MAGIC, REALISM: THE FILMS OF SARAH DRIVER, see listings.
The films of Sara Driver are strange, unusual things - slippery, fluid narratives about people drifting into disturbing situations, or pulling other people into such things. You've probably never encountered them before - unless you lucked into the DVD set issued by Ron Mann's filmswelike label - but TIFF Cinematheque's Magic, Realism: The Films Of Sara Driver gives us the chance to experience her work on the big screen.
The series - which runs parallel to TIFF's retrospective of the films of Driver's partner, Jim Jarmusch, - kicks off Thursday (July 24) with a screening of her long-lost 1981 adaptation of Paul Bowles's short story You Are Not I, preceded by her short documentary The Bowery: Spring 1994. Driver will be in attendance, and she'll stick around for the Friday (July 25) screening of her 1993 feature When Pigs Fly and an accompanying documentary short, Strummer. Her 1986 feature Sleepwalk screens August 5.
Over the phone from New York, Driver talks about dream states, practical effects, the perils of financing and a vanished corner of New York City.
They screened You Are Not I for us the other day. For a movie that was lost for decades, it looks terrific.
The HDCam [transfer] really holds all the information and looks really beautiful, I think. That was made off the print that was found at Paul Bowles's house in Tangiers.
And that was truly the only copy left in existence?
The film was pretty well abused - it went to a lot of festivals and a lot of museums, and then the negative and inter-negative were destroyed in a storage facility. We made one copy from an old festival print that had been through a lot, because 16mm black-and-white is very very fragile. We made a 1-inch [video copy] of the negative, and then we looked at it a few years ago and the signal had disappeared off the [tape]. So we didn't have anything.
And then, when the archivists were working with Paul Bowles's material, Francis Poole called me up and he was very nervous. He said, "We found this print" - and it's a print off the original negative. It was a beautiful print that I'd sent to Bowles. At the time I sent it, you didn't have VHS or anything like that. I had someone hand-carry it to Paul, show it to him there, and then he kept it, which was a miracle.
It's a movie about a strange young woman wandering through a mundane landscape that becomes surreal when seen through her perspective. This also describes Jonathan Glazer's Under The Skin, which flashed across my mind a few times while watching your film. Have you seen that, by any chance?
No, I haven't. I'm gonna run and see it now [laughing].
The black-and-white landscapes give the story a bleary, bleak sort of reality. But there's this predatory sensibility as the protagonist wanders through the scene of a horrible car wreck. She touches things she probably shouldn't touch, she thinks things she probably shouldn't think. It's a really unsettling experience.
Well, I really wanted to make this film feel exactly how I felt when I read the story. Because I was in shock at the ending, and I just wanted to capture how I felt as a reader. We made it in six days up at a little lake in New Jersey.
You couldn't afford to stage the train wreck described in Bowles's story, so you did it on the cheap with cars?
I bought the cars for $75 each and they towed them to the location, and the firemen of Washington, New Jersey happily blew them up. I bought them a keg of beer, and then I had to have my picture taken with all of them.
There's an eerie, intangible quality about You Are Not I that echoes through much of your work. I'm pretty sure I was awake while watching Sleepwalk and When Birds Fly, but there's always the possibility that they've lulled me into a suggestible state and I'm hallucinating them.
Oh, good! [laughing]
But that tone is really quite distinctive. How do you achieve that? What do you tell your cast and crew to get them on the same page?
Well, actually I showed them Stalker, by [Andrei] Tarkovsky, and [Jacques Rivette's] Celine And Julie Go Boating.
That makes a lot of sense, actually.
Rivette was always about playing with waking dreams in his films, and Tarkovsky too; I'm a huge Tarkovsky fan. And Carl Dreyer did a series of essays about sleepwalking and film: if you underlight something, psychologically it's more disturbing than if you light something very brightly - like, the light itself will have a psychological effect on the audience. I played with that in Sleepwalk. And he talks about how colour makes for more detail and black-and-white minimizes detail, so I tried to do the art design so the details were minimized, almost in the way you would for a black-and-white movie.
When Pigs Fly has that waking-nightmare quality too, but in a different, more antique style. Strange things happen and we have to figure out whether we're seeing what we're seeing.
Robby Mueller, the cinematographer, he and I did a lot of those effects in-camera. It's almost like magician's tricks. Like, the scene where Alfred Molina's character is being punched by the little girl ghost? We actually had a half-mirror, and the little girl was hitting a velvet wall [as] his stomach; only her reflection was [visible] in the mirror, but that came out ghostly. There were no books about this. We were studying and slowing down certain pre-optical-printer films, as well as reading a lot about how they used to do ghost [effects] on the stage at the turn of the century, using mirrors and light.
So you're reverse-engineering old shadowbox effects?
Yes, exactly. I love that stuff. When he has the dream and he's running up some stairs, that's rear projection on a pillow.
Is it strange to be revisiting these movies again, with so much time having passed?
I hadn't seen Sleepwalk in 25 years, I think. I found it much funnier than I remembered.
And I know that no one's seen When Pigs Fly on the screen for a while.
The Dutch producers went bankrupt and it took us 14 years to get the film back. That film had been tied up in all kinds of horrible legal situations; the only reason it even got finished was because when I was shooting in Germany they had wanted me to do post-production there, and I knew that there was something going on that wasn't right. So I pulled everything out of Germany and I brought it to New York to edit it, which saved the film. So when Ron Mann wanted to do the boxed set [in 2012], we finally got the film back.
It seems so ridiculous that a work of art can be held hostage to a bounced cheque.
Oh, it's just awful. And this Dutch company had been really bleeding; they had 11 films, almost none of them ever saw the light of day. They were taking subsidy money from one film and putting it into another film, skimming money off the top. You know, I'm a very trusting person. It was shocking. [laughing]
TIFF is also screening your short documentary The Bowery: Spring 1994, which feels radically different from everything else you've done.
I had just come off of When Pigs Fly, which was a very difficult co-production I did in Germany, and it was very formal, working with a bigger crew than I [usually] worked with - and The Bowery was very freeing to me. They were doing a series for French television, and they asked a group of filmmakers to just shoot the streets - you know, make a little story, a 10-minute film, about places in New York that you like. It was put together as an anthology called Postcards From New York.
It's all handheld and casual, intercutting man-on-the-street interviews with Bowery residents and commentary by Luc Sante on a rooftop.
I try to do things very technically, very controlled and stuff, and The Bowery was a good exercise for me of letting go of control. We just went out and shot it over a two-day period. I wanted to originally sort of focus on this obelisk on Delancey and Bowery, which Robert Frank photographed a great deal. But I looked outside the day we were gonna start shooting, and half the obelisk was gone! I was like, "Oh no, what's happened to our obelisk?" And I looked again the next day, and the whole thing had been taken down. I called the city and asked what had happened, and they said "Oh, it was vandalized in 1918 and it was due to come down." And then the City of New York said "If you pay us $10,000, we'll give you the obelisk back and take care of it into perpetuity." And I was like, "Really? You took my little obelisk and I have to pay you to get it back?" That was Giuliani's New York.
But Giuliani hadn't driven everyone out yet. You capture such a terrific sense of the place.
I felt like I got a gift every day - some sort of strange vision of humanity or language or when the Bowery was the Bowery. It was always a great place to walk in, because you didn't know when people said hello to you if you should say hello back, because they might be a mental patient - or they might be a really lonely person who'd just love that you said hello. There was this kind of emotional flow; I used to feel like if I was upset about something, it felt like all the bums would pick on me. And if I was happy about something, then all of a sudden I would get all this sort of happy energy. The streets affect your own emotional state; it was very odd, they're very special. You know?
But you didn't treat your subjects as spectacular freaks or eccentric personalities. You just let them be themselves for the camera.
Well, there was a genteelness among all those men. They were very gracious with each other, and there was a kind of street code - I felt much safer then than I do now in the Bowery, which is very odd. I think it's because you could feel what people's intentions were. There was something very emotional about it.
I wonder if it isn't just that you show them caring for each other, since it's clear no one else will.
When I would see, like, a homeless guy with his head bleeding or something, when I called 911 I would have to say say "He's dying." That was the only way I could get an ambulance there. That was Giuliani's New York too.
It's funny - I saw The Bowery, Spring 1994 literally 36 hours after being in most of the locations you shot, and that blown-out, decaying neighbourhood is almost gone now. There are condos, bars, restaurants. It's all gentrified up.
Yeah, it's been very quick. And it was such a great part of New York, because you could have landed there from a hundred years ago and known exactly where you were, until five or six years ago.