Philip Haas started out in the documentary arena in the late’80s, directing several remarkable portraits of artists before he shifted to narratives. His 1993 debut, “The Music of Chance,” was a deliciously devious tale of the consequences of an ill-advised bet. The New York filmmaker has helmed a succession of precision-crafted examinations of perverted insular communities, including the insidious period drama “Angels and Insects” (1995), “The Blood Oranges” (1997) and the Sean Penn-starrer “Up at the Villa” (2000). Haas’ tense new film, “The Situation,” is a departure in that it takes place in the present, is explicitly political and feels like it was shot on the fly. Set in Iraq, “The Situation” centers on a female British reporter (played by Connie Nielsen) chasing on a story, various Iraqis who she befriends (and endangers) and a moral but jaded U.S. diplomat who rarely ventures out of the fortified Green Zone. The script was written by Wendell Steavenson, a journalist drawing on her own experience. We don’t know whether she’s blonde and beautiful like Nielsen, for we neglected to ask Haas when he came through San Francisco in February to tout “The Situation.” We managed to squeeze in a few other questions, though.
SF360: What were the limits of nonfiction that you encountered, and that compelled you to move over to features?
Philip Haas: Before turning to fiction films I had made documentaries for 10 years, and the documentaries were very specific. They were films with visual artists and it was always about the process of making art. It ranged from western artists like David Hockney to indigenous artists. I did a film about aboriginal ground painters and another film with the men who build or paint the house of spirits in Papua, New Guinea. In my own mind, I viewed myself not just as a documentary filmmaker but as a filmmaker, per se. I was interested in narrative. These documentary films had a beginning and a middle, and an end. One of my later documentary films was called ‘Money Man,’ with an artist named Boggs who worked drawing money and trying to spend it. He made it clear that he wasn’t a counterfeiter. Although it’s a documentary, it’s highly stylized. The first 10 minutes is shot like film noir. You think he’s a counterfeiter, not an artist. So I was evolving as a filmmaker.
And I was interested in becoming more stylized in working with scripts. I felt that some of the earlier films, like ‘The Music of Chance’ and ‘Angels and Insects,’ to a certain extent, were an extension of my documentary work, because the documentary work wasn’t free form, it wasn’t handheld, it was quite formal and stylized. Then, having made documentary films for 10 years, I found 10 years after that I’d made six literary adaptations. And I was looking to do something new.
SF360: Why did you decide to make a drama about Iraq instead of a nonfiction piece?
Haas: A fiction film could go deeper than a documentary because somehow reportage, whether it’s in a newspaper a magazine or a documentary, particularly with this involvement which we are keeping at a distance, the audience become anesthetized to it. I thought if we had a story with flesh-and-blood characters in a narrative arc, people would become emotionally involved. The irony of this film is that I shot it more like a documentary than any of my documentaries. It’s all handheld. It’s trying to kind of subvert cinema — you don’t really feel like it’s a movie, you feel like you’re there. At least that’s what I was trying to do.
SF360: In the pressbook, you say you wanted to put something out while the Iraq mess was going on, in order to influence the dialogue. That sounds like someone who thinks movies can still make a ifference to American culture.
Haas: Well, I think they can. I didn’t want to be in a situation as we were historically, where these wonderful films about Vietnam like ‘Apocalypse Now’ or ‘Full Metal Jacket’ came out years after the fact. I wanted something now, where the weight of history would be on our shoulders now, not years later. Also, I wanted a film that would be as much about the Iraqis as the Americans. When you look at these Vietnam movies, do you remember any Vietnamese in them? I can’t. It was always the Americans. And then the studios, of course, will be doing films about the battle of Fallujah with Harrison Ford or the incident on the bridge with Tom Cruise playing the major-well, not Tom Cruise because it would have to be more sympathetic. Anyway, it struck me that doing something in the [present] could be powerful and meaningful. And I’m sort of interested in a balance between politics and art.
SF360: I imagine you’re familiar with unsatisfying movies like ‘City of Joy’ and ‘Harrison’s Flowers,’ in which the Westerner is the main protagonist at the expense of the locals. The studio execs or somebody thinks that’s required for American audiences to identify. In your film, there’s the journalist. Tell us about the development of the script, and how you grappled with not wanting the film to be from the outside. You didn’t want to pander to the audience in that regard but at the same time maybe that’s necessary.
Haas: I found Wendell Steavenson having written stuff in Iraq, having written as a freelancer for Granta, Slate, Daily Telegraph. She had an interesting take on Iraq, she had an Iraqi boyfriend and the approach was through her. I said, ‘Would you be interested in writing a script for me?’ and she said, ‘Yes, what kind of script would you like?’ and I said, ‘A script that you can write.’ So rather than say, ‘We need to have a journalist so that the audience can identify with her,’ I felt that what we really needed to do was get Wendy to write the best script she could, and the best script she could reflected her experience there.
SF360: So it’s autobiographical?
Haas: I think in many ways it is. Some of the incidents portrayed in the film, like the boy being thrown from the bridge, that was something that she’d covered as a journalist. Other aspects — she has an Iraqi boyfriend who’s a photographer. She had been covering events in Samarra, she met a sheik there, she was at a party where there were dancing girls. Of course, stuff was reworked, refashioned, but the main beats of character and a lot of the interactions were things that she had observed first hand.
SF360: In our current culture, the influence of movies — especially political movies — seems to me pretty minimal. There was a time when a movie like ’2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘All the President’s Men’ came out and everybody went. Yes, there only four TV channels, so it was much easier to command attention and be part of the dialogue. It seems it’s impossible now for a movie to have the same impact.
Haas: (Laughs.) I’m about to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Thanks for bringing it up, Michael. Any other cheerful questions? It’s harder and harder. There are too many films, books, theater, everything. There’s too much stuff, too much content, and it’s too expensive to advertise it. So it’s hard. Whether this film is a big success or not, I feel it’s an important movie and that it will last. And if there’s some lack of universal critical praise, the film will outlast the negative reviews. And I think it’s important, at least for me, to find material that challenges me and to try to make films that are provocative. Certainly the audience has responded very significantly to the movie, and you obviously want to have not just pockets of audiences but the entire country. Whether that’s possible or not, I don’t know, but you can always try.
SF360: From the standpoint of your development as an artist, do you feel that you’ve opened up a whole new window in a way? Or having done this kind of picture do you say ‘This was a little too chaotic and out of control for me.’
Haas: Oh, I loved doing the action sequences. My mission now is to become the Michael Bay of the art world. I could go in the direction of action films. I could do the Axis of Evil trilogy. I feel this is a kind of interesting film for me to have done. In some ways it seems to have had more of an impact on audiences than anything I’ve done. I think part of it is the politics. We’ve shown it to some politicians and we showed it to Justice Breyer, who was moved and thought it was quite a mirror of our times. I think we should show it to [Justices] Scalia and Thomas and have them weigh in.
SF360: I’m sure it’s in Bush’s Netflix queue. You’ve managed to avoid being pigeonholed and typecast when you set out to get money for a movie. What’s the secret?
Haas: It never feels easy to get money to make movies, but I somehow persevere. Now that I’ve made a number of films, it’s interesting to see [how] some of the critics [respond]. J. Hoberman gave me a very good review in the Village Voice. He never liked my films before now. So hope springs eternal. And Manohla Dargis, who panned the movie, has been panning me for years. Dargis is consistent. You suddenly wake up a middle-aged guy and you think, ‘I’ve made a dozen documentaries and six feature films and it’s a body of work and it reflects me.’ If you read a bad review, if they don’t like it, that’s their problem. That’s who I am. The films are me. It takes some time to evolve to that position, and part of it is you have to have a certain amount of work done.
SF360: Lastly, Philip, what is your favorite piece of gear?
Haas: My viewfinder. It’s how you frame a shot. It’s an approximation of the camera lens.
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