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Vancouver International Film Festival 2010 Interview – “The Woodmans” director C. Scott Willis

The Woodmans - At VIFF 2010
by Jason Whyte

“If you come see this film no mammal species will be saved, no wars will be averted, but your heart may be touched in a way that only works of art can. “The Woodmans” is the story of a family of artists who suffer an unimaginable tragedy and then transcend it by staying true to their vision. Using previously unseen images, videos and diary entries of the acclaimed photographer Francesca Woodman, it is ultimately a story about the power of art to heal.” Director C. Scott Willis on the film “The Woodmans” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

This is my first film for theatrical release and candidly, my first experience with film festivals. “The Woodmans” had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. When it won the award for Best New York Documentary I wondered what took me so long. Not only is this my first time to VIFF, it’s my first time in Vancouver. I wouldn’t miss it for the world and will be at every screening I can.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led you to the desire to want to make film?

My filmmaking comes from a background in journalism, and for most of my career I have produced and directed investigative stories about global issues and institutions for broadcast on the small screen. So I confess to being more comfortable working in the world of “armed conflict”. Stepping out of that odd comfort zone to tell a story about “emotional conflict” and then framing that story for the big screen has been simultaneously one of the most daunting and most satisfying professional experiences I have had.

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

“…Microbiologist.” As a five year-old I think I liked feeling the way my mouth twisted to form the word, and I loved the puzzled look people gave to that answer. Fifty-some years later I just settle for puzzled looks.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

Six years ago I met Betty & George Woodman at a cousin’s loft in New York and stumbled into their story. I mentioned that I had a daughter who was studying photography at RISD and they said their daughter had studied there too. Not knowing about Francesca’s tragic history, I asked if our daughters could meet. An extraordinarily moving conversation ensued. And afterwards, when I looked up Francesca’s photography, I couldn’t think of any other story I would rather tell.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production? What was your favourite moment of the process?

My biggest challenge was to learn to listen for the story. Honestly, I think a lot of documentary filmmakers, myself included, tend to find a story, research it, get comfortable with it, build a thesis around it and then go and essentially film that argument. For me “The Woodmans” was an exercise in patience. It was shot over three years and the story demanded that it reveal itself. I honestly didn’t know what the film was going to be until we made the last edit. My favorite moment was making that last edit. The downside is that it’s tough to get funding with “I’ll listen carefully” as your business plan.

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 always thought of “The Woodmans” as sort of the “un-verité” film. Instead of placing the camera in the middle of the action we backed it up so you could take in and consider the context and beauty of Betty & George Woodman’s world. And instead of constructing a narrative meant to trigger a reaction I just wanted it to provoke thought. I hope it’s a film that stays with you for a while after you leave the theater.

Talk a bit about the experiences that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

Being a 58 year-old debutante is not an image I wish to cultivate – but it is the condition I find myself in. I’m not new to making films; I’ve made dozens and was just nominated for my twelfth Emmy. Not that I want you to think I’m counting – this time it is for best investigative documentary.

Until now, all of my films have been for the small screen, and I am astonished at how seductive it is to see your work projected on a big screen. My television films are usually broadcast to an audience of about four million but I’ll trade that any day for the experience of watching together with four hundred. I can’t wait to finish my next project.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Art has the power both to hurt and to heal. “My Architect” was an extraordinary documentary that showed that and I think I always hoped that “The Woodmans” should try to be that good. In “My Architect” the emotional story of a son’s search for his father was used to reveal something about architecture most people would never stop to think about. In that way I hope the Woodman family story can illuminate something about the creative process and a life spent in pursuit of art that the audience might not have considered.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?

Microbiology – of course.

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

There are lots of heroes in the film world, however Phil Alden Robinson, who directed “Field of Dreams” among others, was a hero specifically to this film. He’s a friend who was generous with his time screening rough cuts and giving honest, smart critiques. And he did it for free; not because he was obliged but because he believes that independent voices should be heard. Phil is a world-class story-teller. Spend time with him and it’s easy to see why.

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

We live in an age when having an opinion and getting it published has never been easier. But while there may be no shortage of opinions, the value of thoughtful criticism is still huge. I’m a sucker for a well-written, smart review. You can hate my film, but if you’re thoughtful and have an interesting turn of phrase I’ll still want to be your friend.

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

Fortunately for me, Karen Cooper has offered to premiere “The Woodmans” for two weeks at Film Forum in New York next January. For an independent filmmaker, Film Forum is Mecca, the Western Wall and the Via Dolorosa all wrapped in one. We hope to be able to make an official announcement of that before the start of VIFF.

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 come see my movie it won’t be so crowded and smelly. The girls or boys
are better looking … and smarter too.

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, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

If there’s nothing else you want to do more, and you believe in your story, don’t wait as long as I did to commit.

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

I’m not telling. It’s not mine and you might go see it instead of “The Woodmans”.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’10 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff10 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 10/11/10 08:58:53
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