The production team for ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: Lucia Small, Ed Pincus, and Mary Kerr
When Ed Pincus was diagnosed with a terminal illness, he and former collaborator Lucia Small teamed up to make one last film. Told from two points of view, ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM (working title) offers a unique, raw, personal glimpse into their complicated relationship and the difficulty of capturing the preciousness of life as it's fleeting. Their team, including Producer Mary Kerr, visited the Sundance Story & Edit Lab this summer and is now preparing to travel to Independent Film Week (September 15 – 19) where the film is featured in this year’s SPOTLIGHT ON DOCUMENTARIES. LEF Program Director Sara Archambault caught up with the filmmakers, who received LEF grant support for this film at the production and post-production stages, to discuss their process, the nature of collaboration, and the influence of labs and markets on their progress.
SA: Please tell me a bit about the film and where you are in production.
Mary Kerr (MK): Lucia and Ed are working on the final edit with the goal of locking picture in the next couple of months. We’re preparing for the online process, discussing festival strategy, and finessing the promotional materials. We recently came up with the idea to have a virtual work-in-progress screening since Ed and Lucia’s circumstances and remote location make it difficult to stage one in Vermont. We’re making an “event” of it - soliciting non-film industry people who don’t know Ed and Lucia to watch the film on Vimeo, for one night only! We want to instill in our focus group how important this stage of the filmmaking process is (and their part in it), and that we need their absolute honest feedback. It’s no surprise that with such a personal film, many elements of the story which are so clear to the filmmaking team, can be confusing to the public.
Ed Pincus (EP): Film is a very public medium and this is a very private film. Right now we are in the delicate balancing act between the film that we want to create and a film that is accessible to a public audience. There are always growing pains in this stage, especially when you bring it out into the world.
Lucia Small (LS): When Ed was diagnosed with Parkinson's, I began to prepare for some form of loss, but I thought I had years. Then two years ago, when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, it felt like time was spinning out of control. When you know a loved one is sick and ill and has been given a death sentence, is it possible to live more intensely, more richly? Do you sit up and pay attention more? This is some of the emotionally territory I wanted to explore with this film. I think that the dreary, sad subject of death can somehow become less dreary as it verges on the absurd. Though it will be sad, there is a lot of room for laughter in this film.
SA: Creative collaboration can be both an inspiring and difficult process. Can you speak a bit about how you all work together?
EP: During the editing of THE AXE IN THE ATTIC, we started by going over every cut together. Towards the end of the edit, Lucia would often work alone weaving the various elements of the film together. We would review the work together. I remember one fine cut where it all came together for me. Since I had had little to no participation with that particular fine cut, it felt a lot like the elves had come at night and done beautiful work. During the editing of THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM it has been more hectic. Lucia is the primary editor and there is an attempt to get two distinct voices in the film. This has led to many more disagreements than happened on the AXE. The worst of these seem to have ultimately moved us along in the creative process.
LS: Isn't it convenient how time erases memory…and some of the harder parts of the edit with AXE? (both laugh) I was nearly having a nervous breakdown during the AXE edit. I think it was about the experiments we were undertaking with form -- about integrating our characters in a social issue documentary, not about the edit per se. It was also about living and working on Ed and Jane's farm for a year and the demands of production and budget constraints.
EP: During shooting AXE, I remember more of our arguments on the road, about point of view. We both feared it would happen again in the editing room but it was a surprise for both of us how well we creatively worked together.
LS: I think the tension that exists between us makes us a stronger creative team. We push each other. With ELEPHANT, Ed’s illness has impacted our collaboration in ways that are layered. Ed’s ailing health has helped clarify and add perspective to our creative differences, but it has also created some real anxiety. There has been a unique pressing timeline for this film, and we sometimes wondered if Ed would even be able to participate in the edit.
There is always a pressing deadline; we didn’t even know if Ed would survive the shoot, let alone the edit.
So much of the process of this film has happened out of turn – we started writing voiceover earlier than we normally would – especially Ed’s voiceover. Our back and forth from VT to NYC for almost a year, and shooting and editing simultaneously -- all of this has been tricky to balance, which is why I decided to move up to VT.
Having an opportunity to remedy some of our previous difficulties with my POV vs. Ed’s POV in our films has been a real gift. Perhaps, I am more confident as an editor this time. I also think that Ed and I have established a deep trust. When things get tense and we are working things out, 9 out of 10 times, the conflicts help us produce better work.
EP: Well maybe 8 out of 10 (both laugh).
SA: Your film involves some passing of the camera back and forth between you. The level of trust in this collaboration is not just in each other's vision for the project or in the concept, but in your shooting styles and how they work together. Can you speak a bit about the visual strategy for the film and how you work as shooters together?
LS: The whole concept of the film was that we were going to address some emotionally complicated, intimate issues from two points of view. We actually each had our own camera to shoot with – the Lumix GH2 which is a DSLR-like camera, but much smaller than the typical DSLR. We each wanted our own camera because even though they were identical we found we had slightly different adjustments with the lens, zoom, focus - tiny little settings that made it difficult for us to just swap cameras; we were also in different locations. So our cameras became our individual points of view.
EP: We were using small cameras that you could view through a flip screen or the viewfinder. I filmed with the flip screen whereas Lucia filmed looking through the viewfinder. This becomes interesting in the footage itself because it looks as I am looking directly at her – Errol Morris’s Interrotron on the cheap.
LS: It’s true. When Ed is filming me, he’s about three inches from the lens so I’m looking at him and not directly into the camera lens. Whereas when I film Ed, he is literally looking into the camera lens, into my eyes, into the viewers eyes. I think this helps create a heightened intimacy with the film.
EP: Though we often used only one camera because having two cameras would have inhibited the flow of conversation – many of which were spur of the moment.
LS: These are cases where we do pass the camera back and forth, but they are in more casual settings when these personal preferences weren’t so important.
EP: There is a fluidity for the viewer when you do not always know who is shooting. That is what is interesting. You both know and you don’t know - and at a certain point it doesn’t matter who is filming. It is almost like the vision of the film merges into one. I think the viewer does not want to know. Knowing is like a distancing device. So if the viewer is not being banged on the head, they just are getting into what’s being filmed.
LS: Ed historically has been a cinema vérité filmmaker. He has said that part of that is becoming one with the camera and being able to move without thinking. His movements are ingrained in his body.
EP: There’s a particular skill that you get if you are a cinematographer and an editor, where your footage becomes easier to edit, within a sequence. You edit while you’re shooting. It’s different than getting coverage or getting cut-aways, which we both try to avoid.
LS: Ed’s physical limitations – camera weight, steadiness, and ability to travel -- brought a whole new dimension to his role as cinematographer. It compelled him to use the tripod, something he rarely did in the past. He filmed landscape, and, as a result, he has produced some of the most beautiful imagery in this film. On the flip side, it opened the possibility for me to share in the role of principal cinematographer, something I had never done before and I fell in love with the camera.
EP: Lucia was exulting in the moveable camera. To grossly exaggerate, I found my vision in what was in front of me, whereas Lucia was able to go to where things were. It does create two visual styles, adding another dimension to the narrative.
SA: You recently attended the Sundance Edit and Story Lab in support of this project. Can you tell me about how that experience helped you in your process?
MK: The Sundance experience was intense on many levels. I personally was looking forward to a week-long retreat in the edit room - where budgets and contracts and production meetings would be held at bay. I soon realized though that we were not there to edit the actual film, per se. Sundance’s mission with this lab is to foster experimentation – to turn your film upside down and inside out. The first few days, there were many interruptions – presentations in the screening room, impromptu visits from the advisors, and even “mandatory” meals; but then it hit me that this was an important part of the process. The labs are there to make you think, not necessarily cut.
LS: When Sundance invited us to participate in the labs, they were extremely sensitive and conscientious about our situation -- Ed not being able to travel and participate in person. Sundance understood the difficulty in our trying to evaluate how having one director working from afar would impact the process. Both Ed and I felt that the labs would offer a critical step in the editing of this film, so we decided to experiment with "a virtual lab"...and skype Ed in.
EP: I was unable to go to the Labs because of my medical condition, so there are two distinctly different experiences, mine vs. Lucia and Mary’s. I was often Skyped into conversations and enjoyed that, even though it was hard to feel I was a productive part of the process. Prep for the lab obviously took time and energy, and for me, I wondered if we lost valuable weeks of editing time.
LS: As the editor and co-director, I think our being involved in the lab actually accelerated the edit by 3 - 4 weeks. I had to get the film into a shape that probably would have never happened in that kind of accelerated speed. Having an outside group -- that wasn't that close to the story -- look at this film at this critical stage ultimately saved us weeks in the editing. I was grateful that we went exactly when we did. Until Sundance, we had prioritized Ed's VO due to his illness, ...we didn't know how long we would have and so we wanted to have a "fail safe plan"...So, my VO, and even my voice in the film, hadn't been worked out as thoroughly as Ed’s. It was a huge help to step outside of the Vermont edit room and be around different creative energies in order for me to work on my voice in the film.
EP: I agree that the deadline made us work harder – but I still feel sending in the materials, Lucia being away for 8 or 9 days, and her decompression afterwards took more time away from the edit than it merited. The Skype discussion after our first screening was nice for the ego though. And I thought it was a great experience for Lucia and Mary and I was totally supportive of that.
LS: We knew we needed to get out of VT to show the film to editors and filmmakers who didn't know our story, and this was the ideal setting. Ed and I both thought that our next big hurdle in the edit was further developing my "voice," which was the main feedback we received after we screened our 100 min. cut. I appreciated being able to work on this issue in that environment. The lab often says that the time spent there is not necessarily about getting a lot of cutting done but rather carving out a space and time for thinking and processing -- a rarity when you're working under a deadline.
A highlight for me included hearing from the consulting editors. Throughout the week, they each presented a two hour talk on some aspect of editing. Having never gone to film school, these lectures were a wonderful gift; I felt so fortunate and inspired. Another critical aspect of the labs is they pair you up with an Assistant Editor. We got lucky to get assigned Shane Holdfeldt from Maine. Having my other Associate Editor Danielle Mogran coordinate with him ahead of time, I was able to immediately have Shane take over the main edit chair. He and I were quickly in sync; I loved being able to sit back and just play the role of director. It was an important break for me.
MK: And we did actually work on editing a section of the film – we had to present a 15 min. piece by the end of the lab, for public consumption. Based on feedback, we decided to rework the opening but couldn’t really tackle it until 2 days before the presentation. A couple of hours before our deadline, we showed the advisors what we had done, and received a chilly silence in return. We had overdone it! When they left the edit room, we quickly went back to one of the first sequences we had cut, tweaked it here and there, and got an enthusiastic response at the final screening. That’s the most important lesson I learned about the edit process – you often have to go past the perfect edit until everything gets murky again, before you can go back to what you thought worked in the first place.
SA: Given the changing nature of distribution, what life do you see for this film in festivals and beyond?
MK: We are trying to think one step ahead, but distribution models are being created and debunked at breakneck speed. We hope that viewers get a chance to see the film on the big screen because there is so much beauty in the landscape, but we know that beyond festivals, it will be a challenge. We would of course like to see ELEPHANT get broadcast distribution – both domestically and internationally. I think the film will do well overseas, especially in Europe where audiences are a little more practiced at watching such personal and provocative material.
EP: We have a few archival pieces in the film and we weren’t interested in licensing the rights for only 10 years as one archival house offered us; we wanted all rights in perpetuity. We are making this film for the long run so that it can be relevant in the discussion of both filmmaking and autobiographical filmmaking.
LS: While the story is not original, the approach is. I’m hoping that people can look at this film in terms of legacy, not only with Ed and the cinema vérité movement from the 60’s, but how personal documentary filmmaking has evolved and changed over the years. Even though this is wholly a documentary film, it is also experimental in nature and I hope it helps to inform the discussion around film and new possibilities in documentary and nonfiction.
EP: This approach led a lot of people at the Sundance Lab to say they had never seen anything like this before. They said it was kind of messy, but they also said don’t clean it up.
MK: Ed and Lucia are working together on setting up the Pincus Film Archive and looking to release a box set of Ed’s pre-AXE films, none of which have been available on DVD before. The release of the box set would help create more interest in his current work, and the launch of ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM would likely direct viewers to his older work.