Every film necessitates a leap—of faith, of self-confidence, of finances. Caroline Kraus’ nascent undertaking might be viewed as a full-feathered flight of fancy. For it is the exceptionally brave (or foolhardy) first-time filmmaker who’s willing to embark on a road trip in the face of a deepening recession with a rough outline, a firm destination, little money and no ending. "The unifying theme of the project is underdogs," says Kraus, "and our notions of success, failure and disappointment." With a bit of luck, Kraus will be able to explore the latter without having to experience too much of it.
At this point, the Mill Valley resident is known for her words, not her images. Kraus penned Borderlines: A Memoir (Doubleday Broadway, 2003), a devastatingly candid saga of her vulnerable post-college years in the Bay Area following her mother’s death. After extricating herself from a seductive yet destructive relationship, Kraus moved to New York to get her MA in film from the New School, where she focused on documentary (theory as much as production) and screenwriting.
A job as a production assistant on an educational series included writing for the web, and she continued down that road. Now an established writer, editor and researcher, Kraus has contributed numerous pieces to companion websites for the ITVS-funded docs broadcast on PBS’ "Independent Lens." She envisions generating a book from her trip, as well as an online series of short videos that will lean toward the artistic rather than straightforward profiles. But Kraus’s major undertaking is a narrative documentary.
"I’m approaching it through a road trip to the East Coast with my dog, who’s on his last legs," Kraus explains. "That’s underdog No. 1. I intend to make a film about my cousin Margaret—she’s a horsewoman in her late 40s with epilepsy; 2009 will be her first year trying to get back into the horse world after brain surgery to reduce the seizures. I’m underdog No. 3 because I’m trying to produce a second work after my book."
En route to Virginia, of course, she’ll meet a lot of people impacted by the dismal economy. (The entire USA is underdog No. 4, she points out.) Kraus aims to mark her way across the country with stories that fit her theme, some she’ll have identified ahead of time and others she’ll encounter along the way. She’s aware that a hook is required to nab and hold viewers, and she thinks her conviction that the direction she’s going will produce the elements of a good story will resonate with the many everyday people determined to create something despite obstacles and received wisdom.
"I’m going for the highest part of the pyramid," Kraus concedes. "It remains to be seen what its shape really should be. Even if there isn’t this triumphant culmination—Margaret winning against all odds—I think the process and what’s unearthed about the process will be the point. I’m fascinated by anything that shows behind-the-scenes how things are made. So I’m not so concerned narratively. But in terms of funding, it’s harder to describe how it will end up. There are a few funding agencies that do that—fly-on-the-wall, see-what-happens [films]."
Kraus cites Ross McElwee (especially Sherman’s March), the Maysles brothers and Kelly Reichardt as her main models, although she hastens to point out that she had her project going long before Wendy and Lucy (about a gal and her dog driving across the country) came out. She admires Reichardt’s pacing and lyricism, and interest in the smaller details that don’t exactly thrust a story forward. Perhaps that gives us the clearest idea what Kraus will be shooting for on the road with her new Canon Vixia HF-11, and how understated (and potentially non-commercial) the film may turn out.
We’ll find out sooner than later, for Kraus has to start making tracks pretty soon toward her cousin. "I’ll say May, though I don’t know how I’ll pull it off," she says. "I’d like to catch the East Coast before spring is completely gone."
Notes from the Underground
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