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what made you want to become a director?
in 1968, my parents took me to see stanley kubrick's 2001: a space odyssey. i was nine years old, and the experience made an indelible impression. later, i saw the film again during its re-release in 1973. it was then that i decided i wanted to be a film director.

how did you get started?
at the age of fourteen, i started making super-8 films, and i've been making films ever since. i made 16mm short films in high school and later in college. in 1984, i was given the chance to write and direct an independent feature film called static. this film was co-written by keith gordon, who also played the leading role. amanda plummer co-starred. though fondly received by some, it was not considered successful. the film's small, cult-like success in london led to an opportunity to direct my first music video for the band 'the the' in 1986. the finished video was of only passable quality. i considered the experience no more than an experiment and had no further aspirations to continue as a music video director. i spent several years writing various screenplays (including an adaptation of j.g. ballard's novel 'crash'). In 1990, i changed my mind and decided to pursue a career directing videos in earnest. i signed on to be represented by satellite films -- a boutique division of propaganda films. i spent the next decade directing music videos and the occasional tv commercial. during these years, i developed several unusual film projects and attempted to navigate them into production — most prominently, a biographical film about photographer diane arbus. finally, in 2001, i wrote and directed one hour photo. the film starred robin williams and premiered, out of competition, at the 2002 sundance film festival. one hour photo was released by fox searchlight in the fall of that year. currently, i’m represented for videos and tv spots by a company called anonymous content.

what is your advice to aspiring filmmakers?
start making films. the only way to really learn is to do it. if the films you make are daring, sincere, and well-crafted, then they will find an audience. and, if they find an audience, someone in the business will come to you. everyone gets his or her start differently. people need to discover and follow their own unique path. perhaps the best advice on the topic i've ever come across is from
john cassavetes:


  "you have to fight every day to stop censoring yourself. and you never have anyone else to blame when you do. what happens to artists is that it's not that somebody's standing in their way, it's that their own selves are standing in their way. the compromise really isn't how or what you do, the techniques you use, or even the content, but really the compromise is beginning to feel a lack of confidence in your innermost thoughts. and if you don't put these innermost thoughts on the screen then you are looking down on not only your audience but the people you work with, and that's what makes so many people working out there unhappy. these innermost thoughts become less and less a part of you and once you lose them then you don't have anything else. so many people have so much to say and there are so many really worthwhile things to say that it seems impossible that we could cut ourselves off from this whole avenue of enormous excitement."  

from cassavetes on cassavetes
edited by raymond carney
 


did you go to film school? if so, which one?
i was fortunate to attend new trier east -- a progressive public high school north of chicago. new trier offered a four-year film production and theory program. this was a rare thing in the mid-1970's. the instructors were recruited from the art institute of chicago, which was, at that time, a bastion of independent, avant garde cinema. these teachers (kevin dole and peter kingsbury) made the bold decision to expose these very impressionable teenage minds to the work of filmmakers: stan brakhage, maya deren, michael snow, bruce connor, kenneth anger, jordan belson, luis buñuel, jean cocteau, and andy warhol (to name a few). this coincided with a 'golden age' in 1970's commercial cinema, providing me with a wonderful sense of the full spectrum of what cinema could be. later, i attended ithaca college, where i majored in cinema studies. However (perhaps due to my experience with such a uniquely advanced high school film program) my most worthwhile studies at ithaca were in the english, philosophy, art history, and religious studies departments.

is going to film school necessary to become a director?
it depends on the person and the film school. most of the greatest filmmakers, all through film history, never once set foot in a film school. ultimately, the best thing is to start making films. one learns most by doing. nowadays, the ability to shoot and edit digital video affordably is available to most people without the necessity of enrolling in a film school. that said, film school might be worthwhile for you. the good thing about film school, if the opportunity is intelligently utilized, is that it provides the aspiring filmmaker with access to equipment, free labor, and a structured environment in which to watch, discuss, and make films. a competitive camaraderie with other filmmakers can be a fun and useful thing. the bad thing about film school is that it can perpetuate an insular reality where the only experience the artist/filmmaker can draw from is his or her knowledge of other films. also, the instructors can often foster an unhealthy sense that there is only one way to make a good film or that good films must be made a certain way or demonstrate certain attributes. like anything, if a student gathers information, but is ultimately taught to think for himself or herself (and to gain unique access to his or her "innermost thoughts") then film school can be worthwhile. i would strongly urge the aspiring filmmaker to study several other essential subjects: acting, drama, art history, design, architecture, photography, literature, world history, and philosophy. some knowledge of these subjects is essential for any serious filmmaker. generally speaking, great filmmakers make films about some aspect of what it means to be a compelling human being in the world. ...try to become one.

what is the hardest part of crossing over from music video to feature films?
the challenges of making the jump to directing a feature were myriad. the process of casting, rehearsing, and working with the actors on the set was enormously demanding. a successfully rendered music video is most often about nothing more than clever imagery, maybe a special-effects gimmick, and pure energy. with a feature, the decision-making process always involves far subtler degrees of modulation, nuance, subtext, and precision issues of pacing. there is the obvious issue of stamina, which is no small thing. basically, a director is a cheerleader, an orchestrator of talent, and a decision-making machine in overdrive. the director is expected to be decisive and have a strong "vision" for the film (without which the cast and crew's confidence is lost). however, this "vision" must come with comfortable margins to allow for collaboration and the embracing of happy accidents and unexpected opportunities. making the correct decisions as often as possible (i.e. knowing the difference between a fortuitous opportunity and a superficially attractive error in judgment) is critical. having a crystal-clear understanding of the film's "nugget" (its central theme) is essential to making these decisions. without it, you're just making wild guesses. many of these choices are made intellectually. but, staying in touch with your intuition (cassavetes' 'innermost thoughts') is all-important. as stanley kubrick has famously stated, "sometimes the truth of a thing is not so much in the think of it, as in the feel of it." making an interesting feature film is like building a house of cards. there's always the sense that one false move could send the whole thing tumbling to oblivion. the editing - a lengthy, fraught, fascinating odyssey - was a great joy. (the cliché that the film is really made there is indeed true.) i discovered that the relatively placid joy of editing was my reward for surviving the difficulties and off-screen drama of the shoot. i would also add that having made several music videos, i fancied myself somewhat knowledgeable about how images are made to work with music. but, the scoring of a film - putting music to images - turned out to be a complex and humbling process.

which artists inspire you, whom do you draw from?
new artists, photographers, writers, designers, architects, and musicians continually inspire me. however, certain people spring to mind that have been, and will continue to be, a source of perpetual inspiration. in no particular order, these are: stanley kubrick, andrei tarkovsky, ingmar bergman, federico fellini, orson welles, robert altman,
martin scorsese, john cassavetes, hal ashby, alfred hitchcock, stan brakhage, j.d. salinger, ernest hemingway, herman hesse, samuel beckett, william shakespeare, colin wilson, edward gorey, andy warhol, jean michel basquiat, giorgio de chirico, rené magritte, mark rothko, francis bacon, cy twombly, alberto giacometti, pablo picasso, diane arbus, richard avedon, irving penn, david bailey, bruce davidson, joel-peter witkin, william eggelston, danny lyon, robert frank, nick knight, peter saville, chip kidd, bob dylan, john lennon, the beatles, joni mitchell, johnny cash, miles davis, elliott smith, erik satie, ludwig van beethoven, johann sebastian bach, glenn gould, brian eno, leonard cohen, django reinhardt, nick drake, tom waits, david bowie, louis armstrong, nina simone, and many, many others.

do you always work with the same crew?
i've collaborated most often with cinematographers harris savides and jeff cronenweth; production designer tom foden; and editor robert duffy. but, i've had great experiences with many other talented and inspiring producers and craftspeople. (there are credit lists for each video and tv spot on the site.)

can you discuss the "alternate cut" of one hour photo that appeared in pirated form on the internet?
to set the record straight, there never was an "alternate cut" or "director's cut" of one hour photo. fox searchlight -- the studio that financed the film -- in no way urged me to make any editorial changes against my wishes. the version of the film that appeared illegally on the internet was a work-in-progress and nothing more. though perhaps of some interest in their own right, the scenes that were excised from the final theatrical release of the film were deemed extraneous by myself and my editor, jeff ford, during the normal course of editing the film. that said, fox home video has expressed strong interest in releasing a special-edition, double-dvd of one hour photo in 2004. perhaps these "deleted scenes" will be included in that release as supplementary material.

are you accepting applications for interns or assistants?
unfortunately, i am not accepting applications for either position at this time.

can i visit one of your sets?
as much as i'd like to have you swing by, i can't really work effectively with an audience. it's extremely distracting, and it makes me feel like i'm in a zoo.

would you please read my screenplay?
i simply can't read unsolicited screenplays. that said, if you’d like to e-mail me a brief (i repeat, brief) synopsis of your script, i will try to read it.

would you please look at my reel?
to be honest, it’s difficult to find the spare time to do this. it's far preferable for you to e-mail me a web address where i can download a decent quicktime version of your work. i will do my best to find the time to watch it.

of the videos you've directed, which is your favorite?
i'm particularly pleased with beck's 'devil's haircut,' janet jackson's 'got `til it's gone,' and johnny cash's 'hurt'. nine inch nails 'perfect drug' came out pretty well too.

how did you do that camera effect in the 'god gave me everything i want' video?
a custom-made body-camera rig was designed for the shoot by a company called doggicam. this rig was perpetually attached to mick, lenny, and shannyn sossamon. it was fitted with an aaton super-16mm camera and a small flashlight for fill-light. parts of the rig were visible in the some shots (mainly around the performer's waist). these were removed digitally in post-production.

click here for on-set photos of the rig in action: 01 02

what was it like working with michael jackson?
there was a 'confidentiality clause' in my contract, so i'm not allowed to say. (perhaps i wasn't even allowed to say that.) however, i think it's permissible to relate that the experience was rather unique and that michael was a very hard worker.

what are you working on next?
i'm developing several feature film projects.

are there any plans to release a dvd compilation of your music videos?
yes. a comprehensive dvd is currently in production and will appear september 2005. it will be released by palm pictures as part of their 'director's label' series (the same label that released dvd compilations of the work of spike jonze, michel gondry, and chris cunningham). there will be interviews with most -- if not all -- of the artists i've worked with, a full-color fifty page booklet, and an extensive assortment of bonus materials.