How did you get into filmmaking

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I came somewhat late to the profession. I came to it as a student who was not a declared filmmaker. I was an undergraduate at Brown and was supposedly writing a thesis, but during my senior year I became very interested in what was going on at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), which is adjacent to the Brown campus. There I saw people my own age— eighteen, nineteen, twenty—making movies, and that was a very engaging idea to me. I'd never seen the process before, of editing and dealing with film stock, making decisions about sequencing of scenes and length and duration of shots and how the finished films worked. I couldn't take courses in filmmaking there because RISD students got priority. But I did take still photography and then watched over their shoulders as they edited the films and saw these films being made from start to finish.

And, at that point, I realized that on some level ordinary mortals could make movies, and that was a very exciting notion to me. I should also say that this was a long time ago. I graduated in 1971. And the notion of being a film director, especially a documentary filmmaker, was an obscure thing to aspire to at that time. Back then, there wasn't the plethora of film schools scattered around the country that we have now. It was a totally different environment. Especially for documentary filmmakers. So it was uncharted water. The whole notion of what an independent filmmaker was, in fact, entirely uncharted. The phrase had not even been invented at that point. But somehow, I had a notion that I might come back to some version of the filmmaking I had first seen at the Rhode Island School of Design, which excited me.

And, for the meantime, I was going to continue writing, I was going to travel, and I was going to do still photography. I supported myself in a variety of jobs. I came back to Charlotte, North Carolina, finally, when I had no money and ended up getting a job at a local television station, Channel 9, WSOC. The job I was able to get was as a summer vacation replacement for someone who operated a studio floor camera for the six o'clock news. It wasn't the most exciting work in the world—basically, wide shot, close shot, medium shot, and do what you're told by the director who talks to you through the little headset. But it was a start. And then there was the opportunity to do church broadcast, Presbyterian Church broadcast, on Sunday. They let me do the balcony camera, and that was very exciting for me. Again, it was kind of telephoto shots of the choir, occasional shot of the preacher if the other camera's angle was not interesting enough to the director, who was buried somewhere in the bowels of the church watching what we were feeding him on the little monitors down there. But that's literally how I got my start. You know, looking back on it, it was not the most exciting way to get started, but it was a start. And the other thing I've noticed is that no two filmmakers ever get started in exactly the same way. Everybody carves out their own series of apprenticeships and internships.

What happened after that . . . I got an opportunity to work as an assistant cameraman for a producer for Bill Moyers' Journal, which was a different kind of PBS series insofar as they did a lot of location shooting with Moyers, and traveled and investigated issues around the world. And it was very personal in that it was Moyers's take on things as opposed to, maybe, a more objective point of view. He's since gone on to establish himself as, I think, someone who's earned his subjectivity. It was interesting for me because I got to travel a lot and, also, I could observe firsthand the mechanics of 16mm documentary filmmaking, which I had not been able to do at the TV station. That was a great job for me. I loaded lots and lots of magazines.

Filmmaker Ross McElwee. Photo credit: Adrian McElwee.

At that point, I realized I could do one of two things. I could either see if I could worm my way into the PBS system and try to find some way to become part of a production crew, and learn more about making documentary films, as PBS defined the making of documentary films. Or I could try to strike out on my own. And I'd had some interesting examples of other ways to make films thrown at me when I'd been an undergraduate. I had seen Fred Wiseman's Titticutt Follies (1967), and the other film that stuck in my mind was Richard Leacock's Primary (1960). We didn't really have film courses back then. Titticutt Follies was shown in a psychology course and Primary was in a political-science course, oddly enough.

What stuck with me about the way both of those films were made was their rough-hewn quality, the ways in which they seemed to be willing, shot by shot, to take a kind of risk by intersecting the real world with the camera. Something interesting, albeit a little frightening in terms of its unpredictability, could come out of this approach to filmmaking—that they were out of the studio, that they weren't really doing interviews per se; they were just filming what they could capture as it was unfolding. And I had a sense that that was the kind of filmmaking that I was more interested in than the more polished work that ended up on PBS. Somehow, I found out that Richard Leacock was coming to MIT to head up a new department in documentary filmmaking, and I said, "This could be interesting." And so, I went to Cambridge and met Richard Leacock and [Ed] Pincus, who was actually the one starting the program and had gotten Leacock to come and to serve as the figurehead to launch it since Leacock was so well-known. So here was the man who made Primary and Happy Mother's Day and all of these classic cinema verite films, starting a film school. And I thought, well, "This sounds perfect for me at this point in my life." I guess I was twenty-six then and had been bumping around the world for a few years since graduating from college, and dived right back into it. Graduated eighteen months later, finished up a thesis film and shot a couple of other films just to get some things in the can before they booted me outta there, so I could edit them at some point. In fact, I lingered around MIT for at least another six months, maybe even a year, sometimes as a teaching assistant, so I could do rough edits on the films that I'd shot. But that really is how I got started.

The first film that I made, my thesis film, was Charleen, which was a one-hour portrait of my former teacher, Charleen Swansea from North

Ross's longtime friend and film subject, Charleen Swansea, from Time Indefinite. Photo credit: Marilyn Levine.

Carolina. At MIT I'd been able to finish shooting and editing it, so it was picture-locked and sound-mixed, but I didn't have the money to print it. I received a Massachusetts Artist Foundation grant, $3,500 to finish the film. This was a real windfall, an amazing gift at that particular point in my career. And that enabled me to have 16mm copies of the print of my first film, and from there I could at least send it around. I made some copies of it onto video and began to try to propose other films that I might make.

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Film Making

Film Making

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