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Never Not Thinking About Film: A Conversation with Matt Wolf

Militant attention to detail informs the filmmaker's approach to documentaries

July 29, 2019

Less than a mile from the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City sits the Stonewall Inn, ground zero of the riots that preceded the gay liberation movement and current fight for LGBTQIA rights. The erasure and preservation of that history animate Invisible Monuments, a selection of works organized by documentary filmmaker Matt Wolf, one of three guest curators overseeing the Whitney Biennial’s film program this year. Later this week, he’ll showcase newly commissioned and historic works from Sam Green, Barbara Hammer, and film collectives FIERCE and Paper Tiger Television.

The themes that Invisible Monuments address are unlikely to surprise anyone who knows Wolf well. As a teenager growing up in San Jose, California, he was heavily involved in gay activism and figured it was his life work. “I thought that was my path — to do politics and to be involved in gay activism the rest of my life,” Wolf recalled for producer Sophie Finkelstein last month.

But his teenage years also coincided with the rise of New Queer Cinema, and movies by Todd Haynes, Derek Jarman, and Tom Kalin steered Wolf towards film school at NYU. While uninspired by courses that emphasized conventional filmmaking, Wolf began developing a network of collaborators with whom he’s still close.

Indeed, in his last year at NYU, Wolf took a class from filmmaker Kelly Reichardt, the director behind Meek’s Cutoff (2010), Certain Women (2016), and First Cow, which will  be released this fall. She became an important mentor to Wolf, who describes Reichardt as more than “just a teacher. [She] was someone who lived and breathed film in a way that resonated with me.”

While Wolf’s early heroes made narrative films, his own creative arc would swerve from narrative to documentary with the 2008 release of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell. Wolf has since gone on to build a body of work that encompasses feature-length documentaries — Teenage (2014), Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019) — as well as documentary shorts, commercials, and branded content. Finkelstein spoke with him via phone earlier this summer to learn how he got his start, how he decides which subjects to pursue for projects, and the daily work of filmmaking. Their conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Sophie Finkelstein: How did you make the shift into documentaries? The influences you mentioned are all narrative filmmakers.

Matt Wolf: Going to a traditional film school, being inspired by independent films of the ‘90s, and falling in love with experimental films, I assumed that I would make fictional films in an unconventional way. I left school feeling like it was possible for me to create a path that synthesized my interest and was true to who I am. At that time, I thought, “I’m going to make an experimental film about Arthur Russell!” Maybe it’ll be a video installation. Maybe it would be a video record that’s distributed like a DVD, where each chapter is a different song or a different scene.

“I didn’t grow up saying I want to tell stories. I grew up wanting to play with form and to deal with representation in different ways and to do cultural history.”

But as soon as I started interviewing people, I realized I had a knack for this. I love interviewing people. It’s something that I’m really good at and that I’m passionate about. As I continued to film more interviews, the people I was working with said, “You’re making a documentary,” and I said, “No, I’m not. I’m just doing interviews.” Then, slowly but surely, I recognized that I was making a documentary and approached it in a way that was true to my interest in queer cinema and in some experimental approaches to filmmaking.

That film exceeded my own expectations and found its audience around the world. When that happened, I accepted that I am a documentary filmmaker. That is the kind of space in which I can find a life and viable model of being a filmmaker and in which all of my interests can converge.

Sophie: Is that common for you? You go in with one angle, and over the course —

Matt: No, earlier I would often really be attached to this visual approach or conceptual premise, but now as I get more experience as a filmmaker, I start at the place of story. I was really resistant to thinking of myself as a storyteller, even though that’s what I do as a filmmaker. I didn’t grow up saying I want to tell stories. I grew up wanting to play with form and to deal with representation in different ways and to do cultural history.

All those things are still true, but with more experience, I recognize how telling stories in ways that are familiar is a great entry point to do unconventional or experimental things.

Sophie: Does the subject inform what the film becomes?

Matt: It’s really looking at the subject of the film and trying to speak in a language that’s true to that subject or use primary archival material in a way that brings to life someone who isn’t around to represent themselves or a point in time that’s hard for us to understand or see. Each film is different, and it’s a process of problem-solving.

In my new film about Marian Stokes — a woman who recorded television 24 hours a day for 30 years — she’s a very mysterious and elusive figure. There’s limited documentation of her, but the archive she left behind is the biggest clue as to who she was and why she made the choices and pursued the project that she did. So I tried to create a film in which the archive points to Marion, and Marion points back to the archive. That became the language and form of the film: these parallel tracks of the archive and the different uses of the archive and Marion’s story and interweaving them.

Still from Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project

Sophie: With Teenage, you had actors read diaries, right?

Matt: Yeah, for that film, how do I tell this history of youth culture and the birth of teenagers in a way that isn’t academic, that doesn’t just reify the established adult point of view from the historical record? My collaborator John Savage and I recognized that the first-person point of view of young people is that visceral expression of what it means to be teenage. He had an enormous reserve of first-person accounts from young people in different periods, then we developed a script that was a composite of these quotes from young people, that traces the emergence of teenagers through a kind of collective voice of youth.

The goal was what we called a living collage. That was something John observed with punks in the ‘70s. They would take all sorts of clothing from previous youth cultures, like zoot suits, and they would literally cut them up and reassemble them with safety pins. That idea of a living collage — that punk aesthetic — appealed to us in taking these first-person quotes from young people and cutting them up and reassembling them into this collective voice. The same is true of archival material we found: using collage to create a composite picture of what it meant to be part of a youth subculture before the 1950s.

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Sophie: I’m making a documentary about teenagers also —

Matt: Oh, cool. Awesome.

Sophie: — but not about a specific group of them. I was surprised to learn recently that documentaries could be written. Could you talk about the process of writing a documentary versus narrative?

Matt: I don’t think documentaries are necessarily written. That’s terminology some people use, but the raw material of a documentary doesn’t inherently tell a dramatic story. It has to be shaped editorially, and that employs fundamental concepts of storytelling — character development, conflict, setting up ideas that are paid off in different parts of the film.

It’s important for a documentary not to just be about its subject, but to explore bigger ideas that resonate in a larger context. The subject is the kind of prism through which we can see the world at large or some facet of the world at large. The interpretation that’s part of the editorial process in a documentary is making a story bigger than its subject.

Sophie: And how do you find your subjects?

Matt: I’m constantly looking. That’s one of the biggest parts of my job and one of the most challenging because when I’m in the throes of making a film or in post-production, it’s hard to keep one foot in what I call the world of ideas, and to be committed to seeking new material in a way that’s not self-censoring, and to recognize the potential in all sorts of things.

“It’s important for a documentary not to just be about its subject, but to explore bigger ideas that resonate in a larger context.”

But I would say probably 80 percent of the time ideas that I pursue for films don’t work out for issues of access. Not everybody wants to be the subject of a documentary. And now, with the boom in documentaries, there’s so many people who have already been approached or been subjects of documentaries.

I’m mostly on the Internet to seek out stories, but as I make more films, people come to me with ideas. Like any journalist, I have relationships with people that I keep up.

Sophie: How far do you go before finding out about access?

Matt: It depends, but generally speaking, if you’re going to approach somebody with the idea for a film, you need to be educated on their story to make a convincing case about why you might be the filmmaker to do it.

So, before assessing issues of access, there’s a significant amount of homework that I need to do, but I try to assess as quickly as possible what the barriers of entry might be or what the rights-related issues could be. A big part is convincing people that you’re informed, that you understand the story and can be trusted to tell it. I’ll do quite a bit of development research if I take an idea seriously.

Sophie: You seem to jump between shorts and features. How do you determine which format is right for a project?

Matt: I love making shorts. Making shorts is a more immediate creative process in which I’m able to do things quickly and on my own terms, whereas making a feature just involves so many more people and a larger team of producers and funders. There are some things that are a blog post, some that are a New Yorker article, some that are a book, and some that are volumes. It’s not that hard to identify, but there are many questions about subjects and characters existing in accessible archival footage, underlying rights. You generally, as you prepare to make something, have to be realistic about what the length is going to be and should know that in advance.

Sophie: Do you work with the same executive producers for financing, or do you find funding in different places?

Matt: It’s different for each project. Every funder that I’ve worked with has a different mandate or interest. I don’t have one funder who’s backing all the projects that I do. I’ve been fortunate in that, for the most part, most of my films have been funded for single entities, so there’s one primary funder or group of executive producers associated with the project. There’s pluses and minuses to that, but what I appreciate is a smaller team that shares common goals. Sometimes that funding has come together quickly at an early stage of development, but a lot of times it takes a lot of pitching and a patchwork of early support to find that primary funder.

The more adventurous or difficult films are harder to raise money for, so I have to retain flexibility to work in different styles and in different scopes to support various ideas.

Still from Teenage

Sophie: How do you work efficiently when you don’t have funds?

Matt: I won’t work uncompensated because this is what I do as a job, and this is what I do professionally. My compensation is contingent on the budget and scope of a project. It’s really a question of support. Is there a big production company and staff that can support a process so that my focus is on directing? Or am I going to have to take on other responsibilities to create a process that’s as meticulous and thorough as I’d like it to be? Or fill in gaps where there aren’t people dedicated to certain work?

What I really mean is the archival process. I do really robust and complex processes to manage the volume of archival footage that I work with. I’m working on a project now that has support for a team of people, but for the Marion Stokes project, I didn’t have those resources, so I was very hands-on and involved in the process of organizing and dealing with that huge volume of material.

Sophie: Given the stop-and-go nature of fundraising, how long do your films take to make?

Matt: Four to five years. Certain ones have taken one to two years. The most ambitious projects that have been more grassroots or smaller scale have taken up to five years. It’s not something I’m working on full-time, of course, but those multiyear projects — there’s everyday engagement with them. To make a film in one to two years, it’s pretty full-time, if not more than a full-time endeavor.

Sophie: That everyday engagement — tell us how you like to work.

Matt: Well, I’m really anal retentive. I leave no stone unturned. I mean, when I have an archive of everything on television for thirty years, of course there are stones that are unturned, but I don’t like to cut corners. Not everybody is up for that. And the way I like to communicate is robust. Responsiveness is really important to me, so I like to work with collaborators who are as anal and detail-oriented as me, who are good and fast communicators, but who are creatively compatible and who challenge me creatively.

Trailer for Poison by Todd Haynes, who Wolf cites as an influence

Sophie: Do you watch films to prepare for your own projects?

Matt: Not really. I will in terms of references for shooting style or graphics, but in terms of making documentaries, the form of the film comes into focus by the subject matter. I see enough documentaries that I’m familiar with the different approaches people are using, but in terms of actually shaping and informing the film that I’m working on, I don’t typically watch other films. In fact, I kind of deprive myself of seeing films when I’m in a heavy period of production or post-production ‘cause I can’t be overstimulated. I need to just focus on my own thing.

Sophie: Are there times that you shut out other projects, or is that impossible, given how much you’re doing?

Matt: No, it’s necessary. One of the most labor-intensive parts of my job is preparing for interviews. When I’m prepping an interview, I can’t do anything else. I can’t be corresponding; I can’t be having meetings. I need sometimes two weeks to just prep all the interviews for a film uninterrupted. I’m really fighting to silence all the other projects and all the correspondence so that I can focus in a dedicated way. I also need to take days off where I’m doing research or not working, as a way to think. It can’t just be a traditional job. I have to protect my ability to think.

Sophie: When we work for ourselves and the only person we’re taking time off from is ourselves, how do you manage that? How do you tell yourself, “This is vacation”?

Matt: It’s hard when I don’t have a project that’s full time. It’s always a challenge to deal with — what were they called? The fallow periods. That’s the hardest for me. My boundary between life and work is thin, but I also don’t work on the weekends unless I absolutely have to. I work a normal professional schedule from 9:00 to 6:00. Sometimes I’m editing very late, et cetera, but I really try to protect the idea that this is my job. It’s not just my passion; it’s my job. So I try to have boundaries, but yeah, I don’t really ever stop thinking about filmmaking ever.

Sophie Finkelstein is a producer and screenwriter from New York City. She’s worked in independent film for the past decade and has an MFA in screenwriting from Columbia University. She's in development on a number of television shows and features both as writer and producer. She produced the critically lauded The Revival; Rose Troche’s VR piece, If Not Love, which premiered at Sundance; and numerous shorts and music videos. Sophie is also a director for the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival.
Read more by Sophie Finkelstein