1. You've made several films about numerous venerable institutions, The New York Times, Ivy League universities, The Met Gala, to name a few. How do you choose your subjects?
I am drawn to character driven stories that feature a complex protagonist whose personal journey illuminates some aspect of an institution that we may not have fully understood before. So in "Page One," the pathway into a web of financial, social and technological vectors that threaten the newspaper industry is the story of a former drug addict turned media columnist at the "New York Times," David Carr. In Carr's story of personal reinvention and in his blistering reporting of the media's seismic shifts, the audience finds a Virgil character to explain both the issues and the stakes.
In the "First Monday In May," I believe that the Curator in Charge of the Costume Institute, Andrew Bolton, provides a fresh perspective on the Metropolitan Museum and broader questions about art, because the CI is a relatively new and disruptive force within the Met. The blockbuster success of fashion among museum audiences and the porous boundary between fashion designers and the commercial world makes a lot of museum traditionalists uncomfortable and strikes at the deeper question of "What is art?"
I think the key to Andrew Bolton is that he grew up in a small town in rural England, and the only access he had to fashion were style magazines of the 1980's. As he says in the film, he's "Still that little school boy from Lancashire, who's totally in awe" of the all the artwork he's surrounded by. I think that provides him with a combination of wonder and intellectual openness to approach the subject matter of "China: Through the Looking Glass" with an ethical compass but also an open mind. Many of the designers in the exhibition have taken inspiration for their Chinese-inflected couture from racists sources, including movies of the 1930's and 1940's which Bolton deconstructs in the exhibition catalog. The show does not flinch from calling out the deep and troubling legacy of Orientalism that has tainted not only fashion but all creative disciplines and indeed our broader culture both historically and still today. But at the same time, Bolton is interested in unpacking the semiotics of how these visual tropes are passed along from source material to the imaginations of the designers and ultimately into the garments produced for the runway or the movie set. Because that process reveals a fascinating creative alchemy that provokes more questions about how fashion design can be as complex as any other fine art.
What makes Bolton an ideal guide through this thorny debate is his combination of personal commitment and intellectual humility and curiosity. He is fiercely dedicated to his work and fundamentally convinced of the worthiness of fashion as an art form. And he is uniquely positioned at the center of fashion as both an industry and a creative discipline through his relationship with Anna Wintour. He has a self professed temerity to "not be a afraid of controversy," which puts him right in the middle of exhibitions that challenge the very foundations of 'fashion as art.' But he acknowledges that his curatorial process is very "organic" and that in the lead up to creating "China Through The Looking Glass" he "made everyone crazy," not just because of the logistical hurdles but also because of the deep cultural sensitivities that his show triggered. He does all of this, it seems, in an effort to bend and challenge the orthodoxies that govern the way we think about the creative prerogatives of an artist and a fashion designer, the cultural boundaries around appropriation and ultimately the visual and aesthetic experience of visitors to his exhibitions.
2. When you immerse yourself within a large organisation to make a film, do you follow any method or process? How do you choose who to speak to in order to get your story?
My process is to spend as many hours with the members of an institution and my main subjects as possible. The goal is to be with them during the mundane moments as much (or more) than the moments of drama, because it takes time to build a sense of trust and for the subject to forget that I'm standing in the corner holding a camera. During this time I am able to shadow their life within the organization, and, at certain moments, ask them to explain their views and decisions on a range of episodes in their life or career. All of this on-the-fly material forms the basis for a kind of interior monologue that the editors will pull from, and it lays the foundation on which the more dramatic verite moments are built. It's during those months of following subjects that I am slowly developing a thesis for the film and mapping out visual motifs to weave in.
3. Were any of your initial expectations/assumptions about The Met Costume Institute challenged or overturned since making 'The First Monday in May'?
Rather than a film about party planning or a superficial survey of celebrities who attend the Gala, I was most interested in capturing Andrew Bolton's journey in FMIM in order to get at this deeper question of what qualifies as the art that we see hanging upon a great Museum's walls. And yet the party that raises funds for the CI's operations and the famous people who help to bring attention to the work of the CI are inextricably linked to the sustainability of Bolton's work and reflect a deeper marriage between commerce and art. That remains true today as much as it did when I was at the Met filming.
4. Your films observe machinations of power and leadership within great institutions. Do you find that power is exercised very differently in the contrasting worlds of media, fashion and education - or do you find that the leaders in all realms tend to exhibit similar qualities and strategies?
I don't know that I'm able to generalize on this in any meaningful way, because I think the people who I've followed have all been unique and motivated by such different ambitions or life circumstances.
5. Outstanding access is a hallmark of your work and a determining factor in what makes good documentary in general. How do you usually approach getting access, and can you offer any advice to aspiring filmmakers on this point?
My approach to each subject is always different, but one consistency has been that I don't make any promises to subjects about what the final film will be, except that it will be as fair and intellectually rigorous as I and the team with whom I work can make it. My advice to aspiring filmmakers would be to think about "access" as a technique for making a film only if you feel comfortable with the parameters you are able to function within while making such a film. There are many ways to make a documentary, and they don't all require getting through the doors of a private institution and documenting the world inside. In some cases, being outside the walls can yield a powerful perspective, especially if an adversarial lens is needed.