Interview with Kurt Norton, co-director/producer of These Amazing Shadows (2011)
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kurt Norton, director/producer alongside Paul Mariano of the amazing documentary These Amazing Shadows (2011). This interview was conducted earlier in the year but I have been saving it to post here to celebrate the documentary's broadcast on PBS tomorrow! A big thank you to Kurt Norton for granting me the interview and for introducing me to These Amazing Shadows.
Paul (Mariano) saw an article in the New York Times in 2008 about the National Film Registry. He was struck by two things: that he had never heard of the National Film Registry and a statistic quoted in the article that 90% of films made before 1920 no longer exist and 50% before 1950 are lost forever. He called and told me about the article. I, too, had never heard of the National Film Registry. We both consider ourselves fairly knowledgeable about film, so it was quite a surprise that this very cool list of America's most important films existed and we knew nothing about it. We had just come off two documentary projects that didn't work out for a variety of reasons. We both liked the idea of doing a documentary on the movies. Seemed like a lot of fun. Paul called Steve Leggett at the Library of Congress who coordinates the National Film Registry and found out that no one had ever made a film about the Registry. We dove in without really figuring out what our story would look like. How do you make a movie about a list?
2) How did you two meet?
We met in 1985 at the Contra Costa County (California) Public Defender Office. Paul was a Deputy Public Defender and I was an defense investigator. We became friends, then discovered our common interest in filmmaking. Our first collaboration was making goofy videos for the office softball team end of season party. By a weird coincidence in those softball videos we used a lot of clips from famous movies, which we audio dubbed with our own dialogue.
3) How long did the documentary take to film and produce?
We spent over two years producing These Amazing Shadows. One reason it took that long was because we had difficulty figuring out how to tell our story. We spent a lot of time at first focusing on film preservation. As time went on our story evolved into one about the movies - its power, how it connects us all, how it reflects who we are and the joy it brings people. Another reason it took so long was because we had to find just the right people to work with: our producer Christine O'Malley, editors Doug Blush and Alex Calleros, graphic designer Brian Oakes, composer Peter Golub. We found them one by one - it was a very challenging process. The only person we had in place to began our project with was our outstanding director of photography Frazer Bradshaw. It was important to us and the project to find just the right people - people with the right temperament, point of view and artistry.
4) Working together as directors, did each of you have different roles to play or did you work side-by-side during the process?
We worked side-by-side. Sort of a two-headed monster. Having two directors is both a blessing and curse. It is a blessing because often two heads are better than one to develop ideas. Also, when one of us was feeling low energy the other was there to carry the load. The negative part is that sometimes people we worked with would get confused as to whether it was necessary to get both our approvals for decisions. It was a little cumbersome at times. Mostly it was very positive. Making a film, narrative or documentary, is a real marathon. The director has to inspire and motivate the production team - keep the whole ship moving forward. Having a partner is a real advantage because we kept inspiring each other and in turn the whole team. In terms of the interviews Paul and I took turns. By just luck of the draw Paul interviewed Rob Reiner and I interviewed Christopher Nolan. There was no grand plan as to who interviewed whom.
5) Why do you think it's important for people to know about Film Restoration and The National Film Registry?
It is important for people to recognize that our cultural heritage won't just take care of itself. We have to, as individuals and a society, make focused efforts to preserve our culture. Movies are an important part of that goal because as Robin Blaetz, one of our interview subject says, film is the art form of the 20th century. It is amazing how ideas, habits, fashions can get lost or forgotten from one generation to another. For us to connect as human beings we need to understand each other. Understand where we have come from - our connections - our common history - the good and the bad. Our lives have become so busy and technology is pushing change to the point that rather than a generation being measured in perhaps a thirty year block, it is now measured in three to four years. If that is true, then we need to protect our cultural heritage more than ever. We are lucky in this country that we have institutions like the Library of Congress. We found in the Library a part of the government that really works. That is because of the people who work there - they are passionate and dedicated. I know it sounds corny but it is true. Whether you belong to the Tea Party or are a liberal Democrat you can take pride that the Library of Congress works.
6) How did you come to select the films that were discussed in the documentary?
We, meaning our production team, had certain ideas about what films we should include in our documentary. We went dutifully about our interviews asking people about those films. But, what we found was that people told us about films they thought important. When a person tells you about a film they love or find important there is passion. We realized that we needed to follow the path being laid before us by our interview subjects. It was in their passion that we found our story. The films that Paul and I love didn't matter because we were not in front of the camera. Our interview subject took us on a great trip that we formed into our documentary.
7) How did you come to select the people who were interviewed in the documentary?
We selected people to interview that we thought were interesting - had something to say. A lot of people are wonderful, but don't really have anything to say. A good interviewer can bring out the best in anyone. Charlie Rose, Tavis Smiley and Terry Gross are good examples of that. But, just bringing out the best is not good enough for a documentary. The person has to have some inherent ability to express their inner world and passion. That is what makes them documentary worthy, so to speak. Convincing prominent people to be in a documentary being produced by two guys with no discernible track record is very difficult. We got a lot of rejections from some great people. Our success in getting interviews was based on two thing: persistence and luck. We got Christopher Nolan because his daughter and our editor Doug Blush's daughter share the same piano teacher. It was through that personal connection we were able to submit our request. Dumb luck can sometimes be pretty important.
8) What do you hope that These Amazing Shadows accomplishes?
We hope that These Amazing Shadows entertains and inspires people. We certainly want to create awareness about the need for film preservation and the preservation of our cultural heritage in general. But, we've found that something else has happened that we couldn't have anticipated. We've had high school and college students come up to us after a screening and tell us that because of our film they want a career in filmmaking. We never expected that kind of response. So many people have told us how they have rediscovered the movies. Fallen in love with movies from the 1930s and 40s. Watched an experimental film for the first time in their life. Preservation is important, but it is the films themselves and how they affect people that is most important.
9) Tell us a little about your social media campaign for the documentary.
Paul and I are not in our 20s or 30s. Before this project I knew nothing about facebook, twitter, blogging, foursquare, tumblr, etc. We found with a limited promotion and advertising budget that social media was very important. We realized that there were people out there that had established connections to online communities with a shared interest. And, that those connections are very powerful. It took us a while to tap into that world. We began by just surfing the net looking for bloggers and facebook pages who we simply enjoyed reading. We learned a lot from just reading and reading. We started our social media campaign in December of 2010. We now know we should have started it a year before. It takes time to make the right connections. I am afraid that we won't really know how to have a really effective social media until 2012! Thank goodness for my 26 year old niece, Tessa Rexroat, because she really educated us.
10) These Amazing Shadows has already been screened at big film festivals such as Sundance. Tell us a little about the cross-country tour of the documentary and the reactions you've been getting so far. (as of June 2011)
In many ways distribution is harder than making the documentary. Marketing the film is so challenging because the market place is so crowded. We suffer a bit because we have been slow to develop a clever marketing hook. Film preservation is not the most exciting hook. I was at the Denver FilmCenter recently and before the screening people were coming up to me and saying, "So, this is a clip show?" Well it kind of is, but it is so much more than that. After the screening the same people came up to say how much they loved, learned and were inspired by our film. Though our marketing can be poor, once we get people in the theater they love our film. We are very lucky to have IFC behind us. They have been so supportive. They own our North American distribution rights. Even though they have guided us it is still the responsibility of the filmmakers to promote the film. Because we are the ones who have the most passion about the project. We were also lucky to be part of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. That festival is such a boost for a documentary like ours. It's short hand in our country for "a good film." Sundance began a whirlwind experience that has not stopped for almost six months. We still have a long way to go because we are scheduled to be broadcast on the PBS series Independent Lens on December 28th and our DVD will be released by PBS Video in the fall. We just keep telling ourselves sleep and free time is highly overrated.