Fresh off his success at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival, the director of the award-winning documentary The Woodmans (not to be confused with the 2004 Kevin Bacon film The Woodsman) shared his experience with Collider to help aspiring filmmakers. C. Scott Willis took home the festival’s Best New York Documentary along with a fair share of critical and audience buzz. He’s an Emmy-Award winning producer with an extensive news background (CNN, ABC News’ Nightline & PBS’ Frontline), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The Woodmans tracks the life of Francesca Woodman, whose inventive photography became celebrated, only after her tragic death in 1981. She came from a family of artists (parents Betty & George Woodman & brother Charlie) & they tell most of her story in the film.
Hit the jump for the full audio and transcription. He has advice on every phase of filmmaking that ranges from ethical questions to the festival submission process.
If you’d like to listen to the audio from the interview, click here. Otherwise the transcript is below.
Collider: We’re here at the Tribeca Film Festival where you had a very successful run. What were you anticipating before you came here & did it match your expectations?
C. Scott Willis: Oh, it just – I mean, I had no idea. This is the 1st film festival I’ve been in. I’m embarrassed to say it’s the 1st film festival I’ve attended, so number 1, I didn’t know what it was all about. You know, I’m somebody that works in television. The idea of a world premiere is, there might be 10 million people watching your film. You know, you get e-mail from your friends and everyone says congratulations and my mother calls and says the Tivo didn’t record and “can you come fix it?” so that’s my idea of what a world premiere is and then, instead, you come to Tribeca and you step into a, a space with 350 people and the film that you’d worked on and the film that was the size of a computer screen is all of a sudden giant and it’s very seductive. I’ll give up the 10 million people for the 400 people any day, because there’s a common reaction to the story that you’re showing. That’s a huge deal to me, so I’m totally hooked. I don’t know how I can make a living at it, but I’m totally hooked.
What advice would you have for filmmakers who are just figuring out what their process is going to be like, in terms of the (film festival) submission.
CSW: I had a sense that, that it’d just be mailsacks full of DVDs & they’d molder in a corner and then (Tribeca Film Festival co-founder Robert) DeNiro’s cousin would get to the top and get in the (festival). I was really surprised because the screeners, that go through the material are diligent and they watch more films than I could possibly imagine anybody watching in a year, but having an amazing film that doesn’t get seen and noticed is, I think, improbable. So my advice is tenacity, to work on your film. To refine it and take criticism well. Stick to the idea that it is you’re trying to make and if you aren’t communicating that idea. If somebody says, “I didn’t see what you were talking about,” take note of that. You can make it better all the time.
How did you get inside the story and stay with them, while also maintaining a distance so that you would be able to tell it, truthfully?
CSW: I don’t think you have to maintain a distance to tell something, truthfully. I feel very affectionately towards (the film’s subjects) George & Betty Woodman. They’re amazing artists. They’re amazing people. They’re very smart. At the same time, I have a contract with myself and with the audience that’s gonna see the film that I’m gonna tell this story honestly. I’m not gonna shade it to make somebody feel better. I’m not gonna shade it to make somebody feel worse. If you’re dishonest, you’re going to get caught out & nobody’s gonna like the film.
The way that I discovered this story was by being invited to a cousin’s house for brunch on a Sunday. I was just told that among the people that would be there would be two artists & I’d really like them. My wife & I met them and I didn’t know their story and I didn’t know their work and we just started talking and they asked if we had any children and our son was in high school and our daughter was a photography major at RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) and they said “oh, our daughter was a photography major at RISD, as well. It’s a wonderful school.” And I did what parents awkwardly, but well-intentionally do sometimes, which is: to try and set their children up and I said, “Could my daughter call your daughter?” And that was embarrassing and opened a door to Betty & George that they normally don’t like to talk about, the death of their daughter. But they were kind enough to do that. We had an amazing conversation. It lasted, as I recall, about an hour. I immediately went and found Francesca’s work and once I saw her work and I knew about their life, it was the only story I wanted to do.
And it’s a very interesting statement about art. It’s an interesting statement about parenting, about the separation and sometimes the jealousy between parents and their children. What was their reaction when they saw it?
CSW: It was very tough to, to screen the film for Betty & George. At the end of the credits, there was a pause, a very long pause and George stepped into that pause and said “Well, that was really beautiful.” And Betty said “That was a beautiful film about my daughter’s death.” And I, as a filmmaker, feel very strongly that it’s really a film about her daughter’s life, so it’s that subjectiveness of that seat that you watch a film from.
Did you get the sense that she felt betrayed?
CSW: I don’t think she felt betrayed by it, but I do think the story confronts her a little bit. Not the objectivity of it, the film is in their words, so it’s not like I can make up the story. I think the discomfort came from having the story sort of writ larger than life and speaking to them, as opposed to coming from their experience. (At a) certain level, it’s a film, so they’re characters onscreen talking about a story and that separation from your own personal experience to becoming a character onscreen is discomfiting.
How has your relationship with them changed since they’ve seen the film?
CSW: Well, they thought about it and they came to the conclusion that they didn’t want to come to the premiere and that was tough for me. I, I really spent 3 years filming and the film really honors their art. And I honor their art and I think they’re wonderful people. I think they created a beautiful family and talented family and I think I honored all that, but I’d hoped that even if they were uncomfortable with the film that they would give a nod to my attempt at making my piece of art in their likeness.
But it’s a statement about the objectivity of the film that you’re not so overly respectful of them that you’re not telling a truthful story.
CSW: Yeah, and I don’t think it’s respectful or disrespect. I, I’m sure I could have done things and they asked me to do things, to change things in the film that would make them feel better about it. And, this wasn’t a commissioned portrait. I can’t do that. It would’ve been dishonest. My relationship is with myself and the audience watching the film and I, I’ve got to respect that. If I don’t, then I’m kind of wasting everybody’s time.
Has (Francesca’s) brother, Charlie, seen the film and what was his response?
CSW: He’s seen the film as well. It was really interesting because Charlie had some ideas about the production and the narrative that were different from my perceptions of it. But it was really interesting. He stepped up to it as a filmmaker. You know, with a good critique. Less as a family member, more as a filmmaker. (Laughs) He might have had really great ideas in the critique, but I was totally out of a budget then, so —
How will this affect the way that you make films from now on? How is your filmmaking style changed, over the course of not just the making of this film, but this entire experience (Tribeca)?
CSW: Well, straight out of the festival, I expect to go home and enter into a severe post-partum depression because this has been such an incredible rush. I’m in the middle of another project so I’ll, that helps me not have (laughs) not to send into a post-partum depression. In terms of the, my approach to the filmmaking, and the festival reinforces it, sort of going into this phase of my career. I’m 58 years old, I’ve won 11 Emmys, who’s counting? And I’ve done a lot of things and reached big audiences on big stories, but I really think to have fun and enjoy myself, which is really important to me, I’ve gotta stretch and do things that are out of my comfort zone. The Woodmans was really out of my comfort zone and I got a lot of joy, from, from doing that. So, the one thing I know I’m gonna do, on the next film, is stretch further. If you go off the very highest dive, into the very smallest pool. If you miss, then, there’s some honor in that. But if you jump off the edge and you make a big bellyflop, there’s no honor in that, whatsoever. So, I think, just keep going higher and make the pool smaller and if you take the risk of not hitting it, at least you made the attempt.
I think you’re swimming just fine. (Willis laughs) Thank you so much.
CSW: OK, Thanks.