LAURA ISRAEL Learning to Listen

LAURA ISRAEL Learning to Listen

Portrait by Andrea Blanch. All images stills from Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, 2015. Directed by Laura Israel. Images ©Lisa Rinser.

ANDREA BLANCH: The original title of your documentary when you applied for the Jerome Foundation Film and Video grant program in 2014 was, Robert Frank: You Got Eyes. What prompted the change to the release title, Don’t Blink: Robert Frank?

LAURA ISRAEL: Well, it was Robert, actually. I felt like “You Got Eyes” was a little used already, so we were searching around for a new one. Ayumi, who works with Robert, remembered that somebody had asked him in an interview, “What advice would you give young photographers?” And he said, “You have to take a lot of pictures to get a good picture. So don’t blink.”

ANDREA: As a long-time collaborator and friend, how would you describe Robert?

LAURA: I mean, I think that the film is a good description. That’s why I would rather make the film than write something about him. It’s hard to illustrate someone without seeing their work or without seeing their artistic process, so I think the most important thing is to be able to watch him work. You get more out of that than anything I could say about him.

ANDREA: Has he mellowed over the years?

LAURA: Mellowed? Yeah, I guess so.

ANDREA: But in the beginning of the film, when the interviewer is interviewing him…

LAURA: He was reacting to the fact that he didn’t know that guy. Nicholas Dawidoff from The New York Times spent quite a lot of time getting to know Robert. He was an informed interviewer, rather than someone off the street. Robert appreciates that. I noticed that when I first started working with him. He’s from a school where you don’t work with anyone you don’t like, and you’re not interviewed by someone unless you know them. It’s a different way of doing things.

ANDREA: How did your professional partnership editing for Robert transform over the years to become the central subject of your second feature?

LAURA: Ah, you know, I would have never done it unless someone insisted I do it. I went to IDFA with my first film Windfall. You can meet with anybody you want, and I picked Tue Steen Muller because he had written articles about Godard. I met him and talked about my film Windfall, and he wasn’t very responsive. I said, “I thought since we both worked with Robert Frank, we’d have something in common.” He said, “You want to know what your next film is? You’re doing a film about Robert Frank.” I said, “No, no.” That’s a completely different role, and I don’t know if I feel comfortable doing that. Then on the plane home I got all these ideas. By the time I got home, I asked Robert. He had the same doubts about it that I did, but then he came around the same way I did. Lisa Rinzler, the cinematographer, had just gone to see Robert the week before. And Robert said, “Oh yeah, this woman came and showed this little film and her photographs. She was really nice.” I knew Lisa and love her work. She lived on Crosby Street, right down the street from him. It all just came together perfectly.

Image above: Still  from Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, 2015. Directed by Laura Israel. Images ©Lisa Rinser.

ANDREA: How much of your relationship with Robert resonates in Don’t Blink? Do you think that you were able to capture his story objectively?

LAURA: I really tried to capture the story objectively, but I have a unique point of view of Robert. When you sit next to someone for that long and see their outtakes, you gain this understanding of what they’re trying to do. You know what their artistic endeavor is, because you’re part of the process. I tried not to idolize him. That’s why I didn’t have any other talking heads talking about him. It’s more of a unique invitation to look closer at him or at his work.

ANDREA: How do you hope filmgoers will perceive Frank after viewing this film?

LAURA: People should perceive the film or him however they want to. It wasn’t a goal of mine to have people perceive him in a certain way. It was more to share the inspiration that I felt from him.

ANDREA: Do you think you achieved that?

LAURA: It’s a little too close to me right now. I hope I did. I really just wanted people to be inspired, and to have fun watching the film. I feel like people are doing that. I just watched it yesterday with a thousand people at Alice Tully Hall and it was a blast.

ANDREA: According to this year’s NYFF’s program write-up, your collaboration as Frank’s editor is described as: “Keep[ing] things homemade and preserve[ing] the illuminating spark of first contact between camera and people/places.” In essence, as an editor, you served as a visual translator of Frank’s experiences told through film. How has this role as “editor/translator” shaped and informed you in your new role as director?

LAURA: There are pros and cons to serving as an editor. It’s rare for me to work with an editor and it was wonderful. I’ve worked with Alex Bingham before. It was great to rely on her, because she wasn’t around during the shooting. The biggest problem with directors is not being able to separate what they wanted to shoot from what is actually there in the footage. I always think it’s really good to have someone who was not there at the shoot, who’s completely objective. That was the biggest difference between being an editor and being a director. If I had edited this film by myself, I don’t think I’d be finished by now, and it wouldn’t be as good. Four eyes are better than two, as Robert said to me.

ANDREA: Was it important to you to tell Frank’s story with his aesthetic?

LAURA: Lisa Rinzler, the cinematographer and I had these meetings about how we were going to shoot the film. We weren’t trying to emulate Robert Frank. We’re doing our own thing, but something that would go with Robert Frank’s footage so it wouldn’t be completely different and not match. It should run concurrently with his works. Robert’s and my aesthetics are different even though we’ve worked together for so long. It was good to realize my different point of view and different aesthetic.

ANDREA: Frank once said a good photograph should be quick, “When someone becomes aware of the camera, it becomes a different picture.” As a documentary filmmaker, how imperative is it for you to try to restrict your subject’s awareness of the camera?

LAURA: We did some interviews, but then we also did some conversations. Somebody, like myself, used to being behind the camera is pretty aware of the camera when it’s on them. To be in a conversation with someone seems like a more interesting way to do it, as if as a viewer you’re eavesdropping. It’s more participatory, more organic. So we said, “Let’s go for a ride and take photographs. And today we’ll go somewhere, and tomorrow we’ll go somewhere else.” It was a more fun experience than pinning someone up against the wall and asking questions. Like grilling them. And then also there’s the projection. That was something that we came up with because when I pitched the film everyone said, “There’s a lot of films about photographers.” But we have moving pictures too, so let’s try to represent that.

[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]
Image above: Still from Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, 2015. Directed by Laura Israel. Images ©Lisa Rinser.
[Check out more wonderful women artists on Musée No. 13]

ANDREA: Frank’s self-composed synopsis of his short Hunter (1989) was, “This is about a man whose destiny is—not to find a destination… A man who fears that he will never find what his imagination compels him to look for…” From your perspective, how much of this work resonates with Frank himself?

LAURA: It’s funny that you ask about Hunter because it’s not in the film. I think we tried to put it in the film at one point. There was just certain films that somehow didn’t work with the texture of the film.

ANDREA: In a 2010 Indiewire interview with Brian Brooks, you stated your interest in “crossing the boundaries between narrative and documentary.” A few of Frank’s works— Me and My Brother (1965- 68), About Me: A Musical (1971), Energy and How to Get It (1981), C’est Vrai (1990)—have blended documentary footage with fictional narratives in some manner. How has Frank’s mode of storytelling influenced you and your writing of Don’t Blink and other projects?

LAURA: We have a similar sensibility. Robert always said to me, “One of the best things about working with you is that you don’t try to make footage into something it’s not”. I have this sensibility of the surreal, but sometimes the real is way more interesting and lyrical. There’s this way of looking at reality. It’s hard to explain that kind of sensibility. To me, Robert’s photographs are kind of like that. If you stare at one of the people from The Americans, you realize that there’s this real world, but Robert is revealing something so unreal in it. That was what I was trying to portray in the Peru pictures, pairing it with the song from Yo La Tengo. He went to this place he had never been before, and there was an ethereal, otherworldly quality. You could look at it in a completely different way, a much more gritty way. But I prefer to translate it as more ethereal, seeing things for the first time. It transcends what it really is. It seems like a mystery even though it’s right in front of you.

ANDREA: How does the filmmaking process for Don’t Blink differ from your directorial debut Windfall? How did your experiences with Windfall strengthen and prepare you for Don’t Blink?

LAURA: Well, the main thing is I learned to work with other people. I always keep a small crew, but it helps to create a dialogue with the people working on the film. Going through that before with Windfall really helped. Even this part of the process, like going to film festivals, it really helped me. Yesterday, when I had to stand and speak in front of 1,000 people; I had already done it a hundred times before with Windfall. And with Windfall, it was more challenging because a lot of the audience was quite passionately angry at me. So, I was often defending myself. That experience really helped me to get really tough skin.

LAURA: No. My whole attitude was, “Look, people need information. It’s really detrimental, and it’s not productive of all of you to argue over something. Just get the information. Whether you agree or disagree you have to keep speaking to each other. Keep talking to your neighbors!” People need to make their own decisions, and they need to speak to their neighbors and their community. Even though it was difficult, it was important. I feel like this film is a lot more fun. And it’s a subject that I know all about. Frank’s film is more in line with my sensibility. Windfall was more about information that needed to be out there, and I put myself out there to learn it. Because when you’re a director, everybody thinks that you’re the expert. So I tried to rise to the occasion.

ANDREA: In the 2011, Film Maker magazine interview with Howard Feinstein you said, “I think directing a film is a positive way to get through a midlife crisis.” With two director credits under your belt now, do you feel you’re on your way out of crisis mode?

LAURA: You know, I sat in a darkroom looking at footage for 20 years. It was so much fun for me to get out of the room and to talk to people and to be a part of the initial process of making a film. I have to say that the most rewarding thing has been meeting people along the way. It’s only been a week and people that I would have never met come up to me.And it’s so nice to meet them. Filmmaking is a form of communication for me. It’s a way to reach out to people. I mean, even meeting you and talking to you and knowing your path.

ANDREA: What has been the most effective takeaway you’ve received from Frank over the years about photography and cinematography?

LAURA: There’s so many. But I think what’s most affected me is just being with him. I remember, I was teaching a class at ICP and I asked Robert, “What advice would you give photographers? Maybe I could use it in my class.” And he said, “They could learn more from sitting next to me for ten minutes than anything you could ever tell them.” I thought about that a lot in the process of making the film.

ANDREA: I want to talk a little bit about your music in the film, which was absolutely stupendous. Can you say how you arrived at the choices you made in the selection of music?

LAURA: I wanted to have the feeling of what it was like to have a photograph move, in a way, through music. And also–because Robert’s photographs are often historical in nature–to have iconic music. Music that people somewhat recognize, and that stood up to the photographs and added to them. And I knew that a score couldn’t do that. What I tried to do with the combination of images and music was to convey a feeling, and rather than have the music match the photograph perfectly, to have the music shape it a little bit, or move it in a certain direction. To add my interpretation, rather than just using music that compliments the visuals.

ANDREA: Was there anything that had to be cut out of the final film that you would have liked to keep in?

LAURA: Yeah, one thing Sid Kaplan said about Lou Faurer: “His photographs are as gentle as a baseball bat across the kneecaps.” We kept putting it in, but it kept disrupting the whole flow. To have Sid just pop up and say that, it just seemed out of context. We couldn’t figure out why, because we loved the comment. Also, I interviewed Robert about The Americans for two whole days. So there’s way more about The Americans than we could have ever put in the film. It would have been too much about The Americans, which is not what I wanted.

ANDREA: What’s next?

LAURA: I want to do a narrative. I am writing a script based on a true story about my friend Pati. The name of it is Pati 74-95.

ANDREA: Do you have hope?

LAURA: I’m much too jaded to ask that question, at my age. You know, those kinds of words, it’s interesting, they don’t appeal to me. I know Robert wrote “hope” in the film, which I think is great for him. But I guess that’s one place where he and I differ. The word doesn’t mean that much to me, somehow.

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Images above: Stills from Don’t Blink: Robert Frank, 2015. Directed by Laura Israel. Images ©Lisa Rinser.

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