Mitchell W. Block, whose production company, Direct Cinema Limited (directcinemalimited.com/), has marketed and distributed 71 Oscar-nominated films, produced documentary Poster Girl , which is up for a 2011 Academy Award in the Short Documentary. The film (directed by Sara Nesson) offers a portrait of Robynn Murray, a 24-year-old Iraq War veteran who had moved from being a National Merit Scholar and high school cheerleader to an army combat soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The film reveals the shortcomings of the veteran disability compensation offered by the U.S. government while showing the transformative powers of art therapy as Murray recovers from her war experience. Block, who had been doing workshops in the Bay Area for Film Arts Foundation for over 20 years and offers classes via San Francisco Film Society, teaches independent film producing at University of South California. SF360 spoke with him in the heady weeks before the Academy Awards, to be broadcast this coming Sunday.
SF360: You have an interesting background in fashion show and live music production. Can you talk about the turning point or events that led up to your decision to become an independent film producer?
Mitchell W. Block: I did these things in high school. I managed a jazz group, did light shows and worked with live music. Film is the opera of our age: It combines everything. In film school at New York University I was a producer. I love producing. It’s working to make the director's vision happen. It's creative and challenging, particularly when there is no money. I've worked with several hundred filmmakers. A few are great, amazing. Some are OK. Most are terrible. The Oliver Stones, Martin Scorseses, and Ken Burnses, to name a few, are off the chart. Most are not.
‘Independent’ means working outside the studios. I don't seem to work that well with some kinds of people. I really like to make good work that might be great. It's not about audience so much as the work. Do I like it? Being a producer lets you do what you like, but you have to sell it. That's the hard part.
SF360: You've quoted Hussain Currimbhoy on your blog, who has said, ‘Right now, documentary filmmaking is like malaria. It's a virus that's spreading fast and far and wide.’ How does the proliferation of cheap and effective digital camera and production technologies change the independent film distribution model?
Block: It doesn't, except more people can take a shot at it. Most works are terrible, but sometimes a first-time filmmaker will find a gem of a story. Sara Nesson, whose film Poster Girl I produced, shot the material for the film, but was making another work when I got involved. Robynn was not a key character for the film she was making. I saw Robynn in a cut and said, ‘Let's make a movie just about her.’ It was picked up by HBO and was nominated for an Oscar. HBO funded the post and the HBO editor Geof Bartz got it and structured an amazing film with Sara. Sara's footage is some of the best verité footage I've ever seen. That's from the cheap and effective digital cameras. But Sara's genius for capturing the footage is just as important as finding Robynn to be in her film.
SF360: What about Murray inspired this idea?
Block: Robynn is amazing in front of the camera. She lets it all hang out without any self-consciousness. She is amazingly real, powerful, insightful, and, since Sara filmed her over time, she grows and we witness her healing. You don't see that often in docs. It's shoot today and then you move on. You can't make a film about healing and get it in a week or two. Sara was able to focus on Robynn.
SF360: 'Poster Girl,' along with 71 of the films for which you have handled marketing and distribution, have received Academy Award nominations. Have you found a trend or commonality among these films?
Block: Stories, drama, I connect to them. They move me or stimulate me or interest me.
SF360: What about Murray's story do you think is characteristic of the U.S. military? What is particular to her?
Block: Two issues: Sexual harassment and combat danger. First: Sexual harassment. Based on making Carrier (pbs.org/weta/carrier/), I know women have a hard time in the military or any A-type male organization, rules or not. I think her experience is typical of many combat solders. It's hard and lonely out there. There are not a lot of women. So her sexual harassment is not surprising. The combat part of her duty is pretty new, but why shouldn't women have PTSD? It's dangerous and tense having to be a sniper's possible target. Who wouldn't be scared from being exposed? I don't think this story is unique to Murray. I think it is fairly common for women in armies who are in combat.
SF360: Six of the top ten highest grossing documentaries are politically themed. Do you seek out politically themed documentaries more so than other subject matter? What are the three most instrumental deciding factors in determining the success of a documentary film?
Block: It depends on how you define success. I like to see films make money and do some good. It's easy to do one or the other, but hard to do both. Political films are hard to sell and hard to make so they will be of interest several years down the road. Common Threads: Stories from the Quilt, a documentary dealing with the AIDS epidemic is as powerful today as it was 20 years ago. Roger and Me, which was released the same year, is not. It's very dated. Common Threads won the Oscar and Roger and Me was not nominated. What does that say? I like to see the film have a strong narrative arc or story. Most importantly I like to see that the film has great subjects. Moving, thoughtful, interesting subjects doing interesting things. A struggle to succeed is good. Transformations are good. I watch a lot of films and I want to see a clear story.
SF360: What would you say were your best and worst decisions as a producer?
Block: Work with a director without doing your homework. There are a lot of psychopaths in this business, people who can't work with others. I like a true collaboration with the director and don't want to be sidelined or to compromise in making a film that is less than it could be. It's too hard to make a film and it’s terrible to see it become terrible. I watched a psychopath director destroy a film that she saw as competition to her work. It was terrible.
SF360: What do you think Murray wants viewers to gain from watching 'Poster Girl?'
Block: That too many veterans are killing themselves from PTSD and we have to work to help them heal. Fund the programs. It's a tragedy to have someone serve our country and then abandon them. We need to deal with vets with compassion and provide the resources to make their lives livable. Whatever it costs. They served America in yet another terrible war and we owe it to them.
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