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SxSW ’10 Interview – “Dirty Pictures” director Etienne Sauret

Dirty Pictures - At SxSW Film
by Jason Whyte

“This movie is about a brilliant chemist who spent his life defying “the system” by using his talent to create and study psychedelics, test them on himself, instead of more lucrative choices, and the wife who was his companion through it all.” Director Etienne Sauret on the film “Dirty Pictures” 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?

This is my first time at SXSW, but I did have a film at Cannes, the feature “Too Pure” in 1995. “WTC: The First 24 Hours” was a Sundance Official Selection in 2002, and my film “Collateral Damages” about 9/11 firefighters won a Special Jury Award at SilverDocs in 2003. I will be attending the festival in Austin this Year.

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?

There was a movie I saw as a kid, where, at the end, Atlantis is destroyed and disappears into the Atlantic. I didn’t understand how the filmmakers had time-traveled back and filmed that happening, but once I found out how it worked, I was hooked.

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

I don't know if I had much of a choice. As far as I can remember, I always felt I had to become a filmmaker. I always felt in a strange way that my choices were limited to that option.

How did this whole project come together?

In 2005, a friend who runs a drug prevention center in the UK wanted to bring Sasha to London to speak at a conference. When Sasha couldn’t make it, we went to California to make a short film for that conference, and I found Sasha and his wife Ann to be truly unusual and endearing. Later, when I was editing the footage, my office interns kept stopping by and asking “Who is this guy?” I never thought Sasha, a wild man with white hair, big white eyebrows and a child-like smile would be so appealing to people in their 20's, and I thought that if Sasha could stop them in their tracks and hold their attention, making a longer film about both Ann and Sasha was worth pursuing. I soon began to realize that there was a lot more to the story that I initially imagined.

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

I think editing this film was the hardest, because we decided that we didn’t want any voice over or narration, and that made it very tricky. Sasha wasn’t difficult, but making a film that makes sense to people about this larger than life figure, who is a very complex and brilliant man, following him from the desert of Nevada to Egypt and around the U.S., took a lot of work. I was lucky to have the help of Rachel Warden, my phenomenal editor, who truly understood the scope of the film, but I'd be hesitant to do another film about an individual. It is so much more complex than when dealing with a subject matter.

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.

I shot the film alone as I did my previous film "Collateral Damages". This was a very intimate subject and I didn't want to have a crew. Besides, I could not afford it since we did not have a budget. This film was financed personally. I went through various formats from standard definition to HD, analog to digital in the last five years but we managed to seamlessly integrate them in the end. Gavin, our colorist really made a difference in the continuity and mood of the film. As for the mood of the film, I make a point of favoring natural light.

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?

Our first public screening will be the premiere at SXSW, and we’re very excited about that. It’s the perfect place for a film about a defiant explorer type personality. But we did show it to some people before, and what I most remember was this woman who said, “I didn’t know it was about drugs, and when I found out I was sure I wouldn’t like it. But in the end it’s not about drugs, it’s about relationships, the relationship the Shulgins have with each other as husband and wife, their relationships with their friends.” So I’m hoping that people keep finding the same thing, which it’s about people and their struggles to do what is important to them while maintaining loving relationships.

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

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by how wide of an audience has enjoyed the film. People from all backgrounds keep finding personal ways to relate to the Shulgins and their work and lives. It’s great to make something that people can relate to in multiple ways, so I’d say it’s for anyone who appreciates how people can set off to make a different destiny for themselves than the one that would have been considered normal or easy. It’s for those who can appreciate the triumph of those who are outside the norm, but still do everything with the best intentions and great hearts.

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?

If you look at recent films, I was blown away by Toback’s "Tyson". I also feel that “Waco: The Rules of Engagement”, "Brother's Keeper" and “Terrors Advocate” are some of the best docs ever made. But perhaps, the one that made the most profound impact on me in the last few years is "Lake of Fire", Tony Kaye's documentary. I think it is the perfect documentary, and it definitely impacted me and inspired me in a profound way.

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?

I am an independent filmmaker at heart and certainly hope to continue making documentaries. I am shooting another documentary right now and prepping a project in 3D. One day, I'd like to make a fiction film, It would be an action film, a cross between "Deliverance" and "Next of Kin". It would be an independent production, low budget and with a tight crew. There is a business aspect to commercial film production that really turns me off. Even the word Industry bothers me. Unfortunately a lot of people who work in our trade do not belong in it. They see films as a product and that is truly disturbing.

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

I daydreamed about becoming a doctor or surgeon (I love to shoot surgical procedures) but I was a pretty bad student and school was not for me. I also always liked the idea of being a detective which is in many ways similar to a documentary filmmaker. I have an idea for a documentary about detectives that perhaps I'll get to make one day. That would be very interesting for me. For all the fascination in the U.S. with detective stories I never actually saw one that truly made me understand that World.

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

I have been very fortunate to work with very talented documentary filmmakers

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 is a critical component and in a way better with the added diversity of critics and people's feedback on the internet, filmmakers don't have to be enslaved to the few reviews that a theatrical release entails. Unfortunately on occasion, the internet prevents deeper and more thoughtful reflections and lighter fare that often misses nuances.

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

Any theater that does not sell cheese nachos, hot dogs and other disgusting processed food that does not belong in a theatre. It generates a lot of waste and is a cleaning nightmare for the theater staff.

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

If you’ve ever been inspired by someone who was offered the world, but turned it down in order to do what they loved, then this is for you. If you ever enjoyed a story about people who shared their whole lives, never paying attention to what they were “supposed to do” but only what they believed in, then this is for you. If you’ve ever enjoyed a movie that left you thinking about life differently when it finished, in ways you didn’t even imagine before you saw it, then this is a movie for you.

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 had my share of nasty stares and unpleasant interactions in a theater with this kind of behavior. If you can't shut up in a theater, you might as well stay home and be a couch potato, spare us the aggravation and don't ruin the experience for the rest of us.

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

Working together making a film. Being with people from all walks of life and become friends, often very close friends.

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?

Make sure to excel at one trade before making films, be technically proficient, spend time understanding editing but the most important is the greatest care for your subject, trust, patience and understanding.

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

There are all the classics, I'll spare the traditional list but "Lake of Fire" in the Documentary World and "Scarface" in the feature world.

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 20:20:07
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