Ad Folks Take Tribeca

By Published on .

Three filmmakers with strong ties to the ad industry made their mark at New York's sixth annual Tribeca Film Festival, April 26-May 6. Version2 editor Sloane Klevin's first foray into feature documentary territory, Taxi to the Dark Side, won the festival's Best Documentary award. Directed by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), the film uses the death of an Afghan taxi driver as a starting point for a more in-depth examination of American torture policy and the treatment of prisoners captured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bent Image Lab co-founder and director Chel White's Wind, featuring time-lapse nature photography and a narration by Alec Baldwin, was among the selections in the SOS Short Films Program—part of the SOS eco-awareness initiative (see p. 6) —which opened the festival. Some 60 filmmakers were commissioned for the project, with nine chosen to appear at the festival. White's film, along with the others, will also play at the Live Earth global concert series, set for July 7 in cities around the world.

Finally, Deutsch/New York producer and in-house director Jeffrey Morgan directed, edited and co-produced the documentary Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence. The film, Morgan's first feature documentary, traces New Yorker Alice Brewton-Hurwitz's search to find the truth behind the rape and murder of her great-great aunt in Florida in 1908, which uncovers the family's shocking secret of potential racially charged mass murder.

Filmmaker Q&As
Sloane Klevin: Taxi to the Dark Side
How did you get involved?
Sloane Klevin: I had edited for Alex before, doing some additional editing for him in The Blues series. He had asked me to cut three other documentary features for him and the first one was a re-edit of Martin Scorcese's part of The Blues series and I was under contract at another company and wasn't allowed to leave to do a movie. Then he asked me to cut Enron and I was in the same situation. Finally, my contract ended and I went to Version2, where I have a great situation in that I can leave to do movies whenever I want. When he came to pitch this story, I got chills. I knew very little about what was going on because, frankly, I avoided this topic because I thought it was too hard for me to take. So most of this was completely new to me, I mean I knew it was going on but I didn't want to know. But he just told me about the sotyr so well, and let's face it, he was nominated for an Oscar for Enron and if I turned him down again, I figured I'd never get asked again.
What are some other differences you found working on a feature doc as opposed to feature?
Well, the first thing that really struck me was that when you work on a narrative feature, on the first day you have dailies to work on and you have a script so you can immediately start cutting. You have the day's scenes and you know where the story's headed so you know where everything's supposed to go within the story. On a documentary, at least this film, you can't follow around the interrogators and see what they're doing and you can't go inside any of the prisons so it's mostly based on interviews and meticulous research to find imagery that supports these interviews. I spent the first three and a half weeks just watching 60 or 70 hours of interviews and logging all the interesting things, taking notes on different subjects and figuring out the different chapters this film could have. I couldn't start cutting anything until I had seen everything. The more I watched, the more I realized how many layers this story had. So after those three weeks, one of our producers called and wanted a trialer cut for German television. The first thing I did was cut a trailer, and from that we realized how we could start the film. And once you have the first few sequences it starts to become more logical where you go next. The structure changed a lot, the first assembly was something like two hours and 40 minutes and the final film is an hour shorter than that.
The story actually changed while we were editing. The Supreme Court Hamdan case (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld), was being decided so we thought that would be historic and important so we had a big long section on it. But then it came about that the Supreme Court changed nothing and Bush just made a new law that overturned the Supreme Court decision, so Hamdan just became a blip in the film. And this Military Commisions part became much larger. And then there was the McCain amendment, which we thought was important, but it turned out it changed nothing so it was cut down to a blip. Actually, when the Hamdan case first came out we thought it might make our film more of a historical piece because GTMO would be shut down, all the secret prisons would be shut down and everyone would be following the Geneva Convention and all the torture would stop. But none of that happened.
How long did it take to make the film?
I started on the film last June. But Alex had probably been researching and shooting for about a year by then. Then we spent about five months cutting and got to a place where we thought we were locked. That was good because it gave me a break from the seven-day-a-week schedule and a chance to go back to Version2 for a month to do some commercial work. But it was also good because we thought we were done but when Alex showed it to audiences we found it was a bit too long. A film about torture is hard to sit through and if it's past a certain length, it's torture to sit through. So a lot of the feedback was it was just too exhausting and we needed to go back to the cutting room.
Director Alex Gibney said it was a difficult film about a tough subject – did you find that and how did you approach it?
I did get some nightmares while doing this film. I think if I didn't live with my boyfriend I would've sunk into a terrible abyss. I was in a dark place and he kept me out of it. But it's stranage, you become desensitized to it because you have to. There were certain images I couldn't put in the film because they were too horrifying and everytime I would go through my selects of the Abu Ghraib images I would get sick, so there were things you never get desensitized to. It was a difficult to work on emotionally but it was also difficult because this isn't a film about elephants in Africa, because you can't show what you're talking about. We have footage of a lot of arrests but after that you'll never see those people again (because) you're not allowed inside Bagram prison or other prisons in Kandahar, GTMO and wherever the hell else. All the inside images we have are photos taken by the military and we got our hands on them through people inside the government who are concerned about this issue so they leaked us classified military investigation files. We weren't supposed to have many of the images we had but people who wanted to help leaked them to us. But for a long time it didn't look like we were going to have any visuals. So it was difficult because film is a visual medium and it's almost impossible to get imagery of this stuff. So we had to be creative with what we could show and how we did show it. Luckily, I work in advertising and (with Version2's) graphic design and visual effects departments and they decided to help us out. So it was a hard film to make on a lot of levels. But it's been gratifying to see how affected people are by it. The (Tribeca) premiere was the first time I saw it on a big screen and it actually looked quite beautiful. In the end it was all worth it but it was very difficult. Now it'll be nice to do something lighter, with lots of footage of light and pretty things.

Chel White: Wind
How did you get involved in the SOS initiative?
Chel White: An old friend of mine, Dilly Gent, (who got White involved with Thom Yorke, which resulted in the "Harrowdown Hill" video this year), calls me from time to time about various projects. So she called me about this back in March and said, "Hey, I'm producing a bunch of these shorts and I think you'd be perfect." So I started kicking around ideas, and I thought we had until June to make these, I wasn't in a huge hurry and just let things percolate. I had two very different ideas – one was a stop-motion puppet concept and the other was to work with my longtime friend and DP Mark Eifert who does a side thing shooting this amazing time lapse photography. I ended up going with the latter because I thought it addressed the topic of global climate change better. I had a lot of trouble addressing it in stop motion with characters in a way that didn't come off didactic or insincere. It was difficult to find that middle ground. Once I heard we wanted these films for Tribeca I knew we really had to hustle because by that time we only had about a month to do it.
So once I decided on time lapse, I needed something to be the anchor that everything that I could frame everything else around and for me it was this poem that is one of my favorites by Antonio Machado called "The Wind One Brilliant Day." I had been thinking about it and decided this was a perfect allegory for global climate change and lack of planet stewardship that has brought us to this point where we're facing the most significant problem in human history.
Being tied to a cause like global warming, did you actively avoid being preachy?
Yeah, I definitely didn't want to go there and as much as An Inconvenient Truth is a great film and communicates a lot of great information, I knew I didn't want to go there, either. I didn't want it to be a list of what the problems are, I wanted it to go into a territory that was not only poetic but also emotional. Something that has a journey and arc to it where we start in the innocence of nature – nature isn't really innocent but there is a certain human naivete in our relationship with nature and for all of human historyit's been a battle to figure out how to exploit nature to get to this point. Now we're at a very different turning point where we have to completely change our thinking or we're not going to survive. The topic of global warming is extremely difficult. As human beings we did a great job at stopping the ozone crisis, which is encouraging but global warming is 100 times more difficult.
It was a really great project for me in many ways. There was complete creative freedom. There were a couple small things the Live Earth organization wanted to see but we were on the same page. Having this amazing creative freedom but having it be a commissioned project, doing something for a wonderful cause is something that makes you feel really good about what you're doing.
How much is original footage versus stock? And CG versus just time-lapse?
About 80 percent of it was time lapse. There were a handful of stock shots that weren't time lapse – the shot at the beginning, pulling back from the glacier and the footage from the first Iraq war is obviously stock. But almost everything else is original. There's a shot of my daughter planting a tree at the end and that's the last thing we shot for the film. We also added some (CG) elements to some of the shots, like the water spilling over the highway and filling the street in Shanghai.
What music did you use for the soundtrack?
It's an old piece by Tchaikovsky that I had an orchestrated version that I bought. But I thought it worked well to have the piece go up to about halfway then have the poem, then hear the piece again on solo piano.
How did Alec Baldwin get involved?
Well, I did some research into which celebrities involved in environmental causes. There are obvious ones like Robert Redford, but who else? And in my research Alec Baldwin came up. At first we heard he was interested but then we didn't hear back, but then we heard again from his agent and lo and behold he did come through and gave us some really nice reads. The one I used was the most restrained of the stuff he gave us.
What was the biggest challenge of this project?
I think it was fitting the project into four weeks. But really that was it. Other than that it really felt like a project that was blessed from the beginning. Everything fell into place – I got the pianist I wanted, the narrator I wanted. And one thing that was interesting, and I think high up on the blessing chart, is that one point we had discussed doing text in the middle with the poem because I didn't really have another idea for that. But I kept kind of searching for something better but also kept putting it off. Then these bees showed up in my backyard. It was almost as if they came to be in the film because the day after we shot them on HD video they were gone. There were hundreds of them on one of our bushes and then they were gone. It was really incredible this happened because for me it ended up being the perfect image to go with the poem.

Jeffrey Morgan: Lillie & Leander: A Legacy of Violence
How did you meet Alice and what drew you to get involved in this project?
Jeffrey Morgan: Actually the project just sort of fell in my lap back in 2002. I had been out of school for a few years and one of my directing instructors from NYU film school called me up and told me I should meet this woman Alice who worked in the administration department at Tisch. So we met and she had some home video footage, and I had originally signed on to do some editing because I needed the money. So she showed me this footage of her 96-year-old great uncle, where he basically said the family had murdered black men for years and years and buried them under a walnut tree in Florida. I was just blown away by the story . But not much happened with the project for a while and then in the fall of 2004 she was looking for a director because the story had progressed and the state attorney's office in Florida was going to investigate and try to find the bodies, so I said let's do it and signed on to direct. So we paired up, pulled out our credit cards and headed to Florida.
What were some surprises along the way?
That was one of the crazy things because I didn't know what to expect. I had never done a feature documentary before, I had only worked in narrative and short films. So it kind of scared me at first but I think if something like this scares you, you should do it. But there were a lot of twists and turns. I'd say one of the surprises was some of the racist attitudes that still prevail. I didn't expect people to talk like that so blatantly on camera. One guy who was the unoffical mayor of this small town was really pissed calling us 'damn Yankees' and said we were sticking our noses where they didn't belong.
Why do you think this story is important?
The intention of the film to let eveyone speak there minds. I try to refrain from pointing the finger at anyone even if I didn't agree with what they were saying. I wanted the audience to decide and hopefully use it as a springboard for discussions about race and hopefully get some good from it. There's just so many stories like this just sitting with these families getting passed down from generation to generation and not doing any good. I found the African-Americans and the whites in that area were still very separate.
It's cool though, just a couple days ago we were invited to open the Pensacola Film Festival and they want to show it in the plaza where the original lynching in our story took place and make it a real public event. It's exciting, it gave me the chills when I read that email.
Did you meet any resistance?
Yeah, it would get a bit intense. Usually we were always with the police for the investigation. But a few times we'd see some guys sitting off in the bushes in a pick-up truck just watching us, so that was a bit... I have a wild imagination.
Which was more daunting a task, the directing or the editing?
The editing was intense and was definitely one of the hardest things I've cut. We had 170 hours of footage so it was pretty daunting. The final film is 80 minutes and I cut it at home and here at Deutsch.
Was it difficult for Alice to hear all this about her family?
Yeah, I think that's why the project stalled for a few years because she wasn't sure what to do with the information. She had family in the local police so should she go to the police? Alice lives in New York but her mother had also been sick and still lived down there so maybe she wanted to spare her of that so she knew it would be a tough thing. And there are family members who won't speak to her.
What's next?
Well, depending on what happens, I may keep following this story. It's so rich, I may keep going.
Most Popular
In this article: