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SxSW ’10 Interview – "Citizen Architect" director Sam Wainwright Douglas

Citizen Architect - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“In 1993 the late architect Samuel Mockbee started the Rural Studio, a design/build education program, in which students create striking architecture for impoverished communities in rural Alabama. Guided by frank, passionate interviews with Mockbee, Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio shows how a group of students use their creativity, ingenuity and compassion to craft a home for their charismatic, destitute client, Jimmie Lee Matthews, known to locals as Music Man because of his zeal for R&B and Soul records. The film reveals that the Rural Studio is about more than architecture and building. Mockbee's program provides students with an experience that forever inspires them to consider how they can use their skills to better their communities. Interviews with Mockbee’s peers and scenes with those he’s influenced infuse the film with a larger discussion of architecture’s role in issues of poverty, class, race, education, citizenship and social change.” Director Sam Wainwright Douglas on the film “Citizen Architect: Samuel Mockbee and the Spirit of the Rural Studio” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first film in SxSW? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to be in Austin for the screenings?

First film in SXSW as a director, second film as an editor. My previous film “The Holy Modal Rounders... Bound To Lose” played at Slamdance and a whole bunch of other fests. I live in Austin, so I'll definitely be at the screenings.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!

…stand up comedian.

How did this whole project come together?

The subject of the film, Samuel Mockbee, was a family friend, and when I was in college we visited the Rural Studio. It had only been around for a couple of years at that point, but I was blown away at this gorgeous architecture being built way out in rural Alabama for communities that could never afford the services of a conventional architect. Mockbee believed everyone should be able to experience the excitement and uplifting power of architecture, and he and his students were making it happen bit by bit. I got out of film school and wanted to make a movie on this guy, but I didn’t have the experience yet. A few years later Mockbee introduced me to one of his interns, Jay Sanders. Jay was shooting video around the Rural Studio and Sambo though we’d make a good team. Unfortunately, the first time we met was at Sambo’s funeral in late 2001. But, right then and there we shook hands and said let’s make this movie. And, nine years later, here it is.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it the script, principal photography or post-production stage?

The Alabama humidity, which is bad for the cameras and bad for the filmmakers.

Please tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.

The film is a combination of HD, Sony XDCam to be exact, and mini DV. The mini-DV footage is from 2002-2003 when we followed the Music Man House from start to finish. That project serves as the backbone for the film. And, the interview I shot with Mockbee in 1999 was mini-DV as well. Mini-DV was the best format we had access to in those days. Everything else is shot in HD. We wanted to create a sense of place and really show off the Rural Studio projects with gorgeous cinematography. And, the different formats visually help the viewer keep track of where you are in the story. Every time you see mini-DV footage you know you’re in the past, and the HD footage is the present, or at least 5 years later.

Who would you say is “the audience” for this film? Do you want to reach everyone possible or any particular type of filmgoer?

There is obviously a built-in audience for a film about an influential architect and socially responsible design. But, we intended to make a film that reaches out to general audiences by boiling the film down to a universal story about a man who used his talents to make the world a better place and inspired others to do the same. The film is funny, inspiring, critical, engaged in universal issues and visually gorgeous. You don’t have to know anything about architecture to enjoy this film. You’ll learn plenty and have a smile on your face while you’re doing it.

How far do you think you would want to go in this industry? Do you see yourself working on larger stories for a larger budget under the studio system, or do you feel that you would like to continue down the independent film path?

As far as the ride will take me. I want to make several more documentaries, but I’d like to do some narrative feature work, too.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other line of work do think you would be involved with?

Well, I guess an architect or a folklorist.

Please tell me some filmmakers, actors or other talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.

Merle Haggard.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

Extremely important. Good press is good publicity and the larger the wave you can make in media response to your film, the more people will know about your film and hopefully pay to see it, buy a DVD or watch it on VOD. Especially for independent films that can’t afford national TV ads and billboards, you have to use the magazine and newspaper reviews, blogs, online journalism, social media, etc, to reach worldwide audiences. The portals are there.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?

The Ziegfeld Theatre in New York. And, I love the Film Forum in New York for their programming. That would be an honor.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

Come see an entertaining, funny, inspiring, confrontational, uplifiting film about an architect. Yes, an architect; an architect who tried to make the world a better place by bringing the beauty of architecture to the rural poor in the Deep South. An architect and artist, who pushed his profession to consider how to use its skills to serve the 99% of people in the world who would never be able to hire the services of an architect. And, come meet Music Man, the client featured in the film. You’ll never meet a guy like Music Man anywhere else.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking during or conversing/texting on their cell phone while you’re watching a movie (if at your own screening or another movie you attend)?

I’d turn around and tell them to stop, it’s distracting. Why are they at the movie in the first place if their damn conversation is so interesting?

What do you love the most about this business of making movies?

For documentaries in particular, I love that every project tales you to a place and inside a culture or situation that you are intensely engaged in for a long period of time. You learn so much and you expand your world view with every journey the film takes you on, physically or emotionally.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?

2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s so visually stunning and captures the sublime like no other film. I get completely lost in it on a big screen.

This is one of the many films screening at this year’s South By Southwest Film in Austin, Texas between March 12-20. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 03/10/10 04:10:02
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