Q&A: Vera Brunner-Sung

Chris Stults, Associate Curator, Film/Video

Jan 21, 2020

Image from chest up of actor Mark Metcalf and filmmaker Vera Brunner-Sung standing in front of a Pin River wall installation by artist Maya Lin at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Vera Brunner-Sung, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre, shared a work-in-progress cut of her new short Character during last October's Unorthodocs. The film, about actor Mark Metcalf, is now an official selection of the Sundance Film Festival. Before heading to Park City for the completed short's world premiere on January 26, Brunner-Sung answered a few questions about her work from Film/Video Associate Curator Chris Stults. (And you can read more from Sung via the College of Arts & Sciences newsfeed.)

How did you first meet Mark and at what point in the process did you realize he was someone you were interested in making a film about?

I began in nonfiction and experimental film, and as my practice has moved more toward fiction filmmaking over the last few years, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by actors. Coincidentally, I met Mark through a friend—it turns out we both moved here from Missoula, Montana. I floated the idea of a project together pretty soon after we met, and thankfully he was game.

When I think about your work in the past, the first words to come to mind are probably “patient” and “observational.” Character takes place in a much different register and strikes a skillful balance between spontaneous and conceptual; between portraiture and essay? Was the process of finding the form of the film wrapped up in the process of making it?

That sounds right! A lot of my previous films have a kind of rigorous formal concept that they’re adhering to from the outset; they’re also deeply grounded in place, particular landscapes. Character is such a different project for me in terms of content—an actor in a studio—so I decided early on to work intuitively, not to analyze or commit to a structure too early on, but rather, let it emerge from my instincts about what was interesting. We played a lot during our two shoots – using different props, costumes, special effects. I wanted to have a lot of freedom in the edit to discover the film. That said, when I look at it now, I think there’s a strong connection to my broader interests as a filmmaker, of mining this vein in the space between fiction and documentary.

It can be so valuable when women filmmakers/writers/artists make works about male subjects or when a white man’s story is told by someone other than another white man. Are there other works that were influences as you conceived and worked on the film?

I was mostly thinking about films I knew about actors and filmmaking—Jane B. par Agnès V.; Mark Rappaport’s films. Michael Almereyda’s Escapes was a more recent one (which I saw at the Wex!). I love how playful these films are, how they circle around their subjects to try to unravel a truth. Maybe this is related to your observation about the film being between portraiture and essay.

I know you’ve been spending time off and on over the last week or two in the Wexner Center’s Film/Video Studio working on finishing up the post-production of the short. How has the Studio been able to support you as you get ready for the Sundance premiere?

For films with miniscule budgets like mine, for labor of love projects, support provided by places like the Film/Video Studio is crucial. (I say “places like,” but truthfully I am not sure there is anywhere else like it!) I would not have been able to finish this film without the support of Jennifer Lange and the Studio on my sound mix and festival deliverables. It was such a pleasure to work with Paul Hill on my mix. I’m not sure people understand how much art and skill are involved in this process, and how essential it is to creating a high quality movie. I feel very fortunate.

Image: Mark Metcalf and Vera Brunner-Sung at the 2019 Unorthodocs fest. Photo: Melissa Starker