An Interview with Filmmaker David Modigliani
by Jessica Agneessens
Texas Monthly recently named David Modigliani "one of the next great Texas directors." His feature-length documentary, Crawford, about the tiny Texas town George W. Bush turned into the Western White House, was a spotlight premiere at the South By Southwest Festival. Variety called the film "poignant," Premiere called it "richly compelling" and the New York Sun said it was "revelatory." Modigliani has made national appearances on MSNBC and CNN to discuss his work and was featured in TheWall Street Journal about his groundbreaking distribution model, which involved the first major online premiere. He recently concluded his three-year fellowship at the Michener Center for Writers with the production of his play, Wireless-less (nominated by the Austin Critics Table for "Best New Play.") He has an MFA from UT-Austin and a BA from Harvard. Our faithful correspondent Jessica Agneessens recently sat down with David.
What was the last great film you saw?
Don't Look Back. It's D.A. Pennebaker's documentary about Bob Dylan's first English tour in 1967. It's this unbelievable cinema verite. Dylan's just gotten big and it's real fly-on-the-wall. It's a lot of him just backstage, interacting. Did you see I'm Not There ? I just couldn't watch it. I saw this scene in the trailer—Dylan eviscerating this Time reporter—and it's exactly what they did in Don't Look Back . It bothered me.
Really? The same exact scene?
Yeah, exactly. I've got a big problem with that—when a filmmaker doesn't make it clear that a recreation is a recreation. Errol Morris does something similar in The Thin Blue Line—a re-enactment of the moment in which they solve a murder. It's a famous example—memorably, a milkshake flies out of someone's hand. It's a scene that's widely discussed because you have to ask “What's the ethical line in a documentary? How much can you recreate?” Morris makes the recreation pretty clear. The disturbing reality, though, is that 90% of people watching it will think that the scene's completely original—but it's writ straight out of real life from something much more authentic.
Do you watch a lot of documentaries?
Actually, no. I watch an embarrassingly small amount of documentaries.
Don't you then run the risk of recreating something you haven't seen?
This is actually something that came up in my play, Wireless-less. Google is in many ways the enemy of creativity—you can easily become paralyzed being exposed to too much. Dave Eggers said that, actually—that you shouldn't read within the genre that you're writing. Maybe that goes for film too. But I do like watching documentaries.
At what point in your life did you start writing? What sort of writing did you start with?
I had a political hip hop group when I was in 7th grade, so writing hip hop lyrics was my first writing experience. I've since realized that I was trying to write poems. I love lyrics. I went back over Thanksgiving last year and found the cassette tape. My voice is cracking all over the place. But there's a prescient line in there: “People losing jobs and getting unemployed, George Bush playing golf while the country gets destroyed.” Of course that was about the other George Bush.
So you went from writing political raps in 7th grade to making political movies after graduate school? Nice consistency. How long did the evolution take from political rap to other genres?
From there I went to poetry. I had this great Creative Writing teacher when I was 14. He'd been a football player; he was a real man's man. He made it cool to be a poet. My high school was a place where you could do that.
Where was that?
Milton Academy, in Boston. I'd probably written a handful of poems before high school, but that was when I began writing poetry in earnest. I credit that teacher for creating a good space for me to do that.
There's a rather infamous scene in your play Wireless-less in which the protagonist fornicates with a laptop. Can you talk about that scene?
You know, Wireless-less changed a lot along the way, right up until opening night. I was bringing in new stuff all the time and it was a very collaborative project. But that was actually the one scene where I wrote the stage direction and the actor followed it exactly.
The stage direction was “he fucks the laptop.” But there was a buildup, like, “he caresses the laptop, he opens the laptop, he turns the laptop on its side.” Jason [the actor] did exactly what it said. It's so funny that you bring that up, because it was the one scene where he just did what it said and it was perfect the first time.
That raises the question—where do you find the actors?
When I came to Austin for the Michener, I immediately made a circle of friends from outside of the program. It was like I lived in Austin first and was doing the Michener Fellowship second. By the time we did that play—my thesis—I'd become friendly with all these incredible actors, which is great. When the actors are that good, the experience can become really collaborative.
So how'd you make the jump from playwriting to film?
I first went to Crawford to write a play. My idea was that the Crawford Community Players would put on a play about George Bush's childhood in Crawford—which, of course, never happened. We brought a camera because I thinking it might be a multimedia kind of thing. But once I met everyone and started shooting, I was able to see how colorful and dynamic the people were. They became the point. I knew I couldn't do them justice in a play, so I started in on learning filmmaking. That was in 2005.
What made you want to write the play about Crawford?
I felt duped. I consider myself an educated citizen and I didn't know that Bush wasn't from Crawford. I thought he'd grown up there. But of course he just moved there in 1999, a couple of months before he announced his bid for the presidency. The whole persona he'd created was centered around Crawford—a tiny town of 705 people, this one stoplight town. So I became fascinated with that. What was Crawford like? For sure, I set out to indict Bush for his political stagecraft. But thankfully I found something much more compelling: the people of Crawford. So my interest turned toward them; what was going on in their lives, how they were impacted by Bush's presence. The idea of doing an exposé about Bush himself sort of fell to the wayside. Because who wants to see another film about Bush? Bush is Crawford's Godot. He's on the periphery, but he's never center-stage. And that's what we tried to do, too: just get out of the way. I'm tired of filmmakers that inject themselves into the narrative of the film. There's no narrator in Crawford.
It's clear from watching the movie that these people had no problem opening up and being themselves in front of the camera. How did you gain that kind of trust? You're this Ivy League academic strolling into town.
I was straight with them. I told them that I wanted to make a movie about them and the town, about what it was like to have GWB as a neighbor. And yes; at first they were very skeptical. They felt like Crawford was getting misrepresented in the media. But we kept coming back, even when Bush wasn't there.
The point was always to help them express their themselves as dynamically as possible. I never said anything politically combative. I took pains not to inject myself into the narrative. Me making an argument would only have made them less comfortable an less likely to say what they had to say. So I took my opinions and got out of the way. Ultimately, I decided to not even have a narrator because these people were such good storytellers.
It helped, too, that we were there before Cindy Sheehan got there, when the town just exploded. By then, we'd already formed some key relationships. I remember returning after Sheehan had begun to get coverage. There were probably 20 cameras there and I thought to myself, “Oh shit!!” A lot of them were mainstream news media, but there were definitely some film cameras there, some with people behind them saying things like, “We're totally going to make a film about this!” That was scary.
It was the next day that we decided to film in the high school with the students. This is where those relationships we'd already been building became crucial—we wouldn't have been able to do something like that if we hadn't already been around for awhile. Thanks to our timing, we were able to get inside and really look at everything from the inside out.
So it sounds like the story came together as the relationships developed.
Directing is a lot like improv, especially in interview. It's like a two person improv scene in which only one half ends up on film. There's a lot of midwifing going on, an effort to help the subject to articulate themselves and to create a scene. It's basically—now here's a term for you—”spontaneous dramaturgy," dramaturgy being the work of structuring a story. It's "spontaneous" because when you're interviewing someone, or following them, you're making decisions in real time. You're constantly asking yourself “What's the story?" and adjusting it as you go, getting to the heart of it. In editing, we had 110 hours of footage and we went through it all asking that same question all over again: “What's the story?” It's all in line with playwriting. You're directing from inside the scene. We had to ask, “Whose life is changing the most?” It just kept reinforcing the idea that the story has to be told through the eyes of the people.
Was it you asking that question alone? "What's the story?" How many people worked with you to decide what the story was?
In shooting, it was mostly me and the cinematographer, Deb Lewis. It's incredibly important, who you've got behind the camera. You need someone whose not only able to make people feel comfortable, but who also has a sense of the big picture—because it can change on a dime. Documentary cinematography is an incredible skill because you're shooting in real time what then has to be edited by a team. In vérite shooting you have to make choices. It's like playing quarterback.
The editing process was done entirely with Matt Naylor. He drove and I drove from the backseat. There was a lot of time spent not even looking at the computer, but just talking. Asking that question: "What's the story?" I couldn't have done it without him. Technically, he's an amazing editor, but also he's a great storyteller. If I'd worked on it myself, I'd have gotten bogged down in all the storylines and all the footage.
Who did you envision your audience was going to be? People like you or like the people of Crawford?
I knew that if I could show the film in Crawford I would have portrayed everyone as fairly as possible. When we did screen there, we did it on a 50-foot inflatable screen in the middle of the football field—the same place where Bush made his first appearance in Crawford, at the high school graduation in 2000. It was surreal. You could hear the sound of the train on the film as the actual train went by; the crickets on film and the crickets out in the field. On top of all that, you're watching these people watch themselves on the screen.
We did a whole sit-down interview beforehand with a bunch of the characters in the film. We talked about what they thought of the film and they're experience being in it. About halfway through the interviews, I turned the tables. I said, "I've been asking the questions for three years. So now it's your turn to ask me whatever you want." And so we shot all of that and the whole thing will be in the DVD extras. They're awesome. A lot of people won't see the extras, but I'm really excited about them. A lot of great stuff didn't make it into the movie.
What about the Bush administration? Did you have any interaction with them when making Crawford? Did you worry about what they'd think?
Through a friend, I'd met an aide to Condoleezza Rice, so we were able to get the film into her hands. She passed it on to Harriet Miers, who got it to the president. This was a seven minute trailer of the film—very objective. She told us that Bush watched it one morning on the treadmill and said, “That looks pretty good.” So that made us think we might be able to get access to the ranch. We wanted to talk to the people that worked there; we had a crew ready and were waiting for word. But then it was just radio silence. After a while, I got a new contact but still—nothing. I continued to send word asking about access. Eventually, I got an email with no text, just a photo of me at the 2004 Democratic National Convention talking with John Kerry. Some blogger had posted the photo on the Internet with my name on it.
I loved the music; it fit so well. Was there a musical director for Crawford?
All of the music except for one song is original music. David Rice—an Austin musician and producer that I knew going into Crawford—did most of it. Normally you can end up cutting film to fit a piece of music, which forces compromises. But because the music in Crawford was mostly original, we were able to bring David rough cuts of scenes and he'd sketch something up. There was a lot of back and forth.
Beck covers a song called “A Mighty Good Leader," an old spiritual. I'd picked it out early for the closing credits, but we couldn't get permission to use it. The song is in the public domain but Beck's arrangement was copyrighted. So we had about a week and a half until the film had to be submitted to SXSW but we didn't have a song for the credits. That's a big moment in the film. David brought in some musicians and we took a lot of wine and camped out in the studio for a weekend. We wrote the lyrics and music to a new song and it ultimately worked out for the best.
What did you learn from making this first feature?
I learned to trust my curiosity. I know it'll lead me in the right direction. I also learned a lot of technical shit too, of course. I would love to have a producer in the future…but there's nothing that I wouldn't do again. It was hard work and we had some serious deadlines—we were working backwards from the SXSW premiere. We worked long hours and it wouldn't have been possible without the motivation. Next time I'll try to get funding and financing and permissions up front next time.
Did this make you want to go embed in another small town and make real connections and tell a story from the inside out?
I'd really like to make another film. I know what about, too, but someone else beat me to it. They started drilling the Barnett shale—this natural gas shale under Dallas/Ft. Worth, they thought it was the largest reserve around—about two years ago. Then they realized that there's even more natural gas near Shreveport, Louisiana, in the Haynesville Shale. It's five times as big, extending all the way into east Texas. Janitors and waitresses are making millions of dollars selling their mineral rights. It's like that scene in “There Will Be Blood,” with the oil men packed into the land surveyor's office.
But I guess I'm not the only one who saw the story there. I met the filmmaker who's already working on this topic at a recent T. Boone Pickens' talk. He's an Austin filmmaker and he's telling the story exactly how I'd tell it. But man, that was a tough moment. What a story.
What have you been reading lately?
My grandmother, Serena Modigliani, who just passed away at ninety-one, translated over 300 pages worth of letters between herself and my grandfather Franco. They left fascist Italy for America together in 1938 and he later won the Nobel Prize in Economics. They shared an amazing life and it shows in these wonderful letters.
But the last great book I read was Moby Dick, or I should say, re-read. The language is amazing and expansive. It's Homeric. It's easy to forget the formal range of that book; Melville moves from a somewhat objective narration to a strong first person—and there are even playlets and monologues along the way! Melville was writing like a modernist way back in 1850. It's cubist. He comes at the story from many angles in the same way that Faulkner would later in the ‘20s and ‘30s. I just can't get over how inventive it is.
Do you ever write any fiction?
I wrote a story once. I don't write fiction. But I do read a lot of fiction.
So you're taking Egger's advice.
I'm unconsciously taking his advice, yeah.
Jessica Agneessens is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she majored in English Literature with an emphasis on Creative Writing. She received a certificate in Integrated Liberal Studies from the same institution and still guest lectures on occasion at their Senior Capstone Seminar. She was Managing Editor at the Madison Review, recipient of the Cy Howard Memorial Scholarship in Creative Writing, and is an active member of Phi Beta Kappa.