Making Movies on Cyber-Location
By Jon Lebkowsky
MARCH 2, 1998: Doug Block was already an award-winning independent director, cameraman, and producer when he encountered the World Wide Web and found Justin Hall's website, Justin's Links (http://www.links.net), a best-case example of personal web publishing, wherein Hall discloses all aspects of his life in three-dimensional hypertext. Hall's friends and lovers are alternately fascinated, embarrassed, and horrified by the revelations about themselves they find there. Hall is charismatic, engaging; a skillful writer/observer whose obsession with self-expression is constrained only by the physical (his obsessive posting and surfing has led to a crippling case of carpal tunnel syndrome). In Hall, director Block saw star quality, and found the focus he needed for a documentary he wanted to create about the World Wide Web. He shot the documentary, Home Page, in Hi-8 video, and is nearing completion of a final edit. Home Page shows what's truly compelling about the Internet and the World Wide Web, what draws so many to sustained, sometimes almost obsessive, online interaction... we see how intense relationships and tight communities evolve from ongoing conversations in cyberspace.
Doug Block agreed to conduct this interview with me while editing of Home Page proceeded. We "talked" online, in the Filmmaking Conference on the grandmother of all virtual communities, the WELL. I asked Block to start by introducing himself:
Doug Block: The films I've worked on in the past decade have been personal films, shot on video, transferred to film and released widely to festivals, theatres, and international TV. They include The Heck With Hollywood! (producer, director, cameraman), Silverlake Life and Jupiter's Wife (co-producer), and A Perfect Candidate (cameraman). So when I got on the Web for the first time in early '96, I immediately gravitated to the personal sites: mainly, personal home pages and online diaries. The rest of the Web held little interest. I didn't really have the time to delve into the commercial stuff, and most seemed like dreck anyway. However, I loved the way I could hurtle around home pages, hurtle in and out of people's lives, following the links and connections and forming my own non-linear narrative. I wanted to learn more about the Web, in a sense "capture" the Web, but in the medium I was more familiar with. So I searched around the Web, found some interesting starting points and e-mailed people. Hi, I'm doing a documentary, I'd write. Can I hang out with you a bit? Ultimately, all links led to http://www.links.net and Justin Hall, and he became the focus of the film. Of course, his story links to many other stories: Howard Rheingold, Julie Petersen, Abbe Don, Carl Steadman, Joey Anuff, Rebecca Eisenberg, HotWired, Suck, and Electric Minds, among others. And, inevitably, my own.
I came across a quote recently from a book called Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors by a guy named Stefik. "Our search for understanding of the information highway is, ultimately, a search for ourselves and the future we choose to inhabit." That kind of sums it all up in a nutshell. In Home Page I try to ignore computer screens, the technology, and technical mumbo jumbo and focus on the human story and the human implications of personal Web publishing.
You can't go into a personal documentary of this type with too strong of a notion. You have to go with the flow, be open to where your material leads you. I thought of the film as a quest, a kind of modern-day road movie, where I meet quirky, interesting people and have memorable experiences. The only thing I really knew was that I didn't know what the quest was about - on a personal level, that is. I slowly discovered it as I went along.
The other concept I had in mind from the beginning was that of links. There's a strong analogy between hypertext links and film editing, and, once I found Justin, I felt if I followed him long enough I'd be able to tie in the stories of many of those "linked" to him - friends, lovers, rivals, peers. I wanted to convey the sense of the Web's non-linearity in a linear framework, namely a film narrative. It's a delicate balance that we're working to maintain in the editing.
What was so immediately appealing about Justin was that he's every bit as energetic, charismatic, bright, funny, and candid in person as he is in his Web writing. He seemed to me the living breathing embodiment of the Web, and, once I encountered him, everything just kind of flowed from there. The simple truth is I just enjoyed being around him and wanted to hang with him and learn from him. I denied it for a while, hanging on to my concept of a multiple storyline narrative, but I sensed almost the minute I saw him (and saw that hair!) that I had found a "star" to hang the story on.
Others were uniformly engaging on camera - not surprising that people doing cutting-edge or very personal websites happen to be extremely interesting people. Some were different than I expected, though. For instance, I was warned that Suckster Carl Steadman was some kind of snide, sarcastic, snarly beast. In fact, I found him surprisingly warm, even vulnerable. As well as snide, sarcastic, and snarly.
AC: I was fascinated by the reactions of Justin's friends and acquaintances to his tendency to record all aspects of his, and (by association) their, lives. They were sort of laughing it off, but there seemed to be an underlying tension.
DB: Yes, I did find a great deal of tension in the reactions of those Justin comes in contact with regarding their "representation" on his pages. Many of his classmates dislike what Justin is doing, including my own stepson. They feel he goes too far in invading the privacy of others and are highly suspicious of his motives. Of course, being polite kids, they're not going to make a scene, but they let their feelings be known. On the other hand, others are attracted to him for the very same reason - for example, the girlfriend who accessed his Web page on camera to find out what Justin had written about their weekend together and what the status of their relationship is. Or the prominent Web journalist who traveled with him for part of his Web evangelism road tour and wrote about him largely out of sexual attraction (and knowing he would likely write an account of their sexual activities - which, in fact, he did).
What I didn't count on at the beginning was that there would be tension between me, as documentarian chronicling Justin on tape, and Justin, as Web documentarian chronicling his life but also being chronicled.
I didn't anticipate that I would ever have my own website, particularly one that would report my ongoing process. And that on my website I would be writing about Justin. And that it would interfere with the process in certain ways. Or that, at times, Justin would grab my camera and turn it around on me and ask embarrassing questions. I wasn't prepared for my own privacy to be invaded by a master of invasion.
I wonder now, though, even as I write this, if I wasn't, on some level, attracted to Justin for a similar reason as that journalist. Not that I wanted sex with him, but that I was fascinated by the prospect of his writing up our interaction, and that would create an interesting tension between filmmaker and subject.
But, in the end, tension is good. Tension makes for drama and humor and compelling storytelling. We don't mind tension one little bit, us documentary chroniclers of the human experience.
AC: Justin dropped off the Web not long ago, the victim of severe carpal tunnel syndrome. Have you worked that into the story? What happens to Justin when he's deprived of his "instrument"?
DB: It's basically revealed as a note at the end. I knew I could happily go on forever, chronicling Justin and his links, particularly since Hi-8 stock is so inexpensive. But as I spent more and more time in San Francisco filming Justin, Howard Rheingold, and others, they were frantically preparing for the launch of Electric Minds (http://www.minds.com), and it occurred to me that the actual moment of the launch, and the ensuing celebration, would make a natural ending to the story - and leave things on a hopeful note. I felt Minds represented a crossroads of Net idealism and Net commercialism, that its ultimate destiny will tell us a lot about the future of the Web. Ending with Minds also broadens the scope of the story from the microcosm (Justin's individual Web pages) to the macrocosm (the wider virtual community).
The launch was last November. I'll tie up all the storylines in an epilogue by following ensuing events over the next year virtually, even as I edit, via Justin's website. In this case, I'm literally shooting off the computer screen, with tight close-ups and camera moves.
All throughout shooting, we see Justin's carpal tunnel getting progressively worse, but it's still a powerful moment when we reveal that he's been shut down by his own body. Justin had a picture of himself on his front page holding his bandaged hands in the air. The only accompanying text was (in Justin's inimitable fringlish): "I used to keep a daily online journal. It durned near kilt me."
The current difficulties of Electric Minds will also be mentioned in the epilogue, adding another poignant and, hopefully, uplifting note, as its members band together to keep the community intact under another guise.
AC: You have a scene where your wife's in bed fast asleep and you're banging away at your keyboard in the next room... do you catch flak about spending so much time online?
DB: I'd say my wife is alternately bemused by and bemoans my late night travels on the Web. She doesn't get it. But then, she likes sleep.
AC: As for the companies that have shown a financial interest... has there been any sense that they might want to control content in any way? In order to get financing, do you anticipate struggle for creative control?
DB: The way I work is to bring a film to a certain point on spec - usually to where a good deal has been shot and it has a strong sample - so that financiers don't have the option of dictating content. They see pretty much what they're getting. Having a successful track record doesn't hurt a bit, either.
That said, yes, creative control was a big issue with Cinemax, which is owned by HBO. At one point in the discussion, they floated the notion of putting up the entire budget [for Home Page] and making it an HBO project, but only if they had final cut. They made it stunningly clear that they interfere/intervene in direct proportion to the percentage of their financial participation.
It's not like this kind of arrangement can't work out - it's exactly the deal Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky had for Paradise Lost, and The Celluloid Closet had too, and my understanding is both did very well with a minimum of problems.
I have no problem whatsoever with HBO having editorial input. These are savvy folks who know good filmmaking, and I'd be stupid not to listen to their comments. But I wasn't about to accept anything less than full editorial control on such an intensely personal film. So it quickly returned to being a Cinemax "Reel Life" deal.
It may have cost me a pile of money - it's hard to say since the offer was vague. But I haven't given it one thought since. Hey, money isn't real until it's in the bank, anyway.
AC: What was it like shooting around the nascent Electric Minds? I seem to recall designer Abbe Don saying how they ran you out of a meeting, then saw you were still at it, shooting through a window...!?!
DB: Shooting at EMinds was a bit tense, at first, as I came in a few weeks before launch and everyone was testy and ODing on Jolt cola. I understood completely - everybody had a lot at stake, especially Howard. Luckily, I'd met Abbe at the Digital Storytelling Festival the month before and gotten her support. That helped a lot. She's a former filmmaker and understood what I was doing. Howard came to be grudgingly supportive and respectful but was always unamused by my presence. Justin was, as always, Justin. Basically, I wore 'em down. So much of documentary filmmaking is just being persistent. People tend to respect your commitment if you just keep coming back and respect their space. All in all, shooting at EMinds was a privilege, just being around so many intense personalities so committed to their work.
AC: How many hours of video have you shot? Can you talk a bit about your process for editing that raw stock into something you can love?
DB: With the latest shoot, I'm on my 105th hour. My editor, Debbie Rosenberg, and I screened and logged (by hand) the footage every weekday for two months starting in early January. We talked a lot about how scenes might cut together and where they might cut to or from. Then Debbie holed up and started cutting individual scenes on our creaky old VHS edit system. She did a truly brilliant thing, too. She started with the most difficult material, which comes around the middle of the film. Now we're fanning out in both directions, toward the ending and toward the beginning, not necessarily in any clear order.
The middle stuff happens to be when Justin came to San Francisco, and is where a lot of the other characters first appear - Howard, Julie and Jim Petersen, Rebecca Eisenberg, Carl Steadman, and Joey Anuff. Once we started cutting, it was apparent that the relationship between Justin and Howard was critical to the story. The theme of Justin's search for intimacy became clearer, and now dictates how we're editing the earlier footage with hifim.
While we love anything that makes us laugh, and there's a lot of funny stuff we're trying to ram into the finished film, we're really guided by one overriding concern - story arc.
Strangely enough, I've had the ending of the film (by that, I mean the last few scenes) in my head, very clearly, for months now (although the epilogue obviously won't be done til the last minute). It's the beginning of the film that still keeps me awake at night.
AC: Have you considered cutting this two or three ways, so that you have two or three films you can release separately? (Or, ha ha ha ha ha, show all bazillion hours of tape as the 'director's cut'...)
DB: Cut this two or three ways? Are you out of your mind? My hope is that when I'm closer to being finished with the film, I'll post transcripts of my interviews on my website, and link various references. So when Justin talks about Howard, the link might go to Howard's interview where he talks about Justin. Or it might go to Justin's own site where he writes about meeting Howard. Or it might go to Durand (where Electric Minds has shifted to). Or it might go to Howard's old site, Brainstorms, where he writes about meeting Justin. The idea is that this will give readers a kind of non-linear voyage through the Web with the same characters I followed as a starting point.
The film, however, is a story - a linear voyage that is framed by my personal experience. Hopefully, it conveys a sense of the Web's non-linearity in the way it delves in and out of a number of storylines, but it'll be a narrative in the best sense.
Told once, thank you very much.
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