In a famous poem, Langston Hughes once mused on the fate of a dream deferred by offering a variety of worst-case scenarios. Fortunately for Nathan Bramble, these scenarios are not plotlines to reflect his professional and artistic goals…for Nathan Bramble deferred his dream of being a filmmaker but then roared back into it with a vengeance.
At 26 years of age and working from his home studio in Bensalem, Pennsylvania (just north of Philadelphia), Bramble is quickly gaining attention as an original and agile documentary filmmakers. His productions “Centralia, PA–Modern Day Ghost Town” and “2001 Inauguration: Voice from the Street” offer a haunting and rueful examination of dreams that were deferred to the point of ruin: the former film examined the remains of a mining village whose residents were forced to flee thanks to an underground fire which has burned out of control for over two decades while the latter presented a montage of protestors and counter-protestors who populated the fringes of George W. Bush’s inauguration, kept out of sight and ear from the main events by a fat blue line of police and an overwhelming sense of of being shut out of the democratic process.
Bramble came to documentaries in a roundabout way. His art school education focused on computer and film animation, but the realities of daily existence and the pricetags that come attached dictated the pursuit of a financially lucrative job. Bramble put filmmaking aside and took a job as a webmaster for a software company; he currently holds a full-time position as a quality assurance engineer for a software firm in Princeton, NJ. However, Bramble’s filmmaking ambition never truly disappeared and a new inspiration came in the form of recent outside-inspired documentaries such as “Crumb.”
Cashing in stock options, Bramble purchased a DV camera and a high-speed computer to enable editing and post-production work. Combining his techie skills with a natural eye for cinematic journalism, he began to create films and also present them online via his Digital Video Documentaries web site. Bramble’s site is the rare online exhibitor to offer both low quality, high quality and download-ready versions of his streamed films, plus links to related sites that focus on his films’ subjects and stills from the productions. Other web distributors including iFilm have also shared Bramble’s work with the Net audience.
Film Threat caught up with Bramble as “2001 Inauguration: Voice from the Streets” was being completed for release to discuss his place in today’s indie cinema…
Your college education focused on in computer and film animation (one of the most hands-on controlled filmmaking genres around) yet your filmmaking work is focused on documentaries (which can be seat-of-the-pants and heavily improvised). How were you able to make the leap between these two wildly different schools of filmmaking? ^ When I got to college and I started to produce some projects in class I found that being an animator is a fairly solitary pursuit. Teams of people work on animated films, but when you’re an animator doing your part for the film it’s most often just you and your piles of paper for hours and hours alone. I suppose I had envisioned filmmaking as being much more lively. Also, the payoff of seeing my completed work left me a little unsatisfied. I would spend weeks in front of my drawing table, and days shooting the drawings on film one frame at a time and get only 1 minute of footage to show for all that work. ^ I know this may sound corny, but I got interested in documentary filmmaking after seeing the “Blair Witch Project.” Coming from my own experience in which I knew filmmaking to be an extremely long, arduous, and lonely process I thought that this film’s spontaneous and frantic style of filmmaking were inspirational. The film was certainly fictional, but it really opened me up to the possibilities of documentary-style filmmaking. After watching “Blair Witch” I looked for more interesting documentaries and found films like “Crumb,” “American Movie,” and “Trekkies.” After seeing these films I learned to really love this genre.
Your first two documentaries focus on fabulously lost causes: a virtually abandoned Appalachian town and a presidential election ultimately decided in the secrecy of the nine-person Supreme Court chambers. What attracted you to these victory-lacking tales? ^ I guess I’m just attracted to extreme topics. Centralia is literally on the verge of destruction in a slow, dramatic way. The protests in DC promised to be a very passionate and emotional environment. The idea of them both being lost causes never really occurred to me when I was considering them as topics for films, they just sounded like very lively, interesting stories to document.
“Centralia, PA–Modern Day Ghost Town” is a curious production since none of the remaining residents would talk to you on-camera. How can someone make a film about a specific location when the residents of that location refuse to talk about their hometown? ^ Since I had never made a documentary film before I wanted to use this project to prove to myself that I’d be able to pursue this sort of thing with competence. I researched the town itself and its history in preparation for the two-day shoot I had planned. Being so inexperienced, I didn’t really put enough thought into pre-production for acquiring interviews. Finding very few residents interested in talking to me was a big disappointment, but I got lucky when I arrived in the town and ran into several people who had come to the doomed place just to check it out–tourists of the destruction. They were willing to talk to me on camera, so my film changed direction on location. I got enough footage to put together a short interesting piece. ^ For my first try I was, for the most part, happy with it. But, I learned my lesson that pre-production in documentary filmmaking is of primary importance.
“Centralia, PA” was your first documentary. What was the reaction to your first foray into cinema? ^ When I first put the film up on my web site I was surprised at the almost immediate response I got. I was receiving email with positive feedback from people the same day I uploaded it. Since putting it up on the Web I’ve received comments from people running Centralia web sites, from students doing a geological report on Centralia, and from someone who runs a multimedia production company in Kansas encouraging me to keep making documentaries. The most interesting reaction to the film was from a government official in Wyoming who was trying to get more federal funding to help put out several mine fires burning in his state. He wanted to use my film as an example of what could happen if they were left to burn.
In “2001 Inauguration: Voice from the Street” the anti-Bush protestors’ signs and chants were ultimately in vain. What was the emotional climate on the streets of Washington that day? Was it one of bitterness, anger, or perhaps even hope that someone would hear the protests? ^ It was very clear that there were a lot of people and organizations that were extremely upset with George W. Bush’s winning the presidency and a total dissatisfaction with this country’s election process. There was a lot of anger and frustration being expressed, but there was no violence. I saw some arguments start up between protestors and Bush supporters that I thought might end in a fight, but there was so much police presence everywhere you looked that I think people were careful not to cross a certain line in their actions. It wasn’t a happy place to be, but it was exciting.
“2001 Inauguration” runs only 13 minutes. How much footage was shot in total that day and what was the rule of thumb to decide who made the final print and who got cut? ^ I have about one and a half hour’s worth of raw footage shot during the inauguration. It was freezing cold, raining, and very loud in the streets. So, after cutting out shots where my shivering caused the camera to shake too much, there was too much water on the lens, or where the crowds and music were too loud to hear the interview I had about 45 minutes of usable footage. I started editing with a goal to get the final cut under 15 minutes. I spent a lot time watching films online at sites like iFilm.com and UndergroundFilm.com before I started making my own and I found that 15 minutes is a comfortable time for someone to invest watching a film over their computer. I cut out some interviews with some less coherent people whose agendas really weren’t very clear and others where certain views were repetitive.
You are presenting your documentaries online. In view of the recent failures of many online film and video sites, do you see the Internet as being a viable outlet for the exhibition of original films? ^ Absolutely. For a new independent filmmaker there isn’t a cheaper, faster way to get your work seen. That fact alone will keep online filmmaking flourishing. The online film sites that have gone under were inadequately funded sites that had poor business models. The days of receiving tons of investor support just because you have “.com” at the end of your business name are over. They didn’t find ways to bring in enough money to support their existence, but it wasn’t for lack of interest by people wanting to view and make these sorts of films. This is an outlet still in its infancy and it will take time to find a successful way to keep these sites running.
What are your upcoming projects? And do you plan to move into feature film production in the near future? ^ I have one film currently in production, a documentary about people who play the online role playing game EverQuest. It features footage of the Baltimore Fan Faire (an EverQuest convention) and an interview with Nicholas Yee, a Haverford College psychology student writing his senior thesis on EverQuest. ^ I have two films in pre-production. The first is about the annual convention of the International Ghost Hunters Society, a group dedicated to proving the existence of the supernatural through photography and digital recording equipment. The other is about The Million Voter March, a protest planned for May 19 in Washington D.C. to push for voter reform. I don’t have any immediate plans to move up to a feature film production, but if an opportunity came along for me to work on a project like that I’d certainly jump at it. It is definitely a goal of mine.
Regarding your return to Washington in May to film The Million Voter March: what lessons (both positive and unpleasant) did you learn from the shooting of the “2001 Inauguration” film that you will apply to the production of this new film? ^ Something that I really want to do different this time is to have more focus, more of a linear story to tell. Although I intend to conduct a lot of interviews in the crowds like last time, for this production I want to find a central personality to be my primary subject. I’m trying to locate someone who is planning to attend the march to be my focus for interviews before and after the event and to follow this person during the actual protests. I think this will give the film a clearer direction for audiences.
What advice would you give to anyone who shares the dreams you once held of creating films? ^ To someone who hasn’t yet made any films I would say that they need to find a way to make that first film no matter what. Get a project completed from beginning to end any way that you can. Use a film camera, use a video camera, use your computer, use actors, use your friends, use your mom, whatever, because no matter what the end result is the experience of seeing your own completed film is intoxicating and inspiring. Having a finished project really pushes you to make more films and to make them better.
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