Film Comment Selects: Interview with Paradise director Michael Almereyda

fslc2009_almereyda-2010_godlis

Michael Almereyda and Film Comment's Gavin Smith, photo by Godlis

At what point in collecting material for Paradise did you decide that this would become a stand-alone project in which you collage your footage together? And once you came to this awareness how did it affect the way you continued to collect material?

Michael Almereyda:  In 2004, as I was finishing my portrait of William Eggleston, I applied for a Guggenheim Grant with the idea of making a movie scrapped together from the DV tapes I’ve been accumulating over the years.  And then of course the process of reviewing and distilling the footage was far from simple, or quick.  But in reviewing footage I began to recognize certain patterns and blind spots, certain proofs of how circumscribed my life is.  I mean, I’ve seldom been exposed to much hard physical labor, or even simple, down and dirty, working class activity.  So some of the most recent material was shot with a view towards addressing this.  The episode in the furniture factory in Krakow, for instance.  (A couple friends have named this as their surprise favorite.)

What is/was your relationship with this camera? Do you constantly have it with you and get it out when you feel inspired, or do you occasionally grab it on your way out the door thinking, “I’ll bring it with me tonight, something could come up”?  Are you continuing to collect material in this manner?

MA:  The camera has become like an old, slightly infirm pet – a pet that has to be fed with images.  Sometimes it seems I can’t live without it.  Sometimes it’s just a nuisance.  Now, having finished this version of the movie, I’m content to leave it at home more often than not – though this usually guarantees that something interesting will happen, something unrepeatable that I wish I could document.

Why did you decide to open and close the film with music over the scenes rather than with ambient sounds like in the rest of the film? What were your intentions with the coda?

MA: The movie is seemingly chaotic, so I felt it was good to provide a frame, with those airport shots and Paul Miller’s music – a threshold to cross into and out of.  And I like the way the music loops this one surging string section — the sense of anticipation, the circling quality.  It’s meant to relate to the searching and circling movement of the various episodes.  As you noticed, ambient sounds take over and provide another kind of music.

Your film is structured into four thematic parts, symmetrically containing eleven scenes each. Why and how did you decide to create a specific structure to you film?

MA: Well, it’s good to organize your thoughts, even if the thoughts are fragmentary, and even if one of your central ideas is that experience doesn’t necessarily organize itself into tidy narratives.  All the same, the film’s structure is fairly intuitive, organic.  (I’ve been reading a terrific book, “The Delighted States” by Adam Thirlwell, about literary forms, literary history, and a great deal of it can be applied to film and, for that matter, life: “Truth is fleeting, and fragmentary,  It is stashed away…  It is something that can only be recovered through upending normal values.”)

Does this film mark the beginning of a new trajectory for you?

MA: When you consider that the movie involves ten years’ worth of home video tapes, it’s hard to think of it as a new trajectory.  I’ll probably always be shooting DV on the side, but I think I can still put a spin on old-fashioned narrative filmmaking.   I’m working now on a biopic about the experimental psychologist Stanley Milgram.  He was keenly interested in human behavior, the relationship of individuals to various social networks, and fundamental questions about the basic ingredients that make a person an individual.  Actually, Paradise has something to say about these things, so maybe it’s not a terribly different direction after all.

-Aily Nash, Film Comment

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