Mar 23, 2017
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Cosmic Circle of Kelly & Yamamoto
by Don Schwartz
Kenji Yamamoto and Nancy Kelly catching a film at The Rafael in San Rafael near their Marin County home. photo: Seth Affoumad
NESTLED IN A HOUSE ON STILTS, NEAR
the end of Marin County’s ‘Greenbrae Boardwalk,’ right on the Corte Madera Creek, live two filmmakers,
Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto
As individuals and as a team they embody the spirit, heart and soul of independent film. They’ve produced a feature length narrative and six documentaries, three of which—“Downside UP”, “Smitten”, and “Trust”—form a trilogy focused on art.
I had the pleasure of seeing their feature, “Thousand Pieces of Gold”, at the then Sequoia Theater, in Mill Valley, in 1991. Starring Rosalind Chao and Chris Cooper, it is a thoroughly engaging culture-clash period piece, set in Gold Rush-days California and concering the plight of a Chinese woman who came to find her fortune but mostly ended up abused, enslaved and expelled.
Decades later, I found myself reviewing documentaries for CineSource and one of the most memorable I came across was “
Trust: Second Acts in Young Lives
Following a production at Chicago's Albany Park Theater Project, a company “dedicated to helping young people re-imagine their experiences on stage," it focuses on an 18 year-old female immigrant as she tells the group of her gut-wrenching, heart-breaking experience of sexual abuse. Then she joins the group in the writing and performance of a play based on her experience.
I always watch films ‘cold’—knowing as little as possible about them before viewing. But, as I did my research after seeing “Trust”, I was delighted to discover that this powerful film was produced by Kelly and Yamamoto and that they lived a ten-minute drive away. I must interview them some day, I thought.
Those feelings reemerged again last fall, when I saw an early version of their “Rebels with a Cause” documentary when it premiered at the 2012 Mill Valley Film Festival. It follows the decades-long struggle to save Sonoma and Marin counties’ coastal lands from development, and for everyone. Although the film’s focus was on a particular region, it became immediately obvious that its meaning and import was crucial to all who wish to save our planet’s ecosphere.
Scene from the masterful and moving 'Thousand Pieces of Gold', directed by Kelly, edited by Yamamoto and produced by both. photo: courtesy Yamamoto/Kelly
That was it. I simply had to interview these two filmmakers who live in my own backyard, and who made that movie—“Thousand Pieces of Gold”—which I saw so long ago.
From the few filmmakers I’ve had the honor to interview, I’ve discovered that their personal stories can be as dramatic, humorous and engaging as their productions—especially when they’re a couple. Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto are no exception. They have so much to share, I could have easily spent a day or two with them learning about their lives and works.
One other note: You’re about to meet two people who live the dictum: Perseverance Furthers. Oh, yeah, and they are great friends with laughter.
As usual, I inquired briefly about their upbringing, about what drew them to filmmaking and each other, and about their current and previous releases. I began at the beginning:
Nancy, where were you born?
North Adams, Massachusetts.
What did your parents do?
My father was an engineer, and my mother worked various jobs, first in factories then in accounts payable as a clerk or assistant.
How long did you live there?
‘Til I was about thirteen. Well, we moved back and forth, my father went to college in Fort Wayne, Indiana, starting when I was around four. He went on the G.I. Bill, and my mother and I went to Fort Wayne with him.
In addition to directing, Nancy sometimes shoots. photo: courtesy Yamamoto/Kelly
After my father graduated from college when I was eight years old, we moved around awhile. We went back to North Adams when I was ten, and he worked as an engineer at Sprague Electric Company.
North Adams was the place that he had been trying to escape. But, of course, he was in a white collar job instead of a blue collar job and his department was the first one to be closed [when] the factory closed down. So, we moved to eastern Massachusetts where there was a lot more work. I graduated from Marlboro High School, in Marlboro, Massachusetts.
Did you go to college?
I went to Anna Maria College for Women, in Paxton, Massachusetts, on a full scholarship. But the nuns kinda drove me nuts, so I quit and ended up at the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and got a degree in public health education.
What brought you into the world of filmmaking?
You know, it was really crazy, it was my very first job. I was literally hired to produce five films and a radio show on public health education.
The University of Massachusetts Health Services had a huge grant from the National Institutes of Health, and the deal was to develop a program, a model, for how to teach college students how to drink responsibly [laughs]—you know UMass is like a party-down school.
I didn’t party my way through there, ‘cause I didn’t have the money, but I was hired to write and produce, although I didn’t even know what producing was.
They hired a filmmaker, Gwendolyn Clancy, to work with me to direct and shoot these things. I was hired to be a health educator on this project. And we made five dramatic short films—they had actors in ‘em. I wrote the scripts.
Had you done anything like that before?
No. But the other thing I’d never done before was drink very much. Why did this woman hire me? I have no idea. She should’ve asked what my college drinking experience was. I think she just thought I would do a good job.
Kenji, while showing 'Rebels' at the Mendocino Film Festival, with one of the staff. photo: courtesy Yamamoto/Kelly
Had you even taken still photos before?
No. All the aptitude tests that I took in high school said that I should be an artist, but I was horrible at everything. Pottery? Drawing? Terrible. Laughable.
So, you produced five pieces. Gwendolyn [now of Clancy Video Productions in Reno, Nevada] must’ve given you an education?
She did. She was actually just starting out to pursue her interest in film, so she was really learning as well. And there was a guy that she was kind of apprenticed to who worked in the UMass PR department, and he kind of knew what he was doing.
Somehow we ended up with a crew, and we were shooting in 16mm [film], and my job was to do the clap stick, which I thought was thrilling.
And what was really interesting about these things after they were finished, because they were about this community phenomenon—how to teach college students to drink responsibly—I had to go and interact with all the different interest groups.
The film that was the most controversial—that nobody could agree on, what it should be—was the one about date rape. There wasn’t even the word, ‘date-rape,’ at that time.
We had meeting-after-meeting, rewrite-after-rewrite. The next year when my job was to take these out and use them in the UMass student community—that was the one that generated the most discussion. And that was the purpose.
I really learned a lot from just seeing this thing that I had been involved with creating, seeing it play with audiences, and seeing of the five, which one actually worked, got people talking. And it was that one, the one that nobody really agreed on. And that was fascinating to me.
So, what happened after that?
Well, Gwen Clancy was, really, the first person from a privileged background that I had ever been around. And she has this way of living that was so optimistic and… she just hadn’t been told ‘no’ that many times in her life. Whereas all I had ever heard was ‘no.’
I remember watching her order ice-cream. She ordered two ice-cream cones, four different flavors, and told them which flavor to put on top of each one. I had never seen anyone go for it all.
When we finished those five films—it was a year—she said ‘before I get too old, I want to work on a cattle ranch’. Her father, who was a professor, was on sabbatical once, in Arizona, and she wanted to know more about cattle culture. I remember thinking, ‘oh, you’ll never find a cattle ranch there.’ And it was during the drought, in ’76 or so, the West was in horrible drought.
Art collector Rene di Rosa, owner of the world’s largest collection of contemporary N. Cali art, is featured in the Nancy/Kenji film 'Smitten', one of their trilogy focusing on art. photo: courtesy Yamamoto/Kelly
Another year went by, and we were corresponding by audio cassette, and I get this message saying, ‘Hey, Nance, I’m on a ranch, and the horses gallop over rocks as big as footballs.
[laughing] I quit my job and I just went out there. Gwen was in Modoc County, five hundred miles northeast of San Francisco. And, really, the second day I was there, they gave me a horse. I didn’t know how to ride. But, that was it. I thought, ‘I’m never leaving here.’
So, you just slipped into the world of filmmaking.
I loved it because you can teach yourself.
When did you meet Kenji?
Three years after I moved to that ranch Gwen and I felt like we had shot enough, and we needed to edit.
But, you know, editing 16mm was much more, sort of, facility-centric then. You needed flatbeds, film-to-tape transfers, and all that stuff. And we also felt like we needed to be part of a film community; and, really, San Francisco and New York were it for documentaries.
So, we didn’t want to go that far from our horses just to go to New York, so we went to San Francisco. And, really, within a week of getting to San Francisco, somebody said, ‘you guys are going to need an editor.’ We clearly didn’t know what we were doing, so the guy gave me a list of three people, and Kenji was the only one that called me back.
So, was that an instant connection, you and Kenji?
It was instant for me, from the moment we talked on the phone. But, Kenji, [laughing] he didn’t notice for quite a few months.
Okay. I’ve heard that story before, and it’s usually the guy holding back—speaking from personal experience. So, we’re at the point where you two met. Kenji, it’s your turn. You were born…
I was born in Sacramento, California. My parents were second generation Japanese Americans. They were interned during World War II. That’s where they met.
My father was a farmer and a fruit picker and, eventually, a gardener. One of his hobbies was still photography, and he wanted to share his gift and his joy with his sons, and I was the only one who kind of caught on to a little bit of his talents and interests. And I thought it was an interesting part of life. Art, in some form.
Rene di Rosa himself with one of his pieces. photo: courtesy Yamamoto/Kelly
We built a color darkroom when I was about fifteen, and I did a lot of darkroom work, and I understood how to print color photographs, as well as black and white. I spent a lot of time in the darkroom. It was really a lot of fun.
I think my exposure to movies started before then. When my father was gardening, he had a client who owned a drive-in movie theater. My two brothers and two sisters, and myself, and my mother would go off to the drive-in movies every weekend, so my father would have a little peace and quiet for himself. This was in Concord, California. That’s where I grew up. We moved there when I was two.
So, he would send us off, and my brothers and sisters would don our pajamas, go into my mother’s station wagon, drive off to the drive-in movie. So, we went often, and we would all fall asleep very quickly. But I did watch a lot of movies. It was an entrancing experience, all those early sci-fi movies, et cetera, monster movies, and so on. Saw them all. Walt Disney movies. It was a staple of our life to go almost every weekend.
So, with still photography—my brothers and sisters went on to get their degrees in the University of California system—I decided to go to a fine arts college. So, I went to the San Francisco Art Institute, and studied there, but did not graduate. I wanted to be a painter, ‘cause I thought that was the definition of an artist, [but] as soon as I got into the Art Institute, I realized very quickly that I was not a painter.
I did gravitate to all other forms of graphic arts—serigraphy [silk screens], lithography, working with limestone—using rubber-based or petroleum-based crayons to draw on it, and etching it out with acid, and making prints. I was thinking ahead what a final, composite color image would be, and etching onto a stone with little crosshairs so the impressions would all line up, have a limited run.
It was technical, I could use my hands, as well as my eyes, and I was creating things. Things that not only satisfied me but, when someone else was pleased to see what I had, that was really a joy. So, it was a form of communicating, and I helped build the Art Institute’s first animation stand. I was one of the very first recipients of a full-year grant for their experimental film department.
This was their very first year of a formal filmmaking program. Although they had a tradition of experimental films that was born there, they didn’t have a formal department. So, the very first year that they offered a film course, I was given a grant for that year. It was sort of miraculous. At that time, the full tuition for the year was four hundred dollars.
So, I loved the idea of experimental films. And when I first met Nancy I would be so pleased to take her to the Ann Arbor Experimental Film Festival Tour—where she was bored to death.
Hold on. What about when you met Nancy?
When I met Nancy, like she said, she was looking for an editor for “A Cowhand’s Song”, and for the first time I thought I was witnessing footage that was so real. I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing—a real honest capturing of a culture and a people, new to me, in a remote area of California, that I had very little knowledge of. And it was incredibly unique—to see the kind of honesty and transparency in their characters and their lifestyles.
I had, at that time, been working for other production entities like “Sunset Magazine”—they had their own set of revisionist views of the West, The Heroic Cowboy, etc. I never thought that they penetrated what was a truthful depiction of people. So, I was very impressed—even though Gwen and Nancy were first-time, second-time filmmakers. So, I just gravitated to them as artists.
And they were fun to be with. And not only that, they had a whole history with these people, and I came to understand that when you immerse yourself as a filmmaker with your subjects long enough, you can get underneath their skin, you can really have a much deeper understanding of documenting them, of putting a life together that’s not only accurate, but is fun to watch.
It sounds like part of the power of your bonding had to do with the power of a film that Nancy made and that you supported.
Kenji: It was.
Nancy: Yeah, it was that. Kenji’s a lot of fun. (much laughter) He’d edit all day—he had these corporate, industrial film clients. He was editing child safety seat films for Doctor Dave. Kenji called himself ‘The Safest Editor in Town,’ but Doctor Dave used to have to quit like at twelve-thirty [PM], so, by six o’clock, knock-knock-knock on our editing room door, and there was Kenji, standing there with a pizza in his hands. Gwen and I were like living on fifty dollars a month, per person.
We were always hungry, and there he would be with a big smile, and a pizza; and he’d come in and help us deal with whatever we’d been struggling with all day. It would take him like five minutes to see what the problem was. So, then he’d spend a few hours with us, and then he’d call his girlfriend and say, ‘What do you want for dinner?’ (much laughter)
So, what brought you two together?
Kenji had a typewriter, and we didn’t; and Gwen and I were writing grant proposals constantly to get the money to finish this film. So, I would call Kenji up—partly it was ‘cause I needed a typewriter, but it also just an excuse to be, like, be around him, even though he didn’t know I existed. So, he was at Pier 42 which is now a marina, but at that time the second floor was a bunch of filmmakers.
And one of them used to walk through the hallway about five o’clock every day and yell, “First Call”, and they would all take off for the bar. Right? And off they’d go.
And Kenji’s client would be gone by then, and so I would sit there with his typewriter and type out my grant proposals, and one day Kenji came flying back in from the bar and kissed me. [laughs) Totally out of the blue. That was the beginning. [laughing)
Kenji: I think there’s some truth in that, I suppose. [much laughter)
And, so, you began seeing each other. And you’ve been a couple ever since?
Kenji: A couple ever since. And making films ever since.
Was it obvious at that point that you’d also be filmmakers
Nancy: You know how it is in your twenties. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing. I think Kenji was pretty clear on his life as an artist. After we finished “A Cowhand’s Song”, I decided that I wanted to be a filmmaker.
Kenji: Well, I thought of it as a way of making a living, supporting myself, only to then, when I was financially secure, which was my goal, then to go off and work with other people—because of the joy of collaboration making films.
And I just sort of made a vow to myself to do one interesting project—never knowing that I could actually do that all the time. I had, perhaps, thought of making films as a way of making a living first, and then secondly to fulfill some other calling—artistically, or for a topic that’s so important that I need to share it with everyone else. That said, over the years it became clear that it’s more than just a living. It’s a voice; it’s a way of life.
So, what impact did bonding with Nancy have on your discovery of your path to filmmaking?
Making films with Nancy was amazingly joyous—because we had similar interests: outdoors, drama, we would see independent films together, we would talk about them at great length, we would like some of the same filmmakers, they became like heroes to us. Robert Altman, we would just use him as a model for the kinds of things we’d like to make. Or, we’d talk about a cinematographer. These conversations, really, just led me to think that we could do these things together. And we did.
After “A Cowhand’s Song” Nancy was directing and producing a documentary, “Cowgirls”, and it was a lot of fun to work with. And a huge breakthrough project was our dramatic feature that we produced together. Nancy directed and I edited. “Thousand Pieces of Gold”. That was a wonderful time for both of us.
So, how did you two get from ‘Cowgirls’ to ‘Thousand Pieces of Gold’?
Nancy: At that time, Gwen and I had this film company called Cattle Kate Communications. [laughter] And our logo was two cowgirls on horses, swinging ropes with their hair flying. And Gwen and I, we didn’t get along that well as we were finishing ‘A Cowhand’s Song’, but we wanted to keep our company going. We just decided we would make films individually. So, that was really what I was doing for the next few years. We were conceiving of films and producing them through our company.
I made one documentary that didn’t have anything to do with Kenji after ‘A Cowhand’s Song’. I was hired by KQED to make a documentary I was developing that nobody would touch. It was called ‘Sweeping Ocean Views’, and it was nominated for a regional Emmy. Kenji was the editor for ‘Cowgirls’, but we weren’t really working together as filmmakers.
An idyll on the verge of a breakdown, Drake's Bay, from Yamamoto and Kelly's 'Rebel With a Cause'. photo: courtesy Yamamoto/Kelly
But when I was making ‘Cowgirls’ I found the novel, ‘Thousand Pieces of Gold’. I read it and got the idea to make a film, and I think that that really got Kenji’s attention. That was going to be a dramatic feature, and that’s when we formed a company, the two of us, and we both produced that. That’s when we really started making films together.
‘Thousand Pieces of Gold’ is a quantum leap from what you were doing. [laughter] What made you think you could do it?
Nancy: You know, by that point I was so far gone into filmmaking, and I had been told that I couldn’t do anything my whole life. I mean, that’s just the way I am. People say, ‘you can’t do it,’ I’m scared to death, but I do it. I mean when I was a baby they told my mother I’d never walk or roll over or anything. That very afternoon I not only rolled over, I sat up and started banging on the wall. [laughter] That’s the story of my life.
So, Nancy read and liked the book. What happened next?
Kenji: Nancy called me and said, ‘I read this book, and you should read it, it’s a story about a woman coming to America.’ And I read it, and I said, ‘Wow, this is an immigration story, an Asian woman coming to America, becoming an American.’ And so we both shared something, a little different, but we shared a similar excitement about what this could be. So, how do we make it into a movie?
Nancy: The day that I read it I was flying from Idaho, where I’d been at a conference doing research for ‘Cowgirls’. So I read it at the Boise airport, and I was flying to a job that I was going to do at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers—I used to help Diana Fuller, the Executive Director of the screenwriting program, to organize the shoots [of the] scenes the students had written. A LOT of people go to that.
And I was walking around Squaw Valley with this novel in my hand, and there was a writers strike, and so there was no traction because of the strike. But I showed it to Gil Dennis, a screenwriter. He looked at the back and he said, ‘Oh. James Houston, the writer who wrote a blurb for the book, he’s right over there.’
So, I walked over to him, and he introduced me to Ruthanne Lum McCunn, the author. And I talked to an agent there who was like, ‘A period piece? With a Chinese woman in the lead? That’ll never happen.’
We were trying to get the option, it was available, but a Hollywood producer already had it. Ruthanne called us when the option came up ‘cause she wasn’t happy that the Hollywood producer hadn’t made her film.
So, she was fishing around to see if someone else would bite, and she called a lot of people, not just us. But, Kenji and I, because we weren’t a company, it was just the two of us; we were able to move, like, fast.
We took money out of our savings account to pay the option fee, and to pay the lawyer to negotiate it, and we got it done. We were through the door before anybody else could, really, call a committee together.
I’m going to ask the gross and simple question: How did you finance it?
Kenji: [laughing] Through a multitude of ways.
Nancy: I had a vision when I read the book. I thought we could get money from the National Endowment for the Arts, from American Playhouse, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Somehow, we got an introduction to Rachel Lyon who was one of three women in Godmother Productions. They’d produced ‘Tell Me a Riddle’ which was based on Tillie Olsen’s novel. And Rachel kind of took us under her wing, and she introduced us to the lawyer who had put together deals for Godmother Productions.
That lawyer’s name was Peter Buchanan, a very kind, not the stereotype of lawyer, always trying to avoid confrontation whenever he could. And he had been executive director of the San Francisco International Film Festival, back in the early days. He was very much a proponent of independent films.
And we didn’t know anything about business. We walked into his office, and he said, ‘Well, what have you brought me? I’m not prepared to do anything until I see what you brought me.’ And I just happened, as we were walking to that meeting, I thought, ‘Oh my God, we need a copy of the book.’ So we went into a bookstore, right on the way to the meeting, and bought a copy of the book. I felt so clever that I had the book.
And so he read it, and then he called—it took him awhile—and he became our advocate. I mean we paid him, but his secretary said, ‘Oh, you’re getting the gee-we-like-you discount.’ So, he set up a corporation for us which we have to this day, a partnership for us; and between him and Rachel Lyon, they taught us how to raise money from limited partners.
So we raised $60,000 to pay a screenwriter. And any time Lindsay Law, the executive director of American Playhouse, appeared in California, I would go and practically mow everybody else down who wanted to talk to him, and I’d be like, ‘We’re making a movie based on this novel!’ And he told me later he thought that it was such an epic novel he never thought anybody could adapt it into something that would be containable—for an independent film budget. But somehow we got hooked up with Peter Wang, director of ‘A Great Wall’, and he agreed to direct it.
Kenji: We thought we didn’t have enough viability in the independent film world to be directors, creative people in this project, that we would only be the fundraising part. And we decided to try and find a high-profile director of independent films to attract financing—an obvious sort of strategy. So, we pursued Peter Wang at that time, and he, for the longest while, was interested, but sort of on the periphery, and was attached to the project.
Nancy: And we got invited to Sundance, to the June Lab, based on the screenplay, which was written by Anne Makepeace who had experience with Sundance, and who was a friend of ours, and Peter, and that was the package. But then, right before Sundance, Peter dropped out, and I wasn’t sophisticated enough as a producer to realize that I should tell Sundance [laughing] that he had dropped out.
When he dropped out it was like, ‘This is nonsense. Courting these people with a name, but they’re not really committed.’ And so I decided that even though I didn’t have any dramatic directing experience at all, I said, ‘I’m going to direct this. Fuck it.’
So, we went to Sundance, and I remember Academy Award winning screenwriter Frank Pierson—you know, ‘Dog Day Afternoon’—coming up to me and saying, ‘That’s really great that you have Peter Wang as the director.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, he dropped out, but I’m directing now.’ And I remember something like backing away, suddenly the project went from hot to ice cold in one second [much laughter].
But they didn’t send us home. Kenji, and Anne Makepeace and I. But they took the script apart and put it back together again. And American Playhouse committed to the draft that Anne wrote after we had been at Sundance.
Tom Rickman who wrote ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’, who I knew from the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, a big-hearted guy, he sat down with the three of us and said, ‘Nancy, if you’re going to direct this, you need to learn how to work with actors, and you should be doing that while you’re raising the money, and finishing the script, and everything.’ And he gave us kind of a sober talking-to about the lack of experience.
So, we both started going to class at the Jean Shelton acting school.
Kenji: It was really, truly an education for both of us. More than an education—it was a profound understanding of the actor, and what’s inside that body, the fragility of an actor, knowing good habits and bad habits that actors can have.
It’s amazing what you can learn from script analysis through an acting class—and, for my sake, ‘cause I decided I would go further and act myself, and to be in the shoes of an actor. And to understand that you do need some direction. You can’t self-direct all the time, and know what the intentions are, the interpretation of something, and not just play an emotion, but understand that there’s a motive, some object that you’re trying to reach.
The director-slash-writer understands that, hopefully, on a profound enough level that they can just sort of tip you off to a code, give you just enough to work on. I think it was just an incredible realization that what directors don’t do on the set, [laughing] as directors, and all the extra noise on the set a crew can give to an actor that should be eliminated, that should be funneled through one person. So, all of that was really good for both of us.
What happened after production?
It premiered at the San Francisco International Film Festival. It was one of the opening night films, in 1990. It was not an easy sell, even though we went through Sundance, through the June Lab, it wasn’t invited to the festival. That was quite a crushing blow. So then we had to wait for a lot of months.
We took it to the market at the Cannes Film Festival—‘cause we had a foreign sales agent. We were looking for an American distributor, and our rep got all the American distributors to come to the screening at Cannes. They all, except for one, stayed through the whole thing, which is unusual. Everybody told me to be prepared that the distributors would walk out after a while ‘cause they would have to gone on to other things. But, they all stayed. But we left with just a nibble, the most insulting possible nibble from Miramax. No other interest.
So then Ira Deutchman, a very clever guy, he just told us what our strategy should be. We should enter as many film festivals as we could possibly get into, only let them screen it on a Friday or Saturday night, and allow mini-reviews in every conceivable city. So we did that for a year after Cannes—hoping to get some distributor to just believe that the film would get reviews in enough cities to make it worth releasing. Incredibly depressing process. [laughing] Oh, My God!
Kenji: Not only that, we talked to Gary Meyer who was president of Landmark Theaters, the largest independent movie theater chain in America at that time. Got advice from him and he said, ‘Well, tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you a screen. All the money that’s collected we take, but I’ll give you a free screen.'
Another paradise in jeopardy from 'Rebel With A Cause'. photo: courtesy Yamamoto/Kelly
'And this is how you’re going to do this. You’re going to promote this as an audience screening, and you’re going to pass out these question-and-answer sheets for your audience to fill out—as a profile to see who came to see the film, whether they liked it, what their income range is. And this is what you can give to a distributor as a profile of your film. May the high spirits be with you. That’s the advice I’m going to give you, and here’s the screen, it will be in Sacramento, at the Tower Theater.’
So, we decided at that time, I think we had two hundred dollars. A hundred dollars was towards a tiny one-by-one inch article which would show up for one week, in the Sacramento Bee, and the rest of the money we would use to make Xerox copies, and we went to every coffee shop in and around this theater. And I stood in front of the theater passing out these flyers saying, ‘Come to the audience screening of ‘Thousand Pieces of Gold.’
Nancy: We drove to Sacramento I don’t know how many times. And you [Kenji] got that story in the Sacramento Bee. You conned someone into writing a story about us trying to get a distributor for our film. You made a big story out of it.
The day of the screening we drive up there, and we were just like scared to death. It was Labor Day weekend. Who is going to come see our film—with our little ad? And the line was around the block—people waiting to see if there would be a second screening. The first was already sold out. They were carrying the reels of some big independent film…
Kenji: ‘Blue Velvet’.
Nancy: ‘Blue Velvet’! They were carrying that out of the big screen theater, and putting our film in the big theater, and putting ‘Blue Velvet’ in the little theater. We were just like, ‘Oh, my god!’ And a news crew came out—it was really a happening thing. And, ultimately, we did get a distributor, Graycat Films. Their other claim to fame was ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’.
So, is it available now on DVD?
Nancy: It’s on Netflix. We own the rights to it. We have a sales agent who has been representing ‘Thousand Pieces of Gold’ for a couple decades now who’s honest and makes good deals. And so we let him handle it.
I have two questions about support: How do you support yourselves as filmmakers and how do you support your films?
Nancy: Since ‘A Thousand Pieces of Gold’ was a for-profit venture—we had investors. But it’s hard to get paid by distributors. They will tell you that they can only stay in business if they rip-off the filmmakers.
We had stood up in front of all these people who had personally invested in the film; so we just felt like we expected to be paid because we had told these investors, you know, and the investors got about fifty per cent of their money back. And when we finally closed the whole deal, some of them wrote us these impassioned letters saying they didn’t care if they had lost money, they LOVED the film, they were so proud to be associated with it.
We tried to get a couple more dramas off the ground, we really liked working in that genre, but we couldn’t. We developed some scripts—again, with investors—we could just never get the production financing, so in 1998, we went back to making documentaries, and it’s been a grant world since then.
Do you have any other support?
Nancy: We work for other people. We’re not trust fund kids.
Kenji: Hello, Google. Hello, Apple. Hello, Cisco Systems. Fortunately, we live in the Bay Area where there are a lot of high-tech companies. I actively call the hiring producers, or entities, or departments of companies and say, ‘Well, we’re available.’
And, I’ve worked in the corporate video world for most of my working career, off and on, through, even, making ‘Thousand Pieces of Gold’. And whenever there’s slack time between projects, or even during projects, I seek out work. And, for the longest time Nancy has as well. And also I work with other independent filmmakers on their documentaries. Since the recessions there’s fewer opportunities for that, but somehow we survive.
Let’s go on to your docs, tell me about ‘Smitten’
Nancy: There are two great things we learned about making ‘
’: It was a story of Rene di Rosa, the art collector. He had the world’s largest collection of northern California contemporary art. Rene was just such a free spirit, such a nut. He was in his eighties when we made the film. And he didn’t have much of a memory left, so one of the things I learned on the very first shoot that I did with him was we were standing in front of a sculpture by Robert Hudson, an incredible sculpture of an abstract human figure, in primary colors, huge, outside of Rene’s house.
I wanted Rene to stand there in front of it and tell me the story of discovering—‘cause he was known for buying early, early works of art from emerging artists who then went on to become world famous. So, when I asked Rene to talk about his discovery, I could tell I was losing him because he couldn’t remember.
So, I thought, ‘all right, can’t do that,’ and then I said to him, ‘Rene, just look at this sculpture and tell me what you see when you look at it.’ I realized if I could stay in the present with him, then we were good. And he liked being around creative people, so he liked having me and my crew around, as long as we weren’t trying to get him to delve into the past. So, we just stayed in the present with him.
And the other thing was we were trying to make an hour-long documentary, and it wasn’t working, it was like seriously not working. And we had a work-in-progress screening here in this edit room, on a Sunday night. That Monday morning Kenji was off working for Apple or somebody, and I woke up and thought, ‘I wonder if the solution to this is to make it a half-hour long. And that very morning I got a call from the Independent Television Service, ITVS, who I had submitted a proposal to for funding, saying that the proposal had been approved for funding on the condition that I make it a half-hour.
And the other thing that we learned as we were editing, ‘cause the edit wasn’t really happening very well, we decided to make a version of it that we called, ‘The Stop Making Sense Version.’ So, we just checker-boarded fun things and more serious things. That was our structure, and that was the version invited to premiere at the Mill Valley film festival. We stopped editing then. That was a lot of fun, and we got to travel around with Rene, to different film festivals, and he was such a kick.
And then ‘Downside UP’.
Kenji: ‘Downside UP’. That was prior to ‘Smitten’. ‘Downside UP’ was what we called the first part of our trilogy about art. That was the story of Nancy, going back to her home town, and seeing a lot of physical changes to the town. Her town had a factory, an electronics company, Sprague Electric that employed half the population, and it had outsourced and closed in 1984.
It was the great downfall of that area. A lot of people left, and Nancy grew up in a very dilapidated township, and always feeling like she was born on the wrong side of the tracks—sort of a lingering shame of coming from a place that’s so broken.
But when Nancy went back there to visit some relatives she noticed that there was some construction going on in the old factory. And so it was going to be revived, the factory, but in the shape of a museum—a contemporary arts museum which turned out to be the largest contemporary arts museum in the United States. And so it was like, ‘Why did this happen?’ And so Nancy was inspired to follow this as a story.
Nancy: But I thought it was going to fail. They thought it was going to bring our town, the dying North Adams, back to life, and I was just like ‘A contemporary art museum is going to bring North Adams, Massachusetts back to life?!’ Because nobody would go there.
I mean it is a heavily tourist area. Tanglewood is there, and the Norman Rockwell Museum, Jacobs Pillow, this famous place for modern dance, they’re all in the Berkshires. But North Adams was in this strip of post-industrial wasteland and The New York Times told people to make a U-turn, to avoid going there! [much laughter]
So, we followed that. Got all my family who had worked in that factory to come back and be part of seeing what was being done. And what was so remarkable was that it was a really big success. I mean people DID come to North Adams.
What came first, this miraculous success or the documentary?
Nancy: The documentary. We started making it in ’98, before there was any real idea of when the museum would open—or if it would ever open. We stayed with it a couple years after it opened. We were there for the opening day—my mother and father and aunt Joan and uncle Bud, and my cousin Kelly. All these people who were from North Adams, and my mother, father and aunt Joan had worked at the factory.
I was really moved by ‘Trust’. I didn’t know, of course, about any of your other documentaries.
Yep. That film premiered in 2010, and we’re still touring with it. And it just aired in October , on ‘America Reframed’, a brand new series on the PBS digital channel, so it was harder than hell to find—it’s called PBS World.
But, of course, KQED didn’t carry it! But they might carry it next year. But, yeah, it’s getting invited to different conferences. PBS’s POV curates the film, and we don’t have the numbers, but they said that, by far, the most hits that their website had was on the ‘Trust’ page when it aired.
There’s a foundation dedicated to getting society talking about the taboo subject of child sexual abuse, and they gave us the last four years’ grants to finish the film, and then start this process of creating this very comprehensive teaching tool to go along with it which we are going publish in March , and we distribute it through New Day Films. A lot of teachers are already using it, a lot of community organizations. A lot of people buy it just to have.
Showing it to audiences has just been remarkable. With ‘Thousand Pieces of Gold’, after a while, the audiences were pretty much the same—middle-class film goers—and their questions would pretty much be just the same. But, with ‘Trust’ it’s amazing how new questions continue to come up in screenings, even though it’s been out for over two years.
I showed it last year in Hartford, and I told them if they have any community organizations they would like to invite, do any special screenings for special groups, they should let me know. And they said that they had a group of teens called Our True Colors. So, I said I’ll screen it for them, and my plane landed just in time for me to do a Q&A for this group.
These kids turned out to be LGBT teenagers who were wards of the state. In other words, when they came out, their parents disowned them. They went to the movies once a month. They got that film so thoroughly, it was just remarkable. Not that they had the same experiences as Marlin [woman whose story ‘Trust’ covers. Her name is pronounced Marleen]—in terms of being sexually abused.
But they had the same experiences of being outsiders and finding community. They were so fluid with the themes of the film, that the conversations we had about poetry, and writing, and theater, were just fantastic. We just got invited to show ‘Trust’ to Our True Colors’ national convention which will have 2,200 teenagers attending.
How was the shoot?
Nancy: It took us so many years of hanging out at that theater company before Marlin showed up. We already had been filming for four years.
Kenji: And artistically, it’s one of our proudest pieces. Even after the arduous first five years of filming and coming up empty-handed, it was a conviction of our philosophy as documentary filmmakers, verité filmmakers, that you wait until it happens. And we were either too early or too late to capture a full story of a kid, because there were a lot of other stories we were following that had nothing to do with child sexual abuse, that were as deep and as hard a subject as might be.
But, in the edit room, when we were forming these stories together, it was never complete in its story telling. We wanted to see the birth of the story, and follow the artistic journey that it takes to conclusion—how it lands on its feet—through the experience of the teenager, not necessarily through the directors of the theater company. So, we literally threw away the first five years of material. And I was grateful, and Nancy was grateful for that to happen.
When Marlin stepped in the doors—it was a shoot that Nancy wasn’t involved with—I shot with our cinematographer, Dan Gold, not knowing exactly what we were capturing because it was a recruitment, and David Feiner, the artistic director of the Albany Park Theater Project said, ‘You gotta pay attention to this young woman.’
Nancy: This was a couple months after the shoot. He said, ‘You oughta go back and look at that footage. There was a girl who then joined the company, and she’s been telling us bits and pieces of her story, and I think she might tell the rest of it at our summer camp, in August.’ So I made sure that we were there.
But this was a really good lesson in documentary filmmaking, in the verité world, really, you just never know whether you have your finger on something or not. As we kept failing to come up with a story, I kept thinking, ‘I wonder if it’s because we haven’t been there when the person has told his or her story?’ We really were never there for that moment, and that was really a big part of our problem.
The day when Marlin told her story at the summer camp, I knew. In the hour and forty-five minutes that she talked, I knew that all we had to do to get the story was just to show up for the making of the play. It was just so clear, so clear that that’s what we’d been missing. In drama it’s the ‘inciting incident.’
But, by then we had looked like such a failure to so many different foundations that we really had to mount a campaign to say, ‘Now, this time we really mean it!’ [laughter]
Kenji: I think it was the most versions of edits we’ve ever made. We had sixty versions before meeting Marlin, and then we had over a 140 versions after that.
This brings us to ‘
Rebels with a Cause
’. It’s as important a documentary film as I can imagine; and it seems to be somewhat of a non sequitur in your filmography. How did it come about, and how’s the release going?
So, the idea came from Nancy Dobbs, the President and CEO of KRCB [http://krcb.org/], North Bay public media. She read Martin Griffin’s book ‘Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast’ in 1998. She thought it would be an important film because more people, including her, didn’t know the story of how the coastlands were saved. In 2004, she met me and Kenji, and asked us whether we would be interested in making a documentary. I immediately said yes ‘cause I have great affection for those lands as well.
What’s happened since is that it premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival in 2012. It won one of their audience favorite awards. It’s been in a number of film festivals around the country, and we’ve been able to get local contemporary ‘rebels’ to come and join us for Q&As with audiences, panel discussions, that sort of thing. And this has been really good because we’ve been learning what the documentary means to people. Once you finish a film it doesn’t really matter what your intentions were, it matters what people are getting from it. Fortunately there’s been a good match.
It opened in theaters in the San Francisco Bay Area, starting on May 31st. It’s had very good box office, and the Rafael Film Center extended the run. And we just got a non-theatrical distributor, New Day Films, and we’ll have DVDs for sale to individuals and schools, universities, and libraries within a couple months.
There’s so much information in this film, and so many implications, is there anything else you want to say?
You know, what’s been so interesting is hearing people who work for—like, The Trust for Public Land, or the Nature Conservancy, or Earthjustice—who are today’s ‘rebels,’ people who are working now on environmental issues.
To hear them talk about what they’re doing, and also to hear them asking and inspiring people in our screenings—and sometimes there’s like 300 people in these audiences—to step up, and, you know, like Huey Johnson [http://hdj.rri.org/] said a week ago at this screening, ‘I looked up to the old guys in the environmental movement when I was younger, and now it’s time for you to learn from us and step up.’ It was just so profound, and people clapped.
It’s really emotional for people to see the film and meet people who are involved in the movement to save land and other things. And what we’re hoping is that it’ll go on to inspire—like Doug Ferguson who’s one of the ‘rebels’ that gave a talk at Redwood High School, in Larkspur, a couple weeks ago—those students were so discouraged because they didn’t feel like they could do anything about climate change. They just felt so overwhelmed, and Doug just gave them a couple examples of things that turned out to be very successful, but seemed overwhelming in the beginning.
One of the examples he gave was one of the creators of Apple came to him for some legal advice back before they started anything, and they didn’t feel like they could do anything. And that meant a lot to those students because, of course, they all know about Apple now. But he also talked about the fight against Marincello. They had no idea if they could win that.
And on the fun side, the Executive Director and some interns from The Green Film Festival in San Francisco, developed a Marincello cocktail [laughter] which they served at a couple of events related to the film and the festival. And that’s on the Rebel’s Facebook page. And Leah Garchik wrote about it in her column in the San Francisco Chronicle, a note about the cocktail and that’s it’s the thing on the Rebel’s Facebook page that has gotten the most hits. So, there’s serious stuff and then more light-hearted stuff which is great.
Thanks! A toast to you and your work, Nancy and Kenji!
Posted on Jul 02, 2013 - 01:39 AM