of GEORGE HICKENLOOPER MEETS THE MAYOR>>>