An Interview with Robert Todd
Mike Hoolboom

I met him when he was still in black and white, in a diner at the Ann Arbor Festival. There was something about his face that seemed charmingly unfinished, chiseled out of some particularly American brick which was soft in all the places a face should be hard. It was a face that said yes, even to strangers.

And he was quick to dismiss whatever new movie he was trotting out on the circuit. He would wave it away and speak only about the new fine hope he was working on, or the dream that was about to begin. Haunted by death, leaving the past behind, driven.

It wasn’t unusual then to be a committed avant maker plying your trade in 16mm, though as each year passed, the numbers dwindled. But not on Robert’s end. As if to make up for the rapidly approaching vanishing point for the analog world he is busier than ever committing his seeing to a hand wound Bolex, following the light and becoming it. His tools are increasingly extensions of himself, his camera-eye looks and receives, he is able to film in the deepest shadows knowing that some final shimmer will find its way onto emulsion. Teaching pays the bills, and so he is by necessity an urban dweller, but he has a particular feeling for the natural world, and lenses it with a sublime precision, which draws the viewer through his camera and out the other side. Close, with Robert’s work we are always at an intimate distance, a touching distance. He needs to bear witness, to take the risk of seeing from both sides of the lens. He was there while the men in maximum security counted the days, when his father died. A certainty which refuses mastery. The following interview occurred via email and has been considerably edited down from Robert’s voluminous and eloquent responses. As if at last he had been summoned to confession.


MH: Do you feel, as an American avant moviemaker, that you have arrived “too late”? That there exists a “heroic” period of creation, marked by the 1960s, canonized in books and universities and the formation of seminal institutions, which have rendered the efforts of all those who have come after, like yourself, relatively invisible?

RT: On my own, I rarely think of this. My immediate focus is on something that I've become excited about in the last rolls I've shot. My primary concern is with film's interaction with light sources and how we come to position ourselves as either emitting, ignoring, baking in or hiding from light or dark (clarity has some place in this interest, too). Because my background is in drawing and painting, my major influences have not been filmmakers, though I have had strong responses to films that I’ve seen.

I feel that I "arrived" as a filmmaker at a perfect time. I was ready to make films when it was cheap and challenging and offered me things I could not find in drawing and painting but didn't eclipse them. "Visibility" (recognition by others?) is far less important than my ability to experience the living and making of art. I feel fortunate to be involved in a dialogue with my own work and that of others whom I respect, but I feel more fortunate to have the time and means to make work, and believe that I am a worthwhile part of a conversation for people who share my concerns. That may be small-minded (or small-visioned?), but I have no grand aspirations around being canonized or broadly distributed.

MH: How do you mark your work in relation to this tradition of the untraditional? Are you walking in the footsteps, stepping in the shadows, or do you feel absolutely free of those constraints, the call of what's been done before, the stoop of precedent?

RT: These questions are fun to consider, and not just because I'm a teacher (professionally necessarily) mindful of the scope of relevant culture for academic reasons. I don't feel absolutely free of the constraints of this tradition — some of this has to do with how programmers and others see what I do, but much has to do with how I respond to things, as suggested above. I don't see myself as expanding upon processes established by others (nor do I presume to be establishing groundbreaking new processes in light of what others have or may have created), but I do see cinema as offering a vast shared vocabulary of process, form and subject matter that I feel echoes of when I'm in the edit room reviewing what I’ve shot and organizing my own acculturated thoughts around the designing of a piece. I'm not particularly well-versed in either cinema studies or the history of avant-garde/experimental filmmaking, but I've learned much from others as I've discussed their processes or seen their works. Most of these people have not been canonized, but I recognize that they've been influenced by myriad sources, which necessarily include films from the canon. Some of my strongest responses have been to films that have never been finished or have been to moments within super-8 films that have never been shown to an audience of more than two.

That said, there's also something about short-format filmmaking that both allows for free artistic production and a quoting of/from the untraditional tradition. When I'm shooting, producing or editing, I remain flexible, but I form an idea as I go that becomes an organizing principle that gradually rules out notions of freedom within the overall experience (both of making and viewing). I'd like to be able to say that the precedents I follow are my own, but that'd be about as delusional a statement as I could ever make about my work. In the end, I'm looking at an outward reflection of my internal self, sometimes through multiple mirrors. Am I hedging here? It all seems slippery to me, like asking if I behave this way because my father did so, once, long ago...

MH: We run into each other whenever you have another film (or two or three) finished, and are back on the circuit getting it lit up. But you rarely want to speak about whatever brings you into town; instead, you are filled with enthusiasms about yet another set of seeings you are aching to realize. Your relentless work habits lead me to believe that you are trying to cheat death or something (why so many movies? why push so hard?), but also that you want to resist becoming "defined" by what you've just produced. On the one hand I feel you are absolutely committed to the shaping of seeing which each of your movies require. But on the other hand, as soon as the finish line approaches I can feel you slipping away, leaving it behind, there will be no resting on laurels, no waiting to see what recent activities has brought to bear, instead you are already off in search of the next one.

RT: Cheat death? Hmm... I was speaking with a painter friend about what the process is like. She was talking about a series she's making (49 paintings) that are phases within a transitional state. I told her that this describes my making films — they are transitory and transitional: there doesn't seem to be a state of completion. While making Qualities of Stone in May 2006 I became interested in some things which were shot through the summer and fall for There, which in turn led me to shoot along more developed lines for Office Suite in the winter. In each instance, I felt that there was more to say because when I watched the footage cut together, it was nagging at me, not like a problem, but like a solution that I was having trouble seeing. Shooting was a way of seeing more. I suppose this is akin to a scientist who's noticed something, comes up with a hypothesis, gets slightly different results than expected and learns that there's more to this discovery that needs puzzling and exploring.

But this only captures some of the picture; I do have little fires that crop up, and I obsess about pursuing them. The film that I have already made is the record of a process of discovery, which I’m only casually interested in revisiting. But the great thing about having a full program of my films, like the one at Ann Arbor (2007), is seeing several movies flow as a set, as if it was one large movie made in parts. This larger view is exciting because it blends various mysteries together that make more sense than I could ever glean from a single film. Making is ongoing but has moments where a greater digestion and stock-taking is necessary. Few have been with me when I'm at that point, and it's usually something that happens privately, when I screen a bunch for a few friends or myself. So I don't resist being defined by my work, rather I am curious as to the nature of this rather fluid event (filmmaking and its manifestation) and its revelations...

MH: About your movie Clip you write: “For over a year I've been working on the subject of the Death Penalty and its significance to our culture. This piece has grown out of the footage that I've shot for that film, and some of the concepts I've been juggling. I had an idea that the imposition of a strict formulaic process to living imagery would drastically alter its appearance, much as the strict adherence to dogma can disfigure or even destroy a life. On my way to the beach to film waterfowl, I had the misfortune to witness a truck smack into a bird in flight and drive unflinchingly on. As I waited with the bird for help, I brought my camera to bear on it. It felt awful, as if I were revisiting the violence done by the trucker. It made little difference that my machinery was held at a distance, I was aware of myself imposing a violation on this hapless creature. When I saw this footage projected I was deeply disturbed, and felt much gut-wrenching empathy with this bird, and horror at the recognition of the camera callously whirring on in its fearful face.”

Clip shows a bird subjected to a maniacal optical reworking, layers collide and blend and melt away. As a viewer I wonder: why all this work on such ordinary pictures? I have seen it a few times now, but never knew “the story behind the picture.” And now that I read the story, the experience feels deeper, the pictures clearer. You are doing something akin to Brakhage’s Sirius Remembered, an ode to his dead dog. I think it began with a walk he took behind his house with a friend who doesn’t notice the dog lying dead at all, so Stan sets to work recapturing his dog’s lying, rotting, unnoticed, last sights and post-death visions via a hyperbolic cutting strategy. You also bring a great load of re-looking to bear, is it so that you can control death, slow it down and start it up again? Or more simply to show how this ordinary moment is also (like every ordinary moment) extraordinary? Perhaps you could also talk about the ordering itself: you worked with a kind of “script,” didn’t you?

RT: Where I've been touched by death (my uncle, my father, my grandmother: all of these were deeply affecting in ways that permeate much of my work, including Lost Satellite, family history, Fable, fisherman, Our Former Glory and In Loving Memory) differs from where I've seen the potential for death, and the re-working of that potential. The film also suggests the cruelty of non-participatory observation that is a sort of "death" — the death that comes from distancing. I feel that others have discussed this more eloquently than I could, but to put it in my simpleton terms: the camera can work as a story works — pantomiming an ideal state of being, rendering events in a way that suggests that immortality is possible. It reduces life to something wonderful, and places it within language. In the moment of observation, we are There, yet Not There because we allow the camera to weave a "story" around the event. In this sense portraiture becomes still life: the capture shows the relationship between myself, the medium, and the subject — a dance that removes my full attention and risk of everyday interaction, and replaces it with a secondary series of interactions. A different type of life is lived, and the other potential life has been suspended or replaced.

When I would draw or paint a portrait with the person in the room with me, the paper or canvas and all of the machinery surrounding the making can hardly be invisible to the subject, nor can the actions I undertake as I dance reactively to the material emerging in front of me. I change, and yet I wonder how the subject and the environment change. How do they react to what I am doing? Active portraiture, in which the subject moves, can allow for more incident, and a sort of shared authorship can take place, but, as with "directing," the arbiter of the recording device is the one who holds the keys to the door to the world, which is the surviving evidence of the event. We agree to this relationship when we agree to "sit" for a portraitist, or to accept the camera into our lives. And in so doing, we close certain doors — whether or not we choose to acknowledge this is another matter, but it is the matter (the subject matter, in a way) of the film Clip.

The first "script" for the film was influenced by what was at that time an organizing principle for my life: my preoccupation with the distancing mechanisms that allow for the execution of our fellow human beings by our "society" in the loose political sense of that word. My gathering at that point was directed toward certain images that could hold potential for the larger film about prisons: beauty in decay or decaying beauty, the disfiguring of ideal or iconic spaces, the sense of an idyll within the commonplace. These were rather simplistic notions, but I was at the beginning of a journey and took the most obvious steps. I say this to emphasize that at this point I had a "story" to tell without the specifics — I had an organizing principle, and the world could expect little mercy from me.

I had shot the birch trees and one of the jails (among other things not used in Clip), and was on my way to the beach to shoot the water and birdlife there (one large piece of my life puzzle is that I have a familiar identification with birds, so an impulse toward shooting or drawing birds is also an impulse toward self-representation) when the accident described in my write-up occurred. I was bird-sensitive and already had an organizing principle, so the event was both shocking and fitting. The camera came out, and a kind of death occurred to the life I would lead (we would have led?) were it not so. As I shot, I further developed my "script" by choosing positions which gave the camera a character that became increasingly aggressive and agitated.

After shooting through the bird's recovery (and having no help arrive from the Rescue League), I left the scene of the crime to go and shoot the birds on the beach. I thought some of this would make its way into the death penalty film, but I didn't have a clue as to how that might happen. I was further shaken and embarrassed when I saw the footage projected. This was the beginning of the contouring of the "script.” I thought about my anger at the callousness of the truck driver, furthered by my own evident callousness as camera operator, happily distancing myself from distress. I felt compelled to voice this through an editorial act that would create the kind of harsh environment that my spirit found itself trapped within. I wanted to underline the cruelty of these organizing principles through hyper-stylization, creating a structure that would give life over to the machine.

The structural formula: The imagery is spread across 100 feet of film, which is 4000 frames. These 4000 are broken into 10 sections of 400 frames each. The first section shows a single image from a sequence of images (shot A) held for 400 frames. The second section's first frame is the second frame of (shot A) and its second frame is the first frame of another sequence of images (shot B), and these two images alternate for 200 frames, at which point (shot A) moves to the 3rd shot in its sequence and shot B moves to its 2nd frame in its sequence. Each section introduces a new image sequence (shot C - J), and divides accordingly (section 3 has 4 divisions of 100 frames, section 4 has 8 divisions of 50, etc.).

The rephotography (through optical printing) was a recreation of the distancing effect of the shooting of the material in the first place, I could only concentrate on the counting down of the printer as I blocked and unblocked light from film frames to allow the formula to have its way with the film and my spirit. In the end I let the formula break down, and this seemed to satisfy the romantic in me.

MH: Our Former Glory (9 min, 2002) opens with a suite of negatives, beautifully rephotographed by you, looking closely at these faraway figures from another time. Then you create a duet of faces shown in extreme close-up, intimate and melancholy, and a stubborn architecture that is aggressively reworked through rephotography, as if you are trying to crack these rigid geometries. Television appears as well, not as clip collage, but as abstract lines and white noise, the outside world appears as abstractions, there is little social space here, only the murmur of a lost interiority and the left behind, hand-made offerings to those “missing” in New York after the trade towers went down. Can you talk about how you structured this movie? And what set you on the path to this making?

RT: The (UPC) Bar Code (as a language) became the central character in the film, and the structure reflects my own feelings about this "abstract" presence in our lives. It is a language that we cannot read, but is translatable by machines. It is a mirror of binary computer code, which defines the global social sphere's functional communication and the means of its practical application. As a labeling device it has been tied to commerce, but its uses extend to the non-commercial as well. As I wish to suggest, the boundaries between the commercial and non-commercial have long ago eroded, and this film provides a portrait of that.

The structure is narrative and follows the transformation by cracking through rigid geometries in a visual battlefield that employs references to television, advertising and consumption and the concomitant obliteration of subjecthood. The film ends, oddly, on a hopeful note, where the "chaos" of human warmth is foregrounded through the hand-made pleas for info on lost loved ones, and the veil riding over the image of the lost towers.

The film begins in a mood which contrasts with the towers, leading from the telescoping shots of the past in negative and positive space, to the "intimate" somber shots of the faces which are disfigured in battle with the bar-code later in the film. The beginning plates slide through focus, they are meant to be intangible, suggestive and beautiful, recalling, in a somewhat nostalgic manner, a time that we can glorify pictorially but not hang on to. Shooting those images involved careful selection (mixing family shots with travel, negative with positive, figurative with abstract, clustered compositions (favoring circularity) with loose uses of the rectangle) and construction (to bring us into the home, toward intimacy, but not in a direct or specific way). That care decays as the film progresses, so as the bar codes dominate, I was looking through the lens less often, shoving things in front of or into the optical printer gate with increasing abandon.

An interesting feature of this film is the soundtrack. Keeping to the language of the barcode, I translated the "Barney" (purple dinosaur) theme song into barcode, and then printed this onto transparent film using varying "font" sizes of bar code (this also produced the traveling mattes seen midway through the movie). I then ran this film through a 16mm projector and recorded the sound from the optical reader into Protools, and used this not only as part of the soundtrack, but also as a "gate" pattern for another major component of the soundtrack which was ten minutes of sounds from daytime television. The pure barcode sound’s “meaning” is transformed to an awful sort of indecipherable (and particularly grating) mechanical music, much as the noise of a fax machine might be: as with its visual counterpart, its naming power (and that certain aspect of its functionality) is lost.

MH: Thunder (11 min, 2004) is a nature movie that shows the bulldozing of trees in your neighborhood. The rough, handheld super-8 footage of the fallen trees is framed with long, graceful passes of 16mm footage, which, as usual in your work, is very beautiful. You show the remaining trees after rainfall and in the early morning light, in color and in black and white high contrast. Your camera drifts up these old trunks, sensitive to the movement of stripped branches in the wind. It closes with a winter storm seen in dying light. The tendency you have to make everything beautiful creates an effective elegy for these fragile ecosystems trying to co-exist alongside houses and humans (though people are never seen here). But doesn’t the aestheticization provide a mask which hides the destruction that “nature” is forever carrying out?

RT: In Thunder, I wished to treat these Trees as individual beings, caught within the ambivalent forces of human desire. I wanted to encourage an engagement with these beings that might lead to beauty and narrative. So while the trees are the Figures, I let the color be the Ground — the space of beauty that you describe is an evolving sense of the artist's discovery of some of the changes of the trees' lives.

There is a haunting beauty at the beginning of the film, which is pushed into another realm through the destructive force of the crane. The death of those trees is the beginning of what I see as meeting, or facing up to, the attitude of disposability as a demon in the Western psyche. Winter is the acknowledgment of the destructive power of nature—the whitening of the world, purity interrupting life. It is the end of a long strand of color. The crows feed on its remains.

There is a struggle within my films concerning Beauty. In art making it appears as a kind of love, and yet I see that its conflation with idealized forms can lead to a split between life and the place we imagine it being (the transcendence of the ideal, something that art can facilitate). Thunder offers contrasting forms (textures, fields, etc.) to break the contiguous sheen of the film skin. The shift in colors within the super-8 section, the green veil of the fence, the move from super-8 to 16 then back again as the storm approaches, the dim flat color and space of the tree at rest in the middle of the film with the machinery around it, and of course the shift from the glorious brown-and-white to the dull throb of winter.

All this to sympathetically realize, within the distortions of light that constitute the experience of film, the variegated sensations that constitute life (its calms and its distresses) lived and exposed over time on humanity’s terms, be they romantic or practical. I was also intent on continually reestablishing the film’s spatial vocabulary in order to destroy any iconographic celebratory references, moving it away from the Olympia diving sequence and closer to Kubelka's African experience – moving from the reductive, “TREE”, to the “trees-in-the-spaces-living-with-and-against-others-over-time.” Or to put it another way: from a singular notion of Beauty to a richer notion of empathic identification that relies on a pluralistic view of Being (or a soul?).

Perhaps I fail to make these differences meaningful for others, or register with their physical experience of the piece, but they remain for me. It's interesting how we can wade through much that we might consider to be non-beautiful to find small rewards, and how this process is akin to a relationship, and can also be beautiful.

MH: In Stable (7 min, 2003) you visit a farm with a keen attention to detail, the drippings of a pipe, the way light falls onto grass, or a horse’s snout, or the side of a building, one spectacular view follows another, but they’re not held so long. Don’t worry, your editing seems to suggest, beauty is everywhere and in abundance. You use a variety of film stocks, each with its own look, though the “subject” remains the same — or does it? Why foreground these formal transformations, and how has this rural visitation rendered the life “behind” these striking moments more vivid? Or is that beside the point? Farms (or so I imagined) are work sites first of all, but the only one working here is you, the animals are grazing or looking slowly into the lens, nature is growing “all by itself,” the farm (a container for the natural world, re-purposed as food) is presented as an unpeopled idyll. Isn’t this a way not of looking (which the film is very concerned with) but of looking away? How to begin to address the small farm at this precipitous moment, when farm suicides in India, Pakistan, and Argentina (to name only three countries) are occurring in staggering numbers, as small farms (like the one you depict in your movie) are driven into bankruptcy by “free trade” agreements (which keep food tariffs high, and farmer subsidies in first world nations intact), government coercion, and multinational monoliths like the genetically modified seed producer Monsanto?

RT: I had been shooting film on this farm for several years. I was deep into the death penalty project at this point, and my father’s health was up and down when I visited the farm one day and casually started shooting close-ups. My first focus was on the mutilated and decaying baby bird, and, recalling Clip, I found myself looking on in horror, so further shooting was led by thoughts of reverence and sympathy. This turned out to be the overarching emotional lens that I brought to bear on the place.

I wanted to bring the farm alive in terms that replaced the pictorially grand or quaint with something that might move vision into mystery and wonder. I needed to feel the bird in this place, a site with a life cycle that would normally seem separate or beyond me, but here seemed to pass through me, bringing a history to the fore that I hadn't felt before. My connection to Animal was hinted at through seeing the water ripple in a way that I found myself thirsty for. I found myself looking at things like animal time and animal focus. The sense of the animals having only this world to live in was something I brought inward. In this way, the film prepared me for seeing death as real (a place of resting and also profound ignorance), and seeing life as preciously beautiful — a play of moving colors of emotion, awareness and form that could find meaning in fragmented vectors.

With In Loving Memory (the death penalty film), I shot the exteriors of all of the prisons in a way that was intended to keep the viewer on the outside of the fence, to make no pretense of a possible understanding of a "true" aesthetic of the space within, the space that feature dramas and certain documentaries seek to unearth or exploit. My approach to the farm was a reaction to that idea, sympathetically showing what an interior understanding felt like.

Shifting textures paralleled shifting states of being. Using multiple exposures meant wrestling with ideas concerning control and direction—all of these multiple exposures were done in-camera, and my ability to impose a directed vision onto these events was challenged in interesting ways that wound up defining the editorial structure of the film. Stability became a principle feature of the piece. These images were at their most muddled (to the point of being unwatchable) when there was no organizing principle, but seemed trite when any organizing strategies were strictly adhered to. And this, I felt, was a pretty good metaphor for both vision and being, and one that allowed the images to win out over me and bring the subject (the life-place) into that reverential space that made it (for me) a successful portrait.

MH: Your cross-country epic “documentary” In Loving Memory (47 min, 2005) takes aim at maximum security prisons across America. It opens with a collage of voice-overs, unusual in your work, which is very circumspect in its use of language. This chorus of voices answers a series of (unheard) questions: what is your happiest memory? What was the nicest thing you ever did for someone else? A question about questions: How did you collect these moments, and why these questions? Thirteen minutes into the movie a phone caller mentions his incarceration, the first hint that this beautifully lyric movie might have a darker side.

While the first “movement” is filled with a blend of natural imagery (trees, flowers, water) and apartment interiors (magnificently lensed, of course), the second movement brings us to the prison(s), and a series of calls from death row inmates follow. How did you get in touch with them, and how did you negotiate their participation? Was it difficult to get the permissions you wanted to shoot inside the prisons and speak to inmates and how did this wind up shaping the movie? Did you film at every maximum security prison in the US? How did you approach the filming of these places?

As the movies progresses you seem increasingly constrained by your subject. Your lyric, intuitive style is battened down by the numbing repetition of punishment, and the vast store of information which arrives in a very long series of intertitles. I can imagine you came across a whole lot of relevant, vital info on your travels and researches. Can you talk about the use of titles to dish this material?

You leave the greatest shock until the closing credit: the speakers we’ve seen in the film’s moving opening passages are identified as actors. Why actors? Why not name them as actors right away?

RT: The obvious subject of In Loving Memory is the memory of life in the face of imminent death. In addition to the movement of landscapes from lush fertility to arid desert, there are characters who tell stories, and we see them in their homes. My hope was that because of the tone struck in the first series of images — the wide open landscape, the beautiful but somber close-ups, the oxygen tube and pills, the mixture of faces, along with the title's reference to the epitaph — the viewer would be oriented towards the character’s relationship to death, and so direct sympathies towards the identification that fiction and poetry allow for. Still leaving open the question of who these people might be. By having the first voice arrive from an answering machine (it's my sister, and I think it's apparent that this is from a relative, an intimate), the question of why some of the voices are from phone recordings is suspended. This withholding brings a confusion that we can be comfortable with, it allows us to invent a community of storytellers, and invent our own feelings about their situations. But it is a sort of imprisonment that I offer. It is revealed that at least some of the people are (or have been) incarcerated at a point that is deep within the interviews, at a time when the landscape and other imagery has revealed its problematized development. The film continues to withhold, but now in a less kind way. There is a larger reference to our political situation here, in terms of the pretense we have that we "know" the scope of our own agency, our ability to affect the political landscape, but also that we "know" our neighbors in a larger national sense. As more is revealed about these things through sustained attention and/or contact, the more our previous restrictions were revealed, and the more complex these situations are revealed to be. Naming the actors earlier would defeat the illusion of openness that allows identity speculation.

I was aware of the restrictive nature of prisons for those incarcerated and for the public at large. For some this is the raison d'etre for prisons — to keep this distinction sanctioned (sacred?) in every possible way. Originally I thought of setting up interview-like conditions at the prisons, but I didn't like this thought for a number of reasons.

First of all, from a practical standpoint, I couldn't imagine actually being admitted by the prison authorities. I knew that journalists were allowed in, but that otherwise only family members had easy access. There were some who had been able to gain entry, but when I recalled the results they seemed unsatisfactory. Secondly, by using actors I might gain a sense of shared humanity that placing them (the viewers) inside the prison would obliterate. I thought of filming them in some special way — faces only, shallow depth of field — but I still wasn't happy with the flat nature of the representation.

The third reason was that the interview situation could color their responses based on how they were reacting to me. I wanted a situation that would allow them to speak to the world at large (a naive conceit, I admit), so I realized at that point that their words mattered much more than the encounter or the visual representation. I decided to call them. The only way to do this, as it turned out, was to write them and have them call me. I wrote to prisoners across the country, some on recommendations from people like Kazi Toure (of the American Friends Service Committee) and others because I was interested in a particular State as a representation of one that had either a lot of people, a few people or somewhere-in-between number of people on death row. It was a lot of letters, oh yeah. Some states sent my letters back before they reached the prisoners, but most seemed to get through. The letters asked that the receiver either write and mail their responses back to me, or that they call an 800 number that I'd set up so I could record the responses. I had a fairly low level of positive response, and because I couldn't count on a specific time for anyone to call, my producer and I had to monitor our phone-with-tape-machine from 7am to 7pm from June to October. But it was worth the wait.

One thing I liked about this set-up was that the inmates were not asked questions cold, without a chance to consider their response. I was happy with the variety of written responses — some were brief, and others extremely long, but all were a mix of public and intimate that made them interesting.

Outside of showing the written text, there was only one way of having them available in the film, and that was having someone else reading them. I had initially thought those readers would be people from my neighborhood, but instead I turned to people who could commit to a sustained work schedule throughout the fall of 2004, and this meant actors. We worked for two months on the audio performances, and went through various interpretations of what an "effective" performance might mean, and I recorded all of these sessions. This allowed for a variety of textures, something I could work with in structuring the movie as a reveal of "information" over time. Sometimes the same voice seemed to be representing very different characters or narratives (in the film sequence, immediately prior to the "incarceration" line, the performances become a bit stiff, and there is subsequently an alternation between flat and nuanced performance levels until the voices of the actors are heard no more).

As far as the shooting went: I sought out all of the state prisons in the US that housed death row inmates. I picked up non-death-row-housing prisons as a result of (apart from a bit of bureaucratic sleight-of-hand) not only an interest in some of these, but also because early on I had experimented with interior prison shooting in the abandoned jail at the center of Boston, and this served as an aesthetic touchstone for me in the film. It was yellowed and dirty, decaying back into a state of nature through neglect, and I found this helpful in considering what else I might shoot in the US landscape when approaching other prisons from the outside.

I gained access through the public information office in each state's Department of Corrections. Once permission was granted, I had to contact the warden at each prison. In some cases guards would accompany me on my rounds, in other cases I could proceed unsupervised. In some States I was allowed access to the inside of the prisons, something I had not planned on, but these visits did provide me with useful shots.

"Useful?" Yes, the cinder-block-only death row cell interior contrasted beautifully with the rich apartments seen at the beginning of the film. AND I thought that the viewer's titillation at being led inside death row should be particularly unrewarding and unromantic: broad empty spaces with big fat bars and surly men and too much fluorescent light. When I began shooting the non-death-row prisons, I settled on the idea you mention: that the richness of my "intuitive style (is) battened down by the numbing repetition of…" the environment of incarceration leading to death. So I let Restriction rule, leaving the prisons to stand taxonomically embalmed within titles that reflect nothing but distressingly cold facts: listing the number of inmates awaiting death in each place. This succession could lead, I hope, to questions like,” why these numbers”, and/or, “when will I escape the relentless march of these images?” I mean for the audience to seek escape from the weight of these facts over time, like a prisoner forced to pace (physically, mentally) in his or her cell over the vast tracts of state-regulated time that we seem to be stuck supporting. Is this asking for hope to spring within a structure that offers no hope?

While I was making this film, my father was dying. At first this was not apparent, but in the Spring of 2002 (a year after I began making contact with the prisons) my parents were notified that he had kidney cancer, the disease that would eventually claim his life. At first I wasn't aware that there might be a connection between my choice to make this film about life in the face of death, but over the course of that summer, I served as caretaker to my parents' house while he was either undergoing treatment or in recovery at the hospital, and at that time of intensive reflection on the film and the struggle that was happening close to me I began work on what would become Trauma Victim. This film strengthened the connections between my filmmaking and my particular state of mind/being. The definitive connection came when visiting my parents at a motel. During that visit my father was recovering from surgery, enduring increasing pain, and his recovery (his life) was in jeopardy. They sent me to the pharmacy which was a drive away — too far it seemed for me to make it back with the medication in enough time to be of any use, and I sped shaking like a reckless crazy guy down the road. My fear was palpable, and I was on auto-pilot, I had been reduced to an animal state, reacting with all due impulse and emotion to this situation. A life was at stake.

As my father went through recovery, it seemed that he'd been granted a reprieve — an old story, no (it ended up being more like a ‘stay’)? The months that followed seemed to be good ones for him, but the sense of fear and urgency remained for me. So from that point of view, this personal crisis did not leave me through the further stages of making In Loving Memory. However, I did not imagine that images of my father or any direct references to our family's story would enter into the movie. Apart from that, in spite of their conservative view of things, my parents seemed to be taking an interest in the film because they could see that it was a major priority for me. My father in particular was undergoing a spiritual change that made him much more engaged in the lives and projects of those close to him. It was becoming increasingly easy to fold my work into my life, as far as these connections with my family went. (At this time I was also making an increasing number of short works directly involved with my own life, history and family.)

In November of 2004 I found myself in Arizona, visiting the last of the prisons in a vast dustbowl, as the sun was setting. I had just left the guard station and was losing my light while setting up the tripod for the first shot when my cell phone rang and my father asked how I was doing. I couldn't talk, and he was in physical distress (the cancer had migrated to his lungs). It was a very sad moment for me. I was paralyzed, and saw the bind I was in as an emotional one, a staging ground for my own inability to easily share my feelings and thoughts with him, directly outside the only maximum security prison I'd encountered that had no windows to the outside world. It was then that I realized that our "story" was folded into the imagery I'd been shooting since 2000. When I got home, there was a message on the answering machine, the message from my sister that is the first main piece of vocal material in the film. A week later I made my way down to my parents' house with two short-ends to shoot some of his medication bottles and oxygen machine, as supporting material for some of the shots of one of my actors which included the oxygen tubing (also at the beginning of the film). I still had no thoughts of shooting my father. Before I shot, I helped my father up to the sink, and I could feel a rising terror within me, and I didn't know where it was coming from. He lay back down and seemed glassy-eyed to me, but it was hard to distinguish this as something different from what had come to be his "natural" distressed state. I began shooting, but I hadn't gotten far into it when I realized that I had not taken any footage of Dad for a while and I would just take one unobtrusive shot from the other room. Very soon after that, it was apparent that he was in an accelerated decline, and a nurse was called. Soon after that the ambulance was on its way. The last shot of the roll I'd been shooting was the EMTs lifting him up on the stretcher. I felt this situation was happening out of my control; I was in the car again, speeding to the pharmacy, trembling. I ran into a closet to reload, and that two minute roll should have been light struck because I was in such a state in the closet (another metaphor for my withheld communication/emotions?), and I ran out to film as they led him out of the house and into the ambulance and away, away, away. Can you cry from behind the lens? I could. I went back into the house, both parents gone, and shot the empty bed, and realized that this was the last material I would shoot for this film, and would become the centerpiece. I recalled the voices of the men from Missouri describing their work in the hospice programs at their prisons, and the insights that they'd earned from those experiences, and they came to stand with me there, as I shot the empty bed and the bottles of pills with the name "Todd" on them. I didn't consciously realize that my father would not be returning to this house, but I think I knew that he was nearing his death. I could not really face this. The "facing" of it would come a short time afterward, immediately prior to my sister's wedding when he was there but not there, and I could see in his face all of the connections we shared, communicated or not. I understood that his passing was my passing, and that he would live in this way in this film, the most sacred project in my life. His "role" is spread throughout the film. Through the distress in his life he became (or joined) the Human Face in the film (you never hear his voice...), and it is his world as much as the other participants' that is decaying around him, allowing a kind of clarity of thought and feeling that is sometimes obscured within the riches of our everyday taken-for-granted opulence. I am here expressing the personal side of this film, which is only one side of it for me, yet it is a side which I feel now contributes to its political potency by further wedding my presence to the material, showing the author as more than a casual observer or clever constructor.

Since then I have been more actively incorporating the life around me into my films. Evergreen was a more pointed elegy to my father and the feelings he left behind for me, and the other films have offered transformative views onto my family and the local environments I inhabit.