Bright Leaves

PBS Premiere: Aug. 23, 2005Check the broadcast schedule »

Ask the Filmmaker

Michael in New York asks: How does one find financing in documentary film? I'm working on a film about an Iraqi war veteran who shot his own video footage overseas and came home against the war. I'm struggling to stay afloat, and was wondering if you had any ideas or pointers for me.

Ross McElwee: Hi, Michael. Finding financing is usually difficult for independent filmmakers -- especially now that there are so many of us out there. My financing has come from a combination of grants from the standard grant-givers (for example, the Guggenheim, Rockefeller, and LEF Foundations). I applied to these agencies just like everyone else, and in some cases got funding from them. More of my funding has come from contractual arrangements with PBS in the US, ZDF in Germany, and Channel Four in London, but these funding relationships were forged over a twenty year period during which I made ten or so films that ended up being shown on television. It's very difficult just to walk in off the street and get funding from PBS or HBO.

I suggest you join the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers and subscribe to their monthly publication, The Independent, which has perhaps the most comprehensive listing of grant agencies. Also, Sundance Institute has a documentary film lab which develops works-in-progress during summer workshops. And there are a number of arts foundations and granting agencies in New York, such as the Jerome Foundation, which exist to help independent filmmakers from NY State. The competition for these funds is intense, but I still have faith in the fact that if your film is really compelling enough, someone will eventually step forward to help you finish it, even if it is your first film. Good luck!

Marian asks: The filmmaker states that his documentary is a rumination on notions of home and legacy: "The major theme of this film is legacy, what gets passed down from one generation to the next and notions of home." In this light, why does the film not address the issue of race and slave labor? How does one think the legacy of tobacco (in North Carolina) or of notions of home absent mention of race and slavery, particularly when all of the filmmaker's scenes of his family reunions show a conspicuously white McElwee clan?

McElwee: I certainly gave some thought to trying to work the theme of slavery's role in tobacco into Bright Leaves, but given how many themes I had already undertaken -- my great-grandfather's history with the tobacco industry, the practice of medicine, the themes of psychological addiction and denial, an inquiry into what it means to make movies (home movies, documentary films, and Hollywood movies) -- I simply could not make the film absorb a consideration of slavery. Also, it should be noted that slavery played a far smaller role in North Carolina tobacco production than, for instance, in the vast plantation crops of cotton in South Carolina and Georgia and sugar cane in Louisiana. Most pre-Civil War tobacco in North Carolina was grown on relatively small plots of land which in most instances were owned by relatively impoverished farmers. As far as I can tell from research into family genealogy, there were no McElwee slaveowners, and even Washington Duke (James B. Duke's father) was said to have had but one slave (which, of course, is still one too many).

All of this does not mean that I am not deeply interested in race issues vis a vis my home state. My first film, Charleen, has several scenes which directly address the way whites and blacks relate in Charlotte. And my second film, Backyard, is fully devoted to an exploration of the polite form of apartheid that exists in North Carolina. Sherman's March and "Time Indefinite," in many of their scenes, reveal a lot about how the races mingle (and don't mingle) in the South.

Robert in California asks: Who is the woman who sings with her banjo?

McElwee: Her name is Paula Larke. She has been performing for years, and shortly after I filmed her in North Carolina, she moved to New York City to pursue her musical career. She has a website and more of her songs are featured on the DVD of "Bright Leaves."

Beth in Virginia asks: As a North Carolinian myself, I know that there are miles of beaches there. (I grew up near Atlantic Beach.) Where were the beach shots in "Bright Leaves" taken? Can I also ask why you want to live anywhere other than NC?

McElwee: That beach is Sunset Beach, just north of the border between North and South Carolina.

I came north to go to college, and then found it easier to pursue my kind of filmmaking using Boston as a base. (It was very hard for me to raise funding in NC when I tried living there after college.) There are many things I love about New England (the coast, the universities, the Red Sox), but my heart is still in North Carolina, and when New England weather gives us five consecutive days of 8 degree highs, your question is one that I often ask myself. "Bright Leaves" is intended to be a sort of fractured love-letter to North Carolina.

Theresa in Ohio asks: I grew up in Eastern NC, in Jacksonville. I found your film beautiful and thought-provoking. I was very taken with the "voice." I'm a writer searching for a voice in which to tell my next story. My question has to do with finding your voice -- how do you know how much of "yourself" to integrate into the narrative? Or do you start with the self first?

McElwee: For me, it's always been a challenge to balance how much of "me" to put in a film, and how much to pull the "me" back and let the world I'm filming have center stage. I've tried to make films that allow me to offer a very personal perspective on some very public issues -- in Bright Leaves, those issues included tobacco, smoking, and our cultural obsession with movies and movie-making. Somehow, that juxtaposition of personal and public issues seems to allow me to make films which do, indeed, have a voice. But the danger of solipsism is always there. For me, all voice starts with a sense of self, but the trick becomes how to temper and manage the presence of that self in a film that, ultimately, strives to be about something larger than the self.