A few years ago I moved to the Swedish countryside. I’ve since re-urbanised, but it was a big thing for me to be surrounded by all that space and silence. Just sitting out in the evening and feeling the cooling air, with the cooing of doves playing on my natural soundtrack. Or lying in the grass with my family staring up at the bats that had nested in the neighbor’s garden. Hell, just being able to ID young wheat stalks, or canola, or the potato stalks in the rows I’d embarrassingly planted crooked made me feel ready to be a survivalist.
After a few years back in the comforting concrete of a city, all that stuff is still with me, but it doesn’t come naturally anymore. Being in nature feels like an event again, instead of just where I live.
That’s a part of the level that Becoming Animal is operating on. Emma Davie and Peter Mettler’s new doc had its world premiere at CPH:DOX, inviting the audience to immerse with them into a tiny piece of the landscape that humans are more and more awkward in.
P: I’ve got my own interpretation of the film, and was fully immersed in it. And it was weird: when the crew is in the shot, I kind of take it as it comes. But the first time I saw regular people playing in the wild it was kind of jarring. Like that was more artificial… like that felt more artificial than the artifice of the crew.
Emma Davie: You mean the tourists taking photographs?
P: Not at the geyser. There are a bunch of kids playing on a boulder.
ED: But it’s interesting. I really feel ultimately it’s about the human species. And that ultimately we have to identify with these vulnerable little beings, that are searching on the rocks for something, or trying to find something with their cameras. In a way it feels like that’s what we’re trying to do with the film. We’re trying to find… Not answers to impossible questions, but certainly we’re trying to find clues, that help us deal with this strange period of history. And help us deal with this impossibility of our relationship with nature. We’re destined to live in this paradox of wanting to be closer to it, but creating things that take us farther away from it. So the human being in the landscape is so much what the film is about.
Peter Mettler: And the humans behind the camera, namely us, trying to process all this.
P: Put some order on it.
PM: Yeah. An order like, just observing ourselves observing. What is it to be filming nature? And the paradox involved, which I articulate, you know that really connecting with nature by filming it brings me into the present moment. It’s actually quite a bizarre activity, to find your present moment through a camera, as opposed to just being there. And now with all the stuff getting recorded by everybody, not just filmmakers, and how a person will place themselves into a landscape for a selfie, or find the shot that they saw in the brochure… I’ve actually heard conversations of “oh, this is where they took that shot.” So they’re taking the same shot that they saw in the brochure. What’s that about?
P: What do you think it’s about?
PM: I think it’s a kind of psychological training or conditioning of the world we’re living in right now. We’re so used to processing images in one way or another that it’s becoming part of our daily process. Used to be it was filmmakers, and photographers, and it was actually a unique profession. But there are a lot of bloggers and kids on facebook that are doing more than some filmmakers.
P: Yeah. Because they specialize in whatever their obsession is, and they spend their lives doing that one thing and recording it.
ED: They have much fancier lenses than we have. And we were part of their gang.
PM: Yeah they were like “oh you’ve got a SONY.”
ED: “Is that any good? The Canon 5…“ whatever it was.
P: “My last one was better.”
What’s the experience you’re hoping the audience will have watching the film?
PM: There was an audience member who said something after the screening that touched me. She said “it’s the first time I’ve seen a film where I have similar experiences to when I walk in nature. I connected to it in the same way that I connect with the real forest.” And that is an aspect that I personally go after, in trying to make the experience trigger feelings that are as real as you would experience outside. But at the same time you’re saying “wait a minute this is only a film.” I think that’s important too. To be reflecting on the idea that you’re sitting in a theater watching a film but having that experience with nature. So it’s not just an illusion that’s drawing you in, it’s the acknowledgement that this is not reality.
ED: It’s really exciting when they go in with all these thoughts. But I hope that there’s also a sense of being immersed enough in this experience that when they leave it, some of the ideas that David puts forward and the way Peter films that they might look at a bush a wee bit differently. Maybe just spend a bit longer in front of a tree. A stone. I’ve been very influenced by David’s ideas about how things express themselves, and what that language is about. It’s affected the way that I walk and see a wee bit. But I don’t think we’re looking for any one set of responses. And we’re not looking to change people’s ideas. It’s a provocation to go about those experiences in a different way.
PM: And allow you to look and contemplate. In that long shot of the tree for example, if it was just a short shot of the tree, after he (David) said “all things are expressive” you’d say, oh yeah a tree’s expressive. But by its extreme duration we make it uncomfortable. But, you also start to think “oh, the wind is blowing, the tree is growing out of the ground’’. It’s telling you something about time, about the elements. It looks like paintings I know. There’s a musicality to it. Like suddenly this simple thing is indicative of a lot of things that you can bring to it if you’re allowed to contemplate. The film generally, that’s one of its objectives is to allow you to just breathe and contemplate what you’re looking at, and bring your own subjective interpretations to it. Because so often in normal life we’re like “tak tak tak tak, to do, to do…” There’s not time to contemplate and meditate. So it’s both a challenge and an offering in a way.
And it really is a long, long shot of a tree. Hitchcock it ain’t.
Inspired by David Abram’s philosophical writings, Becoming Animal also features him and his voice, but he’s not there to explain what’s happening on the screen. Maybe he’s there to help you understand what’s happening in you if you can let go. I had to let the film guide me without too much resistance. (I watched it on a small screen but with my “umbilical cord” headphones. Fair trade?) If you’re too in your head I don’t know if the experience of the film will go as deep as intended.
I remember seeing Mettler’s Gambling Gods and LSD in Montreal when it was first released. It was one of those “I didn’t know you could do that” moments. The film was long, like really long, and I couldn’t call it a documentary as such, strictly speaking. The narrative was unconventional, it wasn’t an art installation, or really anything that I could easily categorize. It was its own thing. Maybe it’s just me but that’s about the best I hope for from film, so yeah, I took notice.
Davie’s work has a respect for her subjects that’s akin to Mettler’s. I am Breathing is a punishing but beautifully heartfelt documentary about the end days of a man in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s never manipulative or maudlin. It handles him as a human being dying with dignity, and his wife as a rock, helping him to prepare a time capsule for his infant son. We’re witness to his descent, but never intrusive.
It’s not a huge stretch to imagine the two filmmakers having lots to talk about.
We’ve gone outside so Peter can have a cigarette.
ED: Do you smoke Phil?
P: No I quit years ago. I was a 2 pack a day guy.
PM: I had a little phase like that extreme. Editing.
P: yeah, I was giving a workshop in Riga yesterday. They had a Steenbeck at the Kino centre. That brought me right back.
PM: Yeah. The ashtray on the Steenbeck. Riga’s a cool place.
P: Riga’s a very cool place. That’s where Emma and I met actually. Doing a workshop there 4-5 years ago. How did you two meet?
PM: In the theatre.
ED: I was in a Robert Lepage play called tectonic Plates, in 1989, or 1990. And I loved experimental theatre, and I acted a bit. And Peter came on board as a filmmaker.
P: You’ve known each other that long?
ED: I know. You’d think we were toddlers at the time but actually we were fully grown.
P: But this is the first time you’ve worked together on a film.
PM: We’ve talked a lot. I got into documentary after that, and I think we shared an interest in improvisation. Theatre, me and music seguewaying into film. In terms of processes; in terms of finding the structure, and themes of a piece you’re doing. Tectonic plates was like that. I was making a film adaptation of the theater they were doing, and was involved with them for a year.
P: So you weren’t shooting the production you were preparing an interpretation of the same story.
PM: That’s right. Different than the theatre piece obviously, shot on location. It was derived through a lot of live editing, because they were doing it in the theatre so I could watch all kinds of live “edits” in the scenes before writing the film. But those processes were something that we definitely had in common. And I think we also shared an interest in seeing things in different ways, deeply, or obtusely, into a subject. Not really interested in explaining things in didactic narrative but by association.
ED: And I was very affected, particularly by Gambling Gods and LSD. I felt like… I’d not had that experience before, in the cinema, and it really quite shocked me that that was possible. It was a sense of the screen making us both aware of its presence, but also pointing to something beyond it, in such a strong clear way. It was a paradigm shift for me, it really was, a kind of shift in my way of thinking. There are a few artists who’ve done that for me, and actually David’s writing did that some years later. So that’s why I thought it might be an interesting journey, to work together to make this film. But I didn’t read David’s book thinking we should make a film of this, ever. I was at a workshop with David, that was really simple in that he would say some kind of ideas then send us off to experience nature with his ideas in our heads. And there was something very clear about that that made me think, well maybe there’s something that could be filmicly as simple as that, and maybe we should do a filmic sort of journey together. But it wasn’t at all clear, and I didn’t know if Peter would be interested. So we went off to see if it could be a film. I think we weren’t sure until the last minute if it was a film.
PM: Well not last minute… We did the last voice over in the last minute.
P: But you had a sense of where you were going when you started?
PM: No, not at the beginning. At the beginning we really were three of us in the wilderness, David and I meeting each other for the first time. I brought a camera… We didn’t even have a plan really. It was like let’s go there and meet, and see what could be a film.
ED: Do you not remember we had synchronized notebooks?
ED: We synchronized our notebooks into different sections that we were interested in.
PM: We both have our own mechanisms of how to start a film. You know, how to start research how to start making notes. That’s what we synchronized. And we’re meeting David, who’s vital to the film; let’s see what happens. And I brought a camera and ended up filming all the time, even if that wasn’t the plan. It was mostly filming David talking. Presenting himself on camera, presenting his ideas, and getting used to a camera.
P: He does have a pretty amazing voice too.
PM: He’s got a good voice yeah, for sure. But we knew at the outset that we didn’t want to make a film of David talking. But that was our first step in a way of familiarising ourselves with him.
While Emma makes a phone call, Peter and I compare some notes about Canada, living in Toronto, dual nationalities and funding models that make it tough for me to be an editor for hire in Quebec if I live in Europe. I get to the question of financing just in time for Emma to rejoin us.
P: So how did this film get funded?
ED: Initially it was just a tiny bit from the university that I work for. Just a tiny little bit that allowed us just to travel. And then we got a tiny bit of development from Scotland. But none of that was enough to keep going. And then we pitched here (at CPH:DOX). And then we got a tiny bit again from Brit Doc. So in a way the early sums came from Britain, but there was no way for Britain to generate enough… really enough for the production. And through Peter’s Swiss connection and reputation, Switzerland brought in most of the money. And then Scotland came in with a smaller sum.
P: I saw that pitch here 2 years ago, and it was an interesting way of pitching a film that’s a little more… opaque. You had a basic starting point but what the form is ultimately going to be is a big question mark. Still, you need to convince people to fund that sandbox.
PM: Yeah. But the people who finance want to pre-imagine a finished thing. And you end up having to describe a strategy convincingly, even if it’s very hard for them to picture it. One of the ways it becomes satisfying for the funder is just to make some kind of trailer, or some kind of script and say “this is the script. This isn’t the film but this is how it feels.” I think our pitch was ok, but the trailer was sort of the compelling thing, like ‘oh there’s some kind of cinema, we can relate to that, and we see how it could work.’ Even though it didn’t explain anything, it showed you some of the ideas, and how the logic of the film would be. So it ended up being a good experience.
ED: I think it helps hone your own thinking about it. Because I think we needed to convince ourselves that we could find a film, particularly with the kind of complications of David’s thinking, and know that that could be translated into cinema. For me I don’t think of pitching as selling, I think of it as communicating with an audience, and it just so happens that this audience is. I think that if it touches them then hopefully it touches other people.
PM: You know we didn’t get any concrete funding out of it but I think it’s really a good thing because it exposes a large number of people in the industry to processes that they’re not used to. And if you do that year after year, those processes are better understood. For example a funder saw us and they didn’t give us money but they saw where we were at and how we were working. And then this year they see the finished film. And they go “oh! So you can work like that! That’s how the creative process works for that person.” And those processes are so important in creativity. The blueprint ones tend to be really boring. They follow a formula that already exists, and you can fulfill the formula, it could be interesting but is it something that takes you somewhere else? Not that often.
P: And I find they tend to be boring to everyone. Not just to filmmakers but to the public who can say “ ok it’s a boy meets girl story or a fish out of water story .
PM: And they function on their information alone.
ED: A strange thing that’s come with the success of documentary is a more homogenous documentary language that’s been established in many places. Particularly in North America I think. To a certain extent in Britain. I remember when I first came to festivals when I was making the transition from theatre to film, there were a lot more films that were way out there. They may not have been reaching such wide audiences, but they were exploring things.
P: There’s also a lot more content out there so there’s a lot more competition for people’s eyes.
I get to tutor at a lot of pitching sessions. True enough, the language leans heavily towards the conventional, not just for the sake of funders who don’t live in your head and can understand every weird predilection you have, but for the filmmakers themselves. In the hands of a filming maniac, and with the rise of cheap storage, you could end up with hundreds of hour of material that you can hold out to someone and say “there’s an amazing film in here.” Sure there is pal. Is there a budget too?
The more you can frame what you’re after, the more control you have out in the field. I don’t live in Emma and Peter’s heads, which is good news for all of us, but I fearfully imagined a data dump of countless hours that had to be sifter through to find what’s ultimately a pretty experimental form of documentary.
P: So there was a trinity of you out there in the field. Did you figure out the process as you went along, about how you were going to work together? Or did you have a strategy starting out?
ED: It would be lovely to say that we had a strategy, but I think that the filming of the elks at night indicates what little strategy we had. David got excited about… going to hear elk. And off we bundled to go and hear elk with him. And we didn’t really mean to film, but we ended up filming and it’s a scene I love. And I would say that that was a bit what was happening in the early days. One of us might pull things in a certain direction, but then you also really wanted to understand his ideas, and understand how he communicated. So this other process began where we were trying to get him to speak to the camera with his ideas. So we’d go somewhere and try and just improvise asking a question. But we found that he was used to being in a certain performative mode, because he does a lot of speaking publicly and he’s good at it in a live mode. He was used to quite a mellifluous way of speaking that involves a lot of adjectives, and in a way does a lot of the work that cinema does. So he’d talk about what you saw, and we felt “we see it’s a gushing river, you don’t need to use that word.” If you use it, it stops us seeing it.
The second part of the process was Peter and I went with a camera and filmed.
PM: Second trip. We’d already started assembling things; some sequences that were without David, and only animals, and lots of sequences with his ideas, shaping their trajectory in that first assembly. And the second trip was just a few days. Where we wanted more imagery to work into the rough assembly, basically so that we could raise money.
P: And at that point, on that second trip, you knew what you were looking for when you went out to film.
ED: Well we knew what we were looking for but we were also open to being surprised and led. Like the amazing filming that Peter did with the line of people at the geyser… Do you say “geezer?”
P: “Guyser.” For me a geezer is an old dude.
ED: So the geyser scene with this line of people was something that we just came across. So there’s being open to those moments of revelation.
PM: And we wanted to have what we didn’t have on the first trip, which was the ability to explore things that relate to the landscape. Whether it’s people, cars, signs, animals, we wanted to explore. So then we had that bunch of material and we started working on the more definitive shape of what we thought the film would be, which required David’s involvement again. And we went back to the park, this time with an assistant camera and a sound person as well. And started to fill in the pieces that we thought we needed, started to have David say things that we wanted him to say, chose a location where we would do that. And then we had a good amount of material of David, not of David, the ideas articulated, and started stitching it together. And then the last phase with David was to have him come to where we were editing to re-record some passages very succinctly. And then we kept editing for a few more months.
ED: We kept showing him the cuts actually. It was really important to us that he was also happy with it, so he was quite involved at that stage. It felt like negotiations. Constant negotiations, bargaining over words.
PM: But I wouldn’t say he was quite involved in the filmmaking sense. He was quite involved in terms of reviewing…
ED: His words.
PM: Yeah, his actual words. Because when we watched the film together in the sneak secret screening, and the film started, David said “oh I’ve never seen this opening.” And it’s the opening that’s been there the whole time. You realize now that it’s on the big screen it’s a completely different experience. And he’s relaxing into it, with other people in the room, and during the film he’s going “oh great!” But, at times when there’s a pause in one of his phrases, you see him go (gestures) “come on, finish the sentence!”
P: So you managed to surprise him anyway.
PM: Yeah. I think when he saw the film for the first time, which unfortunately Emma missed because of snow storms and cyclones, it was a relief that he was enthusiastic, and wasn’t just “oh, it’s ok.” He really got into it and wants to show it in his workshops. That’s a big relief.
P: It’s a strange facet of the film, and I didn’t see it on the big screen but you did draw me into that world. I was immersed watching that tree, watching that snail or listening to the brook. And then David’s voice comes back in and poof, breaks the spell. And sometimes I was irritated by that. Sometimes I wanted to stay in that space, but you pulled me out. Is that a deliberate choice, or totally subjective on my part?
ED: I think the thing is that if you just stayed on the image, you wouldn’t read the image with the layers of interpretation that David’s words allowed you to. We weren’t making “Leviathan.” We weren’t making a film that just immersed you in this sensory perception. It was really important for us that we were layering the visual sensory experience. Taking his ideas further. And when you tried, as of course we did in the edit, to play things longer, there would be that sense of “yeah I’m waiting for something.” So we were aware that the words sometimes seemed to get in the way, but in a funny kind of way it’s also what the film is about. How language is something that connects us, but that can also make us live in more abstractions.
PM: It’s also kind of opera, right. The thing is a musical construction with voice coming in at times. And one without the other wouldn’t really work.
ED: There are lots of annoying bits that you feel aren’t appropriate but that are needed in order to get to that aria. I think sometimes it’s like that with this kind of film. It’s like there are bits of the film where we thought it’s not quite working but we can’t not have that bit. It’ not entirely what we want to do but we still have to do that in order to get to that other bit. And you know as an editor how necessary that is at times. I think that’s often the way with longer narratives. Particularly the arguments that David was trying to bear up.
P: That’s where the structure gets complex, when you have to make compromises to tell a story. I have a messed up head sometimes for editing. Because I fill in the blanks automatically. Sometimes I have to really step back to see what’s needed. And that sometimes makes me a less successful editor. But that’s why I always need feedback. Did you guys screen it to other people besides David as you were going through the process?
ED: Lots of people.
PM: Mostly to hear what they thought.
P: And where does the film go from here?
ED: It’s going to planet DocView in Warsaw, It’s going to Document in Madrid, it’s going to Edingburgh film festival.
PM: and then Italy.