One of the more talked about documentaries as the year comes to a close is Marwencol, a first feature from Jeff Malmberg that was initially intended to be a short. It examines the life and art of Mark Hogancamp, who, suffering brain damage and post-traumatic stress disorder after a brutal beating, funnels his creativity into his backyard by building a miniaturized WWII town. The film, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival and won the South by Southwest Film Festival's Grand Jury Award for Best Documentary Feature this past spring, opens this weekend. Malmberg talked to SF360 during SFIFF about his kinship with Hogancamp and how he so masterfully captured his subject's anguish and relief.
SF360: It's your first time directing. You've been working as an editor mostly, also dabbling a bit in production and writing. What compelled you to direct?
Jeff Malmberg: Well I worked primarily as an editor and I really enjoyed working on documentaries as an editor because I really think documentaries are created in editorial for the screen. When I finished the last documentary that I cut, which was called Red White Black & Blue, and played on PBS in 2007, I was really itching to try something new and I wanted to really be in charge of the editorial this time around and have final say, so I thought if I could just go out and shoot something and take all this footage that I shot and come back home and edit it myself and sort of have fun doing that. So that’s what compelled me to start.
SF360: You've found yourself a story that speaks for itself. How did you meet Mark Hogancamp?
Malmberg: I subscribe to an art magazine called Esopus I was just captivated by his captions. About a week later, I opened up the magazine and saw these photos and was just blown away particularly by his little captions and his confessions. The storyline really got me and I thought there must really be something more going on here. This would make a really interesting short film. And then I got to talking to Mark and I realized that there was something much larger going on.
SF360: Aside from reading about Mark in this magazine, what sort of research did you do about Mark and his condition prior to meeting with him?
Malmberg: I really tried to meet Mark as a person and I tried to make the film in that same way and really not label Mark. So it was really just a reflection of meeting him on a human level and that kind of carried out through the next four years that I made the film. As I got further into it, I talked to other people in his life and studied his case and read all of his diaries. It was really that human connection that drew me to it and really what I wanted was to shape back into a movie was Mark as a person before any label.
SF360: What was your budget? Was this a one-man operation?
Malmberg: Pretty much. It was paid for entirely by my wife and I over the course of four years. What I would do was just edit as a way to make money and then go shoot Mark and just kind of do that on and off for four years. I live in Los Angeles and he lives in New York, so most of the budget was travel-related.
SF360: How many trips did you have to take to New York?
Malmberg: I think I ended up with sixteen trips.
SF360: Was it ever difficult to arrange meetings with him? How was it working with him?
Malmberg: He was always available to me. I can’t speak to how he is with other people because he’s a very private person but I think from that first meeting, it probably helped since we both thought it was a short, because we thought o this is just going to be a weekend. But once we started to get to know each other, we realized we really liked each other and I certainly wanted to know more and he was in a position where he was starting to talk about what had happened to him. And so that kind of naturally led to us coming to a better understanding of one another. To Mark’s strength, he never told me know when I asked him questions. Now, one thing I discovered was that when you’re filming someone who ends up being your friend, some things they tell you in confidence and some things they tell you for public knowledge. So I tried very hard to make sure that everything I put in the film would make Mark comfortable with having it in the film
SF360: What were some other lessons you learned that you’d like to share with other budding filmmakers?
Malmberg: Just that it’s always good to have a plan in a documentary, but hopefully through the process of making it, something larger will reveal itself and that you should really scrap your initial plans and preconceptions and really try and see what’s really there rather than what you hope is there or what you want to be there. That was the biggest thing for me. And in a way, I think it’s kind of the moral of the story with Mark, is that if you look close enough, there’s real beauty in places where you think he might not find it.
SF360: What’s your next project?
Malmberg: I continue to film Mark. There are certain things that are happening in his life that are very interesting and his relationship to Marwencol is changing. I think I’ll always film Mark. Besides that, I’ll probably start shooting stuff with my wife Chris Shellen, who is the producer on this film. She’s going to direct and I will produce and edit for her.
SF360: So it’s great that you have a team.
Malmberg: Yea working on a team is great because I think with doc it lasts so long and you live with it for such a long time that you really need to have good people around you. The five people I produced this film with are my long time friends. That really made a difference.
SF360: What would you say about luck and how it played a role in this whole experience?
Malmberg: I think I got incredibly lucky finding Mark. I think where luck stops after a certain point, and it becomes either a work of your heart, or a work of your hand or your mind, or all three if you really want to pull it off at the end of the day. I don’t know if I’ll ever be lucky enough again in my life to find someone like Mark, somebody that I can film. But I hope so.
SF360: For example, do you think it was lucky that Mark felt comfortable enough to open up with you or do you think it was something you had to work at to bring out in yourself?
Malmberg: No, not at all. It was lucky that we got along so well and we understood each other. He wouldn’t have done something if he didn’t know that we were friends and that I was on my own little quest and that he respected where I was going. I guess the luck part was just meeting somebody that I felt kinship with and I wanted to understand.
It’s weird, when you meet somebody like that, it’s like you realize that I really think a documentary has to fit the subject. And Mark is really just a beautiful guy that it was really my responsibility to turn him into something beautiful. That’s really why I worked so hard on it was to give him back something that he gave to me.
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