Thursday, August 23, 2012

David Zeiger on "Sweet Old World"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Sweet Old World?

DAVID: I have been a documentary filmmaker since the early nineties, and it followed several other lives-photographer (and photographic graffiti artist), printer, carpenter, and--yes--revolutionary activist. As a result, it wasn't until I was in my early forties that I made my first film.

 While my films have been about a variety of subjects, they all stem in some way from my own life. In 1996 I made a film about my son's high school, The Band, which I'll talk about with the next question. I followed that up with one of the first reality series (back when the word could really mean "reality"), Senior Year, that followed fifteen seniors at Fairfax High, the most diverse school in Los Angeles, which also happens to be my alma mater (from long before it was the most diverse school in Los Angeles). That series was on PBS in 2002.

 I then made a feature documentary, Sir! No Sir!, my foray into history. It tells the long suppressed story of the tremendous GI movement against the Vietnam War, a movement I was part of as a teenager (I worked in a coffeehouse in Killeen, Texas, where soldiers from Fort Hood met to organize against the war and many aspects of the military.) Sir! No Sir! was also my only theatrical film, playing throughout the U.S. and Canada in 2006. I followed it up with This is Where We Take Our Stand, a film about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are following in the footsteps of the rebel Vietnam vets. That was on PBS earlier this year.

 I also made a film in 2002 for HBO called Funny Old Guys, about a group of octogenarian comedy writers who had written for every TV show imaginable from the fifties through the eighties. Lifelong friends and all retired, they met for lunch every week to share stories and laughs, and be with each other in their waning years. I had met them through my father, who was not himself a writer but was good friends with all of these guys.

So every film I have made comes from my life, and I hope expands into other people's lives as well.

What was the genesis for the script for Sweet Old World and what was the writing process like?

DAVID: Sweet Old World, my first fiction film, is one of my most personal. As I mentioned, in 1996 I made a documentary about my son Danny's junior year in high school called The Band. The title refers to the marching band at Decatur High School, an Atlanta suburb. I spent a year with Danny and the other kids in the band, and the film is a personal journey into his world as well as a meditation on life eight years after Danny's older brother, Michael, died suddenly when he was nine and Danny was seven. It was a bittersweet process as I watched Danny emerge into adulthood while we both struggled with the terrible reality of leaving Michael behind.

 A few years later, I started writing Sweet Old World, which took me ten years to write. I never went to film school, so for me every film I make is my film school. I try to never repeat myself, to always jump into something new, and Sweet Old World was the newest and biggest jump. I have always loved fiction, both in writing and on the screen, but documentary has, I guess, come easier to me. The fact that it took ten years to write Sweet Old World was a product both of my struggle to find the story and my fears about taking this plunge.

During one period of despair about my ability to write and make this film, and after a long talk with my wife, Maryann, who amazingly never gives up on me, I wrote "The Ten Commandments of Sweet Old World," which helped get me over that chasm. Here they are.

  1. Make this film for yourself.
  2. You are not starting from nowhere.
  3. You are not too old to make a first feature film.
  4. This is a good premise. You can make it a good film.
  5. Stop second guessing.
  6. Your objections have been noted. Tell them to shut up and let you get to work.
  7. If it doesn’t work, fix it.
  8. Get to work.
  9. So what if there are only 8 commandments?
I also discovered while editing the film that I had not yet successfully translated the story I was trying to tell onto the screen. It took six months of agonizing with the material we had shot for me to realize that I had to go back to the script. We stopped editing and I rewrote a good deal of act two. I was fortunate to be able to get the actors back and do two weeks of re-shooting, finally telling the story I had intended.

Can you talk about how you raised your budget and your financial plan for recouping your costs?

DAVID: The initial impetus came from a 2010 Guggenheim Fellowship, which was both a great honor and a nice chunk of change. It gave me and my producer, Vangie Griego, the finances to go into preproduction. With an initial budget of $125,000, we added a Kickstarter campaign and were about half way there when we started production.

Now, I know that independent films never go over budget, right? But weirdly, this one ended up costing $250,000 and I'm deep in debt. Financial plan? If I had a financial plan, I probably would never have made this film!

Seriously, our financial plan is pretty much in line with our outreach strategy. Along with festivals (we had a wonderful premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival), we are reaching out to schools and organizations that focus on family issues and dealing with trauma. We hope that through this, the film will have a lively DVD and VOD life.

What camera did you use and what did you love and hate about it?

DAVID: We used the Canon 5D. I loved it. It's certainly the closest to 35 mm film quality of any video format I have seen. It also gave us tremendous flexibility in shooting. Sweet Old World is set in a documentary context. Much of it was filmed in the midst of the South Pasadena High School Marching Band. We combined scripted scenes set in that world with a good deal of documentary footage, which gives the film a genuine feel I think is missing from most films about high school kids. We could seamlessly move from scripted to documentary scenes. It also, by the way, makes it easy to steal shots. You just look like you're taking still photographs.

What are the advantages (and disadvantages) of writing and directing a movie that is drawn so closely from your own life?

DAVID: My struggle with Sweet Old World was to take the story out of the confines of the real circumstances that gave birth to it, and to allow my characters to develop their own lives. That was, it turns out, very difficult on two fronts--first, because the story is so close to mine, and second because of my documentary background. I had to find ways for my imagination to take over, particularly to let my characters drive the story in whatever direction they would take it.

The advantages are of course that I was able to draw on a deep well of experience, not only my own but that of other people who have lived through the death of a child. I have to say, most American films I have seen on this subject are melodramatic and, frankly, unreal. I've looked to Europe for films that inspired me. The film that I found most true to life is The Son by the Dardenne brothers.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

DAVID: The smartest thing I did was to put full faith in my producer, Vangie Griego, my consulting producer, Eric Mofford, and the great crew that they hired. Along with that, I studied for over a year with Judith Weston, a wonderful directing coach in Los Angeles. With her guidance, I was able to do a good deal of preparation for working with the actors, the aspect of directing I believe to be the most pivotal to any film.

The dumbest thing was once--just once--I yelled at a grip out of frustration. I still feel guilty about that.

What did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

DAVID: It's hard to specify that. I learned a tremendous amount about the process of creating fiction. I have always shaped my documentaries with a narrative structure, and came into this film believing that because of that it would be an easy transition to pure narrative. Not so. The rules may be the same, but the process is quite different, far more collaborative.

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