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Wayne Ewing and the Art of Cinema Verite
Wayne Ewing talks about his new film, "Animals, Whores & Dialogue: Breakfast with Hunter Volume 2"
In this world of shallow news updates produced with little more thought than making advertisers happy, and half-retarded juiceheads claiming fame through "reality television," it can be hard to take the art and craft of journalism and documentary filmmaking seriously. Indeed, when many people 30 and under think of documentaries, they think of "The Real World," a reality that makes filmmakers want to stick their head in a wood chipper.
But all hope is not lost, neither for journalism nor documentary filmmaking. Citizen journalism is pushing the boundaries of established reporting, as more people take the forum seriously as a means to inform, entertain and enlighten the masses. Great documentaries continue to be produced, particularly Animals, Whores, & Dialogue: Breakfast with Hunter Volume 2, Wayne Ewing's newest feature on the late Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
Champion of all things Gonzo, Hunter often lamented the death of real journalism, especially in the age of blogging and sloppy hack reporting aimed to break news before it's properly constructed. Even with his wild reputation of writing pieces at the last minute, keeping editors awake until the wee hours of the morning waiting for his contribution, he took to writing like a true artist. As Ewing shows in his film, Hunter treated his last column - "Hey Rube" for espn.com - as a painter approaches a painting: the letterhead was Thompson's canvas, the placement of words on that sheet just as precise as a stroke of da Vinci's brush.
This film is the first real look at Hunter Thompson in his later years, where he was still a very strong and important writer. All other documentaries about Thompson seem to focus on his early years, and most care more about his Gonzo persona than his actual brilliance as a writer.
It is this artistic, human purity that Ewing captured in his decades of filming Thompson. A follow-up to 2003's Breakfast with Hunter, Animals, Whores & Dialogue gives a deeper understanding of the man who created all that timeless, provocatively insightful prose and journalism that made Hunter Thompson one of America's greatest writers.
The movie revolves around Hunter writing a new segment for "Hey Rube" in 2003, then flashes back to various points in his career and life. Throughout the film, we're reminded that writing and fighting for personal freedom were constantly intertwined for Thompson. Hunter reflects on the lows and highs of the journalism industry, giving us an acumen like nobody else could.
Ewing further shows Thompson as the active citizen, who passionately fought to protect his community. Through writing and everyday life, Hunter's energy would connect with anyone he interacted with, as can be seen in 1995, when he battled to preserve his home turf. Locally, he didn't do this so much through press as he did through organizing neighbors, making them aware on a personal level of the dangers looming with greedy developers looking to decimate the Roaring Fork Valley by expanding the Aspen Airport.
"The issue is ultimately a fight for Aspen's destiny," Hunter says as he prepares to speak to a group of voters.
The interesting thing about all this is, Ewing himself is giving us a testament of human achievement and struggle, in what feels like an unadulterated, genuinely human presentation. Any journalist, writer, or artist who takes their craft seriously strives to produce this kind of offering, a tangible glimpse of human existence not tainted with sensationalism or shallow distractions.
That is what makes Ewing triumph as a filmmaker, and as a socially-conscious artist.
We caught up with Ewing, to talk about his craft, and his new film.
How did you get started in making documentaries? What films made the biggest impact on you?
WAYNE EWING: When I was a senior at Yale in 1969, I went to a screening of documentaries by Richard Leacock and DA Pennebaker at which Richard Leacock appeared and answered questions afterwards. After watching the early cinema verite films they had made including Happy Mother's Day and Police Chiefs and listening to the grand man of cinema verite speak, the light bulb went off inside my head and I knew with certainty that I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. Rather than go to law school as I had planned I applied to the University Texas film school and was accepted as a graduate student. The quality of the teaching there at that time was abysmal, but it gave me access to film equipment and some rudimentary instruction. Besides, there were worse places to hang out than Austin, Texas in 1970.
The most valuable lesson for me during that period was watching Don't Look Back - DA Pennebaker's film about Bob Dylan's 1964 concert tour of England at the UT Film Society and then borrowing the 16mm print and analyzing it frame-by-frame on a rewind table overnight before it had to be returned to the distributor.
What is "cinema verite," and how does it differ from other forms of documentaries?
WE: Cinema verite, aka "observational cinema," flows from the philosophy that the best cinema can sometimes be derived directly from real life rather than recreating reality with actors and a script. Unlike "reality television" which is not about reality at all, but instead false drama created for the camera by amateur actors, the practitioners of cinema verite strive to capture reality while having no effect upon it themselves. Clearly, a camera in the room changes things - the cinematic form of physic's Observer Principle - but with a patient filmmaker with the right personality and a subject fully engaged in some activity, the magic can happen.
The magic is the creation of a film that works on the same principles as narrative cinema but is real rather than staged.
In Don't Look Back, Pennebaker was able to capture many moments of pure verite in the back seats of taxi cabs, hotel rooms, and behind the stage - even though Dylan was anything but a naive subject. I was most gratified when The Hollywood Reporter compared my film Breakfast with Hunter to Don't Look Back in a review which said the scene in which Hunter fights with Alex Cox in the kitchen at Owl Farm rivals the moment where Dylan taunts Donovan in his hotel room in Don't Look Back. It took me almost 20 years of shooting with Hunter to get my scene. Pennebaker was much more efficient given a concert tour with which to frame his film.
Unfortunately, "reality tv" has tarnished reality to the point where it hardly exists anymore in the presence of a camera. You would have to find a lost tribe in the Amazon to film pure cinema verite in our world today. Verite is still possible, but also as rare as that lost tribe these days.
How have documentaries changed since you began making them?
WE: Technology has changed the art of documentaries dramatically over the last fifty years, but the pace of change has become accelerated like a singularity in the last fifteen years. Just as early cinema verite was made possible in the early 1960's by the advent of portable 16mm cameras that could shoot film that synchronized with audio recorded on a separate, yet portable machine (the Nagra), cheap digital video cameras introduced in the mid-nineties, combined with easily accessible computer editing programs, have made it possible for anyone to make a documentary at a reasonable cost.
I started out shooting with Hunter on 16mm film in the mid eighties. To make just an eight-minute pilot, shooting only a few hours of film cost tens of thousands of dollars back then, and not everyone has the skills to be a true cinematographer. Anyone with a just cell phone today is a videographer is they want to be.
Cheap digital video made Breakfast with Hunter possible. After the eighties, I had to abandon shooting film with Hunter due to the cost, and tried to use H-8mm videotape, knowing it would never hold up through the generations it took to make a 35mm print or broadcast master. But, Sony solved that problem with the first cheap DV camera - the DVX1000 - introduced in 1994. Even then you could not edit the material easily, but by 2000 that problem was solved with the first non-linear, consumer grade editing programs and raid drives on which to store the video.
How can one get started in making documentaries?
WE: It's just about as easy, and as hard, as starting to write. All you need is a pencil, or a $200 video camera, and a good idea.
How hard is it to get funding for a documentary in this day and age?
WE: Not any worse then it's always been, which is to say, not easy. The field is crowded, so the trick is to match up your subject with a group or individual that has a particular interest in that area. Even harder than funding is finding a forum in which to release your film once it is made. If you're lucky enough to make it into a festival or two, few films go beyond those screenings. The internet provides an instant forum, and the trick there is to monetize that exposure. The opportunities on the internet are expanding daily. That has been the key to my success distributing my own films (see www.HunterThompsonFilms.com).
How are documentaries and cinema verite evolving in the face of citizen journalism?
WE: Citizen journalism is a tremendous boon to society, but is distinct from cinema verite, just as journalism is distinct from screenwriting. Journalism strives to inform. Cinema, including cinema verite, reaches for art as well.
Do you think true, focused citizen journalism can revitalize the masses' desire to read?
WE: Perhaps, but more importantly, the internet, since it is text-based, makes people read more than ever before. Hopefully, the video revolution on the internet will not lessen that effect.
You worked with Hunter for decades on this footage, right? What kind of input did he have on what you filmed?
WE: I shot with Hunter for about twenty years. I could not have done that unless he trusted me. He knew that I would never film inappropriately. We also shared ownership and control of the material, so he had quite a bit of input and control. We would often watch early cuts of various scenes together, and he loved Breakfast with Hunter when I finally finished it in 2003.
What is the best way to get a subject to relax, and be honest and genuine in front of a camera?
WE: Spend a lot of time with them both without and with your camera, and above all else put your ego aside and truly listen and watch.
At one point in the movie, Hunter says, "What I learned in those days is that almost anything is possible." Do you feel we've lost that notion, or is it still very real and alive?
WE: I am afraid that the 1960's sense that "almost anything is possible," as Hunter said, is long gone. Perhaps that's exactly what Hunter meant when he wrote in Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas about being able to see with the "right kind of eyes" a high water mark outside of Vegas where the wave broke and rolled back. By 1970, Hunter knew that the American Dream was dead. That's what Hunter had been trying to write about ever since Hell's Angels - the death of the American Dream - and he found it in Vegas.
While he was being praised by his colleagues, was Hunter really comfortable with all that high society celebrity treatment?
WE: Hunter often loved the attention and his status as a celebrity, more than most fans would imagine since part of his iconic image was that of an "outsider" who shuns attention. In fact, Hunter was a masterful self-promoter, who even "branded" himself with a trademarked "Gonzo symbol" - the knife and double-thumbed fist - long before Madison Ave. used the term "branding." Mark Twain was a similar self-promoter.
How much more HST footage is there? What are you going to do with it? Will there be another installment of "Breakfast with Hunter," or is this it?
WE: Animals, Whores & Dialogue; Breakfast with Hunter, Volume 2 is certainly the last of the feature-length editions of my Hunter material. There are four films now, and a quartet is enough. But, I still have many smaller pieces to release, including quite a bit about The Rum Diary that I'll be publishing on my podcast in anticipation of the feature film with Johnny Depp which is being released later in 2011. Check out www.HunterThompsonFilms.com/vodcast where I've been writing about life on the road with Hunter the last year or so, combined with video clips, stills, etc. I try to get a new piece up every few weeks.
Has the Roaring Fork Valley gone totally quiet since Hunter left, or are there still occasional primal roars of humanity?
WE: Unfortunately, the greedheads won. The only thing that has stopped the total destruction of life in the Roaring Fork Valley as folks like Hunter once dreamed is the Great Recession.