Who does she thinks she is
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Life as a Canvas

Lauren Wissot explores the similarities between Jeremiah Zagar’s In A Dream and Pamela Tanner Boll’s Who Does She Think She Is?, two documentaries that highlight the challenges involved in creating art as well as the eternal plight of struggling artists.

By Lauren Wissot | FilmMaker Magazine

Documentary filmmakers Jeremiah Zagar, who made this year’s Oscar shortlist with his debut feature In a Dream, and Pamela Tanner Boll, an Academy Award-winning producer for Born Into Brothels, are magnetic forces.  Seriously.  When I was first approached to review Boll’s directing debut Who Does She Think She Is?, which profiles working-artist mothers, and Zagar’s In a Dream, which follows the director’s working-artist Dad Isaiah, a man who covered 50,000 square feet of concrete in South Philadelphia with utterly astounding mosaics, I tried to get out of writing about both.  Neither artist mommies nor a borderline mad murlaist held the slightest interest for me.  But then halfheartedly I agreed to watch Who Does She Think She Is? and fell in love.  Yes, I was swept away by the strong women whose lives Boll meticulously investigates, who dare to declare a right to have both a family and an artistic career, but even more so by the director’s asking the very simple, universal question: “How does one balance the personal with the creative?”  As luck would have it, Zagar’s film fell into my lap soon after, and when I saw Boll’s name listed as an executive producer I decided this coincidence could not be ignored.  Next thing I knew I’d been smitten twice.

Zagar, like Boll, is on a passionate quest.  Sure, his film is his attempt to understand his brilliant, mentally ill dad and the simultaneously supportive and dysfunctional codependent relationship Isaiah shares with his mom, Julia, but it is also an attempt to figure out how all artists (himself included) mentally, emotionally, and financially survive in this world at all.  What is the secret?  As Zagar hinted when I finally got to meet him in person, “It’s not enough to believe in yourself.  You have to have others around who support you, who believe in your dream as well.”  And with that in mind I set out to interview another nurturing family, this one made up of Jeremiah Zagar and his longtime producer Jeremy Yaches and, on the phone, their executive producers Pamela Tanner Boll and Geralyn White Dreyfous (also an Academy Award-winner for Born into Brothels).

Who Does She Think She Is? is currently in release from Artistic License Films.  In a Dream, which premiered at SXSW, is scheduled for a limited theatrical release in the spring and will air on HBO in the summer.  

Your two films, In a Dream and Who Does She Think She Is? are practically companion pieces, with the latter exploring artist moms from a mother’s viewpoint and the former an artist father from a child’s point of view.  Also, at its heart, Who Does She Think She Is? explores balancing he personal with the creative, while In a Dream is nearly a cautionary tale of what happens when this balance is upset.

Dreyfous:  I think that that’s a wonderful analysis.  I’ve never thought of it that way.

Boll:  I saw In a Dream in the working stages, I guess it was originally around 2006, and I was immediately struck by the poignancy of its story.  In many ways, Jeremiah is dealing with very similar themes to my film.  I love that you framed it as a cautionary tale. I would say that in the film I directed I tried to bring to people’s attention what I feel are more balanced lives.  There’s some sense of hope, and also some inspiration, that one can have a creative life and also a nurturing, caring life, and in fact, if you cut out [the creative side] of yourself, [life] can get really unbalanced.

Zagar: I was so moved the first time I saw Pam’s film.  A lot of women in the film not only remind me of my father but of my mother.  My mother, although she decided not to become an artist and show her work in galleries, was an artist in her own right.  A lot of what my movie is about is these two people creating this world together, and my mother is certainly the author of that art as well.  I think mostly, that’s how the two films relate—they’re about the struggle of what it take to create in this world.

I also noticed that all of you have crated films about families, and that your filmmaking process also follows this theme.  Pamela and Geralyn, along with Ross Kauffman, are Academy Award winners for Born into Brothels, and you’re all serving as executive producers on In a Dream.  And Jeremiah, you’ve worked on Born Into Brothels related projects, and you and Jeremy have been filmmaking partners for 12 years, right?  

Yaches and Zagar
: Yeah.

But I’m noticing also that this idea of film as a family-like collaboration is really changing fast because technology is allowing some directors to almost create movies in solitude.  What is your take on this?

Zagar:  It’s strange to imagine that there are people out there who are doing films alone.  I mean, without Pam, Geralyn, Ross and Jeremy, there is no In a Dream.  Without my parents, without a d.p.—we didn’t make a movie that could have been made alone.  I mean, we had 20-person crews to shoot the murals.  And beyond that there is a collaborative process that takes place between each one of your relations—between you and your producer, you and your editor, you and your executive producer.  All of these relationships form a director’s point of view.

Yaches:  We always wanted to do In a Dream in a very big, cinematic way. We didn’t want to shoot it like most of the documentaries that are coming out now, that are shot on video or whatever, so we hired a lot of people to do specialized things that we can’t do ourselves.  Pam had the same perspective—she hired an incredible d.p. and incredible editor.  

Dreyfous:  Jeremiah had edited the DVD outtakes for Born Into Brothels, and Ross was so moved by his student film and his early work.   I remember him calling me and saying, “I will never be as talented as this kid is.”  I think the fact that the next film that Ross wanted to do after an Academy Award was to produce Jeremiah’s is a tribute to the kind of person he is.  He could have gotten an agent and pursued a lot of things, but he didn’t.  He wants to make films that are quiet and have a certain kind of humility.  And what I observed with Jeremiah and Jeremy as a young filmmaking team is that they have the right combination of being curious and hungry, but they are also humble.

Boll:  What both In a Dream and my film also explore is, “What does it mean to be an artist?”  In both films we’re dealing with this archetype, which is that an artist is somebody who’s outside of society, forging new grounds and all of that.  I think that is, to a certain degree, what it means to be an artist, but I also think that the story that’s not been told is that in order to create art, whether in films, or books, or sculpture, people generally [need to be] embedded in a supportive community. Throughout most of history, artists have had very rich and sustaining relationships, whether with their families or with other artists.  We hear that Gauguin ran off to the South Seas, but what we don’t hear is that he and Van Gogh tried to create a community in the south of France.  That story doesn’t get told, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to show these women in their family situations.

How do these concepts of family and artist support systems then apply practically to the relationship between producers and directors in the making of your documentaries?

Zagar:  I can say that the role as a director is to, obviously, try to tell the best story you possibly can.  But you need your support system with people around you enabling you to tell that story.

Boll:  I think in the documentary world, the director role and the producer role, at least in the films that I’ve worked on, can sometimes overlap.  I feel that the producer is critical.  If you have somebody who has a vision and wants to make a film, the producer is—I don’t want to say a cheerleader because that sounds derogatory—but the producer is the one who holds the vision and makes it possible, who implements it, if you will.  You cannot do a strong film without a strong producer.  Executive producing is more hands-off, and that’s what I’ve done, which is sort of, “I believe in you, I like your vision, go do it.  We’ll raise the money.”  Geralyn is an absolutely incredible executive producer because she is the kind of person who says, “I’m going to go out and find 15 other people who will give us the money so that we can get this made.”

Zagar:  As an executive producer, Ross had a traditional role in that he was the one who championed the film to Geralyn in the first place, who then championed it to Pam.  But Ross was also very much involved creatively in the film because he had directed a film before, obviously, and he’s been an editor.  He really pushed us and helped us make a much better movie.  Ross was always the person saying, “This is good, but it’s not even close to as good as it can be.”  He was the reason that Jeremy as a producer is crucial for me because I can’t make anything, really without our collaboration.  Jeremy watches every step and is very, very hands-on in making and pushing the film to be as good as it can possibly be. 

Boll:  You don’t know—sometimes you don't even know what you need.  You need to have that second set of eyes.

Zagar:  Absolutely.

Jeremiah says in the film that Isaiah had been diagnosed with delusions of grandeur.  I thought, “Of course, he’s this legendary artist who has covered 50,000 square feet of concrete with these breathtaking murals—how could he not have these delusions of grandeur?” And then I realized that Pamela, you could say the same thing about Maye Torres in your film.  She basically gave up all financial security to do her art.  And also Angela Williams, who picks up the phone and cold-calls theater companies, even though she’s never been onstage in her life.  Do you think you have to have delusions of grandeur to be an artist?

Boll:  That was one of the big things I wanted to explore because I think it’s really hard for women to say, “I am great, I am wonderful, I really have something to say, and I need you guys to listen.”  Whether it’s because they are socialized that way, or because it’s in their nature—who knows?  I think women find it very difficult to put themselves forward [like that]. You feel that if people don’t notice your work, you shouldn’t bring attention to it.  I would have to say that Maye might have some delusions of grandeur because, after all, she doesn’t take another job, but I would characterize it a bit differently.  She believes that what she’s doing is important for other people.  It’s not really about her; it’s about giving the world back something that it needs.  Angela is another one who feels very strongly that she has something to say that will make other people’s lives richer, brighter.  But it’s not really about Angela.  She comes from a religious background and it’s almost like—if you will—God going through her.  I think Isaiah has the same thing as Angela and Maye.  I don’t think he feels it about him either.  I think he believes that he’s got this calling and he must do this.

Zagar:  I think it’s something every filmmaker has to [relate to].  You have to be a little bit deluded to think you can make a movie in the first place.

Dreyfous:  It’s true.  It’s really hard to make a movie, and I think that you have to be really passionate and committed to the process to be able to finish.

I know that Jeremiah is a big fan of Errol Morris, and that definitely comes through in In a Dream.  Are there other films or books or works of art that have guided or inspired you as you have worked out the themes and forms of your films?

Yaches:  Tarnation is actually a really huge influence on this film.  The first trailer that we made was tremendously influenced by Tarnation.

Zagar:  We have a long list of influences.  Errol Morris and Werner Herzog—we love what they do with documentary form.  We love the idea of making the real surreal.  Also, Lynn Ramsey—she is an enormous influence.  She composes shots in a way that I think nobody else in the world does.  But Jeremy and I have been working together for almost 13 years, and all we used to do was sit and watch movies.  I mean, it’s incalculable how many influences we have.

Pamela, do your influences come from film or other art forms?

Boll:  It’s really been a mesh.  I have been a consumer of movies big-time my whole life, but I was never a student of movies.  I certainly didn’t go to film school.  I was an English major as an undergrad, and wrote poetry and I also painted.  But I had never made a movie, and I didn’t know anything about shot or camerawork and, frankly, I didn’t care that I didn’t know.  To me it was all sort of done by feel.  My influences were books that I’d read through the years, stories of inspirational women and how they lived their lives.  Middlemarch is one of my favorite works of all time.  Another big influence is the French film To Be and To Have.  I wanted to make a film like that—which I didn’t, but it was still a huge influence.  It’s a very careful and close look at a small schoolhouse and the relationship between the teachers and all of these kids over time.  Of course I made this huge, talking, sprawling movie instead, but whatever.

Zagar:  You want to hear a really funny story?  So the first movies I ever saw that made me want to make movies was The Adventures of Baron Von Munchausen.  It was an inspiration for one of our shorts.  So we went to London to show the film, and we were watching another movie, and it was so bad we started drinking at this little bar near the theater.  All of a sudden this guy walks in wearing a kimono, and he has a rattail, like little kids do—and it’s Terry Gilliam.  I couldn’t believe it.  The whole night I’m sweating bullets, drinking, thinking of how I’m going to approach Terry Gilliam, who’s with his wife and his best friend, and I was like, “Look man, you made us want to make movies.  I love you so much.  I have a film in the festival.” And he looks at me and goes, “I’m so sorry.”

It’s interesting that you come from a movie background and Pam comes from a more literary background.  I think it kind of shows in both the works.  I feel like with Jeremiah you are sort of capturing the essence of your dad’s visual artwork through your own visual artwork, and with Pamela, I felt like the film was more focused on what was around the periphery.

Boll:  That’s true, I was trying to tell the story of their lives.

Yaches:  I have to say that In a Dream, as much as it is about the art, it’s also just a love story.  It’s really about Jeremiah’s parents working together to make all this art.

Zagar:  You start out with a movie about his work and what you end up with is this love story between two people in a family. 


This interview was originally published in FilmMaker Magazine.


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