A Conversation With Jeff Deutchman (11/4/08)
In the weeks leading up to the 2008 Presidential election, I received an email from Jeff Deutchman, who I first got to know through his job working in acquisitions at IFC Films. Sensing history was about to be made in a major way, Deutchman was sending out a plea to friends and filmmakers asking them to document the day of 11/4/08 in whatever way they deemed fit. Sixteen months later, the results of that call—labeled in the film’s opening title card as an act of “Consensual Cinema”—an 80-minute documentary, 11/4/08, was world premiering at the 2010 SXSW Film Festival. 11/4/08 is a truly provocative cinematic experiment, which promises to stir up conflicting emotions from one day to the next, depending on which way our government is currently blowing. Crediting himself as a ‘curator’ as opposed to a ‘director,’ Deutchman is also firmly committed to making the film’s official website, www.11-4-08.com, become more than a marketing tool for his film. He hopes to make it a valuable audio/visual resource for that historic day. While in Austin, I sat down with Deutchman to discuss the project’s gestation from the spark of an idea to an actual feature film.
Hammer to Nail: So, Mr. Jeff Deutchman, how does it feel to be here as a filmmaker as opposed to an acquisitioner?
Jeff Deutchman: It feels weird and good. It’s not like I’ve always secretly been coveting to become a filmmaker. But, I love movies, so I’m interested in pursuing multiple angles of the business. You know what it’s like to straddle different roles yourself.
H2N: You didn’t go to school for film production, right? But was it at least film related?
JD: I studied theory and history. Initially I went to school for production and slowly realized that I wasn’t really a technical guy. I was more into ideas.
H2N: But you did have that thought at some point, at least.
JD: Yeah. I just enjoyed watching movies and writing about them more than I enjoyed making them for a while. Although, I guess what I’ve discovered is that I dabbled in documentaries in college too, on the side after school, and that’s the one genre that I seem to enjoy production-wise. I like collaborative projects, I like working with other people and obviously, in this case, coming up with a conceit that very much depends on collaboration with people.
H2N: So the idea for this film really came just weeks before the election, as opposed to something you’d been mulling over for a long time?
JD: The way it started, I think, was pretty earnest on my part. I was swept up in the emotion of that moment and wanted to engage with it in some way. And not just in the typical ways. I volunteered and donated, but I wanted to do something that related more to what I know, which is film. It was always a balancing act, because I didn’t know how far I would end up taking it. I didn’t know what kind of footage I would get. I didn’t know if people would take it seriously. So I wanted to keep it a secret from certain people just in case it didn’t work out. But at the same time I needed people to shoot footage. It was a strange combination of things.
H2N: How wide a net did you cast? I remember getting the email but don’t remember if you did a blind cc or if names were attached. Like, 30 people ? Or way more than that?
JD: I emailed hundreds of people and Facebook messaged hundreds of people. I probably left certain people off selectively, just based on relationships and conflicts of interest. It’s funny because over the last couple years, people have come up to me at certain points being like, “I didn’t know you were making a movie,” and I could have sworn I’d told them at some point. (H2N laughs) I couldn’t keep track of who I told and who I didn’t. Initially, I would say 50 people, or maybe a little less, expressed interest in filming. And then eventually I guess it was 30 or 35 people ended up submitting footage. And then 26 filmmakers made the cut.
H2N: I think I know one of those who didn’t make the cut! (Note: My abstract attempt to document the day for Deutchman, which included a dull 35-minute walk from Ditmas Park to my Park Slope polling station, was wisely left on the cutting room floor.) Along those lines, I guess I can see why Frank’s footage didn’t make it in but, man, that’s some honest shit! (Watch this.)
JD: That’s not to say that the footage I didn’t use was worthless. My first cut was five hours long. I mean, that was more of an assembly than a cut. Frank V. Ross was really the only person who submitted Republican footage. And I wanted to use it, but when I dropped it into the timeline, the way it played, it felt like I was making fun of the characters, because they were so lonely amidst a sea of Obama supporters. While the film very easily could have been about “Obama vs. McCain,” due to the footage I received it became more about something else, and Frank’s footage really didn’t fit.
H2N: You’re working with a natural timeline in this film, capturing the day from morning to night. Even though we know who’s going to win, it’s clear that the way to tell this story is to return us to that day and build the tension of the moment. That said, how do you even begin to assemble this thing? Is it literally sticking everything together and then picking the best footage from like, 8am, 9am, 10am, and onward, and piecing it together that way?
JD: It was definitely always my intention to make it chronological. But within that, you can take certain liberties, obviously. And I don’t even know exactly when each shot was filmed. But you can roughly piece it together based on the lighting and what people are talking about and the TVs in the background. And so initially I did it as strictly chronological as I possibly could. After that, it became more about structure and making subtle changes in the order of things that made it build better. And also, there was a critical juncture after my first cut where I showed it to somebody who’s not in film and he had a very violent reaction to the movie that I think was very much based on what was going on in the world then—this was about a year after the election. While I had tried, even then, in my style to be unobtrusive and ambivalent, he was the one that made me realize that I had to be willing to make some editorial choices that would counter a lot of the Obamamania that was going on in the movie. And so I had to make certain structural choices that went along with that.
H2N: And with that are you talking about the European flavor, the guarded optimism that they brought to the table? Or was that something that had always been in there?
JD: That was always in. Actually, I would say that there’s a pretty equal balance with that footage. Some of the Europeans are cynical, some are just as over the moon as the Americans, and then there are some cynical Americans. But it was more about the ordering of some of the footage and doing unexpected things where someone voices a cynical opinion—there are some Republicans and Libertarians in the film, though not very many—and where they could have come off as being jokes in the context of the movie, I tried in some cases even to complement their statements with footage that supported what they were trying to say. It’s not that I want to be neutral, because I am very much on the left. But the Republicans that I left in the film are the ones that were reasonable and articulate and had something to add to the theme of the film, which, as I said, was less about “Obama vs. McCain” than it was about whether Obama truly represents historical change.
H2N: This seems like a particularly tricky film to call picture lock on. Like many filmmakers I’ve talked to, was this a case of getting your first festival acceptance and having that concrete deadline?
JD: There two answers to that question. In terms of the film that’s here, that you’re seeing, I would say there did come a point, shortly before I knew it was gonna be at South By, when I’d shown it to enough people and had gotten enough conflicting notes about it. It had reached a point where any further notes were almost in conflict with each other, and I just realized, “Okay, people are gonna disagree about this, but I’ve gotten to a point where I think the disagreement is in a good place.” At a certain point, I had to do what I thought was right. So I became happy with it then.
The second answer to the question is that it’s an ongoing project, and so there’s a sense in which this particular film is never finished. We’re continuing to collect footage on the website and the hope is that it will give birth to new projects that could involve the footage that’s in my movie, or it might be entirely new footage.
H2N: So how did yesterday’s screening go? In answering that last question, it’s clear that you tested the film and showed it to a lot of people along the way. Was the public world premiere reaction similar to what you were anticipating or expecting?
JD: It was pretty much in line with what I expected. There was a bit of a controversial Q&A, which is a good thing. In some ways it’s a hard project to talk about because there’s this distinction between the film that exists now and the website and what could exist in the future. But someone raised a legitimate point about the lack of diversity of types of filmmakers. She made a comment about how we all looked the same—which I assume meant we were all white, ‘cause there were some guys and girls on stage. That’s a legitimate point, and it’s something I’m trying to correct with the larger project.
H2N: I hear that, but to me, looking at it from a filmmaking angle, this is one of those cases where you can’t separate the ethically ideal situation from the practical factors involved in making something in this way. Like, does that mean unless you have a filmmaker from every single country and ethnicity represented then you’re being biased?
JD: Now that you mention it, one way of looking at it is that you can level that accusation at lots of white documentarians making films about black subject matter. And usually it’s one white filmmaker. And in this case, because I’ve attempted to give up my authority a little bit and have it be more of a collaborative project, I guess there’s more of an expectation that there would be more different kinds of people. But the reality is that there are more different kinds of people than there would be if it was just me. So if the criticism is just that I don’t have enough black friends, that’s probably true. I wish I had more. (both laugh)
H2N: When you talk about the ongoing project online, are you going to keep this as a stand-alone, untouchable feature, or are you even open to continuing to tinker with that?
JD: I’m open to ideas. All I know right now is that footage is being submitted as we speak, and I definitely want that footage to be available for people to download and do whatever they want with it through a creative commons license. So that’s definitely happening. Whether my film’s footage gets incorporated into that in some way I think depends on what opportunities exist for it. But I would love to see the film live, at some point, on the internet, so that it can become a living, breathing document. The only downside of that is that I don’t want to be working on this project for the rest of my life. (H2N laughs) Hopefully the site will take on a life of its own.
H2N: At what point did you know that you had this movie in this form? Was there a certain compilation of scenes or even one interview when you could say, “This is a feature documentary,” as opposed to just dumping it straight onto the internet?
JD: When you say ‘straight to the internet,’ do you mean like a series of clips?
H2N: I mean like a looser presentation of raw, uploaded footage.
JD: I never wanted it to be just that because then it’s almost like, “What’s the difference between this and what already exists on YouTube and Vimeo?” So I think it’s important to have some organization to it. Right now, a lot of footage exists out there, but there’s no way to see it all in one place, and I think that makes it have less meaning, when it’s scattered and hard to find. The film is my version of events. It reflects my point-of-view on what happened. And as far as that goes, I don’t know what platform is best for the film to be seen on, but I definitely felt like it had to be feature-length. It could have been 60 minutes, it could still be 60 minutes.
H2N: But not like, “This must be 90 minutes!”
JD: Right. But in terms of the website, my hope is that there’s still a difference between that and the YouTube and Vimeo footage. It’s almost like, if the internet is considered a library, having one website devoted to one day is a way to make it an index card in that library, where you can easily find everything. It becomes a resource.
H2N: Was there a specific shot or scene when you knew your hunch was correct and that you had a valid movie on your hands?
JD: As I was collecting the footage, I went back-and-forth between thinking I had a movie and thinking I had nothing. There were times when I watched footage and was like, “Oh, man, this is so awesome.” But it wasn’t that simple. For example, when I watched Benh Zeitlin’s New Orleans footage, he got some amazing footage, but he only filmed I think it was 20 minute’s worth. And so there was this big question in my head of how I could weave it together in a way that made sense. I knew that it couldn’t be a Spellbound approach where you follow certain characters throughout the whole movie and return to them. It was a big question mark for a long time, but it was only when I started placing it all in the timeline and then whittling it down that it really came together. When I initially put together the five-hour assembly I figured that’s probably what it should be as an assembly, because that meant that hopefully it eventually would be 70 minutes and would be the most compelling footage that exists in there.
— Michael Tully