A Conversation With Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher (OCTOBER COUNTRY)
A few weeks back, in my very personal recap of the 2010 Cinema Eye Honors, I made my opinion of Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s October Country quite clear. In the subsequent few weeks, I encountered multiple people who told me that my reaction had struck a real nerve with Palmieri and Mosher. Since I normally reserve my negativity for big Hollywood productions, I decided that the most honorable thing to do would be man up and sit down with Palmieri and Mosher and have a conversation about this minor drama. While I didn’t see the point in talking about the film itself—they felt how they felt, I felt how I felt—I wanted to try to have as candid a conversation as possible about what upset them so much about my words. October Country opens on Friday, February 12th, at the IFC Center. Visit the film’s official website to learn more, and be sure to read Pamela Cohn’s review for a much more positive take on the film.
Hammer to Nail: I want to explore this situation that came up. You guys don’t know me, but it seems like you’re aware enough of the site to know that we usually don’t go after smaller films. But I had a personal reaction to the Cinema Eye Honors and I just let loose.
Michael Palmieri: To be fair to you, you did say in your piece, you were having a personal rant. You did acknowledge that.
H2N: I tried to, at least. I guess the first thing I want to ask is: prior to this, have you guys had any negative press?
MP: The funny thing about some of the comments you made that, at least for me, struck hard, had to do with the very first review we got, which was in Variety when it showed in LA. It just bashed us for being ‘invasively exploitative’ and all these things—
Donal Mosher: It said it walked a moral line and then proceeded to say that we crossed it. At the same time, they praised the beauty of the filmmaking.
MP: It was kind of like a giveth and taketh away review. They were praising the filmmaking but they were having ethical problems with the film that were really—if you step back and try to put yourselves in the shoes of the reviewer—it was in a weird way a class-based assumption that was being made in the article, which we thought was the most interesting thing about it. It was still a negative review. That’s fine. A negative review is a negative review.
H2N: A review is a review.
DM: And there was some debate on The D-Word on these issues. It was complicated by the fact that, a guy in the audience who accused us of condescending to my family and exploiting them was saying that the audience was laughing at them during the course of the film. And in my opinion, I think my family tells some damn good jokes. They’re bitter jokes but they’re funny, and if you can’t laugh with them, at their humor, then who’s condescending to whom?
MP: This person’s personal response was more of a reflection of their own shit they were bringing to the table on this movie. I mean, I was in that screening. You can hear laughter in a certain way. It seemed pretty clear based on the general audience response, from the comments they were making afterward and the way they were laughing, that they were on the right side of the laughter the way we were presenting it. We’re never condescending to that family. At least we don’t think we’re being condescending.
DM: But that’s where it ended up. Because it was an online forum we could respond to it. And so it actually turned into a really good dialogue about the extent of your cultural lens and how do you view a film. And you can only combat that so far when you’re a filmmaker.
MP: In the end you have the personal reasons for making this film, and then there’s all the basic ethical steps you can take as a filmmaker to guard against this concept just for your own sanity. You know, ask the people if they want to be interviewed; make sure that along the way you’re always checking in with them, that it stays a collaboration; that after you shape the material in the edit you show it to them and say, “Is this cool? Are you cool with this?” I mean, that’s as far as I think I can take it. But then it becomes a public film, and that public film is an entirely other thing. It gets to a point where you don’t have control over what people do or don’t think.
H2N: My personal experience as a filmmaker, especially having so many friends and acquaintances in the industry, is that when I know they’ve watched my movie and they choose not to write about it, that’s their answer right there. It’s a polite gesture on their behalf. But when we get out of the festival circuit and into the ‘real world’ of a theatrical release, the gloves come all the way off. I’m weird, because some of my favorite reviews were the ones that ripped us to shreds! I guess what I’m wondering is how do you deal with the feelings that emerge when you read something from someone that appears to have viewed the film through a different lens than you’d intended?
DM: I think if you can’t respond to them. If it’s some large publication, you don’t really have much of voice in response. You have to let go at some point. For me, you can charge me with whatever you want because that’s like filmmaker to filmmaker or viewer to filmmaker. The only time where I can’t let go of it is when they start attacking my family personally. The language turns on them and is cruel towards them.
MP: For example, in Variety’s review, there’s a line where they say, you know, “The Moshers dilapidated dwelling.” And it’s like, dilapidated according to whom? From a cultural theory perspective the question becomes: what is the background of this reviewer? These comments go through so quickly, the people just pick it up and read it. I mean, they’re reading Variety and deciding whether or not the film is gonna play well or not in the theater. But still, that’s hurtful.
H2N: I kept meeting people since my post went live who said that it really appeared to sting you, and I kept thinking, “Only like fourteen people read this site. Who cares?”
MP: Well, more than fourteen people read your site, Michael.
H2N: Not many more!
MP: But it’s a really great site.
H2N: I wonder if the fact that we usually reserve our negativity for the big Hollywood bombs played a role in your reaction, like maybe it was a bigger sideswipe because it was so unexpected?
MP: For me, I read Hammer to Nail. And I really like it. I really appreciate it. And I also appreciate your allowing certain reviewers to review our film in a positive light. It was weird, coming from your site. It was just like, “Whoa!” Like an out of left field thing. And compounded by the fact that the way you were framing our film was coming from these older exploitation attacks. Which was just like, “What the fuck?” That’s why I was so thrown by it.
DM: It’s also that we’re pretty new into the community, and so I don’t know how much these things weigh. Like, is this a serious blow? Not to the film. The film will do what it does. But standing inside a community with somebody who people respect and they lambast you. It’s tricky, because it’s not just about the work. It’s about the community of filmmakers. And I’ve never been in an art community that took such good care of each other. So that’s the stuff that makes me nervous.
MP: I was like, “Oh, this Michael Tully, I’d really like to meet him some day.” You know, just reading your blog. And then all of a sudden it was just like WUH-BAM! (H2N laughs) My first reaction was, “What a fucking asshole.” But then stepping back, it’s like, wait a second. People are judging something out here. It has nothing to do with you or me or us being friends or not. You know what I mean?
H2N: And that’s where it gets so complicated. It’s weird. Whenever I get negative, that’s the only time I get personal thank you emails. When I wrote the Cinema Eye Honors piece, I got a lot of thank yous, and many were from people who love your movie. They weren’t taking that personally. But those reactions make me actually want to be more outwardly critical without sounding bitter or jealous or frustrated or whatever. It’s a tough line because everyone says they want you to be honest but most people sure don’t take criticism well.
MP: It feels like part of the reason we’re having this conversation is that we all agree that there’s something very special about the documentary community in the United States and in New York, that everyone is very supportive of one another. And we actually take that for granted, because that can actually take away from helpful criticism by those members of the community, which is I think why people were thanking you. You’re expressing an alternative opinion that is only, in the end, better for our viewing of this situation. My own viewing of the situation. Why did I get so angry at this person? What the fuck, I need to get my head on straight. Oh yeah, well shit, we’re gonna come up against this against much larger people than, like you said, the fourteen people that read your site.
H2N: That is true. Like, do you know who’s writing your Times review?
MP: A.O. Scott. I would think that’s the safest. If we’d gotten Manohla Dargis I think we would have been absolutely murdered.
H2N: I love her but I don’t agree with a good bit of her nonfiction writing.
MP: Supposedly she’s not a big fan of the personal family film.
H2N: If that’s true, she’s probably not the one you want writing your review!
MP: We never thought we’d get someone like A.O. Scott.
H2N: But even that. I don’t know how much a Times review helps anymore. There are at least ten movies getting released every weekend. It’s like a scary volcano.
MP: In terms of box office it does very little for these films, because I think the margin is so small. Actually, Big River Man is a really good example. That was an absolutely awesome review for that film. But that didn’t do much to change their box office.
H2N: And Loot, which opened on the same day.
MP: It’s the same thing! It ran for three weeks there. I don’t know what the numbers were. I’m sure Big River Man in general grossed more because of it being in a larger theater or whatever. But there is no career making New York Times review anymore.
DM: At the same time, we’re trying to do a theatrical run, and the smaller theaters are looking to see what New York does. And the review’s part of it.
H2N: Do you think that is true? I’ve always thought it was a strictly numbers game.
MP: It’s predominantly numbers but a good review will put you on a certain radar, for one-off venues like the Wexner Center. I think all you need is that one review. And it’s interesting to see. We’re doing all this independently. We’re using an independent booker, Wendy Lidell of the International Film Circuit. We really made that choice because we wanted to see the landscape, where things are right now as opposed to going with a respected, larger distributor. We think we made the right choice even though we’re pulling our fucking hair out on a daily basis. The ground is shifting dramatically.
H2N: The difference with your film is that it’s literally personal. We’re all sissies and sensitive about our ‘art’ but you have like two layers to be sensitive about.
MP: One of the weird things about this film is that it was basically ignored. I mean, it was rejected from every single major festival at the beginning of the year. And then True/False decided to give it a shot, but we were concerned about giving our premiere away, and True/False said they’d ‘sneak preview’ it and then people would come and see it and they’d want to show it at other festivals. And that worked really well. But we didn’t get started until June. We showed the film like twice and then went to Europe.
H2N: You did Silverdocs first, right? Like, after True/False?
MP: Silverdocs and LA were the same time. Then we just disappeared to Europe, so we’ve never really shown it much in the US. But the response to the film that’s only now happening is coming out of nowhere for us. We had no idea how we ended up at, like, the Gothams. The Spirit Awards?! What the hell are we doing in that?
H2N: You guys are going, right?
MP: I guess.
DM: I don’t wanna go. I hate that shit.
MP: It’s weird. From one perspective it’s like, well there’s no way on earth we’re winning. But you have to go to play nice or something. I’m sure it’ll be a fun time, but it’s also very expensive to fly to LA.
H2N: They don’t pay for you?
MP: They don’t pay for anything!
H2N: It’s just like, “You should be honored. Show up.”
DM: They wanted us to pay five thousand dollars to distribute DVDs to the voters.
H2N: What an honor!
DM: Thanks for the independence!
H2N: I feel like even within the Cinema Eyes, one of the mandates was to only vote for categories in which you’d seen every nominee. Do you think people actually respected that?
MP: I don’t know.
DM: I don’t know. I think the one thing that Cinema Eye—and they’re working towards it—the selection committee is all the major programmers from the United States, and some from Europe, and I think that needs to be really much more transparent. Because I think people get this idea that there really is cronyism going on. And to some extent that’s unavoidable because it’s a tight community and is made by some very visible people and, like you said, I love that they’re doing it, but I do think they need to combat that image just to quell the kind of tensions that come up. Because we’re all working so damn hard. It’s just easy to lose your shit.
MP: I’m not sure what I think. Personally, I have a problem with awards shows and competitions in general. I think it’s so fucking hard to make these things to begin with that to then put people in competition against one another? It makes me just feel like I need to take a shower, because you can’t help but get caught up in the competition if you’re in one. Naturally, you don’t want to be the person who loses on some level, but it’s hard. And it’s just this extra stress that I wish we didn’t have to deal with.
H2N: I guess the devil’s advocate view is that they’re supposed to shine a brighter light on films. But I completely agree with you. Any time I’ve found myself in a competition, I try not to go, because, like you said, even though I say to myself, “I truly do not care,” and I truly don’t care, when they call that other name there’s a knee-jerk, visceral stomach drop, and then I feel doubly worse for reacting like a sore loser.
DM: And you know this too. It even happens outside your own films. We were almost embarrassed by the extent of the nominations we got.
MP: We didn’t understand that. We didn’t understand how that could have happened.
DM: But to be nominated for five and get two? That’s a nice balance. It’s not an embarrassment. Like, if we didn’t get anything it would have been an embarrassment.
MP: When I saw those nominations, to us it was like, “Well, we’re losing all of those, because that film’s in that one and that film’s in that one.” I mean, there are some really great movies in there. And a lot of fucking awesome films that deserved—
DM: Like Loot.
H2N: Which walks away with nothing.
DM: That totally pisses me off.
MP: 45365 for editing, for god’s sake.
H2N: But then we’re guilty for jumping on the same stupid treadmill. I hope I expressed that frustration in my Cinema Eye post, which is part of the reason I was sparked into writing that. Getting fired up about something that doesn’t have any impact on my life whatsoever. It’s hard enough eating dinner tonight.
MP: One of the things I’ve heard, and I don’t know what I think, if you have an awards ceremony like the Spirit Awards or the Gotham Awards, and now Cinema Eye, they’re all relatively the same if it’s voter driven. ‘Cause if it’s voter driven then the person with the most advertising dollars wins. But if it’s by a jury, you can call cronyism on the jury that chose it, but there’s something about what’s being valued that changes. Whereas it doesn’t matter with these awards. Film Independent, it doesn’t matter what they say, the film with the largest advertising dollars is going to win because it costs $50,000 to book a table there. We can’t afford that.
H2N: Which I think directly connects to what I was saying about even getting some of these nominated films seen. Last year, Sean Baker had Take Out and Prince of Broadway in the same category, and I think they ended up sending out screeners to all the voters even though they debated it. I still have a worry that even at the Cinema Eyes, voters didn’t watch everything and still voted.
MP: It would be so awesome if it was Cinema Eye Honors and they just selected a bunch of films and brought everyone on stage and they just said, “You’re honored. Now sit down.”
DM: Between programmers and voters, some system where it’s like: “These are the films that deserve some recognition.”
MP: I don’t understand why these larger films always seem to win Cinema Eye, and I don’t think there’s any hoodoo hoodoo going on in the selection. It kind of amazes me. If this is something formed by an internal community of people that we feel like we all know and respect and who watch documentary films intensely, there’s a hierarchy and it’s like, “Okay, there’s The Cove over there.” But that’s not something we’re all seeking out.
DM: I think that points to the actual openness of the voting, that there is a wide and varied selection going on. Because I think if it had been just our tight-knit community, The Cove would have been nowhere near there. In general, I think a lot of people are angry that The Cove took so much. Not saying that we deserve it, but that film, from the moment it entered the game it was a shoo-in all the way. But we have to remember there are voters and that film has an audience, it has a passionate audience, and in spite of everything I feel is wrong with that film, they have their say too.
H2N: But again, you’re talking advertising dollars, and to me that translates into: people have seen this movie. And they’ll be like, “I only saw The Cove out of these four, I’ll vote for it.” There’s no way to like send AJ out with a gun and a lie detector machine.
MP: I think all they can do is what they did, which is ask you to respect that. But I don’t think most people do.
H2N: I really think that’s why the bigger movies win. You’d like to think this is a smaller community and we’re not like the Academy, that people wouldn’t vote so stupidly based on what they recognize more than what they actually have an informed opinion about. But after seeing the pattern more fully emerge this year, I don’t know. AJ wrote me afterward and wasn’t offended by my piece. He was like, “How can we fix this?” And I was like, “You’re an awards show, dude. You’re inherently screwed!”
DM: Exactly. It’s an awards show.
MP: The only thing they can do to distinguish themselves is by doing juries. Otherwise they’re gonna fall into the same trap as everyone else. Not by AJ and that team’s design, it’s just the way it works if it’s open voting. But at the same time, I also feel like there’s enough of a spin they’re putting on it that regardless of who wins they are still spotlighting and honoring people inside of a context—whatever it is, juried or not—that’s way more valuable than, say, Film Independent, which is just much larger. And the Gothams is just like the strangest thing ever.
H2N: Did you have to pay for that too?
H2N: I thought you had to pay to get a table even if you’re nominated.
DM: No, but they place you randomly.
MP: They sat us with another film that lost in our category, so we got really drunk.
DM: But even there, even though I knew—
H2N: You still had that loser pang.
DM: And I hate it. I hate it. I didn’t win enough stuff as a child. This stuff flips me out! (everybody laughs)
MP: But what is it that we want? We want people to like our films? It’s strange. You put a thing out there and do you want people to like a film? To be honored in the manner of even a nomination is just incredible. That’s a larger group validating your work and that’s really, really nice.
DM: And that’s really, when you boil it down, when you pull off all that visceral reaction, that’s the stuff that counts. And we have been really lucky this year. We’ve had that shit in spades, you know? So much better than anything I expected.
H2N: Honestly, I feel like that might have somehow factored into my little rant. Obviously, the bigger point of the piece was about awards shows in general and you guys fit into that agenda, but lately it has felt like you guys have been on a never-ending victory lap. I’ve personally talked to people who loved the movie and I’ve talked to people who really didn’t love it, I’ve heard the gamut. So it’s strange that I’ve rarely encountered any negativity in print/online.
DM: For the most part, the feedback we get is positive, but then there are people who have a really, really angry dislike of the film. And it’s not unjustified. They can argue it, and argue it well. So it’s like, alright, that’s your position. Cool. I just assumed that was your position on the film.
H2N: I was not one of the more extreme haters. I established my opinion already, that it was more of a superficial, aesthetic thing. It was hard for me to get past the beauty of it and into an emotional place. The contradiction there didn’t sit well with me. But I was not angered by it in any way. Maybe my writing made it sound harsher—
MP: I still have a bruise below the waistline. (H2N laughs) Still recovering.
H2N: That’s why I’m like: keep my mouth shut.
DM: But don’t!
MP: Seriously, in what other community of filmmakers anywhere—Los Angeles, Paris—where else would you have this happening, after a very tiny personal slight? We care about each other enough to want to understand. That’s going way further than any other community I’ve ever been involved in—video, commercial.
DM: Jean-Pierre Duret, who did Because We Were Born, which was also nominated, he came all the way from Paris and got nothing. He still walked away and was like, “This community does not exist in Paris. This kind of environment would never exist in Paris.”
MP: He said in Paris everybody is out for themselves. They’re gonna push down anybody else so there’s not that possibility for community in that situation.
H2N: I don’t think we should not be the way we are, I think it’s good, but I also am getting a little concerned with how dependent we’re becoming on each other. This is taking a leap, and I don’t know how familiar you guys are with Kickstarter and the crowd-sourcing phenomenon, but in the past month I’ve gotten at least five to ten emails from filmmakers sending out pleas to contribute money to their films. It makes me feel an unnecessarily heavy wave of guilt.
MP: It’s only in the past few weeks where I’ve started registering that.
DM: I think it’s all fair, but I’m not gonna feel guilty. I mean, I don’t have any money! If you can get it and someone is out there? Sure, great.
MP: It’s kind of like the idea of, “Hey all you friends out there, come see our film at the IFC this weekend, ‘cause we need the opening numbers to be really big. No matter that you’ve seen our film thirteen times already. Please pay ten dollars this time to see it so we can give the illusion that we’re selling tickets!”
H2N: But that’s different. Your movie’s done and it’s coming out and you deserve to ask people that.
DM: It’s also, isn’t it just one page? Even if I had money to donate, I’d have to have a lot more to go on, we’d have to enter into a dialogue about this. (H2N laughs)
H2N: The one page pitch isn’t enough for you?
DM: The one page pitch is not enough.
MP: Wow, you are rough.
DM: So many movies are made and so few are good, right? I mean, that’s a fact. I feel like, “Alright, that’s a start. Tell me more. Show me more.”
MP: Just thinking about the way you finance a documentary film at all, we took a totally different approach. We initially had the interest of ITVS and they didn’t really get the idea of what we were trying to do on the metaphorical level. And we also didn’t have the material to show them. But we knew what we were going after. It was impossible to communicate on a piece of paper. And they were like, “Well, if you remove all the ghosts and stuff we’d be totally into it.” They were ready to give us money. But it was like, that’s the theme of the movie. So we decided to just not take financing, except for personal funding that we could get from, say, people who would be willing to donate to us. And then grants came much later when the film was done, because we figured the same thing would have happened with the grant process. It kinda raises the question, making a documentary on a certain level is an elective sport.
DM: I disagree.
MP: For many people, though, I don’t think… there’s so many people making documentaries, there can’t be money for all of them. If you really feel like you need to make something, you’ll find a way to make it. And people are doing it.
DM: Right, and that’s why it’s not elective because you really feel the need to do it. If I considered this ‘elective,’ or something that wasn’t really necessary, do you think I would go through nearly a fraction of the hell that we’ve put ourselves through? Hell no! I had a nice, cush job doing actual, tangible social work before I did this.
MP: What I mean is I’ve never equated it with being something you can make a living at. Never.
MP: And the whole idea of, like, trying to make a living as a documentary filmmaker trying to get this grant, that grant, I’m sure there’s people who do it.
DM: But that’s the direction you want to move in.
MP: But this has to be supplemented by something. Commercial work or something like that. The way people make a living doing it is they start jumping into the sandbox with Arte and the larger television companies, and those people are bankrolling them and then it becomes more mainstream and more ground down, so you have to make that choice. It’s weird.
DM: What we’re hoping to do now is we have projects fired up and hopefully they’re gonna be happening in a way that we can be working back-and-forth. If all funding falls into place—cross fingers—then we’ll be completely working in documentary film. So I do think it’s possible. It’s just really tough.
H2N: One last thing. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It started in Sarasota last year when David (Redmon) and Ashley (Sabin) had Charles show up for Q&As of Invisible Girlfriend but I think your film is another one that makes me nervous about the idea of having the subject(s) in attendance. The fact that there isn’t really a healing by the end of it, that, more than anything, it shows unfortunate patterns of behavior in your family. It’s a tough one. I think it sounds honorable to have documentary subjects in attendance to potentially stand up for themselves, but in some situations it seems like it might be inappropriate.
DM: I think it’s case-to-case. In LA, it seemed like the only way to get attention for your film in competition was to have a circus show. You had to have family there, or every immigrant you had crossed the border, or you had to have them tap dance, and it was just a bit much. But in our case—
MP: We had two black balloons.
H2N: How much did that cost? (laughter)
DM: I think especially for Desi, we’re bringing Desi here. I know as a kid that the only thing that changed my course from the kind of life that’s shown in our film, is the fact that I got exposed to a world outside that. So I think even though there’s some really sensitive material there, I think the benefits—and from talking with Desi and her own desire to see the world and be part of something bigger than her life as it exists now—that trumps it. It’s fair to bring her there. My parents want to do it for me. It wouldn’t occur to them to be like, “Hey, we wanna be at the film in New York City.” But then, once they were at Woodstock, we said, “Let’s try Woodstock and if you don’t like this, if you’re uncomfortable, you don’t have to stand up, but I want you to see how people respond to your lives.” ‘Cause they were like, “We don’t understand why this film is successful. We don’t understand why people are watching us.” I was like, “Well, you have to watch it with them. See where they laugh, let them speak to you, and then you’ll know.” And Woodstock was positive enough than now they were quietly excited to come down to New York. They don’t want to appear too nervous and they don’t want to appear too excited but they definitely want to be here. So we’ve been careful with them, just to make sure they’re cool with it. And I think if you’re gonna do that kind of stuff, it’s really important.
— Michael Tully