Thursday, August 11, 2011

Jim McBride and L.M. Kit Carson on "David Holzman's Diary"

What was your inspiration for making this film?

MCBRIDE: It was a combination of things. Michael Powel's Peeping Tom had a big impression on me. I saw it when it was banned in the United States; maybe it was banned everywhere, I don't know. On my first visit to California, a guy I knew got a hold of a print of it and showed it at midnight at a movie theater that no longer exists here. I was just knocked out by it. The whole idea of self-examination.

Then, in addition to that, I was very interested in Cinema Verite. Kit Carson and I were going to write something for the Museum of Modern Art about Cinema Verite, and we interviewed all these filmmakers--like the Mayles brothers, Ricky Leacock, Pennebaker, even Andy Warhol--who were making films that purportedly were for the first time entering into real life and finding out the truth.

People were really passionate about this idea that you could find the truth with this new, light-weight equipment and faster film stocks and synch sound--all the stuff that was very new in the sixties. So at that time I was very passionately interested in all of that, and at the same time I felt there was something wrong here.

So you didn't out to specifically fool people?

MCBRIDE: That certainly wasn't the idea. One wanted to make a movie that would be believable. Yes, on one level you wanted people to believe that it was real and to affected by it, but on the other hand, I didn't set out with the intention of fooling people. But just as with any film you make, you want people to suspend their disbelief, you want people to believe it.

I know that this film is an important film to a lot of people, and always, constantly surprised when people come up to me and say, 'I saw your film when I was in college.' My own experience with the film is that it's never had any kind of commercial release, it's never shown in theater. It really only has a life at film festivals and colleges. So I'm always surprised that more than seven people have seen it.

I know that at a lot of early showings people walked out, but I think that was more from being bored than being fooled.

How did you and Kit write the film?

MCBRIDE: I had a different way of working with Kit. We were writing this thing for the Museum of Modern Art, exploring this whole idea of truth.

For those parts of the film that took place in his apartment--we really did it all in one long weekend, I think--we spent several days beforehand with just a tape recorder in a room. I would give him a sense of what I wanted to have happen in a given scene, and then he would put it into his own words, and then we'd listen to the tape and I'd say 'I like this, I don't like that, change this.'

It was very much controlled improvisation, and by the time we actually went to shoot the scene--although it wasn't written down--we all knew exactly what was going to happen. Because we didn't have a lot of film to fuck around with, so we had to get it on the first or second take. So it was pretty carefully rehearsed.

How did you get involved in this project?

CARSON: Jim had conceived of this idea to do a film called David Holzman's Diary, which was, at the time he introduced it to me, a 12-page outline on David Holzman, this guys who starts the movie by saying 'My life is all fucked up and I'm about to be drafted and I figure it's time for me to try to figure what's going on. And if I shoot everyday and look at the rushes of everyday, I can find the plot again, because I've lost the plot.'

The interesting thing is that at the time I was also studying the roots of the English novel. And the roots of the English novel are these fake diaries, like Robinson Crusoe and Pamela. It was the first way they figured out to do long-form fiction, was to make diaries out of it.

So that also informed what we were attempting to do, because a diary is something that feels like it's real time, but you know, if you think about it for two seconds, 'Oh, yeah, he's edited this together.' So it's not really happening in front of you. It's been examined and purposed, structurally, to be this way.

What was the experience of shooting the film like?

CARSON: On my Easter break from college in Texas, I came to New York. And since I didn't know how to do it any other way, I just became the character. I lived in the editing room, I slept in the closet, and I lost my girlfriend who at the time thought I was nuts -- just like Penny in the movie thinks I'm nuts. So it worked.

We did several days of improvising through the scenes, between McBride and myself, until he felt that we got the shape of the scene. And then when we would shoot, I told Jim that I was not going to rehearse. 'Just turn the camera on and I'm going to do it.' Because I didn't want to filter the improvisation any further. If I had rehearsed it before we turned the camera on, it would have turned it into self-conscious thought. And I wanted to keep it raw.

We were satisfied that we had the shape of the scene, built off of the 12-page outline. We knew the beginning, middle and end. But I said to Jim, 'I want to surprise you.' I had no idea what I was saying when I said that, but the idea was to keep that instant alive, the instant when anything can happen.

I like the idea of not filtering the moment, not knowing how I'm going to do.

So we shot maybe two or three takes each time.

Were you involved in the film after it was shot?

CARSON: I came back from Texas and Jim had put the film together, sort of, and he had Thelma Schoonmaker come in and take a look, because Thelma was everybody's pal at that time.

What Jim had done was take the worst takes of the two or three that we had made, because he felt that was more truthful to the character. And Thelma said, 'Fine, that may be more true, but it's horrible, so you have to use the best takes. Otherwise it's really painful if you don't use the best takes.'

I understand his thought, that the bad takes make it seem more like a documentary. But Thelma talked him into using the best takes.

What lesson did you take away from making this movie?

CARSON: The lesson I took away is that there is a lot of depth of thought required; you can't just do it off the top of your head. Jim had this brilliant idea. It came out of six months of experience interviewing a dozen documentary filmmaker to conclude that, 'No, wait a minute, this is not true. Therefore, let's expose it.' That was all Jim's energy. But it came from spending all that time thinking about it.

And from my angle, it came from studying the roots of the English novels, studying what documentary IS, so that you say, 'Oh, I know. It's an act of fiction.' It looks real, and you propose it stylistically as 'this happened, just now,' but it's actually been edited and pieced together.

What you try to achieve when you create any fiction is truth, a fictional truth that has the right ending.

With the movies I've made since that time, I've always tried to stay in touch with the job of telling the truth in your own way in this particular story.

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