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The Rumpus Interview with Sam Green
By Otis Haschemeyer
April 23, 2009 http://therumpus.net
“When you think of the 60s, you generally think of nice smiling hippies, long hair, tie-dye, peace signs. These Weatherpeople were definitely not that. These Weatherpeople looked really HARD. It was jarring. But at the same time, being a middle class white kid myself, I could glimpse traces of the middle class white kids that they were and at the same time were trying to transcend. The images really got under my skin. I put them at the beginning of the film, and they still get me.”
Sam Green’s filmography includes the Academy Award nominated The Weather Underground, The Rainbow Man/John 3:16, Lot 63 Grave C, N-Judah 5:30, Pie Fight ’69, The Fabulous Stains, and Behind the Movie (directed with Sarah Jacobson). He is currently working on Utopia in Four Movements. One section of that project, “Utopia, Part 3: the World’s Largest Shopping Mall,” recently screened at Sundance and will also screen at the San Francisco Film Festival Saturday April 25 and Sunday May 3 in a series of shorts titled: Foreign Territories The complete work in progress, Utopia in Four Movements, will screen at Light Industry in Brooklyn on June 7th.
Rumpus: Hey Sam, I propose we do an interview over email over the course of a few weeks, month, sort of like a long distance chess game. Don’t worry about responses. I’ll handle editing and making me look like a genius—I mean you.
Green: The interview sounds good, although I may have to insert an appropriate number of ‘umms’ and ‘ahhs’ and ‘you knows’.
Rumpus: No problem. I’ll just edit them out. So, you’re going to Sundance. What are you doing there?
Green: I have two short films showing. The first is called “Utopia, Part 3: The World’s Largest Shopping Mall.” It’s a short documentary about the South China Mall, twice as large as the previous record holder, the Mall of America in Minnesota—fucking enormous and totally over the top with a replica of the Arc de Triumph, a network of Amsterdam canals, and even a section modeled on San Francisco. The mall was intended as a celebration of consumerism and Vegas-like spectacle, yet three years after it was built, it’s still completely empty. It’s a big flop.weather-underground-poster
Rumpus: What interests you about the mall?
Green: This is actually a part of the larger film I’m doing on utopia and the utopian impulse. I liked the material and it seems timely, so I cut a short piece using it. I was going to call it “The World’s Largest Metaphor for Market Capitalism,” but that seemed a bit heavy handed.
Rumpus: But not off the mark, as we now see. What’s the other piece you’re showing?
Green: The other piece is called “Clear Glasses.” A few years ago I got a pair of old glasses in the mail from Mark Rudd, who was in the Weather Underground and in my documentary on the group. He sent them to me as a present. This was the pair of glasses he wore when he turned himself in 1977. I recognized them from news footage of the event. This piece is kind of a poem about the glasses, which I really love.
Rumpus: Tell me more about this “Sundance.” I’ve never made that scene, (or any scene). Is it really a writhing snake pit of sex and deal making like we all think?
Green: I guess in the transcript of this interview you can write (one week pause here while subject snorted lots of coke, hobnobbed intensely, experienced momentary glimpses of the beauty and magic of cinema, and stumbled thru the snowy streets of park city, Utah). Where were we?
Rumpus: Sam, that was the question—what does go on at Sundance anyway? And can anyone go? Is it like what happens in Sundance stays in Sundance, because it is just too arty or because it is just what we’d expect, lap dances by Andy Warhol look-alikes?
Green: It’s a strange place. There are a few different scenes that co-exist. I’ve been a bunch of times and the very first time I was there, I had an epiphany that has stuck w/ me. It was 1997, and I’d made a kooky 40-minute long documentary about the Rainbow Man and sent it off to Sundance because that’s what I thought you were supposed to do w/ a movie, and they wanted to show it, which was a surprise and great. So, I flew to Salt Lake City and got one of those shuttles to Park City, which is about an hour away. In the shuttle were about 8 people, almost all of them strangers, and as we drove, people started to talk. After a while the conversation kind of gelled, everyone in the shuttle participating, except for me. At a certain point in the conversation, it became clear that everyone knew Ralph Macchio and they all had great things to say about him. “Ralph is a great guy” “I love that guy!” “He’s the best.” It was at that moment that I realized that there was something going on there that I was not a part of. Later on at the festival, as I walked around Park City putting up 8 1/2 by 11 Kinko’s fliers for my movie and noticed all the huge 4 color posters for films, I was again struck by the fact that this was a part of the movie world that I somehow wasn’t in.
Rumpus: So was that the dichotomy, those who know Ralph Macchio and those who don’t?
Green: I’m an art movie guy from San Francisco. I don’t really have anything in common w/ the LA movie biz. Or even the NYC movie biz. I’m pretty able to tune those people out.
Despite the fact that that’s the majority of people at a place like Sundance, still there are a fair number of people whose work I like and respect who make the scene. So those are the people I hang out with.
Rumpus: Who are they? What kind of films do they make?
Green: When I was there a few weeks ago, I had a good time with my friends who did the Yes Men movie, a pal named Natalia Almada who made a great doc film called El General about her great grand-father who was president of Mexico in the 1920s, another friend
Alex Rivera who made an amazing science fiction film called Sleep Dealer that will be coming out soon. Also, another person I was really happy to see is Laura Poitras who is a great vérité documentary filmmaker—she’s making a movie right now on Salim Hamdan, which should be super interesting. I also really like many of the programmers and the staff of the festival. I really enjoy people, so running around and seeing a lot of folks I like is a great pleasure for me. Also, there is a fair amount of drugs and alcohol, which I also like.
Rumpus: So, going back a little, you initially went to Sundance with Rainbow Man. That was your first big documentary. What were you doing before that?
Green: Before Rainbow Man? Wow. That’s a big question. I spent my twenties kind of casting about. I had gone to art school, but it didn’t feel right—the art world seemed too disconnected from the rest of the world. So, I stumbled into journalism and randomly got a job doing radio news for WEMU in Ypsilanti, Michigan—my beat was the Ypsilanti City Council. I loved it. Later I moved to NYC and did random jobs. After a few years, I moved to the Bay Area and studied journalism at Berkeley. Had gone in wanting to be a newspaperman but took a video class and totally dug it. The teacher was a guy named Marlon Riggs—a great documentarian who has since passed away. His work made a huge impression on me—he combined a rigorous journalistic approach w/ an experimental film sensibility. Through other students, I got turned on to a whole world of avant-garde film and experimental documentary—stuff I never knew existed. That was a turning point for me. Documentary combined things I liked: a certain engagement w/ the world, a creative interpretation of one’s experiences and sensibility, collaboration, and an intensely social activity.
It’s funny how people stumble into things, and at the time it always seems very coincidental and random. Looking back, I can see a certain logic and fatedness about how I ended where I am.
Rumpus: What draws you to subjects? I mean, they’re a bit diverse: Rainbow Man, Glasses, The Weather Underground, Meredith Hunter, and Utopias.
Green: Probably some kind of visceral smitten-ness w/ an image or a story or a moment. It’s strange—it’s almost like falling in love in that it’s sudden and lasting, but it’s obviously a different feeling.
Rumpus: Can you give an example? How about with the Weather Underground?
Green: With the WU, the inspiration came one day when I was sitting in the Library of Congress doing research for another project. I was waiting for some books to come up and so I started looking up random things in the LOC collection. I had always known something about the WU, and my interest had been piqued: how could you not like glamorous young hippies going underground and trying to overthrow the US government and somehow getting away w/ it. So I was sitting there typing random things into the LOC database, seeing what would come up, and w/ the Weather Underground, there was an entry for a Senate report on the group that had been published in the late 70s and was several hundred pages long. So I requested the book. It came up a few minutes later, and I began thumbing through it. At a certain point, there were several pages of mugshots of the members of the WU, and I just sat there transfixed. The images were so striking.
Rumpus: What was striking?
Green: When you think of the 60s, you generally think of nice smiling hippies, long hair, tie-dye, peace signs. These Weatherpeople were definitely not that. These Weatherpeople looked really HARD. It was jarring. But at the same time, being a middle class white kid myself, I could glimpse traces of the middle class white kids that they were and at the same time were trying to transcend. The images really got under my skin. I put them at the beginning of the film, and they still get me.
Rumpus: So is it image first over narrative, I guess over “idea?”
Green: At some point, I worked as a video editor for the History Channel, and I did one on the Lincoln assassination. It was awful, but in the film, I used some photos of the other Lincoln conspirators—the people who helped Booth—who were hanged at a prison a little bit after the assassination. Before they were hung, someone photographed these people and the photos are unbelievably powerful. There’s something so raw about them, but they are also really beautiful portraits—they almost look like high fashion photos. Have you ever seen those photos? Anyway, the point I’m making is that for myself, images can be haunting, particularly when they represent that kind of dualism—that, for me, creates a tension that resonates, but, over idea? I’m not sure it’s necessary to make that distinction.
Rumpus: It seems to be that image is often such a strong communicator even though that communication is inarticulate—perhaps because it isn’t.
Green: I think that images do arrest one on a much more visceral and emotional level than intellectual. Hell, the smartest communicators in town, advertisers, figured that one out a while ago. It’s so interesting to see TV ads from the 50s and 60s, because they were still trying to logically convince viewers of things: “Tide will get your clothes 70 percent cleaner than Bounty.” The ads are super wooden. At a certain point, someone realized, “Hell, this doesn’t need to make any sense—in fact, the less sense it makes the better. What’s important here is to connect feelings with the product or brand. To do that, we need to communicate in a completely visceral, non-intellectual and non-rational manner.” Coke is It—what the hell does that mean? Anyway, I’m starting to rant—I think you get the point.
Rumpus: You hate ad people—are they documentarians gone bad?
Green: Ad people really have to know their shit. They gotta be good. Or they get fired. So they have lots of incentives to figure out how people operate, how they react to images and sound. It just breaks my heart that so many smart and creative people dedicate so much time and effort to selling us useless shit and making us feel bad. I don’t hate them. Someone should make up a word for the feeling ad people give you.
Rumpus: I love Lot 63, Grave C. It’s such a character piece, it seems to me, with the funeral director, Mr. Wilkes, but obviously the genesis is Meredith Hunter. What drew you to Hunter?
Green: I had come across his name a lot in reading about the 1960s. Altamont, for many people, was the end of “the 60s” and Meredith Hunter was sort of at the center of that symbolism. I never came across anything about him other than his name, age and the fact that he was African-American, and, of course, that he was killed by the Hell’s Angles during a Rolling Stones’ set. Out of curiosity, I started to do research on him and poke around. The only detail I could dig up was the fact that he was buried in a cemetery in Vallejo. I drove out there one day just to see the grave.
Rumpus: What was that like?
Green: Mr. Wilkes, had never heard of Meredith Hunter before, so he consulted an old filing cabinet and came up with the grave’s location: Garden of Terrace Lawn, lot 63, grave c. He offered to walk me and my friend out there—otherwise, he said, we’d never find it. After traversing the cemetery, when we finally got to Meredith Hunter’s grave—I don’t want to spoil the movie by saying too much, but it did confirm my sense that although Meredith Hunter lives on as a symbol, as an individual, he’s been pretty much forgotten. In death, he’s never had the dignity of his own identity.
Rumpus: So that seems very different than talking about image. That’s an idea of dignity and identity. What does connect your diverse subjects?
Green: There was the image of the grave, but I guess I’d say each of the films I’ve made has been inspired by some concrete moment of feeling—sparked usually by an image or a story or a situation. My work definitely comes out of emotions that usually don’t make complete sense to me at the time but somehow linger. Often making the film is a way to get a clearer understanding of that phenomenon. Usually by the time I’m done w/ the film, I understand what it was that drew me in the first place.
Rumpus: Is it possible to say, and here I’m just thinking of your sense of connection with Weather Underground suburban white kids or Meredith Hunter who disappears into the background of history—maybe like documentarians in general—could your films really be about you?
Green: “Hell yeah!” It always cracks me up to see documentary filmmakers and the subjects they choose. It says so much about the maker him or herself. So, I’ll cop to it. Yes, definitely, I can look at my movies and see a lot of myself running through them. (I’m not always crazy about that, but that’s a different conversation). Documentary filmmakers are generally shy people. I am. We use other people to say things for us that we, on some level, would like to say ourselves. I am not judgmental about this, and I’m not saying this in a cynical manner. It’s just the way things are. I think that you can use people to say things that you would want to say yourself, and still be accurate and fair and there’s nothing morally or ethically suspect about it.
Rumpus: Like interviewing. So what about Rainbow Man?
Green: With The Rainbow Man, I definitely saw some of myself in that character: the profound need he had for affirmation; his hunger for it; his consuming search for something to make his life meaningful. The Weather Underground people too. Although I related to them in different ways. It’s probably true w/ most artists though—you can see them in the work, even if it isn’t overtly autobiographical.
Rumpus: Archival footage seems to take a prominent role in your films—obviously in Rainbow Man, lot 63, and The Weather Underground, all historical pieces but it is also there in the overall effect of N-Judah 5:30, which seems to be shot in 8mm—and they often seem to stand up, sometimes jarring or poignant in their juxtaposition with modern footage. Could you talk about that?
Green: I’m super into archival footage, and sometimes really fall in love w/ stuff. It may sound weird, but it’s true. You know that feeling when you see the face of someone you love—sometimes it can fill you w/ a kind of boundless joy—a pleasure that’s almost too much, like getting tickled or something like that. Anyway, I sometimes have those feelings for certain pieces of footage; I love them.
Rumpus: So you’ve been working on this long documentary about Utopias. Do you ever feel moments of insecurity when you’re involved in something so monumental and time consuming and can’t turn back?
Green: Of course! The only way to deal with insecurity is to keep working, and I’ve been working in a disciplined way lately, which makes me happy. I’m editing three hours every morning. (and other stuff the rest of the day). I finished a rough-cut of my utopia movie and am looking at it and figuring out how to fill some holes and/or develop certain ideas. One thing I’m wrestling w/ at the moment is trying to figure out a way to evoke the exuberance of utopia at one or more points in the film. A friend of mine who is very good w/ feedback pointed out to me recently that the film doesn’t really do that at this point—that is such an important piece of this. Why is the utopian impulse such an attractive thing? Why has it inspired so much (both good and bad)? So I’m trying to figure out how to do that. . . . perhaps finding a letter from someone in the throes of the Russian revolution (early on, before things went awry) articulating a certain hope and imagination. Horace Greeley writing something about the utopian settlement he was involved with . . .
Rumpus: It seems to me that Utopias are not altogether unlike the aspiration of art itself. Is this about you again? Aren’t you too looking to make a better world?
Green: It’s a bit hard to talk about all of this. It’s hard to say, “Yes, I’m looking to make a better world.” I don’t know why exactly. For a long time, I was unable to cop to the A-word at all. I would not say that I was an artist. Perhaps it’s the weird low self esteem mishigas of someone of the generation I belong to. I was cleaning up my office recently and found a newspaper I had saved—an obit for David Foster Wallace in the NY Times. There was a paragraph I’d circled: “In response to a question about what being an American was like for him at the end of the 20th century, he told the online magazine Salon in 1996 that there was something sad about it, but not as a reaction to the news or current events. ‘It’s more like a stomach level sadness,” he said. ‘I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness.’” That really resonated w/ me. Obviously, DFW had his own issues, but I think he gets at something keen there. I think that w/ a lot of my work, and especially this utopia project, I am trying to find away out of that feeling. Not escaping into banality or a kind of Pollyannaish worldview, but figuring out some way to be clear-eyed about the world and all of its tragedy and fleetingness but at the same time be able to access joy and beauty and hope. Utopia is an intersection of all of that that I really like. I do think that utopia and the utopian impulse both involve the imagination and a certain amount of creativity—sometimes joy and exuberance as well. Art obviously, can be very tied up in these same things.
Rumpus: I do want to ask what you thought of all that Bill Ayers/Weather Underground b.s. thrown down by the GOP. The guilt by association with Obama was ridiculous, but what do you think about Ayers—once a terrorist always a terrorist?bavc-30thanniversaryvideosamgreen820-869
Green: Me and my pal Bill Siegel made the documentary about the Weather Underground together and during the course of that project we filmed a number of interviews w/ Bill Ayers. Since that time, he’s become a good friend of ours. We took him and Bernardine Dohrn, his wife, with us to the Academy Awards in 2004. So it was hard to see all that and not feel terrible for the person at the center of it. After his long-ago association with the Weather Underground, Bill has gone to become a widely known and respected education expert. He’s a distinguished professor at the University of Illinois and has written more than 10 books. To have all of his work, and what he’s about, so publicly misrepresented was extremely painful for him. Not to mention the fact that he received such a torrent of death threats that the University has had to provide him with a bodyguard.
All of this was compounded by the fact that Bill had to remain silent. He made the decision that there was no way to engage with the media and win. Anything he might have said publicly would only add fuel to the fire, and give the “issue” more of a life. There really was nothing, or at least nothing significant, at the heart of the Ayers-Obama connection, so it had to run out of steam at some point.
Rumpus: You must have had some attention yourself, with the nomination in 2004—obviously you were now something of an expert on the WU.
Green: Starting when this “issue” first surfaced in the MSM during one of the Democratic debates, we were bombarded by media requests (no pun intended), but felt that for strategic and political reasons it was best to stay silent. It wasn’t an easy decision—any filmmaker wants their work out there, and this in some ways would have been a great opportunity to promote the movie.
Rumpus: Is there anything you take away? I mean, it seems like such a ridiculous historical glitch, something that you yourself might appreciate 40 years from now.
Green: Not really a glitch, I don’t think. That kind of political bear-baiting is all too common, but as depressing as the whole Bill Ayers thing was, I am hopeful about one thing, and that is that it didn’t work. It already seems like a long time ago. Bill was able to pop off a lot after the election (it was incredible to hear the phrase “US imperialism ” dropped on Good Morning America). Bill Siegel and I hung out w/ him a few weeks ago in Chicago, and he seemed in good spirits. He spoke at St. Mary’s College around here recently and there were 500 people there. In his opening remarks he said, “Had it not been for the recent presidential campaign, there would be 22 of you here.” So he’s got a sense of humor about the whole thing.
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