|SXSW '07 Interview: "Election Day" Director Katy Chevigny
|by Erik Childress
The “Election Day" Pitch: Election Day portrays a handful of small stories to get at the big picture of democracy.
Is this your first trip to SXSW? What are you looking forward to?
KATY: I had the pleasure of being there once before, in 2001 with another Big Mouth Film that I produced called Brother Born Again. And we were also there in 2005 when our Media That Matters Film Festival won best nonprofit website. I loved the vibe at SXSW and I’m looking forward to eating Mexican food and hearing some Texas blues, as well as seeing some good films. My producer Maggie Bowman is hoping to meet the cast of Friday Night Lights.
Having been on the festival circuit with Deadline, what is your favorite part of the ride?
KATY: I often love the Q and A’s. And seeing films at festivals that I wouldn’t see otherwise. And I still get excited about free beer at parties – the thrill of that never gets old.
Back when you were a little kid, and you were asked that inevitable question, your answer would always be “When I grow up I want to be a …” what?
KATY: I think elevator operator (age 5) and concert pianist were some of the top contenders.
Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get
your real “start” in filmmaking?
KATY: I worked for fun as a location scout on a film in Chicago where a friend of mine was the DP and the thrill of being on the set just got me hooked. I then worked for free on a no-budget thriller in Hollywood that convinced me not to move to LA but taught me that I love the camera department. Then I worked for free some more, carrying a tripod for political docs, and doing freelance writing for nonprofits to pay the bills.
Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
KATY: Yes, it seems like a real movie now! Not just an endless structural puzzle haunting me from the computer screen. And it feels fresh again, now that people who haven’t seen it a thousand times will be watching it.
Of all the Muppets, which one do you most relate to?
KATY: Fozzie Bear, Kermit the Frog, or Bert, depending on the day.
During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
KATY: Of course! I spend a lot of time worrying about not having enough money to finish the film properly. And the film festivals are important because they are part of the reward, to see it with an audience who really loves to watch movies.
How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
KATY: In the fall of 2004, we started thinking about making a film on the upcoming 2004 election. We knew that there was ample coverage of the “horse race” of the campaigns, and that the close contest between “red” and “blue” states was at the forefront of everyone’s minds, so we looked to cover something different. We set out to depict portraits of real people who make our democracy work, whose actions are not the kind of thing that would make the evening news.
The jumping off place for Election Day was the 2000 election, which had brought the failures of our voting systems into sharp focus. We decided to look at how the shadow of that election would affect the attitudes and experiences of voters and poll-workers across the country in 2004. Then I came up with the idea of taking a “form follows function” approach: since the election takes place in one day, our film would do so also. After a crazy few weeks with Maggie Bowman, Angela Tucker, Beth Davenport and Dallas Brennan doing research for characters around the country, we set up 14 crack crews in different locations each with the task of shooting one long day. So on November 1, 2004 we had 0 hours of footage and on November 3rd, we suddenly had 105 hours of footage, which was wild. Then we spent a long time raising money to edit and finally in the spring of 2006 we started putting together these multiple stories and locations, loosely following the chronology of the day. The editorial process became a big puzzle–like a sudoku or a Rubik’s cube–the interdependence of the stories affecting each other emotionally and narratively in unexpected ways. It was a mystery that we just kind of flowed with instead of trying to force it to fit with our ideas of what “should” work. We got a great score from the talented John Kimbrough and also found an incredible song by the late Austin legend Blaze Foley for the end credits–called, aptly enough, Election Day.
If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
KATY: Tell every documentary crew to put a wireless mic on their main characters. Sound recording is almost more important than the camera work in a documentary. You can cut away to other shots – but you can’t cover for audio you never recorded. It was maddening in the edit room – and I was one of the sound recordists so I can say this -- and I just wanted to fire myself every day we looked at my dailies.
What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition?
KATY: So many it’s hard to count. In terms of docs, Hoop Dreams was a huge influence on me when I was a diehard basketball fanatic living in Chicago. There are some shots in the Laurent Cantet’s Time Out which served as inspiration for Election Day’s contemplative opening shot of a man in a suit lit by artificial light at night. I was also inspired by how well the Marshall Curry’s Street Fight acknowledged how the presence of the camera isn’t always welcome in sensitive political situations. That film captured the local nuance in elections, which I think has a richer texture than the airbrushed national races.
Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
KATY: Yes. The Robert Altman movies, like Nashville, which follow many varied characters over a short period of time. And Salesman, which when you get right down to it, is about nobodies who don’t do much. But that’s what makes it great and worth watching.
Can anything pragmatic be done to fix what appears to be an election system that many Americans have lost faith in?
KATY: Yes, there are many, many things we can do. There has not sufficient political will to make the system better but there are concrete solutions, for sure. Spencer Overton’s book “Stealing Democracy” offers a very pragmatic look at what doesn’t work and why. And once you really understand it, the solutions are easier to identify. A couple clear steps we could take: truly non-partisan pollworkers, better training of election workers, and perhaps most importantly, state election commissioners should not be partisan office-holders! This is a blatant conflict-of-interest that should have been eliminated long ago. I also feel strongly that the math created by the Electoral College is a big part of the reason people stay at home. Let’s face it: if you’re in a swing state, your vote just DOES count more.
Do you side with any of the conspiracy theorists about the 2000 & 2004 elections? Do the 2006 midterms serve to debunk some of those suspicions or did it really take another two more years of Dubya for Americans to want a change?
KATY: There is a temptation for cynics to think that if my candidate wins, then that’s evidence that the system works (the people have spoken!) and if my candidate loses, then foul play was involved. Democrats who think the 2006 election results reveal that there are no substantive problems in the voting system are kidding themselves. As long as the voting process is as fragmented and rife with these myriad inequities, then they offer fertile ground for interested parties to manipulate the outcome. And even if an election isn’t being actively “stolen,” it’s still an injustice if the system isn’t functioning to allow your vote to really be counted properly.
Say you landed a big studio contract tomorrow, and they offered you a semi-huge budget to remake, adapt, or sequelize something. What projects would you tackle?
KATY: Franny and Zooey, if one could ever get the rights. And a movie version of The Wire.
Who’s an actor you’d kill a small dog to work with? (Don’t worry; nobody would know.)
KATY: I love small dogs! No dog killing. Not even for Laura Linney or Idris Elba.
Have you “made it” yet? If not, what would have to happen for you to be
able to say “Yes, wow. I have totally made it!”
KATY: We have been very lucky with our films. The thing I still long for is to be in that rarefied position where I have the funds and/or the access to the funds to make films with a proper budget, shot with proper cameras, with everyone getting paid what they deserve. That is one definition of “making it” that is still a distant but cherished dream of mine.
Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
KATY: Everybody seems to rely on ratings to choose everything, so I think they still matter. But in truth, the very best film critics are amazing–the ones who help you see film in a new way.
You’re told that your next movie must have one “product placement” on board, but you can pick the product. What would it be?
You’re contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated film to your producers. The MPAA says you have to delete a sex scene that’s absolutely integral to the film or you’re getting an NC-17. How do you handle it?
KATY: This is so outside my realm of experience. In general though, I think it’s important to push the envelope to retain the footage that really matters. It’s terrible when your creative process is not hampered by worrying all the time about what some censor might decide to object to.
What’s your take on the whole “a film by DIRECTOR” issue? Do you feel it’s tacky, because hundreds (or at least dozens) of people collaborate to make a film – or do you think it’s cool, because ultimately the director is the final word on pretty much everything?
KATY: It’s a thrill to see “a film by” with your name following it, of course. I don’t begrudge people the right to do that. But as a title that reflects reality? No -- “a film by” doesn’t make any sense. And in our case, it’s almost always hundreds who come together to make a Big Mouth film. Film credits in general are such clumsy catch-alls for so much important and complicated camaraderie and shared inspiration. In Election Day, in particular, we relied enormously on the intense participation of our crews around the country. That’s partly why we feature photos of all 14 crews in the end credits of the film.
So who have you got in the 2008 election? Who has the party nominations and who is leading the country until at least 2012?
KATY: If you see the movie, you will know that we are more interested in how democracy works than who is winning. I think the question is, what kind of ballots will we be using? Will a holiday be set aside for our elections? Will we be able to vote over the course of a week instead of a day?
In closing, we ask you to convince the average movie-watcher to choose your film instead of the trillion other options they have. How do you do it?
KATY: Election Day is a pleasure to watch – it feels like a movie, not like a homework assignment – and reveals such a wide variety of voting experiences that there are some insights for everyone. And it’s funny! As well as poignant and eye-opening.
Katy Chevigny’s Election Day will have its world premiere at the 2007 South By Southwest Film Festival on Saturday, March 10 at 7:30 pm and screen again on Tuesday, March 13 at 10:00 pm and Thursday, March 15 at 11:00 am (all at Austin’s Convention Center.) And visit BSide.com for more info!
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2135
originally posted: 03/08/07 05:25:11
last updated: 03/09/07 15:10:02