Allowing Reality In: An Interview with Christopher Jason Bell
Christopher Jason Bell should be a better known filmmaker. In addition to hosting a program at the Spectacle Theater and producing a podcast, Indie Beat, both platforms dedicated to spotlighting recent micro-cinema, Bell makes movies that eschew tropes seen in Brooklyn indiependent films: no aping of John Cassavetes’ intense naturalism, no cribbing of Robert Bresson’s austere formalism, no narratives about whiny upper middle-class white people and their relationship problems, and no Keith Poulson. Rather, his work — consisting of many shorts and a single feature at this time — is cerebral. Sparking the viewer’s imagination, Bell’s movies juggle what is seen and heard onscreen and what is not, with spartan stories featuring a main character and a singular event: a man wonders and worries after his landlord calls and tells him that he has to pay the rent in “The Finger” (2018); a man is forcibly evicted from his apartment from a nocturnal visitor in “Mohammad So-and-So” (2017); and a business owner has a meltdown after his sister-in-law confronts him with family matters in “And By We I Mean Me” (2016).
Inserting YouTube clips (“And By We I Mean Me”), the Zapruder film (2016’s “Original Zapruder Location”), and audio from news channels (“Mohammad So-and-So”) — Bell’s work isn’t strictly fictional, but by incorporating componets from the media at large, is rather “unclean” or “impure.” It’s mongrel cinema that isn’t quite unruly, for these are carefully composed and tightly constructed works too.
Before Spectacle screens his shorts and the 79-minute The Winds That Scatter (2015) (a portrait of a Syrian immigrant struggling with financial hardships in pursuit of the American Dream of owning his own taxi service), I asked Bell some questions through email about making his diverse work, the use of interruption in his narratives, focusing on the lives of Arab people living in the U.S., and more.
Your films seem to embrace a variety of modes or genres while still retaining a particularly emblematic style. You’ve done a sort of rom-com with a meet-cute moment (2017’s “The City Is Like A Character In The Film”), a recording of a birthday celebration and re-enactment of My Cousin Vinny (2017’s “It Is Our Movie” directed with Marla Christansen), and character portraits (“The Finger,” “And By We I Mean Me,” The Winds That Scatter). How do you determine what particular mode a film will be? Is this something you plan out, or is it more instinctual? Is this something you work out with Paul Taylor, a cinematographer who frequently collaborates with you on your work?
There’s two things… one is the idea. That leads the way. I have ideas for scenes and/or moments constantly and I’m always writing them down. That idea becomes the core, and then I’ll see if any other ideas I’ve already had connect… or I’ll hone in on one idea and see how it spreads. Once we’re ready to shoot the thing, I go in with more of a plan than I did with previous projects, but still I try to keep things loose on the set for that kind of instinctual approach you mentioned. Things shouldn’t feel too planned and lifeless, we have to allow reality in, “mistakes” in… what have you. It can’t be rigid. I’m not really into stuff that feels so handsome and perfect. When I see stuff like that I almost beg for the dolly operator to jerk the thing a little bit. You have to feel the pleasure of storytelling and all of those typical movie conventions, but you also have to feel spontaneity.
And then the other major thing is the actor, or subject. I try to figure out why I’m drawn to them and how to best utilize their presence. We work together! It’s all hugely collaborative, not only with the actor but the producer and Paul or other cinematographers I’ve worked with.
Compared to your other work, “The Finger” seems a little bit different. There are zooms that feel intrusive, as if zeroing in on a psychic enclosure of the isolated man at the center of this film. How did you develop the look of “The Finger”?
Unless I’m mistaken… “The Finger” was the first time I’ve really used a zoom that wasn’t for comedic effect in some lark (see: 2016’s “The Expanded Universe”). When you don’t have a lot of money or resources, then it’s tough to sweat Tarkovsky all the time and not have access to serious equipment. I guess it finally clicked that I could probably use the zoom lens in a similar way, or at least start training with it with that in mind.
“The Finger” started with the first shot, just the idea of a hand outside of a barred window… you know, clearly looking like a prison cell. And it had to be one shot, but not moving felt flat to me and didn’t do the idea justice. Once that was decided on, the rest of the movement was imagined by my cinematographer Zach and I. I wanted it to feel like we were there with the lead character because he’s going through so much — berated by his landlord, forced to choose between rent and electricity, has no money, no support — it’s clearly a downer of an idea, and I figured the easy thing would be to go cold. But the zooms and the other elements we added join us to him. We’re doing what little we can and being there for him.
You make an interesting formal choice at the end of “The Finger.” I don’t know the technical term, but you overexpose the light, rather than filming him in the dark, as his power is suddenly cut off. Why choose to shoot the scene this way?
Since the elements around him are driving him into the dark, I wanted to show some way to go against that. The resulting technique may be super artificial, but it’s something. I wanted it to feel very jarring. I want the idea to be that we can fight these things; we don’t have to sit idly by even though the rules or norms are for us to be solitary and individualistic… to not get involved.
“The Finger” feels precise in its shot length and general construction. What was the editing process like for it? How long did it take?
It wasn’t too long — my girlfriend Marla [Christiansen] cuts together a pass, I think a shot should be longer, a week later I realize she’s correct. Nailing down the sound design took a bit longer. Originally the first scene — the only scene where the characters speak — was a lot longer. I trimmed it down considerably as it felt too crowded. What stayed and what went was something that I really mulled over. I had a lot of lines that were loaded… which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I ended up getting rid of most of them. The rhythm of the conversation needed to be right.
“It Is Our Movie” depicts a man’s 60th birthday celebration among his friends and family. He eggs people on to perform re-enactments of scenes from My Cousin Vinny. Beyond on-screen text locating the party taking place during the summer of the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the film represents (and constructs, particularly with the canned laughter on the soundtrack) the re-enactments. Can you talk a little bit about this birthday celebration and the people in it? Does he usually put on these outdoor screenings/re-enactments, or was this a one-time deal?
This was a one-time deal… something Kevin, the birthday boy, always wanted to do. He called Marla and I to explain the idea and asked us to film it. It was way too fascinating to say no to. He let us cut our own version of it, which is what you see now. He was super into it and it was interesting to follow him around and try to get people into it (it only really worked once they were properly drunk) and then to eventually see him directing people. That was a lot of fun.
It also was interesting to us to see people who don’t improv or act to see what they would come up with, joke-wise. Some of it was pretty on-the-nose as far as the social climate goes.
There’s a sense of the intentionally abstract to the story in your films, allowing room for active imagination on the part of viewers. Your films seem to hint at narrative, one that lays just beyond the screen, beyond what’s actually being seen. In other words, your films deal very much so with what is seen and what is not seen. I wonder, what are your scripts like?
I was always taken by the camera frame and how there’s so much life outside of it. I try to acknowledge that by using off-screen space as much as possible. What is seen and not seen tends to crop up, thematically, in a lot of my stories, I think (maybe a variation of it is what’s said and not said, etc.). To vaguely classify it, it’s dealing with communication, from personal feelings not properly conveyed to what movies (or media in general) are pressing into us.
The scripts themselves are pretty minimalist. I don’t do the fancy stuff that the kids like.
Interruption, in a general sense, I think is an element of your films. In “The Movie,” someone off-screen breaks up a shoot by asking “You guys making a movie?” The stopping and starting of My Cousin Vinny in “It Is Our Movie.” The sudden insertion of car crash videos at the end of “And By We I Mean Me.” The man who shows up at Mohammad’s apartment and forcefully evicts him in “Mohammad So-and-So.” Is the concept of interruption something that you consciously think of while making a movie?
I don’t think this applies to all instances, but some of the time it’s me copping Brecht and his alienation technique. In many ways too, it’s just playful, constantly changing the direction of a story or moment, which opens up new possibilities or mysteries. And then opens up a new layer of meaning. It’s very much how I like to experience stories, so I’m always trying to do it myself.
Your films often ground their stories in precise moments in time and a given socio-historical context. You also frequently cast and feature stories about immigrants, Arabs, and Arab-Americans. A short like “Mohammad So-and-So,” which was made just a few years ago, I’m afraid to say, seems prescient. The Arab diaspora is a topic that New York-based filmmakers, a rather insular group, rarely broach. What draws you to this material over and over again?
There were many reasons I tread the path that I started with The Winds That Scatter. Indeed, it was too many white-boy New York movies. Not that they’re bad, I definitely like some of them, but why would I add to that? Of course, I could just not make a movie, but the ego is hungry.
Seriously though, I just started reading more up on the world and thinking more about it. I thought about cinema, even media’s relationship to what was going on. I thought it was absurd that the only roles for a brown actor would be Terrorist #2, and given how most people get their news and politics from movies and TV shows… it’s all just very harmful. So I wanted to go against that.