Genghis Blues is one of the greatest adventure movies of all time. Thank god it’s also a documentary, because if it were fiction, you’d never believe that a legendary-yet-unknown blind bluesman would join up with a ragtag group of twenty-somethings to travel to an equally unknown place, Tuva, deep in Siberia and bordering Mongolia, to sing the most difficult technique of singing: throat singing.
As I’ve been interviewing for this site, I’ve come to find that a lot of documentary filmmakers dive into the deep end on their very first movie. That was certainly the case with Mike Jacobs, whose brilliant vérité epic Audience of One was also his first feature. I think it’s a testament to the form. Vérité filmmaking certainly requires less; you don’t need a script or a crew or even much gear. In fact, all you really need is an idea, a camera, and the willingness to go all in. That third quality is pretty rare, and as you’ll see from my interview, Roko and his brother have that quality in spades. However, it’s pretty rare that first timers have the massive success that Roko had. Genghis Blues was not only a journey of a film, but also a journey that took a kid from college into adulthood, to San Francisco, to Tuva, to the winners circle at Sundance, and finally, to an Oscar nomination for best documentary, all on his first at bat.
What Roko Belic achieved with this film is beyond remarkable. I sat down with Roko to find out just how that story got to be so well-told, and what life was like after Blues’ premiere in 2000.
Did you always want to make movies? Do you remember when you were bitten by the bug?
You know, it sorta happened gradually without me really realizing it. My first exposure to film that I can remember was watching Star Wars, and that just totally blew me away. I dreamed the whole movie that night when I went to sleep. I didn’t know what the hell was going on in the movie, I didn’t know what the story was, but somehow at five or six years old I just got it.
Then, over the next few years, my brother and his friend started making short films with the friend’s dad’s Super 8 movie camera, and I helped out once in a while even though I didn’t really know what was going on. And that had a profound impact me because as I got older, I just sort of assumed that I knew how to make movies, even though I didn’t. And when, as a young person, you face the prospect of making your first film, it can be a very daunting challenge. It’s like, where do you start, and there’s so many things involved, where do you get the skill set, and I just thought that I already had the skill set, even though I didn’t. And that kind of naivety just enabled me to jump in and do a couple projects in high school and college where I would convince teachers that instead of writing a twelve page paper, I could just do a short film. And that worked a couple times, so I made a couple short films that were just useless, and each time I thought ‘wow, I thought I was better at this’. It wasn’t clear to me what I was so bad at at the time, but now of course I know that I just didn’t know what I was doing.
And then when I got out of college, I had studied art, and my plan was to do something creative with my life, but I wasn’t sure if it should be painting or sculpture or films, and I kinda always assumed I’d make a film someday, at least one. So when I heard about the subject that led me to make Genghis Blues, about Paul Pena and throat singing, that project took me four years to make and that process was how I learned how to make a movie.
And after I finished it, I assumed I’d have to get a real job to start paying off my bills and stuff, but instead what happened was that it was accepted to dozens of film festivals right off the bat, and then it won the Sundance audience award, and was nominated for an Oscar. And so suddenly I thought ‘oh wow, I could actually do this, and maybe this could work as a way to make a living’. And so yeah, I didn’t really have any big strategy with filmmaking, it wasn’t my one career goal, I just knew I had wanted to create art, and film was the most powerful medium of art I’d ever experienced.
That’s kind of amazing that your whole learning curve was on Genghis Blues. What was that process like?
I’d never felt that I was a natural storyteller. I didn’t like writing in school, I didn’t read a lot, and whenever I’d think about ideas for movies, they’d never be stories, they’d just be little blips, and pieces of scenes. I didn’t think in a linear, narrative, structured way at all. And Genghis Blues actually taught me to respect traditional narrative structure.
And in fact, in the years before we finally finished Genghis Blues, I submitted a version of the film to Sundance and it wasn’t accepted, and so I showed that version to about seven or eight people who were filmmakers and understood narrative structure, and basically they all agreed it was terrible. And that was really devastating, spending years on a project and everyone saying it’s terrible. But during that final year of editing after that, things started to come together, as I finally started to understand the advice I was getting and really get what narrative structure meant. And to this day, I see a lot of documentaries where they haven’t quite grasped that yet) Once I really got it, things started clicking and in the last six months I think I edited about 80% of the movie because I finally knew what I was trying to do.
And that’s a testament to a couple of things: one is that sometimes these things just take time, and the process is illogical and irrational and doesn’t make sense, but you have to go through the process in order to get to the other side to where you want to be. And by sticking it out and sticking with it and persevering, that’s the thing that enabled me to find the solution to how to edit the film. And that was actually based on experiences I had in art school where I always felt like the projects I turned in on were terrible because they were turned in on deadlines, and they always felt unfinished. I never felt I had enough to time to finish a project well. And so when I graduated from college I made one rule, that whatever project I’d do, I’d never have a deadline, so I could finish it when it’s actually finished, rathre than by some arbitrary date. And that proved to be the essential ingredient that enabled me to learn how to make movies. It also sort of bit me back because my next project, which I figured would take me about half the time, actually ended up taking me longer. Happy took six years to make, and that doesn’t make any sense, I’m still trying to figure that out. (Laughs)
And you know, one big technical hurdle of editing documentaries is just learning how to deal with footage, and learning how to push buttons on the computer that you’ve never used before. And I had access to an AVID editing system, and I had no one to teach me, but I did have the manuals. So it took a long time just to get the computer to not crash on me all the time. This was of course during the early 90s, when computers weren’t as robust as they are now. The whole thing was a steep learning curve, but I do feel that coming out of the other end of the tunnel I’m a different person in that I have a much stronger sense of storytelling than I did before.
That’s great. And as an aspiring filmmaker, it gives me hope, because I think very similarly to the way you said you used to, where I see ideas for movies in bits and pieces and small scenes. Its very hard for me to come up with a complete story.
You can definitely do it, though. I think the way towards it is to just keep fucking going and not give up. To say, ‘okay, I’m having trouble coming up with an ending, what if I just try and think of what the absolute best possible ending could be’, and just make yourself do it. Or just ask people when you’re totally stuck, and look at other movies, and look at short stories. My friend Chris Nolan who directed The Dark Knight Rises and Inception and you know, all these big movies, he says that he just makes the movies he would wanna see. One of the most fundamental ideas when he’s creating a movie script is ‘what do I wanna see when I’m sitting in a movie theater’, and that’s a great sort of light to follow, so to speak.
That’s exactly what I did with Genghis Blues by the way, and you know, I got advice about things I was doing that I should ‘do differently’, for example that I shouldn’t include the crew that I went to Tuva with, and that I should just put that in the Making Of, but my idea was that if you see the crew then you realize there’s no safety net. Like, sometimes when you see behind the scenes of a movie you’re like, ‘oh my god, there were fifty people there, that’s not as scary at all’, you know? It’s like, yeah, the shot was dangerous and they’re in the himalayas or whatever, but if there’s fifty people there, that means it was totally safe and there was backup. Whereas with us, there were five of us, and one guy was 73 years old and he had a heart attack. We had this really ragtag group and I thought that was really fun to include, and I think it helped the movie.
So you have to also know that you shouldn’t take everybody’s advice just because they’re more experienced or older or more successful than you. It always comes down to you, you have to decide whether to take the advice or not. And in truth, I’d say 95% of the advice I get is useless, but spotting that few percent that’s worth it and rings true and bugs you is important. Like somebody will comment on a rough cut of your movie and it just bugs the shit out of you and your first reaction is ‘no way, they’re totally wrong’, but because it bugs you, you have to look at it closer and think, maybe it’s bugging you for a reason, maybe they’re right about something, and often it’s not exactly what they’re saying, their solution isn’t the solution, but they’re noticing a problem and they’re helping you recognize a problem you didn’t see. But even though the solution may be some totally different solution, the things that bug you are often very valuable.
I think including yourself and the crew in the film was a great decision, because it opens up a whole other window to the adventure. I always looked at Genghis Blues as a great adventure movie, and I think including that whole other element, the stakes were higher, and as an audience member you’re going on this adventure with the people making the adventure too.
Well that’s it, you nailed it. I’m glad to hear that because it makes me feel like I succeeded in what I wanted to do, because that was definitely the idea, for sure. Because to me, I love documentaries, and even a documentary like March of the Penguins, which is an amazing story and I absolutely love the film, there’s a narrator, and then there’s the subjects, and in some films that technique can make things feel disconnected, and even though this sort of structure totally works most of the time, I do think that sometimes it creates a barrier between you and your subject. And I always thought, if we can turn the camera around 360 degrees and the viewer can realize there’s nobody else, there’s nothing hidden, then that would help everyone feel like they were going on the trip.
Did you see the documentary Dark Days by any chance?
I did, a long time ago, and I think what I saw was a rough cut, before the final cut. But it was amazing.
The reason I ask is because I think it’s a good movie, but I think what was interesting about it was that when I watched the special features, they had this whole ‘Making Of’ thing and they were talking about how he enlisted the people that were in it to help build gear they were using to shoot it, and how the whole community of people that were living in the underground tunnels basically helped make the movie, and I started thinking, ‘this should be in the movie’.
Oh yeah, totally. Yeah, if they had included that, that would have been incredible. What I was most amazed by when I watched it was the setting, it’s exactly the kind of place I’d love to make a movie. But I agree with you, that sounds absolutely fascinating and would’ve enriched the thing completely.
To get back to Genghis Khan, what was it like going on that adventure? Was there ever a time when you were like, ‘what is, this, what have I gotten myself into, this is crazy’?
Honestly, I felt that way most of the time. Like literally for that whole trip, for the weeks and months leading up to it, I was just so in over my head because I had never made a movie that was worth watching. I had never made a movie that anyone else wanted to see. And I was 23 years old with this group of people going to Siberia, and I could speak Russian fairly well at the time, so that was like one advantage, that at I could at least talk to people if the shit hit the fan and I needed to like, troubleshoot. But Paul Pena, the blues guy in the movie, he referred to me as a ‘wing walker’, one of those people who would get on a biplane and walk on the wings, and the truth is that the whole group was a bunch of wing walkers because we were all way in over our heads and had no reason to think we could succeed in the journey, and looking back, it’s even more pronounced how unusual and risky the whole process was.
Since then, I’ve worked on other people’s projects, and even my own projects, where you see how most normal people make normal movies. Budget, and safety, and people clocking out at a certain time at night, and it’s normal and safe and reasonable, and that trip to Tuva was the complete opposite of that. We had nothing to lose though, that’s the key. Only thing we had to lose I guess was our health and our life (laughs) but there was no career or money or anything tangible at stake. So we were all of the spirit that this was worth taking the risk, to the point where one of the crew members somehow got a little splinter that became a staph infection, and the doctors had no medicine for it, and they finally tracked down some super hardcore medicine that worked, but uh, being in a hospital in Siberia is not where you want to be treated for anything significant. And of course, the other guy in the movie, Mario, had a heart attack, and that sorta clarifies how outside of the standard comfort zone we were.
Was there ever a real eureka moment during shooting where you thought, ‘I think I really have something here’?
It did happen, and when it happened it was so clear. You just know immediately and like, while it’s happening you just go, ‘okay, I hope I don’t shake the camera, I hope I don’t accidentally turn it off’. But the first eureka moment I had was before I even started shooting, during the first time I ever spoke with Paul. He was one of the most interesting people I’d ever met, because of his life experience and his ability to tell stories. And he was telling me about being a young blind musician, and he was the band leader for T-Bone Walker, who at the time had like the greatest blues band, and he’s touring the world, as a band leader, this 18-year-old kid, going to Europe and all over America, and in my head I was like, ‘oh wow, this is special, I’ve never met anyone who’s had these kind of experiences, and he’s willing to talk to me, so if he lets me record this, worst case, at the very least, this will be this great archive about this guy who’s pretty much unknown in the world right now’. Like, if you saw him in the street you’d think he just looked like a homeless guy, no big deal, and you wouldn’t know he had all this experience and talent.
The first time I had a eureka moment while actually shooting and was like, holy moly, this is amazing footage, was when Paul went on stage for the first time in Tuva. And just before he went on stage, I thought everything was sort of collapsing when he found out he couldn’t sing the song he was preparing, so I thought he was just gonna give up and apologize and be very nice, because he’s a super humble guy and would never bullshit somebody or pretend, but he was so talented that he was able to improvise a couple of the songs, and when I saw the audience reaction and I was seeing him doing his thing I was like shaking I was so nervous and excited, I was in tears, and I knew how long he’d been preparing and what a dream come true this was, and that this was even beyond a dream come true because he would never even think of dreaming that he’d be in Tuva on stage performing in the national theater for all the greatest throat singers alive. So to see him living that and flourishing and soaring, that was amazing.
Another moment that comes to mind was when I interviewed Paul after the trip and I asked him what’s in store for him next, and he gives this very deliberate slow response, which makes up the end of the film, where he says “the only thing I know is that I can’t predict the future”, and then he starts singing this song, and as he started singing that song I just knew at that moment that that was the end of the film. It wasn’t a creative leap to know that that was the end of the film, but when I heard it, it was just beyond perfect.
So a couple blips like those would happen once in a while, and that still happens to me from time to time. And even on a smaller scale too, where you’re just interviewing someone and they say one or two sentences that are just so perfect that you know it’s gonna be one of the key moments in whatever you’re shooting.
What was it like seeing that scene, where you were on stage with Paul and you’re shaking and it’s this amazing moment, with an audience? It must have been amazing seeing them connect with it.
Our first screening was at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and it was all the home team, everybody that worked on the film, and Paul was there, and there was a standing ovation afterwards. And although it was an incredible experience, I’m sort of cautious about being overly excited about things I’ve done, and so I sort of took it with a grain of salt that ‘okay, this all the home team, and they love Paul, and they would clap even if the movie sucked’. That’s what was going through my head.
And then the first real public screening was at Sundance, and it was at 8AM on a Sunday in the middle of a blizzard, and I thought nobody was gonna show up. And in fact, the theater was packed, and people started laughing at all the right parts, and I could hear them sighing with anxiety when they were supposed to, and I felt them completely going along with the ride, and when that screening ended the crowd just exploded. And I think the feeling I had at that moment was as close to the feeling Paul had performing in Tuva as I could ever get. So it was like the most amazing, crazy, transcendent experience I’d ever had, where I’m just one with this audience and all of our hearts had melded together in that moment. It was just a beautiful, beautiful thing.
Wow. And going along with that, you’re the only person I’ve ever met who has ever been nominated for an Oscar, so I’m curious, what was that like? How did you find out, and what’s that process like?
Well you do apply, like you do for a film festival. You submit your film for consideration like six or eight months earlier or something. And I think if your film is doing well in the festival circuit, that helps a lot, because I think a lot of the same people are involved.
The newspaper publishes a short list of about ten or twelve movies that are up for consideration to be nominated, they’re like the first cut, and then the next cut is when they whittle that down to five documentary feature films that are officially nominated. And so our friend calls us at 6AM one day and says “Hey, did you read the paper? You guys are on the shortlist!” And we’re all excited and we’re like “Oh wow, we actually have a shot at this”, because our movie won so many awards and was really striking chords with audiences.
A month or so later we were in Mongolia showing the film in the middle of winter, it was like February, and we knew that would be around the time the nominations would be announced, and our friend and lawyer Don called us in Mongolia, it was like 5AM L.A. time, and I don’t even know how we had cell service and there was a whole bunch of static on the call, but he told us we’d been nominated. And so we celebrated while it was like 40 degrees below, and we were already at a celebration for the film, and everyone just went crazy and it was an amazing experience.
Immediately after the euphoria you go, ‘oh shit, now we gotta step up to the plate and maximize this opportunity’. Because at film festivals, we never really just watched the other movies and went home, we would be working the entire time, putting up photocopied movie posters, and telling people about the movie and pretending we had nothing to do with it, and standing in line and saying “Oh you guys should really see this moving Genghis Blues, I heard it’s amazing, I’m gonna go tomorrow.” Just doing anything we could. And so the Oscars was this big opportunity to do all sorts of crazy antics to promote the film even further. We thought about how we could get the TV cameras to pay attention to us of all people. We thought maybe we’d ride up to the Oscars on camels, but we discovered that at the Oscars, you’re not allowed to pull up the red carpet unless you’re in a limousine. And we were extremely broke, we were in debt at the time, so we called up some friends and my brother’s college roommate’s dad had a friend who had an old limo sitting in his driveway. So we got a ride in the limousine, we pulled up the red carpet, and there’s like eight of us packed in, and just as we get out, the car stalls. And there was a photographer who had travelled with us from San Francisco to cover us, as a local story of San Francisco filmmakers, since we were living there at the time, and there was a picture in the Arts section that weekend of guys in tuxedos with white gloves pushing the limo away from the red carpet, because there was a line of movie stars in limos behind us and they couldn’t wait for us to get the car started again, so they literally had to just push the thing out of the way. So, it was from things like that, that we ended up getting attention.
We also showed up at the Oscars the night before, because there are people who camp out for a couple weeks for the opportunity to sit in the stands, the bleachers overlooking the red carpet, and they’re literally camping out and cooking, and they’re people from all over the world. So we gave a bunch of these people Genghis Blues movies posters and we told them that when we get on the red carpet, they should unfurl the posters so it makes an impact and maybe we get a shot of the movie poster. And what we discovered was that everybody got frisked on the way in, so they couldn’t bring them in, but a few people folded them up and stuffed them in their underwear, so a few people were able to do it. And Kongar-ol, the throat singer, got interviewed by Joan Rivers, so it was just an adventure on all fronts, and looking back it’s just even more crystal clear how far out of our normal boundaries we were stepping, from when we made the movie to when we promoted it.
As a young filmmaker, your first time out, how did you find funding? I know you mentioned being in debt—did you do the credit card thing? Or did you go out and raise money for the movie?
I had heard about Paul Pena right as I graduated from college, and after college I was living at my Great Aunt’s house in San Francisco. And that’s when I heard about grants, and I figured ‘oh wow, we could get grants, free money, that’s perfect, we’ll make this great movie’. But after like six months of applying for grants and not getting a single one, I realized we’re wasting so much money at Kinko’s photocopying grant applications that it just wasn’t worth it. So we went onto credit cards and we bought a $3,000 camera, and nobody got paid or anything to go on the trip, everyone was paying their own way. And when we got back, through a connection—a friend’s wife’s former employer—we got hooked up with a guy at a post-production facility. And he was super cool and understood our situation after we hung out for a while, and he said “Look, I’ll try and get you some jobs, are you willing to do anything at all?” And I said absolutely, and I was totally unskilled as far as video production or anything, so my first job was crawling through the office building on my hands and knees clipping the nylon threads that were sticking up from the carpet that had just been installed. And this guy was really precise and neat so I did that for a day and a half and he would just make up jobs like that for me to get paid. And then I ended up learning skills. This guy became my sort of godfather, because he saw that I wanted to be there at this facility more than anyone who worked there, and it was the same thing with him, he loved the place. And he agreed to edit a trailer with me, and that’s how we bonded. And he taught me how to do sound recording and camerawork with real cameras, and I ended up getting jobs doing that, and that enabled me to survive while we made the movie. And at that time I was living super cheaply, spending $250 a month rent in an illegal living space above an auto body shop.
To backtrack for a moment, you mentioned your first cut of the film was experimental, and I’m curious, what was it like exactly?
I had had this idea that because the subject was blind, I would make like 70% of the movie abstract, like totally abstract—swirls of color and darkness and soundscapes. Dumb idea. It wasn’t chronological enough, it didn’t do the basic things like set up the character or explain the journey that was about the happen—all these very fundamental aspects of storytelling, it didn’t achieve. I was like a chef that uses tons of ingredients, who then learns later on that instead of having the flavor come from all sorts of different spices, the flavor should come from the actual vegetables and the dish should be simple.
If anyone’s out there reading this who has a difficulty with thinking up complete stories, documentary filmmaking is a great way to develop that skill, because in real life, shit happens that you’d never be able to come up with, and if you find a good subject for a documentary, at some point something interesting is going to happen to them, or because of them. And if you follow them long enough, that will eventually lead to some sort of arc. And that’s a really great easy way to learn story structure, by just literally following someone around with a camera who you’re fascinated and love to hang out with. It’s a great exercise.
That’s a great piece of advice. And I’ve sorta been doing that with a narrative feature, a crazy, absurdist comedy called Hectic Knife, where me and my friend Peter Litvin kind of made it up as we went along, and that’s how we eventually found the story, by just shooting and shooting and shooting.
I actually looked up the trailer for that when you reached out to me, and it looks hilarious and ridiculous and slapstick-y and awesome. And one piece of advice, which I think you probably already know, but just in case, is to pay attention to how your audience actually reacts as opposed to how you hope they react. Because that was my thing, like I’d show someone a rough cut and be like ‘god, isn’t this part amazing?’ in my head, and I’d see the audience totally neutral with their eyes glazed over, and I’m like, ‘oh, okay, I have to recognize that they’re not getting what I’m getting, so I have to figure out a way for them to get what I’m getting out of it’. And if you do that with your movie, it’ll be so engaging. Like if you put that diligence into it, it’ll be great.
Thanks man! And yeah, I definitely wanna do a lot of test screenings. Because Pete and I love the movie, we like all our stuff, but I really wanna see how it plays in front of an audience and see if we can get it perfect.
Yeah, you have to see. And there’s a technique that’s pretty simple where while it’s playing, you sit in a chair off to the side and you actually look at the screening and the audience at the same time. And that way, any moment that you see it lagging and see some people start to shuffle or scratch their noses or something, that’s all indicators that you might be able to trim a few seconds off of something, or even a whole scene. You’d much rather the movie be five minutes too short rather than five seconds too long. You’d much rather have people at the end saying, ‘damn, I wish it was longer’ than ‘damn, I wish it was shorter’.
I totally agree, thanks for the advice. Getting back to Genghis Blues though, what was life like after Sundance and the Oscars and everything?
Once you get into Sundance, you get invited to a lot of other film festivals, so we didn’t have to beg people to show our movie anymore, which was great. And once you win the Audience Award, they even start waiving the fees, and inviting you to come present the movie and be put up in fancy hotels. I started thinking that because it looked like we were gonna be able to get distribution, we’d have some money rolling in. And I don’t mean like millions or anything, but we were about $12,000 in debt at the time, and I figured with a few distribution deals, across a few different territories, we should be able to get out of debt, and maybe have some income for the next couple years. And so we were flying out to film festivals all over the world, and 99% of them, people were flying us out and putting us up, but we were still paying for food, and we still weren’t making any actual money. And so even when a few distribution deals happened, I didn’t realize that sometimes it takes months for the deals to actually be worked out, and even more months for you to see any money, and when you do, it might be a few thousand bucks or even a few hundred, and by that point you’ve already spent way more than that just living and even just eating. So for the next year, I travelled around the world to festivals and went way more in debt. Like $66,000 in credit card debt, which is horrible. All the time thinking this is still gonna work out once we get some of this money, and in fact the money that we got from our deals, it took like four years to get it. And by that time, I was in a whole different economic paradigm, because I had already spent money that I didn’t have. I had thought that anybody whose movie was playing at a real movie theater with a marquee was rich and famous, and I learned very clearly that that’s not true at all. In fact, our movie played all over the place, and we were neither rich nor famous.
The other big shift was that when we were nominated for an Oscar, that suddenly validated us as filmmakers. Up until that point, even at Sundance, we were seen as these up-and-coming filmmakers who just got lucky their first time out. But the Oscar nomination made people feel that we knew what we were doing as filmmakers. And that didn’t exactly translate to money, or contracts, or even film offers. The next project we got involved in was simply because our friend was doing some pro bono work for a High School teacher who had taught her kids about compassion and empathy and basically taught them how to live good lives through the Diary of Anne Frank and teaching them about the holocaust. And these were kids, a lot of them were involved with gangs, and lived in bad neighborhoods, and most of them didn’t expect to survive high school. It was sort of like a Stand and Deliver story, this woman in an inner city school. And it was so powerful. We went with them to Auschwitz and filmed these kids as they got to see the remnants of the holocaust firsthand and something that had changed their lives so deeply. And so we started working on a documentary on that, which ended up becoming a feature narrative film and not our project anymore, a big Hollywood movie called Freedom Writers, with Hillary Swank.
But basically, projects would come up where people would assume we did know what we were doing. And so every project I’ve done has been based on something I’ve done before, and most recently, Happy came to me because I did a project in India with a friend of mine where we were shooting and recording everything ourselves just like you’re doing with Pete, and I only showed that once in public, but that one time I showed it, a guy in the audience, Tom Shadyac, who’s a big hollywood director, he really liked it and understood what we were going for.
Now Tom Shadyac, I know he did a lot of stuff with Jim Carrey and everything, but didn’t he just come out with like a book and a documentary or something, about world issues?
Yeah, he made a documentary called I Am, and I actually shot that documentary, and that’s on like iTunes and Netflix and all that. And he wrote a book called Life Operating Manual. I think you’ll like I Am a lot. It’s an amazing film.
Yeah, I’ll definitely check that out. I’m a big fan of Liar Liar and all that, so I’m definitely interested to see his foray into documentaries.
Yeah, and it was Tom’s idea to make Happy, the whole movie was his idea, and he funded it.
That was what I was gonna ask about next, actually. Tell me a little about Happy because it’s definitely an adventure, but in a completely different way from Genghis Blues.
Well it all started because Tom called me because he had read an article in the newspaper that basically said that America is a rich country, but we’re not a very happy country. And he said he has a very personal experience with that phenomenon, because he has a lot of money and his friends are even richer than him, and he felt that the people that are the domestic workers in his house were a lot happier than a lot of his rich friends. So that’s how that project started, because he felt that a documentary would be a perfect way to explore the topic of what actually does make us happy, and I agreed completely.
And I also realized that it should not be a weird esoteric thing like Genghis Blues, it should be accessible to the widest audience possible. In other words, making it for people who didn’t watch documentaries, who weren’t into out-there stuff like throat singing, and didn’t know much about the rest of the world necessarily. And that was my goal, and that’s why the style is way more straight. The big risk obviously is that if the movie isn’t any good, you don’t have a cool style to fall back on necessarily. But I think the film works, and the widespread appeal of it has shown that this was the right approach.
It doesn’t have a main character, which is something I struggled with for a long time and actually that’s one of the reasons it took so long to make, because I was very resistant about having a voiceover, because I feel sometimes they create a barrier between you and the subject of the film. And in Genghis Blues, there’s a tiny bit of voiceover, but it all comes from interviews that we did. And with Happy, after years in the editing room, I realized that a lot of it did work but I could just tell it wasn’t working as well as it should. So we added a voiceover and everything finally clicked, and the response at the screenings was hugely positive.
That’s great, and it must be a totally different process too because you’re not following someone doing something, you’re investigating a larger idea. So the editing process must have been a lot different.
Yeah, and just before you called I was working on editing a short documentary that I’m working on about the neuroscience of fantasy. And it’s a very similar process to Happy, where I start looking into a subject, I find the things that are the most surprising and interesting to me—for example, in Happy, when I discovered the benefits of happiness, that happy people are more creative, they’re nicer, they have better relationships, they stay married longer, they do better at school and at work, if they’re doctors they heal their patients more frequently, and most of all, they live longer. Happiness can actually make us live longer. So I’m always writing notes, always researching, and eventually I sort of whittle the things that interest me down and clarify what they are. I knew there had to be a ‘Happiness and Longevity’ section. And the relationship of Happiness and Money was important, so I had to explore that. So you clarify the main stepping stones of the discussion, and then you build scenes and vignettes around it. That’s the general process I take. And if the pieces don’t necessarily connect to each other, you have to figure out how to connect them together, and that’s part of the fun of editing, figuring out how to put them in the right order.
You know, I was very rebellious against the Hollywood formula before I made movies, because the thought of a formula really frustrated me. And that’s why I was like, fuck this, I wanna make independent art, non-linear things. Then with Genghis Blues I learned that the formula, the narrative structure, isn’t something that’s imposed on the stories. It’s actually something that’s born in the human psyche. We are designed in a way that responds to stories that are told with these parameters and tendencies. And people have discovered what those are and have tried to articulate them into formulas and thematic templates. And so that gave me huge respect for the narrative process, because it’s not that someone is imposing these things, it’s that that’s who we are as human beings, and that that’s the best way for us to connect as human beings.
Tom said something to me once that really stuck with me at a filmmaker, and may stick with you too. He and I were talking about the classic ‘hollywood ending’, and I was still sort of lamenting this fact that movies try to end on a happy ending, and how it feels forced and like bullshit sometimes because sometimes human stories are tragic, and that’s just the way they are, and they end that way. And he said, “Well that depends on where you put the title ‘The End’, because if a girl gets her legs cut off, and ‘The End’ comes up, well, that’s just a tragic, down ending. But if a girl gets her legs cut off, and you keep telling the story, and you show her teaching another kid in the hospital how to make puzzles or something, then it’s an up ending. So really the difference between an art house movie that’s depressing and a hollywood movie that’s happy at the end is where you decide to stop the story.” And he also said that “There’s no tragic story that’s done. Even the Holocaust, one of the worst things we know of that has happened, you go, ‘well, people fell in love, they had kids, people decided that justice and humanity are the most important things, and they dedicated their lives to that’. All kinds of things happened, and that doesn’t mean the Holocaust was a good thing, it just means that there’s a way to tell a story with hope, no matter how tragic.” And I thought that was really interesting, and it was really helpful to think about that. Because sometimes I’ve tended towards darker stuff, but my true nature is optimistic and hopeful and happy, so it makes sense to think about things like that.
I couldn’t agree more, that’s great advice. And I heard that you’re working on a narrative film now, can you tell us a little about that?
It’s based on a documentary project I did some years ago, and in the process of making it, my film partner at the time and I were inspired to create a fictional narrative that was based on this story that we discovered in the documentary. I don’t wanna give away too many details, because I’m still figuring it out myself, but it’s a story that takes place in the Himalayas, and thematically it’s in line with everything I’ve done so far. I’ve realized in some ways that I’m always making the same movie, and that might sound boring, but there’s an infinite range of how to make that movie, since it’s about people trying to live life to the fullest, and experience life in the best way that they can.
I anticipate we’ll probably make it very independently to preserve a lot of creative freedom, and also because I don’t know how well these things get funded, because I’ve never really worked within that system. I’ve been up to the Himalayas a bunch of times though, and it’s an incredible tableau in front of which to make a film.
Being that it’s scripted, is your approach to it any different? I assume it’s probably more visual in your mind, since with documentaries you’re sort of discovering the visuals as you go, and with narrative films you’re making them up from scratch.
Yeah, to make a documentary the way I usually do, it’s like making a film in reverse. When ‘m making a documentary, I’ll have some ideas in mind, but I shoot a lot of stuff and then I figure out how to tell the story when I’m editing. I’m basically writing the story at the end of the process. And that’s backwards from what makes logical sense when most people makes feature films, where you’re writing the script first, and then going and shooting that. So in a way, writing a script feels like making a movie backwards for me, but it’s very liberating because when you’re writing a story in the editing room, you’re often limited by the footage you have, so it’s like you’re writing a story with a limited amount of words, whereas when you’re writing a script, you have all the words in the English language at your disposal. Which make screenwriting daunting because it means you have unlimited options, whereas with a documentary, you’re just picking the best option of the three of four that you have. So it’s an exercise in a new kind of discipline.
That makes a lot of sense, I like that. Alright, so to close things out, I’m gonna ask two questions that I always ask everyone I interview, and you can answer them literally however you want, you can even ignore ‘em, I’m pleased with whatever honest answer I get from them. The first question is: What’s your favorite movie?
Star Wars. And I say that because it was the movie that had the most impact on my life.
As a follow-up to that, do you like the whole trilogy? What’s your feeling about the prequels?
Well when I say Star Wars, I mean A New Hope, Episode IV. And the reason why it’s my favorite movie is partially related to how old I was when I saw it. I was at an age where I was completely naive about the artifice of filmmaking. I believed that it was real. I didn’t know what the word ‘fiction’ meant, at least in regards to filmmaking. It had this incredible power. I didn’t ‘suspend disbelief’, I simply believed. And so the movies that came since then didn’t have that same advantage in terms of having an impact on me. I’m a big fan of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but I wasn’t nearly as taken by Return of the Jedi or the prequels. But I did actually watch them all a couple years ago and I’ve gained an appreciation for the entire series. Watching them all together, it’s actually incredible how well they fit, and how the story develops through the episodes.
My second question is: What’s your least favorite movie?
A few times, I’ve not finished movie because I was just too disconnected from them, but I can’t even remember what they were. It’s never happened so dramatically that it’s clear in my head which is my least favorite.
I’ll tell you though, there’s a movie that’s particularly challenging for me, called Cobra Verde, by Werner Herzog. And Herzog’s a great filmmaker, he’s made some truly astounding and powerful and amazing movies. But that one, I have a hard time with.
Cool, thanks for doing this interview man. I really appreciate it, and it was really great talking to you.
Hey man, I appreciate what you’re doing too. If people didn’t watch movies and want to talk about them then that would make my passion a lot harder to indulge. And the fact that you’re making movies is exciting, because one day I’ll see one of those movies, and it’ll enrich my life.
You got it, Greg! Take care.
Happy can be rented directly from TheHappyMovie.com for $2.99. It’s also currently available on Netflix Instant.