Alan Zweig

Behind the Doc: Alan Zweig

Say what you will about documentary filmmaker Alan Zweig, but one thing is certain, he, and his films, are memorable. Rare is it to find such vulnerability on the screen; rare enough with closest friends or even with yourself, but for Zweig, ruthless self-reflection comes naturally. Each film in his appropriately named mirror trilogy, Vinyl, I, Curmudgeon and Lovable, explores the inner workings of subjects struggling with similar compulsions - to obsessively collect vinyl, to naysay, to wonder if you'll ever be loved - and none as candidly as the filmmaker himself.

I met up with Alan Zweig at Primitive Entertainment to talk about his career as a filmmaker, the role of style in a documentary film and his new film, A Hard Name.

What is your new film about?

I will answer it but I have to tell you, that always seems like a trick question to me. I say of my new film, A Hard Name that "it's about ex-cons" and then you say "That's the subject but what's it about?" And then I think that I have to come up with some kind of theme. And I'm not good at themes. I'm also not very good at talking points. All I ever set out to do is to tell a collective story, and this time the story is that of a random group of middle-aged ex-convicts trying to break their habits and stay out of jail. I didn't know that was the film I was going to make; I just wanted to interview some people who I thought didn't have a voice and this is the film I ended up trying to make.

In what way is A Hard Name a departure from your other films, specifically the mirror trilogy?

In a recent article in Film Comment, the writer called it my "narcissism trilogy" and that tickled me, even though one of my smart friends told me the writer misunderstood the word narcissism. I don't know if that's true or whether or not the word generally applies to my attitudes. But yes, I believe I came up with the term "mirror trilogy" and it's kind of cool to see the term coming back to me. It's even cool that the three films are accepted as a trilogy, though that was my intention when I began the second film. Now, what was the question?

A Hard Name is a departure from my three previous documentaries in one significant way. I do not appear in the film, speaking on camera in any way - reflected in a mirror or any other way - and that's because the subject of the film is not one in which I'm implicated. And that is because I decided to temporarily at least, stop making films in which I was implicated.

Or what some people might call "personal films".

This could lead me to a whole discussion on the difference between the way I appear in those films and the way in which most filmmakers appear in their films. But you didn't ask me about that so I won't take that tributary except to say that I would only appear in my films if I had no choice.

Having said all that, I always thought that there was a bit too much attention paid to my appearance in those films and so, without being coy, I can say that I think this film is still very similar to my other films in that it's mostly interviews and tells a collective story. And that the interviews are more conversation than standard question and answer sessions.

When you see the films now, what do you think of the vulnerability you exhibited on the screen? Would you do it all again?

Yes I would do it again and someday I may. The reasons I've stopped doing it have little to do with sudden bouts of shame or embarrassment, though perhaps that would actually demonstrate some much-needed maturity.

I'll tell you this. Though I make these films primarily for people who will never meet me and for whom I will just be a "character", when I do meet someone who I know has seen the films, I don't feel embarrassed and there have only been a very few occasions in which I suspected they thought I should be.

I did what I did because I could, because somehow I developed into someone who was capable of doing that - or cursed with a drive to self analyze, however you want to put it. I enjoyed doing it on some level and of course, when I did it, there was no one there listening so I didn't really feel exposed. And after that it was just material for a film and I was the ruthless director looking for the best material he could find.

The main reason I stopped doing it is because I wanted to do other things. And there was a minor reason too which I'm a bit ashamed to admit but occasionally I got the reaction that this was not filmmaking but more like standup comedy and that wore on me.

Alan Zweig

What is the role of "style" in a documentary? Is there a challenge balancing "style" with content?

That's a good question but I don't know if I can answer it directly. Let me try my usual roundabout approach instead. As a film viewer and someone in the so-called documentary community, I find it frustrating and disappointing how often documentaries employ certain conventions. To the point that most seem like just a template into which content has been poured. Now this is not perhaps that different from other genres but I think generally filmmakers don't follow the conventions so faithfully unless they're forced to. I find documentary to be the genre in which filmmakers most willingly adhere to the conventions.

It's true that TV generally wants you to dumb stuff down but I don't think you have to surrender until they make you do it.

And the problem with adhering so closely to the conventions, as I think you're implying in your question, is that they don't seem to understand that ultimately you can't separate form - or "style" - and content. And so if they strictly adhere to those conventions, on some level they're making the same film as everyone else. Or at least that's how I see it. I can't tell you the number of times I zone out and forget what the film is about because I see that shot that I've seen in every other film.

I can't say that I have ever tried to balance style and content and I don't know how you'd do that. All I do is try to approach every aspect of the film with the same intent. Or to put it another way, I try to use the conventions to express myself. I don't ignore them or reject them. I don't think about them. I figure they will help me if and when I call upon them. I guess I just assume that style and content will be balanced in the film because everything comes from more or less the same source, meaning moi.

Your film Vinyl was an unprecedented success in your career. What was your career like before making Vinyl and how has it changed since?

Vinyl changed my life. I don't like to talk about it because talk of failure, I understand, always seems to come off like sour grapes. But I can say that, by my own terms I was a miserable failure as a filmmaker before Vinyl came out.

I was trying to get narrative films made. I had taught myself to be a pretty good writer - average at least - and had directed a well-received short and a very poorly received feature that I simply should not have gotten involved in. It's a complicated story but the bottom line is that I got involved in that film because I didn't believe in myself enough. Which might be hard to believe for anyone who's seen me talk about myself incessantly in my films. But I'd let the fiction film biz in Canada beat me. And that had happened because, talent or not, I simply did not have the temperament or character or flexibility or positive attitude that you need to succeed in that world. I accept that now.

You say "unprecedented success", and I cringe a bit because as much as I used to almost revel in calling myself a failure, the word "success" doesn't sit comfortably with me. But relatively speaking, that's inarguable. And so if you ask how my life has changed, I'd have to say that beyond just getting to make a few other films in the last seven years or eight years, the best thing about the "success" is that I know people are actually watching these films. I feel like there's an audience for them. Before Vinyl I used to say that I made the films for myself and that was at least partly because I never really met anyone who'd seen them, let alone been affected by them.

I am thinking of trying to make some narrative films before I shuffle off but if I don't that'll be okay too. I think documentary film can be one of the best forums for self-expression ever invented and I'm glad I stumbled across it. On some level, it probably does match my sensibility more than narrative but if you ever say that to me, I may tell you where to stick it.

Speaking of Vinyl, I couldn't help but notice a lot of posts on the web from people looking to get a copy of the movie, how can people purchase the DVD?

Oh the DVD question. I was entirely unprepared for anything like home video when I made the film. I'd never made a film that really had much of a life after the initial few showings. So I made quite a few mistakes and by the time some people were interested in releasing the film on DVD, there were a lot of problems that had to be taken care of. Someone started to deal with some of those problems a few years ago and for a while there, I was telling people "Oh it'll be out then, oh it'll be out a little later than that". Now I just say that someday it may be out but in the meantime, a lot of people seem to be finding ways to see it - the good news and the bad news on some level - so I just assume the motivated viewer will find one of those ways.

What is the state of your music collection at this point? Do you still have the majority of your Vinyl collection? Are you still collecting MP3 files?

I hope this doesn't disappoint anyone but no, I do not. I got rid of eighty percent of my vinyl collection - which was around 3500 records at that time - when it became possible to "digitize" it. Given how little of those digital files now reside on my hard drive, it's kind of hard to believe I spent that much time or money on blank CD's, transferring my favorite cuts to digital media... but I did. The better part of a year, every spare moment.

Then I got rid of some more. And then more. Then my friend DJ Hans Lucas asked me to DJ with him - I think of myself as more of a "record selector" - and I discovered how much fun it was to play crazy old easy listening records really LOUD for dancers and I decided to keep the records with such cuts and discard the rest. Which puts my collection presently at about five hundred. And I could probably boil it down to two milk crates if I wanted to.

The vast majority of my music listening time is spent listening to mp3's I downloaded and trying to decide whether to keep or discard them. I know that on many levels, it's almost like I don't really listen to music anymore. But that's not so very different from when I was buying mountains of records from thrift stores and always forcing myself to go through recent acquisitions before I could reward myself with actually listening to some favorite slab of vinyl.

I love the convenience of mp3's. I love scanning through the records on the various blogs out there. I was never the collector who researched and went out looking for specific records. I was always the one who just came across stuff and wondered "what the heck is this?" I thought of it as a kind of enforced ignorance but it worked for me. And I'm doing the same thing now. My favorite part, as I've said many times, is that I can stay up all night downloading fifty records I've never heard and in the morning when my girlfriend comes into the living room, there's no evidence of my obsession.

Not even a full ashtray anymore.

Your film Lovable candidly explores the concept and mystery of love. Where are you now on the quest to find a lasting partner?

I think I've alluded to that enough here. I have a live-in girlfriend. We're going to get married this year probably. I don't think anything I learned from Lovable led me to her, in case you wanted to ask. Or however you might have asked the question. But I do have lots of friends who say that I put it out into the universe and this is what happened.

It's so different from any previous relationship I've had that I can't imagine how anything I knew or learned could have led me to her. But I will say that I've learned a lot about my single life since I've been in a couple. And I could sum that up by saying that I was probably a bit more attached to being single than I had realized.

Who are some of your favorite documentary filmmakers?

I don't really have favorite filmmakers anymore. And mostly I think about individual films that I've enjoyed. But since he's unlikely to read this, I can tell you that I admire my colleague Kevin McMahon. He's a great example of someone with control of his craft who knows how to bend the conventions to his own purposes. And I like a lot of Errol Morris films, not all of them.

But the most inspirational documentary work I've seen lately are the two seasons of This American Life, the TV show not the radio show. I could go on all day about some of those episodes.

Alan Zweig

Behind the Doc is a series of five blogTO interviews with Toronto documentary filmmakers. The first in the series featured Academy Award nominated filmmaker Hubert Davis. Future posts in the series will include Min Sook Lee and Shelley Saywell.

This series was preceded by Behind the Mic, a series of interviews with Toronto radio personalities.

Photos and interview by Joseph Michael.

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