Tell us a bit about your background.
I am a writer, filmmaker, and musician. In addition to directing and producing films, I write articles, books, and music and play out when I can. I have produced and worked with a number of well-known musicians including Ani DiFranco and Devo.
Did you always want to be a filmmaker growing up?
When I was little, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I was always deeply curious about the intrinsic philosophical questions regarding existence and assumed that this was the best route for working towards uncovering fundamental truths. When I was finally able to take coursework, I learned that was not the direction the studies were heading. Theoretical physics would have been more appropriate, but schools generally don’t let you just jump into that. I stumbled into film by accident. I was curious about an usual subject – the history and efficacy of trepanation, and figured I should film my research process.
Do you have your own production company?
Yes, Spectacle Films. The name comes from Guy Debord’s “Society of the Spectacle.”
What are some of the challenges about the film industry which the general public may be unaware of?
The biggest challenge is distribution. The decisions over what films should be seen is typically fear based and the messages distributors send are designed to induce neurosis. They only want whatever films are currently in vogue and have a proven track record for success, but they also want something new.
Who are some filmmakers that you look up to?
Film, for me, is a vehicle to express ideas and one should always try to push boundaries. A few that I like are Laura Poitras, Luis Bunuel, and Yorgos Lanthimos.
What advice do you have for up and coming filmmakers?
The two best pieces of advice is to have a deeply compelling reason for making your movie and don’t make propaganda. The biggest cardinal sins I routinely witness are the violation of these precepts. Many people simply want to make a movie, but have no real reason for wanting to do so. Those films take up space. Worse are the filmmakers who have a deeply committed purpose and know what they want to shoot, but will not allow their preconceptions to be altered by a process of discovery or they simply have an agenda. When so-called documentary filmmakers do that, it is inexcusable. Sadly, those films are often the most successful because they are black and white and conform to existing ignorant biases, or they have a corporate tie-in. So the advice about not making propaganda is not founded on economics. If you want to make successful crapfests like “Waiting for Superman” and “Bully” that are devoid of integrity, then you probably stand a better chance of getting rich. Propaganda is an easier sell than something nuanced.
The War on Kids is one of your best known works. Tell us a bit about your inspiration behind making the documentary and what you cover in the film.
I went to public school and found it to be a degrading, demoralizing, and humiliating experience. That said, I went to what is considered one of the best public schools, did well academically, and had plenty of friends, so many others presumably had a worse experience and have no voice. In American society many adults believe that children are sub-human and should be treated that way. Compulsory schooling reflects that arrogant and condescending sentiment. The film was conceived as a human rights statement about a class of people whose oppression is aggressively ignored.
Do you have any current or recently completed projects that you’d like to mention?
I just finished two films. One is about a tribe in the South Pacific that revere America – and for the right reasons. The other is about the Cold War through the lens of Gilligan’s Island.