With two films screening at Sundance this year, Tiffany Shlain's profile continues to rise. We caught up with her in Park City on Tuesday, where she has been keeping busy shuttling between screenings of Connected: An Autoblogography about Love, Death and Technology and Yelp, a short that riffs on Allen Ginsberg's seminal poem Howl. Today, having just received a Women in Film Award, Shlain returns to her hometown of San Francisco for a Sundance USA screening of Connected (Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 7:00 pm).
SF360: I’ve been wanting to ask you about the initial germ of the idea for Connected, and how it’s transmogrified over time.
Tiffany Shlain: I first had a film at Sundance in 2003 called Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. It was about the importance of reproductive rights in America, done in my style with a lot of humor and archival footage. There was this groundswell of consciousness about the environment at the time, which was fantastic, but I just felt like it was never linked to the issues of reproductive rights and population growth. I got the idea to do a film that looked at the ways in which different issues are connected. I felt like that needed to be a conversation, instead of focusing on one part. When we started this project it was actually called 'Breeders,' because I was going to look at everything through the lens of reproduction. I participated in an artist-in-residency program at the Headlands Center for the Arts, where I tacked up this quotation by John Muir: 'Tug on anything at all and you'll find it connected to everything else in the universe.' And I stared at that quote and read books about genetics and biology, the history of Western civilization, my father’s books… and my husband, who’s the cowriter, observed 'You’re not just interested in reproduction. You’re interested in how everything is connected.' And that’s when I began to consider the issue of interdependence. I’ve always maintained an interest in technology, both the good and the bad. Finally, I produced an 85-minute cut of a film about this pretty big topic we were trying to tackle. It had a lot of humor and a lot of big ideas, but it had absolutely no soul.
SF360: Was that the moment that you realized that your own life and story needed to become an integral part of the film?
Shlain: I’ll say this: it’s very scary to watch an 85-minute cut of a movie and realize that there’s nothing carrying it on a deeper emotional level. My father, who I was very close to, had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and given nine months to live. I also found out at that same time that I was pregnant with a high-risk pregnancy. So all of that connectedness forced me to realize that the film had none of its own. And so it pulled me, Tiffany, in.
SF360: And what have you learned as a filmmaker about the hazards of being central to the narrative of a film?
Shlain: My story editor Karen Everett* helped me to develop a perspective on my own personal journey. I was scared. My biggest concern with bringing the personal into it was that I didn’t want it to be self-indulgent. As a filmmaker—as a maker of anything—my work has always gotten better the more honest I’ve been. I do a lot of speaking, and in my earlier talks I never incorporated my personal life into it. But the more I’ve been speaking, the more I try to interweave the personal. And so, by speaking my truth, my goal was to speak to some universal truth.
SF360: What did Karen Everett bring to the mix?
Shlain: Perspective. She really did.
SF360: Does she have a rigorous process?
Shlain: Yeah, she has a great process. I studied at UC Berkeley: avant-garde film, documentary film. But I never studied narrative film. Karen’s got this great approach where she looks at the narrative model and grafts it on to documentaries. To have that as a guidepost was great. My writing team was great at fleshing that concept out. We had wonderful advisers, and people in the San Francisco film community that we’d invite to screenings would give advice. I love that process because I learn so much. It’s been a very collaborative journey.
SF360: One striking aspect of Connected is the lack of original footage. What’s behind that?
Shlain: We only shot for about 2 percent of the final film. The rest is animation, archival and stock. I began working that way when I was studying at Berkeley, where there’s no instruction in film production. I was taking all of these avant-garde film classes. I found an editing table back in the architecture building which I would use to re-cut archival and stock film. That basically formed my whole style. I normally don’t really shoot anything. I’m much happier when I’m recontextualizing and reweaving images from every era with modern shots.
SF360: How did you know when the film was finished?
Shlain: There was a period when I wondered if it would ever feel done. But we finished it … a week before Sundance. I probably will finesse some things when I get home. Picasso said, 'I never finish a painting, I just stop working on it.' I mostly feel that it’s very tight. We’re almost ready to hit the 'print' button. But even then it won’t be finished in the classic sense. I’ve been putting a lot of thought into doing a live cinema version of the film. And with the outreach materials—the discussion kits, the mobile phone app, the web components—it’s not really done. It’s going to live now through people reacting to it. We’re going to cut various versions for educators, viral versions for the web.
SF360: You’re deeply entrenched in the San Francisco film community. I’ve got to ask: could this film have been made anywhere else? Is your filmmaking practice indigenous to San Francisco?
Shlain: Absolutely. I’m a native San Franciscan. I’m part of a film group here that includes Lynn Hershman Leeson, Dan Gellar, Dayna Goldfine, Susan Stern, Arne Johnson and Shane King. We meet every couple months. I feel very supported in San Francisco. It’s a very special and creative place.
SF360: As they say, there’s something in the water. Here at Sundance this year three of the most prominent docs are by San Franciscan women filmmakers. Each film has a positive message at a time when things seem hopeless to many people. How do you respond to people who are jaded about the prospects for planet Earth?
Shlain: I believe in us. I just believe that we are going to keep pushing it forward. There are some things that are never going to change, and these things will ground us. We’re all children of parents, many of us are parents ourselves. There are so many things that bind us together, and they’re very primal. We all want a better world for our children, and we all love somebody, and we’re all connected, hopefully, to our community. So I’m ultimately hopeful.
'Connected: An Autoblogography About Love, Death and Technology' returns to San Francisco for a Sundance USA screening of Connected Thursday, January 27, at Sundance Kabuki Cinemas, 7:00 pm.
*Karen Everett writes The Edit Room column for SF360.org.
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