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SXSW '06 Interview: '51 Birch Street' Director Doug Block

by Scott Weinberg

The '51 Birch Street' Pitch: Documentary filmmaker Doug Block always thought his parents' 54-year marriage was a good one. But when his mother dies unexpectedly and his father swiftly remarries his former secretary, he discovers a family history far more complex and troubled than he ever imagined.

Describe your movie using the smallest number of words possible.
A riveting personal documentary that explores a universal human question -- how much about your parents do you really want to know?

Is this your first trip to SXSW? Got any other film festival experience? If you’re a festival veteran, let us know your favorite and least-favorite parts of the ride.

I was at SXSW in 1999 with my documentary, Home Page, which chronicled the web's first blogger, Justin Hall, long before the term blog was invented. 51 Birch Street is my 3rd film as a director, and my 7th as a producer, so I've done many many festivals and won many prizes (including 3 jury prizes at Sundance).

The best part of festivals is getting to meet my fellow filmmakers, especially my documentary colleagues. The worst parts aren't all that bad. It's hard to complain.

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?
Shortstop for the NY Yankees.

Not including your backyard and your Dad’s Handycam, how did you get your real “start” in filmmaking?
A super-8 camera in high school. I made a parody of a Driver's Ed training film, a kind of horror mockumentary, very ahead of its time. The class loved it but the teacher was furious and I almost didn't get my driver's license.

Do you feel any differently about your film now that you know it’s on “the festival circuit?”
Not really. You have to have total faith in your story, and in your ability to tell it, during the years it takes to get a film made. Especially a personal documentary.

During production did you ever find yourself thinking ahead to film festivals, paying customers, good & bad reviews, etc?
When editing, I always try to watch the scene at hand from the perspective of an audience member who's comes totally fresh to the story. But you'll drive yourself nuts if you worry too much about critical reaction.

How did this film get rolling at the beginning? Give us a brief history from writing to production to post to just last night.
51 Birch Street is a story about my parents, and no one in their right mind sets out to make a film about their parents and, especially, their marriage. But a lot of disturbing things happened in our family in a very brief period of time -- my mother's unexpected death, my father's sudden marriage to a former secretary, the sale of our longtime family house, and the discovery of 35 years worth of my mother's daily diaries, among other things. I began to shoot as a way to get to know my father better, and along the way discovered what the film would be, and what a universal story it actually is. Exactly two years later, it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, went on to Amsterdam (IDFA), and now it's starting it's U.S. festival run at Miami and SXSW.

If you could share one massive lesson that you learned while making this movie, what would it be?
If you've been keeping diaries, leave instructions to have them destroyed when you die.

What films and filmmakers have acted as your inspirations, be they a lifelong love or a very specific scene composition? Did you watch any movies in pre-production and yell “This! I want something JUST like this …only different.”?
Growing up I had many many inspirations, from Orson Welles and Citizen Kane to just about anything done by Buster Keaton. The biggest influence on me as a documentary filmmaker has been Ross McElwee. His film Sherman's March was the reason I started making docs, and legitimized the personal doc as a genre. I've admired all of his films ever since. But, oddly enough, the biggest influence on 51 Birch Street was one of my favorite films of all time, an Ingmar Bergman classic, Wild Strawberries. Like 51 Birch Street, it's a film about coming to peace with your past. And my father, at 83, was just about the same age and looks a lot like the main character in that film. And there's something about his face that is so decent and moving that you care for him even when you're not supposed to like or approve of what he's done.

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?
I always wanted to see a film made of the Jack Finney novel Time and Again. But I'm not a fiction filmmaker, so I'd take the money and make about 10 documentaries with it.

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!”
I never think of myself as having made it, whatever "it" is.

Honestly, how important are film critics nowadays?
They're still extremely important, especially if a so-called "small" film is to get any kind of decent theatrical release. But I grew up reading Pauline Kael's reviews, and she deeply influenced my thinking about movies and filmmaking. There's no one else who has come close to her. In other words, I think critics are still really important. I just wish there were more really important critics.

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?
I have no trouble with "a film by", especially for a documentary. But you still have to acknowledge that it's a completely collaborative medium, and that a documentary camera person and editor are both making enormous, and far too unsung, contributions to the directing of the film.

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?
I think, first and foremost, the short description of the film has to be compelling. The director's track record is helpful. And then there's a certain tried and true path for a special film: premiering at a prestigious film festival and getting great reviews. 51 Birch Street was selected for the Toronto Film Festival, and was called "the latest autobiographical doc sensation" by the Toronto Star, and "a triumph of true-life storytelling" by Variety. I'll let that speak for itself.


51 Birch Street, directed by Doug Block, will premiere at the 2006 South By Southwest Film Festival. Click here for festival information, and be sure to check out the official 51 Birch Street website.

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originally posted: 02/27/06 17:04:45
last updated: 02/27/06 17:05:35
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