A Conversation With Michael Jacobs (AUDIENCE OF ONE)
World premiering at the South by Southwest Film Festival in 2007 where it won a Special Jury Prize, Michael Jacobs’ Audience of One was threatening to become one of those lost gems that non-festival audiences were never going to see. Fortunately, two years later, the film is finally getting the distribution that it deserves through Indiepix (you can buy the DVD there right now). Audience of One follows Richard Gazowsky, a San Francisco pastor of the Voice of Pentecost Church, who is on a mission to create a 70mm sci-fi blockbuster that he describes as “Star Wars meets The Ten Commandments.” The only problem is that Gazowsky has never made a film, let alone seen very many. Dealing with material that could have veered into outright satire and condescension, Jacobs shows a commendable measure of restraint. The result is a hilarious and fascinating document of early 21st century America at its most outrageous and bizarre. In this conversation, Jacobs humbly looks back on the production of his debut feature before speaking with refreshing and remarkable frankness about the current indie film landscape. (Also, be sure to watch Jacobs’ engaging web series, American Dreamers, in which he travels the country to present small documentary portraits of some of the country’s most intriguing characters.)
H2N: So, you world premiered Audience of One in the spring of 2007, which is when we first met. Now here we are talking to each other almost exactly two year later, on the occasion of the film’s theatrical release. What took so friggin’ long, wiseguy?
MJ: (laughs) I know. I wonder the same thing. I don’t know what took so long, it’s just part of the nature of the independent film system, part of it is just timing, and maybe the film itself. Initially, I thought we were gonna get some kind of distribution sooner, but I’ve learned a lot about the film in the time that it’s taken to go from premiere to theatrical release. Not that my perception of the film has changed that much, per se, but maybe it is a little less viable than I thought it was when I was making it and soon after the premiere. And I think a big part of it too is that ultimately it’s pretty niche and it’s not for everyone.
H2N: But it did seem like you came out of the box winning jury awards and getting into New Directors and all that, and everyone I knew was talking about it. Or did that perhaps contribute to a sense of elevated expectations?
MJ: I think it did maybe elevate my expectations, for sure. The festival run we had exceeded any expectations. I didn’t even know what a festival run meant. I came to filmmaking late and I didn’t really go to film school and I didn’t know a whole lot about the festival circuit other than the usual suspects and the obvious festivals I should target, so once I got into it and it was taking on a life of its own I realized how fortunate I was to have the kind of festival love that I had. And for sure, just based on the festival run and the love that the film was getting it seemed like something was bound to happen sooner than it ultimately did.
H2N: You say you weren’t schooled as a filmmaker. When did you first pick up a video camera and decide you wanted to make something?
MJ: When I was a senior in college, I was an English major at the University of Vermont, and I finished my major early, and so I got to take some classes in whatever I wanted the second semester of my senior year. So I took an art film class that was based on film as art, and then I took a class at the Burlington Film School, and for my senior project I ended up making this documentary about these homeless guys who were living in this dumpster area near my apartment. And I think it was at that moment when I just fell in love with the process of visual storytelling and working with real people. I figured, man, if there was any way to make a living at this, or any way to do this on bigger scale, I would love it.
But I’ve had so many other interests too that I’m a little bit of a hack. Even with Audience of One, I think I executed it good enough given the fact that I didn’t have a whole lot of formal training. But I definitely shouldn’t have made the film the way I did, just grabbing a video camera and attaching a microphone on top thinking I could make some epic feature film, which was so naïve. Sweetly naïve, but so naïve considering the gold mine of material that I had in front of me. But it ended up working out and I think I got lucky that I had most of the shots in focus and I got lucky that my subject matter was just so interesting that it carried some of the sloppier filmmaking through.
H2N: Man, I don’t think it’s that sloppy, and even sonically, it doesn’t play like some hack first-time filmmaker at all.
MJ: Well that’s nice of you. Here I am being all self-deprecating.
H2N: Yeah, stop it!
MJ: I guess because I’ve had so much time now in between it’s hard for me not to see all the flaws. But I do appreciate that. And I did feel good when I saw it on screen for the first time. I just look at it now and it’s hard not to feel like, “Oh, God.”
H2N: So how did Audience of One happen, then? Were you fishing for a film or did you discover the situation and let that spark you into action?
MJ: That was really it. I had just moved to San Francisco and the city was so new to me, it’s such an interesting city to live in, so everything was just so fresh. And it’s also a strange city, there’s a lot of really cool things going on and really eccentric people, and I was just so turned on by it all. I came across this story in one of our weeklies out here, and it was the story of this Pentecostal minister who was trying to make this sci-fi movie and I was like, “Man, if that is even partly true, that would be such a great first film.” Because the church was only a mile or two away from my apartment. I was working part-time, so I figured this was a great project that I could chip away at over time for a pretty low cost, if I could get the access. So it was really just that the filmmaker instinct kicked in and I saw a great opportunity to make a film.
I went to a church service and was further intrigued and fascinated by this community and loved that it had this wonderful built-in narrative arc to it. You have the hero’s journey, this guy setting out to accomplish a lofty, lofty goal. It just had all the right ingredients for me, so I did the best I could and endeared myself to the minister and the congregation and before I knew it I was a fly on the wall. And I was almost an afterthought by the time they were going to Italy because they were just so busy and so completely disorganized that the process was very quick for me to become invisible. Or maybe not invisible but able to fade into the background as just another part of their weird tapestry.
H2N: How long was it between that first church service and Italy?
MJ: We’re talking weeks. I couldn’t even believe it. I probably shot four days, two of those days being just church services, to try and get as much of a back story as I could to, to hold true to the spirit of verite filmmaking. And so I didn’t want to ask a whole lot of questions. I didn’t want to push them. I was just getting to know them, so I really just wanted to be this smiling Jew who kept showing up for church services, and occasionally during the week if they were in pre-production. Literally, I think it was within a month and they were like, “Yeah, we’re going to Italy and you should come,” and I thought, “It seems crazy to me that you guys are going to Italy, you seem so disorganized.” And I even asked for proof. I just didn’t believe them! (Both laugh) And sure enough, they had tickets, and so I cashed in a bunch of frequent flyer miles and went out to Italy.
It was really in Italy that I knew I had a film. I wasn’t sure what that film was, I wasn’t sure what it would become, but I knew there was enough… it was a shooting gallery. There was always something to shoot, wonderful characters to track and check in with who would give me great anecdotes about God, life, filmmaking, whatever. And then just this consistent drive of this guy to make a movie.
H2N: So it really was just you over there in Italy?
MJ: One of the producers of the film, Matt Woods, sent his younger sister to help me out, but she wasn’t a film school person. She was, like, a yoga teacher, so she helped me out a little bit with holding a boom mic every once in a while and helping log tapes and stuff. But 95% of that film is just me with a camera and the microphone. Whenever I could get help or afford help I did for shooting, and then obviously we had a wonderful editor (Kyle Henry) when it came to finishing it. I think that maybe benefited me. I didn’t have to introduce the church to any other people, and I could sort of maneuver my way through their very strange world swiftly and unobtrusively, with a one-man-band approach.
H2N: I was thinking even more for sanity’s sake, to have someone you could look at and say, “Is this really happening?”
MJ: (laughs) Plenty of moments. It’s funny, though, because I was so focused on getting the best looking and sounding images I could, a lot of that moment of like, “Holy shit!” didn’t really happen until the edit room or until the end of a shoot day when I was going back over the material. ‘Cause in the moment I really was just so focused on trying to do the best I could to get good looking stuff that I wasn’t always paying attention to the extremely bizarre nature of their filmmaking or the way that they celebrate God. But there were also times, that being said, where I was like, “Man, I wish somebody was here to see this!”
H2N: Luckily you had a camera with you. Otherwise you’d be drooling at the funny farm trying to describe it to the doctors and they wouldn’t believe you.
MJ: People still don’t believe me today until they see it. Even after seeing the film it’s just so hard to believe.
H2N: One thing, and this can obviously be debated, but I think in the editing you and Kyle showed an incredible measure of restraint and as much objectivity as possible considering the material. It never felt like an outright jab at this person and these people. My hunch is that you could have made several hundred dozen movies that were severely condescending. Were you very cautious of that? How did you approach it when you sat down to put the footage together?
MJ: That’s exactly right. From the first day that Kyle and I sat down together, it’s something that we discussed, and discussed throughout the entire editing process. I hope we achieved that balance. It was very, very important for me because I had this long-term personal relationship, albeit an extremely unique and complicated one, with these people. And they had been so vulnerable in front of me in terms of their filmmaking and really their whole way of life, so I felt like I had to be responsible with that. And I think the easy way out would have been for Kyle and I to just make a circus out of the whole thing. I wanted people to go on the journey that I went on, which was to give them the benefit of the doubt. And Kyle was instrumental in that. He’s an extremely talented editor, first and foremost, but he really did help in the process of helping me communicate what I wanted to communicate. ‘Cause it was difficult, it was not an easy balance and I think sometimes we achieved it and sometimes we didn’t.
We made easy rules like: when it comes to the folly of filmmaking we can have fun with that, but when it comes to celebrating God, no cheap shots. That’s off the table. And because these people provided so much for us, let’s just let them be them. We didn’t have to impose our opinions on them. And I personally—I can’t speak for Kyle—I went back and forth all the time in terms of how I actually felt about them. Sure, I think they’re irresponsible. Sure, I think the pastor takes advantage of people. But at the same time I also see so much value and importance in what they’re trying to do. There’s a lot I admire about them. And I wanted that to come across too, ‘cause it’s just not that simple. It would be so simple to just be like, “Here are the crazy Christians again, just like you thought! They’re crazy, they’re nuts!” And, yeah, part of that is true, but it’s far grayer to me than that.
H2N: Good proof that you didn’t make an overtly condescending film is the reaction the congregation had.
MJ: That was something again that I was really insecure and nervous about, that these people who I’d spent two years following would just hate me and hate the film. And it was the opposite. I think they celebrated the balance that I put into the film, and the authenticity and honesty of treating them with dignity and respect while also making a jab here and there about just the flaws of being human. Follow anyone around with a camera for a year or two and you’re gonna get some very embarrassing stuff.
But, yeah, it was so wonderful that the church came out and supported it. And they support it to this day. Their stance has changed somewhat because they’ve been put on the defensive by other church communities and other Pentecostals who have heard about the film and read about it, but by and large they still absolutely think it’s a fair portrait and it’s actually required viewing at the congregation right now. So if you go to the church and you want to join WYSIWYG Filmworks, their production company, you have to watch the documentary.
MJ: If that’s not a huge compliment, I don’t know what is. I had a screening at the church soon after the world premiere to sort of return the favor of the minister coming to South by Southwest, and it was one of the most celebrated screenings I’ve ever had. The film got huge laughs and huge cheers and I got a standing ovation when they brought me in front of the congregation and they started praying on me, physically, they were touching me, and they took up this huge bag and started making donations. They started throwing all this money at my feet. It was very strange and uncomfortable but also just so flattering that they loved it that much.
H2N: When I saw it two years ago I read it as an extremely apt metaphor for the Bush/Cheney regime. Or the more arrogant America that it felt like we had become under that administration. Rewatching it the other day, it seemed to be an even more direct commentary on that. The more time that passes, the more I feel this film will be a pretty amazing time capsule of this freakishly scary period in American history. Do you see that at all?
MJ: I think I saw it though I didn’t think critically about it to the point where I thought I was making a statement. But I think it has to be there. That was the sign of the times. The evangelical vote was George Bush’s base. And that whole concept of being faith-based, I mean, these people live it. Now, they take it to an uncomfortable extreme, which is where they turn the corner, even on their faith-based brethren, but if you want an articulated example of the downfall of purely faith-based thinking, you can watch Audience of One and I think you can’t not connect it to the time and the era that these people exist in, in that kind of cultural environment. I think this gets a little bit freakier and weirder, but it’s absolutely connected.
H2N: So what are you up to now?
MJ: I’m nearly done with a new project that’s totally out of my scope, but I got commissioned to make a series of video installations for a hotel in New York. I had to partner with people who actually know what they’re doing, ‘cause I surely don’t. I partnered with a great guy by the name of Justin Barber, who produced Medicine For Melancholy. He has a digital effects and animation shop in LA. He and I partnered up on this project and it’s just been so much fun for me because it’s such a challenge to be thinking in this surrealist environment. It’s very arts and surrealist driven, the concept. Coming from a non-fiction background, I was totally lost, but still really enjoying catching up. And we’re nearly done with that. And I’ve got a couple feature docs that are in the early stages of development. And I started to write a screenplay but it didn’t go so well. (H2N laughs)
So, I don’t know, I have a lot of different interests but I’m also realistic about making a living and seeing the tough times that are out there now for independent film, and seeing so many people being beat down by it. You would probably have a better read on it than I would, but even from San Francisco, just looking at the independent film scene, it’s kinda bleak. For me to go out and do what I did again for Audience of One, I don’t know if it’s worth it. (H2N laughs) I mean, it sounds ridiculous to say that and I almost wanna kick myself for saying that, but, man, it just takes so much to even get a project off the ground and going and then into festivals and then the distribution opportunities let alone the economics, it gets to a point where you’re like, “This is just silly.” So I figure just finding a balance between making a living and then getting back into passion projects that really have to be very, very compelling for me to want to commit the kind of time and energy that’s required to get it out there knowing just how limited of an opportunity there is. Does that sound kinda weird? I’m sure everyone feels it, but…
H2N: I don’t read enough seemingly successful people like yourself—your movie’s coming out theatrically and on DVD—who admit that. I’m there with you, man. Having done the small-ish scale circuit, I think about making of one of my babies, one of the ideas that made me want to make films in the first place, and now I say to myself, “So I’ll get free shrimp in Sarasota, free beer in Nashville, free Red Bull in Boston…” That’s like the most concrete compensation for making films on this level.
MJ: It’s true. I love that there’s a support system called the festival circuit but I surely don’t wanna do that over and over and over again as a way of making films. I don’t know, man. Maybe I have too many other interests or maybe I’m not disciplined enough or maybe I’m not a true enough artist or something, but for me as a filmmaker it just doesn’t seem worth it. And maybe the digital space will change things and really emerge as this great platform and opportunity to make a little bit of money back or just get your film to people, but I haven’t seen that happening recently. I’ve just seen so many great films where I’m like, “What happened to that?” I can only speak for myself with the struggles I’ve had just getting distribution. I’m one of the lucky ones, I acknowledge that. I’m getting a release and the film is gonna be in theaters, on DVD, on the Sundance Channel. I’m totally one of the lucky ones. But you look at the time commitment and the economics? My friends outside of indie film are like, “Are you fuckin’ nuts? That doesn’t make any sense why you would do that!” (H2N laughs) And then I’m like, well shit, is it just ego? Is it really just ego? And if that’s what it is, I think I can hopefully get a handle on that. (Both laugh loudly) You know, go work at Kinko’s and you’ll make more money. And it shouldn’t be about the money but at a certain point it has to be about a sustainable livelihood. It has to make some sense.
H2N: I’m gonna go hang myself now. Thanks.
MJ: I was out to dinner with Amanda Micheli, another really wonderfully talented filmmaker, and it’s like we can’t even talk about it anymore, because it’s depressing.
H2N: Amanda’s a perfect example. You look at her resume, which is loaded, and it’s still a hustle. It’s always a hustle, no matter what.
MJ: Oh my God, most filmmakers would kill to have the opportunities that Amanda’s had, both with wonderful relationships with distributors and financiers for her projects, and people like HBO behind her. To most documentarians she’s at the top and she’s like, “I can’t even talk about it right now, it’s so bad.” So that does get me down. But at the same time there are people that if we continue to communicate with each other and keep it in check, there are exciting things going on in certain media space, but I’m just not sure it’s truly indie film anymore. I don’t even know what that is. I’m just not sure if indie film makes any sense. Do you know about any twenty-five year olds who know about any of our films? I don’t think so.
H2N: (laughs hysterically) Maybe one or two.
MJ: When I was twenty-five I was going to festivals, I took an interest, but I’m not sure these kids are. Here’s another example. The theater where Audience of One premiered here is in, like, Hipsterville, San Francisco. The Mission. 16th and Valencia, the Roxy Cinema, and you’d think this is a prime neighborhood for cool kids, like, walking off the street. None of these kids wanna see independent film. There’s no hunger. You had awesome films playing back-to-back-to-back and… Barry’s film did okay on his second run, he got a lot of love out of the first run but aside from that I’m looking at these cool, fun documentaries that none of these cool kids are going to. They just don’t seem interested at all and I’m not sure it’s their fault, it’s just… I don’t know, maybe there are just too many other interests.
H2N: What are they doing, do you think?
MJ: I think a lot of it is that they need an interactive experience. The internet is too simple of a word, everyone defaults to internet and video games, and I think that is a part of it. But I think it’s a combination of interaction, attention span, being perma-connected, and indie film doesn’t offer that. Maybe it offers an escape from that, but maybe those kids aren’t looking for an escape because they’ve come up with just this constant connection to technology. And my film is probably brutally boring for them, if you look at it like that. But then I have a screening at a festival where there’s a lot of college kids and they eat it up, so I’m probably totally contradicting myself. But I can’t help but try and examine it. Living in the Bay Area, you see so many new media companies and so much new media excitement, but it surely doesn’t transcend to independent film. Maybe it will with the right project, or maybe we’ll get a breakout hit out of the circuit one of these days that gets everyone excited again. I don’t know.
H2N: Let’s end there before things get even darker.
— Michael Tully