A few weeks ago, legendary film critic Glenn Kenny interviewed director Gena Telaroli about her film “Here’s to the Future!” on his site, and he was kind enough to let us republish it here.
The young filmmaker Gina Telaroli has a new picture premiering this upcoming Saturday, December 13, at the Migrating Forms festival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Here’s To The Future! is both an immediately engaging and consistently (playfully) challenging piece of work; I characterize it below as an essay film disguised as a process film. The premise of the movie is simple: Telaroli assembles a small crew and variable cast to enact a scene from an obscure Michael Curtiz-directed melodrama from the early ’30s, The Cabin In The Cotton (which costarred soon-to-be-casualty-of-the-talkies Richard Barthelmess and not-yet-ascended star Bette Davis), and gives herself a single afternoon to get it done. (It occurs to me now that there’s also something slightly OULIPean about the enterprise.) All of the folks assembled have their own devices which are shooting the shooting and the finished feature intercuts footage off devices ranging from a Blackberry Curve to a Canon 60D. Where Telaroli’s prior feature, 2012’s Traveling Light (which I wrote about here) made a kind of abstract narrative out of an abandoned attempt at a different narrative film, Here’s To The Future! adopts an interrogative mode from the get-go. But because it gets so close to the people who are part of it, the movie never feels hermetic or theoretical. It’s both as unconventional and accessible as filmmaking gets, in a funny way. Go see it.
I engaged Gina, who’s a friend, in an e-mail interview, and here’s how it went.
GK: Your first feature, A Little Death is, from all appearances, a pretty conventionally conceived and produced narrative film in that it seems to be the work of actors and a crew working from a script, etcetera. Traveling Light is a movie that aspired to be one thing, and ended up as something else due to circumstances of shooting and then again with respect to editing. Here’s To The Future! is something else yet again: a kind of essay film in the disguise of a process film. Was that what your conception was from beginning to end or, as with Traveling Light, was that something that changed along the timeline of the production?
GT: Like Traveling Light, HTTF! isn’t conventional in terms of its conception and is very much a product of circumstances, some in my control and some not. The scene we are shooting was actually supposed to be part of a short film I was making for an omnibus project that was centered on the theme of ‘proof.’ I was going to make a film comprised of documentary footage I shot in Ohio and have that transition to the narrative scene we shot on that Sunday in September. The omnibus project fell through, so that film never got made, but even before that project turned to dust, I knew I was more interested in the document of the shoot itself and the repetition in the performances of the scene, that that was the real “movie.”
GK: It looks as if, in the films where you work from footage you generate yourself and/or with the collaboration of your colleagues, your role as director is less that of a traditional auteur and more as a conductor or prompter. You’re creating a set of circumstances for creative people to enact and recording and digesting—via editing—the results. Is that an accurate characterization?
GT: I don’t disagree with what you wrote, though something about your question feels like it discredits my voice as the author a bit? My films are 100% the result of circumstance and they are definitely dependent on collaboration and the people I work with, which I love, but I still put all the elements in the room, if that makes sense. For HTTF! I chose the scene, the people, the day, and I did direct a lot of the footage, even if it’s used in a different context. Also, while it isn’t directing exactly, I have to imagine the mood, the general feeling of the day and thus the progression of events was due in part to the environment I created and sustained.
Also, in Classic Hollywood (and even in the current iteration of the studio system) directors didn’t necessarily have a lot of choice about content or collaborators but of course the entire idea of the auteur was developed around them. The main difference here is that instead of directing a traditional story with the creative elements given to me (script, actors, crew), I’m basically directing the story in the edit with the creative elements given to me (footage).
I do like the idea of comparing myself to a conductor although I think a more accurate metaphoric description might be that what I do is like being a contestant on MasterChef during one of the Mystery Box Challenges. Ultimately I have to use the ingredients given to me (footage) but at the end of the day I’m still the author, the recipe prepared is mine.
GK: Why did you want to reenact this particular scene from The Cabin In The Cotton?
GT: The simple and practical answer, which always factors into my no-budget filmmaking, is that I needed something that looked and felt like a movie scene and I needed that scene to be a simple one with minimal characters that could be shot in an apartment in one afternoon. After those practical considerations came the fact that in the months leading up to that shoot, Film Forum was having one of their pre-code series and I was going nightly and rabidly emailing with friends about the films we were seeing, which were proving very inspirational and also timely, with August 8th’s Black Monday. Of all the movies at Film Forum, The Cabin In The Cotton really hit home in terms of its strange and complex ideas about economics and solidarity politics. I was also drawn to the baffling combination of a fresh-faced Bette Davis and a soundly confused and tired Richard Barthelmess. So, as per usual, the choice was a product of circumstance and practical concerns, as well as thematic appropriateness and my own bizarre interests and fixations.
I will say that I am getting a lot of joy from the fact that everyone who talks to me about the movie is asking about why I chose this scene. That is, I really really like the idea of people being curious and placing all this importance on a pretty random, mostly forgotten, and by all accounts insignificant movie from 1932. That doesn’t happen very often anymore. It’s actually going to be on TCM on January 21st at 8:45, so interested parties should set their DVRs.
GK: “I just think it needs to look really real,” an offscreen voice is heard saying at the beginning of the film. The multiple frames contained within the movie—the credits list seven discrete recording devices—in themselves suggest different standards of realism, but even so, other considerations come into play. The personalities of the players kind of mutate as the movie moves along; a viewer might find cinematographer Eric Phillips-Horst a little uptight and wonky at the outset, and his sheer joy at the end is kind of unexpected and infectious. Was illuminating the conundrum about cinema—that it both shows and withholds, and can be very cagey about giving what one might call “the whole picture”—part of your scheme?
GT: I’ll start with the specifics here and then get a little more general. With Eric, who actually is the person who speaks the line you reference, I think this is partially due to process. For the first two acts of the movie, more than anyone else, he’s working and has a very specific task that requires a very specific focus and energy, especially when there’s a time crunch because your talent has to finish at specific times to get to their day jobs. The third act is the first point in the movie where he is actually able to relax and just be himself, and in the case of Eric, himself is very much something I would associate with joy. In any case, I really like that his “character” worked that way for you—in terms of character development but mostly in terms of a document of labor.
Something I often thought about while editing was how the movie would change or work for people that knew the people in movie personally and those that didn’t. Ultimately, I think it’s (appropriately) a lot like pre-code cinema, which featured a round-robin of rotating character actors. That is, if you are familiar with (know in a sense) Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, Allen Jenkins, Emma Dunn, Ned Sparks etc.,you’re given a key to go deeper with those films. The rhythms of those movies change and the jokes resonate in a different way and in some cases the jokes only exist because of knowledge of the actor and their previous roles. That being said, obviously Blessed Event isn’t any less of a movie if you don’t recognize the actors, it’s just a slightly different one. Fassbinder’s films function similarly.
In terms of withholding and showing, what’s been very interesting and surprising to me thus far has been people’s different interpretations, not of what things mean so much as what is actually happening—who is saying what, who has the camera, where the sound is coming from, what’s on purpose and what isn’t, who is acting and who isn’t.
GK: There’s also a subtextual interrogation of the mechanics of desire going on in this movie. At some point each of the female actors who’s portraying the Bette Davis role comments upon, or makes a physical adjustment to, her frontal presentation, so to speak. Giving direction to one of your male actors, you are heard saying, “But…you’re a man…” There’s a brief montage, three shots I think, of unlaced female garments. Whence does/did this arrive from?
GT: I’d almost rather hear you talk more about this than answer the question myself because I’m always thinking about gender and its relationship to cinema on and off screen but I’ve never thought of the movie that way or seen those images in that context when I’ve watched it.
That being said, I think there are a few practical answers to this question. In terms of the frontal adjustment, I think those shots came to be because 1), people were not thinking about being filmed 2), it was a no-budget set and everyone is wearing many hats, with the actors pretty much taking care of their own wardrobe 3), the microphones were being difficult. My decision to use those shots likely also stems from many places—the rhythms of movie at those moments, the lighting, the person in the frame, what was being said etc..
I do think the women totally stole the show though, which is due to both the scene itself and the specific people I gathered to perform the scene.
GK: I seem to recall reading somewhere that you were continuing to move away from conventional narrative in your work. Which, I’m sure you’re aware, is kind of interesting given that so much of your critical work is devoted, in several respects, to great narrative filmmaking of classical Hollywood. I’m not suggesting there’s some kind of discrepancy in that, but there are folks who’d say it’s a shame that someone of your obvious talent and vision is working at a remove from the mainstream when the mainstream could use more vital young female filmmakers. Does this sort of concern ever cross your mind?
GT: Well, before my predictably practical answer, thank you! The main thing here is that I’m a working class woman, that is, I have to support myself. Short of people coming forward to offer their producing services and someone handing me enough cash to make a more traditional movie and also support myself in this obscenely expensive city with shelter, food, and health insurance while I made that traditional movie in its many stages (research, writing, casting, pre-production, shooting, editing, promoting) that isn’t looking like something that is going to happen anytime soon. My last two films are very much the product of my having a day job, a day job I take very seriously and care about.
Do I think it’s a shame that making movies isn’t my job? I don’t know. It seems an unproductive question for me. I do think having a job keeps me grounded in and connected to what it means to be a person living in this horrific capitalist system, which provides a tension in my work that I think is missing in a lot of current filmmaking, especially art house and “independent” fare. It also forces me to constantly adapt, to think outside the box and challenge myself and I like that. In theory I guess I’d love to not have a traditional job and to make movies and travel around the world with them but also who knows, I’m a Taurus and I like stability. Plus, I mean, I’m always bloated and tired when I travel and it would suck to be bloated all the time. And I’d really miss my friends.
In terms of Hollywood and women directors, I of course agree that I’d like to see more women in the mainstream. I am currently obsessed with Beyond The Lights and [writer/director] Gina Prince-Bythewood kind of said it all when she told NPR that she’s offered tons of work but that she isn’t able to make movies that she writes, the stories she actually wants to tell.
So, in a way I guess my answer to your question is that you’re asking the wrong person because ultimately it isn’t up to me.