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One of the best parts of any film festival is when a film with a small story and a seemingly low profile connects with the audience and makes a big impact. Such was the case at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival with The Woodmans, the first feature documentary by director C. Scott Willis.
A true New York story, The Woodmans introduces us to a unique family of visual artists: parents Betty and George, son Charlie, and daughter Francesca Woodman. Their family dynamic is particularly unusual because Francesca committed suicide in 1981, yet she is still very much a part—to varying degrees—of their everyday lives. A gifted and prolific photographer, Francesca has achieved a certain level of fame since her death, and the film explores, among other things, her family's reaction to that fame.
We caught up with Willis as his film makes his way to theaters—it opens on Wednesday, January 19, at Film Forum in NYC. He generously talked with us about the complications that come with making such a personal story, the decisions artists make in everyday life, and the choice he faced between pleasing his subjects and creating the work of art he set out to create.
Tribeca: Tell us about your film.
Scott Willis: The Woodmans is a film about a family—a family that suffers a tragedy and then comes through that experience. What makes this family different is it’s a family of artists. Within that family of artists, Francesca is an extraordinary talent, someone I think is a very important photographer. Unfortunately, her fame came posthumously.
Tribeca: How did you learn about Francesca Woodman? Did you know her family?
Scott Willis: I met Betty and George Woodman at a party. Our daughter was studying photography at RISD as Francesca had, and I asked if our daughter could get in touch with their daughter. [When I learned she had died], I felt very foolish. They don’t often talk in public about Francesca, but Betty and George were very generous about it.
Tribeca: When did you know you wanted to make a film about Francesca? Were you looking for a subject for a documentary, or did you just have to make the documentary about Francesca once you heard her story?
Scott Willis: Definitely the latter. For me, as soon as I had this conversation with Betty and George, I looked up her photographs. That was it; I made up my mind that hers was a fascinating story. Once I saw Francesca’s pictures, I had an idea that this was a really extraordinary narrative, and if I didn’t know about her, then maybe a lot of other people didn’t either.
Tribeca: Did you have to convince Betty and Paul to participate? How long did it take?
Scott Willis: It was a three-year conversation. Whenever we saw each other, we’d chat. Finally, they said to me, “Why do you think we should do it?” I said, candidly, “If it were me, I wouldn’t. But I’m a very private person.” [laughs] My friends thought I was crazy, but it’s the truth.
It’s not an open sore—but it’s the rawest part of their life. To revisit it is tough. But my idea for the film was not to make a film about Francesca’s death—it is a movie about all of their lives.
Tribeca: Was that appealing to them?
Scott Willis: I think people had asked to do films about Francesca where the focus would have been her death, and they didn’t want to do that—a film about Franscesca’s life is a short, sad story. But a film about the Woodmans—something that didn’t exploit Francesca’s death, but revealed something very specific about art and family—that, to me, very interesting.
Tribeca: What was your research process like? How did you find all your interviews?
Scott Willis: By the time Betty and George agreed, I was pretty well read up on the story. I had a list of her friends, and I went from person to person tracking them down, and I would find more people to look for. Francesca had a great circle around her—a group of very loyal, loving friends that she still means a lot to.
Tribeca: It’s clear that her death was still quite raw for them.
Scott Willis: I think when you lose a close friend or family member, especially to their own hand, their life is stopped so short, and yours keeps going. There’s always an emotional edge to that, and there is always that absence, and a consideration of them.
Tribeca: You’ve made docs for television before, but this is your feature film debut. How was this different?
Scott Willis: I’ve done pretty well in my career—I’ve won 11 Emmys, etc.—but this film was an absolute challenge for me. Maybe because I am more used to the notion of armed conflict, which is much easier for me than emotional conflict. Personally, I’ll always run a mile to avoid emotional conflict, so to engage in it for three years was very different for me!
Tribeca: How did you decide how to construct your film? Did you always know you wanted to use Francesca’s work in this way?
Scott Willis: The approach was handed to us with Francesca’s work. Betty and George were very generous—they gave us all of Francesca’s images, experimental videos, and diaries. As a filmmaker, that gave us two palettes to describe this one world: Francesca’s world in black and white [the videos], and Betty and George’s world luminous and full of color.
Tribeca: How did you sort through her immense catalogue of images and videos and decide what to use?
Scott Willis: The first thing I did was sit down and really look at what I’d been given, in order to come to an understanding of Francesca’s work as best I could. Even with just the catalogue of work that she considered to be finished—printed, not negatives—she had finished over 800 stunning images! And through her hundreds of pages of diaries, I tried to understand Francesca. If you correlate her work, read her words, look at the amazing set of videos—which came as a bonus—you begin to formulate an impression that goes against what you thought of her as an artist.
Tribeca: What do you mean?
Scott Willis: Usually when you see Francesca’s work, you see a young photographer who took her own life at age 22. So when you look at her pictures, you tend to impose her biography on the pictures. It’s misleading, in Francesca’s case, to ask, “Are these one long suicide note?” What you realize first thing in her diaries is that her art didn’t describe her despair—her art was about her joy. The joy she felt in making her art was manifest; you couldn’t escape it. So your first impression doesn’t represent tragedy; it represents the joy of making art. When she stopped making her art, her life quickly went into a quick spiral down.
A film, unlike an exhibit or a book, can introduce her life and the idea of her death in a chronological way. It can let her art develop without a big arrow pointing to her suicide..
Tribeca: Your interviews were quite candid. How did you get people to open up to you so readily?
Scott Willis: It took a long time to get there. [Suicide] is really tough to talk about. It was an interesting question as a filmmaker—how do you get inside someone’s head? It’s important to get candor, so we used a technique in filming—most of the interviews were done face-to-camera. I wanted that direct link to the viewer—an almost confessional quality. So I would sit behind Betty and George, asking them questions, so they wouldn’t be distracted by me in their sightlines. I really wanted them to look at the camera… some of the most candid interviews with Betty and George came in those individual interviews. There was no one for them to talk to except themselves; there was nobody else to look at.
Tribeca: It seems like Betty and George had very unique ideas about parenting, and even ideas that were distinct from one another. What was your take on them?
Scott Willis: I work really hard to not come to any judgment about them. I am very conscious that I put the story out there in the film for people to consider, but I don’t put my perspective in it. At the end of the day, I look at Betty and George as very loving, engaged parents—parents who were extraordinarily honest with their children about their ambitions, and about where they sought out beauty in the world.
I also look at them as extraordinarily fused together as a couple—both in the world of their craft and in an emotional relationship, and as a consequence of Francesca’s death. It’s one of those things that will either cement a couple together or split them apart, and it fused them together even more.
There’s an ethos in that family that was all about pursuing a higher aesthetic ideal, and there’s both risk and value in that. But Francesca’s suicide—I don’t think you can say it’s a consequence of that ideal; it’s misleading to think her death was about indifference. They were totally loving parents. I do think, on a different level, artists can be a little bit crazy, maybe in a way that accountants can’t be. So maybe some of that quirkiness that Francesca had was masked by the fact that she was an artist.
Tribeca: Do you think she was depressed for a long time?
Scott Willis: When you look at her diaries, you can discern a pattern that emerged, and got more distinct as she grew older.
Tribeca: Francesca died in 1981. How and when did she start to become famous?
Scott Willis: A curator from the museum at Wellesley College came to Betty and George’s house and saw Francesca’s work on the wall. She asked, “Whose is that?” She then put together the first exhibit of Francesca’s art. She started to be noticed in the late 80s/early 90s, about a decade after her death.
Tribeca: Do you think the Woodmans resent their daughter’s fame in any way?
Scott Willis: No, but I think it’s a complicating thing. I imagine that with a parent who loses a child, there’s probably guilt and extraordinary sadness and a whole tangle of emotion, and I imagine mixed in there is a certain bit of anger as well. You don’t usually think of art as a competitive enterprise, but the world of art actually makes the NFL look wobbly. Art is VERY competitive. So in a sense, it wouldn’t make sense if there wasn’t a competitive feeling there.
Tribeca: What about Charlie Woodman—he still seems a bit conflicted about his sister’s belated notoriety.
Scott Willis: He says in the movie that he thinks Francesca is much more present in his parents’ minds than in his, on a day-to-day basis. He’s found his own world teaching in Ohio, and he does his video work.
They just had a show—the four of them—together, at a gallery up in Boston. So one effect might have been to have them put on shows together.
Tribeca: Are they pleased with the film?
Scott Willis: No, it’s very tough for them to see. As a filmmaker, you have to have a commitment to finding out what you can and putting that story on without worrying about pleasing the subject. This is a really difficult story—to see their lives projected big on a screen. But this was the truth that I found. This is my attempt to make a piece of art about them and their art.
It’s not the family’s version of what life was. Family history is tough, because you tend to have a convention of seeing yourself as being in agreement, and the film doesn’t conform to that. The truth is a little deeper than that.
If I had given them editorial control or final cut, or offered to take out what they didn’t like, it wouldn’t have been the same film. I needed to be as honest as I could. I did everything I could to honor them and to honor their art. I have a huge amount of respect for them and for their art, but I couldn’t sacrifice telling the story that I saw in an effort to please them.
Tribeca: What do you want the audience to take away from your movie?
Scott Willis: I purposely didn’t want to lead people into any conclusions. I wanted the film to be a Rorshach test for the audience—you bring your own personal experience to the experience of the film. I think there’s a lot of power in doing that—leaving the viewer to connect the dots to come to a conclusion. What you take away from the film is that you think about it the next morning.
Tribeca: What did it mean to you to win Best New York Documentary at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival? Pretty impressive for your first feature…
Scott Willis: It was huge. I persuaded myself that I’m not a really competitive person—I like to pretend that I don’t need to win, that I’ve had enough success. But the truth is I hate to lose. On the awards night at Tribeca, I took the subway downtown, and the whole way I was convincing myself that the journey was the voyage and its own reward—some nonsense I wouldn’t believe at 3 am. [laughs] Unfortunately, winning was everything for me—you can’t replace that experience.
In terms of the film, and why Tribeca is great, is that Tribeca honors filmmakers more than anywhere else I’ve seen. The affirmation of succeeding at TFF made it so that we could take a small film to and put it in front of a much larger audience.
And the screenings were great! As a TV guy, when your work is shown, there might be four million people watching, but it always turns into my mother calling and saying the TiVO didn’t work. The experience of sitting in a screening room at TFF with 300-400 people, and listening to where people laugh and where they gasp—you can’t beat that. The whole business of video on demand—that people are saying is maybe going to save independent film—doesn’t compare to sitting in a room with other people.
Tribeca: Where can audiences see the film?
Scott Willis: We start in New York at Film Forum on Wednesday, 1/19—Film Forum has been incredibly supportive since the middle of TFF—and then a bunch more cities. And we’re also dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s for Independent Lens on PBS—that will be after the theatrical run, probably after October or early next year.
Scott Willis will do a Q&A following the Wednesday night screening of The Woodmans at 8:10 at Film Forum. Find tickets. See a schedule of future screenings.
Watch the trailer: