A Conversation With Alexander Olch (THE WINDMILL MOVIE)
[NOTE: This conversation was first posted in June 2009 when The Windmill Movie was released theatrically at the Film Forum in New York City.]
Alexander Olch always wanted to be a narrative filmmaker. He maintained this focus at Harvard, an institution known for its leanings towards personal, experimental nonfiction. But after graduating, his mentor, the acclaimed filmmaker Richard P. Rogers, died. Shortly after that, a seemingly innocent request by Rogers’ wife, Susan Meiselas, sparked a years-in-the-making project that would turn out to be Olch’s first feature film, The Windmill Movie (read the Hammer to Nail review here). Culled from the footage of an ever-evolving project that Rogers couldn’t ever seem to finish, The Windmill Movie is an extraordinarily sweeping portrait of an artist as he grapples with issues of privilege, creative confusion, and love. We sat down with Olch the morning of his film’s theatrical release in New York City, only to discover that the process of making The Windmill Movie provided Olch with the same challenges that kept Rogers from ever finishing his film.
H2N: When did you first pick up a camera?
AO: I made some animation in the summer of second and third grade. We actually had a film festival at my day camp.
AO: And we had tickets. I went to a day camp so we were in Manhattan and we invited our parents and we literally had a film festival. Shot in Super-8, animation. They gave us little cameras and I did a little film of an Olympics. So I drew the oval of these track runners that were running around—this was my first lesson in making something—so then I drew the guy to run. But if you think about it graphically, if you draw this guy and it was little cut-outs, he runs along the bottom of the oval, if he’s gonna come to the top of the oval you need to flip him around and make him go the other way. I hadn’t done that. So I decided he would then backwards somersault through the rest of it. That was the very first time I started addressing a technical filmmaking reality.
H2N: That’s early!
AO: That was pretty young, now that I think about it. I actually knew my way around a Super-8 camera. I guess we were shooting at sixteen frames-per-second or something and I understood that concept pretty quickly. And then there was a Super-8 film group in my grade school, which I was a part of in the fourth grade and the fifth grade. I do remember shooting stuff then. I guess my first real formal film was in the seventh grade. I made a film called Soaked, which is actually not so bad. That made it to the finals of the New York National High School Film Festival!
H2N: Look at you!
AO: I fancied myself quite the director then.
AO: At that point I knew I wanted to be a film director. I did not think that I would study film, though. I went to a place like Harvard not even thinking I would take any film classes, and didn’t even think there was a film department there. I guess your loves find you, and so after freshman year I felt I needed to apply to the intro film class and go for it. It just seemed like the thing I wanted to do. I thought maybe I’d be studying history or literature or other things more connected to writing and storytelling, but I just wanted to get my hands on a camera and start making stuff.
I found myself in this department that I knew nothing about. It is, essentially, a nonfiction film department. The people there are Ross McElwee, Rob Moss, Dick Rogers, Robert Gardner, all great documentary filmmakers. And so everything was geared around the notion that basically you’re a smart guy going out into the world with a camera and you’re gonna figure out how to tell the story through that. There were no classes on lighting, no classes on editing, no classes on writing. It wasn’t structured like a film school would do it. I was definitely rebelling against that because I used to wear like a suit and fedora fancying myself like Fritz Lang. (H2N laughs) I really did associate filmmaking with a very romantic, old, 1920s/‘30s/‘40s idea of both cinema and what a film director looked like in those days. That was certainly a part of my romance with film.
H2N: Beyond the look, were you more narratively inclined in a filmmaking sense?
H2N: Who were your biggest inspirations at that time?
AO: My biggest love then was, and still is, Max Ophuls. If you say that, for example, in the verite, nonfiction film community, it’s a bit of a strange thing.
H2N: At that point you’re the weirdo.
AO: Right. That’s quite off base in that environment. There was a notion of capturing reality. They would show you films like Seventeen. Killer of Sheep was presented as an example of fiction filmmaking. So no one was showing The Godfather or anything like that, and that sort of attitude was certainly frowned upon. Even the notion that I wanted to go study theater history, and read hundreds of plays, I found no support there. I had to actually go to the theater department and do that independently. So it was very strange. But here I am right now having made a very personal film that follows in the forms and traditions of their program. I never thought that would happen.
H2N: Well let’s get into that, actually. When you graduated college, did you have any specific projects in mind?
AO: I won a grant at school with Dick to make a documentary about Orson Welles’ time in Spain as a young man. So almost as a strategic move, I felt as a young filmmaker coming out of school—at that point I had sold one short to Bravo and IFC, and I had another short that was making festival rounds—I felt that I needed to produce a film at low cost. What I’d learned through documentary was that if you can stay away from the lights and the actors and the sets, if you could find a way to tell the story with just the camera, then you can do it inexpensively. And so, not so much because I was burning to make a documentary, but simply because I had a good idea to make one—this Welles idea—and sort of the know-how now to do it, that’s what I was going for. So Dick was my supervisor/producer. And that project was a go, but then the usual problems started happening and then Dick was too sick to step in and guide me through that. Without him around, I kind of lost faith in that project and started looking for other things to do. I wrote a couple scripts for some other companies, never completing a project. Then Susan called me and this project started, and it gradually overtook everything else I was working on.
H2N: When that call came from Susan, were you skeptical right away or was it more casual than that?
AO: Oh, no, the call was quite innocent. I randomly ended up moving into an apartment down the block from Dick’s loft. And so after his funeral I left a note under Susan’s door saying, “Hope all is well, I actually live down the block, let me know if you need anything.” A couple months went by and she said, “I really appreciate your note. I actually do have a favor to ask. Dick’s Avid is broken and I was looking for someone who might be able to figure out how to get it turned on ‘cause I’m trying to clean up all his stuff.” So I went in there. The hard drives were plugged in wrong so I figured out how to fix it, booted up the system, and then up came this active Avid project with all this weird and beautiful footage that’s all landscapes in the Hamptons, kids playing tennis, and I said, “What is this?” She said, “Well, it’s this project he was working on. We’re not sure how far along he got with it,” and she asked what I was doing for the next couple days and asked if I could watch some of it and tell her if I thought there was something there. And that’s how it started.
The first couple weeks I had the idea that I could maybe just cut something together for his friends just so that they could see what he was up to and give some sort of closure to things, since they had seen a lot of him with a camera and he had filmed a lot of them. People just wanted to know what was going on. Only as I kept watching more stuff, ‘cause there really was so much of it, was there a feeling that maybe something more could be done with this. And first it was that maybe it would be twenty minutes, or maybe thirty minutes, or maybe forty minutes, and then, well maybe there’s really a film here. And that took maybe a good four, to eight, to twelve months to gradually become clear. What wasn’t clear was what the film would be, how it would work, or anything like that. But the idea to make a film out of this was my idea. And my lunacy to have stuck with it and insist there was a film.
H2N: Was Susan reacting to your enthusiasm, trusting you as a student and friend of Dick’s when you suggested there was a legitimate film in there?
AO: Yeah. What’s great about Susan is that she is an artist. She didn’t expect rational explanations of things. She trusted instincts and that’s how she works. And so when she felt that I was on to something and that I felt I needed to take it in a certain direction or watch new things, she was very supportive of that. And that really allowed for a pretty good working relationship in terms of me being able to experiment in many different directions and trust that I would find the film.
H2N: Where do you begin with all that footage? Did you take notes? Did you draw up an outline? Even thinking about that concept makes me quiver.
AO: The project kept evolving so I guess at first I thought I was just following his lead, that, “Okay, there’s a film somewhere in the Hamptons, that’s what we’re doing.” I tried my best with that, and then the problem Dick talks about, that’s in The Windmill Movie, is that there’s no center to that film and the center to the film has to be Dick. That’s the problem I figured out, which took quite a few months to realize, “Okay, these landscapes are not really interesting unto themselves. They’re interesting because they’re interesting to Dick. They’re interesting because he chose to shoot them.” So that becomes a trickier filmmaking problem because that means Dick is your main character. Now, he left very little footage of himself, either in voice or in image with other people shooting or shooting himself, which made it very difficult to create him as a main character. I would say the biggest conundrum I was in was how could I make that film when the star was unavailable for more shooting.
One idea was Susan, that she would be a narrator. One idea was that I would be a narrator. One idea was that all his friends would be narrators. We would shoot interviews with all his friends and that sea of voices would do it. Then this Wally (Wallace Shawn) idea came up. Really, the project was changing every couple months: it was clear that the Susan idea didn’t quite work, it wouldn’t really work as a “my name is Alex and I’m this student trying to make this film,” that would be too self-referential and wouldn’t work either. There was a very long, long path of figuring out how this thing would work. Including much more extensive fiction work with Wally, but that stuff started being overwhelming and didn’t work with the story that was starting to emerge. I didn’t really start writing the narration that’s now in the film until four years in.
H2N: That’s crazy. The way it opens is great. Dick was obviously well aware of this project’s risk of devolving into cliché and self-absorption. That’s what the movie’s about, in fact: would he have ever finished? Should he have ever finished? Was that something you decided to address and place at the beginning, to acknowledge this dilemma?
AO: It seemed that not only was it a good idea to confront the self-referential question early, but there was just an amazing energy in that scene. And we redid some shots through a viewfinder, so it’s even more intimate. There was something really mysterious about jumping in at that point and you see this guy who has clearly been shooting many hours before. One key thing that I tried to do, which I think is a traditional storytelling rule: I tried to stay ahead of the story. That’s a good example of that, of cutting out a bunch of other stuff and jumping right in. And that in a way becomes an even more compelling introduction to him, as he’ confronting this question that we haven’t even realized is the question we want to ask.
H2N: How many eyes did you get along the way? For a project like this, that seems really important but also potentially problematic.
AO: In terms of eyes, I spent the first three years, I guess, working with mostly with Susan and Corey Shaff. He edited about twelve of Dick’s films. I would meet with them maybe every couple months and show them what I was up to and they would basically give me their thoughts and suggestions. In the last couple years it was more Susan and David Grubin, who is a great documentary filmmaker. He’s now a producer of the film. And so I would meet often with Susan and David. And then I would also show it to—see, the interesting thing about me trying to figure out how to tell the story is that the source material for the story is really Susan and all of Dick’s friends. The way in which I would further the discussion—especially because I was treading on sensitive territory in the romantic relationships—the way I would earn people’s trust was to show them what I was working on. If I said to them, “Can you just tell me when Dick’s affair was?” That didn’t go over very well. But if I showed them a cut of something I was doing that covered some of that material, it then became apparent that was important for the film and it was gonna work. The act of showing the film in progress was the way of getting people to share the stories that I needed to tell the story.
H2N: Did you ever show it to people who had no connection to the story?
AO: We did, but it was a tricky enterprise because the project always was taken quite seriously by Dick’s friends. So that was a very important factor, certainly in Susan’s mind, that Dick’s friends felt okay about what was going on. So, yes, Ross McElwee and Rob Moss watched it many times and gave amazing notes. Yet, they were also really good friends of Dick. There was a weird way in which a lot of his good friends are amazing filmmakers, and those are most of the amazing filmmakers that I would show anything to. And so it was a very weird thing because the first line of everybody’s emails would say, “I may be way off on this because we’re talking about my friend here.” So everybody, be it Dick or me, all his friends had some kind of self-referential issue with this film, which is a kind of interesting thing about it. Everybody felt too close to it.
H2N: I’ve heard you talk about how difficult it was to craft a film out of footage of Dick at his most somber and self-reflective, when in a social context he was so gregarious and charming. Did you ever think about trying to find a way to insert that into the film and show viewers how charming he could be?
AO: It was very hard. I mean the trust that I had for feeling that it was gonna work out, that the film was gonna be fine, was that Dick was such a charming guy and any film that’s about him must be charming and it will be good. Yet he didn’t take the charming side of himself very seriously. Or, to put it another way, he didn’t deem that charming side of himself to be what should be captured on film. There’s even a scene that’s not in the film where he has a buddy of his—David Grubin, actually—videotaping him, and David asked him is the film gonna be funny, and he said, “Well a lot of my friends have said, ‘Oh, you’re a WASP Woody Allen, just put yourself in the film and it’s gonna be hilarious.’” But he’s so serious about saying that, and there’s no other footage to support that, that if that was in the film it would be even more absurd. It would come across the wrong way. So I was stuck with this reality. Here’s this guy who was known by friends as one of the most charming people they’d ever met. But that doesn’t get us anywhere in terms of making a film. I just had to dispense with that and do my best to put in anything charming I could find, but really not lose a lot of sleep over that.
One of the reasons for seeking out Wally was an effort to inject comedy or some kind of lightness into the proceedings. We shot plenty of material with him and Bob Balaban that’s hilarious and yet the simple variable of comedy wasn’t the issue here. When you put a lot of that material in, it just seemed to pale in comparison to the emotional power and genuineness of what Dick was going through. It was a very tricky enterprise. It seemed to me that someone looking at, say, the films you watched last night, 226-1690 and Elephants: Fragments of an Argument, would similarly not convey that that guy was an amazingly captivating person. You would think he’s probably quite serious. I just went with that feeling and said, “Well, this guy’s making personal, experimental films, this is what he was doing, and he is not available for more shooting, and there’s no way I’m gonna be able to change that, and so the best is to play the cards that I’m dealt.” And this film is very much about playing cards that you’re dealt.
H2N: If you’d done the talking heads like, “Dick was…,” you’re not gonna convey it.
AO: Right. So my feeling was, okay, some viewers may feel that he’s a little too self-absorbed. At the end of the day, that’s the way it’s gonna be. And I think Dick would be at one with that. I’m definitely at one with that. And I think that’s one of the nice things about the film. It doesn’t try to bend over backwards and hold your hand and make you feel one thing or another. The thing that I like about Dick as a character is that he’s so contradictory on any level. If you find one person who says he’s self-absorbed, you can find one person who says he’s amazingly charming. One person says the film in the Hamptons was gonna be great, another person would look at the footage and say, “It’s just landscapes, there’s nothing there.” That he was really rich from his family, yet he didn’t have much money. Everything about him as a character is fascinating because there are two sides to it. That’s very hard to find, so I was immediately drawn to that.
In general, what I felt was an overarching feeling looming over these boxes of incompletion. Whether it’s an emotional feeling or some kind of duty or whatever, I felt that I wanted to investigate all the unfinished things Dick left. For example, there is an unfinished film called Balloons, which has all this hot air balloon footage in it. That was a separate film. There was also a separate, unfinished film called Places, about his trip to Haiti, and one called Foot Film. And I took footage from all of these things and in a way took the liberty of making it feel like that’s all Windmill, that Windmill represents all of these things that he left unfinished in his life. It seemed to me that, with the finished films–Pictures From a Revolution, any of the PBS documentaries—that was not the part of him that was consumed in making this film. That part was the artist who had been making 226 and Elephants and Quarry, and to stay on that path was what I was gonna do in terms of selecting material. That was how I came up with those sets of decisions.
H2N: And now here we are. How does that feel?
AO: For many years, I was getting made fun of by my friends for not being able to finish this film! It kind of became my own albatross. So to have it finished, to have it premiere at the New York Film Festival, and now to have it coming out theatrically, distributed by The Film Desk, is a dream come true.
— Michael Tully