An eccentric Brooklyn musician navigates his family’s course on the fringes of a new American landscape. Walter Baker is struggling to maintain balance between creating art alongside the daily trials of making ends meet and raising a twelve year old son with his poet third wife. The ﬁlm is an immersive meditation on possibly one of the last vestiges of NY bohemia as the couple wrestles with the complexities of family, art, money, religion, gentriﬁcation, love and loss.
‘A RUBBERBAND IS AN UNLIKELY INSTRUMENT‘ is a film to be experienced as much through the flow and currents of sound, as through the existential drama of its participants. Overflowing words and lingering silences set the tone as a singular gaze captures a distinct moment in time where art, spirituality, politics and the economy collide for a pair of artists situated on the margins.
We talked with the director of the film Matt Boyd about his epic docu-drama’s development since the mid 2000′s, its reactions around the country, as well as the sustainability of Bohemia in modern New York City. The film is a cross meditation on reality, ideology and comfort in an increasingly polarized world built on conformity and acceptance. ‘A Rubberband is an Unlikely Instrument‘ begins a week long run at Brooklyn’s reRun Theater on Friday, February 8, 2013.
Can you give me an idea on the development of this film in relation to any specific instance you found instrumental towards its existence?
We started shooting in 2005 but I had met Walter Baker the previous year. When I met him, I was at a place where I had been doing predominantly music based documentary work. Whether it was work I had been commissioned for or things I was shooting for others as a cinematographer, everything was rooted in a verite or guerilla style documentary approach usually for reasons out of my control. Though I don’t mind that, I had always had an affinity for more formalist, narrative films. I think I like the idea of documentary, working with real people in real situations more than the actual logistics and traditional execution. So, I’ve always liked the idea of mixing the two genres.
At that time I really needed to make a movie, something that was solely my voice, but I also knew that I wasn’t going to be able to step into someone’s office and get handed a million dollars for a narrative film. I realized it was something that I had to do on my own first, and it would have to be by limited means. I don’t know if it was serendipitous but I met Walter through my neighbor around that same time. We were sitting on our stoop and he passed by. He was going to play in the subway with nothing but a rubberband. As soon as I saw it I wanted to know how it worked, what it sounded like. Walter did a quick demonstration and I was amazed.
From that point, I started to run into Walter all the time and we thought about how to maybe collaborate, mixing music he was doing with some of the footage that I had been accumulating. That ended up going nowhere, but it did allow us to get to know each other better. The more I got to know him the more I picked up on unique aspects of his character. Very early on he would tell me deeply personal things and that really stuck with me.
Did you find this strange, how open he was with you right off the bat?
Yes! I am not that way at all. I remember a few months in and he was telling me the story of his son (who is not in the movie, but talked about occasionally). He told me how he had been ostracized from his son’s life. It was really pretty powerful because he eventually teared up while discussing it. It just seemed strange to get that intimate that quickly.
So, I filed all these stories away and they culminated about 6 months later when we were going to make a music video. I was actually at a place where I didn’t want to do music videos or music-centric material anymore, but I had agreed to do it. We ended up getting into a silly debate about him needing to wear his red sunglasses in the video so I refused to do it. It was pretty comical, it was even heated for a minute, but a bell went off for me and I realized I had to make a movie about him.
From that point, it was about a year before shooting actually began. Obviously it was going to be a documentary, but I wanted to do something where I could implement a narrative language in a natural way, something that would marry my visual interests and influences in a cohesive manner. It was a very long process on my part, just figuring out what I was going to shoot and how, the logistics, what to include and what to leave out. I wanted to make sure I had a rough outline of a complete film in my mind, that it would hold up as a feature even before I started shooting.
When you decided on the story you wanted to tell and were ready to start shooting, did you have any specific influences in terms of the structure of the film as you saw it in your mind? The reason I ask is, while I watched it (not knowing too many details) I found elements ranging from mockumentaries like ‘This is Spinal Tap’ to avant garde European influences (Agnes Varda’s, ‘The Gleaners and I’ comes to mind, as does the self narration of Wim Wender’s ‘Pina’).
I am definitely a fan of late 60s/early 70s cinema, both European and American. I think that was the best time for cinema so it is impossible for some of that influence to not bleed through; taking Werner Herzog’s idea of ecstatic truth and the blurred lines between narrative and documentaries, that’s an approach that definitely speaks to me. But, I wanted to make something that was wholly my own. Something where I was able to create a visual language that’s outside the constraints of traditional documentary. I knew that I wanted to implement a more formal narrative language into what I was doing.
I don’t think it has any kinship with “Spinal Tap”, but I do think there is a fair amount of humor in it. For all of the melancholy, I think it’s a pretty funny movie at times. For example, in the guitar scene where Walter refers to each of his guitar’s as the “blood of Christ”, the “flesh” and “sins washed away”, there’s a level of self awareness that elevates truth to a heightened spiritual or comical level, depending on what you bring to it as a viewer. I think at least for him it’s actually a bit of both which is ultimately why I wanted to make a film on him. I am not exactly sure where the truth lies in that scene, and that to me that is exciting. I think there has to be a kernel of truth in it for it to have legs as a scene. Nothing was ever staged, but this is a film that’s very much blocked in a narrative sense, taking real people’s lives and experiences and sculpting a narrative form from them. A lot of documentary purists would probably have real issue with this but I think often this approach gets closer to truth than many ‘real documentary’ scenarios can. Everyone is camera conscious to some degree, you know what you signed up for when exposing yourself on camera. You can’t escape a certain level of self awareness and I think Walter was exceptional at operating at both ends of this premise.
I just watched ‘The Imposter’, from the same filmmakers who did ‘Man on Wire’, and their thing is hybridizing the documentary and narrative to the point they recreate the real life action in a cinematically stylized way. What I enjoyed about your film is that it allows for the subject to tell the story by way of his own actions without verbally breaking them down. For me, this technique prevented sympathy for Walter as the film’s primary protagonist, however instilled sympathetic feelings towards his wife.
At the same time, this meditative way of narration also allowed for an atmospheric focus on the time period in New York’s history, as well as the waning years of the Bush presidency, which was a generally uncomfortable time in the countries history, creating many of the uncertainties and existential dilemmas depicted in the film.
Yeah, for sure. Those years were a time of big change. It was definitely something that I didn’t want to be overt about, I’m not a social issue filmmaker but I didn’t want to ignore it either. It comes through naturally in the film though. Its subtle.
From a technical aspect, what was your visual strategy towards the film? What was your technical setup?
At that time, we were pre – DSLR and RED. This film was shot on a DVX, not even HD. In terms of logistics, it was just me and a microphone. I didn’t even have a sound person. It would have been tough to do it the way I do things now.
The moments that struck me are the wide angle shots of the open Texas landscape, as well as the meditative shots of Brooklyn. Did you think about the possibility of these shots in technical terms? Meaning, was your mind ever concerned with the right lens or camera angle?
I think that stuff largely comes more intuitively especially when working with real people and real events. And again, it was shot on a DVX so there wasn’t much in the way of changing lenses. But, location and one’s immediate surroundings has always been an important aspect of visual storytelling for me. I think one’s immediate and broader surroundings say a lot about their character. So composition was always very important whether it was in Walter and Andrea’s tiny apartment, the outskirts of Greenpoint or South Texas. It was very important to include those moments and details to tell that specific story.
The first trip to Texas was Walter’s parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. He had not seen them in 10 years and it became very emotional. Although for me, the initial interest and idea behind going there had to do with his relation and obsession with the Brooklyn landscape. After hearing Walter talk about the land and his parent’s ranch I started to hear and see parallels between his Brooklyn and Texas homes. So I thought that I would simply go down and just shoot Texas landscapes. That was the original goal, but then it got very emotional while we were down there and a story followed. But land and cityscapes were always an important part of the story in my mind.
How did you find the atmosphere within their family dynamic as a filmmaker and as a third party observer?
It was very sweet. The first trip was intense, especially that dinner table scene. Everything had accumulated over the trip where Walter felt obligated to have a serious conversation with his parents. He wanted to acknowledge how he had been away, as well as addressing the issues between he and his father. These were especially tense moments but ultimately they are a loving family and generally got along despite any deeper issues. One of the first things his mother told him when we got down there was how happy they were that he came to visit because they may not be around in another 10 years. This really resonated with Walter. It touched him deeply and triggered a lot of emotions. When this stuff starting happening I kept my distance at first. I was never interested in creating an explosive Springer type atmosphere so I was respectful of what was comfortable and what was not, in terms of me being around with a camera. They just happened to be very open about the whole process and I think they really responded and respected Walter’s efforts to connect.
I think the trap many documentaries fall into is feeling like they need to show every detail, follow every emotional roller coaster and give a lot of backstory. I never really believed in that. I’m always looking at it from a narrative point of view. Sometimes what’s left out is more potent, it creates a subtext and tension that sits underneath even if its not fully explained. I mean, how many films do you see where you are dropped into a world with limited backstory and you make the connections yourself? Its more work, but its also more rewarding and it resonates in a different way.
There is another sequence, where Walter, his father and son are shooting pistols in the families Texas yard. There is a quick back and forth which is basically an ideological discussion on the necessity of guns in society. Did you ever think that you wanted to emphasize these social questions?
I’m not interested in making socio-political films. It just isn’t my style. That being said, there are several important socio-political topics addressed throughout the film. Some of which are even more topical now. Another documentary would have started asking questions about these issues, but that really runs the risk of being more investigative, manipulative in an unnatural way. I could have gone down that road as I had tons of footage involved in ideological discussions within the family but, I found it more compelling to hold some stuff back. We know before Walter even goes to Texas what the ideological differences are. He mentions George W. Bush, gentrification, weapons, religion and more, so the liberal vs conservative debate is already blatant without me inserting my own ideals and questions. I was more interested in letting those things sit where they did naturally.
Speaking in terms of our contemporary times, I mention this because should you have chosen to market your film in this way, the possibility would be there. I’m interested as to what the reaction to film has been outside of New York City?
We haven’t actually done too much in the US yet so I am curious myself. I had not seen the film in quite some time, so in getting ready for release I sat with Michael Carter, my co-editor, to watch it again for output. We were amazed by how topical it all still is and how those issues are even more exacerbated now. You can definitely see them in New York. You can see them all around the country. It’s strange seeing how contemporary all this still is. That said, it’s a movie about a lot of things and I don’t have any interest in shoehorning it into one thing for marketing sake. That would dilute the whole and certainly take away from what I think is special about it. And I’d rather people find these different issues on their own. Ultimately it’s more powerful to leave it open ended because then there’s still somewhere for people to go. Everyone brings their own experience to watching films so there’s always a different perspective which is a good thing.
Not to mention that each one of those topics are so rich so they could very well require individually specific documentaries in order to do justice to their respective debates.
Finally, I wanted to get your impressions as to how Walter and his family represent New York City life?
I am not involved with them on a regular basis but I’m not sure that specific life style can exist anymore in New York. I’m not sure a Bohemian life in New York is possible unless you’re independently wealthy.
Nowadays is almost a caricature of what traditional New York City life was…
You are just not going survive in this city without an element of conformity. I think Patti Smith may have said it best recently, I think she was talking to a graduating class at SVA or Cooper Union, somewhere like that, and she was speaking about aspiring creatives and that old idea of moving to New York to pursue your creative dreams… “New York has closed itself off to you…find another city“, I think she said Detroit or somewhere like that. I’m not sure there’s many ways starving artists can exist in this city. You can see it in subtle ways throughout the film, here are definitely allusions to gentrification in Greenpoint throughout. I’m floored when I go to Greenpoint now. It is so different from when we shot. All those locations are gone.
Purchase Tickets for ‘A Rubberband is an Unlikely Instrument’ – HERE
Friday, February 8 – Thursday, February 14, 2013
IFP & Factory 25 present
‘A RUBBERBAND IS AN UNLIKELY INSTRUMENT’
@ reRun Theater
147 Front St.