“Forgiveness is a Big Part of the Movie”: Director Lynne Sachs on her Slamdance-Premiering Doc, Film About a Father Who
by Daniel Egan
Lynne Sachs has been making films since Drawn and Quartered in 1986. Her latest, the documentary Film About a Father Who, screens January 24, the opening night of Slamdance. Her father, Ira Sachs, Sr., helped turn Park City, Utah, into a destination resort. In documenting his life, Sachs uncovers a web of secrets.
Film About a Father Who will also screen at Doc Fortnight 2020, MoMA’s Festival of International Nonfiction Film and Media on February 11 and 14. Sachs’ 2019 tribute A Month of Single Frames (for Barbara Hammer) will screen in the series on February 8.
Filmmaker spoke with Sachs recently in Brooklyn. Filmmaker: When did you start making Film About a Father Who?
Sachs: I started making a film about my father back in 1991. I think I was interested in connecting with him and piecing together what all the parts of my relationship to him meant to me. By that point I had been making films for about eight years.
It was hard to be his daughter, but it was also great. The hard part had to do with all the surprises, being a young woman and his having a lot of young girlfriends. Where did I fit into that? I kept growing older and they didn’t. That was awkward, for me and my sister Dana and brother Ira.
But on the other side, I thought my dad was very interesting. I liked his sense of being a free spirit, I liked his leftie politics, I liked his curiosity, I liked his adventurousness, I liked that he was very non-judgmental of people, the way they lived their lives, their careers, their position in society. He is the least judgmental person I ever met. And I was both awed by that and kind of confused by it.
One of the things I had to explore in this film was degrees of rage and degrees of compassion. Some people watch it and say you’re not being honest, you’re not really showing how frustrated and angry you must have been. But I feel that forgiveness is a big part of the movie. I was also witnessing some of his struggles over the years. I could see that he was trying to find himself.
Filmmaker: Could you sense 20 or 30 years ago the direction your film would take?
Sachs: I realized early on that there were two ways to go. I could make a portrait of a 20th-century American bohemian businessman. And I thought that’s kind of interesting, but that doesn’t reach me in my soul. What really reaches me is how does a family work or not work. How do we adapt to each other, how do we function when there’s no central organism, but these blood connections make us feel an attachment to each other?
I also thought he was an interesting onion to uncover, but I didn’t know I would uncover as much as I did. For example, I didn’t meet my two hidden sisters until about four years ago.
Filmmaker: Was there footage you felt you couldn’t use? There’s a shot of Diana, your father’s wife from Bali, where she is clearly uncomfortable.
Sachs: I am uncomfortable, even now, going back 29 years ago. I knew I had to finish the movie because I knew I had to use that footage. I knew there was a way I was connecting with a woman who had been through a very convulsive time in her life, her immigration experience, moving from one cosmos to the next.
Filmmaker: There’s also a very intimate moment with your grandmother in a bedroom.
Sachs: In my aesthetic, I kind of put down beautiful images. But that image is one of my favorites, that image and the impressionist image with the children on the hill, those are two of my very favorite shots, so I had to use them.
I’m anti a quality that the digital image has these days, that simulates reality without any kind of mediation. I like mediation. Those images are both very mediated.
I guess in filmmaking there’s a thin line between voyeurism and intimacy. Also, I’ve made so many films where I was allowed into other people’s worlds or homes. When I made Your Day Is My Night, which I made in Chinatown, people always ask, “How did you get your foot in the door? Why did they open up to you?” If you can find intimacy that’s also visual, it creates a kind of integrity, as if — it’s not a voyeuristic thing. I like when people show sides of themselves you don’t show in public.
Filmmaker: People try to present their best selves when they’re on camera.
Sachs: That’s why I did a lot of audio only. That was a big breakthrough. I really like working with audio. One of the things in the documentary I did was I would meet with my siblings in total darkness. We would go into closets with pillows and no light, and I would ask a question and they would just talk. They wouldn’t have to look back at me for nods of approval — “yeah, that’s good, I understand.” All that.
Filmmaker: How did you discover that technique?
Sachs: I’ve always done wild sound for other projects. In previous films like Your Day Is My Night, Tip of My Tongue, I would do audio-only recordings first and listen to them. Then once we were on camera, the people I was filming would already know what I was going to ask. I’m not the kind of documentary filmmaker who thinks I have to throw something at you and you’re going to be unprepared and you’re going to give me your best answer. I don’t mind if it’s more collaborative, that you know where I’m coming from.
I’d also like to point out, I think it’s important to write down what a place looks like. For example, Paris. If you’ve never been to Paris, write what you think it looks like before you see it. It’s important to try to capture your naiveté, especially as a writer or artist. Because once you know the reality, it immediately fills up your imagination.
Filmmaker: Have you determined how your relationship with your father affected your creativity? For example, seeing this changes how we would view your brother’s films.
Sachs: Did you see Forty Shades of Blue with Rip Torn?
Filmmaker: In the closing credits you list the various formats you worked with.
Sachs: That was another kind of journey. The only stable form of technology I used was 16mm film. We still have Super 8, although regular 8mm, that’s gone. People keep saying film is dead, but it’s not. I bought a 16mm Bolex camera in 1987, and I used the same camera throughout the whole movie. Ask me how many different video cameras and eventually cell phones I used. MiniDVD, Hi8, you name it.
I have the same lenses I bought back in 1987. Excellent prime lenses. I love my 13mm lens more than anything, because the image always remains in focus. If I use that lens I can move my body and still be sure I have enough depth of field. With zoom lenses you don’t have to move your body, so you lose that intimacy with the space and the subject. You’re not in the pulse, the texture or the smell of a situation. I wanted to be in the thick of it with my dad. Sometimes it was hard to shoot. The material I shot with some of his girlfriends, they were very, very troubled. That was hard for me to see.
Filmmaker: How hard was it editing with different formats?
Sachs: That was one of the biggest challenges we faced, it added probably six months to editing the film.
We were editing on Premiere, from a six-terabyte drive.
Over the years, before digital, I would transfer new footage to video. When I started making this film I digitized it, but I did it on the cheap, just to have something to work with. The selects, the shots that made it into the film, I then had to retransfer.
With analog material, and this is in the best transfer houses in Manhattan, they transfer to digital, but all the correction has to be done in a color house. So that means if the footage was overexposed or damaged in the analog, it will remain that way in the digital transfer.
Then I started using Mercer Media in Long Island. They have a big facility, they do a lot of work with MIAP, NYU’s preservation program. It’s like a technology museum of VHS, Beta and 3/4 decks. When the tapes are being digitized, they will correct it on the fly by oscilloscope. We would do three different transfers from analog to digital with oscilloscope adjustments before we went to the grading.
VHS is more stable than DVD, if you’re talking decades. Once you get a scratch on a DVD, it’s done. Did you ever shoot Hi-8? What most people did, including my dad, they would have one Hi8 tape, they would use it, transfer that to VHS, and then reuse the Hi8. I actually spent two or three months having people look all over my dad’s house for the original Hi8s, and then I went, “Wait a minute.” You will not find an original Hi8, just the VHS.
On the other hand, we keep shelves and shelves of 16mm in my basement. The footage I shot of Diana and Mallory standing by the window, which is some of my favorite footage — I transferred it originally in 1992, and then I transferred it again in 2019 and it looks even more beautiful.
Filmmaker: How much footage did you have?
Sachs: Probably 70 hours or so. Some of the material is video that my father shot, some of it is material that Ira shot. I tend not to overshoot.
The film was edited by my assistant Rebecca Shapass, she’s an artist and filmmaker in her mid-20s. In the last couple of years she was very much a part of the making of the film. She would sometimes come with me to shoot. We edited the film as a series of 12 episodes that were very modular, not chronological, and then we had to look for the transitions.
Filmmaker: How long was the edit?
Sachs: About two years. One of the things that I learned in the editing is that we have this way, in documentary in particular, of choosing images based on how they look, like, “That’s a good shot, I want to show that.” While we were editing I would say, “I can’t believe what a bad cinematographer I am.” Because I’d be shooting in a restaurant and I’d be hungry and just put the camera down on a lazy Susan because I wanted to eat dinner. Things like that. Or I would not care about the light. Or I would give the camera to a waitress so I could be in the shot.
I was extremely judgmental about that footage. And Rebecca would say that we have to get through that. But I was so disgruntled and unhappy with all the shaking and bumps. Or I’d have a good shot and I’d end it too early. My exposures were off, or there was dust on the lens of my Bolex. All those things that in a conventional sense you would decide, “bad image.” Sometimes the faults would give what Roland Barthes calls the punctum, it gives it the life, it gives it the soul, and it shows there’s a person behind the camera. It creates a formal, aesthetic conversation between the production and the result.
The other thing I learned from the footage was [about] all the incidental sound, which is a big part of the film now, the sound that happens because the camera is on but doesn’t have a direct relationship with what’s in the center of the frame. The wild sound you get shooting video is often very telling. It gives you a feeling of the moment. For the soundtrack, we went back through all material, particularly the VHS tapes, collected that incidental sound, and used it for the mix.
There are two sound people who are very important to this film. One is Kevin T. Allen, a teacher at Rutgers. I did the mix there. We would give him those sounds and then he created these collages I’m really happy with.
The other person who’s very important to this film is Stephen Vitiello, who by now has made five films with me. He did the music for the film, and he’s also interested in musique concrète, sound that’s derived from material other than instruments.
Filmmaker: Your closing credits function in unexpected ways.
Sachs: The end credits (by Rachel Rosheger), they’re like diagramming sentences. I knew that the film was about grammar and breaking grammar. One of the reasons people like grammar is that it gives them the sense that they exist in a society made up of rules everyone agrees upon. I follow the rules, you follow the rules. So here I’m saying my dad didn’t follow the rules, but I like grammar.
Filmmaker: You return to one specific shot throughout the movie.
Sachs: We call it the impressionist shot, and to me it’s the most mythic, perhaps the only mythic shot in the whole film. It’s a little blurry. It pops up three different times, from three different parts of one long take — in the very beginning, in the middle and the end. It’s a long shot my father took on a tripod, probably Hi8. Three children are playing in the water. It’s gorgeous. If you talk about classical painting, there’s the little triangle in the composition. It’s exquisite. I don’t know if my father realized how beautiful it was, and I also don’t know if he was standing behind the camera the whole time.
He’s coming to the Doc Fortnight screening.