Sam Green is an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who specialises in live narrated documentary. His latest project, The Measure Of All Things, receives its UK premiere at the Norfolk &Norwich Festival. Green will be narrating the film live on stage, accompanied by classical ensemble yMusic. Green spoke to Glen Pearce from his New York home shortly before departing for Norwich.
What was the inspiration for The Measure Of All Things?
Like a lot of people when I was a kid I was completely mesmerised by The Guinness Book of Records. I remember the photos especially, being entranced by them, looking at them a lot and thinking about them. I grew out of it, but a couple of years back I found an old paperback copy that was from the late 70s, from when I would have been looking at it. I was just knocked out, I opened it up and flicked through it looking at all the photos and it was such a visceral flooding moment. It all came back to me and I was curious about that. I wasn’t the only kid who had been taken with that stuff, what was it that appealed to kids?
Reading through it I was struck by how many of the records are actually very poignant parables about life and fate – the strange and mysterious nature of being alive. One of the ones that had always got me, but got me again this time, was the person struck by lightning the most times. You couldn’t make up a better metaphor for fate and the inexplicable nature of fate and what happens to us in our lives.
The piece came out of that and a desire to make something about that odd nature of being alive. The book also combines two disparate things – it celebrates wonder but combines that wonder with a sense of poignancy, almost melancholy, trying to come to terms with the odd, sometimes beautiful, sometimes painful, process of being alive.
The format you work in is described as ‘Live Documentary’ – what appeals to you about that form?
Oh man, I love the format and I keep coming back to it because I keep trying to do more with the form. Live music and huge images are such a powerful way to move people or make something that people are immersed by.
I love film but watching a film on your laptop while reading Facebook is a terrible way to watch a movie. You are undermining all the magic of cinema. Rather than go in that direction I want to go in an opposite direction – celebrating what makes the cinematic form so powerful. Going into a theatre, turning off your cell phone, sitting with a group of strangers and becoming part of a collective experience; you give yourself over to this bigger experience – that is the magic of cinema. This form is a way to play with that. What would it be like if the fan was much more central, what if the music was the central part of it. I’m smitten with the form and I keep seeing what it can do.
Does having the audience there with you creating a shared experience shape your narration?
Yes, it’s funny, for a long time I just made normal movies where you make the movie then put it out to the world and it is done. You sort of let it go, it goes off. What I’m doing now is such a different process. It’s more like how comedians work. Comedians hone their act by doing it – there’s no way of just sitting there knowing what jokes will work, you do the show and tinker with it. With this, I’m constantly tinkering with the piece, figuring out what works and what doesn’t. It’s both a blessing and a curse because there’s something nice about it being done, but I love this because it can be fine-tuned and really worked and re-worked. I’m still polishing it.
As both filmmaker and the narrator, you’ve now seen the piece several times. Do you still see new aspects with each viewing?
Oh yeah, it depends on the context. This is the first time we’ve done this piece in the UK and there’s a whole thread about Ross and Norris McWhirter who created TheGuinness Book of Records. In the United States nobody knows anything about that, so you’re starting from scratch. I think in the UK it’s a different context, people know about them and the IRA so you don’t need to explain and I’ll change the piece a little for that. I like knowing that no two shows are the same.
Music is an integral part of your films – what is the process for working with musicians?
Normally when you are making a documentary you edit a rough cut, send it to a composer and they look at it and put some music to it and email it back. You go back and say can you make this bit a bit faster, this a bit sadder and that’s pretty much it.
With this it’s a way more collaborative relationship, I’ve done three of these live pieces and I’ve made the music with the musicians. It is a totally collaborative process. With these pieces the musicians are there playing it, it has to be theirs; you can’t be a dictator director saying this is how it has to be and that’s great. For me, a collaborative relationship is best when what you make is better than what you could make on your own. I’m fascinated by musicians and how they work so its a pleasure to be able to work closely in this organic and collaborative way with them.
What are the challenges of touring a piece like this?
Ever show is a challenge because it’s scary. I’m a shy documentary filmmaker, so to get up in front of a huge audience is a thrill but also scary. I get nervous so that’s a challenge in itself.
Doing live stuff like this, there’s a million little factors that go into whether it is a great show or an OK show – the number of people in the audience, the time of day, whether people have been drinking beforehand, the size of the screen. Just trying to get all those little things right so the piece hits and everyone can feel it, the audience can feel it and we can feel it so it’s like a magic night. That happens a lot of the time but not every night. It’s trying to get it to work that is the challenge.
You are appearing at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, which is a multi-disciplinary arts festival. Do you think that film is sometimes overlooked in these types of festival?
It’s interesting to me. One of the reasons I think it happens is that film is a very insular and conservative discipline. Which sounds odd as you think of film as radical but film, especially documentary film, is very insular and doesn’t really engage with the broader art world. I think the reason for that is film is a pretty old medium if you compare it to say other stuff at festivals such as modern dance. Those are still wide open to experimentation but film has been around for over 100 years and it’s pretty set. The idea that there’s a screen, a projector and people sit in seats is how most of it is done. Playing with that and seeing what the form can do is kind of radical. So I’m very happy to be in the context of a performing arts festival because film can be radical and experimental and there’s a million ways to play with the form to make it more exciting and dynamic.
What is next on the cards for Sam Green?
I’m working on a couple of different things and some are too early to talk about.
One thing I really love is that often one of my projects will lead to the next. One of my favourite records is ‘The Oldest Person In The World’. The Oldest person changes very regularly and it’s an odd thing that we have, this institution of ‘the oldest person in the world.’
There’s some 116 year old somewhere, an old Japanese guy who can barely talk. Several people come to give him a plaque and the Prime Minister sends him a video message but the guy doesn’t care at all. It’s weird how we, as a people, have a need to recognise the person whose been here the longest. People are always asking them the secret to doing it. Someone said recently ‘I sleep on my back’ – like that explains it! I really like this idea – I’m going to film the oldest person each year and make a film that I’ll always be able to update.
The Measure of All Things plays at the Norfolk And Norwich Festival on 21 May.
For more information visit: www.nnfestival.org.uk