Filmmaker Focus: Chris McNamara

We keep it local the border-crossing Chris McNamara. Two of his recent films, Establishing Shots and Character Sketches, both played at the 45th and 46th AAFF respectively.

AAFF: What's your newest project about and what motivated you to make it?
CM: My newest project is the final installment of the triptych that started with Establishing Shots and then Character Sketches. The new piece is called The Use of Movement. As with the other installments it's a consideration of language in its myriad forms. Since starting on these projects I've been really obsessing over the intersection of the spoken word and the cinematic image. At the same time I really wanted to make the spoken elements more abstract - and that's one of the reasons why I've translated the text into a number of foreign languages. This allows for a certain level of abstraction in the sound treatment. Subtitles add to the mix by creating the occasional, accidental poems - constantly making these oscillating connections to the images they're superimposed over.

AAFF: What's your approach and process for making this film?
CM: For this one I'm writing and shooting pretty much at the same time. I went to the U.K. for part of the shooting - before I had really written much of the script. But then, while there I spent a bit of time on trains going to various towns and while en-route I did some writing and even started creating some of the music on my laptop.

AAFF: Is there anything unusual or different to how you've approached previous work?
CM: All three of these videos are quite modular - in that characters and settings generally do not appear beyond one scene. In many ways the scenes could be shuffled and the general trajectory would be pretty much the same. It's a process I've been employing so that I can kind of nudge it along when I have a free day or evening. It's really a process of necessity given the fact that I have 3 year old twin boys. But I kind of like the freedom of working in a slightly less structured way - with actors and crews and long days.

AAFF: What are the objectives of your project, both internally (for yourself) and externally (for the world)?
CM: In this piece I'm looking at the relationship between the use of film techniques particularly camera movement and the tendencies of cinema to be fraught with emotion - sometimes to excess. I'm reconstructing some aspects of my own personal history but I'm situating it inside a larger set of concerns. For other people watching there's a certain level of playfulness. For example, I often write voice over descriptions that are filled with particular details - and when the scenes are filmed there are often numerous instances wherein the images cannot possibly reveal the details that are alluded to in the text. And at other times the images completely contradict the words. For me this is part of the joy of cinema - the very tensions that exist between what we hear and what we see. I just want to totally amplify these disconnects.

AAFF: What are the most challenging aspects of your project content, structure and/or story-wise?
CM: Well, I suppose if there is a drawback to this kind of fractured structure it's that I have a bit of anxiety as to how it will finally come together. Certainly some degree of free association is actually quite stimulating and it tends to keep me engaged - like working on a crossword puzzle on a rainy day - but often I worry that it will always remain a jumble or an incomplete expression. I just have to remember that I feel this way at various stages during every project I've worked on.

AAFF: Have you discovered anything unexpected or surprising so far on this project?
CM: Sometimes the most surprising thing is how difficult it is to do what should be the most simple of things. Late in the summer I was really taken by these clunky old ice cream trucks that kept going up and down the street in Hamtramck. Their cheerful little songs warbling along as they rolled their way down the streets just really struck me as sad and beautiful. So I resolved to shoot the trucks as soon as I could arrange it. I picked a lovely early evening while the weather was still warm and the leaves had not quite turned yet. I set up the camera in the back of my truck and I arranged to have a friend drive me through town so that we could do some tracking shots of the trucks. We didn't find one the entire evening. Not one. I later figured out that it was Ramadan - and the drivers were all observing the day by fasting and not working.

So now I am going to hire an ice cream truck and I think I'll actually do it on a very cold, grey snowless day. It won't be quite the same but in some ways it might connect better to some of the other images that are already in place. It may be a happy accident in the end and that's always an important thing for me to be receptive to.

To learn more about Chris McNamara, click here.

Posted on December 04th, 2008