Deep Focus: Inside Art21 Films

Directing Los Angeles and Mexico City: An Interview with Deborah Dickson

Production still from the Los Angeles hour of Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 8. © ART21, Inc. 2016.

Production still from the Los Angeles hour of Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 8. © ART21, Inc. 2016.

Three-time Academy Award nominee Deborah Dickson has made a career out of telling real stories through film. Her 2001 documentary Lalee’s Kin Legacy of Cotton won a Dupont Award and was nominated for an Oscar. In 2002 her film, Ruth and Connie: Every Room in the House, won nine awards at film festivals worldwide, including Best Documentary at the Seattle International Film Festival, and Best Feature at the New York Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. We were thrilled to be able to bring Deborah on board as director for two of the episodes in Season 8 of Art in the Twenty-First Century: Los Angeles and Mexico City.

 

Eve Moros Ortega: How was working for ART21 different than other projects you’ve done?

Deborah Dickson: ART21 was great because there was a large support system on an intellectual level. I’ve worked on other art films but I was really impressed by the curatorial approach at ART21, and the focus on ideas as well as stories and visual beauty.

 

EMO: What was the biggest revelation for you in the Los Angeles hour?

DD: I can’t really speak about revelations—I learned something from every artist I filmed. The whole experience was ridiculously enriching.

That’s what’s great about LA—the glamour and the grit are very close to each other.

Doing the city scenics was really fun. I didn’t want to do iconic LA with Beverly Hills with the palm trees, or if we did do those iconic shots, I wanted to do them backwards or from some oblique angle. So we shot the Hollywood sign from the back, for example.  That’s what’s great about LA—you can go from the grit of the downtown scene to the beauty of nature. The glamour and the grit are very close to each other. When you’re filming murals, there are sometimes homeless people in front of them. That is LA. The artists don’t live in Beverly Hills or overlooking the ocean. We were trying to show how the artists live in a city that is defined by glamour though their LA is not that glamorous, and how that might influence them in ways that aren’t always obvious.

Diana Thater had this idea to film her and her partner, T. Kelly Mason, at the beach while he surfed. She suggested Zuma Beach, north of Malibu. When we got there, everyone on the beach was absolutely still, staring at something in the ocean. It was a whale! We went racing out of the car across the sand, and then the whale disappeared. Scott (our cinematographer) wasn’t sure if he’d captured it. We just caught a nanosecond but in the editing, cutting back and forth between the whale and Diana looking, we were able to show something in the natural world that is both awesome and hard to grasp; it’s slipping away, and our relationship to it is somewhat tenuous. It turned out to be this emblematic scene, which was a great way to introduce Diana. Especially since she has done so much work with dolphins, and with how important the natural world is in her work—it was one of those serendipitous moments.

Production still from the Los Angeles hour of Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 8. © ART21, Inc. 2016.

Production still from the Los Angeles hour of Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 8. © ART21, Inc. 2016.

EMO: What was the biggest revelation for you in the Mexico City hour?

DD: In Mexico, the artists were so warm and hospitable. There was humor and sometimes whimsy in the work, which I love. There was also a political aspect to the work. That combination really moves me.

There were some problems working with a crew who were more used to doing feature films. They had the tape measure and a laser device, and sometimes, by the time they were set up, the moment we were trying to capture was over. We were this big crew walking around like a five-legged centipede, but quite quickly we found a way to work together. And they were fabulous.

 

There was humor and sometimes whimsy in the work, which I love. There was also a political aspect to the work. That combination really moves me.

EMO: Having directed two hours, how did the experiences in the two cities differ?

DD: The artists in both cities were extremely generous with their time and their thoughts and their work.

I love Los Angeles and had the opportunity to work with one of my best friends and long time collaborator, cinematographer Scott Anger. That comfort level allowed me to concentrate completely on content. Because I am quite familiar with the city, filming the city scenes was really fun. Mexico City is fantastic. But filming the city scenes was a bigger challenge because I lacked prior intimacy with the city.

One thing that was kind of interesting is that LA is a very Mexican town and so there was a lot of overlap. The great Mexican muralists was an angle we couldn’t really develop. A difference between the two is that the Mexican artists seem more political than some of our California artists.

Production still from the Mexico City hour of Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 8. © ART21, Inc. 2016.

Production still from the Mexico City hour of Art in the Twenty-First Century, Season 8. © ART21, Inc. 2016.

EMO: What are the top three moments you wished you could have included in the show but left on the cutting room floor?

DD: 1. Pedro Reyes and his wife, the fabulous fashion designer Carla Fernandez, telling their love story.

2. Damian Ortega’s career as a political cartoonist.

3. Edgar working with kids and doing community service at a museum, working with them on creating maps.


Deborah Dickson, three-time Academy Award nominee, is a non- fiction filmmaker whose over thirty documentary films have premiered at Sundance, Berlin and many other film festivals and have been awarded Emmys, the DuPont-Columbia Award, the Peabody Award and Ace awards. Her best-known films are LALEE’S KIN, THE EDUCATION OF GORE VIDAL, WITNESSES TO A SECRET WAR and RUTHIE AND CONNIE: EVERY ROOM IN THE HOUSE. She produced the acclaimed 10 part series CARRIER and directed the companion feature, ANOTHER DAY IN PARADISE.  Her most recent project was as director of two films for Art in the 21st Century. In addition to producing and directing, Dickson teaches directing at the School of Visual Arts Masters Program in Social Documentary.

 

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