A Conversation with Documentary Filmmaker Sam Green
by Todd McGovern
Who can forget those stories? Roy Sullivan was a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. In his 35 years on the job, he was struck by lighting seven times, surviving them all. Known as the “Human Lightning Rod,” he died in 1983 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The reason? Unrequited love.
Who can forget those photos? The woman with the smallest waist; the woman with the world’s longest fingernails; Eng and Chang Bunker, the Siamese twins who, conjoined at the sternum, fathered 21 children and died 3 hours apart.
Etched in our collective childhood memory, these stories and photos are part of a favorite reference book, “Guinness World Records.” And the questions they prompted remain. “What?” “Why?” and of course, “How did they?”
One recent rainy Sunday, I met up with Academy Award nominated documentary filmmaker, Sam Green at his studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn to discuss his latest work, “The Measure of All Things,” a live documentary based on the “Guinness World Records” book, his earlier films and growing up as a punk rock kid in Michigan. Over the course of an afternoon, Green discussed the weirdness of fate, the fleeting quality of our lives and the “unknowingness” of the world.
Green is a different kind of documentary filmmaker. In his recent work, which is part film, part performance, he narrates his documentaries live, accompanied by live music from Yo La Tengo and Brendan Canty from Fugazi. It’s an experience unlike any other, for filmmaker and audience.
Q: What drew you to the topic of record holders?
A: I came across an old copy of “Guinness World Records” from the 1970s. I started looking through it and kept saying, “Oh my God – I remember the tallest guy and the fattest twins.” [Paging through book, excitedly] I mean, look at this shit! The biggest starfish! So I kept looking through it and became curious as to why it had made such a huge impression on me and why kids are so…I mean look at this! Greatest animal leaper! As I looked through it, I was very struck by the fact the book contains so many poignant stories. It is really silly and stupid – the biggest cucumber, but nestled in there are all these very poignant stories. “Motionlessness” – this guy stood perfectly still for 5 hours and 40 minutes – look at him! What was up with that? Or the longest person standing up was like 20 years – some Indian guy stood in the same spot for 20 years! I just started to see it as this really weird portrait of who we are. It touches on fate and the unknowabilty of fate; or the kind of tragic unknowability of our bodies and how they age; or things people are compelled to do – like the guy who memorized Pi. Why do that? There is so much about who we are and how we live our lives that we have no idea about. It’s a mystery. “Shit happens”. I saw the book as a kind of deep expression of that. I wanted to make something that resonated with things that had happened to me – like my brother dying. I recently went through a traumatic time, so in a way, the movie is about fate and time and unknowability of why things happen to people and tragedy and all the things that are a part of being alive.
If you don’t have the luxury of faith in God, these are existential things that you never quite understand. To me, the book is actually really deep. It’s stupid on the surface but deep underneath. I’ve always been drawn to those types of stories.
Q: In your program notes, Jon Mooallem, wrote, “A book like Guinness claims to catalogue what we’re capable of doing, but also quietly catalogues what this world is capable of doing to us.” What does this mean?
A: Jon lives in San Francisco and participates in – Pop Up Magazine, an organization that runs an evening of live pieces, performed by writers, filmmakers and musicians. A number of my short pieces came out of doing something at Pop Up Magazine. His statement jibes with my view that the “Guinness World Records” is much more than it seems on the surface. Yes, it is this silly compendium of kooky things. On the other hand, it is an attempt to measure the outer edges of our experience – both what we can do and what can happen to us. It’s a self-portrait and that’s why kids are fascinated by it – both mesmerized and horrified. “I could grow up to be 8’3” tall!” “I could get hit by lightning 7 times!” It shows you what the world can be. That’s a powerful thing. That need to index our experience is a deeply held need.
Q: What did you learn about the type of people who hold work records?
A: I think there are three different kinds of people who hold world records:
People who want to get in the “Guinness World Records” – the woman who makes the world’s biggest pancake, or an entire city does something. I’m totally uninterested in those;
People who set out to do something and really have no idea why they’re doing it – the guy who memorizes Pi, for example. That is so hard and so crazy. It’s hard to know why he’s doing it. Or the guy who has the longest running streak. It’s much more complicated than a desire for attention. It’s more like somebody testing themselves in a very complex way;
People who have no control over their record – the world’s tallest person, for instance.
I’m most interested in the last two types – the guy who memorizes Pi? For some reason, he was compelled to do that. And it is as mysterious as the guy who was struck by lightning the most times.
Q: There is a real, very tangible poignancy to some of those featured in “The Measure of All Things,” a humanness in their experiences and their search for an answer to that very basic question, “Why Me?” Can you speak to Roy Sullivan?
A: To me Roy Sullivan is the quintessential “Guinness World Records” entry – or the quintessential kind of entry that resonates with me. He’s the man with the record for being struck by lighting the most – 7 different times. He was a park ranger in Shenandoah National Park in Virginia and had no idea why him – why lighting? In the end, he shot himself. The “Guinness World Records” includes a cryptic line about him, “he was unlucky in love.”
His story says everything about fate and the mysterious nature of being alive. Also – and this is why I love documentary – if you made this up, it would be ridiculous. People would say, ‘Well, why wasn’t he struck ten times?” But it’s real. It really happened. It’s a great mystery – no one still has any idea why he was struck so many times. This little entry combines tragedy and folly and humor and wonder.
Q: Can you talk about Randy Gardener, the high school student from San Diego who set a record for staying awake for 11 days – how was he affected by the experience?
A: He’s lived in the shadow of this thing he did in high school. It shaped who he is. That was a moment of being extraordinary while the rest of his life has been ordinary. He had kind of a world-weariness that he articulates as almost a Buddhist wisdom: “Everybody’s on the list…you’re born, you die. Everybody’s doing it.” He had these really funny ways of responding to existential anxieties we all have: the meaning of life; what does it mean that I’m going to die? He was definitely someone who had lived a life that involved some hard knocks.
Q: And Nicholas White who was stuck in an elevator for 40 hours…how did that affect him? He seemed really damaged.
A: It knocked his whole life off-track; he had been a pretty successful person with a lot of momentum; he was the head of the design department at BusinessWeek. After it happened, he didn’t work for a bunch of years, had to move back in with his mom; he thought he’d get a big settlement and he never did. It derailed his life and he never got back on track after that. One, it was the trauma of being in an elevator alone for 40 hours, but then also he tried to get a big settlement – he put everything he had into this lawsuit for a couple years and eventually got very little compensation. That fucked him up.
Q: Are you still calling what you do, “Live Documentary”?
A: I’m still looking for a really good term. I call it “live documentary” although in different contexts, I call it different things. In the film world, it’s “live documentary”; in performance context, I’ll call it a “performance” or “lecture performance”; at libraries, I call it a “fancy lecture,” “which is what it really is.
In some ways the term is arbitrary, but it is definitely a marketing challenge. “Film-formance”? “Live cinema”? I’m trying to make this work part of the documentary form and open up a conversation about what constitutes documentary film these days.
“Fox Theaters had a slogan in the 1920s and 30s, `The movie starts when you walk in the door!’ Part of the whole experience was sitting with others in a huge, beautiful theater…The ease of watching movies online has cheapened the experience. I watch movies on my fucking laptop with just the laptop speaker! It’s a terrible way to watch things.”
Q: How does being in the audience of a live documentary impact the viewer?
A: I never really trust what people say. The people who walk out of the theater and say, “That sucked” don’t come up to me, so the sample I’m getting is totally skewed. That said, my own sense is that people that come to see my work feel the same way I do. “Oh my God, this isn’t on Netflix? I can only see it by going to the theater?” And including a live band with the film makes a difference. I worked with Yo La Tengo on “Buckminster Fuller.” The fact that people come and see them walk out on the stage. A little charge goes through the audience. The fact of seeing people in person is meaningful.
The ease of watching movies online has cheapened the experience. I watch movies on my fucking laptop with no speakers, just the laptop speaker! It’s a terrible way to watch things.
Q: How has the form evolved over the years?
A: Fox Theaters had a slogan in the 1920s and 30s, “The movie starts when you walk in the door!” Part of the whole experience was sitting with others in a huge, beautiful theater. In a certain sense, it’s like being in church. The huge, gothic Renaissance churches were designed to make you feel small, to create a feeling of reverence in the face of the Divine. If you went to church in a little cinderblock building or a log cabin, you wouldn’t have the same experience. The same thing is true with film.
The first one – the Utopia film –[“Utopia in Four Movements”] I started as a regular documentary. At some point, I thought, “Why don’t I do this as a live cinema?” I’d never heard of anyone doing anything like that and it made sense based on the subject. So that was an odd project because it started as a regular film but ended up being a live film. When I made the “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” I started with the knowledge that it was a live film. I made much more big music breaks. In regular film, you can’t have music for 3 minutes, but in a live film, the form is way more open and you can do stuff like that, so I built that around 10 sections of Yo La Tengo playing long songs. It’s a much more open film – much more music in the foreground. I tried to build on that idea with “The Measure of All Things.” My original hope was not to talk at all, but it needed some explanation.
I’m trying to hone in on what makes the live documentary so striking. I find huge images and live music that washes over you to be incredibly powerful!
When I was doing research for “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller,” I found a roll of film of him supervising the construction of the dome that he and his wife lived in in 1959 in Carbondale, Illinois. The color of 1950s film is truly gorgeous. I knew I’d have a big music break to accompany the footage. Then there was some great film I found of the 1967 dome he produced in Montreal. In all, I found 10 different bits of film like that were good enough to support a music section. So I gave them to Yo La Tengo and said, “Write music for these 10 sections and I’ll do voice overs around them, to connect them.” So it was really built around the images and the music – the opposite of what you do in a normal film.
Q: Like me, you’re originally from Michigan. What did you like best about growing up there?
A: You know what I liked best about Michigan? Ten cent refunds on bottle and cans! This was the fucking Seventies! If you returned a can you got ten cents! I was a paperboy in the morning and I’d pick up cans along my route. On Saturday morning, I might find 20 bottles after a Friday night party. That was 2 bucks… a lot of money at the time. Sometimes you could find 50 bottles!
I grew up in East Lansing, near Michigan State’s campus. I remember going to some rock festival at Jenison Field House in 1979. The Ramones and Television were playing. I was there collecting bottles and it was the first time I ever saw punk rockers. I’d heard the Ramones’ song “Rock and Roll Radio” on the local station. I was like “Oh, yeah, that’s that band. Oh my God, there’s a girl with a safety pin in her cheek.” But most importantly, “there’s some bottles over there!” My friends and I were scavengers. If the student body and campus was a whale, we were the little fish that follow and feed off them.
I grew up in the shadow of the Sixties. It was an odd time to be a kid trying to make sense of things. I had a kind of lefty idealism and no real way to express it. I think that’s where my interest in the Sixties came about, which led directly to my film on the Weather Underground. We grew up in the wreckage of the Sixties. I remember when I was in college, seeing a film clip of William Burroughs saying, “Kid, if there’s one thing you’re never gonna do, it’s change the world!” In 1982, that was kind of the sentiment left from the Sixties.
Q: Where you into the hardcore scene in Ann Arbor and Detroit during the early 1980s?
A: The Crucifucks were the big East Lansing band, along with The Meatmen. But I remember seeing the Circle Jerks when they came to town. I was kind of into it. But I was also listening to the Clash and The Undertones and bands like that. I was behind the times – it wasn’t until I moved to Ann Arbor in 1984 that I became aware of bands like Black Flag and Minor Threat.
Q: Was there a single experience or one film you saw that made you think, “This is what I want to do with my life!”
A: When I was in Ann Arbor, I had this job at Michigan Media – the people who showed films in classes. This was so long ago that you would actually go into classes with the film, and set it up on a projector. All the cool kids did it. [Filmmaker] Danny Plotnick did it; a lot of my friends had the job. Roy Hunter was this kooky old guy that ran it. The only way to get a job with them was to know other people that did it previously. It was very insular, everybody was kinda cool. And it was fun because you’d go into classes and be really sullen. All the students would be sitting there and you’d go into the class with this attitude. You’d be like have this bored affect, like “Where’s the projector?” and you’d set it up. I showed “Inside the Human Brain,” for psych 101 classes hundreds of times – these movies were terrible. But once I went to a class in Comparative Religion. It was a graduate class and they showed this movie. I didn’t know what it was (later discovered to be “Holy Ghost People”) – I put it on was completely mesmerized by it. It was a black and white “cinema vérité” movie about this church in West Virginia that did snake handling with rattle snakes. It was so good – absolutely amazing. It didn’t have narration or interviews, it was just a record of these people. The aesthetic was amazing, West Virginia in the late Sixties, filmed in black and white. It was a real striking look at these snake handlers. I took in back to the office and watched it again and was so into it. And I wasn’t one of those kids who took Super-8 movies as a kid, like Danny Plotnick. I didn’t even see that many movies, my parents didn’t have a TV, so I didn’t grow up with it. But this movie just got to me, I watched it again and then learned that Peter Adair had made it when he was a student at Antioch College. He went on to be an important documentary filmmaker. When I made “Pie Fight ’69,” he was the guy that did the pie fight. Anyway, that was the first movie I saw that really struck me. I’ve watched it a couple times since and it’s a remarkable film.
Q: To date, all your live documentaries have included live music – how do you decide upon a band?
A: It’s kind of a combination of who I know and who is available.
Q: “Utopia in Four Movements”?
A: That happened because I knew Todd Griffin. I knew he’d done live music for films and it was a good fit. He was a good person to talk with and I didn’t have to pretend I knew what I was doing. And Brendan Canty was in Fugazi and is a great drummer.
“If you look at all my movies, I think they explore a tension between hope and hopefulness and a kind of melancholy – recognition that people are limited and flawed and that human nature is complicated.”
Q: “The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller”?
A: Yo La Tengo did the music for this piece. I felt the story of Buckminster Fuller had a mixture of emotional tones to it. There was longing to it and a sort of melancholy. A combination of feelings that Yo La Tengo’s music expresses so well. There’s a bittersweetness to it. Their sound really worked with the idea I had for an emotional palate for that film. I knew Georgia’s sister – Emily Hubbell who is a filmmaker and an old pal of mine. So I just asked her if she’d pass along an email to Georgia and Ira. We went back and forth a lot but they were into it, which was great.
I talked to Dan Deacon a lot. I’d love to get him to do something. He’s an electronic musician working now who does these fantastic live shows. Super, super energetic and he’s got a great sense of melody. I talked to him about doing something, but he’s totally blowing up so I realize you gotta catch people at just the right moment.
Q: You open up your Measure of “All Things” show with a short…an update of your 1997 “The Rainbow Man” documentary—about the guy who wore the rainbow Afro wig to sporting events throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Why did you pick this story to update?
A: I got in touch with [the Rainbow Man’s] ex-wife, many years after I did the documentary. I got in touch with her through Facebook – literally the only time I’ve looked up an old friend on Facebook. I wrote her and asked how she was doing. She wrote back with this bizarre, shaggy dog story explaining that she had hung out with a number of the 9/11 hijackers. She had photos of them, which she sent to me! I was pretty flabbergasted by the entire thing. I mean, what are the odds of that happening? Life is much weirder than we could ever imagine. If you made that up and put it in a movie, people would think it was heavy-handed or implausible, but this really happened.
She was married to an Egyptian guy named “Mo” and they lived in Virginia. Mo had all these friends who would come over for birthday parties. She split up with Mo in 1998. When 9/11 happened and they released photos of the hijackers, she realized that some of them were among the people who came over for parties at Mo’s house. She went back and found photos of them.
Q: Your short film, “lot 63, grave c” seems as much about the impersonality and impermanence of life as much as it is about the Sixties or the bummer of Altamont. If I had to place it in the context of your other work, I’d say it belongs more with “The Measure of All Things” as it does with “The Weather Underground.” What are your thoughts on “lot 63, grave c” now almost a decade after making it?
A: That’s an interesting observation. It’s funny – for me making films, I don’t often think about how the films relate to each other or the resonances between different pieces. But you are right. I’d never thought of “lot 63” as connected to my later work, but in some ways some of the themes are certainly closer to say “The Measure of All Things” than “The Weather Underground.” Also, sometimes you don’t have a clear sense of what a film is about until after it’s done. With “lot 63,” that film was inspired really by my curiosity about the 60s and this loose end from my research. I’d wondered who Meredith Hunter was and why there was so little information out there about him other than his name and the details of his murder. But when I went out to the cemetery and found his grave, the fact that it was unmarked really got me. There was something about the fact that he was a tiny historical footnote, yet in real life seemed to be completely forgotten. It weighed on me. My friend Sarah Jacobson, who was a great filmmaker and taught me a lot, had died from cancer two years earlier. That was the first time I’d lost a friend, and in hindsight I can see that that was in my thoughts and feelings – the fact that she’d done many great films and had made something of a name for herself but was already starting to fade from memory.
Q: There seems to be a political thread running through your work. Are there overarching themes in your films?
A: My more recent work is less overtly political and more about being alive and the complexity or mystery that comes with it. Losing people and seeing loss makes you think about the world differently. I did a movie about fog in San Francisco – it wasn’t political all –well, in some ways it was – I think of form as political, so I’m making movies that are less overtly about politics, but in some way the form is much more so.
In a lot of ways, all my work is just me trying to figure out things for myself. “The Weather Underground,” for example, looked back at the Sixties, which for me was a very formative time. I grew up in the shadow of the Sixties and, through that film, tried to make sense of what happened and salvage some kind of hope out of it.
If I look at all my movies, I think they explore a tension between hope and hopefulness and a kind of melancholy – recognition that people are limited and flawed and that human nature is complicated.