Jon Else On Acts of Creation

Michael Fox April 23, 2007

(Editor’s note: is reprinting an interview from 2007 with Jon Else, whose Wonders Are Many played this week in PBS’s Independent Lens series.)

One of the deans of Bay Area documentary filmmaking, Jon Else is a first-rate cinematographer, writer, producer and director. His films include Cadillac Desert, Yosemite: The Fate of Heaven, Open Outcry and Sing Faster: The Stagehands Ring Cycle. The Day After Trinity, his saga of physicist Robert J. Oppenheimer’s secret development of the atom bomb, won the doc prize at Sundance in 1981 and packed the big house at the Kabuki 23 years later when Else was feted with the San Francisco International Film Festival’s Persistence of Vision Award. Wonders Are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic blends that chapter of World War II history with composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars’ staging of a new opera on the subject. (Wonders Are Many had its first of several SFIFF50 screenings Sat., Apr. 28 at 9 p.m. at the Castro.) One morning last week, Else and I staked out a corner of KGO’s lobby to chat.

SF360: What was it like watching Adams and Sellars do what you did 25 years earlier, that is, grapple with creating a work of art about the development of the atom bomb that would speak to contemporary audiences.

Jon Else: One of the attractions of doing this film was the chance to watch two brilliant artists struggle with a story that I had struggled with years before. The prospect of being in a room with Peter Sellars and John Adams and a bunch of great singers and an atomic bomb, that was just too good to pass up. They and I feel that art does matter in culture and society, in ways that are often not obvious. None of us realized until afterward that we had an unspoken agreement that we would not meddle in each other’s artistic work. I never gave them advice about making their opera and they never gave me advice about making my film. Looking back now, I’m sort of floored by their generosity in allowing me to come in and follow them during that summer. And to be so open, and to understand that they were making one piece of art and I was making a documentary about that art, and that we could probably best both do our work if we were unfettered.

SF360: ‘Wonders Are Many’ documents three acts of creation: the staging of the opera, Oppenheimer making the bomb and your film. Did you ever consider including behind-the-scenes shots of the making of the film, so that aspect would be more explicit? We hear you asking questions off-camera, but we don’t see you.

Else: We thought about that, and I felt that I had to be very, very careful about finding the border. There’s a point where the film becomes so convoluted and reflexive that you lose the audience. I think there’s plenty of richness with John and Peter and Oppenheimer, and I didn’t have a whole lot to add to that by being on camera. Years ago, I began deliberately keeping my voice in films off-camera occasionally, just so we’re not trying to trick anyone into thinking that God’s making this movie. It’s one guy’s film and, you know, this is the guy’s voice. And it’s sort of a postmodern Hall of Mirrors. It’s a film about an opera about a story that I made a film about years ago, but I pretty much felt from the beginning that the parallel story of these two creations, an opera and an atomic bomb, the best and the worst of human invention, that was enough. If we couldn’t make a movie out of those parallel stories of creation 60 years apart, we were in the wrong business.

SF360: By ‘we’ I assume you’re talking about your editor, Deborah Hoffmann. Was there a gestalt or mantra that the two of you arrived at encapsulated the crux of the film?

Else: This is the third film I’ve done with her, so we sort of understand each other’s work rhythms pretty well. I love working with her because we’re completely complementary. Deborah comes up with solutions and thinks of things and pulls rabbits out of hats that I could never in a million years imagine. Then she sort of depends on me to slog through the structural questions of the film.

Debbie’s really good about saying, ‘No, no, no, we already did that twice already in this film. We don’t need to do it again. Let’s move on to something else.’ This is the third film we’ve done where there are two stories going on at once. In this case there are three stories going on at once. And that’s kind of our shtick. We enjoy doing that, seeing how complicated it can be but how clear it can be at the same time. Sometimes we go over the line. She’s also a great person to edit this film because her father was Einstein’s assistant. So she’s wired for this subject. Some of the equations that you see in the film are in fact in her father’s handwriting, in Banesh Hoffmann’s handwriting.

SF360: Tell me about the final shot in
Wonders Are Many.

Else: Debbie has an unequalled sense of being able to leave the audience wanting more. A lot of people have asked how we arrived at the way to end the film, which is simply a close-up of the conductor with about a minute of little harp notes. And nothing else. It’s very minimalist, everything falls away. The instant we saw that shot, photographed by Michael Chin at one of the rehearsals, Debbie first and then I said, ‘I think we should try ending the film with this.’ The same thing happened on Cadillac Desert. She cut an opening sequence that remained the opening sequence through the entire year of the editorial changes.

SF360: Your interviewing technique allows Adams and Sellars to appear as if they’re simply having casual conversations with you. What’s your secret?

Else: I’m a cinematographer; that’s sort of what I do, that’s my day job. But I gave up trying to shoot my own interviews long ago. That does allow me to, in fact, carry on a conversation. I do a lot of homework for interviews, particularly interviews that have to do with a broad field like nuclear physics or the creation of grand opera. (Laughs.) Interview subjects understand in their bones when you’ve done your homework, and it somehow opens up a level of conversation that is often really interesting. Now, who are we kidding? John and Peter are brilliant guys. They can speak more eloquently about art than just about anyone in America right now. So, in a way, it’s easy. Just throw a question and sit back and they talk like Shakespeare. (Laughs.) I think one of the things that characterize the interviews is that both John and Peter were in the thick of battle. They were in the midst of actually making this creation. When Peter says, ‘I don’t know how the opera’s going to end,’ or John says, ‘ I don’t know how the opera’s going to end,’ they actually meant it. You’d have to ask them, but it may be that our interviews were a sort of proxy part of their creative process, that my calling the question may have been part of getting them to think about where they were going to go.

SF360: Audiences are familiar with documentaries about artists and films about the creative process, but they generally don’t think of documentaries themselves as art. If I were to ask you to define the art of documentary—

Else: Oh, man, there’s no way I can do that. (Laughs.) I would hesitate to use the word art in talking about documentary because it’s a slippery slope. Documentary has to be completely and utterly grounded in the real world, and things that actually happened and people who actually lived and words that were actually spoken. Let me leave it at the thought that documentary is, among other things, it is art. But it’s a lot of other things as well. It’s history, it’s journalism, it’s poetry.

SF360: How do you assess the state of documentaries at this moment?

Else: It’s a great time for documentaries, a great time to be a documentary maker in America. It’s always been a struggle, it always will be a struggle, it’s a struggle now. The high visibility in theaters of a few documentaries every year is fickle and unfair and irrational and sometimes wrong, but it’s really good for all of us. Because documentary is now taken seriously, both as a part of the national conversation as in the case of something like An Inconvenient Truth, and as a way to have a good time, as in The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. When we go to Sundance, we all get really pissed-off and grumpy when some other documentary gets a million-dollar deal and we don’t even get a single taker. But the distributors know what they’re doing, they know this huge investment that it takes to get one of these things out into the marketplace and they know whether they’re going to get their money back.

SF360: Any quick words about technology?

Else: The other thing that’s going on, the transformation to a digital world, is now complete. I can say officially as of last month that film is no longer necessary. There’s no documentary project on which it’s justified to use film. And I say that having shot part of ‘Wonders Are Many’ on 35mm film and part of it on Super 16 film and part of it on HD and part of it on Mini DV. It doesn’t make as much of a difference in the overall budget as everyone thinks, because the big costs are people costs.

SF360: Spoken as a true pragmatist, although can’t we say that’s true of most doc filmmakers?

Else: Documentary is populated generally by people who tend to be idealists, people who probably would have been political activists or clergymen or writing the great American novel, in a different world. When we do films and they go into the marketplace where people are deciding whether or not to distribute them theatrically, it’s always a shock to realize that there in fact is such a thing as a marketplace, and it does have its own rules and no one’s going to pick up your film because it’s a cool film that makes the world a better place. People are going to pick up your film because they can make a profit on it. It’s as simple as that. And I think that’s hard for a lot of people to accept.

SF360: What’s your take on the current local doc scene?

Else: Wonders Are Many was done through Actual Films, which is here in San Francisco. The independent documentary scene in San Francisco has always been strong, but it seems to be growing at the moment. It seems to be solidifying, and one of the reasons is that are these fairly healthy production companies. There’s Telling Pictures [Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman], there’s Quest Productions [Bill Jersey], there’s Actual Films [‘Wonders Are Many’ co-producer Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk]. That’s a bit of a new phenomenon to have these institutions. It’s a struggle for them, but they seem to be hanging on and doing well.

SF360: Can you share one thing you learned making
Wonders Are Many?

Else: I love doing films about people who are good at what they do. And I’ve never learned more about my own job of directing than I did from Peter Sellars. Watching Peter direct and hearing him talk about the craft of directing was a real revelation to me. And I came away from this film as a better director because of having sat at the master’s feet. To see the resolve and the good humor and the verve with which he comes to work every day is just astonishing. It’s inspiring to see his commitment to letting people-singers, actors, musicians-be their best self. That sort of changed my whole perspective to directing.

SF360: I’m surprised, because I would have imagined that’s how you’ve always worked. You teamed up with talented people and let them create.

Else: I never quite understood until being around Peter that when you’re directing, everyone is looking to you right now for positive energy. (Laughs.) Right now. I’ve always tried to work with people who are better than I am. That’s sort of the secret of success, to always hire people who are better than you are. But I never understood until being around Peter how much you really have to give them free rein. Then it’s your job once they spread their wings, if you have to rein them in, fine. But don’t do a preemptive rein-in with a genius. If you’ve hired a great camera guy, let him be a great camera guy. If you’ve hired a great editor, let her be a great editor. In the end, the buck stops with me. But if you’re lucky, it’ll be a good buck.