Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Sam Green is a familiar (and favorite) face to Wexner Center film fans. The past Wexner Center Artist Residency Award recipient has visited several times with his traditional documentary work and his more recent “live documentaries,” one-of-a-kind performances that merge his films with live narration and musical accompaniment. Green returns this Saturday, April 18, with The Measure of All Things (which he calls “a poem about time and fate, human folly and the mysteries of being alive”), his latest live documentary experience. Below Wexner Center Director of Film/Video David Filipi talks with Green about his work and his interest in the live documentary format. Tickets are available for the screening here.
DF: In The Measure of All Things, you chronicle people who hold “world records” organically, as opposed to those who try to establish or break world records. Can you discuss the distinction as it relates to the motivation behind your film?
SG: Like a lot of kids, when I was around eight or nine years old, I was crazy about the Guinness Book of Records. I would sit for hours looking through it, and many of those photos are still seared into my consciousness: the lady with the smallest waist, the fattest twins on motorcycles. A couple of years ago, I came across an old paperback copy of the book—probably from around the time that I would have been reading it as a kid—and was struck by how weird it all was. Sure, there were some silly records—the world’s largest pizza and that kind of thing—but many of the records in Guinness seemed to be little poems or parables about the mysteries of being alive: the man who was struck by lightning the most (seven times!), but ended up taking his life because he was unlucky at love; the person with the longest lasting case of hiccups (68 years); the lowest grossing movie (Zyzzyx Road—gross domestic box office: $30). I suddenly saw the Guinness Book of Records really as a kind of weird self-portrait—an attempt to measure and catalog the outer edges of the human experience and through all that to make some sense of who we are. So with The Measure of All Things, I created a poem of different records that resonate along these themes. There are people, but also objects like the oldest living thing (a 5,000-year-old pine tree in Southern California) and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis (the tallest monument ever built). The connection is that taken together, they represent a kind of poem about time and fate, human folly and the mysteries of being alive.
DF: Your most recent projects have foregrounded a live narration and music component. What initially got you interested in that feature and what do you think it adds to your filmmaking?
SG: I was drawn most to this form for aesthetic reasons. Like many filmmakers, I was ambivalent about the idea of people watching my movies on a small laptop screen while checking Facebook. I’m not a Luddite, but there is something profound about the theatrical cinematic experience that gets lost when one watches a film in the crappy way that many of us do (I’m as guilty of watching films on my computer while occasionally checking email as the next person). I love the magic of cinema—that feeling when you sit in a room with strangers, the lights go down, and you give yourself over to the experience completely. The context in which we watch a film plays a huge part in shaping the experience of that work. So I was initially drawn to this live form of showing films as a way to go deeper into the theatrical experience of cinema.
With the first live film I did, Utopia in Four Movements, we premiered it at Sundance in 2010, but I had no idea what I would do with the film after that. I wasn’t aware of any kind of circuit or market for live films out there. But it turns out that in some ways there is. We ended up doing tons of shows all over the world with that piece—many of them were in performance contexts, places like performing arts centers and museums (we had a great screening with that project at the Wex).
I’ve kept coming back to this live documentary form because I continue to be curious about what it can do and ways that I can push it further. There’s so much potential for creating a huge and immersive cinematic experience. I’m working with two different bands on this project (the chamber group yMusic and a trio made up of Brendan Canty from Fugazi, Todd Griffin, and Catherine McRae), and my goal was to have both of them literally blow the lid off the venue with a big sound. I came across yMusic when I saw them play a concert with the Dirty Projectors at Carnegie Hall and was knocked out by how enormous a sound they could make. So with The Measure of All Things I’m trying to make as immersive an experience as possible—to have the live music and huge images literally enthrall the audience.
DF: Do you think there are any connections to be made between the films you created with a live component—Utopia, The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller, and Measure (and even the Esperanto doc, What We Need is the Impossible!, which didn’t have a live component)?
SG: Well, I think there are certainly threads that run through all my work. I’m drawn to certain themes again and again. I do think there are connections between the three live films you mention. I’ve returned many times to the conflict between idealism and “human nature.” Most of my films are about people trying to change the world or understand their own place in the world and partially failing.
With the live films, I’ve also been quite interested in the ephemeral the nature of the form; there’s a quality and meaning to that that resonates with the themes of the films. I love the idea of a film that comes together only in the moments when we screen it—it will never be the same way again, and that experience of it will only live on in the memories of the people who saw it.
DF: I really can’t think of another “documentarian” who is working in the direction that you have been in recent films. Do you think you will keep exploring the marriage between live music and documentary filmmaking, move back to more traditional presentation, or does it depend upon the subject matter?
SG: I keep coming back to this live form because it fascinates me and I want to continue to explore what it can do. I haven’t closed the door on “regular movies,” though. And I really do feel like the form of each film I do should come out of the subject matter. So, Utopia, Buckminster Fuller, and now Measure of All Things have all been live film projects for specific reasons—there is something in the subject matter of each of them that lends itself to this form. I have a bunch of ideas for new projects and some of them are live films, others are traditional films. I’m excited to be broad in my approach to filmmaking.
DF: You’ve had different musicians perform live with your films. How much input do you have in the music that is matched with your film? Do you think different musicians and scores have a dramatic impact on the way your films are received by the audience?
SG: On of the things I like most about this live documentary form is that it allows for a much closer and more collaborative relationship with musicians. With traditional filmmaking, you send a few cuts to the composer as you are editing, that person writes music and will go back and forth with the director a few times to make it work. The music is then worked into the film and that’s it. The movie goes out into the world and maybe the composer will show up for a Q&A from time to time.
With this live form, I work really closely with the bands. With Yo La Tengo for example, I went out to their practice space in New Jersey and we basically put the whole soundtrack together collaboratively. I projected images on the wall and they played things and we went back and forth a lot until we’d cobbled the whole thing together. I did the same thing with Todd, Catherine, and Brendan. For me, because the band will be there on stage playing the music, it’s much more important that they own it—that they feel good about the score and feel like it’s theirs. So that means having less of the traditional director-composer relationship and more of a collaboration. This is a great pleasure to me because I love seeing how musicians work and going back and forth with them until we’ve crafted something we all love.