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Interview

Celine Danhier Draws a 'Blank'

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Celine Danhier Draws a 'Blank'
The onslaught of do-it-yourself media, from YouTube videos to self-made films, seems to only be growing. It is easier than ever to produce and distribute your own material. While the scale of independent filmmaking today is unprecedented, the trend is hardly a novelty. People have been creating their own films outside the system for decades, and one of the most influential and important movements, No Wave, occurred in the late 1970s and early '80s in New York City. No Wave, and its artistic offshoots, is the subject of documentarian Celine Danhier's film "Blank City," now in theaters. The film may not offer advice on acting coaches or emotional methods, but it is an insightful handbook and source of inspiration for the actor of the modern age, looking at innovators of the past to create platforms for the present. Danhier recently filled Back Stage in on her work and what her film can offer DIY filmmakers today.

Back Stage: What is your background in the industry? Did you study to be a filmmaker?

Celine Danhier: I am originally from France. While studying law at the Sorbonne, I realized that I had no interest in actually becoming a lawyer. After graduating, I took a leap of faith and decided to pursue my passion for film. First, I was working in a production company in Paris and also just making some experimental short films.

I realized I was less interested in the nuts and bolts of production, but more driven to cultivate my voice as a director, and decided I wanted to move to New York to continue exploring film.

Though I never formally studied film, it's just always been in my life. I've been enchanted with movies since I was quite young, and was particularly taken with the French New Wave, cinéma vérité, and horror. I was also obsessed with certain American directors, particular ones who made iconic films set in New York: Scorsese and his film "After Hours," [John] Cassavetes and "Shadows," [Jim] Jarmusch and "Stranger Than Paradise," and also every Woody Allen film. And also films by foreign directors who set their work in New York, like Amos Kollek ["Sue" (aka "Lost in Manhattan")]—I've always had New York in my mind! It's only fitting that I made a film about the city I've dreamed about since my youth.

Back Stage: Why did you make this film? What inspired you?

Danhier: This film scene in New York in the late 1970s to the mid-'80s, which spawned No Wave film and the Cinema of Transgression, continues to be highly influential in the evolution of independent film, and not just because of the now-big names [like Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi] who rose out of the scene, but also in terms of thematic tone, and most certainly in daring spirit. The music of the era—Punk and No Wave—has, particularly in the last decade, been celebrated and introduced to a new audience. But not so for the downtown film, which had never before been chronicled as a historical movement.

I certainly didn't know much about these films when I was living in Paris, but assumed that film lovers in the U.S. would have at least an awareness of lost gems like "Downtown 81" starring Jean-Michel Basquiat, Amos Poe's "The Foreigner," Eric Mitchell's "The Way It Is," and Bette Gordon's "Variety." But this, for the most part was not the case. These filmmakers have such unique voices, propelled with a renegade spirit and real sense of fantasy. Their work is deeply inspiring to me. By making "Blank City," I hope to give these filmmakers and artists their due, by introducing this work to new audiences who will be as inspired as I continue to be.

Back Stage: What was the process of making "Blank City" like?

Danhier: After moving to New York, I met future "Blank City" producers Aviva Wishnow and Vanessa Roworth, who also edited the film, and together we explored the No Wave and Cinema of Transgression. I was surprised how hard it was to find most of these films on DVD, even in the U.S., but we were lucky to be able to go to Kim's Video to rent VHS bootlegs of the better-known films of the era, and in the process becoming serious fans. When realizing that many of the films we'd heard about were not accessible to the public, or were lost altogether, I became further intrigued. I had done some research while still living in Paris, and then once in New York, I started doing more intensive research, tracking down the auteurs who populated the downtown film and punk scene, and just began shooting.

We had one credit card between us, and all the while maintaining our day jobs so that we could afford the film production costs, and pooling whatever favors we could find for free locations and whatnot. And in a way, we kept the same ethos of the filmmakers we were chronicling, just shooting whenever we had a bit of money together, or could find friends to help us operate the camera or do the sound. It's been a long and difficult process, but a very rewarding one as well.

Back Stage: How did you get all the great people who interviewed together for the film? Was it challenging to find and convince them all to appear?

Danhier: In the beginning, we simply sent a description to about five people we thought needed to be in the film. We sent it blind, we had no inside connection to these people, but just managed to contact them through their websites. And wonderfully, Amos Poe, often regarded as the godfather of No Wave film, and Richard Kern, known for his Cinema of Transgression films and his current success as a photographer, were the first to agree to be interviewed.

Overall, when the people we approached saw the earnestness and our commitment to the project, they reached out on our behalf, telling their friends that our film was legit and they should be interviewed by us too. And so it came about organically in a sense, as we were connected with a web of characters from the downtown scene. By the end, things really snowballed as we'd done 40 interviews.

Back Stage: Do you see parallels between the No Wave period with Super 8 and what is going on now with digital?

Danhier: Yes, absolutely. DIY ethos are alive and well in the digital realm. Digital—physically, pragmatically, and metaphorically—allows the space for experimentation. If someone's feeling inspired to create, they don't have to strategize about how to afford film anymore. Even a cell phone camera can suffice—just pick it up and begin shooting! Also, as a funny coincidence, Apple just recently introduced an application for the iPhone in which the user can shoot in Super 8 mode. And you can even edit on the iPhone. So, today, there seems to an appreciation for the full spectrum of technological and creative video options—from Super 8 to HD. So now that the means are very accessible, I think the main difference is the content of what is being made.

Back Stage: Are there any regions where you see the same ideology and sort of filmmaking today as what was going on 30 years ago in New York? What, in your opinion, has been the legacy of No Wave?

Danhier: The legacy of No Wave has been the development of American independent film as a real alternative to Hollywood in the means of production and distribution. And the emergence of digital filmmaking I think is also a real parallel—digital filmmaking today both for documentary and narrative.

But, in terms of the spirit and content, I really don't think there is anything that similar. A lot of the small digital films today are so personal and specific to the filmmakers and I think seem more like a diary than anything else. But I think the power of the No Wave films has the ability to pop up anywhere these days. Today it's not necessarily about geography anymore. The rise of digital has diminished the need to be in just one location.

There are bold new voices coming out of Montreal, and Iran, and Indonesia and I think it can happen in any city—Kansas City, Panama City, just a fill-in-the-blank city. Filmmaking is happening in every corner of the world, born of creative passion, facilitated by technology—interconnection that comes with a good Internet connection. A generation ago most would have not thought this possible, though technology has been a great enabler, a great vehicle of artistic expression. And I hope that more people push the boundaries of topics and content as far as they can go.

Back Stage: What do you think actors can learn from this period in filmmaking and from the approach of No Wave filmmakers?

Danhier: No Wave was informed by a sense of improvisation and just shooting on the fly. I think that even when a film is scripted, an attuned, smart actor will use improvisation to develop the narrative and really hone in on their character. An improvisatory element can fuel the experimental impulse, really push the boundaries of an actor's performance and what the audience might feel.

Back Stage: What is next for you?

Danhier: A vacation! No, seriously, I'm currently writing a screenplay that blurs the line between the documentary and narrative forms. Still in the very early stages, though, so I don't want to say too much. And I actually have been invited to a new film festival in Marfa, Texas, next month. Since moving to New York I have wanted to take a trip to the desert, so I am really looking forward to finally having this chance to explore.

Back Stage: Do you have any advice for actors, and/or people who want to produce their own materials?

Danhier: Just do it. Don't wait. Ignore "better judgment," and the warnings, and thoughts of eventual hardship, and press on. Follow your passions. Be creatively free, but strategic in your planning. Be self-reliant, but don't be afraid to ask friends and even strangers for help. Believe in your project, and try to enjoy the process. Be bold, daring, and undaunted in the face of critics. Go for it!

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