Essay Film Festival 2018: Montgomery Clift documentary (work-in-progress session)- Report and Interview with the Film-Makers

by Danielle Capretti

There was palpable excitement amongst the audience for a work-in-progress screening of a Montgomery Clift documentary at the BIMI on 27th March 2018.  Would they just be viewing selected clips, introduced by the filmmakers?  Or perhaps even more?  When the audience learnt they would be the first people beyond the film’s collaborators to preview this work, their anticipation increased a few notches.

The filmmakers, Robert Clift and Hillary Demmon, travelled from Pittsburgh for the screening.  BIMI’s close ties with the University of Pittsburgh, where Clift is a professor of Film and Media Studies and Director of the University’s Track in Filmmaking, were what brought the unfinished project to the Essay Film Festival.  The filmmakers felt it would be a good audience to test out their material. Given that Robert is Montgomery Clift’s nephew, the audience knew they would be seeing both a personal and insightful work.  In fact, the filmmakers had access to an extraordinary wealth of both paper and audiovisual materials from Monty and other family members.  Demmon remarked that they’ve practically been living in an archive for the past couple of years — boxes have spilled out of her office into the rest of their house, lining the hallways and stairs. In this meticulously researched film, viewers follow Robert as he reconsiders his uncle’s life and work, searching through those boxes and interviewing family and loved ones. Overall, Clift and Demmon have fashioned a work that speaks not only to Monty’s life, but also broader issues of agency, legacy and what forces converge to create the popular images of stars. There are glorious surprises, too.  One of these is Monty’s talent as a photographer, amply illustrated by a selection of previously unpublished images he created during his early years in the theatre. All these points were broached in a talk back session that could have lasted an hour longer, as the audience was keen to discuss this multi-faceted film.  During this session, Clift emphasised, most importantly, the documentary’s fitting place at this year’s Essay Film Festival, as a preview of a work-in-progress.  In fact, this piece was the Festival’s inaugural effort in fulfilling its goal of hosting films-in-development.

Robert A. Clift and Hillary Demmon Interview  

Here are extracts from a conversation with Robert A. Clift and Hillary Demmon.

Why did you decide to embark on this project? RC: In some sense, it’s a film I’ve been making my whole life. The stories, the people, the archival materials are all elements I grew up with – even if I didn’t always understand or appreciate them. Otherwise, like any films, the circumstances had to be just right. Above all, because the film involves so many people I care about, I needed to work with someone I could trust to handle the materials with care and intelligence, and with the ability to help find order in the mess of archival materials now taking over our house. The hallways and closets are piled with stuff — home movies, audio recordings, photographs, scrapbooks, datebooks, newspaper clippings —spanning from the 1920s to the 1980s.

How does it feel to be so close to the subject? HD: We’re going to have divergent answers here because we’re coming at it from different angles. Robert is a family member, an insider to how some of the people close to Monty processed the various elements of his public image.  I’m this sort of inside-outsider in that this is my family, too, by marriage, but these weren’t the stories or experiences I grew up with.  I think we had to have that balance in place on the directorial end because this is very emotionally potent material, and sometimes that can be too much if you’re really close to it.  For the film to work, we needed both distance and proximity, strong emotions inside a structure that let people outside the family connect with them. I hope we balanced that well. RC: Most of the time, when I tell people I’m Monty’s nephew, they give me an extended once-over, looking for family resemblance, and then they start counting decades on their fingers, to figure out my age. ‘But, wait, you didn’t actually know Monty?’ They are inevitably disappointed because I am no repository of privileged, first-hand secrets. Over a lifetime of these kinds of interactions, I’ve become more aware of the distances than the proximities. I did not know Monty personally. He died before I was born. My connection to him is through my father, who was Monty’s older brother by one year, other family members, loved ones, and all the archival materials collected by family, including Monty. The interplay between proximity and distance, between knowing and not knowing Monty, becomes an important theme, or structuring device, in the film itself.

What new discoveries did you make about Monty during your research? HD: I think there are some things that were always there to be seen, but weren’t necessarily emphasised.  Monty’s sense of humour is definitely a big takeaway for both of us.  He was very funny!  But, also just materials-wise, I think that this huge cache of Monty’s photography is a big deal. You only get a brief taste of it in the film, but there are hundreds of little canisters full of negatives.  He was a good photographer!  He really had an eye for it.  Getting to look at those early years in theatre through his photos was very cool.  Just getting to see all these very influential people in the acting profession who, because they were not in film, didn’t necessarily get the same kind of staying power in public memory. Theatre is ephemeral. So, that this was documented is really a very fun thing to have come across.  Then, of course, the audio recordings. Those were obviously important. RC: Yes, the audio recordings were key. My family seems to have a knack for keeping records, and keeping them as audio. But I think Hillary is right–the photographs were particularly surprising. We knew there were audio recordings because my siblings had cartons full in their basements. Nobody could actually listen to them because we didn’t have any reel-to-reel audio players, and there were too many, but we knew they existed. So the photographs really jump out because they were unexpected, and because they’re so stunning. They also speak to a quality that one finds throughout Monty’s archival materials, a deep attention to details, so the photographic prints are marked with the same care and attention that you find years later in the margins of Monty’s scripts. HD: We’d look at prints that he had made, and he’d have very clear notes on them about things like shadow depth and highlights, etc. So we tried to use those as an aesthetic guide when we prepared photos from his negatives. RC: Also, I really love the photos he took of himself at 13. We have one canister that reads ‘my first roll’ on it. It’s amazing. They’re selfies! Out-of-focus selfies in front of the mirror, with this scar on his neck that one never sees in later images.

What is something it pained you ‘mercilessly cut’ that you want all Monty fans to know? HD: My tongue-in-cheek answer as an editor is that nothing that has been cut should actually be there.  But there is this fun story from Robert’s father that illustrates Monty’s sense of humour in a great way.  I wish we could have made it fit. The most condensed version of it that I can give you is: Robert’s father and mother were married in Monty’s brownstone. It was Brooks’ fourth marriage.  So, it’s a tense day. Everybody’s there wondering, ‘Is this going to work?’ RC: My parents were coming from very different backgrounds, and very different points in their lives. My mother’s parents were immigrants who owned a delicatessen in Queens. My father’s parents were part of Manhattan society. And, as Hillary said, my father had been married, but he also had five kids and was 21 years older than my mother. So, yes, people on both sides were wondering, ‘Is this going to work?’ HD: Right, so the ceremony starts and the officiant gets to the part where they ask if there are any objections to the union, and Monty kind of growls out from the gathered crowd, ‘He smokes!’ and breaks the tension right in half. I would have loved to see that in person!

What has been the most rewarding aspect of the process?  The most frustrating? HD: I think they might have been the same thing. I really appreciate that we were able to do this independently, because that allowed us to do what we wanted. You can’t put a price tag on freedom – it’s invaluable. RC: Indeed! Also, I’m fortunate because this film is a part of my research as a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, where I teach courses in Film and Media Studies and also run the program’s Film and Media Production Track. It’s an exciting time to be a filmmaker who is also a film scholar. There’s been a huge shift in the humanities over the past decade or so to recognize the importance of creative scholarship. Film and media programs have been at the forefront of these shifts, in part because new technologies have helped collapse the boundaries between the audiovisual as an object of study and the audiovisual as a mode of expression.

Who specifically should see this piece? RC: I hope it would appeal to a lot of people: anybody who is interested in film history, celebrity, LGBTQ+ lives. Throughout the film you get these historical, cultural, romantic and representational issues intertwined with everything else. Monty fans should obviously see it – that goes without saying.  But because, in many ways, he’s been overlooked, there are a lot of people out there who have never heard of him. I think they will still find things to relate to in the film because there is this family story running throughout, too. HD: There are a huge number of people acting now who are still under Monty’s influence. There’s a whole generation of people watching those actors who have no idea that Monty is the source for some of them. There’s an introduction to be had here, as well as a re-examination of Monty’s image.

What advice do you have for aspiring documentary makers? HD: There are a lot of ways that answer can go.  I think that speaking specifically for editing, you should be fascinated in your topic, because you are going to be living with it for a very long time. And in that same vein, you should evolve with your film. If you go in thinking you are going to make something in a particular way, or you think you are going to take a particular position on it, be open if your research starts putting you in another direction.  If you don’t, you’re just trying to shove things into a box they don’t fit in, and that’s not going to make for the best film. RC: Right, listen to the materials. HD: That’s probably the best one-liner of advice we have coming out of this. RC: I feel like I learn something new on every project, but I’ll borrow from Monty here, he talked about the importance of challenges. ‘You have to create hurdles for yourself.’ I feel like we had a lot of those, especially at the beginning when we didn’t know what exactly what we had in the archival materials. We couldn’t just quickly scan through the hundreds of hours of audio to find the pertinent parts, and we had no idea what to do with all the film reels that reeked of vinegar when we opened them. There was just a lot to go through, and we had to learn how to work with all the different formats. Then of course, it’s also a hurdle to make a film about someone who is not alive, using materials from others who also aren’t alive. I think some of the most interesting formal decisions we made and lessons we learned in terms of what this film is about came from recognizing and engaging with those hurdles. HD: Having limitations and challenges may feel frustrating in the moment, but you can rise to them. I think keeping them in your process is a good thing. It can make you better if you let it. RC: It’s all related. The quality of one’s work is tied to how one approaches the hurdles involved in making that work. I’m drawn to Monty here because he emphasized that connection. So, for example, in the same section where he talks about the importance of hurdles to an actor, he goes on to relate it to the audience. HD: Oh, yes, ‘If I’m not interested in a movie, they’re not going to be. How can you interest an audience if you’re not interested yourself?’

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