Horse sense: Filmmaker Caroline Kraus looks for answers in a cross-country journey that takes her into the world of a horsewoman in her 40s.

On the Road, in Search of a Film

Michael Fox March 10, 2009

Every film necessitates a leap—of faith, of self-confidence, of finances. Caroline Kraus’ nascent undertaking might be viewed as a full-feathered flight of fancy. For it is the exceptionally brave (or foolhardy) first-time filmmaker who’s willing to embark on a road trip in the face of a deepening recession with a rough outline, a firm destination, little money and no ending. "The unifying theme of the project is underdogs," says Kraus, "and our notions of success, failure and disappointment." With a bit of luck, Kraus will be able to explore the latter without having to experience too much of it.

At this point, the Mill Valley resident is known for her words, not her images. Kraus penned Borderlines: A Memoir (Doubleday Broadway, 2003), a devastatingly candid saga of her vulnerable post-college years in the Bay Area following her mother’s death. After extricating herself from a seductive yet destructive relationship, Kraus moved to New York to get her MA in film from the New School, where she focused on documentary (theory as much as production) and screenwriting.

A job as a production assistant on an educational series included writing for the web, and she continued down that road. Now an established writer, editor and researcher, Kraus has contributed numerous pieces to companion websites for the ITVS-funded docs broadcast on PBS’ "Independent Lens." She envisions generating a book from her trip, as well as an online series of short videos that will lean toward the artistic rather than straightforward profiles. But Kraus’s major undertaking is a narrative documentary.

"I’m approaching it through a road trip to the East Coast with my dog, who’s on his last legs," Kraus explains. "That’s underdog No. 1. I intend to make a film about my cousin Margaret—she’s a horsewoman in her late 40s with epilepsy; 2009 will be her first year trying to get back into the horse world after brain surgery to reduce the seizures. I’m underdog No. 3 because I’m trying to produce a second work after my book."

En route to Virginia, of course, she’ll meet a lot of people impacted by the dismal economy. (The entire USA is underdog No. 4, she points out.) Kraus aims to mark her way across the country with stories that fit her theme, some she’ll have identified ahead of time and others she’ll encounter along the way. She’s aware that a hook is required to nab and hold viewers, and she thinks her conviction that the direction she’s going will produce the elements of a good story will resonate with the many everyday people determined to create something despite obstacles and received wisdom.

"I’m going for the highest part of the pyramid," Kraus concedes. "It remains to be seen what its shape really should be. Even if there isn’t this triumphant culmination—Margaret winning against all odds—I think the process and what’s unearthed about the process will be the point. I’m fascinated by anything that shows behind-the-scenes how things are made. So I’m not so concerned narratively. But in terms of funding, it’s harder to describe how it will end up. There are a few funding agencies that do that—fly-on-the-wall, see-what-happens [films]."

Kraus cites Ross McElwee (especially Sherman’s March), the Maysles brothers and Kelly Reichardt as her main models, although she hastens to point out that she had her project going long before Wendy and Lucy (about a gal and her dog driving across the country) came out. She admires Reichardt’s pacing and lyricism, and interest in the smaller details that don’t exactly thrust a story forward. Perhaps that gives us the clearest idea what Kraus will be shooting for on the road with her new Canon Vixia HF-11, and how understated (and potentially non-commercial) the film may turn out.

We’ll find out sooner than later, for Kraus has to start making tracks pretty soon toward her cousin. "I’ll say May, though I don’t know how I’ll pull it off," she says. "I’d like to catch the East Coast before spring is completely gone."

Notes from the Underground

Author and former Chronicle critic Gerald Nachman is writing the screenplay for A Gift for Laughter, a documentary about Jewish comedians that Mountain View-based Aurora Filmworks is producing. The director is multiple Oscar-winner Mark Jonathan Harris. … Anybody remember Bill Talen, cofounder of the fondly recalled live-performance venue Life On the Water, who moved to New York in the mid-‘90s and subsequently reinvented himself as Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping? Rev. Billy, who was the subject of the underwhelming 2007 documentary What Would Jesus Buy?, is running for mayor of NYC as the Green Party candidate.

  • Nov 3, 2011

    Essential SF: Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman

    With riveting characters, cascading revelations and momentous breakthroughs, Epstein and Friedman’s work paved the way for contemporary documentary practice.

  • Nov 2, 2011

    Essential SF: Susan Gerhard

    Susan Gerhard talks copy, critics and the 'there' we have here.

  • Nov 1, 2011

    Essential SF: Joshua Grannell

    Since its first event in 1998, Midnight Mass has become an SF institution, and Peaches Christ, well, she's its peerless warden and cult leader.

  • Oct 31, 2011

    Essential SF: Karen Larsen

    Universally warm sentiment is attached to the Bay Area's hardest working indie/art film publicist.

  • Oct 28, 2011

    Joshua Moore, on Location

    Filmmaker and programmer Moore talks process, offers perspective on his debut feature and Cinema by the Bay opener, ‘I Think It’s Raining.’

  • Oct 26, 2011

    Essential SF: Canyon Cinema

    For 50 years, Canyon Cinema has provided crucial support for a fertile avant-garde film scene.

  • Oct 24, 2011

    Signs of the Times

    Director Mina T. Son talks about the creation of ‘Making Noise in Silence,’ screening the United Nations Association Film Festival this week.

  • Oct 21, 2011

    In Orbit with ‘An Injury to One’

    Accompanied by a program of solar system shorts, Travis Wilkerson’s 2003 look at ruthless union-busting and the rise and fall of Butte, Montana, offers eerie resonance.