Ross McElwee and the Man Behind the Man Behind the Camera


‘Photographic Memory’

With his 1986 feature, Sherman’s March, Ross McElwee became an internationally recognized filmmaker. He also helped establish a still emerging genre of American filmmaking: the personal documentary.

For McElwee, and Sherman’s March, the personal documentary takes over where the “objective” documentary collapses. That is to say, with wry, understated humor and quirky earnestness, Sherman’s March begins by conceding defeat: For reasons overtly personal but subtly social, McElwee—our narrator-protagonist—abandons his earlier conventional documentary project to treat General William Tecumseh Sherman’s notorious campaign of total war against the Confederate South. Sherman’s March instead places the filmmaker at the center of its far more desultory action, as he traipses around his native South, intermittently tracking a documentary subject gone awry while pursuing a series of romantic flirtations and affairs with various Southern women.

This may sound like mere solipsism, but the personal turn becomes, in this and other McElwee films, a vehicle for wider investigations, including an inquiry into the very nature and contours of the South as a geographical, social, political, historical, even ideological subject. This is indeed a personal matter to the filmmaker, long since a transplant to the Boston area, where he was trained as a filmmaker by the likes of “direct cinema” pioneers Ed Pincus and Richard Leacock at MIT’s Film Section, and has taught filmmaking at Harvard since 1986. Indeed, seven full-length personal documentaries later, McElwee continues to mine the rich (personal and public) legacy of the past and the contradictions of the present, most recently in 2012’s Photographic Memory.


‘Photographic Memory’

In March, McElwee was in Berkeley to attend a retrospective at the University of California’s Pacific Film Archive. He sat down to speak for an hour or so before the first day’s program, which included work from Harvard colleague Robb Moss (Riverdogs) and a discussion with film scholar Scott MacDonald, whose latest book, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn (UC Press, 2013), deals extensively with both filmmakers. As McElwee explains below, the conceit of Sherman’s March in fact advanced an aesthetic taking shape already in his previous short films, especially Backyard (1984).

Keyframe: Are you doing a lot of retrospectives these days? Do you find yourself increasingly being studied in that way?

Ross McElwee: Yeah, it’s a little frightening sometimes. But I’ve had a bunch of retrospectives in the recent past—well, since Photographic Memory came out. I think there’ve been half a dozen, in Europe and here. Like it or not, it forces you to look back on your work. And, with my work, it is a kind of accretion of a life. Whether one likes that particular life or not is open to discussion, but it’s been interesting, because you see people and places appearing again and again. Plus I repurpose shots from one film, put them into another film, so there’s this complex building going on. I think programmers have become interested in that. Sometimes different cultures too. I did one in Korea. They’re very family-oriented of course, and I think the film had a kind of resonance there. Just two months ago there was a complete retrospective in Italy, in Milan, and then it traveled to Rome and Bologna. The Italians also have a particular take on family. So I’m not only watching these films being projected one after the other—I do have to introduce them and then talk about them each time—but also thinking about it. You’re accumulating this kind of record of your life, some version. So the answer to your question is yes, it’s been happening. People have also been writing about them, as a sort of sum total rather than individual films—although it’s been very important to me that each film stand on its own.


‘Photographic Memory’

Keyframe: It surprises me a little to hear you say that the retrospectives forced you to look back on your films, because they seem to me to be something made to be looked at again and reflected upon, almost like a scrap album or a journal or a diary.

McElwee: I think what [a retrospective] does is force me to think about them as public things, things that are in public spaces, whereas scrapbooks and journals are usually very personal things. You’re seeing them slightly differently when they’re being presented in public. It’s not that I wasn’t interested, but I’m also very busy, and taking the requisite two hours to stop everything and look at an old film of mine just on my own is not something I would ever do or have done. Actually, it does seem kind of odd when I say that, but it’s true. Whereas I certainly take that time to look at other people’s work. My students, for instance, or films I’m interested in seeing; I go to films all the time. I don’t ever designate two hours to look at my own stuff—yet I’ve had to more and more because of retrospectives.

Keyframe: Are there things that have come out of those retrospectives that have surprised you or put things in a new frame for you?

McElwee: For instance, in Korea there’s a fascination with self-exposure, because they don’t do it as a culture. So that slant was very interesting. But of course because they don’t do it they’re also very timid about asking questions about it or writing about that aspect of my work. But there was enough discussion during the last time I was there that it started to come out, where I could see this was something quite different for them. So that would be an example of something.

Keyframe: You started making films in the early 1980s—Backyard was the first?

McElwee: Charleen [Charleen or How Long Has This Been Going On? (1980)] was my first real film, but it’s not autobiographical per se, it was about a close friend.



Keyframe: Yes, Charleen Swansea, she’s a fascinating figure, who of course memorably appears in Sherman’s March and throughout your work. Is she still around?

McElwee: She is, she’s going to be in my next film! In some capacity. I’ve already shot moments with her. She’s slowing down a bit but she’s very vivacious and present in the work.

Keyframe: When I first saw Charleen I hadn’t realized it was your first film. I thought it was very astute of you to step back in it, recede as a personality, even to the point of using inter-titles rather than your own voiceover narration, as became customary in your later films. It still seems the right choice, stepping back and letting Charleen completely fill the frame.

McElwee: One has no choice when you’re in the room with Charleen! [Laughs.] Well, I was still sort of figuring out what my style of filmmaking was at that point. I began filmmaking in conventional cinema-vérité fashion. The film really was not going to be about me at all. I would stay as invisible as possible behind the camera. Of course, the thing about Charleen is she never wants anybody to be invisible; she’s always pulling you and your concerns out before the camera. It wasn’t long before she was confiding directly to me as I was filming. You’d hear my voice occasionally from off camera. I think that started to break down the barriers a bit for me, make me think about the kind of films that I really wanted to be making.

Keyframe: Backyard, which plays at the PFA today, was your next film then?

McElwee: Backyard was the next one I shot, although I then set it aside, didn’t finish it, and I did a very conventional cinema-vérité portrait with a friend of mine [Michel Negroponte] called Space Coast, which was a completely not-autobiographical portrait of three families in Cape Canaveral, Florida, during the recession of the late 1970s. We actually did it as a thesis project for film school. But I think the combination of having made that film and then Charleen made me not want to do the kinds of films in which I’m invisible. There was something that didn’t suit me. It wasn’t fair, in a way, that I expected people to be putting their lives on the line for my movie and that you’d know nothing about my life and what I was up to as a filmmaker.


‘Space Coast’

Keyframe: You were saying that in Korea such self-exposure is striking for an audience. But that must have been the case here when you started making films—even if it’s not anymore. When you were starting out, such self-expression was a good deal more, wasn’t it?

McElwee: Well, I hadn’t thought about it before, but I think what that was saying was, in fact, there was always the potential for blogging and Facebook and Instagram and everything else that we’re so accustomed to now, because people have always wanted to express something about their own lives. And before the Internet came along and Facebook and everything with it, the only way to do that was to be in a documentary film—unless you were going to be an actor in a fiction film. And there weren’t many of us documentarians running around giving people that opportunity. When it did present itself to folks, they took advantage of it, because they had something to say and they saw this as an opportunity. Space Coast was about those kinds of people; just regular folks who had been caught up in the recession, had lost their jobs because the space program had been dampened down. They were perfectly happy to allow us into their lives and let us film them.

Keyframe: I haven’t seen the film, but I expect some of that willingness must have come from the fact that those people in Cape Canaveral, only a few years before, had been a part of a historic and heroic undertaking. To slip away from that into economic hardship must have been a traumatic experience at some level.

McElwee: Right. Well, it’s very much meant as a social critique too in a very subtle way. We made a point [of] not filming any NASA officials; we didn’t film any astronauts. We could have gotten interviews by those kind of people—we knew graduate students at MIT and I think they would have opened the windows for us. But what we really wanted to do is shun all of that. And instead you see in the course of our 90-minute film three rockets being launched. They’re sort of weather satellites, or there’s a Navy test rocket that’s launched, the Cold War being still alive and well at that point. And then there’s another rocket that’s been hired to set a satellite in orbit by some European conglomerate. Those are the three rockets that take place. And we film them from a great distance, actually our subjects’ backyards. So you see tiny little things going up. One of the characters in the film is very religious, who’s memorized huge swaths of the bible and can recite them. We have footage of him kind of watching these rockets. And I think for us the space program became a kind of metaphor of human longing for another world. It’s sort of heavy handed but there it was.

Keyframe: It was literally true.

McElwee: It was literally true. So that operates as a subtheme.



Keyframe: Getting back to this move from Charleen to films that involved your own life, foregrounding your own personal experience: Today, that’s something readily acceptable to an audience. But back then, was it difficult to find acceptance for a personal documentary?

McElwee: Oh, sure. I think there’s a great deal of resistance to labeling this kind of filmmaking legitimate. I mean, Backyard was primarily hindered, in terms of its distribution, by its length. It’s forty minutes long. There’s not much you can do with a forty-minute film. But it was a first attempt, a kind of experiment, to see if this way of formulating a film [could work], in which you’d be shooting a fair amount of the footage in conventional cinema-vérité fashion but then also [you’d be making] a clear connection between you and the people you were filming. Then, occasionally, you might even see the filmmaker in front of the camera. (I do make three cameos playing the piano really badly in Backyard.) But, perhaps most importantly, that you could take objectively gathered documentary footage and juxtapose it with a very subjective narration—a vulnerable, poignant subjective narration at that. Putting those things together was something that had not really been done, and was not immediately accepted by anybody. I don’t think I was the only person doing it; there were other people who were also doing it. But these films had a very difficult life at first because they were counter to what everybody thought documentary film should be.

I think the film that opened that door a little wider was Sherman’s March, because I took the same kind of formula of attitudes toward documentary filmmaking that I’d used in Backyard and broadened the palette a bit. When that film came out people didn’t know quite what to make of it. Somehow, again, in Europe it was recognized right away. It premiered in Berlin at the Berlin Film Festival before it got any invitations here. I thought that was kind of interesting. In European, certainly Western European [cinema], there’s a great tradition of essay filmmaking. I think that’s what opened the door to an acceptance of Sherman’s March in Europe. That bounced back over here, and it got invited to Sundance. Once that happened, it found a place in the world. But it was by no means a foregone conclusion. I thought I’d be making a film that might get shown at a few places like the [Pacific] Film Archive here, maybe a few university campuses. I never dreamed it would have any kind of wide distribution. But it did. For a documentary it had a very wide distribution. I think it led also to other people taking chances with the form. Michael Moore did Roger & Me because he said he saw Sherman’s March. We joke about it all the time: He didn’t have to go to film school because he saw my film and it taught him what to do. I think I wrote him a note at one point saying you owe me $40,000 for tuition!


‘Sherman’s March’

Keyframe: These films are also very much social documents. Backyard, for instance, which gets its title from that old antebellum song that your grandmother sings, is as much about race and class as it is about home and family. I wonder, given that the films were so unexpectedly personal for the time, if that personal story was all that people initially saw?

McElwee: Well, I think that’s what they latch onto at first. But you always hope that other resonances are absorbed. For instance, if Backyard had just been about my alienation from my family, period, it would not have been very interesting. If Sherman’s March had just been about this forlorn twentysomething guy bumbling around the South with a movie camera, it wouldn’t have been that interesting. But it’s introducing other themes; there’s a fairly serious theme in Sherman’s March about warfare, waging war, both looking back at the Civil War and then also a mediation on thermonuclear war.

Keyframe: It seems to me that the concept and reality of total war, living as it does alongside the mundane concerns of people looking for love and so on, creates a kind of dissonance in the work that somehow forces both you as a character and you as a filmmaker off the conventional path: This story can not be the usual ‘march’ into adulthood or documentary. It strikes me that this is still very much the condition that we find ourselves in. I myself remember having nightmares of nuclear war as a child, some of which I still remember.

McElwee: There were millions of us who were plagued by these nightmares!


‘Sherman’s March’

Keyframe: It’s interesting to consider what has been done psychically to us all by the rhetoric and reality of the nuclear age.

McElwee: That was also the interesting thing about showing Sherman’s March in Berlin at the Berlin Film Festival. That was the theme, without doubt, for the audience that night, for the first screening. The survivalists in the mountains of North Carolina who are preparing for Armageddon—they’re just assuming that it’s going to happen—that was terrifying to Germans. In a way, I didn’t really take it that seriously, they were like cartoon characters to me. But of course to Germans, to Europeans, but especially people living in Berlin, which was right at the epicenter of the Cold War, it was very frightening to hear those fools talk, because they assumed there would be millions of people that would have the same attitudes in the United States. It was also Ronald Reagan’s era. There was just a lot of concern about that. Talk about a cultural difference in the way a film is accepted, that was what really came out there.

Keyframe: It seems we’re in a different era now, where although experts say a nuclear war is even more likely than during the Cold War, it’s not in the consciousness of people in the same way.

McElwee: That’s completely true. And, I don’t know if you want to get into this, but they’re actually thinking of remaking Sherman’s March as a fiction film. It’s a long, long, complicated story. But one of the discussions is, do we put this back in the 1980s? Or do we update it and say that it’s no longer Russia versus the U.S., but it’s terrorism? The availability of fissionable nuclear material that could be put in a suitcase?

Keyframe: What’s your involvement in this project?

McElwee: I optioned the rights to it.

Keyframe: Was that a long time ago?

McElwee: It’s been a while. They were originally trying to think of how to make it as a single fiction film and now they’re thinking about doing it as a cable series, which actually makes more sense to me. I resisted it at first, but then…


‘Sherman’s March’

Avila: It is episodic, and you do want it to go on—’who will be the next person?’ I can see it lending itself to that series formula.

McElwee: It has that potential. I’m interested in what will come of this. It’s also very interesting to think of how do you make a fictional version of Sherman’s March work? Because in fact I think what intrigued people about Sherman’s March, among a number of other similar films, is that some part of you knows that these people are embedded in their real lives—whatever the word “real” means—and that these are really their circumstances (whatever that means), and that they’re real people, they’re not actors, they’re not playing a role. I’ve always felt that’s the reason why audiences are willing to sit through a very long film—Sherman is over two-and-a-half hours long—because there’s something palpably real about it.


‘Sherman’s March’

Keyframe: There’s ambiguity in the personal approach: There’s a way in which the camera becomes a way of reflecting on the world, engaging with it; but it’s also distancing, including emotionally. It’s Charleen who puts it so eloquently when she chastises you in Sherman’s March for holding up the camera on the blind date she’s arranged for you, saying, ‘This isn’t art, this is life.’ And the film itself acknowledges that, or plays with that problem. How did you feel the camera was operating for you, as a distancing mechanism or as something that opened up possibilities for deeper reflection?

McElwee: Both. That’s what’s been so interesting about trying to make these films. Of course it is distancing to put six pounds of metal and glass between you and the person you’re talking to. It changes everything. And, in some ways, it enhances or heightens the kind of interaction that you have with that person. What’s been interesting to watch, in terms of the evolution of the technology, is that the cameras are getting smaller and less intrusive as we all know. But also people’s awareness of what it means to be gathering motion picture images and where those images could end up—YouTube, Facebook, wherever—has created an entirely different context. So it’s both easier to gather these images but also more difficult because of people’s concerns and suspicions.


‘Sherman’s March’

Keyframe: You’ve mentioned elsewhere the early influences of documentarians like Richard Leacock and Ed Pincus on your choice of a film career. I was curious, however, if there was a reason you specifically didn’t want to become a doctor like your father?

McElwee: There could be several explanations for that. One is that maybe I was too ADHD to focus and become a serious student the way you have to if you’re going to be a medical student—though I loved biology, it was one of my favorite subjects. But I think there was some kind of virus that just got into my system, which pretty much charted a course in storytelling. That caught me from the time of the tenth grade on. That was my direction. And my father was very good about it. He never said you should do medicine, it would be a much more secure way to make a living, which was true. I’m not going to support you if you try to become a writer or photographer—he never said that. But I think it was also important for me to engage the real world with the tools of my trade. I guess you could even say the way that my father did. So there was that connection to him. I also really liked the way in which the kind of filmmaking that I chose to do does demand hands-on manual skills and dexterity—in the way that, I guess you could say, a surgeon has to have a dexterity that’s not intellectual at all.

Keyframe: The nature of using specific tools and skills to get ‘inside’ of people is an interesting parallel there.

McElwee: Perhaps. Also there’s the notion that in surgery you’re trying to keep someone alive. And maybe in filmmaking I’m also trying to, if not immortalize them, certainly keep my subjects living longer in their present tense than they would if I weren’t filming them. So all of that is probably part of some psychological makeup.


‘Bright Leaves’

Keyframe: You mentioned your attraction to storytelling as an early impulse. In your films, storytelling also emerges an object of study. It’s exposed, problematized. In Bright Leaves, for example, a narrative builds and subsequently deflates after you track down the ninety-year-old widow of the author whose book you suspected was based on the life of your great-grandfather. She flatly denies this, and the air comes right out of that balloon. Then, in the scene that immediately follows this, you set up a shot that is foiled when a little dog runs through it, forcing you to restage the shot. Of course restaging it highlights its artifice, and offers its own opportunity: It gives the undertaking a kind of pathetic quality that is very humorous but also suggestive of the distance between narrative and reality. In other words, you express skepticism toward narrative even as you embrace the form. Is that a conscious effort on your part?

McElwee: It’s not as if I have a carefully written formula: After x number of minutes be sure to undermine your narrative. But there is something that makes me want to play with it. I think it’s playfulness rather than some dogmatic obligation, an aesthetic dogma, that you have to undermine your narrative. With Sherman’s March I was willing for it to end however it ended. If I found the woman of my dreams somewhere along the trail, then that would have been the end of the film. But part of me knew that was unlikely to happen. What woman is going to give of herself to some guy with a camera on his shoulder? Not likely. In Bright Leaves some part of me knew that it was probably apocryphal that the book Bright Leaf was based upon my great-grandfather, even though it was a story that I had heard. But I was very curious to trace that as far as I could. So whatever happened would happen. In a sense, the fact that Foster Fitzsimmons’ wife denied that it was based upon any one person opened another little door, which is: What is the creation of a fictional character anyway? It’s usually an amalgam of impressions that the writer has about various people he’s met during his life or people he’s read about, in this case John Harvey McElwee and James B. Duke. And, in fact, that’s how a film or a fiction story could be concocted. That was worth exploring.

Keyframe: You used that Aaton 16mm camera for quite a number of years. I wonder if, like the French photographer you speak with in Photographic Memory, you miss the tangible, tactile qualities of film as opposed to digital?

McElwee: There’s a sort of sentimental, nostalgic attachment to film. I think in Photographic Memory I hint that there’s some ineffable quality about film, a kind of warmth. But let’s face it: HD you can manipulate in post-production so that it has virtually the same kind of warmth and film-like look, we all know that. There are even buttons you can press in cameras to give it the film look. So it’s not quite that. It’s a longing for when it was more of a specialized skill to be a cameraman. Also the kind of attentiveness you need to have. This is what’s very difficult to convey to young people, eighteen- or nineteen-year-olds, my students, who’ve never shot on film. You give them these video cameras and they can shoot an hour without thinking about it. Then you’ve got to deal with the editing. But that kind of discipline in shooting, it’s really kind of invaluable, because it teaches you discipline and acuity behind the camera that I think this digital video age just doesn’t have. I see it in my son. He just lets the camera run. And stuff never gets edited as a result of that. I feel bad for him and the whole generation.

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