Archive for the ‘Interviews’ Category

David Sprunger on Much Ado About Nothing

Monday, July 15th, 2013

Amy Acker as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing.

Interview by Greg Carlson

Joss Whedon’s adaptation of “Much Ado About Nothing” is only the second theatrically released, English language, synchronous sound version of the text produced as a film and not a filmed version of a stage production, distinctions that have prompted excitement for fans of Shakespeare at the movies. High Plains Reader film editor Greg Carlson asked Concordia College professor David Sprunger, a scholar whose research interests include, among other things, medieval literature, Chaucer, and Shakespeare, to share some of his thoughts on the production.


Greg Carlson: In your opinion, how does “Much Ado About Nothing” rank among Shakespeare’s comedies?

David Sprunger: “Much Ado” deserves its reputation as the best of Shakespeare’s love comedies. It has the bickering sexual tension of “The Taming of the Shrew” but with a kinder resolution. It also has the distinction of containing far more prose than verse, so the language is more accessible than in other Shakespeare plays.


GC: In Whedon’s film, one of the things you notice immediately is that Beatrice and Benedick have already slept together as the action gets underway. How did that choice alter perceptions of their subsequent courtship in this version?

DS: The play contains several lines in which Beatrice alludes to a possible earlier relationship with Benedick, but the context of the lines leaves some question as to whether Benedick is aware of Beatrice’s perception of whatever happened in the past. The opening scene in Whedon’s film shows Benedick’s rather cowardly conclusion to the relationship. His subsequent unwillingness to acknowledge their encounter or to attempt to explain his departure makes him a less sympathetic character.


GC: Whedon is so regularly described as a filmmaker who respects women I could not help but wonder about the ways in which womanhood and femininity are treated in contemporary productions of “Much Ado.” Can you comment on the sexual politics that interested Shakespeare and whether or to what extent they are effective in the show today?

DS: Shakespeare’s love comedies are predicated on Elizabethan attitudes toward courtship and marriage as largely economic transactions with important implications for entire families. One reason why “Much Ado” probably maintains its appeal is that Beatrice seems to be largely outside of such a system. She is the ward of her uncle and no mention is made of any dowry or other financial component of her marriage.

Shakespeare also sets high value on same-sex friendships, particularly between men. Beatrice’s “kill Claudio” command calls competing loyalties into question. The rapidity with which Benedick declines Beatrice’s request shows that although he loves Beatrice, he is not yet willing to put her interests above his friendship with Claudio.


GC: The modern setting really highlights all the language revolving around Hero’s chastity and the social “value” of her virginity. Other than the convenience of plotting, why doesn’t Claudio take Hero’s word over Don John’s when her honor is called into question?

DS: It’s not that Claudio takes Don John’s word over Hero’s but that he trusts his own senses. The power of what he thinks he sees is enough to overcome all other reason.  When Hero protests her innocence, she is not arguing with Don John the Bastard but with visual evidence, with what Shakespeare calls elsewhere “ocular proof.”

In Shakespeare’s day, “nothing” would probably be pronounced as our modern “noting,” so there’s a suggestion that we not make “much ado” about what we see. The play is rife with misunderstandings that result from conversations overheard and events seen at a distance. The trick played on Claudio is parallel to those played on Benedick and Beatrice, but it has far darker implications. The play’s title would seem to downplay all these notings.

One way that Whedon keeps this sense of noting active through the film is in the device of an omnipresent photographer whose job is apparently to document all events of Don Pedro’s visit to Leonato’s.  She reminds us that within the film’s world, everything is open to scrutiny and nothing is really private.


GC: Were there any significant changes or omissions that really stood out to you?

DS: Every production of a Shakespeare play is an adaptation with details being dropped or rearranged. Whedon makes small changes between the text and the film, but nothing seemed particularly daunting. Leonato’s brother is dropped and we get less Dogberry than in some productions. You’ve already brought up the opening scene and subsequent flashback to Benedick and Beatrice’s prior relationship. That element was the most important to me.

The decision to cast Don John’s follower Conrade as a woman was a curious choice, but I liked it. One wonders why anyone is willingly aligned with Don John, the political loser of the war that precedes the play’s action. Conrade’s gender and relationship with John gives one such motive. Borachio, the other person in John’s party, is portrayed as younger and less military than the other male actors, which gives him a sort of intern-like appearance.


GC: How do you think Whedon’s interpretation fares next to the Branagh production of 1993?

DS: It’s hard not to watch Whedon’s film and make mental comparisons to Branagh’s. In the end, I prefer Branagh’s interpretation, which develops more leisurely and more spaciously.


GC: Who managed the best performances in this version?

DS: Amy Acker does a great job as Beatrice. She brings some physical comedy to the role. The comic center of the play is the scenes where their friends trick Benedick and Beatrice into thinking each loves the other. The duping of Beatrice was my favorite scene in the film.

Also, Nathan Fillion’s portrayal of Dogberry is the best I’ve seen on stage or screen. Call me a contrarian, but Michael Keaton’s exaggerated portrayal in Branagh’s film is a blot on that production. The way Fillion underplays the bumbling logic and malapropisms makes the character more palatable.


GC: This production has received attention for its low-budget, speedy shooting schedule, and the use of Whedon’s own residence as the location and his gang of actor friends as the cast. Do you think that homemade ambience was an asset or a liability?

DS: The low-budget elements worked for me. A friend who saw the film mentioned that it really helps to know the play before seeing the movie because the plot moves quickly and jumps about a bit.

I came away from the film thinking about the tremendous amount of alcohol displayed and consumed in the film. Perhaps this is the way the Hollywood elite live during their down time, but it seemed as if every room in the house had a bar or decanter with an inexhaustibly varied supply of glassware immediately at hand. Perhaps the intent was to signal a sort of prolonged party/carnival atmosphere but it undercut the love story for me a bit.


GC: What is the most memorable production of “Much Ado” that you have seen?

DS: Last fall I had the pleasure of seeing a production set in twentieth century India. The emphasis on family honor gained extra significance in the Indian context. I’ve been thinking about that production this week since Benedick was played by Paul Bhattacharjee, the British actor whose mysterious disappearance and subsequent death have recently been in the news.

Symphony of the Soil: An Interview with Deborah Koons Garcia

Monday, June 10th, 2013


Interview by Greg Carlson

On Tuesday, June 18 at 7pm at the Fargo Theatre, documentary filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia will present her latest film, “Symphony of the Soil.” Koons Garcia is an accomplished artist, whose 2004 documentary “The Future of Food” investigated the perils of genetically modified foods. “Symphony of the Soil” continues the filmmaker’s study of our relationship with food and the environment.

High Plains Reader film editor Greg Carlson asked Koons Garcia about her work.


HPR: Symphony of the Soil establishes soil as the film’s protagonist and central character. At the beginning of the movie, soil is beautifully described by the brilliant Ignacio Chapela as a “living crust that is smeared over the surface of our planet.” What is your favorite thing about soil?

Deborah Koons Garcia: What fascinates me about soil is its transformational nature, the idea that it not only provides a foundation for life – that plants and trees and animals grow out of it – but that it transforms death into life.  It is the medium in which life is broken down and made available for new life to form. One aspect of this is called nutrient cycling, but it’s really about life cycling through the soil.


HPR: When you made The Future of Food (2004), the focus was on the genetic engineering of food and the risks of corporate influence on agricultural practices. Even in recent weeks, more news stories about nations banning the importation, use, or growth of genetically engineered crops have emerged. Labeling and definitions can be controversial. Where do you see the United States in the next steps of the movement to more carefully examine GE/GMO practices and potentially adopt more detailed and explicit labels?

DKG: I personally am relieved that the general population is starting to rise up and question the GMO regime.  I know a lot about this because I been studying, making films and speaking about it for over 12 years. For too long, so much of what has gone on in this country has allowed GMOs a free pass; they’ve been under the radar.

It amazes me that the corporations that have spent billions of dollars on propaganda to convince people that we need these allegedly harmless GMOs to feed the world are terrified by mandatory labeling. If they are so proud of their product, they should be proud to label it because then the people convinced by their propaganda can go out and buy it.

You have to be suspicious of the corporate persons, which are these corporations, who are so afraid of being held accountable for their products. The only way that people are going to develop any confidence that this stuff is what their promoters say it is is if we have long term scientific studies that are transparent and neutral, that are not funded and controlled by the corporations controlling the GMOs, and if we have labeling of the food itself.

This way, if GMOs cause harm, we’ll be able to identify where that harm came from.  They don’t want stuff labeled, they don’t want to be tested, they don’t want us to have a choice. Just that alone should alarm the public. What are they hiding?  Why are they afraid?  What do they know that they don’t want us to know?  And why should their attitude be so infantilizing – shut up and eat!  That is totally insulting.

This whole thing with GMO wheat has alarms going off everywhere – good! Monsanto has not managed to shove this stuff down the world’s throats and Americans are finally waking up and realizing we don’t want it shoved down our throats either. I certainly don’t think Monsanto and friends should be able to contaminate their way into controlling every field in America.

We have to make them pay for damaging farmers’ property by contaminating it with GMOS without the farmers wanting it there, rather than having to make the farmer pay them for basically destroying his freedom to grow what he wants. They should be paying such huge damages for contamination that they have to go out of business. These entities are not who we want controlling our seed supply.


HPR: As a filmmaker and storyteller, can you name a film you saw or a filmmaker whose work you saw that really communicated something special to you or inspired you?

DKG: I recently saw a film called “Hot Coffee,” which is about some changes in our judicial system that have happened over the past 20 years in terms of product liability and limits on what courts can award to victims of wrongdoing.  It’s a topic that I’m really interested in.  The filmmaker is a lawyer and she shows how our judicial system has been changed to favor corporate interests.

It’s been out for a few years.  It’s really fascinating and also terrifying. What it points out is that by introducing mandatory arbitration and limits on what courts can award to someone who has been harmed, special interests such as insurance companies and corporations that make products that end up hurting people really face very little penalty.

It shows the degradation of the judicial system-how corporate interests now trump individual rights.  There was a campaign to make these changes happen and they did happen, and our rights as citizens have been eroded. In many ways, we have lost the protection of the law. It didn’t inspire me exactly, rather it infuriated me, but it really brought to light in a clear way some very important issues that too few people are aware of. This affects all of us.


HPR: “Symphony of the Soil” visits many places to share the diverse stories of sustainable practices. How many miles did you log during the production phase of the documentary? Of the places you had never been before, where would you like to return?

DKG: We went to Norway, the UK, India, Egypt and around the United States over a few years, so it was many thousands of miles, many days of jet lag, all of it completely worth it. We were in Egypt before this revolution happened and sometime in the future it would be interesting to go back and see how the lives of the people that we met there have changed.

I was also really fascinated by natural beauty of Norway, the fjords and magnificent land and seascapes there.  We were shooting midsummer, so it was light 24 hours a day where we were, up above the Arctic Circle. It was a very strange feeling.  As a filmmaker of course I was thrilled because we could shoot 24 hours a day.

Some of the scenes there we filmed at 2 AM and the light was so beautiful. I found it hard to sleep at all because I could feel that the sun was out, even in a darkened room. There’s a part of me that would like to go back there midwinter and experience what it’s like when it’s dark 24 hours a day and everything is snowy and cold outside and cozy and warm inside.


HPR: Scientists often have a dry, clinical, cerebral reputation that suggests difficulty in cinematic translation, but your subjects defy the stereotypes. How do you approach the interview process in order to collect material that is accessible to the non-scientists in the audience?

DKG: I do a lot of homework for my interviews. I choose subjects who are at the top of their field and I figure I owe it to them to know what they do and to figure out the right questions to ask them. One scientist in the film, Peter Vitousek from Stanford, with whom we went to Hawaii, has a book called “Nutrient Cycling and Limitation in Hawaii.” So I read the book of course and then when I told him in a pre-interview that I’d read his book he said “My condolences.”

It actually was a fascinating book and really helped me understand that soil has a lifespan and also that cycling process, life cycling through the soil. I do try to really understand the topic so I can bring out the best of what each person I’m interviewing, whether she’s a scientist or a farmer or an activist, can bring to the film.

I prepare a list of questions in advance. I also see the interview process as a formal one. I tried to not get too chatty or casual before the interview. After the interview, that’s fine, we can go have a drink or meal together but I want to create a kind of formal set up, the sense that this is a special interchange, a kind of a witnessing.

I find that once they understand that I respect them enough to actually find out quite a lot about what they do, that that actually helps bring their best to the interview process as well. I let them know in advance exactly what area I want to cover with them because a lot of these people have a vast amount of knowledge about all kind of things.  I chose something they have special enthusiasm for and want to share with the world.

Plus I choose topics that I’m interested in and so they’re telling me about things I’m personally fascinated by so it makes it an animated conversation. One person I interviewed had had a film made about him and it was funny because before we did the interview, he was complaining about that film, that he didn’t like it, that he didn’t feel that filmmaker understood his work.

Then after our convivial interview, he said, “I really enjoyed this interview. You asked me such good questions.”  And I said, “Well, I read your book.” And he complained one last time about the previous filmmaker and said, “He did not read my book.” But I can tell as a filmmaker when I watch films in which the director really hadn’t connected with the interviewee, when they just kind of came in on the fly in and didn’t really get the person. Then it becomes rote.

An interview is a kind of a ritual: film lasts forever so you really want to be focused, show respect for them and their work by understanding it, look them in the eye, and figure out how to really listen to them.  Usually the people I interview have spoken a lot about their work, presenting papers or teaching.  I talk to them about communicating to a mass audience and they are intelligent enough to understand how to present their special knowledge in a way that people can understand it.

If necessary I ask them to rephrase the answer so the average person can get it.   It doesn’t mean dumbing it down, it means smartening up. The people in this film are thrilled that it is raising soil consciousness.  It’s also nice to ask a question which they wouldn’t be expecting because then they can improvise and that gets them kind of excited too to have to think on their feet.


HPR: You find an artistic tone and voice in “Symphony of the Soil” that resists any temptation to escalate the fear and terror that sometimes accompanies the dialogue about the state of the ecology. Is it hard to be calm, rational, and positive when it feels like there is so much to be scared and angry about?

DKG: I agree there is a lot to be scared about these days. As a filmmaker though it would just be too easy to put people on a giant bummer and leave it at that. After all, to my mind the purpose of making a film is to help. I want people to make positive changes and if you leave people in a negative, depressed, freaked out state nothing will change, they’ll just go to bed and pull the covers over their head, so I’ve wasted my time as a filmmaker.

This film is a kind of a hybrid in that it’s got a lot of science in it but it’s also artfully done, artistically done. Yes, I went to art school! And art is about transformation. The best art is about deep transformation and, I believe, ultimately should be ennobling. I know it’s an old-fashioned idea but that’s what I believe. I think that beauty, scientific rigor and skillful filmmaking can be joined together to create something that actually changes how people see the world and therefore changes how they act upon that world.

I wanted this film to be highly informational. Soil science is fascinating, cutting-edge science these days. And I also wanted it to be heartening and I wanted it to be fortifying. The idea is that once people are armed with this knowledge and this understanding, they simply can’t treat soil like dirt.

I also feel that one of the problems today is that most people have a hard time connecting with nature. It’s just the way our lives are now. We spend a lot of time online, we spent a lot of time running around and so we see “the environment” as something that is out there. What I am trying to do in this film is to give people a sense of connection with nature, a sense that they are part of nature.

When you feel that connection and when you deeply value nature, those feelings change how you live your life.  Film is ultimately an emotional medium, so even when I have a lot of information that information has to be grounded in a kind of emotional understanding. I want people to stay “in the film.” Anything that distances them gets cut out. I want people to love my work and to want to share it.

It’s a tricky thing I think to make people realize that the stakes are very high, which they are, and that there are actions we can take to help create a wholesome future and that we must do that now. I did this pretty well in “The Future of Food.” It’s actually a lot more difficult than people may realize to make a film that keeps people connected through bad news so that they’ll hang in there and realize, wow yes there is a lot of bad news but the good news is that there is something I can do about it, and I’m going to do it, I have to do it.

Not that many films actually achieve that.  They often just bring all the bad news and then promote that it’s a powerful film, but to my mind you can go online and get all that bad news in five seconds.  The challenge is to make a transformational film that moves the audience enough to really change their minds and actions. Another thing is that it’s part of my philosophy as a filmmaker that I want people who see my films to have a sense that they’re in good hands.

I think that’s very important to have faith between the filmmaker and the audience that the experience is going to be a good one, that that you’re in good hands and this is going to be healing even though there is difficult information here, even though we’re dealing with tough issues, ultimately you will be fortified and heartened.


HPR: I am sure you learned many things during the process of making “Symphony of the Soil,” but what is one specific thing you discovered that surprised you and stuck with you?

DKG: When I started researching the film I bought and read a lot of soil textbooks and books on soil so I had a lot of book learning. Then I started interviewing people and started seeing soil from their point of view, whether scientific or agricultural or cultural. Then at some point I really got soil; I understood that soil is alive.  I really got the sense that soil is an living organism that is filled with life and constantly changing and made up of all kinds of organisms from the tiniest little critter to herds of animals to us – the soil community.

I got the sense that there were all kinds of processes going on, and cycles and transformations.   So I went from basically being soil blind to being overwhelmed with how complex soil is.  Right around then, I was out for a walk one day and I looked out at the hills where I walk and have walked for many years and I just suddenly got the idea, “My God, it’s all alive out there. It’s all moving and breathing and changing.”

I got this sense of life: organisms churning through the soil and microorganisms eating each other in releasing nutrients and roots and exudates and chemical reactions going on, massive complexity.  I realized I’d looked out on this land for years and not seen it that way, then I learned all this stuff and I look out and thought, “Wow, this is just a miracle, you know, it’s a miracle that soil exists and it’s a miracle that we humans have risen up out of it” and there was for me at that moment an experience of reverence towards all of life in all its glory.  So then I knew what I wanted the film to be: to start off with science and end up with a sense of the sacred.


HPR: You are a self-described food fanatic. What is your absolute favorite meal to prepare yourself and serve to friends or to eat at a restaurant?

DKG: I live in Northern California which I think has the best food in the world because we can grow stuff year-round and what we grow is so wonderful, so that totally influences my favorite food. My favorite meal is a simple one, all organic of course:  maybe start with artichokes from my garden, then wild salmon from the coast, lovely greens from my garden like chard or kale or dandelion greens or all of them with lots of garlic, maybe green garlic, some other vegetables in season like beets, and a nice grain say millet or brown rice, then a lovely salad from my garden with a dressing of local olive oil and lemons from my lemon trees, and maybe some perfect fresh peaches for dessert from my little orchard, shared with friends.

I also love good local cheese. And maybe a special occasion flourless chocolate cake, not from my garden. I actually get a CSA box from a great local farm so I don’t eat everything out of my garden but I thought I would just do a little bragging since you asked.

Interview with Hal Hartley

Monday, March 4th, 2013


Interview by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Hal Hartley will be in Fargo on Wednesday evening, March 6 to screen his most recent feature “Meanwhile” as well as thirty minutes of additional, specially selected material. Hartley will accept the Ted M. Larson Award from the Fargo Film Festival following the screenings and engage in an on-stage conversation. The event begins at 7pm at the Fargo Theatre and tickets are available at the door.


“Meanwhile” places its protagonist in a New York City that appears to be mutating and changing through busy construction and enterprise of all kinds. How does NYC compare to Berlin, where you lived for several years?

It’s about speed. Berlin mutates very slowly, NYC by the day! Part of the irony of Joe’s story is that these brief easy generous encounters he has happen in a city that is perfectly unsentimental. There is no point in becoming fond of a certain street or a cafe or a group of shops. They’ll be gone in a decade.

Even the kinds of people one would, say in Berlin, associate with a certain neighborhood… That happens less and less in New York. It’s in constant flux. But kindness does happen. Easy selfless interaction between strangers. It’s odd.


In “Meanwhile,” Joe Fulton seems to spend a great deal of his time helping others, even at his own expense. Is Joe a genuine altruist?

DJ Mendel (who plays Joe) and I never discussed Joe’s altruism. In fact, we found it more helpful to think of his willingness and ability to help others as some kind of “defect.” Some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder.

He’s a can-do guy, a born fixer, but he has trouble prioritizing his efforts. He can’t keep himself from fixing something if it is broken. Anyway, if Joe is an altruist, he doesn’t know it. We knew we were creating a character who is very unusual this way.


Where does altruism fit in a society accelerated by and in the grip of the solipsism fostered by handheld electronics, smart-phones and social media?

Again, I don’t know if I can call it altruism if it is, on Joe’s part, unconscious. But we found comedy in the fact that this perfectly honest and forthright man would be (to the police, for instance) suspicious for being forthright, not calculated and perfectly transparent. But Joe would certainly seem to challenge solipsism. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge a boundary between himself and others.

I think it is worth pointing out that I have been taken to task by some younger journalists in the mainstream entertainment press for being “dogmatic” in this film. I find that really interesting. I can only guess they take umbrage with Joe’s impatience with a young girl’s histrionic suicide appeal. Or maybe it is Joe’s never complaining about his own plight?


As we spend time with Joe, there is little outward difference between his public and his private behavior. His basic decency raises as many questions as it answers. To what extent is Joe designed to be presented to the viewer as “what you see is what you get”?

Yes, I’m not a big one for subtext. Joe’s complexities are there to be seen for what they are, contradictions, even, that become meaningful, if not perfectly analyzed, as he moves through his day.


I understand that at one point, “Meanwhile” might have been an ongoing series. It occurred to me during the movie that so many of the people encountered by Joe – like Danielle Meyer’s Wendy, Chelsea Crowe’s woman on the bridge, and Penelope Lagos’ Tuesday – invite all sorts of intriguing possibilities. Do you think about or construct inner lives for all these characters? Or is the mystery more appealing?

I myself do construct all sorts of inner lives for the characters. And I imagine possible further interaction between the characters. It starts in the writing but once I cast a role the personality and the manner of the actor suggest things too.

For instance, Penelope’s sharp, concise, ultra efficient manner as she first read for Tuesday gave me and her the idea that, though she distrusts Joe, she is intrigued by him too. If I had gone on to make a series there would have been a love affair going on there at some point.


Joe never meets Tuesday in person, but the audience is allowed the privilege of seeing that she has taken the time to read his substantial, unpublished book. Books are often present in your work as a very particular mode of communication distinct from face-to-face, interpersonal interaction. What is special to you about the printed word?

People reflect more when they read. More so than when they watch movies, I think. And in most cases more than when they are talking to each other. Though, of course, there are exceptions.


Do you spend more time reading books or watching movies?

Reading books.


You have often mentioned Terrence Malick as a filmmaker whose work you admire. What recent films and filmmakers earn your recommendation?

I don’t watch films until they have been out for two years and all the silliness and hype are over and forgotten. That said, of course, Malick, the films of Kelly Reichardt: “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy.” Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” miniseries… Godard’s “Film Socialisme,” a great little film called “Exit Elena,” by a young man from Brooklyn called Nathan Silver…



Interview with “Wild Bill’s Run” Director Mike Scholtz

Monday, February 25th, 2013


Interview by Greg Carlson

Full disclosure: I have known filmmaker Mike Scholtz since I was in elementary school. His sister Ann spotted me reading X-Men comic books during milk break and figured Mike and I would hit it off. Not long after, Mike invited me to his birthday sleepover party, which happened during the time when people rented a VCR and three movies for a weekend. He selected “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “Eraserhead,” and “The Making of Thriller.” To this day, we spend time discussing Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Michael Jackson.

Mike’s first feature-length documentary, “Wild Bill’s Run,” has enjoyed a successful film festival run and will be shown on Thursday, March 7 during the Fargo Film Festival’s evening session. Mike will be in attendance to talk about the strange trip of Minnesota outlaw and adventurer Bill Cooper.    


If I remember correctly, you became acquainted with Bill Cooper’s story through a 2006 Minnesota Monthly article by Paul Lundgren that eventually led you to a treasure trove of 16mm film from the expeditions. Has Paul seen the movie and shared his reactions with you?

That’s true. Paul’s article dealt almost exclusively with the second act of Bill Cooper’s life, when he was accused of being Minnesota’s top drug smuggler and landed himself on the U.S. Marshal’s Ten Most Wanted List. But Paul was equally fascinated by the Arctic expedition that Cooper led before all the criminal allegations started piling up. Paul got me in touch with the expedition members—who had recently rediscovered a whole bunch of the 16mm footage they shot in the 70s—and we started making the film.

When Paul finally saw “Wild Bill’s Run,” he was delighted. He’d become seriously obsessed with Bill Cooper and I think he might’ve gone broke spending the rest of his life tracking down every angle of this story. It was fun for him to have someone else do a little bit of the dirty work. I guess that makes him sound like a puppet master. I know he’s already dreaming up other documentary ideas for me to adapt and/or adopt some day.


A question about questions. What is the best thing anyone has asked about “Wild Bill’s Run” at a post-screening Q & A?

Can I share the worst thing, instead? Although I guess it was kind of the best thing, too. Our screening at the Free Range Film Festival was one of my favorites. We had more than 300 people crammed into this old wooden barn outside of Duluth. But the Q & A after the film was bizarre. All of the questions were about snowmobile repair. I’m sorry, but I just don’t have any idea what a blower belt is.

Fortunately, some of the members of the expedition were on hand to answer those questions. It’s always fun when those guys can join me for a Q & A and to see them treated a bit like celebrities.


Have you ever ridden a snowmobile?

My dad took me for a snowmobile ride when I was 8 or 9 years old. It was dirty, smelly and loud. So I hated it. I realize that makes me a pretty lousy ambassador for my own film. But I absolutely love the design of vintage snowmobiles, if that’s any consolation.


What is the allure of the chinstrap beard?

Cooper was kind of a genius when it came to selling himself as a product. I don’t know how many Arctic expedition leaders think to hire two full-time photographers just to document their journey. But he did. And he also realized, pretty early on, that the only way to stand out from the rest of the identically-dressed expedition members would be to have some crazy facial hair. That chinstrap beard sets you apart from the crowd. I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to be remembered.


Short of discovering that Bill Cooper is alive, what is the one thing you did not or could not get that you wish you could have included in WBR?

I wish I could’ve returned to some of the Arctic locations that Bill Cooper’s expedition visited in the 1970s. I would’ve loved to talk to some of the people who might’ve remembered the sight of these dirty, lost Americans stumbling into their towns and villages. It just didn’t seem worth the expense, since I already had so much fantastic Arctic footage from the 70s. But it would’ve been fun.


Of all the festivals and places WBR has played, which has been the most exciting/rewarding for you?

I have to cheat and give two answers here.

The most exciting festival was the Banff Mountain Film Festival in Alberta, Canada. I think they must pump adrenaline through the HVAC system at the Banff Center. When I arrived for that festival, they told me straight up that my film was a weird and almost controversial pick for them. Banff specializes in adventure, but their programmers and audiences tend to steer clear of films that feature motorized sports (like snowmobiling).

I think they were actually a little nervous about running the film. But it played to a huge audience that really loved it. Shortly after that, they invited “Wild Bill’s Run” to play with some of their other favorites from the festival on the Banff World Tour. So, thanks to Banff, my film is playing all over the world.

The Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival was just as rewarding. They hold that festival now in a giant old art deco hotel. Your room and all the screenings are in one building. You can literally roll out of bed and head downstairs and see screenings all day long every day for 10 days. It was like summer camp for documentary filmmakers. I almost cried when I had to leave all my new friends behind there.


We are both devoted admirers of “The King of Kong.” What are some other non-fiction movies that inspire you?

I do love “The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters” very, very much. I think it’s a nearly perfect example of the kind of story you can only tell with a documentary, the kind of story that fits in the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category. Had somebody written those characters and situations, it just wouldn’t have been believable.

Other films that have inspired me in one way or another include “F for Fake,” “Manda Bala,” “American Movie” and anything by Werner Herzog. He has a knack for uncovering deep wells of twisted weirdness inside even the most mundane interview subjects.

I’m also a huge fan of sports documentaries like “When We Were Kings” and “Dogtown and Z-Boys.” Since I don’t follow sports at all, I often have no idea how the films are going to end. It’s nice to be surprised.

As a kid, I loved the documentary TV series “In Search of…” hosted by Leonard Nimoy. So I really wanted “Wild Bill’s Run” to feel a little bit like a long-lost, extra-long episode of that show. That was the biggest inspiration for this particular film.


 A couple decades ago you worked at the Fargo Theatre and now you have a movie playing in the Fargo Film Festival. Congratulations.

I’m pretty excited to have “Wild Bill’s Run” play at the Fargo Film Festival because I practically grew up inside the Fargo Theatre. I live in Duluth now, but I still like to think of the Fargo Film Festival as my hometown festival. I try to come every single year, even if I don’t have a film playing.

Q&A with Rich Sommer

Monday, February 27th, 2012


Interview by Greg Carlson

Actor Rich Sommer is best known for playing Harry Crane on “Mad Men,” but his extensive performing credits include appearances on “The Office,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “CSI,” “Law & Order,” “Without a Trace,” “Ugly Betty,” “Nikita,” and “Burn Notice.” He made his feature film debut in “The Devil Wears Prada.”

This week Sommer returns to Fargo-Moorhead, where he graduated from Concordia College, as a special guest of the Fargo Film Festival. Along with Matt Walsh, Sommer will be headlining “Celebrity,” the closing night event of the film festival on Saturday, March 10.

 GC: I read in another interview that you made haunted houses as a kid. What was your best ever Halloween costume?

Rich Sommer: My mom usually made our costumes. They were pretty great. I think the family favorite is when I was a magician, and my brother was a rabbit popping out of a hat. She also made a Kermit costume that was a hit. She is crafty. Now she makes costumes for our kids. It’s a nice nostalgia buzz.


GC: Did you perform as a kid?

RS: Kind of. I was Johnny Tremain in the Newberry Elementary School production of “Johnny Tremain” when I was six. Otherwise, just school and church plays. I didn’t take any of it too seriously.


GC: What movie do you know by heart?

RS: “Dumb & Dumber.”


GC: Your ardent followers know you love board games. Which is your favorite?

RS: Die Macher, which no one reading this has ever heard of.


GC: Did you read comic books growing up?

RS: A little bit, but not with any consistency. There was an issue of Batman where he runs into this vampire girl and her parents are dead and it was terrifying.


GC: Your Fargo-Moorhead fans would love to hear an interesting anecdote or memory from your time at Concordia.

RS: There are too many to mention. Walks to Mick’s Office from campus, performing in a tiny room at Noah’s Coffee with my improv group, that tiny Statue of Liberty across the bridge. It’s all rolling around in there.


GC: You met your wife in Cleveland in graduate school. How were you introduced to one another? Was it love at first sight?

RS: We were two of an eight-member class. I thought she was a knockout, but we didn’t hit it off right away. It wasn’t until about halfway through our time in Cleveland that we even acknowledged any interest in one another.


GC: The actor’s life means maintaining some wild hours. What are some of the things you do to balance career with being a father and husband?

RS: The nice thing is that mine is not a nine-to-five job. I usually work two or so days a week at “Mad Men,” and am around the rest of the time. When I’m traveling, it’s harder. Lots of FaceTime and phone calls. I miss them a lot.


GC: Can you tell us a little bit about Matt Walsh and Celebrity? What can we expect to see on stage Saturday night at the Fargo Film Festival?

RS: Matt Walsh is one of the founders of the Upright Citizens Brigade, an improv group and school with theaters in New York and Los Angeles. He is one of my idols, basically. He asked me a while ago if I would host a new stage show he had come up with called “Celebrity.” It’s a stage version of a popular party game. What can you expect Saturday? We have no idea. We are doing an approximation of our show, which is already an approximation of a real show. So expect a couple guys grasping for straws. And it might even be funny.


GC: What will you be doing for the March 25 premiere of the fifth season of “Mad Men”?

RS: I’ll be with my wife’s family in Minnesota. I can’t wait.

The Power of Two at the Fargo Film Festival

Monday, February 20th, 2012


Interview by Greg Carlson

“The Power of Two,” the honorable mention recipient in the documentary feature category of the 2012 Fargo Film Festival, will be screened on Wednesday, March 7 at 10:30 a.m. (followed by a lunch panel) and again at 7 p.m. (followed by a Q&A). Twins Ana and Isa Stenzel, along with producer Andrew Byrnes and director Marc Smolowitz, will be in Fargo for the events. Greg Carlson talked to the team about their experiences making the film.


GC: The original “The Power of Two” book project was an undertaking by itself. At what point did the idea for a feature length documentary really germinate and move from thought into action?

Andrew Byrnes: Marc came up with the idea to make a documentary inspired by Isa and Ana’s memoir shortly before the twins were set to tour Japan in fall 2009 to support the publication of the Japanese version of their book. I knew Marc as an Academy Award-nominated documentarian through mutual philanthropic work in San Francisco. I approached him to inquire whether he knew of anyone in Japan who could film a few of Ana and Isa’s speeches during their 26 day, 10 city tour.

They had been rehearsing night and day to deliver in Japanese 19 speeches about cystic fibrosis and organ transplantation, which is rare and controversial in Japan. Marc was intrigued and asked to read their memoir.  He quickly contacted us and said that he wanted to be the one to film the twins in Japan, and that not only would the story make a powerful documentary but could be the center of a global call to action around organ donation and cystic fibrosis awareness. Less than three months later we were in Japan for the first shoot of the film!

Marc Smolowitz: I fell in love with Ana and Isa as writers and as characters when I read their co-authored memoir. I see Ana and Isa as both ordinary and extraordinary women, which reminds us that we often see such humbling and familiar contrasts in our own lives. They are entirely approachable yet somehow also bigger than life. Ultimately, it is their twin bond that resonates on-screen with immense power – the kind that transcends boundaries of culture, race and nation.

I look forward to sharing Ana and Isa’s stories of survival with the world. I am quite sure that audiences will embrace them with the same openness and excitement that they themselves bring to every day. For me, it truly has been a highlight of my life and career to make this film. I have learned so much about what it means to be an advocate for something bigger than myself.


GC: The production spent significant time on the road to collect all the necessary footage. How many miles did you log? How did you balance the demands of the shoot with personal and professional lives?

Andrew: We logged lots of miles!  We shot over 240 hours of footage in 27 cities in three countries.  In terms of “balance” (quotes intentional), the project really became my baby, consuming lots of my waking hours outside of work.  Because we were not just making a film but also building an offline and online community around the film and related causes, our task was particularly large.  Thankfully we had a great team who understood the mission and worked really hard to accomplish our goals of completing the film and making a difference.

Isa Stenzel-Byrnes: I remained free from a paid job to make time for film shoots and production efforts. That being said, I certainly slacked off on some other projects as the film dominated our 2010! Most of 2009 focused on the Japan tour and learning Japanese. Although Ana and I are “subjects” and Marc was the filmmaker, Ana and I remained very involved with efforts to coordinate community film shoots, raise funds, and recruit reputable interview subjects. So, the time demands were intense and it truly was a team effort.

Ana Stenzel: I don’t have an exact number of miles that we logged except to estimate that it was in the thousands, and we surely built up our frequent flier miles! Balancing our personal and professional lives was not easy. I am fortunate to have a very understanding boss and arranged for most of my travel on weekends. My husband has been very supportive as I leave him frequently and spend more time on the computer than with him. In between film shoots, I was able to still take care of my health (a top priority) and spend time with family and friends. Fortunately, our lives post-transplant have afforded us great amounts of energy so that we can pack in a lot in 24 hours.

Marc: The collaboration with Ana, Isa and Andrew was a remarkable experience, and everyone worked incredibly hard over the course of the 22 months it took to make the movie. The post-production phase was particularly intense, with myself, two editors, a music producer and music editor working with many others upward of 100 hours per week to get the film finished. As a filmmaker, I was so fortunate to have so many people at the top of their game on my creative team.

We were all heavily invested in making a successful film that would have a powerful impact on audiences. Everyone felt a strong connection to Ana and Isa’s story, and the other stories featured in the movie. Everyone who worked on the film pushed themselves to deliver their best work. I was incredibly proud of the productive way in which we all worked together. Long hours, for the love of the craft. Truly an inspiration for everyone involved.


GC: As you sorted through footage and assembled what would become the final version, what was the hardest scene to cut out?

Marc: There were many scenes that were built that I loved that did not make it into the movie, and I hope they will find their way into DVD extras down the road. There is one scene that did not make it into the movie that was one of the first scenes we edited, and it was literally in the timeline in different places until about 36-48 hours before picture lock. It featured the twins at San Francisco Great Strides, an annual fundraising walk to raise money for CF.

The scene featured an additional story line about a friend of Ana and Isa named Charlie Stockley, who had CF and died waiting for a transplant. As we edited the movie, it became clear that this scene was more like a mini-documentary of its own that took viewers out of the movie. As much as I loved this scene, for the good of the movie, I made a very difficult to remove it. It was one of the toughest decisions I had to make while in post-production. I did not make it lightly, but in the end, I know I made the right decision. I think every filmmaker has a scene like this that he or she has to choose to get rid of in the context of a feature length film.


GC: Whether viewing alone or with an audience, which moment in the film provides you with the greatest thrill or sense of accomplishment?

Isa: My favorite scene in the movie is the opening, with the swimming at the National Kidney Foundation U.S. Transplant Games. It epitomizes the gift of transplant and the theme of the film: pure freedom, normalcy and health offered by transplantation. It also has nothing to do with sickness or my patient identity.

Andrew: As a producer, I am all about production value and giving something extraordinary and unexpected to the audience.  So I love the particularly cinematic moments, especially the scene of the twins blowing bubbles on a bridge in Virginia to honor their organ donors. Also, I adore the soundtrack, which our music supervisor Nicole Dionne so brilliantly weaved throughout the story.  Every time I see the film I’m still blown away by the music.

Ana: I am most humbled when I see my donor family in the film. They are incredibly gracious people who literally saved my life – without them, none of this would be possible. I am so proud of their courage of being public with their story despite their emotional pain. I am proud to know such quality human beings, who gave to others unconditionally at the moment of personal tragedy and despair.

Personally, I am most proud when the film opens with the inscription stating the film is inspired by a memoir written by Anabel & Isabel Stenzel. We wrote the book ourselves, with little input from others so there is true ownership there. Without the book, the film would not have happened. We continue to receive positive feedback from readers, many of whom are touched by CF and find hope and guidance in our writing. Touching people’s lives and easing the burden of CF for others in our own small way is the most gratifying part of this journey.

Marc: There is a scene in Japan where the twins are on a boat ride in Japan, reflecting on the relationship they have with their donors and how organ transplantation transcends boundaries of race. The scene comes out of a beautiful shot of balloons being released into the sky at the Green Ribbon Running Festival in Tokyo, and then it literally soars onward, taking the viewer on a kind of cinematic journey that allows time for reflection, introspection and rest.

For me, I wanted to pepper the film with these sorts of entirely cinematic movements, not something you often encounter in a documentary. In a film with many characters, many interviews, many intense screens, and many emotional moments, it was so important to allow audiences the time to literally BREATHE and appreciate their own breath. The entire film is edited like this, but this specific boat ride scene is for me when that approach works as a powerful coming together of theatricality and documentary.


GC: Can you describe the most memorable or surprising viewer response to the movie?

Isa: In Portland, a young woman with CF approached me, in tears and unable to collect herself. She finally shared how Ana and I were her “heroes” because she needed to believe things would be okay for her, and she needed to know there were others like her, struggling with the same disease.

Ana: Through the power of outreach and the media, people from all walks of our lives have somehow heard of the film and come to see it. At our Washington DC premiere, a woman approached us, stating she was our babysitter when we were 5 years old. Clearly we didn’t remember her, but she read about a film about twins with CF in the paper and remembered us. That was a small, small world!

Another wonderful response I received from the film was from two separate people with cystic fibrosis who saw the film and were so moved by it. They both stated that they started to take better care of themselves and be more compliant with their medical regimen because of the film. To know that our story motivated our comrades to fight this challenging disease was truly gratifying.

Marc: For me, it was very powerful to show the film in Tokyo at the Tokyo International Film Festival and have it so well received by Japanese audiences. At one of the Tokyo festival screenings, 3 people from the Japan section of the film were also in the audience – Mrs. Nakazawa, a mother/advocate who lost her baby while trying to go to the USA for him to receive a transplant; Mr. Tanaka, a donor father who lost his daughter and said yes to donation; and Taro Kono, a Japanese politician who led the charge to change the transplant law in Japan.

Having all three of them there was very powerful for me, and the fact that they all loved the movie and cheered for its success was the strongest validation I could ever ask for. It was so important for me to make a film that the Japanese could receive well, and in the case of these three people – who opted in to be interviewed and share their stories – delivering on their trust was paramount for me. That night in Tokyo, it all came together beautifully in every way.

Q&A with Allison Schulnik

Monday, February 13th, 2012


Interview by Greg Carlson

Multi-faceted artist Allison Schulnik has earned a reputation as a phenomenon in several disciplines, from music to painting to filmmaking. Her latest short “Mound” was recently named the honorable mention in animation for the 2012 Fargo Film Festival. A stunning piece of stop-motion that uses clay, fabric, and other materials to breathe life into a group of morphing figures, “Mound” is perfectly choreographed to Scott Walker’s unforgettable “It’s Raining Today.”

GC: If I understand the history correctly, the beginning of your relationship with Grizzly Bear occurred when you first contacted the band about using “Granny Diner” for your film “Hobo Clown.” Had you known them before or did you just hold your breath and take a chance?

AS: That’s righto.  I did not know them, I wanted to use the song for “Hobo Clown” and wrote their label.  They said yes.  Then the following year, they asked me to do a piece for the song “Ready, Able.”  Thus came “Forest.”


GC: Your passion for the arts extends beyond animation to include painting, sculpture, music, and dance. I get exhausted just thinking about it. Are a workaholic? Are you in a race against time?

AS: Righto again.  I am a workaholic.  A lifer.  Definitely in the race.  Really making stuff is just a way to stay sane (relatively).


GC: The Hobo Clown, who embodies this dialectic of hope/despair and laughter/tears has evolved into one of your signature subjects. Did you spend time attending the circus as a child? Were you afraid of clowns?

AS: Most of my paintings are portraits of myself, friends and loved ones, and even people I see on the street and don’t know at all.   I love the circus.  I love musical theater, dance and performance.  I love the performer, and I love clowns.  I was never really afraid of clowns, I don’t think. Of course, many people are I hear. Coulrophobia.  I can understand how a clown could be seen as sinister.  It seems like people are more scared of clowns today than in the past.

Maybe the whole idea of hiding your face really scares people because there is some kind of dishonesty in it; you cannot be read.  However, really I see the clown’s makeup as his truest expression.  I like the escapism of it all, the fantasy of it.  Not having to be yourself.  People want you to stay in reality, not to present something that is unreal.  Maybe that’s why some children love clowns, because they celebrate fantasy.  There are so many different kinds of clowns.  There is just something really appealing to me about the character of the Hobo Clown, something very honest and beautifully tragic.


GC: You have described working to loud music of varied genres from metal to show tunes, and whenever you mention Streisand, “Don’t Rain on My Parade” materializes in my head. Do you have a favorite Streisand recording? Do you ever sing along?

AS: One of my favorites from Babs for sure.  Also a big fan of the heart-wrenching “Papa Can You Hear Me,”  the sultry duet “Guilty” with Barry Gibb, and of course the completely perfect song that is “Send in the Clowns.”  It’s really too hard to choose just one. I could go on forever.  Unfortunately for my studio neighbors, I do sing along.


GC: What was the most valuable thing about attending CalArts and studying with Jules Engel? The man’s career is almost beyond comprehension.

AS: Every moment at CalArts was rewarding.  I loved the Experimental Animation program I was in.  What an amazing program it was with Jules heading it. Every Monday morning, he’d open your brain and feed you only the tastiest in avant-garde animated masterpieces for 3 hours, while exclaiming in his questionably thick Austrian accent, “What a Gem” and “Did you see those Lakers over the weekend?”  I cannot even imagine the program without him.  I also can’t imagine the Character Animation program – where I spent half my time – without the brilliant Corny Cole and Mike Mitchell, who also passed recently.  They were my three greatest teachers, and definitely the best thing about CalArts.


GC: I know you like “King Kong.” Can you identify a transcendent moment or two in O’Brien’s animation? I can’t tell you how many times I have replayed Kong testing the hinge of his dead adversary’s jaw or trying to comprehend the impact of the biplane machine guns.

AS: Good parts indeed.  You have to love Kong’s first reveal, and I hate to be typical but I do love the entire sequence of the Empire State Building climb.  How can you not?


GC: What was the first piece of art that you sold? How did that make you feel?

AS: I can’t remember.  I was hustling my work on the beach, and to neighbors and family friends when I was like 14.  I think it must’ve been one of these pastels I was doing.  I would go around and do pastels of alleys.  Not sure why alleys, maybe because you could be alone in them and people wouldn’t bother you, or they have more trash and irregularities which make them more interesting.  It made me feel good to sell them.


GC: I think I have watched “Mound” a hundred times and every time I see it I never want it to end. Have you considered making longer-form animations?

AS: Yes, definitely.  Every film I make starts out as a feature, and then it ends up becoming a short.  “Mound” might be the first section of a feature in many parts.  Or not.

Dakota Digital Film Festival: Q&A with Jim Kambeitz

Monday, January 30th, 2012

DDFF Horizontal - Color1

Interview by Greg Carlson

The first Dakota Digital Film Festival will take place in Bismarck on March 30, 2012 at the Belle Mehus Auditorium. Submissions are being accepted until March 9, 2012. For more information about entering work or attending the event, email or visit the Dakota Digital Film Festival Facebook page.

Greg Carlson talked to festival co-organizer Jim Kambeitz.

GC: Is this the first organized film festival event in Bismarck? Who are some of the people involved with getting DDFF off the ground?

JK: This is the first film festival in Bismarck that we know of. Mary Van Sickle (Executive Director at Dakota Media Access), Jackson Bird (Cinema 100 member) and I thought that it was time for Bismarck to have its own film festival.

When we started asking others in the community, there was overwhelming support and within weeks we had a steering committee with representatives from production companies, local colleges, stage theaters, film clubs, and other areas.


GC: The call for entries appears to focus on student work. What is the mission of DDFF? Is the focus on education for people who want to use visual narrative to tell stories?

JK: The mission of this festival is to support and encourage filmmaking and audio/video production in all forms by providing a venue for professionals in the industry and students to meet and show their work. Although open to the general public, this first year is focused more heavily on students.

We are keeping it open to see what kind of material is submitted. While our focus is on short films from the region, they can be any genre, documentary, fiction, animation, etc. It is an experiment this year and we expect it to evolve in future years.


GC: What are some of the key events planned for DDFF in its inaugural year?

JK: The structure for this first year will have two components: a daytime session (9am-3pm) geared toward students and an evening event (starting at 6:30pm) that is for everyone. The daytime event will be a series of screenings and workshops. The workshops will be led by local professionals and will provide engaging content in a fast-paced and visually interesting style. Each workshop will be separated by screenings of short films by regional students.

Students will have a chance to talk about their films and answer questions. The evening session will include several unique short films and a chance for the public to interact with the filmmakers. We are taking submissions of all genres of short films until March 9th, 2012. If you’d like to submit something, email a link to view your film online or any questions you might have to


GC: Did you visit other film festivals during the planning stages? What did you learn in the planning process?

JK: We attended the Fargo Film Festival as well as the South Dakota Film Festival and talked with their organizers and a representative from the Free Range Film Festival in Minnesota. We learned these regional festivals are very supportive of Bismarck starting its own festival. They helped field our questions about planning, technical preparations, and so many other things. It is reassuring to feel their support and know they want this festival to succeed.


GC: Describe the independent moviemaking scene in Bismarck. What kind of creative work is going on there both professionally and otherwise?

JK: We have many audio/video producers and filmmakers in the Bismarck area; however, few people in the community seem to know this or have access to their work. Likewise, we have this body of very talented film and audio/visual professionals who are somewhat isolated and not cross-pollinating ideas and imaginations like they could be if we had more venues to share their work.

The experiences here range from professional documentaries that have been commissioned for the Smithsonian Institute, people who have collaborated with Ken Burns and others on world-class documentaries about Native Americans and other topics, to an animator who has worked on the Batman Returns and the Harry Potter movies.

We have also had a recent influx of North Dakotans who have returned to the state after being at film school in Montana, L.A. or Canada, and have started their own productions here. But the main factor here is that we have been missing a way to connect everyone – something this film festival and Dakota Media Access (the driving force behind the event) are hoping to change.


GC: What is your own background and experience in production?

JK: I got my Masters in English & film theory, and then studied cinematography at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, where I taught screenwriting and dramaturgy. I have shot several short fiction films and documentaries as well as two feature-length films about Ashtanga Yoga.

I am currently the Production Manager at Dakota Media Access where I get to direct, light, design and collaborate on a variety of productions, ranging from on-location multi-camera shoots and live cultural, musical, educational or entertainment events to PSAs, government meetings, and studio talk shows.

I love this occupation – so much that when I’m on vacation I’ll often squeeze in a production as well. I just returned from a leave of absence to study yoga in India where I also shot a documentary titled “Mysore Magic: The Source of Ashtanga Yoga.”

Q&A with Matt Kish

Monday, January 9th, 2012


Ohio-based artist Matt Kish, who spent roughly 18 months illustrating “Moby-Dick” with a drawing for every page of the Signet Classics edition, has seen the fruits of his labor published as a beautiful, full color volume from Tin House Books. Kish will present a talk on Thursday, January 19 at 7:30pm in Jones 212 (Fugelstad Auditorium) on the campus of Concordia College. The event is free and the community is invited to attend. Copies of “Moby-Dick in Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page” will be available for sale and signing following the presentation.

Greg Carlson talked to Matt Kish about the Great White Whale.  

You name “Moby-Dick” as the galvanizing book of your life. Can you describe when and how you first became aware of “Moby-Dick” and its power?

Interestingly enough, especially in these times when children and younger adults are so often roundly criticized for their immersion in movies, television, videogames and the internet, my first experience with Moby-Dick was seeing the 1950s film version, the one starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab. I was quite young, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, and I was at my grandmother’s house for my annual Saturday visit. On WUAB TV in Cleveland, Ohio, Superhost would show Godzilla movies on Saturday afternoons and for some reason on this day I kept watching even after the credits rolled.

The next movie up was Moby-Dick and I remember being very bored at first. Too many boring, normal historical details. Sailing ships. People in funny clothes. All of that. But eventually I saw this vast, white whale on the screen and I have vivid memories of its bulk rolling through the waves and an eye staring balefully out of the TV. I was smitten. Here was a monster which was almost real! Maybe could be real! That drew me to the screen and I watched right through to the climax breathlessly.

I must have talked about that movie incessantly because in a very short time, some family member gave me a tiny, square, heavily abridged 200 page children’s version of the book. What I loved so much about this version was that every other page had a scratchy black and white ink illustration. Some of the terrified me! But here was the entire story, and now I could revisit it any time I wished. What I keep coming back to as I think about this project of mine is how from the very beginning, the story of Moby-Dick existed for me as a primarily visual narrative. First as a film, next as a heavily illustrated book. Those images have never left my mind, and the story has never seemed, to me at least, to be just words on paper.

How many different editions of the novel have do you have in your collection? Is there one that rises above the others?

For a time, I was slowly building a collection of different versions based primarily on my love for the book and my mentality as a long-time comic book collector. Prior to this project, my favorites were the Arion Press edition illustrated by the great Barry Moser and set in a newly created font, called appropriately enough, Leviathan. This appealed to me almost as a fetish object since in some ways the entire project was so over-designed and attention had been lavished on things which were absolutely unnecessary but delightful to a an obsessed book collector like me. Another favorite was the Classics Illustrated comic version, but not the old one. The one I liked was a newer version, from the 1990s, illustrated by Bill Sienkewicz. His take on the imagery from the book was so brutal, so bloody, so surreal. I came across it as an undergrad and, other than its short comic book length, it seemed the definitive version of the story to me.

My many other versions all tended to be illustrated to some degree, but none of them were especially noteworthy, valuable or expensive. Since completing my own project though, I came to feel like I had been so deeply immersed in the novel for so long and in such an intense, visceral way that I needed a kind of catharsis. I held on to that Sienkewicz version and the tattered Signet Classics paperback edition that had been my guide through my own illustration project, but the rest I gave to friends or donated to libraries. It was time for me to give myself some room, some space to breathe, and even though I know I will read the novel again and again and again, it will be some time before I make that plunge back in.

You elected not to pursue formal training as an artist, but you have been creating art since childhood. What were some of your favorite classes in high school and beyond?

It’s funny, I’m not sure I ever made a specific choice not to pursue training or an education as an artist, it simply never occurred to me that it was an option. I had wonderful parents who would have supported any career I wanted to pursue, so it’s not like they held me back. As a kid, and even as a high school student in the 1980s, I just felt like drawing was as much fun as eating candy or playing videogames, and you couldn’t get a job doing either of those other two so I just somehow figured that going to college for art wasn’t even really possible. It may, however, come as no surprise that throughout junior high, high school, and college, my favorite classes were always the literature classes. I was, and remain, a voracious reader, so being able to read dozens and dozens of books and stories, talk about them in classes, write responses to them and dig deeper into them was heavenly for me.

Perhaps my favorite class was as a junior in high school, a class simply called “Novel” or something like that, where we spent an enormous amount of time exploring in great depth the novels The Great Gatsby, A Farewell to Arms, Wuthering Heights and The Fellowship of the Ring. What was remarkable about that class was not the books themselves since most high school juniors and seniors would have read them by that time. It was how deeply we were able to explore each novel and the environment which produced each one. At one point I remember the class scrutinizing a facsimile of the galley copy of The Great Gatsby and discussing the nature of publishing in the 1930s. Needless to say, my great love of literature was fixed in me from a very early time.

You have described your creative process in terms of making art as “analog,” but word of the project really took off and spread through the use of technologies available on the web. As a person with a hand in each of these worlds, do you ever think about how the old and the new intersect for you?

I don’t think about that intersection often, and when I do it’s not a comfortable fit for me. I have a lot of reservations about what I see online, and the way that some seem to relentlessly flog what’s really some empty content. Social media, blogs, and the internet in general have so much potential, but most people’s use of those things is just incredibly lazy. Blog posts shrink and shrink until Twitter, or micro-blogging, rules the day. How can you really say anything that matters in 140 characters? I have a special rancor for Tumblr which many seem to use to offer contextless collections of images that they themselves had no role in the creation of and are not willing to make any intelligent statements about.

All too often, a Tumblr exists as an excuse for someone to find a lot of things, “curate” some collection of these things, and offer them up as evidence of either how hip they are or how they can find things online that no one has ever heard of. It sickens me. With my own blog, with all of my own online efforts, I try to mirror who I am in reality. In other words, I hope that if someone were to read one of the posts on my blog they would get at least a sense of who I am as a person and what matters to me. I know there are a lot of people that do this as well, they just seem to be a tiny minority drowning in a sea of internet noise.

Did you have a favorite character and passage from “Moby-Dick” prior to embarking on your endeavor? Did that shift during or after you completed the work?

In terms of characters, my favorite is and always has been Queequeg. To me, he’s always seemed to be the ideal human being. Far from perfect, certainly, and much is made of his cannibal nature. But he is the epitome of all that is best in us, all that we can hope to be. He is a ray of light and a constant beacon of hope and humanity. For Ishmael, for the crew, and most importantly for the reader. The first illustration I created for Queequeg came after days and days of trepidation and stress.

I knew I had to get it just right. It had to be the perfect visual signifier for this character that meant so much to me. I had seen so many different depictions of Queequeg, with his tattoos and his topknot, and many of them were very realistic. I knew I wanted to avoid that route since it would be difficult to duplicate time after time and, honestly, it bored me a little. That line of thinking led me to the idea of distilling his tattooed face down to its very essence. Patterns on a mask. Nothing more. So my Queequeg evolved into a blue cipher, patterned all over with a beautiful, organic scalloping. I could draw him over and over and over, and looked for every opportunity to do so. Drawing Queequeg always brought me happiness.

As for favorite passages, there were so very many I was looking forward to. Oddly enough, the passages and quotes that were the most well-known – the “From hell’s heart I stab at thee!” and things like that – made me the most nervous. I knew that those passages, the ones that even non-readers of Moby-Dick were familiar with, carried with them the weight of great expectations. I worried that viewers would come to those illustrations with something pre-conceived, and perhaps be disappointed or even angry in my own depiction. That was a difficult battle to fight because in spite of those expectations, I simply couldn’t ignore those passages or choose to illustrate something else. My project wouldn’t be complete. I had to really turn inward, really shut out the world, really zero in on the version of Moby-Dick that had always existed in my own mind and charge ahead with no regard for what anyone else might thing. Fortunately, in the end, I am very proud of every one of the illustrations and believe that they are all true to my own vision.

How did the other harpooners evolve during the project?

Queequeg, and all the harpooneers really, to me had to be very different from the machine-like, ship-like sailors. These men, these harpooneers, were living weapons. Extensions of the violent greed of the captains and mates that commanded them. Yet they could not be machines, they could not look like machines, because they had to embody that fluid, dynamic killer instinct. These were the only characters that I spent even a bit of time sketching out before I drew them. I wanted each one, Queequeg and Tashtego and Daggoo, to be utterly distinct from the other. I also considered how, within the novel, each is a rather heavy symbol for their own race, culture or ethnicity. I wanted to address that, but more indirectly.

Looking back, I realize that my depiction of each of the harpooneers is a bit heavy-handed, but my symbolism has always been painted with broad strokes and I don’t regret that. So Queequeg grew from his tattoos and my perception of him as the ideal man, Tashtego drew heavily from totem symbols and Native American ideas, and Daggoo represented an image of pure and intimidating physical might.

Did Melville or Ahab or the Whale or other elements ever visit your dreams during the project?

Ahab, the Whale, Queequeg, Fedallah, the project itself, the idea of the project… all these things consumed me more and more the deeper I sank into it. Slowly, over the 18 months that I worked, it became in every sense of the word an obsession. I don’t think anyone that reads the book, that truly reads the book the way it demands to be read, can escape that. For me, reading and re-reading pages and chapters every single day, creating an illustration drawn from the book every single day… as cliche as this may sound, it stopped being a book. It stopped being a story. It became first a part of my life, and then my life itself. I truly felt as if I were living the story and walking those salt-stained boards with Ishmael and Ahab and the rest of the crew.

As the end neared, the desire… actually the need to complete this thing, to kill it the way that Ahab wanted to murder the Whale, became almost overwhelming. I began to see everything else that filled my life – my job, time spent with friends, the demands of a marriage – as hindrances preventing from working on the great task I had set for myself. The whales which had first enchanted and later haunted my dreams began to fill my waking hours as well. I stopped short of hallucinating, but it was impossible for me to not see evidence of the White Whale everywhere I looked. It was all I could think of and at times I could feel my vision dimming as my eyes seemed to turn inward and consider the next illustration as it played out in the theater of my mind.

What does your wife think about “Moby-Dick”?

She is a brilliant person and as voracious a reader as myself, but amazingly she had never read the novel until shortly after I completed my project. At first she said that after seeing the dark places that the project took me to she didn’t want to even think about it but over time, she told me she felt she had to read it in order to understand what had happened. Not just in the book, but to me. Interestingly enough, her first reading was accompanied by my own illustrations since she said that as she read, she frequently visited the blog to see how I had depicted certain scenes or characters.

So in some ways, her vision of the novel is patterned to a great degree after my own. That is a great honor for me. She talked to me less and less about the book as she neared the end though. I think the journey was taking the same toll on her that it had on me. Finally, after finishing, all she could say, and all she has said since, is this: “It’s a horrible horrible book but a brilliant one. I’m glad I read it and I never want to read it again.”

Limpwings Q&A

Monday, October 3rd, 2011


Interview by Greg Carlson

Moviemakers Eric Carlson, Marcus Mann, and Andrew Neill, who create projects together under the Two Jackets Productions banner, will be present with the cast for a free screening of their feature length debut “Limpwings” at the Fargo Theatre on Saturday, October 15, 2011 at 9:30pm. The public is cordially invited to attend.

HPR’s Greg Carlson interviewed the trio as they prepared for the premiere.


HPR: “Limpwings” is an interesting title, particularly because the movie’s point of view is filtered through a different character entirely. Where did the choice of title come from?

Marcus:  We wanted our movie’s title to be memorable, and “Limpwings” stood out to us as one phrase that viewers will take away from the film.  It can also be seen as a reference to our lead’s arrested development—his inability to take flight.

Andrew: Yeah, even though Eric and I were more hesitant towards the title at first – we thought perhaps it was too bizarre – we warmed up to it, and now we wouldn’t give it up for anything. If you Google “Limpwings” right now, the entire first page of selections are us.

HPR: How did the challenges of producing the episodic web-series “3rd West Ballard” prepare you for a feature narrative? What was the biggest difference between making a web series and short movies and the transition to a feature?

Marcus:  Writing a feature film is a lot different than writing an episodic piece.  In a web series, there are multiple episodes to develop the different facets of each character.  A writer can explore relationships and character histories in great depth over a long period of time. With a feature you only have a brief window into the characters’ lives, and as a writer one has to find a story worthy of the format.

Andrew: Our experience from making our short films and “3rd West” were the reason why we felt it was time to make a feature. It was time for us to evolve to the next level as filmmakers. We felt we knew enough about the aesthetics of film to make it look damn good – and shooting it on the RED camera definitely helped make that possible – but we also knew how to budget our time – how to schedule. “3rd West” was a monster to plan, and back then we made a lot of mistakes in under-estimating the amount of time it took to shoot. When it came time to figure out the schedule for “Limpwings,” we were ready.


HPR: How long did you work on “Limpwings” from start to finish? What were your biggest challenges along the way?

Marcus: We had our first official “Limpwings” meeting in April of 2009.  At that meeting, we broke some of the overall story and even a few jokes that made it into the film.  But, the ideas of stigmata and Daniel’s relationship with Hope originated around December 2008.

Eric: The biggest challenges occurred during the production.  All of our actors donated their services to this project, so we had to deal with not having access to the full cast full time.  This caused us to have to split principal photography over Summer 2009 and Summer 2010 instead of finishing the shoot in one year as originally intended.  But it was honestly worth it to work with such a fantastic and generous group of performers.

HPR: Since “Limpwings” was originated on the RED, can you talk about your production/post-production workflow a little bit? What was your shooting ratio? Were there any scenes, subplots or storylines that you had to cut for pacing and/or running time?

Eric: The RED was a great asset for the film because it allowed us to capture an image that was very close to film-quality without the high cost of film stock. The downside to that quality is that it eats up a lot of hard drive space. We shot about two terabytes of footage, which works out to a shooting ratio of 10:1, and all the footage was backed up to multiple hard drives. We faced a lot of issues with learning the RED camera, lugging it around with minimal crew, and creating an effective post-production workflow, but in the end the images we captured bring up the caliber of the film to a professional standard.

Marcus:  There were some scenes that had to be cut for pacing, which I love to see as a writer!  I built redundancies into the script because at that point it’s hard to tell what the viewers will pick up on.  When we had the film completed it became obvious that what Andrew and the cast had done had sold many of the concepts better than words could ever hope to.  We were then able to remove some sections that were no longer necessary and let the subtext in the actors’ performances serve the function of those deleted scenes.


HPR: While “Limpwings” bears the comic hallmarks of previous Two Jackets works, the movie’s tone suggests a real earnest effort to explore friendship and sacrifice. How deliberately did you design the balance between the jokes and the drama?

Andrew: The three of us wanted to make a film with characters who were at the same stage of life as us – that transition period from college to “the real world.” From experience, we know that it’s scary to face the rest of your life, and you have the potential to make a lot of stupid decisions along the way. For the sake of this story we wanted to tell, we needed to find the drama and humor in all of that.

Marcus: It’s all about keeping things grounded in reality.  Even in a movie where we have angels, and stigmata, and girl-on-admission-letter sex scenes, it’s important to be honest to the characters.  There are scenes where we can have our gags, and our characters can crack jokes; there are scenes where there’s dramatic irony and the characters don’t mean to be funny; but, there are also dramatic scenes where no one would realistically make a joke, and we respected that.

HPR: Can you describe your collaboration with the  actors? Obviously, none of the members of Two Jackets are women, so how did you find ways to create a respectful space for a key character who happens to be a lesbian?

Andrew: As the director, I lucked out with this cast. They made my job a breeze. Most of the time, I just told them where to stand! It helped that we had a rehearsal period during the first summer where we went over some of the scenes that really established who the characters were. By the time shooting came around, we knew we could trust each other to make the right decisions. I’m not the kind of director who annotates every twitch of the eye. Collaboration is at the heart of this medium.

Marcus: We had worked with the principal actors before in various capacities. The key again was respect and honesty. We communicated with everyone about his or her needs and spoke about the subject matter as adults.  The LGBT community is something I’ve supported my entire life, and we wanted the production to be respectful of that too, even if some of the characters aren’t.


HPR: Given that “Limpwings” contains the very real possibility that the use of stigmata could be construed by some as blasphemous, how did you pitch the project to clergy when you were seeking permission to shoot in church/synagogue?

Andrew:  The people at the church and synagogue were much more concerned about the content of the particular scenes to be shot at the locations, so we had them approve of the material ahead of time. However, I spoke with them about how I felt the film had a very positive religious message.

HPR: In the writing phase, how much research did Marcus do on the religious content of the movie?

Marcus:  There’s a research component to everything I write.  In this movie I explored the history of angels and stigmata pretty thoroughly as it pertained to the film.  But these are concepts and archetypes that are in the public consciousness, and that has to be respected as well.  In the end, story comes first and I was always willing to adapt portrayals in service of the narrative.


HPR: Following the public premiere of “Limpwings” at the Fargo Theatre, what are the next steps for getting the movie in front of audiences?

Eric: We’re sending “Limpwings” out to film festivals all over the world. To start, we’re sending it to Slamdance and South by Southwest. The film was created with the intention of being seen at festivals, so that’s what’s going to happen.

Andrew: Yeah, we’re currently sprucing up our Withoutabox account in preparation. We’ve done a lot of festival research, but now that the film is done, it’s going to be our main priority. We’re not just going to send it blindly into the fray. We’re going to take the time to find festivals where our film will be a good fit.


HPR: Now that the members of Two Jackets are moving into life beyond undergraduate studies, do you plan to work on another feature or other projects together?

Andrew: Absolutely. The making of this film was a huge test for the three of us in our individual roles, but even more so in our roles as collaborators. There were ups and downs, but we stuck ‘em out together. Personally, I’m glad we began this three-piece-punk-band of filmmakers as early as we did. By the time we were preparing for “Limpwings,” we had established trust between us, which was, and is, vital to the wholly collaborative process of filmmaking.

Marcus:  We’re already in the early stages of our next feature film, under the working title, “Allan Card and the Big Suck.”  We recently had a meeting that resulted in an outline much like the one we made for “Limpwings” in April 2009. I’m planning to complete a draft of the script by year’s end with the hopes of going into production next fall.


HPR: More information about the movie can be found online at