Hello Michel, I just finished watching your film, An Autobiography of Michelle Maren. Not bad for a film I would have otherwise probably never have watched. It made me snot all over myself, and I drank a fifth of whiskey in order to get through it without having a complete breakdown.
At first, I’ll be honest; I thought it was some sort of midlife crisis bullshit, a long shot down a deep hole with no good end in sight. I figured maybe you had finally fallen into a creative void, and I figure we are all entitled to fail terribly every once in awhile, in the name of art. I didn’t know who Michelle Maren was, though I did see the Deep Throat movies. I probably have a copy around here somewhere.
But then I got about 15 mins into it and I became fascinated with this story. I felt like I knew this girl. This is the Real story of the American Dream.
It’s a tale of tragedy and triumph that people desperately need to see. People are living this shit every day, and they need to see what happens at the end of the story. Life is not a fairy tale, but that does not mean it’s not a life worth living. There is a lot to be said about the film, and a lot of questions that could be asked. We sobbed a lot, so I probably won’t bring that up anymore for the purpose of this dialogue.
I try to fight back the tears when I’m reviewing films. They make me feel weak. I keep a sharp olive fork on a small wooden block on the side of my desk. Whenever I start to cry for any reason at all, I just stab myself in the hand with it, until it fills me with blind rage, which I can then channel into hate and back into productive literature. So I’ll start simply:
Clayton Luce: For those who don’t know you, who is Michel Negroponte, and why did you choose film?
Michel Negroponte: I’m a seasoned documentary filmmaker. Actually, I don’t really like the word documentary, even though I use it all the time. I prefer the term creative nonfiction. So I’m a creative nonfiction filmmaker! That’s a mouthful. In any case, my films include Jupiter’s Wife (1995), Methadonia (2005), I’m Dangerous with Love (2009) and An Autobiography of Michelle Maren (2015). The work has been broadcast on HBO, PBS, the BBC, and many others networks worldwide. My films have also been invited to a number of festivals including the Sundance Film Festival, the New York Film Festival and Hot Docs.
I started looking at films when I was a teenager in the 1960’s. It was an exciting time: American movies were edgy and adventurous. Abroad, the French and British New Wave were creating modern masterpieces. And the documentary world was sizzling with the work of the cinema verite pioneers: Ricky Leacock, D.A. Pennebaker, the Maysles, Ed Pincus and others. I was swept away by all of it and started making Super 8 films in high school. Then I studied filmmaking at M.I.T. with Ricky Leacock and Ed Pincus. I never looked back.
Q: Who is Michelle Maren and I why did you choose her as the subject for your film?
A: Actually, Michelle Maren contacted me after seeing my film Jupiter’s Wife 80 times. Michelle is a former beauty queen, go-go dancer, professional escort, and porn star. She now lives on disability and struggles with clinical depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders and childhood trauma. Isolated and alone, she told me she was seeking transformation and another chance through film. I was intrigued and we embarked on a collaboration that took us 6 years to complete.
Q: Do you enjoy guns and bombs? Are you a convicted felon?
A: I do not enjoy guns or bombs, but it’s thoughtful of you to ask. Neither am I a convicted felon. Remarkably, I’ve never been arrested. But at my age, I think I should reconsider my penchant for good behavior. A little adventure is good for the circulation. When I get arrested, will you bail me out?
We don’t affiliate with the criminal underworld, at least on the record. But we know ‘a guy,’ remind me to give you his number.
Q: There are very heavy and heartbreaking themes throughout this film that we as an audience must confront when watching Michelle on this 6 year journey. What was it like for you, as a filmmaker and as a man, to actually have to go through this with her? Was it difficult?
A: At times, it was immensely difficult for both of us. The material I was working with as the co-director and editor of the film was raw and emotional. To live with that material day in, day out – for years – was a challenge. On a few occasions, I curled into a fetal position in the editing room and put my thumb in my mouth. It was that painful. It was even more difficult for Michelle. She filmed a lot of the project on her own – almost the entire first third of the film. We travelled back to her childhood homes and traced her descent into the world of porn. It was like constant encounter therapy for Michelle, a dramatic reliving of painful memories. But she was committed to confronting her demons.
Q: Have you ever killed an animal with you bare hands?
A: Yes, a worm.
A: I’ve liked fishing since I was a child. But now I fish with just a bobber and a bare hook. I can visualize catching a fish and that’s enough. I’m aiming for a higher spiritual plane. It’s not been easy and I may go back to killing worms soon.
Q: There was a point in the film when Michelle was very angry with you during one of her episodes. She spoke to you almost as though the two of you were married. Did you feel as though some sort of line had been crossed at some point in the project, as a film maker, and as a friend to her? Was there ever a point in the film that you felt like the picture wouldn’t be made?
A: There were several times during the making of the film that we almost shelved the project. I was concerned that the process of making the film was too hard emotionally for Michelle. I couldn’t envision screening such a grueling film to an audience. I was worried about how Michelle might react to the release of the finished film. And yes, I did wonder on occasion if I was on the wrong side of that murky ethical boundary line. I grappled with these issues a lot. But almost every time we almost quit, it was Michelle who kept the project going. She insisted, and in many respects it was her strength and resilience that got the film finished.
Near the end of the film, there is a confrontational scene between the two of us that is tough to watch. I don’t want to describe it in great detail, I want viewers to experience it first hand. I can say this: to some degree, the film deals with the idea of collaboration. It’s an important part of the story. Collaborations are hard and many of them end badly. But we survived, and we’re currently showing the film at festivals together.
Q: You chose an interesting format for your film. It appears that you gave Michelle a camera and had her journal her life. How did that process work? How much say did she have in what made it into the film and what did not?
A: The project began with Michelle filming herself with a camcorder I loaned her. I gave her a few basic lessons, but she quickly became one of my most adventurous students. When I saw what she was doing with the camera, I was amazed with her cinematography and lighting. Her monologues to the camera were delivered with a theatrical flair. I was floored by her material and that’s what ultimately made we want to work with her.
I shared rough-cuts of scenes and even longer sections of the film with Michelle throughout the entire collaboration. In general, I did the initial editing work – editing takes a pretty seasoned eye to figure out the possibilities. But then we swapped ideas, shaped scenes and moved forward. By the way, I started editing the material from almost day one. That’s how I work. For years, I’ve been editing and shooting a film project as I go along. It’s a process I’m accustomed to. Of course I go back and re-edit scenes. I add and subtract scenes, and move them around all the time. But I like watching the film evolve as it’s being shot. Filmmaking is about process, and it creates a dialogue between the filmmaker and the
film. I listen carefully to what it’s saying.
Q: If you could send any one person back to the future, who would it be?
A: Donald Trump. He’s an embarrassment. I’m sure he would be welcomed by Neanderthals. Damn, maybe even they would reject him?
Q: As a documentary filmmaker, what would you like to say about this film and its subject matter that you would like to share with your audience?
A: There is a contemporary trend in documentary to choose celebrities and famous people as subjects. Or well known, high profile stories. I find that trend boring. I’m far more interested in present tense films about people I’ve never met, or places I’ve never been to. I like the sense of adventure. I like being surprised. As in any good creative non-fiction, a film needs to have it’s own personality, which is a delicate blend of the filmmaker’s DNA and the subject’s DNA. Subject matter alone is never enough. I’m also interested in filmmakers who are sensitive to cinematic technique. Like music, filmmaking needs an emotional context, and that’s created primarily by technique: it’s editing and photography more than anything else. Of course there is a long list of other considerations. One of my biggest concerns is that there is very little filmmaking in documentary filmmaking any longer. People merely aim the camera at a story, or document it. Filmmaking has to be more than that. It’s still a cinematic art form, and you have to know your stuff to make a film.
Q: Finally, as a magazine that caters primarily to amateur and professional artists in all forms of media, what did you learn during this project that you could pass on to aspiring documentarians? Any Sage wisdom or tips of the trade?
A: As in any art form, it takes patience and persistence. You have to do the work, and you have to be very disciplined. I tell my students that writers write, painters paint, and musicians make music. Filmmakers have to do the same, unless what you’re really interested in is producing films, then you merely tell people what to do. I don’t think that’s real filmmaking. I might even go so far as to say you have to shoot and edit your own work. I think the best storytelling is filtered though a singular perspective. Nonetheless, the most important thing is to create a schedule and to stick to it. One of the greatest contemporary American writers was Raymond Carver. By the time he was 25, he had a family to support. He took any job he could find: pumping gas or working in a laundromat. Somehow, he managed to write every night for two hours, only short stories. By middle age, he had published three of the most beautiful and celebrated collections of short stories in recent history. I think Raymond Carver is a great inspiration.
Well Michel, this is one hell of a film! A tragic yet inspiring rollercoaster ride into the Inner Pain of the Prozac Nation, a daughters yearning for love and acceptance in a world gone mad on liquor and madness and hate; a must see obituary for the death of the American Dream. This one will make you hold your loved ones tight tonight, thankful for what you have.
Thank you for taking the time to do this interview with us and we wish you the absolute very best on whatever terrible new journey the future may hold for you.
-Clayton L. Luce