A Dog Pile Profile: William Gazecki
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON DOGPILE.COM
Documentary filmmaker William Gazecki recently agreed to answer some questions posed by Dog Pile columnist Joe Catoe. Gazecki, whose controversial 1997 film, WACO: The Rules of Engagement, earned an Academy Award nomination, comments on several of his upcoming documentaries and also provides insight into his unique filmmaking process. Not afraid to take on topics others might consider taboo, Gazecki’s films explore such seemingly varied topics as crop circles, psychedelic drugs, and the Roman Catholic Church. Even with films targeted for theatrical release, Gazecki shoots on digital video and strives for a somewhat unconventional goal, as least in the documentary film world – profit. In several weeks The Dog Pile will also feature an article by Gazecki, chronicling his path into filmmaking and also offering candid advice for other aspiring documentary filmmakers. For now though, here is the interview.
What made you decide to start making documentaries?
I have been working in media since I was fourteen years old, starting with music for the first ten or twelve years of my career. Then I got into doing sound for film. I realized the dramatic impact sound can have when combined with pictures. Once I saw that, I decided that sound and pictures were a lot more fun than just sound alone. I wasn’t a big film buff when I was a kid. I liked movies but my first love was music. I am a craftsperson, like most people working in Hollywood. I was pretty much in show business because it’s what I wanted to do. I started out young and never did anything else. The whole thing about wanting to send a message or wanting to make a difference, or even wanting to be a documentary filmmaker, all came later.
I had been a record producer as well as a recording engineer, so I had learned about the technical side and the creative side. I like being both technical and creative. Once I started working in the technical side of film it was a natural progression to look at producing in the film business as well. It’s one thing to go from being a recording engineer to being a record producer – that’s a fairly natural transition. Going from being a motion picture sound mixer to a motion picture producer or a director is a much larger transition, a much more major step. I educated myself at the various film schools around Los Angeles during a five or six year period in the mid-eighties. I started developing ideas, not really knowing anything about the development process or the sales process. I really did not know that much about what it took to get beyond an idea, to really make something.
What is it you want to accomplish with your films?
I make documentaries because they seem to carry the most powerful message. I got into documentaries as I became aware of grassroots causes, of how insulated we can be from really comprehensive information, how the world works, what its problems really are and what the solutions really are. What we get from the mainstream media doesn’t give us everything we need as human beings – as a society – to manage ourselves. The media is very powerful and I think people rely upon it for guidance. I don’t feel the media delivers very comprehensive content.
Can you talk a little bit about your process as a filmmaker, how much time is spent preparing, researching, and actually filming? What is your typical shooting ratio, how much time is spent in the editing room, and how involved you are with the editing process?
Like any pursuit of passion, the time spent on these films is huge. Monumental. It’s counted in years – sometimes an idea can gestate for ten, fifteen years. In general, I’d say the basic window is a year per movie, minimum, and that’s if everything is organized and going well, fully funded, and everything is on track. The actual filming part, I would say is, sixty days of shooting per film, and at least six months of editing. Shooting ratios vary from 10:1 to 100:1 to even 150:1.
Documentary filmmaking is a director/editor process. I edit. I think you have to be a director/editor at some level. I don’t think you can make a documentary unless you have comprehensive editing skills, at least in the kinds of documentaries I make.
How do you get funding? As a combination of grants and public sources or from the private sector?
I rely heavily on the private sector. I am in the genre of filmmakers that relies on people with passion and means to finance my films.
Is it the goal of your films to make a profit?
Do you make your films with an eye towards commercial acceptance?
Yes. What’s more important than making a profit is the degree of exposure. I think one goes hand in hand with the other, personally. I think it’s imperative that projects associate with an existing niche. My interest in making films is to be a voice for some aspect of our culture. I’m bringing to the surface something that does not have a voice.
Many of the greatest commercial artistic ventures begin as obscurities, and that’s the domain that I live in. Art is a moment that is perceived – it’s not an object. The object is the output of a craftsperson. Art is an experience that occurs from the person receiving or observing or looking at the object. So a lot of what I do is craft work – it’s creating these objects. If I do my job well I will have created essentially a “work of art,” that when observed has an effect on people. Art can always become popular if it strikes a chord.
I pick subjects that don’t have a voice, that aren’t obvious. It’s the articulation of the unobvious that really is my interest. The hidden. The story behind the story. The unspoken voice of dissent for example, or the unspoken investigative story. It’s looking under stones that have never been looked under before. I take on very difficult subjects. I take on subjects that are essentially taboo. But I don’t do it just to be a muckraker.
So far, have any of your films made money for either you or your investors?
Yes, they all make money. I have made money with documentary films.
How much thought goes into marketing your films before any footage is actually shot?
This has been one of my more important on-the-job training experiences. I think the marketing process must be concurrent to the production. What’s missing in the documentary film business in general is a clear and concise marketing approach. I think marketing is absolutely fundamental. You have to have a clear, concise marketing plan and execute it and you have to have a budget for it. People in documentaries have been talking about this for a long time, but there is still a lack of a tried-and-true marketing model. It’s hard enough to get the production financing.
Is documentary filmmaking a fulltime occupation for you or do you have other projects and interests that you use to support yourself?
Documentary filmmaking is my day job.
It seems like all of your films take on controversial subjects. Is that a conscious decision or did that just sort of happen? Does the controversial nature of your subjects help to sell or fund the films?
The subjects are not necessarily controversial to me. They’re only controversial in the context that they challenge people’s world views. That is a conscious decision. And again, the challenge is not to get people excited with no purpose, the idea behind a challenge is to stimulate people to broaden their world view. What really helps sell the films is if they’re interesting subjects.
Do you have any interest in taking on less controversial topics and just documenting an event or a person. For example, would it interest you to make a film like D.A. Pennebaker’s profile of Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back.
My film, Esalen, is a film like that. I want to document the human potential movement based in California in the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s. That’s a film like Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. It’s not terribly controversial, but could be highly insightful. Our film currently in production, The Philosophy of Children, is not a controversial piece, either. Not all of my films are controversial, but they do all address real, germane issues – deeper issues. Sometimes that makes them controversial, sometimes it just makes them touching.
Even though you produce your films with an eye toward theatrical distribution you still shoot on digital video. What is your reasoning behind this? Is this a budget decision? An ease of use issue? Do you just like the look of digital video?
I like the cost of digital video – low. And I like the flexibility with non-linear editing, and all of the software-based computer-driven advantages of digital technology. While the look is not as elegant as film, the advantages in terms of cost and flexibility cannot be ignored.
Do you do anything special during shooting or in post-production to prepare your projects for a video-to-film transfer? Do you use computer software or any other process to manipulate the look of the digital video?
I shoot for cinema projection – I shoot for large screen, not in contemporary “TV” style – tight close-ups, shaky-cam, etc. I shoot wider in general, with a larger range of medium and wide shots. I shoot in 16×9 so that when I transfer to film, it plays like a regular (1:1.85) movie. I don’t use computer software to manipulate the look of digital video – I don’t think it’s necessary. Once you transfer a videotape to film – it’s film – the “film look” is natural.
You’ve completed one film, Waco: The Rules of Engagement and have several others that are nearing completion including QUEST of the Croppies, Into the Mystic, and The Great Darkness: The Orphans of Duplessis. Can you comment briefly on each film, specifically your reasons for wanting to make each one?
The way the three films relate is the ability for human beings to be more self-empowered and more aware of how their world really works. QUEST of the Croppies, Into the Mystic, and The Great Darkness: The Orphans of Duplessis are just examples. They’re not the end-all be-all but I think they’re very critical examples in terms of places that people can go for information or for experience. And that of course comes full circle in terms of who I am and what I believe is important for people to do or have or obtain. Obtain for themselves. It’s not just information and it’s not just material things, it’s called experience. Human experience. This is what my life has been about.
The crop circles is in a phenomenological perspective, a tangent to the UFO phenomenon. It is something from outside of normal life. They are a lovely, subtle, whimsical, curious, mysterious example of things that are not always as they appear to be. They’re not the overt technologically intimidating sort of freakish presence that UFO’s have become. No one really knows who makes them or how, despite the presence of a few known “hoaxers.” Generally what’s derived from them is an emotionally balanced, fruitful, engaging, intriguing experience. The crop circles do represent a kind of extra-terrestrial interaction that could be from another dimension. That’s the beauty of it, that’s the wonderful part about it, nobody knows. They are there. They appear. They don’t go away. It’s not a five-second blip in the sky, or some fleeting moment or the shadow of a dream. They’re real.
Clearly they’re about communication. But who is trying to communicate? Why? What is the message? What are we supposed to do with it? How do we communicate back? What’s the interactive process? They tease. They play. They cajole. They joke. They don’t really come on heavy and strong. The movie’s about the delight of the unknown and the delight of the mysterious. The crop circle experience is a very playful world.
The crop circle phenomenon represents the meeting of our world with some other world that offers us a level of intelligence that we do not embody, that we do not have. That is my belief. Crop circles represent an opportunity for us as a species or as a world, as a planet, to somehow be aware of, or interact with, or even receive from an order of intelligence that is at some level outside of, or beyond, our general trip. We are at the precipice of language, of words, to describe what it really is. My hope with the crop circles is that it encourages people on a mass scale to start looking individually at the world from a slightly different perspective than they already are.
Into the Mystic presents extraordinary groundbreaking historical documentation of Shamanism, psychotropic plants, and psychedelic use throughout history. It focuses on indigenous tribal ritual and custom, contemporary legitimate psychiatric and pharmaceutical research, and the cultural impact of innovative and creative endeavors influenced by use. Into the Mystic features the most learned and professional researchers in the field and is not a “pro-drug” opus.
Psychedelics are a great unacknowledged force that our current politically correct world has relegated to this very inappropriate zone of dangerous and threatening and drug related. When I use the term psychedelics, I’m not talking about LSD. I’m talking about sacred plants, mushrooms, vines, or herbs that have been used by people in almost every indigenous culture, around the world, for eons, to enter into an altered state of consciousness to divine a spiritual motivation or spiritual direction for where their lives should go. Psychedelics have always assisted in providing the opportunity to achieve innovative states of mind. Innovative thinking. Thinking of new things you wouldn’t have thought of before. They’re about innovation, they’re about coming up with new ideas. They’re also very spiritually appropriate for some people.
There’s a deep history for thousands of years of profound beneficial use, but nobody wants to hear that. Its like Galileo, we don’t want to know the world is round. We don’t want to know that the universe doesn’t revolve around us. Galileo was imprisoned. For the facts. This is not that much different. These things are safe, they’re non-toxic. One of the main things about psychedelics that is a threat is that they do not encourage being controlled. Once you experience freedom of thought, freedom in a heightened, elevated, interpersonal or spiritual sense, you become much more aware of your own abilities and your own predisposition to being a free person, to be a free thinker. My basic stance on psychedelics is that they should not be treated as they are now, which is this heavily illegalized, regulated, judged thing.
The Great Darkness: The Orphans of Duplessis is a historic Canadian story of injustice and cover-up which will air on PBS. The Roman Catholic Church ruled the province with the iron hand of fear. Their stated ideals were those of faith, love and charity, especially toward society’s most vulnerable – the poor, orphaned children and the mentally ill. The reality was far different. On March 18, 1954, in order to allow the Church access to federal healthcare funds, legislation signed by Quebec Premiere Maurice Duplessis mandated that Roman Catholic orphanages be converted into psychiatric institutions virtually overnight. Every normal child in the care of the Church became a “mental deficient” or “mental retard.” The “psychiatric treatment” that substituted for care can only be described as barbaric – straightjackets, electroshock, psychotic drugs, beatings, dunking in ice cold baths. All were used to control and, eventually, dehumanize.
We’re not going to take the lowest possible denominator and make the Church the bad guy. It’s much more sophisticated than that. Duplessis is about horrors, but there are underlying causes of this horror which on the one hand are everybody’s responsibility and on the other hand no one’s responsibility. WACO is very black and white, very clear cut. Duplessis is not like that.
With your films being controversial in nature, I’m sure there’s a certain segment of the population that would label your work as nothing but liberal propaganda. What would you say to those people?
I do not take a liberal or conservative stance. I embrace both sides. There are things about both ideologies that I appreciate. My choice is to embody as many sides of the various political spectrums both in the United States and globally as I can. Our sense of liberal and conservative here in the United States is not universal. It is really tied to our own culture. When you go outside of our culture, to someplace like India for example, the politics are largely driven by other sensibilities. Concepts like “liberal” or “conservative” do not match what we have going on here.
I hope that my films transcend political and cultural ideologies. WACO certainly did. That film spoke to many. I worked for months to not have that film fall into either the conservative or liberal camp, and it didn’t. It was received in a way that the entire spectrum of political ideology found something that it could relate to. That’s really what I’m looking for – to transcend those limitations so that those kinds of labels are not as easy to affix.
What other distribution outlets do you plan for your films? Will we be able to see any of your work on PBS, The Discovery Channel, or The Learning Channel?
It’s theatrical distribution first. HBO and PBS are where I am focusing my television distribution – The Great Darkness: The Orphans of Duplessis will air on PBS. BBC, ZDF, NHK and various European networks are my choice for Europe. That’s where you can expect to see my work.