Ross McElwee's films serve as a kind of long-form autobiography, with each individual film functioning as a chapter in McElwee's life story. Together, they're like a first-person version of Michael Apted's Up series. With each successive film, we get to catch up with the filmmaker, track his life's progress and nod knowingly to ourselves when his wife leaves him ("He's always having girl trouble!") or his son is a pain in the ass ("Serves him right, for being so rebellious against his own dad!").
His breakthrough film was 1986's Sherman's March, which follows the just-dumped McElwee as he travels across the American South, trying to film the ways the Civil War still affects the South but allowing himself to get sidetracked by fascinating women along the way. His latest film is called Photographic Memory, a title that could well describe his entire filmography — cinema verité with a voiceover that contemplates the deeper meaning of what's unfolding onscreen. But what unfolds this time is perhaps the hardest to watch yet: McElwee attempting to communicate with his difficult 20-something son Adrian.
I told McElwee that after watching the first few frames of Photographic Memory, I'd already come up with a trailer for the movie in my head, complete with a booming In a World-style voiceover: "You've seen him court Cold War survivalists and overcome his father's death. Now he'll face the biggest challenge yet [record scratch] — his teenage son!" I was joking, but there really is a sense of cumulative weight to this film. If each of McElwee's films leads into the next, Photographic Memory is the culmination of all the films that came before it.
At 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, as part of Vanderbilt's International Lens film series, McElwee will be at the university's Sarratt Cinema to discuss his work. In anticipation of that visit and the screening of Photographic Memory, McElwee spoke with the Scene from his home in Cambridge, Mass.
Your work is all so personal, but your storytelling skills seemed clear from the start. How has the way you tell stories changed since you made Sherman's March?
I think there are changes that have to do with simply getting older and going through life, and the films reflect that. So yes, the films change as I continue to work on them, and the world alters, too. Issues that were very important to me in earlier films, like the Cold War, for instance, which was a sub-theme of Sherman's March. The balance of terror has shifted from ICBMs aimed from the Soviet Union to the U.S. and vice versa, to terrorism. My films reflect those kinds of shifts. But I think Sherman's March was a film made by a much younger person, and its lightness of tone had a lot to do with that. It did deal with some pretty serious issues, but it was mainly a comedy. I think my films now are probably more melancholic.
What does Adrian think about your films?
Adrian's first question when he was younger was, "When are you going to make real films?" Hollywood films. He sees what I'm after and he respects it.
Do you think he was OK with the way he was represented in Photographic Memory?
I think there were pieces that embarrassed him.
Yeah, that's a gnarly age. I remember being so uncomfortable and pissed off all the time, and that's what you want for your children, because for them to be rebellious means they're finding their own way. But that doesn't make it any more enjoyable to have to hang out with them.
Photographic Memory deals with that — it just has to run its course.
Did making this film give you any more sympathy for your own father?
Sure. I think I went into the project knowing it was going to be a kind of reckoning with the relationship with my father. I had a good relationship with my father — we were polar opposites in some ways; we chose drastically different lifestyles, but we were actually very similar.
How do you shoot your films? Do you come at your subject with a narrative in mind, or do you wait and write all that afterward?
It's afterward, well afterward. Sometimes I'll write things down as I'm shooting, or immediately after, if I can find a scrap of paper, it will work its way into the narrative.
What percentage of footage ends up being cut?
That depends on the film. I had a very low ratio of cuts in Time Indefinite — six to one, which in documentary film is almost unheard of. But then Sherman's March is probably 20, 25 to one. So what happens as you go along is you accumulate archival footage that you've shot for previous films. So it becomes increasingly difficult as I get older to say what that ratio is between what I've shot and what I put out, because more and more of my films seem to have references to the past that I've shot for other films. But in general, 10 to 15 times more.
There's a scene in Photographic Memory when you're speaking with the widow of Maurice, the photographer you worked for, and due to a series of misunderstandings you think she's told you that she's looking for Michael Moore. I have to tell you that at that moment, I was just so excited to hear what you were going to say about Michael Moore.
(Laughs) Actually, I don't know Michael well, but he and I have a relationship that goes all the way back to Roger & Me, his first film. He'd seen Sherman's March and he was inspired to make Roger & Me. I often get off-the-wall requests from burgeoning filmmakers, so when he asked me out of the blue if I would watch it, I said, "Sure, send it up." I got this VHS tape and sat down to look at it, and I thought, "You know, this is really interesting." So I pulled out some paper and started making some notes. I listed about 17 or 18 changes that I would make to it, and my last suggestion was, "Don't get discouraged if nobody ever sees this film. You've got skill and somewhere along the line you'll have a breakthrough." And then the next thing I read he'd sold it to Warner Bros. for 2.5 million dollars — that's 10 times more than all of my films combined. And when I watched it in the theater, I saw he didn't take any of my 17 suggestions.
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