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Lilla’s Long and Winding Road
by Don Schwartz
Lilla on location in one of his favorite locations: the wilderness. photo: courtesy B. Lilla
NAPA CALIFORNIA-BASED DOCUMENT-
has produced and directed seven documentary films one of which, “
” (2011), about dams destroying the environment in the South of Argentina, was picked up by First Run Features, the premier North American distributor of documentary films.
Motivated by pure passion, Lilla took the learn-by-doing route—also called the school of hard knocks—to becoming an accomplished filmmaker. His next feature documentary, "
" about his mother's revival through dancing after her husband's death which will be released this year.
I spoke with Lilla in January, in Oakland, California —to learn what I always want to learn: How and why did you become a filmmaker.
But then in July, the twists and turns in the trail opened up and, after living in 17 years of living in Oakland, Lilla and wife moved to Napa.
When and where you were born?
Yeah, I was born in Providence, Rhode Island, March 14, 1968.
Were you raised there?
Yeah, I was raised on the east coast ‘til I was twelve, and my family moved out to the Pacific northwest, to Portland. So, it was a little bit of both, east and west.
How long were you in the northwest?
I was in the northwest up until I was about 22. I went to college at Evergreen State College, in Olympia; and I studied photography and print-making. And then I changed my major and ended up in Arizona, at Prescott College. I ended up getting my degree in Education.
Poster for Lilla 2011 doc 'Patagonia Rising', which was recently picked up for distro. photo: courtesy B. Lilla
What brought you to Prescott?
(laughs) When I was at Evergreen, I was spending a lot of time outside, biking and climbing. All I wanted to do was be outside, and Prescott had an outdoor education program. So, I switched my majors. I got to spend a lot of time in the southwest just climbing, and paddling rivers, and kayaking. And that’s what led me to my very first trip to Patagonia. This is before I even shot the film.
After I graduated in 1993, I moved to California, and was doing a lot of work down in the south—in Joshua Tree and the southern Sierras. I was working doing environmental and outdoor education, and I was a climbing guide.
We were taking kids out into the desert, or the mountains, and teaching them about geography, ecology, and the importance of understanding what’s going on in the outdoors. I did that full time for ten years after school.
I also worked in outdoor education. I came up to the Bay Area in 1996 to work with some outdoor programs here, so it was a good opportunity to move here. I had a lot of friends here.
I ended up working at U.C. Berkeley for awhile, in their outdoor education program. I fell in love with the Bay Area a long time ago, any opportunity to be here was a good one, and I’ve been here since.
What does your father and mother do?
My father passed away four years ago. He was a mechanical engineer. [My mother] is still around. She’s been a travel agent, and now she’s a real estate agent, but she’s semi-retired. She lives in Florida.
Do you have siblings?
I have a brother and sister, both in the Portland area.
At what point did you consider making films?
I kind of hit a finishing point after working with kids and being in education—for ten years. I burned out. I just wasn’t as engaged as I was when I first started doing it. I needed a change, and for about five years I worked in a bar, and didn’t know what I was going to do.
It was when I was bartending that I first started making films. My first film was a Super 8 documentary about pool skating—skate boarding pools. That’s how it all started. I was just having fun shooting my friends skating in pools. That was around 1998.
Lilla in East Oakland documenting the urban wilderness for his 2004 piece 'Ghetto Fabulous'. photo: courtesy of B. Lilla
Four years after that, I realized I had this amazing collection of all these really great skate boarders that were all friends of mine. Guys started telling me I should do something with it ‘cause I was also shooting in Super 8. At that time, not a lot of people were shooting in Super 8. Everybody was buying video cameras, but I liked the rawness of Super 8. I thought it matched well with the kind of skate boarding people were doing.
What happened with the film?
I called it ‘Twenty to Life’. I ended up interviewing a few guys, friends of mine, and I made a 20-minute piece. It ended up getting picked up for distribution by a place called VAS, Video Action Sports.
Then it also ended up opening up for a pretty big film called ‘Dogtown and Z-Boys’ which was a SONY Pictures classic. It’s a documentary about the Z-Boys. It opened up for that at a festival in Seattle, and that for me was like, ‘holy shit.’ People were willing to take the work that I did, and put it on a big screen. That blew me away.
I had made one other short film on surfing in Mexico. But I’d never edited anything. So, before I made the skateboard film I figured I should really learn the process of storytelling and editing. So, I made this really short 14-minute surf documentary called ‘Vamous Izquierea’.
My filmmaking career started off with just these Super 8 short films on skating and surfing. And when I saw people’s reactions to them, it made me realize that they can have an impact on people—whether it made them laugh, or cringe, or whatever the feeling was.
I liked the process of putting together the films. It was like a puzzle, or sculpting, and that’s how it all started. And then I just kept doing it. I never went to film school. I looked into it, but I already had just finished paying off one Degree, and I didn’t want to go into debt for another one that didn’t have any sort of guarantee. So, I decided to just continue to make films, and just ask a lot of questions. And I had very fortunate experiences of working with other filmmakers who showed me tricks of the trade. So, I just kind of learned by just doing it.
Working with other filmmakers?
I have several friends that went into the filmmaking industry. They went to film school, and ended up working on bigger budget things. So, I worked on some of their projects—as a PA on music videos, whatever I could do to be helpful. I just tried to absorb and learn from them. I did an internship at one point, in Berkeley, with Studio B films.
But before I did that internship I decided to take a leap of faith and I bought a good video camera—it wasn’t a high definition, it was the Panasonic DVX100, sort of a break-through camera that had 24p technology. This was the first time I looked at video at a consumer grade level that I could afford that I thought, ‘okay, I’d be willing to shoot with this.’ This was around 2002, 2003.
I quit bartending and put faith in the fact that I could make a go of filmmaking. I got a couple grants for a short film I did on climbing, and then I decided to shoot my first feature documentary which is called ‘Ghetto Fabulous’. This was around 2004. It was at that point that I made the commitment to full-time filmmaking.
What was ‘Ghetto Fabulous’, and how did you fund it?
Well, before ‘Ghetto Fabulous’ I did another short documentary called ‘Always Falling’. That was the one where I got fiscal sponsorship through Film Arts Foundation which is now defunct. That organization gave people non-profit status so that you could apply for grants. That was the point that I really learned that, ‘okay, if I’m going to be a full-time filmmaker, I need to be funded.’ And I got a little bit of funding which got me through the project. So, I had faith that I could make a living at this—not just living off of grants. But, there are ways to make money as a filmmaker.
And then I decided to do ‘Ghetto Fabulous’ which was why I’d bought the DVX camera, and I just needed to go out and test it. So, I asked my next door neighbor if I could shoot some footage of his car. And this guy is a black guy who grew up in Oakland, and he was part of the Falcon Boys which is a group of guys who refurbish 1969, 1970, 71 Ford Falcon cars. And I didn’t realize that there’s this really long history on the Ford Falcons in Oakland.
How to make eco-docs interesting is one of Lilla's big challenges. photo: courtesy of B. Lilla
Kind of like you have the guys that like to refurbish either Mustangs, or Chevys, or low-riders.
Well, this group of guys liked to do Falcons, and I shot some footage of him in his car, and we went for a drive, and he started telling me the history of it. And it was at that point I went, ‘whoa, this is a very cool story.’ I spent three months documenting, hanging out with all the Falcon Boys, and I made the feature, ‘Ghetto Fabulous’. I was able to sell out the Grand Lake theater, and get a bunch of other screenings going, and it just kind of took off as this underground documentary on Black car culture in Oakland.
Was it picked up for distribution?
It never got picked up for distribution—except on the streets. Two days after it premiered at the Grand Lake somebody was on the street selling DVD copies of it. It had gotten pirated the night of the premier. A guy shot it straight off the screen. And to be honest with you, I tried to get some distribution on it, but I wasn’t able to get it. But, I didn’t try and push it too hard—because it was so widely distributed on the streets, by the Falcon Boys. They kind of took control of the project at that point. I realized that it wasn’t worth trying to keep control of something that was already out of control.
And it also opened up a lot of doors for me. People started asking me to shoot their projects. I was becoming more of a hired gun as a camera operator. I was doing anything and everything people needed. If somebody needed a sound person, I’d do it. I wasn’t a sound person, but I’d go out and I would learn it, figure it out. People needed somebody to come in and light, I would do it; and I wasn’t the best lighting guy, but I would light, and (laughing) just do whatever I could to get by as a full-time filmmaker.
And I did that for about four or five years, and I realized, ‘okay, I don’t want to be a sound person, I don’t want to be the lighting guy. I felt most comfortable around the camera. So, then I really put myself more out as a cameraman and director of photography. And, if I’m not working on my own documentaries, that’s how I make my living.
According to IMDB, your next project was ‘A Tale of Two Bondage Models’.
In 2005, I had an opportunity to work with Cybernet Entertainment which later became Kink.com—they’re an adult company—all fetish and BDSM [bondage and discipline and sadomasochism] pornography—based in San Francisco. And they wanted to hire somebody who would come in and do an entire documentary series on the company, their website, their culture, and everything they do.
I worked for that company for two years, and directed 56 episodes for them—all short documentaries on the behind-the-scenes of the company. That was a huge project for me. I was full time—a salaried position, benefits—the whole deal. But I was also completely immersed in BDSM pornography—not just at Kink, but they would send me all around the world. I went to Tokyo, New York, and really got to learn a lot about that culture.
It was a great opportunity for me as a filmmaker as well. Here I was, having all the tools I needed. I had a team of editors, the best cameras, unlimited resources. But a lot of people in the film industry that I knew, they were all kind of scoffing at it, saying, ‘Oh my god, Brian, you’re getting pulled into porn.’
I said, ‘you know, I’m not getting pulled into porn, I’m choosing to go there.’ And I learned more in those two years about storytelling and filmmaking than I have at any other point in my career.
A bondage and discipline practitioner covered by Lilla his short 'Tale of Two Bondage Models' which won acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival. photo: courtesy of B. Lilla
And then after I left Kink—I mean I was very proud of the documentaries I made there, but I never got to do some of the more real personal ones that I really wanted to. So, after I left I made ‘A Tale of Two Bondage Models’ , and that did really well. It was nominated at the Tribeca Film Festival for Best Short Documentary, and got a lot of widespread screening all over the world.
That was a great experience for me, and I got to meet a lot of people, and it opened a lot of doors for me. And since then, I’ve continued to work as a full-time director of photography and director.
And then your next film was ‘Patagonia Rising’. When did you get the idea for this one?
It wasn’t my idea. I was approached by the producers of the project—two guys that I’d gone to college with in Prescott. They approached me ‘cause they’d never directed anything before, and said, ‘Would you be interested in directing this project?’ And I had spent time in Patagonia before when I’d gone down on a personal trip, about fifteen years ago. And I knew that the region was going to be potentially impacted by these dams.
I was looking for a new project. And I was at a point in my career where I could tell a story that could have, hopefully, have an impact on that decision in Chile. Like I felt that all the other films I had worked on—the surf films, the skateboard films, and ‘Ghetto Fabulous’—I felt like I was still developing my craft. I think I’ll always be developing my craft; but I felt like I was ready to take on something much larger. And so I said ‘yes’ to the project.
It sounds like it was a perfect fit.
Yeah. I’ve always wanted to do something that I felt could really have an impact—not just people in a certain region, but, really, the world. And here it was, this global issue of damming rivers; and I just felt like I was willing to take it on. It was a big challenge, a huge challenge. And that was in 2008.
At the time it was right when our economy was starting to tank, and we’re having the first election of Obama going into office. So, everybody’s focus at that time was on the economy and a new President. And so, when we went to fundraise for ‘Patagonia Rising’, everybody just shut their doors and said, ‘no way, you’re crazy, now is the worst time to do something like that.’
So, we had to go back to the drawing board, and look at how can we adjust our budget, how can we simplify this whole thing so it doesn’t have to be a hundred thousand dollar production? How can we make it so we can do it for under fifty thousand dollars? So, a year later we went back to a lot of the same places that we had approached the first time for funding, and they said, ‘are you kidding, you guys are still around?’
And we said, ‘yeah, we really want to get this thing done.’ And it was actually the company, Patagonia, the clothing company, that gave us our first dollars. And as soon as Patagonia was on board, everybody else kind of followed suit. They said, ‘Oh, if Patagonia’s on board, well, we’ll give you money.’
We raised enough money to send two of us down there. So, we went down with a very small production crew—myself acting as director and DP, and then our producer, Greg Miller, went down as the producer and sound person.
Okay. And you shot.
I shot. We went down in November of 2009. We flew down to Chile. We spent 42 days there, and we ended up shooting 41 out of 42 days. We hit the ground running as soon as we landed in Santiago. The day we arrived we started shooting.
And then you came back.
Yep. We came back with about 80 hours of footage. And then we were in post-production for almost a year. The reason that it took so long was because we had to first get everything translated from Spanish to English, and then, also, a lot of the gauchos in Patagonia have a very thick dialect that even Chileans don’t understand. And so, we had to have those interviews and all the scenes we shot in Patagonia translated in Patagonia by people that understand their dialect. So, the language barrier definitely increased the time it took to edit it.
But we also wanted to make sure that everything we were doing is accurate. Because here we are talking with people who have very different opinions about building dams—whether it be pro-dam, or they don’t want the dams to go up. We had to make sure we were putting out accurate information.
We had to do a lot of research, and we were working very closely with organizations and individuals that know what was going on from a political standpoint, an economic standpoint, an environmental standpoint. There was a lot of fact-checking that had to be done on our end.
When did you get picture lock?
We got picture lock in April, 2011.
And what about getting to First Run Features?
The ironic part about ‘Patagonia Rising’ is that we wanted to complete the film and get it out there before they made a final decision about the building of the dams. So, we had our world premier at the 2011 Newport Beach Film Festival, which was in May. And then two days later we screened the film in Patagonia, Chile. And the day after it screened in Chile, the government approved the building of the dams.
Well, that was really bad news. The good thing was that we had the film done, and the decision to build the dams was appealed. And then it went to the Supreme Court, and so there was this time where we could actually screen the film in Chile, to inform the debate and impact the decision. And so, it went to the Supreme Court, and it was approved again.
Throughout all of this process, we just kept screening the film. And it got into some really good hands in Chile, like the senator of the region saw it, and he asked for a copy of it so he could show it to the rest of the Chilean senate. The reason we made the film impacted the decision, informed the debate—we completed that. And so, our timing was really good on it.
So, that’s what’s been going on in Chile. And they’re continuing to debate whether they’re going to build the dams because now they have to approve [electrical] transmission lines.
And in North America, after we screened at Newport Beach, we got a lot of invitations to film festivals; and, eventually First Run Features saw it, and they decided to pick it up.
They approached you?
No. I approached them. A friend of mine who had a film that was released through First Run, she had seen our film, and said, ‘You should talk to First Run Features.’ And so, she gave me a contact there, the person who’s the head of acquisitions. And I called him up, he said, ‘yeah, I’ll take a look at it.’ I sent him a copy of the film, and two months later we were going into contract.
And so, First Run Features is our distributor for North America. And then we also got picked up by an international distributor in the U.K. which is Journeyman Pictures.
Did First Run screen it theatrically?
We had a very short theatrical kickoff in New York. That was two weeks in July of 2012. They ran ‘Patagonia Rising’ at Village Cinema, which is in the East Village, in Manhattan.
What’s been the response to the film?
It’s been pretty good so far. A lot of the major publications like Variety, The New York Times—we’ve had really positive reviews. That meant a lot to us. Y’ know, it’s been interesting. Most of the west coast reviews have all been very positive, but when we did our kickoff in New York, there were a lot of east coast publications that didn’t give us most favorable reviews.
And it wasn’t so much about the content of the film as it was about the style of the film. A lot of the critics were saying it was too slow, or is too minimal; and, you know, that’s the nature of that film. I feel that represents Patagonia. There’s not a lot of people where we were. It’s a very quiet place. A lonely place in a lot of ways. So, there’s a lot of down moments in the film. I wanted to accurately portray that.
Sounds like what you and I consider a virtue, those critics consider a vice. How are sales going?
You know, it’s taken time, but they’re starting to pick up. We’re exploring television rights both in North America and South America. But I want to say that working with First Run has been great. As soon as we committed to them picking up our North American distribution rights, they’ve been wonderful to work with.
They got it into a lot of publications—with the New York theatrical kickoff. And then they also secured a deal with Netflix, so we’ve been on Netflix since August , which is great. And, you know, it just takes time to get it out to all the broadcasters, but they’ve really followed through on everything they said they were going to do.
And it’s been the same thing with Journeyman Pictures. They watched the film, they liked it, and, they didn’t make any big, blatant promises like ‘oh, we’re going to sell this many copies, you’re going to get this much money.’ They were very honest about what to expect from them.
And both companies have gotten the film out there. It’s been about a year since we’ve gone into contract with both the companies, and we’re just starting now to see those bigger sales happening. So, one of the lessons I’ve learned through this process is really just being patient—letting the distributor do their job.
I’m really happy for you. It seems like this ‘Patagonia Rising’ project’s been blessed.
Yes. But it’s also been extremely difficult. There’s been points where, I remember it was 2008, when I was at the Tribeca Film Festival, and here I was meeting with people from Fox Searchlight Pictures, people from The Weinstein Company, and they’re all asking me about future projects. And at that point I remember I felt like, ‘fuck, man, I feel like I’m on top of the world.’ And then I came back to Oakland, and, of course, nothing came of any of those discussions. It was more just kind of like opening up doors.
And then I was just painting my next door neighbors house, so I could make rent, and I thought, ‘how could this happen?’ So, that’s the reality of—for me— of filmmaking. As much as I can get projects done, and I feel like I can craft a decent film or a good story, there’s a reality of having to live.
It’s not always easy. And this challenge of being a filmmaker hasn’t stopped. I still have many moments throughout the year where I’m wondering, ‘oh, shit, how am I going to get by?’ And, you know, I just stick with it. Sometimes I just have to do things I don’t want to do. So, it’s not an easy lifestyle.
But I find that the longer I stick with it, and just really commit to the craft, the story telling, that people have more confidence in the work I’m doing. And, I have more confidence in myself as well. So, for me, there’s just a lot of faith, just having faith that it’s the right decision—whether it be the projects that I choose, or the people that I work with.
What’s happening now? Do you have a current project?
Well, I came off the Patagonia one, I’d never really taken a break in between projects. I’d always had something going—whether it be that I was finishing a project or starting a project—but I’d never taken a break. So, after picture lock I told myself, ‘I don’t want to start any new projects. I just came off this big, heavy one.’
And this last summer I got married. And I thought this was a great time to not have any projects going—so I could focus on my personal life, focus on my commercial work as a director of photography and an editor.
And then, naturally, a story came about which was my mother. I went out to Florida, to visit her last February , and one of the things she said while I was there, she said, ‘I want you to come to the ballroom, where I go ballroom dancing, and watch me dance.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ And so I went. It was amazing to see my mother so happy, and dancing with her instructor.
And the backstory is that we lost my father. He died four years ago, and she hasn’t found anybody to dance with from that time, ‘cause he was her dance partner for 45 years. And when I saw her there dancing, she told me, she said, ‘You know, the happiest moment I have every week is when I come to this ballroom.’
I said to her, ‘You know this is a really beautiful story.’ And she said, ‘It’s not just my story, there’s a lot of other women like that, too.’ And it was true, there’s this whole group of widows that all go to this one ballroom in Florida. And my mom said, ‘I think that should be your next documentary.’
[laughs] And I thought about it, and said, ‘You know mom, that’s really a good idea.’ And so, to make a long story short, this last September I went out to Florida, and I spent two and a-half weeks shooting all these women, and their back stories about ballroom dancing. There was also another about one ballroom dance instructor who owns the studio, and he has his own personal story about losing his partner in life, as well.
Do you have a title for the film?
Yes, it’s ‘Ballroom Confidential’.
I can’t wait to see it! So, what is your philosophy of filmmaking?
My philosophy is to keep it intimate. And to allow the audience to go into people’s lives, and to go into places that they normally wouldn’t be in—whether that be in the ghetto, or whether that be in Tokyo, in a dungeon, or whether it be up on a glacier, on a river in Patagonia. But it’s really just to transport the audience.
Well, this is more specific to documentary filmmaking—to keep it honest. I don’t feel my films are necessarily the most entertaining, but I always feel like they’re the most honest. And that dates back to my very first film I made in Mexico, about surfing. It’s like when people watch that film, and you really get a sense of ‘Whoa, this is what it’s like to go to this one very specific location, and do nothing but lay in a hammock, and surf your brains out.’
And so, I just want it to be honest. That’s more important than making something that’s just entertaining. I always fall back to that first.
And a lot of times when people who are in my documentaries watch it, they may not always like what they see. I have people from the documentaries saying, ‘I don’t really like that, but it’s accurate. So, you can keep it in.’ That’s critical to my documentary philosophy.
Six months later I asked Brian about what’s happening with both ‘Patagonia Rising’ and ‘Ballroom Confidential’. In addition to answering my query I also learned he’d moved to Napa, California. Here’s what I learned about the two films:
Well, with ‘Patagonia Rising’, it screened down in São Paulo, Brazil, back in late May. And that was really cool ‘cause it was part of this big film festival down there that was focused on environmental films. We’d always hoped that ‘Patagonia Rising’ would have play in Brazil, because they’re facing a lot of the same issues in regards to damming their rivers—the biggest one is the Bello Monté dam project on the Amazon.
It was completely good timing for us to get the film out there and really expand its play outside of Chile—for a lot of countries that are dealing with similar issues.
And then the Discovery Channel actually picked up ‘Patagonia Rising’ for their Latin American broadcast which means that it’s going to be screened from Mexico, all the way down to the tip of South America. Those are the two big things happening, which means we’ve hit our goals in terms of distribution and also exposure, and so we’re really happy with what it’s done.
And then, I’ve moved on from that project, and I’ve really just dove into ‘Ballroom Confidential’ full time over the wintertime. After I finished shooting it, in early October, I edited it, and actually had a rough cut done by January, and then we did some rough cut screenings.
After getting feedback from folks I went back and re-cut it, and actually have the final cut done. And just in the last two weeks, in the month of June, I put in the original sound score. So, ‘Ballroom Confidential’ is pretty well wrapped up, and the only things that we have to do now are all the final things that happen with a movie.
What about distribution?
Right now ‘Ballroom Confidential’ is just going out to festivals, and I’m waiting to hear back. I’m kind of taking a two-pronged approach with the distribution. I’m going to get it out to the festivals, hopefully get it out to some distributors—more traditional models in terms of distribution, and see what people think, and if anyone’s interested in picking it up.
But if they’re not, I’m also really excited about the possibility doing self-distribution ‘cause there’s a lot of films that are doing very well right now with the filmmakers actually doing their own distribution. I’m very excited about the possibilities of self-distribution.
You know, any time I finish a project I always have to remind myself that the most important part of the process for me as a director is if I’m happy with the story that’s been told. Not necessarily what festivals it’s got into, or which distribution outlets picked it up; but when I watch it am I happy? And I’m really happy with how this one turned out. It’s much more of a human interest story, and it’s much more emotionally driven.
Okay. Thanks, Brian. Now, I want to see ‘Ballroom Confidential’ as soon as possible after picture lock!
Don Schwarz is an actor, author and producer working out Mill Valley who can reached
Posted on Aug 10, 2013 - 08:41 AM