Originally published on mnartists.org and in access+ENGAGE in July 2006.
WE HAVE BEEN STUNNED BY THE EXPLOSION of talent and innovation
that's emerged in Minnesota in recent years, whether you're talking about web video or traditional big-screen filmmaking. But at the same time, the local audiences for film seem to be evolvingsome would even say
dwindling. We took our questions about the present and future of homegrown film to some news-making filmmakers and one of our favorite arts broadcasters: Ali Selim, writer and director of the buzz-worthy Sweet Land, a favorite at film festivals
(here and across the country); Cristina Cordova and Juan Antonio del Rosario,
creators of the Web video phenomenon Chasing
Windmills; and Euan Kerr, a Minnesota Public Radio news editor and one of
our favorite reporters on the movie beat. The conversation ranged far and widefrom the question of a Minnesotan film scene, to how the medium shapes the
story, to the looming concerns over the future of cinema as we know it.
Q: Have you run into
anything else like Chasing Windmills online?
There are some sitcoms, but nothing like what were doing, really (a daily, serialized fictional narrative).
Ali (to Antonio and Cristina): How do you make it all happen? How do you pay for it? How do you live?
Well, were not really making any money off of this right now. But,
theoretically, something like this could earn money through advertising.
Actually, what were leaning toward is product placement, because we already
have products in there. Chasing
Windmills, because its all about this couples daily life, is full of
Everybodys improvising. Were still figuring out what to do with this new
medium. I see the New York Times multimedia
section changing formats regularly. Everyones trying to figure out How do I
hold the baby? I think itll take a little while for things to settle.
Euan: Do you think it really will settle?
I think a platform will develop eventually. The medium will mature and people
will try various things (and fail) until the Web develops its own conventions,
its own aesthetic.
Weve been going through this discussion at the radio station for going on ten
years. And weve got a much simpler format to deal with than you guys. First,
it was were all going to satellite. And then, No, no,
nope. Its definitely going to be well, maybe not, the Internet. [laughing]
Q: Ali, have you been making
use of the Web?
Sweet Lands website is ultimately for the
film festivalsthey need images, press materials. Its for 75 people really. If
other people come to the site, curiousthats great, heres a JPEG, download it
for whatever you want. What Im really concerned with, though, are getting
butts in seats at the theater. When I dreamed of getting in this business (watching Mary Poppins and Flipper), I was dreaming of getting a
bunch of people in a roomall there to see my movie. Thats what Im working
Q: Will the movie-going
become a boutique experience only for true cinephiles, with the Web and TV
being the preferred method of watching films?
Not at all I think the same people who love their iPods will be saying, You
have to see whats showing down the block. Its great
I agree. I dont think people will want to lose that space. I dont want to lose that space.
Cristina and I were speaking at a conference in San Francisco. We ended up talking about Lawrence of Arabia and screen size. Your
iPods great, but you cant watch Lawrence
of Arabia on your iPod. Heres the perfect visual story: you have that
great scene where Omar Sharif is arriving in the desert. On your iPod, when he
arrives you still cant see him. Between the epic shot and the expanse of the
desert on a screen that size, its just silly. Youre looking at empty space.
And TV has adapted to the screen size, too. Television shows are mostly
dialogue, and theyre mostly close-ups. They figured out that wide shots just
dont work on TV, and they adapted to the medium 50 years ago. Now weve got
these new media formats, and well adapt to these
These different formats offer different experiencesthey do different things.
I actually have all of Sweet Land
on my cell phone screen. Let me get it. [Pulling out the phone and bringing up
the film on its screen.] There you go. All you need is a headset. It goes on
for two hours like that.
Euan:[big laugh] Have you watched it on there yet?
No, I havent. But I gave it to someone at a film festival and he disappeared
with my phone, came back two hours later, and said he loved it. So, I guess he
didnt mind the screen size.
Q: But dont you think he
had a different experience, watching it on the phone, than youd intended?
A totally different experience. But I
think watching it on a screener at home is a totally different experience. Weve
played the movie to sold-out houses (God bless) across the country, and theres
such an energy in the room when you watch the movie that way. People play off each other in a theater; they know its okay to laugh from the others responses. Its a very different experience.
We have to exploit something completely different than that for Chasing Windmills. For one thing, we have to deal with what people think of when they think of a vlog, which is
really me with my camera, showing you, Hey, this is me eating breakfast. Thats
whats out there. We have to work with that. And why are viewers interested in watching
someone eat breakfast? Because its real people. The reason people go to these vlogs and read all this personal stuff is that theyre reaching out, sometimes in weird and
desperate ways for sure, but reaching out all the same for an experience of real people.
giving you that. You can sit there, by yourself, and look through a peephole
into my apartment. Its fictitious, but were creating that
illusion for you. On that small screen of your computer, you want something
intimate. You want to be alone. Its
not a joint experience, its a private one. Its almost dirty. Youre looking
in on someones raw lifeon the toilet, having sex, having arguments, personal
conversations. What we show people is really kind of ugly. Its pretty dark
I were making something for the big screen, I would never make that. You need
to think about the medium youre using. You cant just take content intended
for TV or movies and throw it on the Web. Its demeaning to the content. We had
a showing a while back, where a few of episodes of Chasing Windmills were shown on the big screen. I wanted to run and
hide under a table. It was horrible it
was just awful. The images were never meant to occupy such a large space. Chasing Windmills is Web videowere not
intending to create a big-screen film.
You can shoot a film with your hand-held camera and not follow any rules of the
medium. And you can project it onto a wall. You can even call it a film. But
youre not going to be using the aesthetics that work in that medium. And that does affect the story. On the Web, each
of our episodes needs to be self-contained. They need to exist by
themselveswith a beginning, middle, and end. There has to be some sort of
closure to each one. Its a series, and each part needs to move the story
forward, but the Web requires instant gratification. Theres got to be some
sort of gag, something that holds it
Im really intrigued by the question of where the audience is going. Im
concerned about cultural literacy. You can fit lots of references into your
work, but if the audience doesnt get it when its for naught If nobodys
reading Moby Dick anymore, and if
they havent seen Gregory Peck, is it just going to be lost? [pause] I went to see Pirates
of the Caribbean with my son this week, and was infuriated by it. First of
all, it seemed to just lift things from other moviesfor two and a half
hoursand there was a gimmick where the guys face moved around like an
octopus, but there was no story.
Its nice that it could infuriate you. I slept. [laughing]
I keep hearing that people love it, but theres no story there. And when you make it to the end, you find out its
not even really the end. "By the way, come back next Memorial Day for the rest
of the story. The fact that people arent furious about that worries me.
now that Sweet Land has been received
so well, and youre thinking of making more movies, does Euans concern about
audience expectations worry you, too? Do you worry that the audience for
thoughtful films is dwindling?
[pause] From where I sit, my job is really to focus on
the story I want to tell and how to tell it well. Then I have to trust the
storyand that it will resonate with people, find its audience. If I start
worrying too much about making what people will like Id probably just end up making Pirates of the Caribbean. [Everyone laughs] People ultimately want a good
story, well told. But, I think Alex and Malcolm [Ali's son and Euan's son respectively] might
think Pirates of the Caribbean is a
good storythe standards for that, the expectations of what that is, are based
around something different [more visual excitement.]
Q: Do you think the answer
will lie in niche filmmaking?
Thats happening already. There are all kinds of different cinematic
experiences to be had, depending on what youre looking for. And, really,
fragmentation of the market is the best thing that can happen to writers. Fewer
multi-million dollar payouts, but more writers will be able to live
comfortable, middle-class lives making a living at it. The best thing about the
Web is that you can harness an audience internationally who, collectively,
could ultimately mean a significant market for your work. All of a sudden, lots
of filmmakers who couldnt make it in the current system, actually have a shot
at doing something profitable. Youre talking about a whole new medium, where
filmmaking becomes like painting.
The downside of this though, is that with a lot of people making movies, a lot
of them are going to be just terrible. Its tough for the consumer to wade
through them. I wonder if it really would be easier to break in and get
noticed. You can make movies, but will anyone watch them?
I think theres a tight, pretty incestuous group of people on the Web who
really check out what people are coming out with. When they saw Chasing Windmills, they loved it and
wrote about it on their pages, and linked to it. I think our audience found us
that way, by turning to those people as a way of wading through the traffic. It
got around in ripples like thatand since theres really nothing else like it,
people have been all the more enthusiastic about what were doing. Im not sure
about all the reasons why, but Chasing
Windmills got attention.
Q: When it all shakes out,
do you think people will still go out and see movies in a theater?
I dont like going to the movies. I end up uncomfortable. Ill undoubtedly have
to pee in the fourth act, so Im always missing a chunk of the important part
of the film. I find it an increasingly unpleasant experience. And, God forbid, I
get someone laughing in the wrong place, or talking. Then Im just miserable.
Most of the time, Im more comfortable watching movies at home, and with bigger
and bigger TV sets and better sound and all these things that can simulate the
theatrical experience Im not a teenager and I dont need to get away from my
parents. Id just rather watch from homegoing to the theater loses out to that
most of the time.
Theres something else going on, too. When I go to the movies and after sitting
through that discomfort, Im mostly disappointed. I end up just frustrated.
Most of the movies that I see that I really like, I end up renting, either
because I didnt make it to the theater in time or didnt know to look for it.
Im sure if Id made it to the theater to see Munich or Syriana
I would have gone home pleased. Unfortunately, the last movies I made it to
the theater to see were big Hollywood
pictures. And afterwards, I just ask myself, Why do I still do this? I have
problems with my lower back, and its painful. [aughing]
Maybe if I just picked the right movies
to see in the theater But how do you know?
Cristina makes a good point. If the last ten films people saw in the theater
changed their livesif the movies really mattered to themtheyll keep going to
the movies. If they make the effort to go out to a theater and theyre
consistently disappointed, theyll stop coming. I think there are lots of
things to do besides go to the moviesit really comes down to the story.
Filmmakers need to do their jobs well, focus on telling their stories the best
they can. If they do that, I believe the audience will be there. But it has to
be worth it.
Q: What do you make of the
troubles the Oak Street Cinemas been having? Beyond sentimentality, is there a
real film community ready to actively support cinema in town?
I wonder if there really is a Minnesotan film scene. I think there may have
seemed to be some kind of cohesive scene in the past,
because people would get together to make a movie (even if it was Jingle All the Way or some monstrosity
like that) and theyd meet and talk about what they were doing. Then theyd
make enough money to go off for three months and make something worthwhile. Now,
I dont know if there really is a film community here
I think its great that people arguing for it and trying to save it, but at the
end of the day, theyre not really showing up to watch movies there. Nostalgia
I think it goes beyond just nostalgia. Its about wanting
to preserve somethingeven if youre not really using itbecause it is important. I followed the whole
situation online and in print, but I didnt show up to watch films or go to the
meetings. Antonio, I dont think weve been to the Oak Street once to see a movie since last
August. And film is important to us. But even though weve not really done our
part to support it, its valuable to me to know that it exists.
Its unfortunate, but there it is. I love that there has been someplace where I
can go and see Birth of a Nation on
the big screen. Its a hell of a luxury, and I want it. But are there enough
people who are going to show up for enough pictures there to pay for keeping it
When we first moved here, we went straight to IFP Minnesota. We paid our dues,
joined up, and offered to volunteer our time But its amounted to nothing
really. On the other hand, when our work was shown at the Bryant Lake Bowl and as
word has spread about it online, all kinds of people came out of the woodwork.
There has been an incredibly supportive community of people to emerge, even offering
the use of equipment. But its not organized through anything like IFP. The support weve gotten has developed out of
relationships from people whove seen the series and spread the word. I do
think there are people looking to create a communitytheyve just not organized
I do really appreciate the fact that here, instead of talking about creating something, I get the feeling that all kinds
of people are just quietly doing it.
A ton of really talented people in Minnesota are devoting themselves seriously to telling stories. There is far more respect
and encouragement for the independent voice herean encouragement to find your
own voice and your own rhythm and to do that. And thats unique about the
creative environment here. Nobodys looking at you, you dont need to posture
or talk about itjust shut up and find a quiet corner to work. Do something.
Special Features Section:
Media Recommendations from Euan, Ali, Cristina, and Juan Antonio
I was handed a copy of href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0193171/">A Sunday in Hell, Id never
heard of it. Its about a bike race, a foreign film from the 70s. Beautiful,
French agricultural trailsits an amazing story. Its not even really about
bike racingits much more than that. I loved it.
Its one of my favorite movies. Its scored with a mournful cello throughout amazing. Just a wonderful film.
Also, href="http://www.roadtoguantanamomovie.com/"> Road to Guantanamo. Its just come out, and I think people should see it
just so they can talk about it. The movie centers around interviews with three
British guys who did some really stupid things and ended up in Afghanistan on
a lark. They were arrested, almost got themselves killed, and finally were
shipped to Guantanamo. Michael
Winterbottom, the director, intersperses those interviews with recreations and
actual footage shot from what was going on in Kandahar. The films manipulative and really,
really effective. [laughing] I finally saw href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055032/">Jules et
Jim which is out on DVD. Thats also an incredible piece of
film, and the extras on the DVD are really good.
I keep rereading href="http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0486425576/sr=8-2/qid=1152829023/ref=pd...">The
Art of War.
Hes trying to internalize it. [laughing]
Its true, I am. But Im finding that as I read it, it calms me down. So
theres that. And heres a film thats affected me latelybut its not good. I
watched Spielbergs href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0408306/">Munich recently, and I
became enraged. Spielberg is really a master of his craft now, and its cool to
see his mature work. But I came out of the film feeling almost like I had
watched something as bad as a Nazi propaganda film. Its very effective, but
under the surface the message is horrible. In Munichthe Jewish people get the luxury of a
guilty conscience, and the Palestinians dont. So, what am I walking away from
here? The Jew is human dealing with real internal conflict, and the Palestinian
is an animal without a conscience.
I dont think I would have had such a violent reaction, but I watched Spielbergs
introduction to the DVD (which in itself is a pretty pompous thing to include)
and that killed it for me. He said something I think all of us as filmmakers
can agree with, The only tool you have as a filmmaker is empathy. He said
that he was really just trying to empathize with what its like to do something
and have to live with the consequences, to understand. So, Im with him at the
beginning, my hopes are up. And then I saw the film. What happened? What a
pontificating in my head, Im chain smoking, and I cant stop thinking about
it. But there were all these things I
really liked about the film too, so its not that simple. Its been a long time
since a movie has really gotten under my skin this way, so thats something. As
a viewer, I felt cheated. Some day, Ill tell you about my reaction to Saving Private Ryan
href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0053619/">LAvventura. Its the most
beautiful use of silence that Ive ever seen anywhere. Theres a vlog called 90
Seconds of Dave. He did a href="http://davemedia.blogspot.com/2005/01/lorem-ipsum.html">narrative series,
15 episodes, and I think its absolutely beautiful, its art. I love the
way he mixes mediavideo, images, text. Its just beautifully done.
I really liked href="http://www.manpushcartmovie.com/synopsis.html">Man Push Cart. And
I liked href="http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0423310/">The Syrian Bridethey took
this horrible Middle Eastern crisis and made something really human out of it.
I appreciated that.