Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Interview with filmmaker Russell Sheaffer

I recently had a chance to interview experimental and documentary filmmaker/scholar Russell Sheaffer about his latest film, MASCULINITY/FEMININITY. I've known Russell since our time together in NYU's Cinema Studies graduate program. Since we both share backgrounds in film production and theory, with an interest in how the two disciplines can work together, I've long been interested in his work, which he now continues in his doctoral studies at Indiana University, exploring the subject of gender through combined media production and theoretical approaches.

Russell's work has screened at such prestigious venues as MoMA, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Torino GLBT Film Festival, Boston LGBT Film Festival, and the Anthology Film Archives. A short film that he co-wrote and co-directed with James Franco, MASCULINITY & ME, was featured in Franco's solo exhibition, "The Dangerous Book Four Boys", in New York and Berlin.

In this interview, Russell discusses his latest project, MASCULINITY/FEMININITY, and his ideas on combining film theory and practice:

MATT BARRY: Can you tell us a little about how the project of MASCULINITY/FEMININITY got started?

RUSSELL SHEAFFER: MASCULINITY/FEMININITY started back when I was at NYU with you. I was in a class that Chris Straayer was teaching, which was on the body writ large. James Franco and I had been in some classes together and were in this seminar and were given the chance to collaborate in lieu of a paper – a traditional academic paper. We took some questions that James had been asked by Esquire that were really loaded heteronormative understandings of what masculinity is and what it means to become a “masculine” male. Like, “what’s the greatest example of manhood you've ever seen?” and these bull shit things.

We crafted our own responses to them, shot them, and then sort of amalgamated them together into this 22-minute piece. When we finished the film, it played in James’ solo show at the Clocktower in New York, and then in Berlin and all over the place. I decided I wanted to expand on the themes that we were ruminating over and try to craft a larger piece that was really interested in the opportunity for praxis that we had been given -- asking scholars, filmmakers, theorists, and artists of all different kinds to take these questions as a starting point and really perform anything that they wanted, because in my mind gender is all about a performance in one way or another.

So, in a very loose way, I wanted to give people these questions – totally loaded questions – as a prompt that would allow them to perform however they wanted.

MB: As far as the actual production, could you just talk a little bit about how you've used Kickstarter and crowd-sourcing and that process? For a project that doesn't have the conventional theatrical, “indie film” outlets that one typically has – for something that is basically an academic project and has an academic focus – could you explain how you go about the pre-production process on something like that?

RS: In terms of pre-production, that is something that is difficult in a lot of ways. How do you fund raise? How do you budget for something that will likely never make money? We’ll be really lucky if we make the budget back for the film. But I think that films like this are really important as exercises in combining ways of thinking and as ways to confront people with experiences that counter how they’re used to seeing images. So I've really focused on really strategic budgeting, really working like a lot of micro-budget people do where any expense you don’t need gets cut – sleeping on friends’ couches whenever you can, using frequent flyer miles to pay for crew travel, all of that kind of stuff is really important to budgeting. But then Kickstarter is a really great way, too… it is a really great way to bring together a community that wants to see something like this made that wouldn't be produced otherwise. 50 people, 100 people, 200 people can really make the difference in seeing something like this get made. We raised something like $7,500 and the big thing that I knew we couldn't do unless we raised that money was actually shoot on Super 8 – get the stock, develop it, transfer it – all of that is a somewhat expensive process. That money from the community made the aesthetic of the whole film possible.

MB: When you first proposed the idea of doing the videos at NYU as an alternative to the written paper, were there any particular challenges that you had in convincing them to let you do that?

RS: I think there are some reservations overall, like thinking about the academic institution as an institution that cranks out a product that it understands and that it can manage – the University can really conceptualize what a paper looks like, what a manuscript looks like, what a peer-reviewed journal essay or article looks like and what that contributes to the field in some way. I think it’s difficult for some departments, some individuals to conceptualize how a film operates similarly when there isn't the regimented, peer-reviewed system that we use for writing.

NYU and Chris Straayer in particular seemed really receptive to a blending in a way that I think a lot of people aren't. So it didn't seem like that much of a stretch for Chris to get into the mindset that it’s equally important to actually create that cultural product as a way to critique it, as a way to talk about it, to think through what it does and how it breathes. I think it’s a really amazing and unique opportunity to encounter people who think that way, and NYU seemed like one of those places where a lot of the faculty are able to think in that way.

IU [Indiana University] has been similar in that respect, of really being supportive of people who think about their disciplines in fresh ways. The Department of Communication and Culture was founded as a way to become interdisciplinary, to combine rhetoric and performance and ethnography and film and media studies all in to one giant department. It’s sort of foundational to them to be able to think outside of the box in the way that you do scholarship. Now, the powers-thatbe at Indiana University are planning a huge “media school” merger that I’m not particularly sure about. There is a huge push for “professionalization” and, while I understand that drive, I think it’s really important that they maintain a mindset that says, “yes, media making can be a critical, scholarly act.”

MB: Right. Talking about filmmaking in academia, it’s always interesting to me because it’s sort of logical to me to think in terms of both production and theory, because when you have the backgrounds in both, one side is always informing the other. With more traditional programs that are more focused, more separated into one or the other, I know it’s a lot harder to find people who are receptive to these ideas. I’m curious when you first became interested in merging the two disciplines and seeing how you could combine them to get ideas across on both sides?

RS: I don’t know if there was a specific moment. I think, like you, I come from a place where I did film studies as an undergrad, thinking about film criticism and cultural theory and then immediately after I graduated I started working on documentaries and other peoples’ films. Somehow, in my brain, it was just a logical connection, it was obvious that the two inform each other. If you can’t think about the ways that images are constructed, and how they work, and the cultural politics that surround them, you have some pretty lacking movies. If you can’t think about the way that films are produced, you have some pretty lacking criticism.

It’s important that those two things come in dialogue with each other. Obviously there are a lot of people who don’t feel that way, that really disagree. But it just seems like that’s the way my brain works. Then, getting to NYU, there were actually professors who were thinking that way, like it was obvious that you could make a film and it could be just as valid a scholarly pursuit as anything else. I think really cemented that idea in my brain that these two things can work together even when academic departments say that they can’t. It’s something that we need to push for and we need to be thinking about as artists but also as scholars.

MB: To get back to MASCULINITY/FEMININITY, you have some really interesting subjects featured in the film. Could you talk about some of the people you have in there and what it was like working with them?

RS: I have learned from academic experience and production experience that if you want something, you just have to ask for it. It’s not always just going to magically materialize, but people seem really receptive when you’re willing to let them know what you’re doing and ask for their help. I made a list where I asked myself, “if I were going to make a film where I ask a bunch of people to perform gender in one way or another, who would those people be?” I sent out emails and amazingly, maybe 90% of people were really receptive to the idea, or super into the concept of the amalgamation of theoretical work and production work, and thought that the questions I was asking were just as bull shit as I thought they were -- they were really excited to do it.

I’d been trying to get the project off the ground for a while and Monika Treut, who is a really phenomenal German filmmaker that made a movie called SEDUCTION: THE CRUEL WOMAN, which is one of my favorites, was at IU for a semester. I was telling her about the project and she was immediately like, this is great - we should make questions for women and do all these different things. We immediately started thinking, “what questions would you ask ‘women’ that were equally as ridiculous as those that we have for ‘men?’” So Monika signed on, and then I emailed Barbara Hammer…and once Barbara Hammer was on board, it was just like a snowball. Once Barbara Hammer was involved, everybody was excited, which is great. It was super, super gracious of Barbara to donate an hour of her time. She was like, yeah, this is great – come to New York and let’s do this. That led to so much: B. Ruby Rich, Carolee Schneemann, Susan Stryker, and so many other really amazing scholars and artists. Everybody who’s involved has been really excited, gracious, and willing to donate an hour of their time and do something wild and different.

MB: Could you talk briefly about your decision to shoot on Super 8? I thought that was interesting because it’s a format you don’t see used a lot, even with people shooting on film.

RS: Yeah, I’m really interested in Super 8 as a medium. A lot of what I do with production work is really medium-specific. When I’m shooting on 16mm, there’s a reason I’m shooting on 16mm. When I’m shooting on Super 8, there’s a reason I want to shoot on Super 8. With this film in particular, from the very first moment that James shared the questions from Esquire with me, it seemed like such a flimsy understanding of what gender was. It’s such a minuscule way of thinking about it.

To me, Super 8 is a way, theoretically, to embrace that in the medium, to embrace the idea that an understanding of gender like these questions do, is really flimsy, it falls apart, it doesn't work right. When you throw these reels, these Kodak reels, into the old 1960s cameras that we’re using, they literally jam more than half the time. So we’ll have no idea when we’re shooting, really…but I think it’s a really important theoretical exercise to embrace the idea that the film stock is going to fail, that gender as a solid construct is bound to fail, and that it’s the sort of flimsy construction that produces difficult-to-decipher images. Super 8, to me, seemed like a really obvious choice when thinking through the sort of content we were dealing with and the theoretical frames that we were embracing.

MB: It’s interesting, I remember at the Orphan Film Symposium there was some footage run from the Kinsey archives, and talking about the fragile nature of Super 8 brings to mind how a lot of these films that depict different aspects of gender and sexuality more broadly are in danger of being lost to time because of the fragile nature of these prints. Going through the Kinsey archives, I imagine you've come across some films that really shatter the traditional notions of gender and sexuality from different periods in which they were produced.

RS: Yeah, the work that I’m doing right now here at IU is really looking at… stag films – sexually explicit films – that were produced before 1930. The Kinsey has almost 60 films that they think were produced before 1930. It’s really fascinating to me to look at the way that people are encountering their bodies, obviously in a time that’s separated from us right now, but also in the ways that things are really very similar. Particularly, I’m really interested in the way that these films screened, trying to chart out how sexually explicit material circulates, especially in the early years of the 20th century. There’s mind-blowingly incredible material in the Kinsey that is just sitting there waiting to be accessed and thought about and preserved. It’s an incredible resource for that kind of stuff.

MB: I've always found it fascinating because of how much it goes against the mainstream media depictions of sexuality, beyond just the issue of gender, but in general it just shatters so many notions that the mainstream media would depict. And it reminds me in many ways of what you’re doing in looking at these questions that James Franco was asked by Esquire, and going against mainstream conceptions and really examining everything. I think there are some interesting parallels there.

RS: I think so, too. I think that people, when they encounter really early stag, in a certain way it’s like an immediate rupture for them. The idea that people were filming sex acts in 1920 is somehow difficult for a lot of people to grasp. And I think that breaking down the questions in a similar way is an attempt at rupturing that really normative train of thought that says: gender is like this, sex is like this, time is like this, you know, that everything is in a nice straight line.

MB: Can you describe what kind of life a film like MASCULINITY/FEMININITY can expect to have once it’s released out into the world?

RS: We’ll be working to get it out to festivals for sure and I’m working on alternate installation and text-based versions, too, but the film has always been interested in engaging with theory in a way that I think will be really productive in university settings. Once the project is done, we’ll start taking it around to universities, getting people in dialogue with it, getting people in dialogue with the theories that the performers are drawing on, sharing their own ideas in conversation with the performances in the film. I think the biggest goal for MASCULINITY/FEMININITY is to get people to engage with this way of thinking.

For more information on Russell's films, please check out his website, Artless Media, "like" the official MASCULINITY/FEMININITY page on Facebook, and watch the official trailer here.

Masculinity/Femininity - Official Trailer (HD) from Russell Sheaffer on Vimeo.

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