Filmmaker Focus: Stephen Wetzel | Ann Arbor Film Festival
"My specific interest in non-fiction is a little more complicated but, put simply, I tend to read a lot of non-fiction, almost exclusively, and I took many courses in anthropology that kind of blew my mind, so for whatever reason non-fiction -- which does not negate imagination, the fantastical, awe, etc. -- appeals to me. My first "serious" non-fiction work came really as a challenge. I was teaching a course on the subject, and I just decided that I should make what I was teaching.
Regionalism. I'm attracted to the Midwest and its weirdness and its pace. I guess like any location it's rife with contradiction and all its ensuing tension. The winters, long and gray, force one inside, on a chair in a room alone, maybe with a book, or just with one's thoughts, if of course one has time for such lounging -- or brooding.…
I'm trapped in my editing room right now (really a small bedroom) with a space heater. Maybe this is it for me, or maybe I've embraced my own limits. Regions make people, and I accept what this place has made of me.
SW: I always start by viewing all of the material, which defines the limits of the project. I rarely think in terms of what I might be able to add or shoot later that might augment the edit and instead proceed to "mine" the material, always treating it as if it is not my own.
I simply watch every second of the material and take close notes, tons of notes, jotting down all of the language and general impressions I'm having about the footage. As ideas come to me I write them in the margins, so there's the literal transcript of the material (language, scene description), and my take on it, my interpretation, my "What's going on here?" commentary or inquiry.
After my first viewing I tend to watch it all again (in the case of From the Archives I was dealing with 10 or 12 hours of footage) and I continue to make notes, after which I scour the notes and find common themes, circle them, make some more general notes, and then sketch out a timeline, a rough trajectory of the edit. Often times I know what the beginning and ending shots are AS I'm watching the material for the first time. I say, "That's it, that's my beginning, and there's my final shot, now how do I get from there to here?"
The structure for this sort of editing, aside form the eureka moment in discovering the beginning and end, comes from a course I took on Research Methods in Anthropology by Professor Paul Brodwin at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
DD: Methods intended for enthographic films?
SW: No. It was intended for ethnography: writing about people. In my case it involved collecting data on TV engineers in the sub-basement of the nursing building at UWM.
DD: How does he feel about your piece?
SW: He doesn't seem interested. He's 84, and he just seems happy to have people taking him seriously. He gave Dan and I permission to do what we will, and in return we'll share any resources we gain. I gave him the award money from Ann Arbor Film Festival, and he was totally grateful.
His handshake is like a vise. He practices age-regressive hypnosis and I believe in it after shaking his hand. You know the shot where he presses his finger to his temple and does some conjuring, that's what he does -- still does it. I may be under his command.
DD: but your portrait, however it is tethered to this particular individual, also opens the piece up to a larger depiction of a culture, with some notions of gender implied...
SW: Yes. Yes. I start with details, specifics, a chunk of time, or an event, or an individual, and I scrutinize its small bits, always with the aim of finding threads that indicate something larger at work.
I tell people I'm a social constructionist (not my term), and out of that identification comes a commitment (or inclination) to locating that which is taken for granted, natural, or context-independent and pointing at, hinting at, the various ways in which we have before us, in fact, a web.