Sunday, October 22, 2006
Admiration and Poverty - The Coleman Miller Interview
As Coleman Miller is fond of noting, European cuisine during the Age of Exploration must have been bland as shit or else the aristocracy wouldn't have spent years of effort and piles of gold sending men halfway round the globe to fetch cumin. Using his own arsenal of cinematic seasoning, from old-school darkroom trickery to computerized manipulation, Miller takes musty bits of forgotten film and simmers them into cinematic bouillabaisse. The words 'funny' and 'experimental film' are not often found in the same sentence, but his latest piece, Uso Justo, transforms a Mexican medical melodrama into one fucking funny experimental film.
The 87 minute program will be presented at the NWFF Tuesday evening at 8:00pm.
Coleman Miller will be present.
ESF: Your films are credited to Scott Miller and Coleman Miller. They are both you, correct?
COLEMAN: Yes, that's me. My full name is Scott Coleman Miller. When I was a kid I hated my middle name, but now I kind of like it. If somebody Googles 'Scott Miller' there are 846,000 of us so, three years ago, I decided to use my middle name.
ESF: That was a good idea. Coleman is much more distinct.
COLEMAN: Yeah, I like it. Once I changed it everyone said, "No, you've got to go with Cole!" No. I'm not going to keep changing it. I'll be like P. Diddy.
ESF: Coleman is a good name. It's formal. It's got a solidity to it. It reminds me of Coleman Hawkins.
COLEMAN: That's nice. However, I live in Minnesota and we have a Republican here named Coleman. Norm Coleman. So, sometimes I run into that association.
ESF: Although he might not be in office in two years.
COLEMAN: Probably. Well, you never know. You never know what's going to happen. I have a great idea for a PSA for the Democratic party if maybe somebody has an elephant I could use and a donkey. I need to find an elephant and a donkey and have them side by side taking a shit. Maybe they don't have to do it at the same time, but as long as they're standing next to their pile of shit, just say, "As you can see, there is definitely less shit with the Democrats." So, I need to get an elephant. And I'm pretty sure an elephant shits bigger than a donkey.
ESF: Maybe you could arrange that with somebody at the zoo.
COLEMAN: Instead of asking my filmmaker friends.
ESF: Could you just go to the zoo and say, "Excuse me, I'd like to film your elephant taking a shit?"
COLEMAN: I'd still need to get them in a white backdrop.
ESF: You'd probably have to matte that in or something. So, for people who have no idea who you are, and there must be one or two, can you say a few words about yourself?
COLEMAN: I grew up in Elgin, Illinois and went to film school at Southern Illinois University. I initially went there because I wanted to make films like Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Monty Python and then I took an experimental film class and that all changed. I saw films by Bruce Conner and Peter Rose and I realized, if you make narrative films you could create this whole new world, but with experimental films you could almost create a whole new universe, so it seemed like it was really opened up more. So, I went to film school, moved back to Elgin for a year, saved up my money, went to San Francisco and worked at a film lab for ten years, where I was able to experiment like crazy. I was in the print department and soon I was the head of the print department, so I could use all the contact printers, the Bell & Howell continuous contact printers, whenever I wanted. So, that was a great time, to be young, to work at the lab, to come up with an idea one night, shoot it, and get it processed the next morning.
ESF: Were you shooting negative or reversal?
COLEMAN: I was shooting primarily color negative. Sometimes I'd shoot color print stock, which is, like, 4ASA, so you'd shoot a white cat on a white picket fence in bright sunlight and maybe you'd get something.
ESF: Was Fixated Whereabouts shot at this time?
COLEMAN: Fixated Whereabouts was a college film I made. It was stuff I had shot on Super-8 and then, at the University, they had an optical printer, so I took quite a few of those shots and blew them up to 16mm and then edited that with black in-between. I had just seen Bruce Conner's Take the 5:10 to Dreamland and was pretty affected by it. I liked the idea of shots separated by fading up from black and each shot was very different. I thought I was creating this sort-of dreamscape.
ESF: I thought I noticed the Transamerica Pyramid in one shot.
COLEMAN: I had visited San Francisco. That was a still photograph that I just panned across with the Super-8 camera. It was a pretty nice photo and I just had it there, so I guess I was destined to move there.
ESF: How much time did you spend in San Francisco?
COLEMAN: A dozen years.
ESF: And then you moved to Minnesota?
COLEMAN: I moved out here with my girlfriend of the time and we were both like, okay, maybe it's time for a change. Well, I worked at the lab for a bunch of years and I finally said, "Okay, let's see if I can make some money on the side," so I sent a tape of stuff to MTV. A buddy of mine, Fran/ssois Miron, said he got $500 for just doing one of those MTV logos, so I said, "Well, I could use some of that cash," and sent them a tape. They called me back a couple of weeks later and said they'd rather have me do an opening title for a show and it paid, like, five times as much if not ten.
ESF: What show was it?
COLEMAN: The Big Picture. Chris Connelly was the host. The opening they originally used was shots of klieg lights or something turning on and off and they saw Step Off a Ten Foot Platform that had all these sprocket holes and scratches and dirt and shit and they hired me to do something like that. They sent me all the kodaliths for shooting the MTV logo and their titles. That was the first place I sent anything and I got a job out of it, so I was like, "I'm going to quit my job!" And then the phone didn't ring. So, I had another job at a still lab and then it was like, "Minnesota really supports the arts," so we said let's go there. Since then we've both gotten grants here.
ESF: How was the effect of the exposed sprocket holes done?
COLEMAN: You know how to make a contact print of a photograph? It's that same effect. I had an eight foot piece of glass in the darkroom and I took a piece of 16mm film, emulsion up, in the dark and laid a piece of black 35mm diagonally across that six foot piece of unexposed negative. I'd flick the lights on once, boom, and I would have these sprocket holes that would slowly creep across. And that was just to make the matte. Then I had a piece of black and clear and I would make a negative of that and put whatever shots I wanted over that.
ESF: A lot of those effects tend to be associated now with digital effects units, so it's interesting that you were doing those things earlier on film.
COLEMAN: And even then everybody was saying, "God, your optical printing is great" and I never used an optical printer. It's all done on a continuous contact printer.
ESF: At some point did you switch to doing effects on video?
COLEMAN: I never really worked on video. Once it got digital, I took it up. But I never worked in video much. I was a film snob for so long, you can imagine, working at a lab and seeing sprocket holes and dirt and edge numbers and frame lines every day. So that's why that stuff is in my films. I like exposing film for what it is, letting people see things. I was just cutting some stuff together for a grant I'm writing and I looked at every piece and every one has some sort of film reference. Even Fixated Whereabouts. It's all this kind of dreamscape, but in the last shot you see me walking straight into the camera. I can't seem to get away from making a film about film.
ESF: Have you ever physically treated the film, like scratching or bleaching?
COLEMAN: Yup. I have a film that's going to be screening in Seattle called Hans Motherlode. That's all shots of hands. I realized when I got the computer that I wasn't using my hands as much and the computer would break down and I would get frustrated and I'd start working with my hands again, making sculptures, and it felt good. Then I realized, my apartment is loaded with all these educational films and almost every one had close-ups of hands doing something. So I cut up all those shots and kept them around the apartment. You know, I had some in my bathroom sink and I would spit on them when I was brushing my teeth or they'd be on the floor and I would step on them, etc. And I'd run them through sandpaper or bleach them a little bit. Sometimes when I'm editing in the summertime, barefoot, a film piece on the floor will stick to my foot and I'm like, okay, that's the shot.
ESF: Have you ever seen the 1934 film Hands? It's on the Unseen Cinema set. I think it was done for the WPA. It's just one shot after another of hands, opening a book or threading a needle or working a jackhammer.
COLEMAN: No, I've never seen that!
ESF: So, at a certain point you just gave in a started working with a computer?
COLEMAN: I finally broke down and got a computer around 1999. Well, once I didn't work at the lab anymore I couldn't process stuff as cheaply, so I got a video camera and Final Cut Pro and all bets were off. It's like editing and optical printing all in the same program, it's pretty sweet.
ESF: Has that affected your work?
COLEMAN: Well, I can put out stuff really quickly now. The local PBS station here has this thing where once a year they show short independent work from Minnesota and the due date was a couple of days away and people were asking me what I was submitting and I really didn't have anything new, so I just cut something together in a night. I can do that now. Back in the day I could still do that, but it was on a flatbed editor and I would take found footage and splice it together in some semblance of order. I don't consider that a film as much as, well maybe not an exercise, but as a little thing to do. It's not something I would submit to festivals, but it's all mainly found footage. There's one called Opening Titles. Educational films all have opening titles with very dramatic music, so I just spliced them together and it was pretty funny to watch. I grew up watching these films. I don't know how old you are, but...
ESF: I'm [REDACTED - CONFIDENTIAL].
COLEMAN: So, when you were going to elementary school or junior high they'd bring out the projector and show the films?
ESF: Yes. The best were the driving safety ones, which were kind of ghoulish.
COLEMAN: Red Asphalt. I remember the anti-drug ones, of course.
ESF: There would always be somebody taking acid and flying through a window.
COLEMAN: Or staring at a doorknob and tripping out on their reflection.
ESF: Have you ever seen the NY public access show, Concrete TV?
COLEMAN: I haven't. I love cable access in NY, though.
ESF: It was these really dense montages of found footage that were so quickly cut that, after a few minutes, your eyes would hurt.
COLEMAN: Were they doing anything to it or just showing it as it was?
ESF: It was just rapid cuts from one weird thing to another with usually some metal riff blasting away.
COLEMAN: When I look through my educational films I generally don't grab the really dramatic stuff, like I know people are always looking for car crashes or something like that and I'll end up taking a shot of somebody on the corner looking at the sun. The more banal stuff seems more interesting to me.
ESF: Although you do have some shots, I think in Step Off A Ten Foot Platform, that appear to be from a fire safety film.
COLEMAN: Yeah, it's like a house burning and firemen are coming.
COLEMAN: Okay, there is that stuff. So, it's not all banal.
ESF: On the other hand, your films definitely have a meditative aspect. It's not just one thing zinging at you after another every split second.
COLEMAN: Maybe near the end of Step Off A Ten Foot Platform it gets kind of crazy. In that one I was trying to introduce this footage and there's six or seven shots that I introduce just the way it was shot and then I go into this weird place where it's all printed weird colors and cut in with sprocket holes.
ESF: I'm curious about Take The L. It seems like a bit of a departure.
COLEMAN: That was the one I cut in a night to get the $500 for the PBS screening. I had shot this stuff on the L in Chicago and I was putzing around with Final Cut Pro, trying to get different kaleidoscopic effects.
ESF: Oh, so that was done in post. I was trying to figure out if it was done with the camera.
COLEMAN: No. I tried that with mirrors, but it never looked good. And that's something I couldn't have done in a night if I was doing that on film. It would be a lot of matting and things like that and so sometimes that stuff works out pretty nicely and I think it's kind of mesmerizing. It's nice to do a kaleidoscopic effect with a nice, smooth, panning camera, either right to left or up and down and that L track stuff worked perfectly.
ESF: I also liked the music you coupled it with. It was a good choice.
COLEMAN: That's a band called Electropolis and I acted in and crewed on a film they were used on and I know one of the guys in the band and I just called him the night before and said, "Hey, can I use your music?" and he said, "Yeah, sure."
ESF: How about Hashbrown, the band that did the music for Hans Motherlode?
COLEMAN: Hashbrown is a guy. He's a friend of mine. That's his moniker.
ESF: So, being in Minneapolis, have you had much to do with the Minneapolis-St. Paul Film Festival?
COLEMAN: Yeah, I've shown there and when I first got here I helped the guy do the trailer. I helped them design it and this past year I made the trailer myself. I did it in two weeks. It was an Uso Justo type thing using the same film and I just made it all referencing the festival.
ESF: So, do you have any good stories about Jamie Hook?
COLEMAN: [REDACTED - CONFIDENTIAL]
ESF: How about Adam Sekuler, do you have any good stories about him?
COLEMAN: Oh, that guy! Well, all I can say is you have to see him karaoke sing or else you haven't seen Adam.
ESF: I have not yet had the privilege.
COLEMAN: Well, his version of Toto's Africa, if you can see him do that, it'll make you smile for a week.
ESF: So, what can you tell me about Uso Justo?
COLEMAN: Uso Joosto! I love that film
ESF: I don't suppose you're willing to tell me what the source of that was.
COLEMAN: Only if you don't print it. I have some rights issues. I never got rights to that, but Uso Justo is Spanish for 'fair use'. Are you familiar with 'fair use', copyright law?
COLEMAN: So, I just decided to call the town 'fair use' and thought that might look good at my impending trial when I'm sued. So, the original name of that film was [REDACTED -CONFIDENTIAL]. What it was, I told my friends that I wanted to make a foreign film and they were like, "What does that mean?" And I said, I don't know, but I'm going to figure it out. A month later I was in a little video store, a one guy operation, in a strip mall outside Minneapolis and he had a foreign section. He had a VHS tape, it was $7.95. I had him pop it in. I watched the first five minutes and there were no subtitles, it was all just Spanish and I said, "I'll take it." I took it home and watched it a bunch of times and then just started to put some scenes into my computer and started typing up some new subtitles for it. I just kind of grew on its own.
ESF: It looks like it was an odd film to begin with. Does the film in it's virgin form have a weird feel?
COLEMAN: Well the plot was [REDACTED - CONFIDENTIAL]. But Uso Justo kind of wrote itself, once I started doing it. The first scene I wrote was an operating room scene and it kinda worked, but didn't really. The more scenes I wrote, the better I got at writing lines that you'd think these characters might actually be saying just by their inflection and expressions. It took me two or three scenes before I got that. Once I got that down it sort of wrote itself. And once I realized, okay, these people are going to get stuck in this film and they realize they're in this film, it was a lot of fun to write.
ESF: It's really a fun piece.
COLEMAN: It definitely catapulted me up a couple of levels. You know the rest of my films would show and people would be like "Oh, that's very interesting. How did you do that?" But now I'm getting invited to festivals all over the world.
ESF: So when did you initially show Uso Justo?
COLEMAN: It premiered at the Ann Arbor Film Festival in 2005. I had had a film or two at Ann Arbor and a couple of years ago I went there and did some installations for the festival in their lobby. So, I had a connection with them. And to me the Ann Arbor Film Festival has always been like, in film school they would tell you, "If you can get into the Ann Arbor Film Festival, that's the best one." It's been going on for forty years, its one of the oldest film festivals in the country for short, independent films. So that was always the film festival to get into. So, I submitted Uso Justo. They had a new festival director. I knew the old director, Vicki Honeyman, for years and they had a new guy in there, Dan, and so I submitted Uso Justo. He loved it. It went through their screening committee and they rejected it. They were like, "No, it's derivative." And that drove my producer, Rick, up the wall, because he thought it was anything but derivative. So, he wrote Dan an e-mail and I talked to Dan and said "Man, I'm really disappointed, because this thing was almost made for Ann Arbor." And he ended up making an executive decision and screened it at the festival. And then it goes on and wins the best of the festival. So, screening committees, pfffft, go figure.
ESF: Was that where you encountered Isabella Rossellini?
COLEMAN: God, how do you know that?
ESF: There's a quote from her on your website.
COLEMAN: A friend of mine was dating her for a while.
COLEMAN: So we hung out a couple of times. It was just when I was finishing Uso Justo, we were having dinner in Chicago and I gave them a DVD of it and she left a couple of messages on my phone machine saying nice things.
ESF: What did she say?
COLEMAN: She just said she liked the film and thought it was kind of original. And then my friend Charlie piped in and says she told him I would wind up being poor and damned, so Isabella called back and said she didn't really say that. What she said was that it was tough being original and that I could look forward to a life of admiration and great poverty.
COLEMAN: Yes, that was it. Admiration and great poverty.