Patti Smith

PBS Premiere: Dec. 30, 2009Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

In this extended video interview, filmmaker Steven Sebring and Patti Smith talk to music writer Anthony DeCurtis. Please note that the video may take a few seconds to load.

Patti Smith: Anthony DeCurtis interviewed Steven Sebring and Patti Smith at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City.

Anthony DeCurtis interviewed Steven Sebring and Patti Smith at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York City.

Anthony DeCurtis: Steven, Patti, can you both talk about how you met?

Patti Smith: Well, I hadn't performed or been in the public eye for about 16 years. When my husband passed away, I was obliged to go back to work to take care of our kids. I also wanted to do a record in memory of him. So we did Gone Again. During that process, I had to be photographed and had to go back to doing articles and interviews. With the death of Robert Mapplethorpe, I had lost my main collaborator in taking photographs. So I didn't know who to work with.

I had met Michael Stipe, and he was such a kind person, and extremely understanding, so I asked him if he knew a photographer who would come to Detroit, where I lived, who would be child friendly and who would respect my home. Michael suggested Steven. One day a knock came at my door, and when I opened it, there was Steven. He's been like a brother ever since.

DeCurtis: Steven, can you talk about getting the opportunity to go and shoot Patti? Were you familiar with her work?

Patti Smith: Steven Sebring at the filmmaker interview

Director Steven Sebring

Steven Sebring: I wasn't familiar with Patti much at all. When I was asked to photograph her, my wife said, "Oh my God, Patti Smith!" So I looked at some Robert Mapplethorpe books and I recognized those pictures. When I went to Detroit, I was very naïve, actually, and I think Patti picked up on that quite quickly.

But I like not knowing too much about somebody I'm photographing, because the process also becomes an experience for me to learn about her. I quickly realized that Patti was somebody very special. I do remember, the first time we met, the door opening with a squeak. And then there was this very beautiful girl looking out. [To Patti] I think you forgot I was even coming.

Smith: Probably.

Sebring: She was a little bit shocked at the fact that I actually showed up. But we immediately just hung out, and if I remember right, she had to remind me to take a picture. Toward the end of the day we took some pictures. I think I only took about 10 rolls of film.

Smith: Steven just fell in with my family life. He helped me wash the dishes and play with the kids. I could tell that he was a person who understood families. His presence was also nice for my children, who, having just lost their father, quite naturally craved warm male attention. They gravitated to him right away.

Sebring: It was a beautiful moment. And I won't forget that day.

DeCurtis: At what point did the idea of a film about Patti come up?

Patti Smith: Patti on stage in London

Patti in concert in London, 2005.

Sebring: When I started photographing Patti, I knew that there wasn't a whole a lot of information out there about her. I was periodically interested in films, and so I just kept asking her if I could come around. She let me in during her tour, in London. Her band members – especially Lenny Kaye – were shocked at the fact that I was filming Patti.

At the beginning I didn't even really think about making a movie. I was just thinking of documenting somebody. It didn't occur to me to make a film out of it until much later. It took 12 years to put this film together, but it was not until toward the end of those 12 years that I looked at Patti and said, "Maybe we should do something with this footage."

So I came up with more money, took all the footage, got a great editor and made this film. But I really didn't go into it with the intention of making a movie. And I think that's why the film is the way it is – we always say it's a lot like a home movie.

Smith: A home movie shot by an artist, though.

Sebring: I shot it all on 16-millimeter, and I just wanted to learn about Patti.

Smith: I think the film really says so much about Steven as a human being. I know that it's centered around me, but when I watch the film I see a lot of Steven, because another person would have done everything he could to find something mean-spirited in our operation, which they'd be hard-pressed to find. But Steven is not like that. If someone didn't want to be filmed, or my children said, "Don't film me anymore," he didn't try to sneak a shot or cajole them; he just respected their wishes.

I actually had another motivation for letting Steven film us. After I'd been out of the public eye for 16 years, lost my friends and lost my husband, some of my confidence had been undermined. Steven made the process of filming fun; I could pretend that we were in something like Don't Look Back. And Steven's presence was not threatening; he told me that if I never wanted the footage to be seen by anyone, he would give it to me. So I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, and what I gained was his supportive energy and the supportive energy of his wife, who was sometimes the one schlepping the equipment or doing the sound. The whole process of working with Steven and being filmed by him helped me psychologically to get my feet back on the ground.

I was at one of the lowest points of my life when we started this film, except, of course, that I had two great children. But the film is not documenting a decline; it's documenting a rise up – first baby steps and then big steps up. The worst that could have ever happened to me had already happened. And so the film is on the ascent. And I think that gives it a nice spirit.

Patti Smith: Steven Sebring and Patti Smith

Steven Sebring and Patti Smith. Detroit, 1995. Photograph by Steven Sebring

DeCurtis: The film took 12 years to make! How did it evolve, and how did the relationship between the two of you evolve?

Sebring: We just grew to trust each other more and more over the years. Most of the time I didn't even have a movie camera. We were just hanging out and getting to learn about each other. But I think trust was a really big thing. Patti is a good friend, somebody I can talk to.

Smith: Yeah, you can't work on that scale without trust. I learned that from working with Robert Mapplethorpe. Trust is everything between two artists, or between subject and artist. You have to have trust or nothing good will come out of it.

Patti Smith: Sam Shepard playing guitar and Patti Smith

Playwright Sam Shepard and Patti Smith.

Sebring: Over time it just got more and more intense as far as the trust factor. For example, when we started editing the film, I thought, man, I need to make sense of all the footage I have; I need to ground the film. And one day I was hanging out in Patti's bedroom, which is where Patti works, and in the corner of her bedroom is this great chair, and that's when she began showing her personal things to me. The camera was there, and we realized that we were really making the movie and making sense of the footage in the movie. It was really fun, and Patti would say, "Well, let's have Sam Shepard come by," and then they'd play guitars together. The camera was on, and it was Patti's real life. And I think those moments in Patti's bedroom really helped the film out, and those moments existed because of the trust between us. There isn't any real self-consciousness in the film because we all like each other. The only self-consciousness in the film is anyone's natural shyness.

DeCurtis: I was struck by something Patti said in the movie: She talked about the fact that things are not necessarily chronological – you don't live your life in a linear way. Your perceptions of what you're hearing, what you're seeing and what you're thinking about all come into your experience of life. It seemed to me that Patti's quote almost illustrates the technique of the film. Steven, could you talk about creating a movie in a nonlinear way?

Sebring: We had a hodgepodge of footage. We didn't film all the time – we would just film periodically, so nothing was synced and nothing was slated. The film came together when we started editing; it was organic, it became nonlinear and it was its own animal. And I didn't want to tame it, either. I wanted it to be different. It's not your typical documentary.

DeCurtis: So what was the process of editing the film like?

Sebring: That was an amazing experience. It's hard to imagine that we were editing every day for a year. And it was pretty extraordinary; it also went by super fast. But every day was an experiment. Angelo Corrao was our editor, and he was just so diligent and so old-school in the way he looked at editing. He would take my far-out ideas and tame them and make sense of them.

Also, a lot of times I had footage that didn't have sound – either I didn't bring a sound recorder, or I forgot to turn on the sound recorder – so we would have to improvise and build those scenes. I would bring Patti in to the editing room and say, "This is a great moment for a voiceover, or a poem," and then we'd bring in some sound design. Other times I'd have sound but no image. When Patti was singing with her guitar, or doing something amazing with her clarinet, I'd just mess around and record the sound. So we'd use those sounds as another layer in the film.

There are a lot of layers in the film. And during editing we would try to tame all the layers, try to make things a little bit more understood. We would move scenes around. We'd try all these things. And because the filming process was so organic and there was no script, the film was literally telling us what it wanted to be in the editing room. So the editing process was a free-for-all, and since I hadn't gone to film school or anything like that, I just said, "We'll do this. We'll do that." It was a really great experience that way.

DeCurtis: Steven, you're a fashion photographer turned documentary filmmaker. How did you become a photographer, and how did that affect your work on this film?

Sebring: Many of my family members are teachers in the arts, and I picked up the camera years ago, in high school. I didn't do well in high school, but I took photography, and I loved being able to capture moments. It led to more and more photography, and fashion was the angle into photography for me. It was incredible to see photographs by Irving Penn or Helmut Newton. I was really intrigued by that, and that's what led me to New York City.

Patti Smith: A black and white portrait of Patti

A portrait of Patti Smith. Detroit, 1995. Photograph by Steven Sebring.

Fashion's been really good to me. It financed Patti Smith: Dream of Life. Fashion has also been a great outlet, and I'd like to do more fashion photography in the future. I also photograph a lot of artists.

For me, moving from photography to film was very easy. Sometimes my fashion pictures can look a little bit like documentary style pictures. So having a camera in my hand was normal. But I never went to film school, so I just sort of learned on my own. Patti was my experiment, to be honest. And the film is what we got out of it. At the end of the day, I learned a lot about how to make a film.

DeCurtis: Patti, what do you think of Steven's work on the movie?

Smith: The truth is, no matter how modest Steven is, he was obsessed with the outcome of the film. Every single frame was important to him.

Angelo is a very gifted editor, and I am quite opinionated myself, so we were all people with an eye or a sense of vision. The film is not really an amateur work, despite the fact that none of us have ever done anything like this before; aesthetically, none of us are amateurs. So I think that there is an air of experience and aesthetic sophistication that weaves in with the amateur aspects of the film; it gives the film a certain elegance.

The film looks at a time in my life. Steven was documenting me as a widow with two children, going from 50 to 60 years old. My focus, during that time, was to rediscover myself, stay healthy, take care of my kids and reestablish a relationship with the people. So those were the things on my mind, not career, money, drugs, sex, alcohol or fun. Not that there's anything wrong with any of those things, but they aren't in the film, because that wasn't my life at the time.

The film doesn't hide anything, except maybe moments of sorrow or darkness that belonged to me. I don't think it's necessary to give those to the people. So the film is the way it is because it was the rhythm of my life, and also because the director and the editor are both gifted and both fine human beings.

DeCurtis: Steven, you talked about how this film taught you a lot about filmmaking. What other things did you learn through the making of Dream of Life?

Sebring: I learned about being patient, perseverance, having a dream, a goal. I learned that I can accomplish something despite not knowing anything about it when I begin. For me to see the film on a big screen now – it's pretty extraordinary. I remember when we were at Sundance, we were in Robert Redford's screening room, and I had never seen the film look so beautiful or sound so great. It was really big and really powerful, and I had a sense of accomplishment in finishing a project like this.

Patti Smith: Patti and her bicycle, in black and white

Patti and her bicycle. Meatpacking District, New York, 1999. Photograph by Steven Sebring.

Also, I was making a film about Patti, but I was taking pictures, too. I took pictures of the objects and artifacts that Patti would show to her friends because I wanted to document them. So I thought about how to film something, how to take pictures of it and how to mix it all together. And I was getting that through Patti – because she takes pictures, performs, writes; she does so many things, and that was a big inspiration to me. It helped me realized that I'm not just a fashion photographer. I wanted to do all these other artistic things as well, and during filming my mind opened up to those possibilities.

DeCurtis: What would you say the film ultimately is about for each of you?

Smith: It's Steven's view of what he saw in traveling and working with me. But on another scale, I think the film is very humanistic: It touches on motherhood, death, birth, art, laundry, anger against the Bush administration… While I don't think it's the kind of film where one goes to find some of the darker, edgier aspects of life, the film was born of grief. And I think it's good for people to see the positive beauty that can flower from the deepest grieving. I think the film is life-affirming.

I love being alive. I like being a human being. I like my time on earth. And no matter what kind of cards I've been dealt, I'm happy to be there. So the film, in the end, is life-affirming, and I think it's always useful for people to be reminded that no matter how rough things get, no matter what kind of twists and turns our lives can take, we can keep going, we can create something new.

Sebring: Ultimately, the film is inspirational. I became Patti's messenger, basically, and the film is my view of how I learned about Patti. Hopefully I can inspire lots of people to learn about her, to read poetry or learn about William Blake or Arthur Rimbaud. I just wanted to be Patti's messenger and get her word out there.