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SxSW ’10 Interview – “Marwencol” director Jeff Malmberg

Marwencol - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“Marwencol is a documentary about an artist named Mark Hogancamp who created a 1/6th-scale WWII-era town in his backyard as a means of recovering from a brutal attack. A few years into his homemade therapy, his photographs of his town are discovered by the “art world.” The question is, will he take a chance and re-enter society as an artist, or will he stay in the safety of his own world?” Director Jeff Malmberg on the film “Marwencol” 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?

Yes, it’s my first film in SXSW as a director. My festival experience is as a producer and editor on films that have played Sundance, Slamdance, Locarno and other festivals. And yes, I will be in Austin for the screenings. I’ll be the one in the back cowering.

Could you give me a little look into your background (your own personal biography, if you will), and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

I work primarily as an editor. About four years ago, I got the itch to try my hand at directing. I’d worked on a few documentaries and wanted to find a subject where I could really dig in and explore.

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

...architect, George Costanza style.

How did this whole project come together?

I saw some of Mark Hogancamp’s photographs in Esopus Magazine and was fascinated by his story and the emotion in his photos. It was truly one of those “I’ve got to learn more” situations. So I got in touch with Mark and flew out to New York with the original intention of filming a short.

Mark and I got to know each other as I shot, and he began letting me in to his world. I just happened to come along when Mark was debating about his first art show in NYC and whether or not to attend. And I started to realize that that would make an interesting structure for the film.

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

For me, the biggest challenge was shooting the film. I made a conscious decision when I started this project to work outside my comfort zone of editing and try actually shooting something, which I hadn’t done since film school. I’m an editor, so I had to stop thinking about film from an editorial perspective and concentrate on the cinematography.

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.

Initially when I started shooting, I thought it was going to be a short film, so I literally borrowed a DV cam from a producer I was working with. Had I known it was going to turn into a four-year feature, I probably would’ve spent more time worrying about the camera I was using. Once I realized it was more than a 10-minute film, I switched to a PD 150 and shot the movie with that and my Super 8 camera.

I really wanted to take the technical aspect out of the shooting process because I wanted it to be as transparent as possible. I didn’t set up any lights... never used a boom. The interesting thing is that Mark is a photographer and the photos he takes are HD quality, while my film has been up-rezzed from DV. So visually it’s an interesting contrast between the HD quality of Mark’s fantasy world and the DV quality of the real world.

Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with this particular film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings? If this is your first screening premiere, what do you hope to expect at the screenings of the film?

Marwencol is premiering at SXSW and I suppose I just hope that people find Mark’s world as interesting as I do. I still go back there four years later and find new and different things that fascinate me.

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

Based on talking with people, it seems like the film should be accessible to most people. People seem to find Mark’s story and his photos interesting. But I suppose the ones who will like it the most are people who share something in common with the film: a love of photography or art, people who feel alone or like outcasts, even WWII and alternative reality fans.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have any direct inspirations from filmmakers for this project in particular?

I would say documentary directors are my biggest inspiration because they’re often operating from a place of pure passion and very little support. It’s sort of like writing – a solitary process that’s done a lot of time just for the joy or experience of doing it and I think that’s sometimes when great work is done.

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?

Filmmaking is at a really interesting place where you can get a camera and an editing system and make a film in your bedroom - like I did with this film. I definitely want to keep telling stories like this, but if other people want to come on board and support that and make my path a little easier, that would be great.

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

I think I’d be a detective.

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

My wife, Chris Shellen. I’d really like her to executive produce my next movie. I’d like to set up some sort of long-term arrangement with her.

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

It’s hugely important. It’s not like movies like this get big marketing budgets (or any marketing budgets), so reviews and word-of-mouth are essential.

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

The New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles. I’ve been going there since film school and it’s just an amazing place.

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

“Hi, would you like a free ticket?”

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 probably say “SSHHHH” really loudly.

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

The non-business parts of it; the parts where people are just doing it because they feel like they need to do it.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?

Go shoot. It’s so cheap now, that the barriers are really breaking down. Get into trouble. Make mistakes. Learn how to cut... it’ll make you shoot in a different way and it’s crucial to the documentary filmmaking process. Make a bunch of shorts until you find the subject that deserves a feature treatment. And make sure you live in the real world... not just the film world. That’s where the stories are.

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

It sort of changes weekly, but this week I watched the 5 ½ hour bootleg of the “Apocalypse Now” rough cut and it just reminded me what a brilliant piece of work the movie is and what an artistic spirit it seemed to be created in. It was exciting and tragic and profane and all the things you have to assume that war was for a lot of people. And in my mind it’s a true work of art. That said, talk to me next week and I’m sure I’ll have a new favorite.

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 06:14:37
last updated: 03/10/10 06:15:00
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