Friday, October 2, 2009

Interview: Ethan Vogt, producer of 'Beeswax'

Ethan Vogt is the creator of Live Projections (check out, there are some cool videos on the site), which has put on A/V shows with such bands as The Fiery Furnaces and Franz Ferdinand. He is also the producer of Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax, which premiered at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and is being released throughout the country. Look for it. It’s great. and

Rocket Multimedia: The standard question is: “What does a producer do?” Could you explain your role as a producer on films like Beeswax?

Ethan Vogt: Andrew is the only person I’ve produced for, so my role is very much a product of the particular relationship that we have.  We were in the same introductory class in film school and have been working together for 12 years now, having made three features during that time.  On the film set, I hope to give Andrew a sense of confidence that everything is will get done, that we will make the shooting schedule, and that crew is happy and motivated.  My role is very “hands-on,” basically doing whatever is called on so that we can keep a very small crew on these films.  This keeps the actors comfortable and creates an atmosphere conducive to making the kind of work that Andrew is interested in. So it’s a role that we’ve invented that has worked really well for the last three films and one that I hope to continue with him.

On Hollywood films, the “producer” can be anyone from a person who shows up at the last minute with some money, to a person who has made the project happen entirely (optioning the book, hiring a screenwriter, picking the director, having final cut in the edit).  With Andrew: he’s the creator, I’m a trusted “enabler.” I try to be the kind of producer that I would like to have if I was directing by allowing Andrew to own the creative vision and just helping him achieve it.  We work well together and I’m really proud of the work we’ve done so far.

R: I’ve read in various articles about how you used two minivans on Funny Ha Ha and one on Mutual Appreciation [to carry all the film equipment]. And I read in one Film Comment article that you guys used your lighting and gaffing equipment on Funny Ha Ha. And I feel like that kind of aesthetic has always appealed to me and I’ve always been told by the establishment and everybody says, “You can’t do that. You need 100 people on a film set.” How has that experience been for you as far as dealing with a small group of people whom you’re friends with and that sort of thing?

E: If there’s a “film movement” that I feel comfortable being a part of is “DIY” (Doing It Yourself).  I think that the best way to learn or to be a filmmaker is to make films. Even though distribution is in transition and getting paid for this work seems harder and harder, my advice to filmmakers is to make films, even if they are short and made with a cheap video camera. And [to] not really wait around for a big deal before you are able to get your vision on the screen. Or, be waiting around for that big deal, but in the meantime be pursuing projects that you care about. We just worked with our friends and we’ve been lucky that these films have found some sort of niche audience.  That said, Andrew “casts” his films very carefully, making sure to screen test everyone he is thinking about before making any decisions. Not everyone can be a decent non-professional actor and Andrew really tries to get a sense of how people behave in front of a camera before he makes a decision to put them in his film. And in terms of crew, yeah, it doesn’t take much, we had maybe a 4-person crew on Funny Ha Ha and I don’t think we ever had more than 8 people on Beeswax. I love what directors are able to do when they have a lot of money and resources, but it’s not necessary for all films.

R: That’s a good point. I feel like with each project you guys it gets a little bigger. You guys went to Berlin with this one. What was that experience like?

E: It was amazing to premiere Beeswax in Berlin. We had really fantastic audiences and we were able to have a lot of people from the cast and crew make the trip over. So it was a real honor and a pleasure.

R: So which do you prefer: being a cinematographer or a producer?

E: Actually, neither!  These days, I am mostly interested in directing more experimental work and have been putting together events that combine live music along with a visual score.  I call this genre: Live Projections, the website is

R: Oh cool. How did you get involved with

E:  The idea really came from seeing classic, silent films for example Man with a Movie Camera with a new live score and really being fascinated by that as a cinematic experience.  I’ve always loved “found footage” films and in the last five or ten years technology allows you to use video as an instrument and to really work alongside a performance in real-time.  So far, I’ve got really great responses from audiences who have seen this work and I’d like to continue to introduce more people to this.

R: Yeah, in New York City a few weeks ago, I feel like Found Footage Festivals are becoming a thing also.

E: Yeah, there are a bunch of experimental filmmakers that I admire that work with found footage. Bill Morrison, who actually was in Mutual Appreciation, is a great found footage filmmaker. And there’s an artist, Martin Arnold, who uses an optical camera and re-photographs scenes, and his work is really inspiring to me. So there are these great filmmakers who are able to make really poetic, beautiful work with found footage. But also, we are in the age of YouTube and people are digitizing these crazy video clips from the 1980s and it’s just a pleasure that we’re able to see that material again. Plus there is all the remixing or mash-ups that is taking place and being share online. Barney with Tupac is a personal favorite.

R: I’ve read, it’s on Wikipedia so I never know if these things are true, that Andrew Bujalski was hired to adapt this book, Indecision? And would you be involved producing that if that came to be?

E: Andrew was hired a couple years ago by Scott Rudin to adapt Indecision, and he’s submitted drafts and it’s in the development process. Your guess is as good as mine about when or whether that will come to fruition.  Andrew writing a number of scripts, so much depends on how those screenplays develop and if they are the kind of projects that might require a large budget, or whether they’re smaller scripts that we might be able to do in a way we’ve done before.  So, everything’s up in the air, but I don’t spend a lot of time wringing my hands about it.   There is one script set in Montreal that he is working on that I really like a lot, so I’m hoping that we might be able to make that happen next year, but we will see.

R: I feel like every single film that you guys do, I’m always like this is gonna be the one. Like, Mutual Appreciation, I was like, “This is gonna blow up, this is gonna be huge.” [At the], Film Forum, I went opening weekend [to see Beeswax and] it had a great crowd. I just, I don’t even understand why these local kind of smaller art house theaters aren’t really jumping on board because I feel like the work you guys are doing is so much more exciting than, not to disparage other filmmakers, but is a lot more exciting than other films being shown at these types of theaters.

E: Our priority is just making good films and hoping that the audience will find them somehow. And so, we’re not distribution or marketing experts. I think that we’re in a kind of transitional time and this will be a little bit more sorted out in five more years when filmmakers will have a better sense of how to distribute their work. We’ve been really lucky to have really great reviews in lots of newspapers but less people are reading those reviews.  We certainly believe that the best place to watch a movie is “on film” and in a theater, but we’ll just see what happens. Our goal is just to make films that we care about ourselves and hopefully we’ll continue to have the audience that’s supported us so far and build on that.

R: I think that it’s great that you and Andrew Bujalski aren’t concentrating on the marketing, and are just trying to make the best movie possible. I think one of the biggest problems with filmmaking nowadays is that people will try to figure out what an audience will want and that is the death [to any art form].

E: I don’t want to claim to be some sort of movie monk or purist. Andrew loves all sorts of films and you know, the next project we do may, we may find that it has a sort of broader appeal than these other films, but I think the point there we’re making is we’re going to continue to make films that are meaningful to us. Reaching an audience is exciting and we’re not trying to make things that are difficult or off-putting on purpose, but I would agree with you that trying to second-guess what would bring in an audience to your film is….I don’t think I’d be stating anything radical to say that that mindset has ruined many films.

R: Absolutely.

E: Instead of taking a personal approach.

R: I don’t know if this is broadcast everywhere, but I know in the New York area, I’ve seen Funny Ha Ha on PBS at least twice, Reel 13, I think that’s a great forum, too.

E: Right, I think the fact there we’re still able to get Funny Ha Ha broadcast now, I mean, five years later is a great testament to the value of that film and hopefully the same thing will be going on with Mutual Appreciation and Beeswax. I believe in the long-term values of these films.

R: Awesome. I have um, one final question: what has been your favorite film festival experience?

E: South by Southwest has been a great place for us to show the last two films and it feels like a “home” of sorts for us. Personally I’m really excited by the way that that event combines music and interactive, it’s the same thing that interests me about Live ProjectionsSxSW brings film into proximity with other art forms and ideas that is definitely something that I see a lot of value from.

R: Awesome. Yeah, have you noticed any trends or any at certain film festivals that you could do without?

E: Andrew goes to many more of the festivals than I do so he might have a better answer than I do. I guess I would say that I have been surprised that the entrance fees are getting pretty expensive.  I’ve just been kind of shocked at the prices. I think film festivals can be such a great event for a town and for sponsors and I’m a little concerned that entrance fees are a barrier for some filmmakers.  Of course, there’s a lot of submissions to be watched and those programmers have to get paid too… so I don’t really know what the answer is.  But there may something that as a community we could look at how to make that a little bit more affordable, especially for young filmmakers.

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