Tuesday, July 31, 2007

I Pity The Fool - An Interview With Brent Coughenour


"This continent has not seen a transformation like Detroit's since the last days of the Maya. The city, once the fourth largest in the country, is now so depopulated that some stretches resemble the outlying farmland and others are altogether wild."

"Just about a third of Detroit, some forty square miles, has evolved past decrepitude into vacancy and prairie - an urban void nearly the size of San Francisco." Rebecca Solnit - 'Detroit Arcadia' [Harper's, July 2007]

Detroit has undergone the most dramatic transformation of any major city in North America and yet, its history is largely ignored or misunderstood. What reduced Detroit from a metropolis of 2 million to less than 900,000 was a complex combination of de"ndustrialization, decentralization, outsourcing and white flight or, as Solnit boils it down in Harper's, 'bitter racism and single"ndustry failure'. And yet, although the narrative, that the city diminished because the white folks wouldn't let the black folks have a seat at the table, then fled the table altogether, is largely true, it leaves out the uncomfortable fact that there were a number of whites who never had a proper seat at the table either.

The history of Detroit is one of insane racial polarization and segregation, of Southern blacks migrating North to seek opportunity and systematically being denied, but it is also a history of Southern whites landing on the margin. It would be ironic to say that 8-Mile is the most prominent film in recent memory to explore those intersections of race and class, if it weren't for the fact that it happens to be a really good film.

The shadow of this history can also be perceived in Brent Coughenour's I Pity The Fool. Although the film largely focuses on the decaying environs of Detroit, a central part of the movie reflects on the ghostly absence of lower-class whites who were once a part of the city as well as those who remain as spectral presences. Whether knowingly or unknowingly, the film offers a glimpse into a history which many, myself inlcuded, know very little of, but which deserves a storytelling as rich and provocative as that of Baltimore in The Wire.

I Pity The Fool screens Tuesday, August 7, 8pm at the NWFF, along with Jack Cronin's Invisible City as part of Vanishing Ruins: Visions of Detroit. Brent Coughenour will be in attendance.

ESF: I thought I'd start with some technical questions.

BC: Sure.

ESF: I'm assuming the film was shot in Super-8.

BC: Yes, that's correct.

ESF: What kind of camera did you use?

BC: I actually used several. Whatever happened to be around, I borrowed. I work with a non-profit organization in Detroit and they had a couple of cameras that I would use at various times. I started with a friend of mine's and then that camera started to malfunction. So I bounced around. I probably used three or four different cameras. I can't even remember. It's hard to find a real quality, working Super-8 camera, at least, when you're borrowing cameras from people. So, I used a bunch of them, is the short answer.
ESF: And how about the film stock. Were you using different ones or was there one particular one you stuck with?
BC: It was mostly Kodachrome for all the outdoor stuff and then, for the lower light situations, I used Ektachrome. I think they've both been discontinued since then. They've been replaced with others. So, it was just those two stocks.
ESF: I noticed early on, in the scene in the hotel room, the curtains have a nice brown glow. You managed to get some nice warm tones.
BC: I spent forever on the color correction. I was actually pretty blue in the original. With a lot of the lower light stuff I would shoot without the filter, because it would have cut even more of the light out, so a lot of that stuff had a real blue cast to it when it was shot and was color corrected in Final Cut Pro.
ESF: Who did you use for your processing and transfer?
BC: The Kodachrome I did at Dwayne's, which is in Kansas, and then the Ektachrome I did at a lab in NY that I was not happy with. It was kind of spotted, there's little spots on the film from the processing,AeP but the transfers I did myself. Actually, I just shot it off of the wall with a camera and, you know, at times there's some flicker. When I transferred the film, for whatever reason, the projector I was using happened to be running at a speed where it didn't give much flicker and then I came back a year later to do some more transfers and I noticed it was flickering more, so I think there was something about the belt, the tightness of the belt in the projector, I don't know, it's an odd thing. It was just a home remedy, basically [laughs].
ESF: I thought it looked pretty good. I wasn't aware it was shot off a screen.
BC: It's surprising. I mean, I was surprised. That's why I decided to go with that. I did it, originally thinking it would be just a rough transfer that I would work with and that I would pay to have a professional transfer done, but then I was happy enough with it where I didn't feel like it was worth the money, that I wouldn't get that much of an improvement for whatever I would have to spend.
ESF: You mentioned Dwayne's in Kansas. Is that a lab?
BC: Yes, it's a lab. It's the only place that does Kodachrome in this country or maybe North America. If you send it to Kodak they ship it to Switzerland or something. So, yes, it's one of the only places you can get Kodachrome developed anywhere nearby.
ESF: How do you spell it?
BC: D-W-A-Y-N-E-'-S. Dwayne's Photo. Their website is k14movies.com
ESF: Because you were shooting Super-8, I assume the sound was recorded wild.
BC: Yes. It was recorded wild. Most of the film was post-dubbed. I recorded most of the sound afterwards and then spent months and months synchronizing things. There were a few scenes where I did record sound while I was shooting and then, maybe two or three scenes, where I actually used that sound. I had to mess with it to try to mask the camera noise.
ESF: For example, the scene where the guy is skateboarding around the fountain, was the sound recorded at that time?
BC: That was all done later. After I shot it, we were in a parking lot somewhere else and I just had him do a couple of runs with the skateboard and then I took all that sound and meticulously laid it in to match it all up. And later, the different ambience tracks, the sound of the fountain, that sort of thing. So that was completely done after the fact.
ESF: One of the things that's interesting about the sound is that you're shooting in a city, but a lot of what we hear are nature sounds. They're not the sounds you would normally identify with a city and it adds to this odd, depopulated feeling the film has. You have this guy cycling along, past weed lots and open spaces, to this massive, empty building and you have bird sounds and droning music quietly underneath and, not to make a facile comparison, but the first thing that springs into mind is Stalker.
BC: It's funny you would bring that up, because originally, well, actually the music is now out of that scene. You saw a version that's right before the final one and I've actually just gone with the straight ambient sound for that scene. But before the one you heard, there was an earlier version with a different music track and that was actually layered from samples I took from the Stalker soundtrack [laughs]. But it was a little too dense. And I tried to pare it back and, even with the version you saw, the sound still felt too emotionally pointed for that section, so I ended up just going with the ambience. But, yeah, some of that's just the landscape. Detroit's a pretty surreal place. I mean, a number of the sounds were recorded in Detroit in and around my apartment. For instance, there are all these cicadas, and that was just recorded outside my window. But some of the areas, like that area, where that building is, is pretty depopulated. It's a big area, there's a park there, but there's also just a really wasted landscape.
ESF: Is that building the Michigan Central Railroad Station?
BC: Yes.
ESF: And the area right around it is pretty depopulated?
BC: Yes, the immediate vicinity is pretty empty. Pretty barren. I mean there's a railroad there and, when we were shooting, there happened to be a train going by, but it's pretty empty.
ESF: Does the city itself feel pretty empty?
BC: Yes, in places. I mean it's pretty incredible. I was just reading an article in this month's Harper's about Detroit and it talks about this issue of how Detroit has this post"ndustrial landscape and how sections are returning to nature. There are these large areas where nature is reclaiming it. The Stalker reference really isn't off the mark. A number of years ago, long before I started this film, my girlfriend at the time was from Russia and she was visiting me. We were driving downtown, and instead of the freeway, we took one of the main streets-I think Grand River-and we hit patches of utterly wasted landscape, and both immediately made a connection with Stalker.
ESF: Maybe a little 12 Monkeys, also,AeP Some people talk of a rebound happening. Other than the Renaissance Center is there anything going on?
BC: Well, there has been some, I think. You know the Super Bowl was a big catalyst for trying to renovate the area and I captured these images during the time when city was trying to get ready for the Super Bowl and they were knocking all these buildings down and trying to improve the image of the city. I don't know if there's going to be a turnaround. Personally, I don't think it's going to pan out. There's a ton of new condos, but the housing market is really bad. It's all speculation and I think there's going to be an implosion, but who knows. It's hard to know how things are going to go, but economically, Michigan is in really bad shape. I think it's one of the worst places in the country right now.
ESF: In doing some research I came across an interview with a guy named Lowell Boileau, who specializes in doing tours of these abandoned buildings. Are you familiar with him?
BC: No, I don't know him. I know there is a website for the ruins of Detroit. I haven't researched that thoroughly. I have friends who have told me about it and have looked into those kinds of things. All my information comes from people I know and that's how I discovered some of the places in the film, it's through friends who found them and told me about them and some of them are actually in the film.
ESF: I was curious who the people are in the film. Are they all friends?
BC: A couple of them are students. The two guys who are in the trailer park, getting scrap metal, were students of mine. They are the ones who introduced me to that area. They brought some footage to my class they had shot there. It was actually a big catalyst for the project. Pretty much everybody else was just a friend. There are no actors. They're not really playing characters, anyway. There's not much acting involved, but I think for me, I choose people based on what they look like maybe more than anything else.
ESF: Was that also your mother in one scene?
BC: Yes, that's my mother.
ESF: Where were you teaching?
BC: I was teaching at the College for Creative Studies. It's an art school. I was teaching basic video and digital skills involving photoshop and graphics and I got that job because the department chair knew me through this other organization, the Detroit Film Center which is a non-profit media arts center in Detroit that I've been working with for a while and he was involved with that. So, I was teaching adjunct at the College for Creative Studies and then I was also teaching at the Detroit Film Center. I was teaching 16mm production classes and some video classes. So, for about three-and-a-half years, those were the two things I was doing.
ESF: The students who brought in the footage from the trailer park, which class were they in?
BC: That was at the College For Creative Studies. That was actually in one of the more advanced courses that I taught, which was an experimental narrative, non-traditional narrative class and so they were juniors and one of their projects, I had them do weekly shooting projects where they would go out for an hour with a camera, kind of like a video journal, exploring, practicing with the camera and they would bring in the footage each week and everybody would show a little something that they had been shooting. So, that was some of the footage that came back through that project.
ESF: Have you kept in touch with any of the students? Has that class seen the finished version or near-finished version of the film?
BC: I've just kept in contact with a guy who became one of the main characters. I contacted him a few times to do a shoot and I got in touch with him because I'm going to screen the film in Detroit at the end of July, so I was telling him about that. I haven't encountered the other people in quite a while. So, I don't know if word will get out to anybody about that screening.
ESF: The people in your film are almost entirely white. Given that Detroit is 85% black, I was wondering if there was a reason for that.
BC: It's a question that I am aware of and have been aware of throughout the making of the film and I'm not sure exactly what I can say to answer that other than the people that I knew that I wanted in it are white. I did want to get a broader representation, but at the same time the political aspect wasn't my primary concern in making the film, so I didn't want to force something that I didn't feel was a big part of the film to begin with. Certainly the issue of race has played a huge role in the history and development of the city, but it's not really something that I have the knowledge of or the authority to make an intelligent contribution to. I think that there are a lot of white people that still live and move around in the city, so I don't think it's wholly unrepresentative. My concern was, could this be real, could these things actually happen, would you see these types of people in these types of situations and I believe that you could, in that sense. That's why I wasn't too worried about that aspect of it.
ESF: My interpretation of the casting was that the people in the film represent your surrogates. That they represented aspects of you as an observer and as someone living and traveling through Detroit.
BC: That's something that I wouldn't say was a conscious thought on my part, but a conscious thought on my part was to make the film open to different interpretations. I intentionally left this broad framework where I sketch in a few details, but I really want it to be open for the viewer to participate in creating what's going on so, by not forcing the viewer to accept a certain interpretation, I leave it open for them to fill in those gaps and I'm hoping that's what's going to happen, that people will interact with the film in that way. But you're right, in the sense that the film certainly comes from my perspective as a white person in the city, which I'm not really trying to hide. I didn't want to try to make it some sort of neutral or broadly representative film. I'm not overtly trying to represent anyone's experience or to give an 'accurate' portrayal of the city. The film is extremely myopic, in the sense, that it focuses on a few details of minutia. Certainly those details resonate with much larger issues, but the film only suggests that. It's up to the viewer to make those connections. To create a one-to-one corollary between the demographics of the various ethnicities in the city and the demographics of the people in my film-that wasn't really something I felt was necessary.
ESF: Was the inception of the film as a class project? What did it grow out of?
BC: The root for this film was probably twelve years ago or something. I got an idea for a storyline and I hadn't really made any films at that time, but kind of just filed it away, and was mulling it over. I made a couple of other films in the meantime and had a couple of other ideas for things and then there was a point where they started to come together, like these different ideas that I thought were different projects started to fit into the same framework and then,AeP it's even still kind of fuzzy to me exactly how it all came about, but I remember I had a script I was writing, I was thinking about shooting it around 2004, but then these students brought in this footage and I went to this place they had shot. That really was the last thing that fell into place as far as the idea of a story. So, it was a real convoluted evolution and it became something very different from the germ of the idea that I had a decade ago.
ESF: At certain points in the film the screen goes black and we hear a script being read. Was that your original script?
BC: Yes, and I originally had intended to shoot that, but at some point I decided to try that approach and I liked it and decided to stick with it. For me, the filmmaking process is sort of like playing a game with myself and one of those games turned out to be playing with the idea of not showing images,AeP the idea of the Filmmaking experience as an aural experience and as a mental experience.
ESF: Getting back to the sound design, you said the DVD I saw has music that's no longer in the film. Does the film, people are going to see, still have music or is it mostly the ambient sounds?
BC: There's never been a lot of music, but I pulled out that section and then I laid some background music over the scene where the character goes to the community center for a cup of coffee. There was a voiceover there with some kind of ambient music, in the background, and I took that out. All the other scenes that had music, I think, are still there. It's just been some minor tweaks and I did some tightening. I think maybe I rearranged the order of one or two scenes between the version that you've seen and the final version.
ESF: That's funny. I watched the DVD twice, but now I want to see it again!
BC: [Laughs].
ESF: Speaking of music, do you still have that blast of heavy metal at the beginning and end of the film?
BC: Yeah, that's still there.
ESF: Where is that from?
BC: I made that.
ESF: You did that?
BC: Yeah.
ESF: Was that you playing?
BC: Yeah, it was through GarageBand. You can tune your own amplifier sound in GarageBand and it's a bass guitar and, actually, an acoustic guitar, as well another layer, but yeah I made that on my own.
ESF: It's pretty good. I wanted to hear the whole song.
BC: [Laughs] That is the whole thing.
ESF: Well, I think you pretty much nailed the heavy metal riff.
BC: I was emulating this Japanese death metal band, Corrupted. Originally, I just laid in one of their riffs, but I'm very enamored of the idea of doing everything myself. So I used their sound as a model. I thought I did a decent job of nailing it and, when I listen to it, it sounds pretty good, but if I play it back to back with Corrupted, there's a tremendous difference in the density and texture of the sound. Their guitars are so much richer, which I guess is understandable, given the differences in equipment. But ultimately, I'd really rather do something myself, even if it's not quite the same quality I could get elsewhere. That's a significant part of the filmmaking process for me-part of the reason I make something in the first place-so it's important to do as much of it as I can myself.
ESF: A couple of months ago I saw RJ Smith deliver a paper, at the EMP Pop Studies Conference, on Strange Fr/ot: Rock Apocrypha, an installation piece by the Detroit band/art group Destroy All Monsters that consisted mainly of a set of four large murals depicting cultural and political figures who were prominent in Detroit in the 60's and 70's. The point of the talk was to show there was this really interesting history of artists, mostly musicians, but also visual artists, who were a product of or deeply influenced by Detroit as an environment and I was wondering if you felt there was such a tradition and if you felt like you were a part of it.
BC: I think that's true. I'm not the most knowledgeable about those kinds of things and I'm not sure to what extent I'd consider myself to be aligned with it, but it's definitely the case that Detroit has a rich history of musical contribution in a wide variety of areas, you know the MC5, The Stooges, Techno in the 80's, the White Stripes, and all of that. The art world as well. There is a certain aesthetic that I associate with a lot of Detroit artists. I'm not sure how well known Tyree Guyton is, but he's known outside of Detroit for his Heidelberg Project where he has these houses that he's bought around his house and puts up junk, building these huge sculptures, and it's been really controversial. The city has bulldozed areas around his property, because they call it garbage, but he's certainly very typical of the Detroit aesthetic.
ESF: There really does seem to be a Detroit aesthetic.
BC: I think so. I mean I think there is a Detroit aesthetic, not that everything in Detroit is part of that, but definitely there's something in common with a lot of work that gets done there.
ESF: Did you grow up in Detroit?
BC: I grew up mostly in the suburbs. I was born in Detroit, but my parents moved, like a lot of people did in the 70's, out to the suburbs. The whole white flight thing.
ESF: Which suburb did you grow up in?
BC: Southfield.
ESF: Really. My grandmother lived in Southfield. So, you grew up in the suburbs,AeP
BC: Yeah, I grew up in the suburbs and I didn't have a lot of contact with the city, so I was isolated from a lot of those artistic things and it wasn't until later that I became more aware of them.
ESF: How often do you go back?
BC: Periodically, my family is still there. I would like to move back there. I'm not sure whether that will happen or when it will happen. I really like the city a lot. It seems like a lot of the people I know are trying to leave, but I like it and I get back a couple of times a year.
ESF: If you moved back would the goal be to teach?
BC: Yes. I went back to grad school to get an MFA so that I could teach, because I was already teaching, but as an adjunct, and I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that it's the only way I'm going to make any money, because the films that I've made or am interested in making are not films that I can see ever making a dime off of. And I enjoy teaching.
ESF: Has the film been in festivals?
BC: No, not yet. I showed it in Detroit as a work"n-progress, a while ago, at one of the art museums, they were doing a touring show called Shrinking Cities, which was focused on several different cities around the world. I think the project originated in Germany and Detroit was one of the cities that they picked to focus on, as a post"ndustrial landscape and then, after the exhibit was in Germany, it toured around. So, when it was in Detroit, they were doing these side events and they showed my film as one of those screenings, but really that's it. I mean, like I said, I really just finished it. I showed it at school a month ago, right before graduation, and I've started sending it out to a few places.
ESF: How did it come to the attention of the NWFF?
BC: I sent it to Luke Sieczek. He was at school here, at the University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last year and now he's working at the NWFF, doing some programming for them, I think. So, I sent it to him and he liked it and decided to program it.
ESF: Cool. You mentioned a screening earlier in Detroit. Where will that be happening?
BC: I'll be screening at the Detroit Film center, because I worked with them for a long time and used some of their resources in making the film. So I know them well and they wanted to show the film when it was done. That's set up for the end of July, so I'll be heading back there for that and then I've been trying to set up this mini-tour out West, that's where the Seattle screening comes in. A friend of mine who's in the film, Bill Brown, is a filmmaker and he's done a lot of touring and he knows various places to screen. So, he's given me some contacts and I've been trying to set up a little tour. I will send it to festivals, but I'm not really optimistic about how many opportunities there will be to be to screen it that way, so I'm trying to make something happen on my own right now.
ESF: What other screenings might you have after the NWFF ?
BC: Some of these are kind of iffy, I haven't gotten definite confirmation, but possibly Vancouver, then Northern California, Eureka, then maybe San Francisco and a couple of things in LA. They're all going to be at small venues, micro film kind of screenings at non-profits and things like that.
ESF: Early in the film, one of the characters discovers some letters and we hear those letters being read. I assume those were actual letters that you found somewhere.
BC: Yes. Those are real. And they were from that trailer park. I went with some friends and found some of the photographs that one of the characters finds and I told some other friends as well, so there were several groups of us that were going to the trailer park and eventually I discovered that this other friend had found another batch of photographs from the same collection, as well as some letters, so I got those letters from him. I had actually begun shooting the film before I found those letters, but they became a significant part of the movie and worked their way into the storyline.
ESF: And how about the Super-8 film of the Thanksgiving Day parade at the end of the film?
BC: That's my father's old home movie. That, and the one of the swimming, those are my family home movies. So, there's a little blending, a fictionalization of what's happening with those things being blended in with the other material.
ESF: The feeling I got from watching the Thanksgiving Day parade was a glimpse of a past when Detroit had an active civic life.
BC: Yeah, that actually was from 1974, right around the same time as those letters, which is coincidental, but there is this sort of parallel reflexivity between the present and the past that I think is definitely there, if people are interested in thinking about those things.
ESF: The places that you were going into, for instance, the train station. How accessible were they?
BC: It's not hard to get in. I mean, they're blocked off and technically it's illegal, but people know how to get in and so you can sneak in. That, actually, might be the only location we went into that was blocked off.
ESF: There's a sequence where a woman leaves an office and drives through what looks like part of the train station as well.
BC: That's actually the Michigan Building, which has a parking garage. It's the same one that was used in 8 Mile. They used that to shoot a scene where Eminem is hanging out. It used to be an old movie theater and it's been a parking garage for twenty years or something, but there's this huge vaulted ceiling and the plaster's falling off, it's pretty surreal and I knew somebody who worked in that building and the building happens to be right next to this other building that appears a lot in the film, the United Artists building, which at the time had all this graffiti in the windows. I was really fascinated with the image and the appearance of that building, so I was really excited to know somebody whose office happened to be right across from it.
ESF: How about the building that you pass by on the elevated train that looks like it has these decorations in the windows,AeP
BC: That's the one I'm talking about. That's the United Artists building, that's got all these drawings and paintings in the windows.
ESF: That's graffiti?!
BC: Yeah.
ESF: Really!?
BC: Yeah, like every window in the place had been painted. What's really kind of sad is for the Super Bowl the city paid somebody, who knows how much money, to go in and clean off every single one of those windows. I mean the building is empty, the building is pretty much condemned, but rather than tear it down, they wiped clean all the paintings in the windows, which I thought had been of the more beautiful buildings in the city, because of it.
ESF: That's weird. Because they're so beautifully executed, my assumption was they were some kind of city-sponsored art project.
BC: No, I think only the really, most beautiful things in Detroit are the illegal art people have done without city permission. The state-sponsored art projects are mostly ugly. One of the main motivations for doing this film was to capture all these things that I saw that were really appealing to me, so there was the United Artists building and the train station which, from a certain angle, you can see through. You can see the daylight on the other side. To me it's a surreal, huge building, that's got this huge history and it's in this stark wrecked nature, but there's a beauty to it as well. To some extent, doing the film was almost an excuse for me to shoot these things that I really wanted to capture, like a shot of a tree growing out of a building that was across the street from this place where I worked downtown. So, in making the film, in addition to these ideas for these kind of little story things, a really big part of it was to work in a picture of the visual aesthetic of the city that I found really exciting.
ESF: Most of the demolition we see was going on before the Super Bowl?
BC: Yes, like the year prior. They wiped out a bunch of buildings and put parking lots in their place, but there's a ton of vacant buildings that are still standing, I don't think they could afford to get rid of all of them. I don't know what made them decide which ones to get rid of.
ESF: I read somewhere that Detroit has more abandoned buildings per square mile than any other city in the world apart from those in war zones. Do you think that could be true?
BC: I would not be surprised. I've heard some crazy facts too about how much of Detroit is vacant. Not just the abandoned buildings, but the city having all these vacant lots and everything.
ESF: And I've read that, because the buildings are abandoned, you've got these eco-systems developing on them, like birds roosting on top and whatnot.
BC: Yeah, like I said, there was the one image of the tree growing out of the building, but there are others. There are houses where there are trees growing out of the top, where's there's no roof and it really is a case where nature has reclaimed a lot space and it's a beautiful thing. It's an odd thing and a surreal thing, but it's really interesting. That article in Harper's, that I mentioned earlier, one of the points that the writer was making is how a lot of people are gardening. There are all these people who are making use of this new green space, this vacant space to do gardening and it's almost like the possibility for Detroit to be this post"ndustrial, alternative city that's not just trying to be green by recycling, but actually taking steps to do things that are environmentally sound.
ESF: The ultimate irony would be if Detroit became one of the greenest cities in America.
BC: It would be, if it happens. I'm kind of pessimistic about the city, so anything that smacks of an idealist sort-of thing, I feel there's no way it's going to pan out for the best, but there are good things happening and it could continue to happen, so who knows?

1 comment:

  1. My grandad worked in Detroit. He told me Detroit was once known as, and referred to as "Forest Town" because there were so many trees in the city, lining the Boulevards and whatnot.
    Perhaps it's becoming Forest Town again.