Don’t Blink: An Interview With Laura Israel

| July 11, 2016

In Jack Kerouac’s classic 1957 novel On The Road, the author says, “What is that feeling when you’re driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? It’s the too huge world vaulting us, and it’s goodbye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” The journey of one’s life, and the emotional tools used to sustain and propel it forward are the subjects of director Laura Israel’s new documentary Don’t Blink, an intimate and fascinating examination of renowned artist Robert Frank.

Frank, who immigrated to the United States From Switzerland, is best known for his seminal 1958 photography collection The Americans, and would go on to collaborate with such iconic figures as Kerouac (who wrote the introduction to The Americans), Allen Ginsberg and The Rolling Stones. Now 91, Frank continues to create various video and photography projects, and shows no signs of slowing down.

Don’t Blink is by no means a standard biography, and instead Israel is able to probe the most intricate facets of human consciousness, showing a unique artist whose willingness and want to include his audience as participants rather than mere consumers truly embodies the collaborative spirit art often exudes.

Recently I had the opportunity to sit down with Israel and talk with her about the origins and production of the film.

MV: You and Robert have had a long collaborative history together and I’m wondering how you two first met?

LI: Well my friend Michael Shamberg who passed away a couple of years ago, and whom Don’t Blink is dedicated to, was a part of Factory Records and I used to edit a lot of New Order music videos for them. I did Blue Monday with artist Bill Wegman, and Michael said he wanted to pair me up with Robert Frank for the editing and I thought fantastic.

And I remember very clearly the first day he came into work. This was back in the day when we had tapes that you had to fast forward and rewind, and we made these little selects so we wouldn’t have to look through all the footage each time. As we were working I casually asked Robert if he was going to change anything after we made the selects. He said no, it’s fate. We only move forward, we never move backwards. The first thought is the best thought. I was like, this is my kind of director, cause I’m the same way. I feel when you see something for the first time whether it’s six months later or six years later you’re going to respond to that same thing so I always think the first time you look at something is really important.

MV: And how did the idea of doing a documentary about Robert’s life come about? Were you thinking about this as you were promoting your previous film Windfall?

LI: What happened actually is that I went to the international documentary film festival in Amsterdam. There, they have a mentoring program where you can pick anyone from a list they provide and on that list was a writer named Tue Steen Müller, who writes a lot about Chris Marker, Agnes Varda and Jean Luc Godard as documentary filmmakers which really excited me because these directors do make documentaries, but you don’t read about it as often.

So I wanted to speak with him, and he looked at the Windfall postcard and said ah, it’s crap! I mean, it was something along the lines of I can’t believe you made this piece of garbage. You see, he was this really gruff, old guy and I was intimidated and said well I’ve been working with Robert Frank and thought we’d have something in common. As soon as I said Robert Frank he went oh my god, and lunged over the table and started banging on it saying that’s it! Your next film is about Robert Frank. I said well, that would be kind of weird because I edit with Robert Frank on his films, and I’m not sure how receptive he would be about being the subject instead. But he wouldn’t take no for an answer, to the point where when he left he said you tell me when you make that film.

And I got on the plane heading home and started imagining possible scenes to the film, and one of the scenes that came to me was driving around with Robert taking photos of various places important in his life. I thought maybe this could work. So as soon as I got back into town I went to Robert’s house and said hey Robert, do you think it’d be a good idea for me to do a film about you? He goes no, no, that would be really strange. So I changed the subject immediately but I could tell he was thinking about something, and all of a sudden at the end of our visit he said you come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about the film more. That might be a good idea.

So I went back the following day and he said let’s start next week. I was like, oh man I have to get my stuff together because I was still going to festivals and it was difficult to arrange a shoot. But coincidentally, Lisa Rinzler, who would be our principal cinematographer, sent me an email that day and said I’m so excited, I just knocked on Robert Frank’s door and showed him all my photographs. I said well, I know who’s going to shoot the film.

And the great thing was we showed the film at IDFA and got Tue Steen Müller to do the Q&A. We actually stayed out all night with him and he kept insisting that we drink more shots and smoke cigars. He’s a really funny guy; something I wouldn’t have expected after our first meeting.

MV: What’s great about Robert’s work is that he doesn’t try and get caught up in capturing popular notions of reality. It seems that his fascination lies in investigating the complex emotional qualities of his subjects and translating them to the screen. Often times these can come across as abstractions, but they always possess a thrilling quality to them.

Don’t Blink seems to embody this spirit, and I’m wondering if this was always the intention when you were shooting?

LI: Yes, absolutely. I had a lot of meetings with Lisa Rinzler and we talked about the fact that we wanted to shoot the film in a way that would not be a Robert Frank film, but also wouldn’t totally clash with his work. We wanted to make a film where the audience felt they were in Robert’s world rather than in one of his films.

So Lisa did a lot of the initial cinematography, and she’s really interested in Robert’s work and wanted to capture that spirit. She loves the style of it, and spent time making sure the lighting set- ups were just right.  Additional camerawork was done by Ed Lachman who has been friends with Robert for a very long time.  The two of them would go over to each other’s houses and shoot Polaroid’s for hours, and there’s actually some very funny Polaroids that didn’t make it into the film of them hanging out and taking pictures of everything.

I talked to Ed and said I’m going up to Robert’s and do you want to come along? He said yeah I’ll take the camera and put it on a tripod and we’ll just hang out. So it was a completely opposite way of shooting. His attitude was we’ll just put it on a tripod and who cares? It was interesting that those two stylistic approaches are represented in the film, because I think Robert possesses those two modes as well when he is approaching his art.

MV: Robert has a tendency to go on digressions and detours throughout his projects and I’m wondering if this was ever jarring or frustrating for you? Do you tend to plan things out more when you’re in production on a film?

LI: Robert describes his process as spontaneous intuition. But you know, I’m kind of in to it. It’s fun. At first though, I have to admit, it was a little nerve-racking. Like when we said Robert we’re going to Staten Island, we’re ready to go, and he said no, I don’t want to go. I want to go to New Jersey instead. Then at one point I remember I was upset because I kept saying we have to get a map and be prepared, and he said no, we don’t need a map. We’re going to get lost. And Tom Jarmusch who was with us said the same thing. He said hell yeah, we’re going to get lost! Who cares? So things were always interesting.

MV: I’m curious about the editing process. The film is so detailed and intricate that I imagine it must have taken a while to complete.

LI: It took a little while longer than it probably should have. I worked with an editor named Alex Bingham who I’ve collaborated with for a long time. She also created the poster art for the film. One of the things she did that was so fantastic was figuring out how to make the photographs move without really moving. We didn’t want the film to operate like a lot of photography documentaries where they focus on the image, use slow-motion to push in and then narrate over it. We wanted to give the audience the sensation of rifling through photographs. Alex came up with this and I think it works wonderfully.

MV: What’s interesting about Robert is that he has a tremendous reverence for intuition. As you mentioned, for him getting lost is not a bad thing, and really there are no such things as wrong routes as one inevitably learns something from each journey they take on. Is this something you noticed during the shooting?

LI: Yes, you’re open to things just happening. I think that’s what excited me about having three different plans for every shoot, and why Robert enjoys it so much. I found it compelling, and believe this type of approach keeps the process fresh and organic. You’re not showing up and saying okay, we’re just going to do what we planned and that’s it. It’s much more invigorating to approach the process with fewer expectations, and sometimes throwing a wrench into the production makes it better. I love experimentation and how the unexpected results can excite people.

MV: It seems like an audience would benefit from not having this expectation of order all the time, and allow themselves to be lost in the emotions that are being investigated and displayed in front of them. This appears to be a feat that Robert accomplishes quite masterfully.

LI: I certainly hope that is a big takeaway from the film. It’s interesting the way people are affected by this type of structure and approach. A couple people came up to me after a screening and said they’re going to start dancing again. I said that’s not what the film’s about but great! If I can make people dance more then I consider that an accomplishment.

MV: When being introduced to Robert on screen, some audience members may think he’s a difficult person to work with, but I get the sense that he’s incredibly generous in wanting to involve the audience and make them a participant in the art as well.

For Robert, it’s not about laying out clear answers to his art, but allowing the audience to take these often fragmented and abstract elements and craft them into the components that will enrich their minds further.

LI: I feel that he thinks even if something is rough around the edges, as long as it’s interesting and allows you to respond in a profound way then that’s more important than technique.

When The Americans first came out the initial reviews said the pictures were dark and blurry and technically wrong. But the fact was Robert had been trained in Switzerland by the best photographers so he knew what he was doing. He understood what to do technically, and instead put his foot down and injected some feeling into the photographs. By making it blurry and dark it had that feeling, and I think with his films he does the same thing. The texture of it embodies the feeling.

I tried to use the same process in this film; showcasing Robert’s emotions at the time rather than all the facts and figures of the events. That was much more important to me; to get the feeling and style right, and for people to have an experience.

MV: What really compels you about documentary filmmaking as opposed to scripted narrative? Or is that of interest to you as well?

LI: I’d like my next film to be a scripted narrative because I think it would be less about the editing and more about working with actors. I think that would be really interesting. That’s why it was great to collaborate with Lisa Rinzler and Ed Lachman because they work in documentary and narrative. It’s another reason why I thought it was great to have their perspective and experience because Robert moves between documentary and narrative as well.

But I find the most interesting thing to be the area where documentary and narrative meet. The line in between is fuzzy and interesting; asking yourself did that really happen is really compelling, and as they say fact is sometimes stranger than fiction.

MV: Are you ever surprised by the comments and insights of an audience? Will they ever have interpretations that catch you off guard?

LI: Yeah, once in a while they do, and I think the biggest things people respond to in this movie are the deaths of Robert’s children, and how the film is both so funny and so sad. But I think within all grief and sadness there is a degree of humor that exists. It’s a weird occurrence and was not easy to edit in this film. But one has to remember that it was hard in Robert’s life as well, and he felt the best way of taking on tragedy like that was to keep working and pushing forward.

The work really helped him with his grief. I think it was important to show that in the film, and was essential because of its cathartic power. It’s been that way for me too; the idea that your art can help you explore and come to terms with the grief you are dealing with.

MV: Were you always interested in filmmaking or was there a single moment that propelled you forward and made you want to pursue it?

LI: Well, I was always interested in filmmaking. My mother found a darkroom set for really cheap that she bought at a flea market and I set it up in my closet. I got into photography and started taking classes at school and my photography teacher sat down with me and commented on the fact that I was doing a lot of photo series and that I might want to consider transitioning into film. I asked him where do you go to school for film and he said NYU, and I went okay. I packed everything in the car and left, which was a bit of a gamble because I had a full scholarship to a school I was planning on going to and at NYU had to pay.

So, I went to NYU and I knew nothing about film. But I really enjoyed it, and came to love it. The last year I was there I decided to check out video because there were all these people doing video art. I switched to the video department and the year I graduated, and this is showing my age, was the year MTV launched. So everybody I was hanging out with in the editing room who was a director was doing music videos, and it was like learn while you earn. It was really fun.

MV: You’ve collaborated with a wide-range of personalities, and I’m wondering if there is a certain quality an artist or topic needs to possess in order for you to become interested in the subject?

LI: You know, I’ve been lucky to work with people who besides being great artists are wonderful people. I mean, if you’re going to spend a lot of time with someone they can’t be a jerk. So I’ve been lucky, and I think it’s really nice if people are open to ideas. I think that’s the most important thing to me actually. If someone comes to me with a fully-formed idea and they just want someone to push the buttons and who knows the program, I don’t think that would interest me as much. But if someone has an idea and wants to collaborate and is asking for my eye and ability and wants to discuss the project then I think that’s way more interesting.

MV: Do you do any writing as well?

LI: I used to write a lot and even took a number of screenwriting courses. What happened was when I went to NYU I had to pay my student loans back, because as I mentioned, I didn’t take that wonderful scholarship, the editing just took off. I mean, I was working all the time. At one point I looked at my schedule and I had commercial jobs all during the day and then would do music videos at night and on the weekends. So I had a project every moment of the day. It was really exciting and I knew it wasn’t going to last forever so I told myself I should just keep going and going. But I did want to do some other things like write and direct, but I never had the time. So it’s exciting that at my age I can just start all over again and do everything I wanted to do back then.

MV: It seems like that’s the spirit of the film and Robert himself; this constant evolution and that you’re never too old to start over.

LI: That’s the inspiring part, and that’s one of the things I’ve gotten from Robert. At one point I asked him how do you feel about doing all this stuff at your age, and he said I don’t care about how big the rock is as long as I can get it up the hill. So why not look at everything that way; that you can just take a detour and come back if you need to.

MV: What other things give you inspiration and help you to keep doing what you’re doing?

LI: Well, one of the reasons I left the little town I came from in New Jersey is because I listened to WFMU radio station and I love music and think that really comes through in the film. I wanted to do something that would allow me to put a lot of my favorite music into it. I felt that Robert’s photographs were so strong that it required a soundtrack that was just as strong. So I would have to say that music really inspires me. It evokes something really intense, and like the art I’m drawn to, continues to live and evolve endlessly.

Don’t Blink is a Grasshopper Film release and is now playing at Film Forum in New York City.

About the Author:

Matthew Vasiliauskas is a graduate of Columbia University. His work has appeared in publications such as Conjunctions, Berlin’s Sand Literary Journal, Chicago Literati and The Pennsylvania Review. Matthew currently lives and works in Los Angeles.
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